Friday, October 24, 2014

Collapsing Credibility Of Western Media: An Opportunity For India



Collapsing Credibility Of Western Media: An Opportunity For India
                                                                                                       Saeed Naqvi 

Even the skeptics now agree that India shall be a power in the Asian century. To insure this rise to the top India must maximize all its assets. One asset for which it has a reputation is a lively media, a function of a relatively stable democratic order since Independence.

If information is power, it must follow that we start taking steps towards some minimal control over the sources of information. The liveliness of our media, bordering on license, exhausts itself primarily on issues of a local nature. BJP, Congress, dalits, minorities, rape, riots, corruption inflation and so on.

Major powers have to be seen regionally and globally too. This does not mean that we change our style of diplomacy, have readymade statements on ISIS, the battle for Kobane, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Beijing, Ukraine, SAARC, the sharp right turn in European elections, the dream and reality of shale gas.

New Delhi must not make pronouncements each day, but the country must appear to be engaged in these developments. The impression that these are games only for the Imperial, big league, stultifies us under the colonial canopy. It is interesting that countries without a tradition for a free press – Russia, China, Iran – are making efforts to put across their points of view on International affairs. Iran’s Press TV, China’s CCTV and Russia’s RTV and a host of others are building up a reputation as credible sources of information. They tend to break the monopoly of the global electronic media. Fortunately for these new networks, this precisely is the time when the world is looking for alternative sources of news.

This quest is because of a straightforward reason: diminishing credibility of the western media barring exceptions. Ironically, their credibility was higher during the cold war.

When war breaks out, the first casualty is always the truth. Since the West has been perpetually involved in conflict beginning with Operation Desert Storm in 1991, a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the media has had to do so much of drum beating that it has lost credit in the information market place.

The Emir of Qatar has always been contrary to Saudi interests. During Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in October-November 2001 and the occupation of Iraq in April 2003, Qatari owned Al Jazeera channel was bombed in Kabul and Baghdad for speaking the truth inimical to the House of Saud. Al Jazeera’s viewership grew exponentially.

Neither the West nor the Saudis had a media with sufficient credibility to mobilize the region during the Libyan operation. “The Arab Spring will blow away all the monarchies in the region unless we hang together”, screamed the Saudi King Abdullah. Qatar fell in line. But Al Jazeera had to tell so many lies during the Syrian civil war that al Jazeera’s stock also sank.

This is the state of affairs in the global media when the world is riveted on ISIS, Ukraine, Boko Haram, Afghanistan and Ebola. These issues appear more incomprehensible by the day. The field is wide open for alternative channels.

Last week I received a puzzling call from Baghdad. The caller, whom I had met during my visit to Iraq two years ago, wanted my insights on the ISIS. He had read my syndicated column which had the sort of information the Iraqi media did not have.

Neither the government sources in Baghdad nor the resourceful clerics in Karbala and Najaf had any idea of what was happening in the ISIS controlled territories in Syria and Iraq. The local media was the government’s doormat. CNN and BBC could not be trusted.

In this state of affairs, independent news is a priceless commodity.

Western and Arab sources suffer from lack of credibility on any West Asian story. The West has vested interests protecting its version on Ukraine and Hong Kong. These versions are challenged by Russian and Chinese sources which, in their turn, are not free from angularities either.

It quite beats me that New Delhi has never recognized the enormous respect in which it is held globally. This is not because of its economic or military clout. It is because of its democratic institutions like the Election Commission. Its early commitment to non alignment may have gone down badly with Josh Foster Dulles, but among the world’s intelligentsia, its image has been of neutrality. In my interaction with the world’s media, I have always found a ready acceptability for an Indian point of view.

Doordarshan had for a few months organized a comprehensive coverage of the occupation of Iraq in April, 2003. Its credibility had won record TRP ratings. Ministry of External Affairs had received word that Secretary of State Colin Powell had expressed a desire to appear on the programme.

In his first six months, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown considerable interest in foreign affairs. A multimedia outfit with a strong foreign affairs team, would raise Indian prestige enormously. And this, surely is the right time to start.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Erdogan Scripting His Last Act In Kobane



Erdogan Scripting His Last Act In Kobane
                                                                    Saeed Naqvi

It was a toss up between Brazil’s President Lula da Silva and Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. In fact, compared to Lula’s two terms as President, Erdogan completed three glorious terms as Prime Minister.

With the downturn in the global economy in 2009, Turkey towered above regional economies. One comparison was particularly galling for the West. Greece, the mother of Western civilization was on its knees while the “Turk”, a despised figure in Western literature, was towering over it.

Remember how tersely Valery Giscar d’Estaing dismissed Turkey’s application for membership of Europe: European civilization is Christian civilization. For a leader like Erdogan there was sympathy and admiration. He looked like a transformed leader who had come out of his narrow, provincial Islamism, outgrown his Madrasa roots. But alas it turns out that he had only disguised his strong Akhwan ul Muslimen, Muslim Brotherhood background. My disappointment is that he pretended to be something he could not play out to the end.

To explain the tragedy of Erdogan, the backdrop is important. Mustafa Kemal Pasha Ataturk disbanded the Caliphate and thereby Islamism in 1924 and imposed a secular constitution. The Turkish army became a jealous guarantor of this constitution. Turkey remained a quasi police state during the cold war. Even during the rule of Itruk Ozal, who was feted as a great libertarian, you could not stand on the Bosphorus bridge without a man in a long coat appear from nowhere, demanding your papers.

The end of the Cold War came riding on the wings of the global 24X7 media, which brought Operation Desert Storm into our drawing rooms. Saddam Hussain’s rout divided the world: Iraq’s defeat came across to the Muslim world as muslim humiliation. Turkey was no exception. For the West, it was triumphalism.

The two Intefadas also impacted on the world’s muslims and non muslims in a diametrically opposite way. But what affected Turks the most were the brutalities of the Bosnian war played out on live TV over four years. Balkans are part of the Turkish historical memory. Sarajevo derives from the Turkish word “Sarai”. Turkish Islamism was reignited. Refah party came to power under Necmettin Erbakan. Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul were his under studies then.

When the army ousted Erbakan, the Refah party discarded its Islamic garb. Demonstrating practical sense, the party reinvented themselves as the Justice and Development party and rode a crest of anti Americanism when they refused the Americans the right of passage for their troops to Iraq in 2003. There has been no looking back for Erdogan, Prime Minister for a record three terms. He had arguably exceeded even Ataturk’s popularity.

There emerged a regional contrast which was something of a status reversal for the West. In the wake of the global financial crisis, Greece was out on the street with a begging bowl. Turkey meanwhile had zero problems with neighbours, a booming economy. To create a constituency in the Arab street, Turkey stood upto Israel on several issues. This was drastic change from the days of Ozal, when Turkey and Israel coordinated all their policies.

The Arab Spring in 2011 coincided more or less with Erdogan’s last term as Prime Minister. The Turkish constitution does not permit a fourth term. As Erdogan began to dream of a larger democratic role in the Arab world, the Syrian civil war opened up for him an option. So he thought. He faced a contradiction. Turkish constitution demanded that he remain on the secular straight and narrow. But a greater role in Syria and Libya, where he turned up for prayers in the Tripoli square, dictated a reversal to his Muslim Brotherhood past. He is in the process of falling between two stools.

A Turk who supports an Arab cause is welcome from a distance. But a Turk casting himself in a regional role, scares the Arab as a potential Ottoman. That is where Erdogan is stuck at the moment. His maximalist aspiration to play a larger regional role will be challenged by the Arabs. His minimalist position to keep internal order by keeping the Kurds under his jackboot will lead to civil unrest. His instinctive support for the Brothers component in the IS will bring him into conflict with the Americans. In brief, he is in trouble. This is without taking into account the restless Alawis, who are an eruption waiting to happen.

A metaphor for all his woes is the Syrian enclave of Kobane abutting Turkey. He is aching to weaken Syrian and Turkish Kurds by any means, even by enabling ISIS to win. The internal situation is by no means stable. Already 40 Kurd protesters have been killed in police firing. It may one day soon be said of him: nothing became him less than the leaving of it.

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Friday, October 10, 2014

Tentative Ankara, Petrified Baghdad and Riyadh Ask: Are US Airstrikes Working?



Tentative Ankara, Petrified Baghdad and Riyadh Ask: Are US Airstrikes Working?
Saeed Naqvi

The ISIS, plaguing many countries in West Asia, made a symbolic assertion during Haj too. At the ritual stoning of the devil at Mina, five kms to the East of Mecca, fluttered the black banner of the Islamic State. The police said nothing.

Recently, The Independent in London published an article giving a clue to ordinary Saudi reaction to IS. Patrick Cockburn, the writer, has cited a study done by Dr. Fouad Khadem, of the Centre of Academic Shia Studies in London.

Public discussions on sensitive issues are not permitted in Saudi Arabia. Tweeting therefore has become a common vehicle to sustain debates.

The messages Saudis have been sharing on the Islamic State are fascinating.

When IS swept through Northern Iraq and Eastern Syria, Mania bin Nasir al-Mani was pleased. “The great land of Allah belongs neither to Kings nor nations. Those who deserve the Caliphate are those who implement the Sharia of Allah on earth and on people. Apostates and traitors deserve nothing but the sword.” Later al Mani joined the IS in Syria.

One Azfar Minfard declares. “No need for IS to enter – our country is full of them (IS).” Fata al Arab is more emphatic: “IS is on the Saudi borders, and its supporters inside Saudi Arabia are more than its organized members and armed fighters.”

A revealing tweet is from Adil al-Kalbany, a Wahabi Shaikh, who has for years led prayers as an Imam of the Holy Shrine in Mecca. “IS is a Salafi (fundamentalist) offshoot – a reality we should confront with transparency.”

Someone who calls himself “Arabic Batman” suggests the radical remedy. “Kick al Saud out of the country.”

As soon as President Obama announced the coalition of the willing to wage war against IS, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, and Jordan instantly signed up. The next country had to seek permission from Parliament before it joined – Great Britain, but only to bomb IS in Iraq. Strange, isn’t it?

The tardiness with which the coalition of willing nations is being erected contrasts sharply with the speed with which non state actors have come together as ISIS – a hodge-podge of Islamists, ex Baathists turned deeply religious in the their marginalized distress, Naqshbandi Sufis, Muslim Brothers, Salafists, Al Qaeda, Jabat al Nusra, everyone without exception opposed to Islamic monarchies.

One would have thought that Morocco is not prominent in the coalition of the willing because Rabat considers itself remote from the IS theatre. The monarchy woke up with a start the other morning when its security forces, in a coordinated action with Spain, busted an IS recruitment cell.

While the cumulative power of all the elements in the IS are focused on monarchies, principally Saudi Arabia, elements in the IS have independent scores to settle with regimes in Baghdad, Ankara and sub groups fighting the central authority in these states.

The IS, which mutated from the civil war in Syria, first indentified groups seething with local anger. The famous occupation of Mosul, which boosted the prestige of the IS as a formidable force, would not have been possible without painstaking ground work.

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was able to find an ally at the highest echelons of the Nineveh Province. Mosul is its capital. The Governor, Atheel Nujaifi, handed over the keys of Mosul to al Baghdadi an act of splendid treachery. He arranged for a most orderly takeover of Mosul by the Caliphate.

Nujaifi had longstanding grievances. He had for year been trying to carve out Mosul as a Sunni dominated city surrounded by Kurds including 3,50,000 of a minority tribe called the Yazidis.

Mosul and Erbil happen to be just a little north of the 36th parallel beyond which Western Forces had established a security zone after the first Gulf war to encourage Kurdish refugees to return to Iraq.

This exactly is what Nujaifi was seething with rage about. He handed over the battle to the IS. This one move created turbulence in the Kurdish north of Iraq which the Americans had tranquilized with a No Fly Zone during Saddam’s rule.

The alacrity with which Obama announced air strikes against the IS was to protect assets in Kurdish Iraq where Israelis, Turks and Americans have been doing reasonable business in recent decades. The swiftness with which the Gulf Sheikhs lined up dictated the next American priority. Saudi Arabia had to be protected. Without a strong Saudi Arabia in the region, Israel would be a lonesome presence. That is why the US is talking of “decades” long presence in the region. Whatever else the IS may do they must not lurch towards Saudi Arabia. The US will stand at the gate like supreme bouncers. But an extended US stay will create the inevitable political backlash – exponential anti Americanism.

Shias from Mosul clambered onto their cars and trucks and drove 450 kms to Karbala and Najaf. Between these two pilgrim centre, the 120 kms route is lined big halls as halting stations for pilgrims. These are tearing at the seams with Shia refugees who do not know where to turn for help since there is very little government on view in Baghdad. The “all inclusive” government of Haider al Abadi is, on the face of it not governing.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is scripting his own tragedy of indecision, rather like the Prince of Denmark. Everyone in the region, without exception, are keeping their fingers crossed.

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