Saturday, September 30, 2006

From «Victim of Society» to Menace to Society

Three weeks ago, shots were fired with an automatic rifle at the synagogue in Oslo. In the aftermath of the events, there was a huge debate in the Norwegian press, in which some interesting comments appeared.

On 17 September, in the night from Saturday to Sunday, somebody fired about ten rounds at the synagogue in Oslo with an automatic rifle. Four men were later arrested, and according to the reports of the police, which had had the car of the suspected bugged for already quite a while, the attack on the synagogue was only exercise for the real thing: an attack on the Israeli and American embassy in Oslo.

The attack resulted in a huge debate in the Norwegian media, and some interesting statements and views were reported here and there. Like for example the analysis of a number of Al Qaida cells by researcher Petter Ness of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (FFI, Forsvarets Forskningsinstitut), published in a report called «Jihad in Europe; recruitment for terrorist cells in Europe». In his analysis he describes how a typical terrorist cell looks like: usually there is an entrepreneur, his protégé, some people from the edge of society, and finally some loose elements. The entrepreneur and the protégé often are very religious, and their acts driven by political resentment and frustration. Usually the entrepreneur has had higher education, and he is the key person for the existence of the group. In many cases he is also the one who actively recruits new members for the group. The other members on the other hand can be part of the group out of loyalty to one of the other members, or simply because they belong to the same social network as the others. All this seems to match well with the cell that fired on the synagogue in Oslo.

Professor and researcher Tore Bjørgo of the Police School in Oslo presented another analysis. He notes that the leader of the group, a 29 year old man from Pakistani origin, used to be a member of the Young Guns, a violent Norwegian-Pakistani gang, and has already been convicted several times for cases of violence. It seems that the problems often start when a group of young people want to acquire status and an identity by means of violence, which evolves after some time into crime for economical reasons, and eventually leads to politically motivated violence. This pattern follows the personal development of the members of the group, who, as they become older, get other interests: first they want status, later money, and finally they start to interest themselves in politics. It should be noted though that some terrorist groups undergo an evolution in the other direction: they start with political violence, but then they get used to the money and continue with their economical crimes.

So is there any conclusion in here to suppress the appearance of Al Qaida cells in the West? It can in any case be called ironical that the policy of using soft gloves to handle minor criminals and the treatment of hard criminals with penitentiary leaves and early releases eventually can lead to terrorist cells that turn against the very society in which they have nested themselves so comfortably. And whereas criminologists and sociologists in Belgium in the aftermath of events around Victor Hoxha stumble over each other's feet in their hurry to tell the public that building new prisons is not a solution, and the exclusion of access to an early release would be T O T A L L Y 
 I N H U M A N E
, researchers in other countries seem to be occupied with completely different things – like how the world out there really looks like, for example.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Fascists in Sweden

At the Swedish elections of last week-end, the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD, Sverigedemokraterne) got their highest score ever: 2.9% on a national basis. The party is mostly concentrated in the South of Sweden, in Skåne, and that's probably due to the influence of the nearby Danish People's Party (DF, Dansk Folkeparti). However, the party was the victim of some attempts by the antifascists to sabotage the election process.

The most remarkable part of the story is perhaps that the Antifascist Action (AFA, Antifascistisk Aktion) can document and brag about its sabotaging the election process at several places, while the police (or the press for that matter) doesn't seem to do anything against them. Here's a shortlist of some of their «heroic» deeds of the last weeks before the elections:
  • The party's election posters were systematically removed from the streets;
  • The party's election propaganda was systematically removed from the libraries;
  • The party's election propaganda was taken out of people's mail boxes;
  • Election candidates of the SD received (personal) threatening letters to withdraw from the elections, and as a result some actually did withdraw because they couldn't take the pressure;
  • An election speech in Västerås by the National Democrats (ND, Nationaldemokraterne), another party of the far-right, was effectively disturbed.
The most serious part is probably that the voting ballots for the SD were systematically taken away from the polling-booths, both on the day of the elections and before. A short note about the Swedish voting process can explain why this is a problem: In every voting-booth, there is supposed to be a pile of voting ballots for every party, with either the list of the party's candidates or just the party's name. You can use the latter type of voting ballots if you just want to vote for a party without any special preferences for the order in which its candidates will be elected. So if you want to vote for a particular party, you take one of its ballots, put it in an envelope and put the envelope in the ballot-box. However, if there aren't any ballots for your party left, you still have a third option: you can write the name of your party on an empty voting ballot, which is of course more complicated, and more prone to errors which can make your vote invalid.

I do not know enough about SD, ND or similar Swedish parties to judge whether they have fascists in their ranks or amongst their voters, but it's clear that there must be some fascists member of the AFA. Their methods surely can't be called very democratic if you ask me.

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Moral Victory of The Pope

The events of these last days concerning the speech Pope Benedict XVI gave at the end of his journey to Germany have resulted in what some could call a «knee fall» for Islam. I think that in reality, he is the moral victor of the conflict, but whether the Islamic religious and political leaders who have mobilized against him ever will understand (or be able to understand) that is another question.

The whole story is in fact rather bizarre. In the speech it is clear that the Pope never intended to make any judgment about Islam in general or Jihadin particular, but nevertheless churches are being attacked in the Middle East and ambassadors are called back from Vatican City. At least one striking parallel with the notorious Danish cartoons can be noted: those who lash out the hardest against the Pope, are exactly those who are the less informed.

The Secretary-General of the Central Council of the Muslims in Germany (Zentralrat der Muslime in Deutschland) Aiman Mazyek for example saidhe couldn't understand why the speech should imply any insult to Muslims. But a better illustration of what has been going on was the statement made by Ali Bardakoğlu, leader of the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı): at first he had demanded apologies from the Pope, but later he had to admit that he had done that only on the basis of the first, incorrect press releases about the speech. However, he didn't admit his mistake entirely spontaneously, but only after some harsh comments by Mehmet Yılmaz in the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet. The comments of the latter didn't apply to Ali Bardakoğlu alone though, but to the rest of the Islamic world as well.

The intervention of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel goes in the same direction as that of Mehmet Yılmaz. In essence she said, in a diplomatic manner of course, that the Islamic leaders who are demanding excuses from the Pope should either first read the text of the speech, or they simply do not understand the meaning of it at all. If those leaders ever come back to their senses, they will maybe realize that in fact they made fools out of themselves. And perhaps the already quoted Tasnim Aslam will realize too what sort of nonsense she really said.

But there is a more fundamental question in this story too: how did it come so far? Maybe the Pope is the moral winner for those who are able to read, but on the other side, did he have much choice but to apologize for something he never said? After all, there was the threat of brutal violence, or better, it had already started with attacks against some churches in the Middle East, some of them not even Roman Catholic! Maybe a reference to Luke 6.29 («To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer also the other.») should be made here. But that he saw no other option than to express regret over the fact that he had caused such anger in the Muslim world also says something about the weakness –unwillingness or incapacity?– of the political West to bring or force the Islamic world to reason.

Commentators in the German press too react with surprise about the intensity of the responses coming from the Islamic world, and wonder whether the clash of civilizations perhaps already has started. Fact is that today, large parts of the Islamic world apparently do not need any reason any more to mobilize against the Christian world, and incorrect reports can spread through the region at the speed of light while religious or political leaders do nothing to calm down people or bring them to reason again. In stead they bring more wood to the fire and try to beat each other in making yet bolder statements. Quite some moral and intellectual bankruptcy, and how convincing as the ultimate proof that Islam is all about peace and love.

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Friday, September 15, 2006

Norwegian Imam: «Bush behind 9/11 Attacks»

On 11 September, the leader of the Norwegian imams Zulqarnain Sakandar Madni caused a controversy in Norway claiming that George W. Bush and the US were behind the 9/11 attacks. Moreover he denies that there exists something like al-Qaeda, and he says the video messages that are supposed to be from Osama bin Laden are recorded in a studio. The controversy didn't exactly calm down when it became clear that the imam received support from other imams in Norway and ordinary Muslim people in the street.

The Norwegian national newspaper Aftenposten invited imam Zulqarnain Sakandar Madni for an Internet discussion at the occasion of the commemoration of 11 September 2001. During the discussion, the imam said that according to him, not Muslims but George W. Bush and the US were behind the attacks of 9/11. Islam stands for peace, and does not permit citizens to be killed or wounded, and therefore the 9/11 attacks cannot be done by Muslims. Furthermore, he doubts whether Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden really exist, and thinks that the video messages that are supposed to be coming from Osama bin Laden in reality are recorded in some studio. Finally he refers to the movie Loose Change that argues that Muslims aren't responsible for the attacks of 9/11. In relation to this, he stresses the point that the movie is in fact American.

Now imam Zulqarnain Sakandar Madni isn't some imam pulled out of an obscure mosque, but the leader of the United Ulama of Norway (Jamiat Ulama-E-Norway). In fact, the imam is supportedby other imams, among them imam Hafiz Mehboob-ur-Rehman of the Islamic Cultural Center and imam Syed Ikram Shah of the World Islamic Mission. The latter claims that even if the hijackers had Muslim names, the West cannot prove they really were Muslims. Another imam, imam Nehmat Ali Shah of Central Jamaat-e Ahl-E Sunnat points out that even after five years, nobody has been found guilty for the attacks by an independent court, and therefore he cannot know whether the people responsible for 9/11 were Muslim or not.

Street interviews showed that ordinary Muslims aren't really convinced that Muslims were behind the 9/11 attacks either. On the other hand, some immigrant politicians have clearly distanciated them selves from the imam's statements, like e.g. Afshan Rafiq of the conservative Right (Høyre) and Khalid Mahmood of the social democratic Labor Party. The Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Integration, Jonas Gahr Støre and Bjarne Håkon Hanssen, both social democrats, said they were very skeptical about the statements of the imams. Jonas Gahr Støre told Aftenposten that the freedom of speech must be respected, but at the same time the statements of the imams are speculations he doesn't share.

According to the cultural historian Kari Vogt, one of the best experts on Islam in Norway, the statements of the imams show a double problem: on the one hand there is the discomfort and the shame connected to the fact that Muslims are linked to such crimes, and on the other hand their distrust towards Western politicians who feel there is clear prove that Muslims planned and executed the 9/11 attacks. She also notes that these kinds of conspiracy theories have been around since 2001, not only in the Muslim community, but also elsewhere in Norway and the rest of the world. But she also thinks that only a small minority actually does believe in those theories, also amongst Muslims, and that most Muslims have a political feeling and sense of reality that functions well.

If the latter really is true, it is remarkable that prominent imams and Muslim leaders can make such statements that for the larger majority of their supporters must look like complete nonsense, without it having any considerable impact on their position within the community. Also, it is striking how easy they can get away with it, which cannot be said of pope Benedict XVI who seems to have angered the complete Islamic world by simply making a quote from which he distanciated himself in the same sentence. Tasnim Aslam, the spokeswoman of Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs was even quoted with a contradictio in terminis one doesn't read every day:
Anyone who describes Islam as a religion as intolerant encourages violence
A religion that's truly tolerant wouldn't cause any problems when it is described as intolerant, let alone that such a statement would encourage violence. And that's even more so true if the statement was made in good faith and doesn't describe the religion as intolerant at all. If it does result in violence though, as is the case here, one can wonder whether maybe something is very wrong with the at least the leaders of that religion.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Failed Attacks in Germany

The unsuccessful train attacks in Germany have almost entirely disappeared from the news, and certainly they have had no impact at all on politics. It's remarkable that only a small technical error by the terrorists makes the difference between a failed attack and an attack that causes a crisis that lasts for weeks, not only for the country but a whole continent. In both cases, however, the intent of the terrorists is exactly the same. The failure of the terrorists has been very convenient for one side of the political spectrum though.

These last days, the anti-American propaganda machine has been very active again in Europe. Many comments on the events related to the commemoration of 9/11 carry a certain undertone stating that after all, the imperialistic US got what it deserved in 2001. And if they didn't already deserve it before the attacks of 11 September 2001, then they certainly did afterwards because of the intervention in Iraq.

The explanations for the reasons behind the attacks in Madrid and London come cheap too. The attacks in Madrid were caused by the José María Aznar's foreign policy, too much in line with the US. He had even sent Spanish troops to Iraq. And the attacks in London were Tony Blair's fault, because he behaves like George W. Bush's «poodle». The conclusion is therefore simple: states with a policy of appeasement towards Islam and the Arab world are safe, the others not.

There's however a problem to make those failed attacks in Germany fit in this picture. First of all there is the simple fact that the attacks occurred in Germany. Certainly, Angela Merkel's Germany isn't the same as Gerhard Schröder's, but Angela Merkel hasn't sent any troops to Iraq either. Moreover, the social-democratic SPD is still in power, even though it has to share that power with the conservative (and more Atlantic) CDU/CSU instead of the Green Party. But the foreign policy wasn't the reason for the attacks either: the publication of those famous Danish cartoons in German newspapers was the main reason, the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi being the secondary one. So what should Germany have done to prevent the attacks?

The only possible answer to that question seems to be that Germany should have forbidden the publication of the Danish cartoons in German press as soon as the controversy started. In that case, the terrorists wouldn't have had a reason to plot an attack in Germany. Such a policy goes much further than just an appeasement though: it is in fact a submission to the dictates of some imams and their particular interpretation of Islam. A hopeless case, by the way, for as far as it would be desirable at all, there will always be some imam who's more radical and making higher demands than the others. This doesn't even consider the different faction within Islam, since e.g. Sunni's and Shia could drink each other's blood.

But once you start to go down that road, introducing censorship against the Danish cartoons under the cover of showing respect for Islam, the question is how far one can go. The next step could be a ban on drawings about pigs, the introduction of Shari'a courts for Muslims (which are already in place in Canada), the problems around headscarfs and burqas, and before you know it, you're supposed to help destroy Israel. And when you're done with that, there is still Kashmir and Aceh, and Nigeria.

It's clear that the failure of the attacks fits a certain group of people quite well. It would have been very difficult to put some sort of anti-American spin on them without looking like a useful idiot for the islamization of Europe. The possibility to simply ignore the attacks because they didn't succeed is therefore very convenient for some people.

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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Microsoft CEO Saked «after» TBJ Article

I don't want to jump into a Post hoc ergo propter hoc conclusion, but it is a remarkable coincidence: just the day after the publication of my previous article on The Brussels Journal about Microsoft and its support to 0110, its CEO Bruno Segers got sacked. The reason for his sudden departure is not entirely clear, but rumors say there have been problems between him and the Executive Board for some time. Initially there was nobody to replace him, but the company has now announced Jørgen Bardenfleth will take over Segers' task. Now suppose the article (or more correct: the sponsoring) was used as a stick to beat the dog, would that have been a correct handling of the case by Microsoft?

Let's go back about one year in time, to a case where we know for sure that somebody was fired because of political reasons: Herman de Bode. He had put his signature under the famous Manifesto of a Flemish think-tank called In de Warande, named after the place where they usually meet. In the Manifesto, the think-tank lists, page after page, simple facts about the social-economical differences between Flanders and Wallonia, concluding that independence would be in the interest of both parties. As a result, Herman de Bode was forced to resign from McKinsey & Company Benelux, even though he had not used his position to promote or endorse his private political opinion. The reason for his resignation was said to be that his opinion was in conflict with the interests of one of the biggest clients of the company, the Walloon Region. One can regret this or be pragmatical about it, but there is a sense of a lack of reciprocity here: A French-speaking person expressing an anti-Belgian opinion would never have to fear for his job, even if the Flemish Region would be the most important customer of his company.

Compare this to the case of Bruno Segers, who regularly expressed his opinion about the anti-immigration and Flemish-secessionist Vlaams Belang (VB, Flemish Interest) on his personal blog. In principle this is not a problem, even on the contrary: the more people openly declare their political opinion, the better for the political debate, and the more clarity there will be about where everyone stands. However, this changes if he uses his job to promote his opinion or even financially support it with the company's money. If the shareholders agree, there is no problem, but if that's not the case, some conclusions should be made one day or another. Maybe this is what happened on Friday, and in that case, Microsoft has unarguably acted correctly. But it can of course just as well be that Microsoft couldn't care less about this blog, and that he was fired because he was caught stealing a pencil or a paper clip for personal use.

It would be good thing though if Microsoft would give us some more clarity about its sponsoring of 0110, and how it should be understood. Would the software company rather not see any of the voters of VB as its customers anymore? And if VB would gain power in one of the municipal councils, should the municipality then start looking for another platform for its IT services?

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Microsoft Supporting Concerts against Flemish Interest Party

On 1 October, a week before the local elections in Belgium, an organization called 0110 will organize concerts in Antwerp, Brussels, Charleroi and Ghent. Officially the concerts are pro-tolerance, but there's no doubt about it that in reality, they are directed against the right wing Flemish Interest (Vlaams Belang) party.

About a year ago, Tom Barman, lead singer of the Belgian group dEUS, told in an interview with the Flemish weekly Knack more than a year ago that he wanted to organize something against the Flemish Interest party before the local elections of 8 October this year. This resulted in an initiative called 0110, which plans to hold concerts in Antwerp, Brussels, Charleroi and Ghent. Tom Barman managed to enroll quite a few main stream artists for these concerts, and even got the attention of the Belgian National Lottery, that wanted to sponsor him. The Flemish Interest party caused a row over the participation of the artists, pointing out that since they represent about a quarter of the electorate, the artists would loose some of their fans, and it even threatened to boycott them. for a while it actually turned quite ugly since some of the artists were attacked rather personally. In the end, however, artists are private persons too, and if they want to make a political statement on a stage, they should be allowed to do so in a free country.

For an organization like the National Lottery, that's completely different of course. Since it owns the state monopoly on gambling in Belgium and is managed by the Belgian government, it should abstain from involving itself in political concerts like these. They're using the pretext that the concerts are a cultural event, though that's obviously not the main goal of 0110 as expressed by the organizer Tom Barman. The social-democrat State Secretary Bruno Tuybens (sp.a), responsible for the National Lottery, was quoted saying it was «a positive thing that the National Lottery supported an initiative like 0110 that's pro-tolerance and anti-racist, even if the concerts are only one week before the elections». In other countries, election observers from the OSCE would certainly make some comments about this type of practices in their report.

But it gets even worse. In the weeks before the concerts, and the elections of course, a publicity spot will be shown on almost all national and regional television channels, including Eén (One) and Canvas, for free of course. Again, commercial television channels do whatever they want, but Eén and Canvas are part of Flemish public television VRT, and that makes things different: they're using the tax-payer's money to let an organization agitate against a political party representing about a quarter of the population. Where one can argue that if you don't agree with the National Lottery's policy, you can simply choose not to gamble anymore (which is a good idea anyway), you can't choose not to pay taxes that would go to the VRT. Anyway, I don't think this would look good in a OSCE report either.

Finally, there are also some private companies supporting 0110. One of them is the Belgian branch of the bookstore Fnac, another one the ethical insurance company P&V, the third one the ethical mobile virtual network operator Ello Mobile. So far only usual suspects: Being a customer of them doesn't really fit with voting for the Flemish Interest party. I'm not sure whether the same could be said about MSN(Microsoft Network). Apparently Microsoft Belgium thinks it is a good idea to sponsor an organization that is opposing against about a quarter of its customers. Maybe they think voters of the Flemish Interest party don't use computers, or they use Linux anyway. In that case, maybe the Flemish Interest party should get better in touch with its voters and start to advocate open source software.

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