Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Burma: The ignored genocide

I have been reluctant to write about Burma (Myanmar) and what is happening to Muslims there. Many readers have told me that I should. My answer was always that I needed to know more before I could give my opinion. I then started following what was being written and said in the international media, like NPR radio and BBC, and here in Saudi Gazette. I found particularly useful the articles of Tariq Almaeena and Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdy. I also read the responses of the Burmese readers of this paper.

According to Dr. Al-Ghamdy (a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs), Arakan (Rakhine) province of today’s Burma was an independent kingdom for much of its history. “A vast region stretching from western Burma to the Bengal region, Arakan was weakened when war broke out with the Mughal rulers in India, especially when it lost the Chittagong region to the Mughals. The region’s weaker position and instability led to its annexation to the Burmese state.”

The British invaded and controlled the state, but after the end of World War II, they granted the state its independence, in 1948. The Arakan people demanded their own independence. They did not accept the “self rule” awarded to them by the Socialist government under General Ne Win in 1974. Arakan Muslim “mujahideen” led an armed rebellion to create an Islamic state. However, they were a minority among the people of the region, who belonged to various sections of the pluralist Burmese society. 

In retaliation, Muslims found their nationality abrogated and the majority Buddhists taking repressive measures against them with government support. Since the 1960s, they have been subjected to ethnic cleansing, and many have been driven to neighboring Bangladesh, where they live in refugee camps. Others fled to neighboring Thailand, and to Saudi Arabia. More followed, as frequent massacres continued. 

This year on June 3, according to Wikipedia, “11 innocent Muslims were killed by the Burmese Army and Buddhist mobs after bringing them down from a bus. A vehement protest was carried out in the Muslim majority province of Arakan, but those protesting fell victim to the tyranny of the mobs and the army. More than 50 people were reported killed and millions of homes destroyed in fires as Muslim-ethnic Rohingya and Buddhist-ethnic Arakanese clashed in western Burma.” 
Under intense economic and security pressure, the Bangladesh government decided to close its borders. World relief agencies, as well as UN and Islamic leaders and organizations, tried to convince them to reconsider, promising more aid and support. Among these were the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Asian Human Rights Commission. 

However, with over half a million refugees already there, Bangladesh argued that the pressure should be on the Burmese government to stop the massacres and take back its own people. Allowing more refugees to enter Bangladesh, they pointed out, might create a misunderstanding in Myanmar.

To me, what is happening to the Rohingyas is similar to events in the Muslim south of the Philippines, Eastern China, Chechnya, Bosnia and Kosovo. In all these lands, Muslim states were overtaken by larger non-Muslim nations. When they sought independence, they were suppressed by the stronger majority. Massacres and deprivation of essential and national human rights led to genocide and ethnic cleansing. 

The world stood watching while Russian, Serbian, Chinese and Filipino forces and militias exercised their “Final Solution” to the “Muslim Problem.” In Europe, they finally woke up as a result of coverage by the global media and public opinion pressure. Thanks to strong US leadership, the holocaust was finally put to an end, and Muslims were allowed to have their own states and live in peace.

Not so in Burma. Western media presence has been weak. UN focus has been even weaker. The US, the European Union, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as the Muslim world, seem to have left the massive task of resolving the issue to nongovernmental organizations and charities. 

The Burmese government finally decided to interfere and sent the army and security forces to control the violence and to attempt to convince the refugees who escaped to neighboring provinces to return home. Fearing political interference, the military rulers allowed international help, albeit reluctantly, selectively and gradually. And the opposition leader, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi finally spoke out. 

Acknowledging that she might lose much of her popularity at home, she denounced the crimes committed against unnamed local communities. In her first statement to parliament, she called for laws to protect minority rights. “The majority of the people in a society should have sympathy for the minority,” she said. Some of her international fans expected her to take a stronger stand, but one should consider that she has to deal with the military junta ruling the country, and to consider her majority Buddhist constituency. There is an urgent need for immediate solutions, but in the long run much more is required. Burmese refugees in Bangladesh, and elsewhere, must be allowed to return home. Self rule should be given to Muslims in their own state. Help and guarantees from the Burmese government and international community must be granted to the the people in the affected areas of the country in support of resettlement and rebuilding efforts. After all that the world has gone through in the last century, we cannot afford to ignore genocides and holocausts. 

— Dr. Khaled Batarfi is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. He can be reached at: Kbatarfi@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter: @Kbatarfi



Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Russia, Syria and Islamophopia 

As Chairman of the International Relations Committee at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, I met with the Russian delegation which attended this year’s Jeddah Economic Forum. I explained that Saudis were not very welcoming, due to Russia’s position on Syria.

They asked why Saudis would care about what is going on in another country. I asked, in return, why they supported the ethnically and religiously related Serbs against Muslims and Croats, and why they thought that the Muslim world supported Afghanis and their jihad against the Soviet invaders. Syria is an Arab neighbor with whom we have strong ethnic and cultural ties. In fact, Damascus was the capital of the Muslim caliphate for a long while. How can we ignore our brethren’s strife?

I reminded them of a time when Russia was very popular in the Middle East for its “apparent” support of the Palestinian cause. Few noticed then that Jewish immigration from Russia to Israel never ceased. Many of the immigrants were great nuclear scientists and industrialists who helped tip the balance in Israel’s favor.

A member of the Russian delegation later told me privately: “The reasons Russia supports the Syrian regime are strong. We do have great economic and military interests in Syria, but the most important reason is not known to all.”

He explained: “After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the loss of Eastern Europe to the West, we have been losing ever since. The Soviet Union was dissolved, many of its republics joined NATO and now threaten our borders. Our allies from South America to Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia were joining the other camp, one after the other. 

“In this region alone we lost Egypt, South Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Ethiopia and Somalia. Syria stands alone as the last base and ally. If we lose it, we would be saying goodbye to our global influence, and would be declaring defeat to NATO and the West. We cannot afford that.”

I told him that Russia was betting on the wrong horse.  Al-Assad and his regime are already losing. If Russia takes the right stand today it may cut its losses. The Syrians, Arabs, Muslims and the international community will never forgive or forget that Russia stood beside a genocide president until he dropped dead. Not only did Russia protect him from Security Council resolutions, but it actually supplied him with weapons and tools to kill his own people. History and the world will judge Russia for that. Is Russia willing to pay such a high price for supporting a regime that has already lost?

He promised to put my points in his report and take my message to the right people. He warned me, though, that more than cold calculations are involved in influencing the Russian public and politicians on this issue. When national pride is involved, it is hard to discuss passionate issues with pure logic. 

I maintained the above reasoning in my discussions and political analyses as the motive for Russia’s stand on Syria. But I later learned another vital reason. 

Russia has a growing minority of Muslims (16 percent, according to Reuters), not only in Chechnya, Dagestan and other Muslim republics in the Russian Federation, but also in Russia itself. Islam today is the fastest growing religion in the country, and some Russians are even following the extremist Salafi sect.  

While the general Russian population becomes older, with less marriages and fewer children, Muslim families are on average younger and with more children. Therefore, more Muslims are entering the army and the security agencies. 

The country’s southern borders are lined with Muslim countries, many of which have bitter memories of the anti-religious suppression campaigns the Soviet Union led against them for seven decades.

Knowing that the new government in Syria will probably follow the example of the Arab Spring revolutions, Russia may have decided to make an example of the Syrian revolt for its Muslim audience.

These reasons combined may explain why Russia is fighting to the end in an attempt to save the Syrian regime and prevent the Islamist revolution from succeeding. As usual they will lose. Putin can take this promise to the bank.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Secular-liberal Egypt on the offensive!

Secularism and liberalism are not new phenomena in the Muslim world. They came first with the colonists in the last three centuries. Secular liberals were among the elite in progressive countries like India, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Lebanon and Turkey. Political parties and movements advocating liberalism and secularism were on and off governments in these countries. 

Al-Wafd was the most popular and organized Egyptian party. Its founder, Saad Zaghlul Pasha, was highly respected as a world class leader. He led the Egyptian revolt in 1919 against British rule. The party was headed by the “delegation” (or “wafd” in Arabic) that negotiated in Paris with Great Britain for their country’s independence after the end of World War I. They failed, formed Al-Wafd party and won the parliamentary election. Saad Pasha became prime minister in 1923 and had to resign in 1924, under British military pressure. 

When the Free Officers ruled Egypt, they were secular-liberal dictators. Islam was not part of the government system. Courts employed a mixture of English and French law. Except in personal affairs, the laws were mostly non-Islamic. Judges, therefore, were largely liberals, many trained in Western law schools. 

While the judiciary in Egypt today is independent, many were hand picked by the former regime, especially those in the higher courts. So politically they belong to the former government, and ideologically they are anti-Islamist.  

This explains why it took the same Constitutional Court three years to dissolve the pro-Mubarak parliament and only one week to decide the same fate for the one that was pro-Morsi. 

The court could have waited until the new president took over, or stopped at announcing the verdict, as it should have, according to its mandate.

This would have avoided a major constitutional and political crisis.

Instead, the liberal, pro-military judges, chose to “order” the immediate dismissal of all, not just the disputed third, of the democratically elected members of parliament. The military was quick to implement the order and seize for itself not only the legislative powers, but some of the judiciary, budgetary and presidential authority, as well.  

Similarly, the media in Egypt has always been pro-dictatorship and secular-liberal. Under the headline “Egypt’s New President Is Being Undercut by State-Run Media,” the New York Times, on Saturday, explained how the press in Egypt has sided with the generals against the Islamist president. When President Morsi ordered the return of the mostly Islamist parliament, the media only published the Military Council statement, and described how Morsi’s decision negatively affected the stock market. While private television channels were interviewing defiant members of parliament, the state-run TV network was celebrating the achievements of the secret police!  

“Egypt’s state news media, the traditional admiring chroniclers of Egypt’s head of state, are at war with the new president,” the Times concluded.

It seems that the deep-rooted remnants of the former government (called “folool” by revolutionists) are resisting the tide of the populist president. They have already undercut the newly-elected president by dissolving the mostly Islamist parliament and taking away some of his powers. Now the “folool” are conspiring to strip him of his prestige. The make-fun-of-the-president campaign includes his hijab-wearing wife and conservative Muslim family. 

They are depicted as low class and stupid village people, even though they are better educated - in top Egyptian and American universities - than most of their detractors. 

Never in Egypt’s history has a head of state been the target of so many sarcastic and disrespectful cartoons, rumors and jokes. Mubarak would have sent them all to the torture chamber and turned them into clowns in his family circus, or silenced them for good. But the new president has told them, instead, they are free to express their own opinion.  It is not wrong to advocate freedom of speech, but I would advise him to sue those who cross the line, and misuse their new freedom to serve the military and former dictatorship in the name of liberalism and democracy. But then I must also remember that the courts are in their hands (and pockets).
The best course for President Morsi, therefore, is to go back, again and again, to the public, the source of all legitimate powers and authorities. The people should and will help him get justice. 

US double-standard justice

When Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy promised, during his Tahrir Square speech to free Sheikh Omar Abdulrahman, I knew he was heading for trouble with the mighty US.

I was right. Soon after, anger was boiling in Washington. Conservative Republican Representative, Chairman of House Committee on Homeland Security, Peter King, among others, warned against the new Islamic boss in Cairo. Reminding fellow congressmen that the Sheikh had been imprisoned since 1993 on charges of inspiring terrorism, and that he had been sentenced in a court of justice, he accused Morsy of tolerating Islamic Jihadists and interfering in US legal matters. A State Department spokesperson insisted that the US judiciary is completely independent. They all presume that the American legal system is square and fair.

But is that so? Let’s do some fact checking here. Sheikh Omar was accused of encouraging terrorism with his fiery speeches. But he has not, in fact, been part of any actual terrorist act. He did not plan, encourage, or participate in a particular crime. Other charges against him were based on his presumed “intentions” to assassinate former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and bomb American tunnels. No evidence was presented in court and he was denied access to lawyers. Former US Attorney General, William Ramsey Clark, attested that he reviewed 20,000 pages in the US case against the Sheikh and found not one piece of evidence.

There have been similar instances with evangelistic and right-wing American politicians and preachers. Didn’t a preacher threaten to burn the Qur’an, and didn’t a politician call for a nuclear bombing of Holy Makkah? Didn’t the George W. Bush administration promote “creative destruction” as the best way to reconstruct the Middle East, starting with Iraq? If hate speech and evil intentions are criminal acts punishable by life sentences, why were these criminals not charged and punished?

Sadly, all of this is not new. After its independence, the US tolerated hate speech as the holy right of free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Native Americans, blacks, Marxists, socialists, Jews and others had to endure and pay for the laws and actions resulting from such speeches. Today, it is the Islamists who endure the most.

If we are talking about justice here, it should start at home. Besides the hate speakers, there are the US soldiers convicted of horrendous crimes against civilians and prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, including rape, torture and mass killing. They escape true justice with a few months or years in prison, or with slaps on their wrists. Psychologists are hired to find excuses for them, such as that they cracked under pressure - but not so for the Muslim Egyptian Sheikh.

Sheikh Abdulrahman is blind, sick, weak and old (74), yet he is held  in solitary confinement  in a maximum security cell designed for young, strong and dangerous terrorists. He has been denied access to visitors, including lawyers and members of his family.

For a system built on serving and upholding passionate humanity, it is inhuman to treat a handicapped elderly person in this way. In a religious country that has strong faith and trust in God, it is wrong to treat a man of God with such brutality and humiliation.

Then what about the claim of so-called “interference in US legal matters”? The US government is never shy about interfering in the laws of other countries to free Americans. They have done it in China, Iran, and often in Egypt. Many Egyptian-Americans and Israelis convicted of espionage, drug trafficking and corruption were freed as a result of intense US pressure, including the threat of holding up US economic assistance. In recent cases, the accused were illegally smuggled out of the country.

Israel campaigned for years to free the most dangerous spy in US history. An American Jew, Jonathan Pollard, who worked as a Navy analyst, was convicted of selling over 1,000 top secret documents to Israel. Some of these documents dealt with American intelligence missions in the Middle East, others exposed American spies around the world, including the names of over 150 US agents in the Middle East, who were eventually “turned” into agents for Israel!

Documents related to the US nuclear deterrent against the Soviet Union and US agents operating there were given to the US arch enemy in exchange for increased Jewish emigration to Israel. As a result, all the American agents operating inside the USSR were “lost”.

Yet, no American politician dares question the right of Israel to defend its spy and demand his release. Never mind that (1) he was convicted in a US court of justice; (2) he endangered (not just intended to) high national security interests, including the loss of precious American lives; and (3) he is an American citizen - not an Israeli!

Mr. Morsy has every right to ask his country’s ally to free an Egyptian prisoner on humanitarian grounds. After all, Sheikh Omar has spent a long part (18 years) of his life term in tough, inhuman conditions, and his health is deteriorating. He cannot be of any future danger to the US, and the Egyptian president can and should guarantee that.

Morsi in charge?

In 1954, two years after their coup, the Egyptian Free Officers issued a decree promising a full return to democracy within four months. Days later, they reneged, dissolved all political parties and confiscated their assets. Accusing all parties of getting support and guidance from unnamed foreign anti-revolutionary powers, they punished the leaders of the parties.  In order to be able to include the Muslim Brotherhood, they upgraded it first to a political party, then dissolved it!
To protect the “revolution”, they gave their Revolution Leadership Council, made up exclusively of the 11 Free Officers, the power of both the Presidency and Parliament, until such time as the revolutionary goal of getting rid of the foreign occupier was achieved. They signed this in the name of their leader, General Mohammad Naguib, who was pushing for a return to full democracy and the abandonment of the Emergency Law. Soon after, they overthrew him and appointed the man behind the conspiracy, Gamal Abdel Nasser, as president for life. All who came after him, Anwar El-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, were fellow officers. Both of them also meant to stay for life.
The process of a “quick return to democracy” took 60 years, and the Emergency Law lasted until the true people’s revolution in 2011. But it is not “full democracy” yet. The officers are still there, as in Pakistan and Turkey, giving up only what they really have to, and keeping a tight grip on everything else. 
Still, we now have a democratically elected president, albeit with less constitutional authority - as the military officers took some of it back. With that legitimacy and 80 million Egyptians insistent on taking back their democracy from the army, there is hope. 
The list of tasks before President Morsi is hard and long. Atop the agenda are security, economy and national unity issues. In the last 14 months it has been unsafe for people in Egypt to go about their daily lives and business in peace. The police seem to be either helpless or careless. No business can function in such an environment. Thousands of factories, farms and businesses are closing down. Jobs are lost. Investments, foreign and local, are drying up. Tourists, who help to fuel the Egyptian economy, especially from the Gulf, US, Japan and Europe, have almost stopped coming. Even state projects have been delayed.
It is no surprise then that the central bank reserve of foreign currency is close to zero. If there is no real and full return to business as usual in a secure and peaceful environment, the government could go bankrupt and hell’s gates could open in the land of the Nile. We all, in the region and free world, have an interest in preventing such a tsunami from flooding the volatile Middle East.
Egypt’s rich and powerful friends, together with the World Bank and other international financing and development agencies, should lend a hand to the captain of the sinking Egyptian ship. A technocratic, multi-party, non-ideological government should provide the right environment for such help with good and wise diplomacy, security, policies and attitude. It would greatly help to reinstitute or reelect the dissolved Parliament within the three months required by law.
It is a daunting list of tasks, I know, but if achieved, Morsi will enter Egyptian history, as the man who came out of prison and saved the nation. He will, then, be truly and fully in charge. 

Who is ruling the Land of the Pharaohs?

Finally, Egypt has chosen its president. But this time he is not a Pharaoh.  Democracy is all about the balance of power among different branches of government, namely the executive, judiciary, and legislative. The media is the fourth branch. Free media are the watchdogs of the people. They analyze and criticize the performance of the branches of government.

The military, however, stand to guard and serve the nation. Their role is never to rule or interfere. This has not been the case in Egypt for the last 60 years. Since the coup (not a revolution) against a democratic government and a patriotic king, the Free Officers presided over the free fall of a great, sophisticated nation to Third World status. They turned a country that had a huge surplus, giving over fifty million in loans to Britain, into one buried under tons of debts and living on charity.

Today, Egypt, after a true people’s revolution, has elected a president. But the military officers are not happy about sharing power. They have just dissolved a freely elected parliament. Their candidate, General Ahmed Shafiq, however, has lost the race. Many believe that the Military Council’s anti-revolutionary actions encouraged many reluctant, and even anti-Islamist, voters to cast their vote in the Brotherhood candidate’s favor.

Still, Dr. Mohammad Mursi is not going to be a powerful president; certainly not the way previous military representatives were. Gamal Abdul Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak were powerful dictators. It’s good news that the new president is not. The bad news, however, is that dictatorship still prevails. The Supreme Military Council has  its hold on the functioning of government. The constitutional extension decree gives them extra authority to control the budget and oversee the judiciary. That is too much power in one hand.

The Brotherhood were widely criticized for attempting to achieve a similar hold on power, albeit democratically. That was not acceptable. The Nazis did exactly that, and used their power to change the constitution in their favor.  The product was a dictatorial regime that led Germany and the world to World War II.  Egypt and its neighbors deserve a better fate.

The lessons here are what Turkey and Pakistan learned the hard way. The proper place for soldiers is in the barracks doing their job to protect the nation under the supervision of an elected civilian government. They should have no hand — or foot! — in politics. Also, the party in charge should use its power wisely.

When the newly elected government of the late Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan (1996-1997) tried to push through its Islamic agenda with little regard for the opinions of others, the secular army used it as an excuse to intervene, overthrow the government, and put its leaders behind bars.

Three-term Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, has learned from his former master’s mistakes. Unlike Erbakan, he has worked with other parties to further a mainly development and economic agenda. Results speak for themselves. After turning the country from debt-bearing to one of the top ten economic achievers in the world, he has enough power to put rogue, conspiring generals behind bars.

The Brotherhood, and their Development and Justice party, should learn from their Turkish brothers’ experience. They should work with all those who did not vote for them as much as with those who did. As their Tunisian and Turkish associates have proved, diplomacy, cooperation, good faith, and open hands do win hearts and minds.

United States of Arabia

In the early 1980s, I attended the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Bahrain, as a reporter. It was my first visit to a Gulf country. Hopes and expectations of the council, born in Riyadh in 1981, were sky high. The peoples of this region are united in all aspects — geopolitically, historically and socially. All I heard at the summit, however, was political and media talk.

Suddenly the silent majority spoke. I was trying to stay a couple of days longer in Bahrain. The flights were fully booked. An elderly Bahraini lady was behind me in the line and heard the travel agent telling me the bad news. Without hesitating, she said: “My Saudi son wants to stay a few days longer, how can we deny him such a wish? Please give him my seat. I will wait and celebrate his visit.”

I kissed her head and could not but accept her gift. In my final report about the mega event for my magazine, Iqra, I relayed the story and announced: “My Bahraini mother said it all much better than any politician, writer or poet could: We are all one family.”

The moral of the story is that the Gulf Cooperation Council is all about people. It is fine to do all the necessary government to government cooperation, but if citizens cannot feel it in their day to day life, it won’t matter much.

Thirty years later, so much progress has been made. Not yet as much as the European Union, but better still than similar efforts and projects in modern Arab history.

Sentimental unifications like the Egyptian-Syrian United Arab Republic in the 1960s, and the unity project between Egypt and Libya, in the 1970s, ended in disaster. The Arab Cooperation Council that embodied Egypt (again!) and Iraq, Jordan and Yemen, in the late 1980s died, soon after, with the Iraqi invasion of  Kuwait, in August 1990. The Maghrib project of Libya, Algeria and Morocco, in the 1980s, suffered from the uncompromising rivalry between Morocco and the socialist People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria. It didn’t help to have “Malcolm in the Middle”. Muammar Al-Qaddafi would not accept less than a total unity, if not among Arabs, then with African nations.

To its credit, the GCC has survived a lot of bad weather — externally and internally. Its wise conservative leaders have managed to smooth out their differences, and stand together against political, economic, social and military challenges. Their support of Bahrain and Oman, last year, with prompt and strong security and financial aid, helped these governments weather the worst of the Arab Spring challenges.

The GCC could do even better with closer cooperation, and more solid steps on the road toward some sort of, possibly federal, unification.

However, before we go further, let’s go back to my Bahraini mother and what Gulf unity really means. The United Arab Emirates project is the most successful model in Arab history. The seven emirates have been federally united, since 1971. Yet, two geographically connected, Dubai and Sharjah, can have different regulations regarding anything from tobacco sales to rules governing foreign investments.

Following the same model, we could have the more conservative integrate socially and economically with the more liberal. States could keep their unique governing systems, while acting as one in strategic foreign, military and economic issues.

A citizen-centered United States of Arabia, which includes Yemen as a strategic partner or non-voting member, would well serve an already united Muslim Arabian Gulf family.

Winning back a peaceful Iran

In its last 1400 years, “Bilad Faris” (old Persia) has been controversial. It went from a fire-worshiping nation to one of the largest Muslim countries, with a new name — Iran.

During its long Islamic history, it fought with and against other Muslims — namely Arabs and Turks. During the expansion of the Muslim Caliphate, Persian soldiers fought alongside their brothers in faith against Indians, Mongols, Chinese and others. Some of them, like Abu Muslim Al-Khurasani, were larger-than-life generals. He helped bring down the Umayyad Caliphate and found the Abbasid Caliphate in its place. However, he was so successful and popular with his soldiers, so full of pride and vanity that the new Abbasid caliph was distrustful of him.

Unlike his predecessor, Abu Al-Abbas, the founder of the Abbasid caliphate, Caliph Abu Jaffar Al-Mansur thought of his Persian general as a threat rather than a loyal war minister. It didn’t help that the Persian asked for the hand of the Caliph’s sister, a direct granddaughter of Abdullah Ibn Al-Abbas, the cousin of the Prophet (pbuh). This was regarded as an insult since Al-Khurasani came from a humble background and was not an Arab. Angry at the rejection, he went to Haj at the same time as the Crown Prince, showing off his wealth by giving away gold and silver to Arab tribes on the way to Makkah. Al-Mansur was furious.

Al-Khurasani’s end was tragic. Al-Mansur invited him for a private audience, and after telling him why, ordered his soldiers to cut him to pieces and throw them into the river. Persians never forgot or forgave the Arabs for this treason.

History keeps repeating itself, not because we forgot its lessons, but because we remember them too well. Distrust on both sides continues today. Unlike the love-hate, up and down relations with Turks, the Arabs and Persians have always seemed inclined to fight until the last drop of blood. And there have been rivers of such drops.

Even Islam that united the two proud peoples is used by merchants of hate to divide them. Extremists on both sides are inflaming old fires, and fighting millennium old causes. The Shia sect is all about supporting the Prophet’s family — the direct descendant of his daughter, Fatima, and her husband, Ali, the Prophet’s protege and favorite cousin. The irony here is that the holy family comes from Arabia.

In modern history, Iran has gone from bad to worse in its relations with its Arab neighbors. The Shah was prouder than both the Abbasid Caliph and his Persian general.  He tried to dominate his Gulf Arab neighbors and to act as the region’s policeman on behalf of Western superpowers. The Islamic revolution went even further. The mullahs announced their intent to export revolution.

Today, Iran has a hand in almost every Middle East situation. It interferes in the affairs of Arab countries from Syria, Iraq and Lebanon in the north to Yemen and Sudan in the south, and from Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in the east to Egypt and North Africa in the West.

With Western superpowers against it, Iran needs less enemies today, and many more sympathetic and supportive friends, especially in its immediate neighborhood. Ideological differences should be smoothed and worked out, not exaggerated and inflamed. They should not stand in the way of cooperation and partnership, as well as good neighborly behavior and attitude.

In turn, Arabs should invite, initiate and encourage any positive Iranian steps. The US should not object. It needs such friendly influence. The world would be a better place if we could win back a peaceful Iran.

Lebanon: Civil War - again?!

My first visit to Lebanon was in 2002. Beirut had begun to recover a few years earlier after a devastating civil war. Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri was leading the comeback of what used to be called the Switzerland of the East. There were few signs left of the war. Some buildings bore the marks, some were still destroyed, but most areas of the city were flourishing.

The Solidere project of rebuilding downtown Beirut was a showpiece of Lebanese determination to recover its place in a better more peaceful world. It was a coordinated project between the state and the private sector which was said to cost billions of dollars.

Money was being poured into rebuilding the poor infrastructure of the country’s land, air and sea networks. Tens of thousands of boys and girls who had been sent to study abroad in badly needed specialties at Al-Hariri’s expense returned to help in the rebuilding efforts. In 2002, the country was a huge workshop at all levels.

The Lebanese are good at it. During the Civil War that lasted from 1975 to 1990, when a quarter of a million lives were lost, they used to rebuild during every ceasefire. They partied too, almost every night. Lebanese are very lively people.

Most Lebanese I met told me that the past was a lesson they had learnt only too well. They now knew that religious pride could deliver them to Hell. While political fighting and religious differences still existed, they said that they had learnt to compete democratically. Respect for each other’s right to their own faith and views was the country’s best warranty against another war that everyone would lose.

Enter Iranian-Syrian-supported, militant and armed to the teeth Hezbollah! Enter the assassination of Lebanon’s greatest rebuilder and unifier, Rafiq Al-Hariri. And enter Syria’s own civil war. Now the world is totally different. The commitment to peaceful competition in a democratic environment seems to have evaporated. The parties have shown renewed interest in militant and armed argumentation. The latest street fighting in Tripoli and Beirut shows how easy it is to forget past lessons and commitments to a peaceful resolution of differences and to go back to war. Amazing.

My Lebanese friend, Miriam Zgheib, who studies and works in TV production, told me last week she was reborn again into the country’s dark history. She was born after the Civil War, but the recent fight between the Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli, then between the pro-Hezbollah Sunnis and Al-Hariri camp in Beirut introduced her to the horror of senseless family wars. She tried to explain what was going on, then gave up and confessed that she just did not know - and did not care to know!  All she and her generation want is to breathe freedom, seek happiness and live in peace.  “Is that too much to ask?!”
The Lebanese army is the nation’s best guard and ultimate security guarantor. It should stand apart from all differences and divisive political-religious issues. If the wolves of hate and merchants of war manage to tarnish its image as an honest force, or to drag it into their wars, then it will lose its widespread public support and trust. Without people’s faith, the army can no longer function as protector of the nation.
The president, government, parliament and all cool heads in Lebanon, together with the country’s partners and friends abroad, should unite to end this nightmare scenario and stop the acceleration into civil war.

Time is not going to heal the injuries. If the looming storms are not immediately calmed, a Lebanon doomsday scenario is upon us all.