This week's editor
Mandela: the global icon
"With steps such as this, your majesty's wisdom and vision would take Egypt to lead modernity in the east", said Nubar Pasha, a prominent civil servant (later Egypt's first prime minister) whose family had settled in Egypt in the early 19th century. The addressee of the remark was the Khedive of Egypt, and the occasion was the inauguration of the Cairo opera house in 1869 - only the fourth in the world, and the first anywhere in the middle east, Africa and Asia.
Nubar Pasha, the obsequiousness to a ruler aside, was not exaggerating. The era was one of great social progress in Egypt, marked by the establishment of new educational institutions, factories, publishers that translated foreign books, and cultural bodies. Nubar was among those who pioneered this wave of modernity; part of the small, region-wide army of visionaries, business and community leaders and officials who had helped the ruling Mohammed Ali family in Egypt, the feudal masters of Mount Lebanon and the Beys of Tunisia (among other leaders of Arab states) to take their countries forward. Nubar Pasha, like many of those luminaries, was Christian (in his case of Armenian origin).
On 6 November 1914, a week after the Ottoman empire had entered the war on the side of the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary), Indian Expeditionary Force ‘D’ landed at Fao in the southernmost province of Ottoman Iraq. Their subsequent occupation and de facto annexation of the area consolidated a connection with a region in which Britain had long been economically dominant.
The force marched swiftly northwards, at first meeting little resistance; the euphoria this created encouraged those in charge in Delhi and London to contemplate an immediate dash for Baghdad. But it was poorly supplied and, at least initially, badly led, and early in 1916 it was checked by a Turkish rally at Kut.
The approaching submission of General David Petraeus's report on the progress of the United States's military "surge" strategy in Iraq refocuses attention on American options there after a summer of conflicting signals and assessments. The report, due to be presented by mid-September 2007, is already surrounded by politically charged speculation in a Washington gearing up for a new, post-Labor Day phase in the electoral cycle. What then is happening on the ground in Iraq that might make its way into the final draft?
The eruption of hostage–taking onto the agenda of international politics and the lives of ordinary citizens worldwide – both those directly affected and those consuming the phenomenon via the media spectacle – is not itself new. But while past incidents like the 444–day United States embassy crisis in Iran from 1979–80 and the seizure of westerners in Lebanon in the 1980s could be understood as particular outgrowths of defined security crises, hostage–taking in the era of “war on terror” has acquired new and more disturbing aspects that reflect the changing relationship between war and politics.
The second alleged incursion of a Russian aircraft into Georgian territory during August 2007 has further heightened tension between the two states. An already difficult relationship is mired in accusation, denial, rumour and suspicion over the sorties (the Georgian deputy defence minister Batu Kutelia claims there have been nine in the last three months). The fact that such incidents, minor in themselves, can provoke such heated reactions confirms that something has gone badly wrong in a once almost familial bond. What is it, and can it be repaired?
President Bush delivered a speech to United States military veterans on 22 August 2007 that invoked the war in Vietnam to support the case that an early exit of US forces from Iraq is unthinkable. This declaration of long-term commitment anticipates - and may possibly influence - the conclusion of General David Petraeus's report on the progress of the US's "surge" strategy (due to be presented in September); it also confirms the conclusion of several columns in this series that whatever its difficulties and setbacks, withdrawal from Iraq is not an option for the United States.
I grew up, in India, regarding the partition of 1947 as an abomination. This was due to reasons more complex, and powerful, than any reflexive Indian nationalism. My father's family, prominent activists in India's long march to freedom, struggled and sacrificed much for the cause of an united, undivided India. My paternal grandfather, Sarat Chandra Bose (1889-1950), a Congress leader of undivided Bengal and India for more than two decades, was among very few major figures of the time to oppose the partition, on grounds of political morality as well as practicality, until the bitter end.
The other night, I had the luck to see Arthur Miller's The Crucible, in an unforgettable London production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Like all great plays, it gleams in different places as the years pass, and last week I was gripped by a strand in the dialogue which had not greatly touched me before.
There's no escaping Iraq. Two incidents in recent days bear heavily on the unending conflict in that country. More broadly, they reveal how the United States administration's definition of its "war on terror" (or "long war") reflects entrapment in a way of thinking that requires it constantly to press the real world into the service of a partisan, dangerous, and self-defeating ideology.
First, the four coordinated truck-bombings of 14 August 2007 which targeted the Yezidi religious minority in northern Iraq inflicted the largest death-toll of any single incident - more than 400 - since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Second, the US's indication that it intends to designate Iran's 150,000-strong Sepah-e-Pasdaran-e-Enghlab-e-Islami (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, or Pasdaran) as a "foreign terrorist organisation" entails more than an escalation of rhetoric: it has serious practical implications for the relationship between Washington and Tehran, and adds a further element to an already polarised atmosphere where the possibility of military action against Iran cannot be ruled out (see Helene Cooper, "U.S. Weighing Terrorist Label for Iran Guards", New York Times, 14 August 2007).
The sixtieth anniversary of the independence of Pakistan and India on 14-15 August 2007 has prompted official celebration in both countries, as well as an ocean of commemorative coverage in the world's media. The terrible violence that accompanied the birthpangs of the two states from the ashes of empire is an inevitable theme in much commentary.
Among the many skills required of a driver in India is the ability to read the queue ahead. Is it merely a bullock cart with a wheel missing, an overloaded truck in mid-road with a shattered axle, a tractor with its trailer overturned?
All such common occurrences can be circumnavigated with panache. On this occasion however, our driver took one look, did a quick U-turn and stopped to confirm his fears. Murders had been committed and the police had blocked the road. We were in Bihar, a notoriously lawless state, and needed to reach our next stop safely before nightfall. A detour was the only solution.
This is the land where the Buddha lived and died in the 5th century BCE and we were there to visit the places connected with him. It is an area best described as "mid-Ganges" with Varanasi (Benares) to the west, and Patna to the east. To the south lies Bodh-Gaya, the place of enlightenment and to the north, just over the border into modern Nepal is Lumbini, the place of Buddha's birth.
The detour took us into a very traditional India. Villages of mud-brick, daub and whattle, the acridity of dung-fires, string-beds on the stoop, tooth-sticks, washed-out road-beds. There are no unpopulated horizons and no concealing the poverty in this, the poorest state in India. Villagers, men, women and children were out breaking rocks under the cliffs for construction-industry aggregate. The equivalent of £1.50 a day was the going rate - so we were informed. Not all the poverty was evident. The papers in Patna were recording a spate of rural suicides - the victims of money-lenders. For many, this is still the life of misery to which in his time the Buddha brought his message of compassion.
"Air Buddha", "Transcendental Airways", "Tantric Travel" - the travel-company advertisements signal the border crossing to the place of Buddha's birth at the northern edge of the Ganges plain. Here there are only scant archaeological remains - the red-brick courses of former temples and stupas, a column inscribed by Ashoka, an ablutions tank, a much defaced relief representing Maya (the mother of Buddha) and a stone identified as that on which he was born.
Frank Vibert is director of the European Policy Forum. He is the author of Europe Simple, Europe Strong: The Future of European Governance (Polity, 2001) and The Rise of the Unelected: Democracy and the New Separation of Powers (Cambridge University Press, 2007)
Among Frank Vibert's articles on openDemocracy:
"The future of Europe – simplify, simplify"
(12 December 2001)
"The new cosmopolitanism"
(20 March 2003)
"French referendum lessons"
(11 May 2005)
"'Absorption capacity': the wrong European debate" (21 June 2006)
"The European Union in 2057" (22 March 2007)
The remains of a temple are covered by a concrete canopy on which the faithful can pray. It was empty. In this, the land where he lived, taught and died, Buddhism as a living Indian faith has been gone for over half a millennium. Amidst all the impressions of traditional and modern India, the greatest impression is that of an absence - the absence of a living indigenous Buddhism. The faithful who come to visit this and other Buddhist sites are pilgrims from other places - from Tibet, Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Japan. Any visitor will reflect on this absence and the possible reasons given for it.
On the road our driver made his choice. He stopped to pay local taxes at the roadside office, accepted one more delay and retained a receipt for his employer. He could have paid in cash with no delay at half the price with the policeman pocketing it with a smile. Most drivers did. Bihar is corrupt - from senior politicians and civil servants down to the local level. Around the world, corruption is the underside of the democratic ideal. When it becomes endemic there is no tax without the possibility of remission, no regulation without the potential for a bribe.
In rural India, much that is delicately concealed from view in more prosperous parts takes place in public - from defecation to death itself. However preferable it is to be candid about the processes of daily living and dying, it was unnerving to answer a call of nature under the watchful eyes of two small boys and three large goats playing on the ruined walls of the palace at Kapilavastu where the Buddha grew up. Little is left of the palaces and town. Brick does not wear well. Their footprint remains impressive, the symbol of a life renounced and a setting forth.
The fact that Buddha was born the son of a ruler may have helped make high-caste Indians receptive initially to his message. At some point this seems to have turned to opposition. Buddhism did not endorse caste. The eightfold way, the path to enlightenment, is one that can be trod by all. Among the many reasons given for the eclipse of Buddhism was the opposition of Brahmins. Then and now officialdom can stifle and subvert.
The cost of differentiation
A monk reflexively swept an ant from the path of the pilgrims circling the precinct at Bodh-Gaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment under a pipal tree (a variety of ficus). This today is the most active place of pilgrimage among the Buddhist sites. Here, the stupa, its surrounding sanctuary containing the diamond throne, the lotus steps and the descendant of the tree, is ringed by pilgrims, the gardens filled with prostrate worshippers, and the Ashoka column polished by the circling shoulders of the devoted. Here in the town are temples from each of the lands where Buddhism is still a living presence.
The stupa at Bodh-Gaya, increasingly derelict after the decline of Buddhism, remained venerated by Hindus and today, much restored, is run by a joint committee. The disappearance of Buddhism by the 13th century seems to have paralleled a reform of Hinduism that came to absorb the historical Buddha as one of the manifestations of Vishnu. The disentangling of the historical Buddha and the re-identification of the sites associated with his life was an achievement of archaeologists and scholars, mainly British, in the 19th century.
This absorption of Buddhism in the land of its birth can be seen either as a positive commentary on the inclusiveness of Hinduism or as a negative comment on a lack of differentiation in the Buddhist message. In today's world, religious differentiation comes at a cost. In Varanasi, a ten-foot steel fence divides the main Shiva temple from the adjacent mosque and the army maintains permanent checkpoints in the surrounding alleyways. It was not enough to prevent the Hanuman shrine being bombed, in March 2006, one of three coordinated attacks in Varanasi.
At Sarnath just outside Varanasi, at a place marked by the ruins of the Dhamekh stupa, the Buddha departed radically from the traditionally withdrawn life of a religious pilgrim and began his public teaching of the four noble truths. Here, in the museum alongside the ruins of stupas, temples and monasteries there is a famous 5th-century sculpting of the Buddha in the preaching posture of hands raised in front of the chest with fingers bent as though to turn the wheel.
Although there was no formal prohibition against portraying the transcendant in human form, early Buddhist sculpture depicted the Buddhist message rather than the exemplar. At some later point, around 500 years after his death, an empty space with an accompanying symbol such as the wheel or tree, was replaced by depictions of the Buddha himself. A huge and esoteric iconography developed of which the best known symbols are the four positionings of the Buddha's hands. (preaching, courage, enlightenment and meditation).
By the time the Chinese monk Xuan Zang arrived to visit these sites in the 7th century one of his aims was to recapture a purer form of Buddhist doctrine from its source. He felt that during its travels to China, doctrine was likely to have been misinterpreted and distorted. In fact, even though Buddhist doctrine began to be systematised immediately following Buddha's death, doctrinal splits, as in Islam and Christianity, emerged early on. However pure the original message, the message-carriers are all too human. By the time of Xuan Zang's visit the divisions and decline of many Buddhist foundations is recorded in his diary.
At Sravasti, an unexpected reminder of this broken thread to the source of teaching can be seen. A Chinese pagoda stands near where the Buddha and his followers passed many rainy seasons - a more recent reference to a pagoda of former times noted by Xuan Zang in his day. Today, monkeys play where pilgrims prayed.
On one side of the street is a row of pastry-shops - single rooms fronting onto the pavement where, at the back, workers beat, pound and pestle the dough into ever thinner layers before it is deep fried in a vat at the front and coated with honey in a cloud of bees and flies. On the opposite side of the street a former imperial governor fronts the museum housing one of India's most celebrated sculptures - the so-called Mauryan "Venus".
About 200 years after Buddha's death this part of India, hitherto divided into small kingdoms, was united under the Mauryan empire (c 323-185 BCE) whose greatest ruler, Ashoka, converted to Buddhism. Ashoka's empire extended to what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan in the west and to what is now Tamil Nadu in the south. Through the western passes Buddhism could be carried into central Asia and China. Through the southern trade routes it was carried to Sri Lanka and beyond.
Ashoka's patronage possibly helped the spread of Buddhism in the way that Constantine's conversion helped spread Christianity in the Roman world. The Mauryan empire did not last. Its capital, Pataliputra, on the outskirts of modern-day Patna, was referred to by the Greek ambassador Megasthenes in the 4th century BCE as the equal of any cities in the Greek, Mesopotamian and Persian worlds. Today Patna is run down, the vernacular architecture of the old town destroyed, colonial mansions dilapidated and children scavenge on the rubbish heaps.
A vanished permanence
A plastic chair was perched precariously on the top of a half-excavated stupa while children played on its slopes. The occupant of the chair, the guardian of the site, snapped to attention at our approach, the only visitors of the day and waved his stick at the boys. At the foot of the stupa, women lashed their hair in grief and supplication at a Muslim shrine, well known in the town for answering prayers for those dangerously ill. This is where the Buddha took his last meal before his death, further on is the shrine where he took his last drink of water and in Kushinagar a stupa marks where he died at the end of a long life. A group of pilgrims prays at the recumbent image of the maha-parinibbana ("great decease") of the dying Buddha in the adjacent hall.
The Buddha spoke to the impermanence of our material life and the endurance of what is spiritual. Yet it is his spiritual message that has vanished from this part of India.
Whatever the reasons for the decline and disappearance of an indigenous Buddhism they challenge comfortable platitudes that church and state are better off when separated, or that belief systems should come together in ecumenicalism. Possibly, for its survival, religion needs the support of the state, officialdom and social hierarchy. Possibly, in order to survive, a belief system needs to emphasise its otherness. Or perhaps these are entirely the wrong conclusions. Maybe it is the frailty of the human carriers of the message that undermines the message - a frailty that applies to all religions, all priesthoods. Buddhists accept that the empirical manifestations of any religious belief (churches, madrasas, texts and priesthoods) will decline but have the confidence that eternal truths will be rediscovered in their own way in their own time.
As a tourist one is likely to enter this land of the historical Buddha through Varanasi. A religious site for thousands of years, here Hindus still come to die, to be cremated, to have their ashes spread on the waters of mother Ganges and to await rebirth. At the main ghat about 150 cremations take place a day. It is illegal for bodies to be placed un-cremated into the waters. But at night it is impossible to police, our guide informed us, as a body floated past our oars.
As a tourist you are also likely to leave this part of India through Lucknow. Lucknow is where you will find one of the most beautiful complexes of Islamic architecture in the world - the great Imambara. Lucknow is also modern India. A city in the grip of a building boom based on medicine and pharmaceutical research. In Lucknow there is a modern crematorium.
It is summer in Baghdad, with searing temperatures that average 41 degrees Centigrade. There is sunshine too in Washington on the countenance of some of the leading commentators on the war in Iraq who believe that the trend of events is finally going the United States's way.
Three developments coincide to reinforce the picture of sustained progress that supporters of the war in particular seek to present. First, the Democrats' control of Congress has done nothing to heal their internal divisions over the war, which are reflected in what neo-conservative writers portray as the disarray of the wider anti-war lobby (see the leader in the Weekly Standard by its editor, William Kristol, "The Turn: Defeatists in retreat", 13 August 2007).
The terrorist attack that narrowly failed to inflict mass slaughter at Glasgow airport on 30 June 2007 has had a singular impact on Scotland's public life. A universal sense of shock was followed by vigorous official efforts to build bridges to the country's approximately 60,000 Muslims. A week later, on 7 July, the cream of Scotland's establishment gathered in George Square in Glasgow's heart to offer them protection and reassurance. The institutions represented included the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP), the police, the Church of Scotland, the trade unions, and the vocal anti-war movement. Nobody wondered aloud about the religious dimensions of the violent ideology that had evidently motivated the would-be massacre. Indeed, Scotland's health minister and SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon was explicit that "Islam is a religion of peace".
Many parallels are currently being drawn between the crises in Palestine and Lebanon. A number focus on the most visible similarity: the "two-state, two-government" scenario which has become a reality in Palestine (with different authorities in charge in Gaza and the West Bank) and threatens to do the same in Lebanon (where the country is polarised between major political blocs). But there are more affinities between the two situations and the political developments and players driving them, and it is an unavoidable reality that the regional political strategy of the United States underlies the evolving conflicts in the respective countries.
The United States' plan to provide its Arab allies and Israel with military aid, announced on 31 July 2007, is large-scale by any standards. It includes the provision of $20 billion-worth of precision-guided bombs, aircraft upgrades, new warships and other equipment to Saudi Arabia; $13 billion-worth of military supplies to Egypt; and smaller quantities of arms to other close allies such as Kuwait and Oman. The biggest transaction of all involves Israel, whose $30 billion-worth of contracts over the 2007-17 period represents a 30% increase over the last decade.
On 2 August 1980, a bomb planted by neo-fascists ripped through the waiting-room of Bologna railway station, killing 85 people and injuring more than 200. It exploded on the morning of the first Saturday in August when hundreds were setting off on their holidays. Those killed were a mixture of station workers, passengers and tourists, including British and other visitors.
Geoff Andrews is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005)
It was just another rainy day in London. Only a few golden rays escaped through the window without really warming up the air even though it was mid-July. Fifteen days have passed so quickly and I'm leaving now. The taxi should be waiting downstairs.
I find my way to the street carrying a heavy suitcase, not because of the shopping I did, but rather the old stiff Samsonite bag itself.
The white car was waiting for me as expected, but to my surprise it was a lady driver who came out to open the door and help me with the luggage. I'm not sure I succeeded well enough in hiding my reaction, so the best I could do was start a vague conversation about the weather. Like me, she was feeling cold. I knew this because she started jumping from one foot to another and rubbing her forearms with her tiny hands. Something in me felt protective, like a gentleman. I heard myself asking her firmly to "get in the car", adding "you seem to be freezing".
Another day, another bomb. The question Pakistanis are now routinely asking each other is: "How many casualties?" On 27th July 2007, Islamabad's Lal Masjid claimed fifteen more lives as a suicide-bomber shouted Allah-u Akbar! (God is great!) as he blew himself up outside a roadside restaurant a couple of hundred yards from the mosque. A group of policemen who were on security duty and had wandered over for lunch were the targets; seven of them died, and dozens were injured.
The headline said it all: doctors who kill. When it emerged that trained medical practitioners were involved in the failed terror attacks in London and Glasgow on 29-30 June 2007, there was near-universal shock in the media, the blogosphere and the workplace in many lands.
A lot of that, as Michel Thieren says in openDemocracy ("'Terror doctors': anatomy of a void concept" , 12 July 2007), was because people - perhaps wrongly, sometimes - believe doctors are pledged to save life. The idea that protectors of life might be perpetrators of death cuts deep.
It was always a matter of time before Iraq came to Pakistan. In a week of murder and mayhem to rival the bloodiest carnage of the Sunni-Shi'a war, it did. The massacres that Pakistanis had hitherto seen from afar they have now witnessed near at hand.
The Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) siege - after which police stormed the Islamabad complex on 10-11 July 2007 and overcame resistance from the intransigent militants inside, at the cost of an unknown number of deaths (102 according to official figures, several hundred according to other observers) - has confirmed the mullahs' view that the affair was a beginning not an end. Their supporters and sympathisers are now seeking to make sure that the pattern of polarisation is extended nationwide (see "Pakistan's peril", 19 July 2007).
An already horrendous death-toll in the days after the siege - covered in gory detail by twenty-four-hour TV coverage - leaves Pakistanis simultaneously numb, fearful and seeking scapegoats. The 289 killed (as of 23 July 2007) include seventeen at a rally on 17 July in support of the country's chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Choudhry (suspended by Pervez Musharraf on 9 March, and reinstated by the supreme court in a historic decision on 20 July); and police and army victims of attacks in the regions bordering Afghanistan, principally North Waziristan.
Three developments this week involving leading protagonists of the "war on terror" offer important signals of the state of play in key areas of conflict. First, a United States national-intelligence estimate (NIE) released on 17 July highlighted the potency of a resurgent al-Qaida that had been able to regroup, establish safe havens in northwestern Pakistan, and even pose the threat of further attacks in the American homeland.
Second, a paper from the defence select committee of Britain's House of Commons published on 18 July 2007 called for a greater Nato commitment in Afghanistan, amid grave concerns among the country's political and media class about the progress of the campaign against the Taliban.
Canada's military death-toll in Afghanistan increased to sixty-six with the killing of six soldiers by a huge roadside bomb in Panjwali district, southwest of Kandahar, on 4 July 2007. In the forty-five months from 17 April 2002 to 31 December 2005, eight Canadians were killed - four of them by friendly-fire. But in the eighteen months of 2006 and 2007 alone, fifty-eight have given their life.
A British soldier killed in the upper Geresk valley of Helmand province on 12 July brought the number of British military deaths in Afghanistan to sixty-four, of which fifty-three have occurred since July 2006. The country's media reports on 16 July that the casualty-rate is both higher than that of United States forces, and (in the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan) approaching that experienced by British troops in the second world war.
Gunnar Heinsohn is the director of the Raphael-Lemkin-Institut at the University of Bremen, Europe's first institute devoted to comparative genocide research. He is the author of Sons and World Power: Terror in the Rise and Fall of Nations (Söhne und Weltmacht; 8th impression, December 2006), a German-language scholarly bestseller. In 2005-07, he lectured on the subject of youth bulges and violence to Germany's secret service (BND), commanders of British armed forces, and Germany's Academy of Security Policy in Berlin
Also by Gunnar Heinsohn:
"Why Gaza is fertile ground for angry young men"
(14 June 2007)
In September 2006, General James L Jones, then Nato's supreme commander for Europe, admitted to his deep surprise about the growing threat of the Taliban (though this is a factor long discussed in Paul Rogers's column in openDemocracy). As in Iraq, western strategists are scrambling to deal with the resurgence of sustained violent opposition on the heels of splendid western victories. True, foreign aid has not been managed well; in many cases it has been squandered and has evaporated. Moreover, centuries-old tribal regional rule that resents the western occupiers and their proxy government has reasserted itself and. But where have all the recent insurgents come from?
The killing of seven Spanish tourists in the Arabian state of Yemen on 2 July 2007 is a terrible and tragic event, for the victims and their families, for the people of Yemen whose suffering and isolation it will only increase, and for all those who aspire to travel and explore beyond the confines of the enclosed hotels and beaches of the travel industry.
Yemen, with a population of 22 million, occupies the fertile southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula. It was known to the Romans as Arabia Felix ("Fortunate Arabia") to distinguish it from Arabia Petrea or Infelix ("Stony", i.e. desert or "Unfortunate Arabia", and today this land of mountain vistas, spectacular roads, medieval cities and fierce national and religious traditions is among the poorest countries in Asia.
The United Nations Security Council resolution 1701 agreed in New York on 11 August 2006 was instrumental in facilitating the ceasefire between Israel and Hizbollah that came into effect on the morning of 14 August, ending the war that had lasted thirty-three days. It is a real, but limited, achievement: the resolution ignores the regional and international aspects of the conflict, and assumes that the solution to the problem of Hizbollah's arsenal of weaponry within Lebanon can be a political rather than a military one.