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Tunisia’s Culture War: Salafists Run Amok

Suburban sprawl, Tunis-style.

Suburban sprawl, Tunis-style.

Note: This series, of which Part One is below, is dedicated to the memory and contribution of Alexander Cockburn who just passed away.


October of last year, Tunisia held national elections for a ‘constituent assembly’ – a legislative body mandated to re-write the Tunisian constitution for the post-Ben Ali era. The Ennahda (Renaissance) Party, an Islamic Party cruelly and unfairly repressed for decades under the Ben Ali regime, gained 41% of the vote, the largest percentage of any political party participating.

While it claims to be in a coalition with two more secular parties – a fact which is technically accurate but politically empty – despite appearances to the contrary, Ennahda wields the power behind the scenes in the country, in a manner which is virtually undisputed. If the recent Ennahda congress, which drew 30,000 attendees, is an accurate measure, all indications are that, despite opposition, it will tighten its grip in the period ahead.

The other two political parties involved in the ruling coalition exist more on paper than in fact; unlike Ennahda that has a nationwide organization and its eyes and ears everywhere, the other two are essentially Tunis- (and a few other metropolitan areas) based. There is organized opposition to some of Ennahda’s policies, especially its economic policies by the trade union federation, but apart from that and a few disparate elements, the opposition is weak, disorganized and with little influence. Ennahda runs the show.

In certain ways, this fact has already reaped a disturbing political and social harvest.

Despite rhetoric to the contrary and fine words about the Tunisia’s Arab Spring, since October, the political atmosphere in the country has shifted markedly to the right as a new and hitherto marginal element in Tunisian society has raised what I can only describe as its ugly head: radical Islamic fundamentalism, or as it is also known, Salafism. Salafism’s base in Tunisian society in the past has been narrow to naught. That it should emerge with such force and unchecked violence is the result of a number of factors: the sufferings of Islamicists in Ben Ali’s prisons whose anger has been easily manipulated; some Tunisians trained by fundamentalist militants in Afghanistan and Iraq; some spill over from Libya; U.S. acquiescence.

More importantly though, Tunisian Salafism has been fueled by Saudi and Qatari funding and Ennahda tolerance for and defense of their actions. A great deal of money has been pouring into Tunisia, both formally (loans to the government) and informally through the mosques. Aid, it seems, is never really ‘free’ and comes with a heavy price tag. If originating from the IMF, the strings entail opening weak economies so that international capital can swallow what is left of domestic economies – be it in Russia or Tunisia. The strings attached to Saudi and Qatari aid include opening up Tunisia’s political space to Salafist elements to grow if not thrive uninhibited by any legal niceties.

And as both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are close and strategic allies to the United States, one can surmise that at the very least, the Obama Administration is aware of the Saudi-Qatari role and has either turned a blind eye to it, or more likely, has encouraged these developments. The notion that Saudi Arabia functions outside the perimeters of U.S. Middle East policy, is, to use the more polite British term, ‘poppycock’.

Odd as it might seem, given the degree to which the people of the United States have been pickled in anti-Islamic images and media at home, abroad, the U.S. – going back sixty years – has been quite comfortable in making alliances with Islamic movements both moderate and radical – and has done so repeatedly. It appears as long as the current Tunisian government adheres to U.S. neo-liberal economic guidelines – which it does – and generally supports regional security interests, which it has proven faithful to concerning current U.S. policy towards Libya and Syria, it is more than likely that the Obama Administration and any that might follow – minus a few weak protests – will turn a blind eye from the current Tunisian Islamacist religious offensive. This has been U.S. policy up until now.

Habib Bourguiba was Tunisia’s first president and the leader of its anti-colonial struggle against France. A supporter of secular education, the separation of church (or mosque) and state and women’s rights, it is doubtful he would have permitted this Salafist drift in the Tunisian body politic to go so far. In fact, the policies of the current government, while careful not to attack Bourguiba frontally, are doing what they can to deconstruct ‘the house that Bourguiba built’. Ennahda argues that it is countering Ben Ali’s secularism, but all indications suggest they want to go much further and are using the Salafists to reshape – or try to – the Tunisian body politic.

Ennahda, which fashions itself internationally as ‘a moderate Islamic party’ bares much responsibility for this current Salafist surge. They have failed to rein them in, something which would have been easy to do earlier on. Nor do they seem to want to. Their defense of Salafism is hollow and disingenuous, empty as an Egyptian Salafist imam’s advice on satellite television. Ennahda speaks of defending Salafist free speech rights and thus says nothing about the repeated anti-Jewish slander (that has included calls of killing, removing Jews from the country). It claims be caught in the middle between Salafist excesses and ‘secular fundamentalism’.

No doubt, by focusing on cultural questions – what makes or doesn’t make a good Muslim – rather than what makes or doesn’t make a good citizen, Ennahda has shifted the national discussion away from Tunisia’s economic crisis which has only worsened since Ben Ali departed the country so unceremoniously. Low wages, high unemployment levels, especially among the country’s educated youth, combined with a regime with a reputation for rampant corruption, were among the key factors triggering the Tunisian Revolt and the Arab Spring in general. How ironic that since last October, the national discussion has devoted so little attention to this key area.

Although Salafists now claim that the Arab Spring was a call to institute Shari’a, nowhere in the Arab World, certainly not in Tunisia, were these elements out on the streets, risking life and limb to overthrow the Ben Alis, Mubareks of the Arab World. But in the aftermath of the historic events, with a little help from their Saudi and Qatari friends, Salafists have become quite active. There seems to be a division of labor between Ennahda and the Tunisian Salafists. Ennahda controls the levers of political power. The Salafists have targeted the mosques, the media and the educational system for their special attention. If Ennahdha formally renounces basing the new Tunisian constitution on Shari’a law, the Salafists informally and actively work with such a goal in mind, and they are not shy about admitting it. Far from it.

In Tunisia, Salafist rallies regularly include attacks against secularists, Islamic moderates and Jews; calls for shari’a law; and, where possible, hoisting of the black banner of Salafist Islam to replace the Tunisian national flag. They have also desecrated Christian churches in Tunis. Their actions have long ago surpassed simply violent and bigoted speech. It has included trashing media outlets, threatening journalists and cultural people, trying to ‘take over’ universities, attacking trade union offices, threatening women who refuse to be pressured to dress as the Salafists demand, burning down bars and liquor stores. It is not only an attack on diversity, on the place for the more secular elements within Tunisian society, it is also an offensive against the more moderate forms of Islam that have existed in the country for centuries.

None of this has been prosecuted by the Ennahda-dominated Tunisian government. The list goes on. Tunisia’s Salafists have become nothing short of the brown shirts of the Tunisian Arab Spring, and their actions and strategies parallel similar Salafist campaigns in Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria. Their role is clear: reshape the country’s tolerate cultural map with an increasingly narrow vision of an Islamic society; to freeze the Arab Spring social revolution dead in its tracks, to reverse the progress demanded by millions throughout the Arab world for social and economic justice.


Habib Bourguiba's legacy casts a shadow over the current Tunisian government's social policies.

Habib Bourguiba’s legacy casts a shadow over the current Tunisian government’s social policies.

The most recent, but by no means the only, Salafist disruption took place in La Marsa, a suburban resort-beach town north of Tunis at the end of the Tunis-Carthage-La Marsa suburban train line. There, in early June, an art exhibit, ‘Le Printemps des Arts‘ Fair, was vandalized by as Salafist mob on its final day.

It appears little else than a direct attack on Tunisian multi-cultural, largely secular and moderate Islamic community. A small group of Salafists, upset with some of the pictures, demanded that the paintings be taken down and for the exhibit to close. They were provoked by photos of some of the pictures from the exhibit shown on line, although a number of these placed on the internet were not on display! That still wasn’t the end of it.

Failing in their private efforts at artistic censorship, the self-appointed thought police mounted a second and more expanded effort to shut down the exhibit. Several hundred Salafist supporters – who just happened to be in the neighborhood, of course – joined their morally outraged colleagues and crashed the exhibit, slashing and destroying a number of paintings they found not to their liking, and by their narrow terms, blasphemous.

“According to Tunisia Live! “At least two paintings were slashed amongst which was Lamia Guemara’s Bleu De Prusse and a photograph as well as a sculpture were thrown on top of the roof of the building while a major installation in the courtyard, Punching Ball by Faten Gaddes, was taken out of the palace and burned outside.”

The Tunisia Live! article went on:

“A video circulating on social media sites shows a number of artworks deemed to be offensive. The video starts with a phrase saying – as if the Salafists represented anything more than a fringe group within Tunisian Islam, “Tomorrow all followers of Islam should rise in anger to defend Islam.” In what could be construed as a veiled threat, other images show the faces of people who produced or supported the works including intellectual Aissam Chabbi, lawyer Bochra Belhaj Hmida, and politician Najib Chabbi. At the end, the video presents the names of artists involved in the fair indicating their indignation to provoke Salafist and Muslims in general.”

Then as they have done in Kairouan, Sid Bou Zid and elsewhere, the Salafists, with no fear of government reprisals, threatened to burn down the place. What followed was a physical confrontation between the two groups, which only subsided when the police were called in to break up the melee. Angered that the police had broken up their little version of artistic Kristalnacht, the Salafists, some of them, in the spirit of seventh century Islam, brandishing swords, turned on the modest contingent of police trying to keep the peace.

But rather than arresting and indicting the Salafist culprits, as should have happened if Tunisian law was invoked, Ennahda issued a curious statement condemning both sides of the confrontation but with an eye on implementing policies that would punish the artists rather than the Salafists! It called a law that would criminalize “the violation of the sacred” and promised to “work to include in the constitution a law against interference with the sacred.” This from a political party that promised to maintain the separation of church and state! While condemning the looting, the statement continues to define the main problem with the incident, not as radical Islamic fundamentalism, but as ‘secular extremism’.

The statement goes on, basically suggesting a witch hunt, but all too typically and hypocritically, to call on the authorities to “open a criminal investigation and to prosecute all those who are found to be involved in the violation of the sacred and destruction of property”, i.e., the victims become legal, political targets and the perpetrators get a mild slap on the hand, but nothing more. Ennahda calls this being even-handed. The Obama administration remains silent suggesting that the Tunisian Arab Spring is going along as smoothly as ever.

In Part Two: The Salafists Go to College….The Habib Kazdaghli Story

Crowd-sourcing a Nation Into Existence

Nowhereisland (not the mountain, but the humble mass of rock in front of it).

Nowhereisland (not the mountain, but the humble mass of rock in front of it).

Cross-posted from Other Words.

The Olympic Games can draw unexpected visitors. Remember the Jamaican bobsled team? This year, it’s the delegation from nowhere. Beginning in the games’ opening week, residents along the rocky coast of southwest England will meet Nowhereisland.

No — what? Its handlers call this hunk of grit a “displaced nation journeying south in search of its people.” The brainchild of British artist Alex Hartley, this “nation” is small enough to be hauled by a tugboat.

Back in 2004, Hartley journeyed to the Arctic, where he discovered an uncharted chunk of floating rock and moraine in the wake of a receding glacier. Hartley, the first person ever to set foot on the island, initially tried to claim it for himself — with a note left in an empty can of beans — to draw attention to the perils of climate change.

Then Hartley thought bigger. The artist returned to the Arctic in 2011. He and his crew dug up some 6 tons of material from the island, dragged it into international waters, and christened it the newly independent nation of Nowhereisland. The island’s Olympic sojourn to the port towns of southwest England marks its contribution to the U.K.’s Cultural Olympiad, a national celebration of the arts accompanying the summer games.

This isn’t just a lark. “Nowhereisland seeks to redefine what a nation can be,” explains the project’s founding document. “Nowhereisland embodies the potential of a new borderless nation,” one “in which all are welcome and in which all have the right to be heard.”

I’m from Dayton, Ohio, and live in Washington, D.C. But I’m also one of the 13,000 people from around the world who have become citizens of Nowhereisland by applying through its website. The most important perk of citizenship, which takes just seconds to obtain, is the right to help craft the nation’s constitution. All of us Nowhere men and women can submit propositions for the country’s governing document and vote up or down on the inklings of our fellow citizens.

It’s an experiment in “open-source citizenship,” a new model of governance that several real governments are beginning to dabble in as well. Many U.S. regulatory agencies, for example, invite nonbinding public feedback on proposed new rules, and the British government recently brought on Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales to help the U.K. civil service better engage the British public. Last year, Iceland even crowd-sourced its own constitution in the wake of the country’s catastrophic financial collapse.

Compared to such “real-world” examples, Nowhereisland might seem silly or impractical. Sure, propositions for its evolving constitution include a resolution encouraging Nowhereians to “rediscover the great value of slowness.” But other provisions are concrete and inspirational, such as a ban on corporate personhood. Another proposal imploring adults to read to children nightly is both heartening and constructive. The resulting mishmash is a charming treatise on living kindly and governing gently, while not taking oneself too seriously.

Nowhereisland proves that it doesn’t take fancy technology or big-name consultants to figure out what most people want. Most of us want a clean environment, an economy that works for everyone, and a say in our political process. Of course, this has never been much of a mystery outside of Washington and other world capitals.

If Nowhereisland provides a space in which to imagine a new world, the next step is to build it. Already, Occupiers in the United States, anti-austerity indignados in Europe, and protesters in the Arab world have shown what can be accomplished once ordinary people decide to stop demanding power and start exercising it.

These revolutions are far from complete. But the Olympic delegation from nowhere is a playful reminder that we can crowd-source a better world if we dare.

Peter Certo is an editorial assistant at the Institute for Policy Studies and a Nowhereian citizen.

AQ in Iraq Has a Funny (Ha, Ha) Way of Observing Ramadan

The New York Times reports on yet another tragic weekend in Iraq, courtesy of, apparently, Al Qaeda in Iraq

In a coordinated display intended to show they remain a viable force, Iraqi insurgents launched at least 40 separate attacks on Monday morning, setting off car bombs, storming a military base and ambushing checkpoints, Iraqi authorities said.

It was the single bloodiest day this year, with at least 112 people killed and more than 300 wounded in preliminary totals, according to local Iraqi officials in the many areas where attacks took place. The toll could rise still further as reports of further strikes continued to come in from provinces in northern and central Iraq well into the afternoon.

What makes it especially twisted is that the

… offensive was launched on the third day of the Ramadan holy month, and apparently took advantage of the widespread practice in Iraq and many other Muslim countries of staying up most of the night, and then sleeping late during daytime when fasting is required. … The first attack came about 5 a.m. on Monday. … Then in steady succession, mostly between 6 and 10 a.m. local time, car bombs were set off at places from Taji and Husseiniya.

However impressive the coordination, how can this be halal for an organization supposedly based on a strict interpretation of the Koran? As usual Al Qaeda makes a mockery of Islam.

Iran Navy Reassures West It Won’t Block Strait of Hormuz

Moqawama, the official Hezbollah site (as linked to by Robert Johnson at Business Insider) recently featured a graphic on how Iran might retaliate for the sanctions imposed on it by the West. It depicts seven different missiles that could cripple an American aircraft carrier the Strait of Hormuz. Iran wouldn’t do that, would it?

Maybe not anytime soon, but …

On July 21, Reuters reported that, while it has “little say in defense and foreign policy, where Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the last word. … Just over half of Iran’s parliament has backed a draft law to block the Strait of Hormuz, a lawmaker said on Friday, threatening to close the Gulf to oil tankers in retaliation against European sanctions on Iranian crude.”


… the law would lend political support to any decision to close the strait — a threat that Iran’s foreign minister recently played down.

Today Reuters reports that Tehraan once again felt compelled to tone down the rhetoric.

Iran would not close the Strait of Hormuz as long as it is able to use the vital shipping line itself, a military commander was quoted as saying on Monday, moderating threats by politicians to block the waterway as retaliation for sanctions.

“The enemies constantly state that the Islamic Republic of Iran intends to close the Strait of Hormuz but we say that common sense does not dictate that Iran would close the Strait of Hormuz as long as it makes use of it,” said Alireza Tangsiri, deputy naval commander in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, state news agency IRNA reported.

Apparently Tehran is not that different from the United States where a bellicose Congress feels free to play to the cheap seats and call for war. It’s left to the White House and Pentagon to act as the voice — comparatively speaking — of reason.

The Lineup: Week of July 23-29, 2012

This week’s OtherWords editorial package features the last Donald Kaul column we’ll run — either forever, or for a while. Don explains his indefinite hiatus in his own words, I pay tribute to him in my column, and Khalil Bendib’s cartoon celebrates his brilliant legacy.

“Those loafers are going to be hard to fill,” said Randy Evans, the Des Moines Register op-ed editor. OtherWords, along with the dozens of newspapers that have run Kaul’s column for years, can’t “replace” Donald Kaul. He’s a one-of-a-kind writer. But we will offer alternatives to those papers. They’re everywhere — from Jackson, Tennessee, to Watertown, South Dakota.

Starting next Monday, we’ll add Sam Pizzigati to our weekly columnist lineup. Sam’s a progressive inequality expert with a conversational tone that’s proven popular with traditional and new media outlets. We may also give short-term guest columnists a try soon. Send your suggestions my way.

As always, I encourage you to subscribe to our weekly newsletter and visit our blog. If you haven’t signed up yet, please do. I also welcome letters, get-well-soon cards, and the like for Donald Kaul. Send them via email to [email protected] or snail mail them to OtherWords, 1112 16th Street, NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036.

If you support OtherWords’ non-profit mission to amplify progressive voices in newspapers and new media, this time of transition is an ideal time to express your feelings with a tax-deductible contribution. Please consider making a donation.

  1. Real Nowhere Men (and Women) / Peter Certo
    Nowhereisland is about living kindly, governing gently, and not taking oneself too seriously.
  2. Green Scissors for Congress / Ryan Alexander
    The United States can’t afford giveaways for mining and oil companies anymore.
  3. The African-American Swing State / Marc Morial
    Obama’s re-election may require a repeat of the record rate of Black turnout in 2008.
  4. Lifesaving Law / David Elliot
    Steve Gepner’s story illustrates the importance of one of the Affordable Care Act’s key provisions.
  5. My Broken Heart / Donald Kaul
    I have to figure out whether I want to spend my last years writing about this new country.
  6. Donald Kaul’s Breather / Emily Schwartz Greco
    With all that ink running in his veins, no stupid heart attack could interfere with a deadline.
  7. Tomato Tampering / Jim Hightower
    Scientists have figured out a way to genetically engineer the flavor back into industrial tomatoes that taste no better than their shipping cartons.
  8. Healing Mother Nature’s Wounds / William A. Collins
    Our Health Is At Stake.
  9. Donald Kaul Signs Off / Khalil Bendib
Donald Kaul Signs Off, an OtherWords Cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Donald Kaul Signs Off, an OtherWords Cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Syria: The End of the Beginning

The bombing that killed Syrian Defense Minister Daoud Rahja may have been the handiwork of defectors from President Assad’s inner circle.

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

Key defecting Syrian General Manaf Tlass.

Key defecting Syrian General Manaf Tlass.

The “Free Syrian Army” has claimed responsibility for a stunning attack on the Assad regime’s inner circle in Damascus. The heretofore unknown organization “Liwa al-Islam” claimed one of its suicide bombers had been responsible, but spokespeople from the FSA countered that they had infiltrated the secure compound where the meeting was held month prior to today and planted bombs there with this meeting in mind. The regime asserts that it was a suicide bombing by “hireling tools that are implementing foreign plots.”

Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and Deputy Chief of Staff Asef Shawkat were reportedly killed, along with one of Assad’s top aides. Former Defense Minister Hasan Turkmani was also reportedly killed. Hisham Bekhtyar, head of the General Security Directorate, and the Interior Minister Mohammad al-Shaar were said to be injured as well (rumors additional top officials’ deaths are swirling around, as are ones that Bashar al-Assad himself was caught in the blast).

What the regime must be really worried about now is that if members of the FSA did carry out the attack as they claim, then it strongly suggests that there were defectors inside the regime’s inner circle who made the bombing happen. The Wall Street Journal reports that the FSA is claiming unnamed members of the Republican Guard Division as accomplices (the Guard is led by Assad’s brother, Maher).

Assad’s clique is no stranger to such internal paranoia — they came to power in a coup, the Muslim Brotherhood targeted Ba’athist Party members in the 70s and 80s, and Bashar’s father stood down an abortive 1984 coup by his brother Rifaat — but the increase in ranking defections this summer, most notably of Manaf Tlass, a general whose father was Syria’s Defense Minister from 1972 to 2002. He is now believed to be hiding in France after defecting earlier this month.

This attack is significant from the rebels’ and the regime’s perspective because of the casualty list and where it occurred. The message is that Assad’s inner circle is not safe, and that inner circle is what keeps Assad himself in power (of course, larger factors, like “Alawite preference” and Russian backing, keep the inner circle in power).

Rula Amin of Al Jazeera reports that there is “[a]nxiety in Damascus as people anticipate a strong government reaction against the armed rebels on the ground.” Syrian activists report that heavy weapons and Alawite militias have been deployed inside Damascus, and that the Syrian Army is withdrawing forces from the Golan to reinforce Damascus. Demonstrations are taking place in Damascene neighborhoods, as are firefights, and access in and out of the city has reportedly been severely restricted.

There is indeed reason to fear that this attack will lead to reprisals. In the regime’s collective mind, this simply cannot go unanswered. A major new military push against the rebels, if it occurred, could be damaging to them if in their recent push towards Damascus they are stretching their forces too thin.

A reoccupation of areas outside Damascus by the Syrian Army and the paramilitary shabbiha would harm the rebels in the short term, and be deadly for civilians judged to have been helping the rebels. But if they are able to continue holding their gains, such heavy-handedness will benefit the armed opposition in the same way that the depredations of anti-partisan brigades in other wars have undermined an occupying army’s position. Even if the partisans’ movement among the civilian population brings down the hammer on noncombatants, it is precisely because the violence of the “counterinsurgency” strategy pursued — in the Syrian village of Tremesh, for instance — that the partisans’ legitimacy grows in these communities.

Eventually, when such forces become strong enough, it is possible that they can hold back the anti-partisan brigades and protect their operational areas better — in Syria’s case, especially so if defections increase. If this were to happen on a wider scale following the assassinations and fighting in Damascus, the regime would be severely embarrassed. What the regime would do then is difficult to determine. There is talk of a regime retreat to the coastal plain if the army becomes too strained to hold onto the Sunni-dominated inland. Others hope that a decisive moment is coming in Damascus, while less optimistic observers believe this is not a turning point but another indicator that Syria is in for a long, ever-worsening internal conflict along the lines of the 1976-82 conflict.

North Korean Gulag Story Gains Traction — and Opposition — in Social Media

Where did the down-votes that inundated Reddit’s North Korean gulag post come from?

“Dead bodies storage — because rats eat the eyeballs first, most corpses don’t have eyes.”
– Caption to drawing, translated from the original Korean

So begins a gruesome visual accounting of the methods of torture, control and execution practiced in North Korea’s extensive labor camp system, thought to hold between 150,000 and 200,000 inmates (out of a total population of approximately 24.3 million) arrested for “political crimes” against the communist government.

A former guard from one of these camps reportedly drew these images after defecting to South Korea, now home to some 23,000 defectors/refugees, according to The Wall Street Journal. A larger collection of the drawings can be seen at cafe.daum.net, a popular South Korean Internet forum. They were posted there in April, around the same time a report on the enduring scale of the North Korean labor camps came out from the US-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (CHRNK). The report made use of satellite surveillance to pinpoint what are believed to be the five main camps in the system.

This past month, though, these images made the jump to English-language social media through the efforts of South Korean redditor Ryan Yang, who translated two sets of the images on imgur and posted links to them and the original Korean-language images on reddit. “I just wanted to spread awareness to a topic barely anyone knew about,” he said when asked why he chose to translate and publicize these images. He told reddit users that he hopes “[i]f the issue gets big enough, human rights groups, foreign governments may be able to pressure North Korea.”

He was also surprised that only now were the drawings getting such attention in the US media (Gawker, Business Insider, The Huffington Post and Digital Journal have since picked up the reddit post), since they have been going around universities and NGOs in his country for almost a year now, as part of an awareness campaign by North Korean human rights groups. They have been heavily discussed on South Korea’s own social media sites. Ryan, in fact, learned of the drawings from an exhibition at his university in Seoul.

“I’m quite pleased that many people are taking interest in this subject,” Ryan Yang told me in an email interview this week. “I honestly didn’t expect this much attention and the amount of enthusiasm people are having over this.”

And like the haunting sketches of Soviet gulag chronicled in Danzig Baldaev’s sadomasochist cartoons or Joe Sacco’s “Safe Area Goražde,” a graphic novel of the Bosnian War, the images are a form of protest that most viscerally captures the horrors of the system.

The images chronicle beatings, prisoners being forced to stone their fellow inmates, maulings by guard dogs, abject poverty – a man searches for corn kernels in horse dung, boots are crafted from old tires – and in particular, forced abortions on female inmates. The guards, like their predecessors in Soviet service, also find themselves at the capricious mercy of their superiors at times, superiors who may find themselves among the “political criminals” in the course of a power struggle. For all North Koreans, even the most loyal apparatchiks, life in the country is capricious under the watchful eyes of informers and shifting cliques within the ruling Kim family’s inner circle. To be accused of political crimes is a life sentence that encompasses not just the accused, but their family members as well.

In less than two weeks, the album generated over 19 million views on imgur. The post itself has around 2,800 points right now, plus a few hundred comments, on reddit, a substantial number, to be sure but it’s actually lower than one would expect. While nearly 20,000 votes have been cast on it at the subreddit r/pics, around 8,500 of them are downvotes.

Where are they coming from? (“I’m quite surprised,” Ryan stated.) Obviously, those down-votes do not hail from Internet users within North Korea, since Internet access is so heavily restricted. Only a few North Koreans – top Communist Party officials, namely – do have regular Internet access inside (or rather, outside) the country. For all intents and purposes, North Korea still has an intranet consisting almost entirely of state media reports and sanitized foreign “reports.” Los Angeles Times correspondent Barbara Demick noted in her book “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,” which features interviews with North Korean refugees who’d fled the country following the disastrous famine of the 1990s, that the government puts on that intranet heavily encyclopedias entries for university students to use.

News on the official Korean Central News Agency of DPRK mainly consists of banal listings off of friendship delegations and veiled threats against the South Korean “government,” a word which is always placed in quotes on these sites to denote Seoul’s illegitimacy in Pyongyang’s eyes. North Korea does have country Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts labeled Uriminzokkiri-Uriminzok (“our people”), but these are devoted to reposting Korean-language editorials extolling the virtues of the country and denouncing “US imperialism” and the “warmongers” of the “puppet south.” It may seem laughable to outsiders, but even such cookie-cutter, propagandistic reports are still seriously scrutinized by South Korean authorities fearful of the North’s intentions.

These camps are, following the collapse of the gulag system in the Soviet Union that was their inspiration, one of the few such camp system left today. A similarly extensive system, the “laogai,” is still maintained in the neighboring People’s Republic of China.

Ironically, it is through the Chinese economy that more and more North Koreans have become aware of the outside world. “Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans saw firsthand the economic progress in China when they went back and forth across the border in the 1990s [during the famine],” notes John Feffer, and even the “Hermit Kingdom” now has a cellphone network.

But “information has its limits,” Mr. Feffer concludes. Ryan Yang explained to redditors that this cellphone network is so heavily monitored that people have reportedly been jailed over their conversations. The fog of paranoia and state control has been stirred about, but not dissipated. North Korea’s ruling class “won’t change their allegiances simply because of what they hear on foreign radio broadcasts or what they see on black-market DVDs,” Mr. Feffer argues. “They will collectively break from the status quo only if their core interests are threatened” in the way that Eastern Europe’s communist regimes collapsed twenty years ago. Even approved outside connections can land North Koreans in prison.

Although it is unlikely the translated images will be seen by many in North Korea – unless the North’s samizdat (“self-publishing”) purveyors are successful in moving these images around the country – it is clear that the social media explosion they’ve generated abroad is not something that Pyongyang’s @Uriminzok Twitter can spam away. But Twitter is hardly a priority for the regime, and in the absence of a coherent policy towards the North, silence is the regime’s greatest asset.

Indeed, revealing drawings of camp conditions have been featured in US media before. Over the course of the past few years, several US media outlets reviewed “Escape from Camp 14,” a 2007-Korean language memoir by the defector Shin Dong-hyuk translated into English. Shin had the supreme misfortune to be born of an inmate mother in Camp 14, located in the mountains 45 miles north of Pyongyang. Shin’s mother was “bought” by a lathe operator in the camp workshops, which is how she was able to avoid a forced abortion.

Shin’s account of his life in the camps – 24 years, from his birth until his successful escape in 2005 – took a surprising turn this year after his admission that he had actually been responsible for sending two prisoners to their deaths by reporting their escape plans to the guards. Shin, who was 14 at the time, confessed that he had done this to gain extra rations (but despite the camp hierarchy that sometimes rewards snitches, his “reward” turned out to be several weeks of brutal torture sessions).

Shin later admitted that two prisoners caught and executed on his testimony were his own mother and brother. At the time, “Shin thought she deserved to die,” his translator, Blaine Harden, wrote. But such betrayals are, as shown in Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” a graphic novel recounting the life of his father Vladek, a Polish Jew and Auschwitz survivor, not exceptional in such camp systems. “Maus,” in fact, opens with Vladek saying to Art “Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week, then you could see what it is, friends!”

Shin’s father is either still living in the camps, or may be dead. Defectors’ families are often executed or jailed, making every decision to leave behind a relative a life sentence or death warrant for that person, even if they knew nothing of the escape.

Romney Passes the Buck

Because Bain Capital did things between 1999 and 2002 that Mitt Romney doesn’t want to defend — such as exporting American jobs — Romney claims that its outsourcing program wasn’t his doing. He says he played no “active role” in deciding on Bain’s investments after 1999. But even if we take Romney at his word, does that mean he bears no responsibility for what his company did?

Romney doesn’t dispute he was the 100-percent owner of Bain Capital in those years. Documents show he also held key management posts between 1999 and 2002. But let’s make believe that all of the government filings you’ve heard about, in which he described himself as the chairman of the board, CEO, president, and managing director, were pretend, and that as Romney now says: “I had no role whatsoever in the management of Bain Capital after February of 1999.”

So what? It was his company! He was the sole owner. He drew a $100,000 yearly salary. He profited handsomely from its business practices. And, certainly, as Bain Capital’s sole shareholder, he had total power to control the company.

That means the actions of Bain Capital were his responsibility.

He apparently chose not to exercise his power to micro-manage the company because he was happy with the job his employees at Bain Capital were doing — making a gigantic pile of money for him at the expense of working people whose jobs were sent overseas and whose companies went bankrupt under the weight of Bain-imposed debt. He’s still responsible for what his employees did, particularly because he does not claim the American-job-eroding actions were those of rogue employees.

If your dog gets loose and bites someone, aren’t you responsible, even if you didn’t deliberately unleash the dog? If you own a pizza chain and urge your drivers to make ever-faster deliveries, aren’t you responsible when someone gets run over by one of your drivers? And if you are the 100-percent owner of a multi-hundred-million-dollar enterprise, aren’t you responsible for what it does — regardless of whether you got into the details or instead told the managers to do whatever they’d like so long as the profits roll in?

Romney claims his business experience qualifies him to be president of the United States. That job demands great responsibility. “The buck stops here,” Harry Truman said of his Oval Office desk. The former governor of Massachusetts can’t spurn his responsibility for the darker side of his money-generating enterprise: destroying jobs and companies.

Mitchell Zimmerman is an attorney who lives in Northern California. He supplements his work as a Silicon Valley intellectual property lawyer with pro bono work on behalf of the underrepresented. Distributed via OtherWords (OtherWords.org)

Supreme Court Side-Steps Hate, Racial Profiling in Arizona

Em Dickey is an intern for the Break The Chain Campaign at the Institute for Policy Studies.

A partial repeal of SB1070 is not enough. Photo by Ivan Boothe/Flickr

A partial repeal of SB1070 is not enough. Photo by Ivan Boothe/Flickr

The Supreme Court split decision on Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 law came just 10 days after President Obama’s memo expanding prosecutorial discretion and granted immediate deferred status to all DREAM Act eligible youth. While both announcements deserve to be celebrated in light of the tenacious and courageous organizing that precipitated them, they are not lasting solutions.

Four provisions of SB 1070 were in question: Section 3, which would make it a state crime for immigrants to fail to carry federal registration papers; Section 5(C) which would make it a state crime to work in Arizona as an undocumented person; Section 6, which would give police the authority to make warrantless arrests of individuals suspected to be undocumented; and Section 2(B), which would require Arizona law enforcement to verify the citizenship of any individual they stop if they appear to be undocumented.

Of these provisions, all were struck down but Section 2(B), the notorious “show me your papers” section of the law.

The Supreme Court’s decision was based on an argument about whether or not the state of Arizona has the right to create its own immigration enforcement rules. The case did not address civil rights’ violations or racial profiling. In fact Solicitor General Donald Verrilli (representing the U.S. government), “unequivocally admitted in response to questioning from the Justices that racial profiling was not at issue in the case.”

So, let’s name the elephant in the room. Racism is and has always been an issue in Arizona. SB 1070 is steeped in, produced by, and serves to perpetuate racism. From the beginning, racism has been shaping America, when the first immigrants (read: pilgrims) arrived and stole the land from the Native peoples who lived here and still live here. In fact, many Native people in Arizona are harassed and humiliated in the name of SB 1070’s “show me your papers” provision by police officers whose ancestors were themselves this land’s original “illegal aliens.”

So what is the result of this case neatly sidestepping the issue that is creating a real civil and human rights crisis for real people in Arizona right now? What impact, if any, will the Supreme Court’s decision have on people living in Arizona?

Continue reading this post at the Break The Chain Campaign website.

Netanyahu Has Little to Fear From Kadima’s Desertion

Give Netanyahu a cubic centimeter of wiggle room, and he will carve out a square mile of new apartments beyond the Green Line.

Cross-posted from Mondoweiss.

Shaul Mofaz, leader of Kadima.

Shaul Mofaz, leader of Kadima.

On Tuesday evening, Shaul Mofaz, leader of the Israeli political party Kadima, convened his fellow parliamentarians and offered them his rationale for leaving the 94-seat Knesset majority they’d made possible in May when they joined PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition. In doing so, he has largely sealed Kadima’s fate as a political force in Israel.

According to The Jerusalem Post’s Lahav Harkov, Mofaz asserted in his defense that “there are red lines I can’t cross” and that “there’s a difference between compromising and just paying lip service.”

Mofaz’s red lines are the military service exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Palestinians. He supports a much more expansive draft program than Netanyahu. Netanyahu prefers a much more gradual course and maintaining a greater percentage of exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men. July 31 is the deadline Israel’s High Court set for a reform of the Tal Law, which since 2002 has governed the current exemptions policy. If no compromise is reached, the IDF could begin drafting 18-year-olds in these demographic groups without having the civilian government set quotas for exemptions, and non-military alternative “national service” options that would primarily granted to Israeli Arabs). Only around 1/5 of ultra-Orthodox draft-eligible males currently serve in the IDF.

The main question to ask now is not what the compromise will look like, but “when’s the next election?” Whenever it is, it will not be a good one for Kadima.

Kadima’s eleventh-hour deal with Likud back in May postponed emergency elections originally set for September 4. Polls showed that Kadima was likely to lose close to 2/3 of its Knesset seats in the September 4 contest, while Likud would gain seats. Mofaz, in seeking to avert that disaster, broke an earlier promise to never join in a coalition with Netanyahu. Kadima, not Likud, was negotiating from a position of weakness then.

It would constitute a Herculean feat for Kadima to now dispel the scorn the Israeli right is heaping on it. The “left’s” enthusiasm for Mofaz is not exactly a tangible quantity. The scorn felt in the country towards his party is rather aptly exemplified by an Israel Hayom political cartoon portraying Mofaz as a weather vane. Mofaz plainly failed to deliver — he says he’s quitting because there is no compromise on the draft and some of his party’s backbenchers are yelling that he gave up too easily on it.

Kadima’s withdrawal over the Tal Law is the most visible — and risible — issue that it’s stepping out on now. Ironically, on Monday, former IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz stepped out on Kadima because it didn’t go as far he wanted it to on the law — Halutz wants universal conscription for all, starting at age 1, and Kadima was willing to accept a compromise for gradual enlistment over the next 4 years — which again makes one wonder as to what Kadima’s fate will be in the next election.

Mofaz’s defection was apparently triggered by Netanyahu’s dissolution of a committee that would have presented a compromise package on the draft. The Times of Israel reports:

Earlier Tuesday, Netanyahu had adopted a proposal put forward by Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon (Likud), which called for ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs to join the army or perform national service, such as serving in police or fire units, by ages 23 to 26. The motion also included incentives for those who enlist at a younger age.

Mofaz blasted the proposal as “disproportionate and contrary to the High Court ruling,” which stated that the burden of serving should be shared by all citizens. He also said it did not meet the principle of equality laid out by the Plesner Committee.

A full-scale draft is the preference of many members of Kadima, and it is preference of the secular-nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu as well, whose leader, Avigdor Lieberman, is Netanyahu’s Foreign Minister.

Yisrael Beiteinu’s national-secular members of Knesset (KMs) have little patience for exemptions to the Palestinian Israelis or the ultra-Orthodox, or arguments from those on the Israeli left castigating the whole exercise as political theater. Kadima, at odds with the national-religious establishment on much else, found a natural ally in Yisrael Beiteinu this time since they do not support special privileges for the ultra-Orthodox or Israeli Arabs. Lieberman’s party is Likud’s main ally right now, and he opposes further Tal Law extensions in favor of a full-scale national draft — though his bill to effect this was recently voted down.

That said, it is Likud that has the most to gain from the coming deadline dance over the Tal Law, primarily because its opponents are so politically weak.

This is important to note because the law is one of the most controversial provisions of Israeli life, and one that it is easy to rally support for or against in Israeli domestic politics without having to have an uncomfortable discussion about the Occupation. As Karl Vick notes, “it leaves him [Netanyahu] weaker and more vulnerable to the passions of the factions who remain — nationalists on one hand, and religious parties on the other”.

And this is all true, but only to a certain extent. Netanyahu has to prefer the 19 votes of the national-religious bloc to Kadima’s seats because those are the people he broke bread with in 2009, and there is also the matter of the settler bloc in his own party. The dissent of this bloc’s leader, Moshe Felgin, over the Tal Law handling is much less threatening to Netanyahu than Lieberman’s is.

Kadima is setting out to make the universal draft the issue for the next election — though if that’s your only issue, why vote for the flip-flopping Kadima when you can vote for Yisrael Beiteinu, which actually has weight because of their staying in the government? Netanyahu might indeed be worried over what will happen before July 31, since he has relied so much on, perhaps sometimes without even quite realizing it, the domestic breathing room provided by his fractious partners to undertake his foreign policy program. This breathing room has helped him avoid a serious political confrontation in the Knesset over his Iran policy (this is less so with respect to the Occupation since few on any side of the political spectrum question its sustainability).

Without that breathing room, Netanyahu really does run risks going into the next elections because an issue as divisive as the Tal Law has the potential to explode Israeli society.

But it is a slim risk for Netanyahu, who is predicted to easily win the premier-ship again in 2013. His response to the current dust-up will likely compare to how he dealt with a “settlement crisis” just as his grand coalition formed. +972’s Noam Sheizaf had theorized that Likud’s incentive to get the coalition formed was to head off a serious confrontation over the legality of multiple apartments in the Beit El settlement’s Ulpana neighborhood: “By postponing the elections, the prime minister has bought himself some time to deal with the crisis,” though Sheizaf also noted that the settlers were politically weak.

But that weakness, Sheizaf concluded, was belied by the “political theater” that the bigger players put on. A compromise on Ulpana, was, in fact, accomplished: the apartments were physically relocated and then the government promised to undertake massively expanded construction, as it so often does when an evacuation occurs. An incident that could have prompted a wider debate of the Occupation was headed off by last-minute compromises. Gone was any talk about the peace process that some hoped Mofaz would re-introduce.

By any measure, Netanyahu won the debate — such as it was — over Ulpana, and he did so not by using Kadima’s Knesset votes. They simply sat in his tent as his partisans worked out a solution with the furthest-right whose expansionism he sympathizes with. How that episode played out is indicative of Netanyahu’s strength as a politician. Give him a cubic centimeter of wiggle room in committee, and he will carve out a square mile of new apartments beyond the Green Line because there is really no strong, organized constituency behind Kadima to match Likud’s appeal.

Even as Lieberman thunders on about the universal draft, the Foreign Minister is surely mindful that had those September 4 elections been held, Likud, not his party, stood to gain the most. And for what it’s worth given Mofaz’s recent performance, Lieberman did announce he would not leave the coalition. It is much easier for Lieberman and Netanyahu to stay together than it is for either man to go over to the smaller national-religious parties like Shas or seek accommodation with the Labor Party.

Harkov also reported that 3 members of Kadima formally voted to remain in the coalition, and that seven more might prefer to jump ship. Not all that many, but bear in mind that Kadima was expected to hold onto only 10, perhaps 12 seats in the September 4 election, out of the 28 it held in May when it entered the coalition.

Netanyahu may indeed be scared of the ultra-Orthodox, but he’s not afraid of Kadima. A few defections on, and who at all will be afraid of Shaul Mofaz in the next general election?

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