Rasheeda Bhagat

Shadow of terror looms over 2016

RASHEEDA BHAGAT | Updated on January 19, 2018

The Islamic State’s brutality triggered a tragic exodus from West Asia. But are the Saudis any better?

2015 will be remembered for one of the biggest and most tragic migrations in recent history, and for violence with a strong Isis stamp... Images of the Paris massacre, the San Bernadino shooting in the US, and desperate refugees fleeing their war-ravaged countries in a bid to make it to European shores on illegal vessels will linger. That of little Aylan, dressed in a red T-shirt and neat shoes, lying face down on a faraway shore which he and his family had hoped to make home, a little longer.

The new year too began on a scary note with Saudi Arabia conducting the mass execution of 47 persons for “terrorist activities”; the most significant being that of the immensely popular Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who is believed to have played a key role in the Arab Spring movement. Expectedly, Iran has reacted sharply, and the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran was ransacked in its aftermath.

Apparently fuelled by rivalries between the Saudi interior minister, Mohammed bin Nayef — who ordered the executions — and the minister of defence, Mohamed bin Salman, these multiple executions, the single largest in decades, are meant to signal a warning against internal dissension in Saudi Arabia. Following the ransacking of its embassy, Saudi Arabia severed all diplomatic ties with Iran and asked the Iranian envoy to quit the kingdom within 48 hours.

Amidst the dark and gloomy images 2015 left behind, there was cause for cheer too, such as Germany opening its borders and heart to refugees, notwithstanding the right-wing and xenophobic street protests, with placards of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, dressed in a hijab, and attacks on refugee camps.

Questionable intentions?

A visiting German friend, who is certainly not a right-winger, says that Merkel’s refugee policy is more to gain popularity: “She hasn’t done one little thing to ensure decent living conditions for the refugees.” According to her, facilities in the migrant/refugee camps are appalling.

I don’t know if she is applying European standards, but for those who faced barbed wire and concrete walls in Hungary, not to mention the food packets thrown at those who were given passage initially, and who faced certain death at home, a foothold into Germany is a big deal. At last count, Germany had taken in a phenomenal one million migrants/refugees. In her new year eve address, Merkel told Germans that they should look at this huge intake as an “opportunity”. She added, “It is crucial not to follow those who, with coldness or even hatred in their hearts, lay a sole claim to what it means to be German and seek to exclude others.”

Well, political posturing or not, her government’s decision seems like some repentance for the annihilation of Jews by Hitler not so long ago.

A dashing hero

In the political firmament, where heroes are too few and far between, one knight in shining armour this year was the dashing Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who triumphantly declared at the Paris climate meet: “Canada is back.” After coming to power recently, he has overturned many policies of his conservative and hardline predecessor, Stephen Harper, and the security-obsessed country he was striving to create and, in the process, undermining Canada’s Muslim minority.

In a remarkable humanitarian gesture, Trudeau sent the Canadian Air Force to Beirut to fly in planeloads of Syrian refugees (there was no other way they could have made it so far), himself went to the airport to welcome the first arrivals, and put not only his arms but also heavy coats around them to help cope with Canada’s harsh winter. The video clip, which showed him warmly telling these Syrians, “Welcome home”, went viral on the social media, leading quite a few Indian women to sigh on Twitter and Facebook: “When will India get such politicians?”

There have been commentaries on how the young Trudeau is doing away with the country’s obsessive security norms: he has made an Indian-born Sikh, Harjit Sajjan, a decorated military veteran, his defence minister. The youngest female minister in his half-female cabinet is Afghanistan-born Maryam Monsef, who came to Canada some 20 years ago as a child refugee. By the end of February, the Canadian Air Force will fly in 25,000 Syrian refugees. US President Barack Obama had promised to take in 10,000 by year-end but it is doubtful if the stringent security regulations, not to mention the Islamphobic hate being spewed by the Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, would have allowed this number to reach the US yet.

Worse times ahead

While it will take some years and a lot of doing on both sides for the million-plus refugees to make a home in Europe — the most desirable thing, of course, would be for them to return home, after all Syria is no Bangladesh — the war in Syria is only getting worse what with proxies such as Russia and Iran doing their bit, not to mention the Big Daddy of them all in the region, Saudi Arabia, whose presence is amply evident in the conflicts in Iran, Yemen and elsewhere.

The execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who was a very vocal critic of the Saudi kingdom’s treatment of its Shiite minority, is bound unleash a wave of Shia-Sunni sectarian violence, with Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia being lead players.

The semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency reported that those who ransacked the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran were chanting “Death to the al Saud family” which rules Saudi Arabia. Seniormost Shia clerics in Iran and Iraq have cursed the Saudi royal family with doom, and the social media was abuzz with shocked and murderous messages from Shias around the world.

Robert Fisk, an expert commentator on West Asia affairs, was hardly exaggerating when he said the Saudi executions “were worthy of Isis… all that was missing was the video of the decapitations — although the Kingdom’s 158 beheadings last year were perfectly in tune with the Wahabi teachings of the ‘Islamic State’.”

The Syrian refugee crisis has shown us that the world cannot escape the repercussions of what happens in West Asia.

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Published on January 04, 2016
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