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Remember when…

Remember when…

…every tree you passed seemed to call out your name, in a very personal challenge, requiring you to at least try climbing it?

…the first rains of the monsoon produced an earthy fragrance that made you take the deepest breath you could manage, moments before you ran right into it for a good drenching?

…you fought your siblings in the rush to make paper boats that you could sail in the quickly swelling rain gutters?

…steep, pitched tiled roofs seemed to scoff you, as if saying, “you can’t climb me”. It was a challenge that couldn’t be ignored, even at the peril of slithering down the roof and hanging on for dear life to rain spouts.

…you played cricket for hours under the scorching May sun, never feeling the burn on your skin?

…you woke up on summer mornings and the sky was always perfect blue?

…the smell of newly sharpened pencils filled the classroom with a heady aroma?

…fountain pens filled us with a nameless joy, as we made a huge mess filling them?

…a new school year was filled with the excitement of new pencil boxes, new shoes and the glorious perfume of new books?

…everything you ever needed could be bought at the little neighborhood shop? Essentials included bubble gum and small candies wrapped in crackling paper.

…everything you ever bought came wrapped in old newspaper, be it fish or sugar or fruits?

…you wore hand me downs from taller siblings or cousins who had outgrown their clothes and shoes, with pride?

…parents could quell your public antics with just a look?

Childhood is that magical, faraway kingdom that you can always visit in your mind, no matter how old you are.






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The World According to Daesh (ISIS)

In the wake of the attacks on Paris, French President Francois Hollande used the word Daesh to refer to ISIS. The group put out a chilling video promising to cut out the tongues of those who use this word. It is a shortening of the Arabic term, al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). It apparently has a derogatory connotation. Hence the threat to tongues everywhere.

Who are these people:

We hadn’t heard of ISIS until just a very few years ago. Today they are a very real and dangerously frightening threat to the world as we know it. They are no Al Qaeda, be very clear about that. ISIS adheres to the Salafi tradition of Sunni Islam, like Al Qaeda, but the similarity ends there.

ISIS is the Caliphate with a Caliph (Holy Leader). The self declared Caliph is Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Whenever Islam has a Caliph, he is the supreme leader of all Muslims everywhere (except for the Shi’ia, the Ismailis, the Druze etc. But then the Caliphate does not recognize them as Muslims at all).

Most Sunnis, radical or moderate, don’t recognize this Caliph or his Caliphate. The last real Caliphate was held by the Ottoman Turks, though even that was contentious. According to early belief, only a Qurayshi, of the Prophet’s own tribe can ever be Caliph. That, Al Baghdadi certainly is.

In addition a Caliph must be a man of unquestionable moral purity, according to early laws. And he must have amr, authority, or a certain gravitas. Baghdadi and his followers believe he is that man. Heretofore, he shall be the Caliph. All right then.

The Caliph must by necessity enforce the Sharia. He cannot deviate from it. If he does so, he can be excommunicated. In return for his leadership, his followers pledge him ultimate allegiance, baya’a. Any or every person or nation that supports any other law, is an apostate.

The people who join ISIS are not all just psychopaths and adventurers. Though it certainly has its share of those. To survive within the strict confines of ISIS belief, the foot soldier must have a true belief in the relentless, nihilistic march to an apocalyptic end and Judgement Day. The path to said Judgement Day will be strewn with the bloody bodies of the many enemies of ISIS.

This is the key to understanding the success of ISIS recruitment efforts within a section of the disaffected, marginalized Muslims youth in European and Arab countries. In the US, where Muslims are more integrated and assimilated into the fabric of society, there is less radicalization. It also explains the returnees from ISIS paradise one hears about in countries like India. It is no Disneyland.

How are they different from Al Qaeda:

What is essential for ISIS, as the Caliphate, unlike for underground groups like Al Qaeda or any of its tributaries, is territory. There can be no Caliphate without territory. That is why Raqqa is so important. That is why it must have stung ISIS like a slap in the face when the Kurds took back Sinjar province. They cannot afford to lose territory. They must gain more territory wherever and however they can. This is the first essential.

They believe in the early forms of punishment for conquered enemies. Enslavement of women and crucifixion were never a part of Al Qaeda’s practice. They had a much more worldly goal to achieve and never got into the nitty gritty of 7th century punishments. Therefore instead of the brutal visuals of beheadings, what we saw most often in Al Qaeda’s heyday were bombings and justice (their style) delivered at the end of the barrel of a Kalashnikov.

Another key difference is the ISIS emphasis on Apocalypse. Al Qaeda never mentioned this. Elite Sunnis like Bin Laden and Al Zawahiri, the guides and leaders of the movement, did not indulge in such speculation. It was almost as if it was beneath them. But to ISIS it is a central concept of their thinking.

What do they hope to achieve:

ISIS is attempting a reformation of Islam that will take them back to the purest form of religion, Islam as it was in the glory days of the Prophet’s early territorial advances. They want a state which replicates exactly the legal and daily life of the Mecca and Medina of the 7th century.

They do cleverly and cynically use the online universe to make their plans known to people everywhere. To quote Graeme Wood from his exhaustive article in the Atlantic, entitled What ISIS Really Wants, published last week, “We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.”

Their clearest stated aim is global domination. They will stop at nothing to achieve it. It may sound like the mad ravings of a Dr. Evil style villain, but that is what they want. To be at the helm of all affairs, everywhere. This is why they have to focus on territorial expansion. They already hold sway over an area of land about the size of Austria. They have absolute power over the populations of this area, totaling about 8 million people.

Enslavement of the people they conquer is a consequence of their plan to rule the world. Countries and territories they conquer will have to learn to live by their rules. That is why they have now dropped the terms Iraq, Sham and Levant from their name, and simply call themselves Islamic State. Once the armed wars are over, the entire world, they hope, will be theirs, not just the areas their original name limited them to.

The Syrian city of Dabiq is central to the ISIS conception of the apocalypse and the ultimate reckoning. This is where they hope to draw the armies of the infidels and fight the last, great battle. They have named their online magazine Dabiq, in recognition of the battle to come. And so we await the End of Days as visualized by ISIS.

It is an ambitious and expensive course they have charted. However, funding seems to be no problem. A concentrated series of kidnappings has raised large sums. They also use the old Iraqi smuggling routes to move everything from the output of the confiscated oil fields to the antiquities they have plundered. However by far the largest sums of money seem to come from private donors in the middle east and fund raising efforts for so-called humanitarian aid.

Groups and individuals in Qatar and Kuwait have caught the eye of the US Treasury Department as possibly the biggest sources of revenue. ‘Uncommitted funding’ to Syrian aid groups has been suspect for a while. No one knows exactly who in Syria this money goes to. However, for reasons of internal politics, nothing has been done to stem the flow.

So, there we have it. In the ultimate analysis, ISIS is a Doomsday Cult with delusions of grandeur. It exists in a bubble, where everyone that does not exactly abide by its  precisely enumerated and narrow belief system, is an enemy. That means just about everyone and every nation other than the Islamic State itself.

This has created an extraordinary circumstance, where nations we cannot imagine as allies, are arrayed on one side and ISIS stands solitary in its extreme and bizarre beliefs on the other. Iran and the USA are allied after decades of suspicion and saber rattling. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Emirates, Egypt and every other Islamic republic with a common penal code, are as much an enemy as France, Belgium or Germany.

How do they designate a nation/people as an enemy:

The legal thinking behind the ISIS stand is rooted in certain specific early traditions and texts of Islam. Most of the 1.7 billion Muslims  in the world do not follow in absolute and exact detail the very early legal traditions of the 7th century. It is impossible, as they live in modern nations and are usually fairly well assimilated in the local populations, the US being a good case in point.

Most Islamic nations in our times have criminal codes, which are loosely the ‘law of man’. Any nation with  such laws is an enemy of ISIS. This includes Saudi Arabia, which has a watered down version of Sharia criminal procedures. Yes, they do continue stonings and chopping off of thieves’ hands. But this doesn’t quite cut it with ISIS. It is not far enough. ISIS thinks Saudi Arabia does not deliver the whole package.

Next we come to the great enemy, the Shi’ia. Baghdadi has categorically stated that they, are the first enemy. They must be defeated, their lands confiscated, the men put to death and their women enslaved. Today, Shi’ia controlled Iraq and Iran are the first frontier ISIS must conquer to increase their territory and the slave population. The Shi’ia must be annihilated. Hence, the brutal attacks in Beirut.

ISIS will then move on to the next enemy, what they call al sulul, the Sunnis of Arabia who support or are part of the Saudi monarchy. The Sunnis of Arab lands have too many adherents to the ‘law of man’. This is not to be tolerated.

And then they come to the lands of the infidels, which is all the rest of us. There will be no quarter given, no mercy shown. Canons of ISIS still use medieval terms like Crusaders to depict the west. We will destroy your Rome, they claim. Rome today probably means the alliances of the west.

What we need to understand to contain and destroy the ISIS threat:

For too long now the rest of the world has gotten it all wrong about ISIS. First we thought they were Al Qaeda Lite. And proceeded to deal with them accordingly.

After the Paris bombings, there have been attempted shamings of Muslims everywhere. We need to understand that to ISIS eyes, these are not even real Muslims, if they live within the confines of the laws of any state, be it Indonesia or Turkey, India or the USA. They are already the enemy. Why are we, educated, 21st century citizens of the free world, adding to this? Did we shame Catholics worldwide when the IRA was carrying out its bombing campaign in the last century? Or did we hold all Christians responsible for the atrocities of the Nazi regime? Stop shaming all Muslims. They feel just as bad as anyone else. And they are considered the enemy just as much as we are.

The long column of Syrian refugees in desperate exodus are another self styled feather in the cap for ISIS. The world must, as both Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama have both pointed out in recent days, reach out with kindness and acceptance to the fleeing thousands. These are the first victims of ISIS intolerance and terror tactics. ISIS is who they are fleeing from. Why is this so hard to understand?

Let us understand, all of us, the genesis of this reprehensible beast of hatred and destruction. ISIS evolved like a venomous serpent in the dangerous vacuum created by George W. Bush’s misadventures in Iraq. The dissolution of Saddam Hussein’s huge standing army, not only left Iraq unable to protect itself, but also fueled the great disaffection that gave ISIS its early recruits.

The warmongering has already begun in the US. Putin clearly wants to send them to meet their Maker, in his own words. Governments in the US and Russia and the West as a whole, should learn to stay their hand, desist from the temptation to create more such vacuums for terror groups to evolve. The question is, can the west and its middle eastern allies really contain the ISIS threat, destroying it in dribs and drabs, as they have been attempting so far?

On the other hand, it seems war is inevitable. Perhaps the only way to stop the serpent of ISIS may be all-out war. It should give world leaders pause though, that, this is exactly what ISIS wants. Every move ISIS makes, when it strikes soft targets in Paris or Beirut or anywhere else, they are showing their driving need for all-out war. They are trying to draw the armies of their enemies into the mother of all battles in Dabiq, where their vision of End of Days will be enacted.






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Media Madness

You learn something about human behaviour every day. As part of my work, I have been transcribing a series of interviews conducted by a journalist from an online magazine. The questions are generally boring in the extreme and the interviewer has the most mind-numbing monotone. And yet, I am often jolted out of the dreariness of it all by the revealing quality of the answers. Most of these interviews are conducted in Middle Eastern states with tight censorship laws and harsh repercussions. I began to wonder, why then do all these people, mostly very successful business people and academicians, feel the urge to divulge information that could be considered sensitive in their restrictive societies?

The answer is simpler than you think and it’s something reporters have known since… well since there have been reporters. There is a basic design and flow to an interview. When an interviewer ask a question, the interviewee responds. Then the answer runs to a natural halt. The expectation is that the interviewer will now ask another question. If the interviewer stays quiet for a few moments past the natural break in conversation, the interviewee is usually rather rattled and begins to speak again, to fill in what seems like like an uncomfortable silence. The interviewer has thrown them off their rhythm. They will begin to second guess themselves, wondering why the conversation did not continue to flow as expected. This is a brilliant, brutally simple tactic that reporters would do well to follow.

The interviewer in my headphones isn’t a particularly clever specimen, though he seems to think so. He has a certain native cunning that he deploys in his interview tactic. When he doesn’t dazzle himself with his special French brilliance, he can lead his subjects up unexpected roads. In the ultimate analysis he is a smart reporter, because he has ended up mining information that he had no inkling of and his subject had originally had no intention of sharing. I have heard people moan about repressive policies before pulling themselves up short, the interview version of looking over your shoulder for the secret police. It’s fascinating how much repressed anger there is in oppressive societies.

Now let’s look at the real media, the demigods on our TV screens. Today’s news media seems to be a 24/7 whirl of spin and opinion, mostly delivered in crowing tones or loud arguments. In the US, there are unfathomably stupid people on TV, like the death’s head who lords it over Fox and Friends. I must admit I never bothered to learn his name, because I’ve only ever seen him on the TV sets of hotel lobbies, as I’ve waited for breakfast. He’s a real catch, that one and he has an equally foolish female co-anchor. The perfect matched set of fools.

Then there are the screaming hosts who bludgeon their guests with loud voices and strong words, as if they were blunt instruments of torture known only to the incredibly stupid. I have no idea why anyone listens to them, when they obviously have never listened to themselves. Into this category must fall people like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. And in India, the host with the most, Mr.Arnab Goswami. They seem to consider themselves very smart, savvy and well-informed. None of which they are by the way. And finesse in interviewing? They wouldn’t recognize finesse if it jumped up and bit their noses. Consequently, an hour spent watching them is torture to your eyes, ears and brains. They shout over their guests and cut off people who disagree with them (which in my opinion, should be everyone on earth except themselves). Entering O’Reilly’s self-proclaimed ‘no spin zone’ is like sticking your head in the toilet while flushing it, to hear the sea’s roar. Such is Fox News, or as Jon Stewart so aptly calls it ‘Bullshit Mountain”. The Hannitys and O’Reillys of this world never descend its Olympian heights to indulge in a moment of retrospection.

This brings us to Jon Stewart, the king of ‘fake news’. To many hundreds of thousands, it’s the only news outlet they have. Stewart uses his commanding intellect to suss out explanations even from the outstandingly unreckonable. Watch his interviews of Bill O’Reilly to understand what I mean. With normal people of normal intelligence, Stewart never ceases to amaze. He took a show that was at best lukewarm, with Craig Kilborn in the seat, and over the years offered up a smorgasbord of experiences. It was all done with an understated cleverness and a stunning lack of screaming. For some a wink and a nudge will suffice where others may bring out the Howitzers.

Stewart’s greatest legacy is in the hordes of hosts he has nurtured on the Daily Show. Look at the selection who grace our late nights these days. There is the irepressibly formidable wit  of Stephen Colbert, the fake angry conservative. We have the fruity tones of John Oliver, holding a very funny reflecting mirror to America and its inconsistencies. There’s the maniacally funny world view of the crazy Indian, Asif Mandvi. For years we got to enjoy the hyperbolic shenanigans of the world’s funniest Canadians, the inimitable Jason Jones and Samantha Bee.And lately we learned gorgeous can be funny too, thanks to the talented Ms.Jessica Williams. Not to mention that the hugely successful Steve Carell forged his comedy mettle on the Daily Show. There have been many others, but these names top the list.

If you do nothing else in the interest of understanding the American media, watch Stewart’s interview with the uber conservative commentator, Bill Kristol. Stewart led Kristol up so many convoluted pathways of the mind, that Kristol ultimately admitted that government healthcare (provided to American vets) was the best in the world. The look on Kristol’s face as he realised what he had said? Priceless. He had definitely stepped in the doodie. It must be mentioned that Kristol’s original point was to discredit the idea of Obama’s initial push for a national health care system. Kristol was trying to argue that this would make the American health care system as lousy as in a third world country, like say, umm Canada or the UK. Don’t believe me? Here is the link to the segment.—bill-kristol-extended-interview

Finesse, that is what Stewart deployed so powerfully in that segment. Finesse, something a lot more reporters could use to actually coax real information out of their interviewees. Barbara Walters, had it in spades. So did Oprah Winfrey. Sadly, they didn’t really interview people to find out the answers to the great questions of our time. They interviewed plenty of important people but they did it to extract drama and tears, not answers to serious questions. The ones we look to, to do the kind of serious journalistic reporting, like the hosts of CNN shows, Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer et al, will often start with the best intentions but often they will let the interviewee run the show. When an interviewee blatantly goes off topic, they will let them run on, rather than lead them back on track. These are Journalism 101 rules folks, not string theory.

Which brings me back to my original point, if you give a person enough rope, they will eventually hang themselves.

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