A dark Eid – and the seeds of future light

EId-moon1Last Thursday (24th September) saw the beginning of Eid al-Adha, the Muslim festival which celebrates the commitment of Abraham to sacrifice his son* to God (read also Yahweh and/or Allah – such is the nature of the ‘children of the book’), and the deity’s last-minute decision to grant a stay of execution.

*Jewish people and Muslims disagree over which of Abraham’s sons was set to be sacrificed. According to Jewish tradition, it was Isaac – Abraham’s second son, who later founded the Jewish tribe – while Muslims believe it was Ishmael, the elder son, who was the progenitor of the Arab nations, and, they believe, an ancestor of Mohammed.

To a secular – or indeed any non-Jewish or Muslim – observer it may be too easy to underestimate the import of this disagreement. But the story goes that Abraham’s wife Sarah was unable to conceive and so suggested he should have a son with their maid, Hajar. Their son was Ishmael. But 13 years later, when Abraham was 100, and Sarah 79, God informs them that they will have a son, Isaac.

Abraham responds that he already has a son, Ishmael, who as the older boy will be his heir, but God demands that though Ishmael will be the progenitor of ‘a great people’, it must be Isaac who is Abraham’s heir, as it is he who will father ‘the people with whom I will enter into a covenant’ (the Jewish people).

I repeat this not as some kind of provable truth, or indeed a guidance on which is really the ‘chosen tribe’ (those of you who know me are aware that I am agnostic) but because of what it then means if we are to accept that Ishmael is the son whom God demands should be sacrificed, as Muslims believe.

Because under those circumstances, the episode is not only about God testing Abraham’s belief in Him, and his commitment to God, but also a (arguably petty and faintly jealous) trial to force Abraham to deny Ishmael not only through word (as he had already done) but also by deed. To choose not only God, but also Isaac, ahead of his first son, and originally intended heir, Ishmael.

Eid is not only a celebration. It is also an occasion on which Muslims show magnanimity to friends, relatives, and those in need, dividing the meat from a sacrificed animal (most often a goat) into thirds, keeping one third for the immediate family, sharing one third between family, friends and neighbours, and friends, and giving the final third to the poor and needy; literally, sharing the ‘wealth’ in memory of the rescue of the ancestor of Mohammed (who, from a Muslim perspective, is then ‘chosen’ by God).

It would be an understatement to say that this year, it did not begin well. On Thursday, at least 717 people lost their lives in a stampede at the hajj, Mecca. More than 860 were injured.

Those people had gathered at Islam’s holiest place to share one of the two most important moments of the year together. While we may not share (or in some cases in the Western world even understand) their religious outlook, this is a disaster by any standard, and should be regarded as such.

In Yemen, meanwhile, worshipping people suffered not a national disaster, but a man-made outrage. IS – which purports to be a Muslim organisation, but as I have noted on many occasions is in fact nothing of the sort – bombed the al-Balili mosque, in Yemen’s capital Sana’a, killing 25 people and wounding dozens more.

That is, a group which claims to represent Islam in its purest and highest form chose to murder 25 people as they worshipped Allah, on one of the most important days of the Islam calendar. Once again, whatever IS is, it is not a Muslim organisation.

In Sirte, Libya, the only city in the state which IS currently holds, the group chose to try another approach – levelling fines on ‘incorrectly-dressed’ women.

Libyan women are currently legally entitled to dress however they wish. Most choose to cover their hair, but very few ever wear the niqab, let alone the burka. But IS, fresh from claiming it will try for apostasy (a crime for which the IS-set penalty is death) anyone in Sirte who does not pledge allegiance to it, has erected billboards across the town promising to fine any woman who does not cover her hair and face, 50 Libyan Dinar.

I do not propose to argue that women should be prevented from wearing the burka. In fact, I believe that women – indeed all people – should be allowed to wear whatever they want (there is, of course, an argument to consider about social conditioning – that is, are women ‘conditioned’ by their surroundings to dress in a particular way, and believe that is what they want to do? – but it is hardly fair for one person to stand in judgement on whether that is the case, it is also unfair to apply that question solely to women, and Muslim women at that; if we are not prepared to ask if every single person on Earth has been ‘conditioned’ to wear what they do, we should not single out one group, and finally, we should consider that if we are all products of conditioning by the world around us, then that applies to a great deal more than clothing. On the other hand, that way, madness may lie…). But that is the point: we cannot argue that women are wearing what they want if they are forced to wear something, any more than we can if they are excluded from doing so.  

Quite aside from that, the fact is that IS has absolutely no legal right whatsoever to pass ‘laws’ or levy fines in Sirte, or anywhere at all in the world, and that its sole source of ‘enforcibility’ are the weapons it holds and its willingness to torture, behead and set fire to anyone who dares stand against it.

It is an illegal, immoral, murderous and brutal militia, it has not been welcomed into any place in which it exists, has no legitimacy and rules by terror and violence. That it is presenting itself as ‘law’ in any city, anywhere in the world, is an insult to the international community, and every single person on Earth.

Libya itself is no stranger to illegitimate governance, albeit by political groups, rather than lunatic terrorists. In Tripoli, the General National Congress (GNC) has massively overrun its mandate (due originally to end in December 2013, then delayed to June 2014) and is backed only by the illegal Al Fajr (Dawn) militia. In Tobruk, the House of Representatives (HoR) has been internationally recognised, but has also been declared illegitimate by Libya’s highest legal body, and it too is only still in place because it is supported by an illegal militia, Operation Dignity.

In effect, both are entirely powerless, each ‘commanded by’ rather than in control of the armed force which nominally supports it, and are forced to watch while those militias – as well as IS and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Al Sharia group – battle one another for control of the state.

As detailed last week (and in a number of previous posts on this site) the United Nations – specifically its Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) led by its Special Representative of the Secretary General, Bernardino Leon – has been attempting to work with the GNC and HoR to develop a Political Agreement.

My reservations about the Agreement are on record elsewhere on this site (and can be summed up as doubts about the ability of the GNC or HoR – or both combined in the proposed new government, where HoR members would have legislative and GNC consultative and advisory power – to deliver peace against four powerful militias), but also on record is my view that the UNSMIL plan is the only option currently on the table. Though it may not succeed, the alternative is nothing, and ‘nothing’ will result only in more death, more destruction and an ever-increasing degeneration of the national and international humanitarian crisis wrecking the lives of hundreds of thousands of people across the world.

On Monday (21st September), Leon confirmed that the negotiators from both sides had concluded their talks, and that a final text – proposing a unified government (as mentioned above, the lawmakers would be members of the current HoR, while 60 GNC members and 30 newly-elected politicians would advise and be consulted on proposed laws), the creation of a new and legally-mandated Libyan military, and the abolition of all militia groups – had been completed.

It is not entirely clear what happens next. Though the negotiators representing the GNC and HoR have officially completed the Agreement, they must return to their respective parliaments and convince them to accept it (some press has already speculated that some GNC members will oppose the deal. However, not only has no vote yet taken place, it is also entirely possible that either those who oppose the deal are open to persuasion, or that there are so few of them that they would in any case be unable to prevent it being passed), something which certainly cannot happen before Eid ends, and is unlikely to be finalised before the end of this week at the earliest.

But Leon, the HoR and GNC promised they would finalise the Agreement by 20th September, and delivered only one day late. The next deadline is 20th October, when the HoR’s official mandate will end, and when Leon has stated he hopes the new government (which will itself be granted a mandate of one year from that date) will officially come into being.

Much remains in the balance. But in a Libya where Eid has been marked by repression, and a world in which it has been marked by disaster and slaughter, even the smallest of positives is reason to hope.

Eid 2015 is perhaps one which the world may prefer to forget. But it is unlikely that Ishmael, tied to a rock and fated to die at the hands of his father, much enjoyed the very first Eid.

And with hard work and commonsense, there is a chance that in Libya at least, something sustainable and improving could grow from the darkness of Eid of 2015.

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Early this week (22nd September), as predicted in my previous post, EU politicians came to an agreement to resettle 120,000 refugees to other EU member states.

The plan not only fails to meet current urgent need – there are 248,000 who have entered the EU this summer, and more than 400,000 since the start of the year – but is also designed so that Germany (31,443), France (24,031) and Spain (14,931) will offer places for more than half of those people being resettled.

But despite this, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and the Czech Republic voted against the plan.

More than that, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban argued that a pan-European force should be set up and deployed on Greece’s border, to prevent people fleeing slaughter and terror in Syria from entering the EU. This idea, fortunately, was dismissed out of hand by the rest of the EU.

Orban then claimed to have only two options: retaining the walls Hungary has unforgivably erected on its borders with Croatia and Serbia to prevent refugees who want to pass through Hungary to reach Austria and Germany, or send them straight through Hungary, to Austria.

The Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann replied ‘then take down the fence and send the people through to us’. It is not recorded whether he was laughing at Orban as he did so.

I am on record – both on this website and in national media – as believing the EU has done too little, and far too slow, to help the hundreds of thousands of people who are fleeing war, terror, oppression, lack of food and lack of access to basic medicine. This new proposal does not significantly change that.

The EU must do two things, quickly. First, it must set a full quota system (rather than in this case merely agreeing where a proportion of the people already in the EU will be expected to stay) to which all members must agree, and second, it must take central control of the process by which people enter.

Not only will this prevent abhorrent scenes at borders such as those this summer where walls have been built, and stun grenades fired at innocent men, women and children, but it will also enable the EU to deliver safe transit for those who need it, meaning people will no longer need to risk their lives on the Mediterranean, where more than 2,000 people have drowned while trying to reach the EU since the start of this year.

It is concerning to note that the UK will not be resettling a single refugee from the EU, preferring instead to send more than £1bn in aid to organisations working at camps in and around Syria.

While the money is far better than nothing, we should remember that life in refugee camps is grim and difficult – what people require and deserve is somewhere better to stay until they are able to return home.

We should also keep in mind that by refusing to take part in the EU’s latest programme, the UK has effectively turned its back on some of the world’s most desperate people, leaving them to suffer, or be helped by other states.

It is not the UK’s finest hour.

‘Rory O’Keeffe is the author of The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis, which is available from the publishers website and Amazon 

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