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Why a normal person joins the Islamic State

26 Oct

Islamic State

In order to defeat an idea, you have to understand it.

Here’s an idea:

Millions of people who share a common heritage but live in different countries can unite under a single, benevolent ruler, with a single legal code that is fair and just, with common goals and a common view of the world. All will be treated equally; all will be protected. There will be no more bullying by dictators, thugs and secret police. There will be no more corruption. Factions will be unified. Life will be holy. There will be jobs and prosperity for all. The artificial borders imposed by outsiders will disappear. The very rich countries will now have to share with the poor countries.

This idea creates an entirely new world. It creates paradise.

The Islamic State of the Levant promises this to Muslims. It is why people leave their homes and go fight for it, and why towns welcome the rebels.

This is the idea that must be understood.

In America, we are prone to depicting enemies as psychopathic killers and leaving it at that. Rarely do we apply reason and ask: Why are so many people, normal people, following psychopaths?

Islamic State-mapPower-hungry monsters will always exist, but to a large extent they must earn the consent of the people in order to rule. The ambitions of most people rarely exceed the simple desire to raise and care for a family. If people think the monsters can help them do this, then the monsters will take on the appearance of saviors and be allowed to lead.

In nations where it is easy to raise and care for a family, this flirtation with monsters is incomprehensible. Nevertheless, it is real.

The monsters in Iraq and Syria now number about 30,000. The Iraqi army is almost 10 times larger. It is not the size of the fighting force that makes the Islamic State of the Levant strong. It is its idea of an enviable path through the chaos, tyranny and fragmentation within the Muslim world.

Much has been written about the rebels we know as ISIS, but almost none of it explains the group’s remarkable growth and success. The exception is a recent New York Times article by David D. Kirkpatrick, who did a simple thing. He went to Tunisia and asked people why they sympathize with ISIS.

Sufian Abbas, 31, a student sitting at a street café, must have given Kirkpatrick a look of disbelief before he answered with his own question, “Don’t you see it as a source of pride?”

Beheadings of innocent people a source of pride? No. The Tunisians believe the accounts of atrocities are fabrications of western media.

“The Islamic State is a true caliphate, a system that is fair and just, where you don’t have to follow somebody’s orders because he is rich or powerful,” said a fellow named Ahmed. “It is action, not theory, and it will topple the whole game.”

Kirkpatrick said people who have left Tunisia for ISIS territory often email friends and describe a better life. It is noteworthy that a good number of those attracted to the movement are unemployed and not particularly religious.

One who is religious and an ultraconservative said, “If I am going to get arrested and beaten here anyway, I might as well go where I can have an impact.”

The good news is that some Tunisians have returned home with reports that ISIS has not created paradise, that promises are false and joiners may be forced to do things against their will.

More will realize this, but by the time they do the Islamic State will have controlled more territory and be in a position to exert more force against the people who no want to give consent.

And this is why we must understand the idea of ISIS and come up with a better one — and soon. It must be a practical and convincing idea, one applicable to the culture. At all costs, we must avoid a rough and forceful attempt to sell western style democracy to Muslims. This will work about as well as ham at a bar mitzvah.

The big myth is that the world wants to be like us. Strategically, this kind of thinking gets us nowhere. It is much better to accept the undiscovered truth that other cultures can be with us without being like us.

Let’s begin at that point. From there I believe we can make progress.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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Big war, small peace – did Stephen Hawking really know the truth?

29 Aug

Cambridge3

I was waiting, so I picked up a book. Inside, just a few pages in, was a simple sentence with the power to uplift, encourage, and promote optimism.

 

It seemed to confirm the idea that there was light amid the dark; that somewhere below the horrid nature of mankind there was good trying to surface.

Sadly, that sentence – written as a statement of fact – is probably wrong. Oddly, its author is one of the world’s most intelligent men.

 

Hawking book jacket-bioThe book was “My Brief History,” the 2013 autobiography of physicist Stephen Hawking, the man in the wheelchair with the synthetic voice whose life is now a major motion picture called, “The Theory of Everything.”

 

The movie is more a love story than a science story. Still, its title comes from Hawking’s pursuit of a unified way of explaining all forces in the universe.

In the book, Hawking talks about his birth in Cambridge, England, home of one of the world’s greatest universities. His reason for being born in Cambridge is what uplifted me. His casual little sentence was a gentle piece of history I had never heard of; one of those marvelous pieces of information that suggests we maintain a small degree of civility even as we try to utterly destroy each other. It was like reading for the first time about the unofficial Christmas truce during World War I, when soldiers from both sides climbed out of the trenches, sang songs together, exchanged presents and even played soccer.

 

In Hawking’s case, the scene is World War II. The scientist said his family moved to Cambridge because the English and the Germans had agreed it was not to be bombed. Also under protection was Oxford, and in Germany the universities at Heidelberg and Goettingen.

 

I had never heard anything of the sort, but recognized that such an agreement could easily have been buried in the rubble of all the other destruction. Visualizing the leaders of these two warring countries shaking hands on this was heart-warming. I actually pictured them doing it.

 

But I guess even Hawking can get things wrong.

 

The fact-checking site Snopes.com said the agreement mentioned by Hawking had been an Internet myth. It’s likely to spread further now with Hawking’s book. Additional searches could not confirm the agreement.

 

Of course, Cambridge was without strategic value and bombs were precious, so it was much safer to be in Cambridge than in London. Hawking’s father probably moved the family there just to lessen the odds of being killed.

 

With many others doing the same, the myth of protection probably evolved and spread. I’m sure it made living in Cambridge a lot more comfortable.

 

Cambridge bombedMyth or not, in 2010 a BBC website ran a story on the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Vicarage Terrace in Cambridge. It has a woman named Barbara Wright remembering the incident. She was six. There’s a photo.

 

“Suddenly there was a huge noise,” she said. “The actual walls on either side came in and practically touched us.”

 

The story said nine people were killed in the attack, and that they were the first British civilian casualties of the war.

 

The fact that the myth exists even when there is proof that Cambridge was bombed shows the power of myth and the need to believe in good things.

 

If anyone can shed additional light on the myth, the truth, or Stephen Hawking, please comment. Perhaps the full story still remains to be told. Please don’t, however, write if you have info that the Christmas truce was a myth. Let’s at least leave that one in place. After all, they made a movie out of it.

 

The trailer is below, along with that for the new Hawking movie.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

           

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On Breaking the Cycle of Hate in Gaza and Israel

5 Aug

Gaza rubble

Dangerous are the men and women with nothing to lose. Count the people of Gaza among them.

 

They will have the world burn and themselves with it. They are accustomed to death, to being trapped and hunted, and will die just to make a point.

 

Gaza is a place often described as an open-air prison. The people can’t leave. They are caged. What goes in and out is controlled. Not even a fish can be taken from the sea. The view of that sea can ease the claustrophobia, but only if one ignores the war ships on the horizon.

 

Mohammed Suliman, a Palestinian human rights worker in Gaza, compares the plight of his people to the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. In the Huffington Post he writes:

 

“The besieged Jews of the Warsaw ghetto had a motto ‘to live and die in dignity.’ As I sit in my own besieged ghetto, I think how Palestinians have honored this universal value. We live in dignity and we die in dignity, refusing to accept subjugation.”

 

There is nothing unnatural in what the Gazans do. In their situation, most of us would do the same. We don’t realize that, and won’t admit to that, only because we can’t see ourselves living such a life, can’t even imagine that such a life exists.

 

If the Palestinians in Gaza were docile, their conditions would be better.

Gaza map2The blockade of Gaza is justified as way to combat Palestinian terrorism. And so in striking out at those who created the blockade, Gaza must face its own terror.

 

Israel says it will make Gaza pay an “intolerable price,” which it can. Hamas says it will destroy Israel, which it cannot.

 

Hamas, which rules Gaza, sends men into Israel with guns and bombs. It sends in barrages of largely ineffective missiles. In return, Israel destroys Gaza neighborhoods with jet fighters and missiles, effective ones.

 

The death toll is lopsided. In Gaza, schools, hospitals, homes and places of refuge are bombed. So-called “human shields” die rather than shield. Maternity hospitals become morgues.

 

What Israel sees as Palestinian terrorism, the Palestinians see as resistance. There is no common ground for negotiations. This lack of understanding is ironic, since the Hamas approach was used by Jewish freedom fighters in their battle for independence with Britain.

 

What both sides can understand, however, is the preponderance of hate and the need for vengeance and retribution. There is no thought or concern for humanity.

 

While American critics of Israel are being silenced with charges of anti-Semitism, and while real and vicious anti-Semitism grows in sympathetic Europe, I try to remember humanity.

 

I try to avoid the obscuring cloak of religion and see people simply as people and tragedy simply as tragedy. I ignore old scores but recognize the destructive dynamics of power and politics and the readiness to kill to maintain power.

 

I try to see the many victims of power, and the people who must rally around it for protection and as a way to secure the basic necessities of life.

 

With this kind of view, perhaps some answers can be found. Yet the situation grows increasingly complex.

 

There is new instability in the Middle East that is making matters worse. A growing number of Arab nations see Hamas and the Islamic movement as a threat. Like Israel, they want Hamas neutralized. And so these countries, mainly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, provide back channel support and momentum in the campaign against Gaza. In a way, we are witnessing a proxy war in the Sunni-Shiite fight for regional dominance, which is further complicated by an intra-Sunni rivalry.

 

As a result, hostility is layered upon hostility, making resolution much harder to achieve.

 

When the current war ends, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia may find – to their disappointment — that Hamas actually is stronger. After absorbing such terrific blows, it may win concessions pushed by the United Nations and the international community. Some of the borders around Gaza could open.

 

With people being able to get TVs, medicine, motorbikes and much more of what they need and desire, a degree of calm and possibly optimism will set in. The intelligent thing for Israel and Egypt to do is to go beyond any negotiated settlement and open borders even wider and increase that optimism. They should rebuild schools, hospitals and neighborhoods. They should initiate cultural exchanges and promote commerce and trade.

 

Gaza should be made a decent place to live.

 

Regardless, some Palestinian fighters will continue their attacks, keeping Israel under threat. But slowly, very slowly, sympathy for Hamas could shift to a more accommodating faction. With hate and revenge so insidious, nothing short of a Gandhi-esque approach will work in Gaza. And it will take time.

 

As a big assist, America’s warlike attitudes in these conflicts must end. American Jewish organization and American Jews in general can and should play a part in a new peace initiative. Likewise, Christian organizations must seek to heal and stop seeing Arab progress as a threat to Biblical prophecy. All who value religion need to recognize the importance and necessity of brotherhood and the sanctity of life.

 

A continuation of current policy only guarantees resistance, rebellion, instability, unhappiness, death and a bankruptcy of our collective spirit.

 

Mohammed al-Banna, a Palestinian who in one morning lost nine of his in-laws, told the New York Times, “The aggression here is creating a new generation of youth who want revenge for all the crimes.”

There is no future in this. The cycle of hate and death needs to be broken. The outstanding question is: Who or what has the courage, stamina, patience, temperament and love of mankind to do it?

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Watching the human condition from an airport waiting room: the toll of fate and time.

29 Jun

iraqi-refugeesHumanity struggles.

A good place to observe this is the international gate at Newark Liberty Airport. It is not a struggle for life and death, just life, and the simple routine of getting to where one must be.

Almost no one here resembles the highborn. Save for a few Japanese, all are dressed casually. They seem vulnerable, dependent on unseen forces disinclined to treat them well; at the mercy of an uncaring system.

Pale complexions are few. Most of those must be off somewhere else; perhaps in a special room that requires a card to enter. Out here, little English is heard, although most speak it. As bilinguals, this actually puts them above the cloistered monolinguals.

While there is struggle, there is no real suffering. Indeed, some smile. But the smiles cannot mask anxiety, impatience, fear of the unknown, crying babies that need to be fed, heavy belongs that need to be carried awkwardly from one place to another like a ball and chain.

Many are traveling for pleasure, but this doesn’t resemble pleasure.

But let me clarify.

The transit experience at Newark Liberty Airport is really not all that bad. While I have reported accurately and expressed true feelings, I was greatly influenced by what I was reading.

Such as: a story about 3 million Afghan refugees; a story about 1 million Syria refugees; the review of a book by R.M. Douglas called, “Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War.”

Book cover -- Orderly and HumaneWith respect to the latter, as you might suspect, the forced relocation of 13 million German civilians from Central and Southern Europe was neither orderly nor humane. According to Douglas and history, it was much like the relocation of the Jews during the Holocaust – only this time the atrocities were committed by Americans. The Germans were transported in locked rail cars, kept in concentration camps and rarely fed.  Most were women and children. About 500,000 died.

So as I read I also watched. I saw people moving about uncomfortably, sullen, waiting, waiting and waiting. I thought of all those who risk everything – mostly life — trying desperately to get somewhere that is not worth going to. All in all, the United Nations estimated that in 2012 the world contained about 10.5 million refugees.

Then, in my boredom, I recalled an elderly Chinese woman I once knew. After World War II, she moved to America with her husband-scientist. Late in life, they bought a suburban house that was as large as some small hotels. It had a finished basement so grand that the couple used it as a ballroom.

At a dinner party, this woman casually told me how she left Shanghai on foot – with masses of others – after the Japanese invaded in the 1930s. She was headed many hundreds of miles away, toward Central China, where there were no Japanese. Along the way, it was not uncommon for the migrants to be bombed.

This woman, on the most treacherous journey of her life, may have retained some hope. But amidst war, hunger and death, she most certainly was not thinking how nice it would be to one day live in a $2.5 million house and invite people over to dance.

How powerful the effects of fate and time!

The people at Newark Liberty Airport, at least for now, aren’t going to die, or starve or be forced to live in tented refugee camps (although a few may already have done that). Even so, some, maybe even me, could experience it in the future. It takes only an atrocious natural disaster, an attack on critical infrastructure or a few super microbes that destroy either food or people.

We will all go a running.

How powerful the effects of fate and time.

I somehow see this, or fear this, as I observe a relatively small mass wend its way through a limited but wholly sufficient transportation network. Suppose that network was not sufficient?

Chinese city-ShenjenIn the very near future, over more than a decade, the world will witness a planned event that will be either a migratory miracle or a disaster of incredible proportions. It probably will be both. The Chinese, perhaps recalling other great shifts, plan to relocate 250 million people from the countryside into cities, many newly built for this purpose. This number exceeds the combined populations of all large cities in America. It is the equivalent of moving almost 80 percent of every person in the U.S.

The Chinese are accustomed to solving big problems with big solutions. The purpose of this one is to spur economic growth. Living in rural poverty, as so many Chinese do, adds little to the economic engine. In cities, these same people are expected to be better producers and consumers.

It’s a very bold plan.

Will it break hearts, souls and spirits?

Will it strip people of their heritage, culture, routines and roots?

Might it possibly create contentment, an unthought-of elevation in living standards?

Perhaps even an increase in ballroom dancing?

What it will do for sure it put people where they never expected to be.

How powerful the effects of fate and time.

Should I be in China during this epochal migration, I will try to keep off the main roads and certainly stay out of airports. They are simply too depressing.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

The lucrative tunnels of Gaza

18 Feb

gaza-tunnels

 

For those without it, money always seems to end up in the wrong hands.

A fool and his money are soon parted because there never will be a shortage of disreputable types willing to fleece the weak and unknowing. Writer Dorothy Parker said if you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to. And the Bible itself, in Matthew 19-24, plainly and poetically states that heaven is not for the rich.

But while money has caused great misery in the world, it also has the remarkable, almost magical power of solving problems. It can literally break down barriers.

In the Middle East, in Gaza, there is a wall. On one side are people who need things they can’t get. One the other side are those things.

Due to the force and power of money, the wall and all its associated political obstructions have been circumvented.

They’ve been circumvented by tunnels, which in Gaza can make millions for their owners.

These outlaw entrepreneurs find the means to acquire the wood, concrete and excavation equipment needed to create 700-meter corridors of commerce. Some might even dig a tunnel by hand, even though it could be destroyed by Israeli bombs.

These tunnels are in the town of Rafah, which is split down the middle. Egypt controls one side; Israel the other. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Gaza has 1.6 million people, with 40 percent living below the United Nations poverty line. Unemployment is at 31 percent.

Yet the tunnels can cause the economy to boom. Businessweek says that the tunnel system employs almost 15,000 and carries 75 percent of the good sold in the area.

One successful tunnel owner, Emad Shaaer, has family members on both side of the barrier, which greatly facilitates his business. Payment for his services vary. “Sometimes you got $200,000, and sometimes you got nothing,” he said.

Tunnel construction can cost about $200,000, but you only need $50,000 to get started. You don’t have to pay the labors and tunnel experts until the flow of goods starts.

Things became really good for the smugglers in 2007 when Hamas took control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority. To punish Hamas and Gaza residents for taking a more radical stance, Israel closed the borders even tighter. If anything can make a smuggler rich it’s a tight border. But as success and profits grew, they attracted attention.

When Hamas realized how much money the tunnel owners were making, it began to tax the operations, raising an estimated $188 million annually. (Hamas denies this.) The local Gaza government also regulates the good that can be transported, outlawing all the things that make the most money. (Further outlawing what is already outlawed.)

Even so, it is doubtful the tunnels will go away. Taxes and regulations can be skirted. Or, maybe there is enough for both the tunnel owners and Hamas.

The only thing that can truly destroy the tunnel system is peace, a highly unlikely prospect. Still, it is possible that the day may come when there will be enough profit in peace that the power and force of money will have succeeded in making us civil.

In such a case, I would argue that the time has finally arrived to allow the rich into heaven.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

Israel Loves Iran — and so can you!

2 Feb

 

Chuck Hagel, nominated for secretary of defense, was treated roughly this week by his former colleagues in the Senate. In part, it was because he appears not to be in complete lockstep with Israel and also because he has shown moderation in his position on Iran.

In the U.S. we hold a compendium of complex and diverse political views. Oddly, we are expected to be monolithic in our support of Israel. In some way, Hagel was treated like a traitor. I’m not sure why a single, blindly supportive position is required on Israel. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because the Israeli lobby is smart, strong and well-funded, and because a large part of the American Christian community regularly muscles Congress on Israel because it wants to protect and maintain that country until it can be converted en masse.

If I’m wrong about that I apologize.

What I’m probably not wrong about is this: Opinion on Israeli policy is more divergent in Israel than in America.

Can you image buses traversing major American cities covered with the message: “Iranians we love you.”

People would probably go to jail for that.

There are, however, such buses in Israel, funded by Israelis who don’t feel hostile to Iran and believe the current talk of war is dangerous bombast.

While the buses are highly visible, the campaign for peace is mainly online. There are thousands of Facebook followers, and related Facebook sites from various people and countries pop up each day in support. It is something of a movement, a movement for peace in the face of impending war.

Its leader, graphic designer Ronny Edri, has told the people of Iran, “For there to be a war between us, first we must be afraid of each other, we must hate. I’m not afraid of you, I don’t hate you.”

His movement involves individual people creating posters of themselves with variations on the message: Israel loves Iran.

The posters are then placed on the Internet.

After a time, Iranians were creating their own posters saying: We love Israel.

Please hear the story straight from Edri’s mouth in a TEDs talk he gave. At the end of this 15-minute video you can see many of the wonderful posters of peace that people have made. Also, at the top of this page is a Youtube video from Edri.

Coverage of Edri, who served in the Israeli army, and the thousands of resulting posters has been on ABC and CNN, in the New York Daily News and the New Yorker magazine and in many, many international publications.

Consider becoming a part of this movement, or at least learning about it.

It seems people may not hate each other as much as their governments would like them to.

Maybe Chuck Hagel wouldn’t be such a bad secretary of defense after all.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Afghanistan: Will lessons be learned?

13 Oct

When the war in Afghanistan started 11 years ago, I got a haircut.

My barber was a former Russian intelligence officer who served his country in Afghanistan. I wanted him to assess America’s chances.

“We leveled the place,” he said. “We turned it into a parking lot. We destroyed it. We did everything we could, and we still lost. You will, too.”

Soviet helicopters in Afghanistan, after an attack on a camel caravan from Pakistan

There was a time when the United States, for the sake of its image, could not leave a conflict without winning. Politicians refused to be blamed for a lost war. In the Vietnam era, with that war’s purpose forgotten and everyone tired of the slaughter, there were government recommendations to “declare victory and leave.”

Which is pretty much what President Nixon did.

We seem to have progressed since then and no longer require victory in war or even face saving. After $500 billion and 2,000 lives, our role in Afghanistan is ending. There will be no “Mission Accomplished” banners. Some who fought there aren’t even sure what the mission was.

But we still retain this idea that well-armed, well-financed invaders can defeat a local population that doesn’t want to be occupied and has a history of expelling invaders by simply not giving up.

Some in Washington, for sure, would like another test in Iran.

The United States attained its freedom by fighting a guerrilla war against a powerful, well-trained, well-armed, advanced nation. Yet we fail to recognize the power of the underdog or even devise the proper tactics against him.

Better to take the advice in a New York Times review of the book, THE GREAT GAMBLE: The Soviet War in Afghanistanby Gregory Feifer:

“Never underestimate fanatics who know the terrain.”

Now, with a lot less money to spend on arbitrary wars, we may finally take that lesson to heart.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

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