I am always interested in coming across an alternative perspective, a point of view different from the one I currently hold, an opinion that causes me to think differently. And with the world wide web at our fingertips it is very easy to come by a multitude of opinions. These range from factual, well researched articles written in established publications, to weird and wonderful conspiracy theories in various forums and chat rooms. Nowadays, the blurred line between these two worlds is fast dissipating, making it very difficult to know the truth, if it is indeed out there.
All this makes analysing the news that much harder. Take the biggest news story around the world at the moment, the mid-term elections in The Greatest Nation On Earth. Just how important are they? Are these the most important elections ever, or are they the most important until the next elections in 2020? Are they part of the slow moving coup that satirist Bill Maher has been opining about for several months now? Are they a binary fight for the soul of America? Is America, or indeed the idea of America, dead or slowly dying? Am I getting carried away with all these overthought questions? Historical hindsight will allow for a better answer but in the meantime there are many who are touting these elections to be of the utmost significance, people like New York Times journalist Paul Krugman, who a few days prior to the elections wrote that:
Whatever happens in the midterms, the aftermath will be ugly. But the elections are nonetheless a fork in the road. If we take one path, it will offer at least a chance for political redemption, for recovering America’s democratic values. If we take the other, we’ll be on the road to autocracy, with no obvious way to get off…But with the crucial moment here, everyone should bear in mind what’s at stake. It’s not just tax cuts or health coverage, and anyone who votes based simply on those issues is missing the bigger story. For the survival of American democracy is on the ballot. – Paul Krugman
Dramatic stuff indeed. However the mid-terms are not the only big news story currently out there. The death of the self-exiled Saudi reporter, US resident, and contributing columnist to The Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi, is still making headlines over a month since his tragic demise at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Turkish authorities are drip-feeding gruesome details week-by-week, as though this was some sort of syndicated TV crime drama. We started with Khashoggi being alive but missing, then he was dismembered whilst still alive with a bonesaw, then he was strangled to death and then dismembered with a bonesaw, and the latest Turkish drip-feed delight mentions the use of acid to try and rid the world of the horrifying evidence. I guess we should all tune in same time next week for more gory details.
One of the many interesting things about this murder, other than why there is so much focus on the death of one man and not on the death of thousands in Yemen who are also being killed by the Saudis, is why this particular news story is still in the public eye. This gruesome attention grabbing feat is even more remarkable given the chaotic news cycle that digitally swirls all around us. In a recent interview the great American novelist Don Delillo commented on this very phenomenon. The 81 year old Delillo, who has spent more than half a century at the cutting edge of US culture dissecting America’s dreams and nightmares, spoke of his discombobulation when it comes to the news, specifically news about Trump:
I’m very reluctant to talk about Trump, simply because everybody else is. We’re deluged with information about Trump on every level – as a man, as a politician. But what’s significant to me is that all of his enormous mistakes and misstatements disappear within 24 hours. The national memory lasts 48 hours, at best. And there’s always something else coming at us down the pipeline. You can’t separate it all out. You get lost in the deluge…Right now, I’m not sure the situation is recoverable. – Don Delillo
The Guardian journalist Nesrine Malik has also offered her fresh perspective on the Khashoggi case, specifically around why we are still so interested in it and why this one death generates more empathy than the death of thousands in Yemen:
I failed to call it. The day after Jamal Khashoggi disappeared, I told editors that the story, unfortunately, would not hold attention for more than two or three days, so jaded was I with how Saudi’s brutality had become normalised. It is now more than a month since Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, never to be seen again, but his killing has scarcely been out of the headlines since. It has focused attention on Saudi Arabia in ways that activists, journalists, human rights organisers and politicians have desperately tried but failed to do for years.
There was something about this event, something that landed in a way that no one could have anticipated. There was an element of shocking betrayal; to be murdered in one’s own consulate, a place of refuge in a foreign land, was akin to being murdered in a church. To be lured, then stung. It was a violation of amnesty that made it more sickening than if he had been liquidated randomly on the streets of Istanbul. It was reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s amnesty to his two sons-in-law who had fled the country, only to be assassinated the moment they returned.
On the back of his murder, other atrocities committed by the Saudi regime have come into clearer focus. Arms deals with the kingdom are under greater scrutiny, with Germany halting future sales. The war in Yemen, which Saudi critics have been trying to call attention to for years, is suddenly higher up the agenda. Reporting from the ground has amplified the voices of doctors tending to starving children, incensed at how Khashoggi’s murder received so much of the airtime that they would be grateful for scraps of. “We’re surprised the Khashoggi case is getting so much attention while millions of Yemeni children are suffering,” a doctor told the New York Times. “Nobody gives a damn about them.”
Jamal Khashoggi was the equivalent of the little girl in the red coat in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. The film was shot entirely in black and white, but a single girl was in colour, taken away from home with her family, playing in the mud in a concentration camp, and then piled up lifeless with other bodies on a cart. The technique identified the single story among millions, sharpening and humanising it to highlight what psychologists call “collapse of compassion”, our natural tendency to turn away from mass suffering.
– Nesrine Malik, 05 Nov 2018, theguardian.com, from the article Why We Still Can’t Stop Talking About Jamal Khashoggi
Aside from the above article from Malik, there have been many other noteworthy pieces written about Jamal Khashoggi. One that really grabbed my attention, perhaps for all the wrong reasons, was an article by Robert Fisk, a non-Muslim who wrote about the murder from a very specific Islamic perspective:
This disgusting, dangerous, frightening, dirty murder – and don’t tell me a man of 60 who dies in a “fistfight” with 15 men isn’t murder – shows not just the Saudi government up for what it is, but it shows us up for what we are, too.
Naturally, we all hope Jamal was not dismembered…we can all hope that Jamal was given a solemn and dignified Muslim burial with all the correct prayers said for his soul and his body buried – secretly, of course – shrouded and on its right side and in the direction of Mecca, the Holy city of which Mohammed bin Salman’s father, the King, is officially the Protector.
This will not have been easy to accomplish if Jamal was indeed chopped up by our favourite forensic scientist and taken to the consul’s home or a forest – the Turkish version – for a secret burial. But then again, maybe, on the way to the forest – if it was a forest – the burial party thought that, given the piety of their country, let alone their faith, he really should be given a Muslim funeral. By that stage, however, they would have realised that they might have committed a “grave and terrible mistake”. Under Islamic law, a mutilated body must be sewn up before being placed in a shroud. Did they sew Jamal up? And put him in a shroud?
– Robert Fisk, 25 Oct 2018, independent.co.uk, from the article Jamal Khashoggi: Did They Bury Him With His Body Facing Mecca?
I positively winced when I read this blistering verbal tirade against the Saudi perpetrators. How can anyone, especially a Muslim, read these dark words from Robert Fisk and not at the very least be filled with anger and shame?
The other big news story making the rounds involves another horrific act. Avid Trump supporter Robert Bowers shot and killed 11 Jewish worshippers at prayer in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The incident, which took place on October 27th, is considered to be the worst anti-Semitic attack in recent US history. A week after the event, the Muslim mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, wrote an article in which he pledged to combat the growing tide of anti-Semitism that seems to be sweeping around the world:
The wicked terrorist attack targeted innocent Jewish Americans, but it felt like an attack on us all – on our way of life and on the freedoms we hold dear. The fight against antisemitism is not only about protecting the Jewish community; it’s a fight on behalf of everyone. For antisemitism is a threat to our values, to the cohesiveness of our communities and to our whole society.
Sadly, the rise in antisemitism and the far right can’t be treated simply as a passing trend. The Community Security Trust has reported that anti-Semitic incidents across the UK are at a record high, with the number of cases recorded in London alone rising by nearly 200% since 2011.
We know from our history that we ignore these incidents at our peril, and where antisemitism, left to fester, can lead. And we know from our history that an increase in antisemitism and right-wing extremism usually comes with a rise in other forms of hate crime and division – coinciding with a backdrop of economic hardship, nationalist populism and political uncertainty.
Worryingly, all the warning signs are here again, so it is vital that we take action now.
There’s not going to be a quick fix to this problem: it’s one of the defining challenges of the 21st century. But I’m still optimistic that if we treat it with the seriousness it deserves, we can clamp down on antisemitism, stop the march of far right and nationalist populism and make a real difference in forging stronger communities – showing that hope, unity and love can always trump fear, division and hatred.
– Sadiq Khan, 05 Nov 2018, theguardian.com, from the article Antisemitism Endangers Us All. We Can’t Afford To Be Complacent
Perhaps the best analysis of this incident comes from the New York Times journalist Bari Weiss, a proud Jewish native of Pittsburgh who has some very strong and personal ties to the synagogue (she had her Bat Mitzvah there). Because of these close ties the incident really did bring home the terror, something Weiss wrote about brilliantly a few days ago. Part of her article focused on how such a horrifying incident can bring out the best in many of us, even those not directly affected:
If you are lucky, when a terrorist comes to your town, you will bear witness to some of this country’s better angels. Better angels like the father who walked down the block outside of Tree of Life as he calmly explained to his young son: “They’re trying to tell people that they are coming to invade our country. And it’s just not true.”
Better angels like Wasi Mohamed, the young executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, who stood up and said if what you need is “people outside your next service protecting you, let us know. We’ll be there.” He said that in making this offer he was only repaying a favor: “That was the same offer made to me by this community after this election happened that was so negative and the spike in hate crimes against Muslims.”
But you will also wonder quietly to yourself if these better angels will be enough to stop the threats against communities like yours from multiplying. What happened in my neighborhood might seem like a nightmare or an illness — something to be endured until, in time, it passes. That’s how it has seemed to me. But to those who have spent their lives in places like Karachi or Aleppo, the things Pittsburgh Jews take for granted — our freedom from violence and fear — are nothing more than pipe dreams. When your hometown in Western Pennsylvania becomes the scene of mass murder, you know that the distance separating their reality from ours can be made tissue thin.
– Bari Weiss, 02 Nov 2018, nytimes.com, from the article When A Terrorist Comes To Your Hometown
Despite the tragedy Weiss still managed to praise others which to me is a true act of genuine and sincere kindness on her part. Weiss also appeared on the late night talk show Real Time With Bill Maher. A clearly emotional yet hopeful Weiss pointed out that antisemitism is rooted in the language of conspiracy theories, a language that President Trump has been fluent in for quite some time. His words clearly matter. The entire nine minute interview is worth watching in full and selected quotes presented below. Antisemitism is discussed in nuanced terms that really shed light on what a heinous act it truly is. The subject of Israel is also discussed in terms I have never really considered before:
What’s important to remember is that antisemitism is not just a prejudice, it’s a conspiracy theory. It says that there is a secret hand controlling the world and that secret hand is called the “Jew.” So even if Trump himself is not an anti-Semite, and I don’t believe that he is an anti-Semite, he is inculcating an atmosphere of conspiracy minded thinking. So when he says things like “enemies of the people”, “globalists”, and we can go on and on, it’s been happening every day for two years, in the mind of people like Richard Spencer and David Duke they hear “Jew, Jew, Jew.” And it’s not a surprise that people like that were drawn to Trump’s banner. Now you have it on the left too, where “Israel” comes to replace “Jew” as the sort of diabolical controller of all the world’s ills, but in this case obviously this person [Robert Bowers] was coming from the political right.
The thing that is interesting about it is that typical bigotry, it’s that the subject of your bigotry is subhuman. With Jews they are both inhuman and anti-human at once. They’re both physically weak and aggressive. They are both the socialists and the arch capitalists. That is what is so hard about antisemitism.
People don’t realize that Jews are 2% of the population in this country but they make up half of all hate crimes, according to the FBI.
The problematic thing happening in this moment is that people like Steve Bannon like Israel for the wrong reasons…Evangelical Christians do too, because when the world ends the Jews convert to Christianity or they die, your choice…One thing that I think was made stark this week is that there are many Jews, including Jews that I know, who have liked many of Trumps policies regarding Israel and the Middle East. They love the fact that the American embassy was moved to Jerusalem, a move that I supported. They like the scuttling of the Iran deal. But I hope this week that American Jews have woken up to the price of that bargain. They have traded policies that they like for the values that have sustained the Jewish people, and frankly this country for forever: welcoming the stranger, dignity for all human beings, equality under the law, respect for dissent, love of truth. These are the things that we are losing under this president, and no policy is worth that price.
– Bari Weiss, 02 Oct 2018, from an interview on the TV show Real Time With Bill Maher