Does the Koran Endorse Apostasy Laws?

Kashif N. Chaudhry  (Physician, writer and humanitarian)

Posted: 07/01/2014 - Updated: 08/31/2014


We have all heard of Sudan's death penalty for the "crime" of leaving Islam. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan (since 2007), Yemen and Afghanistan have similar rulings for apostasy. Do these punishments have any basis in the Islamic faith? Does Islam really punish freedom of conscience?

I was discussing this on social media when a friend and fellow writer Ali Amjad Rizviclaimed: "...the Koran clearly promotes death for apostasy," leaning on interpretations from the work of Maulana Abu Ala Maududi -- the "father of modern Jihadi terrorism" -- and Khomeni. "This is one area where I completely agree with Maududi," he said.

This was a bold claim, because unlike the Bible, there is no mention of apostasy laws in the Koran. Even Sam Harris, a notable critic of Islam, admits to this fact in no ambiguous words: "Interestingly, [the penalty for apostasy] isn't spelled out in the Koran."

Ali insisted, however, that Maududi - and not Sam Harris - was credible in his understanding of the Koran. "Sam Harris has not read the Koran in detail," he pleaded. I, therefore, called him to prove the apostasy laws from the Koran.

Muslims consider the Koran the word of God. Hence, it is the primary and supreme source of jurisprudence in Islam. The practice of Prophet Muhammad, Sunnah, is second in line. Both leave no doubt that apostasy is not a punishable offense at all, let alone by death. Any counter narration or any counter-interpretation of any scholar or cleric, let alone that of the "father of modern terrorism," stands void when pitched against the Koran. Presenting such statements as solid evidence superseding the Koran only hurts the academic credibility of the critic, exposes their weak understanding of Islamic jurisprudence and bares their biases.

The Koran repeatedly mentions freedom of conscience as one of its basic tenets. "There is no compulsion in religion (2:256)," and "Let him who will believe and let him who will disbelieve (18:29)." Belief is mentioned as a matter of personal choice. The next part of the latter verse makes it clear that God - not man - is the sole judge of faith (or the lack thereof) and will reward or punish as He wills in the Hereafter.

This rule applied to Prophet Muhammad equally. His job was solely the delivery of the message, not its imposition by force. God says in the Koran: "So if they submit, then indeed they follow the right way; and if they turn back, then upon you is only the delivery of the message...(3:20)." And: "Obey Allah and obey the Messenger and be cautious. But if you turn back then know that the duty of Our Messenger is only a clear deliverance of the message (5:92)." This theme is repeated throughout the Koran. Man is given free choice to accept the message of Islam, refuse it, or turn back on it. God reserves the right to impart judgment for these choices in the afterlife.

Interestingly, both extremists like Maududi and extreme critics of Islam are at odds with the Koran on such issues. Radical Muslim clerics like Maududi indulge in rhetorical gymnastics and go at great lengths to misrepresent clear verses of the Koran to portray their own perverted political viewpoint. Extremist critics proudly regurgitate these same fallacious arguments as credible Islamic position. My colleague, Qasim Rashid, explains this in great detail in his newly released book The EXTREMIST.

Mr. Rizvi accepted my challenge. However, he started off my quoting "eminent Islamic scholars," and a few narrations ascribed to Prophet Muhammad. This was all irrelevant to the motion he was debating. His claim was that the Koran - not the clergy - endorsed Sudan's apostasy laws.

In the end of his response, he cited three verses. The first verse he quoted (4:89) speaks of hypocrites - not apostates - who were keen on fighting the State of Medina. "They (hypocrites mentioned in preceding verse) long that ye should disbelieve even as they disbelieve, that ye may be upon a level (with them). So choose not friends from them till they forsake their homes in the way of Allah; if they turn back (to enmity) then take them and kill them wherever ye find them, and choose no friend nor helper from among them."

The reference here is to those Bedouin tribes that had formed mutual alliances with Muslims, but were planning on entering into a confederation with the Meccans against Prophet Muhammad at the same time. Muslims were advised against befriending such hypocrites. In case they resorted to treason through open hostilities, Muslims were commanded to engage them in a fight. The next verse makes this even clearer. In 4:90, God forbade the Muslims from fighting those of the hypocrites that remained peaceful. "...if they hold aloof from you and wage not war against you and offer you peace, Allah alloweth you no way against them."

Where is apostasy mentioned?

The second set of verses Ali quoted were 9:11-12, which refer to those leading enemies of Islam that broke peace treaties with the Muslims and lodged military offensives against them. "And if they break their pledges after their treaty (hath been made with you) and attack your religion, then fight the heads of disbelief - Lo! They have no binding oaths - in order that they may desist."

Where is the apostasy mentioned again? Quite to the contrary, these verses admonish Muslims NOT to fight a disbeliever only on account of their disbelief. The newly emerging State of Medina was faced with hostilities from all sides. Like the first verse, this one also relates to such times of war. If the disbelievers broke their covenant of peace by attacking the Muslims, the Koran permitted fighting back the heads of such warring tribes. Self-defense is a right permitted elsewhere in the Koran as well.

The third set of verses Ali quoted was 8:12-13. These verses relate to the battle of Badr, when a thousand-men well-armed Meccan regiment waged war on the Muslims - 313 in number and ill armed in comparison. Haven endured over a decade of persecution with persistent exercise of patience and prayer, the Muslims were averse to fighting. The Koran permitted them fighting in self-defense and urged them to face any offensive with courage and resolve. The purpose of such self-defense was touphold freedom of conscience by bringing an end to ongoing religious persecution (8:39). As promised in these verses, Muslims found miraculous victory at Badr and the hearts of the warring enemy were indeed "filled with terror."

Where the Meccan aggressors at Badr, apostates?

Mr. Rizvi also quoted verse 5:33, which, again, clearly speaks of permitting self-defense against those who waged war on the Muslims in Medina and created uncalled-for chaos.

All cited verses pertain to times of war in the early history of Islam. They permit fighting in self-defense against warring enemies and confronting hypocrites guilty of high treason. The one thing they certainly do not speak of is apostasy.

Extremists like Maududi have it all wrong. So do those who blindly regurgitate their extremist viewpoint as credible, at the cost of their own credibility. Such unintellectual reliance on extremism to misrepresent the words of the Koran exposes the inherent prejudice of certain critics. This is exactly why Sam Harris wisely distances himself from making such a baseless charge.

While his claims was that the Koran sanctioned apostasy laws, Mr. Rizvi kept citing other sources to make his point. He cited a paper that explained how the Imams of the four traditional Sunni schools of thought held apostasy by a Muslim male punishable by death. The opinion of any cleric or Imam was irrelevant to this debate. What was relevant, however, was a statement in the very start of this paper: "...No judgment on apostates is mentioned in the Koran...It is not mentioned in any of the Prophetical sayings (either)..."

It is note-worthy that though the Koran does not speak of apostasy laws, it does speak of apostasy more than a dozen times. At none of these places, however, does it prescribe any human punishment for abandoning faith. "Lo! Those who believe, then disbelieve and then (again) believe, then disbelieve, and then increase in disbelief, Allah will never pardon them, nor will He guide them unto a way (4:137)." This verse reiterates that man is free to believe or disbelieve and to do so as many times as he wills. God will be the sole judge of such acts of apostasy.

And again: "He who turns back on his heels shall not harm Allah a whit. Allah will certainly reward the grateful (3.145)." 5:55, 16:107 and countless other verses also emphasize the same message.

Apostasy laws - like the blasphemy laws - have been borrowed from older scriptures. They have no basis in the Koran. This is why clerics who espouse such extremist beliefs show continued reluctance to debate Muslim scholars and intellectuals on this issue. The fourth Khalifa of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, for instance, Mirza Tahir Ahmad, authored a detailed rebuttal of the Maududian philosophy on apostasy several decades ago.

In short, it is not due to the scholarship of the Koran, but because of the ignorance and insecurity of extremist clerics that countries like Sudan punish apostasy. The Koran upholds Freedom of Conscience in clear terms.




Wahhabism to ISIS: how Saudi Arabia exported the main source of global terrorism

Although IS is certainly an Islamic movement, it is neither typical nor mired in the distant past, because its roots are in Wahhabism, a form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia that developed only in the 18th century.

BY KAREN ARMSTRONG    PUBLISHED 27 NOVEMBER, 2014 

Small victory: Iraqi Shia militia celebrate their destruction of Isis-owned vehicles outside Tikrit, northern Iraq. Photo: Reuters
As the so-called Islamic State demolishes nation states set up by the Europeans almost a century ago, IS’s obscene savagery seems to epitomise the violence that many believe to be inherent in religion in general and Islam in particular. It also suggests that the neoconservative ideology that inspired the Iraq war was delusory, since it assumed that the liberal nation state was an inevitable outcome of modernity and that, once Saddam’s dictatorship had gone, Iraq could not fail to become a western-style democracy. Instead, IS, which was born in the Iraq war and is intent on restoring the premodern autocracy of the caliphate, seems to be reverting to barbarism. On 16 November, the militants released a video showing that they had beheaded a fifth western hostage, the American aid worker Peter Kassig, as well as several captured Syrian soldiers. Some will see the group’s ferocious irredentism as proof of Islam’s chronic inability to embrace modern values.

Yet although IS is certainly an Islamic movement, it is neither typical nor mired in the distant past, because its roots are in Wahhabism, a form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia that developed only in the 18th century. In July 2013, the European Parliament identified Wahhabism as the main source of global terrorism, and yet the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, condemning IS in the strongest terms, has insisted that “the ideas of extremism, radicalism and terrorism do not belong to Islam in any way”. Other members of the Saudi ruling class, however, look more kindly on the movement, applauding its staunch opposition to Shiaism and for its Salafi piety, its adherence to the original practices of Islam. This inconsistency is a salutary reminder of the impossibility of making accurate generalisations about any religious tradition. In its short history, Wahhabism has developed at least two distinct forms, each of which has a wholly different take on violence.

During the 18th century, revivalist movements sprang up in many parts of the Islamic world as the Muslim imperial powers began to lose control of peripheral territories. In the west at this time, we were beginning to separate church from state, but this secular ideal was a radical innovation: as revolutionary as the commercial economy that Europe was concurrently devising. No other culture regarded religion as a purely private activity, separate from such worldly pursuits as politics, so for Muslims the political fragmentation of their society was also a religious problem. Because the Quran had given them a sacred mission – to build a just economy in which everybody was treated with equity and respect – the political well-being of the umma(“community”) was always a matter of sacred import. If the poor were oppressed, the vulnerable exploited or state institutions corrupt, Muslims were obliged to make every effort to put society back on track.

So the 18th-century reformers were convinced that if Muslims were to regain lost power and prestige, they must return to the fundamentals of their faith, ensuring that God – rather than materialism or worldly ambition – dominated the political order. There was nothing militant about this “fundamentalism”; rather, it was a grass-roots attempt to reorient society and did not involve jihad. One of the most influential of these revivalists was Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-91), a learned scholar of Najd in central Arabia, whose teachings still inspire Muslim reformers and extremists today. He was especially concerned about the popular cult of saints and the idolatrous rituals at their tombs, which, he believed, attributed divinity to mere mortals. He insisted that every single man and woman should concentrate instead on the study of the Quran and the “traditions” (hadith) about the customary practice (Sunnah) of the Prophet and his companions. Like Luther, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab wanted to return to the earliest teachings of his faith and eject all later medieval accretions. He therefore opposed Sufism and Shiaism as heretical innovations (bidah), and he urged all Muslims to reject the learned exegesis developed over the centuries by the ulema (“scholars”) and interpret the texts for themselves.

This naturally incensed the clergy and threatened local rulers, who believed that interfering with these popular devotions would cause social unrest. Eventually, however, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab found a patron in Muhammad Ibn Saud, a chieftain of Najd who adopted his ideas. But tension soon developed between the two because Ibn Abd al-Wahhab refused to endorse Ibn Saud’s military campaigns for plunder and territory, insisting that jihad could not be waged for personal profit but was permissible only when the umma was attacked militarily. He also forbade the Arab custom of killing prisoners of war, the deliberate destruction of property and the slaughter of civilians, including women and children. Nor did he ever claim that those who fell in battle were martyrs who would be rewarded with a high place in heaven, because a desire for such self-aggrandisement was incompatible with jihad. Two forms of Wahhabism were emerging: where Ibn Saud was happy to enforce Wahhabi Islam with the sword to enhance his political position, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab insisted that education, study and debate were the only legitimate means of spreading the one true faith.

Yet although scripture was so central to Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s ideology, by insisting that his version of Islam alone had validity, he had distorted the Quranic message. The Quran firmly stated that “There must be no coercion in matters of faith” (2:256), ruled that Muslims must believe in the revelations of all the great prophets (3:84) and that religious pluralism was God’s will (5:48). Muslims had, therefore, been traditionally wary of takfir, the practice of declaring a fellow Muslim to be an unbeliever (kafir). Hitherto Sufism, which had developed an outstanding appreciation of other faith traditions, had been the most popular form of Islam and had played an important role in both social and religious life. “Do not praise your own faith so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest,” urged the great mystic Ibn al-Arabi (d.1240). “God the omniscient and omnipresent cannot be confined to any one creed.” It was common for a Sufi to claim that he was a neither a Jew nor a Christian, nor even a Muslim, because once you glimpsed the divine, you left these man-made distinctions behind.

Despite his rejection of other forms of Islam, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab himself refrained from takfir, arguing that God alone could read the heart, but after his death Wahhabis cast this inhibition aside and the generous pluralism of Sufism became increasingly suspect in the Muslim world.

After his death, too, Wahhabism became more violent, an instrument of state terror. As he sought to establish an independent kingdom, Abd al-Aziz Ibn Muhammad, Ibn Saud’s son and successor, used takfir to justify the wholesale slaughter of resistant populations. In 1801, his army sacked the holy Shia city of Karbala in what is now Iraq, plundered the tomb of Imam Husain, and slaughtered thousands of Shias, including women and children; in 1803, in fear and panic, the holy city of Mecca surrendered to the Saudi leader.

Eventually, in 1815, the Ottomans despatched Muhammad Ali Pasha, governor of Egypt, to crush the Wahhabi forces and destroy their capital. But Wahhabism became a political force once again during the First World War when the Saudi chieftain – another Abd al-Aziz – made a new push for statehood and began to carve out a large kingdom for himself in the Middle East with his devout Bedouin army, known as the Ikhwan, the “Brotherhood”.

In the Ikhwan we see the roots of IS. To break up the tribes and wean them from the nomadic life, which was deemed incompatible with Islam, the Wahhabi clergy had settled the Bedouin in oases, where they learned farming and the crafts of sedentary life and were indoctrinated in Wahhabi Islam. Once they exchanged the time-honoured ghazu raid, which typically resulted in the plunder of livestock, for the jihad, these Bedouin fighters became more violent and extreme, covering their faces when they encountered Europeans and non-Saudi Arabs and fighting with lances and swords because they disdained weaponry not used by the Prophet. In the old ghazu raids, the Bedouin had always kept casualties to a minimum and did not attack non-combatants. Now the Ikhwan routinely massacred “apostate” unarmed villagers in their thousands, thought nothing of slaughtering women and children, and routinely slit the throats of all male captives.

In 1915, Abd al-Aziz planned to conquer the Hijaz (an area in the west of present-day Saudi Arabia that includes the cities of Mecca and Medina), the Persian Gulf to the east of Najd, and the land that is now Syria and Jordan in the north, but during the 1920s he tempered his ambitions in order to acquire diplomatic standing as a nation state with Britain and the United States. The Ikhwan, however, continued to raid the British protectorates of Iraq, Transjordan and Kuwait, insisting that no limits could be placed on jihad. Regarding all modernisation as bidah, the Ikhwan also attacked Abd al-Aziz for permitting telephones, cars, the telegraph, music and smoking – indeed, anything unknown in Muhammad’s time – until finally Abd al-Aziz quashed their rebellion in 1930.

After the defeat of the Ikhwan, the official Wahhabism of the Saudi kingdom abandoned militant jihad and became a religiously conservative movement, similar to the original movement in the time of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, except that takfir was now an accepted practice and, indeed, essential to the Wahhabi faith. Henceforth there would always be tension between the ruling Saudi establishment and more radical Wahhabis. The Ikhwan spirit and its dream of territorial expansion did not die, but gained new ground in the 1970s, when the kingdom became central to western foreign policy in the region. Washington welcomed the Saudis’ opposition to Nasserism (the pan-Arab socialist ideology of Egypt’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser) and to Soviet influence. After the Iranian Revolution, it gave tacit support to the Saudis’ project of countering Shia radicalism by Wahhabising the entire Muslim world.

The soaring oil price created by the 1973 embargo – when Arab petroleum producers cut off supplies to the US to protest against the Americans’ military support for Israel – gave the kingdom all the petrodollars it needed to export its idiosyncratic form of Islam. The old military jihad to spread the faith was now replaced by a cultural offensive. The Saudi-based Muslim World League opened offices in every region inhabited by Muslims, and the Saudi ministry of religion printed and distributed Wahhabi translations of the Quran, Wahhabi doctrinal texts and the writings of modern thinkers whom the Saudis found congenial, such as Sayyids Abul-A’la Maududi and Qutb, to Muslim communities throughout the Middle East, Africa, Indonesia, the United States and Europe. In all these places, they funded the building of Saudi-style mosques with Wahhabi preachers and established madrasas that provided free education for the poor, with, of course, a Wahhabi curriculum. At the same time, young men from the poorer Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Pakistan, who had felt compelled to find work in the Gulf to support their families, associated their relative affluence with Wahhabism and brought this faith back home with them, living in new neighbourhoods with Saudi mosques and shopping malls that segregated the sexes. The Saudis demanded religious conformity in return for their munificence, so Wahhabi rejection of all other forms of Islam as well as other faiths would reach as deeply into Bradford, England, and Buffalo, New York, as into Pakistan, Jordan or Syria: everywhere gravely undermining Islam’s traditional pluralism.

A whole generation of Muslims, therefore, has grown up with a maverick form of Islam that has given them a negative view of other faiths and an intolerantly sectarian understanding of their own. While not extremist per se, this is an outlook in which radicalism can develop. In the past, the learned exegesis of the ulema, which Wahhabis rejected, had held extremist interpretations of scripture in check; but now unqualified freelancers such as Osama Bin Laden were free to develop highly unorthodox readings of the Quran. To prevent the spread of radicalism, the Saudis tried to deflect their young from the internal problems of the kingdom during the 1980s by encouraging a pan-Islamist sentiment of which the Wahhabi ulema did not approve.

Where Islamists in such countries as Egypt fought tyranny and corruption at home, Saudi Islamists focused on the humiliation and oppression of Muslims worldwide. Television brought images of Muslim suffering in Palestine or Lebanon into comfortable Saudi homes. The gov­ernment also encouraged young men to join the steady stream of recruits from the Arab world who were joining the Afghans’ jihad against the Soviet Union. The response of these militants may throw light on the motivation of those joining the jihad in Syria and Iraq today.

A survey of those Saudi men who volunteered for Afghanistan and who later fought in Bosnia and Chechnya or trained in al-Qaeda camps has found that most were motivated not by hatred of the west but by the desire to help their Muslim brothers and sisters – in rather the same way as men from all over Europe left home in 1938 to fight the Fascists in Spain, and as Jews from all over the diaspora hastened to Israel at the beginning of the Six Day War in 1967. The welfare of the umma had always been a spiritual as well as a political concern in Islam, so the desperate plight of their fellow Muslims cut to the core of their religious identity. This pan-Islamist emphasis was also central to Bin Laden’s propaganda, and the martyr-videos of the Saudis who took part in the 9/11 atrocity show that they were influenced less by Wahhabism than by the pain and humiliation of the umma as a whole.

Like the Ikhwan, IS represents a rebellion against the official Wahhabism of modern Saudi Arabia. Its swords, covered faces and cut-throat executions all recall the original Brotherhood. But it is unlikely that the IS hordes consist entirely of diehard jihadists. A substantial number are probably secularists who resent the status quo in Iraq: Ba’athists from Saddam Hussein’s regime and former soldiers of his disbanded army. This would explain IS’s strong performance against professional military forces. In all likelihood, few of the young recruits are motivated either by Wahhabism or by more traditional Muslim ideals. In 2008, MI5’s behavioural science unit noted that, “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could . . . be regarded as religious novices.” A significant proportion of those convicted of terrorism offences since the 9/11 attacks have been non-observant, or are self-taught, or, like the gunman in the recent attack on the Canadian parliament, are converts to Islam. They may claim to be acting in the name of Islam, but when an untalented beginner tells us that he is playing a Beethoven sonata, we hear only cacophony. Two wannabe jihadists who set out from Birmingham for Syria last May had ordered Islam for Dummies from Amazon.

It would be a mistake to see IS as a throwback; it is, as the British philosopher John Gray has argued, a thoroughly modern movement that has become an efficient, self-financing business with assets estimated at $2bn. Its looting, theft of gold bullion from banks, kidnapping, siphoning of oil in the conquered territories and extortion have made it the wealthiest jihadist group in the world. There is nothing random or irrational about IS violence. The execution videos are carefully and strategically planned to inspire terror, deter dissent and sow chaos in the greater population.

Mass killing is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. During the French Revolution, which led to the emergence of the first secular state in Europe, the Jacobins publicly beheaded about 17,000 men, women and children. In the First World War, the Young Turks slaughtered over a million Armenians, including women, children and the elderly, to create a pure Turkic nation. The Soviet Bolsheviks, the Khmer Rouge and the Red Guard all used systematic terrorism to purge humanity of corruption. Similarly, IS uses violence to achieve a single, limited and clearly defined objective that would be impossible without such slaughter. As such, it is another expression of the dark side of modernity.

The road from Mecca: Saudi Arabia may be the only regional power capable of defeating IS. Photo: Bruno Hadjih/Anzenberger/Eyevine
In 1922, as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk rose to power, he completed the Young Turks’ racial purge by forcibly deporting all Greek-speaking Christians from Turkey; in 1925 he declared null and void the caliphate that IS has vowed to reinstate. The caliphate had long been a dead letter politically, but because it symbolised the unity of the umma and its link with the Prophet, Sunni Muslims mourned its loss as a spiritual and cultural trauma. Yet IS’s projected caliphate has no support among ulema internationally and is derided throughout the Muslim world. That said, the limitations of the nation state are becoming increasingly apparent in our world; this is especially true in the Middle East, which has no tradition of nationalism, and where the frontiers drawn by invaders were so arbitrary that it was well nigh impossible to create a truly national spirit. Here, too, IS is not simply harking back to a bygone age but is, however eccentrically, enunciating a modern concern.

The liberal-democratic nation state developed in Europe in part to serve the Industrial Revolution, which made the ideals of the Enlightenment no longer noble aspirations but practical necessities. It is not ideal: its Achilles heel has always been an inability to tolerate ethnic minorities – a failing responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. In other parts of the world where modernisation has developed differently, other polities may be more appropriate. So the liberal state is not an inevitable consequence of modernity; the attempt to produce democracy in Iraq using the colo­nial methods of invasion, subjugation and occupation could only result in an unnatural birth – and so IS emerged from the resulting mayhem.

IS may have overreached itself; its policies may not be sustainable and it faces determined opposition from Sunni and Shia Muslims alike. Interestingly Saudi Arabia, with its impressive counterterrorist resources, has already thwarted IS attempts to launch a series of attacks in the kingdom and may be the only regional power capable of bringing it down. The shooting in Canada on 22 October, where a Muslim convert killed a soldier at a war memorial, indicates that the blowback in the west has begun; to deal realistically with our situation, we need an informed understanding of the precise and limited role of Islam in the conflict, and to recognise that IS is not an atavistic return to a primitive past, but in some real sense a product of modernity. 

[Karen Armstrong is the author of “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence” ]

Why Millions of Christians Will Mourn This Christmas

written by daniel mcadams  | December 23, 2014



It will be a miserable Christmas for the overseas victims of US interventions this year. Though "regime change" proponents talk of bringing freedom and democracy to the countries they target, the end result is quite the opposite: the rise of extremism, famine, ethnic cleansing, and economic destruction are what the US government has left behind in places like Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine.

The neoconservatives who pushed for war in Iraq are incapable of self-reflection, but the numbers do not lie. For the first time in more than 1,000 years, reports the Washington Post today, "the plains of Nineveh and its provincial capital of Mosul have been virtually emptied of Christians." Where there had been religious and cultural diversity for centuries, the destruction of Iraqi society brought about by US intervention has left only the most hardened of extremists to terrorize what is left of the population. Already six in ten Christians have fled Iraq, leaving churches empty and a way of life that dates to the time of Christ a distant memory.

Father Miyassir al-Mokhlasee of Baghdad's St. George’s Chaldean Catholic Church is struggling to keep his flock, as every Christian who is able is fleeing. “We believe that God wants us here for diversity in the region," Fr. Mokhlasee said. “We are becoming fewer in number... We ask God that we can keep our churches, keep our country," he added in an Advent sermon.

At least in the short term, however, his prayers may not be answered. 

Many Americans, particularly those who rely on the mainstream media for information, will believe that the rise of Christian-killing ISIS and al-Qaeda in Iraq is the result of the US military's departure from Iraq rather than from the US invasion of Iraq. Simple logic argues the opposite: if even the Washington Post admits that Christians thrived in Iraq until the 2003 invasion, how can it be argued that the invasion was not responsible for the decimation of Christianity in Iraq?

Those on the receiving end of the US invasion have a much clearer view of cause and effect. As the Post article tells us:

One of Iraq’s most senior Christian religious figures, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako, has accused the United States of being 'indirectly responsible' for the exodus of one of the world’s most ancient Christian communities, pointing to the chaos caused by the 2003 invasion. Christmas will likewise be a somber celebration for the estimated 500,000 Ukrainians who were forced to flee their homes as the US-backed regime in Kiev destroyed much of eastern Ukraine. Again it is a question of cause and effect. The US mainstream media will blame the separatist regions of eastern Ukraine for the violence, but will ignore the precipitating factor: the US-backed coup in Kiev that ousted an elected government and put into power an unelected regime hostile to the eastern provinces of that country.

Even founder and CEO of Stratfor (the "Shadow CIA") George Friedman -- a man not given to flights of fancy -- described the events in Ukraine earlier this year as, "the most blatant coup in history.” According to Friedman, part of the reason for US backing of the Ukraine coup was as retaliation for Russian involvement in Syria. It was half a year prior to the outbreak of unrest in Ukraine that Russia had brokered a deal that saw Syrian President Assad give up his chemical weapons to avoid an American attack. Was the destabilization of Ukraine the neoconservative retaliation for Putin's thwarting their plans for a US invasion of Syria?

Many residents of eastern Ukraine will be spending Christmas (which falls on January 7 according to the Orthodox calendar) underground in Soviet-era bomb shelters. They will have neither running water, sanitary facilities, nor privacy. Their homes have been destroyed by the US-backed regime in Kiev.

The UK Telegraph describes what happened to some of the war's most recent victims, when an early "Christmas present" from Kiev destroyed their homes:

'It was just a massive boom, the windows cracked, and we threw ourselves on the floor. We know what to do,' the 53-year-old said, looking out over the stricken courtyard below the fourth-storey flat.

The December 8 attack ripped apart a neighbouring block of flats, killed six people, and knocked out the heating station that keeps the neighbourhood warm. In the grim context of the past few months in eastern Ukraine, it was a routine tragedy. In Syria, where the US has backed Islamist extremists in a three-year effort to overthrow the secular Assad regime, Christianity has also been nearly eliminated. In Aleppo, home to one of Syria's largest pre-war Christian populations, citizens are split between a government-controlled sector and a rebel-held sector in the east. A few Christians remain in the government-held areas where, according to AFP:

Families from government-controlled districts gather every Sunday evening in the church, which is brightly lit thanks to its generator, a major draw in a city where frequent power cuts plunge homes into darkness. The few Christians that remain in Syria are determined to maintain a culture that goes back to the time of Christ:

Father Imad Daher of the Latin church of Saint Francis said Christians are preparing to put up their Christmas trees.

'We will celebrate Christmas, even if our numbers have dwindled. We will celebrate with a mass for peace,' he said. These are only some of the victims of an interventionist US foreign policy. American Christians who prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ the King should pause and reflect on what is being done in their name overseas. If they believe they are promoting Christian values overseas with their support for US global interventionism, they might want to ask some of their co-religionists who are much closer to the falling bombs and whirling machetes of the head-choppers. Hopefully American Christians will demand an end to the tyranny of the neoconservatives and "humanitarian" interventionists who dominate US foreign policy. Theirs is the regime that truly needs to be changed.

Islamic State? A better name might be unIslamic State

October 3, 2014  | by Richard Glover
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Islamic State: Fanning hatred. Photo: AFP

There's a grisly prescience about the opening line of If, Rudyard Kipling's most famous poem: "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs ..."

Kipling, of course, wasn't thinking about beheading as a tool of terror, nor of the rampaging horror of Islamic State, but he did understand the way we could all metaphorically lose our heads in times like these.

Islamic State is just a flag of convenience for the lost and enraged. It's Islamic in the same way as Nazism was Christian. 

His poem is a warning about the dangers of being swept along by the noise of the crowd. He wanted us to understand how difficult it is to stand steady against such pressure, and how doing so requires character, values and fortitude.

Let's hope we all measure up, for the time is now.

This is the real battleground of terrorism: a million tiny interactions on the streets of our cities. Will that glance be a hostile one or a kindly one? Will the angry Facebook post be shared or criticised? Do we together push the vulnerable towards the extremists, or do we tempt them back to the middle?

And how do we collectively cope when things go wrong? Will the Muslim community, seeing a mosque daubed with graffiti, understand the crime is the act of a deranged, hate-filled minority? Will non-Muslims, aghast when a preacher refuses to criticise a terrorist, understand that he speaks for the few and not the many?

Right now, anger and fear is being directed from both sides towards a shared target: those of us in the middle. It is the noise of the fanatical street preacher trying to brainwash a disaffected young man; equally, it's the the shrill voice of the "go-back-to-where-you-came-from" bigot seeking to demonise Islam.

Cory Bernardi and Jacqui Lambie have announced their own jihad against Islamic dress, as if bombers in burqas were our most pressing issue. Others turn to social media. "All this violence is right there in the Koran," rant a thousand voices on Facebook, before going on to quote certain lines, as if the Christian Bible doesn't offer the odd smoting.

What's interesting is that these anti-Islamic crusaders are doing identical work to the terrorists: they seek to make Islamic State an expression of Islam. They are trying to recast the world so that a rag-tag group of violent criminals is suddenly the true representation of a religion.

This of course is the exact project of the terrorists. That's why they call it Islamic State, when a better name maybe unIslamic State. It's why they use terms such as "jihadists" for their recruits, when "disaffected loser" would be more accurate. It's why they talk about people becoming "holy warriors", when "brainwashed dupes" would be more precise.

In truth, Islamic State is just a flag of convenience for the lost and enraged. It's Islamic in the same way as Nazism was Christian. Look at the backgrounds of those who've left to fight overseas and it's the same limping, sad-sack backstory: drug use, minor crime, and often a fumbling, failed attempt at fame – rap music for the UK's Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary; a part inUnderbelly for our own Mohammad Ali Baryalei. Throw in a relationship break-up and some financial problems, and they are now ready for a "solution" to their discontent.

They join Islamic State for the same reasons as others, in times past, have joined criminal gangs. Such groups provide a sense of belonging to the man-child who lacks a sense of self-worth.

How much is any of this about Islam? The most eloquent answer to that question emerged in court proceedings against two of the British jihadists, Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed. Before heading to Syria, they ordered books from Amazon: Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. Like most jihadists, they were not observant Muslims; they were the opposite. Islam wasn't their motivation; Islam was their cover.

Amid all this, there's a hunger for hope. Last week, a 10-year-old called Mohammed called my radio show and spoke about the lack of racism in his Sydney school. Everyone gets on, he said, we all play together and really the adults could take a leaf out of our book. Whacked up on social media, his advice has since been shared more than 50,000 times. From the names I see on Twitter and Facebook, the sharing has been done by Sydneysiders from both Muslim and non-Muslim backgrounds.

Those 50,000 know the truth: we keep ourselves safe by placing our arms around each other. We keep ourselves safe by staring down those on both sides who seek to make this about religion instead of about criminal violence and madness.

When next someone conflates Islam with terrorist violence, understand that they are doing the work of Islamic State; when next someone directs hostility towards a woman in traditional dress, understand that this is a gift to those who would divide us.

Our joint project is to place the wedge where it belongs. On both sides, we must divide the normals from the nutters.

We must keep our heads when all about us are losing theirs.
--

Forget 'Evil' Putin - We Are The Bloodthirsty Warmongers


By Peter Hitchens

December 23, 2014 "ICH" - "Daily Mail" - This is a time of year for memories, and the ones that keep bothering me are from my childhood, which seemed at the time to be wholly happy and untroubled.

Yet all the adults in my life still dwelt in the shadow of recent war. This was not the glamorous, exciting side of war, but the miserable, fearful and hungry aspect.

My mother, even in middle-class suburban prosperity, couldn’t throw away an eggshell without running her finger round it to get out the last of the white. No butcher dared twice to try to cheat her on the weights.

Haunted all her life by rationing, she would habitually break a chocolate bar into its smallest pieces. She had also been bombed from the air in Liverpool, and had developed a fatalism to cope with the nightly danger of being blown to pieces, shocking to me then and since.

I am now beset by these ingrained memories of shortage and danger because I seem surrounded by people who think that war might be fun. This seems to happen when wartime generations are pushed aside by their children, who need to learn the truth all over again.

It seemed fairly clear to me from her experiences that war had in fact been a miserable affair of fear, hunger, threadbare darned clothes, broken windows and insolent officials. And that was a victory, more or less, though my father (who fought in it) was never sure of that.

Now I seem surrounded by people who actively want a war with Russia, a war we all might lose. They seem to believe that we are living in a real life Lord Of The Rings, in which Moscow is Mordor and Vladimir Putin is Sauron. Some humorous artists in Moscow, who have noticed this, have actually tried to set up a giant Eye of Sauron on a Moscow tower.

We think we are the heroes, setting out with brave hearts to confront the Dark Lord, and free the saintly Ukrainians from his wicked grasp.

This is all the most utter garbage. Since 1989, Moscow, the supposed aggressor, has – without fighting or losing a war – peacefully ceded control over roughly 180 million people, and roughly 700,000 square miles of valuable territory.

The EU (and its military wing, Nato) have in the same period gained control over more than 120 million of those people, and almost 400,000 of those square miles.

Until a year ago, Ukraine remained non-aligned between the two great European powers. But the EU wanted its land, its 48 million people (such a reservoir of cheap labour!) its Black Sea coast, its coal and its wheat.

So first, it spent £300 million (some of it yours) on anti-Russian ‘civil society’ groups in Ukraine.

Then EU and Nato politicians broke all the rules of diplomacy and descended on Kiev to take sides with demonstrators who demanded that Ukraine align itself with the EU.

Imagine how you’d feel if Russian politicians had appeared in Edinburgh in September urging the Scots to vote for independence, or if Russian money had been used to fund pro-independence organisations.

Then a violent crowd (20 police officers died at its hands, according to the UN) drove the elected president from office, in violation of the Ukrainian constitution.

During all this process, Ukraine remained what it had been from the start – horrendously corrupt and dominated by shady oligarchs, pretty much like Russia.

If you didn’t want to take sides in this mess, I wouldn’t at all blame you. But most people seem to be doing so.

There seems to be a genuine appetite for confrontation in Washington, Brussels, London… and Saudi Arabia.

There is a complacent joy abroad about the collapse of the rouble, brought about by the mysterious fall in the world’s oil price.

It’s odd to gloat about this strange development, which is also destroying jobs and business in this country. Why are the Gulf oil states not acting – as they easily could and normally would – to prop up the price of the product that makes them rich?

I do not know, but there’s no doubt that Mr Putin’s Russia has been a major obstacle to the Gulf states’ desire to destroy the Assad government in Syria, and that the USA and Britain have (for reasons I long to know) taken the Gulf’s side in this.

But do we have any idea what we are doing? Ordinary Russians are pretty stoical and have endured horrors unimaginable to most of us, including a currency collapse in 1998 that ruined millions. But until this week they had some hope.

If anyone really is trying to punish the Russian people for being patriotic, by debauching the rouble, I cannot imagine anything more irresponsible. It was the destruction of the German mark in 1922, and the wipeout of the middle class that resulted, which led directly to Hitler.

Stupid, ill-informed people nowadays like to compare Mr Putin with Hitler. I warn them and you that, if we succeed in overthrowing Mr Putin by unleashing hyper-inflation in Russia, we may find out what a Russian Hitler is really like. And that a war in Europe is anything but fun.

So, as it’s almost Christmas, let us sing with some attention that bleakest and yet loveliest of carols, It Came Upon The Midnight Clear, stressing the lines that run ‘Man at war with man hears not the love song which they bring. Oh, hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing’.

Or gloat at your peril over the scenes of panic in Moscow.

Significant report on Syria from Nir Rosen...


Nir Rosen is a 'former journalist' who apparently was assisting the State Department in preparing this 55 page report on the current state of politics and play in Syria, and has clearly had an awakening. WE can only get his report 2nd hand at the moment, through Foreign Policy's David Kenner, who remains to be awakened. (You can find David Kenner's FP article, Rewriting Syria’s War below.)

Rosen spent some time in Damascus, and spoke to many government officials, drawing surprising conclusions which must have been very uncomfortable for the US government - which has just committed 565 BILLION to training and 'assisting' rebel groups to fight in Syria. 

Rosen discovered that the Syrian government is a strongly secular and socialist government with good public services and enlightened policies, and that most government members and members of the armed forces are Sunni. At the same time he concluded that the Opposition forces are chaotic and regressive on social policies as well as being sectarian and desiring an Islamic state apparatus. 
Rosen also noted the work done by the government in reconciliation in various cities, and the need for this to continue, and while he posed the possibility of opposition involvement in some sort of 'peace process' he said this must involve President Assad. 

While none of this is surprising, or beyond being reported by a Western journalist, the fact that it has been presented to Washington is highly significant. We are hoping that Rosen's actual report may be made available, so that it can't be put on one side to gather dust... 

Rosen has written widely on the M/E as well as on Syria. The fact that he initially was on the side of 'the Revolution' in Syria makes his current position specially significant. More on his stuff at nirrosen.com

Posted by David Macilwain on Dec 21, 2014 at http://members5.boardhost.com/medialens/msg/1419163351.html

***

Rewriting Syria’s War | by David Kenner

An influential, unpublished report looks to radically revise notions of how to achieve peace in this war-torn country.

DECEMBER 18, 2014

Syria’s moderate armed opposition loses ground and the United Nations embarks on a new peace strategy, a noted Syria researcher has written the most radical reassessment of the war’s dynamics in the history of the conflict.

The author, former journalist Nir Rosen, is a researcher with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD Centre), a Geneva-based conflict mediation organization. Rosen’s report is 55 pages long, single-spaced, including both his own analysis and extensive quotes from Syrian officials about their views of the conflict. In it, he argues that the armed opposition has become hopelessly radicalized, while the Assad regime is nonsectarian in nature. The only way out of the conflict, he says, is through U.N.-brokered “local cease-fires” between the armed opposition and the regime, which would pave the way for an end to the bloodshed and the emergence of local institutions, though at the cost of abandoning efforts to force President Bashar al-Assad from power in the near future.

The report came out of meetings Rosen held with U.S. officials and analysts in Washington, and was an attempt to answer questions posed to him during those discussions. When finished, he sent it to officials at the State Department and the National Security Council, including senior director Robert Malley, where it was distributed among Syria policy groups. The HD Centre, meanwhile, produced an 11-page version of Rosen’s report that contained the same policy proposals, but omitted the quotations from regime officials and many of the sweeping statements about the nature of the armed opposition and the Assad regime.

With the United States still struggling to define the way forward in Syria, the call for local cease-fires could find support in the White House. Last month, the Obama administration reportedly launched a review of its Syria policy, so that its efforts to combat the Islamic State would fit into its larger strategy in the country. But while Secretary of State John Kerry has referred to the relationship between the Islamic State and the Syrian regime as “symbiotic,” Obama has repeatedly refused to lay out actions that could force Assad from power. Asked on Nov. 16 if the United States was actively discussing ways to remove Assad as part of a political transition, Obama answered simply: “No.”

“Despite the evident difficulties, the White House is likely to latch onto [the idea of local cease-fires] in the absence of any other plan they’ve been able to develop,” said Robert Ford, who served as U.S. ambassador to Syria until February and is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

The version of the paper provided to Foreign Policy specifies that it solely represents Rosen’s views and is not the official position of the HD Centre. Nevertheless, it uses phrases such as “we are asking” — referring to Rosen and his organization — and offers the HD Centre’s services as a facilitator for contacts on all sides, noting that the organization can reach everyone from senior Assad regime officials, to defected Syrian officers, to leaders of the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. It adds that the HD Centre has already played a role in facilitating the cease-fire in Homs, and has “helped convince the regime of the importance of these deals.” Both Rosen and the HD Centre declined to comment for this article.

Rosen’s paper is much more than out-of-the-box policy advice — it represents an effort to radically revise Western assumptions about the nature of the Syrian conflict, and the actors on both sides of the war.

Rethinking the Assad regime

Rosen, who has likely spent more time than any other researcher interviewing regime officials and supporters, attempts to partially rehabilitate the image of the Syrian regime. “While the Syrian state was not the most attractive one even before the 2011 uprising, it also was not the worst regime in the region,” he writes. “It has strong systems of education, health care and social welfare and compared to most Arab governments it was socially progressive and secular…. It had a solid infrastructure and a relatively effective civil service.”

Such a description is dramatically at odds with most U.S. officials’ and independent analysts’ assessments of the regime. In the years before the uprising, the Assad regime stands accused of organizing a campaign of terror in Lebanon against its critics, building a secret nuclear power plant with North Korean assistance, and facilitating the flow of jihadis into Iraq to combat the U.S. occupation — to say nothing of its repression of dissent at home.

Rosen also argues against the assumption that Assad presides over an Alawite-dominated regime. “Most of the regime is Sunni, most of its supporters are Sunnis, many [if] not most of its soldiers are Sunni,” he writes. “The regime may be brutal, authoritarian, corrupt and whatever else it is described as, but it should not be seen as representing a sect.”

The sectarianism that does exist in Syria, Rosen argues, is preponderantly on the side of the anti-Assad opposition. The regime’s brutality toward the Sunni opposition, he writes, “was done more out of a fear of Sunni sectarianism than as a result of the regime’s own sectarianism.”

For this reason, Rosen argues, the conventional wisdom that the Assad regime is dedicated to oppressing Syria’s Sunni majority is fatally flawed. “It is more accurate to view it as a staunchly secular regime ruling a sectarian population with an Alawite praetorian guard.”

On the other side of Syria’s political divide, Rosen argues that the entirety of the armed anti-Assad opposition is dedicated to Sunni domination of Syria rather than any sort of secular, democratic future for the country. “There are no actual moderate insurgents either ideologically or in terms of their actions,” he writes at one point. Nor did most insurgents pick up weapons at the beginning of the uprising to defend themselves; instead, they did so “out of religious zeal or political extremism.”

U.S.-backed rebel leaders are dismissed as “warlords” and mercenaries. The so-called “moderate rebels,” he writes, “still all favor an Islamic government, they are anti-liberal, their views on women, secularism, democracy, non-Sunnis, anything for that matter are deeply conservative and often Sal[a]fi and they engage in grave human rights violations [or] war crimes.”

Rosen’s report does come at a time when the U.S.-backed armed opposition is in a weaker position than it has been in years. The Nusra Front routed Free Syrian Army-affiliated brigades in northern Idlib province last month, seizing some of the last swaths of territory held by U.S. allies in the country. Meanwhile, the Assad regime continues its advance on rebel-held areas in Aleppo, where both jihadi and moderate armed groups are fighting.

The local cease-fires negotiated in various locations throughout Syria, Rosen suggests, could present a blueprint for stemming this growing radicalization and salvaging some hope for political change. Through the mediation of the United Nations and the HD Centre, he calls for a spread of these cease-fires to pave the way for a de-escalation of violence, the defeat of jihadi groups like the Islamic State, and a decentralization of authority that will produce political change in Syria. The issue of Assad’s departure would only be addressed at a later date, at least five years in the future.

Rosen does not ask much from the United States to bring about this plan: He acknowledges that a reconciliation with the Assad regime at this point would be politically impossible, and asks only that Washington issue positive statements about the potential of local cease-fires to convince intransigent commanders to get on board with the plan. Other countries, like Germany or Norway, could take the lead on supporting the cease-fires.

“Such a deal does not offer the promise some want that Bashar will meet his end at the Hague like [former Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic or at the gallows like Saddam [Hussein],” Rosen concludes. “But it saves lives, prevents further population displacement, and promotes stability and a gradual reduction of the conflict, and that’s the best one can hope for.”

Mr. Freeze

Rosen is not the only one hoping that local agreements can halt Syria’s seemingly endless slide into chaos and radicalization. U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura recently broached the idea of “freeze zones” to halt the fighting, which he hopes can improve the humanitarian situation, lead to a common front against the Islamic State, and, if successful, pave the way for a broader national dialogue on a political solution.

Like Rosen, de Mistura’s team has called for initially focusing on Aleppo, the northern economic hub that is at risk of a humanitarian disaster. De Misturatraveled to the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep last week to discuss his plans with opposition groups, including a representative of the rebel forces in Aleppo.

There is no outward sign that de Mistura shares Rosen’s beliefs about the nature of the Syrian regime or the armed opposition. When asked about the similarities and differences between the two plans, Juliette Touma, the spokeswoman for de Mistura’s office, said the U.N. envoy spent roughly 50 days on the road gathering ideas from the diverse array of actors involved in the Syrian crisis, but the idea for a “freeze” was a uniquely U.N. initiative. “[It] is different than whatever was implemented before on the ground with the local cease-fires,” she said.

De Mistura has purposefully employed different language in an effort to distinguish his plan from the efforts already underway in Syria.

He speaks of a “freeze” rather than a “cease-fire,” and of encouraging a “national political process” rather than “reconciliation,” which is the term used by the Syrian regime.

He speaks of a “freeze” rather than a “cease-fire,” and of encouraging a “national political process” rather than “reconciliation,” which is the term used by the Syrian regime.

“A cease-fire can be broken by one bullet, or a slight escalation,” said Touma. “For us, a freeze entails that everyone stops where they are right now, and that there is no advancement … the most important thing is that the violence gets to a freeze.”

But can either Rosen’s or de Mistura’s plan actually bring peace to Syria? For all their ambitions, neither examines in much detail the history of local cease-fires in war-torn parts of the country. Rosen cites the example of Latakia, Tartous, and Hama — cities that have not experienced the worst of the fighting in Syria, and have remained largely under regime control. Meanwhile, he only devotes a paragraph each to important cease-fire agreements in the Damascus suburb of Barzeh and the city of Homs. The Homs agreement, Rosen wrote, “was another example of both sides negotiating in good faith and achieving success.”

Some observers are skeptical that it is any such thing. A former U.N. official who worked on the Syria crisis said that the Homs agreement, like other local cease-fires, was only reached after Syrian forces had besieged rebel-held areas for months on end, cutting them off from food and medical supplies, and subjecting them to indiscriminate shelling. Only when local fighters were faced with the prospect of essentially watching their families starve to death in front of them did they relent.

At other times, the divisions within the regime forces undermined negotiations as much as the rebel fragmentation. The official recounted an incident when roughly 100 fighters from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor reached an agreement with one security service to lay down their arms in exchange for being allowed to go back to their lives — only to be arrested by another security service the following week. “It’s a Kafkaesque crisis,” the official said. “Absurdity and unreality have no limits.”

Cease-fires and local surrenders

In fact, there is a growing body of research assessing the dozens of local cease-fires that have emerged across Syria. Rim Turkmani, the president of the Syrian NGO Madani, which calls for a democratic transition in Syria, hasco-authored a paper on the successes and failures of local cease-fires in cooperation with the London School of Economics; Integrity Research and Consultancy published a report assessing 26 truces across the country; and the Syrian NGO Etana produced an in-depth report on the efforts to reach a cease-fire in Homs. This research, as well as other sources, suggests that there are more reasons to be pessimistic about local cease-fires than optimistic.

The reports find that some local cease-fires have done little to nothing to alleviate human suffering. A cease-fire reached in Damascus’s Yarmouk Camp, for example, has not stopped Syrian security forces from drastically curtailing the amount of aid let into the area, keeping the population of 18,000 people on the verge of starvation. This example is just one reason that Integrity Research concluded that the local cease-fires “do not represent the localised beginnings of a peacebuilding process,” and were instead part of a regime strategy to “force opposition surrender through the exploitation of dire humanitarian needs.”

The cease-fire reached in the old city of Homs has largely resulted in a regime victory rather than facilitating the emergence of local institutions or advancing a national political process.

The cease-fire reached in the old city of Homs has largely resulted in a regime victory rather than facilitating the emergence of local institutions or advancing a national political process. Pro-regime militias hostile to the deal several times attempted to sabotage the negotiations, both kidnapping a negotiator and shelling a U.N. convoy delivering relief to besieged areas. According to Human Rights Watch’s Nadim Houry, some young Syrian men who were evacuated from the area were immediately drafted into the army — the United Nations lost track of them after several weeks. “The honest truth is we don’t know what happened to them afterwards,” Houry said.

The Homs cease-fire also moved the conflict elsewhere. Many of the civilians and fighters evacuated from the area headed to the nearby area of al-Waer — and the regime is now tightening its siege of the district, preventing food from entering. The cease-fire caused regime officials to be more intransigent in negotiations with opposition leaders in al-Waer: “[T]he same government representatives who were previously in favour of a fairly negotiated deal were now adopting much more hardline positions, as a result of their perceived victory in the old city,” according to the paper coauthored by Turkmani.

If one were to look for a glimmer of hope that a local cease-fire could pave the way for a better future, the best example would probably be the Damascus suburb of Barzeh. Under the terms of the deal, the Free Syrian Army-affiliated brigade in the area retained its weapons and maintained its positions — effectively ending violence and institutionalizing opposition control over the area. The opposition was able to negotiate better terms in Barzeh, argues Turkmani’s paper, in part because the rebel groups controlled a key road connecting regime-held areas, pressuring a pro-regime suburb adjacent to Barzeh.

For cease-fire advocates, however, this one success raises as many questions as answers. Both Rosen and de Mistura, after all, promise that future halts in violence will lead to improved conditions for the opposition — either through decentralization or a national reconciliation — than what has been reached in the past. But the anti-Assad opposition in Barzeh was only able to achieve better terms because it was negotiating from a position of relative strength. If the United States pressures rebel commanders to agree to local deals, and European countries make it clear that they no longer are calling for Assad’s exit, the Syrian regime will have fewer and fewer reasons to make concessions with opposition forces.

Despite the evident challenges, the Obama administration hasn’t written off calls for “freeze zones” or local cease-fires — there are, after all, vanishingly few other options to stem the violence in Syria. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that the White House was “looking at ways short of a full political transition to diminish the conflict,” including de Mistura’s freeze plan, even though it believed the U.N. initiative had a slim chance of success.

The former U.N. official also sounded a pessimistic note about this being an exit to the crisis: “To be honest with you,” the official said, “I personally don’t know if I agree to call them local cease-fires, or just local surrenders.”




One thing more shocking than the CIA torture report is America's response to it


THE REPORT by the US Senate intelligence committee on CIA torture of detainees is shocking. Shocking because of the methods used, the scale of lies and deceit from a government agency, the extent of the grisly acts of torture.

But to at least some of us this information is not exactly new. In the more than 13 years since the War on Terror began we have witnessed the detention without trial of thousands in Guantanamo Bay, the well documented abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, the rendition of prisoners to countries such as Libya, the accounts from whistleblowers such as Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

But perhaps as shocking as the events themselves is the response that the report has received. The architect of the War on Terror, George W Bush, has launched a counter offensive against the report. Backed up by his former vice president, Dick Cheney, who describes the report as ‘a crock’, and by the array of right wing talk shows which the US is burdened with.

Their arguments can be summarised as follows: torture saved lives; publication of the report will cause further conflicts in the Middle East; these people hate us; what do you expect after the events of 9/11? That’s about it.

Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat senator who chairs the committee, tends to partially accept the last justification. Yet the torture was no more justified than the war itself, a response to the terrible killing of 3,000 people which succeeded in killing hundreds of thousands and laying waste to huge areas of south Asia and the Middle East.

Feinstein and the report find that no lives were saved as a result of the torture. It is almost certain that the existence of these methods has the opposite effect, prompting people to take up arms against the US or carry out terrorist acts. The idea that not publishing the report would help prevent unrest in the Middle East would be laughable if it did not display such a wilful ignorance and contempt for the people of the region. There is a very widespread awareness of what goes on, and it is one reason that the US has never come close to winning hearts and minds there.

What of our own government’s role in all of this? The redactions and omissions in the report ensure that this is not mentioned. Yet we know that the British base in Diego Garcia was used for rendition, as was Prestwick airport in Scotland, raising the obvious question of whether Labour ministers, including then Prime Minister Tony Blair and foreign secretary Jack Straw, were aware of this at the time. We know that detainee Binyam Mohammed said MI5 agents fed information and questions to his interrogators in the CIA.

The report names a military base in Poland used for torture as a ‘black site’, showing that the practice extended to the heart of the ‘new Europe’ as east European states were welcomed into the EU and Nato. There are many other countries suspected of containing such torture and rendition sites.

If all this were just history that would be bad enough. But war rages in Iraq and Syria, there is a new Cold War in eastern Europe, and the same people who urged intervention a decade or more ago are now filling the airwaves with justifications for torture and rendition.

Dianne Feinstein has claimed that torture does not reflect US values. Perhaps the really shocking thing is that it does.
Source: The Independent

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One thing more shocking than the CIA torture report is America's response to it

***
SOURCE | http://stopwar.org.uk/news/one-thing-more-shocking-than-the-cia-torture-report-is-america-s-response-to-it

Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth


(updated and expanded version, January 2007)

I. For Lords and Lamas

Along with the blood drenched landscape of religious conflict there is the experience of inner peace and solace that every religion promises, none more so than Buddhism. Standing in marked contrast to the intolerant savagery of other religions, Buddhism is neither fanatical nor dogmatic--so say its adherents. For many of them Buddhism is less a theology and more a meditative and investigative discipline intended to promote an inner harmony and enlightenment while directing us to a path of right living. Generally, the spiritual focus is not only on oneself but on the welfare of others. One tries to put aside egoistic pursuits and gain a deeper understanding of one’s connection to all people and things. “Socially engaged Buddhism” tries to blend individual liberation with responsible social action in order to build an enlightened society.

A glance at history, however, reveals that not all the many and widely varying forms of Buddhism have been free of doctrinal fanaticism, nor free of the violent and exploitative pursuits so characteristic of other religions. In Sri Lanka there is a legendary and almost sacred recorded history about the triumphant battles waged by Buddhist kings of yore. During the twentieth century, Buddhists clashed violently with each other and with non-Buddhists in Thailand, Burma, Korea, Japan, India, and elsewhere. In Sri Lanka, armed battles between Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils have taken many lives on both sides. In 1998 the U.S. State Department listed thirty of the world’s most violent and dangerous extremist groups. Over half of them were religious, specifically Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist. 1

In South Korea, in 1998, thousands of monks of the Chogye Buddhist order fought each other with fists, rocks, fire-bombs, and clubs, in pitched battles that went on for weeks. They were vying for control of the order, the largest in South Korea, with its annual budget of $9.2 million, its millions of dollars worth of property, and the privilege of appointing 1,700 monks to various offices. The brawls damaged the main Buddhist sanctuaries and left dozens of monks injured, some seriously. The Korean public appeared to disdain both factions, feeling that no matter what side took control, “it would use worshippers’ donations for luxurious houses and expensive cars.” 2

As with any religion, squabbles between or within Buddhist sects are often fueled by the material corruption and personal deficiencies of the leadership. For example, in Nagano, Japan, at Zenkoji, the prestigious complex of temples that has hosted Buddhist sects for more than 1,400 years, “a nasty battle” arose between Komatsu the chief priest and the Tacchu, a group of temples nominally under the chief priest's sway. The Tacchu monks accused Komatsu of selling writings and drawings under the temple's name for his own gain. They also were appalled by the frequency with which he was seen in the company of women. Komatsu in turn sought to isolate and punish monks who were critical of his leadership. The conflict lasted some five years and made it into the courts. 3

But what of Tibetan Buddhism? Is it not an exception to this sort of strife? And what of the society it helped to create? Many Buddhists maintain that, before the Chinese crackdown in 1959, old Tibet was a spiritually oriented kingdom free from the egotistical lifestyles, empty materialism, and corrupting vices that beset modern industrialized society. Western news media, travel books, novels, and Hollywood films have portrayed the Tibetan theocracy as a veritable Shangri-La. The Dalai Lama himself stated that “the pervasive influence of Buddhism” in Tibet, “amid the wide open spaces of an unspoiled environment resulted in a society dedicated to peace and harmony. We enjoyed freedom and contentment.” 4

A reading of Tibet’s history suggests a somewhat different picture. “Religious conflict was commonplace in old Tibet,” writes one western Buddhist practitioner. “History belies the Shangri-La image of Tibetan lamas and their followers living together in mutual tolerance and nonviolent goodwill. Indeed, the situation was quite different. Old Tibet was much more like Europe during the religious wars of the Counterreformation.” 5 In the thirteenth century, Emperor Kublai Khan created the first Grand Lama, who was to preside over all the other lamas as might a pope over his bishops. Several centuries later, the Emperor of China sent an army into Tibet to support the Grand Lama, an ambitious 25-year-old man, who then gave himself the title of Dalai (Ocean) Lama, ruler of all Tibet.

His two previous lama “incarnations” were then retroactively recognized as his predecessors, thereby transforming the 1st Dalai Lama into the 3rd Dalai Lama. This 1st (or 3rd) Dalai Lama seized monasteries that did not belong to his sect, and is believed to have destroyed Buddhist writings that conflicted with his claim to divinity. The Dalai Lama who succeeded him pursued a sybaritic life, enjoying many mistresses, partying with friends, and acting in other ways deemed unfitting for an incarnate deity. For these transgressions he was murdered by his priests. Within 170 years, despite their recognized divine status, five Dalai Lamas were killed by their high priests or other courtiers. 6

For hundreds of years competing Tibetan Buddhist sects engaged in bitterly violent clashes and summary executions. In 1660, the 5th Dalai Lama was faced with a rebellion in Tsang province, the stronghold of the rival Kagyu sect with its high lama known as the Karmapa. The 5th Dalai Lama called for harsh retribution against the rebels, directing the Mongol army to obliterate the male and female lines, and the offspring too “like eggs smashed against rocks…. In short, annihilate any traces of them, even their names.” 7

In 1792, many Kagyu monasteries were confiscated and their monks were forcibly converted to the Gelug sect (the Dalai Lama’s denomination). The Gelug school, known also as the “Yellow Hats,” showed little tolerance or willingness to mix their teachings with other Buddhist sects. In the words of one of their traditional prayers: “Praise to you, violent god of the Yellow Hat teachings/who reduces to particles of dust/ great beings, high officials and ordinary people/ who pollute and corrupt the Gelug doctrine.” 8 An eighteenth-century memoir of a Tibetan general depicts sectarian strife among Buddhists that is as brutal and bloody as any religious conflict might be. 9 This grim history remains largely unvisited by present-day followers of Tibetan Buddhism in the West.

Religions have had a close relationship not only with violence but with economic exploitation. Indeed, it is often the economic exploitation that necessitates the violence. Such was the case with the Tibetan theocracy. Until 1959, when the Dalai Lama last presided over Tibet, most of the arable land was still organized into manorial estates worked by serfs. These estates were owned by two social groups: the rich secular landlords and the rich theocratic lamas. Even a writer sympathetic to the old order allows that “a great deal of real estate belonged to the monasteries, and most of them amassed great riches.” Much of the wealth was accumulated “through active participation in trade, commerce, and money lending.” 10

Drepung monastery was one of the biggest landowners in the world, with its 185 manors, 25,000 serfs, 300 great pastures, and 16,000 herdsmen. The wealth of the monasteries rested in the hands of small numbers of high-ranking lamas. Most ordinary monks lived modestly and had no direct access to great wealth. The Dalai Lama himself “lived richly in the 1000-room, 14-story Potala Palace.” 11

Secular leaders also did well. A notable example was the commander-in-chief of the Tibetan army, a member of the Dalai Lama’s lay Cabinet, who owned 4,000 square kilometers of land and 3,500 serfs. 12 Old Tibet has been misrepresented by some Western admirers as “a nation that required no police force because its people voluntarily observed the laws of karma.” 13 In fact. it had a professional army, albeit a small one, that served mainly as a gendarmerie for the landlords to keep order, protect their property, and hunt down runaway serfs.

Young Tibetan boys were regularly taken from their peasant families and brought into the monasteries to be trained as monks. Once there, they were bonded for life. Tashì-Tsering, a monk, reports that it was common for peasant children to be sexually mistreated in the monasteries. He himself was a victim of repeated rape, beginning at age nine. 14 The monastic estates also conscripted children for lifelong servitude as domestics, dance performers, and soldiers.

In old Tibet there were small numbers of farmers who subsisted as a kind of free peasantry, and perhaps an additional 10,000 people who composed the “middle-class” families of merchants, shopkeepers, and small traders. Thousands of others were beggars. There also were slaves, usually domestic servants, who owned nothing. Their offspring were born into slavery.15 The majority of the rural population were serfs. Treated little better than slaves, the serfs went without schooling or medical care, They were under a lifetime bond to work the lord's land--or the monastery’s land--without pay, to repair the lord's houses, transport his crops, and collect his firewood. They were also expected to provide carrying animals and transportation on demand.16 Their masters told them what crops to grow and what animals to raise. They could not get married without the consent of their lord or lama. And they might easily be separated from their families should their owners lease them out to work in a distant location. 17

As in a free labor system and unlike slavery, the overlords had no responsibility for the serf’s maintenance and no direct interest in his or her survival as an expensive piece of property. The serfs had to support themselves. Yet as in a slave system, they were bound to their masters, guaranteeing a fixed and permanent workforce that could neither organize nor strike nor freely depart as might laborers in a market context. The overlords had the best of both worlds.

One 22-year old woman, herself a runaway serf, reports: “Pretty serf girls were usually taken by the owner as house servants and used as he wished”; they “were just slaves without rights.”18 Serfs needed permission to go anywhere. Landowners had legal authority to capture those who tried to flee. One 24-year old runaway welcomed the Chinese intervention as a “liberation.” He testified that under serfdom he was subjected to incessant toil, hunger, and cold. After his third failed escape, he was merciless beaten by the landlord’s men until blood poured from his nose and mouth. They then poured alcohol and caustic soda on his wounds to increase the pain, he claimed.19

The serfs were taxed upon getting married, taxed for the birth of each child and for every death in the family. They were taxed for planting a tree in their yard and for keeping animals. They were taxed for religious festivals and for public dancing and drumming, for being sent to prison and upon being released. Those who could not find work were taxed for being unemployed, and if they traveled to another village in search of work, they paid a passage tax. When people could not pay, the monasteries lent them money at 20 to 50 percent interest. Some debts were handed down from father to son to grandson. Debtors who could not meet their obligations risked being cast into slavery.20

The theocracy’s religious teachings buttressed its class order. The poor and afflicted were taught that they had brought their troubles upon themselves because of their wicked ways in previous lives. Hence they had to accept the misery of their present existence as a karmic atonement and in anticipation that their lot would improve in their next lifetime. The rich and powerful treated their good fortune as a reward for, and tangible evidence of, virtue in past and present lives.

The Tibetan serfs were something more than superstitious victims, blind to their own oppression. As we have seen, some ran away; others openly resisted, sometimes suffering dire consequences. In feudal Tibet, torture and mutilation--including eye gouging, the pulling out of tongues, hamstringing, and amputation--were favored punishments inflicted upon thieves, and runaway or resistant serfs. Journeying through Tibet in the 1960s, Stuart and Roma Gelder interviewed a former serf, Tsereh Wang Tuei, who had stolen two sheep belonging to a monastery. For this he had both his eyes gouged out and his hand mutilated beyond use. He explains that he no longer is a Buddhist: “When a holy lama told them to blind me I thought there was no good in religion.”21 Since it was against Buddhist teachings to take human life, some offenders were severely lashed and then “left to God” in the freezing night to die. “The parallels between Tibet and medieval Europe are striking,” concludes Tom Grunfeld in his book on Tibet. 22

In 1959, Anna Louise Strong visited an exhibition of torture equipment that had been used by the Tibetan overlords. There were handcuffs of all sizes, including small ones for children, and instruments for cutting off noses and ears, gouging out eyes, breaking off hands, and hamstringing legs. There were hot brands, whips, and special implements for disemboweling. The exhibition presented photographs and testimonies of victims who had been blinded or crippled or suffered amputations for thievery. There was the shepherd whose master owed him a reimbursement in yuan and wheat but refused to pay. So he took one of the master’s cows; for this he had his hands severed. Another herdsman, who opposed having his wife taken from him by his lord, had his hands broken off. There were pictures of Communist activists with noses and upper lips cut off, and a woman who was raped and then had her nose sliced away.23

Earlier visitors to Tibet commented on the theocratic despotism. In 1895, an Englishman, Dr. A. L. Waddell, wrote that the populace was under the “intolerable tyranny of monks” and the devil superstitions they had fashioned to terrorize the people. In 1904 Perceval Landon described the Dalai Lama’s rule as “an engine of oppression.” At about that time, another English traveler, Captain W.F.T. O’Connor, observed that “the great landowners and the priests… exercise each in their own dominion a despotic power from which there is no appeal,” while the people are “oppressed by the most monstrous growth of monasticism and priest-craft.” Tibetan rulers “invented degrading legends and stimulated a spirit of superstition” among the common people. In 1937, another visitor, Spencer Chapman, wrote, “The Lamaist monk does not spend his time in ministering to the people or educating them. . . . The beggar beside the road is nothing to the monk. Knowledge is the jealously guarded prerogative of the monasteries and is used to increase their influence and wealth.”24 As much as we might wish otherwise, feudal theocratic Tibet was a far cry from the romanticized Shangri La so enthusiastically nurtured by Buddhism’s western proselytes.
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II. Secularization vs. Spirituality

What happened to Tibet after the Chinese Communists moved into the country in 1951? The treaty of that year provided for ostensible self-governance under the Dalai Lama’s rule but gave China military control and exclusive right to conduct foreign relations. The Chinese were also granted a direct role in internal administration “to promote social reforms.” Among the earliest changes they wrought was to reduce usurious interest rates, and build a few hospitals and roads. At first, they moved slowly, relying mostly on persuasion in an attempt to effect reconstruction. No aristocratic or monastic property was confiscated, and feudal lords continued to reign over their hereditarily bound peasants. “Contrary to popular belief in the West,” claims one observer, the Chinese “took care to show respect for Tibetan culture and religion.”25

Over the centuries the Tibetan lords and lamas had seen Chinese come and go, and had enjoyed good relations with Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek and his reactionary Kuomintang rule in China.26 The approval of the Kuomintang government was needed to validate the choice of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. When the current 14th Dalai Lama was first installed in Lhasa, it was with an armed escort of Chinese troops and an attending Chinese minister, in accordance with centuries-old tradition. What upset the Tibetan lords and lamas in the early 1950s was that these latest Chinese were Communists. It would be only a matter of time, they feared, before the Communists started imposing their collectivist egalitarian schemes upon Tibet.

The issue was joined in 1956-57, when armed Tibetan bands ambushed convoys of the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army. The uprising received extensive assistance from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), including military training, support camps in Nepal, and numerous airlifts.27 Meanwhile in the United States, the American Society for a Free Asia, a CIA-financed front, energetically publicized the cause of Tibetan resistance, with the Dalai Lama’s eldest brother, Thubtan Norbu, playing an active role in that organization. The Dalai Lama's second-eldest brother, Gyalo Thondup, established an intelligence operation with the CIA as early as 1951. He later upgraded it into a CIA-trained guerrilla unit whose recruits parachuted back into Tibet.28

Many Tibetan commandos and agents whom the CIA dropped into the country were chiefs of aristocratic clans or the sons of chiefs. Ninety percent of them were never heard from again, according to a report from the CIA itself, meaning they were most likely captured and killed.29“Many lamas and lay members of the elite and much of the Tibetan army joined the uprising, but in the main the populace did not, assuring its failure,” writes Hugh Deane.30 In their book on Tibet, Ginsburg and Mathos reach a similar conclusion: “As far as can be ascertained, the great bulk of the common people of Lhasa and of the adjoining countryside failed to join in the fighting against the Chinese both when it first began and as it progressed.”31 Eventually the resistance crumbled.

Whatever wrongs and new oppressions introduced by the Chinese after 1959, they did abolish slavery and the Tibetan serfdom system of unpaid labor. They eliminated the many crushing taxes, started work projects, and greatly reduced unemployment and beggary. They established secular schools, thereby breaking the educational monopoly of the monasteries. And they constructed running water and electrical systems in Lhasa.32

Heinrich Harrer (later revealed to have been a sergeant in Hitler’s SS) wrote a bestseller about his experiences in Tibet that was made into a popular Hollywood movie. He reported that the Tibetans who resisted the Chinese “were predominantly nobles, semi-nobles and lamas; they were punished by being made to perform the lowliest tasks, such as laboring on roads and bridges. They were further humiliated by being made to clean up the city before the tourists arrived.” They also had to live in a camp originally reserved for beggars and vagrants--all of which Harrer treats as sure evidence of the dreadful nature of the Chinese occupation.33

By 1961, Chinese occupation authorities expropriated the landed estates owned by lords and lamas. They distributed many thousands of acres to tenant farmers and landless peasants, reorganizing them into hundreds of communes.. Herds once owned by nobility were turned over to collectives of poor shepherds. Improvements were made in the breeding of livestock, and new varieties of vegetables and new strains of wheat and barley were introduced, along with irrigation improvements, all of which reportedly led to an increase in agrarian production.34

Many peasants remained as religious as ever, giving alms to the clergy. But monks who had been conscripted as children into the religious orders were now free to renounce the monastic life, and thousands did, especially the younger ones. The remaining clergy lived on modest government stipends and extra income earned by officiating at prayer services, weddings, and funerals.35

Both the Dalai Lama and his advisor and youngest brother, Tendzin Choegyal, claimed that “more than 1.2 million Tibetans are dead as a result of the Chinese occupation.”36 The official 1953 census--six years before the Chinese crackdown--recorded the entire population residing in Tibet at 1,274,000.37 Other census counts put the population within Tibet at about two million. If the Chinese killed 1.2 million in the early 1960s then almost all of Tibet, would have been depopulated, transformed into a killing field dotted with death camps and mass graves--of which we have no evidence. The thinly distributed Chinese force in Tibet could not have rounded up, hunted down, and exterminated that many people even if it had spent all its time doing nothing else.

Chinese authorities claim to have put an end to floggings, mutilations, and amputations as a form of criminal punishment. They themselves, however, have been charged with acts of brutality by exile Tibetans. The authorities do admit to “mistakes,” particularly during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution when the persecution of religious beliefs reached a high tide in both China and Tibet. After the uprising in the late 1950s, thousands of Tibetans were incarcerated. During the Great Leap Forward, forced collectivization and grain farming were imposed on the Tibetan peasantry, sometimes with disastrous effect on production. In the late 1970s, China began relaxing controls “and tried to undo some of the damage wrought during the previous two decades.”38

In 1980, the Chinese government initiated reforms reportedly designed to grant Tibet a greater degree of self-rule and self-administration. Tibetans would now be allowed to cultivate private plots, sell their harvest surpluses, decide for themselves what crops to grow, and keep yaks and sheep. Communication with the outside world was again permitted, and frontier controls were eased to permit some Tibetans to visit exiled relatives in India and Nepal.39 By the 1980s many of the principal lamas had begun to shuttle back and forth between China and the exile communities abroad, “restoring their monasteries in Tibet and helping to revitalize Buddhism there.”40

As of 2007 Tibetan Buddhism was still practiced widely and tolerated by officialdom. Religious pilgrimages and other standard forms of worship were allowed but within limits. All monks and nuns had to sign a loyalty pledge that they would not use their religious position to foment secession or dissent. And displaying photos of the Dalai Lama was declared illegal.41

In the 1990s, the Han, the ethnic group comprising over 95 percent of China’s immense population, began moving in substantial numbers into Tibet. On the streets of Lhasa and Shigatse, signs of Han colonization are readily visible. Chinese run the factories and many of the shops and vending stalls. Tall office buildings and large shopping centers have been built with funds that might have been better spent on water treatment plants and housing. Chinese cadres in Tibet too often view their Tibetan neighbors as backward and lazy, in need of economic development and “patriotic education.” During the 1990s Tibetan government employees suspected of harboring nationalist sympathies were purged from office, and campaigns were once again launched to discredit the Dalai Lama. Individual Tibetans reportedly were subjected to arrest, imprisonment, and forced labor for carrying out separatist activities and engaging in “political subversion.” Some were held in administrative detention without adequate food, water, and blankets, subjected to threats, beatings, and other mistreatment.42

Tibetan history, culture, and certainly religion are slighted in schools. Teaching materials, though translated into Tibetan, focus mainly on Chinese history and culture. Chinese family planning regulations allow a three-child limit for Tibetan families. (There is only a one-child limit for Han families throughout China, and a two-child limit for rural Han families whose first child is a girl.) If a Tibetan couple goes over the three-child limit, the excess children can be denied subsidized daycare, health care, housing, and education. These penalties have been enforced irregularly and vary by district.43 None of these child services, it should be noted, were available to Tibetans before the Chinese takeover.

For the rich lamas and secular lords, the Communist intervention was an unmitigated calamity. Most of them fled abroad, as did the Dalai Lama himself, who was assisted in his flight by the CIA. Some discovered to their horror that they would have to work for a living. Many, however, escaped that fate. Throughout the 1960s, the Tibetan exile community was secretly pocketing $1.7 million a year from the CIA, according to documents released by the State Department in 1998. Once this fact was publicized, the Dalai Lama’s organization itself issued a statement admitting that it had received millions of dollars from the CIA during the 1960s to send armed squads of exiles into Tibet to undermine the Maoist revolution. The Dalai Lama's annual payment from the CIA was $186,000. Indian intelligence also financed both him and other Tibetan exiles. He has refused to say whether he or his brothers worked for the CIA. The agency has also declined to comment.44

In 1995, the News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina, carried a frontpage color photograph of the Dalai Lama being embraced by the reactionary Republican senator Jesse Helms, under the headline “Buddhist Captivates Hero of Religious Right.”45 In April 1999, along with Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and the first George Bush, the Dalai Lama called upon the British government to release Augusto Pinochet, the former fascist dictator of Chile and a longtime CIA client who was visiting England. The Dalai Lama urged that Pinochet not be forced to go to Spain where he was wanted to stand trial for crimes against humanity.

Into the twenty-first century, via the National Endowment for Democracy and other conduits that are more respectable sounding than the CIA, the U.S. Congress continued to allocate an annual $2 million to Tibetans in India, with additional millions for “democracy activities” within the Tibetan exile community. In addition to these funds, the Dalai Lama received money from financier George Soros.46

Whatever the Dalai Lama’s associations with the CIA and various reactionaries, he did speak often of peace, love, and nonviolence. He himself really cannot be blamed for the abuses of Tibet’s ancien régime, having been but 25 years old when he fled into exile. In a 1994 interview, he went on record as favoring the building of schools and roads in his country. He said the corvée (forced unpaid serf labor) and certain taxes imposed on the peasants were “extremely bad.” And he disliked the way people were saddled with old debts sometimes passed down from generation to generation.47During the half century of living in the western world, he had embraced concepts such as human rights and religious freedom, ideas largely unknown in old Tibet. He even proposed democracy for Tibet, featuring a written constitution and a representative assembly.48

In 1996, the Dalai Lama issued a statement that must have had an unsettling effect on the exile community. It read in part: “Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability.” Marxism fosters “the equitable utilization of the means of production” and cares about “the fate of the working classes” and “the victims of . . . exploitation. For those reasons the system appeals to me, and . . . I think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.49

But he also sent a reassuring message to “those who live in abundance”: “It is a good thing to be rich... Those are the fruits for deserving actions, the proof that they have been generous in the past.” And to the poor he offers this admonition: “There is no good reason to become bitter and rebel against those who have property and fortune... It is better to develop a positive attitude.”50

In 2005 the Dalai Lama signed a widely advertised statement along with ten other Nobel Laureates supporting the “inalienable and fundamental human right” of working people throughout the world to form labor unions to protect their interests, in accordance with the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In many countries “this fundamental right is poorly protected and in some it is explicitly banned or brutally suppressed,” the statement read. Burma, China, Colombia, Bosnia, and a few other countries were singled out as among the worst offenders. Even the United States “fails to adequately protect workers’ rights to form unions and bargain collectively. Millions of U.S. workers lack any legal protection to form unions….”51

The Dalai Lama also gave full support to removing the ingrained traditional obstacles that have kept Tibetan nuns from receiving an education. Upon arriving in exile, few nuns could read or write. In Tibet their activities had been devoted to daylong periods of prayer and chants. But in northern India they now began reading Buddhist philosophy and engaging in theological study and debate, activities that in old Tibet had been open only to monks.52

In November 2005 the Dalai Lama spoke at Stanford University on “The Heart of Nonviolence,” but stopped short of a blanket condemnation of all violence. Violent actions that are committed in order to reduce future suffering are not to be condemned, he said, citing World War II as an example of a worthy effort to protect democracy. What of the four years of carnage and mass destruction in Iraq, a war condemned by most of the world—even by a conservative pope--as a blatant violation of international law and a crime against humanity? The Dalai Lama was undecided: “The Iraq war—it’s too early to say, right or wrong.”53 Earlier he had voiced support for the U.S. military intervention against Yugoslavia and, later on, the U.S. military intervention into Afghanistan.54


III. Exit Feudal Theocracy

As the Shangri-La myth would have it, in old Tibet the people lived in contented and tranquil symbiosis with their monastic and secular lords. Rich lamas and poor monks, wealthy landlords and impoverished serfs were all bonded together, mutually sustained by the comforting balm of a deeply spiritual and pacific culture.

One is reminded of the idealized image of feudal Europe presented by latter-day conservative Catholics such as G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. For them, medieval Christendom was a world of contented peasants living in the secure embrace of their Church, under the more or less benign protection of their lords.55 Again we are invited to accept a particular culture in its idealized form divorced from its murky material history. This means accepting it as presented by its favored class, by those who profited most from it. The Shangri-La image of Tibet bears no more resemblance to historic actuality than does the pastoral image of medieval Europe.

Seen in all its grim realities, old Tibet confirms the view I expressed in an earlier book, namely that culture is anything but neutral. Culture can operate as a legitimating cover for a host of grave injustices, benefiting a privileged portion of society at great cost to the rest.56 In theocratic feudal Tibet, ruling interests manipulated the traditional culture to fortify their own wealth and power. The theocracy equated rebellious thought and action with satanic influence. It propagated the general presumption of landlord superiority and peasant unworthiness. The rich were represented as deserving their good life, and the lowly poor as deserving their mean existence, all codified in teachings about the karmic residue of virtue and vice accumulated from past lives, presented as part of God’s will.

Were the more affluent lamas just hypocrites who preached one thing and secretly believed another? More likely they were genuinely attached to those beliefs that brought such good results for them. That their theology so perfectly supported their material privileges only strengthened the sincerity with which it was embraced.

It might be said that we denizens of the modern secular world cannot grasp the equations of happiness and pain, contentment and custom, that characterize more traditionally spiritual societies. This is probably true, and it may explain why some of us idealize such societies. But still, a gouged eye is a gouged eye; a flogging is a flogging; and the grinding exploitation of serfs and slaves is a brutal class injustice whatever its cultural wrapping. There is a difference between a spiritual bond and human bondage, even when both exist side by side

Many ordinary Tibetans want the Dalai Lama back in their country, but it appears that relatively few want a return to the social order he represented. A 1999 story in the Washington Post notes that the Dalai Lama continues to be revered in Tibet, but 

. . . few Tibetans would welcome a return of the corrupt aristocratic clans that fled with him in 1959 and that comprise the bulk of his advisers. Many Tibetan farmers, for example, have no interest in surrendering the land they gained during China’s land reform to the clans. Tibet’s former slaves say they, too, don’t want their former masters to return to power. “I’ve already lived that life once before,” said Wangchuk, a 67-year-old former slave who was wearing his best clothes for his yearly pilgrimage to Shigatse, one of the holiest sites of Tibetan Buddhism. He said he worshipped the Dalai Lama, but added, “I may not be free under Chinese communism, but I am better off than when I was a slave.”57

It should be noted that the Dalai Lama is not the only highly placed lama chosen in childhood as a reincarnation. One or another reincarnate lama or tulku--a spiritual teacher of special purity elected to be reborn again and again--can be found presiding over most major monasteries. The tulku system is unique to Tibetan Buddhism. Scores of Tibetan lamas claim to be reincarnate tulkus.

The very first tulku was a lama known as the Karmapa who appeared nearly three centuries before the first Dalai Lama. The Karmapa is leader of a Tibetan Buddhist tradition known as the Karma Kagyu. The rise of the Gelugpa sect headed by the Dalai Lama led to a politico-religious rivalry with the Kagyu that has lasted five hundred years and continues to play itself out within the Tibetan exile community today. That the Kagyu sect has grown famously, opening some six hundred new centers around the world in the last thirty-five years, has not helped the situation.

The search for a tulku, Erik Curren reminds us, has not always been conducted in that purely spiritual mode portrayed in certain Hollywood films. “Sometimes monastic officials wanted a child from a powerful local noble family to give the cloister more political clout. Other times they wanted a child from a lower-class family who would have little leverage to influence the child’s upbringing.” On other occasions “a local warlord, the Chinese emperor or even the Dalai Lama’s government in Lhasa might [have tried] to impose its choice of tulku on a monastery for political reasons.”58

Such may have been the case in the selection of the 17th Karmapa, whose monastery-in-exile is situated in Rumtek, in the Indian state of Sikkim. In 1993 the monks of the Karma Kagyu tradition had a candidate of their own choice. The Dalai Lama, along with several dissenting Karma Kagyu leaders (and with the support of the Chinese government!) backed a different boy. The Kagyu monks charged that the Dalai Lama had overstepped his authority in attempting to select a leader for their sect. “Neither his political role nor his position as a lama in his own Gelugpa tradition entitled him to choose the Karmapa, who is a leader of a different tradition…”59 As one of the Kagyu leaders insisted, “Dharma is about thinking for yourself. It is not about automatically following a teacher in all things, no matter how respected that teacher may be. More than anyone else, Buddhists should respect other people’s rights—their human rights and their religious freedom.”60

What followed was a dozen years of conflict in the Tibetan exile community, punctuated by intermittent riots, intimidation, physical attacks, blacklisting, police harassment, litigation, official corruption, and the looting and undermining of the Karmapa’s monastery in Rumtek by supporters of the Gelugpa faction. All this has caused at least one western devotee to wonder if the years of exile were not hastening the moral corrosion of Tibetan Buddhism.61

What is clear is that not all Tibetan Buddhists accept the Dalai Lama as their theological and spiritual mentor. Though he is referred to as the “spiritual leader of Tibet,” many see this title as little more than a formality. It does not give him authority over the four religious schools of Tibet other than his own, “just as calling the U.S. president the ‘leader of the free world’ gives him no role in governing France or Germany.”62

Not all Tibetan exiles are enamoured of the old Shangri-La theocracy. Kim Lewis, who studied healing methods with a Buddhist monk in Berkeley, California, had occasion to talk at length with more than a dozen Tibetan women who lived in the monk’s building. When she asked how they felt about returning to their homeland, the sentiment was unanimously negative. At first, Lewis assumed that their reluctance had to do with the Chinese occupation, but they quickly informed her otherwise. They said they were extremely grateful “not to have to marry 4 or 5 men, be pregnant almost all the time,” or deal with sexually transmitted diseases contacted from a straying husband. The younger women “were delighted to be getting an education, wanted absolutely nothing to do with any religion, and wondered why Americans were so naïve [about Tibet].”63

The women interviewed by Lewis recounted stories of their grandmothers’ ordeals with monks who used them as “wisdom consorts.” By sleeping with the monks, the grandmothers were told, they gained “the means to enlightenment” -- after all, the Buddha himself had to be with a woman to reach enlightenment.

The women also mentioned the “rampant” sex that the supposedly spiritual and abstemious monks practiced with each other in the Gelugpa sect. The women who were mothers spoke bitterly about the monastery’s confiscation of their young boys in Tibet. They claimed that when a boy cried for his mother, he would be told “Why do you cry for her, she gave you up--she's just a woman.”

The monks who were granted political asylum in California applied for public assistance. Lewis, herself a devotee for a time, assisted with the paperwork. She observes that they continue to receive government checks amounting to $550 to $700 per month along with Medicare. In addition, the monks reside rent free in nicely furnished apartments. “They pay no utilities, have free access to the Internet on computers provided for them, along with fax machines, free cell and home phones and cable TV.”

They also receive a monthly payment from their order, along with contributions and dues from their American followers. Some devotees eagerly carry out chores for the monks, including grocery shopping and cleaning their apartments and toilets. These same holy men, Lewis remarks, “have no problem criticizing Americans for their ‘obsession with material things.’”64

To welcome the end of the old feudal theocracy in Tibet is not to applaud everything about Chinese rule in that country. This point is seldom understood by today’s Shangri-La believers in the West. The converse is also true: To denounce the Chinese occupation does not mean we have to romanticize the former feudal régime. Tibetans deserve to be perceived as actual people, not perfected spiritualists or innocent political symbols. “To idealize them,” notes Ma Jian, a dissident Chinese traveler to Tibet (now living in Britain), “is to deny them their humanity.”65

One common complaint among Buddhist followers in the West is that Tibet’s religious culture is being undermined by the Chinese occupation. To some extent this seems to be the case. Many of the monasteries are closed, and much of the theocracy seems to have passed into history. Whether Chinese rule has brought betterment or disaster is not the central issue here. The question is what kind of country was old Tibet. What I am disputing is the supposedly pristine spiritual nature of that pre-invasion culture. We can advocate religious freedom and independence for a new Tibet without having to embrace the mythology about old Tibet.Tibetan feudalism was cloaked in Buddhism, but the two are not to be equated. In reality, old Tibet was not a Paradise Lost. It was a retrograde repressive theocracy of extreme privilege and poverty, a long way from Shangri-La.

Finally, let it be said that if Tibet’s future is to be positioned somewhere within China’s emerging free-market paradise, then this does not bode well for the Tibetans. China boasts a dazzling 8 percent economic growth rate and is emerging as one of the world’s greatest industrial powers. But with economic growth has come an ever deepening gulf between rich and poor. Most Chinese live close to the poverty level or well under it, while a small group of newly brooded capitalists profit hugely in collusion with shady officials. Regional bureaucrats milk the country dry, extorting graft from the populace and looting local treasuries. Land grabbing in cities and countryside by avaricious developers and corrupt officials at the expense of the populace are almost everyday occurrences. Tens of thousands of grassroot protests and disturbances have erupted across the country, usually to be met with unforgiving police force. Corruption is so prevalent, reaching into so many places, that even the normally complacent national leadership was forced to take notice and began moving against it in late 2006.

Workers in China who try to organize labor unions in the corporate dominated “business zones” risk losing their jobs or getting beaten and imprisoned. Millions of business zone workers toil twelve-hour days at subsistence wages. With the health care system now being privatized, free or affordable medical treatment is no longer available for millions. Men have tramped into the cities in search of work, leaving an increasingly impoverished countryside populated by women, children, and the elderly. The suicide rate has increased dramatically, especially among women.66

China’s natural environment is sadly polluted. Most of its fabled rivers and many lakes are dead, producing massive fish die-offs from the billions of tons of industrial emissions and untreated human waste dumped into them. Toxic effluents, including pesticides and herbicides, seep into ground water or directly into irrigation canals. Cancer rates in villages situated along waterways have skyrocketed a thousand-fold. Hundreds of millions of urban residents breathe air rated as dangerously unhealthy, contaminated by industrial growth and the recent addition of millions of automobiles. An estimated 400,000 die prematurely every year from air pollution. Government environmental agencies have no enforcement power to stop polluters, and generally the government ignores or denies such problems, concentrating instead on industrial growth.67

China’s own scientific establishment reports that unless greenhouse gases are curbed, the nation will face massive crop failures along with catastrophic food and water shortages in the years ahead. In 2006-2007 severe drought was already afflicting southwest China.68

If China is the great success story of speedy free market development, and is to be the model and inspiration for Tibet’s future, then old feudal Tibet indeed may start looking a lot better than it actually was.

Notes:


  1. Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, (University of California Press, 2000), 6, 112-113, 157.
  2. Kyong-Hwa Seok, "Korean Monk Gangs Battle for Temple Turf," San Francisco Examiner, 3 December 1998.
  3. Los Angeles Times, February 25, 2006.
  4. Dalai Lama quoted in Donald Lopez Jr., Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1998), 205.
  5. Erik D. Curren, Buddha's Not Smiling: Uncovering Corruption at the Heart of Tibetan Buddhism Today(Alaya Press 2005), 41.
  6. Stuart Gelder and Roma Gelder, The Timely Rain: Travels in New Tibet (Monthly Review Press, 1964), 119, 123; and Melvyn C. Goldstein, The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama (University of California Press, 1995), 6-16.
  7. Curren, Buddha's Not Smiling, 50.
  8. Stephen Bachelor, "Letting Daylight into Magic: The Life and Times of Dorje Shugden," Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, 7, Spring 1998. Bachelor discusses the sectarian fanaticism and doctrinal clashes that ill fit the Western portrait of Buddhism as a non-dogmatic and tolerant tradition.
  9. Dhoring Tenzin Paljor, Autobiography, cited in Curren, Buddha's Not Smiling, 8.
  10. Pradyumna P. Karan, The Changing Face of Tibet: The Impact of Chinese Communist Ideology on the Landscape (Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1976), 64. 
  11. See Gary Wilson's report in Worker's World, 6 February 1997.
  12. Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 62 and 174.
  13. As skeptically noted by Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La, 9.
  14. Melvyn Goldstein, William Siebenschuh, and Tashì-Tsering, The Struggle for Modern Tibet: The Autobiography of Tashì-Tsering (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1997).
  15. Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 110.
  16. Melvyn C. Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet 1913-1951 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 5 and passim.
  17. Anna Louise Strong, Tibetan Interviews (Peking: New World Press, 1959), 15, 19-21, 24.
  18. Quoted in Strong, Tibetan Interviews, 25.
  19. Strong, Tibetan Interviews, 31.
  20. Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 175-176; and Strong, Tibetan Interviews, 25-26.
  21. Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 113.
  22. A. Tom Grunfeld, The Making of Modern Tibet rev. ed. (Armonk, N.Y. and London: 1996), 9 and 7-33 for a general discussion of feudal Tibet; see also Felix Greene, A Curtain of Ignorance (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961), 241-249; Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet, 3-5; and Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La, passim.
  23. Strong, Tibetan Interviews, 91-96.
  24. Waddell, Landon, O'Connor, and Chapman are quoted in Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 123-125.
  25. Goldstein, The Snow Lion and the Dragon, 52.
  26. Heinrich Harrer, Return to Tibet (New York: Schocken, 1985), 29.
  27. See Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison, The CIA's Secret War in Tibet (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2002); and William Leary, "Secret Mission to Tibet," Air & Space, December 1997/January 1998.
  28. On the CIA's links to the Dalai Lama and his family and entourage, see Loren Coleman, Tom Slick and the Search for the Yeti (London: Faber and Faber, 1989).
  29. Leary, "Secret Mission to Tibet."
  30. Hugh Deane, "The Cold War in Tibet," CovertAction Quarterly (Winter 1987).
  31. George Ginsburg and Michael Mathos Communist China and Tibet (1964), quoted in Deane, "The Cold War in Tibet." Deane notes that author Bina Roy reached a similar conclusion.
  32. See Greene, A Curtain of Ignorance, 248 and passim; and Grunfeld, The Making of Modern Tibet, passim.
  33. Harrer, Return to Tibet, 54. 
  34. Karan, The Changing Face of Tibet, 36-38, 41, 57-58; London Times, 4 July 1966.
  35. Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 29 and 47-48.
  36. Tendzin Choegyal, "The Truth about Tibet," Imprimis (publication of Hillsdale College, Michigan), April 1999.
  37. Karan, The Changing Face of Tibet, 52-53.
  38. Elaine Kurtenbach, Associate Press report, 12 February 1998.
  39. Goldstein, The Snow Lion and the Dragon, 47-48.
  40. Curren, Buddha's Not Smiling, 8.
  41. San Francisco Chonicle, 9 January 2007.
  42. Report by the International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet, A Generation in Peril (Berkeley Calif.: 2001), passim.
  43. International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet, A Generation in Peril, 66-68, 98.
  44. im Mann, "CIA Gave Aid to Tibetan Exiles in '60s, Files Show," Los Angeles Times, 15 September 1998; and New York Times, 1 October, 1998.
  45. News & Observer, 6 September 1995, cited in Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La, 3.
  46. Heather Cottin, "George Soros, Imperial Wizard," CovertAction Quarterly no. 74 (Fall 2002).
  47. Goldstein, The Snow Lion and the Dragon, 51.
  48. Tendzin Choegyal, "The Truth about Tibet."
  49. The Dalai Lama in Marianne Dresser (ed.), Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses (Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, 1996)
  50. These comments are from a book of the Dalai Lama's writings quoted in Nikolai Thyssen, "Oceaner af onkel Tom," Dagbladet Information, 29 December 2003, (translated for me by Julius Wilm). Thyssen's review (in Danish) can be found at http://www.information.dk/Indgang/VisArkiv.dna?pArtNo=20031229154141.txt.
  51. "A Global Call for Human Rights in the Workplace," New York Times, 6 December 2005.
  52. San Francisco Chronicle, 14 January 2007.
  53. San Francisco Chronicle, 5 November 2005.
  54. Times of India 13 October 2000; Samantha Conti's report, Reuter, 17 June 1994; Amitabh Pal, "The Dalai Lama Interview," Progressive, January 2006.
  55. The Gelders draw this comparison, The Timely Rain, 64.
  56. Michael Parenti, The Culture Struggle (Seven Stories, 2006).
  57. John Pomfret, "Tibet Caught in China's Web," Washington Post, 23 July 1999.
  58. Curren, Buddha's Not Smiling, 3.
  59. Curren, Buddha's Not Smiling, 13 and 138.
  60. Curren, Buddha's Not Smiling, 21.
  61. Curren, Buddha's Not Smiling, passim. For books that are favorable toward the Karmapa appointed by the Dalai Lama's faction, see Lea Terhune, Karmapa of Tibet: The Politics of Reincarnation (Wisdom Publications, 2004); Gaby Naher, Wrestling the Dragon (Rider 2004); Mick Brown, The Dance of 17 Lives (Bloomsbury 2004).
  62. Erik Curren, "Not So Easy to Say Who is Karmapa," correspondence, 22 August 2005, www.buddhistchannel.tv/index.php?id=22.1577,0,0,1,0.
  63. Kim Lewis, correspondence to me, 15 July 2004.
  64. Kim Lewis, correspondence to me, 16 July 2004.
  65. Ma Jian, Stick Out Your Tongue (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006).
  66. See the PBS documentary, China from the Inside, January 2007, KQED.PBS.org/kqed/chinanside.
  67. San Francisco Chronicle, 9 January 2007.
  68. "China: Global Warming to Cause Food Shortages," People's Weekly World, 13 January 2007

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