First World War’s Last Battle was Last Week

President Trump didn’t send Navy SEALS to intentionally kill an 8-year-old girl. But they did. When the president spoke of the January 29th Yemen raid, he mentioned the death of an American soldier and suspected terrorists but not the girl. Presidents often shade the truth. We do too. For instance, we teach our kids that the First World War ended in 1918. It didn’t. Not really. Its latest battle was Trump’s raid. The little girl was the First World War’s latest casualty.

The First World War senselessly murdered a generation and brought about transformational changes. It led to women earning the right to vote. It enabled the birth of the first Communist state that ravaged its people, conquered its neighbours, exported revolution, and contributed to the Cold War proliferation of nuclear weapons. The manner in which the First World War was settled led to the century’s second global war by making Germans susceptible to the rantings of a narcissist lunatic who promised to make Germany great again.

But the First World War spurred more than just those changes that shaped the past. To see how it affects us today, we need to go back, way back.

From the 14th to 17th centuries, the Ottoman Empire grew to rule swaths of land in north Africa, the Greek peninsula, nearly all of what we now consider the middle east, and southeast Europe all the way to Vienna. It was the world’s most advanced civilization. The multi-cultural but predominantly Islamic empire made stunning progress in mathematics, chemistry, art, and business. It rescued antiquity’s ideas by saving its libraries. The empire’s power sputtered, however, when it failed to adjust to Europe’s industrial revolution. Then, in 1914, came the war.

Germany promised to respect the Ottoman empire’s borders and so an alliance was formed. In 1915, Britain said it would help preserve the holy city of Mecca if Egypt would attack the Ottoman Turks. A year later, French and British diplomats Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot negotiated an agreement whereby their nations would help conquer and then split the Ottoman empire between them. British and empire troops were taken from the western front to attack. Rebel groups were funded and armed. More money and support flowed to the effort when Britain offered Zionists a Jewish homeland in what was then Palestine. The monarchy collapsed and the empire fell.

The Versailles victors’ conference rubber stamped the Sykes-Picot Agreement. While French, British, and American leaders spoke of people ruling themselves – self-determination – they ignored the principle when it suited their interests. They ignored it in the middle east. Nations, ethnicities, religious sects, and tribal groups within the sprawling, complex but now crushed Ottoman empire were ignored. The men in Paris simply drew arbitrary lines on a map. They invented countries from nothing, foisted leaders of their choosing upon them, and lumped competing groups within them. Syria was created. Lebanon was invented. So was Iraq and Iran and more. Meanwhile, national groups such as the Kurds were left state-less, split between what became three new countries.

The anger was immediate but protest was crushed. British and French, and later, American money protected the protectorates with blind eyes turned to whatever their chosen leaders chose to do to their people. The flowing oil enriched multinational corporations, western economies, and the tiny local, governing elites. People raged at the harsh, corrupt, secular, westernized governments. For decades, the rage burned underground.

Anger turned to action with an Iranian university philosophy professor. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was exiled in 1964 for criticizing Iran’s puppet regime that was disparaging Islamic religious scholars opposed to the ongoing secularization and westernization. From Paris, Khomeini smuggled cassette tapes back to his homeland. They contained speeches explaining that the Ottoman empire had once been the most powerful in the world but God had turned His back on its people because they had rejected Him. Allah would renew power, happiness, and sovereignty, he said, if the region’s Islamic people again lived according to His wishes. Iran’s people must first adopt orthodox Muslim lifestyles. Then they could overthrow Iran’s leader, the Shah, and create an Islamic state where religious and temporal law were one. In 1979, it happened.

The new Iranian state did as Khomeini pledged and implemented Sharia law. A similar state arose from the carnage of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Taliban leaders used different words but sought the same goals for the same reasons. But the other middle eastern states invented by the First World War remained propped up and powerful. More action was needed.

On August 11,1988, in Peshawar, Pakistan, the son of a Saudi millionaire, Osama Bin Laden, met with Saudi medical doctor Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri, and Egyptian political philosopher Sayyed Imam Al-Sharif, who is often called Dr. Fadl. They agreed that Khomeini’s vision and goal were correct. They established a new organization and plotted new tactics to pursue it. They would poke the west. They would poke it again and again until it finally reacted by attacking the middle east. Those attacks would bring the long simmering, underground rage to the streets. The pan-Arab idea would win by not losing. That is, the west would be defeated by wearing it down, as happened with the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Americans in Vietnam. The corrupt, secular middle eastern governments would then be replaced by leaders professing Sharia law. The old empire would return. It would be like the First World War had never happened. They called their new organization Al-Qaeda.

The poking began with two westerners killed at Aden’s Gold Mihor hotel in 1992. Two months later, Al-Qaeda operatives detonated a 500kg bomb at New York’s World Trade Centre. Americans screamed but did nothing. It would take more. In August 1998, American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were simultaneously attacked and 223 were killed. The Americans blew up some Al-Qaeda bases. It wasn’t enough. USS Cole was rammed and sailors were killed. The Americans blew up a few empty tents in the desert. It still wasn’t enough. In September 2001, Al-Qaeda high jackers turned planes into weapons and flew them into the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon, and a fourth plane, on its way to Washington, crashed into a Pennsylvania field. That was enough.

The Americans finally did what Bin Laden and his partners had been hoping all along and attacked Afghanistan and then Iraq. It was perfect. The Americans and their allies brought western armies to Muslim countries and killed Muslims. They desecrated the holy city of Mecca by flying missions from Saudi Arabia. Just as Bin Laden had hoped, the Americans and the west were now, more than ever, the devil to be rejected along with their devilish western ways.

It took longer than the First World War itself but eventually, the Taliban was crushed, Al-Qaeda was broken, and Bin Laden was killed. But Al-Qaeda morphed into a hundred smaller organizations and pockets of resistance without a headquarters to bomb or an army to defeat.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) became the most powerful of the angry lot. Its stated goal was familiar: to create a caliphate, one state comprising nearly all of the middle east, and united under Sharia law. In June 2014, ISIS bulldozers flattened desert berms that had demarked the Syrian-Iraqi border. ISIS leaders said they were erasing the line created by the First World War’s Sykes-Picot Agreement and Treaty of Versailles. Every western pledge to defeat ISIS was another promise to keep the old, imperial, unprincipled and artificial First World War borders in place.

Historians say the First World War resulted in the deaths of 7 million civilians and 11 million soldiers. They are wrong. Mr. Trump’s botched Yemen raid on an Al-Qaeda-held village killed an American Navy SEAL, 14 suspected militants, and 10 women and children. One of the children was an 8-year-old girl, an American citizen, born in the United States. Her name was Nawar al-Awlaki. She was shot in the neck.

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Nawar al-Awlaki (Photo: Middle East Monitor)

We should add her and the others to the First World War’s staggering statistics for the lives that ended last week are the latest casualties in a war that has yet to end.

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Orlando and the Search for Simplicity

The news usually rolls over me but Orlando struck a nerve. For some reason, the overlapping hatreds represented in the reprehensible act dropped my jaw and moistened my cheeks. It led me to consider all that I simply don’t understand. It led me to consider ancient ideas in our modern world. It led me to consider simplicity itself.

I see the world’s religions as birthday party presents. They appear in different sized and shaped boxes and wrapped in various coloured paper but they all contain the same gift. They each offer community and love. We each feel better if we are part of a group and a religion offers a group of millions spread around the globe. Meanwhile, we each feel a little better if unfathomable questions are answered such as why are we here and each offers the same answer – to love one another.

The first gift I get, for we are social animals and community is important. It is what offers warmth and belonging to those who identify as a member of the Maple Leafs nation, or a Jimmy Buffett Parrot Head, or even those collecting friends on Facebook. It is the second one, the offering of love as an answer to difficult questions, that gives me pause.

You see I used to teach world religions and so I carefully read the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran. I then read texts about each written by scholars with much bigger brains than mine. It was hard. My struggle was to reconcile the overarching message in each with some of the contradictory lines within them. Each speaks of love for all. But each also promotes intolerant exclusion. Each speaks of the Supreme Being as the only arbiter of justice. But each recommends that we judge and punish on our own. Each promotes the notion of free will. But each demands blind obedience.

Love, the primary message in each of the books, gets lost in the complexity of the contradictions.

Contradictions are fine. We are complicated beings and there are good and bad urges within us all. I am certain that only Frank Sinatra has exited this life with only a few regrets. John Lennon wrote All You Need is Love. In another song he wrote, “I’d rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man.” Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner who wrote, “All men are created equal.”

Contradictions become dangerous when we seek religion’s first gift but forget its second. As our lives become jumbled with messages about what stuff we should buy to make ourselves happier, or told to measure ourselves by the size of our cars, wallets, houses, or Facebook friend list, or slashed by lost loves, jobs, or dreams, then we tend to turn to whatever community we can. We turn to simplicity. We yearn for the comfort of simple certainty.

Unfortunately, there are too many among us ready to exploit that yearning by picking one of the many contradictions in the holy books and foisting one side as not a sliver of the truth but the whole truth. The Bible says love everyone but it also says homosexuality is wrong. The Koran says love everyone but it also demands no mercy toward one’s enemy in a time of war.

Donald Trump promotes simple answers to complex questions in his war against “the other.” ISIS does the same thing. They are both doing with the Bible and Koran as the NRA is doing with contradictions within the American Constitution. Ancient documents are being misrepresented and exploited as weapons in modern fights not to unite, as was their intention, but to divide. Not to urge conversations but to end them. Not to have us see the gifts within that would allow us to live together in peace but to reject those gifts and have us separate into smaller and smaller communities and to build walls, literally in Trump’s case, between them.

Orlando and the Search for Simplicty

(Photo: brutalpixie.com)

So today I will weep for the fallen but be wary of those speaking of Orlando by seeking simple explanations and simpler solutions. I will respect those respecting complexity. I will reject those promoting themselves and more division and greater intolerance. I will forget those saying the attack was motivated by religion and so all religion is wrong and respect those accepting that anything as complex as religion will always be available to those wishing to exploit its contradictions for selfish ends. I will also respect those who reject religion altogether as an expression of the free will that all religions espouse. I will respect those whose words and actions promote a broader community and love which, after all, beneath the different paper and within the different boxes are all religions’ primary gift.

And, in the end, I will respect those understanding that we are all in this together and that we must get through this crushing moment and the difficult challenges ahead, together.

Orlando and Simplicty

The Value of Values

Values matter. Values inform our character and offer touchstone and compass for our lives. If values are sacrificed for expediency, opportunity, or fear, we become blind wayfarers, adrift beneath a starless sky.

Values are as essential to us as individuals as to our collective selves: the nation. That is why we write them in the documents we cherish. They ring from the American constitution’s amendments, reflecting sacrifices made and victories won, as well as from the defiant, aspirational Declaration of Independence. Similarly, Canada’s constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms express values ingrained from lessons learned.

Sometimes, and seldom when seas are calm and skies blue, we are tested. The tests are not of the values themselves but of our fidelity to them.

Canadians were tested in 1914 when a ship called the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver’s harbour. Aboard were Indian families seeking to trade the corruption, poverty, and violence of their homeland for Canadian sanctuary. Officials discovered that the ship had passed through Hong Kong and so cited a 1908 law called the Continuous Passage Act which barred entrance to anyone arriving through a third country. It was a ruse. There were no direct routes from India to Canada. Canadians simply did not want Indians and certainly did not want the Komagata Maru’s 352 Sikh migrants. They were forced to steam away.

A generation later, in May 1939, the German ship St. Louis left Hamburg for Cuba. 937 Jewish refugees were fleeing Hitler’s madness. Nearly all had applied for American visas and saw Cuba as their stepping stone to freedom. Everyone knew of the Holocaust. Western newspapers had been reporting on the theft of Jewish dignity and rights and of Kristallnacht, the two horrifying nights the previous November in which synagogues and Jewish businesses were smashed. Everyone knew.

And yet, the Cuban government refused to allow the St. Louis’ passengers to disembark. The ship was forced to leave. It steamed north and when close enough to see Miami’s lights, American warships turned it away. President Roosevelt was told of the people’s plight and of their certain death if forced back to Germany, but he said nothing. A State Department telegram explained that the refugees must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” At that time, the waiting list was several years long.

The St. Louis was forced up the coast until it finally reached Halifax. Its reception was the same. The passengers were not allowed landfall. Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King was travelling in the United States at the time and referred the matter to his Immigration Branch director Frederick Charles Blair. Blair ordered the ship gone. When asked how many Jews would be allowed into Canada he retorted, “None is too many.”

The St. Louis arrived back in Europe and Belgium, Great Britain, France and the Netherlands accepted some of the passengers but not all. With options exhausted, 532 returned to Germany and 254 perished in the Holocaust’s ovens.

The Komagata Maru and St. Louis are, in essence, again at our door. This time it is Syrian refugees fleeing the horrors of a complex and brutal war. As in 1914 and 1939, many Canadians and Americans are arguing that we should bar that door. We should, it is said, ignore the fact that unless we are indigenous people that we are all from somewhere else and, more significantly, that we should ignore our values.

One argument for saying no to the refugees is that Islamic terrorists could slip in with legitimate refugees. However, we should note that recent terrorist attacks in neither Mali nor Paris were conducted by Syrians or refugees. Should we trust our screening systems and our police and security organization or should we surrender our values to the fear that of the thousands of people who could be saved that one might be dangerous? Are not domestic terrorists such as those who have blown up buildings, or crowds such as in Boston, or shot up schools, and theaters not a greater threat?

America’s Homeland Security and Canada’s RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service agree that Syrian refugees present no threat to Canada or the United States. Time Magazine reported Pentagon sources as stating that the Syrian refugees are being carefully screened and that nearly all are, “survivors of torture, victims of sexual violence, targets of political persecution, the medically needy, families with multiple children and a female head of household.”

A second argument is more disturbing. The racism that sent the Komagata Maru and St. Louis away is with us still, it’s just become more cleverly hidden. The embers of racism are kept alive not just by the obscene beliefs and actions the KKK that we seldom see but by the little racist jokes at coffee shops that we too often hear. A number of pundits, politicians, and even some who wish to be president have been fanning those embers into flames. Canadian cities have seen Muslim women harassed and a mosque in Peterborough, Ontario was burned. Donald Trump has called for a registry of Muslim Americans. Jeb Bush said that only Christian Syrians should be admitted.

Do these fears, attitudes, actions, and proposals reflect the values inherent in our founding documents? Do they reflect the lessons learned from the Komagata Maru and St. Louis, or the Holocaust, by the treatment of indigenous people, or our Second World War Japanese internment camps? What would Lincoln, Kennedy, Diefenbaker, or Pearson say? Or, if you rather, and if you believe, in the Bible’s Matthew 25:35, Jesus taught that showing love for Him was done by caring for the most needy: “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in.” And you invited me in.

The question of the Syrian refugees, like all questions, whether at home, at work, or on the national stage, circle back to values. We believe in our values or we do not. Talking about them doesn’t count. We should measure ourselves, our leaders, and our nation according to the congruency of words and actions. If we do not act according to our values then we really don’t believe in them. If community doesn’t really matter then let’s stop pretending it does. If we really don’t believe in multiculturalism or tolerance or diversity or the separation of Church and State then let’s say so. Let’s concede that all men are not really created equal after all. Let’s take a chisel to the Statue of Liberty so that it no longer proclaims:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Daily Life in Domiz refugee camp, Kurdistan Region of Iraq

(Photo: http://www.resettlement.eu)

We have a choice. We can listen to our values. Let us insist that the Komagata Maru and St. Louis incidents were aberrations from which we learned. Let us celebrate our values by living them. Let us reject those who sully established values for personal, professional, or political gains no matter how cleverly disguised as for the greater good.

We should welcome Syrian refugees because our values say that we should. And if all that is not enough, there is one more reason that we should save them – because we can.

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Shudder or Think? We Must Decide

Canadians are being asked to be afraid. We should apparently be so afraid that we will trade a little more security for a lot less liberty with Bill C-51, Canada’s Patriot Act. It will affect our privacy at home and at work and is why four former prime ministers, retired judges, and so many academic experts in privacy matters oppose it.

At the same time, we are to be afraid of what people wear. A hijab, we’re told by the federal government and a Quebec court, is a threat; not a burka, that covers a person’s face, but a hijab that covers one’s hair. Is this a thin edge of the wedge where courts and the government can tell us what to wear and to fear those outside the mainstream, wherever that ever shifting current happens to be at the moment?

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Rania El-Alloui was recently told by a Quebec judge to remove her hijab or consult a lawyer before proceedings could continue. (Photo: Graham Hughes)

Rather than shuddering, many Canadians opting to think because the anti-terrorist bill and hijab kerfuffle are stirring a debate regarding the definition of Canada.

To try and define Canada, however, is tough for any assortment of words quickly tumbles into confessions of a job half done. Canada is the dancing fire in Iqaluit’s sky as much as the homeless veteran on a Yonge Street sidewalk. Canada is Montreal private club English and Moncton Franglais as much as Ottawa Valley twang and Come By Chance slang.

If only we could ask the Irish who, when the potatoes went dead in the ground and rents flew high, left to start again where merit meant more than whose your father. It would be nice to ask the slaves who snapped their chains and followed the North Star to freedom. Or, maybe the Ukrainians, those peasants in sheepskin coats, who left poverty and oppression for free land and a fresh beginning.

Nowhere was Adolf Hitler’s evil more banal than at the death camps, and the worst of the worst was Auschwitz. The innocent who suffered unspeakable horror spoke of a building where their confiscated property was stored. It became a sliver of light through the cruel darkness. It held the promise that someday they might be released. We could speak with them about their naming the building Canada.

At the war’s end, Canadian doors opened to its victims. Hungarians, Italians, Czechs, Poles, and more came to work the mines, factories, and farms and build the schools, roads, and little towns and towering towers. The Ottawa men called them Displaced Persons while some snarled DP as an insult. The latest to arrive are always harshest on the next in line. Ask the Vietnamese about the Pakistanis or the Irish about the Jews or, for that matter, ask the Boethuk about the English; that’s if you can find a Boethuk to ask.

All the answers from all these people, along with songs and stories and dusty old Royal Commissions, leave us with a country too complex to fully comprehend let alone define. Maybe that’s OK. Canada is like the shape-shifting trickster Raven whose beauty is its ever-changing complexity.

Perhaps this vision brings us as close as we will come in our quest for understanding. But in our hearts, we have always understood the Canadian secret. It is the freedom to try and fail and try again. It’s the draw bridge locked open to new people and ideas.

It is embracing complexity and the fundamental notion that there is value in us all that has created a society where each of us gives a little to help folks we will never meet, whether it’s the old man across town or the hungry child half way around the globe. It’s the notion of community extending beyond our family to where every child is ours. It’s where differences in whom we are, whom we worship, and whom we love are not just tolerated but accepted as who we are

It’s complicated. It’s hard. It’s meant to be. But it is what will save us from fear-based prejudices and policies, be they the proposition of police-state practices or a national dress code. It is our celebration of Canadian complexity that we guard, oh Canada, when we stand on guard for thee.

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Of Flags and Fury

February brings us one thing that Prime Minister Harper wants us to know and another he wishes we’d ignore. He hopes we pay attention to Bill C-51, his new and still pending Anti-Terrorist bill. He hopes we forget that today our flag turned 50 years old. The two offer a tremendous opportunity.

Unlike with the War of 1812 or the First World War, Mr. Harper has given little money or attention to the flag’s birthday. He’s right, let’s snub the flag. The notion is not as blasphemous as it sounds. Consider that every school day, millions of American children stand and recite, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which is stands.” In other words, it is not the flag that deserves allegiance, but what it represents. So maybe Mr. Harper is right that commemorating the flag would trivialize our national identity by indulging in a patriotic celebration of its mere symbol.

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Patriotism, after all, is ankle-deep and transitory. It’s civic-nationalism that delineates who we are. Patriotism can dance merrily along without concern for introspection but civic-nationalism demands it. Unlike the bread and circuses of patriotism or jingoist chest-thumping or empty-headed chauvinist aggression, civic nationalism rests upon a quiet, self-assured confidence among citizens in what is unique, valued, and valuable. It is inspirational and aspirational in defining what deserves to be protected and enhanced.

Our flag is just patriotism on a pole. The day before Lester Pearson assumed office in 1963, a bomb shattered a Montreal afternoon. The horrible blast and those that followed fueled the ethnic-nationalist debate regarding the creation of an independent state for the Québécois nation. Pearson’s new flag offered tribalists and the rest of us the patriotic balm that the British flag would be removed from ours. To the parts of the prairies and north where maple trees do not grow, of course, the big red maple leaf offered yet another reminder of central Canada’s myopic vision and arrogance.

So let’s forget the flag’s patriotism and use the opportunity presented by its birthday and C-51’s potential birth to question not what’s up the pole but in our hearts. For too long we have been called taxpayers. For too long we’ve been treated only as consumers. We’ll soon just be considered voters. Let’s demonstrate that we are citizens by engaging in a national conversation. Let us post blogs, send tweets and emails, and my goodness, maybe even speak with one another. I suggest these questions to begin:

Do we respect parliament and so believe that new legislation should be introduced in the House and not at some place akin to a campaign stop? Do we believe the rule of law insists that our police and spies always obey the law? Do we believe that adequate staff, budget, and mandate must exist along with a process that reports to parliament before anyone can speak of proper oversight of our spies and police? Do we believe the rule of law implies that citizens can only be arrested when they break a law and not for what others think they’re maybe thinking? Do we believe the best way to fight those who do not share our democratic values is to suicide the democratic values we treasure? Do we believe misinformation is criminal propaganda if a citizen creates it but not if disguised as an MP mailing or TV ad? When the House debates begin, will we recall the difference between insult and argument? Do we believe a party that says it opposes the law should vote for it? Do we understand that economic prosperity and environmental sustainability are not either-or propositions but that security and liberty are?

So let’s take our government’s advice and ditch celebrations of a patriotic symbol. Let’s instead engage in something deeper – active citizenship. If we use C-51 to consider whom we are and whom we wish to be, we may just end up proving ourselves worthy of our allegiance to the flag through deepening our understanding of the Dominion for which it stands.

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