Our lips seem to be sealed

After the arrest of seven more journalists in Turkey recently and the tightening of media laws in Romania and Hungary, advocates of press freedom in the EU are starting to sweat.

According to the Turkish Journalists’ Association, 58 reporters are currently behind bars in Turkey, and the jail sentences continue to be handed out. The arguments between the press and the politicians are intensifying. On Tuesday 15 March, the Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the foreign media of aiding a ”defamation campaign” against him and hit out at his own press for ‘smearing his government’.

On the same day, Rupert Colville, a spokesman for Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said:

If there are genuine reasons to suppose that any journalists have committed crimes outside the scope of their journalistic work, then those reasons should be transparent to the journalists themselves, to their defence lawyers and to the rest of us.”

The EU has painted Turkey with the bright colours of ‘Muslim democracy’. But the frowning has begun over the restrictions of the press being dished out from Ankara. The government there is very wary of anything with a hint of the alleged plan to bring down Mr Tayyip Erdogan’s administration in 2003, the so-called Ergenekon plot.

The EU is worried that Turkey, its crucial link between the continent and the Islamic world, (and possible future partner), is heading down a slippery slope. Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele affirmed that

“as a candidate country, we expect Turkey to implement core democratic principles and enable varied, pluralistic debate in public space”.

But there is also concern for what is happening within the confines of the club itself. Romania has amended its broadcast law six times in the past year. Hungary recently warned during its presidency of the EU that other members should keep their noses out of Hungarian internal affairs. This came in response to the concern expressed over Budapest’s new media laws.

During a time when the economy is causing European leaders a real headache, press freedom issues must not be sidelined. Turkey is whipping up a stir with journalistic events there and this is not what the EU needs, with the country being Europe’s ‘democratic’ route into the Maghreb and the turmoil there. If it wants to continue to put Turkey on a pedestal, it needs to demand rigorous assurances from Ankara on press freedom.

Advertisements

Friday prayers can wait

Is the European Union stalling over policy towards the Islamic world?

Recent events in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt have not gone totally unnoticed in Europe but there was a significant delay in releasing official reaction to the unrest which began in December. These events were occurring just across the sea, indeed the Italian island of Pantelleria lies only 45 miles or so from the Tunisian coast. And the EU is the largest trading partner for the Maghreb. Why was there no coherent policy announcement?

European ministers are dedicated at the moment to sorting out the financial crisis and trying to ensure that neither Spain nor Portugal goes the way of Greece and Ireland. Reacting to the downfall of the government in Tunisia raised confusion over how the bloc feels and eventually no clear response was issued. Whether or not to give Turkey a membership card has been relegated from the to-do list.

David Cameron has let it be known that the UK Government will be batting for the Turks but as Conservative Baroness Warsi, the UK’s first female Muslim Cabinet member, will say in a speech on Thursday 20 January, Britain has to get its national attitude towards Muslims right first before it can think about lecturing others on equality.

And this is part of the wider problem – there has never truly been a coherent, union-wide policy on this issue. Take burqas for example: should members be banning them or not? And as this blog noted last month, (‘Snow boots for Islamic fundamentalists’, 31 December 2010′), Islamic terror plots have been on the rise in Scandinavia and earlier this week a Somali man went on trial for the attempted murder of Kurt Westergaard, a cartoonist who published drawings of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb for a turban. Should members be allowing the publication of such pictures?

Switzerland, surrounded by EU member-states, drew gasps of breath in 2009 when its parliament approved a ban on the building of minarets. There is also rising antipathy in Germany towards Muslims and Turkish inclusion in the EU. The majority of the country’s four million Muslims have Turkish ancestry and president Christian Wulff faced a particularly tough time on a state visit to Turkey last year. The EU talks at length about a common agricultural policy, a common defence policy and a common economic policy and 2011 should be the year when major steps are taken to discussing a common policy to all the issues surrounding the place of Islam in Europe.

A new nation for Central Africa?

On Sunday 9 January, the Sudanese autonomous region of Southern Sudan will hold a referendum on independence. Millions of voters are expected to approve separation from the North.

But leaving the north and becoming Africa’s newest independent state will be fraught with difficulty. Sudan is split many ways: there is an ongoing civil war in Darfur; the Eastern Front region is making separatist noises; and the division between north and south is clear. Ethnically, the North is majority-Arab, it is Muslim and Arabic-speaking and comparatively well-developed, with a modern capital in Khartoum, a commercial hub in Omurdan and has long enjoyed the riches from oilfields which would straddle the new border with the south.

The South has many independent goals, the main one of which is to be able to reap more of the rewards from the oil which is deposited on its side. But in education, literacy, life expectancy, business skills, infrastructure, national development the newly-independent south would lag behind the north and it is desperate to catch up.

Sudan would no longer be Africa’s largest country with Algeria assuming that position. But the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, has said that he will help the South adjust to independence and aid the nation-building programme that will be started if Sunday’s vote turns out as predicted.

But despite this diplomatic olive-branch from al-Bashir, the South may turn its back on aid from Khartoum and look to employ its oilfields for its own, independent gain by fraternising more with the countries to its south. Animism and Christianity are the prevalent religions in the South,as opposed the the Islam in the North of Sudan, and the politics in the South are more tribal, a similarity with countries like Kenya.  These particular religious affiliations may endear themselves more to the development of political links with nations such as Uganda and Tanzania.

Geopolitically, the South sits on the frontier between the Muslim and Arabic-speaking deserts of North Africa and the Swahili and English-speaking Christian forests and savannahs of Central East Africa. The East African Community (EAC) is a powerful regional bloc consisting of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi and has well-developed trade and business links. There are even ideas to launch a common currency for the area, although the group is split over the proposal. This could be the direction in which Salva Kiir Mayardit, the would-be Southern president, may want to take his new nation and over the coming months, Sudanese, African and international delegates galore will flood the area to help out as Africa’s newest nation takes her first steps as an independent state.

Snow boots for Islamic terrorists

Sweden was the subject of a recent bomb plot gone wrong and five men were arrested in Denmark on 29 December on suspicion of planning a bombing raid. Has Islamic terrorism come to Scandinavia?

The chilly winds and blizzards of Sweden and Denmark are far-removed from the blasting sun and desert heat of the Middle East but Islam is a powerful and growing presence in Northern Europe. It has overtaken Catholicism to become Norway’s largest minority religion. There are approximately 500,000 Muslims in Sweden. After Lutheranism, Islam is the biggest religion in Denmark.

Mass immigration in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly from the Muslim south-east corner of Europe, Somalia and Pakistan, has prompted the development of Islam as a serious faith in the three Scandinavian countries. National reaction to the growth of Islam has courted controversy.

The Jyllands-Posten cartoons uproar in 2005 was the first major sticking-point to development between this part of Europe and Islam. The men arrested earlier this week in Denmark have been accused of wanting to kill “as many people as possible [at the newspaper’s offices]”, according to Danish officials. The fact that these alleged threats and confirmed arrests have occurred five years after the cartoons were published show that the reach of Islam is growing.

Cartoons were also at the centre of controversy three years ago. Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist, pictured Muhammad as a dog on a roundabout. Mr Vilks has since taken precautions against possible retribution.

Islam has not suffered the same level of inertia and religious apathy which has afflicted the Christian denominations across Europe. Young Muslims are born into a growing faith of potency and totality. Their non-Muslim peers simply do not worry about religion that much at all. And it is this perceived affront to the standard Scandinavian secular-based lifestyle by a popular and powerful minority religion that has caused an upswell in indignation towards Muslims in the region.

The traditional Scandinavian mentality may also be a root cause of the increase in terror plots. By attacking a liberal, less outspoken area of the majority-Christian and Western world, the direct opposite of the US, the UK and Israel, Islamic fundamentalists are demonstrating their capabilities to challenge religious and political ideologies across the globe, no matter how quiet and non-confrontational those countries appear on the surface.

Latin-Persian alliance on the way?

Is the confirmation by Bolivia of a loan of over $250 million from Iran a further sign of a growing alliance between the Islamic Republic and Latin America?

The thin air of La Paz can make first-time visitors feel faint. But the Iranian Minister of Industries and Mining, Ali Akbar Mehrabian, seemed completely at home as he signed an aid accord with President Evo Morales on 30 August. There are no specific demands placed on how Bolivia can use the money but it has been designated ‘development’ aid. It will probably go towards mining and mineral extraction; some believe that the small print of the deal includes details concerning the large uranium deposits located in the Bolivian region of Potosi. But the significance of the agreement really lies in the simple fact that such a deal has been done.

Morales used the press conference as an opportunity to denounce the UN sanctions placed on Iran, measures which are aimed at dissuading the country from developing a nuclear missile. Iran maintains that its nuclear programme is peaceful. In reply to the messages of Bolivian support, Mr Mehrabian replied “the two countries have good and common objectives in the world community”.

Pronouncements of shared ambitions and goals, usually doubling up as a chance to criticise the West are common when Iranians and Latin American leaders meet, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been obsequious in his comments towards Tehran. The BBC reported in 2009 that Venezuela and Iran had been trading and meeting for over five years, and the agreements they had come had been beneficial for the Venezuelan economy. The language has been truly brotherly with Chavez remarking that: “I assured him [Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] of our total solidarity as he’s under attack from global capitalism. He thanked me, and sent a fraternal hug to the Venezuelan people.”

Morales underlined the importance of the Caracas-Tehran link in last week’s meeting, announcing his ambition that Iran and Venezuela will join together to end the “unilateralism” of the world powers. And he also highlighted the growing friendliness between La Paz and Tehran by confirming that his Development and Planning Minister, Elba Viviana Caro, will visit Iran at the end of September to thank the Ahmadinejad administration for their backing and monetary aid.

But the movements by Bolivia and Venezuela are eclipsed by the actions of Brazil in fostering goodwill, teamwork and support between Latin America and Iran. Earlier this year the president, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, led calls not to approve a new round of economic sanctions on Iran. Although the Security Council voted convincingly in favour of the measures, Brazil, along with the Turkish delegation, faced up to global pressure in offering a hand to Tehran.

And although last month government sources confirmed that Brazil will now accept the Security Council’s decision to impose further sanctions, Foreign Minister Celso Amorim made it clear that this decision did not mean that there had been a change of heart by Brazil, saying again that the government did not agree with the coercive measures.

Brazil has taken up an indisputable place at the global table as the most influential Latin American nation. It is fast becoming a very important country to the rest of the world, particularly in food production. Two weeks ago, The Economist investigated the meteoric rise in farming output in the country, stating that Brazil has no superiors in the export of poultry, sugar cane and ethanol, and only the US is ahead when it comes to exporting soyabeans.

In addition, the newspaper noted that Brazil has as much renewable water by itself (more than 8,000 billion cubic kilometres per year) as the whole continent of Asia. All this means that the Brazilian star is rising and the outgoing president has made sure that the foreign policy side of his star does not necessarily shine on the Western giants. It is now a political giant itself, and the administration believes that Iran is not simply a Western irritant to be dismissed and denounced.

Yet that does not mean that the relationship is problem-free. On 31 July, President Lula offered refuge to Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman who has been sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, although that sentence is now under review after international condemnation. Interestingly, officials in Tehran gave the impression that they believed that Lula had simply been mistaken in his offer of asylum and did not have sufficient information on the case rather than rushing to reject Brazil’s actions. Ramin Mehmanparast, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman stated that: “as far as we know, [President Lula] is a very humane and emotional person…we will let him know about the details of the case.”

But Brazil cannot have its cake and eat it. In playing down the incident, Tehran has underlined the value it places on Brazilian support. If Lula wants to portray Brazil as a nation freely offering refuge to victims of capital sentences and maintain the country’s unique position in the world, he needs to balance his actions carefully. Close interest will be paid to the direction that his successor wants to take the country. Opinion over Iran will be high on the agenda, and, with Venezuela and Bolivia embedding themselves ever deeper with Tehran, the chance to build a strong Latin-Persian alliance may become increasingly alluring.