Is peaceful coexistence possible in a fragmented, polarized world?

Members of Germany’s Greens party parliamentary group pose behind a banner against hate speech; experts says legislators have failed to keep pace with technological change when tackling with question of social media and free speech.  AFP
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Members of Germany’s Greens party parliamentary group pose behind a banner against hate speech; experts says legislators have failed to keep pace with technological change when tackling with question of social media and free speech. AFP
Less educated people are easily attracted to extreme groups that can, through social media, indoctrinate in them dangerous courses of action. (AFP)
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Less educated people are easily attracted to extreme groups that can, through social media, indoctrinate in them dangerous courses of action. (AFP)
Pope Francis (R) receives a gift from Egypt's Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb during a private audience on November  15, 2019 at the Vatican. (AFP file photo)
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Pope Francis (R) receives a gift from Egypt's Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb during a private audience on November 15, 2019 at the Vatican. (AFP file photo)
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Updated 08 February 2021

Is peaceful coexistence possible in a fragmented, polarized world?

Is peaceful coexistence possible in a fragmented, polarized world?
  • Abu Dhabi hosted the International Human Fraternity Virtual Summit on the occasion of the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity on February 4
  • Different types of risks that modern societies are exposed to were identified, including  the rise of populist groups and social media

DUBAI: Societies are diverse things by nature, composed of individuals with varying ideals and attributes who agree on an arrangement of coexistence around a shared set of values. It stands to reason there will be disagreements from time to time.

However, if societies lose this sense of fraternity, they can come apart at the seams. One relatively recent development — the advent of social media — appears to have amplified the disagreements, making societies far more polarized, resentful and confrontational.

Social media’s role in undermining this ideal was examined in detail at the International Human Fraternity Virtual Summit, held via video conference last week to coincide with the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity ceremony.

Participants in a panel discussion on the topic of “human fraternity” addressed the different types of risks that modern societies are exposed to, including the rise of extremist and populist groups and the role of social media in promoting hate speech. They also explored the strength of human bonds in an age of tribalism and increasing digital solitude.

Facebook, Twitter and others of their ilk have fundamentally changed how humans access information, share ideas and organize collectively. Misinformation travels faster and like-minded groups can assemble quickly, while ideas once considered fringe or extreme are granted almost unfettered airtime.




Less educated people are easily attracted to extreme groups that can, through social media, indoctrinate in them dangerous courses of action. (AFP file photo)

Technology has outpaced regulators, handing Silicon Valley tech giants immense power over freedom of expression.

“The idea of human fraternity is a great one,” Ahmed Aboul Gheit, secretary general of the Arab League, said in his remarks.

“But it will not fall on us out of the blue. We have to work for it and exert efforts to pacify our societies and to change the dominant culture.”

Indeed, today Islamists, Hindu ultranationalists, Buddhist chauvinists and the far right in the West are able to disseminate their hatred widely as trust in traditional news outlets ebbs.

The result is a world brimming with suspicion, conspiracy theories and xenophobia, with little room for the spirit of fraternity needed to combat humanity’s big shared challenges.

After the storming of the US Capitol on Jan. 6, the search for an antidote to social-media-fueled hate and anger appears more urgent than ever.




Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit. (AFP file photo)

“The Arab region is very wide, large and diversified, spanning 11 million square kilometers,” Aboul Gheit said.

“You have many ethnic groups, many religions, and you have a lot that is challenging and conflicting with each other. But the important thing, in my opinion, is the Islamists, which are a danger for the region because of the diversity of the Middle East.”

Governments are rightly combating political Islam through education rather than security measures alone, Aboul Gheit said. But social media and its use by radical elements remains a potent source of discord in the Middle East.

“This is mainly because education is not as it should be,” he said. “There are certain simple people who absorb certain ideas, and they are easily attracted to groups that will indoctrinate in them certain courses of action.”

FASTFACTS

  • Feb. 4 has been designated as the International Day of Human Fraternity in honor of the signing of the Document on Human Fraternity by the Pope and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Abu Dhabi on that day in 2019.
  • UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Moroccan-French activist Latifa ibn Ziaten received jointly the 2021 Zayed Award for Human Fraternity during a commemorative online event on Feb. 4.

Aboul Gheit wants to see social media platforms better regulated and extremist discourse addressed through education programs and the modernization of religious discourse.

“You can’t just leave it because of freedom of speech,” he said. “It often creates havoc on societies as we saw in Washington on Jan. 6. The US — the most economically and socially developed country — is suffering from conduct and actions that are shocking all of us.”

Fellow panelist Corinne Momal-Vanian, executive director of the Kofi Annan Foundation, defined human fraternity as an ethical imperative where all religions recognize the inherent dignity of each human being.

“It is recognized that we each have the same right,” she said. “But beyond this ethical dimension, human fraternity is also a political, pragmatic approach to things.”

She quoted Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, who once said: “Unlike in the past when civilizations rose and fell in a zero-sum game, today, because the world is so interconnected, all nations will rise or fall together.”




Pope Francis (R) receives a gift from Egypt's Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb during a private audience on November  15, 2019 at the Vatican. (AFP file photo)

This message is self-evident, Momal-Vanian said, and yet countries have “failed” to recognize it time and again, as demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic response.

“As much as the virus doesn’t distinguish among colors and religions, climate change, rising seas, and hurricanes won’t stop at the border, just as they won’t care who they are affecting,” she said.

According to Momal-Vanian, social media is a key driver of disunity, in large part because regulators have failed to keep pace with technological change.

“In the US, the issue is regulated by an act of 1996, which was before Facebook, Twitter or others existed,” she said.

“Legislation hasn’t followed and governments have struggled between the need to balance freedom of expression with the need to consider that these platforms are no longer just platforms hosting content, but they actually moderate content themselves.”




Less educated people are easily attracted to extreme groups that can, through social media, indoctrinate in them dangerous courses of action. (AFP)

One recent example was Twitter’s decision to suspend the account of former US president Donald Trump in the wake of the Capitol incident. Even many anti-Trump voices in Europe have questioned whether that decision was truly Twitter’s to make.

“The good news is that the European Union is working on a Digital Services Act, which will answer a lot of these questions,” Momal-Vanian said. “It will serve as a model to many other regulators.”

The challenge now is to define the responsibilities of these platforms over the content they share. “They can no longer hide behind the fact that they are just hosting it,” she said, adding that the Kofi Annan Foundation is working closely with companies including Facebook to establish appropriate regulations.

“You can have the best algorithm and yet you will always have hatred spreading like wildfire on these platforms,” Momal-Vanian said. “This will be a very important issue and COVID-19 has accelerated our awareness that we need to respond to these very fast.”

Maria Fernanda Espinosa, a former president of the UN General Assembly, struck a relatively more optimistic note, saying that although racism, xenophobia and violent extremism appear to be on the rise, such trends can be reversed collectively in societies based on solidarity and cooperation.

“That was perhaps the clearest lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “We are interdependent, we need each other, and no one is safe until everybody’s safe. We are here to reflect on the need to remember our humanity and the need for a peaceful coexistence.”

Every zoonotic disease, from Ebola to influenza, is a message to humans from nature saying “we cannot overstep its boundaries, that we need to reconcile with nature, and that our development should be sustainable and greener,” she said.

So, business as usual is not an option, according to her. “We need to reinvent, rebuild societies that are more inclusive, based on affirmative action to fight poverty, and all forms of inequality, including gender, economic, ethnic and age,” Espinosa said in conclusion.

“We now have the opportunity to build back better, to build back more equal, greener and to build back more peaceful societies.”

___________

Twitter: @CalineMalek

 


Algeria rejects Western Sahara talks

Algeria rejects Western Sahara talks
Updated 23 October 2021

Algeria rejects Western Sahara talks

Algeria rejects Western Sahara talks
  • Morocco sees the entire Western Sahara as an integral part of its territory and has offered autonomy there while firmly ruling out independence

ALGIERS: Algeria on Friday ruled out returning to roundtable talks over Western Sahara, days after the UN appointed a new envoy for the conflict. “We confirm our formal and irreversible rejection of the so-called roundtable format,” Algeria’s Western Sahara envoy Amar Belani told the APS news agency.

Algiers is seen as the main backer of the Polisario Front, which seeks independence in the disputed territory, mostly controlled by Algeria’s arch-rival Morocco.

The International Crisis Group wrote this month that “Rabat considers Western Sahara a regional issue and the Polisario an Algerian proxy”, meaning Morocco wants Algeria at the table in any talks.

But some Polisario officials demand a return to bilateral talks on what they see as “a struggle by a colonized population for national liberation from a colonial power”, the ICG report explained.

The last UN-led peace talks in 2019 involved top officials from Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and the Polisario.

But they were frozen after UN envoy Horst Kohler quit the post in May 2019. He was finally replaced this month by veteran diplomat Staffan de Mistura. The Security Council is expected to renew the mandate of peace mission MINURSO by Oct. 27, and possibly call for new roundtable talks.

But Belani said Algeria had told the council it rejects the “deeply unbalanced” and “counterproductive” format, warning it would thwart De Mistura’s efforts.

He accused Rabat of trying “to evade the characterization of the Western Sahara issue as one of decolonization and to portray it as a regional, artificial conflict”.

Tensions have mounted between Rabat and Algiers since Morocco last year normalized ties with Israel and won US recognition of its sovereignty over the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony rich in phosphate and Atlantic fisheries.

Algeria, which has long supported the Palestinian cause as well as the Polisario, in August cut diplomatic ties with its rival over “hostile actions,” including alleged spying on its officials — accusations Morocco dismisses.

The standoff also came after the Polisario declared a three-decade cease-fire “null and void” after a Moroccan incursion to break up a blockade of a highway into Mauritania.

Belani urged the UN to treat the issue seriously. “We must recognize that the risks of escalation are serious,” he said. “Peace and stability in the region are at stake.”


Foreign aid lost in Syria exchange rate distortions

Foreign aid lost in Syria exchange rate distortions
Updated 23 October 2021

Foreign aid lost in Syria exchange rate distortions

Foreign aid lost in Syria exchange rate distortions
  • The currency manipulation deprives Syrians, most of them impoverished after a decade of war, of much-needed funds

BEIRUT: Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government has used distorted exchange rates to divert at least $100 million in international aid to its coffers in the past two years, according to new research.

The currency manipulation deprives Syrians, most of them impoverished after a decade of war, of much-needed funds. It also allows the Damascus government to circumvent sanctions enforced by Western countries that hold it responsible for most of the war’s atrocities.

“Western countries, despite sanctioning Syrian President Bashar Assad, have become one of the regime’s largest sources of hard currency,” said the report published this week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research organization that focuses on international public policy issues.

“Assad does not merely profit from the crisis he has created,” the report added. “He has created a system that rewards him more the worse things get.”

On Friday, the UN acknowledged that exchange rate fluctuations have had “a relative impact” on the effectiveness of some of the UN programs, particularly since the second half of 2019 when the Syrian currency took a nosedive.

Francesco Galtieri, a senior Damascus-based UN official, said his office received the report on Thursday. “We are carefully reviewing it, also to openly discuss it in the coming weeks with our donors, who are as concerned as we are that the impact of the assistance to the people in Syria is maximized,” Galtieri, team leader of the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, said.

The authors of the research published on Wednesday said the amount of aid lost and diverted to Syrian government coffers as a result of the national currency fall is likely to be more than $100 million over the past two years. The data they used to calculate the amount was limited to UN procurement and does not include aid delivered through other international aid groups, salaries or cash assistance.

Sara Kayyali, who researches Syria for Human Rights Watch, called the findings shocking and said donors can no longer ignore the fact that they are effectively financing the Syrian government and its human rights abuses. She said UN procurement processes did not meet due diligence standards, from a human rights perspective.

The Syrian pound has been hit hard by war, corruption, Western sanctions and, more recently, a financial and economic collapse in neighboring Lebanon.


Friday prayers resume in Iran after 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19

Friday prayers resume in Iran after 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19
Updated 23 October 2021

Friday prayers resume in Iran after 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19

Friday prayers resume in Iran after 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19
  • The government says more than 28.2 million people have so far received a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine

TEHRAN: Mass Friday prayers resumed in Tehran after a 20-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, state TV reported.

The prayers at Tehran University, a gathering of religious and political significance, came as authorities warned of a sixth wave of the coronavirus, which has so far claimed 124,928 lives in Iran and afflicted more than 5.8 million.

On Saturday, schools with fewer than 300 students are also due to reopen. Also starting on Saturday, government employees, except those in the armed forces, will be barred from work if they are not vaccinated at least with a first dose, according to a government circular released earlier this week.

The government says more than 28.2 million people have so far received a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Today is a very sweet day for us. We thank the Almighty for giving us back the Friday prayers after a period of restrictions and deprivation,” said Mohammad Javad Hajj Ali Akbari, Tehran’s interim Friday prayer imam who led the sermons.

Worshippers had to heed social distancing and use face masks during the gathering, a forum where officials present a unified front in the weekly sermon, a duty that rotates around senior members of Iran’s conservative clerical establishment.

Most worshippers brought their own prayer rugs and clay tablets used during prostration, said the broadcast.

It added Friday prayers were also performed in several other Iranian cities.

Health Minister Bahram Einollah said earlier this week that it was a “certainty” that Iran would face a sixth wave next week. The warning came even as the country has accelerated its vaccination drive.

Einollahi added that his country was well-prepared for the new surge.

Schools with more than 300 students will re-open on Nov. 6, Alireza Kamarei, spokesman for Iran’s Education Ministry, said earlier this week, adding that it was not essential for students and teachers to be vaccinated. He said 85 percent of the country’s teachers and 68 percent of students had so far been inoculated and that classrooms were well ventilated.

Required social distancing will remain at least one and a half meters.


Evacuation flights for migrants start again in Libya

Evacuation flights for migrants start again in Libya
Updated 22 October 2021

Evacuation flights for migrants start again in Libya

Evacuation flights for migrants start again in Libya
CAIRO: The United Nations said on Friday that it has resumed humanitarian evacuation flights for migrants stranded in Libya after authorities suspended them for several months. The announcement comes after a massive crackdown on migrants by Libyan security forces.
The UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a statement that it had evacuated 127 people to Gambia from the Libyan city of Misrata on Thursday. It said the Gambian migrants were among thousands more who are waiting to go home through the organization’s voluntary return program.
Evacuation flights for migrants have operated sporadically amid Libya’s conflict, and been periodically suspended because of fighting. The latest suspension came from the country’s ministry of interior on Aug. 8, according to the IOM.
Libya was plunged into turmoil by the NATO-backed 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi. The North African nation has since emerged as a popular, if extremely dangerous, route to Europe for those fleeing poverty and civil war in Africa and the Middle East. Many set out for Italy, packed by traffickers into unseaworthy boats.
Earlier this month, Libyan authorities started a massive crackdown against migrants in the western coastal town of Gargaresh, detaining more than 5,000 people over the course of a few days. In response, many turned to a community center operated by the UN’s refugee agency’s office in nearby Tripoli, camping outside and asking to be evacuated.
On Friday, the UNHCR refugee agency said that there are still 3,000 vulnerable people staying outside its community center for fear of government raids. The agency said it had suspended the center’s operations for security reasons but was still able to offer some limited provisions to the migrants there. It welcomed the resumption of humanitarian flights, but also called on the government to urgently address the needs of asylum-seekers and refugees in a “humane and rights-based manner,” especially those who cannot return to their countries of origin.
Detained migrants in Libya have been held in overcrowded detention centers where torture, sexual assault and other abuses are rife. UN-commissioned investigators said Oct. 4 that abuse and ill treatment of migrants in Libya could amount to crimes against humanity.
The migration agency has operated evacuation flights for those wanting to return home since 2015 and since then returned some 53,000 migrants. The program receives funding from the European Union and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Migration Fund, according to the IOM statement.

Iran nuclear talks ‘on life support’ as Tehran drags feet

Iran nuclear talks ‘on life support’ as Tehran drags feet
Updated 22 October 2021

Iran nuclear talks ‘on life support’ as Tehran drags feet

Iran nuclear talks ‘on life support’ as Tehran drags feet
  • Talks to curb Iran’s nuclear program have stalled since supreme leader ally Ebrahim Raisi assumed the presidency
  • Tehran dragging feet in returning to talks because of ‘internal paralysis,’ expert says

LONDON: Talks to rein in Iran’s nuclear arms program are on the verge of collapse, an anonymous source from a government involved in the negotiations has told The Independent.

Talks that had been continuing in Vienna earlier this year ground to a halt when Iran elected its new president, Ebrahim Raisi, who is a religious and political hard-liner and a close ally of supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Since then, Iran has failed to return in earnest to the talks and has instead ramped up production of enriched uranium and other measures that bring it closer to having a nuclear bomb. 

The JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), agreed in 2015 between Iran, the US, China, Russia and other world powers, curbed Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, but the deal later broke down.

Now negotiations for a return to the JCPOA are on the verge of collapse, The Independent has reported.

“The deal is not totally dead, but it’s on life support,” said an official of a government involved in the talks. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

The US has accused the Iranian side of dragging its feet in returning to the table for talks. State Department spokesman, Ned Price, told reporters “this is not an exercise that can go on indefinitely.”

Israel’s finance minister, Avigdor Liberman, warned this week that “a confrontation with Iran is only a matter of time, and not a lot of time.”

Raisi’s team has claimed they need time to settle into their new government and that is why there are delays, but the official involved in the talks said: “If they’re just playing for time while expanding their program, we’ll have to recalibrate our approach.” 

Some suspect Iran is enriching more uranium and ramping up its production capacity to gain more leverage if it chooses to rejoin the talks.

Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Iran program at London-based think-tank Chatham House, told The Independent: “They are struggling to build a strategy and build consensus. Their foot-dragging can be seen as a leverage-building exercise, but it’s also a reflection of internal paralysis.”

She continued: “Their thinking is they can survive whatever is to come because they have survived everything thus far. But it’s a dangerous calculation. They’re always strategically on the razor’s edge. The outcome domestically could be dangerous in the long run. Yes, they have the monopoly of violence. Yes, the economy is bandaged, but the poverty level is increasing. Debt is increasing.”

The insider source told The Independent: “If the Iranians really wanted to take their time, why continue to escalate their non-compliance?

“Why not freeze their non-compliance? If they walk away, the options aren’t good. It would be a miscalculation to think everyone would just shrug their shoulders.”