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French Muslims Grapple With a Republic That Codified Their Marginalization

Yasser Louati didn’t usually permit his English students to leave class to make phone calls. On this January day in 2015, however, one asked with such urgency in her eyes that he nodded at her request and let her leave. A few minutes later, the woman walked back into the class, looking just as upset as she did when she left. As she took her seat, Yasser asked her if anything was wrong.

“There’s a been a shooting at the Hypercacher,” she said quietly, referring to the kosher supermarket chain located across the city in Paris’s 20th arrondissement.

Louati’s heart sank. All of Paris had been on edge for the past two days, following a shooting at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The assailants were still on the loose and everyone was living in fear of more violence. But the location of this attack also had a personal resonance for Louati: The Hypercacher was just a few doors down from his 6-year-old son’s school.

Suppressing his own feelings of dread, Louati pushed through the final hour of class in a daze. As soon as it ended, he put on his jacket and rushed out the door, jumped on his motorbike and sped toward the 20th arrondissement. The normally bustling district was under siege by heavily armed police. Heart racing, Louati told a police officer he had come to collect his son from a nearby school. The officer said he could pass, but only on foot.

His son and the other students had taken refuge in the school basement and remained safe. Overcome with relief, Louati picked up his son and made his way through a sea of police back to his motorbike. Climbing onto the back seat, Louati’s son, who wanted to be a police officer, asked him what a terrorist was. “It’s a very evil and bad person,” Louati replied, strapping on his helmet.

The attacks and the ensuing climate of fear in Paris had set Louati on edge. Like other Parisians, he was afraid of the terrorists still on the loose in his city — the Hypercacher attack was still ongoing. But Louati also had other worries: He already felt a sense of foreboding about the backlash against French Muslims that was sure to come in the aftermath. As he often did in times of anxiety, Louati stopped by a mosque on the way home with his son to pray.

When he arrived, an imam was seated on the ground at the front of the mosque, with a few congregants before him. Everyone in the mosque knew that the spate of deadly attacks that had rocked the city had been conducted by other Muslims — extremists who claimed to be acting in the name of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State — and the city was still rife with heavily armed police. French public discourse was sure to be dominated in the coming days by questions that would bear directly on the congregants at the mosque — about Islam, terrorism, and whether people like them even belonged in the French Republic.

The imam, however, seemed oblivious. “So, what do people want to talk about?” the preacher asked those assembled. None of the dazed congregants replied. Pausing a moment, the imam continued, “OK, let’s talk about the correct way to make wudu” — the ritual ablution Muslims make before prayer.

Louati was shocked by what the imam just said. “People are being killed outside, in our city, in the name of Islam, and this is what you’re talking about?” he thought with incredulity. The disconnect between the reality of what was happening outside and the bubble inside was too much. He shot a sharp glance across the room, gathered up his son, and walked out the door.

Human rights and civil liberties advocate Yasser Louati poses for a portrait near Porte de Montreuil metro stop on February 6, 2019 in Paris, France. (Pete Kiehart for The Intercept)

Louati sits on a bench near Porte de Montreuil metro stop in Paris, France on Feb. 6, 2019.

Photo: Pete Kiehart for The Intercept

When I met Louati recently at a restaurant in Paris’s 13th arrondissement, he had just returned from teaching the same English class he was teaching the night of the Hypercacher shooting. A former airline pilot who is now 39 years old, Louati was born and raised in Paris, the son of a Tunisian father who worked as an electrician and mother who was a seamstress. Tall, with close-cropped brown hair, trimmed beard, and a youthful appearance, he dresses carefully in a suit and tie to teach, business attire draped over the frame of the pilot he had spent years becoming.

In 2015, Louati had been briefly pushed into the spotlight. A wave of major terrorist attacks in France set off an international media fixation on a community — French Muslims — whose struggles and history had been of little interest to them before. At the time, Louati was working with Collective Against Islamophobia in France, a grassroots group focused on fighting discrimination. That November, extremists attacked the Stade de France and the Bataclan theatre, leaving 130 people dead and horrifying the country.

Louati gave an interview on CNN, his first appearance on television. The clip became notorious. The cable news hosts forthrightly blamed the French Muslim community as a whole for the attacks, demanding that Louati accept responsibility on air. To their visible frustration, he refused: “Sir, the Muslim community has nothing to do with these guys!” Louati said. “Nothing. We cannot justify ourselves for the actions of someone who claims to be Muslim.”

The interview captured a growing sentiment that French Muslims were not just a “problem,” but a possible fifth column inside the country.

While the French Republic does not compile statistics on race and religion, it is estimated that up to 10 percent of its population comes from Muslim backgrounds. France’s Muslims are mostly the descendants of the country’s former colonial territories: Algeria, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Tunisia, and Senegal. Long associated with stereotypes of social delinquency, poverty, and now extremism, French Muslims have been fighting a battle for equality in a manner similar to the U.S. civil rights movement long before the world began noticing them.

Louati’s life stands as a poignant example. As a teenager in Paris’s 94th department, the suburbs south of the city, he was awakened to politics at a young age. It was a sentiment that crystallized when Spike Lee released his biographical film about Malcolm X. “The anger I felt, and the hostility and racism that I experienced as a child, were all distilled in that film,” he recalled. “It was like I was run over by a train watching it. After the movie ended, I stood alone at the back of the theatre and cried. I couldn’t believe that a man gave up his life fighting for these things.”

“It’s because you feel French, and you are French, that you criticize France. If something is wrong in this house, I’m going to say it, because I belong here.”

Louati spent much of his life in the same city, trying to avoid the pitfalls of crime, delinquency, and drug use that plague many young men there. He did better than most, managing to get an education and train for a professional career that allowed him to travel and see something of the world outside the concrete blocks of Paris’s suburbs. Activism kept its pull on him, though, drawing him to a life of organizing that led him to give up the career he trained for.

The failures of modern France weigh on Louati. The country has become a “laboratory” for discriminatory laws targeting minorities, particularly Muslims, he says. But this isn’t the criticism of an outsider, let alone an ungrateful foreigner. “It’s because you feel French, and you are French, that you criticize France,” he said emphatically when we spoke. “If something is wrong in this house, I’m going to say it, because I belong here.”

I asked him what he would have said if people wanted to understand what led to the attacks in 2015. The shootings at the Hypercacher and Charlie Hebdo, as well as the attacks at the Bataclan, involved young men who were born and raised in the country. “When you have millions of people who are already marginalized, disenfranchised, and without community institutions that can give them answers, you create easy targets for extremists,” Louati responded. “The narrative of these groups is that France exploited and humiliated your parents, they destroyed the countries of your ancestry, and now they hate you, too. Do you want to keep trying to be like them, or do you want to take revenge?”

Over a thousand French citizens went abroad to join the militant group the Islamic State. While statistically, that’s a tiny fragment of France’s roughly 6 million Muslims, even a small number of young adults giving up their lives to join a genocidal terrorist organization should be cause for serious reflection.

“Daesh made a killing in the suburbs,” Louati said forthrightly of ISIS’s recruitment efforts in the outskirts of Paris, referring to the group’s Arabic acronym. “There’s no counternarrative to the extremists. If you want a solution, let French Muslims organize themselves and address the real issues that the terrorists are using to recruit.”

A plaque commemorating the October 17, 1961 Paris massacre of Algerians is seen on February 11, 2019 in Saint-Denis, France. (Pete Kiehart for The Intercept)

A plaque commemorating the October 17, 1961, Paris massacre of Algerians is seen in Saint-Denis, France, on Feb. 11, 2019.

Photo: Pete Kiehart for The Intercept

Over the course of the 19th century, France accumulated a vast colonial empire stretching across Asia and Africa. Its colonization efforts were most intense just across the Mediterranean. In 1830, the French military invaded Algeria, deposed the local Ottoman governor, and undertook a ruthless campaign to suppress a grassroots resistance movement. For more than a century, the North African country was governed as an extension of France itself. The local French colonists, known as “pied noir,” ruled Algeria as a racially privileged caste, analogous in some ways to Israeli settlers in the West Bank today. “Algérie Française” eventually came to an end in 1962, after colonial rule buckled under the pressure of a grueling revolutionary war. Over a million Algerians are believed to have been killed in the conflict.

During its time as an empire, France periodically brought young men from its colonies to provide cheap labor for its cities. In the decades following World War I, there was a particular need for manpower to rebuild industry and replace the huge numbers of working-age men killed in the fighting. Hundreds of thousands of North Africans took the opportunity to work in France, desperate to escape the grinding poverty of their colonized homelands. North African workers did the jobs that most French people balked at, laying railroad track, working in mines, and paving roads in the scorching heat. They led lives of loneliness and poverty, cut off from their families back home and crowded into tenements in the outskirts of major cities.

The meager wages the workers earned, however, were a godsend for the countries they left behind. By the time the Algerian revolution broke out, there were perhaps half a million Algerians living and working in France. In addition to building France’s industry and infrastructure, colonial soldiers from across Africa gave their lives in huge numbers to defend France in both world wars. During World War II, colonial soldiers comprised a majority of Charles de Gaulle’s Free French army, at a time when many native French people were collaborating with the Vichy regime. These sacrifices won little recognition from French society. The 1944 liberation of Paris was deliberately made a “whites only” affair.

Years of continued discrimination culminated in one of the most shocking incidents in French history. On October 17, 1961, thousands of French Arabs gathered in Paris to march in support of the Algerian independence movement. French police, under the control of Maurice Papon — a local prefect notorious for his collaboration with the Nazis during the Vichy regime — descended on the demonstrators. The police fired live ammunition into terrified crowds of unarmed protestors. Many were detained and then drowned by being thrown into the Seine. While the massacre was studiously ignored for decades in France, historians estimate that as many as 200 people were killed on that day.

In the shadow of these events, a generation of children were born in France who were the descendants of the country’s black and Arab colonial soldiers and laborers. Circumstances forced this generation to look inward: Their parents’ homelands were foreign to them, yet they found that they were not really accepted in France, either. A new wave of popular movements was born as they sought equality in the country in which they were born.

In 1983, discontent over labor discrimination, policy brutality, and a spate of hate crimes against Arabs and Africans led to the organization of the largest anti-racism protest in French history. More than 100,000 people participated in the March for Equality and Against Racism, moving by foot across hundreds of miles from Marseille to Paris. For the first time in France’s history, the country’s minorities were forcing the nation to pay attention. In a statement, the organizers said, ”We want to show that the French and immigrants can live together, in spite of their differences, in an integrated society.”

Abdelaziz Chaambi was one of the organizers of the March for Equality and Against Racism. Now in his late 50s, he has a heavy build and short graying hair and stubble. He immigrated to France from Tunisia as a 12-year-old. Chaambi dedicated his life to the cause of France’s minorities after his brother was murdered in a racist attack when they were both young. I spoke with Chaambi in Vénissieux, a suburb of Lyon marked by a stretch of concrete high-rises and industrial buildings. He carried himself with the unmistakable energy and determination of someone who had been organizing for decades. He periodically stopped to press stickers advertising CRI — Coordination Against Racism and Islamophobia, an activist group he helped found — onto concrete pillars.

“For a long time, minorities in France wanted to assimilate their identities completely. People straightened their hair and wanted to look and dress the way that white French people did,” Chaambi told me, sitting in a sandwich shop near Lyon’s Perrache train station. “But over the years, they realized that whatever they did, they were only considered ‘bougnoule’ by the rest of society” — a racist term for North Africans and blacks.

The 1983 March for Equality and Against Racism began in Vénissieux, after the police shooting of a young man named Toumi Djaidja, who decided to organize the march from his hospital bed. Over three decades later, many of the same grievances that led to the march remain. Unemployment and poverty in Vénissieux are rampant, with up to a third of population living under the poverty line. Along with families and young people walking to school, drug dealers roam between stretches of apartment blocks.

In 2005, riots broke out in cities across France. The triggering event was the deaths of two boys who were killed after reportedly being chased by police officers in Paris. But their deaths were only the spark igniting the long-simmering anger of young “banlieusards” across the country. Decades of discrimination, alienation, and police violence had turned the suburbs into a tinderbox. In Vénissieux and other suburbs across France, young men burned cars and attacked police officers in scenes that were broadcast around the world.

Given the extent to which Islamic radicalism today has become a focus of security officials in France, it’s notable how little the riots in 2005 had to do with religion. Though the anger of the demonstrations intensified after the reported teargassing of a mosque by police, the riots themselves were a generic expression of pure rage and despair. For people like Chaambi who have been watching and warning about conditions for years, they did not come as a surprise.

“In France, there isn’t a door for young people born here to integrate into society,” he told me. “The riots in 2005 were about the frustration of people who have lived their whole lives without equal rights, dignity, access to jobs or proper housing. They were a warning sign to the rest of society that things were getting unbearable for people in the suburbs.”

“Over the years, they realized that whatever they did, they were only considered ‘bougnoule’ by the rest of society.”

Over the past year, French President Emmanuel Macron announced plans to create a “French Islam” that is structured and controlled under the guidance of the state. Not a single person I met in France thought that this was a good idea; most tended to view the plan as either a patronizing intrusion into their personal lives or a surreptitious expansion of the police state. Without popular support, it’s hard to see how such a plan could ever be implemented.

While I was around Vénissieux with Chaambi, he made a point of letting me know how much he identifies the cause of France’s Arabs and Africans with the civil rights struggle of black Americans. (He boasted of meeting former Black Panther activist Angela Davis during a visit to Paris.) His years of activism are a living monument to the longevity of France’s own civil rights struggle.

“There was a black president in America, but people are still fighting against discrimination, police violence, and white supremacy. We are fighting against the same things here, and we feel very close to the struggle of black people in America,” Chaambi said as we drove out of Vénissieux. As we passed, rows of families and young children in backpacks wound their way through corroded apartment buildings and old shopping plazas.

“In France, there are some people who feel like they’re superior and we’re inferior, therefore their job is to ‘civilize’ us,” he said. “We don’t accept this, and the young people especially don’t appreciate this kind of attitude toward them. What they need is hope for a better life, but also to be recognized, acknowledged, and respected in French society for who they are, not what someone else wants to force them to be.”

A street in the suburb of Saint-Denis, north of Paris, France, 18 November 2015. Several suspects were killed in St. Denis today, during a 7-hour police operation against accomplices of the Paris attackers. Photo by: Peter Zschunke/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

A street in the suburb of Saint-Denis, north of Paris, on Nov. 18, 2015.

Photo: Peter Zschunke/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

A half-hour train ride north from the opulence of central Paris, the suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis — the 93rd district, or the “neuf trois,” as it’s known colloquially — is the poorest district in France. The area includes the neighborhood of Saint-Denis. Aside from attending matches at Paris’s Stade de France, which is seated near the district, most people in the city seem to avoid Saint-Denis. When I asked Louati and a few other non-locals to give me a ride there, they repeatedly demurred. Eventually, I took the RER train — a commuter rail — to head out on my own.

On the main streets of the district and around the central train station, smoke wafted from skewers of meat being grilled by young men over shopping carts. Blankets laid out on the sidewalks displayed hats, scarves, and cellphone accessories for sale. The clothing stories, bakeries, butcher shops, and restaurants stretched out across the city center buzzed with activity. Along the riverbank, a memorial plaque honored the victims of the 1961 massacre — a monument to a tragedy that occurred some miles away, in central Paris.

For a brief moment in 2015, Saint-Denis seemed like it had become the gateway connecting Europe to the violence then roiling Iraq and Syria. As coordinated attacks struck central Paris, a separate group of attackers set out to target the Stade de France, the massive circular football stadium located in Saint-Denis that plays host to major international matches. The would-be assailants had their eye on a friendly football match between France and Germany. Among the thousands in attendance was then-French President François Hollande. The three suicide bombers, however, failed to execute their plan as intended. Their vests detonated before they could penetrate the massive crowds. One innocent bystander outside the stadium was killed — a 63-year-old chauffeur who had been dropping off spectators running late to the match.

Over the next few days, France continued to reel from the series of rapid-fire attacks and attempted plots. Hundred had been killed and wounded. A massive dragnet swept over the country to find the plotters. Five days later, a massive police operation focused in on a residence in central Saint-Denis. Three militants had hidden out in a small, tan-colored apartment building sitting above a cellphone store on a busy pedestrian street. Police flooded the area, and a massive standoff ensued. Over the next few hours, central Saint-Denis was a war zone. Over 5,000 bullets were fired by police, in an attempt to flush out or kill the attackers.

After several hours, the siege came to an end when one of the suspects detonated a suicide vest. Three people were found dead inside, including the attack’s mastermind, Belgian-born Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 28, and his cousin Hasna Ait Boulahcen, 26.

The building on the Rue du Corbillon where the fatal standoff took place is boarded up and abandoned today. The other tenants inside, as well as the shops below, were evicted following the raid and have yet to return. Covered in graffiti — some of which protests the lack of compensation for the evictees — the building is not out of sight on some quiet residential street. Instead, it stands out like a scar in the middle of one of the district’s busiest shopping streets. Pedestrians mill around the bombed-out structure, chatting and shopping. On a Saturday morning, panhandlers selling purses and jackets laid out their merchandise outside its boarded-up windows.

The attackers killed in the building were not from Saint-Denis, but rather had rented an apartment there from an unwitting landlord to use as a hideout. Nonetheless, the area has taken on a reputation as a den of extremism.

Mamadou Camara poses for a portrait near his home on February 9, 2019 in Épinay-sur-Seine, France. (Pete Kiehart for The Intercept)

Mamadou Camara sits near his home in Épinay-sur-Seine, France, on Feb. 9, 2019.

Photo: Pete Kiehart for The Intercept

For Sihame Assbague, Saint-Denis is just home. She was born in France to a family from Morocco and grew up in and around Paris. Several years ago, she moved to Saint-Denis. When I met her in the district on a Saturday morning, the streets were packed with people shopping and drinking coffee in cheap cafes. The ornate ancient gothic cathedral, bearing the name of the district, towered over the area, though inside it was mostly empty. On a side alley, a small mosque — just a few houses and trailers merged into a single structure — was packed with congregants and children attending weekend Arabic classes.

In Assbague’s telling, the despair of the young, mostly Arab and African residents of the area is most often expressed in the self-destructive behaviors of drugs, street violence, and delinquency.

“When people get to a certain age, and it dawns that there’s no opportunity for them, it’s a turning point.”

“When people get to a certain age, and it dawns that there’s no opportunity for them, it’s a turning point,” she said. “There is a difference between what they thought their life was going to be like and what the reality is that becomes very hard to accept.”

Like many people from the area, Assbague is frustrated with the international’s media fixation on Islam, which she says makes invisible the social pathologies that tend to lead people into crime or extremism.

“If you look at the profiles of the people who were involved in the attacks, they were not even practicing religion,” she said, referring to French media reports about the terrorists’ apparently lax religious practices. “They were drinking, going to nightclubs. For people like this, who are angry in general, religion is a marker of identity. Muslims are killed when terrorist attacks happen too. They’re scared of being hurt when they go out, just like anyone else. The first woman who was killed by the terrorist in Nice was wearing a headscarf.”

The physical distance between Seine-Saint-Denis and central Paris is just a short train ride. But the subtle psychological barriers — as well as the effect of policing on young people in the area — are huge. A kind of apartheid separates lavish central Paris from the great poverty that is so close by.

In March 2017, Mamadou Camara, then 18 years old, was returning from a school trip to Brussels with his class. Pulling into Paris’s Gare du Nord station, he and two other boys, both African and Arab, were taken aside from their class and searched. They were frisked and made to open their luggage in full view of everyone in the packed station, over the protestations of their teacher. Camara lives in the neighborhood of Épinay, just west of central Saint-Denis, where random encounters like this with police are a daily fact of life. But to be humiliated even on a class trip in the middle of Paris was too much. With the help of their teacher, he and the other two boys filed a lawsuit for racial profiling.

Mamadou Camara poses for a portrait near his home on February 9, 2019 in Épinay-sur-Seine, France. (Pete Kiehart for The Intercept)

Camara poses for a portrait near his home in Épinay-sur-Seine.

Photo: Pete Kiehart for The Intercept

Camara is tall and lanky, his short hair neatly trimmed into a geometric design. He has golden ear piercings and was wearing a tracksuit when we met in a library at Épinay. Outside, groups of men smoked cigarettes and drank coffee on a Friday morning. Soldiers armed with assault rifles also milled around the neighborhood, while sirens could be heard in the distance. Camara grew up around this area. He was shy when we first met, but opened up and became more animated as he described what life is like in the area.

“I’m used to being stopped and searched, but not in front of my class in the middle of the city,” Camara said. “That was too much.”

Camara was born in Mali but left with his family for France when he was 1 year old. He grew up in Saint-Denis, though for years his family sent him to a school outside the district in hopes that the quality of education would be better. When getting to school became too difficult, he started attending one of the high schools in the area. After he and the other two boys filed the lawsuit with the help of their teacher, the police in Épinay tended to leave him alone a bit more.

“I’m used to being profiled, because I grew up with it. But I don’t want my brothers to have to have the same experience,” he added, referring to his two younger brothers, both adolescents. “I really like France, actually — it’s my home and I feel at home. There’s some racism, but the thing I really like about this country in the first place is that there are so many different people living here together. We just need to stand up for our rights, and things will be OK.”

Ismael Difallah talks with friends during a break in helping his younger brother, Nasserdine, move on February 10, 2019 in Saint-Michel-sur-Orge, France. (Pete Kiehart for The Intercept)

Ismael Difallah talks with friends during a break in helping his younger brother, Nasserdine, move, in Saint-Michel-sur-Orge, France, on Feb. 10, 2019.

Photo: Pete Kiehart for The Intercept

In mid-2015, a police official working at the Orly Airport south of Paris invited Ismail Difallah for a coffee in the main terminal. For over a decade, Difallah, who was born in France to Algerian parents, had worked at the airport in various roles, most recently in security. Over six feet in height, he is built like a security guard — tall and thickset — yet he is also gregarious and frequently sports the sort of smile that can be disarming.

On the day they met, the police official had an offer for him. “After making some small talk, he asked me if I would ‘work’ for them in the airport,” Difallah told me when I met him.

The police official was inviting Difallah to become an informant for the government — something that happens to huge numbers of Muslim men in Europe and the United States. The job, such that it is, wasn’t always so difficult. In most cases, it entailed meeting with a handler periodically and giving them information about people in one’s network. In some extreme cases, it could involve working on entrapment cases and stings of people that the authorities target.

Difallah quietly let the officer know that he wasn’t interested. “I told them I already have a job, so I’m fine,” Difallah said.

He went back to work, though for a while the conversation left a bad taste in his mouth. Within a few weeks, however, he had largely forgotten it. The next time the conversation popped into his head was at the end of the year, when Difallah needed to get his security clearance renewed to continue working at the airport. He applied, as he had done routinely for more than a decade. This time, however, things didn’t work out.

“They told me that we can’t give you the clearance now,” Difallah told me at a home in the suburbs, not far from the airport. “I asked them why, and they just said they didn’t have any information for me.”

His mind started racing, trying to think back to figure out why he was suddenly being rejected. The only thing that sprang to mind was the conversation with the officer, but he had no way of finding out if that was the real reason for his denial. A denunciation to the local prefect, by a police officer or even another citizen, could be enough to land him on a secret list, like the notorious S-File, that would make him ineligible for a clearance. As many was 20,000 people are believed to be in the S-File database, which can lead to surveillance, prevention of travel, or difficulties getting work.

Suddenly, deprived of the ability to work with no explanation, Difallah’s life was thrown into turmoil. He got a lawyer in an attempt find out what information the state may have used to have his clearance pulled. Due to the opaque nature of France’s system of secret evidence and security listings, however, his legal efforts found no success. Difallah has still not gotten his job back. For now, he is working as a private bus driver to make ends meet. “I’m just tired,” he told me, resignation in his voice. “Honestly, I am tired.”

PARIS, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 18: Armed police asks residents near the assault area to stay inside at Saint-Denis on November 18, 2015 in Paris, France. Officials said police had been hunting Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian Islamist militant accused of masterminding the Nov. 13 carnage, but more than seven hours after the launch of the pre-dawn raid it was still unclear if they had found him. Seven people were arrested in the operation, which started with a barrage of gunfire, including three people who were pulled from the apartment, officials said.PHOTOGRAPH BY Yann Schreiber / Barcroft USAUK Office, London.T +44 845 370 2233W www.barcroftmedia.comUSA Office, New York City.T +1 212 796 2458W www.barcroftusa.comIndian Office, Delhi.T +91 11 4053 2429W (Photo credit should read Yann Schreiber / Barcroft USA / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Armed police ask residents in Saint-Denis to stay inside on Nov. 18, 2015, as they searched for Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian Islamist militant accused of organizing terror attacks in Paris on Nov. 13.

Photo: Barcroft Media via Getty Images

One of the quirks of liberal democracies is that, during periods of crisis, they have the ability take on the attributes of authoritarian states. In its effort to confront terrorists after 2015, this is what the French government has done. Immediately after the attacks, France instituted a nationwide state of emergency. The measure allowed security forces to conduct warrantless raids, shut down private institutions, and restrict the movements of targeted people.

While drastic measures were widely seen as necessary to roll up the extremist networks responsible for the wave of attacks, it soon became clear that the dragnet was catching far more than just terrorism suspects. By mid-2016, nearly 3,600 warrantless raids had been carried out across the country. Only six resulted in terrorism charges.

Macron campaigned on a pledge to end the state of emergency. The promise was kept, but only by a sleight of hand. Although the state of emergency was lifted in 2017, its most draconian measures were institutionalized into a new anti-terrorism law called Strengthening Homeland Security and the Fight Against Terrorism. The state of emergency is now permanent.

In an office just off central Paris’s opulent Place de la Concorde, a human rights attorney named Emanuel Daoud is fighting a lonely battle to push back against France’s creeping authoritarianism. Daoud’s office — adorned with upbeat modern art, in juxtaposition to the subject matter of his cases — sees a steady stream of petitioners who have found themselves caught in the dragnet of France’s counterterrorism policies. The volume of casework is such that the office buzzes with activity, even late into the night.

When I visited his office, Daoud told me that the use of secret evidence, blacklists, and denunciations have gradually built an atmosphere of fear in the suburbs and beyond. He singled out the S-File. “The maintenance of secret lists like the S-File — created in part through the use of private denunciations — is taken from the practice of the Vichy regime in World War II, though the consequences of being placed on such a list are ultimately different,” he told me. “There is a general climate of fear and paranoia being created by these measures that is expanding beyond just minority groups living in the suburbs.”

In a meeting with a former high-level French intelligence official, Daoud was told that the state of emergency had only been useful as a counterterrorism tool for a few weeks after the 2015 attacks. After the perpetrators and their network had been rolled up, the draconian measures mostly stayed in place for political reasons.

As Daoud sees it, there is an inexorable shift toward less freedom in France. This is signified in part by the shift in oversight of civil liberties from the judiciary toward the executive, or as the French call it, the administrative. What this means in practice is that local prefects, like the one that denied Difallah his security clearance without explanation, will gain more power to put people on lists or deny them their rights without legal challenges. This dynamic is likely to continue, even if no more attacks happen. If there is more terrorism, Daoud warns of a wider possible breakdown in social cohesion.

“After November 2015, people feared and expected that there would be physical attacks against Muslims and their institutions,” Daoud said. “For the most part, that didn’t happen, and the far-right activists who tried to engage in attacks were intercepted by security forces. This was positive. But it’s an increasingly fragile balance, however, and it’s in danger of breaking.”

“Yes, I’m Muslim, but I’m French, and I feel tired of trying and failing to prove this.”

A situation like this is particularly claustrophobic for people like Difallah. Trapped between an insidiously expanding security state and the multiple threats posed to French Muslims by terrorism, he has no other place to turn if France becomes unwelcoming. Despite losing almost everything in his personal life over the past three years since his clearance was denied, like most other people I met, he said he found it cathartic to be able tell his story. He tried to explain how the targeting by the police over a lifetime, culminating in the loss of his job, has made him feel like an outsider in the city where he was born.

“I’m 38 years old; I don’t know the country of my parents. I’ve been to Algeria maybe one month in six years,” he said. “Yes, I’m Muslim, but I’m French, and I feel tired of trying and failing to prove this.”

A framed verse of the Quran is seen at the home of the brother of Ismael Difallah on February 10, 2019 in Saint-Michel-sur-Orge, France. Difallah was helping his brother, Nasserdine Difallah move.(Pete Kiehart for The Intercept)

A framed verse of the Quran is seen at the home of Ismael Difallah’s brother in Saint-Michel-sur-Orge, France on Feb. 10, 2019.

Photo: Pete Kiehart for The Intercept

In 2015, the French novelist Michel Houellebecq released a book called “Submission.” The novel depicted a near future in which France is ruled by an Islamist government, which comes to power at the head of a coalition created during the 2022 elections. In Houellebecq’s satirical alternate history, an exhausted France eventually decides to lay down in the face of its supposedly virile and determined Muslims. The new French president is a suave intellectual with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood who quietly begins a program of socially re-engineering the country and reorienting it toward the Middle East. Meanwhile, the suburbs become the site of violent gun battles between right-wing activists and young Arab and African youths, which the French media expeditiously choose to ignore.

Louati didn’t like the book.

“France owes people like us its freedom. These kids you see around, Africans and Arabs, whether people like it or not, they’re French.”

“French elites have always had fantasies about civil war and purging people of ‘impure blood’ from the country,” he told me one evening at a mall in the southern Paris suburb of Thiais. On a Sunday night, the mall food court was bustling, mostly with young people and families of Arab and African background. A French rap song pumped out of an Adidas store full of shoppers. “When you are Muslim and French, society pushes these two identities to collide,” Louati told me. “Islam isn’t considered a normal religion of France the way that Catholicism, Protestantism, or Judaism are – even though many of our grandparents were fighting the Nazis to free this country while others were collaborating with Vichy.”

By morbid coincidence, Houellebecq’s novel was released on the day of the Charlie Hebdo shooting in 2015. Those killings marked the start of a cycle of terrorist attacks and government reprisals that began to crystallize a certain image of Muslims as a security threat — or even a fifth column within the French Republic. To say this view is blinkered would be an understatement.

“In the public imagination, the image of a French Muslim remains the disenfranchised youth of suburbs,” said Olivier Roy, a French political scientist and specialist on political Islam. “The reality is that over the past generation, they’ve seen the creation of an educated middle class and professional class, which, due to lack of representation, is mostly ignored. There’s a discrepancy between the public perception and sociological reality. In a sense, it’s normal for the extreme right in France to use cliches about Muslims, but the problem is the clichés are also used by the left, too.”

In France, it’s common to see tributes to African-American freedom fighters like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Due to the country’s revolutionary history, the French have a love of egalitarianism that often draws it into competition with the United States. Until France can learn to fulfill the rights of its own minorities — whose efforts helped build the modern nation and who, for the past several decades, have waged a civil rights struggle of their own — its troubles are not going to reach a conclusion.

“France owes people like us its freedom,” said Yasser Louati, passion in his voice as he packed up his belongings. The bistro, Belle-Epine, was set to close. “These kids you see around, Africans and Arabs, whether people like it or not, they’re French. We’re not foreigners or guests who are going to accept being treated as though we’re just lucky to be here. Maybe some of the elites of France don’t like us. But they’re going to have to respect us.”

The post French Muslims Grapple With a Republic That Codified Their Marginalization appeared first on The Intercept.

Jair Bolsonaro’s First 53 Days as President of Brazil Have Been a Resounding, Scandalous Failure

Something peculiar is going on between Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his vice president, Gen. Hamilton Mourão.

Late last month, Bolsonaro was scheduled for a surgical procedure to remove the colostomy bag he’d been using since being stabbed ahead of the presidential election. Before he went under the knife, Bolsonaro told his advisers that he would not turn over the powers of the presidency to Mourão while in surgery. A few days earlier, Mourão had made the most of the four days he spent as acting president while Bolsonaro was in Davos, Switzerland, by publicly undercutting his boss on a series of key issues in interviews with the press.

Members of Bolsonaro’s cabinet were “irritated” by his decision not to bestow Mourão with presidential powers, Época magazine reported. And the unofficial word coming from Bolsonaro’s office was that he hadn’t been “properly advised on the delicacy of the surgery.” Eventually, he would reverse course and signed over executive powers for 48 hours — but not the full 17 days he would spend in the hospital.

The whole saga nicely encapsulates Bolsonaro’s young presidency: mistrust sewing internal division; a leak; the unmasking of the president’s ignorance; and then, eventually, a forced reversal.

Bolsonaro rose to power thanks to a hodgepodge far-right coalition that came together just long enough to get the 63-year-old politician elected president of Brazil. But that coalition has spent all 53 days of his tenure in office eating itself alive. The rhetoric of Bolsonaro’s campaign crashed into the reality of his government with resounding thunder. Indecisiveness; power struggles leaked to the media; revelations of a son’s links to an organized crime boss; and multiple corruption allegations have dogged the president as he walked back campaign promises and stumbled through the turbulent, sometimes nonsensical, early days of the new administration.

So much has happened over the last 7 1/2 weeks that it’s impossible to take stock of it all. But by looking through the wreckage, perhaps you can get a sense of Brazil’s political life as of late.

BSB - Brasília - Brasil - 28/01/2019 - PA - O presidente em exercício, Hamilton Mourão sai do gabinete da vice-presidência. Foto: Jorge William / Agência O Globo (GDA via AP Images)

Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão leaves the vice presidential office in Brazil on Jan. 28, 2019.

Photo: Jorge William/Agência O Globo (GDA via AP Images)

The Backstabber

As Bolsonaro World quickly melts into a puddle, Mourão apparently spotted an opening — the latest chapter in a roller coaster of political controversies for the vice president. In 2015, Mourão, at the time an active duty general, was relieved of his command for publicly criticizing then-President Dilma Rousseff and praising the man responsible for her brutal torture during the military dictatorship. In 2017, he suggested in a speech that it might soon be time for another military coup in Brazil. The defense minister and army chief of staff at the time felt that Mourão’s opinions were too popular among the rank and file to risk punishing him. Nonetheless, Mourão retired soon thereafter to pursue a political career.

Before the campaign, Bolsonaro and Mourão had no relationship to speak of. The general was chosen mere hours before the deadline for parties to lock in their nominees, after many other candidates were discarded or had turned down Bolsonaro’s offer. Bolsonaro seemed to have intentionally chosen someone even more brutish than even himself. Mourão even had the added benefit of being a general who still supports the 1964 military coup d’état; for leftists traumatized by that dark period of history, the thought of such a man assuming the presidency again effectively neuters the option of one day impeaching Bolsonaro.

In the middle of the campaign last year, Mourão said that modern Brazilian culture inherited “indolence” from Indigenous peoples and “trickery” from Africans. He spoke out against the “13th month salary,” a much-beloved, guaranteed additional payment that salaried employees receive at the end of the year — and a constitutional right.

Yet since taking office, Mourão has moderated his tone, presenting himself as a rare voice of reason. Mourão recently said that Brazil is not considering moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and that increasing access to firearms will not reduce gun violence — both contradictions of Bolsonaro’s positions. He has spoken in favor of abortion rights and been exceedingly polite and available to reporters. When the leftist member of Congress Jean Wyllys fled the country instead of taking his seat, citing threats to his life, Bolsonaro and his sons celebrated. Mourão told the press that “those who threaten parliamentarians are committing a crime against democracy.”

The Conspiracy Theorists

Mourão’s independent streak has been viewed as unabashed treachery by the true believers in Bolsonaro’s inner circle. This is especially so for the president’s three adult sons, Eduardo, Carlos, and Flávio, who all hold elected office, as well as the band of unhinged political outsiders whose support they have cultivated over the years.

Jair Bolsonaro’s sons have long since firmly set their sights on Mourão — and have made repeated attempts to silence him. When those efforts proved unsuccessful, they even enlisted the help of the unofficial “guru” of the administration, the conspiracy-peddling pseudo-intellectual Olavo de Carvalho, who has a YouTube channel and a large, influential far-right following. Carvalho has called Mourão a “despicable charlatan.” (Carvalho, it should be noted, has questioned whether the Earth revolves around the Sun and claimed that Pepsi is sweetened with the cells of aborted fetuses, among other nonsensical musings.)

And U.S. President Donald Trump’s former top adviser Steve Bannon has also gotten in on the action. Bannon, who has called Carvalho a “hero,” said Mourão is “unpleasant and steps out of line.” The vice president deftly responded, “I’m a cool guy, dude.”

Bannon, for his part, has become increasingly involved in Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil. As of last September, during the presidential race, Bannon was enthusiastic about the then-candidate, but couldn’t remember his name and referred to him as “Botolini.” Since then, the bonds between the American far-right ideologue and his Brazilian counterparts have strengthened. This month, Bannon named Eduardo Bolsonaro as the South American leader of “The Movement,” his international alliance to combat “globalism.”

Eduardo Bolsonaro took a trip in January to the U.S., where he met with Carvalho and Bannon. And he brought along one of his father’s favorite purveyors of fake, far-right news: Allan dos Santos, who happens to be a Carvalho sycophant. Santos is best known for his feverish, babbling rants, full of such pearls of wisdom as, “Smoking is bad. I hope you don’t masturbate. Because my smoking doesn’t kill neurons, but now you’re jerking off, you’re fucking yourself. I die smart. You die dumb.”

The bedrock of the Bolsonaro political movement is formed by men and women of similar genius, and some of their fever dreams are making it to the floor of Congress. One of the newest representatives from Jair Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party, Márcio Labre, introduced a bill on the first full day of his new job to outlaw the sale and use of contraceptives, including the pill, intrauterine devices, and the morning-after pill — all of which he considers to be “micro abortions.” After public backlash and ridicule, he pulled the proposal, but other similarly outlandish proposals remain in play.

The Band of Thieves

The Social Liberal Party was left reeling following the revelation of two schemes that stink to high heaven of corruption. The stories, in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper, told of how the party allocated $182,000 in public funding to the congressional campaigns of five unknown candidates — who ended up receiving almost no votes. Much of the money, according to official receipts, was spent at companies linked to top party officials. The federal police opened an investigation last Tuesday. Jair Bolsonaro and his party campaigned first and foremost on combating corruption in politics — which they conveniently framed as a problem created by the center-left Workers’ Party and its allies — thereby making this a serious challenge to their credibility.

The episode provoked a major crisis in the government. Gustavo Bebianno was the party president during the election and was then appointed as the secretary general of the presidency, an important cabinet-level position in Bolsonaro’s administration. Bebianno quickly became a central figure of administration infighting: He is the mortal foe of Carlos Bolsonaro, one of the president’s sons. Officially a Rio de Janeiro city council member, Carlos Bolsonaro has unofficially worked behind the scenes for years as the president’s social media guru — earning his father’s trust and support. Bebianno, however, used his influence to block Carlos Bolsonaro from gaining an official role in the administration.

“I need to apologize to Brazil for making Bolsonaro’s candidacy viable. I never imagined that he would be such a weak president.”

Carlos Bolsonaro used the scandal over disbursements to irrelevant candidates to strike back. He conspired to have his father sacrifice the party leader to the outrage over the episode, going so far as to “leak” part of a conversation between his dad and the minister; he used the recording to publicly label Bebianno a “liar,” a remark his father later endorsed. After days of back-and-forth speculation and negotiations, Bebianno was finally fired on Monday, but on the following day additional recordings were leaked to the press — proving that it was Carlos and Jair Bolsonaro who had lied.

Top party officials, allies from other parties, and military figures are all concerned by this development. Some worry that the president will throw them to the wolves if the next scandal touches them; others worry that Bebianno knows too many secrets and needs to be kept in the fold. The generals, for their part, fear the unchecked influence of Jair Bolsonaro’s impulsive and power hungry sons.

Bebianno reportedly told an ally, “I need to apologize to Brazil for making Bolsonaro’s candidacy viable. I never imagined that he would be such a weak president.”

Perhaps Jair Bolsonaro would’ve been able to brush it all off as “fake news” — invented by conspiratorial foes — were it not for the fact that he and his son Flávio are at the center of a larger and more serious corruption scandal that is currently being investigated by the public prosecutor’s office. Flávio Bolsonaro attempted to quash the inquiry with a petition to the Supreme Court, but the move backfired — only serving to provoke greater public indignation.

The story goes something like this: A federal investigation into corruption in Rio de Janeiro’s extremely corrupt State Assembly found multiple representatives and staffers with large bank transfers that did not jibe with their stated incomes. Among them was Flávio Bolsonaro, now a federal senator, and his former driver, a retired police officer named Fabrício Queiroz. Queiroz, it turned out, was regularly receiving deposits from staffers in Flávio’s and Jair Bolsonaro’s offices — generally on or just after payday and generally for most or all of their after-tax pay. Through his wife, Queiroz also transferred money to Flávio and Jair Bolsonaro. Over three years, the transactions totaled more than $1.8 million.

Flávio Bolsonaro is also being investigated for a series of “lightning” real estate transactions in which he’d buy properties and quickly flip them for enormous profits. The declared values in mandatory filings rarely matched the purchase or sale prices, irregularities that raised suspicions. Authorities requested that Flávio Bolsonaro and Queiroz come in to be deposed, but both simply decided not to, instead giving squishy interviews to friendly media outlets.

The Gangsters

That’s not all. The magazine Veja and the newspaper O Globo both report that Queiroz, the ex-cop, was allegedly involved in multiple killings in the line of duty. And, according to Flávio Bolsonaro, he was responsible for hiring and supervising the mother and wife of Adriano Magalhães da Nóbrega. Nóbrega is said to be the chief of a militia group known as the “Office of Crime,” which has been accused of murder, extortion, fraud, and more. A former police captain, Nóbrega is currently a fugitive and also the primary suspect in the murder of Rio de Janeiro city council member Marielle Franco and her driver.

Flávio and Jair Bolsonaro have both publicly commended Nóbrega in the past, despite his arrest on murder allegations. Since their ties to prominent militia members came to light late last month, however, the Bolsonaros have been quiet on the subject. The day after the story of those links broke, Jair Bolsonaro blew off a scheduled press conference at the World Economic Forum in Davos, claiming that he was “tired.”

30 October 2018, Brazil, Sao Paulo: Police arresting a man during a demonstration against the new president Bolsonaro. Brazil turns to the right: The fifth largest country in the world is to be ruled by a man who glorifies the military dictatorship, despises gays and threatens political opponents with violence and imprisonment. Photo by: Andre Lucas/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Police arrest a man during a demonstration against the new president, Jair Bolsonaro, in São Paulo, Brazil, on Oct. 30 2018.

Photo: Andre Lucas/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

The Killers

While Jair Bolsonaro’s connection to these particular killer ex-cops is shocking, it’s not entirely surprising. Two of his top campaign promises were giving cops “carte blanche” to kill in the line of duty and expanding access to guns for average citizens. While neither will improve public security, as he claims, both measures are advancing swiftly, a sign that perhaps Jair Bolsonaro will be able to get some things done despite all the chaos surrounding his presidency.

A bill presented by the justice minister this month would allow judges to suspend homicide convictions of cops who acted under broadly defined “excusable fear, surprise, or intense emotion.” Human Rights Watch says the measure “could be used to let police officers who kill people in unjustifiable circumstances evade punishment.” One could argue that is exactly the point, since the prosecution rate of police officers is already infinitesimally small.

Rio de Janeiro’s new governor, Wilson Witzel, is not waiting for any vote in Brasília to put the philosophy into practice — and there is a body count to prove it. Witzel supported Jair Bolsonaro during the campaign and took a similar line on police-involved killings, promising to greenlight the “slaughter” of anyone seen carrying a rifle and the use of police snipers. He even floated the possibility of policing with armed drones.

Last month, three unarmed civilians in the Manguinhos favela were shot seemingly at random, and two of them died. One of the victims, a 22-year-old bricklayer’s assistant, was hit in the back while buying a coconut for his daughter. Family members and witnesses say the bullets came from a tower in the nearby police headquarters, and initial investigations have found holes punched into the walls that could be used to fire a rifle. Witzel hasn’t uttered a word on the subject.

This month, police in another Rio de Janeiro neighborhood killed 15 young men during a raid. Ten of them had been corralled into a home and appear to have been executed. Witzel praised the operation and referred to it as a “legitimate action.” Meanwhile, police oversight mechanisms and protections for internal affairs investigators have been rolled back or undone completely. According to official statistics, which are frequently underreported, on-duty Brazilian police killed 5,144 people in 2017.

The Mess

To an American observer in 2019, all of this might sound insane and yet quite familiar. A corrupt, nepotistic, right-wing populist is elected on a platform to end corruption; his handful of policy prescriptions please the base but do nothing (or worse) to solve the problems they are supposed to fix. This leader’s own ignorance and incompetence end up forcing him to spend most of his time cleaning up the messes that he and his allies inadvertently created. All the while, he blames the press for pointing out multiple times a day that his pants — and his administration — are on fire.

In such a chaotic environment, stories that would have been major scandals in other administrations — like a foreign minister who believes that Nazism was a leftist movement and “climatism” is a manufactured, totalitarian “globalist” plot, or the revelation that intelligence agencies may be spying on the Catholic Church because they wish to “neutralize” their “leftist agenda” — have become minor footnotes.

Like the U.S., the mainstream opposition is entirely feckless and lacks vision; unlike the U.S., no insurgent, progressive rays of hope have emerged to reveal a conceivable new way forward. Like the U.S., government agencies and crucial oversight mechanisms are being gutted, and corporations and oligarchs are quickly and quietly seizing the moment to rewrite the rules even further in their favor; unlike the U.S., few effective institutional safeguards exist to slow their advances.

In Brazil, the right-wing agenda is mostly the following: Gut regulations of all kinds, particularly environmental and labor; cut social spending; make taxation even more regressive; privatize almost every government-controlled asset; expand the privatization of education and health care; increase access to firearms; ban abortions in all circumstances; promote environmentally destructive extractive industries; build more prisons and fill them by passing tougher sentencing guidelines; greenlight more aggressive policing of poor neighborhoods; increase the military’s power and prestige; reign in the press; roll back freedom of information programs; and dismantle laws and programs that support and are supported by progressives. Sound familiar?

Both countries are racked by colossal economic, social, and environmental challenges that must be addressed immediately. The fate of their populations and the whole planet literally hang in the balance. It isn’t clear if these (mostly) men have never pondered or simply don’t care about the potentially catastrophic implications of their short-term aims, but what is clear is that there is no quick fix. Even if you defeat the president, a vice president with all of the same central policy goals, but with only a fraction of the personal drama, lies waiting in the wings to swoop down and more efficiently execute the agenda.

This is what hangs, and will continue to hang, over Brazil. Jair Bolsonaro has another 1,409 days in first term as president.

The post Jair Bolsonaro’s First 53 Days as President of Brazil Have Been a Resounding, Scandalous Failure appeared first on The Intercept.

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French President’s Promise to Crack Down on Anti-Semitism Could Threaten Critics of Israel

The French government will instruct police officers and magistrates to investigate critics of Israel who question its right to exist as a Jewish nation-state for possible violations of the law against anti-Semitic hate speech, President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday night.

“Anti-Semitism hides more and more behind the mask of anti-Zionism,” Macron said in an address to the Council of Jewish Institutions in France. “Anti-Zionism is one of the modern forms of anti-Semitism.”

The French president added that France would adopt a definition of anti-Semitism proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. That definition has been condemned by supporters of Palestinian rights for including, as an example of anti-Semitism: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

While Macron also said that not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, that distinction was quickly blurred by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who released a statement welcoming the news that France had adopted a “definition which determines that anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism.”

Since anti-Semitism is prohibited hate speech punishable by up to one year in prison under French law, critics of Israeli policies that discriminate against non-Jewish citizens, and deny basic civil rights to millions of Palestinians living under military rule, could be at risk of prosecution. Supporters of a binational state, with equal rights for Arabs and Jews, and proponents of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes they were expelled from when Israel was founded, could also be in legal jeopardy.

Macron said that action was necessary after a wave of anti-Semitic attacks in the past week, in which 96 Jewish graves in Alscace were defaced with swastikas and Alain Finkielkraut, a well-known philosopher, was harassed by Yellow Vest protesters in Paris who called him a “dirty Zionist shit.”

When Macron visited the cemetery in the Alsatian village of Quatzenheim on Tuesday, a French television channel was forced to end a live broadcast on Facebook after their moderators became overwhelmed with vile, anti-Semitic comments. “We are not talking about stupid or off-topic comments,” the channel explained, “but explicit calls for murder, overtly anti-Semitic and racist comments, like ‘Heil Hitler,’ or ‘dirty Jews.'” The same night, thousands attended protests against anti-Semitism in Paris and other cities.

After a two-year drop, the number of reported anti-Semitic incidents in France increased in 2018, to 541, according to official statistics. That number included 81 physical assaults, 102 attack on property and 358 anti-Semitic threats. (There were twice as many reported anti-Christian incidents, 1,063, while reported attacks on Muslims, 100, fell to the lowest total recorded since 2010.)

Although the president’s words were greeted with applause by leaders of France’s Jewish community, some were reportedly disappointed by Macron’s statement that there was no need to change the French penal code to define anti-Zionism as a crime. Instead, Macron said, police officers and magistrates would be encouraged to take complaints about anti-Zionist remarks seriously, as possible hate crimes.

The debate over whether the nationalist ideology behind Israel’s founding — that Jews have a right to a Jewish nation-state in historic Palestine from which Palestinians are excluded — can fairly be described as racist is not new. In 2001, Israel and the United States walked out of a United Nations conference on racism in Durban, South Africa over a draft declaration that condemned the “racist practices of Zionism” and “the emergence of racial and violent movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas, in particular the Zionist movement, which is based on racial superiority.”

Under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has leant its full support to conflating all criticism of Israeli actions with anti-Semitism. Last year, for instance, as accusations of anti-Semitism were levelled at the British Labour Party for refusing to accept the full IHRA definition, Israel’s ambassador in London, Mark Regev, told Channel 4 News that, in his view, anti-Zionism was motivated by anti-Semitism.

As the late historian Tony Judt observed in 2003, in a New York Review of Books essay arguing for a one-state solution, the Zionist dream of establishing a nation-state for Jews on the land their ancestors had departed centuries earlier, was originally inspired by nationalist movements in Europe as the continental empires of the Habsburgs and the Romanovs dissolved at the end of the first world war. But the Zionists had to wait another three decades for “the retreat of imperial Britain,” to establish “an appropriately sited Jewish national home in the middle of the defunct Turkish Empire.” Israel’s core problem, Judt suggested, was that “it arrived too late.”

“It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that gas moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law,” Judt added. “The very idea of a ‘Jewish state’ — a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded — is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.”

Netanyahu’s own claim to anti-racist credentials has been severely undercut by his efforts to boost the election prospects of an openly racist, far-right party called Jewish Power, which he hopes to include in his next coalition government. The party’s leaders are former followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the virulently anti-Arab founder of the Jewish Defense League whose extremist Kach Party was designated a terrorist organization in 1994 after one of its members, Baruch Goldstein, killed 29 Muslims praying at the Tomb of the Patriarchs shrine in the West Bank city of Hebron.

One of the Jewish Power leaders Netanyahu has courted was known for organizing celebrations of Goldstein’s massacre. Another leads a direct action group dedicated to preventing romantic relationships between Jews and Arabs and was accused, in 2014, of an arson attack against a Jewish-Arab bilingual school in Jerusalem.

Before he was assassinated in 1990, Kahane served in the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, where he introduced legislation to strip non-Jews of their citizenship and called for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the occupied territories. “At the time,” Barak Ravid of Israel’s Channel 13 news noted, “senior members of the Likud attacked Kahane’s policies and said they were similar to the Nuremberg Laws passed by the Nazis before the Holocaust.” When Kahane spoke, the other members of the Knesset, including the Likud Party Netanyahu now leads, would boycott him by walking out of the chamber.

Now, to increase his odds of staying in power, Netanyahu personally intervened to encourage another far-right party to merge with Jewish Power, and, as Ravid reports, the prime minister even “signed a formal agreement with the united ultra right-wing party promising its members two ministerial posts in the next government, as well as two seats in the Security Cabinet.”

The post French President’s Promise to Crack Down on Anti-Semitism Could Threaten Critics of Israel appeared first on The Intercept.

Regime Change We Can Believe In: The U.S. Agenda in Venezuela, Haiti, and Egypt

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The Trump administration has set a deadline of February 23 for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to bow down to the U.S. This week on Intercepted: U.S. military aircraft have landed in Colombia under the pretext of delivering humanitarian aid, as Trump vows to overthrow the government in Caracas. Venezuela scholar George Ciccariello-Maher and journalist Kim Ives discuss recent developments and examine the massive protests rocking Haiti’s U.S.-backed president. The Intercept’s Jon Schwarz details the bloody and murderous career of Elliott Abrams, the man now in charge of U.S.-Venezuela operations. And journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous explains the failed revolution in Egypt and outlines U.S.-backed dictator Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s plot to make himself president for life.

Transcript coming soon.

The post Regime Change We Can Believe In: The U.S. Agenda in Venezuela, Haiti, and Egypt appeared first on The Intercept.

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After 18 Years of War, the Taliban Have the Upper Hand in Afghanistan Peace Talks

Last year, thousands of young Afghans marched across the country, demanding an end to fighting that has destroyed millions of lives since the Soviet invasion in 1979.

The grassroots peace movement led to a number of local ceasefires throughout the country between Taliban militants and Afghan government soldiers. Young men who had recently been trying to kill one another instead shared food and posed for photographs in the streets of Afghan cities. The scenes broadcast around the world were reminiscent of the famous World War I “Christmas Truce” between German, British, and French soldiers.

That tentative peace effort, a poignant expression Afghans’ desire to end the violence that has scarred so many families, did not hold. But in recent weeks, there have been increasing signs that another peace deal may be coming together, negotiated from conference tables in Doha and Moscow. The Taliban and a group of former Afghan officials, including former President Hamid Karzai, met in Moscow last week to discuss the future of the country. These talks, along with separate negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban in Doha, seem to hold out the possibility of ending the violence that has ravaged the country over four decades.

But the talks also offer a serious reality check about the outcome of 18 years of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. For many observers, the negotiations register as a defeat — recognition that the Taliban has not only survived, but is likely to play an integral role in Afghanistan’s future. It is also clear that there will be a new set of winners and losers in Afghan society, and that Afghans who pegged their hopes to the U.S.-backed government now risk losing limited gains in living standards and civil rights.

Conspicuously absent from the current talks is the Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani, which has been denounced as illegitimate by the Taliban and faces an uncertain future following a U.S. departure. U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad announced last month that the Doha talks had succeeded in producing a “draft framework” for ending the war. The full details are still unknown, but comments from Khalilzad and Taliban officials suggest that the agreement will include the withdrawal of U.S. troops, as well as a commitment from the Taliban that Afghanistan will never again be used as a base for international terrorist groups like Al Qaeda.

This compromise could come at a serious cost to Afghans. After 40 years of nonstop war, most crave any respite from violence. But the Trump administration’s approach to the talks so far, as well as the speed with which an agreement seems to be materializing, have stoked fears that the United States is simply looking for a quick exit, even if it means leaving Afghan civilians exposed to armed rivalry between political factions and militant groups.

The goal of transforming Afghanistan into a liberal democracy has proven quixotic, but that doesn’t mean that nothing significant has changed since the Taliban era.

The goal of transforming Afghanistan into a liberal democracy has proven quixotic. That does not mean, however, that nothing significant has changed since the Taliban were deposed. Afghan society has made small but important advances in education, civil liberties, and women’s rights over the past 18 years, despite endemic poverty, government corruption, and violence. A young, urban generation of Afghans has grown up accustomed to having at least some basic freedoms and opportunities that were not possible under the Taliban regime.

It’s unclear what would happen to this new Afghan generation under a government that includes the Taliban, particularly to women, who found themselves totally excluded from public life the last time the Taliban was in power. There are some signs that the movement has evolved and perhaps even moderated some of its tenets over time. But the Taliban is far from a united organization, and it does not have a clear vision for the future of the country. Many of its younger cadres have spent their entire lives at war, with no experience governing a diverse society during peacetime.

“The Taliban who are in contact with the U.S. are mainly moderate Taliban. Even if they reach an agreement with the U.S. to end their support for international terrorists, the key challenge that will remain will be the radical Taliban factions that enjoy safe havens in Pakistan,” says Masoud Andarabi, a former Afghan intelligence official who was recently appointed acting interior minister.

Afghan mourners carry the coffin of one of the nine people killed during an overnight raid by Afghan forces in Chaparhar district on the outskirts of Jalalabad in Nangarhar province on May 29, 2018. - Afghan special forces have killed nine civilians in an apparently botched operation in the eastern province of Nangarhar, officials said Tuesday. The victims were related to Afghan Senate chairman Fazel Hadi Muslimyaar, provincial spokesman Attaullah Khogyani told AFP. (Photo by NOORULLAH SHIRZADA / AFP)        (Photo credit should read NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images)

Afghan mourners carry the coffin of one of the nine people killed during an overnight raid by Afghan forces in Chaparhar district on the outskirts of Jalalabad in Nangarhar province on May 29, 2018.

Photo: Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

Last year was one of the deadliest for Afghan civilians since with the war began, with thousands killed and maimed by all sides in the fighting. Afghan security forces have also suffered devastating losses; more than 45,000 have been killed since 2014, according to Ghani in a recent statement, a staggering death toll that calls into question whether the Afghan government could even survive without American support.

Decades of war have trapped Afghans in a cycle of violence and revenge. Public sentiment about the U.S. military is divided. Afghans who have flourished under the post-Taliban order see Western forces as protectors of their freedoms, while others say that the American presence has driven countless young recruits into the Taliban’s arms.

A Taliban commander from the Saydabad District, south of Kabul, told The Intercept that he joined the movement after a neighbor gave false information that led to a humiliating U.S. military raid on his family home. Detained by U.S. troops, he spent two years in prison; he was released “without an apology or explanation.” The experience bred lasting anger toward the U.S. and its local Afghan allies, underlining the difficulty of reconciliation even if a peace deal is signed.

“I will not put down my gun until we have kicked out the puppets in Kabul.”

“I won’t put down my gun until every American and every invader is kicked out, so no other Afghan is humiliated and their homes raided. I will not put down my gun until we have kicked out the puppets in Kabul,” the Taliban commander told The Intercept. “There are soldiers and members of the government that are in touch with us; we know they are honest ones that have not harmed anyone and were forced to pick up a gun. But we will not spare the corrupt ones. Those puppets and servants of the West have ruined so many lives. I will fight until my last drop of blood. We are not scared of the drones, the special forces, or helicopters. “

A popular song being shared lately by Taliban fighters extolls the looming victory of the “rural Taliban” over the United States: “The famous America became ready to negotiate,” the song goes. “The disgraced America, the out-of-momentum America. In the beloved country Afghanistan, her red-faced children died.”

A sense of triumphalism among Taliban cadres following a U.S. withdrawal could influence how they govern the country. The previous Taliban regime was notorious for its draconian treatment of women and ethnic minorities. For people in urban centers like Kabul who have come of age in the post-Taliban era, the prospect of returning to life under a militant movement that harshly enforces religious law is unthinkable.

“I was born during the civil war in Kabul. I don’t remember much of the war, but I remember the last years of Taliban regime,” says Fereshtay Khawaray, a 27-year-old schoolteacher in Kabul. “I was not able to come out and play with my friends. We couldn’t go to school, so I was educated secretly. When Kabul fell and the Taliban were gone, it was as if I had a second life. I had freedom.”

Kharaway finished high school and married the man of her choice, a rarity in a place where most unions are arranged. In addition to being an educated woman, she is a member of the Hazara minority, which was persecuted particularly harshly by the Taliban during its reign, and the mother of two young children. She views the prospects of full-scale civil war or unreconstructed Taliban rule as equally untenable.

“I have fears that the war of the 1990s might return, God forbid,” Khawaray said. “The world, Afghan leaders, and the Taliban must provide guarantees. We must make sure that the freedoms and the gains that people like me have benefited from are not lost.”

In recent weeks, Taliban officials have given mixed signals about their vision for the country’s future. Some have floated the possibility of disbanding the Afghan army following a peace deal, as well as scrapping and rewriting the Afghan Constitution. Disbanding the army, in particular would be deeply contentious, with Ghani pointedly denouncing the idea in a recent speech.

There are also fears that the civil rights of Afghan women could end up bargained away at the negotiating table in the name of political expediency. While the Taliban has claimed that it will respect women’s rights in a future government, such promises have been viewed with skepticism.

“The peace process will, if successful, substantially reduce violence and bloodshed, saving thousands of lives every year,” says Shaharzad Akbar, an Afghan women’s rights activist and director of the civil society organization Open Society Afghanistan. “If the process is not inclusive, however, and all concerns are not addressed — the focus just being on an ‘honorable exit’ for Americans and ‘dignified return’ for Taliban — it may create new incentives for conflict, lead to an oppressive and noninclusive government, and, subsequently, disappointment, fragmentation, and migration.”

After nearly two decades, the international community, as well as the U.S. public, has grown bored with the war and exhausted by the work of trying to rebuild Afghanistan. U.S. President Donald Trump successfully campaigned on a promise to end long-running U.S. military engagements at any cost, though this was less as a gesture of peace than a sign of his isolationist “America First” ethos.

For ordinary Afghans, who are also tired of their country’s troubles, the current talks will determine whether their future is marked by continued violence or will afford space for gradual healing and reconciliation. The Taliban has announced that it will meet with U.S. officials in Pakistan later this month to continue the negotiations.

Mariam Bibi is one of millions of Afghans whose lives have been distorted by Afghanistan’s long-running national tragedy. Her son Jawid, a plumber, was killed in a 2017 bombing in Kabul that targeted the city’s Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood. The blast struck a busy intersection in a diplomatic quarter of the city, killing more than 150 people in one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Kabul since the war began. The blast was so powerful that Bibi was not even able to retrieve her son’s remains for burial. Her loss is in many ways a microcosm of Afghanistan’s larger national tragedy.

“He was my world, he was my life. He would go every day and work in the city. He would leave by his bicycle and I would kiss him,” 53-year-old Bibi told The Intercept. “I think every mother wants peace. We don’t want more bloodshed, I have lived my life in war, my children too. Today I don’t even have a grave to grieve or cry at. I cry and I pray. What else can a poor mother like me do? May God finally bring peace to the next generation.”

The post After 18 Years of War, the Taliban Have the Upper Hand in Afghanistan Peace Talks appeared first on The Intercept.

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House of Representatives Orders Donald Trump to Stop Backing Saudi-led War in Yemen, Paving the Way for Decisive Senate Vote

In a stinging rebuke to the Trump administration’s cozy relationship with Saudi Arabia, the House of Representatives passed a resolution directing the administration to remove U.S. forces from supporting the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.

The measure, which passed by a vote of 248-177, is one of the first major pieces of legislation approved by the Democratic House. It is a significant achievement for the progressive wing of the party, whose members have long argued in favor of cutting off military support for Saudi Arabia.

The resolution, which invokes the 1973 War Powers Act, directs President Donald Trump to remove U.S. forces from “hostilities” in the Saudi-led intervention against an Iranian-backed rebel group in Yemen. In both the Trump and Obama administrations, the U.S. has provided weapons, targeting intelligence, and mid-air refueling support for the Saudi-led coalition.

A Republican-sponsored amendment, passed Wednesday, weakened the resolution slightly by allowing continued intelligence sharing with the coalition. The amendment, which passed by a vote of 252-177, allows the U.S. to continue sharing intelligence with foreign powers “if the President determines such sharing is appropriate.”

Under House and Senate rules, the resolution enjoys “privileged” status, meaning that it can bypass a committee vote. The Republican-held Senate passed a similar resolution in December by a vote of 56-41, but with a new Congress, the Senate will have to pass it again to send it to Trump’s desk. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has promised to bring it up for another vote.

Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who sponsored the resolution, told The Intercept that the vote was a “historic” assertion of Congress checking war powers.

“This has never happened before — since 1973. It’s Congress reasserting our role in matters of war and peace,” Khanna said. “It’s a major signal to the Saudis to end the war.”

When the House first considered the measure in 2017, it was championed by progressives like Khanna but opposed by Democratic leadership. When supporters reintroduced the measure in September, it had the backing of a number of top Democrats, including Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. The explosion of anger surrounding the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October drew members from both sides of the aisle, many of whom saw it as a way to hold Saudi leadership accountable.

Humanitarian groups have held the Saudi-led coalition partially responsible for creating the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Since the war broke out in 2015, coalition warplanes have bombed food sources, water infrastructure, and medical facilities, all while delaying or restricting the flow of food into the country.

On Wednesday, however, debate largely centered on whether it was appropriate for Congress to use the War Powers resolution to check the president’s power.

“The Congress has lost its grip on foreign policy, in my opinion, by giving too much deference to the executive branch,” Elliot Engel, D-N.Y., the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Wednesday on the House floor. “Our job is to keep that branch in check, not to shrug our shoulders when they tell us to mind our own business.”

Republicans opposing the bill argued that it would embolden Iran and expressed concern that it could open the door to Congress scrutinizing other U.S. military alliances.

“This overreach has dangerous implications far beyond Saudi Arabia,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “This approach will now allow any single member to use this privilege mechanism to second-guess U.S. security cooperation relationships with more than 100 countries throughout the world.”

Some progressive advocates welcomed that idea. “It’s no coincidence that progressives, both inside and outside Congress and across the country, drove the House of Representatives to invoke [the War Powers Resolution],” said Kate Kizer, policy director for the progressive group Win Without War. “This historic vote is just the opening salvo of building power behind progressive foreign policy.”

At the last minute, Republicans also managed to add language condemning anti-Semitism, an apparent shot at Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., for a Sunday tweet about the Israel lobby that critics said invoked anti-Semitic tropes.

The post House of Representatives Orders Donald Trump to Stop Backing Saudi-led War in Yemen, Paving the Way for Decisive Senate Vote appeared first on The Intercept.

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As Rudy Giuliani Calls for Regime Change in Iran, Benjamin Netanyahu Raises the Specter of “War”

Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City who now serves as President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, called for the overthrow of Iran’s government on Wednesday during a rally in Poland staged by a cult-like group of Iranian exiles who pay him to represent them.

Speaking outside the Warsaw venue for an international conference on the Middle East attended by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Giuliani said that his message for the 65 governments discussing ways to confront Iran was simple. “The theocratic dictatorship in Tehran,” Giuliani said, “must end and end quickly.”

Giuliani went on to suggest that peace in the region would only come when Iran was ruled instead by his clients, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an exile group of former terrorists also known as the Mojahedin-e Khalq, or People’s Mujahedin. The group’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, already refers to herself as “President-elect.”

Off-stage, the U.S. president’s lawyer admitted that he was paid by the exile group, but stressed to reporters that he was in Warsaw on behalf of the MEK in his personal capacity and would not be attending the diplomatic conference organized by the State Department.

Even before the conference began, the Israeli prime minister appeared to shrug off efforts by the State Department and the Polish government to portray the gathering as broadly focused on Middle East peace, describing it as primarily a meeting of Iran’s enemies.

In video posted on the prime minister’s official Twitter feed, Netanyahu characterized a meeting with Oman’s foreign minister as “excellent,” and one focused on “additional steps we can take together with the countries of the region in order to advance common interests.”

According to the English translation of Netanyahu’s remarks in Hebrew prepared by his office, the prime minister then added: “What is important about this meeting — and it is not in secret because there are many of those — is that this is an open meeting with representatives of leading Arab countries that are sitting down together with Israel in order to advance the common interest of war with Iran.”

A screenshot from video posted on the official Twitter feed of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s use of the word “war” seemed to throw Israel’s diplomatic corps into chaos. Within minutes, as journalists speculated that the prime minister’s office might have mistranslated his comment, Netanyahu’s spokesperson to the Arab media, Ofir Gendelman, wrote that the Israeli leader had described his nation’s common interest with Arab nations as “combatting Iran,” not “war with Iran.”

The subtitled video produced by the prime minister’s office was then deleted from his Twitter feed and replaced with the text of Gendelman’s alternative translation.

As my colleague Talya Cooper explains, however, Netanyahu did in fact use the Hebrew word for “war” in the video, which has not yet been deleted from his Hebrew-language YouTube channel. In a separate video, posted by Netanyahu’s office on Facebook earlier in the day, the prime minister had used the Hebrew word for “combat.”

Aron Heller, an Associated Press correspondent based in Jerusalem, also filmed the remarks and reported that although Netanyahu had mentioned “war,” his office said later that he was referring to “combatting Iran.”

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, seized on the Israeli leader’s apparent Freudian slip as evidence that Netanyahu’s true aim of provoking a war with Iran was now out in the open.

Zarif also suggested that the Trump administration and the exiles of the MEK might have been behind a suicide bombing on a bus in southeastern Iran on Wednesday, which killed 41 members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

“Is it no coincidence that Iran is hit by terror on the very day that #WarsawCircus begins?” Zarif tweeted. “Especially when cohorts of same terrorists cheer it from Warsaw streets & support it with twitter bots? US seems to always make the same wrong choices, but expect different results.”

The foreign minister was clearly referring to the MEK, which spent three decades trying to achieve regime change in Iran through violence, including terrorist attacks. The well-funded exile group was also suspected of being behind social media trickery discovered by the BBC, which reported that Twitter bots had been deployed “to artificially create a trend which hints at popular support for the summit and — by extension — widespread resentment towards the Iranian establishment.”

The Iranian exiles have been caught in the past paying nonsupporters to fill out its crowds at rallies, a tactic reportedly used at the event in Warsaw on Wednesday, according to journalists on the ground.

Members of the MEK helped foment the 1979 Iranian revolution, in part by killing American civilians working in Tehran, but the group then lost a struggle for power to the Islamists. With its leadership forced to flee Iran in 1981, the MEK’s members set up a government-in-exile in France and established a military base in Iraq, where they were given arms and training by Saddam Hussein as part of a strategy to destabilize the government in Tehran that he was at war with.

In recent years, as The Intercept has reported, the MEK has poured millions of dollars into reinventing itself as a moderate political group ready to take power in Iran if Western-backed regime change ever takes place. To that end, it lobbied successfully to be removed from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations in 2012. The Iranian exiles achieved this over the apparent opposition of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in part by paying a long list of former U.S. officials from both parties hefty speaking fees of between $10,000 to $50,000 for hymns of praise.

Despite the claims of paid spokespeople like Giuliani and John Bolton — who predicted regime change would come at a lavish MEK rally in Paris just months before being named Trump’s national security adviser — the MEK appears to be as unprepared to take power in Iran as Ahmad Chalabi’s exiled Iraqi National Congress was after the American invasion of Iraq.

Ariane Tabatabai, a Georgetown University scholar, has argued that the “cult-like dissident group” — whose married members were reportedly forced to divorce and take a vow of lifelong celibacy — “has no viable chance of seizing power in Iran.”

If the current government is not Iranians’ first choice for a government, the MEK is not even their last — and for good reason. The MEK supported Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. The people’s discontent with the Iranian government at that time did not translate into their supporting an external enemy that was firing Scuds into Tehran, using chemical weapons and killing hundreds of thousands of Iranians, including many civilians. Today, the MEK is viewed negatively by most Iranians, who would prefer to maintain the status quo than rush to the arms of what they consider a corrupt, criminal cult.

Despite such doubts, spending lavishly on paid endorsements has earned the MEK a bipartisan roster of Washington politicians willing to sign up as supporters. At a gala in 2016, Bolton was joined in singing the group’s praises by another former U.N. ambassador, Bill Richardson; a former attorney general, Michael Mukasey; the former State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley; the former Homeland Security adviser Frances Townsend; the former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I.; and the former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. That Paris gala was hosted by Linda Chavez, a former Reagan administration official, and headlined by Newt Gingrich, the former speaker who was under consideration to be Trump’s running mate at the time.

Fears about Bolton’s apparently open desire to start a war with Iran have been exacerbated by his boosting of the MEK and his steadfast denial of the catastrophe unleashed by the invasion of Iraq that he worked for as a member of the Bush administration. Last year, when Fox News host Tucker Carlson pointed out that Bolton had called for regime change in Iraq, Libya, Iran, and Syria, and the first of those had been “a disaster,” Bolton disagreed.

“I think the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, that military action, was a resounding success,” Bolton insisted to Carlson. The chaos that followed in Iraq, he said, was caused by a poorly executed occupation that ended too soon. On the bright side, Bolton said, the mistakes the U.S. made in Iraq offered “lessons about what to do after a regime is overthrown” in the future.

Earlier this week, Sen. Chris Murphy pointed out, Bolton appeared to be laying the groundwork for war in a belligerent video message from the White House to mark the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution.

The post As Rudy Giuliani Calls for Regime Change in Iran, Benjamin Netanyahu Raises the Specter of “War” appeared first on The Intercept.

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Neoliberalism or Death: The U.S. Economic War Against Venezuela

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The U.S. is weaponizing humanitarian aid in an effort to sell its regime change campaign against Venezuela. This week on Intercepted: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi officially endorses the attempted coup in Venezuela, joining forces with Donald Trump and his posse of neoconservatives. Venezuela’s Vice Foreign Minister Carlos Ron responds to the threats of military action, the reports about covert U.S. activity in the country, and discusses the impact of the sanctions on Venezuela. Former United Nations rapporteur Alfred de Zayas is accusing the U.S. of attempting to “asphyxiate” Venezuela with economic warfare and says the U.S. should be investigated by the International Criminal Court. Zayas wrote a UN report on Venezuela in late 2018 that was scathing in its assessment of U.S. policy towards Venezuela under both Obama and Trump. He talks about what he found during his investigation. And we go inside the mind of journalist Sam Husseini who tried to ask convicted criminal Elliott Abrams about his past and the present U.S. lies about Venezuela.

Transcript coming soon.

The post Neoliberalism or Death: The U.S. Economic War Against Venezuela appeared first on The Intercept.

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Pox Americana: Vijay Prashad on Venezuela, India, Mexico, Congo, and U.S. Hegemony

There is a brazen, bipartisan push by the U.S. government for regime change in Venezuela with the Trump administration officially declaring opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the “legitimate” president. The economic sanctions imposed on Venezuela by the U.S. are aimed at starving the population into submission with notorious neoconservatives John Bolton and Elliott Abrams coordinating the campaign to overthrow the government of Nicolás Maduro. What we are witnessing right now in Latin America is a modern iteration of the same dirty tactics that the U.S. has historically used against the nations south of the U.S. border. Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world. The U.S. has tried since the early 2000s to overthrow its socialist government beginning with Hugo Chávez. At the same time, it poured money into right-wing movements and backed open fascists like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. All of this is a modern version of the era of overthrowing leftists who won at the ballot box or by ousting U.S.-friendly dictators. And all of the mass murder, the sanctions, the regime changes, the election interference, the covert support for anti-democratic forces determined to be good for so-called free markets is, today, as it was in the 1950s, sold in the name of bringing freedom and democracy.

Powerful Democrats and Republicans alike have sold the notion that economic sanctions are somehow a cleaner way of forcing change than military action. They portray sanctions as targeting the dictators, the oligarchs, the criminally corrupt. But the filthy truth is that not all sanctions are created equal. Yes, there are sanctions that go after individual criminals. But the sanctions we’re talking about on Venezuela right now are not going harm Maduro and his inner circle personally. No, these sanctions are aimed at punishing the Venezuelan people by depriving them of food, medicine, wages, and their very humanity. The strategy is to use these sanctions as a cudgel against an already suffering people in a campaign to torture them into submission.

The former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield has been aggressively lobbying for more sanctions, saying “perhaps the best solution would be to accelerate the collapse.” He says this while actually openly acknowledging that sanctions will kill innocent people, increase malnutrition, and bring “fairly severe punishment” for “millions and millions” of Venezuelans. Brownfield recently admitted the following:

If we can do something that will bring that end quicker, we probably should do it, but we should do it understanding that it’s going to have an impact on millions and millions of people who are already having great difficulty finding enough to eat, getting themselves cured when they get sick, or finding clothes to put on their children before they go off to school. We don’t get to do this and pretend as though it has no impact there. We have to make the hard decision — the desired outcome justifies this fairly severe punishment.

This is the former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela speaking at a Washington D.C. think tank, publicly saying that it is worth the price of lives and health and humanity of ordinary Venezuelans in order to overthrow a government the U.S. does not like. These sanctions are going to cost Venezuela $11 billion in oil revenue in 2019 alone. That amounts to nearly 95 percent of the money that Venezuela spent on the import of food and other goods last year. This isn’t targeting Maduro. Even The Economist stated the following about the logic behind the sanctions: “Mr. Guaidó and Mr. Trump are betting that hardship will topple the regime before it starves the Venezuelan people.” That’s not Chávez speaking from the grave. That’s The Economist.

When powerful political leaders in the U.S. want to change governments, the price of killing innocent people is always worth it. It’s the American way. And this is why Trump is being embraced on his Venezuela policy. He is promoting and advancing the bipartisan politics of empire. It is the same dynamic when the so-called adults on Capitol Hill support giving Trump sweeping surveillance powers or unending funds for an already insane military spending budget. For all the screaming about Trump being a grave threat to democracy, the worst president ever, or an unhinged maniac, when he boosts the policies of imperialism, he gets to join the club of the cops of the world.

On Intercepted this week, historian and journalist Vijay Prashad joined us to discuss the state of imperialism in the world, the situation in Venezuela, the upcoming elections in India, and the recent one in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Prashad is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. That’s a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is the executive director of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research and the chief editor of LeftWord Books. Prashad is a prolific writer, authoring 25 books, including “The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World” and “The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.” An excerpt of this conversation aired on Intercepted. What follows is the complete, unedited conversation.
This interview begins at 20:03.


Jeremy Scahill: Vijay Prashad welcome to Intercepted.

Vijay Prashad: Thank you so much.

JS: Vijay, I want to start by asking your response to the recent developments in Venezuela. Earlier this week, the New York Times did a big profile on the opposition leader Juan Guaidó who has declared himself president and the Times notes that more than 20 countries have now recognized Guaidó as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela. Among those countries: The United States, Canada, most of South America. Then on Monday several European Union countries [joined] that list, among them: France, Germany, Britain, Spain, Austria, Sweden, and Denmark. You recently wrote that what happened to Chile in 1973 — when there was a U.S. initiated coup against the democratically elected leader Salvador Allende — is precisely what the United States has attempted to do in many countries of the Global South, and you say the most recent target for the U.S. government and Western big business is Venezuela. What are the parallels that you see between the overthrow of Allende in 1973 and what we’re seeing now with the push to overthrow Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela?

VP: I’m glad we’re starting here, Jeremy, because this is really the most important issue, I think, of our period. Which is, you know, this very extravagant set of claims made by particularly the United States and its closest allies about countries in the Global South — whether it’s Iran, or Venezuela, or a host of other countries. Let’s think about the Chilean example. In 1970, when Salvador Allende was coming close to winning a very legitimate election to come to office, the United States government said, we will not tolerate it if people like Allende decide to nationalize resources. In the case of Chile, it was copper, and so they began to plan to, in a way, undermine Allende through barricading his economy long before Allende even won the election. And after he won the election they did everything possible to prevent Chile from selling copper outside its boundaries, therefore bankrupting Chile, creating distress within the country, and then winking to the military to take over. And by the way, Chile is not the beginning of this.

We saw this in 1954 in Guatemala where the issue was the nationalization of the United Fruit Company and we saw this in 1953 in Iran when the issue was oil. The government of Mohammad Mossadegh nationalized the oil company. This was something seen as totally inappropriate by Western oil companies, the so-called Seven Sisters. And the United States in alliance with Great Britain conducted a coup against Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran and against Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala. I mean, there [are] so many examples of precisely this situation.

With Venezuela, just very quickly, it’s got to be said that this is a country that has never been able to diversify its economy. About 98 percent of its external revenues comes from oil and from petroleum products. In the last few years, oil prices have collapsed by 50 percent which means that Venezuela’s external revenues have also collapsed by about 50 percent.

When Venezuela was swimming in oil money and when there were difficulties in the United States, and Britain, and other countries, the Venezuelan government provided cheap oil to poor people in Boston, in the Bronx in New York, — in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in London, and other places. But when Venezuela went into a crisis, rather than tending to the problem — which was basically a problem of a one-commodity economy — rather than help the Venezuelans, what we begin to see is the Obama administration in 2015 declaring Venezuela a national security threat and now the Trump administration with the very close help of Mr. Trudeau from Canada [is] trying to essentially overthrow the government of Mr. Nicolas Maduro. You know, the people will concentrate and they’ll say well, you know, Maduro did this, Maduro did that, but before Maduro can do anything is the suffocation of the one commodity economy.

JS: Well, and Vijay, you have this exception in the sanctions, the latest round of sanctions that the Trump administration has imposed on Venezuela and its state oil company allowing Chevron to continue doing business as usual and also the former company of Dick Cheney, Halliburton, [is] also allowed to continue on in Venezuela.

VP: See, one of the interesting things about the Trump administration and Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton is they just don’t seem to care. I mean, they don’t have any pretense about anything that they’re doing. Whereas one saw, even with George W. Bush’s administration, we saw some measure of pretense. You know, they’d come up with theories about humanitarianism and whatever it is — there [are] weapons of mass destruction. All kinds of shifting goal posts that they used as a fig leaf for the invasion of Iraq. Even, of course, with Mr. Obama, we saw all kinds of high-minded principles. Obama was an expert at concocting high-minded principles to defend essentially naked aggression. With Trump and with Bolton, I mean, we’re at a situation where they just don’t care. Include with Trump and Bolton, Senator Rubio. They just don’t care. They come out directly and say, “we’re in this for the oil.” They come out directly and say these people can’t behave like that. I mean, of all audacious things Nicolas Maduro is a bus driver. You know, how dare he be the president of a country? You should be an oligarch, one of the old aristocracy from Venezuela. That’s the kind of person that should run things in collaboration with Chevron and Halliburton and so on. So, you know, they’re not even [trying] to pretend that this is about democracy.

JS: Briefly, Vijay, you also have many prominent Democrats including Dick Durbin of Illinois, but also members of the Democratic side of the House Foreign Relations Committee backing the Trump Administration. And over the weekend, we saw huge protests in Venezuela. The ones that were in support of Juan Guaidó were covered everywhere and the footage was shown everywhere. But the massive protests that were Venezuelans in the streets to defend Maduro, that was not shown. Or there were allegations, “Oh, they’re just doctoring the video.” So, it’s clear that we are seeing a major propaganda push, on the one hand, in the news media with glowing coverage of Juan Guaidó, and then on the other hand, Democrats who are screaming on the top of the hill that Donald Trump is the biggest threat ever to American democracy and he’s going to ruin the country. The Democrats on this issue are saying “Oh no, but we were actually with Trump on this one and Nicolas Maduro has to go.”

VP: The American political establishment makes a big deal of bipartisanship. And in a sense, the real arena where bipartisanship can be seen is when it comes to foreign policy. Particularly the behavior of the United States government against its so-called adversaries — whether it’s Iran or it’s Venezuela. You know, people get confused on Iran thinking that the Obama administration was on one side of the issue and Trump was on the other. In fact, they were both on the same side of the issue, which is that the United States has the right to intervene, to pressure Iran. To use its various controls of things like the control of the U.S. dollar, trade with Iran, to use pressure on the Europeans against the SWIFT network. That’s the network that moves currency around. Both Obama and Trump are in agreement that it’s perfectly permissible for the U.S. to use any instrument to control Iran. There was some difference in strategy. Obama wanted to use the multilateral agreement that would essentially prevent Iran from doing certain things and Trump said no, let’s go a different way. But they totally agreed in the final aim and in the attitude of the United States to other countries in foreign policy.

Much the same in Venezuela. There is no difference in attitude across the political spectrum from Democrats, to Republicans, to the New York Times. You know, utter unanimity of opinion that the United States can interfere in another country’s political matters, can come in and, in fact, anoint leaders. Here’s the irony, you have a country, the United States, which is up in arms about Russian interference in the elections. I can’t watch Rachel Maddow’s television show any longer because there she is going on and on about, you know, how the Russians are doing this, the Russians are doing that. Meanwhile, the United States is there openly, brazenly intervening in Venezuela as they do in so many other countries and these people have no problem with it. I mean, you know, Rachel Maddow, Ph.D. from I think Oxford — have some decency — at least let the goose and the gander be treated by the same standard, but that is just not going to happen. In fact, things are so bad, Jeremy, that when Medea Benjamin went in twice to intervene, to shame the Organization of American States and to shame people anointed by this Lima Group as representatives of Venezuela, CNN Spanish used footage of Medea to make the case that she was protesting on behalf of the opposition against Maduro. So, not only do they frame these issues in a way that’s quite, you know, just inconsiderate of the truth, but here they are openly lying.

JS: Well, let me ask you: I, of course, agree with your analysis on the U.S. intervention. But we are seeing millions of Venezuelans over the past several years fleeing the country. Yes, the opposition, some elements of the opposition to Maduro, have killed people. There has been racist action on the part of some sectors of the opposition. At the same time, Maduro controls most of the state mechanisms of organized violence: the police, the military, etcetera. And we have seen real brutality and lethal force used over, and over on the opposition. My question for you is, and I’ve been hearing this from Venezuelans who say look, we are not Trump supporters. We are not fans of any kind of a “lighter-skinned Venezuelans are the one that should be in control of the country” mentality that seems to be permeating a lot of the so-called opposition. But Maduro is running the country into the ground. Yes, we understand sanctions. Everything Vijay is saying we agree with that. At the same time, Maduro has built himself a kleptocracy. Are you saying that there is no legitimacy whatsoever to any sector of the opposition against Maduro right now?

VP: Well, look let’s put it this way. There are obvious problems. As I said, when your revenues declined to almost 50 percent you’re going to suffer great problems inside the country. You’ve got an economic stranglehold by the sanctions regime and so on. Yes, there are Venezuelans fleeing the country. But, Jeremy, there are 69 million people who have been displaced around the world. And that’s a very conservative figure, largely displaced because of the very structural policies that are disturbing countries, not only Venezuela but countries across West Africa, in Central Asia. You have wars, you have economic policies that are displacing people. So, of course, there are people moving, you know? Of course, there are people who feel that this government is not representing them, but that’s what the political process is about. I mean, are we saying that Nicolas Maduro is a dictator? Now in the last election, which the opposition only partly boycotted, he only won 67 percent of the vote. You know, if this was truly a dictatorship, let’s look at the case of our old friend, you know, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Mubarak won almost 90 percent of the votes. That’s [a] questionable election and when that election took place, the U.S. State Department said this is a new day for Egypt.

In this case, Maduro won 67 percent. The opposition is politically divided. It’s not able to come together. One section of the opposition has turned to the United States and said essentially give us a hand to use any means to overthrow this guy. Why don’t you build the opposition? On any day in Caracas, Jeremy, you open the newspapers, they’re all deeply critical of the Maduro government. If this is a dictatorship, I don’t understand what freedom, you know, in our limited sense is. He gets hammered on television. He is getting hammered [in] the newspapers. The fact is the opposition is not able to come together. And the deep residues of Chavista loyalty to the Maduro government, but also to the institutions of the missions, and so on is not to be set aside. In other words, you have this very loyal section of Chavistas who are committed to the Bolivarian Revolution. They understand the problems. They’re willing to fight to defend the government and they come out in large numbers to vote for the government. But yet their large numbers, as I said, amount to 67 percent. There is a political process. Maduro has said let’s go back. Let’s have a negotiation. Let’s think about a new election. You know, the Venezuelan government in this last election last year, asked the United Nations to send monitors. Why did the United Nations not send monitors? You know, why is the United States government attempting to cripple the political process in Venezuela to create the preconditions where you can then think there’s nothing else to be done except U.S. intervention to anoint somebody as the president? A deeply undemocratic act.

JS: Also, I wanted to point out — and you’ve been writing about this and offering analysis on it — that at this moment in Latin America, you have this rise again of overt authoritarian fascist leaders like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. But you also have a leftist president who came to power in Mexico, Andres Manuel López Obrador known by his initials AMLO, and you wrote about López Obrador — that he comes to the presidency as a man of the left but the space for maneuvering that he has for a left agenda is minimal. I feel like if this was 10 years ago there would have been a lot more excitement about what’s happening in Mexico with López Obrador coming to power but that has sort of been drowned out by the situation in Venezuela on the one hand. And then Trump’s inane dangerous threats about building a border wall and then also the active, ongoing threat of separating families from their children, militarizing the border patrol, ICE, which serves as a kind of storm front for enforcement of extremely racist xenophobic immigration policy. But what is your sense of what room to maneuver López Obrador has right now in Mexico?

VP: You see Mexico, like Venezuela, like any of these countries, their space for what we call fiscal creativity is almost zero. These countries are reliant upon borrowing commercial capital going to, you know, private banks to raise money. There’s been immense pressure on these countries from the IMF not to run deficits. So, that means that if you can’t raise enough money from banks to cover your basic running operation of your government, what you’re going to do is you’re going to end up cutting social services. I mean, let’s put this in some context, Jeremy. Oxfam’s recent report showed that last year, that is in the calendar year of 2018, 2,230odd billionaires increased their wealth by 2.5 billion dollars per year and meanwhile the lowest 50 percent of humanity lost eleven percent of its wealth. Why am I raising this? The top 10 people among those 2,230 odd billionaires, of them there’s only one person who’s not from North America, that is not from the United States, and from Europe, and that person is Carlos Slim of Mexico.

You see what we have to remember is the very top people, these 2,000 odd billionaires and their families, no longer pay tax. You know, they are essentially bloating tax havens. They are hiding their money in banks. They’re just not paying tax anymore. They have gone on, what I consider, a tax strike. Because these elites like Carlos Slim of Mexico have gone on a tax strike the governments of countries like Mexico have a very difficult time raising, financing to do anything on the humane side of government policy. So, they’ve been cutting health care, they’ve been cutting education, they’ve been slicing everything that produces civilization. So, for, you know, for López Obrador, the government he’s inherited is basically a government which doesn’t have any ability to provide the good parts of life for people, which is why he was very eager to take back control of PEMEX — which is the Mexican petroleum company — take back control of it, put some money to invest in it to revive PEMEX. The moment he made those comments after he won the election, he was told directly by banks, by the IMF, and by international oil companies that don’t you dare do that. Don’t you dare try to use public financing to revive PEMEX. The only thing we’re going to allow you to do is to basically sell more parts of PEMEX off to international privately-held, you know, energy companies.

So what’s happening to Venezuela is just a much more vulgar and dangerous, kind of, portfolio of events than what is happening to Mexico where things are not yet at a boiling point. But basically, López Obrador has been told there is no exit for Mexico. No way for you to raise finances to basically enrich the population and therefore you’re going to see people continue to move towards the border. You’re going to see people continue to move, put pressure on the United States to build these walls, and to create essentially a military force that stands there the border and shoots at people.

JS: Now, let’s jump to the other side of the globe for a moment. One of the major areas of focus of the Trump administration that, I think, has the potential to be the most dangerous is the obsession with Iran and the fact that the Trump administration is littered with people including notorious neocons who have always wanted regime change in Iran. You have the situation in Yemen, which the Trump administration has used as, really, a proxy war against Iran and, of course, there’s a lot of issues with facts in this administration and certainly, that’s been the case in Yemen. But you do have Yemen being used as a proxy war. You have this network of allies that’s emerged where you have the Saudis, Israel, The United States, and then some lesser states that really seem to be pushing in that direction. The U.S. has been quietly negotiating with the Iraqi government to have hundreds of Special Operations forces, troops from the United States deployed inside of Iraq with the purpose of potentially striking against Iran. How do you see the fact that Trump is saying that he’s going to take U.S. troops out of Syria, take U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, but now re-deploy some of the most elite hunter-killer teams in the U.S. arsenal in Iraq with the explicit purpose of, number one, confronting Iran and then, secondarily, dealing with ISIS?

VP: Well, Trump made a comment to CBS News where he said that we have American troops in Iraq to monitor Iran. The word he used was monitor. And within hours, the Iraqi Prime Minister made a comment saying, you know, this is inappropriate, that the United States’ presence in Iraq is to combat terrorism. Not to, essentially, rattle the cage with Iran, because we, that is the Iraqi government, have a relationship both with the Iranians and the United States. So, again Trump, no ability to hold back, just says things openly and the contradictions then emerge on the world stage. I think the United States is going to have a very difficult time using Iraq as a lily pad. Using any of the neighboring states apart from those that you mentioned. That is Saudi Arabia, the UAE. These states would be quite happy to help. But remember, Saudi Arabia cannot have American troops located there. So, I don’t know what kind of practical support — the Turks are not going to allow troops to come in. So, it’s going to be very difficult for the United States practically to take on Iran apart from, you know, occasional bombing runs maybe and one or two special forces people going in to do sabotage operations.

You know, when Nicolas Maduro was under immense pressure he made a little video where he warned the American [saying] don’t come and invade us, we’ll make this another Vietnam. I want you to consider, Jeremy, that the population of Iraq is just about 40 percent of the population of Iran. The Iranian population is highly motivated. If the United States decided to do any kind of military action against Iran it would, I think, be a great mistake. I mean Maduro evokes Vietnam. I would also evoke Vietnam at a different scale for the for the Iranian situation. I think that they are trying to intimidate the Iranian government and they’re trying to do something which — this is why the playbook between Iran and Venezuela is the same — they’re trying to produce so much, you know, economic hardship in the country that you’re going to have millions of people get disaffected with the government. You will have immense propaganda saying that it is this government’s fault and not these other external policies and you will try to create some kind of internal uprising which then gets cracked down upon by the government because it naturally doesn’t want to have some internal uprising, you know, just continue and [the] moment that crackdown takes place, the United States is going to say to the Europeans “look they are authoritarian, they’re a dictatorship, they’re crushing their people, let’s go in.” And NATO is going to say yes, and they go in, you know, all guns blazing.

It’s an incredibly similar playbook that they are following in all these countries which is why these countries are all sort of, you know, in a similar way, concerned. I think it’s silly how people talk about the axis of resistance, and so on. I don’t think anything like that exists. These countries have very different approaches to foreign policy. But at the same time, since they’re all under the same kind of playbook, there’s a kind of sympathy in these capitals for what’s happening in each place. And I think this is also why the Russians are very keen to be involved in each of these places to provide a shield. I think the question of a Russian shield over Iran is already there. The issue of a Russian Shield over Venezuela is also there. And I would say, Jeremy, this is exactly the reason why the United States has withdrawn from the missile treaty. This is why the United States is going to try directly to undermine Russian military power in the next few months.

JS: Well, but in fairness, Russia has its own imperial agenda as well. It’s not like Russia is only acting in the human interest of the world. I mean, Russia clearly is facing down NATO encroachment on the part of the United States. The U.S. moving further and further to the east. You have the potential, and it’s been there for some time, to have an all-out hot war between U.S. and Russian forces in Syria. Certainly, that would be the case if the U.S. did escalate even a little bit in Iran. But, let’s be clear here, though. I mean, Russia is not an ideological actor trying to stand up for the Global South. They’re also acting on their own imperial interests that occasionally aligned with the agenda that you’re describing there.

VP: Well, I would say stronger than that. I wouldn’t use the word imperial. I would say Russia is entirely a defensive power. Why do I say that? You know, it’s interesting when you look at military bases, particularly naval bases. The United States has a hundred and some-odd naval bases around the world. In fact, has the ability to encircle the planet. Years ago I was talking to a senior U.N. official — this is in March of 2011 when the Security Council was debating U.N. resolution 1973, that was the resolution that allowed the war in Libya — and I asked the U.N. official I said, you know, it’s so funny you guys, you produce these resolutions which say any member state can act under chapter seven, which means any member state can use armed forces to defend, you know, to help this resolution along and, of course, that means the United States because who else has bases all over the world? You know, the Indians can’t intervene in Libya, and so on. Well, the Russians had only, not a hundred naval bases around the world, but they had two warm water bases and I think it’s important to underline this.

One warm water base was in Sevastopol in the Crimea and the second warm water base is in Latakia in Syria. It’s no secret, therefore, that from 2013-14 the Russians were terrified about losing the Sevastopol naval base and the intervention into Ukraine, particularly into Crimea. I think this is the reason for the intervention to Crimea. They were defending that warm water base. And secondly, in2015, in September when Russian planes entered Damascus and they intervened militarily to prevent an American bombing run on the city. It was to defend their naval base in Latakia. So what I would say is that it’s an entirely defensive power. It’s much weaker than the United States but it’s basically using military force and using, you know, its ability as limited as possible to secure these alliances. It’s not out there to defend the south. I totally agree with that, but it has its own agenda and these agendas contradict those of the United States. At present, what’s interesting about this agenda that the Russians have is that, from let’s say the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 to the attempted overthrow of the Syrian government in 2012-13, I think in that space there was no check on U.S. power. And when the Russian planes entered Syria in 2015, that was the first time in about, you know, almost 25 years that somebody had come in to check U.S. power. And it’s my feeling that this current tussle over missile defense over space, overall these kinds of new tensions around military hardware, the presence of the military, etcetera between the United States and Russia is to, once again, weaken the Russian ability to provide these shields. These shields are not there for humanitarian purposes. But nonetheless, these are shields.

JS: Now, you mentioned India there and I want to remind people that India is a massive country not just in land mass, but in population — upwards of 1.3 billion people like what, you know, we’re talking about like one in every six people in the world is from India. And India has very, very important elections that will be coming up in the spring, scheduled for May. Right now India is under the control of a far-right extremist. The BJP won the majority in India’s Parliament. I want to ask you about the resistance to Narendra Modi in a second and what your analysis is of the upcoming elections there and there [have] been huge protests and you’ve been tweeting about that and showing pictures and videos. But first, explain for people the impact that the far-right BJP government has had on India.

VP: Well, Jeremy, in 2013 when the last parliamentary elections took place, the far-right won 31 percent of the vote. But because of the nature of the Indian parliamentary system, they got a majority in Parliament. But I want to start there because people should understand that they are essentially a minority government in terms of the votes they were able to get. Even though Mr. Modi rules India as if he had won a major majority of the population’s favor. You know, 60 percent plus of the public did not vote for the BJP or its allies. I think that’s very important to remember. Nonetheless, Mr. Modi didn’t govern as if he represented India. He governed from the agenda of his political party. He attempted to push the fascistic agenda of the BJP. In terms of what does it mean to be an Indian? No longer does the BJP want India to be composite plural country. As you say 1.3, 1.4 billion people, you know with — let me say, you know, a hundred, tens of hundreds of different kinds of cultural worlds, over a hundred different kinds of languages, highly diverse population, yet more they wanted to govern it in a very narrow, suffocating, cultural way.

He also attempted certain dramatic economic, you know, let’s call them gimmicks. Demonetization, which meant that suddenly one day you wake up and two of your main currency bills have been withdrawn from circulation. This was supposedly to go after black money. You know that is money hoarded by the rich. Of course, the rich, no longer keep their hoarded money in bank accounts under their beds. They keep it in tax havens, in shelters all around the world. So this was a big gimmick, which backfired, created a lot of distress for people and so on. So Modi attempted to push the country in a rightward direction. But right from the beginning, there was immense resistance against him and, interestingly, even on foreign policy.

When Modi tried to move into, basically, the American camp, he was prevented. He was the first Indian Prime Minister to go to Israel but he was forced by the political class and by the Indian foreign ministry to also have continued relations with the Palestinians — which he wanted to break. Modi was very eager to join in the American project to isolate Iran. That was prevented, not only by the foreign ministry and by the other political parties, but also, of course, by the needs of India which is entirely reliant on import of oil and imports quite a large amount of Iranian oil.

In the case of Venezuela, there was pressure on Mr. Modi to join with some of these European countries and the Lima Group to isolate the government of Maduro, but, the political class just wouldn’t have it. And India had to put out a quite a strong statement saying that “no foreign intervention is permitted and the sovereignty of Venezuela must be respected.” So, I want to just say at the same time as Modi is quite a ruthless, nasty piece of work, he was not able to capture fully the institutions of Indian government and the imagination of the Indian people and it’s quite likely, Jeremy, that he is going to lose this election quite badly.

JS: Well, that’s interesting. I want to ask you more about that. I also want to just draw people’s attention to the fact that just last month in January there were upwards of 200 million workers in India that took part in a two-day strike protesting the government’s labor policies. And then at the same time, over the weekend, you tweeted a photo of a sea of people in red and you wrote the following “My home city of Kolkata bristled today with the energy of the Left Front with our comrades thronging the Brigade Ground. There are many photographs of our comrades as they interact with each other, dance with each other from the bus stands and the train stations to the maidan.” What is the Left Front and how are they challenging the BJP?

VP: Well, you know, it’s let’s begin with the major labor protest. I was driving up and down the length of Kerala during those two days of the strike in January —

JS: I mean, that’s just for people to understand! I mean 200 million workers – I mean that’s like two-thirds of the population of the United States in, you know, in the streets on strike.

VP: That’s quite right and these are workers from not only where you’d expect them, rail workers, people closed down the trains in different parts of the country, but also Anganwadi workers. These are workers who are child care workers, ASHA workers. These are health care workers went out on strike. We saw IT workers. The internet workers in Bangalore in some IT companies go on strike. It was a range of workers to add up to 200 million and these workers were on strike not for wages. I think that’s very important to recognize. But they were angry with the direction of economic policy. They were angry with the kind of political culture in the country. It’s a very broad set of demands and quite a very powerful strike.

But before that, last year there was an immense wave of agrarian struggles. People may not know that in the past 18 years almost 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide. They’ve committed suicide largely because there is a deep agrarian crisis with no exit that has struck India. You’ve had — because of the commercialization of agriculture — you’ve had input prices rise, prices of fertilizer, prices of pesticide, prices of seeds. And you’ve had the government cut support prices to buy the goods. That means that the input prices [have] risen and the buying price has dropped which has left farmers in immense debt. And what you’ve seen, which is so tragic, is many of these farmers commit suicide by drinking pesticide, the very thing that has bankrupted them. Well over the course of these 15 odd years, the Kisan Sabha which is the Farmers’ movement in India has been struggling very hard to build the political confidence of farmers. And you saw in Bombay last year, you know, hundreds of thousands of farmers, march for over two weeks into the city of Bombay and force the right-wing state government to accede to the demands. So, what I’m saying is that we move from suicide to the politicization of the agrarian crisis. This had an enormous impact in three state elections last year in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh.

And it’s because of this farmer’s protest which has been, you know, organized by the left, by the communists, by the socialists, and other constituents of the Left Front. Because of these farmer’s protest you’ve seen a shift in the political needle away from the BJP in these key states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh. And in the very large, the largest state in India, the state of Uttar Pradesh, where there are 80 members of parliament — you know, the parliament in India has about 500 members, 80 of them come from Uttar Pradesh. In the 2013 election, Modi’s party won 70 of those seats but this year the two, I mean, so-called socialist parties, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, have united. They are going to fight the elections together. And it’s actually a marriage that is made in heaven, as they say, because in 31 seats in the 2013 election, in 31 of those seats the Samajwadi party, the socialist party came second, and in 34 seats the Bahujan Samaj Party, which is the party of oppressed castes, came second. So, that means they don’t actually compete with each other in 65 of the seats where the BJP won.

So, what we are anticipating is that this alliance is going to win about 50 to 60 seats out of 80 Uttar Pradesh. Because the BJP cannot win seats in South India because it’s going to have a hard time in those agrarian states of Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh and because it’s going to lose in this very large state of Uttar Pradesh to this new alliance of socialists and oppressed caste parties. Because of that, there is no way BJP is going to get a plurality in the Parliament and I think, in fact, it will it will not be able to form a government in April and May of this coming, this year.

JS: What are the chances that a new Indian government would be legitimately leftist or anti-imperialist?

VP: No, no, no. I mean, Jeremy, that’s not the –

JS: I’m asking you, brother!

VP:[Laughter] You see the issue is — this is the situation that we are going to face for a generation. Which is that again in these three state elections, it was really immense work done by the left among, you know rural communities, farmers, landless workers, and so on to build a political momentum that defeated the BJP governments. But of course, the left doesn’t have the kind of political structure needed to win elections. You know, whether this is in Brazil or it’s in India, we have to recognize that democracy has been completely shattered as an institutional form. It requires so much money to run in elections. There are so many crooked things that have happened to the democratic process. You know, in Brazil Jair Bolsonaro’s friends were sending WhatsApp messages, to WhatsApp groups that number, you know, hundreds and thousands of people. These WhatsApp messages, that were very cruel, they were suggesting that the Workers’ Party in Brazil, you know, was going to force their children into sex education and so on, you know, as if that’s a problem. I mean children deserve sex education but they were doing it in an extremely nasty way and delegitimizing the Workers’ Party in Brazil. We see the same thing in India. In other words, you know, lots of money being put by corporations into BJP deniable groups that are creating these WhatsApp networks and you know, inking essentially the political process by, you know, saying things about other candidates that are not true where it’s very difficult for the candidate who doesn’t have money to come out there and say look that’s just not true and let me show you how. So, you know to capitalize on the kind of mass mobilizations, on the struggles and so on into this democratic sphere is becoming increasingly difficult which is why I think that you know, we need to very seriously consider reconsider what democratic institutions are and what has become, what has happened to them.

JS: Last month was the anniversary of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the independence leader in Congo who was the first prime minister of the independent Democratic Republic of Congo. He was assassinated and the United States, we know for a fact, had previously plotted to assassinate him. Just recently there were elections in Congo and you had the election of Felix Tshisekedi. He is now Congo’s fifth president taking over from Joseph Kabila. You recently, with Kambale Musavuli wrote a piece about the legacy of the crisis in Congo and how Patrice Lumumba-inspired-youth are trying to break the culture of plunder and corruption that has been foisted upon the political system in Congo. Explain today’s crisis, how it began in Congo, the significance of this new election, and the fact that the so-called opposition in Congo right now is headed by a former ExxonMobil executive.

VP: You know, it’s a great tragedy and I’d like to just back up for a minute. It’s not just a situation of the Congo. You have to look at this belt that runs through the center of Africa including Zambia, you know, including any country in the center of Africa and the many of them that are rich in rare earth minerals, in various raw materials from cobalt, which is an essential ingredient in electric batteries, to coltan which is essential for you know, the smartphones, the iPhone and so on. So, these countries —

JS: Oh many, many people are probably listening to you right now, Vijay, on devices that contain some natural resources from Congo or this belt that you’re describing.

VP: Well, they will definitely have devices that have cobalt and coltan which mainly come from this belt of countries. And it’s very important to say that however much there is, kind of, this dismay about the Chinese intervention in Africa, that actually most of the companies that are able to work to mine these goods are actually not Chinese. Many of them are Canadian. We, in fact, are doing a study about these Canadian firms like Barrick and so on which dominate the mining in these parts of the world. And what you’ve seen is that these mining companies essentially misprice what they’re doing. They pay these countries revenues based on a very deflated price for the goods. These goods as soon as they cross the border from the Congo, say they go to Mwanza port in Tanzania. As soon as they cross the border into Tanzania or into Uganda, the prices of these goods rise by miracle because within the Congo they keep the price low. So they say to the government we’ll give you 20 percent per ton of coltan’s price but the price is, you know, only so many hundred dollars. As soon as it crosses the border the price increases. This is what we call mispricing.

So places like the Congo have essentially been plundered and stolen from for over a hundred years. They haven’t been able to build up any kind of public finances. They haven’t been able to build up proper institutions to take care of the people of the Congo or of Zambia, wherever. And what you see in the Congo is, I mean you cannot imagine what corruption looks like. It’s the corruption of these big Canadian and other mining companies, resource companies, Australian companies and so on. Then it’s the corruption of the political class. At this moment, the kind of tentacles of Joseph Kabila who governed, you know, almost entirely since democracy came to Congo.

I mean democracy, again that word, you know, what does it mean for places like the Congo where you know, you strong arm people you have elections which means so little and, bizarrely, elections which means so little but in the case of a place like the Congo because it’s pliant, because it allows its raw materials and rare earth materials to leave the country at low cost, every time there is an election the State Department and, you know, all the Europeans, everybody says, well, you know, they’re moving towards democracy. I mean, if you are a pliant government, then your stolen election is validated. If you are not a pliant government, this is coming back to Venezuela, then you’re going to be told your election was fraudulent. So, they have had fraudulent election after elections and it got to such a point that Joseph Kabila simply refused to have an election. You know, his term ended in 2016. He just refused to allow an election to take place and nobody said peep. There was no statement about moving American troops into Tanzania. I mean nothing. Why? Because essentially all the minerals are being looted from that country so that we can have iPhones which cost — Okay, the huge price of $999 dollars, but if you actually priced the minerals inside the iPhone, the price may go up to $30,000 per iPhone. Some people have estimated $100,000 per iPhone. Imagine that. Walking into the Apple store and saying I’ll take three of those. I mean, who can afford that?

So, as long as you have a pliant government, and Kabila was pliant, they allowed him to keep going even though his mandate ended in 2016. You had these massive protest — yes, Lumumba inspired youth but also, you know, some of them are devout Christian groups and so on — out on the street demanding change. The pressure was too high. They allowed an election. They thought that Kabila’s, you know, his successor would come in. And here’s the whole trick of it, you know, again what is a democracy? Who can afford to build a political party? Necessarily you get people from the elite who build the opposition. And here? Yes, of course, it’s an ExxonMobil, you know, executive who becomes the face of the opposition. I mean, there is no real opposition in a country like Congo until it’s built from the grassroots. From these young people and so on.

And that is why, Jeremy, I’m sorry to say that, for at least a generation, places like the Congo will not be able to have, you know, robust political movements. Movements that will have any kind of impact in the electoral domain. In Zambia, a socialist party is being built up particularly in the copper belt. They are going to run for presidential elections. The candidate is going to be Fredman Membe. Fred used to run a newspaper in Zambia. He has been arrested several times by this government. His newspaper has been confiscated. The press was confiscated. The men’s pressure against the Socialist Party of Zambia and I can bet you that 99 percent of the people listening to this have never heard of the Socialist Party of Zambia or of Fred, you know, because of course, these are people who will not be pliant when it comes to mining companies, if they ever come to power.

JS: Well, and I also want to remind people, just briefly, of the history that you’re talking about here of the Congo, which was under the brutal reign of Belgian colonialism. And then you had the CIA-backed government of Mobutu Sese Seko and he himself was an actual CIA asset who ran that country with extreme brutality and kept it open for U.S. president after U.S. president.

You also had Dwight Eisenhower authorizing the CIA to develop a chemical poison that was made to look like toothpaste that they wanted to try to assassinate Patrice Lumumba with. We’ve seen so many of these independence movements or nationalist movements in Africa and Asia, around the Global South just be completely obliterated or severely damaged in the ensuing decades of imperialist encroachment around the world.

VP: Well, it is a very great tragedy. I mean, again, the playbook is similar. You look for the most charismatic person, assassinate that person, and then squeeze the rest of the political forces into exceeding to your demands. I mean, you take the case of any of these countries when they attempted to do something, put forward an alternative project. Suddenly, there’s an assassination: whether it’s Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1961, or it’s AmílcarCabral, or it’s the coup against Kwame Nkrumah. I mean, none of them was allowed to have a tenure where they were able to develop independent economies. And, of course for my generation, the assassination of Thomas Sankara in May of 1987, the very charismatic and important political leader in Burkina Faso which used to be known as Upper Volta but then when Sankara came to power he changed the name of his country. [He] said, “why should we be called Upper Volta? Why should we be defined by colonialism? We are Burkina Faso, the land of upright people.” And he pushed an agenda to revive the agriculture of Burkina Faso. He pushed an agenda for the sovereignty of the country. It’s such an interesting agenda that he pushed that he set for instance, by government fiat, by law, on Wednesday, men must do childcare. He said I would like to have half the week be for men to do childcare and domestic — take care of the house, clean things, cook food, but I’m going to start only with Wednesday. I mean, this was a man who understood that political power is not about the parliament. It’s not even about the boardroom of companies — it’s the kitchen, the house.

You know, it’s the old saying Jeremy that it’s not enough to be Che Guevara on the street and Pinochet in the kitchen. You have to be [a] liberated person from you know, your house out onto the streets and Sankara pushed a great agenda for his country, Burkina Faso, and he was assassinated. You know, just seven years later the hope of South Africa, Chris Hani, you know, the leader of [the South African Communist Party], the leader of the urban poor in South Africa. Just as South Africa was coming out of Apartheid, before the elections, Chris Hani was shot to death. I mean, every time you look at an African country when a young leader is produced that comes up with an agenda that is not blind to mining companies, not pliant to the Western capitals, that person is killed almost immediately and I think people need to really reflect on that, reflect on the assassinations of Houari Boumédièneat the north of the country in Algeria all the way down to Chris Hani at the South.

JS: You know, as we wrap up Vijay, I wanted to get your big picture take on the ascent of Donald Trump to the chamber of ultimate power in the United States at the White House. Taking into account this history that you and I are discussing of populist movements, leftist movements, socialist movements, and the kind of expansion of the imperialism of the United States. Set Donald Trump’s rise to power in the context of all of this history that you and I have been discussing.

VP: Well, you know it brings us back to this tax strike that began about 40 years ago. About 40 years ago when basically government policy allowed the big elites to no longer pay taxes, corporate tax rates began to fall. You saw government budgets desiccate. You saw municipal budgets basically devolve to nothing. At this point, the kind of liberal consensus, the liberal agenda, was to move in a direction [of] what we call neoliberalism. They produced a policy framework called neoliberalism which basically accepted the fact that the rich were not going to pay taxes. And they tried to raise public financing, whether it’s the budgets of governments or municipalities, they wanted to raise funds by selling off hard-won public assets, whether it’s concessions to water delivery, or it’s, in fact, education institutions, and so on. They privatized, they opened up parts of human existence that had not been for money and commodified them.

So again, water is a great example. You had water utilities which basically ran things as a not-for-profit entity. You start privatizing water, making water into a commodity. This was the way in which the liberals tried to finance this crisis of government budgets because the rich were not paying taxes. And they were not going to challenge the rich. In fact, they said that’s good. It creates entrepreneurialism. You see jobs trickle down. Essentially, this is the agenda of Tony Blair, of Bill Clinton, and you know, around the world they have their cognates. But by the financial crisis of 2007, the liberals with the neoliberal policies were essentially totally delegitimized.

I mean, nobody took seriously, after the financial crisis, the idea that you should just go out there and become an entrepreneur as if it’s so easy. I mean, as if it’s so easy to go out there and just start a business. Have an idea and somebody will finance it. Who? Who is going to finance it? Which bank is going to give me money for my idea when banks are basically hoarding wealth on behalf of the wealthy, not lending for business purposes at the rates at which they should, and so on? So, when these neoliberals are delegitimized, from the right appears characters, people like Donald Trump. But again, this is not a specific American story. This is a global story. The delegitimization of the liberals, whether it’s the Congress party in India, or it’s to some extent, the Workers Party in Brazil, the Democratic party in the United States, these far-right people show up and they make strong claims saying that “we’re going to come, we’re going to grab the economy by the throat, we’re going to make it cough out jobs.” And then they make [an] even more dramatic statement saying that “the reason you don’t have a job has nothing to do with the fact that you’re not an entrepreneur or that you’re not a get-up-and-go person. The reason you don’t have a job is because the migrants, because these migrants come in and take your jobs.” I mean, it’s a classic bait and switch.

On the one hand, they quite correctly attack the neoliberals saying that “you’ve basically hollowed out the economy.” They attack them saying that “you’re not able to provide well-being for the population.” Well, that’s true. But then the bait and switch is they turn around and they say “the reason why this is happening is because of the migrants.” They, in other words, the Trumps of the world, just like the Clintons of the world, don’t point their fingers at those 2,000 billionaires and so on who are just not paying taxes. Who are sucking up social wealth and not providing any return to public finances to improve health to improve education. And, by the way, to create public institutions that prevent people from desperation like universal health care. If you had publicly funded universal health care, individual families wouldn’t have to scramble to pay premiums and struggle to get health insurance and so on. This is what public financing should have been. But because the left is weak now, the liberals have been delegitimized. The field is open to the right and not only to the right but [to] these very vicious strongmen. So, my sense is that for some time now, we’re going to have to tolerate this right-wing political presence until we build up the forces of the left to produce a robust critique of the way in which the wealthy have not been contributing at all.

I mean, I don’t really want philanthropy. I want them to pay taxes.

JS: Well on that note, we’re going to leave it there. Vijay Prashad, thank you so much for joining us.

VP: Thanks a lot.

The post Pox Americana: Vijay Prashad on Venezuela, India, Mexico, Congo, and U.S. Hegemony appeared first on The Intercept.