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Monday, January 12, 2015

It’s Just Africa: Boko Haram Raids a Multinational Military Base

In October of last year, my colleague Colin wrote with guarded optimism about the ceasefire between the Nigerian military and the terrorist group, Boko Haram, questioning whether this news was actually too good to be true. In the months following that announcement, we’ve come to see that our cynicism was unfortunately well placed.

In November, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau released a video in which he denied any claims made by the Nigerian government about the outcome of ceasefire, explicitly stating that the 200 kidnapped schoolgirls from Chibok had converted to Islam and been married off.  This video dealt what could been seen as the final blow to the legitimacy of the statements coming from President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. Criticisms of this administration grow more vocal and more numerous, as analysts say that the only solution to Boko Haram’s attempted takeover of the Nigerian state is a military solution. 

Boko Haram will stop at nothing in its advance through and out of Nigeria, and appeasement will certainly not end the violent rampages. If the Nigerian military were to pull back and effectively cede control of the territory the terrorist group already controls, it would only serve as incentive for the group to attack more towns and regions and expand its control.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Charlie and Ahmed: Two Sides of the Fight against Violent Extremism

The attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office and kosher market in Paris that left 17 dead this week defy human language: words like unthinkable, unconscionable, inhuman, and barbarous simply don’t go far enough to describe the shock and sorrow felt by people all over the world. Thankfully, it is unimaginable to most people to commit such heinous acts of violence against a group of people simply for drawing a cartoon or writing an article. Whatever your opinion of the “offensive” work of Charlie Hebdo, most voices seem to be in agreement that no one deserves to die for causing offense. (Most.)

Yet as shocking as the attack is, it is not all that surprising. That it occurred in the middle of Paris, a Western city in a Western country, is slightly out of the ordinary for a contemporary terrorist attack. Much more often, we read about attacks from the supposed safety of Western communities as Islamabad, Baghdad, Kabul, Aleppo (and on and on) burn and bleed. This type of terrorist attack (akin to small-scale urban warfare) is growing more commonplace nonetheless, and attacks like the ones in Paris this week and the Boston Marathon bombings show that the West is far from immune from extremist violence. The growing pains (to put it mildly) felt by European nations as they struggle to forge common bonds among citizens from diverse backgrounds speak to similar struggles in the Muslim-majority world to bridge communal divides. Regardless of their vastly different political landscapes, efforts at integration and harmonization have similar effects in both regions: usually division, sometimes violence.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Europe's Balancing Act Between "Islamisation" and Xenophobia

Overnight in local time, two gunmen entered the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper, and commenced a shooting rampage that would ultimately leave 12 dead. According to the Paris Prosecutor, the gunmen shouted "Allahu Akbar" and claimed to be "avenging the Prophet". Not coincidentally, Charlie Hebdo has a long history of publishing anti-Islam cartoons: in 2011, their headquarters was bombed following the publishing of a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad. And, as notable artists such as author Salman Rushie have learned in the past, radical Islamics take these criticisms of Islam very seriously, and often seek violent retribution. In this case, in what President Obama has called a "cowardly" attack, the reverberations are being felt around the world as the notion of freedom of speech is put into question.

Protestors with signs that read "I am Charlie". 
Courtesy Daily Mail

There is a much larger issue at hand, though, and it is that of the broader effect of a booming Muslim population in Europe. Muslims now make up a majority in more than one European country, and currently make up more than 6% of the total European population. It has been estimated in recent years that the Muslim population in Europe will double by 2020. And the Muslim influence is being felt across all of Europe, no longer just in Turkey and other southeastern European nations.

Diversity is often a step in the right direction, and the integration of different peoples is generally a good thing. In Europe, however, there have also been some negative ramifications.

Xenophobia has become rampant throughout the European Union, especially in some of the Scandinavian countries in the north. This is not just directed at Muslims, although since they make up a substantial portion of immigrants traveling to Europe, they certainly bear the brunt of it. Xenophobia has become such a common sentiment, in fact, that parliaments and governments all over Europe have been increasingly susceptible to the influence of far-right, conservative parties that often have the backing of the general public. Holland's PVV party continues to enjoy mass popularity, despite its leader being on trial for exacerbating racial tensions and inciting racial hatred. It is these political parties that espouse the notion that immigration is bad, and that it is these outsiders that put native Europeans at risk.


Unfortunately, these sentiments are beginning to spread beyond the far-right, and are entering the mainstream at an alarming rate. In Germany, for example, there have been weekly anti-Islam protests since last October. The protests, organized by a group known as Pegida, have grown to include as many as 20,000 individuals in instances and continue to garner support as they speak out against the "Islamisation" of Europe.

Aside from Turkey, France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, and with it, the most anti-Islam sentiment and xenophobic tension. Their history if Islamic terrorism dates all the way back to the 1995 metro bombings - there have been numerous incidents since, including today's.

Alas, European nations find themselves in an awful catch-22: jihadist Muslims will continue their bombings, shootings and other attacks in European cities in response to anti-Islam sentiment and criticisms like the cartoons Charlie Hebdo published; in return, xenophobia and anti-Islam sentiment will only broaden. This problem is especially acute right now, as Europe remains the primary recruitment zone outside of the Middle East for jihadi fighters to join the wars in Syria and Iraq. Countries such as Denmark have tried to be innovative in their efforts to rehabilitate known jihadi soldiers as opposed to jail them, but this social experiment will need some time before its efficacy can be determined.

So what is Europe to do, then? The answer lies in integration. While the Muslim population has continued to grow, at tremendous rates in some countries, there has never really been much of a welcome for them in these countries. It can easily be argued that the number of Muslim politicians is woefully smaller in proportion of the Muslim population, meaning they are probably not getting the adequate representation they need in order to feel more at home. And in countries such as France (and, although I haven't done the research, probably others), laws have been established that contradict with Muslim traditions, such as France's ban on women covering their faces with hijabs in public. It is precisely because of this lack of a welcome that Muslims find it harder to assimilate into European culture. Without this assimilation, they probably perceive themselves more as outsiders than anything, and it's been widely documented that it is this very psychology that makes it far easier for someone to justify the use of violence on a broader community.

Now, obviously, lone wolf attacks such as today's are not indicative of a broader population, and shouldn't be. Just because a handful of terrorists attack Europeans does not mean all Muslims share that sentiment. It does, however, give us a reason to talk about the broader issue of xenophobia and the inclusion of Muslims into the European community - something that has lacked.

The tragedy of today's attack on Charlie Hebdo's headquarters will not easily be forgotten, and sadly, may only exacerbate anti-Islam sentiments in Europe. It should, however, remind European governments that this is a population that is often neglected, and that more of an effort needs to be made to ensure that this population is treated as Europeans, not just Muslims. In doing so, Europe may prevent the next major attack or decrease the likelihood of ISIS recruiting its youth. In any case, it's an important step forward for a Europe that is going to continue seeing an influx of Muslim immigrants in the coming years, whether it likes it or not.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"Todos somos americanos": A Thaw in US-Cuban Relations

Obama with the firm handshake to Castro.
Courtesy Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
In what could be one of Pres. Barack Obama's crowning moments in foreign policy, the White House announced today that relations with the government of Cuba would be reopened after 50 years of enmity. In a statement today at noon, Pres. Obama announced that the two countries would move towards the establishment of formal relations in the coming months, including the reopening of a US embassy in Havana, the exchange of visits by high-level officials, and a review by the State Department of Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terror. He justified the move by arguing that US policy towards Cuba, largely driven by isolation and embargo, has "failed to advance our interests" given that Communist Castro government remains in power, while the lives of everyday Cubans have been made extremely difficult by US policy.

The news came on the heels of the release of imprisoned US subcontractor Alan Gross, who has been held in Cuba for 5 years on charges of subversion and whose imprisonment was a major barrier to Pres. Obama's goal of improving US-Cuban relations. Gross was arrested in 2009 for distributing illegal satellite technology in an attempt to increase internet access among Cuba's small Jewish community. The 65-year-old was in poor health, having lost 100 pounds during his imprisonment and going on a hunger strike in April, and had reportedly suggested to his family that he would commit suicide if his imprisonment continued.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Is Russia's Economy Doomed?

It's been one heck of a year for Vladimir Putin, who did the unthinkable in remaining one strategic step ahead of President Obama and the U.S. throughout some of the year's most newsworthy events: the annexation of Crimea, continued efforts to subdue the Syrian government, Iranian nuclear talks. For a while, it seemed as though President Putin held all of the cards, and that the U.S. was walking on thin ice by flaring up tensions with increased sanctions and other diplomatic tools. Unfortunately for Russia, it appears that President Putin has finally run out of leverage - Western sanctions are finally taking their toll. It was an economic collapse in the late 1980s, brought on by decades of Communism wreaking havoc on the Soviet Union's financial system, that finally brought the Union to its knees. Will history now repeat itself? And what will the implications be for the U.S., and the global economy as a whole?

Consumers buying up electronics. Courtesy of NYT


As global oil prices have continued to slide, so has Russian currency. In fact, Russia was poised to shut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine through the entire winter earlier this year, as retaliation for Western sanctions. Such a move would have likely thrust Europe back into a recession, as the European Union struggled to find natural gas supplies from elsewhere. However, that plan did not pan out as Putin had initially intended - during the last few days of October, Russia signed a deal with the Ukraine and the E.U. that effectively resumed natural gas supplies flowing to Ukraine in exchange for an agreed-upon payment (much of which was coming from the E.U). Obviously there were numerous benefits - for both sides - to this deal. However, the deal is indicative of a Russian economy that was already uneasy at the prospect of missing out on a major energy export deal for so many months.

30-day look at value of ruble vs. Brent crude. Copyright Bloomberg LP

Up until yesterday, the ruble had slid approximately 11 percent against the U.S. dollar so far this year. The Brent crude oil index was at a multi-year low, trading at less than $80 per barrel. And then, overnight, things got much worse for Russia. After Russia's Central Bank minted more than 600 billion new rubles in part of a bond-selling deal with Russia's state-owned oil giant, Rosneft, the effect that new currency had on global markets was devastating. With the ruble in free-fall and oil nearing a 5 1/2 year low, Russian finance ministers convened overnight and raised interest rates a whopping 6.5 percent, from the benchmark 10.5 percent to 17 percent in an effort to stanch the flow of capital. Unfortunately, this was not enough, and it appears that Russians don't see 17 percent interest as incentive enough to hold on to their currency. News outlets have reported a run on electronic and other high-end consumer stores, as citizens take advantage of the record-weak currency. Oil continue to trades low, and now Russia is stuck with commodities it can only export for cheap, a rapidly depreciating currency, and now, high interest rates that will make it harder to borrow. Earlier today the ruble's depreciation doubled, from its 11 percent on the year against the dollar to 22 percent. While reserves and general finances are better in Russia today than they were decades ago when they underwent their last economic downturn, it's safe to say Russia is on the brink of a catastrophic currency crisis.

Falling oil prices may be great for consumers in the short-term, but they are indicative of a downturn in the global economy, which is never a good thing. The instability that can result from the OPEC countries struggling to maintain their exports is something to be afraid of. And while relations have been icy in recent months between the United States and Russia, there are significant economic ties between the two nations that could prove to be costly for U.S. interests should Russia's economy collapse. Russia's currency needs to stabilize, and fast, before the damage spreads outside of their borders.