Jooneed J. Khan is a journalist, writer and human rights activist. Born in Mauritius, he was for 35 years a reporter and analyst on international affairs for the Montréal dailyLa Presse. He co-founded the MMM* movement in Mauritius, was often fired from his teaching jobs and did some jail time there. He also reported from some 60 countries. He is now retired but more active than ever, and is a grandfather. Serai editor Rana Bose sat down with him in an interview.
RB: The complexities of the situation in and around Syria, the geopolitics, the opportunistic alliances and the brutal effect on the civilian masses are now well known. The overwhelming and catastrophic images of refugees, fleeing civilians and daily mass drownings in the Mediterranean have made this situation an intense mainstream concern today. It has become, as in times before, an exercise in competitive benevolence. We are waiting for another “We are the World” recording session! How can this charitable disposition be politicized into a better understanding of why people are fleeing? Is it because they feel persecuted as a “tribe” or are they simply fleeing violence in their lives?
JJK: It’s because of all the above, and more, much more.
Migration is a permanent feature of human history, from the Asian settlement of the Americas to European settler-colonial expansion five centuries ago.
Causes vary. Asian settlement of the Americas came in successive waves beginning as early as 40,000 years ago, and was spurred over millennia by the constraints and opportunities of glaciation and deglaciation over the Bering ice bridge between Siberia and Alaska.
European settlement and colonization on the other hand were pure phenomena of conquest and the scramble for global economic and military supremacy among a handful of European nations.
The massive European settlement of the Americas, including Canada, and of Australia and New Zealand, of East and Southern Africa by the Boers and the British, and of Algeria by the French, with the concomitant dispossession and decimation of Aboriginal peoples in many places, was initially a result of this colonial imperative painted as Europe’s “civilizing mission” through the spread of Christianity, the so-called “White Man’s Burden.”
But it accelerated as the agrarian and industrial revolutions in Europe evicted peasants from privatized commons lands and herded them to new industrial towns – and to the colonies. The present so-called “migratory crisis” in Europe is only a culmination of lesser “migrations” of refugees and so-called “boat-people” we’ve witnessed since the end of WWII.
And it must be viewed in the overall context of the unequal world system kept in place and reinforced by the dominant West over five centuries.
RB: It has also often been stated in a banal fashion that it’s all about resources, oil and gas finds, shipping channels, pipelines, warm water ports, and trade routes that are in contention in a 21st century dynamic to decide on alternate markets and exchange currency, etc. At this time (especially at this point when a ceasefire is being attempted at the initiative of the Russians), can you identify any ONE single major contradiction that leads and exacerbates the situation in this region? What forces are keeping the fires stoked and for what benefit?
JJK: The statement is not banal. Today, the so-called refugee/migrant crisis is indeed a consequence of the global struggle for resources, oil and gas finds, shipping channels, pipelines, warm water ports and trade routes… in a 21st-century dynamic to decide on alternate markets and exchange currency, etc.
You do well to highlight the war on Syria, as it is emblematic of the struggle of the militarily over-armed but morally discredited West/NATO alliance to maintain its global hegemony against the peaceful emergence of new poles of power (Russia, China, India, Iran, Brazil, the BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Eurasian Common Market, the new Latin America).
The very emergence of these new power centres is moving the world away from our old West-dominated unipolar system towards a new multipolar global configuration.
Convinced that it won the Cold War against the USSR, the West/NATO Empire moved immediately, as early as 1989, to install a unipolar so-called “New World Order.” The expression was officialized by George Bush Sr. in 1990 as the US entrapped Iraq in Kuwait and moved to remap the whole of the Middle East. Somalia, Iraq, Rwanda (as political apartheid crumbled in South Africa and Mobutu was surgically replaced by Kabila in the Congo-Kinshasa), and the former Yugoslavia were all aggressed, devastated, even re-balkanized.
And in the wake of September 11, 2001, we got NATO in Afghanistan, Iraq-2, then Libya and Syria, and now Yemen.
We must consider and reflect upon the fact that the NATO/US Empire had a free hand in steamrolling over the planet for 22 years (1989-2011), with the WTO strategy thrown in to have the rights of corporations override the UN Human Rights Charter.
This was before post-Cold War Russia felt confident enough to veto the Western/NATO attempt to repeat a Libya-2 in Syria through the UN Security Council. China stood up alongside Russia. They stopped NATO in its (tank) tracks.
But, as they say in the US, “there are many ways to skin a cat.” So the NATO/US Empire sent in the bloodthirsty clowns: NATO member Turkey was already involved, so they soon got their other regional clients (Saudis, other Gulf oil and gas emirates, Israel, and especially their new surrogate and self-proclaimed Islamist murderers and destroyers of Daesh) to try and show that “Assad is killing his own people.”
Then, on Sept 30, 2015, Russia sent in its aero-naval power and started bombing Daesh and its pirated oil convoys through Turkey to smithereens. Putin had a George W Bush twist for NATO: “You are either with us or with Daesh”!
This is the actual background to the present ceasefire in Syria – which may go through much-to-be-expected ups and downs before the Empire and its lackeys come out of their “exceptionalist” bubble and sit down, as Churchill said, “to jaw-jaw instead of war-war” with those they have demonized as “enemies.”
This struggle for and against rebalancing the Unipolar World Order is your “ONE single major contradiction in the region,” and Syria is the main battlefield.
RB: There is this notion amongst many anti-Assad groups (and I am not necessarily referring to Daesh or the Al-Qaeda affiliates) and as well a whole gamut of other opinions, that the root cause is Assad. If you get rid of this dictator (some even suggest by any means necessary, including taking Israeli support), everything will normalize. This view is held by a fair number of libertarian, socialist and left-of-centre academic and NGO groups as well. Can you explain your opinion on this perspective?
JJK: Anti-Assad groups are many and varied, and some of them are genuine democrats who want to dismantle the old dictatorship and autocracy. But all of them have by now witnessed, hopefully, how getting rid of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and of Muammar Kaddafi in Libya has only brought chaos, destruction and civil war, and empowered self-proclaimed Islamist terrorism – with NATO powers, including Canada, not far behind.
The fact is the dreams of democrats in Syria, Iraq and Libya have been hijacked by the Empire and its lackeys to get rid of anti-imperialist, secular republics, and turn them over to Sunni/Wahhabi fundamentalist franchisees of Al Qaeda whose “Khilaafat” (Islamic State) ideology means non-secular monarchies on the Saudi and Gulf Emirates model – all creatures and protégés of the British and US Empires.
Our dreams and ideals are essential and we must remain committed to them. But we must also read and decipher how the US/NATO Empire has no regard for democracy whatsoever. Democratic regimes are big risks for the Empire – they won’t be dictated to, and they won’t let their resources be looted.
What the Empire and its regional allies really want are subservient regimes, as in General Sisi’s Egypt and in Essebsi’s Tunisia, who collaborate to safeguard and promote the Empire’s geostrategic interests, military, political, economic, in the whole region from Morocco to Pakistan.
They view as hostile to their interests the widening presence of China, Russia, India, the BRICS and the SCO, not just in the Middle East, but also throughout the Global South.
Right now, their regional priority is to prop up pro-Wahhabi forces to fight what they see as the anti-imperialist Shi’a Axis of Iran, Syria and the Hezbollah in Lebanon.
But the Empire is wracked with growing contradictions. There’s no love lost, for example, between Turkey’s Islamist regime under Erdogan and the Saudi ruling family. While targeting Syria and Iran, they are locked in a bitter rivalry for leadership of a putative new “Khilaafat”!
In his push to restore some form of Ottoman Empire across the Middle East and all the way to Central Asia and China’s Xinjiang, and in their desperation to cling to power through a wild, headlong rush forward, as in Bahrain and Yemen, both Turkey and Saudi may be overplaying their hands.
And then there is the growing tension between Europe and North America within NATO. The Europeans are more and more reluctant to follow the US lead in NATO’s permanent wars or in clamping sanctions on Russia – and the Russians are doing their level best to bring the EU to view Russia and China as partners rather than foes.
The US is trying hard to salvage, stabilize and reinforce the transatlantic relationship within NATO through the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership proposal (TTIP). It is also pressing the UK to remain in the EU and avoid a “Brexit” at all costs.
And on Feb 29, Ottawa announced that “the legal review of the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement [CETA] (English text) has been completed”.
RB: What has prompted Russia to take the side of Assad, ally itself with Iran and Hezbollah, and in effect, also side with the Kurd nationalist and rebel forces? After all, not only has Assad made mistakes, he has a record of pretty nasty approaches to any opposition to his regime. Is Russia, at the present time, simply the flip side of the US/Western imperial gambit to retain global domination? And what about China? What is her role?
JJK: Post-Soviet Russia remains the only other military superpower and the largest resource-rich country on the planet, occupying the heartland of the Eurasian continent – even after losing 5 million sq. km. with the breakup of the former USSR.
But since 1989, Russia has been destabilized with a weak economy mauled by greedy oligarchs tied to global corporate interests. It has also been frantically rebuilding, amid promises of rapprochement from the West, belied by NATO’s eastern expansionism and undermined by Islamist terrorism from the Caucasus in the wake of the Red Army withdrawal from Afghanistan in the face of NATO’s Mujahedeen and warlords.
Humiliated Russia watched passively as the US/NATO Empire, with its Project for a New American Century (PNAC), dismantled the former Yugoslavia, returned to Afghanistan, strangled Iraq with sanctions before destroying it, and went on to destroy Libya, and then Syria.
Syria 2011 was where and when Russia decided it had consolidated enough and built enough alliances with China and the Global South to stand up to NATO with its first-ever veto in 22 years at the UN Security Council.
Syria has been a long-time ally of the former USSR. It is also an ally of Iran. It is close to the Caucasus. And if Syria fell to Daesh – in spite of the democratic dreams of our socialists – it would boost large-scale terrorism in Russia itself, in Central Asia, and into China. It would cut off the Hezbollah from Iran, make Iran more vulnerable to NATO/Saudi/Israeli pressure, and isolate Hamas in Gaza.
In a way, yes, Russia is the flip side of the Western imperial gambit to retain and reinforce its global domination.
But Russia is also the spearhead of a global struggle to re-balance the World Order in a multi-polar fashion. Russia is not acting alone in Syria. It is closely backed by China and Iran. China has publicly stated it will send troops to Syria if Damascus makes such a request.
This proviso highlights the legal basis of Russia and Iran’s presence in Syria. All these countries have seized the legal high ground in this conflict, and painted the NATO/Empire Axis as violators of international law and aggressors against a legitimate member state of the UN, Syria.
As long as the US/NATO Empire had a free rein at the UN (cf Libya), it used the UN as cover for its warmongering. The dual Russia/China veto in 2011 deprived the Empire of such a cover; and now Russia and China are tightening the legal screws further, and the Empire has no choice but to waffle and zigzag, as moderate Syrian rebels and Kurdish nationalists also welcome and join in the Russian intervention against Daesh.
Plus, this bold military/political gambit by Russia, China, Iran and allies is not mere spectacle and swashbuckling; it is taking place in the shadow of the huge Eurasian development projects called the “New Silk Roads,” promoted by China and Russia, that eventually seek to incorporate Western Europe as well – all without firing a single shot!
RB: When the Syrian conflict subsides — and hopefully soon — many Syrian-origin people will have settled all over the world, as did the Biafrans, the Vietnamese, the Cambodians, the Afghans, the Somalis and others. Soon we will see the next generation of Syrians living in Holland, in France, in Canada, in Germany, in the US. Perhaps everything will be forgotten twenty years from now. Is the crisis in Europe (the racial unrest resulting from the resettlement of people due to war) a blessing in disguise for the creation and integration of a global society that is less segregated by racial/ethnic divisions and cultural/religious animosities?
JJK: The protracted nature of the Syrian conflict (the US occupied Iraq within three weeks in 2003, and overthrew Kaddafi in Libya within seven months in 2011) has contributed to highlight the plight of Syrian refugees and displaced persons. These victims are in the millions after 5 years of devastation. Public concern about their plight has had time to grow and organize in the NATO/OECD countries, especially after Russia moved in to crush Daesh and shed a crude light on the Emperor’s nakedness.
So we talk a lot these days about Syrian refugees, and our governments have felt compelled to welcome a few tens of thousands and help them settle among us – but without stopping the destruction of Syria.
But many millions more Afghanis, Iraqis, Libyans, and ex-Yugoslavs have been victims of our wars well before the Syrians; and they too, men, women and children, are part of the waves of refugees that have descended on Europe over the past year.
Some have made it inside the EU, others are still knocking at the gates. Some are trapped in Greece or at its frontiers, others are massed in the so-called “jungle” of Calais, trying to get to Britain. Some are already being taxed in EU countries – their survival money and valuables are being seized; others are being arrested and even expelled.
Then there are those refugees from countries devastated by our economic warfare, mostly from Africa, who have made up most of the 21st-century “boat-people” to Europe – many of whom keep drowning in the Mediterranean in overloaded rafts put to sea by human traffickers of the new “sharing economy.”
There are also the refugees from Central America and Mexico who are coming to the US, in spite of quasi-military and vigilante law enforcement at the border, and in spite of fences propping up all over the place.
So yes, we’ll see new generations of Syrians settling in OECD/NATO countries, alongside new generations of other Middle-Easterners and Africans and Latinos – although we tend to favour the blue-eyed Syrians!
That does not mean we are headed for an “integrated global society.” The real “blessing in disguise” is for the neo-liberal economies of the OECD countries whose birthrate is plummeting, but who now have access to a precarious and vulnerable new cheap labour force.
The arrival of these refugees coincides with the sharp rise of xenophobia and Islamophobia, and of racist, even fascist, politics in our midst. That is not going to go away. In a century maybe, but not in 20 years.
Noam Chomsky believes Donald Trump is popular in the US because of “the breakdown of society” under neo-LibCon ultra-laisser-faire, with its scandalous inequality, and because “white America is dying” – literally he says, pointing to the high death rate among poor whites, typically seen only in wars and great catastrophes.
So we are in for more, not less, segregation, socially, economically and racially, as desperate poor whites turn their anger against poor non-whites.
RB: Is the anxiety in Europe, and even in Canada, really about jobs and social security and economic fairness? Is there an unstated desire to preserve and perpetuate certain religious and cultural ways of life as preferable and dominant? In the case of France, obviously there is an entire colonial ghost that has settled down in everybanlieue? Your thoughts?
JJK: The anxiety in both Europe and Canada, and in the US too, is indeed about jobs, social security and economic fairness.
But, as Chomsky says, anxiety-ridden white America is not venting its anger at the elites and institutions which create, maintain and reinforce this unfairness. Instead it is expressing it as violent hatred against its own Black underclass, and against immigrants and refugees, Latinos, Muslims, and Asians.
This suits the elites perfectly, as politicians, preachers and the corporate media keep telling anxiety-ridden white America, with easy, legal access to guns, that their religion and way of life are under threat, further feeding into the murderous rampant racism.
The case of France is no different. Anti-Semitism was a feature of European societies even before the agrarian and industrial revolutions. Now that’s been replaced with xenophobia and Islamophobia.
France’s “colonial ghost” is linked to the long history of its sprawling colonial Empire, whose chickens, as they say, have come home to roost.
But as heirs of British and French colonialism, the US and Canada have their own “colonial ghosts” to contend with – especially as the dispossessed peasants and exploited workers of France and Britain and other Europeans were lured to settle in North America and, in turn, help dispossess and decimate the Indigenous peoples here.
Canada’s own “colonial ghosts” are the nearly 1 million men, women and children who are today the surviving members of our more than 50 First Nations, speaking as many languages and living in 634 communities (reserves) and in cities and towns across the country.**
These First Nations are in an awakening mode and are on the move, as exemplified by the Idle No More movement, which is networking constantly with majority-white Canadians as well as with more and more active immigrant community organizations.
White Canada’s anxiety was well used by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper – as demonstrated by its refusal to deal with First Nations on the basis of historical treaties, its hostility to UN human and Aboriginal rights activities, its US/NATO-style “anti-terrorism” foreign and military policies, its wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, its security-driven Bill-C51 that rolled back civil rights.
The party, now in opposition, filed the recent motion in Parliament calling on the new Liberal government to “condemn” the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement aimed at peacefully pressuring Israel, the occupying power, to comply with its Geneva Convention obligations to respect Palestinian human and national rights, and to end the occupation.
The Liberal Trudeau government has begun to ease this rightward tilt somewhat, and raised the number of Syrian refugees from less than 2,000 under the Tories to more than 14,000 by the end of January. But it voted in favour of the Tory anti-BDS motion, so there’s no guarantee of a sustained shift to a more humane and inclusive line.
RB: What can we do here in Canada, in Montréal, to enable a cultural understanding of this issue of forced nomadism, the displacement of ordinary people due to wars that they do not want to be a part of?
JJK: In the global framework, our challenge here in Canada and in Québec is the same as throughout the Western world, meaning North America and Europe, as well as Australia and New Zealand: dominant culture and governance are Eurocentric in all these countries, and this Eurocentrism keeps getting more and more radicalized and chauvinistic as Western global supremacy is challenged from Eurasia, from the Middle East, from Latin America, and from Africa.
So globally we have to foster networking and dialogue between minorities and immigrants on the one hand, and the majority communities and First Nations on the other.
Luckily, even as First Nations are staking their legal and legitimate claims in the wake of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, public intellectuals and civil society organizations from the majority-white communities are leading the way in critiquing the old ideology and in agitating for inclusive change, basic democracy and mutual respect – a social movement that is clearly located on the left and that targets the Establishment.
These forces are acting both globally and locally. The right-wing anger towards immigrants and refugees, and also towards First Nations, is loud, especially when echoed in the media, but the left-wing expression of acceptance and support more than balances that anger, specially with the help of social media – in spite of the ubiquitous right-wing and racist trolls.
The overall debate about warmongering, climate change, corporate grip on democracy, economic and development activities that respect and rehabilitate the ecology of the planet — all of it is happening locally everywhere: in Canada, in Québec, in Montréal too, and we all need to be part of it in any way we can.
It’s a Canadian cliché to say that we all came to this country from somewhere else, that we are all immigrants. And as clichés go, it’s quite disingenuous: it puts the dispossessed and marginalized First Nation victims on the same footing as the colonizing victors. It also creates a false sense of equality between majorities and minorities because mutual respect and fairness are lacking – as is evident on the job and housing markets.
But we have solid Charters of Rights for both Canada and Québec, and we have strong institutions and advanced jurisprudence in the field of women’s rights to found our struggle on.
“We Are The World” came into fashion in more innocent times, when sentimentality and emotional blackmail still worked. Now they don’t. Dysfunctional politics and economics and media manipulation are being questioned as never before. Artists are now being asked not just to sing “We Are The World,” but to embody the ideal they promote by taking clear stands on issues and against vested interests – and paying the price for it, if necessary.
* Mauritian Militant Movement
**EDITORIAL NOTE: The figures are closer to 1.5 million when we take into account all Indigenous peoples in Canada – Inuit and Métis peoples as well as First Nations (https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/as-sa/99-011-x/99-011-x2011001-eng.cfm). As for the number of communities and reserves, in addition to the 634 First Nation communities, there are 25 Inuit communities in Nunavut, 33 in NWT, and 14 in the Yukon (http://www.afn.ca/en/about-afn/description-of-the-afn).
INTERVIEWER’S NOTE: Subsequent to this interview, two important developments have taken place: on February 22, a ceasefire was declared jointly by Russia and the US. It excluded ISIS/ISIL, Al-Nusra and other organizations designated as “terrorist” by the UN. The ceasefire will be monitored jointly by the two countries.
On March 15, the Russians surprised everyone by announcing a withdrawal from Syria while maintaining their airbase at Latakia and naval base at Tartus. The jury is still out on why they did it. But for sure, in an overall sense, this move has taken the wind out of the sails on all sides of the conflict, leaving some disconsolate with the withdrawal and others feeling let down. Rana Bose