Terrorist attacks, economic crises and two judgments by the US Supreme Court have far-reaching implications that might turn out to be historic.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar when Muslims are supposed to fast, pray and lead pure lives. This year, on June 26, tragic attacks took place on the same day of this holy month in Tunisia, Kuwait and France.
In Tunisia, 39 people died in an attack on Imperial Marhaba Hotel in Sousse, “a palm-flecked town on the northeast Tunisian coast,” home to vacationing European tourists. In Kuwait, the Imam Sadiq Mosque was targeted when more than 2,000 Shiite worshippers were kneeling down to pray, leaving at least 27 dead and more than 300 injured. In France, a US-owned gas and chemicals company near Lyon was attacked. Although only two people died in an explosion there, a decapitated head was found on the railings of the factory site.
The Islamic State (IS) has claimed credit for the Tunisian attack. Now, foreigners are fleeing the country, which will suffer immensely because over 15.2% of its gross domestic product (GDP) relies on tourism. This sector generates an estimated 473,000 jobs, 13.8% of the total employment.
Tunisia is the great hope of the Arab world. This is the country where the Arab Uprisings began. It has managed a relatively peaceful transition to democracy, even as neighboring Libya has imploded into civil war and Egypt has slipped back into tyrannical military rule. The Islamic State attack is a major setback for Tunisia because life itself is perceived to be under threat.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, Tunisian Prime Minister Habib al-Essid declared that 80 mosques not controlled by the state would be closed down because they were purportedly inciting violence.
Tunisians could do well to remember that overreaction is unwise. During Easter 1916, some Irish nationalists launched an innocuous rebellion that was scarcely a threat to the grand British Empire. However, this was the height of World War I and the British were on an edge. Their draconian repression in Ireland made martyrs out of the dead and fueled a fervor that eventually led to Irish independence. The far more recent US overreaction to the 9/11 attacks has led to damaging consequences.
Tunisia’s en masse closing down of mosques is a knee-jerk reaction. More importantly, they are an unreasonable restraint on the liberty of belief, faith and worship of Tunisian citizens.
An Islamic State affiliate has claimed credit for the attack in Kuwait. This tiny oil-rich state, ruled by the Sunni al-Sabah family, is sandwiched between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The US State Department estimates that 30-35% of Kuwaitis are Shiite. They are underrepresented in government and resent being less than equal in a political system not renowned for its fairness. Kuwait’s ruling family is in the throes of corruption scandals and is reportedly feuding for power. As Shiite-dominated Iraq is moving closer to Iran, Kuwait is drifting toward Saudi Arabia. The Shiite-Sunni sectarian schism that is blighting the Middle East is playing out in every country, and Kuwait is no exception.
The IS attack has put the ruling al-Sabah family in a bind. Either it defends the Shiites to stabilize Kuwait, or it persists with the anti-Shiite Wahhabist doctrine that it formally adheres to and promotes in its schools. As mentioned in a previous The World This Week, this is the Middle East’s version of the Thirty Years’ War.
Earlier this year, the Charlie Hebdo killings shook France. The recent attack has rattled the country. Modern sensibilities are particularly susceptible to beheadings, and the days of the guillotine are long gone in la grande nation. French President François Hollande held a second emergency defense council meeting and declared afterward: “It’s difficult for a society to live for years under the threat of attack. The question is not if there will be another attack … but when.” He is right.
Thanks to its history of rebellions and revolutions, France has a legendary intelligence apparatus. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, the French government promised to pour in billions of euros to beef up its intelligence and counter jihadist ideology. It even began a de-radicalization scheme that involves online anti-jihadist material and improved training for imams. Yet jihadist ideology is seducing disaffected youths in France’s wretched banlieues. Pourquoi?
Well, part of the answer is the economy. French unemployment reached a record high in the last quarter of 2014. This figure of over 10% is misleading, because it is a percentage of “active population” and the numbers of the active have dropped alarmingly. Among disaffected Muslim minorities living in terrible ghettos, jobs are few and pay little.
Yet there is something more brewing. The French are notoriously racist and treat minorities shamefully. Resentment is a toxic brew and makes young French Muslims susceptible to the charms of violent jihad.
French economic woes are miniscule when compared to the Greek ones, where the debt crisis has reached a flashpoint. By June 30, Greece has to pay €1.6 billion to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It needs a new bailout to pay back an earlier bailout. The myth of the inviolability of creditor rights is leading to a circular repayment situation that defies logic. Instead of writing off some debt and taking a haircut, creditors want to lend yet more money to Greece on the fictional basis that it will all one day be repaid.
The creditors led by Germany demand austerity and fiscal reforms. They propose deregulation of the labor market, pension cuts and further reductions in public sector wages. They also want an increase in value-added tax on food, restaurants and tourism, and the elimination of tax breaks of the Greek islands. The Greeks have made concessions but want leniency, particularly in light of the fact that Syriza was voted in to lighten the weight of debt crushing the country. This anti-austerity party won power in a protest vote in Greece and has openly Marxist leanings.
Negotiations have put Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras between a rock and a hard place. If he gives in to creditors, his supporters will view him as Judas. If he cocks a snook at eurozone and IMF bigwigs, a Greek default might lead to an exit from the euro and economic collapse. To remove his head from the chopping block, Tsipras has announced a referendum on July 5 so the Greek people themselves can make “a worthy decision” for future generations, for Greek history, for the country’s sovereignty and dignity.
In an act of breathtaking arrogance, eurozone finance ministers have rejected Tsipras’ request to extend the bailout program beyond June 30. Tsipras and his colleagues have not been the most adroit of negotiators. They have been guilty of many a faux pas such as skipping post-negotiation dinners with their creditors. Yet they are right to opt for a referendum. It is the only option for Syriza because they are being asked to go against what they campaigned for in the land of the fabled Athenian democracy. By their irresponsible intransigence, eurozone leaders are playing footsie with the euro and the destiny of the European project.
Even as Europe totters, the Chinese are feeling the tremors. Stocks sank in Shanghai on June 26. The Chinese have long feared three things. First, they worry about the bursting of a real estate bubble that has resulted in ghost cities. Second, they are uneasy about bad debts on the books of their banks. Many of these debts are owed by zombie construction companies. Third, they fear that the end of the yearlong debt-fueled stock market rally might spill over into the wider Chinese economy.
Even as top American and Chinese officials engaged in powwows during the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington DC, the Chinese worried more about their economy. To reassure everyone, Premier Li Keqiang declared that “China had the ability to maintain growth at a medium-high speed and upgrade the economy to a medium-high level.” Also, the central bank announced a targeted cut of the reserved requirement ratio as well as 2015’s third reduction of the one-year deposit and lending rates beginning June 28 to boost the economy.
For once, it is not the economy that is on top of Uncle Sam’s mind. A Supreme Court, where five out of nine justices are Republican appointees, handed down two rulings that have delighted US President Barack Obama, Democrats and liberals. First, Obama’s health care legislation that allows the federal government to dole out nationwide tax subsidies for poor and middle-class people so they can buy health insurance has been upheld in a 6-3 ruling. The richest and fattest country in the world spends an obscene 17.1% of its nearly $17 trillion GDP on health care but still fails to provide health care to millions. The justices have blessed Obama’s health care reform to make the United States a kinder and gentler nation.
Second, in a 5-4 judgment, the justices have made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states of the US. Justice Anthony Kennedy declared that the plaintiffs asked “for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” Ironically, Kennedy is a Ronald Reagan appointee and this has left many Republicans apoplectic.
Justice Antonin Scalia, a fellow Catholic and colleague, damned the judgment as a “judicial Putsch” and “a threat to democracy.” Scalia is being hyperbolic but has a point. The US would have been better off if this measure had been implemented via a referendum as in Ireland, the land of Kennedy’s roots. As Chief Justice John Roberts points out, social policy is best determined by legislatures and not judges. Yet leaving aside constitutional and philosophical musings, Obama is right when he says that this judgment “is a big step in our march toward equality.”
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The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.