The first shot of WWIII

I walked out of my hotel room this morning, past a newspaper stand and saw the shocking images of a flaming Russian warplane, shot down by Turkey no less. History tells us that it is the incidental – but strategic – assassination that causes war. I can only be grateful for Putin’s measured comments that it was a “stab in the back” and not “an act of war”.

Turkey is NATO, and so this is serious.

The truth is, I believe we have been engaged in a World War since 9/11. The events that have transpired in the Middle East since that fateful day have involved dozens of nations. The difference has been that the target was “terrorists”, powerful but stateless organisations, mostly the detritus of decades of geopolitical shenanigans. In my opinion the most recent Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns were mostly still about national interests and, to some extent, attempting to put the “hydra” back in the box.

Syria is very different.

In my (wholly non-expert) opinion, Syria is significant because it presses the boundary conditions between major powers that, until now, have approximately behaved like children trying to carve out their own corner of a messy and complex sandpit. What Syria – and ISIS – has done, is create extreme polarity between forces and when something like this most recent Russia-Turkey incident happens, it can be cataclysmic.

I am hoping good sense will prevail. I am hoping that this is more about a lack of judgment than a signal that the boundaries of power sharing and regional cooperation have been irrevocably drawn.

This would be a good time to say “sorry”.

Why I am not going to “Francophile” my Facebook status…

Over the past 24 hours or so I have watched the world “Francophile” itself in support and recognition of the awful events in Paris. Monuments have been illuminated in red-white-blue and Facebook profiles now consist of once familiar friends peering out between ribbons of colour.

Story Bridge in Brisbane, illuminated in solidarity.

The Story Bridge in Brisbane tonight, illuminated in solidarity.

I am very fond of France. I have many French friends, wonderful memories and few could argue against Paris being truly one of the iconic cities of the World. Indeed, Paris is one of those incredibly special cities that simply cannot belong to just France, it really belongs to people everywhere. Thus, when such unthinkable acts of terror are committed, they are committed against us all.

The problem is that to give credence to ISIS, to call the Paris atrocity an “act of war”, is to do nothing more than further entrench the notion of ISIS’ caliphate (statehood). Only one sovereign entity’s act of aggression against another can establish an “act of war”. By determining those innocent lives lost to be an “act of war”, we simply give ISIS what they want : legitimacy, and implied sovereignty.

Moreover, despite the awful events in Paris, there was no less tragic loss of life in Lebanon, in Kenya. But we did not stop and mourn for those lives because they did not fit within our mental “Champs- Élysées”, the perfect and idyllic boulevards of our western minds. We did not paint our faces those colours. We have not owned the fact that the turmoil and instability in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, is the direct result of decades of self-interested meddling, artificial borders drawn across tribal boundaries and covertly-financed (and not so covert) bipartisanship. We probably didn’t create it, but we made it worse. A lot worse. Those innocent people in Paris didn’t deserve to die – but it can also not be said that there is never a consequence to our actions. For example, it cannot be said that when our own youth flock to Syria to join the ranks of ISIS, that we were not responsible for youth disengagement, for unemployment, for lack of opportunity in our own countries.

We should be defiant, be we should also take responsibility.

This even extends to the idea that we would somehow attempt to “demean” our oppressors by calling them “Daesh“, like taunting a bully in the playground. It is a dangerous game. It is one thing to stoically go on with life and refuse to alter our daily lives in response to terrorism (correctly so), but it is another to mock one’s enemy.

The purpose of this commentary is not to attribute recognition to ISIS. Although, in my opinion, to pretend that it is an artifice is a huge mistake. Similarly, to reduce ISIS to merely a violent hybrid of religious fundamentalism and terrorism is also a mistake, a gross simplification. In the 21st century, we are being forced to reconsider what statehood means and how we respond to “acts of war”. It started with 9/11 and it is – tragically – far from over with Paris (#2).

This is why I will not change my Facebook profile to “tricolour”. Defiance and mourning for our freedom should be muted, and devoid of banners. Only terrorists wave banners, and I personally cannot bear to change the hue of my face again tomorrow.


 

The (now) iconic feature image by Jean Jullien…

 

One Hundred Hours of Islam

The last month has been an absolute blur of activity, between travel, getting a couple of new business ventures off the ground and the anticipated arrival of kid#2. After much negotiation with my wife and the establishment of an agreed cut-off date by which I was to be home and “at service”, I decided a few weeks ago to do a last “tour” to try and tie up some loose ends around my business activities. The usual sort of “10 countries in 9 days” trip. I spent 3 nights in a hotel room and the rest sleeping on planes.

Fun fun fun.

One of the things that frustrates me about this kind of business travel is that you never spend enough time in a country to really get to know it. Yet on this last trip, I had a very unique experience that I think could only have come from such a fleeting and condensed journey. The middle portion of my manic trip was a series of meetings in Geneva/Lausanne, Berlin, Beirut and Kuala Lumpur. A slightly eclectic selection of cities but then my business activities are somewhat eclectic too. I had meetings in all locations roughly within a period of 100 hours (including travel) which left me with a very blurred but interesting juxtaposition of perceptions about how the world is changing.

Starting in Switzerland – I think it is fair to say that although Geneva prides itself on being “multicultural” it is still quintessentially European. If Geneva is “Europe” then Lausanne is “Swiss” – quaint, clean, controlled and somewhat monocultural. About the most exotic thing you will find in Lausanne is the Turkish or Lebanese guy managing the Doner kebab stand at the train station. I’m not saying that Switzerland fundamentally has a diversity issue (or that Lausanne isn’t incredibly pretty) – I’m just saying that the Swiss would rather keep it – er… Swiss.

Nothing but Alpenhorns and Muesli here....

Nothing but Alpenhorns and Muesli here….

Moving ahead to Berlin, a few hours in the centre of the city provided a few insights into what the German government is currently dealing with in terms of refugee crisis. I saw a lot of Muslim families on the streets, a lot of begging and a lot of people that looked pretty “fresh” off the train from Eastern Europe. I’ve been to Berlin many times over the years and the change was palpable, including the articulation of concern by residents. I think it’s fair to say that Germany proved its international citizenship with a truly disproportionate intake from the Syrian crisis, but integration is going to be a challenging process if makeshift camps in central Berlin are anything to go by.

A Minaret, Berliner-style?

A Minaret, Berliner-style?

Then moving on to Lebanon. Driving through Hezbollah-controlled districts around Beirut Airport provided a stark reminder that this is a country with incredibly fractured rule and not a lot of stability. Motoring through military checkpoints representing different political “factions” makes you realise that it doesn’t take much to trigger unrest, indeed much of the city centre was cordoned off due to large-scale protests and riots. Although the newly rebuilt centre of Beirut was relatively peaceful, there was still an atmosphere of tension. A lot of military presence and deserted cafes. In Beirut, 1/3 of the population is a refugee from somewhere. Syrians continue to flood over the border.

Plenty of reminders that this is a city on the edge of a war zone, from a military checkpoints, to freshly bombed buildings stopping traffic. Beirut is a city with plenty of scars, and plenty of different occupiers.

Plenty of reminders that this is a city on the edge of a war zone, from a military checkpoints, to freshly bombed buildings stopping traffic. Beirut is a city with plenty of scars, and plenty of different occupiers.

Finally – on to Kuala Lumpur, where the Islamic world meets capitalism. KL is fast-moving and prosperous, notwithstanding a recent (significant) currency devaluation and a fair amount of economic turbulence. Although far from the Mediterranean outskirts of Europe, KL seemed oblivious to the plight of their Syrian brethern, with Muslim Malaysians seemingly willing to die for the glory of the Hajj but perhaps lacking the true embrace of Islamic brotherhood. It was not without international provocation that countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia took responsibility for their role in the refugee crisis but even as recently as last week, Malaysia has only committed to a mere 3,000 refugees over three years.

Of course Australia’s response was hardly stellar either … but compared to this…

Nothing but refugee-free prosperity here, folks... (well, except a bit of afternoon rain)

Nothing but refugee-free prosperity here, folks… (well, except a bit of afternoon rain)

CNN has started referring to some refugees as “economic migrants“, reflective of the serious Syrian “brain drain”, something that will no doubt hamper the ability for the country to rebuild itself anytime in the near future. But whether an economic migrant or a true refugee fleeing unimaginable violence, the truth is that people are taking huge risks to get to a better place, and they aren’t turning to the rest of the Islamic world for that future. Syrians see a future in the west – in Canada, USA, Germany, Australia – not UAE, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia or even beautiful Malaysia. Indeed, other than throw cash at the problem, Saudi/UAE have done shamefully little.

My “100 hours of Islam” reinforced this perception. Sunni-Shi’a tension not only poisons the political tension in Syria, it also underpins the migration pattern of refugees – political or economic. The big question is whether “we” can meaningfully integrate Syria’s diaspora in a way that offers peace and stability, or whether a generation from now we will just have one more failed, isolated and angry sub-culture.

Malcolm Turnbull : Right Man, Wrong Process

In the last election, it was with a heavy heart that I voted Liberal.

It’s not that I am fundamentally incompatible with an Australian “conservative” agenda, after all liberal is supposed to be pro-business (and I am pro-business) but I also didn’t see the appropriate level of commitment to major issues like climate change and the environment, same-sex marriage and immigration. Anyhow, my general attitude towards the role of government in business is “stay off the pitch” and Australia is a country that is remarkably successful despite decades of mediocre policy around key business drivers like taxation and economic diversification.

As such, a “pro-business” party is a bit of an oxymoron in this country, anyhow…

I never cared much for Abbott. Although not a lightweight by any stretch of the imagination, he just doesn’t epitomise what a modern Australia needs to be vibrant, successful and competitive. But he was a hell of an improvement over the K-Rudd infighting and Labor party shenanigans, and his steady, resolute demeanour at least implied the potential of a period of government stability, free of intra-party political wrangling. Of course, we don’t vote for the “man”, we vote for a government, but I think leadership truly matters. To be clear (in case you forgot) as a country we didn’t vote for the ALP because we felt that Kevin Rudd had established a toxic culture in his party. Therefore to offhandedly dismiss “leadership” and “personality” as disconnected is naïve and frankly incorrect.

I admire Malcolm Turnbull. He’s smart, he’s accomplished. He has a trait that very few senior figures in politics have these days, namely a stellar track record of doing anything other than politics (Mrs. Turnbull is no slouch either). Just about any advanced economy these days suffers from the pervasive mediocrity of the career politician, individuals that have accomplished little of note since they first took office in a student politics club at university. Well, other than perhaps foster their sense of self-importance and entitlement to rule. The formula of a modern politician is that of a nanny bureaucrat, incapable of even remotely envisaging the concept of “nation building” because he/she has never created, built, innovated or produced anything, let alone a vision of how to make a country great.

This is not Turnbull. Not by a mile.

The problem is that in carrying out the latest palace coup, the only possible message the Australian Liberal Party can send to the populace is “we are no better than Labor”. In fact, it is worse than this because it also suggests a particular contempt for voter perception of party political infighting given what we went through during the last election. This latest development just highlights a true lack of recognition in Australian politics that a government is elected to serve the Australian people, not expend its energy on petty political infighting.

So, instead of focusing on the critical issues that face our country, we will have yet another week dominated by intrigue, media attention and one-upmanship. It was always going to be a quiet week in Parliament but with such enormous issues facing our economy and the urgent need to consider Australia’s role in key international issues, this leadership change only illustrates – to Australians and the world – how insular, irrelevant and undemocratic we really are. It also means that instead of directing our resources toward things that matter, we will undoubtedly spend billions more in political machinations that add zero value.

Right man for the job. Wrong process of getting there.

Tragic but not unnecessary : Bali 9

I want to state two things up-front.

1) I don’t believe in the death penalty.

2) I hate double-negatives, though they serve their purpose sometimes.

Today was a landmark day for international relations with Indonesia following the execution of the “Bali 9” for smuggling heroin. I stayed up late tonight watching the grief and sadness of family, friends and the general community, following the execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. My condolences to their loved ones – what a horrible turn of events. I personally think Indonesia did an appalling job of managing communication and process around this awful situation. So much confusion, drama and false hope created.

Typically Indonesian.

The truth is, I am extremely fond of Indonesia and it holds a special place in my heart. I have visited it many times for business and pleasure, from Java to Bali, Flores to Komodo, Labuan to Gillies. I was married to my wife in Indonesia because it was a unique country that enabled Russians and Australians (and a few Canucks) to visit without visas and a lot of immigration hassle. It has stunning landscapes and awesome marine life, it has beautiful and diverse people. It has amazing culture and cuisine.

The problem is that Indonesia has a huge rich-poor divide and a massive drug problem that not only has major domestic impact, but it is a major global trafficking hub. Whilst Indonesia’s policy of death to drug traffickers is primarily reflective of domestic health and criminal issues, countries like Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand enforce an important regional deterrent for the worlds largest source of both cultivated and synthetic drugs. As tragic as this situation is, the people executed today knew that when they engaged in their illicit acts, they were risking a death sentence. It was right there on the landing card. Even Rodrigo Gularte, who was known to be bipolar and schizophrenic (but not of sub-par intelligence), would have known and understood that drug trafficking commands a death sentence.

I do think a firing squad is a bit extreme as far as capital punishment goes, and it is my personal opinion that only God (or whatever force/deity/philosophy you subscribe to) is entitled to take a life. Having said that, it is hard to make a strong argument that a life sentence in an Indonesian jail is either humane or a reasonable burden for a country to undertake that has much more serious problems of poverty and development. Why should some reckless Aussie criminal that blatantly and knowingly broke the law divert resources away from Indonesians? It’s a tough one.

Three sad things happened today:

1) Families lost their loved ones, probably through disproportionate punishment.

2) Global condemnation will likely considerably increase the pressure on Indonesia (and countries that have similar policies) to eliminate such punitive laws. Aid will be cancelled, tourism will wane and ambassadors will be recalled. The risk is that political firepower will dangerously reduce these deterrents, simply to assuage electorates.

3) Australia has damaged its relationship with on of its most important neighbours – perhaps its most important neighbour. When situations like this happen, you don’t recall your ambassador, you keep your ambassador firmly in place and make damned sure the avenues of communication are wide open. This is necessary not only for the families of those who have been executed, but to ensure that the lobbying process is seamless between now and the next tragic event. Only a stupid, unsophisticated, f*cking asinine populist government would do such a thing. I would expect this of Tony Abbott, but I would have expected better of Julie Bishop who is marginally somewhat less of an idiot.

Carr is absolutely correct to condemn this decision.

The component of all of this that has not been properly acknowledged by our mainstream media and government is that these (mostly) men were part of a drug syndicate that was hell-bent on making money out of the wanton destruction of Australian society. They tried to bring almost 20lbs of heroin into Australia with a street value of about $4m bucks. These people wanted to bring drugs (and not for the first time) to this country that would ultimately destroy 1000ds of families and undoubtedly result in plenty of loss of life. These were not nice people.

Now that doesn’t mean that execution is the right remedy, but these are not heroes no matter what their conduct was in their final hours. These are BAD people and i will not personally mourn for them. Their families yes. The Bali 9 – no. No matter how much airplay you give a cute Catholic priest with a charming Irish lilt (like Charlie Burrows) it’s hard to make a case that these people should be forgiven and even somehow deified.

To avoid this situation in the future and protect its citizens from a barbaric firing squad, Australia needs to do one simple thing. Let’s form a treaty with Indonesia that any Australian citizen that is arrested in Indonesia for serious drug possession (and I am not talking a bit of weed late at night on Kuta Beach) will be extradited to Australia and will serve a full life sentence in Australian prison, without any chance of an early parole. We already have plenty of precedent for this – we certainly treat asylum seekers badly, locking innocent people up for years at a time without cause. Australia also has (appropriately) tough extraterritorial laws regarding pedophilia that nobody gets too enraged about. If we can seriously punish some sweaty fat bloke for shagging a 14 year old Thai girl in Pattaya Beach, then we can punish a misguided individual who thinks its ok to sell millions of dollars of heroin to our friends, family and children.

Send Paul Grigson back, Julie. Start the process of saving face and respect Indonesia’s sovereignty through action, not just words. Make a proper deal with Joko so that this doesn’t ever happen again.

 

I see you, Charlie Hebdo

I have been watching with great sadness, the outpouring of grief and anger in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It has been my blogosphere policy not to write about “Islamic Militant Attacks” because I personally don’t believe that is what they are. I have far too much basic respect for the “other” Children of Abraham to accept that this kind of loveless and an inhumane behavior deifies the Qur’an. I accept that there are extremists that are intolerant of the modern social spectrum, freedom of expression and diversity – but this should not be our default perception of Islam. Nor should we recognize the religious guidons that they bear.

Besides, Islam doesn’t have an extremist monopoly on xenophobia and bigotry. Christianity, Judaism and even “peaceful” Buddhism does a pretty smashing job sometimes too.

I was in Sydney during the “Terror” when a lone gunman walked into the Lindt Chocolate Cafe in Martin Place and took hostages in the name of the Prophet. In fact, our hotel was only a few blocks away from the police cordon and precisely at the time that fateful morning that Man Haron Monis was taking hostages, my son and I walked past the area on our way to Darling Harbour, wondering what was going on with all the police and emergency services (“Look Daddy!”). Frankly, the only thing that sickened me more than the tragic outcome of that hostage situation, was the non-stop media coverage that was given to a lone nutcase with a shotgun. It was relentless and unwavering and only glorified the situation for every other sicko out there thinking of taking a few people down on the way to the Afterlife.

A greater social crime than Man Monis?

A greater social crime than Man Monis?

Inevitably, there will more Charlie Hebdo Massacres and Sydney Terrors. The big question for our society, is are we willing to take an inter-faith view of religious tolerance and understand that in these dangerous times, our Muslim brothers and sisters need protection and care too? These extremist activities are not so discriminatory and neither are the potential hazards of our reaction. During the Sydney siege I watched a Pakistani or Indian hostage run out of the Lindt Cafe and then immediately get down on the ground with his arms around his head – no doubt concerned that the trigger-happy NSW police* would mistake dusky skin for a terrorist. If I was him, I would have been freaking out. Similarly, I was incredibly touched and heartened buy the #Illridewithyou initiative that spontaneously arose, recognizing that there was a real risk of reprisal.

Our society’s tolerance will always be tested in situations like this and while I feel no less for the families of those killed in Paris and Sydney (and many other places before), our response – including media response – should be measured. There will be always be a temptation for reprisal, especially from the shadowy corners of the world that may choose not to even put a face to retribution. Hooded lynch mobs have always existed and we will no doubt see many flaming torches and pitchforks in physical and digital domains. In my view, this is even more dangerous than a few psychopaths with guns.

My final comment is a tribute to the freedom of expression that was epitomized, not without controversy, by Charlie Hebdo. I don’t always agree that freely insulting someone else’s culture or religion should be unconditionally tolerated, but killing people falls very short of measured debate on the merits. Personally, I believe that there is great power in satire. It is simply one avenue that we have to explore the emotive and philosophical issues that polarize our world, often in a very catalytic way. I like to doodle but (unlike others) I don’t really have the talent to visually render the sadness that I feel. Instead I will offer my own satirical tribute in written form with the following recommendation:

Dear Yahya** if you are thinking of buying some artillery and going on a rampage in the name of the Islamic Caliphate, may I offer you a more effective alternative? Do what my fellow Christians and also many of our Brothers from the “Tribe” do (cliché only, no antisemitism please) – go into politics and financial services. You really don’t have to be any smarter (or dumber) than you already are. You’ll get better and more prolonged media coverage for your terrorist activities and you wont just kill a few random individuals, you can destroy the lives of millions for decades. If you are prepared to cash in your gold Rolex Oyster and engage a decent lawyer, you might not even spend time in jail. Best of all you don’t have to wait for the Afterlife for your reward of 72 “dark-eyed maidens”, they are called “interns.” *** 

لا إله إلا الله !

A photo taken from the back of a public toilet door in Sydney the morning of the Terror. This is not an Islamic banner, this is just graffiti. So too must we learn to distinguish mere social vandalism and paint over it as quickly as our grief may allow.

A photo taken from the back of a public toilet door in Sydney the morning of the Terror. This is not an Islamic banner, this is just graffiti. So too must we learn to distinguish mere social vandalism and paint over it as quickly as our grief may allow.

 

*I duly note that, in general, the perception was that the various emergency services and law-enforcement agencies did a very decent job on this occasion…

** Arabic Muslim version of John

*** Sorry ladies, religious satire has no wiggle room for gender issues. Forgive me.