Monday, 24 June 2019

Teaching team for the Development and Conflict Summer School

As the sun shines on London, we're looking forward to our Development and Conflict Summer School. This year we have a couple of skills share sessions: Dr Maya Goodfellow (who regularly writes for The Guardian newspaper) will present on conflict and journalism, and we have a session planned on conflict and documentary film making, delivered by an international film producer.
I'm also very happy to present two other colleagues who have been teaching with me on the MSc Violence, Conflict and Development core module and Security/Security BA. It's a real pleasure to have them on the teaching team for the Summer School as well. They have both received rave reviews for their teaching, and their research expertise will guide and inform the discussions and analysis in July and August. Have a look at their profiles below.
Full details of the Summer School are here:

Karen Schouw Iversen is a PhD candidate in the department of Development Studies at SOAS. Her PhD research focuses on protests and forms of resistance amongst internally displaced persons in Bogotá, Colombia, who have engaged in a series of occupations of public spaces and buildings in order to contest what they perceive to be an inadequate humanitarian response to their displacement. The research examines how people displaced by violence themselves negotiate the situations they find themselves in, and grapples with the question of what potential protests have in a context characterised by violence and forced displacement. More broadly, it grapples with issues such as humanitarianism, forced migration, and the potential and limitations of resistance.

Hassan Ould Moctar is a 3rd year PhD candidate in the Department of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He is also a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the department on the Political Economy of Violence, Conflict and Development module. He holds an MSc in Migration and Ethnic Studies, which he obtained from the University of Amsterdam. His research project focuses upon the interaction between EU border externalisation processes and nation-state boundaries in Mauritania. It is supported by the National University of Ireland. His research interests more broadly concern borders and boundaries, EU migration policy, capitalism and migrant labour, urban informal economies, and subjectivity formation, with a particular interest in the politics and societies of Mauritania and the Sahel region. 

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Fake news, real violence

Jamie O'Dell delves into the subject of Fake news, real violence 


On the 23rd of June 2018, separate pictures of a mutilated man and child began circulating Facebook. Shared along with calls to revenge their deaths that had occurred in the Gashish district of Plateau State, Nigeria, supposedly at the hands of Fulani Muslims. A day later 11 men were pulled from their cars and murdered on the street of Jos, the state’s capital, all accused of being Fulani.


In this case, neither of the photos was from their stated context. The photo of the baby was months old and the man pictured died in Congo-Brazzaville in 2012, about 1,000 miles away, but the authenticity of the photos was unimportant, all that mattered was the mobilisation of existing ethno-religious tensions. The impact of this was clear, with the BBC team investigating this case quoting one Berom youth leader stating that “As soon as we saw those images, we wanted to just strangle any Fulani man standing next to us”.


This case is one of identity-based violence. Here building blocks of our identities, our nationalities, ethnicities, races, religions, classes and genders, the groups we socialise into and identify with, are seen as threatened, in this case the perceived Fulani attack against two Berom individuals. As this case exemplifies, in cases of identity-based violence when people perceive their identity group to be threated or attacked, they are much more susceptible and/or willing to be incited into actual incidences of violence along the lines of these identities.


It is important to note however, that violence has been incited via the use of identities throughout time. This however, has done via centrally organised mass mobilisation and information campaigns, done with the technologies of the day. For instance Pope Urban II launched the crusader movement with a speech in 1095 that exploited racial and religious distinctions, four years later Jerusalem was captured by Christians who slaughtered every inhabitant of the city. More recent examples range from the ‘hate media’ during the Rwandan genocide, to the Sun and the Daily Mail ‘fuelling prejudice’ and incidents of racial violence in the UK.


The violence on the 24th of June however represents a shift from this elite based incitement because of the pluralism it produces. Individuals are able, through Facebook and other platforms to make unchallenged claims and spread these, only requiring an initial audience able to spread the incendiary claims and make them viral within hours of their publication. The violence in Jos is far from the only example of this too. In Sri Lanka the government blocked Facebook and other platforms across the country entirely, in response to the rampant hate speech it says contributed to the anti-Muslim riots in Kandy that left three dead in March this year. U.N human rights experts investigating the possible genocide in Myanmar have also stated that Facebook played a ‘determining role’ in spreading hate and fuelling the crisis that has forced some 700,000 Rohingya into becoming refugees in neighbouring Bangladesh.


Elite groups such as government, owners of news outlets and the military obviously still maintain the ability to incite violence, either through traditional methods preciously referenced or via encouraging or initiating the dissemination of fake news. The Rohingya example doubles up as a clear example of this as hundreds Myanmar military personal also disseminated fake news through fake or personal Facebook accounts, demonstrating how Facebook provides both access to individuals to incite violence, and another avenue for elites to spread their existing access to their populations and exploit this.


The violence incited against the Rohingya however was still principally the result of an orchestrated military propaganda campaign. Fake news was clearly central to this, but it was carefully constructed and planned in the same manner that many instances of identity-based violence were before the advent of social media. The distinction between this and the examples of Jos and Kandy, is that the pluralism offered by social media, this ability for individuals to make unchallenged incendiary claims, producing violence that is more unpredictable and instantaneous. Government cannot regulate or even fact-check these sources of information in the manner in which they can for print, radio or TV based media, especially due to the speed at which fake news can snowball and go ‘viral’ directly onto people’s personal social media accounts and the amount of people that can participate in this. This leaves security services constantly on the back foot. Indeed the BBC team investigating the violence on the 24th June revealed how police in Plateau State, where the violence happened, have a team of ten officers monitoring Facebook for false information in an attempt to anticipate and counter violence before it emerges (as a point of comparison Facebook only has four fact checkers for the whole of Nigeria).


This represents the essence of the new dimension to identity-based violence that is provided by fake news and exemplified by the violence in Jos. The amount of access and speed of access that social media provides people produces violence that is more spontaneous and more dynamic, making the societies experiencing this more volatile and at risk of escalating identity-based violence. Governments, be they democratic or autocratic by and large have a vested interest in maintaining peace, and the presence of social media sites such as Facebook significantly undermines their ability to ensure this. Whilst the benefits of social media for social awareness and popular uprisings where widely publicised during the early days of the Arab Spring, the so called ‘Twitter revolution’, but the ugly side of this is now clear.


The risk now is that with the expansion of social media continuing apace, the rise of fake news causing real violence will continue unabated alongside it. Freedom of speech is one of the key components of progressive democracy, and social media can and does make a significant positive impact upon this. However, unless both governments and providers, like Facebook, get a handle upon fake news on these platforms, uncontrolled and unpredictable instances of identity-based violence will only lead to more death.




Tuesday, 11 June 2019

A Political Economy of Hajj: When embarking on Hajj becomes political, even violent

Examining the interface between religion, politics and violence, Sarah Schroeder presents:

A Political Economy of Hajj:

When embarking on Hajj becomes political, even violent


One question increasingly brought to my attention is about the Muslim pilgrimage of Hajj; does one go in order to fulfill a Muslim obligation, or should one boycott the practice as a moral statement? While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia claims a monopoly on the Islamic faith, can and should one separate religion from politics? I think we have arrived at a point, where going on Hajj is difficult – if not impossible – to defend and reconcile with our moral values. Let’s talk about this and try to unpack how Hajj has surpassed as a mere religious endeavor and become a political and moral decision and a tool with violent outcomes. Violence here is broadly seen as a “force that directly threatens bodies” and “the outcome of particular cultural, political and economic struggles”.


Mecca’s Grand Mosque (Al Jazeera, 2018)

As the fifth pillar of Islam and a lifetime obligation for able-bodied Muslims in possession of necessary financial means, Hajj is a six-day pilgrimage to Mecca. During Hajj, special emphasis is placed on equality; the practice removes any indication of class, socio-economic background and material difference, signified by the simple cloth worn by pilgrims. But in reality, Hajj is built on and produces stark inequalities through violence. As revenues from Hajj constitute approximately $8 billion making it Saudi’s second biggest source of income after natural oil and gas, it is important to talk about Hajj in a wider context and in relation to violence. We cannot ignore what is achieved with the money we readily invest, in what we deem a religious and spiritual experience.


Firstly, let’s delve into who gets to go on Hajj. The Saudi government sets a quota for each country, according to its Muslim population. While markers of wealth and class are removed during the pilgrimage, being able to go on Hajj is in itself a marker of wealth. Securing a place on the waiting list may cost around $2000 in Indonesia, which can be between one to three annual salaries. In addition, Hajj packages which include travel costs between cities, accommodation and food range around $5000 per person. How can this promote equality?


Apart from financial obstacles, Saudi has politicized Hajj further by preventing travel for Qatari nationals and Palestinian refugees. In 2017, after a Saudi-led blockade was imposed on Qatar, Muslims from Qatar were prohibited from entering the country, making it impossible to participate in the pilgrimage. Since 12 September 2.94 million displaced Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, East Jerusalem, and Israel without travel documents are no longer issued visas for Hajj, as part of bilateral agreements between Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) and Israel. So although Mecca should “not [be] owned by any government” but accessible for all Muslims, as Abdelmajid Mrari from the Alliance for Freedom and Dignity stressed, Saudi claims a monopoly over the way in which Hajj is both practiced and who is allowed to participate in it.


It is crucial that we frame Hajj within the wider political picture, as life in Saudi Arabia is marked by violent inequalities. Small political reforms and new ‘reformist’ rulers such as MBS, supposed to appease the West, have not changed lived realities for women and migrants and do not fool anyone. MBS’ regime is one that grants citizenship to an Artificial Intelligence before granting it to thousands of migrants spending their lives living and working there, and hinders women’s freedom of movement without male escorts. Although women are legally allowed to drive, it is up to six times as expensive for women compared to men to obtain their driver’s license, which affords only some women this privilege. Political parties are banned, protests prohibited, and activists and critics of Saudi Arabia, like Israa al-Ghomgham and Jamal Khashoggi, arrested, sentenced to death, tortured, or dismembered and dissolved.


This monopoly of violence extends beyond Saudi’s borders, as it grips firmly onto regional states, imposes blockades where states do not conform, and fights a disastrous war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia expends approximately 10% of its GDP on weapons and $14.5 billion in its arms deal with the United States. Participating in Hajj means contributing to the purchase of weapons deployed in Yemen, which has devastatingly left 85,000 Yemeni children dead, 14 million Yemenis at risk of famine, and cities and heritage sites destroyed. Are we really willing to accept our complicity in Saudi’s violence in exchange for our freedom to religious practice? This begs the question – does our freedom to go to Mecca ultimately come at the expense of other people’s freedom and lives?


In (re)focusing the conversation about Hajj, we may begin to understand how Hajj becomes a tool for the Saudi regime to conceal the violence it deploys in its devastating wars, structural and more ‘mundane’ everyday violence. Violence and Hajj constitute one another and are instrumentalized to maintain the status quo. Acts of violence, such as restrictions and exclusions from an obligatory practice, sustain Hajj and frame its nature. Hajj is no longer just religious; its social life becomes political and violent, as it leaves violence unchallenged and contributes to it financially, and socio-politically through reifying inequalities. Hajj thus becomes violence, serving to maintain Saudi’s assertion of power and legitimate authority in the Islamic world.


After this reflection, any insistence on viewing Hajj as separate from politics and violence would seem unconscionable. Separating politics from all other domains of life, such as art, sport, or religion, is a dangerous privilege reserved only for specific groups of people. This is a privilege the oppressed cannot afford, as the very politics, which religion can mask, shape the way people may live, survive, move and practice their freedoms.

Our freedom and privilege do not stand in isolation. Saudi uses religion to legitimate its use of violence, but as its government and rulers are not held accountable, we need to address our complicity now more than ever. Will you join me?

Monday, 3 June 2019

Development and Conflict Summer School in July

From 22 July to 9 August, I will be teaching the Development and Conflict Summer School. It's three weeks of studying, discussion and presenting, in the heart of sunny London. I have done a quick Question & Answer session that gives a bit of background to my research and teaching at SOAS.

1) Could you tell us more about yourself and your areas of research?
All the research I have done has at its core this question of how conflict and development interact. I started off working on the question of who receives humanitarian assistance in contexts of conflict and why, carrying out research in Sierra Leone, Rwanda, the area that is now South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I published that research in a book called “Not Breaking the Rules, Not Playing the Game” in 2006. I then turned to research more intensely in Congo, investigating how Congolese people conceptualise and pursue security in situations of unremitting structural and direct violence, and published my second book “Formal Peace and Informal War” in 2013. From my research in Congo I started to dig into research questions about other narratives – distinct from the mainstream – and how they present perspectives on, and resist, violence and conflict. This led to a book, “Cultural Resistance from Below” which is currently in print and investigates how resistance is communicated through the Afro-Brazilian art form of capoeira.
2) Why did you decide to form the Development and Conflict summer course?
All of our teaching is research-led. At SOAS I convene a masters programme MSc Violence, Conflict and Development, and a MSc and BA module in Security. Violence and conflict are often perceived or presented as disruptions from otherwise peaceful processes of development, but something that is clear from my teaching and research is that different forms of conflict are persistent and ubiquitous and shape the way that development takes place. Understanding how conflict and development interact is fundamental to understanding how the world operates, how security is formulated and how power, identities and interests are formed. The Development and Conflict summer school provides the possibility of investigating these questions, and as they are fundamental, provides a base for analysis across a range of professional or academic contexts.
You can read the rest of the blog here (and find a pic of me in Congo, with a life-jacket):

Details of the Summer School are here:

State-sanctioned sexual violence against women in the Egyptian revolution

Following from last week's post, this is another video submitted as a piece of group work by some of last year's MSc VCD students....