Gordon Campbell on the freeing of Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste

Well, so much for all that enthusiasm about free speech in France. A couple of weeks ago, a 16 year old student was taken into police custody in Nantes for posting on Facebook a cartoon ironically commenting on one of Charlie Hebdo’s more notorious cartoons. Briefly, when dozens of unarmed Muslim Brotherhood protesters were shot down in Egypt a couple of years ago, Charlie Hebdo ran a cartoon of a bullet-riddled Moslem saying “This Koran is shit – it doesn’t stop bullets!” Hilarious. Well, the Nantes student posted an image of a bullet-riddled Charlie cartoonist saying much the same thing – that Charlie Hebdo is shit because it doesn’t stop bullets, either. For his pains, he has been jailed for “making apologies for terrorism.” That’s the sort of thing that happens when the guy saying ‘Je Suis Charlie’ is a cop.

That incident came to mind on hearing the news that Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste has been freed. Nice as it is for Greste and his family, this is merely a cynical p.r. move by an Egyptian regime that knows the West values the lives – and free speech rights – of its own citizens far more than it cares about those of ordinary Egyptians. The Al Jazeera case illustrates that in spades. Greste was a foreigner, an Australian. His colleague Mohammed Fahmy holds dual Canadian/Egyptian nationality and is expected to be deported once his Egyptian identity has been revoked. Baher Mohammed, the third Al Jazeera victim, has no such nationality card to play.
As an Egyptian national, Mohamed is ineligible for deportation as he holds only an Egyptian passport. The last hope for him – and for five students jailed alongside him – is a forthcoming retrial or a presidential pardon. “Baher will not be released,” said Mohamed’s brother, Assem. “As always what happens in Egypt [is] it’s the Egyptians who pay.”

Egyptians are paying in a variety of ways, as the al-Sisi government crushes the last remnants of the Arab Spring revolt that had toppled the Mubarak dictatorship. Mubarak’s corrupt sons have just been freed from jail. So have the four police who killed 37 demonstrators. Mass death sentences have been passed, after “trials’ that have made a mockery of judicial process. In the wake of the Army’s overthrow of the elected Morsi government, the media have been intimidated and muzzled, free speech rights swept aside etc etc.

Keep all that in mind while the West celebrates Greste’s release. One of the truly depressing aspects of the al-Sisi regime has been its crackdown on the funding of religious charities that for over a hundred years in Egypt have been the only genuine social safety net for the poor. Much of the popular support for the Muslim Brotherhood was a product of its decades of support for those in need. The al-Sisi regime’s crackdown on political Islam is crushing the capacity of Moslem charities to function, without anything being offered as a substitute.

Though the government is unable to take care of its poor itself, it is deeply suspicious of organizations that try to fill in the gaps, particularly those that have an Islamic character. Egypt’s leaders have long memories: they know only too well that the Muslim Brotherhood built a massive network of supporters through its anti-poverty work during the long years of the Mubarak regime. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is eager to ensure such activity is no longer possible. “Some political organizations have made use of poverty for political gains,” Egyptian Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Waly said in a recent televised statement. “We are trying to make sure that this doesn’t happen in the future.”

The crackdown on charities began soon after the coup.

While religious charities with traditions of helping the poor are being crushed in Egypt, the West has been fawning all over the Saudi regime – even though Salman, the new Saudi King, was for decades the key operative responsible for funnelling funds from Saudi religious charities into terrorist and mujahideen organisations around the globe. In Afghanistan, the main beneficiaries of Salman’s tireless work included the notorious warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, mentor of Osama Bin Laden and the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Today, Sayyaf’s subordinates continue to dominate the regime in Kabul.

As former CIA official Bruce Riedel astutely pointed out, Salman was the regime’s lead fundraiser for mujahideen, or Islamic holy warriors, in Afghanistan in the 1980s, as well as for Bosnian Muslims during the Balkan struggles of the 1990s. In essence, he served as Saudi Arabia’s financial point man for bolstering fundamentalist proxies in war zones abroad.

Riedel writes that in this capacity, Salman “work[ed] very closely with the kingdom’s Wahhabi clerical establishment.” Another CIA officer who was stationed in Pakistan in the late 1980s estimates that private Saudi donations during that period reached between $20 million and $25 million every month. And as Rachel Bronson details in her book, Thicker Than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership With Saudi Arabia, Salman also helped recruit fighters for Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, an Afghan Salafist fighter who served as a mentor to both Osama bin Laden and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Reprising this role in Bosnia, Salman was appointed by his full brother and close political ally King Fahd to direct the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia and Herzegovina (SHC) upon its founding in 1992. Through the SHC, Salman gathered donations from the royal family for Balkan relief, supervising the commission until its until its recent closure in 2011. By 2001, the organization had collected around $600 million — nominally for relief and religious purposes, but money that allegedly also went to facilitating arms shipments, despite a U.N. arms embargo on Bosnia and other Yugoslav successor states from 1991 to 1996.

So…the West supports a regime in Cairo that targets religious charities that help the poor, and lavishes praise on a regime in Riyadh that uses religious charities to export terrorism. Naturally, this approach has the full blessing of conservative Americans wedded to “faith-based” charity work at home. Yes, we’re all so happy for Peter Greste, yet this is one of those mornings where the world seems a dark place.

Jim White, Southern Israelite
A few years ago, Athens, Georgia native Jim White brought his version of Southern juju to New Zealand, on a memorable joint tour with John Doe. Since then, his “Wordmule” song enlivened a key Walt vs Hank scene in Breaking Bad, and he also recently won a major literary award for his short story “Superwhite”…Musically, White’s collaborations with the Packway Handle Band have included this version of the reggae classic “Israelites” – which seems to function pretty well as a working class lament in Appalachia as well.