i am afraid

fear is clenching my throat and i yet i do not know where to point first to identify the problem. what i know is that it is not an overwhelming or imminent fear. i do not feel personally threatened or harmed in any way. but maybe this is only because the problem is not clearly identifiable. yes, i am talking about “the migration crisis”, as media calls it – but not just about that. this crisis is only one piece of the puzzle. look at the bigger picture! it is a slow fear; almost like a shadow, cold and dark and ever expanding the further i try to run from it.

i am afraid of the wars; of those that already are, those we still deny happening, those we blatantly ignore, and those we do not yet see coming. where to start explaining this world? the south chinese sea is brewing. china and japan and by extension the united states are eyeing each other. east and west are bumping horns again. ukraine is a mess. and so is libya and syria; and iraq despite most media ignoring it. and have you ever heard of yemen in the past few weeks? people are starving, dying, suffering. egypt and turkey harden their grip on their population. and let’s not even speak of israel and palestine. the balkans are as always in a state of imbalance with nothing but a strong lid of international pressure keeping this bomb from ticking. and i don’t even know what is going on in the continent of africa or latin america! but, to tell you the truth, i am also afraid to ask because i can guess that corruption, civil strives, and suppressions are ever mounting. in gambia, i happen to know, the homosexual laws top those of russian homophobia by miles. and in mali, south sudan, and burkina faso daily life is a mess as well. sadly, some of my readers won’t even know where most of these countries are. and those of you who do are likely to shield themselves in the bliss of ignorance, as i do it quite honestly myself as well; just think if we were aware of all those problems for real – i would not know how to sleep at night! all we get to do, blissful population of those lucky ones born on the right side of the planet, is to relax in the fortress of europe, swing flags of international solidarity, and put some buckets of water onto a conflagration; and then we get to be shocked by the amount of people who are running in our doors.

i am afraid of the migration crisis. either way, either reaction, either action – there will be consequences that are yet unknown. what are the possible scenarios? 1) europe closes the doors to migration. shielding itself from the many ‘imported problems’ in health, expenses and other religions. but thereby europe will lose the standing in the world it worked so hard to build – a european foreign policy based on human right demands will be hard to uphold now without being called hypocrisy. and consequentially, the european union of states loses the only connecting variable across its 28 members. 2) europe opens the doors to refugees. might be that migration becomes even more than what we already see. either way, the right wing parties will gain in the next elections. the society will be increasingly polarized. media puts gasoline on the hot coals. and the social system of central european states will be overstretched to an extent where we will need to rethink it entirely. yes, we would relief those countries surrounding the conflict zones; countries like lebanon, jordan, turkey and the kurdish region of iraq and thereby likely avoid a potential collapse of another few states in the region. and yes, we would be able to put some integrity into europe’s external posture of valuing humanity and rights and solidarity. – either way, there will be consequences. openness of the borders makes people afraid. and closeness of the borders confirms to people that they were right to fear “the other” from the beginning. the unknown makes people afraid; it always has and always will. it’s just that i am not sure whether to be more afraid of a restrictive european migration policy or of the consequential rise of right wing politics due to liberal migration policies? 

i am afraid of rising nationalism and right wing politics. it seems an unavoidable consequence. the more we stand up to declared values, treaties, and rights for humanity, the more fear takes over politics. people are worried about being “overwhelmed”. overwhelmed by “the other”; “our nation” is in danger. welcome back, nationalism! “us” versus “them” becomes the main tone of conversation again. and i already had more than one friend of mine tell me “i was shocked to realize how many friends i have who are racist and mean and ignorant towards refugees”. if friendship circles start to break and those you think to know suddenly show sides you never thought possible – you know that society is polarizing. right and wrong. black and white. and suddenly, as the stupid find themselves thinking they are the many, people start voicing ideas and thoughts that might have caused a social exclusion just a few years ago. “burn them all” they said. who thought that oh so gloriously civilized europe would be able to hear a sentence like that again – publicly! on social media. welcome back, far-right! i just wonder which color the new national-socialists will wear this time around.

i am afraid of the radical left. but just as much as the right is frightening me – and it frightens me as i can not, by the life of me, understand how (apparently) non-existent human empathy can be! – the left is frightening me too. as fear is mounting in society, sides have to be chosen. with us or against us? for me, this is the root cause of the problem. as a german singer and songwriter, konstantin wecker, once said quite wisely “following without thinking (meaning: critical reflection) can not be good, not even for the best cause”. and when some people on the left see fit to utter statements of wanting to burn police stations, i can not help but freeze in astonishment of their equal radicalization to the right wing which they so openly criticize and fight. to me, radical is radical; left, right, religious or atheist – and them fighting each other is like the pot calling the kettle black.

i am afraid of the state. in both a left and a right wing state, in both a small and a big nation, in both, fear breeds polarization and nationalism. but fear also prepares the breading ground for terrorism. why? because terrorism feeds off fear. if you are afraid already, a tiny act can make a crown jump. and this, by definition, is the character of terrorism: “if the act itself is disproportionat(ely smaller) than the consequential fearful reaction” (gerard chaliand). so what does this have to do with the state, you ask? well – remember charlie hebdo? i assume you do. but what most people do not remember is the consequences of hebdo. european states, most of them in fact, increased their level of alert. “level of alert” however is not a nice phrase of a meaningless metaphor expressing the need to be cautious. in every country the level of alert comes with actual legal(!) consequences. suddenly, for example, “in dubio pro reo” is no longer a necessity. you can be put under any form of police pressure and attention by mere suspicion only. obviously, the “normal” french or german or austrian or polish citizen will not feel this limiting of civil rights a lot. it is “them” who the state seeks. but, remember, remember, the 27th of February 1933 – eventually ‘the state’ might turn towards you as well. why, you ask? for “national security”. bollocks, you say? did david cameron not call the labor party a threat to national security as recently as yesterday? if political parties and opinions can be called a threat … where does it start, where does it end? or let me ask you differently, at which point are you afraid?

dear reader, my intention is not to spread fear. i would even hate to intensify it with this message. what i aim to do with this message instead is make you aware of your own fears – and the consequences to them. all i am saying, apart from ‘i am afraid’ (and i am!), is ‘be aware’ – wars and conflicts approach slowly; like a shadow. after all, also the second world war generation expressed how they were “surprised” by the societal polarization, the extremism, the radicalism, and the resulting hatred and violence and inhuman behavior of “civilized societies”. it is only in the aftermath that it seems “so obvious” that this was coming. and i personally would rather jump too early than be too ignorant to ever see it coming; so yes, i am afraid.

i am afraid for the many who are too ignorant, too little informed, too stupid, or too weak to resist following the right or the left in pursuit of belonging and expressing what they dare to call an opinion. i am afraid for the few who are still able to resist both the pressures of right and left tearing them into polarization and the waves of media hyping fears. i am afraid for the many who died and are still to die in the wet grave of the mediterranean sea, the burning heat of the desert, or the dark and lonely infinity of yet another forest border crossing. and i am afraid for the few who actually manage to escape the suppression, the fear for life and existence, and the burning pain of suffering from losing loved ones on the way only to end up in the most dehumanizing of all conditions in a country of physical safety and psychological torture.

and i am afraid for my own life, because sooner or later, i fear, i will have to make a decision; between acting through actions or acting through blissfully ignoring the world around me, between leaving a right wing country and continent or staying and fighting back, and between my own ‘career’ and the values i grew up with and stand to defend.

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the big-empire syndrom; or the story of hungary

in a fantastic book, john grey analyzes different forms of belief systems and ideologies over time – starting from different religions, all the way to the enlightenment and liberal thoughts; and in conclusion he realized there to be two basic forms of ideology: those that understand ‘utopia’ to be in the future and those who see in the past. thereby, utopia is the idea of any ‘better’ form of society than the current status of being – if you can think it, you name it; any form of ‘better’ you wish to reach. and john grey realizes that both of these tendencies have effects on the way policies are taken.

now, discussing this thought with many friends, i found support for his theory in the warning notion of some historians who declared how easy it is to overstylize the past. it is easy to make something sound good when no one actually is there to hold witness to the times one imagines to define ‘the grand years of our society’. everything used to be better – right? – wrong?
in my opinion, the answer is: neither. it depends on how you look at it; which variables and factors of ‘society’ and ‘community’ one focuses on. the same, by the way, is true for those ideologies that see ‘utopia’ in the future – and scenario that has not yet been is easy to be presented in a most lovely way – without any consequences of course. how could good intentions ever have bad outcomes, after all, right? and is not building the best society in the world, in the full belief in education and opportunity – if only more people would be well educated, even smart, and economically well off, we would live in a much more peaceful world, right? have you ever heard this belief before? – the best reason to take some ‘colateral damage’ on the way to an ever peaceful and prosporous ideal? well, just recently a brilliant czech economist, tomas sedlacek, made me aware of a fantastic irony in this world: no paradise, ever!, was described in terms of its system and structure. how will things actually work in ‘paradise’? no one knows – and why? because any system, particularly with human beings, will eventually be questioned as in ‘is this the best there is or could be’. the answer is irrelevant, because the ‘damage’ to ‘paradise’ has already been done. and the question itself is the source of the human capability to think, strive and develop. so can there ever be a utopia on earth then? a place where everything just ‘is‘ “perfect”? just a thought…

well, let’s leave the future for a while and actually look into the past – or more correctly into those systems of beliefs and ideologies that position utopia in the past; an ideal form of society that can not be reached by striving into the future but by going ‘back’ into the past. the most prominent example is the islamic state at the moment. the story line is simple: “the world has beaten us, laughed at us, patronized us – and yet we were once the hub of civilization, the heart of progress and the spirit of greatness. no one laughed at the great islamic empire. we were a force to be reconned with. if only we go back to those times; and bring purity into our own society, we can show the world our true greatness and shuff their laughter down their throats.”
isis of course did not invent this. even before isis, there were some who exhibited exactly this kind of behavior and attitude – it is those most often not understood by the international community of the west: former empires. think russia, iran, turkey. and it was exactly this tendency i saw coming when the baath party was released of duty and surpressed in iraq. a ruling elite who grows up, for decades and generations, in the belief that it has an inherent right to rule will not just ‘go away’ after a defeat. they lick their wounds and they come back at you.
obviously, not all empires show this tendency in the same manner. great britain for example shows the behavior in a much more subtle way. old western galantry, of course. and some even do not show it at all – in the case of austria i always said, more jokingly but by actually trying to make a point, that the luck of austria is that we have been beaten down so good twice (!) that we really got the revisionist great power posture out of our system. but this morning, as i am flipping through the newspapers and read about the astonishingly frightening behavior of hungary, and how successful orban’s strong state posture seems to be in the wider population, i could not help but wonder whether hungary has caught the shadow of a big-empire syndrome from the austro-hungarian past…

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the good news for political scientist students

technically, – at least i believe so – this is good news for all students no matter their field, but since i am indeed not well equipped to judge other areas of study, i will only declare the good news for the field i know personally: political science.

dear bachelor and master students (and to all of those i recently had this discussion with),
as you enter the field of science and the hallowed halls of your university, i dare to guess that some of you may feel like i did once upon a not too distant time: overwhelmed. and a certain characteristic level of arrogance by your professors -who, in every sentence they utter make you aware of how little you know and, even worse, make you feel as though you, little student, could not possibly have anything valuable to contribute- does not help to make this first impression get any less.
particularly the thought -and dare i say pressure- to ‘come up with something new’ -the core discipline and goal of all sciences- seems to be a frightening wall of ‘impossible’ in the first semesters. with all the knowledge that is presented in class and everything there is to read in libraries one gets the impression that there is absolutely no topic in the world that has been untouched. no adventure spirit. no great columbian and marco polo sort of discovery. the world has been mapped, history sorted, and theory developed. we can all die now. job done. good night.

well, my dear students, this is were my good news come in. i feel excited, almost like a little prophet, to be in the wonderful position to call this message out into the unlimited universe of the digital world and to the few readers of my blog: we -and i mean the human race in the most general terms- we don’t know shit!
what a blessing to those who seek to contribute!

we do not know anything! for starters, the entire believe into the following cause-effect-formula: “the more we know, the more we can predict the future” is nothing but a product of the time in history we call ‘enlightenment’ -it is just as much a theory or believe or ideology (call it as you will) as all the other theories, believes, ideologies and dare i say religions. and, at least if we follow popper -“hold on to a theory until proven wrong”- we should have already tossed the entire enlightenment thought alltogether. but, just like with newton’s mechanics, we hold on to it, not because it is actually ‘true’ or ‘correct’ but because it works for what we need it for – just as we would not start calculating breaking distances with quantum mechanics or string theory, we will not let go of the idea that eventually we will be able to ‘predict’ something, simply because the thought of “we simply did not yet have enough ‘variables’ to predict reliably” reliefs the brain that wants to know and relaxes the sense of responsibility after a horrifying failure of the own ‘prediction’.
sure, you may argue that this whole prediction thing works in math or natural sciences – fine, but that is why i am not talking about those fields of science – i am talking about political science; and the thing is that people, masses, groups, and states are not predictable. even if we had every information about every person in a group, groups develop their own dynamics, people change their mind, and ‘rationality’ is a very flexible concept that actually depends on each individuals point of view and perpective on the world. what may be rational for one person, may be horrifying to the other. think of terrorists, national socialists, racists… oh and self-rationalization is just another fantastic trick of human kind.
so, in fact, dear student, celebrate, because there is so much more knowledge to be discovered. starting from individual’s perspectives, to different systems of believes and perspectives on the world and international realtions and life and the economy and whateverelse you can think of. dare to leave your hallowed halls and open your eyes and hearts. dare to go beyond ‘undeniable truths’ and linear explanations. things are never either or. things are never ‘just like this’. try another theory to the same case – original thought. try the same theory on another case – original thought. find what is wrong with the theory – original thought. it truly is easy to contribute something ‘new’ to sciences. and the value, should you ever dare to question yourself (don’t!) derives from the new angle and the perspective you manage to open up in the process.
question. test. requestion. retest. and don’t you dare be intimidated by a big name or an arrogant professor. if you do your work scientifically – according to the rules and procedures – and you manage to add a new perspective, or manage to support the prior theory or assessment, your work is valuable! there is too many who only think in straight lines, too many who only recycle what has already been said, and too many who take the words ‘of the great masters’ for granted without reflection.
in my personal case, just as one example, i find myself irritated by publications of great and powerful institutions on kurdistan and all i can give as a reaction is the shrugg of my shoulders; “every child knows that in kurdistan”. there is no original thought. no reflection. no substance. or it is recycling of news stories and pictures. and to tell you the truth, it calms me down immensly; a) it is very easy to get to ‘original thought’ in a field where understanding perspectives matters (and what a blessing there are so many perspectives in this world!) and b) if not even the ‘big ones’ in the field are capable of doing that – whatever i have to contribute will be just fine.
and this is a thought i wanted to share with you, dear students, and all of those who feel insecure or overwhelmed by the sacred halls and secret clubs of social sciences.

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the return of nationalism – a critical reflection

nationalism is coming back. us against them. let’s do it all over again.

well, technically, i would argue that nationalism has never left. it is a phenomenon of ‘return’ only to those who immersed their head into european politics -not even that: into european idealism- who nowadays identify a rise in nationalism. true, europe has learned in the most brutal way what consequences ‘us against them’ has in its ultimate climax. yet, when have we ever learned from history, oh glorious human race?

in front of the european parliament there is a beautiful museum commemorating these experiences. starting with a basic 101 on european institutions, the museum is built up like a story of progress and human, intellectual and economic development. in a dark corridor with only black and white pictures showing war and poverty and destruction, history is brought to the visitor’s attention in the most gruesome way – pictures speak for themselves. dates and numbers of innocents killed, children suffering and economic potential lost are scattered among quotes of european peace and prosperity. yet, let’s be honest, numbers are too big, too foreign and too distant for our hearts and minds to truly imagine their meaning. and idealism is, well, always too good to be true. it is only the pictures that might still touch our hearts but luckily for the visitor there is light at the end of the tunnel – there is hope, there is progress, there is the european ideal. step by step, it seems to the visitor, one leaves behind the shadows of the past. we go beyond the nation-state; an idea that in itself was never more than a mere construction itself. we create the european economic cooperation, institutions, enlargement. peace. oh glorious development.

it is an irony of life that it is this story of hope and the believe in transcendence of the past cruelty that goes the first step towards digging a grave to the european ideal. this ‘european bubble’ that dares to dream of ‘going beyond’ nationalism, beyond the ‘us versus them’, creates the illusion of superiority. and like from a plastic bubble, sheltered against every evil of the world, when we see nationalistic struggles, religious wars and ethnic cleansing happening, we scoff about the other’s low level of development. they are not educated enough to understand our way! they. and us. and right there, we reinforce a thinking that we pride ourselves to having moved past it. but, after all, we know, they don’t, right?

do we? within our own european bubble, there is still nations waving the flag of woodrow wilson’s 14 points, granting each nation a state to themselves; because yes we might think the idea of ‘us versus them’ outdated, but we forget this to be a thought of luxury to those people who do not find themselves suppressed by a system; let alone a state. scotland, the basques and catalans, south tyrol, the balkans, ukraine, transnistria, bergkarabach, south ossetia, abchasia. and that is not to name the palestinians and kurds, let alone the many nations currently suppressed within a system of state boundaries drawn on an artificial map of this planet in the continents of south america, africa and south east asia.

so, what to make of this situation? recognizing that it is those who do not find themselves surpressed but instead more or less propperly represented and ruled, those who feel a sense of belonging to which ever concept they care to identify with as long as it does not directly challenge the status quo, those who even dare to believe in a european ideal, that worry about the ‘return’ of nationalism, the question demands both empathy and critical reflection.

yes, nationalism leads to violence; at least more often than not. it is the idea of a majority that creates a minority. but that does not mean that we should frown upon what i find to me a most natural component of humanity: the need to belong; the need for identity in community. let’s instead question the idea of the nation-state. homogeneity is a constructed idea that in itself does not exist. or are we talking ‘poor blooded’ again? -with all the nazi jargon coming back in popular refugee discussions in austria, we might as well use the same to highlight the danger in the idea’s successful reawakening.

yet, the nation-state and the idea(l) of the same has been enshrined in international relations since the first world war. another proof that sometimes the most well intended gesture – wilson’s promise of a state to every nation – can have catastrophic consequences. why? a) define “nation”, b) define “state”; if it is unitary states we build -within the borders already on the map to make matters worse- we will not get around a certain form of supression (spain) or forced assimilation (turkey) of those who do not agree with the ruling or identify themselves as a separate nation. how dare you say you are kurdish if you live in turkey? no, you are turkish! how dare you say you have another ethnic background, another language, another culture? assimilate, leave or die! generous options, right? no? you dare to throw bombs at us? us, your state? terrorists! all of you! welcome to the real world. those who think differently, despite claiming the same norms you yourself uphold – the right to a state for every nation and the right to rule ‘yourself’-, they are terrorists, guerilla, separatists, anarchists. pick the label currently in fashion.

now, to draw a long rant to a close, i want to say that i believe one cannot deny the same right to another that one claims for oneself. yes, nationalism has the potential to most destructive consequences. and yes, in europe the idea of ‘returning’ to the idea of nationalism -with the votes for independence rising (scotland, catalonia) and the thoughts of national politics and interests dominating brussels-  is rightfully seen as ‘a step back’; at least if one dares to believe that ‘us against them’ has ever left the european thinking. instead, i believe nationalism not to be the problem; the problem is an international system of institutions, state-clubs like the united nations, as well as norms and believes that upholds the constructed idea(l) of nation-states; of pure, easily definable ‘nations’, clear boundaries of their distribution, and no mixing or trespassing in between. if we quit believing and thinking in terms ‘pureness’, homogeneity, and clearly definable lines we can address separatist struggles, refugee crises and any other ‘us versus them’ scenario. but, regretfully, i realize, that this in itself is a purely idealistic thought…

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why ‘game of thrones’ helps you understand the middle east

several months ago, a washington post article took up the delicate task to parallel the houses of westeros, the fictional entities of the game of thrones books and series, with the countries of the middle east. what started as a far stretched endeavor, resulted in an exceptionally well placed comparison. my heart as a fan of game of thrones was of course immediately taken by the writing. but more so, my mind as an analyst of the middle east was also impressed by how well the author made the shoe fit. it is, of course, foolish to believe that the situation in the middle east might ever continue according to the game of thrones script, but at this point in time and game of thrones season, the comparison succeeded surprisingly well.

more so than the comparison of houses in westeros and states in the middle east, however, the fiction of game of thrones does indeed hold a value for understanding the realities of the crisis-torn region: it provides a new perspective. in this article, i would like to highlight three important lessons learned from game of thrones: 1) when the central power disappears, instability and a multiplication of forces occur; 2) thinking in categories, such as ethnicity or religion, is too shortsighted to understand the situation on the ground; and 3) power is a shadow – it resides where people believe it to reside.

when the central power disappears…

it is hardly a new thought to contemplate that the downfall of a powerful center comes along with rising instability. be it the succession claims of hereditary monarchies, the formation of a new government out of the revolting forces, or the consolidation of a military take-over through a civilian cover – change comes with instability. the source of this instability arises from the opportunity structure that is created in the immediate power vacuum. different interest become (more) visible and all kinds of groups, organizations, clans and tribes will contemplate at least their own survival but if possible a bettering or maintaining of their situation in the new circumstances. when the rules of the game change, opportunities arise and insecurities skyrocket. having increased force show up as a result of these circumstances can hardly be surprising.

what game of thrones and the middle east have in common in this regard is the depth of division in interests, ethnicities, religions and tribes or “family-houses” as well as the wide availability of weapons. yet it was the fiction of westeros and not the analyses of reality that portrayed the right picture. as the “arab spring” was sweeping through several countries, joy and relief was the reaction of western scholars observing the region. already back then i wondered, whether they had not read what happened after the french revolution – to this day the scholarly pivot of democratization effort. have you heard of the jacobins? napoleon? instead, game of thrones painted a much more refined, and dare i say more realistic, picture. when the king died, questions were raised about his succession, new interests arose to challenge the authority, rumors were as much a force of alliance formation and violence as realities, and violence erupted among the different forces.

this is not to say that the correct conclusion or policy option then is to stabilize the center at all costs; but it is to point towards the likely consequences of the actions to support a weakening (syria) or downfall (libya, iraq) of a strong center.

why thinking in categories is misleading…

more importantly than the lessons learned about the dangers of removing a central power, however, is what game of thrones can teach about the invalidity of thinking in categories such as “religion”, “ethnicity” and “tribe”. even “alliances” are not a category worth counting on.

let me provide you with an example. listening to the popular media reporting and even some scholars, i am afraid to say, one gets the impression that the kurds are their own ethnicity, culture and interest group. and they are. but kurds are not kurds. the danger lies in considering the kurdish populations of turkey, syria, iraq and iran as one group. and i will now show why it is indeed outright dangerous: thinking in these terms will make you overlook the reality unfolding in front of you; or how else would you explain that a kurdish party in the north of iraq is cooperating with ankara, the well-known forefront of anti-kurdish measurements, against other kurds in turkey? or how would you explain shia and sunni cooperating against other shias or other sunnis respectively?

thinking in terms of “ethnicity”, “religion” or other clear cut categories denies the actual realities on the ground. and game of thrones shows exactly that: the show makes so valuably visible that allegiances are not necessarily permanent – even if they have existed for hundreds of years; they arise on the basis of common features, such as geography (the northern tribes), ethnicity (the houses) and religion (the old god’s or the fire god’s), but also on the basis of mere interests (tyrells and lannisters) or personal rationale (not to say ‘ego’) (house greyjoy). alliances form and break; sometimes out of calculation, sometimes out of irrational longings, sometimes out of rumors, and sometimes out of forces beyond anyone’s control. without recognizing at least the forces behind the fluctuation of alliances in the middle east – not just between states, but between all actors involved in a conflict – the region can not be understood.

power resides where people believe it to reside…

in one of the first seasons of game of thrones, the figure ‘varys’ posts a riddle to ‘lord tyrion’. It goes like this: in a room there are a king, a priest and a rich man. between them is a common sell-sword. each of them wants the others to die; who wins, who dies?

lord tyrion gives the answer that the sell-sword himself could kill all three of the others and keep the power to himself, but varys then asks why it is not soldiers ruling the lands but kings and queens instead. and the solution to the riddle is such that power is a shadow – it resides where people believe it to reside. if the sell-sword (“the people”) believe in religion, no money in the world could corrupt them. the same goes for money and religion, if the person has a true allegiance to the king. but the allegiance of the people depends on each person themselves.

it is in this riddle, that the different alliances become a new dimension. groups will form and dissolve on the basis of many factors. some are opportunity, others are deep loyalty. but in either case, people follow what they believe the power they believe to be rightfully powerful. and this is not always the one western observers might like to judge as “right”.

and it is with all these additional variables in mind, that suddenly the “mess” in the middle east becomes a little bit less messy. after all, if one can follow some ten or more fictional houses in a popular tv series, with all their intrigues, conflicts and shifting alliances, one can just as well follow the happenings in the middle east without being surprised about their dynamic character.

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why the europol strategy of targeting isis web-accounts won’t work

due to a lack of other options for input, here is a message to europol:

according to the guardian, europol will started targeting isis web accounts in july. given an astonishing output of around 100.000 tweets a day from around 45.000 accounts and the constantly changing network of the internet, this endeavor seems to be the true equivalent of a hercules task. and despite me recognizing that there is probably more to the europol strategy than has been disclosed in the guardian, i would like to flag why the current strategy of europol is likely not work as well as it sounds at first.

for those not aware of the article, the strategy of europol is to work with social media companies to identify the most important accounts and monitor those who may be vulnerable and those who are ‘preying’ on them. with the help of network analytics the most active accounts would be identified and eventually shut down or hindered in their output.

now, the nature of network analytics is such that it identifies the nodes on the network that are most strongly interlinked, strongest in their output, or most dominant in any other characteristic that is searched for. like any money laundering operation expert will tell you, however, the truth is not always in the big numbers.

the problem of europol’s strategy is hidden in the proclaimed aim of the mission: “to hinder or stop further european recruitment”. as any halfway decent scientist knows, the best goal in mind is worth nothing without the correct method for execution. given the hypothesis of europol seems to be that it is “online ringleaders” that recruit people, taking them out would lessen recruitment according to this simple cause and effect analysis. and this is where talking to scientists would actually help…

according to prevalent research on isis and in reference to patterns of recruitment by other terrorist networks (please refer to hriar cabayan and sarah canna (eds.). a strategic multilayer assessment periodic publication 2014), numbers as high as 70-75% show up in the “recruited by friends” category.

if recruitment dominantly happens through personal friends however, and not, as targeted by europol’s strategy, through “online ringleaders” of social media output, it is once again, the “small numbers” that might actually lead to a more effective resolve to the identified problem. another, even more obvious, reason why the current strategy won’t work is that the idea of shutting down online ringleaders is likely to work as effectively as shutting down pirate bay or wikileaks – it does not; at all. and even if one were to identify and physically capture the person behind the propaganda messages and online recruitment strategy, the entire concept of isis and any other functioning terrorist network is based on a level of adaptability and agility that modern day states and organization can only dare to dream about.

in all of this, i would like to note that i am not discouraging europol’s activity or their potential ability to make a difference. on the contrary, i support the cross border network of counter-strategy and i believe that europol might have a better shot than any nation by itself. what i am trying to do is to point out weaknesses and faults in thought in order to give europol at least a fighting chance in keeping this continent safe. to echo alan turing’s thought that one needs a machine to fight a machine, i believe that it needs a network to beat a network. it is therefore that europol is technically fit to approach the issue – if only one could put national interests to the back seat to focus on the task at hand and if only one could listen to already existing knowledge to develop a solid strategy.

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welcome to cold war II

myself a defender of the idea that the cold war rhetoric is outdated, if not even exaggerating the current circumstances, i find myself in the position of having to review my prior assumptions. though my personal optimism on the euro/atlantic-russian relations never derived from a naive hoping but rather from a calculated assumption that both sides have simply too much to lose than to let the situation escalate, working at nato has offered me a new perspective onto the issue and let me to conclude that i might have in fact exaggerated my belief in the interdependence hypothesis. while not able to disclose actual insights or information, i would like to share some stories that led me to question my prior assessment and opinion.

assertive foreign policy”

when we speak of “the conflict” we speak of ukraine. after all, the swedish hunt for a potentially russian submarine has been displayed as nothing but a scandinavian nightmare no more or less concerning than the search for the monster of loch ness. that finland today is sending similar alerts however might render the issue less of an illusion and more of a  playing with fire on the russian part. but not just russia is testing the waters. just as back in the cuban missile crisis the united states firmly asserted a dislike of having “the enemy in the backyard”, so is russia today pointing towards increased encroachment of its own front porch: eu involvement in ukraine is growing. nato is moving ever further east by working actively not just in the baltics but also in moldova and georgia. and ever since the crisis with ukraine and crimea heated up nato troops are stocking up their capabilities. together with reoccurring accusations on both sides towards the other to help separatists and rebels in both ukraine and russia, it is safe to say that it is both sides who are demonstrating a distinctly assertive foreign policy.

but despite the military muscle flexing, diplomatic tough talk, and increasing mistrust, i have recently found what i believe to be the true enemy both sides are fighting against:

the memories of the cold war create a self-reinforcing hypothesis

let’s face it: the generation that is leading the current conflict is old. and i don’t mean that as a derogrative term but simply as a reference to those generations that still lived (actively) through the cold war and those who (thankfully) grew up in a word without the looming cloud of potential human extinction over our heads. watching old movies about the cold war today happens with a dismissive smirk as all the panic and doomsday melody of those days seems almost ridiculously overdone. after all, today we are the blissful who know that “the story has a happy-ending”. and it is therefore impossible for my generation to put ourselves in the head and heart of someone whos personal life covered one or more decades of exactly this memento mori darkness without knowing that everything would indeed be fine.

however, if we try to imagine it – how it must have felt like to grow up into a world of black and white, of mushroom cloud and doomsday fear –  we start to understand why the leaders today react to ‘assertively’ against each other. trust is hard to build from its ashes. and the trust between “east” and “west” has been shattered over decades. no wonder then, that when today a russian submarine, soldier, or airplane crosses a border others jump to immediate “defense”. the same holds true for russian reactions. mistrust is so high again that no move on one side can be left unanswered. and if one side ever were to do so, they are both called “weak” in their own population – because also voters see themselves being shaken by the feeling of reviving fears from the past.

it is therefore my opinion that what we actually see happening on the euro-russian continent today is an arm wrestling between the forces of interdependence and common economic interest against the real threat to escalation: the mindset of the leaders who see themselves reliving the past in the present.

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