Congress Could Have Prevented Orlando Shooting

(The gunman who killed 50 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando used an AR-15 assault rifle, a military-grade weapon that the NRA wishes to keep legal for everyone to purchase)

The public’s response to the tragic Orlando shooting on Sunday has largely been hopeful and loving. Already, Equality Florida has raised more than $1 million through a GoFundMe campaign on behalf of victims and their families. Voices from around the world have spoken out against violence and fear and in solidarity with the LGBTQ community.

Other responses – however – leave something to be desired. Presidential candidate Donald Trump appeared to congratulate himself for crediting the attack to Islamic extremists. A rather tone-deaf move as investigators still navigated the crime scene identifying victims.

Also, many politicians struggled to name the LGBTQ community as the target, belying the very real, continued presence of homophobia in our society.

Remaining optimistic in the face of nihilistic murder is a powerful statement, and the country appears ready to embrace this path. There are, however, real steps that politicians can take to prevent bigoted individuals and hate groups from exacting the awful toll that we witnessed this week.

Congress, in fact, had an opportunity last year to prevent individuals such as Omar Mateen – the perpetrator of the Orlando terror – from acquiring the kind of military-grade weapons that were used to kill 50 innocents at the Pulse nightclub.

Shortly after the San Bernardino shooting late last year, Senator Diane Feinstein sponsored legislation to block suspected terrorists from buying weapons. Virtually all Republican senators, however, voted against the measure.

The NRA’s influence among elected officials is well-known. Any attempt at even modest gun control – including the popularly supported, common sense effort to prevent suspected terrorists from buying weapons – is anathema to the extremist organization, which maintains a radical and uncompromising look at the second amendment.

As politicians begin blaming political correctness or targeting particular ethnic and religious groups over the Orlando shooting, remember that there was a very real chance to prevent this tragedy. An unstable and capricious individual such as Mateen hardly resembles the well-connected and resourceful terrorists that pull off carefully planned and coordinated attacks. The spontaneous, lone-wolf assault on Pulse nightclub is of a different mould – one that the United States can readily combat with the political willpower to move past the dangerous intransigence of the NRA.

Orlando Shooting: Help Victims of Anti-LGBTQ Hate

Last night, a lone gunman committed the single largest mass shooting in the history of the United States, targeting the LGBTQ community in Orlando, Florida. At least 50 people were killed and more than 50 hospitalized when a man open fired at Pulse nightclub using an AR-15 assault rifle – a weapon commonly deployed by mass shooters of late.

As authorities pursue leads pertaining to the gunman’s ideology and political orientation, the nation grieves for the victims of the Orlando shooting, killed at a popular gay bar while celebrating the nationally-recognized gay pride month.

According to media outlets, the perpetrator’s father remarked that his son was angered at the sight of two men kissing. This horrific act of violence reminds us of the lingering societal danger of homophobia. Gay rights victories notwithstanding, the LGBTQ community is still vulnerable to the malice and caprice of bigoted individuals and hate groups.

Discussions regarding religious fanaticism and the seemingly endless torrent of gun violence in the United States are sure to follow. The way forward from this tragedy is uncertain. But there are ways that you can help immediately.

Equality Florida – the state’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organizations started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the victims. Consider donating to not only lessen the tremendous burden on the victims and their families, but also to express solidarity against the wicked hate that precipitated this heinous act.

Refugee Relief Efforts Face Bankruptcy

(Photo: Arbat Transit Camp for Syrian Refugees in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan)

As part of our ongoing coverage of the global refugee crisis, today we look at how UN agencies are quickly running out of cash and consequently edging closer to bankruptcy.

In an interview with The Guardian, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres relayed a dim situation marked by increased need and declining budgets:

If you look at those displaced by conflict per day, in 2010 it was 11,000; last year there were 42,000. This means a dramatic increase in need, from shelter to water and sanitation, food, medical assistance, education. The budgets cannot be compared with the growth in need. Our income in 2015 will be around 10% less than in 2014. The global humanitarian community is not broken – as a whole they are more effective than ever before. But we are financially broke.

As world governments struggle to cope with the glut in refugees fleeing war torn countries including Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea, it is unclear how aid agencies will be able to raise the necessary funds to keep aid programs afloat. The Syria Regional Response Plan – the overarching program to assist Syrians displaced by their nation’s intractable civil war – is barely 23 percent funded. Funding across the board is inadequate: relief efforts in Yemen are only 20 percent funded, programs to help internally displaced populations in Iraq are only 30 percent funded, and aid for Nepal earthquake victims is currently only 33 percent of the overall projected amount necessary.

Budget shortfalls take a large toll on refugees’ living standards, with UN agencies and aid providers cutting food rations and medical services. Refugees from Darfur received the distressing news that their food rations may end toward the end of the year. The World Food Program – the UN’s food agency – will suspend aid to 1.7 million Syrians because of funding shortages. Considering that displaced peoples possess virtually no means to generate income or sustenance, these realities pose tall and difficult challenges.

Unlike other arms of the UN, humanitarian efforts do not receive regular contributions from world governments. In other words, relief agencies – including the UNHCR and Unicef – depend on additional voluntary gifts from governments, as well as philanthropic contributions from individual global citizens.

Underfunded programs impact ongoing crises in a number of ways. Refugees that make the risky and potentially fatal trip by boat to Greece’s archipelago have told frontline UNHCR workers that they were compelled to flee camps in Jordan because of a dearth of food rations, declining living conditions, and the fraught and tense situation with native residents resulting from these worsening social conditions. This means that underfunded aid programs contribute to the mass migration fanning out through the Middle East and Europe.

Additionally, analysts are concerned that harrowing camp conditions could be a large boon for extremist organizations. Reports from refugee camps inside Turkey indicate that ISIS recruiters operate with relative impunity, attracting disaffected and hungry refugees lured by the promise of steady pay and food.

The amount of funding needed to fully support relief programs will unlikely come from private and voluntary gifts The total necessary is simply too high. Guterres and others are openly calling for reform that would require governments to contribute more mandatory funding for relief efforts. The commissioner remarked that to not “spend more on humanitarian aid is a bad strategy, not to say a suicidal one.” As programs begin unraveling due to the stress of higher demand sapping fewer resources, relief programs may indeed make situations even worse than they currently are.

Tech Companies Team with Nonprofits against ISIS, Hate Groups

The social media prowess of ISIS is well documented. The radical Islamic group routinely deploys its vast online presence to recruit from across the globe. Scores of disaffected youth – influenced by the terror group’s omnipresence on virtually all online platforms – have trickled toward the conflict in Syria. In nations ranging from the United Stated to Germany, authorities have prevented citizens from traveling broad or have entertained measures to expedite the legal process by which a government can restrict the passport usage of citizens attempting to join ISIS.

Commentators argue that an effective counter policy has been sorely missing from current tactics for dismantling the terrorist organization and mitigating the damage it causes. A small state agency formed in 2011 called the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) was established to combat the online communications of ISIS. The agency was bogged down for several years due to minimal government investment. Other government digital communications strategies have backfired, including the “Think Again Look Away” campaign, which provided a means for ISIS supporters and affiliates to tussle online with U.S. officials over infamous events like the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.

Recently, government officials, tech companies, and nonprofits have taken steps to improve the online fight against ISIS. In February, the Obama Administration hosted representatives from the private sector and professionals from prominent NGOs to collaborate on solutions. Top-level staff from Twitter and other social media platforms were present. Nonprofits represented at the meeting included the Anti-Defamation League – an organization that works toward abolishing hate-inspired violence – and the the Global Survivors Network – a group that provides support to victims of violent terror.

The strategic solutions discussed involve private tech businesses working with relevant NGOs to identify sources of hate speech, construct efficacious avenues for reporting these abuses, and collate data to better understand patterns of extremist behavior. There are recent precedents, such as one partnership that began late last year to combat sexism. Following the GamerGate controversy of 2014 – in which female game developers and cultural critics were subjected to prolonged misogynistic attacks – Twitter entered a partnership with an organization named Women, Action, & the Media in order to pursue meaningful responses.

Tech giants have rolled out other initiatives for social justice and peace issues. Google launched Against Violent Extremism in 2011 – a hub for former adherents to extremist ideologies and victims of terror from around the globe to collaborate on projects, such as Exit White Power Australia – a group working to discourage recruitment by white supremacist groups.

After the February meeting in Washington, D.C., Twitter announced that it will pursue similiar partnerships with groups working against violent extremism – including the United States’ Anti-Defamation League and France’s International League against and Racism and Anti-Semitism. In addition to these collaborative efforts, Twitter has promoted anti-hate tweets from nonprofits to counteract messages of hate and has trained activists and volunteers on reporting methods.

These partnerships illuminate the potential of tech and nonprofit collaboration. With such powerful and widely used tools at their disposal, private technology firms can harness the expertise and mission-oriented commitment of nonprofit professionals to develop an effective digital infrastructure for counteracting the hate speech and toxic propaganda of terror groups like ISIS.

Charities Step Up for Refugee Christians, Yazidis

As various nations, paramilitary groups, and coalitions continue their roles in the intractable war against ISIS, a growing humanitarian crisis is further jeopardizing regional stability and spurring relief nonprofits – both Christian and secular – into action to help persecuted minorities.

Since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, an estimated 9 million people have been displaced as a result of the conflict (3 million making it to neighboring countries Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, and 6 million displaced inside Syria). Few nations outside of the Middle East have extended a helping hand. Chief among those that have is Sweden, which has resettled some 30,000 refugees. Fellow EU member Bulgaria has also established camps for displaced Syrians, but is too cash-strapped to offer optimal services.

Refugees’ existence is precarious, dangerous, and divisive; often, host communities become hostile to innocent civilians fleering destruction at home, as recent riots and anti-refugee violence in Turkey show. Syrians have to cross borders on foot, covering immense distances with few resources. The crisis is also tearing apart families, with women and children comprising 75 percent of inhabitants in Turkish refugee camps. Men are more likely to stay behind to protect property or to take up arms in the conflict.

ISIS’ advance through Iraq and Syria has negatively impacted virtually all ethno-religious groups, as their intolerant and apocalyptic brand of theocratic politics ravages cities and attracts often indiscriminate military responses from the Syrian and Iraqi governments. Certain minorities, however, are singled out and persecuted, including Yazidis and Christians.

Yazidis are a Iraqi minority that practices Yazidism, a syncretic faith descendent from ancient Zoroastrianism and other Mesopotamian religions. ISIS – which views the sect as “devil worshippers” – infamously isolated 40,000 Yazidis on a mountain in August 2014, threatening them with starvation or dehydration if they stayed, and slaughter if they fled. The impasse was broken following military strikes led by the United States.

Christians also face virulent hatred and intolerance under the Islamic pseudo-state. ISIS gives Christians the option to either convert to Islam or be executed as heathens. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled their homes as a result. The country’s largest Christian cities – including Qaraqosh, Tel Askof, Tel Keif, and Qaramless – emptied almost completely before falling to militant jihadists.

The country’s Christian leaders are not mincing words about the onslaught, calling ISIS’ actions genocidal. Patriarch Louis Sako, leader of the Chaldean Catholic church described how 100,000 Christians were forced to flee the Nineveh province:

They fled their villages and houses [with] nothing but … the clothes on their backs …Christians are walking on foot in Iraq’s searing summer heat towards the Kurdish cities of Irbil, Duhok and Soulaymiyia, the sick, the elderly, infants and pregnant women among them. They are facing a human catastrophe and risk a real genocide.

Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, commented on what he sees as government responsibility for alleviating these conditions: “It is extremely important that aid efforts are supported and that those who have been displaced are able to find safety.”

While governments organize resources and begin formulating partnerships with various relief organizations, a number of nonprofits have already stepped up, rolling out fundraising appeals in the name of persecuted refugees. The Cradle of Christianity Fund (CCF) is using preexisting networks in the region to distribute basic necessities for Christians who fled with nothing. In part aided by the Jordanian government, the CCF focused later 20014 on providing refugees with resources to withstand the cold desert winter.

The Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organization is using donations to provide medical care for Christians displaced by the conflict. The International Orthodox Christian Charities is going even a step further, providing educational materials and remedial classes to refugees, as well as shelter and temporary employment.

Secular organizations are making a difference as well. The International Rescue Committee is providing medical and social services in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. Mercy Corps is distributing immediate needs – including food and clean drinking water – to displaced families.

These efforts are a tremendous start, but the severity of the problem warrants a unified, comprehensive approach that marries the UN, governments, and nonprofit groups into an effective and well-organized unit. The scope is massive – so too must the cooperation, trust, fundraising efforts, and generosity be if positive change for persecuted minorities is to happen.

ISIS Destruction of Art Reminder of Nonprofits Mission

ISIS (also known as IS, or ISIL), has dominated headlines for over a year now. The ultra-radical militant group has occupied an astonishing amount of territory, stretching across northern Iraq and into into Syria, with outposts along the Euphrates. As Libya continues to slide into chaos, it has seen an uptick in ISIS-aligned fighters, raising fears of yet another country losing territory to what has quickly become the most visible standard-bearer for radical jihadism.

The group’s success has in part come at the expense of other Islamic radical groups, such as al-Qaeda, which lack a flair for social media and 21st century technologies. Young recruits have flocked to take up arms in the pseudo-state, and according to analysts this is due in part to aggressive online marketing campaigns. From featuring a Canadian recruit playing ice hockey to memes that reference popular violent games, ISIS propagandists create videos and communications that appeal to youth sensibilities. These ploys – combined with filmed beheadings and immolations – are part of a larger effort to catch the world’s eye.

The most recent propaganda effort? The destruction of art.

International institutions such as UNESCO and various NGOs are struggling to come up with meaningful solutions to protect world heritage artifacts in the wake of the highly publicized destruction of ancient Greco-Roman and ancient Mesopotamian artifacts at an antiquities museum in Mosul – the northern Iraq city currently held by ISIS militants. Underscoring the often contradictory blend of radical ideology and self-serving pragmatism, ISIS militants obliterated priceless statues while purportedly carting off others to traffic on the black market.

Pending deputy ambassador to the Libyan delegation at UNESCO Hafed Walda has called for the fortification of museums in Libya. Al-Gailani Werr, a London-based archeologist, remarks on the global nature of this cultural violence: “These things are part of the history of humanity . . . If you destroy them, you’re destroying the history of everyone.”

For violent political groups, the destruction of art is a forceable way of annihilating perceived threats to cultural hegemony and legitimacy. From the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to Nazi Germany, obliterating cultural artifacts was part and parcel with a greater authoritarian design for control and discrimination.

Indeed, the mere fact that ISIS went out of its way to destroy material objects it construed as fundamental threats to its fragile world-view underscores the democratic nature and resilience of art. This is why a guarantee of protection for cultural rights is enshrined in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and why so many nonprofits the world-over dedicate so much time and so many resources to ensure that everyone the world over has his/her cultural privileges upheld.

As the turmoil rages on and more lives and cultural heritages are lost to ISIS’ extremism, arts nonprofits should feel emboldened in their pursuit of universal accessibility to cultural artifacts and experience. As Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO, states:

When culture is under attack, we must respond with more knowledge, and with ever greater effort to work to explain the importance of humanity’s shared heritage. This is why we appeal to all cultural institutions, museums, journalists, professors, and scientists to share knowledge widely about the Mesopotamian civilization. We need to remind all of the history of this land which led the Islamic golden age.

Nonprofits possess a fundamental role in Ms. Bokova’s call-to-action. In the face of nihilistic destruction and violence, the celebration and protection of culture is part of the remedy for peace.

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