Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Corruption Cycle

I found myself sitting around a picnic table the other day, talking about corruption in Pakistan, and then the broader problem of corruption in the Muslim world. By corruption I don't mean what goes on at midnight on a dance floor, but governmental corruption.

Bribery is a problem because it gives people an incentive to NOT do their job. "That area is not zoned for commercial development, so I can't let you build your factory there, unless . . ." When corruption exists in the justice system, it becomes an incentive for officials to actively dole out injustice. That's why it's called "corruption," of course, because it well, corrupts.

One person at the table recounted a story of how his uncle, who worked for a police force in Pakistan, was significantly poorer than his colleagues, because he refused to offer or take bribes. At the lower levels, however, the policemen had much less choice - they were paid a pitence, and had many economic and social pressures to fend off. His uncle, however was only relatively poor, and that is tolerable. When his son was arrested with several others in connection with a robbery, however, the other defendents were quickly released, as soon as they figured out the price. Even an honest man couldn't let his son languish in jail awaiting a suspect trial, when a little cash would get him out like all the others. . .

"It starts at the top," said another Pakistani. It certainly existed there; when the people running the country treat the constitution like a thug treats a public phone directory, people get the idea that laws are just suggestions.

"No," I and one of my brethren said together, "it starts at the bottom." This I had said almost automatically; 'God does not change a people's lot unless they change what is in their hearts' (13:11). The leaders are derived from the population. If bribery is how you get ahead in life, then the young leaders will grow up seeing it as tolerable, even normal. If you draw from a stagnant pond, you can't expect pure water.

The counter, of course, is that the people live under the system made for them by the leaders; corrupt politicians will appoint corrupt judges and ministers, who will run corrupt courts and departments, which will induce their employees to be corrupt, until the ordinary citizen will have to give and take under the table in order to just get by.

It's a perplexing problem. Barring abnormally heroic leaders, of whom there are only a handful (none of them being heads of state), how do you fix it? How do you break the cycle? There must be an entry point somewhere. Is it through the ulema? In most Muslim countries, that is an institution with its own innumerable failures, so I wouldn't hold my breath for it.

There must be an entry point somewhere.

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No righteous ones

I was thinking of writing something about the recent conflict in Georgia, but Uri Avnery, of Gush Shalom, said it pretty well already in a very insightful article:

. . .
This is the historical background to the recent spat between Georgia and Russia. There are no Righteous Ones here. It is rather funny to hear Vladimir Putin, whose hands are dripping with the blood of Chechen freedom fighters, extolling the right of South Ossetia to secession. It's no less funny to hear Micheil Saakashvili likening the freedom fight of the two separatist regions to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. ...
I am not entirely certain if the peoples, writ large, of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia actually wanted full independance from Georgia. Everything I've read and heard over the past few weeks seems to indicate that, but I don't have a familiarity with the politics to really tell.

Let's pretend he's not a war criminal

That is, however, the key to the conflict. No matter what a vile, evil, unspeakably brutal murderer Vladimir Putin is, the morality of the enterprise rides on that - if the people of South Ossetia wanted independence, and were indeed being violently oppressed by Saakashvili's army, then all the hand-wringing from NATO is either irrelevance or hypocrisy: they can't castigate Russia for intervening in Georgia when America is sitting in Iraq.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Everything Old is New Again

Well, I'm back.

While I was away, China held an extravagant and protest-free Olympics, Russia invaded some separatist regions of Georgia, Barack Obama's lead over McCain continued to shrink, Pervez Musharraf agreed to do what might have been the honourable thing in 2007, the US and the "Iraqi government" came to an agreement on permanent US bases in the country, the CMA elected another pro-privatization ideologue to its presidency, and everybody and his dog wrote a review about how deep The Dark Knight was.

Rather than commenting on a current event, though, today's post is about how history repeats itself, and more importantly, how its observers do to. I touched on this a bit in a previous post.

Some of you might have heard of the Democratic Peace Theory, or the Golden Arches Theory, of conflict prevention. For those who haven't, the theories respectively state that nations that are democratic or have liberalized economies (symbolized by McDonald's) don't go to war. Obviously, both theories are nonsense. Georgia and Russia are both democracies with parliaments and elections, and both have McDonald's, as did the United States, Yugoslavia, Lebanon, and the Israelis.

People who believed such drivel, along with those who wrote and published it, no doubt believed that it was based on sound empirical data and an objectively derived rationale.

I would assert though, that the real line of thinking is more like this:

"My country follows system X and I am safe and prosperous, therefore everybody who follows system X will be safe and prosperous. If only everyone were as virtuous as my people were, they too would enjoy the benefits. P.S. Support the Troops!!!"

And it's not a new line of thinking either. The 19th century British theorist Henry Thomas Buckle thought along similar lines, arguing, amongst other things, that "Civilization" decreased the desire of a people to go to war, and that

. . . as the intellectual acquisitions of a people increase, their love of war will diminish; and if their intellectual acquisitions are very small, their love of war will be very great.
It would be interesting to count just how many wars the British empire was engaged in during Buckle's lifetime, that he was able to write that so glibly.

Buckle at least had the rather plausible causes of "Civilization" and "Intelectual Acquisition" to support his theory. Today, we have the "Golden Arches" and "Democracy."

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Monday, August 11, 2008


I'll be on the move a bit over the next 9 days, but I'll be back on August 22nd.

In the meantime, here's a good hadith:

Abdullah b. Mas'ud reported Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: Whom do you count as" Raqub" amongst you? They (his Companions) said: One who has no children (the children are born unto him but they do not survive). Thereupon he (the Holy Prophet) said: He is not a Raqub, but Raqub is one who does not find his child as the forerunner (in Paradise). He then said: Whom do you count as a wrestler amongst you? We said: He who wrestles with persons. He said: No, it is not he, but one who controls himself when in a fit of rage.
-Sahih Muslim, Book 32, Number 6311

While I'm gone, peruse the links to the right, or some of my old posts to keep yourself from jonesing out for a lack of my blogging.


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Saturday, August 9, 2008

A society without homelessness

It would be a nice thing, wouldn't it? I don't know if it has ever been achieved in a country - if it has, then it is probably in some small, fabulously rich country like Switzerland, or an island with only 10,000 inhabitants. Taking the phrase another way though, many of us already enjoy such a society.

I stumbled upon this 2007 report from the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, based in Calgary, which details the problem of homelessness in Canada, and provides wisdom on solving the problem from both policy wonks and homeless people themselves.

Homelessness is a hard problem to track, for the same reason that it is a hard problem to solve - these people don't have stable addresses. Nevertheless, according to the federal agency responsible for addressing homelessness, Canada had a homeless population of 150,000 in 2005, a figure that, according to the aforementioned report, may be between 200,000-300,000 today.

Taking the more conservative number, 150,000 represents roughly 0.48% of the Canadian population, or about 1 in every 200 Canadians.

Now, think about how many people you know personally - not your bosom friends, just people you've met whose names you can recall, and whom you might recognize if you saw them again. How many people is that?

Now think of how many people you know who are homeless.

I tried it myself.

I am very close to living in a society without homelessness.

And yet I live in a country with lots of it.

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Wednesday, August 6, 2008


In 2003, Newsweek published this story, full of mistakes and/or lies.

Today, Aafia Siddiqui has been confirmed to be in American custody, and may have spent the last 5 years as the mysterious and mentally disturbed "Grey Lady of Bagram." The whereabouts of her 3 children, who disappeared on the same day as her, are still unknown.

Some actual journalism (consisting of more than taking dictation from government officials) was done by Katherine Osment of Boston Magazine.

What happened to Aafia Siddiqui and her children that day is anyone's guess. Siddiqui's mother, Ismet, claims that a few days after Siddiqui's disappearance, a man on a motorcycle arrived at her house in a leather suit and helmet and told her Aafia was being held and that she should keep quiet if she ever wanted to see her daughter and grandchildren again.

A report in the Pakistani Urdu press said that Siddiqui and her kids had been seen being picked up by Pakistani authorities and taken into custody. Even a spokesman for Pakistan's interior ministry and two unnamed U.S. officials confirmed this in the press. Several days later, however, Pakistani and American officials mysteriously backtracked, saying it was unlikely that Siddiqui was in custody.

Today she stands accused of shooting a US soldier with his own gun, having miraculously reappeared in Afghanistan.

The lies are maddening.


On another note, I came across this from a friend who is currently attending the 17th International AIDS conference in Mexico City.

Since I am unfamiliar with the background, I cannot vouch for the content or the claims being made, except to say that I agree with this statement:

"The Iranian government must demonstrate that the current allegations are credible and ensure that the Alei brothers have access to legal counsel,” said Joe Amon, Director of the Health and Human Rights division at Human Rights Watch. “And they must recognize that these charges stifle the country’s efforts to effectively address AIDS and to serve as a model for the region."

. . . and that HRW (who have yet to steer me wrong) have also issued a statement to similar effect. For whatever good it might do, I signed the petition (and encourage you to consider it).

If you are the praying sort, please remember Dr. Siddiqui and the Alei brothers in your heart.

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Sunday, August 3, 2008

Blaming Pakistan

There's a little ditty that's gaining popularity around the world. It goes something like this:

If your Afghan war is bloody
Blame Pakistan
If your Afghan war is bloody
Blame Pakistan
If your Afghan war is bloody
But you want it to seem cuddly
If your Afghan war is bloody
Blame Pakistan!

Ok, so I'm no Shakespeare.

Nevertheless, the recent bombing at the Indian embassy has the CIA and the CIA's Kabul frontman, Hamid Karzai, doing what they've been doing ever since Pakistan stopped being their base for harassing the Soviets - blaming Pakistan.

If the weapons involved in the blast were made in Pakistan, there's no surprise - but if the weapons were Russian in origin, would that mean that Russia had sponsored the attack? If it had been a US shell that was used in the bomb? Anyone who has even seen a photograph of a Karachi intersection knows that Pakistan is awash in guns, and has been that way since the last time a foreign power invaded Afghanistan. A lot of the world's ordnance over the last 30 years has found its way to Afghanistan.

Whenever something like this happens, one must ask "who benefits?" Did the ISI see some weakness to exploit in attacking the Indian embassy? Does India have a dearth of eligible embassy staff? Or maybe we are to believe that the ISI is acting out of blind hatred, merely trying to kill Hindus willy-nilly. If that is the case, there is a better place to find Hindus than in Afghanistan. Alternatively, maybe there was something going on at the Indian embassy that the ISI wanted to stop. If so, the Indians certainly aren't saying, and one would in that case have to wonder why?

What did the embassy bombing accomplish? Well, it made everyone blame Pakistan. By using Pakistani ordnance, whoever was supposedly in charge of the operation left a huge, gaping, amateurish liability - not something one would expect from a battle-hardened cloak-and-dagger spy agency. Predictably, a blast at the Indian in embassy in Kabul might kill some Indians, but it does nothing but hurt Pakistan's position.

But then, you might ask, if it wasn't Pakistan, then who? Perhaps it was the same people who attacked the Pakistani Consulate in Kabul this week. Maybe it was India.

Or maybe there is a war being fought in Afghanistan, and maybe it's a complicated country, divided along linguistic, religious, political, and tribal lines. Maybe Afghans are just generally averse to having foreigners tell them what to do, and especially sensitive to having a government imposed upon them by force. Maybe Pakistan is a convenient scapegoat for the difficulties of a war that was initially advanced only to satisfy the American public's desire for a bloody revenge, and little more.

If, however, "Blame Pakistan" turns into overt (because covert might already be going on) action against a country that has already bombed its own citizens in order to please America, then any Pakistani officer who advocated steps against NATO and its Afghan proxy will have been proven right.

As a recent column in the Globe and Mail put it

If Pakistani paranoia about India was the only thing that led its spies to work against the Karzai government, then it may be possible to provide reassurances and push back Indian activity in Afghanistan. However, beyond the fears about India are deep suspicions about U.S. intentions.

The fear, not only in the Pakistani intelligence community but across Pakistani society, is that, once the United States pacifies Afghanistan, Pakistan is next.

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