Sunday, December 26, 2010

Review: Images of Muhammad

If it wasn't already widely known in the Western world that Muslims were vehemently iconoclastic, it certainly must be by now, given the violent reaction in many majority-Muslim countries to, among other flare-ups, the Danish cartoons affair. The iconoclasm, both literal and figurative, that is taken as part and parcel of Islam does not, however, mean that Muslims do not create images of their prophets. We just don't create visual depictions of them. As Palestinian scholar Tarif Khalidi shows in a well-researched, 303-page volume, textual depictions of Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him) have been in constant development in the Muslim world ever since the first known biographies of the Prophet were penned in the latter 8th century.

Khalidi, being first and foremost a historian, seeks to catalogue all of the sources from which Muhammad's life can be viewed, including nearly 14 centuries of Sira (prophetic biography) literature through the course of the book, noting along the way the cultural and geopolitical forces that shaped the portrayal of the life of the last Prophet. Throughout this book, Khalidi's own views on the Prophet himself are kept at a generous distance - only occasionally do we get a sense of which of biographers he was more or less sympathetic towards.

While the book is panoramic and spans over a millenium of literature, two Khalidi does a particularly excellent job with two topics: 1) Controversial reports in the Sira and 2) The diversity of opinion on Muhammad's life, prophethood, and message that has existed within Muslim societies.

Thanks to Salman Rushdie (or perhaps, more approriately, the Islamic Republic of Iran's reaction to Salman Rushdie), a famous example of the first is the episode of the so-called Satanic verses, a report found in the Sira in which Muhammad ostensibly recited a verse negating the Islamic teaching of tawheed (unadulterated monotheism) for the Meccan leaders, and then recanted it, saying was from Satan. Examining the writings of the earliest scholars of the Sira, Khalidi explores the mindset and sense of purpose that let them to adopt an inclusive approach to reports - even reports that were unflattering to a subject whome they revered. Unlike the scholars of Hadith (prophetic narrations), the early Sira was written by men more concerned with completeness than with accuracy, more occupied with preservation than with filtering.

The diversity of thought on Muhammad is highlighted throughout the book. We see Muhammad taken up in the cause of traditionalists, rationalists, poets, and lawyers. We see the evolution of the Sunni view of Muhammad as the Perfect Man, and the Shi'a view of Muhammad as the progenitor of a holy family. Refreshingly, the view of Muhammad in Islamic apologetics, a subject that seems to consume so many Muslim intellectuals to the point of paralysis, is put into perspective, and treated with a calm clarity of thought not seen elsewhere.

Anyone interested in the intellectual history of the Muslim world should read this book.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

The wisdom of old men

Rabbi Steinman, 96

. . . A source that was present at the scene said, "As soon as Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu introduced himself, Rabbi Steinman, who knew why he was being approached, said 'I won't sign,' and immediately left the room.". . .

One of Steinman's confidants related the rabbi's words to Haaretz: "They are making a fierce nationalistic statement. We will not irritate others, that is not the Haredi way. There are things that should not be done; what if there would be a similar call in Berlin against renting properties to Jews? Where is the public conscience? What will this do to Jews around the world? We must act responsibly.". . .

Emphasis mine.

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Yet another moron . . .

The plot was actually hatched by FBI agents, the device was a fake, and the only person in the USA sincerely involved with (allegedly) trying to kill anyone was a like a villain in a Loony Toons episode.

Which, even if we take the FBI story as gospel truth, only further demonstrates the well-established pattern: that the only people currently trying to hurt Americans are people who are not very smart.

Scanning every crotch at the airport probably does little to contribute to their downfall. They do most of the work themselves.

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Thursday, November 11, 2010

For Omar Khadr

We spent our youths in such different ways.

When I was sleepy from staying up late,
You were half-mad from sleep deprivation,
When I was being interviewed,
You were being interrogated,
When I was threatened with failure,
You were threatened with rape,
When I had clever words,
You had tears,
When I was kicked,
You were shot.

When I complained about my government,
About a search here and a frisking there.
You were betrayed by that government,
Its treason against you:
That it had sworn never to let a child,
Be treated like a soldier.

"He's not a soldier!"
Said their sages,
"So his deeds are a crime,
And he deserves no protection."

"He did it on the battlefield"
Said the same,
"So we will not try him,
As a civilian.

Or even as a human being."

When I lashed out in anger,
At the bare-handed boy,
They called it "self-defense."

When you struck out in fear,
At the armed soldier,
They called it "murder."

Not unfathomable for them,
To be blinded by vengefulness and spite,
But 40 years?
As if you had crossed an ocean ,
To make war upon them.
As if you were more
Than a boy.

Not equal in the eyes of God are we,
For how can the one who suffers,
Be equal to the one who is free?

But despair is not a pious trait,
For one day God will decide your fate,
And you will walk into the sun,
Their gates and cages will rust and seize,
And you will finally be free.
And waiting for you will be crowds,
Thronging to see you,
And I among them,


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Monday, October 18, 2010

It's more complicated than that. . .

This is a thought-provoking article on land reform in Dawn:

Myth and reality of land reform

. . . The populist redistributive land reform model bifurcates the city from the countryside. The latter is intuitively treated as a world unto itself where the issue of inequity would be resolved through localised methods of giving land to the tiller. In this portrayal the village appears mired in tradition and backwardness. If village life was captured in a poster, the caption would be: ruthless landlord oppressing the hapless peasant. . . .

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Peace will be an outcome of liberation, not its starting

- Moshe Machover

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

And now for something completely different. . .

I am aware that the content of this blog can be a little bit . . . negative. So let me share with you my own feelings of elation today at a story which has no dark underbelly.

Regardless of how this came about, regardless of what will happen next, I don't think there is a human being on this earth who didn't feel a little pang of relief at hearing that the last miner was out.

In 2000, when the Russian submarine Kursk was reported to be sitting at the bottom of the ocean, the news that all of the survivors of the initial explosion had asphyxiated was profoundly saddening for me. For some reason, I had some special sympathy for all those young men sitting in the dark at the bottom of the sea, waiting for a rescue that ultimately never came. When I heard that 33 miners were trapped at the bottom of a collapsed mine in Chile, I feared a similar result.

Alhamdulillah, this time we got a happy ending.

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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Who else argues like this?

Perusing the Fearosphere so you don't have to! That's right, it's another edition of our ongoing series "Teh Mozlems are Coming!"

Today's entry comes from the "Center for the Study of Political Islam" an institution (to use the term loosely) that has been polluting the internet over the last 4 years with it's self-published erudition - available to you in print form starting at $8.95 per book, plus taxes and shipping!

In a seminal high-school english assignment, entitled "Statistical Islam", the good folks over at the CSPI (yes, they get an acronym!) demonstrate how thoroughly they have mastered Islam.

"The Koran, in turn, points directly to Mohammed. It says 91 times that Mohammed is the perfect Muslim. He is the divine human prototype, the only pattern acceptable to Allah. The actions and words of Mohammed are so important that they have a special name—Sunna. We find the Sunna in two texts. The Sira is the biography of Mohammed and the Hadith is the collection of hadiths (small stories, traditions) about Mohammed.

"Islam is based on Koran and Sunna. Since the Sunna is found in the Sira and the Hadith, this means that three books contain all the doctrine of Islam—the Trilogy. If it is in the Trilogy (Koran, Sira, Hadith), then it is Islam. If something is not in the Trilogy, then it is not Islam. All of the Islamic doctrine is found in the Trilogy. Now, we have the complete information with no missing pieces."

There is a proverb that goes "Associate yourself with seekers of truth, but stay away from those who have found it." Amongst Muslims, there are a host of groups and individuals who use a chauvinistic sort of reasoning to claim that they have cornered the market on spiritual truth. And yet the traditional Muslim schools of thought are filled with hundreds of volumes of exegesis of the Qur'an, of the Hadith, and of the work of previous scholars. The so called "Trilogy" (which, aside from the Qur'an, is comprised of dozens of books of varying authenticity) may be a solid data-set, but its interpretation is obviously more complex.

With the assistance of a handy graph, the sages at the CSPI go on to argue:
. . . If Mohammed had continued with preaching religion we can extrapolate that there would have only been 265 Muslims when he died, instead of the 100,000 that resulted from his politics and jihad. This gives us an estimate of 265 conversions due to religion and 99,735 conversions to due the political jihad process. We can calculate the relative contributions of religion and politics in growth. Islam’s success was 0.3% religion and 99.7% politics 7 at the time of Mohammed’s death, 632 AD. . . . The statistical conclusion: Islam is primarily a political ideology.
The obvious conclusion that the authors are trying to lead us to (unsurprisingly, they made up their minds before they started this little study) is that Islam is not like Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism, or any other religion, but more like Communism or Nazism - a material ideology rather than a faith tradition.

This is, of course, because the authors never considered (or at least, never wrote an essay on) what would have happened if, for instance, the Jews of the Torah hadn't been instructed to drive out the inhabitants of the land of Canaan following their Exodus from Egypt. The authors never take notice of how Hinduism privileged the invading Aryans over the native (and vanquished) Dravidian peoples by giving domination of the priestly Brahmin caste almost exclusively to Aryans.

I don't think I really need to explain how the spread of Christianity was, ahem, "accelerated" through politics and warfare.

A religious practice that exerts no influence and has no political consequences is not likely to spread. While a few highly intellectual people might find satisfaction in a private spiritualism, the majority of people look to religion not only to answer their philosophical questions about the universe, but also provide them with guidance in how to order their relationships with other people. All of the major religions encourage a communal practice, around which a community can be built that strives toward a common set of virtues. That necessitates politics.

Of course, if your goal is to convince people that Islam is more like Communism than Christianity, then pointing out the political success of other major religions doesn't help.

What does help, however, is to claim that Muslims have more in common with Nazis than they do with Neopagans:
The Trilogy of Medina is even more negative about the Jews than Hitler’s Mein Kampf. What marks the biggest difference between Mein Kampf and the Trilogy is that Hitler did not write first section in Mein Kampf detailing how much he admired the Jews. There is a contradiction about how the Koran treats Jews in Mecca and how they are treated in Medina. Due to dualistic reasoning, both attitudes about the Jews are true, at the same time.
So now we have the Qur'an being portrayed as worse than Mein Kampf. Now, I've never read Mein Kampf. For all I know, it's mostly about how much Hitler hates Austrian prison food. The comparison, however, is useful for the conclusion that our self-styled "Islamic Scholars" are driving us towards, because Mein Kampf is nonetheless associated in the popular consciousness with the attempted extermination of the Jews.

The alternative hypothesis is, again, not considered: that the positive references to Jews are general, dealing with the religion as a whole and its great prophets, while the negative references relate to specific circumstances, like being surprised from the rear by a Jewish tribe in Medina, even as you were trying to defend yourselves from an external attack by the Meccans.

This reasoning is not unique to critics of Islam, but also to its self-declared stalwarts. Much of the anti-Jewish sentiment that has spread through Muslim communities (particularly after 1948, but also before) is based upon a similarly decontextualized reading of the Qur'an. Ironically, the strongest allies that the anti-Islam movement has are some of the most ostentatiously religious elements within the Muslim ummah.

Both groups claim to have an indisputable hold on what Islam is, and both groups employ a simplistic reading of primary sources in order to justify their views. "This is Islam," each says "and anything else is something you made up." They are fond of quoting one another, each to inspire fear of the other in their audience. Ironically, the protagonists act to strengthen their opponents.

It's almost as if they want a conflict.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Here is the real road to peace

From Ha'aretz:

Author questioned for allegedly smuggling Palestinians into Israel for a day of fun

. . . Avoiding the security forces at West Bank checkpoints, they took the women out to eat in a restaurant in Jaffa, swimming in the Mediterranean, and took them home via Jerusalem where they could see the Old City walls from afar. . . Most of the Palestinians had never seen the sea or visited certain holy places. None of them had permits to enter Israel. . .

They had grown up less than an hour away, but they had never seen the sea.

The outrage of Zionism is that it proposes that a Jew who cannot trace a single ancestor to anywhere near Palestine should have a greater right - a "birthright" - to live and travel in that land than an Arab whose family has lived and worked there for generations. That is why those of us who have no other ill-feeling towards Jews or Judaism find the Zionist project to be so morally nauseating.

Peace will not come from the hollow theatrics on now display in Washington and New York. Peace will come when ordinary people resolve, as Ilana Hammerman did, to disregard the racist laws that maintain the status quo. Ordinary people have to act first, and only then will the leaders be dragged, kicking and screaming.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Spot the darkies

From this weekend's anti-mosque protest in New York.

There are, by my count, at least two clearly non-white people in the photo, one in the foreground and one in the background, and at least 2 people of ambiguous ethnicity.

I'll acknowledge that the anti-Islam movement is an open tent. It's just that only white people seem real anxious to go in.

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Sunday, September 12, 2010

September 11th

On September 11th, 1973, the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende was ousted in a bloody coup by a military junta, led by Army General Augusto Pinochet.

As the military surrounded the presidential complex in Santiago, captured government workers were laid in front of tanks, and those remaining inside were told that if they did not surrender, the tanks would roll over their colleagues. Allende himself was found dead - according eye-witnesses he had been killed by machine-gun fire. According to the new regime, Allende had committed suicide.

The Pinochet regime went on, in partnership with other fascist South American governments and support of the CIA and US State Department under Henry Kissinger, to hunt down South American activists associated with leftist movements, in what became known as "Operation Condor."

(If you're interested in knowing more, the events of that day are presented in further detail in a documentary by the same name, subtitled "The Last Stand of Salvador Allende." It's a riveting and sometimes heartbreaking watch. The US State Department has also declassified a large volume of material which is now available online here, although large passages are redacted.)

The significance of what happened on September 11th, 2001 is not diminished by the fact that it shares a date with a massacre that happened in another country, exactly 28 years prior. It's historical significance lies in the fact that people from other countries were responsible for the deaths of thousands of people on American soil.

The reverse is usually the case.

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Saturday, September 4, 2010


An excellent piece by an inspiring man:

Muslims habitually judged before trial

. . . When we do speak up, we are expected only to assert our "Canadian-ness," rather than raise serious questions about due process and intelligence agencies with poor human rights records -- questions shared by many Canadians and sorely in need of addressing. . .
My prediction, based upon not only the content by the style of reporting that has followed this case, is that we will see essentially the same pattern that emerged in the "Toronto 18" case: most of those accused will be found to have been innocent bystanders, the danger will be found to have been exaggerated, and one or two people convicted who displayed malice not exceeding their own bumbling stupidity.

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The announcement

For those of you who aren't sure what exactly it means that the Canadian government is "matching" funds donated for flood relief in Pakistan, here is the government's own announcement, through the CIDA website.

Note that the funds must be donated to a registered charity in order to qualify for being matched, and must be received by September 12th.

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

No other topics

It's been a week now, but I still can't bring myself to write about anything else. The flood waters are moving southwards, and I don't know how long it will take Pakistan to recover. This is what my prayers are about - that sheer mass of humanity that has so much tribulation ahead of it, from all the challenges of homelessness to the horror of water-borne disease.

There are many reasons why the average Canadian has an interest in donating to the relief efforts, and an interest in making sure that 1/5 of Pakistanis aren't plunged into worse destitution than they were in previously. For now, though, forget your politics, and help out simply because it is right, and because the act needs no further justification than that.

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

No sehri and no iftar

Never in a million years would I want to be seen as the niggardly, mean-spirited type of person who would discourage people from donating to relief efforts. On the contrary, those of us who enjoy a better life than the people in the affected areas need to remember that our wealth is a test, and that to withhold it from those in need is to fail that test. This is the biggest disaster facing humanity since the 2006 Tsunami, and it deserves the attention of our entire species.

It must be said, however, as it was said about the United States during Hurricane Katrina, that if Pakistan didn't spend so much on "national security," it would probably be able to afford some national security.

Unlike the United States, Pakistan has some good reasons to maintain a large military - it lives in a dangerous neighbourhood - but this is a country that spends more on its military than it does on health and education combined. The lack of those does more damage to the country every day than any army ever could.

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Saturday, August 21, 2010

Like it or not . . .

A company like Newscorp can turn anyone into a sensation, even a third-rate fearmonger like the zany Randroid proprietor of the blog "Atlas Shrugs."'s Jason Elliot lays out a neat summary of how the media giant has turned a relatively uncontroversial construction project into America's national anti-Muslim hatefest.

How the "ground zero mosque" fear mongering began

. . . In short, there is no good reason that the Cordoba House project should have been a major national news story, let alone controversy. And yet it has become just that, dominating the political conversation for weeks and prompting such a backlash that, according to a new poll, nearly 7 in 10 Americans now say they oppose the project. How did the Cordoba House become so toxic, so fast? . . .
Fortunately, this would probably never happen in Canada, because it is a better country.

I think.

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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Tales from the Fear-o-Sphere

Teh Mozlems are coming, teh Mozlems are coming!

From the unintentionally funny folks at FrontPageMag, and Pamela Gellar, the queen of cheap internet fearmongering, comes this lovely passage, as FPM's editor interviews Ms. Gellar about her new magnum opus about the Obama presidency:

FP: Tell us a bit about how anti-Semitism plays into all of this. We know Islam’s disposition to Jews and so, perhaps, Obama’s bullying of Israel is no coincidence at all?

Geller: Indeed Jamie, Islamic anti-Semitism is part of the Koranic imperative and the pervasive influence of Islamic Jew-hatred cannot be ignored when assessing the impact of Barack Obama’s early life experiences upon the later trajectory of his career. If a devout Muslim prays the obligatory five daily prayers, he will repeat the Shehadah*, the first chapterof the Koran, seventeen times; that chapter concludes with prayers that Muslims generally understand as asking Allah not to make the believer like the Jews (“those who have earned Allah’s anger”) or the Christians (“those who have gone astray”). The prayers generally conclude with the dua qunoot, a prayer that Allah’s wrath would overtake infidels.

Imagine the influence that all this – inculcating contempt for Jews and Christians seventeen times a day – might have on a young mind and a future president. Troubling psychological wiring might have been set in place for a lifetime.

Yet Obama has never spoken about the influence his early experiences with Islam had upon his mind and heart – in sharp contrast to others who were raised in Islam and left the faith. Obama would have had to make a decision to reject Islam.

If so, when did he make that decision? How?

Muslims who have left Islam are generally vocal about why they left: Wafa Sultan, Ibn Warraq, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Walid Shoebat, and others have spoken out fearlessly on these issues. Obama may not wish to engage in critiques of Islam, but if he left Islam, he must have very definite thoughts about it. And even if this is simply not an important issue to him, then he can still appreciate how important it is – knowing what he knows about Islam and apostasy.

Apostasy is punishable by death in Islam. Yet there have been no calls for Obama’s death from the Islamic world. Why is this? Islam gives no free passes.

That's right Pam, we're all in cahoots. Thank goodness someone is blowing the lid off this global conspiracy.


* Actually, the Shehadah contains no such thing - it is simply the sentence "I bear witness that there is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Messenger." What Pam is refering to, in her pretense of expertise, is Surah Fatiha, whose meaning is certainly open to interpretation, but definitely not open to her interpretation.

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

A witty saying

The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.
Attributed to John Kenneth Galbraith

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Shorter David Warren

For today's shorter, I was tempted to use this little gem from CanWest-Global's most flatulant gasbag, with a minor editorial modification:

Horrid Little Game

"The idea that I know nothing about [this subject], and therefore should not write about it, occurred to me just before starting this sentence, but I will not let that slow me down."
That, while humourous (maybe even "funny") would be a bit of a cheap shot, especially if you actually read the piece. This, however, would not be:

New governor
Finally, Canada has a governor general who is a posh white man.

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Monday, July 19, 2010

And the biggest problem facing Pakistan is . . .



Low literacy?

Enmity with India?

Relations with America?

An electricity grid that can't cope with demand and a water system that never could?

According to some, it's none of the above. Nope, apparently the biggest problem facing Pakistan today is too much religious pluralism. . .

The biggest problem facing Pakistan is the cruel stupidity of a chunk of its population.

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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Slow, methodical, cruel

From Ha'aretz:

Gestures to the Palestinians

Israel declares huge amounts of private Palestinian land as firing zones and expels the residents under the false and self-righteous guise of concern for their welfare, lest they be harmed by the military training; but these firing zones are always to be found solely on Palestinian land, and never on settlement land. Have you ever heard of any settlers being expelled from their homes because their settlement was declared part of a firing zone? But against these wretched shepherds in the Jordan Valley, anything goes. This is Israeli justice, this is equality as practiced by the Israel Defense Forces.

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The slow death of Canadian democracy

Before what happened in Montebello , I thought that Canada was a country where the police actually care about public security, and did not engage in deceit and brutality in order to suppress and subvert political opposition and democratic debate. The sight of police posing as protesters, however, and then visibly making mischief unrelated to any political cause, gave me serious misgivings.

Seeing images like this from the G20 in Toronto only deepens my worries:

It's gotten so bad that even the even-handed Steve Paikin, TVO's scion of neutrality, has become uncharacteristically vocal about it.

We have a wonderful history of peaceful democratic protest in this city. But democracy took a major step backwards this weekend. And many will have to answer for that.

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Saturday, June 12, 2010

4 undisputed facts about the Gaza situation

Unless you've been completely out of contact with any form of news media in the past twelve days, you've probably heard a great deal about an Israeli commando raid on a Turkish aid flotilla bound for the Gaza strip that left 9 civilians dead.

Since the raid occured, two competing narratives have emerged, one supporting the point of view of the aid workers who were trying to bring humanitarian supplies into Gaza, and one supporting the Israeli government position.

Regardless of the arguments and evidence presented by the protagonists for either side, there are (at least) 4 facts that remain undisputed by any party.

1. A civilian ship was raided by Israeli commandos. An Israeli craft was not raided by a civilian ship

2. The raid was conducted at night, from a helicopter.

3. The raid took place in international waters

4. The siege of Gaza was a response to the victory of Hamas in Palestinian legislative elections.

One may draw different conclusions from these facts, but I have yet to see any source, representing any point of view, that disputes that they are facts.

My conclusions are as follows:

The first is important because it is mostly forgotten by spokespeople of various zionist organizations who want to blame the activists for being raided. "They had pipes and knives!" they say, "clearly this was a premeditated attack on Israel." Clearly, if Israel's enemies have been reduced to attacking its soldiers with pipes and kitchen knives, the threats to the country are greatly overstated.

#2 is important because it the timing of events was completely under Israeli control. If they had wanted to intercept the ship in broad daylight and tow it to another destination, they could have - they have done this with previous flotillas that have tried to run the Gaza blockade. If we make the charitable assumption that Israeli planners did not mean for violence to occur, the fact that its plans may have gone awry cannot be blamed on anyone but them.

#3 is not of relevance to what occured during the raid, but tells us something about the international reaction. This was an act of piracy. The Turkish reaction is, therefore, justifiable - Turks were killed on the high seas by a foreign power while not themselves violating any international statute. The American lack of reaction is equally unjustifable, given that an American citizen was also killed.

#4 needs to be pointed out because the justification for the siege - and therefore the excuse for the humanitarian crisis that the Israeli government has created - is often made out to be Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli cities. The Hamas campaign of firing homemade rockets into Israel, however, really only picked up in response to the siege. At the time that the siege was implemented, the rationale was to weaken a democratically-elected Palestinian government by punishing the population from which it drew its greatest support.

The claim, therefore, that the siege is necessary to keep weapons out of Gaza is, therefore, a post facto justification, dredged up to justify a policy that failed in its original goals.

The hasbara machine, however, has a conveniently short memory.

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Why the Konservatives hate UNRWA

Canada's New Government (TM) has ordered CIDA to stop giving money to the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency formed to provide humanitarian relief for Palestinians displaced by the creation of Israel.

According to Embassy Magazine, the move has been puzzling for agency officials, Canadian public servants, and regional diplomats:

Jordan's ambassador to Ottawa says the Canadian government still hasn't explained exactly why it stopped providing direct budgetary support to the UN agency responsible for helping Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, 1.9 million of which live in his country.

A representative for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, says the organization is similarly mystified, but that Canadian budgetary support is essential as the agency struggles with a $90-million shortfall this year.

What has become clear, however, is that despite allegations made by pro-Israel groups—and alluded to by some Cabinet ministers—CIDA staff were extremely confident that there was "minimal" risk of Canadian funding to UNRWA being directed to terrorist groups. Rather, internal CIDA documents say the agency was "quite strong in its relevance to Canadian priorities" and financial management.

If you are one of those souls who are mystified by this move, then please, allow me to explain:

The Palestinian refugee problem exists for 2 reasons.

a) Zionist militias drove Palestinians from their lands in 1948 (a second wave fled their homes during the Six-Day-War as the IDF advanced).

b) Arab countries where most of them currently reside won't give them citizenship, and those living in the West Bank are living under IDF occupation.

The existence of UNRWA facilitates b). By providing Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt with food and shelter, UNRWA takes pressure off the Palestinians to scatter in search of sustenance (which the pro-Israel camp hopes would be the end of the Palestinian nation), and takes the pressure off Arab governments to either accomodate or eliminate by force a restive and hungry refugee population. Accomodating the Palestinians sounds attractive, until you realize that most Egyptians and Lebanese people are not that well off, and would not take kindly to their governments doling out food and housing to people who are already very explicit in their own desire to live elsewhere, i.e. home.

Harper and his cabinet don't see any problem with a). In their eyes, a Jew from Toronto has more of a right to live in Jerusalem than an Arab who was born there, because, in a nutshell, God said so. Consequently, impoverishing UNRWA and thereby starving the Palestinians of the means to stay alive suits their goals.

If all this sounds a little far-fetched, it isn't just my theory. The abolition of UNRWA has been on the wishlist of radical zionist groups for decades. While individual websites offer detailed explanations of how this would benefit the zionist cause, a simple Google search for "abolish UNRWA" drives the point home well enough.

The Konservatives deeply sympathise.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The trouble with George Galloway. . .

. . . is that he sometimes reveals that he operates under a misconception that is, unfortunately, common amongst people at his end of the political spectrum, and that is also, unfortunately, something that the wingnuts and bedwetters are not entirely incorrect about. Specifically, he believes that people of all faiths, on average, take their scriptures equally seriously. The result is this somewhat embarrassing exchange between Galloway and this British documentary film-maker. I'm posting it here because I have, in the past, posted clips of Galloway laying waste to opponents on a variety of issues related to Muslims and Anglo-American involvement in Muslim countries.

The discussion, which begins with a civil tone, ends with Galloway assuming the tone of an interrogator, while simultaneously himself refusing to give any response to what was a completely fair question repeated ad nauseum by the guest.

Much has been made of Galloway's other public gaffes, but for me these have only called into question his judgement, and not his character or the soundness of his positions. This exchange, however, does create doubt about the latter.

While the Old Testament does contain far more violence than the Qur'an, for one reason or another, the overwhelming majority of British Jews or Christians don't take it all that seriously. That's not to say that they don't have any faith at all, but it does say that they have developed a variety of rationales (some less convincing than others) to effectively ignore most of it.

Amongst Muslims, particularly within the reactionary neo-Salafi school promulgated by the ibn Saud, not only the Qur'an, but Prophetic narrations from canonical secondary sources are taken, in a decontextualized form, as literal instructions that are binding upon Muslims for all eternity without qualification.

This does not validate the anti-Islam thesis that Muslims are all therefore suspects in a vast conspiracy to crush Western Civilization, but it does mean that one would indeed have a harder time finding a British church in which people were prescribing the death penalty for apostasy, than a mosque in which the same was being said. Without a knowledge of the Muslim community from the inside, that fact provokes either blind denial from those sympathetic to the Muslim community, or blind hate from those with xenophobic or imperialistic tendencies.

Ultimately, though, what infuriates me about the school of Islam promulgated by the ibn Saud is not that it creates a distraction from the genuine material grievances that create anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world.

As for Galloway, he lost his seat in the British election. I have a feeling though, that this isn't the last we shall hear of him.

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Saturday, May 1, 2010

The comments are actually intelligent

Generally, the comments section of any online newspaper, blog, or YouTube video represent a sample of the gutter of the internet. This goes for a rag like the Notional Pest as much as it does for a quality daily like the Ha'aretz or the Independent.

The comments on this article over at the Dawn Blog, on the challenges faced by Pakistani immigrants to Canada, are remarkable for that reason - in that their authors actually seem to have put some thought into what they were writing, as opposed to randomly mashing expletives into the keyboard.

Maybe there is hope after all . . .

The xkcd classic: "Listen to Yourself"

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Saturday, April 17, 2010

A new kind of politics for Pakistan

Dawn's Murtaza Ali Jafri introduces the MMM to Pakistan.

Man-Made Movement

Pakistanis need a new kind of political force to sweep the nation, and no, not another sycophantic NGO or dissident party. I think it’s time for a party to represent men. Allow me to introduce the manifesto of the Man-Made Movement (MMM), not to be confused with the dissident Jamaat-i-Islami offshoot ‘Majalis and Maulanas Rock Movement.’

The party shall be run by the Council of Man: members are to include movie star Shaan, rocker Ali Noor, cricketer Shahid Afridi, celebrity George Clooney, golfer/womaniser Tiger Woods, and man of the hour Ijaz Butt. I nominate myself as communications director and chief councilor of the MMM.

The first issue the MMM will address is the paucity of bills defending the rights of men. After all, there seem to be a lot of bills floating around to empower women and safeguard their rights, and I think men ought to get in on the action as well. For instance, we could do with a Men’s Anti-Bazaar Bill, which would outlaw forcing men to roam bazaars with womenfolk for it would be deemed an affront to a man’s emotional condition.

This will be followed up by the Men’s Anti-Bazaar (Room to Breathe Amendment) Ordinance, which will allow for more space dedicated to men in shopping malls. We envision spaces teeming with gaming arcades, Kabaddi rings, indoor football and cricket fields, and more. This will address the socio-psychological phenomenon by which men get bored while their wives shop, and feel pathetic following their womenfolk around (and we can’t let them go out alone… that might compromise their morality and our manliness!).

There are other issues, too, for which the MMM will advocate. Man-ic depression, for example, should be recognised as a medical problem and a curative special vacation is to be legally established. After all, which man wouldn’t go nuts working fulltime and managing his wife and children all at the same time, without frequent breaks.

A Man Rehabilitation Centre should also be established. Men will be re-taught the basics of fight club, will be shown how to blow smoke rings, given the chance to brush up on Kabbaddi skills, and be beaten to a pulp on a daily basis and conditioned not to cry in response. For extra fees, complete emotional detachment courses will also be included.

The MMM will also advocate for a permanent five-day work week. Yes, we know women feel as if they contend with a seven-day work week, balancing professions with caring for their homes. But we still demand shorter working hours. If we get an extra day off, we’ll be less irritable, work better on our communication skills, and help out more with the house work… maybe.

Unlike other political parties that make false promises, the MMM will actively champion the development of infrastructure for the betterment of our constituency. For instance, in the arena of sports, we would like to sponsor and host the first-ever Man Olympics. Contests will include burping and eating show-offs as well as tests of endurance to see who can watch sports for the longest time without falling asleep. To ensure the success of such events, we’d like to occupy all seats on the parliamentary committee for sport. And while it may seem corrupt (mostly because it is) we will be taking free tickets to all local sporting events. In exchange, the party guarantees support for any legislation related to religious morality.

The MMM also has an eye towards boosting Pakistan’s economy. We promise to work for subsidies on foreign electronic equipment such as big-screen TVs, Play Stations, and cars (no Mini Coopers or any other feminine looking cars; a proof of manliness certificate will be required, listing the copious number of cup-holders, ashtrays, tinted windows, and noise-making gadgets).

Above all, though, the MMM promises to work endlessly and tirelessly to guarantee that Pakistani women be given as many rights and privileges as are legally permissible. Female empowerment, we believe, is the highest priority of the MMM manifesto, for no other reason than the more rights our women have, the less they will whine. And the less they whine, the more we can enjoy our cricket matches, TV shows, and video games in peace.

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Saturday, April 10, 2010

A lack of self-awareness

I'm not an Obama booster, but I thought Sarah Palin said something . . . curious . . . about the new nuclear deal with Russia.

Sarah Palin, former Alaska governor, weighed in on this supposedly ‘landmark’ blow for world peace by saying Obama’s new policy “was like a child in a playground who says ‘punch me in the face, I’m not going to retaliate.’”
Wasn't that child also her Saviour?

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Hiatus again

Life has once again gotten in the way of blogging, so while I'm busy rolling with the punches, enjoy this old NFB documentary about Norman Bethune, a Canadian surgeon who worked with what today we'd call "marginalized populations" long before it was the cool thing to do.

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Monday, March 1, 2010

Are you sure it's not apartheid?

The comparison just got harder to ignore. From the Guardian:

Barak: make peace with Palestinians or face apartheid

'If this bloc of millions of ­Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state' – Ehud Barak Photograph: JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, last night delivered an unusually blunt ­warning to his country that a failure to make peace with the Palestinians would leave either a state with no Jewish ­majority or an "apartheid" regime.

His stark language and the South African analogy might have been unthinkable for a senior Israeli figure only a few years ago and is a rare admission of the gravity of the deadlocked peace process.

There have been no formal negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in more than a year, but Barak was speaking at a rare joint event with the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, as part of an annual national security conference in the Israeli city of Herzliya. The pair shook hands and both were warmly applauded.

Barak, a former general and Israel's most decorated soldier, sought to appeal to Israelis on both right and left by saying a peace agreement with the Palestinians was the only way to secure Israel's future as a "Zionist, Jewish, democratic state".

"As long as in this territory west of the Jordan river there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic," Barak said. "If this bloc of millions of ­Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state."

He described Israel and the Palestinian territories as the historic "land of Israel" to which Israelis had a right.

"We have to demarcate a border within the land of Israel," he said.

"We have a linkage, we have a right, but the reality of standing on the stage of history in realistic terms requires us to pay attention to ­international constraints." Barak is in a delicate political position. He leads the Labour party, supposedly a centre-left movement, but accepted a position in a rightwing coalition under Binyamin Netanyahu, a decision that split his party.

Though Barak articulates a willingness for peace talks, he represents a government that has defied US and Palestinian calls for a full settlement freeze as a prelude to any negotiations. He was also defence minister during last year's Gaza war in which nearly 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.

The Herzliya conference has echoed Israeli concerns about growing ­international criticism, particularly in the year since Gaza. Barak himself alluded to the danger that Israel might lose ­legitimacy if no peace deal was forthcoming. "The pendulum of legitimacy is going to move gradually towards the other pole," he said.

He acknowledged that Washington was pushing the two sides towards "proximity talks" but said this was "only an initial stage" before any return to full negotiations.

Fayyad, who has a limited political following among Palestinians, called on Israel to stop settlement building in the occupied territories and to halt military incursions in Palestinian cities as a sign of seriousness about negotiations.

"Things have to begin to happen in order to give the suggestion that this occupation is going to end," he said. "That Palestinian state is supposed to emerge precisely where settlements are expanding." Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, has refused to start fresh negotiations with Israel unless settlement construction stops, in line with the 2003 US road map. Nearly 500,000 Jewish settlers live in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, even though settlements on occupied land are illegal under international law.

"How confident can we all be that once relaunched that political process is going to be able to deliver that which needs to be delivered, the permanent status issues and the key question of ending the ­occupation?" Fayyad asked.

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Subcommandante Marcos

The voice of Mexico's Zapatista rebel movement:

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Not Terrorism


. . . Federal investigators said two F-16 fighter jets were scrambled from Houston as a precaution, but were returned after initial details showed no terrorist connection to the crash.

“At this time, we have no reason to believe there is a nexus to terrorist activity. We continue to gather more information, and are aware there is additional information about the pilot’s history,” the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said in a statement. . . .

Good job guys. Keep the homeland free. Nothing to see here.

Clearly just a mentally disturbed individual. After all, he left no indication that he had some sort of political grievance.

So, no further investigation will be required into the shadowy association he may have been a member of. We won't need to detain hundreds of his sympathizers, and we won't have to make the agonizing, though ultimately necessary decision to torture them.

Nothing more to see here.

But wait! He does have sympathizers!

The pilot of that plane attacked a terrorist organization known by the initials "IRS".

Our federal government has become "organized crime with a flag on the wall" and the IRS is the government's "bag man". . .

. . . It's a bloody shame this had to happen, but when I heard on Limbaugh's program that the target of that plane was the building where the IRS was HQ'd in Austin I was not the least bit surprised.

First of all, let us all join hands to repudiate this notion that a man would kill himself for the sake of avenging some material complaint against the group he attacked. After all, we're not talking about some oppressed kid from the ghettoes of Brooklyn. We're talking about a software startup entrepeneur, with his own house and a private plane!

But . . . who is this "Lim-bah" she speaks of? What is his role in inspiring likeminded individuals to these martyrdom operations? Does he hate our way of life? But of course he doesn't!

After all, it's not like the guy's a Muslim or something.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Avoiding certain colours

I'm not the only person to have noticed this, but what do you notice about the logo for "Canada's Economic Action Plan?"

How about the TV ads?

Similar things have been noticed by people who watch the ad business . . . and possibly by everybody else who has seen the work.

It's propaganda, but at least it's hamfisted propaganda.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dousing the Olympic Flame

This post has been a long time coming. For many years - most of my life - I could never understand opposition to the Olympics that would occasionally make the headlines. "Who were these fun-hating killjoys?" I would wonder.

"Bread NOT Circuses" one group called itself, opposing the Toronto bid for the 2008 Summer Games. Succinct enough, but the logical argument was not one human beings can practically live by - there will always be hungry people; for most people, this isn't a good enough reason to stop having fun.

Even if that weren't the case, how could you be against the "Olympic Movement"? A "movement" (for that is what all of its proponents, from Wayne Gretzky to the people running VanOC, like to call it) that sought to bring people together in the spirit of cameraderie and sportsmanship, in the hopes that perhaps, through healthy competition, we could all eventually see one another as human beings.

What could be more idealistic?

Coca-Cola certainly doesn't object.

Still, negative consequences have been hard to cover up - as I noted before here, cities that hold the Olympics have this strange penchant to become extremely conscious of homelessness in the lead up to the games. Not concerned enough to actually do something to address the problems, but concerned enough to try to lock up all those unsightly vagabonds.

The marketing campaign that precedes any Olympics is a great example of yet another public-private partnership. The public's part of the partnership involves taking all of the risks for the sake of that warm and fuzzy feeling conferred by "the movement" while the private end of the bargain involves taking home all of the profits. The Olympic Torch relay epitomizes this, with cities and local police departments preparing the way for the Olympic relay, covered by all the of the major news outlets with an overwhelmingly positive tone. So when the torch relay was disrupted in Espanola, Ontario, my reaction to the protesters turned from disdain at the killjoys to a mild sympathy for their cause.

So what exactly were their grievances?

Like all aggregations of leftists, anarchists, associated activists - the DFH set, as they are known (I will not provide the expansion of that acronym here) - they are manifold.

One of the protest websites, makes its primary objection fairly clear in its banner - that the Olympic venues have been built on land that is subject to unsettled land claims. In the words of the activists, "stolen land," and not in the sense that all colonial countries are on stolen land, but in the sense that Israeli colonies built on confiscated land are on "stolen land." Just because time has elapsed since the crime was committed does not make it any less of a crime.

Of more relevance to the residents of Vancouver, however, is the pressure on the homeless, not only from draconian new laws, but from the explosion in property speculation that the Games have brought. A fairly detailed report on this can be found here. With rising rents, more and more people have been moving into the city's notorious Downtown East Side (DTES), currently the poorest urban postal code in Canada and the North American epicentre of injection drug use and HIV infection. The homeless population is thought to have doubled. The Games cannot have been good for everyone.

I had the opportunity to visit Vancouver a few weeks ago on business - nothing too long, just a night and a day. Riding the new "Canada Line" train from the airport, and passing the large neon olympic logo that glowed gaudily in the night, I didn't expect to see many signs of opposition. The next day, though, at a bus shelter near my "Olympic Partner" hotel (a Best Western on the outskirts of downtown - I myself am not made of money) there it was - a satirical poster of the 3 Vancouver Olympic mascots, except that the very talented artist had drawn menacing expressions on their faces, the larger two with their fists clenched, the smaller one tapping the Vancouver 2010 Olympic torch in the palm of his other hand like a gangster would do with a baseball bat while approaching some sorry debtor.

The little people of Vancouver had a sense of humour. And I wasn't even in the DTES.

The Olympics in Vancouver will not make money (certainly not after they've had to truck in all that snow to compensate for the generally un-Canadian weather). The VanOC's own budget is based on a break-even model, which would be fair enough if that didn't almost always imply a large debt.

Most of the arguments in favour of holding the games are rubbish. If the public won't make any money from the games, then it isn't true to say that Vancouver owes its transportation improvements to them, except in the political sense where the games provided an excuse for reticent city councillors and provincial government officials to provide the funds for them. The games might attract attention to the problems of drug use, HIV, and homelessness, but if they do, it will in spite of the organisers' best efforts, not because of them. Before the games, the IOC people were taken on a circuitous route through the city to avoid the DTES. During the games, VanOC has created various ways to mitigate, hide, or downplay the impact that they have had on the city's poorest people. After the games are over, the world will have little reason to remember Vancouver again, or at least, little reason to remember the city's problems.

So when you watch the opening ceremonies this weekend, or take in the various spectacles, remember that what you are watching is only incidentally a celebration of athleticism, and that some unlucky people most likely were confronted with another bout of misfortune for the sake of your entertainment.

And remember that Coca-Cola certainly isn't complaining.

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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Vanity Projects

It's been a while since I posted a Robert Fisk article, but I'm going through his hefty tome on his travails in Lebanon from 1976 onwards, and have been struck by the sheer volume of field experience that the man has. This recent Independent article is worth a read. I'm seriously considering a subscription to the print edition.


The stakes get higher as Arab princes try to outdo each other

Do the Saudis not have the slightest idea of what is going on around them?

Prince al-Waleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia is quite a man.

He says he doesn't want to be the prime minister of Lebanon – everyone who wants to be the prime minister of Lebanon says that – but he is immensely wealthy. True, his bank balance has sunk from $23.7bn to a mere $13.3bn since 2005 (thus sayeth Forbes magazine). But he's just announced that he wants to construct the world's tallest building – a 1km-high goliath which will dwarf his neighbour emir in Dubai who last month opened the paltry 25,000ft Burj Khalifa amid the sand dunes of his bankrupt creditors. The nephew of King Abdullah, al-Waleed understandably calls his company Kingdom Holdings. He also happens to be a major shareholder in Rupert Murdoch's News Corp – which is why you won't be reading these words in The Times. Long live Kingdom Holdings, I suppose.

Because yesterday morning, I was taking an al-Jazeera television crew around the repulsive, obscene, outrageous, filthy, stinking slums of the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps not far from my home in Beirut, a place of such squalor that the gorge rises that human beings even live there. Sabra and Chatila – yes, the site of that infamous massacre in 1982 when Lebanese Christian militiamen allied to Israel slaughtered up to 1,700 Palestinian civilians while the Israeli army surrounded the camps, watched the killings – and did nothing. They were the survivors of the great exodus or ethnic cleansing of 1948 – or their sons or grandsons – who fled Galilee for the "temporary" safety of Lebanon and, like the visa applicants of the movie Casablanca, wait and wait – and wait – to go home. Which they will never do. "I am very positive," Prince al-Waleed said when he announced his new priapic tower, to be constructed in the Red Sea port of Jeddah. "We are always looking for new investments."

Now I know that there are a lot of fine philanthropists in the Gulf, Prince al-Waleed among them, but what is one to make of all this? Afghanistan is collapsing in blood; Iraq remains a state of semi-civil war; the Israelis continue to thieve land for Jews and Jews only from the Arabs who hold the title deeds to that property – and Prince al-Waled wants to build a tower reaching a kilometre into the sky. Do the Saudis – who gave so much largesse to the Taliban (we have to forget this, of course, along with the fact that the Saudis provided most of the murderers of 9/11, which is why we bombed Kabul rather than Riyadh) – not have the slightest idea of what is going on around them?

For example, we all know that the Americans maintain stocks of weapons among their allies. They keep munitions in South Korea and, indeed, in the Arab Gulf (aka Saudi Arabia). But very quietly this week, they agreed to double their munitions supplies in Israel from $400m of weapons to $800m. Of course, Washington's gift of $9bn to Israel up to 2012 – never, of course, to be spent on those illegal colonies which are built against international law on Arab land but which Barack Obama now pusillanimously ignores – has nothing to do with this. But don't imagine that – in the event of a new "preventive" war – Israel cannot draw on these supplies for its own army and air force. After all, it was a missile taken to Saudi Arabia by the US marines for use against Iraq in 1991 that ended up in the hands of the Israeli air force as part of a quid pro quo for not joining in the war against Baghad - and which was subsequently used to kill civilians in a Lebanese ambulance in 1996.

But these days, Arab compliance reaches new heights every day. Now, for example, we have the Egyptian government – and its ever popular president (see the American-approved presidential election results which are way above 90 per cent) – building a wall around Rafah, part of the vast mass of poverty which constitutes Gaza, thus preventing food, gasoline (and, no doubt, weapons) from reaching the trapped Palestinians of this prison camp. A camp, one has to add, which meets with the full approval of Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara, whose honourable involvement in the invasion of Iraq has now been outdone by is extraordinary success as peace envoy to the Middle East.

Egypt's intelligence boss (a certain Mr Sulieman who might be the next president of Egypt were it not for his pattern of heart attacks) approves of this wall, which is a very definite assistance to Israel and which will yet further impoverish the Palestinians of Gaza to the point at which the inhabitants of Sabra and Chatila might actually feel themselves lucky they don't live in "Palestine".

In Israel itself, the deputy foreign minister humiliates the Turkish ambassador – while complaining about an anti-Semitic series on Turkish television – by forcing the diplomat to sit on a low sofa, refusing to shake hands and addressing him, with two colleagues, from higher chairs. The foreign minister himself, our dear friend Mr Lieberman, has now acquired the habit – every time poor old (and I mean old) US envoy George Mitchell raises the question of Jerusalem – of walking out of the room. That's what Obama's point man is worth. Israel's crazies – Netanyahu is a moderate chap by comparison – now prove that Israel can be just as much a banana Raj as the rest of the Middle East.

But fear not. The princes and the emirs and the caliphs and the presidents will be able to outbid each other in towers and hotels. I have a bigger painting set than yours. I have a sharper pencil, more crayons, a larger train set (Qatar, please note), a bigger bear than yours. And the world will watch this tragedy and marvel at the toy boxes now being opened in the Middle East. And, by the way, how many crayons do the children of Sabra and Chatila have?

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Friday, January 22, 2010

"We all fail the failed state test"

Fantastic opinion piece in the often-obtuse Grope and Flail.

. . . This is the perennial underside of charity and generosity: a chance to feel simultaneously kind and morally superior while reinforcing the relations between those who have power and those who don't. Plus a component of taking vicarious pleasure, in a quasi porn-like way, in the misery of others. I'm thinking here of the insatiable news programming and the repeated requests by interviewers to “Tell us how you feel. . . "

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The best thing ever written about Mark Steyn. . .

Offering something other than music trivia, or cultivated ethnic resentment wrapped in prurient humour, is tough. . .
The rest of the article is as informative as the above was entertaining.

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Saturday, January 9, 2010

Unskilled Religion

Karen Armstrong is a remakable person, an ex-Catholic nun and now a self-described "Freelance Monotheist," who has taken some strong criticism from as varied sources as the Christian right, the Anti-Islam brigades, and the so-called "new Atheists" (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and co.) for her writings, in which she defends essential ideas of religion.

I thought this was a particularly interesting response to a person with anti-religious feelings.

From the TED blog, Q&A with Karen Armstrong:

enlashok asks: How bad does an idea have to be before the appropriate reaction is to discard it?

[KA:] This question comes from Enlashok, but he has asked a lot of other questions and makes a lot of other points too, particularly about the harm religion does. I will try to give as comprehensive an argument as possible.

First, I freely admit that a great deal of religion is indeed "unskilful" -- there is bad religion just as there is bad art, bad sex, and bad cooking. I have written books about this type of destructive faith. Far too many people, as Enlashok points out, are uncritical of themselves and their tradition; they have indeed "maintained and propagated immoral, racist, sexist and homophobic policies, promoted tribalism, and shielded extremism." Religion -- like any art or science -- is very difficult to do well. Religion may, for example, teach compassion, but far too many people -- secularists as well as religious -- prefer to be right rather than compassionate.

Enlashok says that he realizes he has asked a lot of questions and that he would be content if I would simply answer his first question, which I have cited above. So let me say again: religion is not an "idea." Its doctrines can only be verified when they are consistently translated into practical action. They are certainly not ideas that can be "factually supported from available evidence," to quote Enlashok again. As I have tried to explain, the notion that religion is an idea that can be empirically proven is a great fallacy that developed in the Christian West during the early modern period, when theologians tried to force theology into a scientific idiom that was alien to it. As soon as they did this, atheism became inevitable. When you mix mythos with logos, you get bad science and unskilful religion. Unfortunately, as globalization proceeds and more and more people adopt the Western ethos, this unviable, "scientific theology" is spreading to other faiths and other regions.

Instead of seeing religion as a science manqué, I think it is more helpful to regard it as an art form. Like art, religion at its best helps us to find meaning in a tragic world; like art, it holds us in an attitude of wonder and introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is not dependent upon logic or empirical truth. Music, for example, is not about anything and you cannot verify the meaning of a late Beethoven quartet, but it has a powerful and enriching effect upon us. Poetry pushes language to the limits and makes us aware of the difficulty of expressing some of our more profound insights in a purely logical way. Religion has always expressed itself most effectively in terms of art: poetry, music, dance, song, architecture, calligraphy, drama, and sculpture.

Religion differs from art in its summons to practical action. It is not sufficient to have an aesthetic or "spiritual" experience. The Buddha explained that, after achieving enlightenment, a person must come down from the mountain top, return to the market place and there practice compassion for all living beings. A spirituality that focuses only on a numinous warm glow is "unskilful" and selfish. All art is transformative; it is meant to change us. Religion -- at its best -- is a form of ethical alchemy that helps us to limit the egotism that causes so much human suffering, both to ourselves and to others.

Like art, religion was not meant to provide us with information and explanations that lie within the remit of scientific logos. It helps us to consider problems for which there are no final solutions -- mortality, the prospect of our inevitable and painful extinction, sickness, injustice, and cruelty. It does not mean that we will suffer less but, if we work hard enough, we might be able to endure our own pain and to assuage the suffering of others.

Science deals with verifiable ideas; scientists struggle with a problem, and when that is solved move on to the next one. There is continuous improvement, progress and development. But the humanities do not function like that. Philosophers are still meditating on the same issues and problems that preoccupied Plato. Harold Pinter is not necessarily a better playwright than Shakespeare, simply because the sum of human knowledge has advanced since Shakespeare's time. There are some aspects of life -- death, sorrow, the nature of happiness, evil and the nature of goodness -- that each generation has to grapple with for itself. And there never seems to be a definitive solution.

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Friday, January 8, 2010

The wogs can't even get that right . . .

No particular point here, just the irony of this Australian police association secretary's remarks:

"Cartoons in Australia are normally done by people who are either clever or witty and this one's neither," the secretary of Victoria's Police Association, Greg Davies, told reporters."
The rest of the news item:

Indian 'racist police' cartoon angers Australia

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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Western Muslims and the Future of Islam

Tariq Ramadan has emerged in this millenium as the foremost Muslim intellectual in the Western world, if not the World. The impact of his thought is evidenced by the number of prominent Western journalists and public intellectuals who have written about him, both in praise and in condemnation of what they perceive is his message. What exactly that is, however, has been itself a matter of some controversy - Carouline Fourest, a nationalistic French feminist, wrote an entire book on the subject, accusing Ramadan of an insidious "doublespeak", a message that was deviously designed to mean one thing to a Western audience, and another to a Muslim one.

Aside from Ramadan's own writings in such broadsheets as Le Monde, feature articles about him have been published in the American newspaper The New York Times, and the The New Republic magazine; French politicians up to then-Interior Minister (now President) Nicholas Sarkozy have debated him on French national television, an encounter which has followed him in almost every appearance he has made on French TV since.

To his detractors, Ramadan represents the Trojan horse of radical Islam, a smooth-talking representative of the jihadist conspiracy for world domination, making yet another play for the soul of Western Civilization. To his partisans, Ramadan represents a new Muslim consciousness and the possibility of a wider Muslim Renaissance. Ramadan's most recent work, Mon Intime Conviction, deals with the accusations of doublespeak that have been accruing against him.

But what do his writings actually say?

Western Muslims and the Future of Islam is Ramadan's 2004 book devoted to drawing, as he says in the introduction

the shape of European and American Islam: faithful to the principles of Islam, dressed in European and American cultures, and definitively rooted in Western societies.
The book is divided into two parts. In the first, Ramadan lays out what he considers to be the spiritual components of the Muslim personality. He points out that the current ways in which most Muslims view the world are outmoded, and were actually formulated by men, and not God, in response to the geopolitical realities that Muslims found themselves in following the dramatic spread of Islam and Muslim economic and military influence throughout the old world. Ramadan isn't particularly interested in answering anti-Islam calumnies in this section - what he wants to do is to convince the reader that the traditional wordviews held by Muslims are neither universally held by Muslims, nor are they a necessary consequence of the primary sources.

This section contains some interesting ideas. Firstly, Ramadan, as a Swiss-born Muslim, wants to establish that Islam is a Western religion. It is a point that seems relatively obvious, given the number of Muslims are now born and raised in Western cultures, but it is nevertheless one that appears to have escaped the majority of first-generation North American and European Muslims, who continue to see the countries in which they live and raise their children as host countries in which they are immersed in alien cultures that they strive to separate themselves from. Given that Islam is now a Western religion, argues Ramadan, it is high time that Muslims began to define for themselves what the parameters of "Western Islam" are; that is, what elements of Western culture should Muslims not only tolerate, but become active participants in, and what elements must they argue against.

In order to do this, Ramadan then defines those principles of Islam that he feels lie at the heart of the Islamic character, and that are, in his opinion, non-negotiable.

Ramadan also highlights the sad state of Muslim scholarship in Islamic theology, effectively confirming that the intellectual leaders of the Muslim world really haven't come to terms with "modernity," primarily because the societies in which they live do not fulfill Western criteria for being "modern" - a separation of church and state, capitalism, and political agency are much less pervasive in the Muslim world. Because of this, Ramadan argues, the rulings issued in the Muslim world in response to questions from Muslims in the West are logically invalid, because the response emanates from a place where the social, political, and economic conditions are sufficiently incomparable. What results, according to Ramadan, is a patchwork of compromises and accommodations of the Western reality, and not a comprehensively Western Islamic worldview.

In a highly interconnected world, argues Ramadan the old categories of "dar-al-Islam," "dar-al-Harb," and"dar-al-Ahd" (the Abode of Islam, the Abode of War, and the Abode of Treaty) are irrelevant, even potentially dangerous. Instead, he develops a new way of looking at the pluralist societies that Western Muslims live within today: "Dar-al-Shahada" - the Abode of Testimony.

Ramadan does not here mean here for Muslims to view themselves as missionaries out to convert the heathen. As he says in a later chapter:
In other words, "to invite" is first to "bear witness," as much as by one's behaviour as by the content and form of what one says, what the message of Islam is. It is not a matter of wanting to convert, because people's hearts are God's domain and secret. It is a matter of bearing witness, which is a invitation to remember and meditate. This meaning is also captured in another verse: "And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way, so that [with your lives] you might bear witness to the truth before mankind."
In the second part of the book, Ramadan lays out his vision as to how communities of Western Muslims should behave. For a Muslim who has lived in Canada for a long time now, most of this is unremarkable. Ramadan speaks against "Islamic schools" as a form of self-imposed ghettoization, and exhorts the believers to bring their faith into political action just on behalf of the ummah abroad - which is what often preoccupies new Muslim communities in Canada and the United States - but more importantly into social and political activism on behalf of social and economic justice, a core Islamic value. Ramadan encourages Muslims to make common cause with members of other faiths, people of various political persuasions, and even those with stridently atheist views in order to realize their shared goals of a more just society.

If there is anything controversial in the book, it must be the chapter on "Economic Resistance." Ramadan in this case assumes the position of the majority of Islamic scholars in his condemnation of all forms of interest as being "riba" (unlawful usury), but goes a step further in condemning speculation and price-fixing as also being immoral and un-Islamic. Here Ramadan is, however, forced to acknowledge the pervasiveness of these things in Western society, and effectively says, in so many pages, that while Muslims must forever strive to eliminate these things from the Earth, they have no hope of achieving this goal if they don't at least participate in the global neo-liberal economy in some limited way, necessitating at least the use of interest-bearing financial instruments.

And this epitomizes my major criticism of Ramadan's entire argument in the book. "Fine," I say, "I agree 100% with all of this. How exactly do we get there?" (I really don't agree with 100% of it, but close enough.) Ramadan is strong on justifying the ends, but weak on describing the means. Just as he seems unable to lay out practical means of avoiding the receipt and payment of interest, and just as he does not describe how to construct an economy that does not permit speculation, he also does not describe how exactly to bring about his vision of a Western Islam.

The best we have is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy - that because Tariq Ramadan, the superstar of Islamic scholarship, has said that it should be so, then ultimately enough people will work to make it so.

I am probably being too demanding - after all, I have no idea how to bring about Tariq Ramadan's world either, but I do agree that it should be brought about, which is a rare thing for me, especially given the abject stupidity that often passes for Islamic scholarship globally today.

The book, however, did also satisfy one burning question that I had about Tariq Ramadan prior to reading it: Is Ramadan a fork-tongued religious zealot, intent upon subverting Western culture into something unrecognizable under the cover of a devious doublespeak, or is his representation of himself honest and straightforward?

The answer is very clearly the latter.

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