November 22, 2009

Would The Wall Ever Fall In The Arab World?

Chipping Away at...

The whole world has been celebrating one of the most momentous events of the later half of the 20th century, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. What a triumph for the human spirit, for democracy, individual freedom, human dignity and personal freedom. The events that followed the collapse of that symbol of oppression were as exhilarating as the event itself. The fall of the wall set in motion a liberation tsunami that washed over all of Eastern Europe, parts of the Soviet Union and Central Asia.

It was only Africa and MENA (Middle East and North Africa) that have been “spared” the move towards liberal democracy. Not even Russia was able to resist the tide to democratize and introduce some reforms, albeit not as successful as in most of the other countries. Yet the gulag has been exposed and discredited and the hope is that it will never be able to make a come back.

Despite all of this the one region of the world that seems to be immune to the trend to liberalize and democratize seems to be the Arab World. In a sense the region that has resisted rather successfully until now the forces of liberation and freedom includes the whole of MENA with the possible exception of Turkey.

Many are by now familiar with the Arab Human Development Reports commissioned by UNDP but authored by independent Arab thinkers. The results of these studies have been anything but flattering.

The Arab countries as a group are home to over 300 million people and yet the total number of translated books every year is less than the books translated by Greece. It is not only education that is lacking but so is science and development. The Arab countries, as a group, managed to register in the US less than 400 patents when South Korea had registered in the same time period over 15,000 and Israel over 7000. A recent global happening illustrates the “backwardness” of the Arab masses best. When what promises to be one of the greatest discoveries, that of ARDI, a 4.5 million year old skeleton was announced the few mentions of this phenomenal discovery in the Arab press were devoted to the wrong interpretation that Darwin was wrong. They had missed the fact that ARDI is one of the most impressive pieces of solid evidence about the truth behind the Darwinian theory of evolution. Furthermore a survey conducted in Egypt revealed that less than 30 % of the public had even heard of the name Darwin. Such examples abound in every field. The fact of the matter is that the Arab region lags behind the rest of the world in practically every single area and field.

But many individuals of Arabic decent have succeeded in practically all fields and in all sorts of countries. Obviously this suggests that the fault is not that of the individual but it is of the oppressive, dictatorial backward exploitative political environment in each and every one of the 21 countries including the 22nd Occupied Palestinian Territory. A cursory look at the map of MENA from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf reveals countries that are ruled by absolute monarchs, Emirs, Sultans and dictators. Muamar Kaddafi has been in power for 40 years and is preparing the ground for his son, Egypt is about to become Mubarak land, Syria was inherited by a young optometrist, Yemen has had the same president for 30 years , Tunisia just reelected its president for the sixth term with an 87% plurality and the beat goes on. Lebanon is the only country that has a claim to democratic institutions but in reality they are just as hollow and rotten as those of its neighbours. Political feudalism masquerading as democracy.

It is obvious that in a wired up world and one with more travel and interactions than ever before the role of the authoritarian regimes is becoming more difficult. But the size of the Mukhabarat keeps on growing, and indiscriminate fear continues to spread in an attempt to thwart the inevitable move to personal freedom and democracy. An Arab Wall shall fall and when it does it shall sweep all throughout MENA to topple these regimes. That we can count on, that is how history unfolds. I just hope and pray that when the time comes we are mature and smart enough to have a velvet revolution.

November 04, 2009

Education is not for the Intellectually Timid

It doesn't happen that often--maybe because students don't care to say anything about it--but occasionally someone in class would argue that some comments/discussions about certain belief systems are offensive and disrespectful. The other day, a student said, "I don't pay thousands of dollars to have my beliefs insulted." Presumably she meant that certain topics should be off limits because she's uncomfortable with anything that may undermine her sacred beliefs. She pays thousands of dollars to get an education--in my opinion, education means more than vocational skills--but is she interested in paying for an education that sharpens critical skills? How about, the value of arriving at a conclusion after examining the facts and weighing the validity of the arguments?

The piece of paper a university awards should mean that the title holder has critical skills, can analyze, can amend, construct reasonable arguments, connect the relevant dots, and, yes, maintain a curious mind. How about learning something that may be outside one's comfort zone? Is this valuable?

Now, on the question of respect. As a principle it's a good one: respect every individual's human dignity; respect their rights; respect their claims to own conscience and opinion. But, why should their beliefs be granted automatic respect? Yet, denying automatic respect to a point of view does not mean people don't have the right to have whatever opinion they deem appropriate or their right to express it. Simply put, I do not recognize any right of de facto respect. Opinions, theories, belief systems should be evaluated on their merits. How can anyone demand that such be afforded sacred status? What's sacred for me may be laughable to you, and I'm OK with that! So, should you!

To take it a step further, if you claim sanctity for your beliefs, it may be an indication of weakness. Instead of having the force of arguments to defend your views, you rely on censorship for protection. I realize that many people don't want to be challenged so they seek supporting views only. Of course, this is their right. Of course, it's their right to feel any way they want. They can create filters and avoid places that present challenges. However, they should be prepared to have their views tested when they enter an institution where intellectual pursuits involve critical examination of ideas and beliefs.

How do we know things? Seriously, how do we know if something is true & valid? Maybe I should ask instead, do we care to know?

If we do, then the scientific method is the best tool we have to understand and accumulate precious knowledge! This involves open discussion, challenges, reason, evidence, review, and a way to amend.

I'm naturally suspicious of claims of divine revelation. I don't think profound knowledge or truths should be revealed only in secret and to a very few people. Especially when such statements can't be put to a test or subject it to an intellectual challenge. As someone claims the right not to be offended, I claim the right to free speech and rational thought. Above all, I claim the right to be human!

And, that's my theory!

November 01, 2009

Can A Zionist Be Fair To Arabs?

Is the Concept of Fairness like the Blind Goddess of Justice?

There is no doubt that the Palestinian people have not been treated justly and fairly over the past sixty years or so. In a sense their problems became insurmountable with the Balfour declaration of Nov 2, 1917 (92 years ago this Monday), the development that started the saga of the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state on the land of the Palestinian Arabs of the time. Fast forward to the 1948 war and all what followed; one loss after another and then you might start to understand the rationale that the Palestinian mind set has had to adopt vis-a-vis all Jews and Zionists. That inability to differentiate between one Jew and another or even one Zionist and another has served to inflame the Palestinian Israeli problem when a more liberal and objective understanding could have helped ease the pain and maybe even hasten an end to the suffering.

To suggest that the Palestinian Israeli problem has become the opiate of the authoritarian Arab regimes is not an exaggeration. Each and every Arab ruler is constantly engaged in grandstanding and in advocating positions that would demonstrate the opposition of his regime to everything Jewish and his devotion to everything Arab and Palestinian. That is why Arab “sham democracies” are invariably opposed to anything Jewish and why they favour supporting resistance groups and even terrorist actions. Blowing up school children in Tel Aviv is to be commended while harming those in say Damascus is barbaric. Our love for the Palestinians is best demonstrated by the squalid living conditions that we have provided for them and the severe constraints that we have placed on their ability to integrate in our societies, own property and acquire citizenship. On the other hand we are constantly proud of our ability to blame the Jew for each of our problems be it social, economic,scientific or political. It has even been reported recently that a major Hollywood producer was denied the right to land at Beirut International because his private jet had some Israeli manufactured parts.

Tragic events that have befallen the Palestinian people should not be allowed to become blinders that deny us the possibility of making a case based on its merits even when we have to cast a favourable judgment on a Jew, an Israeli or even a Zionist. Two cases in point help illustrate the inadvisability of generalized condemnations. The latest events in Jerusalem subjected innocent Palestinian civilians to intolerable abuse at the hands of a few members of the Israeli police force in Jerusalem. The abuse was a reminder of the degrading incidents that took place at Abu Ghraib. In the Jerusalem case two Israeli border guards decided to pick on, torture and dehumanize Palestinians for no other reason than they were Arabs. The evidence of the abuse was incontrovertible; the Israeli guards had recorded their cruelty on their own video cameras and then proceeded to boast about it. When the Jerusalem Police force refused to prosecute the officers involved and to recommend that the matter be handled by internal investigation Shulamit Aloni was infuriated. Ms. Aloni, a former Education Minister went on the offensive berating the Israeli authorities and asking whether dignity is to be viewed as the preserve of the Jews only [article]. Her courageous stand is an example of what honest and decent people should do on both sides of the aisle.

Another example that deserves lots of attention in the Arab world is that of the Goldstone Report. Judge Goldstone, a South African Jew and a Zionist led the group that issued a scathing indictment of the Israeli war machine in its most recent Gaza adventure. Judge Goldstone was also critical of Hamas and its tactics. His judgment that both the IDF and Hamas have committed war crimes and violated the Geneva conventions in the last Gaza war might still prove to be one of the most damaging decisions against Israeli racism and brutality. Arabs will do well to listen to Judge Goldstone and follow his example of objectivity and justice.

It is very instructive to read the text of an interview with Judge Richard Goldstone conducted by the liberal American Rabbi Michael Lerner that is posted at:

Goldstone Interview

A Podcast of the above can be heard at: Ramblings

Copenhagen, One More Time

Who Cares?

The peace Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu sent a letter to the EU parliament in which he berated them for not acting to slow down climate change. Mr. Tutu said in his letter " The rich world is historically responsible for the emissions causing climate change and they have a moral obligation to provide the means for the countries on the front line to survive and prosper."

Mr. Tutu was in effect urging the countries of the North to overcome their differences and to live up to their moral responsibility by agreeing; during the Barcelona negotiations; to find a way out of the current impasse before Copenhagen . The developing countries have made it clear that they expect financial transfers from the developed countries of around $148 billion a year by 2020 if they are to do their part of reducing their expected carbon footprint.

But since climate change is a global issue then it does require a global solution. Again it seems obvious that we cannot have a global solution if the largest, well second largest , emitter is not ready to participate in the game. Copenhagen is exactly one month away and the US climate change bill is still languishing in the Senate sub-committee. Senator Boxer , the chair of the Environmental Committee, remains hopeful that a bill will leave her committee before Copenhagen. That is not assured because a number of the Republican senators promise not to attend the committee mark up sessions. If they do not attend then no bill can be presented to the senate at large. Even if a bill is to emerge some very powerful Democratic senators such as Max Baucus promise to hold up the measure in his powerful Finance Committee by delaying funding for the measure.

What is even worse are the proposed targets. Kyoto which was initially agreed to by the US was to cut carbon emissions by 5 % from the 1990 level by 2012. The US is estimated to have released around 5 Billion tons of carbon in 1990 and thus the implicit target by 2012 would have been 4.75 billion tons.The new bill is aiming for a 20% reduction from the 2005 levels by 2020. Since the 2005 emissions are estimated to be 6 billion tons then the 20% reduction will take the US back to 4.8 billion tons by 2020. That is irresponsible behviour besides being a cruel joke on the aspirations of those that take these existential matters seriously. The US is targeting to potentially reach by 2020 a level of carbon emissions that it was supposed to have hit by 2012 and yet they want the world to call such measures responsible action. Go figure.

Mr. Yao de Bar, the UN Climate Change Secretariat said it best when he stated the need to "Step back from self interest and let common interest prevail" Nothing else will work.

Fallujah Horror

We have often been told that war is hell. The residents of Fallujah, Iraq, are finding out that war for them is worst kind of hell imaginable. Worse than Dante’s seventh circle if that is possible because the after results of war in Fallujah will be felt for at least for a decade or two. We are not talking about physical destruction of homes and factories or the total annihilation of infrastructure such as water utilities, electricity generating plants, sewage plants, bridges and highways. All of these can be rebuilt and life will go on. In this case we are concerned with much more sinister effects of war, effects that linger on and destroy life. What the people of Fallujah, more than any other people in the world, are facing everyday and every second of every day is hell on earth; they have to witness the death of more than a quarter of the new born within a week of their birth and to make the deeply painful decision of what is to be done about the huge proportion of grotesquely deformed babies that are born with two heads, three eyes, no limbs, one eye.

The world owes the people of Fallujah an explanation of what has triggered this avalanche of deformity and horror. The usual celebratory experience of giving birth has been transformed to a time of anxiety and horror. Women dread becoming pregnant and above all carrying the fetus for nine months only to find out that what they are carrying has been condemned to death the moment that life was to begin. Such rapid and unique developments do not occur without a cause. The only logical proximate cause for this human tragedy was the 2003 war and in particular the 2004 assault on Fallujah. It was estimated that during that assault over 10,000 tons of depleted uranium, DU, was used in the bombardment of the city of 300,000 people.

Both the Pentagon and the British governments insist that the use of DU is not illegal and that the studies that they have undertaken do not reveal DU to be a carcinogen. That might be true but many an international body including the EU and the UN have been trying, unsuccessfully, to prevent the use of DU munitions because there are many physicians, engineers and studies that suspect that the DU produced vapour in battles is capable of contaminating humans, soil and water. It is this radioactive contamination that causes the severe deformities in the newly born “things” since many of them do not look like humans.

A group of doctors at the hospitals of Fallujah have documented the severity of the problems encountered by the newly born and has approached the UN and other world institutions asking for an investigation to determine the root cause of this tragedy. Tragic results from technological developments in war are nothing new. Agent Orange was used extensively to defoliate forests in Vietnam but wound up in causing the death and even childbirth deformities of thousands of people that it was deployed to protect. McNamara, who approved the use of Agent Orange never, forgave himself for all the damage and suffering that his decision has caused to millions of people but especially for loosing his son to an Agent Orange induced illness.

The prospective new parents of Fallujah and the next generation are being asked to bear the unbearable burden of seeing their children die within days of being born or of giving birth to grotesquely deformed beings. This is the result of a war of choice during which one side made the deliberate decision to subdue a city by pulverizing it and by subjecting its innocent civilians to the most incredible of human sufferings. DU is an instrument of death and horror that must be banned from use in war until serious and exhaustive studies can be made to show the opposite. Meanwhile the heart of all decent and honorable citizens in the world goes out to the suffering parents of Fallujah and to the horror that they have been forced to live with. We must make sure that such acts are never repeated again. DU; if found to be the culprit; must be prohibited and declared in violation of the laws of war besides the Declaration of Human rights.