August 26, 2010

Religious Freedom vs. Religious Phobia

Utopias are perfect societal structures that are goals to be attained. They are dreams that will never be fulfilled whether they are based on Plato’s Republic or Thomas Mores’ ideal economy. These are dreams that provide us with targets to aim for but that we will not attain. If a utopia is to be achieved then that would be the end of history, a stage of perfect homogeneity and no conflict.

No world society is at that stage, although some have argued that certain states are closer to the end of history than others. Democracy , when seen in the above light, is such a conception that is to be approached asymptotically and so obviously never reached. That is true of all societies and all states including the experiment that we know as the United States. We all know of many severe challenges that the US system is constantly struggling with such as the relatively major income inequality, the presidential electoral system, the role of money in all elections and the corporate influence in shaping the legislative process. It is clear that given such challenges the resulting democracy is nowhere close to perfect but yet it can be argued that in many areas such as the principles of separation of church and government in addition to the tremendous seriousness given to the issue that is commonly known as “ first freedom” make it very difficult , even impossible, to violate the principle of freedom of religion as spelled out in the first amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. “

A democratic system might not be perfectly equitable or perfectly just but it cannot afford to violate personal freedom of expression and religion. There ought to be no room whatsoever in the public square for religious affairs since these are best viewed as issues of personal faith. I have every reason to believe that the United States looks upon this issue with the utmost seriousness it deserves and will not knowingly violate any persons’ right to worship whoever she wants anyway she desires provided that such an exercise does not impinge on any other persons rights.

The controversy regarding the issue of the construction of a mosque close to ground zero in New York City must be seen within the above parameters. Ideally this means that any individual or group of people should have the right to practice their faith anywhere they want as long as that does not impinge on the rights of others. No one in Manhattan has said that the group of Moslems does not have the right to worship or to build a mosque; the only objections raised are based on the appropriateness of the location. The Mayor of the city, Mr. Bloomberg, has given his unqualified support for the construction of the Islamic center where it is proposed since it meets all the zoning requirements and I believe that the center would be built where proposed.

If for any reason the planned Islamic center is relocated then that unlikely event would be a reflection of Islam phobia and not a violation of the seminal constitutional principle embodied by the first amendment. Fellow Muslims will still be free to pray and build their houses of worship but not in that particular location which will be a tragedy but not a constitutional catastrophe.

If it ever comes to that , which I doubt that it will, then the most obvious question that should be raised by Arabs and Moslems alike is Why did so many of the well educated and enlightened United States citizens develop an Islam phobia but not a Buddhist phobia or a Hindu phobia? Is there something that we can do as a community to allay these fears, as unreasonable as they might seem? Could it be that when so many terror attacks were carried in the name of Islam that not enough was done to denounce these attacks? Could it be that the small groups of fundamentalists have been allowed to hijack Islam without any major rebuttals from the mainstream Islamic power structure? But above all are there many Arab countries that can truly object to religious discrimination by pointing out to religious freedoms in their countries?

The controversy in lower Manhattan does not rise to the level of being a violation of the first amendment. The Islamic center should be built as proposed but if for one reason or another a zoning justification is found to move it to a different location then Islam phobia would be the reason.

If that is to transpire then it would be the duty of every US citizen to analyze in a detached manner the unfairness and the injustice of such a selective judgment. May this controversy also lead to serious soul searching in the Arab countries also? We need to recognize that when we place severe restrictions on the religious practice of non Moslems in our countries and when we prohibit the building of non Islamic houses of worship or place restrictions on the use of religious symbols then we would have abandoned the right to criticize others when their acts infringe on the rights of our fellow religionists. In a perfect world there should be no restrictions on anyone to believe or not believe but in an imperfect world we need to find out the reason for popular phobias.

August 24, 2010

Water Insecurity In MENA

“Water water everywhere ,Nor a drop to drink” from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner is an adequate description to the water insecurity that is threatening the world as a whole but that is a practical certainty for the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. It is true that many an Arab country is blessed with an excess of Black Gold but the serious scarcity of fresh water availability could make Blue Gold much more important in determining the future of these lands.

Fresh water scarcity is a global problem but in some regions it is much more severe than others. The Middle East and North Africa are classified by the United Nations as the ones with the most water insecurity in the world. Although 75 % of the surface of the planet is water only 2.5% of that is fresh water and ¾ of that is not available since it is frozen icebergs. What is left is less than 1 % of the volume of water and even that 1% is not totally available since some of it is hard to get to and others are just soil dampness. What is important is to note that the amount of fresh water availability is fixed but it is, like most other resources, not evenly distributed. Many regions in the world have access to over 12000 cubic meters per capita per year while others have only a few hundred. Actually, the United Nations considers countries with 500 cubic meters of water per capita per year to be suffering of absolute water insecurity.

Unfortunately, many Arab states are already there, such as Kuwait, UAE, Qatar and Gaza. Furthermore it is estimated that the first world capital to run out of water will be Sana’a by 2020. Water availability is so scarce in MENA that the FAO projects that by 2025 17 Arab states will have to be classified under “scarce water supplies”. In order to put this in perspective the average water availability/consumption the typical Arab will be just 700 cubic meters per year when the global average is ten times as high in availability and 3-4 times in consumption. The situation for the most essential resource for life is so critical in MENA that less than 0.5% of the renewable water resources are in this region of the world. The stability of the water resources is even more acute if one is to remember that 75% of the water in this region originates from outside its political boundaries.

Given the expected increase in population in the region in addition to climate change and its attendant increased demand for water for irrigation the availability of water will be halved by 2050 which will imply severe water insecurity for the whole region. Whether these expected shortages translate into political instability and water wars is a potential outcome that needs to be taken seriously. That is at least one reason that calls for a major highly coordinated effort by all the countries to invest heavily in water infrastructure including modern irrigation techniques.

Lebanon is in a slightly better position than the average Arab country but definitely not in an enviable position of any water excesses. The best that can be said about the Lebanese situation is that it is less severe than Jordan, and the GCC to name a few. Estimates of water availability in Lebanon are rough and they vary between a conservative estimate of 2200 million cubic meters per year and almost 4000 million cubic meters of fresh water per year. As it is clear even the upper estimate provides each of the 4.5 million Lebanese only about 900 cubic meters per year. Lebanon is expected to be consuming just about 3000 million cubic meters of water by 2015. As the above figure makes it clear that would then imply that Lebanon needs huge investments in the next few years in order to gather a lot of this water that is wasted every year by flowing into the sea.
More than half of the water usage in Lebanon is needed for irrigation while about 30% goes for domestic uses. The remainder is used by industry.

The warning by Minister Gibran Basil about the impending water crisis in Lebanon must be taken very seriously. Arguably the crisis has already begun and is visible from the constant failure of the water authorities to deliver adequate amounts of water to its clients. One reason is the antiquated infrastructure and another is the lack of awareness to conserve this most precious of resources. Lebanon cannot afford not to construct a series of dams and to build a modern facility to supply Beirut, where half of the Lebanese reside, with the estimated 250 million cubic meters of water that it needs while it is currently getting less than half of that amount. It is also hoped that the impending water shortages will impel the Lebanese government to adopt a meaningful population policy. Lebanon is simply beyond its physical carrying capacity.