Saturday, August 30, 2008

RELIGION: Have faith in the fridge!

My favourite conservative satirist PJ O'Rourke explains here why he'd rather believe in God than science. Or rather, in scientists. Whatever. It makes superb Ramadan-eve reading. His reported conversation with his physics teacher is most instructive ...
The physics teacher had just explained how electricity makes a refrigerator work. I raised my hand.

Me: “Electricity is energy.”

Physics teacher: “Yes.”

Me: “Energy is heat.”

Physics teacher: “Yes, heat is one way to measure energy.”

Me: “A refrigerator is cold.”

I graduated only because the physics teacher suddenly remembered that he was also the summer school physics teacher and that if I flunked I’d be back in his class in July.

O'Rourke writes the kind of stuff in this article that a certain 7th century Godly chap may have been referring to when he said "Wisdom is the lost property of the believer. If you find it somewhere, just grab it."

O'Rourke is a real humorist, a genuinely funny writer. What's more, PJ is happy to poke fun at his own side of the political fence. Other so-called humorists (like that pompous wacko Mark Steyn) don't even come close.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

COMMENT: Israeli columnist accuses Daniel Pipes of lying about Senator Obama ...

Daniel Pipes has again tried to run some sort of crazy line about Senator Barack Obama's religious affiliation. In a column for the Jerusalem Post, Pipes repeats his claims that Obama, if not currently a Muslim, was a Muslim at some stage.

Some readers will be wondering what difference does it make. After all, there is nothing in the US Constitution which bars an American of any religious affiliation from holding the highest office in the land.

That may be the legal position. But Pipes, a columnist who isn' exactly known for his love for Muslims, wants American voters to imagine that there is some possibility that Obama may well be a Muslim. Hence Pipes makes the following extraordinary claim ...

... Muslims the world over rarely see him as Christian but usually as either Muslim or ex-Muslim.
And what is his proof? A statement from Colonel Gaddafy-duck, a few columnists, a conversation in Beirut between a baker and his customer, one or two remarks from academics here and there and this line from someone whom Pipes describes as "the President of the Islamic Society of North America, Sayyid M. Syeed".

Really, Mr Pipes? Is Sayyid Syeed the President of ISNA? How come no one has told Professor Ingred Mattson of this? Did Pipes instal Syeed as president while nobody was watching? When did Syeed make these remarks? Was it well before Obama began his presidential quest?
Pipes claims that Muslims are required to have a certain view about Obama. And what is that view? And which Muslim theological of juristic source does he rely on?

Lee Smith of the Hudson Institute explains why: "Barack Obama's father was Muslim and therefore, according to Islamic law, so is the candidate. In spite of the Koranic verses explaining that there is no compulsion in religion, a Muslim child takes the religion of his or her father... For Muslims around the world, non-American Muslims at any rate, they can only ever see Barack Hussein Obama as a Muslim."
Wow. That's a reliable source. Check out Lee Hudson's background here. What are his qualifications in Islamic theology or sacred law? Here they are ...

Yep, that's the extent of Lee Smith's qualifications in Islamic sacred law and theology.
Pipes chose not to quote Smith's other comments in his article. Here is how Smith describes Muslim societies as a whole ...

Sure, there are numerous instances of dark-skinned people who won respect in the Muslim world ... But generally, it should come as no surprise to anyone save the most cloistered third-world fantasists, that a society which discriminates against sex, religion, ethnicity, language, nation, tribe, and family is not likely to have very progressive attitudes about race. Arab society, like many others, has a race problem ... It's not clear to me why Americans seem now to be trying to export a very un-American idea - that a man's color and his faith matter.
Lee Smith, a visiting fellow in Hudson Institute's Center for Future Security Strategies, is currently based in Beirut, where he is writing a book about Arab culture.
What the ...? Is this guy for real? Is he alleging that Arab society and Muslim society are one and the same thing? Is he suggesting that Muslim societies all have very unprogressive views on just about every collective trait? And what is so un-American about having a President of a particular colour or ancestry? Did Smith object to President George W Bush making an issue of his ability to speak Spanish during his campaign?

Returning to Pipes, he ends his analysis with this curious claim ...
In sum, Muslims puzzle over Obama's present religious status. They resist his self-identification as a Christian, while they assume a baby born to a Muslim father and named "Hussein" began life a Muslim.
Er, which Muslims are doing the puzzling, Mr Pipes? The handful of Arab columnists and the Beirut baker?

Now here is the shocking news for Mr Pipes? Muslims believe that we are born Muslim regardless of who our father is and what religion he may or may not have. So Muslims believe that even someone who hates Muslims as much as Pipes was in fact born a Muslim. It's a simple concept called "fitrah" or inherent purity. We are all born with it. Islam has no concept of original sin. Yes, Mr Pipes, even you were born Muslim. Deal with it.

Here is what Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston describes Pipes' claims about Obama and religion ...

What may frighten some Americans about Barack Obama is his very excellence. His fiercest critics have so far had little else to go on.

But if he is truly that scary, why is it so necessary to lie about him?

If the real truth about him is so frightening, why is it so necessary for someone like Daniel Pipes to
ingeniously resuscitate the lie that Obama is a Muslim?

If the actual facts are so damning, why was it so necessary for Fox and others to pump up the packet of hardbound fictions called
Obama Nation, a miserable book whose manipulative distribution propelled it to a debut at the top of The New York Times best seller

There will be those for whom race is the deciding issue, but I believe their numbers are few.

So there you have it, folks. A columnist in an Israeli newspaper accuses Pipes of lying, and implies that Pipes is trying to turn race into an issue in this election.

Monday, August 25, 2008

CRIKEY: Olympics over, let's consider the mess we're making in Afghanistan...

Last week, Sally Neighbour interviewed former Sydney architect Mahmoud Saikal at length about his dreams for a future Kabul. Saikal, who was once the Australian rep of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud's Jamiat-i-Islami faction during the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union, has also served his country in a variety of diplomatic posts.

Saikal seemed to spend much of his time showing off his vision for Kabul's future:
In a nondescript Kabul office, Australian-trained architect and former Afghan deputy foreign minister Mahmoud Saikal flicks on his laptop to reveal a stunning vision for his home town. A computer graphic depicts a sparkling metropolis with glass skyscrapers, trams and terraced lawns.
Of course, current and former members of Hamid Karzai's government spend much of their time dreaming about what Kabul could be. The fact is that, regardless of having such powerful allies as the US and UK, not to mention Coalition partners such as Australia, Karzai's Kabul cabinet seems to hold little sway outside the capital.

And while our eyes were all glued to TV coverage from Beijing, Afghans are becoming increasingly angry with Coalition forces terrorising their poverty-stricken country to prosecute the war on terror. Afghanistan was first invaded in 2001 to punish those responsible for killing some 3000 innocent civilians in New York and Washington. Now, almost seven years on, Usama bin Ladin has almost become a Hollywood superstar.

One 2002 US study showed this civilian casualty count was exceeded in just the first month of the allied invasion of Afghanistan. And on Friday, a Coalition airstrike on the north-western Herat district killed over 90 Afghans, including 19 women and 50 children. The incident has drawn protests even from President Hamid Karzai whose government is being kept afloat by Coalition forces. The civilians were hardly Taliban supporters, having gathered to commemorate the death of a local anti-Taliban military commander.

One tribal elder quoted by the New York Times summed up the predicament Coalition forces face in Afghanistan:
I am 100 percent confident that someone gave the information due to a tribal dispute. The Americans are foreigners and they do not understand.
So here we are, with our troops in Afghanistan, part of a force that often mistakes Taliban for anti-Taliban and that potentially has little understanding of local tribal conflicts that likely pre-date the Taliban's emergence by centuries.

If Coalition forces keep killing innocent Afghan civilians, the popular Afghan backlash will make Iraq look like a picnic.

First published in the Crikey daily alert for Monday 25 August 2008.

Friday, August 22, 2008

VIDEO/CRICKET: Interview with Imran Khan on the occasion of him announcing his retirement ...

CRIKEY: On ACMA, al-Manar TV and the search for consistent treatment of all forms of racism ...

I know this won’t make me very popular in some circles. But when it comes to combating racism and sectarian prejudice in broadcasting, could we have some consistency please?

The Age
has reported here and here about attempts by ACMA to stop the broadcast of the al-Manar TV channel apparently linked to the Lebanese political party Hezbollah, whose military arm has been designated a terrorist organisation.

Some are unhappy because ...
... Al-Manar's political talk shows feature guests from terrorist organisations.
Well, so do many mainstream Western TV stations. Is it wrong for us to understand the rhetoric of those we are fighting?

It’s also a problem that al-Manar is ...
... fiercely anti-Israel and anti-US... and often broadcasts the final messages of suicide bombers.
Well there are plenty of Israeli media outlets that could be deemed anti-Israel. And how often do we see Western media outlets also broadcasting excerpts from the televised wills of suicide bombers?

Australia-Israel Review
editor Tzvi Fleischer complains that al-Manar ...
... is very anti-Semitic, with some very nasty stuff.
That may well be true. But some of the speakers the Review publishes host also engage in quite extreme diatribe against other semitic groups and faiths. Speakers like Daniel "don’t-vote-for-Obama-because-he’s-Muslim" Pipes and the rather nutty Melanie Phillips.

Then there are the good folk from the Anti-Defamation Commission whose chair quite legitimately complains of al-Manar ...
... inciting violence and hatred.
Unfortunately, their former CEO has been inciting some unfortunate attitudes here, as well as attempting to defend a rather nasty Israeli professor.

And some of Roland Jabbour’s soundbites on behalf of the Australian Arabic Council aren’t too helpful. The Age reports Jabbour as arguing that:

... he would not call Jews the offspring of apes and pigs, but that in the context of "the crimes of the state of Israel" it was reasonable for al-Manar to do so and to portray Israeli rabbis as killing Christian children to use their blood in Passover meals.
I’m sorry, but it doesn’t matter what Israel does to Palestinians or Lebanese of various faiths. Repeating this kind of racist trash is never acceptable discourse because it offends even Jews that have about as much support for Israel as Robert Fisk. It is also deeply offensive to many Muslims, including ones that certain people at The Australian love painting as extremist.

Finally, I hope ACMA isn’t bullied and threatened by Hezbollah supporters in the same manner as it was by certain bigoted broadcasters and their often equally bigoted parliamentary patrons.

First published in the
Crikey daily alert for Friday 22 August 2008.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

CRIKEY: Why Rudd shouldn't introduce full-blown compulsory student unionism ...

Back in 1994, I penned an article for the Macquarie University Liberal Club’s organ Liberal University Students’ Tabloid (LUST) supporting the introduction of voluntary student unionism (VSU).

I argued that university services were like textbooks. You didn’t have to buy a brand new textbook. You could borrow someone else’s, buy a second hand copy or borrow one from the library.

Similarly, you don’t have to make use of university union services and facilities. You shouldn’t have to pay for things you don’t use, nor should you have to pay for a representative body you don’t necessarily want representing you. Union fees, whether for services or representation, should be voluntary.

VSU was a sacred cow of the Australian Liberal Students Federation (ALSF), an umbrella body of student Liberal clubs. The NSW Young Libs, then dominated by the small "L" faction known as "the Group", opposed VSU. Instead, they supported Voluntary Student Representation (VSR). This meant that you still had to pay fees for services but not for representation (which, at Macquarie, generally was spent on sending lefties off to some commune in Nicaragua, then ruled by Sandanista communists, or Cuba).

Former Howard staffer and State MP for Lane Cove Adrian Roberts was President of the UTS Union. In those days he was aligned with the Group and supported VSR while opposing VSU. Few NSW State MP’s (including conservatives) supported VSU. In Federal Parliament, VSU was supported by Howard, Abbott and Minchin while it was opposed by Brendan Nelson, Robert Hill and others regarded as small "L" libs.

When Howard became leader in 1996, the internal debate over student unionism was considered won by supporters of VSU. We regarded student unions as baby-parliaments where ALP hacks honed their skills. Liberal students rarely got anywhere unless disguised as something else or running joke tickets. For instance, current right wing Liberal Party President Nick Campbell ran in Macquarie union board elections on a green ticket.

The Howard government brought in VSU. In theory, it was a sound move. Union services are like textbooks. But as in practice, as reported in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, universities often have to make up the shortfall in student union services by spending money that would otherwise go to salaries or research. VSU has hit campuses in regional areas particularly hard, which probably explains why National Party MPs like Barnaby Joyce continue to oppose it.

If Rudd reintroduces compulsory fees for limited student services, that should be a good thing. But any move to force students to pay for student representative bodies could signal a return to the days when student money was spent sending lefties to communes while Labor students get subsidised political training.

First published in the Crikey daily alert for 21 August 2008.

UPDATE I: Here are some responses from Crikey readers in their Comments, corrections, clarifications and c*ckups section for Friday 22 August 2008 ...

Student unionism: 
Simon Wilkins writes: Re. "Why Rudd shouldn't introduce full-blown compulsory student unionism" (yesterday, item 13). I was an undergrad at the same time as Irfan Yusuf, but at a different Uni, and I have a different recollection of why Young Liberals couldn't get elected (VSU or not). Their lack of support was only bettered by their choice of candidates that seemed to lack the full complement of social, political and possibly genetic abilities. If you can't get elected without running as a joke ticket, perhaps it suggests that when voters recognise who you are, they don't want to vote for you. This fact renders Irfan's vague point about "subsidised political training" pointless. If Young Lib's could have run a decent campaign directed towards the needs of students they would have received the same "subsidy" he is so upset about. As a result of VSU, student campus life and interaction has been significantly diminished by a petty policy that forces Universities to pay for the services that they actually care about (sport) and let shrivel the intangibles like student clubs and societies (including the young liberals, who also received funding from student union fees). 

Lastly, comparing union services to textbooks is an odd analogy. Pro-VSUers always tried to convince you it would be a "user-pays" system when in fact it has resulted in complete denial of services. Also "second-hand" text books tend to be obsolete (by definition) and how you can get second hand union services is beyond me. But whether Irfan means it or not, the analogy exposes the true meaning of the pro-VSU position. Those students, and Universities, that can afford to pay from their own pocket get the new books and services and those that can't lose out. What a great system. My advice to the PM? Take the word Unionism out of any Uni fee charge and prevent a repeat of the Liberal lie. An equal levy on all students would at least allow some restoration of campus life. If that means Young Liberals have to run as the "Party Party" again, then so be it. 
Jim Hart writes: I suspect the biggest reason Irfan Yusuf and most of the Liberal Party don't like student unions is the name. The word union has a fine tradition in universities but that doesn't seem to stop the right-wingers from equating it with trade unions and from there it's a short step to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua via Moscow. So Irfan thinks student services are like textbooks -- either buy your own or use the library. But hang on, if the library had enough copies for every student who needed one those books would have to be bought by the university which gets its money from... oh dear, that means we all pay fees and taxes to provide books for students who aren't prepared to look after themselves. Sounds a bit like socialism to me Irfan. 

Sure, when you pay student union fees you don't use every service. As a student I probably subsidised evil socialists at subversive lefty conferences but I also paid for teams of reactionary sexist footballers to get drunk at interstate competitions. Last year my taxes paid for propaganda for despicable IR policies, while this year I funded a porno art magazine and some Olympic medals. And every few years I am forced to participate in an electoral process dominated by factionalised parties with candidates that never totally represent my views. Many if not all student bodies are poorly run, lop-sided, driven my minorities, and a sandpit for playing with ideals and ideologies. What else would you expect from a bunch of kids who are barely past puberty? It seems like a pretty harmless way to start training the next generation of entrepreneurs, social workers, journalists and politicians. VSU weakens not just our tertiary institutions but society in general. 
Piers Kelly writes: Irfan Yusuf wrote: "...nor should you have to pay for a representative body you don't necessarily want representing you". Isn't it a little churlish to want to abolish student representative bodies just because the people you like to vote for don't win very often? If students don't want to be represented they can vote the system out of existence. Democracy is kind of clever like that.

Monday, August 18, 2008

OPINION: Justice the remedy required to help Bosnia heal ...

Radovan Karadzic, the murderous Sarajevo psychiatrist, was the architect of a brutal war in Bosnia Herzegovina during the mid-1990s that cost hundreds of thousands of civilian lives and that involved the gang rape of tens of thousands of women.

Karadzic masterminded the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II. His forces set up concentration camps where supporters of the Bosnian government were tortured, butchered and murdered.

In his memoir Enemy Combatant, former British Guantanamo inmate Moazzam Begg describes meeting a Bosnian Muslim refugee who was gang raped in the presence of her husband and with their three-month old baby screaming. Soon after the rape her husband was shot and her baby decapitated, all in her presence.

The bulk of Karadzic's victims were indigenous Bosnians who did not fit into the categories of "Serb" or "Croat" and whose ancestral faith was Islam. Of course, this did not make Bosnia a Muslim state in any theocratic sense. To be Muslim was more an ethnic than religious feature. Hence, the expulsion of Muslim and Croat populations by Karadzic's forces was appropriately referred to as "ethnic cleansing".

Indeed, when it declared its independence from the Yugoslav federation on March 1, 1992, Bosnia was a country of three large ethnic minorities - Muslim, Serb and Croat. Members of all three communities supported Bosnian independence. Politicians from all three communities formed the Bosnian government. Soldiers from all three communities fought to defend Bosnia's independence and territorial integrity.

Bosnia Herzegovina was established by Europeans who included Muslims not wanting a uniformly Islamic or theocratic state but rather a genuinely modern pluralist European state. Muslims showed their commitment to European values and liberal democracy.

And for this, they were rewarded with genocide and an arms embargo that crippled this young state's ability to defend itself. Karadzic rejected that pluralist vision and fought it using violence reminiscent of the worst excesses of Nazi Germany. He received international support by default in that the world refused to lift an arms embargo and so deprive Bosnia's army of weapons it needed to defend itself.

To describe the newly established republic of Bosnia back in the 1990s as a Muslim country was and remains an absurdity. At least 30 per cent of Bosnians had ethnically and religiously mixed parentage. One tragic image of the war was two young lovers, a Bosnian Serb boy, Bosko Brkic, and his Bosnian Muslim girlfriend, Admira Ismic, gunned down by Serb snipers while attempting to flee Sarajevo. They died in each other's arms. Their funeral service was attended by both families and friends, and included elements of both Orthodox Christian and Muslim liturgy.

Yet if Karadzic's war actually achieved anything arguably positive for his foes, it was putting indigenous European Islam on the world map. This was an Islam happy to live in (and indeed lead) a genuinely pluralist society. The central square of Sarajevo, once Europe's oldest centre of Islamic learning, still has the houses of worship of four communities (a synagogue, a mosque, an Orthodox and a Catholic church).

It's a bitter irony. For many non-Western Muslims and Muslim migrants living in Western countries, the existence of Bosnian Islam first hit their radar via the images of imams leading the funeral prayers of children shot by Karadzic's snipers or cut to pieces by shrapnel fired by Karadzic's forces. For many of us, Bosnian Islam became a reality at a time when it faced extermination.

Countries like Bosnia and Kosovo serve as reminders that Islam is a European faith. If it were not so, large indigenous European Muslims would not exist in the heart of Europe.

I remember being told of an incident where an imam was invited to say a prayer at an interfaith service a few weeks following the September 11 attacks on the United States. The imam was Bosnian. A Muslim attending the service went up to the imam and asked why he was wearing European dress. "Because I am European," was the imam's reply.

For some Western Muslims, the message of the Bosnian war was clear. What point is there in trying to culturally integrate into Western societies? Integration didn't stop Bosnian Muslims from being slaughtered, raped and butchered. Muslims felt they were damned if they did and damned if they didn't ...

Karadzic may be in custody and awaiting trial but his sentiments and prejudices are alive and well.

The International Court of Justice has already described the Bosnian war as genocide, even if it deprived Bosnians of justice by refusing to rule in favour of Bosnia's application holding what is left of Yugoslavia responsible. Let's hope the International War Crimes Tribunal can deliver the justice Bosnia needs to heal.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and writer. An edited version of this article was first published in The Canberra Times on Monday 18 August 2008. Another version of this article was published on the same date in The New Zealand Herald.

UPDATE I: Queensland is an amazing place. But some Queenslanders continue to display the sort of disposition a certain deceased peanut farmer was famous for. Among them is this tasteless creature who views everything through the prism of masturbation. Read it and understand why modern medical science (as in psychopharmacology) cannot assist everyone.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

Saturday, August 16, 2008

REVIEW: Defence of pluralism in a rupturing world

The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence and India's Future
By Martha C. Nussbaum
Harvard University Press, 432pp, $50.95

MARTHA Nussbaum is no ordinary academic. Her research and writing interests cover a broad spectrum of social sciences, including constitutional law, political science, theology, ethics and philosophy. In an age of academic specialisation, she is one of the few modern renaissance scholars.

Nussbaum is also proof that pigeon holes weren't created for towering intellectuals. Brought up in the Episcopalian Church, she converted to Judaism later in life. While enthusiastically embracing secularism, she rejects claims that the US constitution explicitly guarantees absolute separation of church and state.

Instead, Nussbaum seems to adopt a view of secularism long held by South Asian writers: that it serves to mediate between the conflicting claims of otherwise exclusivist religions. The secular state does not champion atheism or hostility to religion. Rather, it champions religious pluralism: it should aim to treat all faiths (indeed, all beliefs) equally and impartially.

Such themes resonate in Nussbaum's passionate study of Indian democracy, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence and India's Future. She focuses on the political theology of Hindutva adopted by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which ruled India from 1998 to 2004. The BJP's website describes Hindutva as cultural nationalism. Yet many devout Hindus regard it as a theocratic corruption of Hinduism, borrowing much from far-Right European national socialist ideology (Nussbaum refers to the influence of "romantic/fascist European ideas of blood and purity" on Hindutva).

The BJP's power base grew rapidly out of sectarian riots that followed the destruction of a 400-year-old mosque built in the town of Ayodhya. Anti-Muslim and anti-Christian sectarian bigotry can still be found in documents posted on the BJP website. In power, the BJP sought to combine neo-liberal free market economic reforms with neo-fascist sectarian politics. However, the realities of democratic politics softened much of the BJP's hardline sectarianism. Former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was far more moderate than his colleagues in the BJP.

Despite losing power at the federal level, the BJP continues to rule various states. Among then is the northwestern state of Gujarat, the home state of Mahatma Gandhi. Nussbaum focuses particular attention on the Gujarat massacres of 2002, in which more than 2000 Muslim and Christian civilians were massacred and hundreds of thousands driven from their homes. The Gujarat massacres were sparked by an explosion on a train carrying pilgrims from Ayodhya, believed to have been caused by a Muslim mob.

Nussbaum argues that the architect of those riots was Gujarat's BJP Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Her view is shared by many in the US State Department, which denied him a diplomatic visa and even revoked his tourist-business visa in March 2005.

Perhaps more chilling than her detailed description and analysis of the Gujarat massacres is Nussbaum's account of interviews with BJP ideologues and intellectuals. These men use the most anti-intellectual sectarian rhetoric to justify and excuse the actions of rioters responsible for these massacres.

Among her interviewees is Devendra Swarup, who tells Nussbaum:
You see it all over the world. I am not aware of any country where Muslims have been able to live in peaceful coexistence with non-Muslims. You have three backgrounds -- American, German and Jew -- so you are well aware of how Islam has created havoc all over the world.

Apart from being anti-Muslim, such rhetoric is inherently anti-Semitic in that it presumes Jews must necessarily engage in attributing negative characteristics to an entire group.

Nussbaum also devotes significant chapters to the cultural, history and education wars that often accompanied the BJP's sectarian politics.

Unfortunately, she relies too heavily on English-language media, textbooks and other resources. Although many Indians, especially the growing middle class, are proficient in English, much of India's cultural and political conversation is conducted in Hindi and various regional languages.

A number of Nussbaum's explanations for the rise of the Hindutva far Right also seem somewhat curious. She argues that India's education system, with its emphasis on rote learning as opposed to a more nuanced analytical approach to subjects, has made it easier for Indians to accept the more simplistic policy formulas of BJP ideologues.

Such arguments seem to ignore the reality thateven highly educated Indians supported the BJP, not for sectarian reasons but for its economic credentials. Many of these same Indians, including prominent management guru and former Procter & Gamble executive Gurcharan Das (whom Nussbaum interviews), ceased their support for the BJP when its divisive sectarian agenda compromised its economic management credentials.

A leading theme of The Clash Within is Nussbaum's direct assault on Samuel Huntington's (now almost cliched) clash of civilisations thesis, so often used by simplistic sectarian voices to support claims about an inevitable battle between monolithic Islam and the monolithic West (or, as Nussbaum puts it, to allege "the world is currently polarised between a Muslim monolith, bent on violence, and the democratic cultures of Europe and North America"). Nussbaum's clash isn't between supposedly monolithic civilisations but ...
... instead a clash within virtually all modern nations: between people who are prepared to live with others who are different on terms of equal respect, and those who seek the protection of homogeneity, achieved through the domination of a single religious and ethnic tradition.

It's a powerful argument, made stronger by the fact that Nussbaum's case study focuses on a nation that happens to be the world's largest democracy and an emerging economic, political and military power.

The Clash Within should be read not only by those interested in India's present and future, but by anyone seeking to understand the processes by which even the most complex and sophisticated societies can navigate their way into a morass of violent intolerance.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and recipient of the 2007 Allen & Unwin Iremonger award for public affairs writing. This article was first published in the Revew section of The Weekend Australian on 16-17 August 2008.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

LETTERS: Response to Rushdie article ...

I received an interesting letter in the mail in response to my article suggesting Rushdie isn't being terribly consistent on freedom of speech and freedom to offend. Sue D is of the view that I am part of a patriarchal system where women are silenced. Sue D clearly hasn't met my mother.

Here is the letter in full, with the writer's full name abbreviated ...

11 August 2008
The Age – 9th Aug 2008
“Rushdie no believer in free speech”

Dear Irfan Yusuf,

I hate to see you so vulnerable that you are losing your sense of humour!

(Of course S Rushdie is a hypocrite - no one cares.)

The prophet Muhammad must be turning in his grave – he would not have wanted to be held up as God or as a perfect example of a man!

As long as you attempt to maintain your patriarchal system, you will always accessible to attacks of laughter – accept this! (or change.)

I feel sorry for you poor, gorgeous, deprived blokes – you don’t have the women to speak up for you (obviously they are not guiding you from the wider international community anyway) – I tend to think this serves you right.’’

Meanwhile I’ll be waiting to enjoy ‘Noor’ on SBS (hopefully) – will it match the excellent ‘Silk Market’?

Why should I care if you Muslim-Australians choose not to contribute to civic life?

Sue D

Sue D's claim that Aussies who feel inclined to tick the "Muslim" box on their census forms "choose not to contribute to civic life" is laughable. When she runs for local government and in a federal election, and when she has articles published in major Australian newspapers, she can lecture me on engaging in civic life.

MEDIA: BBC report on anti-Semitism in the US ...

The BBC has produced an interesting documentary on the anti-Semitic efforts of a small group of activists intent on demonising persons (often incorrectly deemend to be) of Arab extraction. Among the champions of racial and sectarian intolerance profiled are Daniel Pipes, a regular visitor to Australia hosted by right-of-centre thinktanks.

During his last visit to Australia, Pipes caused major embarrassment to one of his hosts by allowing a national broadsheet to reproduce a speech he gave to a Sydney audience. I've written about that speech here. Pipes writes:

Indigenous Europeans could resist it and, as they make up 95per cent of the continent's population, they can at any time reassert control should they see Muslims posing a threat to a valued way of life.
This impulse can be seen at work in the French anti-hijab legislation or in Geert Wilders's film, Fitna. Anti-immigrant parties gain in strength; a potential nativist movement is taking shape across Europe as political parties opposed to immigration focus increasingly on Islam and Muslims. These parties include the British National Party, Belgium's Vlaamse Belang, France's National Front, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Party for Freedom in The Netherlands and the Danish People's Party.

They are likely to continue to grow as immigration surges ever higher, with mainstream parties paying and expropriating their anti-Islamic message. Should nationalist parties gain power, they will reject multiculturalism, cut back on immigration, encourage repatriation of immigrants, support Christian institutions, increase indigenous European birthrates and broadly attempt to re-establish traditional ways.

Muslim alarm is likely to follow. US author Ralph Peters sketches a scenario in which "US Navy ships are at anchor and US marines have gone ashore at Brest, Bremerhaven or Bari to guarantee the safe evacuation of Europe's Muslims".

Peters concludes that because of Europeans' "ineradicable viciousness", the continent's Muslims "are living on borrowed time". As Europeans have "perfected genocide and ethnic cleansing", Muslims, he predicts, "will be lucky just to be deported" rather than being killed.

Indeed, Muslims worry about just such a fate; since the 1980s they have spoken overtly about Muslims being sent to gas chambers. European violence cannot be precluded, but nationalist efforts will more likely take place less violently; if anyone is likely to initiate violence, it is the Muslims.
Pipes doesn't contradict these assertions. He describes neo-fascist parties such as the British National Front as merely "political parties opposed to immigration" and mere "nationalist parties". And in a related presentation, he describes here that the chances of such a scenario happening are 47.5%

Pipes has already been exposed on this blog as falsely attributing racial remarks to an Australian Human Rights Commissioner. Instead of acknowledging his error and apologising to the Commissioner, Pipes repeated the slur.

Pipes has also been active in a hate-campaign against Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. Read more about that here.

Pipes' activities in attacking a New York charter school principal have been widely reported and condemned by a number of prominent rabbis as well as other educators and academics. You can hear more about Pipes' activities in this BBC documentary entitled Soft Jihad.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

Monday, August 11, 2008

COMMENT: An inappropriate comparison?

One reader recently told me that he believed my use of the name "Ayaan Hirsi Hilali" in this posting was inappropriate. He argued that it would be inappropriate to compare a religious scholar to an ignorant know-it-all who chooses to be an athiest. Apart from Sheik Hilali making the frequent claim to being quoted out of context, there really is no comparison between him and Ayaan Hirsi Magaan/Ali.

I think he may have a point, although to some extent he has also missed the point. What do other readers think? Should we in any way be comparing religious scholars to those who incite hatred against believers?

Comments are welcome. And a message to the moron who leaves violent, threatening and abusive messages here: I know who you are.

CRIKEY: Oz government sort of, but not really, opposes the death penalty ...

The Herald Sun reports that Foreign Minister Stephen Smith reckons there is no contradiction between pleading clemency for Australian drug smugglers but not for convicted terrorists. I guess that’s one way of putting it.

A more accurate way is to say that the Australian government openly opposes the death penalty, but at the same time doesn’t oppose it. It really depends on who is doing the dying.
If you’re a convicted terrorist, you should die. You have killed ordinary Australians and other innocent civilians, and have brought misery to their families. But if you are a convicted drug smuggler, you clearly haven’t brought misery to anyone.

Drug smugglers and the drugs they carry don’t kill anyone. Drug smugglers and the drugs they carry don’t cause misery to families. Illicit drugs clearly aren’t as dangerous as terrorist bombs.

Let’s face facts. 88 Australians died in the 2002 Bali bombings. Meanwhile, one South Australian study shows that in 1999 in Adelaide alone, ambulance workers responded to a total of 2,990 overdoses. Of these, 424 were caused only by a narcotic drug or a cocktail of narcotics.

A more recent national study conducted by the Australian Institute of Health & Welfare, 1,705 deaths across Australia were attributable to the use of illicit drugs in 2003. Further, during 2003-4, the number of accidental opioid overdose deaths for Australians aged 15-54 was 357. Opioid substances include heroin, morphine and other similar substances. Then, of course, there are HIV and other STD-related deaths.

As for affects on families, just ask someone who has cared for a relative with a narcotic-induced mental illness what it’s like. Go to pp38-9 of the AIHW report to find out the prevalence of mental illness among illicit drug users.

If Stephen Smith expects us to believe that terrorists and their weapons destroy more Aussie lives than drug pushers and their merchandise, he seriously must be taking something illicit himself.

Of course, we all know that we fight those blasted terrorists to defend our freedom, our values and our way of life. Strangely enough, in practice this means we ourselves attack our freedom, our values and our way of life with our own hands. It's much more fun committing collective civilisational suicide. That way, the terrorists will never get us. A good place to start the collective hari kari is our attitude to capital punishment.

If we don’t respect our values enough to apply them consistently, we can’t expect terrorists and those they seek to recruit to take us terribly seriously.

First published in the Crikey daily alert for Monday 11 August 2008.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

OPINION: Rushdie is no believer in free speech

Sir Salman Rushdie is back in the news. His book Midnight’s Children set during the 1947 Partition of India has received a Booker award for being the best book to have been booked for a Booker award. Or something like that.

Rushdie has also threatened a former Special Branch officer with libel proceedings. The officer was one of of many funded by British taxpayers to protect Rushdie after he received death threats in the late 1980’s arising from his novel The Satanic Verses. That novel offended many for its lewd references to religious Biblical and Koranic figures, including Abraham and the wives of the prophet Muhammad.

Jews and Christians were quite restrained in their condemnation of the book. Sadly, a minority of loudmouth Muslims found in the book an excellent excuse to whip up enough hysteria to make their co-religionists into an international laughing stock. The late Ayatollah Khomeini was keen to gain political mileage for his allegedly Islamic revolution by calling for Rushdie to be given a rushed death.

This violently imbecilic response from even some Western Muslims was an affront to free speech, including freedom to offend and collectively lampoon religious sentiment. Overnight, Rushdie became a pin-up boy for a loose coalition of free-speech campaigners and sectarian bigots.

Some less hysterical Muslims tried to use reason, suggesting this wasn't about free speech, but rather about consistency in UK blasphemy laws that prosecuted persons causing offence to Christianity but not other faiths. The majority of us wondered what all the fuss was about.

I was a first year undergraduate when the novel was first published. I found it silly that people who hadn’t read the novel could issue black cheque fatwas. I went to my local library to borrow The Satanic Verses. Within the first 10 pages, I was wondering why hysterical Muslims had turned this literary sleeping tablet into a runaway best seller. Rushdie certainly didn't cause me any offence.

But Rushdie lapped up the hysteria, projecting himself as living martyr of free speech. He happily accepted lavish security arrangements offered by his adopted country to save him from violent religious fundamentalists, at a cost to British taxpayers of millions of pounds.

Now, some 2 decades on, Rushdie has made his own self an exception to his free speech fundamentalism. And his target? Ironically, one of his very own taxpayer-funded Special Branch bodyguards!

One of the officers is about to publish a memoir of his working career On Her Majesty's Service. Part of Roy Evans' memoir deals with the period during which he was assigned to protect Rushdie. The Guardian reports that Rushdie is most unhappy with Evans' portrayal of him as “mean, nasty, tight-fisted, arrogant and extremely unpleasant”. Evans also claims police nicknamed Rushdie as “Scruffy” due to his unkempt appearance , and that Rushdie even charged London police rent for when overnight security was required.

Rushdie’s behaviour toward his former bodyguards would hardly inspire Whitney Houston to sing “And I-i-I-i-I will always love yooooooo-iiii-ooooou”. Moreover, it has also left a sour taste on the tongues of that section of his former backers who were inspired by free speech and not just sectarian bigotry.

Back in 2005, Rushdie was among prominent English writers and artists opposing proposed laws seeking to outlaw “incitement to hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds”. Writing on the Open Democracy website on 7 February 2005 under the headline “Defend the right to be offended”, Rushdie wrote

The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted is absurd. So too is the notion that people should have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted ... The defence of free speech begins at the point when people say something you can’t stand. If you can’t defend their right to say it, then you don’t believe in free speech.

The free-speech fundamentalist of yesteryear is now taken it upon himself to delay the publication of a book because he feels offended and slighted by its description of him. The implication of his position is simple – the law should leave him free to offend the sensitivities of millions, but should protect him from offence.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental value to emerge from the violent and bloody historical European struggles that produced the “Enlightenment”. Another is the rule of law. The law does provide remedies to private litigants which impede on free speech. Rushdie is entitled to take action to protect his own reputation, even if it potentially makes him one of this century's great free speech hypocrites.

At the conclusion of his address to a recent Big Ideas Forum hosted by the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney recently, British sociology professor Frank Ferudi declared that there are no free speech heroes in Europe. He said both the Left and the Right were selective in their support of free speech, especially when it came to discussing anything relating to religion.

I'm not sure which side of the political divide Rushdie falls into. But his threats against Roy Evans certainly prove that Salman Rushdie is certainly no free speech hero.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and was awarded the 2007 Allen & Unwin Iremonger Award for public affairs writing. An edited version of this article was first published in The Age on Saturday 9 August 2008.

UPDATE I: Someone named Scott sent me an e-mail in response to the article ...
There is a fundamental difference between the freedom to write a novel, and the freedom to assassinate someone's character. You are just trying to make a name for yourself.

So Salman Rushdie's novels have never assassinated anyone's character. Describing Abraham, the patriarch of ethical monotheism, as a "b#st#rd isn't an act of character assassination.

Either that, or Scott believes Rushdie should be free to assassinate the characters of religious figures but no one should have the write to suggest that British taxpayers may have been helping Mr Rushdie pay off his mortgage.

Still, Rushdie should never have been the subject of a death threat from any source. Though I certainly won't be looking in Rushdie's direction for advice on free speech and the law.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

Thursday, August 07, 2008

CRIKEY: Karadzic v Guantanamo Bay detainees: two very different trials...

Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's driver, has just been found guilty of war crimes at a military tribunal held at Guantanamo Bay. He could face life imprisonment after a jury of six US military officers selected by the Pentagon found he had transported two surface-to-air missiles in his car which would be used against US forces during their invasion of Afghanistan.

Prosecutor Colonel Laurence Morris was quoted as saying: "We are confident that we can try cases to the highest standards of justice."

Justice? What kind of justice? Did Hamdan have access to all the evidence used to try him? Who was this evidence obtained from? How was it obtained?

In his recently published book, Torture Team: Deception, Cruelty and the Compromise of Law, international law professor Phillipe Sands QC exposes unethical Defense Department lawyers joining forces with neo-conservative politicians to produce the Acton Memo. This document, signed by Donald Rumsfeld on 2 December 2002, enabled interrogators at Guantanamo Bay (and later at Abu Ghraib) to lawfully commit acts of torture in violation of Article 3 of the Geneva Convention.

Only a week ago, al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj was released after over six years at the Guantanamo facility. Canadian citizen Omar Khadr, first detained at age 16, remains in custody. He wasn't the only prisoner sent to Guantanamo as a minor. This 2006 list of detainees shows a number aged in the early 20s who must have been minors when they first arrived at Guantanamo.

Compare this to the procedures used to detain and try Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who led the 1990s war in Bosnia that resulted in the slaughter of thousands of Bosnians of all denominations and that included the establishment of concentration camps and gang-rape of tens of thousands of women. In the town of Srebrenica alone, over 7,000 men and boys were slaughtered.

Karadzic is being tried by a UN War Crimes Tribunal. There have been no suggestions of torture at this tribunal. None of the evidence will be withheld from Karadzic, and he will be free to engage lawyers if he wishes. Compared to the cages in which many Guantanamo detainees (including David Hicks) were kept, Karadzic's prison cell looks more like a 5-star hotel.

At its recent Big Ideas Forum, the Centre for Independent Studies asked five prominent speakers to talk about "Protecting the Legacy of Freedom: The Ideas of The Enlightenment in the 21st Century".

Not a single speaker mentioned the Guantanamo gulag or Radovan Karadzic. Sitting through that spectacle of self-congratulatory pomposity, I couldn't help but think of Mahatma Gandhi's response when asked what he thought of Western civilisation: "I think it would be a good idea".

We live in a world where terror suspects are kept in secret prisons and gulags and tried by military commissions, while war criminals are afforded civilised treatment and a fair trial. Perhaps Gandhi was right all along ...

First published in the Crikey daily alert for Thursday 7 August 2008.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

COMMENT: Making commercial law sound enlightening ...

It’s difficult to make a lecture on legal history sound interesting and entertaining. It’s even more difficult to imagine a judge successfully doing this.

His Honour Justice Spigelman, Chief Justice of the NSW Supreme Court, managed to comfortably achieve this requirement. His presentation to the Enlightenment Forum organised by the Centre for Independent Studies was a master-stroke of clarity, erudition and good humour.

His Honour focused on the enlightenment value that seeks to implement a culture of improvement through the application of reason. He said that no individual or society should be deemed sentenced by the Creator to remain at the same standard.

Spigelman J distinguished between reform and improvement. He illustrated his discussion by examining the life of one of England’s foremost jurists, Lord Mansfield.

English enlightenment was a more pragmatic affair than its counterparts in other parts of Europe. It focussed more on what works than on how the world should be. It was realistic, but at times too insular.

Lord Mansfield was an apparently rare entity - a Scottish Francophone. He didn’t share the insularity of the common lawyers of his day, especially in commercial matters. In his 30 year career, he developed English common law (especially in the area of property, insurance, commercial instruments and maritime law) in a manner that made English law consistent with developments in other parts of the world. He insisted that there must be freedom of contract and that contracts should be based on good faith.

Mansfield was in many ways a man ahead of his time. Many of the issues he addressed in his judgments – issues of delays and mounting costs to litigants - are still relevant today. Mansfield also was happy to refer commercial disputes to independent arbitrators. He was an interventionist judge, happy to actively participate in hearings as opposed to just leaving matters to the parties and/or their legal counsel. Indeed, many aspects of modern judicial practice (such as case management) can be traced back to Mansfield’s enlightened reforms. In this sense, Mansfield ensured that the values of enlightenment are entrenched in contemporary judicial practice.

Spigelman J cited an American judge Posner who once said that the law is the only discipline in which innovation is regarded as a pejorative concept. Lawyers prefer to speak of improvement as opposed to innovation. Yet Mansfield’s role in developing English commercial law represented both innovation and improvement.

The last time I read about Lord Mansfield was when I studied an undergraduate course in commercial law under Professor Mark Cooray. At the time, I found the entire development of the Sale of Goods Act rather boring. Spigelman J’s lecture might just revive an interest in the topic again.

Monday, August 04, 2008

COMMENT: Ayaan Hirsi Hilali

Former far-Right Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali spoke tonight at a forum organised by the (right-of-) Centre for Independent Studies on the topic of Enlightenment Values. During question time, I reminded Ayaan Hirsi Ali of an interview I had with her when she was last in Sydney for the Sydney Writers' Festival.

I've written about this exchange in The Age before ...

It was July 2007. I'd almost reached the end of an interview with feisty neo-conservative ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the main attraction at the Sydney Writers Festival. I thought I'd throw in one last question to see how she was settling into her new life at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. I asked what she thought of the debate about teaching intelligent design (a more
sophisticated version of creationism) in American schools.

Hirsi Ali's answer wasn't exactly diplomatic. People who teach creationism in schools should be imprisoned, she said.

I asked Hirsi Ali whether she still held to that view and what she regards should be the limits of free speech. At first Hirsi Ali denied ever saying this. I then put to her the fact that I had the recording of the interview, she claimed I had quoted her out of context.

I understand that her real name is Ayaan Hirsi Magaan. She used the name "Hirsi Ali" on her application to gain asylum. She was later forced to confess that the application contained incorrect and false information.

I propose she now be given a new name - Ayaan Hirsi Hilali. It's identical to her assumed name, only with three extra letters. Like her namesake, Sheik Tajeddine Hilali, Ms Hirsi Hilali has the habit of claiming her embarrassing remarks really involved her being quoted out of context.

Some may wonder what Hirsi Hilali's views are on the limits to free speech. From my recollection, she said that speech should be free within the confines of the law. She cited a recent decision of the US Supreme Court which apparently stated that it was OK for a defendant to call for Jews to be expelled to Israel and blacks to be sent back to Africa. Apparently the judge in that case said that the defendant had the right to say this because there were no blacks or Jews within earshot.

So as long as you follow the law, you are free to say what you like. The law is supreme, even if ridiculous or oppressive. Pakistan's former military dictator, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, used similar reasoning. He was asked when he would restore democracy. He said: "We already have democracy. We have the rule of law. I have established the rule of law, and so my government is democratic".

Dr Frank Furedi, who spoke before Hirsi Hilali, ended his talk by suggesting that in Europe there are no free speech heroes. Both the left and the right only support free speech when it suits them. If Ms Hirsi Hilali's views are any indication, Furedi's assessment might be extended across the Atlantic.

(Anyone wishing to receive the unedited copy of my interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali is welcome to e-mail me at