Can bridges be built between ancient enemies?

I haven’t done a ‘good news’ segment in a while, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about a couple of items in the news that made me particularly hopeful.

First off, I have been remiss in talking about the serious humanitarian crisis in Pakistan:

Massive flooding in Pakistan has killed at least 430 people as monsoon rains continue to bloat rivers, submerge villages and trigger landslides, according to rescue and government officials. At least 291 people have died in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, in the country’s northwest, since Wednesday, said Mujahid Khan of the Edhi Foundation, a privately run rescue service that operates morgues and ambulances across the South Asian country.

The flooding, caused by heavy monsoon rains, started in late July. Since then, the death toll has risen to over 1,500 people, with more than 1 million people forced to flee their homes. The international community has been… let’s say less than eager to provide aid to the country for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its history of inaction on terrorism and hostility to Europe and the U.S. Of course, the Taliban aren’t helping much either:

In the last the six months, the level of violence has reduced, but since the flood crisis began, the Pakistani Taliban has warned against accepting international aid. Its leaders seem to view accepting foreign assistance and the presence of international aid workers as welcoming foreign interference in their country. Pakistani Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq said Thursday that the United States and other countries were not really focused on providing aid to flood victims but had other “intentions” he did not specify.

None of this seems like particularly good news, does it? Well there is a tiny spark of good in this morass of catastrophe and unrelenting evil:

Pakistan accepted $5.2 million in aid from India for flood victims, a rare expression of goodwill between the feuding neighbours at a time when Pakistan is reeling from one of its worst natural disasters.

Those of you who are unfamiliar with the region may not know that India and Pakistan are bitter enemies. There has been ethnic and religious tension between India (with its Hindu majority) and Pakistan (with its Muslim majority) since before the countries were formed. This enmity is not a thing of the past, or even quietly simmering on the back-burner, but continues to this day.

It’s heartening to see that despite the threat of mutual destruction (thanks to both countries’ nuclear arsenals) and an ancient blood feud, India was moved to offer aid to its neighbor in time of crisis, and that Pakistan was able to overcome its pride and accept the offer. Considering the dire need that the people of Pakistan are experiencing, a gesture like this may be a baby-step forward toward a time when diplomatic relations can replace the need for military conflict. Then again, with a government like Pakistan’s, devoted to keeping the boot of theocracy pressed firmly on the neck of human rights, it may be all for naught.

Flooding seems to be the watchword for peace talks, if the Korean peninsula is any indication:

North Korea has responded to an offer from South Korea of emergency food and medical aid, saying it would prefer to receive rice and building materials. The South Korean offer, worth more than $8m (£5m), was made last week after severe flooding in the North.

It’s heartening to see that amidst decades of bitter enmity, war, recent allegations of terrorism and the threat of war (possibly nuclear), diplomacy hasn’t been completely exhausted. The tragedy, of course, aside from the massive loss of life and property, is that it takes massive loss of life and property to spur such shows of charity.

Israel appears to be reaching out to its enemies as well, although in a very different way:

The Israeli authorities are introducing a new scheme to make Arabic-language classes compulsory in state schools. The programme, which will start in 170 schools in northern Israel, will make lessons mandatory for fifth graders.

It is easy for conflicts to become entrenched as people age. We get older, we get more stuck in our ways, and become resistant to change. Israel, perhaps recognizing this, has shifted to focus of its efforts to model tolerance and acceptance by equipping its children with the opportunity to tear down some in-group biases. Israel has a large Arabic-speaking minority, and clashes between members of that group, as well as its Arabic-speaking neighbours, have been ongoing since the country was founded in the mid 20th century. Beefing up the military hasn’t worked to reduce violence. Peace talks haven’t worked (although apparently a new round is on the horizon). Becoming a nuclear power hasn’t worked (big surprise there). So it looks like Israel is trying something different.

I mention this often, but I really do believe that the answer to settling deep enduring conflicts is to re-draw the circle of “us” and “them”. The wider we can draw that circle, the harder it is to go to war, or deny assistance in times of need. Hopefully some good can come out of all this calamity.

Gobsmacked: Some people DO get it

I should know better.

I should know better than to gauge the actual opinion of people by what elected officials are saying. And yet, I get sucked into the trap every time. Luckily, people aren’t quite as stupid as I might make them out to be.

The mosque is not seething with resentment tonight.The atmosphere is relaxed, as befits a time of celebration. This is not, it turns out, such a bad place to be a Muslim. Ashraf Sabrin, a volunteer firefighter at the Pentagon on 9/11, says there’s no better place to practise his religion. Surprised? “People who are surprised to hear that are people who don’t live here, and don’t understand the recourse that we have when things happen that are bad,” he says.

It’s nice to know that in the midst of the tempest of moronity going on in Washington and the halls of power, there are people who are content to just live their lives:

Ashraf’s prescription for a successful life in America is disarmingly simple. “Being yourself. Being this average Joe-Muhammad-Abdullah guy that goes to work and comes home and lives peacefully is the best medicine,” he says. As worshippers mingle in between prayers, the conversation turns to the subject of what a small group of Christians in Florida may or may not do with the Koran. But, again, there’s no hysteria, no vengeful threats. Just a rather resigned acknowledgement that this is America, where freedom of speech is paramount.

“I think he has the right to do whatever he wishes to do,” says Khalid Iqbal, who is the centre’s deputy director and the grandfather of nine, referring to the Gainesville pastor, Terry Jones. Mr Iqbal was speaking before Pastor Jones announced that he was prepared to call off his incendiary protest, provided the planned Islamic centre near Ground Zero in New York is moved. “He can burn the books. It doesn’t mean that he’s going to take it away from the hearts of the people.”

I’m going to go thwack myself for getting just as caught up in the stupidity as those perpetuating it. Eid Mubarak, for those celebrating.

Is there a worse name than ‘honour killings’?

When you think of the word ‘honour’, it conjures an image of someone who is honest, plain-dealing, and trustworthy. What it doesn’t invoke is the image of a man who murders his children for wearing revealing clothing or dating outside his/her nationality, or for refusing an arranged marriage.

There’s no honour in murder. It is the weak-willed act of a coward who lacks any human decency. One might be able to persuade me that there is honour in the suicide tradition of Bushido, in which failure to act honourably moves the samurai to take his/her own life. I’m generally against the idea of suicide, but a person’s life is their own to do with what they want. What he is not entitled to do, however, is murder someone else to restore his own sense of ‘honour’. Any society in which one person’s mental state or social status trumps another’s right to the security of their person cannot stand.

India seems to be realizing this:

India’s home minister proposed Thursday a bill to provide specific, severe penalties to curb honour killings, saying they brought “dishonour” to India as a secular, modern democracy. “We are living in the 21st century and there is a need to amend the current law and the law must reflect what the 21st century requires,” he said. “We have to look ahead and build a society that is based on secular values and enlightened views.”

I’ve talked previously about the social climate changing for women in India. The linked article mentions that there has been an upswing of violence against women in India, and that it is necessary to make changes in the status quo if India wishes to achieve its goal of being seen as a major world power. Let it never be said that international peer pressure and secularism can’t make the world a better place to live. There are around 500 million women in India who would likely agree.

The problem with passing these kinds of laws, however, is that murder is a crime. I am still uneasy about punishing people extra for the reasons behind why they commit crimes. Punishing specific groups of people for committing certain types of crimes against other specific groups is ethically dicey ground. Is it still an ‘honour killing’ if a non-religious man kills his son for being gay, or his daughter for dating a black man? Maybe it is, and if there’s a way to state that unambiguously, I’ll be interested to hear it.

Canada seems to be realizing this:

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson says prosecuting honour crimes is a priority for the government but that there isn’t any real need to change the Criminal Code.

Murder is wrong, and that must always be the focus. If passing specific statutes against honour killing will make it happen less, then that’s a discussion we can have. I doubt very much, however, that adding on a few extra years to a life sentence is going to meaningfully demotivate a person who is willing to murder his/her children from committing the act. The way to approach these things is that we have to model and encourage secular values of respect for the integrity of a human’s autonomy and security of person, and discourage the equation of “faithfulness” with righteousness.

Every time I hear of an honour killing, there is an almost-overwhelming temptation to immediately blame religion. The stories that get the most press are those in which the murderers are Muslim or immigrants from Muslim countries. I’m skeptical of this explanation for being overly simplistic, not to mention the fact that this type of killing is not founded in Qu’ranic verse. It’s sort of like when an abortion doctor is murdered by a Christian fundamentalist – it’s a flawed interpretation of scripture (which is, in itself, flawed, but we won’t go into that here) and isn’t an accurate reflection of doctrine. The problem is the belief that underlies both Christianity and Islam (and all religions) – that there exists an unobservable external standard which is accountable only to itself, but to which all of humanity is subject; and further, that this standard is not based on something reasonable like observable consequences to humankind, but based only on how fervently you believe in it. Sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and the like existed in the societies that spawned these religions, and they persist today. Blaming a book for a human failing neglects the larger and more accurate story that’s going on.

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Michael Bloomberg gets it EXACTLY right

Holy crap, can I vote in the next New York City election? That is, can I vote for Bloomberg to move to Canada and run for office?

“On that day, 3,000 people were killed because some murderous fanatics didn’t want us to enjoy the freedoms to profess our own faiths, to speak our own minds, to follow our own dreams, and to live our own lives. Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish. And it is a freedom that even here — in a city that is rooted in Dutch tolerance — was hard-won over many years.”

This is in reference to the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque“. Bloomberg had expressed his opposition to the attempts to block the building previously, but this was a great speech in support of civil rights and personal freedoms. While I’m not thrilled about the “God’s love and mercy” part, I recognize a political pander when I see one. Secular society requires us to respect the rights of people to think and believe as they like, even if we don’t agree with them.

For the text of the speech, you can click here.

“Ground Zero Mosque” is contentious issue

You may have heard recently about plans to build a mosque close to the site of the World Trade Centre remains. Many people are outraged that “they” would try to put up “their” religious centre near where “they” committed an act of terrorism. I put the “they” in quotes for what I hope are obvious reasons – it wasn’t representatives of the Muslim community that hijacked the planes. It wasn’t representatives of the Muslim community that rejoiced when the towers fell.

But it was Muslims, and its easy to paint “them” with the same brush.

So a group that is representative of the Muslim community (whatever that may be) wants to put up a mosque in Manhattan. The stated purpose of the mosque is an admirable one: show the terrorists that Muslims are Americans too, and that they stand solidly behind the United States in ensuring religious freedom. However, the monster of prejudice and mistrust is rearing its ugly head:

A landmark commission hearing may determine the future of a proposed mosque near Ground Zero. The ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee said Monday he favours an investigation into the funding of the mosque.

Given the reality that terrorist groups and foreign governments who are friendly with those groups are peddling influence in the United States, a review of the funding is perhaps warranted. What isn’t clear to me is why this structure and not others are of particular importance, unless it’s simply due to its locale. Mayor Bloomberg, who is opposed to such investigation, surprises me for taking the stand that he does; however, I don’t necessarily disagree with him.

Amazingly, the network media is doing exactly what I hoped they’d do:

Entitled “Kill the Ground Zero Mosque”, the video calls the proposed mosque a “monstrosity” that will invite further attacks on the US. The advertisement has received over 100,000 page views on YouTube. Neither CBS nor NBC, two of the major US television networks, will screen the advert.

The important thing is not whether or not they refuse to air it, but why. It appears that the reason has nothing to do with “not offending Muslims”, but more to do with the actual values of the United States:

In emails obtained by the news website Politico, NBC Universal advertising standards manager Jennifer Riley wrote that because it did not make a distinction between terror groups and the religious organisation behind the mosque, “the ad is not acceptable under our guidelines for broadcast”.

This is not blind capitulation to the sensitive feelings of the Muslim community, but a recognition of the need to distinguish between terrorists and people who share their religious label. As far as I am concerned, this is being handled correctly. This is how secularism can work, even if I don’t like the fact that in excess of $100m is being spent on a site of religious worship.

A remarkable article

Continuing with today’s theme, Brian has shared with me a fantastic article about the abduction, rape and subjugation of women in Ethiopia.

Nurame was in her bed when she was woken by an angry mêlée. In her family’s hut there were grown men – an incredible number, 10 or more, all in their 30s, all standing over her father, shouting. They reached for her. At night here, where there is no electricity, perfect darkness falls, and everything becomes a shadow-play of barely visible flickers. But even though she was eight years old, she suspected at once what was happening. She had heard whispers that, when a girl is considered ready for marriage, a man will seize her, and rape her, and then she must serve him for the rest of her life.

This practice has apparently (it is news to me) become endemic in Ethiopia. I spoke at length in a previous post about my feelings on female genital mutilation, and the systematic brutalization of women that happens all around the world. This article puts these atrocities into perspective, and profiles the exploits of a particularly impressive woman who has become the face of the rebellion against this practice:

When [Boge] was told this was her culture and she had to accept it, she found the argument ridiculous. “I thought – how can this be my culture, if it kills me?” she says, leaning forward. “What is culture? It is something that is constantly changing. In Europe, you burned witches. That culture changed. Every woman has a sense of her own dignity. I knew I was not a cow, a chattel, and I did not want to be treated like one. No woman wants to be abducted or cut up. This is true whatever your culture. Culture is not stagnant – it is transient.”

It makes me incredibly happy to see people reject the arch-liberal excuse of “that’s just how they do things in their culture.” It’s a pernicious lie that permits the continuation of horrible and terrifying practices all over the world.

Interestingly, the article also spends a good deal of time talking to the men, and getting their perspective:

When Boge first arrived in this area, he was sceptical. Why are these women trying to change the way things have worked here for as long as anyone can remember? What good can come of it? “I went to see the video of the circumcision taking place, and I was shocked. I didn’t know it was so violent, so bloody. That was the first time I began to think,” he says, lighting a cigarette. His wife – who was only 16 when she was seized – began to attend the KMG meetings and talk about the feelings she had long interred.

These are not bad people, these are regular people seized by a bad idea. Like pseudoscience, or religion, or any other number of bad ideas, they can be challenged and people can be convinced to abandon them. Will everyone abandon the bad ideas? Certainly not. But if enough people do, it can affect a sea change that reaches out and affects the entire society. That’s the way we have to do things in any culture I want to be a part of.

Do yourself a favour, read the whole thing.

A dilly of a pickle

Here’s an interesting ethical debate, for those of you who swing that way:

Ontario’s highest court is considering the thorny issue of whether a sexual assault complainant should remove her niqab to face her alleged attackers in court. The issue has drawn attention from several groups, that are not only split on whether or not a woman should be able to wear a veil in the witness box, but also on the fundamental questions the issue evokes.

Imagine you’re a woman (which will be much easier for my female readers… hello ladies) who has been beaten and sexually assaulted by her family. Imagine your family, and you, are devout Muslims, which means that you must cover your face when you leave the house. Imagine that in order to get the abuse to stop, or to see justice done, you must remove the veil in court to testify. Are you less likely to be willing to testify if it means violating your religious beliefs? What if it’s not just your beliefs, but those of your husband and children, who will be scandalized (and might leave you) if you show your face in public.

Now imagine you’re a lawyer (which will be much easier for my law-school readers… hello lawyers) who has been tasked with representing this woman. Imagine your esteemed colleague, the defense lawyer, is saying that the case should be thrown out on the grounds that cross-examination of your client is impossible, since she is covering her face. Imagine that the abusive rapists will be allowed to walk free on a technicality because your client is bowing to sexist superstition about immodesty based on an interpretation of scripture, an interpretation that even many practitioners of her own faith disagree with. Do you tell her that her claim is meaningless, and that her courage in filing the suit in the first place was a waste of time because of her closely-held beliefs?

This isn’t an abstract thought experiment, this is actually happening. Once again, the laws of the land are having to tiptoe around religious rules. The blame doesn’t lie with this woman, she’s just trying to live her life. The fault lies within a system that allows the systematic subjugation of all women to be seen as a virtuous act. For once, I don’t have a clear-cut answer of what the court should do. On the one hand, testifying would have deleterious effects on the plaintiff and possibly cause her to lose her family and social life; it would most certainly deter other abused women from coming forward after they see that the consequence of speaking up is social isolation (and possibly more abuse). On the other hand however, allowing her to wear the veil not only violates the right of the accused to confront their accuser face-to-face, but implicitly assents to the practice of veiling women.

I’d be very interested to hear what you have to say on the topic. My opinion as it stands now is that it is better to err on the side of the abused and make concessions for them, while at the same time affirming that we do not condone the practice of the veil, but that may change as I have more time to mull it over.