Saturday, October 31, 2009

Is The United States Gearing Up To Go Into Pakistan?

In 2007, Barack Obama attracted controversy during his campaign by declaring that if elected, he would be willing to go into Pakistan if there is "actionable intelligence about high-value targets" in the country, and if the Pakistani government "won't act" against them.

During her three-day visit to Pakistan this week, Hillary Clinton seemed to indicate that those two criteria may now have been fulfilled.

On actionable intelligence about high-value targets, Clinton seemed confident that Al Qaeda's leadership is present in Pakistan: "Al Qaeda has had safe haven in Pakistan since is just a fact that Al Qaeda had sought refuge in Pakistan after the US and our allies went after them because of the attack on 9/11...Our best information is that Al Qaeda leadership is somewhere in Pakistan."

On unwillingness to act, she suggested that Pakistani officials know where these terrorists are, but are hesitant to go after them: "I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn't get them if they really wanted to. Maybe they're not gettable. I don't know."

Even while commending Pakistan's military efforts in Swat and South Waziristan, she said that it was "not sufficient".

Meanwhile, President Obama has been "dithering" (as Dick Cheney put it) on a decision about how many more troops to send to Afghanistan, if any.

He may be listening closely to his vice president. Newsweek's recent cover story on Joe Biden started off highlighting the veep's concerns about resources and strategy in the region: "So I have a question. Al Qaeda is almost all in Pakistan, and Pakistan has nuclear weapons. And yet for every dollar we're spending in Pakistan, we're spending $30 in Afghanistan. Does that make strategic sense?"

The question is a good one, and Biden's observations are shared by others, notably National Security Adviser Retd. Gen. James Jones, who said of Afghanistan earlier this month: "The Al Qaeda presence is very diminished. The maximum estimate is less than 100 operating in the country, no bases, no ability to launch attacks on either us or our allies."

On Friday, the White House stood behind Clinton's blunt comments, calling them "completely appropriate".

While it may be too early to tell whether Obama will follow through on his 2007 campaign pledge, it does seem like his administration is setting the stage.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Are Evolution-Deniers any Different from Holocaust-Deniers, Birthers, or Truthers?

Could Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who again reaffirmed his belief last week that the Holocaust was a myth, land his own show on Fox News? Going by Richard Dawkins' new book The Greatest Show on Earth, out now in the US and Canada, it may not be such a long shot.

In the first chapter of the book -- which aims to present the evidence for evolution in its totality -- Dawkins unapologetically lumps evolution-deniers and Holocaust-deniers together, and illustrates his point as follows:

"Imagine you are a teacher of recent history, and your lessons on 20th-century Europe are boycotted, heckled or otherwise disrupted by well-organised, well-financed and politically muscular groups of Holocaust-deniers...

Holocaust deniers really exist. They are vocal, superficially plausible and adept at seeming learned. They are supported by the president of at least one currently powerful state, and they include at least one bishop of the Roman Catholic Church.

Imagine that, as a teacher of European history, you are continually faced with belligerent demands to 'teach the controversy', and to give 'equal time' to the 'alternative theory' that the Holocaust never happened but was invented by a bunch of Zionist fabricators.

...Fashionably relativist intellectuals chime in to insist that there is no absolute truth: whether the Holocaust happened is a matter of personal belief; all points of view are equally valid and should be equally 'respected'."
Based on Dawkins' argument, people like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and the Jewish Ben Stein -- who made the anti-evolution documentary Expelled -- are in the same boat as those who say that the Holocaust, which like evolution is a historical reality with overwhelming evidence supporting it, should be treated as a debatable issue in a history class.

It has been a busy time for deniers of history. Birthers who deny that Barack Obama is US-born, and truthers who insist that 9/11 was a government conspiracy, are getting louder. Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad is in New York this week for the UN General Assembly's annual meeting, amid protests against his most recent statements about the Holocaust.

And actor Kirk Cameron is ready for the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species on November 24. In a new YouTube video, Cameron announces his plan to distribute 50,000 free copies of Darwin's book to university students -- but with a catch. The books will have a 50 page introduction written by Ray Comfort, aka the "Banana Guy", who is famous for using a banana as an argument against evolution. In the introduction, Comfort writes about Hitler (who was, interestingly, a Christian) having an "undeniable" connection to the theory of evolution, claiming that Darwin's "racism" inspired him.

Also in the crossfire this year is Creation, the new film starring Paul Bettany as a young Charles Darwin who struggles with his faith following the death of his 10-year-old daughter. The movie has yet to find a distributor in the United States, due to the "controversy" surrounding the subject matter.

But if evolution is still a controversy with two legitimate sides to it, why isn't the Holocaust? In a way, Dawkins' assertion doesn't go far enough. While Holocaust deniers simply deny historical evidence, evolution deniers blind themselves to much more: between the disciplines of physics, archeology, paleontology, molecular genetics, botany, cosmology, and geology, there is a mountain of evidence -- more than there is for the Holocaust -- supporting evolution.

I wonder how Ben Stein would reconcile this. Would he hear out Ahmadinejad on the Holocaust the way Glenn Beck heard Stein out on his anti-evolution film? Fair and balanced, anyone?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Male Circumcision and the HIV/AIDS Myth

This year, 1.2 million male babies in the United States will have between 35 and 50% of healthy, functioning penile skin -- containing over 20,000 nerve endings and the five most sensitive areas of the penis -- removed in a procedure that all of the major medical associations in the world, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Paediatric Society, have deemed medically unnecessary.

Overall, routine, non-therapeutic circumcision costs over $2 billion a year; in most states, it is still covered by Medicaid, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars to the taxpayer. Despite near-universal recommendations against performing it routinely, it is the most common surgical procedure performed in the United States.

Having started among ancient Egyptians and ancient Semitic peoples as a religious sacrificial ritual, the practice didn't take hold in Western societies until the late 1800s, when Western society was mired in masturbation-related hysteria. Dr. John Kellogg (yes, the Corn Flakes guy) was seminally (ahem) influential in the fight against what he called the "practice of solitary vice", to prevent which he ardently recommended circumcision, writing:

"The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment, as it may well be in some cases. The soreness which continues for several weeks interrupts the practice, and if it had not previously become too firmly fixed, it may be forgotten and not resumed."

This recommendation was accepted and implemented widely for male children, likely buoyed by the belief that circumcision was, after all, part of Abraham's covenant with God, who doesn't really like dickheads. Because the application of phenol to a girl's clitoris wasn't part of this covenant, this second recommendation from Dr. Kellogg to prevent female masturbation -- an "excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement" as he wrote in his book Plain Facts for Old and Young -- wasn't embraced as enthusiastically.

I personally debunked Dr. Kellogg's myth as a young, foreskinless pre-adolescent, sometimes several times a day. Science can be fun. But since Dr. Kellogg, many more myths have come and gone.

One had to do with a 1932 study by Abraham Wolbarst claiming that infant circumcision virtually eradicates the risk of penile cancer, an exceedingly rare condition that affects approximately 1 in 100,000 males in the United States. His research was later discredited on several grounds, including the fact that Wolbarst happened to an avid circumcisionist who also believed, like Dr. Kellogg, that circumcision prevented not only masturbation, but also epilepsy and infant death.

We now know that penile cancer is only slightly more prevalent in the uncircumcised, and routine circumcision is not the best way to go about preventing it, just as routine double mastectomy in women who are done with breastfeeding (and thus have no remaining physiological need for their breasts) is not a good approach to preventing breast cancer -- which is much more common than penile cancer. We also know that the human papilloma virus (HPV), which also causes genital warts, is the most important risk factor for cancer of the penis -- and genital warts are more easily contracted by circumcised men. Moreover, penile cancer is much less prevalent in countries like Denmark, where circumcision is uncommon, compared to the United States, where between 50-60% of males are circumcised.

Advocates of circumcision found more ammunition recently when it was reported that uncircumcised heterosexual males were more likely to contract HIV/AIDS than their circumcised counterparts. The finding, based on studies in Africa, specifically Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa, seemed to show that circumcision reduces the chances of heterosexual men contracting HIV/AIDS from women by up to 60%.

The World Health Organization got behind this immediately, and the WHO's HIV/AIDS Department director, Dr. Kevin De Cock (yes, that's his real name) stated unequivocally that circumcision would give a significant "additional benefit" to men trying to avoid HIV infection.

So how do you go about conducting a randomized, controlled intervention trial looking at HIV infection in circumcised adult men? Probably not the way that these researchers did.

First, to be included in the study, men had to be HIV-negative and uncircumcised. The men also had to consent to "avoid sexual contact (except with condom protection) during the 6 weeks following the medicalized circumcision."

The experimental group which underwent the circumcisions was given the following instructions:
"When you are circumcised you will be asked to have no sexual contact in the 6 weeks after surgery. To have sexual contact before your skin of your penis is completely healed, could lead to infection if your partner is infected with a sexually transmitted disease... If you desire to have sexual contact in the 6 weeks after surgery, despite our recommendation, it is absolutely essential that you use a condom."
So the males in the study that underwent circumcision were not only told to abstain from sex for a significant time period after the operation -- reducing their exposure time by six weeks compared to the uncircumcised (control) group -- but told to use condoms, taught how to use them, and educated about their benefits. During this six week period, the men in the uncircumcised group did not have the same restrictions.

There also doesn't seem to be any mention of the researchers calling up the circumcised men after six weeks to say, "Okay, time's up. Ease up on the condom use from here on." The possibility that many of these men might have become accustomed to using condoms, armed with knowledge about their benefits, didn't seem to be much of a concern.

Also, other routes of HIV transmission like blood transfusion, IV needle sharing, or a dentist with dirty instruments (not unimaginable in Africa) don't seem to have been taken into account. Individual variables like hygiene were also poorly controlled for.

Casting further doubt on the theory that circumcision prevents HIV transmission is a simple look at the prevalence of circumcision and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in different parts of the world.

As a continent, Africa has the highest percentage of circumcised men, over 60%. Africa also has -- as most people know -- the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS, with South Africa housing the world's largest HIV-infected population. In countries like Nigeria and Kenya, (the latter being one of the countries where the study was conducted) over 80% of males are circumcised, yet they contain the second and fourth largest HIV-infected populations in the world respectively.

Among industrialized nations, the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS is in the United States, which has the 10th largest HIV-positive population in the world. And yes, the USA also ranks number one among all industrialized nations in its number and percentage of circumcised men: 56% as of 2003, compared to countries in Europe, where circumcision is markedly less common -- as is the prevalence of HIV/AIDS.

Finally, let's address a question that seems to have been largely overlooked: what about the women?

Well, last month, The Lancet -- which refused to publish the male circumcision trials due to certain ethical concerns -- published a study led by Dr. Maria Wawer at the Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, concluding that circumcising men did not reduce HIV transmission to their female partners.

Actually, it's quite possible that circumcised men are more likely to give their female partners HIV/AIDS than uncircumcised men. Dr. Wawer found that 18% of the women in her study contracted HIV/AIDS from circumcised men, compared to 12% of women who contracted it from uncircumcised men.

The result was not statistically significant, but the Findings section states, "The trial was stopped early because of futility." Futility? The study may not have been "futile" if, with a larger sample size and properly completed, it had showed that circumcised men were more likely to transmit HIV/AIDS to their female partners, would it? An unanticipated result is still a result, specially if there is pre-existing data supporting it, like this Johns Hopkins study suggesting that women are indeed more likely to get HIV/AIDS from a circumcised male partner.

In an interview with VoA, Dr. Wawer appeared to have had a preference regarding her results. "Yes, of course we are disappointed," she said. "But the data are what the data are."

At the end of the day, we're close to busting another myth, and back to where we started with this whole circumcision-HIV thing. Even if the researchers in the Africa trials were right, it would take over 70 circumcisions in Africa to prevent 1 case of HIV. If the data were applied to the United States, it would take over 300 circumcisions to prevent one case of HIV. The bottom line remains the same: the best way to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections -- whether you're circumcised, uncircumcised, gay, straight, male or female -- is through education and condom use. Where these two conflict -- as they did with the Pope's fatwa on condoms this year -- please go with the condom use.

A recent study looking at sensitivity of the penis in the circumcised and uncircumcised male found that the five most sensitive areas on the penis are removed at circumcision, and that the keratinized glans on the circumcised penis is less sensitive than the foreskin-protected, mucosa-lined glans on the uncircumcised penis. The skin removed from the penis at circumcision makes up close to 50% of the total penile skin, amounting to 15 square inches in an adult.

Even the mildest form of female circumcision is illegal, and very rightly termed female genital mutilation. Male circumcision on the other hand, is demonstrably more severe than some of the milder forms of FGM, but still performed widely. It is still covered by many insurance providers, and Medicaid in most states, despite being completely unnecessary.

Suppose for a moment that females who have been circumcised are shown to have a lower risk of acquiring HIV/AIDS. Kind of like it says in this abstract here.

How appropriate would it be for a group of researchers to carry out a massive study like the African male circumcision trials for women?

How long would it take for Dr. Kevin De Cock at the WHO to recommend female genital mutilation -- even in its mildest form -- as a form of HIV/AIDS prevention?

I wouldn't hold my breath.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

An Exclusive Interview with a Pro-Ahmadinejad Cleric in Qom, Iran

I lived in Lahore, Pakistan for a few years during high school. It was during that time that I met Hasan (name altered for anonymity). Hasan lives in Qom, Iran, and is training at the Islamic seminary in the city, the largest institution for the study of Shiite Islamic theology in the world, where both of Iran's Supreme Leaders, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, received training. Hasan is currently a Hojjat-ul-Islam, the rank Khamenei was when he was selected to succeed Khomeini as Iran's second Supreme Leader.

When I tracked him down, Hasan was more eager to speak to me than I had expected. He felt that his people's views on the Iranian elections were not being represented properly in the international media. Before I spoke to him on the phone, he also consulted with some of his colleagues, teachers, and friends at the seminary to ensure, in his words, that what he tells me is "accurate" and "representative".

As you'll notice, a recurring theme in many of his answers is his very strong belief that "foreign" Western powers, particularly England, are behind the current unrest in Tehran, an idea that is being played up significantly on Iranian state television, radio, and newspapers, which he cites often. Second, he does not make much of the scale of the protests, and downplays the idea of a rift in the clerical establishment, often expressing surprise when I inform him of some of the reports we have seen here.

All of the opinions and ideas presented here are solely his. Here is the interview.

Based on the media and resources that you have access to, can you give us a general idea about what you think is happening in Tehran?

There are several factors in this situation that have come together. There is one segment of the population that did want Mousavi to win the election. These people had done some propaganda to make it seem like Mousavi will get most of the votes. In particular, Tehran... because Tehran is a metropolitan city, you have people with all kinds of backgrounds and thinking. In Tehran itself, [Mousavi] had a lot of supporters. Tehran is part of what we call "Ustan-e-Tehran", where Tehran is the central city and the "ustan" includes the suburbs and smaller towns surrounding Tehran. An ustan is bigger than a district, but smaller than a province. If you look at the election results, in these suburbs and small towns in Ustan-e-Tehran, Ahmadinejad got more votes than Mousavi. But in the central city of Tehran, Ahmadinejad got fewer votes than Mousavi.

But you see, Tehran isn't all of Iran. People in Tehran sometimes think that because they are all supporters of Mousavi, all of Iran must be supporters of Mousavi, but this is not true. Overall, in 2 ustans, Azerbaijan-e-Ghardi and Ustan-e-Sistan-e-Balochistan, Mousavi got more votes than Ahmadinejad. In the rest of the ustans... I think Iran has a total of 24 ustans... in the rest of the 22 ustans, Ahmadinejad took more votes. Even in Ustan-e-Tehran, Ahmadinejad has more votes than Mousavi, but in the Tehran city, Mousavi has more votes.

So what happened is that the people in Tehran thought that he would win, Mousavi, because they had created a sort of atmosphere where they thought that the newspapers there, the Western media, and the American media was supporting him. But if you look at the rest of Iran, Ahmadinejad has done a lot of good work. I mean, there were projects that would take 7 or 8 or 9 years to complete, and he completed these projects in 2 or 3 years. He brought electricity to places that had none, clean water to places where water wasn't clean, and many things like this. He has greatly helped the poor people of Iran. The majority of Iran, therefore, was with Ahmadinejad.

That leaves Tehran, the Tehran city particularly. Now here there were groups led by important people like Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani [a powerful cleric who chairs Iran's Assembly of Experts, and a former president] and others who said they would support Mousavi. They said they would protest, but they wanted to protest peacefully. They never had the intention to come to Tehran and damage property, break things, or burn things, because in Iran, overall, this is not something that's in our history. It's very rare and even if it happens once in many years, it's done by small groups and it is considered very bad. Whoever you are protesting against, doing these things, damaging and breaking things is considered very bad.

Now Tehran has millions of people, and bringing out a few thousand to protest is not such a big feat. When some of these people were going back recently, they were arrested by the Iranian intelligence and questioned. They said that they were neither with Ahmadinejad, nor with Mousavi. In fact, they said they hadn't even voted at all. They said that they had specifically received orders from a lady in England named Zohra, which I think is a fake name, who had given them orders to do all of this breaking and damaging and violence. They recorded her phone calls, and showed it on TV here. I saw it myself. She would call them and give them orders to go out and destroy things, set fire to gas stations, and so on. And now the foreign minister of Iran has done a press conference and openly said that these people in England are calling people over here and telling them to go out and commit vandalism and violence. They had all of this planned ahead of time, well before the election.

What are the people you know saying about Ayatollah Khamenei's sermon on Friday?

If you noticed, in the khutba [sermon] by the Rahber [the title used to address the Supreme Leader], he mentioned Rafsanjani by name and criticized him, but he also supported him and said good things about him. He also criticized Ahmadinejad, but also supported him. So after this, Rafsanjani and the other leaders who were supporting Mousavi withdrew from the protests. They said that after the Rahber's speech, we don't think it is right to continue this opposition, and the Rahber has now shown us the right path. But some of the small parties and groups supporting Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi continued their protests.

Another thing that happened was that during the debates, Ahmadinejad accidentally criticized Rafsanjani and portrayed him in a negative light. As a result, some of Ahmadinejad's supporters began to have a negative image of Rafsanjani. On the other hand, Rafsanjani's people also became angry, saying that Ahmadinejad's people have maligned them. But then, in his khutba on Friday, the Rahber admonished both Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad. He scolded Ahmadinejad for saying negative things about Rafsanjani without any proof. Of course Khamenei and Rafsanjani have differences in their opinions. This is normal in politics. It happens everywhere. It does not discredit the other person entirely. Once the Rahber brought everyone together in this way, Rafsanjani's group withdrew and decided that they will not continue the protests.

The protests that continued after the speech were not done by people here. They were done by foreign influences, like this woman Zohra in England. I saw on the news that yesterday [Saturday], they even burned a mosque. Can you imagine that? You can completely forget about the idea that any real Iranian, even a supporter of Mousavi, would ever burn a mosque. Anyone who would burn a mosque... this means that he is not even a Muslim. When this news came out over here, everybody became completely convinced that the people doing all of this have been planted from outside Iran. Nobody burns a mosque! I told you before that even burning a bank or another building is something that is considered very bad over here. People here are very educated and civilized.

What about the reported bombing of Ayatollah Khomeini's tomb? Do you think that this was also carried out by people planted from outside Iran? Could Mousavi's supporters have done this?

See, this is what I'm telling you. This is not the kind of thing that Mousavi's supporters could have done. They may have had minor grievances with the other side, like the disagreements between Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani, but these incidents of bombings and destruction are all being done by people outside Iran that have been planted by foreign powers. They were showing on TV here that these are people who were given training in Iraq and then were sent over here to do these things. These people have been hired and paid.

What do these people want? They want to delegitimize this record-breaking election we've had where 85% of people came out and voted. They want people to think that this report of an 85% turnout is fraudulent, that there is all this infighting going on in Iran and people don't have faith in the system. But the world has seen on the day of the election here, that there were endless lines at the voting stations before voting had even started... in such a big democracy, where 85% of people came out to vote.

Look, Ahmadinejad got 24 million votes, and Mousavi got about 13 million, and with the rest of the candidates, it's a total of 39 million people who came out and participated in the process of democracy. Think about that... why would so many people come out and vote if they did not have any faith in the system? Who votes? It is those people who know that they can get justice and a better life through the process. If a person thinks there is corruption and deception in the system, he wouldn't bother to vote, he would just stay home. People participated in this election and came out to vote because they accepted the system and had faith in it.

But there are some parts of the process that are very suspicious. First, by law, the final results of the election cannot be certified by the Supreme Leader for a period of at least three days, in order to allow for any grievances that participating candidates may have. Second, voting was done on paper ballots and counted by hand. How is it possible that 39 million votes were counted in such a short time, just a few hours?

As far as the three day law goes, I have to look into this myself and see what the methodology was exactly. [Hasan said that he will get back to me soon on this issue, and when he does, I will update this post.] But I will explain what I know to you about the vote counting.

During the election, there were about 47,000 polling stations for voting. [I have independently confirmed that this is accurate.] For each station, every candidate was allowed to have a representative present to oversee the process. Mir Hossein Mousavi had 47,000 representatives, one at each station, and Ahmadinejad I think had 42,000 or something like that. The other candidates had fewer representatives. When the voting ended at 11 pm, they immediately started counting. Once they had the final tallies at each station, the representatives were made to sign off on them, and the numbers were fed into a centrally computerized system where the tallies were collected.

Now, if you divide 39 million votes by 47,000 stations, it comes to 893 votes per station on average. This is a very small number of ballots that can easily be counted in a short period of time, and the final tally from each station was submitted to the central computerized system immediately. They reported the results live on TV as the final tallies came in. Again, remember that the representatives of both candidates at each polling station were required to sign off on the final tally at that station.

Also, the ballots were present in a booklet, like a checkbook where you can rip out the checks. This is how the ballots were distributed, and like a checkbook, each booklet had a fixed number of ballots. As soon as a booklet was exhausted, they would enter that record into the computer, so that the computer would keep track of how many booklets had been used up. Even after all of this, the Guardian Council allowed for people to come forward and report any irregularities in writing so that they could be investigated. This was not done at first, but later, on prompting, when a complaint was filed, the Guardian Council agreed to a partial recount of 10% of the votes.

Speaking of the Guardian Council, Ali Larijani, the pro-Khamenei Speaker of Parliament, has implied that some members of the Guardian Council are taking sides in the situation, which takes away from Khamenei's statement that this was a clear victory for Ahmadinejad, and even contradicts it--

Ali Larijani said this? Really?

Yes, this is what was reported here on Sunday morning.

No, no. It's not true. I watched Ali Larijani on TV just last night [Saturday] and he said that the Western media wants to take our great success in this election with record turnout and portray it in a negative light. He said to the public of Iran that we should be celebrating our wonderful success as a democracy. I saw this myself, on TV, and everyone in Iran saw it, so no one here will ever believe this report. I think the Western media may have taken his words and edited them to quote them out of context.

I also wanted to ask you about your access to the media. Apart from state-run television broadcasts, do you have complete access to the internet, sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter for instance?

Yes, we have complete access.

Well, over here, because of the ban on foreign journalists covering the events in Tehran, a lot of the major media outlets have started to broadcast web-based images and videos that are being sent in by people on the ground in Iran. There are literally hundreds of videos and pictures that have come in this way showing large numbers of people protesting, and many of them show brutal violence, home invasions, and so on. There is one particularly gruesome video of a woman named Neda who was shot and killed on camera by paramilitary forces, and it has evoked widespread reaction. Are you familiar with these kinds of events?

Look, in Iran, we have a few sources. We have two TV channels, radio, and then we have the newspapers, which are particularly popular among Iranians. Now, we also have the internet, and yes, we are familiar with these videos showing the murders of these people and the violence against them. I can tell you the impression of the people here... they believe that it is the people who are damaging and vandalizing, these planted forces from outside, that are committing these murders. This is what people believe in Iran.

You know, one of the biggest pieces of propaganda is that the forces here are allowed to use firearms. They're not. If you look closely at these videos, you'll notice that the legitimate police and officers are using clubs, tear gas, and water canons to control the crowd, not firearms. If you are seeing people using guns and firearms, these are the rogues from outside Iran who are terrorizing the people and vandalizing property. I'm telling you, all of Iran is against these people who are committing these acts of violence and vandalism.

I'll tell you something which I'm not sure you know. Last week, the office of the Rahber called on hundreds of thousands of people to celebrate at a place called Meydan-e-Wali-Asr, not because Ahmadinejad won, but to celebrate Iran's democratic process, to celebrate our momentous election with a record-breaking turnout. A few days later, people were called out again to demonstrate against these people who were committing acts of violence and vandalism in the protests, and again hundreds of thousands of people came out for that demonstration. But the international media never covers these kinds of things. Instead, the media is taking a few protests with a few hundred or a few thousand people in Tehran and making them out to be much more significant than they are.

And then you have seen the huge crowd that attended the Rahber's speech at Friday prayers. Again, there were hundreds of thousands of people who came to hear him and support him, from all over the country. You have seen them on TV. People were so energized and so excited to see the Rahber that the first twenty minutes were just them cheering and chanting slogans praising him.

Who are these people? Are they not Iranians? Just because the media never shows this side of things, everyone thinks that these protesters committing violence is all that is going on here, while the rest of Iran is silent, and there is no other point of view. In fact, most Iranians are upset with the government for not being more aggressive in cracking down on these people.

In that case, why do you think the government isn't cracking down on these people more aggressively?

Because they are mixed in with the normal people. If you know 100% that the people standing in front of you are your enemy, you can be aggressive. But these people are in regular clothing, they are in the middle of the city, where there are also regular people mixed in, working, in the shops, walking around. So you have to be careful in how you go about tackling the situation. This is also why the government forces are not allowed to use firearms. If they fire at them, the rogues will fire back, and they won't care if the public is in the way. So you have to be careful.

You're speaking a lot about these videos on the internet that are being exaggerated to mean more than what they are, and you're also complaining that the media is not covering your side of the situation. However, if the government bans all foreign media outlets as they have, it forces them to rely on these videos, images, blogs, and Tweets as their primary source of information, which you claim are misrepresentative. Does the government understand that this works against them? Also, why hasn't your side organized events and made their own videos to present your side of the story?

This thing that you're saying is absolutely right. This is something that is lacking on our side. The supporters on our side should do this more of this kind of work. The people who are supporting Ahmadinejad, our government, and our police force need to express what they think, make videos, and send them out so that people can see the other side. We were discussing this among ourselves the other day. It has been shocking to us to see that what we are witnessing here is so different from what the international media is showing.

There are two websites you should read and let me know what you think, and On the second one, there is an article about how the BBC took a picture from a pro-Ahmadinejad rally and claimed that it was a Mousavi rally. [Note: Here's the link to the article that Hasan is talking about. The website deals with various conspiracy theories.]

In past protests like the one in 1999, the establishment in Iran was united. However, now there are reports of powerful figures like Rafsanjani and Khatami moving away from Khamenei. Neither of the two was present at the Friday sermon even though they were summoned by Khamenei to attend. Also, on Sunday morning Ayatollah Montazeri declared a period of mourning for those killed in the protests from Wednesday to Friday. Rafsanjani has made a statement saying that the protests and the voice of the people should be respected and supported. Mousavi has also reportedly declared that he is ready for martyrdom. Do you believe that there is a genuine rift in the clerical establishment?

[Expresses surprise at statements from Montazeri and Rafsanjani.] Look, there is no doubt that there are disagreements among some of these men. They are nothing new. Montazeri, although he is respected because he is a mujtahid [the highest rank achievable in Shia religious training], does not have much of a following here. As you know, he was originally selected by Imam Khomeini as his successor, but later the Imam denounced him because of a corruption scandal. It was a dark spot on his character, and although he is learned and respected, he was not qualified to become the next Rahber. He is a controversial figure who gets a lot of attention from the foreign media, but the media and the people here consider him insignificant.

But what about Rafsanjani? There are reports that Jawad Shahristani, the representative and son-in-law of Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq, met secretly with Rafsanjani and the Assembly of Experts in Qom to consider redrafting the system of clerical rule in Iran by establishing a collective ruling body instead of a single Supreme Leader. Are you familiar with this? [Note: Sistani, based in Iraq, is one of the most influential Shia spiritual leaders in the region.]

Well, yes, we have heard something like this, that they are considering introducing the system of shoora-e-rahbariya, or a council of mujtahids that act as a supreme authority instead of one supreme leader. But you see, this is nothing new. The late Shaheed Muttahari, who was considered to be... well, you can think of him as number 2 to Imam Khomeini, also suggested the idea of having a mujtahid council. But this idea was not welcomed or accepted among the people. We do have a report from authentic sources that Rafsanjani, on his last trip to Iraq, met with Ayatollah Sistani, who advised him to obey Khamenei. He said that it was not in the interest of Iran to not obey the Rahber, who provides excellent leadership for the country.

The second thing is that if several people get together to float ideas... well, that is the job of the Assembly of Experts, which Rafsanjani is the chairman of. These are people who are mujtahids and are elected by the people of Iran. They keep watch over the supreme leadership, and God forbid if the Rahber makes a mistake or makes a wrong decision, they have the authority to replace him. So there already is a body that oversees these things. If there was a council of people to issue fatwas and edicts, without a singular figure of authority, it would not have as much authenticity and credibility among the people.

At our institution in Qom, in the Imam Khomeini Madrassa, we have many seminars, where ulema [scholars] from around the world come to speak and debate. They disagree very often and have open debates, where they sometimes have completely antithetical views on things. Open academic discussion and debate are very normal and encouraged here. This does not mean that there are any serious enmities within the clerical establishment.

Do you think, then, that despite their differences, eventually Rafsanjani and Khatami will end up supporting Khamenei?

Look, all of these men understand, accept, and revere the system. This is not something they disagree on. They're united on this. The difference is in their preference of methodology in order to get things done. For example, they often discuss how we should deal with the Western world. One group says that we should be firm and outspoken in our approach. The other says that we should be softer and more diplomatic. For example, Mohammad Khatami may be more open to engaging in talks and making concessions with the West about Iran's nuclear program to avoid sanctions and other headaches. Others believe that we should take a harder stance and stand our ground. These disagreements on policy are very normal. They happen in every country in the world. Remember, even when Mohammad Khatami was president, it was still Khamenei who was the Supreme Leader. Khatami did try his soft approach on the nuclear issue. The Rahber told him to make concessions, but if there is no response or accommodation on the other side, he should go back to being aggressive. So at the end of his presidency, after Ahmadinejad was elected, Iran returned to the aggressive stance.

Regarding the nuclear issue, Ahmadinejad has said that he wants to develop the nuclear program for energy, not to make a bomb. Khamenei has also issued a fatwa against building a nuclear bomb. Why should the rest of the world believe them?

You know, there is one fundamental thing that people in the West don't understand about Iran, and if they can understand this one basic concept, they will understand many other things. Look, the government of Iran is an Islamic government. Their view is, if there is something that isn't even allowed in Sharia, something that Islam does not allow us to do, how can we even think of doing this thing? The Rahber has said this many times, and as you said, issued a fatwa against making a nuclear bomb. He has said that if this is something I give permission for, it can jeopardize my own faith and my own stature as a Muslim. It's against our moral and religious beliefs.

America looks at this issue according to their own mentality. They think, we're lying, so they must be lying too. You can look through all of the speeches of the Rahber, and you will not find a single instance of deception or lying. He cannot do it. If he lies or does something wrong, he cannot stay the Supreme Leader. The Assembly of Experts would have to replace him.

One of the biggest problems that people here have with Ahmadinejad is his stance on Israel and his denial of the Holocaust. It is one thing to be critical of Israeli policy, but what purpose does denying the Holocaust and holding conferences dedicated to Holocaust denial serve in helping Iran's interests and relations with the rest of the world?

Look, if you listen to his words carefully, he doesn't say that he accepts or denies the Holocaust. He is a university professor, an academic. He looks at it as a historical event, like any other. He doesn't understand why each event in recorded history is subjected to research and re-evaluation except for this one. In Denmark, they can make cartoons insulting the Holy Prophet and this is defended as freedom of opinion. But in this case, it is taboo to have any opinions on this issue.

You do see, though, that there are parallels in the way Muslims feel about the Danish cartoons and the way Jews feel about the Holocaust? It is a very personal, emotional issue for them. Academic debate is one thing, but do you think it serves any kind of purpose when people in powerful political positions express these opinions? If the goal is to try and resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, why should people in political positions highlight an unnecessary issue that would only inflame the other side and complicate the potential for a solution? Wouldn't it be more effective to put the Holocaust issue aside and just focus on the Israeli-Palestinian issue?

Again, many of Ahmadinejad's statements have been misunderstood. He does not reject the Holocaust. Okay, suppose he says the Holocaust happened just as it is recorded in history, without challenging it. It still happened in Europe, right? Why then are the Palestinian people being punished for it? That is the real question.

Also remember, we have 30,000 Jews living in Iran very peacefully. They like the Iranian government. We have always made a clear distinction between Judaism and Zionism. This is very important. Our opposition is to the Zionists, not to the Jews. We have a lot of respect for Judaism... it is also a religion of God, from Abraham.

What kind of approach do you think the people of Iran want to see from President Obama and the United States during this time?

The Iranians have always maintained that that the United States should communicate with them at a level of equality, with mutual respect. They should remember that just as they are a nation, we are also a nation. If the United States talks down to Iran like they are our boss, and want to tell us what to do, we will not listen to a word they say. The same goes for Obama. Obama needs to be more honest. One one hand, he says that we should improve our relations with Iran, and on the other, he comes out and says he is very upset with the unjust treatment of these people who are committing violence and vandalism in Tehran. He should open his eyes and see how many supporters there are of the government and the Supreme Leader. These 85% that came out to vote... whoever they voted for, they are still supporters of the Rahber and the government. They vote because they have faith in the system. He should look in the United States. When has the United States had an 85% voter turnout? What do you have, maybe 40%?

Last year, it was around 60%.

Okay, 60%. Why was it higher than usual last year? Because people in America had some hopes and expectations in the last election. They had faith in the system and thought that Obama would come and change things. Iranians have the same support for their system. This is why there was such a high turnout. So Obama needs to be more honest, specially with his own people. He is taking their taxes and sending American soldiers into different countries where they are dying for no reason, to protect the interests of the rich people in the United States. If Obama can stop this and just take good care of his own people, that is good enough, we will not have any problems with him. The American government spends more time protecting the interests of Zionism than it does the interests of its own people. We have never been against the people in America, just the policies of its government.

My last question is a personal one. You still enjoy a very close relationship with your brother, who lives in the West, is non-religious, and has strong secular beliefs. You on the other hand live in Qom, and are a few years shy of being a religious scholar at the highest (mujtahid) rank. To what extent, if any, have your stark ideological differences had an effect on your relationship?

You know, as I've lived and studied here, I have learned many things. My faith teaches me that human beings are the creations of God, and God has created this world and everything in it for human beings. This is very important. God has given human beings a great stature, and thus humanity is of great importance. If there is any ideology that is against this universal concept of humanity... this is what we are at war with. This concept is present in all belief systems. These other systems and religions only differ in how they translate this concept of humanity. We may try to help them understand our beliefs and they will try to help us understand theirs, but we will never fight them. We will only fight those who are enemies of humanity, those who humiliate others, abuse them, make mental and physical slaves of them, or think of them as lesser beings.

I believe that as human beings, we should worship and praise our creator. But this service to God shouldn't be of the kind that harms others. For example, you can say that you're secular, that you don't believe in a god, and you don't believe in worship. You don't think it's required of you. So your ideology is different. But based on this, we will never clash with each other. Whoever truly understands Islam will never wage war against you for not believing. This is why I will never have a conflict with my brother.

However, if someone's ideology says that I am a lesser person, that he rules over me, or he's my boss, we will probably clash with each other. This is what I mean when I say our conflict is not with Jews or Judaism, but with Zionism. We place great importance on this difference.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

Thank you.

Friday, June 19, 2009

If Iranians Defy Khamenei on Saturday, We Might Have a Real Diagnosis

Ignore all the Iran experts, says Charles Kurzman at Foreign Policy magazine. For everything that's difficult to discern about what's really going on in Iran after the June 12 election, the only thing we can be sure of is that it's virtually impossible to predict what will happen next.

Add to this Friday's speech by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at Tehran University, unequivocally declaring his support for the results of the election, and vowing "chaos and bloodshed" for any further unrest, the responsibility for which he would squarely place upon the opposition leaders.

From here onwards, continued protests will mean much more than what they have so far.

Apart from the increased risk of a potentially violent crackdown on the protesters, those in opposition to the election results will now also find themselves in opposition to the will of the Supreme Leader, which has resulted in imprisonment and even death for many in the past.

Watching how it all unfolds from here will be diagnostic. There has been confusion over what it is exactly that is being protested. What started out as supporters of Mousavi protesting the election results has now evolved into what many perceive as a rebellion against Iran's political process and structure of power. For some, it's still about Mousavi. For others, it's about the injustice of being lied to and not having their vote counted. Finally, many of the protesters are intent on bringing about another revolution like in 1979, and challenging the fundamental idea of velayat-e-fakih, the system that gives ultimate power to the clerics.

Which one of these constitutes the primary spirit of the protest movement?

If most people still believe this is only about Mousavi, we're likely to see a significant decrease in turnout on Saturday. Mousavi is one of the founding fathers of the revolution, and despite his credentials as a reformer -- and many believe his views have changed significantly over time due to the influence of his wife Zahra Rahnavard, former adviser to reformist president Mohammad Khatami -- he is unlikely to be able to bring any kind of significant change, because his power as president will be greatly stunted by Khamenei, as Khatami's was. Would the "chaos and bloodshed" be worth coming out in support for him when it might not even matter in the end?

If, however, the turnout is high, and we see similar numbers of people lining the streets as we have in the last few days, it's reasonable to assume that this isn't just about Mousavi; the protest movement will then officially be in manifest defiance of Khamenei -- not just of his views, and not just of his will -- but of his threat of bloodshed and chaos.

If that happens, Iran may be either on the path to another revolution, or another Tiananmen Square-like situation. One of the key determinants of which way it might go will be the extent to which Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and paramilitary forces like the Basij are loyal to the Supreme Leader. In 1979, there was a militaristic component to the revolution that successfully overwhelmed the armed forces loyal to the Shah. Without that component, another revolution is very unlikely.

But then, on Thursday night's Rachel Maddow Show, Reza Aslan spoke of reports that some of the Iranian army's high-ranking generals had been detained by the Revolutionary Guard for refusing to open fire on the protesters if ordered to do so. The report, unconfirmed of course, is not entirely implausible. Aslan said:

"The difference now is that, A, these are not just kids. These are not just college students. They‘re not just reformists. Some of them -- the Rafsanjanis, the Khatamis -— these are the pillars of the Islamic republic. They are the people who actually brought the Islamic republic to fruition 30 years ago. So, you can‘t just open up fire on these people.

And secondly... in the 21st century, there is no such thing as a media blackout. Everything that happens in Iran, we will know about -- in real time sometimes. So, they can't hide behind sort of a blackout of the media. They know that whatever they do, the entire world is going to see."
One symbol of the 1979 revolution being re-enacted is the chants of Allah-o-Akbar ("God is Great") being yelled out from rooftops in the middle of the night. This is confusing to many of us watching it all from afar -- is this going to be another religious revolution, or are the chants just a symbolic glimpse into the intent of the protesters?

Again, it's hard to tell. Just as there were many different groups -- pro-secular and pro-theocratic alike -- that rose up against the Shah in 1979, this group of protesters is not monolithic. A protester on the ground in Tehran wrote the following to Nico Pitney at his live update blog at HuffPost after Khamenei's speech:
"...despite the 'leaders' words today I and I'm sure many others will be going out tomorrow... I never took much heed in what he had to say in the past and still don't. there are many in my family who fear for my safety when I go out as I'm only here for 9 more days. My answer for them is that it is my responsibility to march against an unjust regime... hell as a staunch atheist I find myself shouting Allah Akbar in the streets."
The goal of the protesters may be as confusing to themselves as it seems to us. Is Mousavi really at the helm of it all or is he just a symbol? Will the Khatamis and Rafsanjanis, as Reza Aslan implied, continue to support the protesters Saturday onwards in overt defiance of Khamenei? If Mousavi orders a halt to further demonstrations, will they still continue? Is it even about them anymore? An anonymous Iranian photo-journalist on the ground provided perhaps the most telling answer in an interview with blogger and filmmaker Parvez Sharma this morning, when asked if Mousavi was the only hope:
"I don't think he is the only hope and the best option but I do think that's what these people want and need right now. They can't aim for a huge change and [start] marching against the Islamic republic of Iran, but they can get [where they want to be by demanding changes to the existing system of government]. Plus I think right now the issue is more how they've been treated and lied to and... So they want [their rights] back more than anything and in this process Mousavi has suddenly become the face and the leader. They voted for him and now they want their vote to be realized. I also think he is a bit different now, not that his way of thinking or ideas has totally changed [such that he is now a] super open minded person but he has changed, and I strongly believe his wife is the power behind all that.
If she sounds unsure, it's because she probably is. Sharma points out that the interview was conducted just prior to Khamenei's speech.

Those in Iran who don't know yet if this is just about the election or something bigger will probably be struggling for an answer tonight, before Saturday afternoon's scheduled demonstration -- the first after Khamenei's defiant and threatening speech. This will be their real test.

The rest of us will only know where this is going once they do.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The One Thing 39 Million Iranians Decisively Voted For

There has never been any reliable polling data that has come out of Iran. Even when opinion polls have been conducted, restrictions on what the Iranian people can and cannot say have made it practically impossible to figure out what they really think.

Are they more pro-theocracy or pro-secular? Pro-US or anti-US? Pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear? How do they really feel about the idea of an unelected Supreme Leader being the head of their national media networks? No one really knows for sure.

But voter turnouts of over 85% cannot lie.

Most Iranians knew that this election wasn't really going to change anything, thanks to the dictatorial leadership of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Still, out of 46.2 million eligible voters, a staggering 39 million came out to vote, making a strong, unequivocal statement:

Iranians value democracy. A lot.

At this point, the results of the election should be considered irrelevant. These protests -- of, by, and for the people -- are about a much bigger picture, shaped by history and rooted in the kind of idealism that hundreds of thousands of Iranians have decided is worth risking their lives to try and rejuvenate. This is the culmination of a powerful grassroots dynamic that has been bubbling for decades, and has finally boiled over.

Since 1979, elections in Iran have never truly been elections, and democracy in Iran has never truly been democracy. Most Iranians know that the elected president has always had little power to influence anything of significance beyond economic policy. It is the Supreme Leader who commands the armed forces, drafts foreign policy and national security policy, runs all national media services like radio and television, acts as the supreme judiciary, selects candidates eligible to run for president through the Council of Guardians, and (as we all now know) certifies election results.

This Supreme Leader is an unelected figure who operates under the Velayat-e-Faqih theory in Shia Islam, mandating guardianship of an Islamic jurist over a population. Since the revolution of 1979, only Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei have held this position.

Even though Khomeini was a charismatic leader with widespread popularity and legitimacy, the selection of Khamenei as his successor was controversial, and thought by many members of Iran's clerical establishment to be politically motivated.

According to Iran's Constitution at the time, the Supreme Leader had to be a marja'a, the highest rank in the Shia hierarchy of religious and spiritual scholarship. Only a marja'a was worthy of the title of Grand Ayatollah, and Khamenei wasn't quite there yet. So, three months before his death, Khomeini -- unsatisfied with the list of marja'as available to potentially succeed him -- revised the Constitution to allow for Khamenei to be eligible, and also promoted him to an Ayatollah virtually overnight from his more junior rank of Hojjat-ul-Islam.

This wasn't the first time Khomeini had tweaked his own rules for Khamenei. Khomeini had initially expressed an opposition to having clerics in the office of President, but conveniently relaxed his opinion when Khamenei successfully ran for the position in 1981. He served until Khomeini's death in 1989, when, as per Khomeini's selection, he became Iran's second Supreme Leader. At the same time, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, another powerful founding father of the revolution, became President.

Rafsanjani is a reformist who also ran in the 2005 election (losing to Ahmadinejad), and has conspicuously showed his support for the protesters over the last week. He has always been a vocal critic of Ahmadinejad, and one of Khamenei's fiercest rivals. Ahmadinejad, in turn, has always been an ardent supporter of the Supreme Leader, who Iran's powerful Assembly of Experts has the constitutional power to remove. And the chairman of the Assembly? Rafsanjani.

So Khamenei has several good reasons to be worried.

Because of the somewhat sketchy politics surrounding his selection as Supreme Leader in 1989, Khamenei has always had some rivals in Iran's clerical establishment. To add to that, the massive uprising against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can comfortably be looked at as an uprising against Khamenei, or maybe even against the whole idea of a Supreme Leader. Although calling this a revolution is a little premature, this is clearly the result of much more than a single election. This time, it's not just the people that are deeply divided; the rift within the clerical establishment has also been exposed, more prominently than ever, with the Supreme Leader himself now seriously vulnerable.

The last time Iran had an election with an 80% turnout, Mohammad Khatami, a reformist candidate, won 70% of the vote. Shortly before he completed his two terms as president in 2005, he wrote a 47-page "letter for the future" expressing his frustration at the hardline clerical establishment's obstruction of his attempts to reform Iran's theocracy, warning of the dangers of "religious despotism". The parliamentary election that year had demonstratively played that warning out. The Council of Guardians, headed and appointed by Khamenei, had barred over 8000 candidates, most of them moderate, many of them allies of Khatami, from running. (They still have the authority to do this.) Knowing that this would be a selection, not an election, many pro-reform voters stayed home, clearing the way for Ahmadinejad's subsequent 2005 victory.

In the four years since, Khamenei strengthened the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, army, and secret police in unprecedented ways: members of the Revolutionary Guard held most of the top government posts, and consequently gained significant control over the economy, one of the few areas that the elected president once had some latitude with.

Thus, Iranians watched their country go from a theocratic state to a virtual military dictatorship.

They may have hoped that their votes would allow them to have some say in how their government should deal with at least some limited domestic issues like rising inflation and unemployment (estimated at close to 20%), but in the end, they knew it wouldn't really matter.

Yet, they still came out and voted. Over 39 million of them. Over 85% of eligible voters. And now they are out on the streets, passionately expressing their will to express their will. Why?

The answer has very little to do with either Ahmadinejad or Mousavi. The Iranian election of June 12, 2009 wasn't just a referendum on Iran's political process, but on democracy itself.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

What Pakistan Was Meant To Be

Now is a good time for Pakistanis to remind themselves of the vision that their founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, held for the country as he outlined it three days before it gained its independence, in August 1947:

"We should begin to work in that spirit and in course of time all these angularities of the majority and minority communities, the Hindu community and the Muslim community, because even as regards Muslims you have Pathans, Punjabis, Shias, Sunnis and so on, and among the Hindus you have Brahmins, Vashnavas, Khatris, also Bengalis, Madrasis and so on, will vanish.

Indeed if you ask me, this has been the biggest hindrance in the way of India to attain the freedom and independence and but for this we would have been free people long long ago. No power can hold another nation, and specially a nation of 400 million souls in subjection; nobody could have conquered you, and even if it had happened, nobody could have continued its hold on you for any length of time, but for this. Therefore, we must learn a lesson from this.

You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed; that has nothing to do with the business of the State.

As you know, history shows that in England, conditions, some time ago, were much worse than those prevailing in India today. The Roman Catholics and the Protestants persecuted each other. Even now there are some States in existence where there are discriminations made and bars imposed against a particular class. Thank God, we are not starting in those days.

We are starting in the days where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State.

The people of England in course of time had to face the realities of the situation and had to discharge the responsibilities and burdens placed upon them by the government of their country and they went through that fire step by step. Today, you might say with justice that Roman Catholics and Protestants do not exist; what exists now is that every man is a citizen, an equal citizen of Great Britain and they are all members of the Nation.

Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal, and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.

Well, gentlemen, I do not wish to take up any more of your time and thank you again for the honour you have done to me. I shall always be guided by the principles of justice and fairplay without any, as is put in the political language, prejudice or ill-will, in other words, partiality or favouritism.

My guiding principle will be justice and complete impartiality, and I am sure that with your support and co-operation, I can look forward to Pakistan becoming one of the greatest nations of the world."

[Thanks to Shahjahan Chaudhary for the link.]

Friday, March 27, 2009

Religious Fundamentalism Spreads... Beyond Islam

In the same week that Hindu fundamentalists obliterated plans to build a Charlie Chaplin statue, on the grounds that Chaplin was a Christian who made no contribution to India, video clips of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Varun Gandhi surfaced online, showing him glorifyingly speaking of "cutting the throats" of Muslims, and mocking their "scary" names.

Meanwhile, the Hindu nationalist group Sri Ram Sena vowed to continue its attacks on women drinking in bars and couples courting in public -- expanding their target population to include female British tourists in the city of Goa.

In the Varun Gandhi videos, Hindu extremist groups like the Taliban-inspired anti-statue, anti-woman Sri Ram Sena may feel as if they've found a high-profile voice: Varun is the grandson of late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, a declared secularist and atheist who couldn't have been more removed from his descendant's crazed religion-fueled nationalist diatribes.

It isn't just the Hindus. Mere days after ending the controversy over his lifting of the excommunication of Holocaust denier and 9/11 conpiracy theorist Bishop Richard Williamson, Pope Benedict XVI decided to elaborate further on his view that abstinence works 100% of the time as a birth control method (right, ask The Virgin Mary how well that worked for her) by declaring that the use of condoms aggravates the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Now, the Pope has publicly pulled several other Ahmedinejads in the past. He has written that homosexuality is an "intrinsic moral evil" and an "objective disorder". He has also claimed that non-Catholics are in a "gravely deficient situation", without the "fullness of the means of salvation". Most recently, the Vatican declared its support for the Brazilian Church's decision to excommunicate a group of doctors who performed an abortion on a 9-year old girl -- pregnant with twins -- as a result of being raped by her stepfather.

The Pope's homophobia and bigoted statements about non-Catholics who don't necessarily think Jesus is their savior aren't all that different from Varun Gandhi's Muslim-bashing -- which, in turn, isn't all that different from the sentiments that fuel the ideology of the Taliban. There are millions of people in the world who think that way.

However, these two examples are unique: one of these men is the most significant spiritual and religious leader in the world, and the other belongs to a family that gave the world's largest democracy three of its most legendary prime ministers, including its first.

So, is Talibanization going mainstream? To religions beyond Islam?

Well, we know that the Catholic authorities aren't throwing acid on teenage girls' faces like the Taliban do. That, actually, is something that Jerusalem's Jewish Haredi Modesty Patrol did to a 14 year old girl last year. Her crime? Wearing pants. In the same week as the Pope's condom controversy and Varun's inflammatory videos made news, a member of the Modesty Patrol was sentenced to four years in prison in a separate incident -- a sexual gang assault on a divorced woman.

Although it's tempting to dismiss these incidents as aberrations, religious extremism and bigotry do seem to be going mainstream in Israel. On the same day that the Modesty Patrol mercenary was sentenced, news broke that Avigdor Lieberman, the right-wing hardliner whose Israel Beiteinu party had a strong showing in Israel's recent elections, is in consideration as Israel's next foreign minister.

Lieberman is a man who has, among other things, openly advocated the expulsion of Israeli Arabs from the Promised Land, and offered to provide buses to transport Palestinian prisoners to the Dead Sea, where he has recommended drowning them.

More disturbingly, Lieberman suggested in 2006 that Israel should conduct itself in Gaza like Russia did in Chechnya, that is, without any concern for civilian deaths. This moves the issue beyond the realm of aberrant extremist ideology, not only because Lieberman is now a prominent leader in the Knesset possibly destined to become Israel's foreign minister, but because his suggestion was put into practice in a significant way during Israel's recent offensive in Gaza.

In last week's investigation into the Israel-Gaza conflict, IDF soldiers talked about how they were encouraged to kill Palestinian civilians. They also described how the assault was framed as a religious war by military rabbis, who distributed literature to the troops saying among other things that this was a holy war, that "we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land" and that they needed to "fight to expel the Gentiles who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land." Somehow, Israeli authorities appear to be drawing inspiration -- like Hamas -- from the likes of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Taliban.

Meantime, the Adiv fabric-printing shop in south Tel Aviv sold hundreds of T-shirts, caps, and other items of clothing custom-made for Israel soldiers, featuring pictures of dead children and bombed mosques. Included was one of a dead baby clutching his teddy bear, his mother weeping at his side, bearing the inscription, "Better Use Durex".

In Canada, a different aspect of religious fundamentalism surfaced last week, when Federal Science and Technology Minister Gary Goodyear, a central figure in the controversy over the science funding crunch in the country, was asked whether he believed in evolution. He refused to answer. "I'm not going to answer that question," he said. "I am a Christian, and I don't think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate." The Pope, I'm guessing, would have been a little more unequivocal in his response.

These events, most of which occurred in the span of one week, are reflective of a dangerous resurgence of religious fundamentalism in non-Islamic countries. The most perplexing part of it is that it isn't just limited to a few seemingly random incidents fueled by fringe extremist groups. The characters in these stories -- the Pope, a member of India's Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, a powerful Knesset leader, and a Canadian federal minister -- are influential, mainstream figures whose ideas and decisions impact the lives of billions of people every day.

In the early days after 9/11, a lot of false dichotomies were created in an attempt to place the attacks in some sort of context. It was said that terrorism has no place in Islam. That it is not religion, but the "cultural distortion" and "misinterpretation" of it that's the problem. That Zionism has nothing to do with Judaism. That Sharia law has nothing to do with Islam. That all religions preach love and peace.

Unfortunately for the apologists, people who couldn't reconcile these assertions with the events they were witnessing around the world found it easier to see through them than ever before.

The Torah, Bible, Quran, and other ancient religious scriptures are easily available online in their entirety, complete with translations in multiple languages, by multiple translators, supplemented with commentary. Easy -- and searchable -- access to these these texts has opened them up to intense scrutiny, and the anonymity-driven confrontation-friendly forum provided by the internet has resulted in unprecedented, taboo-shattering, critical discussions on their contents.

One consequence of this is that religious people who believe that the scripture of their respective faith is truly the word of God -- the majority of whom only selectively familiar with it -- have found reinforcement for their beliefs.

For example, it isn't difficult to sell the idea of a holy war to Israeli soldiers when passages from the Torah such as Shmot 23:31-33 instruct them to drive non-Jewish inhabitants out of the land promised to them by God himself (described in detail as "from the Red Sea even unto the sea of the Philistines"), and to "make no covenant with them." This gives some hefty, divine weight to Avigdor Lieberman's arguments, and shatters the misconception that Zionism is merely the "politicization" of Judaism.

While the religious Jewish community has remained adherent to these scriptural accounts of the Promised Land, it has, for the most part, been quick to brush aside other passages from the Torah that advocate, for instance, death by stoning for everything from not being a virgin on your wedding night (Devarim 22:20-21) to blasphemy (Vayikra 24:16). Interestingly, stoning people to death is a practice associated more widely with Islamic law, probably because it is still practiced widely in many parts of the Muslim world. This is not without reason: while not explicitly mentioned in the Quran, stoning is widely accepted as punishment for sins such as adultery in the hadith (traditions of the prophet Muhammad).

Also, even though the majority of Muslims are horrified by the idea of child marriage or domestic violence, both of these practices have strong footing in Islamic history and scripture, and it would be naive to dismiss them simply as "cultural distortions". By almost all accounts, Muhammad did take a nine year old bride as his eleventh wife; and beating your wife if you "fear disobedience" is permitted in Islamic scripture (Quran, verse 4:34). Other concepts like armed jihad against infidels (9:5) and resistance against Christians and Jews (5:51) are also present in the Quran.

The Christian Bible, which recognizes the five books of the Torah as the Old Testament, forms the basis for the beliefs of Pope Benedict XVI and evangelists like Pat Robertson about issues like homosexuality (Leviticus 20:13). And the aggression against women practiced by Indian extremist groups such as Sri Ram Sena has its roots in the sacred Hindu text Manu Smriti, which purportedly contains the word of Brahma, the god of creation, and allows men to have virtually complete, unfettered authority over women.

While this renewed interest in scripture has affirmed the beliefs of many, giving legitimacy to their extremist leanings and possibly even radicalizing them, it has also allowed skeptics, rationalists, and even some moderately religious people to question that which was previously unquestionable. Many who believed that it wasn't religion at fault but the people who "misinterpret" it, are beginning to ask whether it might actually be the other way around. And they're speaking out. How do you condemn the occupation of Palestinian lands and still defend the Bible or Torah -- which command it explicitly as an instruction from God -- as sacred books? Can you denounce a 47 year old Yemeni man's marriage to an 8 year old girl while you defend the prophet Muhammad's child marriage with an even wider age difference? If you speak out against the Torah/Old Testament-endorsed execution of gay men and stoning of non-virginal single women, does that make you anti-Semitic? Or a "Christophobe"?

Questions like this, which would easily have made one an outcast in the recent past -- or worse, invited a death fatwa -- are now being asked more frequently and more loudly. Most of the response to these completely legitimate and important questions has come in the form of ad hominem accusations of religious bigotry directed at the questioners, taking offense, and hurt feelings. Flawed terms like "Islamophobia" and "Christophobia" have emerged, and accusations of anti-Semitism are being flung around so loosely that the phrase is in danger of losing its deserved significance.

And this is where a fundamental distinction needs to be made.

Hating Jews, Muslims, or Christians for what they believe is clearly wrong. Criticizing the belief systems themselves, however, is not. Human beings have rights. Cultures, religions, and ideological belief systems do not.

This basic concept was sadly lost on the United Nations when it passed a non-binding anti-blasphemy resolution last year, curtailing any criticism of religious belief. The resolution, brought forth by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), is a massive impediment in the fight against human rights abuses carried out under systems such as Islamic Sharia law. Rational, reasonable people worldwide are rightly outraged by this move to put ideology before human beings.

There is now a push by the OIC, a group of 57 Muslim countries, to make the resolution a binding one. But this isn't a one way street. Will Arab and Muslim countries still be able to criticize the Torah-supported Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory under the same legislation?

Or is Islam finally losing its long-held monopoly on fundamentalism?

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Peek Into America's Possible Future Pakistan Policy

Four days after 9/11, Pakistani-British writer and political activist Tariq Ali wrote about an encounter he had with a Pakistani army general whom he asked about Islamist militants in the region.

Why had they been so receptive to American financing and weapon support during the Cold War, only to turn against the US overnight?

"Pakistan was the condom the Americans needed to enter Afghanistan," replied the general. "We've served our purpose and they think we can be just flushed down the toilet."

"The old condom is being fished out for use once again," wrote Ali at the time. "But will it work?"

He may have had a point.

Seven years later, the United States is quagmired in a violent insurgency in Afghanistan, while Pakistan, having surrendered part of its territory to Islamist militant control under a "peace deal", is on the verge of becoming a failed state. Triggered by the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore last week, Ali reiterated his contention about Pakistan in The Guardian: "The appalling terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers in Pakistan had one aim: to demonstrate to Washington that the country is ungovernable."

Americans have been paying more attention to Tariq Ali -- the man who in 1968 inspired the Rolling Stones song "Street Fighting Man" -- since he published his book, The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, last fall.

One of them is Bruce Riedel, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution who previously served as a CIA official for almost thirty years.

Riedel, known for his harsh criticism of the Bush administration's policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, was tapped as a foreign policy advisor by Barack Obama during his presidential campaign. Last month, Riedel was appointed by the Obama administration to head a White House review committee on policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, an overhaul of which is to be completed before April's NATO summit.

In a glowing review of Tariq Ali's book, Riedel acknowledges Ali's assertion that the US has had a significant role in the peril that Pakistan faces today:

"Ali rightly notes that the United States has consistently chosen to back Pakistan's military dictators when they seized power from elected governments. Eisenhower and Kennedy backed the first dictator, Ayub Khan; JFK even gave him a state dinner at Mount Vernon and took him to Newport, R.I. Nixon famously tilted toward Yahya Khan during Pakistan's brutal attempt to crush Bangladesh. Carter and Reagan backed Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq to help defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan, inadvertently giving birth to the modern jihadist movement. And George W. Bush backed Pervez Musharraf in return for help fighting al-Qaeda, even through the general perverted election after election to stay in power. Blind U.S. support for these military strongmen has eroded Pakistan's civil institutions and rule of law, along with America's claim to support freedom and democracy in the Islamic world."
Riedel points out the part that both of his employers -- the CIA and the Brookings Institution -- have played in the genesis of Pakistan's current state, and also agrees with Ali's criticism of Barack Obama's pledge to unilaterally strike Al Qaeda targets in Pakistan in the presence of actionable intelligence and absence of cooperation from the Pakistani government. In an interview with Dubai-based Pakistani news channel ARY One World, Riedel, while acknowledging the success of recent US strikes in Pakistan near the Afghan border, noted that there was a "counterproductive element" to them, as they alienate the Pakistani people away from the United States.

While he calls many of Ali's policy suggestions "useful", Riedel is also cautious about his underestimation of the threat of Al Qaeda both to Pakistan and the United States, and warns of a possible sanctuary in Pakistan for terrorists who may bring about another world-changing event with dangerous consequences.

In contrast to the policy of the Bush administration, however, Riedel proposes an approach that is beyond just militaristic. "The Duel makes a strong case that the United States should back Pakistan's civilian leadership, flawed as it is, in an effort to build a modern Islamic democracy," he writes. "That will require much more economic aid, creative diplomacy to ease tensions with Afghanistan and India, straight talk about ending Pakistan's ties to terrorism, and patience. It will take time to recover from the Bush-Musharraf legacy, but we cannot afford a failed state in Pakistan, especially one that bears the label Made in the U.S.A."

Favoring a multi-pronged approach to the problems facing and arising from Pakistan, Riedel has stressed the need to look at them in a regional context. He emphasizes the importance of recognizing the influence that Pakistan's concerns about India has had on how it handles Afghanistan.

He also understands that all of this will need to be balanced delicately with a strategy to deal with the distrust that citizens in all of these countries have developed towards the United States in the last few decades. The people in the region still remember Ronald Reagan famously calling the Afghan Mujahideen (which literally means "those involved in a jihad") the "moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers" when they were helping the United States fight the Soviet Union -- and then turning on them as they became Taliban terrorists. As Tariq Ali points out in The Duel, if America once turned on the allies that helped it defeat the Soviets, many Pakistanis feel, what would stop it from turning on Pakistan?

"You... have to deal with [these problems] with a great degree of subtlety and sophistication," Riedel told ARY One World in January. "Because there are decades-old fears among all the parties about American intentions."

You can't effectively treat a condition without a diagnosis, and only time will tell if the new administration's management strategy will be effective. But in Bruce Riedel, the United States finally has a skilled diagnostician.

This is a positive start -- and it might serve as a good opportunity to do away with the need for more future used-condom analogies.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Ten Women I Have a Heart On for This Valentine's Day

10. Aung Yan Suu Kyi.
Pro-democracy activist and leader of Burma's National League of Democracy, elected Prime Minister in 1990 but forcibly not allowed to take the role by the military junta, who've kept her in detention ever since. Advocate of non-violent resistance, and winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.

9. Fatima Bhutto. Poet, writer, activist. Intelligent, conscientious, progressive, and gorgeous. And it doesn't even matter that she's Benazir's niece.

8. Wanda Sykes. Brilliant, perceptive, and absolutely hilarious stand-up comic and actor. I've had a crush on her for years.

7. Angelina Jolie. Everything she touches turns to gold, from her work as an actor to her humanitarian work everywhere in the world, from the Congo and Sudan to Afghanistan and Cambodia. She's super hot as hell, and she'll be as sexy thirty years from now as she is today.

6. Melissa Harris Lacewell. Associate Professor of Politics and African-American Studies at Princeton University. One of the most intelligent, articulate commentators on gender issues, racial issues, and politics today.

5. Ani DiFranco. Incredible poet, singer, songwriter, and guitar player. Super-smart feminist icon who is a role model for women - and men - worldwide.

4. Mukhtar Mai. One of thousands of women who are victims of the tribal practice of "honor revenge" every year - in her case, a brutal gang rape in the village of Meerwala, Pakistan. What differentiates her from the others is that she spoke out, wrote a book, and became a voice for millions, something virtually unheard of among rape victims in her country.

3. Tina Fey. She should be sent flowers every day of her life - not only for her brilliant writing on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock - but for playing such an invaluable role in preventing the obliteration of at least half a century of struggle for women's rights by helping to expose and defeat patriarchy's most prominent poster woman since Phyllis Schlafly: Sarah Palin.

2. Taslima Nasrin. Bangladeshi physician, author, activist, feminist, and secular humanist who risked her life to expose the truth about the status given to women by most religions. A woman ahead of her time. Thankfully, the world is catching up.

1. Helen Thomas. Eighty eight years old this year, this presidential correspondent has continued to help keep all US presidents since Kennedy accountable to the people, and continues to be a beacon for journalistic integrity. When President Obama called on her at his first major prime-time press conference, he said, "Helen, I'm excited. This is my inaugural moment." In a conference that had been going well for him so far, she hit him with the ultimate presidential foreign policy litmus test, asking if he knew of any countries in the Middle East that possessed nuclear weapons. Obama failed her test, refusing to give her the answer that both of them knew was the right one: Israel. Simple question, massive impact. And... Bill O'Reilly said she sounded like the Wicked Witch of the East - that alone is enough to put her at the top of my list of women that I have a huge heart on for this year.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Honorable mentions: Rachel Maddow, Christiane Amanpour, M.I.A., Shirin Ebadi, Kerry Washington, Hillary Clinton, Naomi Klein, Kate Winslet, Janeane Garofalo, Michelle Obama, and Amy Poehler.