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Thursday, 17 September 2009

The Muslims are reading!

The other day, out of curiousity, I wanted to see what the most popularly downloaded ebook torrents on ISO Hunt were. More than half expecting a cringeworthy list of 'self-help' and 'management success' books, with an (un)healthy dusting of Playboy back issues scattered between them, the actual result was one of the most pleasant surprises I have experienced in a while.

With the exception of a few titles, such as 'The Complete Library of Cooking', '100 Weird Facts About the Human Body' and the latest Dan Brown book, the most universally popular books on the Internet the world over are books about Islam.

Muslims are finally going back to implementing the very first command revealed to the final messenger of Islam (may God's Peace and Blessings be upon him) - "Read! in the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, Who created" [Al-'Alaq, 96:1]

الحمد لله

Saturday, 6 June 2009

The dissection of a silver tongue

Watching Obama's speech on Thursday, I felt impelled to comment. Considering the sheer volume that I encountered within of what writer and composer Steven Poole terms Unspeak, as detailed in his book of the same name, I was not surprised in the least, but felt it only fitting to perform an extensive (but in no way exhaustive) autopsy, and submit my report. More can certainly be said, but I intend to do my best to limit my comments to the crucial in avoidance of (over)boring the reader. My comments are [between square brackets and in bold]. Thanks to the Guardian for the full text of the speech.

"Turbnz 'n' gunz, innit bruv?"

"I am honoured to be in the timeless city of Cairo, and to be hosted by two remarkable institutions. For over a thousand years, al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning, and for over a century, Cairo University has been a source of Egypt's advancement. Together, you represent the harmony between tradition and progress. I am grateful for your hospitality, and the hospitality of the people of Egypt. I am also proud to carry with me the goodwill of the American people, and a greeting of peace from Muslim communities in my country: assalaamu alaykum.

[Obama's opener serves as a taster for the deception to come. While it may be technically true that he is being 'hosted' by both Higher Education establishments, he refuses to disclose the fact that both institutions, on the institutional level, are fronts for the authotarian Egyptian government. The so-called 'Sheikh' of al-Azhar, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, is a state-appointed official who issues 'religious edicts' at Mubarak's whim, has held his current position for over 13 years, and, for the 10 years prior to that, held the anti-Islamic, churchlike position of 'Grand Mufti' of Egypt. The institutions' 'hospitality' that is being thanked is in fact that of the Egyptian government. As for the people of Egypt... well, no one could ascertain the status of their hospitality towards the US President, or indeed the lack thereof, considering their government's position on freedom of expression. I'll also point out that Obama asserts himself as merely the messenger of the "assalaamu alaykum" about which there has been far too much hoo haa in the media: its source, as he tells us, is the Muslim communities in the US, not him.]

We meet at a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world – tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate. The relationship between Islam and the west includes centuries of co-existence and co-operation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a cold war in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalisation led many Muslims to view the west as hostile to the traditions of Islam.

[Let us shift the blame of tensions to 'historical forces' (makes it sound almost mysterious, eh?), away from decades of established Imperialist foreign policy, the current incarnation of which, we are told, is merely being 'debated', as would be done at a Students' Union, not, as it in fact is, being rejected and fought tooth and nail. Or is anything that took place before this month, such as the examples mentioned, to be considered a mere historical artifact? As for the 'sweeping changes' of 'modernity' and globalisation, they are left as vague and murky allusions, for to be any more specific would be telling.]

Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims. The attacks of September 11 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust.

[This view (left unspecified as to how widely it is held) apparently never existed before September 11 2001, as it was specifically that day and nothing else that 'led some' in the US (not to mention elsewhere) to hold and express it. For example, Hollywood never perpetuated any such stereotypes pre-9/11.]

So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the co-operation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.

[So long as this co-operation continues to be between the elected US government and the unelected dictatorial leaderships in Muslim-majority countries, the cycle of suspicion and discord will stand.]

I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.

[No, America and Islam are not necessarily exclusive, but the competition will remain so long as America continues to utilise proxy puppet regimes to suppress the mass will of Muslim populations (typically for the favour of US economic interests) in their bid to be free and independent in asserting their collective identity.]

I do so recognising that change cannot happen overnight. No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have all the complex questions that brought us to this point. But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. As the Holy Koran tells us: "Be conscious of God and speak always the truth." That is what I will try to do – to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.

Part of this conviction is rooted in my own experience. I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan [the Muslim call to prayer] at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith.

As a student of history, I also know civilization's debt to Islam. It was Islam – at places like al-Azhar University – that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe's Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation. And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.

[No brownie points for stating the obvious historical fact and not denying it. However, please take note of the strategic omission of any mention of the significance of Islamic ideology, teachings, laws, values, and philosophy in establishing the system of government that made all of this possible. In short, was it a Liberal Democracy or rather an Islamic Caliphate (the re-establishment of which has been singled out for demonisation by George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Dick Cheney, Charles Clarke, Donald Rumsfeld, and John Reid, but to name a few) that made all of this possible?]

I know, too, that Islam has always been a part of America's story. The first nation to recognise my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President John Adams wrote: "The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquillity of Muslims." And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, served in government, stood for civil rights, started businesses, taught at our universities, excelled in our sports arenas, won Nobel prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic torch. And when the first Muslim-American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our founding fathers – Thomas Jefferson – kept in his personal library.

[NB - I keep the King James Version Bible, Jack Kerouac's 'On the Road' , Aldous Huxley's 'Doors of Perception', and Sayyid Qutb's 'Milestones' all on the same shelf in my own personal library. Is my story a beat/hippie 'Islamist' druggie Church of England one?]

So I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed. That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn't. And I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.

But that same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America. Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. We were born out of revolution against an empire. We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words – within our borders, and around the world. We are shaped by every culture, drawn from every end of the Earth, and dedicated to a simple concept: E pluribus unum – "Out of many, one."

[Please take note of the reference to the American revolution against the British Empire, which will be revisited later.]

Much has been made of the fact that an African-American with the name Barack Hussein Obama could be elected president. But my personal story is not so unique. The dream of opportunity for all people has not come true for everyone in America, but its promise exists for all who come to our shores – that includes nearly 7 million American Muslims in our country today who enjoy incomes and education that are higher than average.

[True. Is this an invitation to the remaining 1.5 billion odd Muslims who are not so fortunate to emigrate to the US as a solution to their woes?]

Moreover, freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practise one's religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That is why the US government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it.

[I watched the speech live. He said 'the hajeeb'. But pronunciation errors aside, I wonder what he'd have to say to his two female Mulim supporters who were barred from his campaign rally lest their headscarves appear in his publicity shots.]

So let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America. And I believe that America holds within her the truth that regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations – to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our God. These things we share. This is the hope of all humanity.

Of course, recognising our common humanity is only the beginning of our task. Words alone cannot meet the needs of our people. These needs will be met only if we act boldly in the years ahead; and if we understand that the challenges we face are shared, and our failure to meet them will hurt us all.

For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere. When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk. When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations. When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean. And when innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience. That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century. That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings.

[No one but Argentines were hurt during the 1999-2002 Argentine economic crisis. The 'country' referred to in the opening sentence is the USA; the reason prosperity is hurt everywhere is the global hegemony of the dollar as the sole standard of currency, long rejected by free men and women the world over. But even taken at face value, the statement omits something significant: when one financial system (absolute capitalism) based on one ideology (Western Liberalism) weakens, another grows stronger. What follows, however, is nothing short of brilliant in terms of weaving the completely unrelated into a homogenous whole. I could probably write a whole essay on this paragraph alone, but will limit it to a brief translation from Unspeak: "These Muslim-majority states are our enemies: Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Sudan." Also, the nuclear proliferation scenario? Bollocks. The risk of conflict and bloodshed is always higher when there is an imbalance in the power of deterrence on each side.]

This is a difficult responsibility to embrace. For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes subjugating one another to serve their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; progress must be shared.

[Should one understand from the use of 'yet' that such attitudes were somehow acceptable during some 'old age' that should be swept under the rug and long forgotten?]

That does not mean we should ignore sources of tension. Indeed, it suggests the opposite: we must face these tensions squarely. And so in that spirit, let me speak as clearly and plainly as I can about some specific issues that I believe we must finally confront together.

[Here we go!]

The first issue that we have to confront is violent extremism in all of its forms.

[Forms? You mean like, triangular and circular? Then why is one being labelled terrorism by the judiciary, and the other not so even by the media?]

In Ankara, I made clear that America is not – and never will be – at war with Islam. We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security. Because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children. And it is my first duty as president to protect the American people.

The situation in Afghanistan demonstrates America's goals, and our need to work together. Over seven years ago, the United States pursued al-Qaida and the Taliban with broad international support. We did not go by choice, we went because of necessity. I am aware that some question or justify the events of 9/11. But let us be clear: al-Qaida killed nearly 3,000 people on that day. The victims were innocent men, women and children from America and many other nations who had done nothing to harm anybody. And yet al-Qaida chose to ruthlessly murder these people, claimed credit for the attack, and even now states their determination to kill on a massive scale. They have affiliates in many countries and are trying to expand their reach. These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with.

[So the plans to attack Afghanistan that were in place before 9/11 were... born out of prophecy? I, on the other hand, am aware that Madeline Albright, speaking in her capacity as US Secretary of State, justified the killing of half a million Iraqi Muslim children (at the time) as being 'worth it', and was not reprimanded by her government, nor were her comments rejected by the vast majority of those she was meant to represent. These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with.]

Make no mistake: we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there. It is agonising for America to lose our young men and women. It is costly and politically difficult to continue this conflict. We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not yet the case.

That's why we're partnering with a coalition of 46 countries. And despite the costs involved, America's commitment will not weaken. Indeed, none of us should tolerate these extremists. They have killed in many countries. They have killed people of different faiths – more than any other, they have killed Muslims. Their actions are irreconcilable with the rights of human beings, the progress of nations, and with Islam. The Holy Koran teaches that whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind; and whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind. The enduring faith of over a billion people is so much bigger than the narrow hatred of a few. Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism – it is an important part of promoting peace.

[I will allow my readers the liberty to view (and laugh at) the list of members in this so-called 'coalition'. As for the remainder of the above paragraph, I ask my readers whether the accuracy of the description stands when applied to the US government and its proxies, as most recently demonstrated in Swat, but for the fact that they are far more efficient in their task.]

We also know that military power alone is not going to solve the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is why we plan to invest $1.5bn (£914m) each year over the next five years to partner with Pakistanis to build schools and hospitals, roads and businesses, and hundreds of millions to help those who have been displaced. And that is why we are providing more than $2.8bn to help Afghans develop their economy and deliver services that people depend upon.

[What you are not told, however, is that US 'aid' in itself is in fact quite often of the military persuasion, including that sent to the poorest, most deprived continent; Africa.]

Let me also address the issue of Iraq. Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world. Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible. Indeed, we can recall the words of Thomas Jefferson, who said: "I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be."

Today, America has a dual responsibility: to help Iraq forge a better future – and to leave Iraq to Iraqis. I have made it clear to the Iraqi people that we pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources. Iraq's sovereignty is its own. That is why I ordered the removal of our combat brigades by next August. That is why we will honour our agreement with Iraq's democratically elected government to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by July, and to remove all our troops from Iraq by 2012. We will help Iraq train its security forces and develop its economy. But we will support a secure and united Iraq as a partner, and never as a patron.

[Considering the broken election campaign promise about how occupation forces would immediately be withdrawn by Obama's administration from Iraq, the subsequent gradually extending delays that the media has allowed to quietly pass by (also take note of how the last announced figure - 2010, with risidual forces leaving by 2011 - compares to the 2012 announced in this speech), and the dramatic expansion of the Mercenary force occupying Iraq ('contractors' makes it sound like they're building a water tower!), please forgive me if I remain supremely skeptical.]

And finally, just as America can never tolerate violence by extremists, we must never alter our principles. 9/11 was an enormous trauma to our country. The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable, but in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our ideals. We are taking concrete actions to change course. I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantánamo Bay closed by early next year.

So America will defend itself, respectful of the sovereignty of nations and the rule of law. And we will do so in partnership with Muslim communities which are also threatened. The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer.

[Having admitted that America did, since 9/11, practice torture against Muslims, any shade of 'being respectful to the rule of law' would demand that those who ordered and perpetrated these acts must be held to account for them. In addition to the former White House cabinet and other senior government officials, this would include, incidentally, those individuals who will remain anonymous to the public because their recorded acts, the mere description of which, we are assured, is 'horrendous enough', are not to be released by the Obama administration. As for Guantanamo, what Obama leaves out is that its closure does not mean the fair trial or release of those held there, nor does he make any mention of his refusal to do anything about other equally illegitimate overseas US prisons, such as Bagram. It seems that the rule of law is getting very little 'respect' indeed.]

The second major source of tension that we need to discuss is the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world.

America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.

[Absolutely and completely unbreakable? Even if...? Well at least let's give the guy credit for honesty on this point. Obviously no such bond with the Palestinians, then. The cultural and historical ties are lacking.]

Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and antisemitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.

[Err... around the world? Not just Europe? Even saying that would not be completely accurare, considering when and where the Golden Age of Judaism took place. Also, take note of the masterful sandwiching of valid demands for the deconstruction of a failed, and, incidentally, illegitimate state, as opposed to a people, right in between Holocaust-denial and racial stereotyping. Busted!]

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighbouring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.

[So, was the Gaza Massacre of 27 December 2008 - 17 January 2009, meticulously timed to begin and end before you took office, and about which you remained absolutely silent, one such 'humiliation'? And considering American backs have, by and large, been turned on such Palestinian aspirations so far, does the assertion that America will not turn 'our backs' as opposed to 'its back' on such aspirations mean that American backs will, in fact, remain firmly turned? Or am I just being pedantic?]

For decades, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It is easy to point fingers – for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought by Israel's founding and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.

That is in Israel's interest, Palestine's interest, America's interest, and the world's interest. That is why I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience that the task requires. The obligations that the parties have agreed to under the road map are clear. For peace to come, it is time for them – and all of us – to live up to our responsibilities.

Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the centre of America's founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from eastern Europe to Indonesia. It's a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.

[Now, we are told, 'resistance through violence' (AKA armed resistance, but that doesn't have quite the same sinister a ring to it, eh?) is 'wrong and does not succeed'. World War II never happened, Vietnam never happened, the Afghans never expelled the British Empire, nor the Soviet Union, and are nowhere near coming close to a third expulsion of American led NATO forces as we speak. Hell, even the American Revolution (as referenced earlier on in this very speech) never happened either. Incidentally, the cited examples of civil, unarmed revolution all took place in single societies, where all parties were members of the same nation, but one party was relegated to second class citizen status, and, on this background, revolted against injustice. No such luck for a Palestine occupied by a foreign Israel. And as for sleeping children and women on busses, the very same can be said of the Israeli Forces, but for the efficiency with which both tasks are carried out. (Input the phrase "The figures speak" into your browser's 'find' function on this article. If you will read only one of the stories I have linked to, then make it this one)]

Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build. The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people. Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognise past agreements, and recognise Israel's right to exist.

[Hamas has support among a little more than 'some Palestinians'. A free election in 2006 with a 77% turnout won them 76/132 (57.6%) of seats compared to 43/132 (32.6%) of seats for Fatah. I won't bother delving into the details of what happened next, but here's a clue.]

At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.

[One of my most severe pet hates is society's recurrant capacity for collective amnesia. Since when did the sum of all Palestinian woes amount to the continued construction of Israeli garrison/fortress-like settlements on their land, and nothing else? Since last month; that's when! While Netanyahu's newly formed government has been noisier in voicing its support for expanding such settlements, it has not actually been any more active in building them than any of its various predecessors. I refer you to a quick search in the Guardian's archives of the phrase 'Israeli settlements': the annual rate of reference remains roughly stable at an average of about 350 articles per year, but take note of 2009 - we are less than halfway through, yet have already breached the 250 mark! Now look at the reference breakdown for an average year, 2008, and note an average rate of 25-30 articles per month mentioning the topic. Compare this with 2009 - a peak in both January (75), during the assault on Gaza, and February (51), the direct aftermath, followed by a return to the regular 30 article average in both March and April. This is then followed by a sudden jump (51) in May, after Netanyahu's 'noisy' government was formed, and a whopping 26 (at the time of writing) in June, despite being only 6 days into the month! What has happened to ending the occupation? What has happened to the Palestinian right of return? What of the acres of confiscated farmland? What of the Apartheid wall and its continued gobbling up of what remains of Palestinian land? What of the systematic demolition of Palestinian homes in urban areas? Indeed, what of the illegal Israeli settlements that have already been built on occupied land? All of this fades into oblivion; the only thing Palestinians should strive for with any hope of American support is the condemnation of new settlements, there are no other probelms.]

Israel must also live up to its obligations to ensure that Palestinians can live, and work, and develop their society. And just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel's security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank. Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress.

Finally, the Arab states must recognize that the Arab Peace Initiative was an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities. The Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems. Instead, it must be a cause for action to help the Palestinian people develop the institutions that will sustain their state; to recognise Israel's legitimacy; and to choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past.

[For once, there is actually one point I agree on in there. For too long, corrupt Arab regimes have bartered with their own people over their thrones using the blood of the Palestinian people as shameful currency. Any popular demand made by the Arab public for reform or holding Arab rulers to account has been met by the pointing of a huge finger and an acompanying a scream of "The Zionist Jews are just a few kilometres away! How dare you question us at a time like this (i.e. always) when your Palestinian brothers and sisters are suffering so? You should stand united with us against those who are your real enemy!" All this while there is in fact no real dispute between these regimes and Israel at all. A prime example being Saudi Arabia, described by Israeli officials as 'moderate', holding cosy secret meetings with the Israelis, while simultaneously ranting about Zionist conspiracies for the naïve public to eat up at home.]

America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs. We cannot impose peace. But privately, many Muslims recognise that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognise the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.

[...but the Palestinians might go away, as indeed millions of them have? Maybe the Palestinian state should be established in Greenland, or perhaps in central Africa.]

Too many tears have flowed. Too much blood has been shed. All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed (peace be upon them) joined in prayer.

[That is precisely what Jerusalem was 100 years ago! What ever happened? Incidentally, this flowery rhetoric does not add up with Obama's declaration to AIPAC, the most influencial Israeli lobby in Washington. If Jerusalem 'will remain the capital of Israel and must remain undivided', then the only way for Palestinian Christians and Muslims to call it a home and 'mingle' there in any sort of manner would be for them to choose to live there as forgeigners abroad, rather than within their own newly formed nation just across the border. How's that for aspirations?]

The third source of tension is our shared interest in the rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons.

This issue has been a source of tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is indeed a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the cold war, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against US troops and civilians. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I have made it clear to Iran's leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question, now, is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.

[DUN dun DUN! Yet another admission, within the same speech, that 'violent resistance' ultimately works, contrary to the weak, unconvincing assertion earlier on that it does not.]

It will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust, but we will proceed with courage, rectitude and resolve. There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect. But it is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point. This is not simply about America's interests. It is about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path.

[It's only going to be a nuclear arms race if you want it to be. Israel already has theirs, and all the corrupt Gulf regimes and their consumer societies are nowhere even near developing any tangible research capabilities or industrial infrastructure from which they can begin to develop any sort of nuclear capability, let alone a bomb. Unless, of course, you will aid them in these fields. (Can anyone say *ka-ching*? French President Nicholas Sarkozy certainly can!)]

I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not. No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons. That is why I strongly reaffirmed America's commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons. And any nation – including Iran – should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. That commitment is at the core of the treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it. And I am hopeful that all countries in the region can share in this goal.

[Ha! Haha!]

The fourth issue that I will address is democracy.

I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.

That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.

[Spoken from a podium supplied by the Mubarak regime. Uh huh.]

There is no straight line to realise this promise. But this much is clear: governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.

[So, suppressing the idea of Algeria's Front Islamique du Salut since 1991 and the idea of Palestine's Hamas since 2006 hasn't made them go away? Well done! Cunning word-dropping of the term 'peaceful' twice thereafter, but the question that begs itself is: what if these voices remain peaceful until they are suppressed, declared war upon and attacked? Should they defend themselves?]

This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

[Surely even you must admit that that description, and attached prescription, fit Mahmoud Abbas', and his Fatah dinosaurs', government to a T?]

The fifth issue that we must address together is religious freedom.

Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition. I saw it first-hand as a child in Indonesia, where devout Christians worshipped freely in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. That is the spirit we need today. People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind, heart, and soul. This tolerance is essential for religion to thrive, but it is being challenged in many different ways.

Among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of another's. The richness of religious diversity must be upheld – whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt. And fault lines must be closed among Muslims as well, as the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence, particularly in Iraq.

Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together. We must always examine the ways in which we protect it. For instance, in the United States, rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation. That is why I am committed to working with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfil zakat.

Likewise, it is important for western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practising religion as they see fit– for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.

Indeed, faith should bring us together. That is why we are forging service projects in America that bring together Christians, Muslims, and Jews. That is why we welcome efforts like Saudi Arabian King Abdullah's Interfaith dialogue and Turkey's leadership in the Alliance of Civilizations. Around the world, we can turn dialogue into interfaith service, so bridges between peoples lead to action– whether it is combating malaria in Africa, or providing relief after a natural disaster.

The sixth issue that I want to address is women's rights.

I know there is debate about this issue. I reject the view of some in the west that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous.

Now let me be clear: issues of women's equality are by no means simply an issue for Islam. In Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, we have seen Muslim-majority countries elect a woman to lead. Meanwhile, the struggle for women's equality continues in many aspects of American life, and in countries around the world.

Our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons, and our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity – men and women – to reach their full potential. I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal, and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice. That is why the United States will partner with any Muslim-majority country to support expanded literacy for girls, and to help young women pursue employment through micro-financing that helps people live their dreams.

Finally, I want to discuss economic development and opportunity.

I know that for many, the face of globalisation is contradictory. The internet and television can bring knowledge and information, but also offensive sexuality and mindless violence. Trade can bring new wealth and opportunities, but also huge disruptions and changing communities. In all nations – including my own – this change can bring fear. Fear that because of modernity we will lose of control over our economic choices, our politics, and most importantly our identities – those things we most cherish about our communities, our families, our traditions, and our faith.

But I also know that human progress cannot be denied. There need not be contradiction between development and tradition. Countries like Japan and South Korea grew their economies while maintaining distinct cultures. The same is true for the astonishing progress within Muslim-majority countries from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai. In ancient times and in our times, Muslim communities have been at the forefront of innovation and education.

This is important because no development strategy can be based only upon what comes out of the ground, nor can it be sustained while young people are out of work. Many Gulf States have enjoyed great wealth as a consequence of oil, and some are beginning to focus it on broader development. But all of us must recognise that education and innovation will be the currency of the 21st century, and in too many Muslim communities there remains underinvestment in these areas. I am emphasising such investments within my country. And while America in the past has focused on oil and gas in this part of the world, we now seek a broader engagement.

[I have few bones to pick with most of the above. It mainly addresses traditionalist attitudes within the Muslim world that tend to confuse centuries worth of cultural residue with the message of Islam, when in fact they are mutually exclusive. I will, however, revisit and reconfirm a point I have already made twice earlier by remarking on the last sentence above: how is it that America has come to this point where it seeks engagement with the Muslim world broader than that encompassing little more than oil and gas? Through the wilful submission of its dictators, or through the 'violent resistance' of its people?]

On education, we will expand exchange programmes, and increase scholarships, like the one that brought my father to America, while encouraging more Americans to study in Muslim communities. And we will match promising Muslim students with internships in America; invest in online learning for teachers and children around the world; and create a new online network, so a teenager in Kansas can communicate instantly with a teenager in Cairo.

[Errr... Live Messenger? Yahoo? Facebook? Twitter? Even MySpace! Not sure if I get that last point.]

On economic development, we will create a new corps of business volunteers to partner with counterparts in Muslim-majority countries. And I will host a summit on entrepreneurship this year to identify how we can deepen ties between business leaders, foundations and social entrepreneurs in the United States and Muslim communities around the world.

On science and technology, we will launch a new fund to support technological development in Muslim-majority countries, and to help transfer ideas to the marketplace so they can create jobs. We will open centres of scientific excellence in Africa, the Middle East and south-east Asia, and appoint new science envoys to collaborate on programmes that develop new sources of energy, create green jobs, digitise records, clean waste and grow new crops. And today I am announcing a new global effort with the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to eradicate polio. And we will also expand partnerships with Muslim communities to promote child and maternal health.

All these things must be done in partnership. Americans are ready to join with citizens and governments; community organisations, religious leaders, and businesses in Muslim communities around the world to help our people pursue a better life.

The issues that I have described will not be easy to address. But we have a responsibility to join together on behalf of the world we seek – a world where extremists no longer threaten our people, and American troops have come home; a world where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own, and nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes; a world where governments serve their citizens, and the rights of all God's children are respected. Those are mutual interests. That is the world we seek. But we can only achieve it together.

[Unfortunate that he had to kill the positive mood just there, but hey, we had to get back to reality sometime, eh? 'Extremists', occupying armies, Israelis, Palestinians, nuclear weapons, and governments (not necessarily democratic ones, mind you!) that 'serve their citizens'. Could it be, as these catch phrases would indeed imply, that the Bush-era pantomime never ended, but merely moved into act three? As for the 'all of God's children' gaffe, would I be a killjoy if I pointed out: "The Jews and the Christians say, 'We are the children of God and His beloved ones.' Say, 'Then why does he punish you for your sins? You are merely human beings, part of His creation: He forgives whoever He will and punishes whoever He will. Control of the heavens and earth and all that is between them belongs to Him: all journeys lead to Him.'" [The Feast 5:18] from the Oxford translation of the Holy Qur'an?]

I know there are many – Muslim and non-Muslim – who question whether we can forge this new beginning. Some are eager to stoke the flames of division, and to stand in the way of progress. Some suggest that it isn't worth the effort – that we are fated to disagree, and civilisations are doomed to clash. Many more are simply skeptical that real change can occur. There is so much fear, so much mistrust. But if we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward. And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country – you, more than anyone, have the ability to remake this world.

[Ball is in your park, Mr! Lot's of jaw jaw, lots of war war, but none of that Change with a capital 'C' you kept going on about to get yourself elected. I will, however, take you up on the offer of taking part in remaking this world as I see fit.]

All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort – a sustained effort – to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.

It is easier to start wars than to end them. It is easier to blame others than to look inward; to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There is also one rule that lies at the heart of every religion – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples – a belief that isn't new; that isn't black or white or brown; that isn't Christian, or Muslim or Jew. It's a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilisation, and that still beats in the heart of billions. It's a faith in other people, and it's what brought me here today.

[Second paragraph, first sentence - spoken like a pro! But since when has resisting global American Imperial hegemony been the easy path? Unless... yes, unless this resistance happens to be that other path of which you spoke! And there is a sister rule to 'do unto others as we would have them do unto us': "In the Torah We prescribed for them a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, an equal wound for a wound: if anyone forgoes this out of charity, it will serve as atonement for his bad deeds. Those who do not judge according to what God has revealed are doing grave wrong." [The Feast 5:45] from the Oxford translation of the Holy Qur'an. No, Ghandi was dead wrong when he stated that "an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind." Two eyes for an eye certainly will make the whole world blind. Never an eye for an eye will produce a small elite race of two-eyed humanoids ruling over a vast swathe of subjegated pirates and blind people. One eye for one eye only, however, is justice dealt in equal retribution. To forgive is to offer charity, and an offer of charity is only for the donor to give, for no one else to give on their behalf, and certainly not to be extorted from them.]

We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written.

The Holy Koran tells us: "O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another."

The Talmud tells us: "The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace."

The Holy Bible tells us: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."

The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God's vision. Now, that must be our work here on Earth. Thank you. And may God's peace be upon you."

[Will actions follow words? To be continued...?]

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Voice of Google AKA Youtube Free Europe

How happy should I be that I happened to opt for a lazy lunchtime session of Youtube browsing? I do believe I have come across quite the nugget, even if it has managed to piss me right off.

This just appeared on all my Youtube tabs.

The highlighted bit reads: "Watch President Obama's address live from Cairo, Egypt on the following Youtube channel: ( at 6:10 (Eastern US time)."

This isn't even an ad. Since when did ads appear at the top of your browser window like that? Whichever way you paint it, the only term that accurately describes this is 'propaganda'.

What I want to know is, does the White House pay Google a premium for this crap? And how is it that I am a target audience? Because I happen to be in the Middle East at the moment and browsing from a Middle Eastern IP number? Just like that?

Voice of America and Radio Free Europe were more tactful than this. At least you got to choose whether or not you turned the radio on!

Anyone out there able to chase some leads on this?

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

"The News Is a Turnip" and Other Stories

So here we are. A month and a half after my last post, and exactly two since the last one I personally wrote. What is this blog about? And why am I so bad at keeping it compared with once upon a time when I had a MySpace account with an attached blog?

You tell me.

Since my last proper post, I've been through a few adventures. My desktop computer kept playing up with BSODs, despite a fresh installation of Windows, which demanded frequent system restores, so I spent the entirety of May on my little netbook in a sort of partially self-imposed Lappiness.

I am back from Lapland now, but while there, I have, among other things, joined Twitter. I am still getting acustomed to its culture, and, for the moment at least, enjoying its simple, stripped down nature, and the lack of heavy advertising along the sides. We shall see how long that will last! (P.S. the porn bots that try to add you do get annoying, but hey, this is the Internet!)

Is the above image accurate? Only time will tell. However, I will concede that a love/hate relationship is currently brewing in my head. I love the fact that the 140 character limit acts as an incentive to contact people whom you normally just wouldn't e-mail; since signing up I've had brief exchanges with a couple of my favourite musicians (Kristin Hersh and Alec Empire) and the author of one of my favourite webcomics. Does any of that count as 'Internet Celebrity Disorder'? I also love the wide range of organisations, websites, think tanks, and newspapers you can effectively 'subscribe' to without the hassle of creating accounts on dozens of websites and signing up to newsletters that will clog up your mail box.

The hate? The fact that this makes it almost TOO easy to get your daily dose of news; something I loathed about traditional media, be it TV or your 'favourite' newspaper or magazine, was that the audience could not be anything but a passive consumer (letters to the editor aside). You are handed the 'news' and are expected to swallow and digest as is, whereas I always found that the real news, while out there, was only found if you did your own, often thorough and extensive, digging. After training oneself in the art of reading the same story multiple times from different sources (trust me, it is an art) does one realise what one should make of what is said, and, often more importantly, what is not, by said sources.

The redeeming factor? With a more efficient distribution and delivery system in place, one probably ends up clicking away at more links than one normally would anyway. The only problem in this instance is information overload, however that's down to the individual to manage their way around. But then again, I repeat: hey, this is the Internet!

But Twitter is also not all work and news and distribution systems. It's amusing too! In the past week I have started being followed by two seemingly lonely Asian men who appear to believe, judging by the other people they are following, that I am a girl. They are certainly getting no action from me. Will they be any more successful with the others?

Another prime example of Twitter amusement is 90s Alternative/Indie rocker (yes, I know we're 9 years into the 21st century and she's still making music, but she still sounds like the 90s, so my label stands) Juliana Hatfield. The lady is funny!

Aside from Twitter, another adventure I have embarked upon is Chrono Trigger on my DS, almost six months after downloading it.

It's probably been over ten years since I last sat down to play it through on the SNES, so the experience of reliving it is nice. The best RPG ever? Possibly. I'd kept my old copy in mint condition since 1995 and it fetched a wonderful £75 for me on eBay a couple of years ago.


Woah! So I realise I've pretty much written a blog entry and I haven't even started talking about the initial topic I had in mind. Seeing as that will be completely out of place here, I'm leaving that for tomorrow. Does this mean I just got my blogging Mojo back?

Watch this space.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Johann Hari: You Are Being Lied to About Pirates

Posted April 13, 2009 | 10:05 AM (EST)

Who imagined that in 2009, the world's governments would be declaring a new War on Pirates? As you read this, the British Royal Navy - backed by the ships of more than two dozen nations, from the US to China - is sailing into Somalian waters to take on men we still picture as parrot-on-the-shoulder pantomime villains. They will soon be fighting Somalian ships and even chasing the pirates onto land, into one of the most broken countries on earth. But behind the arrr-me-hearties oddness of this tale, there is an untold scandal. The people our governments are labeling as "one of the great menace of our times" have an extraordinary story to tell -- and some justice on their side.

Pirates have never been quite who we think they are. In the "golden age of piracy" - from 1650 to 1730 - the idea of the pirate as the senseless, savage thief that lingers today was created by the British government in a great propaganda-heave. Many ordinary people believed it was false: pirates were often rescued from the gallows by supportive crowds. Why? What did they see that we can't? In his book Villains of All nations, the historian Marcus Rediker pores through the evidence to find out. If you became a merchant or navy sailor then - plucked from the docks of London's East End, young and hungry - you ended up in a floating wooden Hell. You worked all hours on a cramped, half-starved ship, and if you slacked off for a second, the all-powerful captain would whip you with the Cat O' Nine Tails. If you slacked consistently, you could be thrown overboard. And at the end of months or years of this, you were often cheated of your wages.

Pirates were the first people to rebel against this world. They mutinied against their tyrannical captains - and created a different way of working on the seas. Once they had a ship, the pirates elected their captains, and made all their decisions collectively. They shared their bounty out in what Rediker calls "one of the most egalitarian plans for the disposition of resources to be found anywhere in the eighteenth century." They even took in escaped African slaves and lived with them as equals. The pirates showed "quite clearly - and subversively - that ships did not have to be run in the brutal and oppressive ways of the merchant service and the Royal navy." This is why they were popular, despite being unproductive thieves.

The words of one pirate from that lost age - a young British man called William Scott - should echo into this new age of piracy. Just before he was hanged in Charleston, South Carolina, he said: "What I did was to keep me from perishing. I was forced to go a-pirating to live." In 1991, the government of Somalia - in the Horn of Africa - collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since - and many of the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country's food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.

Yes: nuclear waste. As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, tells me: "Somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury - you name it." Much of it can be traced back to European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to "dispose" of cheaply. When I asked Ould-Abdallah what European governments were doing about it, he said with a sigh: "Nothing. There has been no clean-up, no compensation, and no prevention."

At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia's seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish-stocks by over-exploitation - and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m worth of tuna, shrimp, lobster and other sea-life is being stolen every year by vast trawlers illegally sailing into Somalia's unprotected seas. The local fishermen have suddenly lost their livelihoods, and they are starving. Mohammed Hussein, a fisherman in the town of Marka 100km south of Mogadishu, told Reuters: "If nothing is done, there soon won't be much fish left in our coastal waters."

This is the context in which the men we are calling "pirates" have emerged. Everyone agrees they were ordinary Somalian fishermen who at first took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least wage a 'tax' on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia - and it's not hard to see why. In a surreal telephone interview, one of the pirate leaders, Sugule Ali, said their motive was "to stop illegal fishing and dumping in our waters... We don't consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits [to be] those who illegally fish and dump in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas." William Scott would understand those words.

No, this doesn't make hostage-taking justifiable, and yes, some are clearly just gangsters - especially those who have held up World Food Programme supplies. But the "pirates" have the overwhelming support of the local population for a reason. The independent Somalian news-site WardherNews conducted the best research we have into what ordinary Somalis are thinking - and it found 70 percent "strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence of the country's territorial waters." During the revolutionary war in America, George Washington and America's founding fathers paid pirates to protect America's territorial waters, because they had no navy or coastguard of their own. Most Americans supported them. Is this so different?

Did we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their beaches, paddling in our nuclear waste, and watch us snatch their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris and Rome? We didn't act on those crimes - but when some of the fishermen responded by disrupting the transit-corridor for 20 percent of the world's oil supply, we begin to shriek about "evil." If we really want to deal with piracy, we need to stop its root cause - our crimes - before we send in the gun-boats to root out Somalia's criminals.

The story of the 2009 war on piracy was best summarised by another pirate, who lived and died in the fourth century BC. He was captured and brought to Alexander the Great, who demanded to know "what he meant by keeping possession of the sea." The pirate smiled, and responded: "What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you, who do it with a great fleet, are called emperor." Once again, our great imperial fleets sail in today - but who is the robber?

Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent newspaper. To read more of his articles, click here. or here.

POSTSCRIPT: Some commenters seem bemused by the fact that both toxic dumping and the theft of fish are happening in the same place - wouldn't this make the fish contaminated? In fact, Somalia's coastline is vast, stretching to 3300km. Imagine how easy it would be - without any coastguard or army - to steal fish from Florida and dump nuclear waste on California, and you get the idea. These events are happening in different places - but with the same horrible effect: death for the locals, and stirred-up piracy. There's no contradiction.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Newsweek: The Guard Who Found Islam

Terry Holdbrooks stood watch over prisoners at Gitmo. What he saw made him adopt their faith.

Matt Slaby-Luceo for Newsweek

By Dan Ephron | NEWSWEEK

Army specialist Terry Holdbrooks had been a guard at Guantánamo for about six months the night he had his life-altering conversation with detainee 590, a Moroccan also known as "the General." This was early 2004, about halfway through Holdbrooks's stint at Guantánamo with the 463rd Military Police Company. Until then, he'd spent most of his day shifts just doing his duty. He'd escort prisoners to interrogations or walk up and down the cellblock making sure they weren't passing notes. But the midnight shifts were slow. "The only thing you really had to do was mop the center floor," he says. So Holdbrooks began spending part of the night sitting cross-legged on the ground, talking to detainees through the metal mesh of their cell doors.

He developed a strong relationship with the General, whose real name is Ahmed Errachidi. Their late-night conversations led Holdbrooks to be more skeptical about the prison, he says, and made him think harder about his own life. Soon, Holdbrooks was ordering books on Arabic and Islam. During an evening talk with Errachidi in early 2004, the conversation turned to the shahada, the one-line statement of faith that marks the single requirement for converting to Islam ("There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet"). Holdbrooks pushed a pen and an index card through the mesh, and asked Errachidi to write out the shahada in English and transliterated Arabic. He then uttered the words aloud and, there on the floor of Guantánamo's Camp Delta, became a Muslim.

When historians look back on Guantánamo, the harsh treatment of detainees and the trampling of due process will likely dominate the narrative. Holdbrooks, who left the military in 2005, saw his share. In interviews over recent weeks, he and another former guard told NEWSWEEK about degrading and sometimes sadistic acts against prisoners committed by soldiers, medics and interrogators who wanted revenge for the 9/11 attacks on America. But as the fog of secrecy slowly lifts from Guantánamo, other scenes are starting to emerge as well, including surprising interactions between guards and detainees on subjects like politics, religion and even music. The exchanges reveal curiosity on both sides—sometimes even empathy. "The detainees used to have conversations with the guards who showed some common respect toward them," says Errachidi, who spent five years in Guantánamo and was released in 2007. "We talked about everything, normal things, and things [we had] in common," he wrote to NEWSWEEK in an e-mail from his home in Morocco.

Holdbrooks's level of identification with the other side was exceptional. No other guard has volunteered that he embraced Islam at the prison (though Errachidi says others expressed interest). His experience runs counter to academic studies, which show that guards and inmates at ordinary prisons tend to develop mutual hostility. But then, Holdbrooks is a contrarian by nature. He can also be conspiratorial. When his company visited the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York, Holdbrooks remembers thinking there had to be a broader explanation, and that the Bush administration must have colluded somehow in the plot.

But his misgivings about Guantánamo—including doubts that the detainees were the "worst of the worst"—were shared by other guards as early as 2002. A few such guards are coming forward for the first time. Specialist Brandon Neely, who was at Guantánamo when the first detainees arrived that year, says his enthusiasm for the mission soured quickly. "There were a couple of us guards who asked ourselves why these guys are being treated so badly and if they're actually terrorists at all," he told NEWSWEEK. Neely remembers having long conversations with detainee Ruhal Ahmed, who loved Eminem and James Bond and would often rap or sing to the other prisoners. Another former guard, Christopher Arendt, went on a speaking tour with former detainees in Europe earlier this year to talk critically about the prison.

Holdbrooks says growing up hard in Phoenix—his parents were junkies and he himself was a heavy drinker before joining the military in 2002—helps explain what he calls his "anti-everything views." He has holes the size of quarters in both earlobes, stretched-out piercings that he plugs with wooden discs. At his Phoenix apartment, bedecked with horror-film memorabilia, he rolls up both sleeves to reveal wrist-to-shoulder tattoos. He describes the ink work as a narrative of his mistakes and addictions. They include religious symbols and Nazi SS bolts, track marks and, in large letters, the words BY DEMONS BE DRIVEN. He says the line, from a heavy-metal song, reminds him to be a better person.

Holdbrooks—TJ to his friends—says he joined the military to avoid winding up like his parents. He was an impulsive young man searching for stability. On his first home leave, he got engaged to a woman he'd known for just eight days and married her three months later. With little prior exposure to religion, Holdbrooks was struck at Gitmo by the devotion detainees showed to their faith. "A lot of Americans have abandoned God, but even in this place, [the detainees] were determined to pray," he says.

Holdbrooks was also taken by the prisoners' resourcefulness. He says detainees would pluck individual threads from their jumpsuits or prayer mats and spin them into long stretches of twine, which they would use to pass notes from cell to cell. He noticed that one detainee with a bad skin rash would smear peanut butter on his windowsill until the oil separated from the paste, then would use the oil on his rash.

Errachidi's detention seemed particularly suspect to Holdbrooks. The Moroccan detainee had worked as a chef in Britain for almost 18 years and spoke fluent English. He told Holdbrooks he had traveled to Pakistan on a business venture in late September 2001 to help pay for his son's surgery. When he crossed into Afghanistan, he said, he was picked up by the Northern Alliance and sold to American troops for $5,000. At Guantánamo, Errachidi was accused of attending a Qaeda training camp. But a 2007 investigation by the London Times newspaper appears to have corroborated his story; it eventually helped lead to his release.

In prison, Errachidi was an agitator. "Because I spoke English, I was always in the face of the soldiers," he wrote NEWSWEEK in an e-mail. Errachidi said an American colonel at Guantánamo gave him his nickname, and warned him that generals "get hurt" if they don't cooperate. He said his defiance cost him 23 days of abuse, including sleep deprivation, exposure to very cold temperatures and being shackled in stress positions. "I always believed the soldiers were doing illegal stuff and I was not ready to keep quiet." (Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, said in response: "Detainees have often made claims of abuse that are simply not supported by the facts.") The Moroccan spent four of his five years at Gitmo in the punishment block, where detainees were denied "comfort items" like paper and prayer beads along with access to the recreation yard and the library.

Errachidi says he does not remember details of the night Holdbrooks converted. Over the years, he says, he discussed a range of religious topics with guards: "I spoke to them about subjects like Father Christmas and Ishac and Ibrahim [Isaac and Abraham] and the sacrifice. About Jesus." Holdbrooks recalls that when he announced he wanted to embrace Islam, Errachidi warned him that converting would be a serious undertaking and, at Guantánamo, a messy affair. "He wanted to make sure I knew what I was getting myself into." Holdbrooks later told his two roommates about the conversion, and no one else.

But other guards noticed changes in him. They heard detainees calling him Mustapha, and saw that Holdbrooks was studying Arabic openly. (At his Phoenix apartment, he displays the books he had amassed. They include a leather-bound, six-volume set of Muslim sacred texts and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Islam.") One night his squad leader took him to a yard behind his living quarters, where five guards were waiting to stage a kind of intervention. "They started yelling at me," he recalls, "asking if I was a traitor, if I was switching sides." At one point a squad leader pulled back his fist and the two men traded blows, Holdbrooks says.

Holdbrooks spent the rest of his time at Guantánamo mainly keeping to himself, and nobody bothered him further. Another Muslim who served there around the same time had a different experience. Capt. James Yee, a Gitmo chaplain for much of 2003, was arrested in September of that year on suspicion of aiding the enemy and other crimes—charges that were eventually dropped. Yee had become a Muslim years earlier. He says the Muslims on staff at Gitmo—mainly translators—often felt beleaguered. "There was an overall atmosphere by the command to vilify Islam." (Commander Gordon's response: "We strongly disagree with the assertions made by Chaplain Yee").

At Holdbrooks's next station, in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., he says things began to unravel. The only place to kill time within miles of the base was a Wal-Mart and two strip clubs—Big Daddy's and Big Louie's. "I've never been a fan of strip clubs, so I hung out at Wal-Mart," he says. Within months, Holdbrooks was released from the military—two years before the end of his commitment. The Army gave him an honorable discharge with no explanation, but the events at Gitmo seemed to loom over the decision. The Army said it would not comment on the matter.

Back in Phoenix, Holdbrooks returned to drinking, in part to suppress what he describes as the anger that consumed him. (Neely, the other ex-guard who spoke to NEWSWEEK, said Guantánamo had made him so depressed he spent up to $60 a day on alcohol during a monthlong leave from the detention center in 2002.) Holdbrooks divorced his wife and spiraled further. Eventually his addictions landed him in the hospital. He suffered a series of seizures, as well as a fall that resulted in a bad skull fracture and the insertion of a titanium plate in his head.

Recently, Holdbrooks has been back in touch with Errachidi, who has suffered his own ordeal since leaving the detention center. Errachidi told NEWSWEEK he had trouble adjusting to his freedom, "trying to learn how to walk without shackles and trying to sleep at night with the lights off." He signed each of the dozen e-mails he sent to NEWSWEEK with the impersonal ID that his captors had given him: Ahmed 590.

Holdbrooks, now 25, says he quit drinking three months ago and began attending regular prayers at the Tempe Islamic Center, a mosque near the University of Phoenix, where he works as an enrollment counselor. The long scar on his head is now mostly hidden under the lace of his Muslim kufi cap. When the imam at Tempe introduced Holdbrooks to the congregation and explained he'd converted at Guantánamo, a few dozen worshipers rushed over to shake his hand. "I would have thought they had the most savage soldiers serving there," says the imam, Amr Elsamny, an Egyptian. "I never thought it would be someone like TJ."

With Dina Fine Maron in Washington

© 2009