Sunday, September 12, 2010


Ralph and Alice have pulled up stakes from our home base of Hayastan back to the suburbs of Northern Virginny. Ralph has been an utter grouch and the boys are even grouchier. The highlights were filled with seeing some very old friends and former colleagues and the ones from our old neighborhood of Noy. The boys have started school but we're still commuting from Arlington--a city of defense and homeland security contractors, government workers and lobbyists. Alice needs a little more time to unpack and reorient herself to her new corner of the world. Rip Van Winkle never had it so good.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The text of Akbar Ganji’s speech on the occasion of receiving the Milton Friedman Award for Advancing Liberty by the CATO Institute (13 May 2010)

 Akbar Ganji, a journalist, is one of the leading human rights dissidents to arise from Iran's Green Movement. He accepted the Milton Friedman Award for Advancing Liberty from a libertarian think tank Cato Institute, Washington DC on 13 May 2010. The original link can be accessed by clicking on the title above, although the speech below is in its entirety. Hat-tip to RBMc. Alice.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to start by thanking the Cato Institute for awarding me this prize, which I accept as a moral and ethical endorsement of the Iran’s Green Movement. I very much hope that this award will facilitate our struggle for advancing democracy and human rights in Iran.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Human history has been interpreted in many ways. I read this history as a sustained course of struggle for liberty—the struggle of slaves, women, people of color, the poor, the disenfranchised, of religious minorities and dissidents, to rid themselves of the tyranny they have endured. The history of emancipation movements in the United States is in fact a perfect example of such endeavors for liberty: the struggle against foreign domination, the revolt against slavery, the women's rights movements, and the civil rights movement, are all
prime examples of human struggle, which have in turn become inspirational for similar movements around the globe. The American tradition of struggling for freedom has been instrumental in spreading the culture of liberty and democracy throughout the world. Today the American people and their social institutions continue to help disseminating the same humane principles that inspired their own founding fathers.

Today one can see many societies that are reaping the benefits of these sustained struggles for liberty. There is no doubt that the relative freedom in these countries is the result of the institutionalization of democracy; and needless to say, democracy is the result of a powerful civil society, that is in turn contingent on the freedom to elect a representative government, which is itself predicated on freedom of expression, action, and organization. Good or bad, the fate of a people, however, is not entirely in their own hands. Appropriate international circumstances are also necessary preconditions for the empowerment of civil societies and a transition to a democratic system that is committed to popular sovereignty and human rights.

The misfortune of the people who live in the Middle East, the region from which I come, is that these necessary international conditions have never been conducive to achieving democracy. Quite to the contrary, these conditions have always been to the benefit of the enemies of freedom. When we look at the history of the last century, we see that Western countries, led by the United States, have brought dictatorial regimes to power and have consistently supported them. What is noteworthy is that defending these dictatorial regimes, which has always been done under the assumption of protecting the security and the interests of the West, has never achieved its stated goals. In his famous speech in November 2003, President Bush said [quote], “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe—because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.” [end quote]

Whatever the cause of such policies, its result was walking shoulder to shoulder with diabolical enemies of freedom, a policy that of course was not limited to the Middle East. In 1942, President Roosevelt, quoting a Balkan proverb, famously told Prime Minister Churchill, apropos their meeting with Stalin in Yalta,[quote] “It is permitted in time of grave danger to walk with the devil until you have crossed the bridge.”[end quote] The inevitable result of walking with the devil has been the ascendancy of mostly military dictators around the globe.

People of the Middle East had been living under the tyranny of secular and corrupt governments for a long time, which were all supported by the United States and other Western countries. This context left them recourse to only one political alternative: religious fundamentalism. The United States and the Western world reaped the first fruit of their own deeds with the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and today they face fully grown and powerful trees of violent fundamentalism, and of course they must remember their own share in planting these trees with shame. The result of these prolonged policies endanger the possibility of democracy, because if in countries like Egypt or Saudi Arabia free elections were to be held today, fundamentalist parties will most probably win. Iran is the only country in the region that if fair, free, and competitive elections were held today, democratic forces that believe in the separation of religion from the state would be victorious. This is because for 31 years Iranians have experienced extremist Islamic fundamentalism. The United States and the Western world must cease supporting secular dictators or following policies that will inadvertently keep religious dictatorships in power, instead they should, for reasons of self-interest, support democracy and human rights as principal pillars of their foreign policies.

Be that as it may, the foolish policy of supporting dictators was soon replaced with another misguided policy. Entirely oblivious of the complications of Middle Eastern politics, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair were under the impression that by invading a country and occupying it they could bring democracy to it. In Afghanistan and Iraq all such delusions went up in flames and burnt out in smoke. Even President Bush himself, during the last year of his presidency, kept repeating that the United States cannot be allowed to be defeated in Iraq. Today, which American politician can guarantee a clear vision for the future of Afghanistan and Iraq after foreign forces leave? Even President Obama, who came to office promising to withdraw from Iraq, is today entangled in the messy aftermath of the U.S. invasion of that country and cannot easily deliver on his promise. And yet, unfortunately, it seems that attacking Iran still seems to be an option that this administration is taking under consideration.

The fact that people in the Middle East feel threatened by the United States and the West, and are thus inclined towards their enemy, namely the fundamentalists, is not entirely because of this history of US support for secular tyrannies or merely in reaction to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. The one-sided support of the United States for Israel has exacerbated this situation. The gushing wound of Palestine is the most appropriate site for the worsening of the infection of fundamentalism. A just solution to the Palestinian problem, and the formation of an independent Palestinian state, next to Israel, is essential to reconstructing the image of the United States in the Muslim world. Moreover, a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict will transform the region and move it away from the destabilizing decades of the past and toward the development of democracy in the future

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Please allow me now to turn to another American policy in the region, that pertains to nuclear proliferation and which has been equally conducive to the growth of fundamentalism. American policies on this issue are predicated on double standards. Completely ignoring Israel’s massive stockpile of nuclear weapons, the United States is single-mindedly fixated on the Islamic Republic in preventing it from becoming a nuclear power. There is no doubt that the prospect of Iran becoming a nuclear power while ruled by a religious-military dictatorship is not only detrimental to a better life for the people of Iran and possibly may even delay the transition to democracy, but it will also pose a grave danger to the world at large. But the double standard evident in American behavior, in not adopting the principle of a complete regional disarmament for all weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, will only exacerbate the cause of fundamentalism and strengthen regimes such as the Islamic Republic of Iran. The point here is not merely that Iran should not be attacked militarily. The point is that even entertaining the possibility of a military strike, especially when predicated on the nuclear issue, is beneficial to the fundamentalists who rule Iran and as such, detrimental to the democratic movement in my country. Moreover, it is especially beneficial to those fundamentalist forces who thrive on the persistence of such double standards. Of course, this is not to blame the American militaristic policies or double standards for every problem in Iran or the Middle East. I simply wish to insist on the following point:

The Iranian regime will abuse the current emergency conditions—brought on by the threat of a military strike — to push the democratic Green Movement away from the center of world attention. The Green Movement in Iran is the sign of the deep dissatisfaction of Iranians against those who rule over them. This is a pluralist movement and pursues its objectives through non-violent means. The Iranian people, women and the youth in particular, are struggling for liberty—the freedom to choose the kind of life they want to lead, freedom to form voluntary associations, freedom for peaceful assembly to express their concerns, freedom of expression, freedom of opinion, of religion, of behavior, and above all freedom to choose a life worthy of their dignified humanity. But those who rule Iran have not only refused to grant these liberties, but in fact with their severe and brutal crackdown, they have responded in a brutal way.

At this very moment, scores of those struggling for liberty and human rights are suffering under unbearable conditions in Iranian prisons. Those who have name recognition are treated comparatively better than others—though still under inhumane and despicable conditions. Scores of ordinary people, meanwhile, are suffering in these prisons under intolerable conditions. Because they are unknown and invisible, the regime has an open-ended license to do with them as it pleases. During the post-electoral crisis in Iran, the Iranian security forces opened fire on ordinary people in the streets, killing many and arresting thousands more. As admitted by the officials of the Islamic Republic themselves, at least four people have been killed under torture. The death of these four people alone is a telling example of the condition in Iranian prisons, and how the Islamic Republic treats their own citizens. At the same time, the bodies of some other prisoners have been given to their relatives, and they have been told that their loved ones have committed suicide or else suffered a heart attack. It is the bitter truth that the Iranian regime has just resumed a new wave of political executions in order to convey to its opponents that it will tolerate no opposition. The most recent example of these violent behaviors is the executions of five Kurdish Iranians early in the morning on May 9th of this year. The charges against of these five political prisoners, as the Islamic Republic has said, is membership in political parties that the government considers illegal. Without due process of law these prisoners have been executed so that an example can be made of them for other opponents of the state.

Iranians who care for democracy in their homeland will support prosecuting those who rule over Iran. They believe that these ruthless leaders ought to be tried in international criminal courts and charged with crimes against humanity. They wish those who have ordered or executed the suppressing of the Iranian people be arrested the instant they leave the country. In this context, the Iranian people wish to prevent the sale of technologies of suppression to the ruling regime in Iran. For example, the Islamic Republic is denying people the right to learn the truth from autonomous media sources on the Internet, and from satellites. If the people of Iran are not allowed to have access to satellite television, why should the tyrannical regime of the Islamic Republic be able to use the facilities of the international satellite system? When in Iran the formation of independent labor unions, in the private or public sector, is disallowed, why is it that the international community does not make doing business with Iran contingent on the formation of such independent unions?

Why is it that foreign investments in the Iranian economy, especially in the oil industry or the selling of technology, cannot be made contingent on respecting human rights? Why is it that the United Nations, through such UN organizations as the International Labor Organization and The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development does not exercise oversight over the process of signing economic contracts between Iran and foreign companies, to ascertain that these contracts are awarded legally and through a transparent bidding processes?

Today, again there is much talk of economic sanctions against Iran. But we should not forget that unintelligent broad sanctions would weaken Iranian civil society and strengthen the power of state repression. In fact, the intensification of economic sanctions will not dismantle this regime. It will, ipso facto, add to the pain and suffering of the working and middle class; and as such it will not only deprive the Green Movement of its strongest supporters but will in fact alter the political agenda of people altogether, as the struggle for daily sustenance, and to make ends meet, will replace the struggle for liberty.

The intensification of economic sanctions will also make the Iranian state-run economy even more contingent on the state and as a result will make the current conditions even more corrupt and repressive. Those who believe that the free market economy is the mother of democracy should oppose economic sanctions at least from this perspective. When we talk about democratization of Iran and a transition to democracy, we will have to pay attention to the historical processes that have resulted in democratic systems and their relationship to the free market. Historically, liberalism preceded democracy. In other words, democracy was a suit tailored to liberal societies. The economy of all the existing democracies has been a free market economy. Although the shortcomings of the free market cannot be ignored, it is the best recognized system for the appropriation of resources, and politically will result in non-governmental centers of power that can thus pave the way towards democracy. And the reverse is also true. Careless sanctions will not only fail to alter the behavior of the Iranian government or its regime but will in fact weaken the groundwork for democracy by strengthening the state.

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you again for this award and for your patience tonight.

Akbar Ganji
13 May 2010

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

NYT: The Dangers of Demonizing Adherents of Islam by Richard Bernstein

“Fatwa on your head?” the ad reads, in a message apparently aimed at Muslims who want to convert to another religion or simply not to be Muslims anymore. “Is your family or community threatening you?”

The ad is promoting a Web site,, where, presumably, New York Muslims whose lives have been threatened because they want to convert can turn for help, and the site contains links to other sites with various anti-Islamic purposes. “Muslims Against Sharia,” for example, aims “to educate Muslims about dangers presented by Islamic religious texts and why Islam must be reformed.” ...

The ads, which, according to The Daily News, will run for a month, were created by a 51-year-old conservative blogger named Pamela Geller, who heads a group called Stop the Islamization of America and sees as its task to expose the supposedly retrograde and repressive nature of Islam itself...

to read more click here

Response to Donna Schaper's "Build the Muslim Community Center at Ground Zero

My response as "PChK" to Donna Schaper's "Build the Muslim Community Center at Ground Zero" from Religion Dispatches. And here is a related link from that of Cordoba Initiative, designed to foster understanding among Muslims, Christians, and Jews:

NYC's local community board No. 1 voted by 29-1 (with 10 abstensions) and my former mayor Mike Bloomberg, the City Council president, and the Manhattan Borough president have all given the green light on building the Cordoba House. It seems to me that if the community and city approve of this project th[e]n what is the problem?

I can tell you that many of my family, relatives, and friends were there on the day of 9/11. A few had witnessed both planes crash into the WTC buildings. One friend was at ground level and saw overhead what happened. Another saw it from the now defunct Merrill Lynch headquarters at nearby World Financial Center. My brother-in-law witnessed it from his high-rise balcony near Lincoln Center. Many, forced to flee by foot from southern Manhattan, were covered with white soot by the end of their travails.

Another friend told me of her most lingering memory that day. While crossing the Brooklyn Bridge she turned back toward southern Manhattan and saw the smoke rising from where the WTC towers once stood. She smelled the stench of jet-fuel and other noxious chemicals that filled the air along with scraps of paper that floated about like a ticker-tape parade to the dead as she and thousands of others like her, covered with white soot like phantoms, trudged on their way home to Brooklyn and other points.

My sister told me that one of her Sunday School kids attended a Bergen County public school where no less than nine kids became orphans that morning because both parents worked in the WTC.

So when we New Yorkers hear of Tea-Party group telling us we are wrong to approve of the Cordoba project, when we New Yorkers recall the shrill voices of Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly shouting down relatives of 9/11 victims, when we New Yorkers recall our mayor's plea to nix the anti-terrorist funding cuts of the Bush years, when we New Yorkers grimly saw the images of 9/11 being exploited to hype the candidacy of John McCain during the GOP National Convention of 2008 we have no other choice but to note that those who wrap themselves around the flag and call it patriotism are the most cynical and hypocritical. They care not for our values and what this country stands for—which is best exemplified by New York City and Lady Liberty. It is also why the terrorists chose New York (and DC) as targets. Not Wyoming, not Idaho, and not Texas.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Response to Prothero's "The Dalai Lama is Wrong" (CNN religion blog)

The CNN religion blog post by Stephen Prothero, a religion professor, of 26 May 2010 entitled, “The Dalai Lama is Wrong” inspired a private exchange between two college friends, S. and Pei, an ex-evangelical and Buddhist. S. and Pei address the issue of Islamic phobia and religious fundamentalism. Both have given permission to reprint their exchange with minor edits. 

30 May 2010

Dear S.,

Thanks for posting this. I'm glad that everyone
including CNN--is suddenly interested in the intersection between religion and politics again. I just want to respond to your FB post:
Tenzin Gyatso's op-ed isn't arguing that there is a "all paths lead to one," as the misleading title would have us believe. Some careless headline writer wrote that. The One Truth is that we are all living in the same world and, ergo, we have to find ways to share the same resources and to coexist peaceably.

These are what I think are His Holiness points: The Dalai Lama is saying that (1) we should exhort "peaceful coexistence" in the midst of a lot of hateful rhetoric over Muslims and (2) that we should emphasize that there are repeated themes to different religious experiences
namely, compassion. His intent was not to smooth over differences as Prothero misreads.

And lastly, perhaps English isn't his native tongue, but the Dalai Lama's reminder was (3) to respect the religious beliefs of others: 

Granted, every religion has a sense of exclusivity as part of its core identity. Even so, I believe there is genuine potential for mutual understanding. While preserving faith toward one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions.

So if arguing for "peaceful coexistence" and respecting and appreciating other religious traditions are tired and shopworn cliches then I have to say I have to fundamentally disagree with Prothero. These are maxims we should continue to extol to those intent on sowing anxiety, fear, and hatred all around us--particularly the right-wing, Islam-fearing crowd that seeks to stop a Muslim cultural center from being built two blocks from Ground Zero (despite a resounding local community board and NYC Mayor Bloomberg's approvals), that seeks to write out Thomas Jefferson out of our nation's textbooks, that seeks to force Oklahoman women to witness their pregnancy termination in utero, that seeks to legislate creationist doctrine to onto the school curricula, that seeks to legislate mandatory firearm "education" to Virginian school children, and so on.

Prothero is responding to the Dalai Lama's op-ed piece in The Dalai Lama is respectfully refraining from singling out the Christian theocrats but I think he is aiming his message in that general direction also
since it is so heated. 


31 May 2010

Dear Pei, 

What I think that Prothero, who is a religion scholar at a secular school, is saying is that each religion has its own goals, and that while compassion is usually valued in each of the major religions (leaving aside animistic religions for the moment), it is valued for different reasons and conceptualized differently. Compassion is a means to an endin Buddhism, to relieve suffering, and in Christianity, and Judaism, too, I would say, to participate in God's nature and bring about the Kingdom of God. Not having read the Koran, I would imagine that Islam's teachings about compassion are similar to those of Judaism and Christianity, inasmuch as a good deal of its theology is based on that of those religions. These are not minor theological quibbles.  They are different paradigms of the universe.

I doubt that His Holiness had right-wing Christianity in mind exclusively when he gave his address. We have to be totally candid, and address the elephant in the living room: Islamism is as intolerant as can be imagined. Its adherents are poor and suffering, but trying to recreate a medieval society that may never have existed as it is currently imagined anyway is not going to alleviate their poverty and vulnerability. Identity politics? A worn out waste of time. Suicide bombers may provide some sort of sense of empowerment and pride, but are they are also a form of communal suicide - not only the bomber (and his or her victims) dies, but the hope of the community to thrive dies a bit more with each attack, too.

So, we have to be honest. The religions differ profoundly. We can acknowledge that without murdering each other...I hope.
2 June 2010
Dear S.,

If you follow the unsavory narratives of Christian right-wingers, McVeigh Republicans, and Jewish-settlement zealots they would have us all believe that there isn't any difference between Islam and Islamic fundamentalism with links to some of the these debates: and The other unspoken truth is that all religious fundamentalisms are dangerous to varying degrees. This includes Christian fundamentalism and Jewish fundamentalism
both of which seek to drive out Palestinians and Arabs from their shared ancient landsfrom Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza through aggressive settlement-building and other measures violating international standards of human rights.

You said that "Islamism is as intolerant as can be imagined. Its adherents are poor and suffering, but trying to recreate a medieval society that may never have existed as it is currently imagined anyway is not going to alleviate their poverty and vulnerability." This cannot be said in essentially secular Muslim societies such as Turkey, Malaysia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. We'll leave Brunei and Kuwait out of the picture—both are wealthy and oil-rich—and its Muslim citizens have a good life rivaling that of Switzerland. The poor and suffering are not merely confined to the world's Muslim countries. They are present in all countries including our own. By medieval society I assume you are referring to severe restrictions to women in repressive ultraconservative regimes in Wahabhist, or Salafi, Saudi Arabia and Taliban-dominated Afghanistan and tribal areas in Pakistan. It should be noted that since the exponential increases of oil prices since the 1970s
as well as the perception that the continued escalation of the torment of the Palestinians is rooted in Western hatred of Islamhave enabled this ultraconservative sect of Islam to propagate their extremism to corners of the Islamic world far beyond their borders, as noted by various observers including former Singapore president Lee Kuan Yew. It's been estimated that the Wahabhist Saudis have spent at least $87 billion dollars in the last twenty years that include building madrassas and mosques in places such as Albania and Kosovo. 

I agree that suicide bombers are intolerable and, as a recent NYRB blog by Ahmed Rashid points out, the liberal and progressive media seem unable to grapple with the disturbing patterns of these terrorists coming from secular or liberal and elite or middle-class Muslim societies, as well as Western European societies, where they feel alienated and unwelcome.

Surely as we Americans willfully look away, again, the rest of the world (Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, Arab, non-Arab Muslim) witnesses how Israel, again, bars (and kills) Palestinian activists from attempting to reach aid to a walled-off Gaza. How is that any different from the Berlin Wall and the Berlin Airlift of 1948? We in America have repeatedly ignored and obfuscate the very reasons that Osama bin-Laden stated in his open letter to America on why we were attacked on 9/11: [with my paraphasing of bin-Laden's reasons] because the U.S. at the time maintained military bases in Saudi Arabia, supports the corrupt Saudi royal family (not in the letter but mentioned in a 1997 CNN Peter Arnett interview), and the intolerable situation in Palestine.

It is not a coincidence that our second war with Iraq was based on a tissue of fabricated lies and deception about weapons of mass destruction and the other lies about al-Qaeda's early involvement with Iraq (there were none then but there may be some now). These fabrications were pushed by neoconservatives (Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, etc.) and backed by Christian Zionists and fundamentalists (Tom DeLay, Pat Robinson James Dobson, John Hagee, etc.) and their oil-soaked backers (Dick Cheney who is a neocon too) and enabled by elements of the proto-Tea-Party/GOP crowd. The most dangerous players, in my view, are the Christian theocratic fundamentalists who have allied themselves with discredited free-market proponents who want to rewrite American history and legislate a "Christian" nation founded on "free-market" principles. And their definition of "Christian" is most resoundingly not the same as the American Founders. 

While Christian and Jewish fundamentalists and their liberal sympathizers score debating points questioning the very validity of Islam they seem to have left out the voices of about 1+ billion Muslims. This is just plain wrong and is epistemic closure of epic proportions. It seems easy to dismiss the unreported work of civil societies in Muslim countries. I still find it hard to believe that they all must be Muslim fundamentalists! That is patently ridiculous. Societies grow and transform their own narratives in their own ways and we must allow and support moderate Muslims to rewrite their own even as we keep goal posts from moving on internationally accepted standards of human rights which includes free speech, free assembly, free press, and a woman's right to her own body, etc.

As we speak, Iranians have for more than two decades nurtured a vibrant cultural life with provocative art, mesmerizing Iranian cinema, and samizdat literature published in the West. These are indications of an albeit closed society asking itself hard questions—much like the Czech Prague Spring of 1968 or the Chinese student dissidents of 1989 with their more fortunate contemporaries of the Czecho-Slovak Velvet Revolution of 1989. But with the Prague Spring came the all too familiar squelching of dissent. Hence the terrible suppression of the Iranian Green Revolution. I don't believe that this is a fait accompli. This is a narrative that Iranians themselves are forging. What would make it easier for them as they regroup is that we should lend our positive support in much the way we supported the Czech and Slovaks, other Eastern Bloc dissident nations, and the Soviet dissidents. Encourage and support RFE/RL's Radio Farda, train a whole generation of American intelligence people in Farsi. Air-drop Farsi-translated copies of 1984 as we did during the Cold War—but also add to that the writings of Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk, many Turkish, Malaysian, American, European, etc. Muslim intellectuals. And rattling the saber at Iran at this time, with troops in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, only play into the hands of the mullahs that most Iranians find corrupt and repressive.

The Cold War play-book has been written already but it demands new narratives from both the enlightened West and enlightened, moderate Muslims. This antediluvian fundamentalist rhetoric of all sides have sparked competing dark visions of this "Clash of Civilizations" division that palpably stoke more mistrust, anxiety and fear and demands a response that we should tap into "our better angels"—our Jeffersonian, Lincolnian, Wilsonian, FDR, JFK and Obama narratives. It takes work to forge new narratives. POTUS 44 has already reframed discredited narratives of the GWB administration and we need to run swiftly with it. 

The Koran is said by many on the left and some on the right to be a compassionate work. Moderate Muslims continue to argue and to put down extremist Muslim sects that are in keeping with the Dalai Lama's exhortation to peaceably coexist with respect for other people's beliefs. At the same time we seem ill-prepared to combat the rising fundamentalism in our own sphere. Americans turn a blind eye to the 24/7 news cycle of Fox News, tea-partiers, Christian theocrats legislation limiting women's rights, gay rights, public schools, immigrants, and so on. 

We should continue to support with financial means and heartily endorse the work of Muslim moderates around the world as they seek to work out their own warring narratives against their extremists. All mainstream print and TV media have willfully ignored this work that has been going on for decades even as we can't even get enough State Dept, DOD, and CIA people to fluently learn Arabic or Farsi. 

So, to repeat, why is it that our intelligentsia have ignored the vigorous and spirited debates going in secular and moderate countries such as Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Egypt and where there are large Muslim populations such as India and Bangladesh? Is it because of the hubris of liberal American journalists, writers, and scholars unwilling to seek and chronicle whether there is any debate in Muslim communities at all? Sad to say, I'm also at a loss to answer these same questions because, frankly, I don't know—yet.

In short, we should not give in to the facile, slap-dash notion that over 1 billion Muslims walk lock-step and/or shudder in oppression under the broad-brush label of "Islamofascism." Instead, we should be seeking these answers before pronouncing sweeping judgments that Islam is the next communism while threatening that we should bomb Iran into the stone age. How do we do this? The Dalai Lama, the late Pope John Paul II, GWB's post 9/11 entreaties, and Barack Obama have said in varying ways that we should downgrade the wall of rhetorical strife and build bridges of dialogue to understanding with reasonable and willing parties. We should, frankly, give them the tools (i.e., NGO support, fellowships to Muslim community activists, writers, scholars) to answer their extremist elements. It is only then in this spirit that we can seek to answer the hard questions. 


Monday, May 31, 2010

Pysanky-Pixelated Madonna: Subverting Kitsch to the Sublime

KYIV--Andy Warhol would've approved of this. Housed inside St. Sophia Cathedral's gloriously golden topped domes is Oksana Mas's pysanky-pixelated "Look into Eternity," a mosaic of the Virgin Mary made of 15,000 hand-painted wooden eggs and based on the icon Theotokos Eleusa (late 17th century, Lviv region), attributed by some to Ivan Rutkovych.

We took our boys to our old stomping grounds in Kyiv, Ukraine where we once lived not far from one of my favorite cathedrals, St. Sophia (my other fave is the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul), now a museum, an UNESCO World Heritage site, and the resting place of Kyivan Rus's princely founders including Nordic-tinged Yaroslav the Wise. Ukraine, like most of Old World, is heavy with layers of history and, with history, comes baggage. It has its share of icons, churches, deocorated eggs (known as pysanky) and an interregnum of Soviet hegemony that suppressed Ukrainian language and culture as it installed the language of modern-day Muscovites. For the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada and the U.S. knowledge of Ukrainian culture began with wooden versions of pysanky, grandma's needlework pillow covers and folk costumes, choir songs sung in Old Church Slavonic, and the sweet smell of challah-like and raisin-filled babka bread for Easter. But those eggs, those eggs. How many Ukrainian youngsters can recall the wooden versions rolled about the house or hurled against an errant sibling as a proxy grenade? Well, I can only speak for my own household, actually.

Try this for historical baggage: Kyiv has had its shares of ups-and-down since its founding as Kyivan Rus, the progenitor of modern-day Russia and Ukraine. A millenia later Kyivan Rus is overrun by Norseman, Central Asia's Gorden Horde, Czarist Russia, Poland, and the Soviet Union. This, despite the best efforts of Cossack mercenaries on horseback and WWII-era liberation rebels. Ukraine arises through a nexus of accidental history of Soviet collapse and concerted efforts of Soviet political dissidents and human rights activists in the West.

Meanwhile, the art of pysanky have been around for more than two millenia. Many non-Christian and pre-Christian cultures came to think of the egg as a symbol of life, hope, and renewal so it would seem natural that the custom of embellishing the common egg with dyes or applying beeswax to resist dyes became pagan norm. The symbolism of renewal obviously wasn't lost on Christian converts who adapted this tradition to their new beliefs in Christ's resurrection. Somewhere along the line--notably to the west of Christian Orthodoxy and Catholicism--it has morphed into the commercial schlock of chocolate Easter bunnies, plastic eggs, and Peeps marshmallows competing for our attention with Christ's sacrifice for mankind. What should be the holiest of holidays for all Christians becomes a bad farce. And so Oksana Mas's mosaic of the Madonna icon triumphs not with bible-banging nor from marauding Cossacks but with a sly wink. She subverts the worn kitsch of Easter eggs and reclaims its symbolism for our times. Andy Warhol, of sturdy Ruthenian stock from the Slovakian border of the Carpathian Mountains, would have grinned at the brilliance of Mas's visual pun.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

How Many Tulips in the Revolution?

Tulips are my favorite flowers but once they're cut their petals fall before they shrivel. So it is with the Tulip Revolution where Scott Horton, one of my favorite legal-eagle bloggers currently parked at Harper's, takes a step back from Gitmo and comments on the WSJ* central Asian democracy op-ed by Baktybeck Abdrisaev and Alexey Semyonov who wrote an earlier op-ed in March**. If you're a democracy watcher like Ralph--whether from the left or right--Kyrgyzstan is one of those places to watch. Ralph, his unnamed government colleagues, and Scott Horton (and Glenn Greenwald of, for that matter) are also interested in Kyrgyzstan for the simple fact that our transit air base to Afghanistan is still there to the tune of about US$60 million--although the lease ends next month.

Kyrgyzstan is a land-locked Turkic central Asian nation (what a friend likes to call, "one of those Icky-stans") of about 6 million folks and shares borders with China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. It's capital is Bishkek, formerly known in my day as Frunze. Central Asia has always had a bit of a reputation with Genghis Khan and authoritarian khanates--even under the shadow of the Soviet Union. Let's just say that it's the Wild West out here and you know your favorite strongman isn't the flava of the day when he gets run out of town. It is Kyrgyzstan, however, that many observers latched their false hopes to took notice. The Kyrgyz ran out Soviet-era Askar Akayev setting the stage for the next BMOC, Kurmanbek Bakiyev in a mostly free-and-fair election (according to OSCE) dubbed the "Tulip" or Pink Revolution in 2005 because it was bloodless (not a small feat). Everything went downhill from there with the usual corruption issues including nepotistic appointments to favored family members and at least four dead parliament deputies. The son is (surprise, surprise) the most successful oligarch businessman in town. It helps if Daddy-khan happens to be the president. Fast-forward to April 2010 and, voila, people are pissed, more than sixty protesters are dead, and now they run out Bakiyev. It wasn't peaceful and still isn't in spots.

Needless to say, there's been a lot of OSCE and USAID fly-overs there. RFE/RL folks have had their broadcasts unplugged and rerouted. But the best place for information for us Kyrgyzstan dilettantes remain my fave: RFE/RL Central Asia division. RFE/RL-sponsored is in native Kyrgyz, Alice

* The WSJ, now owned by Rupert Murdoch, is one of those newspapers that make me gag but I've been scanning the headlines as a paid subscriber since the mid-1990s.
** Archived WSJ pieces need a subscription. Murdoch is very tight-fisted.