Al-Jazeera English Launched Today

November 15, 2006

There is no shortage of controversies surrounding Al-Jazeera. A self-styled “voice of the oppressed south,” it is widely villified in the US as the voice of terror, and in the Middle East for the platform that it provides for dissenting voices (one notable episode being Wafa Sultan’s, opined on earlier in this blog.)

All of this, along with the surprisingly high quality of the studios, anchors, and the news so far -not just for a Middle Eastern media outlet- gives me more than ample reasons to like it. It has yet to prove its mettle in independence and quality in the longer run as it competes with other, more established global outlets.

Watch the very first Al-Jazeera English broadcast on YouTube here.

Watch Al-Jazeera English (livestream television) here.

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Levels of Corruption Unbearable in Afghanistan

November 15, 2006

How bad must things get before officials conscientiously object to corruption in their own offices?

Answer: Really, really bad.

Well, that is exactly what has happened in Afghanistan. A provincial customs officer in Kandahar has offered to quit because he feels that the level of corruption in all levels of the administration, including in his own office, are unbearable. Read Ashamed of corruption, Afghan offers to quit

While this official must be praised for his conscientious decision to resign in protest, the state of affairs throughout Afghanistan’s officialdom is truly worrisome, and all the more so because consciences as Mr. Sakzai’s are rare at all levels of the government. Historically, and certainly over the past five years, corruption in the public sector is the accepted norm -routine part of daily life as a public servant.

Transparency International recently released its worldwide Corruption Perceptions Index. PCR Blog writes: “The rankings are not encouraging for U.S. efforts abroad. Only Haiti ranked worse than Iraq (160) and Afghanistan couldn’t even provide enough data to be included.”

I feel that Afghanistan’s government chose not to provide the data -because it was severely self-incriminating.


The Buddha’s Smile

November 15, 2006

Recently a New Zealand PRT team in Bamiyan recovered a giant 500 Kg bomb lodged at the foot of one of the Buddhas. (Read the full news story here.) Apparently, the bomb was originally dropped by the Russians and had not exploded. Later, the Taliban tried to use it to explode the statue. The stubborn bomb once again refused to go off.

The story inspired the following:

The Buddha’s Smile

The Russian MiG-23 circled overhead the mud-walled compounds of the valley and turned around to face the pock-marked cliffs on its north side. Sound of gunfire echoed throughout the valley. It could have come from any of the hundreds of caverns surrounding the tall statues carved into the cliffs. Any of them could provide the dreaded Mujahideen with a commanding view of the valley. For days the Ukrainian pilot and his team of fellow pilots had fought an agonizingly long and slow battle with the cliff-hangers, those mysterious residents of the holes in the cliff.

The pilot found the tenaciousness of these fighters exasperating. Even more exasperating, however, were the statues themselves. Standing tall and proud, their serenity and majesty seemed to be uninterrupted by the sound of the flying fighter-bombers or the gunfight. It seemed as if these wonderful fighting machines, the MiGs, on whom many a nameless and faceless factory worker had labored in the steelworks of Stalingrad were insignificant trifles to the Buddhas. In the presence of the Buddhas’ grandeur, the pilot felt insignificant and small -flying at the headlevel, the pilot could not seem to stare down these huge, old monuments. How could the Buddha’s keep their solemn peace amid such carnage and the sound of steel was beyond the pilot.

It was now late in the afternoon and time to return to the base . The pilot radioed other fighters in the sortie and ordered return. Another inconclusive mission, the pilot thought to himself. A waste of precious time and resources, and above all, a dent in the military superiority of the mighty Soviet armada. As his fellow fighter planes were ascending the valley on their way to the base, the pilot had an idea -almost an afterthought. He radioed the others to go ahead and made a turnaround himself. He had decided to forever remove that condescending look from the Buddha’s face -and thereby deliver a message to the untiring warriors of the valley. This was the age of steel, and the victory of iron over mud and earth -of which everything seemed to be made in this valley amid high mountains. The pilot was determined to seal that victory symbolically, by demolishing the earthen image of the Buddha.

He thought of lobbing missiles straight at the Buddha’s eyes, but then thought better of it. Instead, he would make an offering to the alter of this self-important monument -he would offer what his comrades called the “Giant Pumpkin” in Russian, the 500 Kilogram bomb used to demolish fortified buildings and steel-reinforced infrastructure. Needless to say, the Giant Pumpkin had not seen much use in Afghanistan. But here was its chance to glow.

Smug and with a hint of a smile on his face, the pilot approached the smallest of the cliff’s statues. The closer he got, the higher rose the horizon. Refusing to be intimidated with the grandeur that usually awed him, he got even closer. A small red light in the panel in front of him began to go off. He ignored it and kept closing in. He could see the folds of the Buddha’s robes now, and the finer features of her huge face. If anyone was standing far enough in the valley at that moment looking at the Buddha, they could see that a small bird of some sort was flying straight into her face.

Just when it was clear that any closer and the plane itself would go up in flames, the pilot pulled at the steering gear and pushed a little red button with his right thumb. The bystander at the distance could have observed that the bird had made a sizeable dropping of a metallic texture. Content with himself, the pilot flew away and circled at a safe distance from the cliffs, his eyes and ears trained for the impact. He began to lose patience. The bomb was not going off. The fuel monitor on the control panel now indicated orange -he could barely make the flight back to Bagram. He turned to take one last look at the bomb and noticed the Buddha’s face. It still carried that serene composure. Infuriated, the pilot bit his lips, made a lewd remark, and began pulling away.

Later that day, as the sun was setting, one could see a large gathering of people surrounding the bomb site and marvelling at the shining mass of iron that had refused to explode.

High above them, her face awash in the soft light of the early dusk , the Buddha was smiling.



Vatican on Hijab? Huh?

November 15, 2006

The Vatican is again itching for trouble. (read)

For the record, let it be known that I do not favor women donning the frightening Saudi-style garb (variously called the Niqab, Hijab, Veil, etc.) in the name of Islam -for all sorts of Islamic and aesthetic reasons. Anybody knows that the prescriptions for Hijab in Quran do not pinpoint the level of discomfort and social self-ostracization that women should go to. As my wonderful aunt says, if these women are so bent on veiling and protecting from the non-privy eyes, they should stay in their own homes in their countries. I agree that the demands of life in an open society as that of Western Europe necessitate the relaxing of some rules, and I repeat, relaxing the rules on Hijab does not and should not mean abandoning Islamic presciptions on Hijab and modesty.

Hijab is an Islamic prescription, that much is true, but its specifics are up to the person, and some carry it to rediculous extremities. As citizens of Western liberal democracies, Muslims in the West need to learn to take a more active part in the civil-political lives of their home countries. The dark face-cover in question is a tool for social self-ostracization, or as Tariq Ramadan would say, “self ghettoization.” Between that extreme (that some Muslims are the West are bent upon) and the other extreme of no Hijab at all (which most European governments are calling for), there is a middle ground. I propose the headscarf, for those who choose to don it. You decide on the length, embroidery, color (the French tricolor and assorted European flags optional), but get rid of the gloomy, scary, face cover that is ever-so-present on book covers in the West as the definitive image of Muslim women (Read Veiled Babes).

Come on! Even the nuns have a more elated choice of colors -and they have cause for mourning -they are celibate for chrissakes!

All the same, Vatican is itching for trouble. Barely out of the Pope’s comments episode, with fresh wounds and scratches everywhere, the church decides to dive headlong in the continent-wide debate about Hijab. Somebody should tell them that the sensitivity of the matter really necessitates them keeping the hell out of this. The Vatican, of all people and places, especially at this time, is really bereft of authority and credibility and goodwill than to opine on this matter. As I said, I agree with what they say, but messaging and perceptions are as real as anything in our world today, and the Holy See does not seem to get it. (And it really does not help their case that today, after waiting for months, the Da Vinci Code came out ion DVD and I have just watched it -awful movie, awful book, but intriguing message.)

For what it is worth, I hope my brethren and sisters in faith do not oblige with another round of frenzied protests.


The Stairwell to Nihilism

November 15, 2006

About time I wrote something in here that is not so full of cynicism and sarcasm. I am afraid I might be leading some to thinking that I am such a nihilist. Those who do think so: very perceptive of you. I have to admit that this is an entirely correct observation.

See, it is a gradual process -this road to nihilism. Well, actually it is more like a series of downwards steps rather than a road. Like a stairwell (downwards) to nihilism.

It starts with possessing lofty ideals. This is the essential pre-requisite. You must believe. In something. Anything. To become a successful nihilist, you have to start with deeply-held beliefs. For many people, like myself, this means -by default- religious beliefs. For others -and this is not exclusive with the first group, the religious believers- these ideals are of a humanist bent. For some they are superficial -mere ideologies rather than ideals. These types do not have the right timber for becoming successful nihilists. They are not authentic enough. Ideologues seldom believe in things. They pretend to. And along the way, they feed themselves as well as others a lot of bull-crap. These types better not even try to become nihilists. It just won’t work. Believing in ideals is different. It requires honesty and devotion and passion. And whatever these ideals -whether religious or humanist, wether conservative or progressive- they always share certain characteristics: they are by necessity lofty and impossible to achieve; they all have a teleological view of all phenomenon; they are always universalist; and they always have total and all around goodness of everybody and everything at their heart.

First is the phase of innocence. That time when you wake up one morning and are sincerely surprised at the carnage that you see on your TV screen. It just does not fit your schema of your beliefs and ideals. And when you later recount what you saw to your friends -and you still believe that you have these- still with surprise and shock, you are once again surprised at their matter-of-factness and coldness. But of course they laugh at you. And at what they call your naivite.

This carries on to your freshman year of college, and if you are really slow, maybe sophomore year. (If you are not lucky enough to experience college, well then you are already ahead in your game.) Needless to say, those in the philosophy and the social sciences have a greater aptitude for nihilism. Word to the wise: opt for existentialism. Some in the humanities and fine arts do fine as well, but as a whole they have the downside of being exposed to fiction, poetry, and the corrupting possibilities that the artists’ imaginations offer -these are artificial means that only elongate the innocence phase. Their adverse impact on some never wash away and they go all their lives without having a hope of becoming good nihilists. It is not unheard of to see those in the humanities and fine arts who never make the transition from the innocence stage to lower rungs of the ladder of cynicism (needless to mention that lower here means farther ahead.) Which is why it cannot be emphasized enough to keep away from the destructive effects of this material -literature, fiction, poetry, arts. (Generally speaking of course. There are the useful type of literature for our purposes, Camus for instance. Nietzsche is a must too (yes he was a poet.) But whatever you do, steer clear of the Horatio Alger category. In contemporaries, Mitch Albom is particularly subversive. And if you have even heard of Nicholas Sparks, you must stop reading right here.)

Sentimental education as a whole corrupts the nihilist spirit, at best delaying, and at worst making it impossible to become a wholesome nihilist. The escapism of the artist and the poet, their destructive indulgence of their imaginations are all harmful for an aspirant nihilist. This is the time to see the facts for what they are -so shut your imagination and open your eyes and ears. Less heart, more mind. The goal to strive for at this stage is loss of innocence. Study of history is particuarly recommended. Also a good habit of reading the news, and generally keeping an open eye on the state of the world. Have the courage to keep your eyes and ears open, and you will go far in your quest for nihilism.

This next stage in particular requires vigilance and focus. This is the stage of bitterness and immediately follows innocence. Many who are not careful, focused, and persistent enough often succomb to the ill effects of arts and literature and other reactionary material during this stage. Remember, it is a sign of cowardice to seek refuge in the imagination. In this stage in particular the ill effects of such material must be systematically combatted. For instance, if you let down your guard and go to watch a movie that wollows in sentimentalism -or worse, you are forced to do so by, say, a girlfriend- then it is highly recommended that you take steps to immediately cleanse the ill effects of what you have just experienced by reading critics reviews of the movie that denounce it for what it is, that is sheer sentimentalism and loaded in sophomorish emotions. If you enjoy the company of those who refer to these as “chick-flicks,” all the better. During this stage you may still struggle with lingering effects of idealism, of beliefs that you once held deeply, but of course you know that they are remnants of your naive past and you must suppress them. Also in this stage you will be regularly disappointed. That is good. Do not deprive yourself of those situations. Disappointment is a key component of your nihilist education.

Cynicism is the next phase, and if you are lucky you will experience the onset of this stage during your last year of undergraduate. Remember, your goal here is not what is called ‘healthy skepticism.’ As an aspirant nihilist you must leave that behind early. Unlike previous phases which were largely passive and negative, this is a positive phase: actively seek darkness and negativity behind everything you come across. “Ulterior motives” is the phrase here -however possible try to make the links. Be proactive and build up solid foundations for a cynical mind. A word of caution: it is easy to fall for the temptation of conspiracy theories. Keep away from these. An aspiring nihilist should be more self-respecting than that. Nihilism requires a serious intellectual attitude. Conspiracy theories are for illiterates, pseudo-intellectuals, and the easily fooled. They are low on fact and high on theory. Remember that as an aspiring nihilist your first committment is to truth -bare truth. And if your belief is strong enough and you look hard enough, you will find the connections without having to take the easy route of conspiracy theory.

A common misunderstanding about us nihilists is that we don’t believe in anything. This cannot be farther from the truth. Just like the misunderstanding that atheists do not believe in a god. On the contrary, both these types are strong believers. What is different about them is what they believe in.

Nihilists do believe -strongly, as a matter of fact. We believe in darkness and nothingness. And like all believers, we are comforted by it.