Sunday, January 29, 2006

Cartoonish, You Say?

What offended me was not that some Danish newspaper published a silly cartoon depicting prophet Mohammed, but rather that he was illustrated with a bomb on his head. This particular caricature carries a conscious and purposeful offense. Namely that 'Muslims are fundamentally wired to be terrorists'. That is what I find to be extremely hateful and offensive.

A proper analogy, here, would be if some newspaper published a cartoon of Jesus Christ molesting a child in the aftermath of the sexual abuse allegations involving a few Catholic priests. The implication of such caricature would be that "Christians are child molesters". This would be considered, and rightfully so, an assault on the dignity of the Christian faith. It would also, by the way, seriously offend Muslims who consider Jesus to be a prophet on equal footing with Mohammed.

Now, do people have the right in a free society to offend and hate? – Sure they do. But democracy has never been synonymous with anarchy and with freedom comes responsibility.

As such, governments have an obligation to protect the dignity of all their citizens and ensure their security against enemies both foreign and domestic - that is in fact an oath that U.S. government officials swear to before taking office. Democracies also enact laws and regulations to guard against excesses of freedom that threaten public safety and order: One does not have the freedom to yell fire in a crowded theatre nor does he or she have the freedom to urinate in a public space. Hateful propoganda dispensed for public consumption, one would argue, can be subject to the same limitations as litter laws that are in full force in the most democratic of democracies, including Danemark.

However, it is never excusable to condone violence no matter what the reason. Dr. King's civil rights movement is certainly a vivid example of how non-violent civil action can be effective even in the face of violent oppression. We now have a region where anger and resentment have been gathering for a long while, producing a collection of on-call hateful hooligans who come out shooting their guns at the slightest provocation. The violent protests we are seeing in places like Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, although all deeply troubled countries with a long history of conflict, are simply shameful. This is ultimately a Muslim problem that needs a Muslim solution. Muslims have a lot of house cleaning to do – there is no doubt about that. But, they do not need to be offended and humiliated into reform. Millions of Muslims are laboring to wrestle control of their faith from oppressive radical elements. They need to be supported, not offended.

Finally, beyond the headlines, the debate over the offensive caricatures has much to do with a few fundamental questions of vital importance to the future of the world:

(1) How will the Islamic world re-appraise its core values for a new revival? What will it take for it to dismantle religious monopoly, break old taboos and open new gates to independent thought?

(2) How will Western democracy cope with demographic and global change? How much will it resist the inevitability of change and how properly is it equipped to prevent the tyranny of its own majority?

(3) Is liberal democracy the exclusive partner of secularism or will mounting resistance to the latter thrust religion into a more expressed role in the shaping of the future countours of democracy?

Friday, January 27, 2006

Palestinian Election: Whose Wake-Up Call?

Sincere commitments to democracy and the rule of law stand on the untiring respect for democratic outcomes – otherwise such spoken commitments could not be at all too sincere. Great and enduring values survive because those who claim them do not give them up solely because, at one time or another, it was convenient to do so. We dare not subtract or cheat on our commitment to the liberty of man, for we do so at our own peril.

When Hamas won the Palestinian elections this week, expressions of outrage and outright disbelief have marked the headlines of the western media. President Bush explained that he found the Palestinian election to be “interesting”. That it was “a wake-up call to the [Fatah] leadership” in that “the [Palestinian] people are demanding honest government” and that “they want services to get decent education and health care”. In other words, President Bush, was conceding that the reputation of Hamas for honest governance and for delivering essential and reliable public services stood in stark contrast to the corrupt and unreliable leadership of Fatah. The president was right to draw such a conclusion – but life would be a lot simpler if answers to such momentous issues were so clear and definite.

This is not a wake-up call for the Palestinians – perhaps a shake-up call. But, this is a wake-up call for the West. What President Bush and American lawmakers need to wake up and understand is that the Palestinians are also demanding an end to settlements, road blocks, assassinations, incursions, and collective punishment. They demand freedom, dignity, and respect. Excluding these fundamental conditions from our definition of the Palestinian aspirations is at best blind if not entirely ignorant. After all, the Israeli democracy did vote the Likud party into power in 2000 although the latter did not recognize the right of the Palestinians to self-determination. Was that an expression of Israeli frustrations with the Labor party’s handling of the economy? Maybe so – But, at the time, observers were quick to point out that the Israelis were expressing their frustration with Labor’s “soft” stand on Palestinian terrorism and “failed” Oslo/Camp David peace negotiations.

The president was sure to note in his remarks that “one can’t be a partner in peace if your party has an armed wing”. That should come as a surprise to the Shia and Kurdish coalitions that together won more than two thirds of the vote in the last Iraqi election. The Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) maintains a fully armed and trained militia called the Badr Brigade. Moqtada Sadr’s group maintains its own militia, the Mahdi Army, and the Kurds have their own defense establishment, known as the Pesh Merga - All outside the control of the central Iraqi army that US tax payers are currently funding. Now, I agree with the core meaning of the president’s statement, but I find it to be disingenuous given what is happening in Iraq under US supervision.

Another issue the president raised regarding Hamas was that the US will not do business with a “political party that advocates the destruction of Israel”. I believe Mr. Bush would be surprised to hear the position, for example, of Abdul Aziz Al Hakim, the leader of Iraq’s SCIRI, on the matter. The US is right to ask that Hamas accept the right of Israel to exist peacefully aside a Palestinian state. However, they would be well advised to know that democracy in Arab countries does not automatically lead to a peaceful resolution of the Arab/Israeli conflict. There has been growing gap over time between Arab, US, and Israeli definitions of what constitues a "just" resolution to the conflict and there is a difference between what some see as "resistance" and what others view as "terrorism". The democracy-to-peace theory is, at least in the short-term, an illusion produced by a lack of understanding of Arab popular sentiments and excessive expectations tagged to the movement for democracy promotion. Democracy is not without risks, tribulations, and consequences. It is indeed a noble and vital endeavor, but it is not the answer to everything - it is not a cure-all for humanity’s terrible track of bad decision-making.

Nonetheless, to be sure...

Democracy is undoubtedly a far better proposition than tyranny and autocratic rule. It is a megaphone for the aspirations, hopes, and beliefs of man and a palpable mirror for his frustration, rage, and dejection. Hamas will be well advised to know that democracy is not an instant soup of voting rights and majority rule. That it is a vigorous market of ideas and the collective expression of faith in equal opportunity and protection for all under the law. That it is the reason why free minds excel and feeble souls prosper.

Yet, one would be reminded that it is when feeble minds prosper that free souls struggle.

Friday, January 13, 2006

When the sun rises on Sunday, a nation will wake up to the memory of your birth. Some will wake up to the memory of forty three years ago, when on the steps of the Lincoln memorial, you professed your dream for a just and righteous nation; a nation that "will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'"

I will wake up on Sunday a better man because your words continue to heal my soul from the trials of time and the ills of my fellow man. You taught me not to satisfy my thirst for freedom and justice "by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred". When adversity knocks me down, I hear you say that “unarmed truth and unconditional love shall have the final word”. So, I rise again.

Years have rolled past, and so I know that we have a finer land, a more noble future because you, the humble child of God, were willing to suffer for the sake of righteousness, peace, and genuine brotherhood.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Sapere Aude!

When they went to Annapolis and later to Philadelphia, each had their own idea of what should become of America, but all were convinced that what they had in the Articles of Confederation was neither desirable nor sustainable. They advocated, disagreed, deliberated, and finally compromised. They concluded that liberty is an inalienable human right and that tyranny, even when it is commanded by the majority, is the enemy of man. They resolved that the rule of law must reign supreme if the republic were to withstand the test of time.

Those men who founded this nation were surely not perfect. They were neither Gods nor demi-Gods as Thomas Jefferson once ascribed to the attendees of the constitutional convention. They were, however, some of the most impressive political minds produced by the age of enlightenment. Their brilliance was impressively unselfish because they trusted that the human mind can perceive of a reality that rests beyond its direct experience. They did not seek perfection in the summer of 1787 because they did not claim such pretension. Instead they set out to forge, for others to follow, a pathway to a “a more perfect Union” that seeks to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity”.

They hiked to the hilltop, looked over, and sought a land where vigorous debate would yield a durable process of institutional reform that would one day abolish slavery, promote civil liberties, and enforce the equal protection of citizen rights. Clearly, enlightened men have the courage to exercise their own intelligence in pursuit of liberty and justice. As Immanuel Kant would write in 1784:

Enlightenment is man's leaving his self-caused immaturity...Such immaturity is self-caused if its cause is not lack of intelligence, but by lack of determination and courage to use one's intelligence without being guided by another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own intelligence!

That was 221 years ago!!

Today, one wonders if Alexis de Tocqueville was right when he wrote: "The American Republic will endure, until politicians realize they can bribe the people with their own money." Some of America's leaders claim to hold truths that are not theirs to claim and others seem to have aquired a strong taste for self-interested ambition. They inspire based on fear not hope, fueling resentment and discrimination, and they state their fondness for the rule of law while working secretly to undermine it both at home and abroad.

The best idea brought forth by constitutional democracy is the primacy of the rule of law. When the founding of this nation was underway, James Madison and his peers were wholly preoccupied by the dangers of tyranny posed by the vulnerability of democracy to arrogant, all-knowing leadership. They worried that an individual, faction, or even a majority would rise to undermine liberty and the rule of law by wielding the banner of security and/or moral superiority.

They were right to worry because from slavery to the internment of the Japanese-Americans to the civil rights movement to current discriminatory policies against Muslim Americans and immigrants, some representatives of this nation never fail to answer the hate call. Yet, over time, they have never succeeded because other Americans rise to oppose them in defense of the founding spirit which started this nation down a path not even the boldest and strogest of forces could reverse.

The struggle continues at a time when government is undermining human rights and privacy protections in the name of security and when factions in congress are laboring to reverse the historic course of constitutional amendment. They wish to infuse prejudice in the constitution under the pretext of “protecting families” and they are even advocating for the denial of citizenship on the basis of birth rights - an affront to the 14th amendment.

Fortunately, history is not on their side. It is not on their side because this nation has moved throughout its history to expand individual freedoms and strengthen civil liberties, not to curb them (Bill of rights and subsequent 13th, 14th, 15th, 19th, and 26th amendments). America has committed the shameful crime of slavery - yet Americans led by Abraham Lincoln went to war, civil war and a bloody reconstruction, to face this wrong. Slavery was abolished but the evil of racism remained and persisted. America was dishonored by its treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII – for that, Congress later apologized saying it was based on "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership". America, as Martin Luther King cried out in 1963, gave “the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’” – It turned out that the check was over a hundred years overdue. Congress and the Supreme Court faced their wrongs by finally making good on the century-old promise that were the 14th (equal protection clause) and 15th (voting rights) amendments and declare racial segregation unconstitutional. The Civil rights movement came and went but discrimination and socioeconomic injustices remain in current-day America.

So has been the general hard-fought progressive trend of this nation - the American story of 'path dependence' - despite the utter disregard of this fact by political radicals and extremist media pundits. Arrogance and hate is not what brought about the success of this nation. America rose to greatness despite the arrogance and hate that plagued its history. It has continuously struggled within itself because while its soul is permanently clad in the inalienable right of man to liberty and justice, some of its own limbs never tire about leading it astray.

I remain confident that this nation would once again find its soul and return itself to righteousness, pragmatism, and humble leadership - I know this because I believe in this country's history and its irreversible dependence on the path forged by its fathers.

May 2006 nudge even so slightly that old motto of enlightenment: Sapere aude! (dare to think) - both here and abroad.