Sunday, July 31, 2005

Legal Fight in the Blogosphere

Today was an interesting day... Khalid Jarrar wrote a post about his experiences behind bars in Iraq, and MadTom wrote a post on his own blog along with a comment on Khalid's blog:

madtom said...
"He asked: you are accused of attending terrorist sites (Did he say that they are sites that recruit young people for terrorism? I don’t remember) so what do you say?"

LoL, they got that part right. Raed's site is the worst terrorist site on the net. You should have confessed right away!

MadTom's comment seems to have really struck a raw nerve with the Jarrar household - here is what Raed wrote on MadTom's blog:

Raed Jarrar said...
Mr. MadTom

I'm publicly informing you that I'm planning to ask my lawyer in the US to start the appropriate legal actions against you. I'm planning to sue you for both libel and slander, for the things you published on khalid's blog, and your blog.

I'll give you the next 4 weeks as a break to either delete your comments and posts and apologize for your lies, or prove your false accusations.

If you believe you're doing the right thing by accusing me of supporting terrorism, you shouldn't be afraid of sending me your personal contact information, or of publishing them in public, to make it easier for us to go to the US court and solve this small misunderstanding legally.

I assure you, Mr. MadTom, that the US courts would be fair to both of us, you shouldn't hide your identity from me. I won't publish your contact info if you didn't want me to.

Delete the comments and apologize, or prove that I support terrorism.

I challenge you.

It'll be interesting to see how this plays out over the next few days...

Khalid's Ordeal

Sleeping in a grave-size space, defined by two walls touching both my head my and feet, and surrounded with human bodies touching me from both sides, in a way that hardly leaves any chance to move at all during the long… long night, in a 12 square meters room stuffed with 35 people trying to sleep, and to hold themselves together in order not to fight…

Khalid Jarrar put up a detailed post today about his ordeal in Iraq last week. I have mixed feelings on reading his account - I'm sad to hear that he (and others) have gone through that, but I am happy that the judge concluded Khalid is innocent, and glad to know he is okay.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Leaked Iraqi Constitution (answering comments)

I had a few comments on my post regarding the Iraqi constitution, but earlier today, my friend Fayrouz wrote one that I think deserves a detailed reply. In part, she wrote:
"I read the Arabic version and it stinks. It will send Iraqi women to the dark ages. That's the least I can say."
Fay has me at a bit of a disadvantage in that I don't read Arabic, and am dependent on English translations. However, I have seen a few English translations of the leaked constitution, one of which was posted by Omar at Iraq the Model. Omar's concerns were similar to Fay's, and I am hoping his translation included the paragraphs Fay was concerned about (Fay, if there is something I'm missing that was not translated or was mistranslated, I'd appreciate your insight).

Here are the specific areas of concern that Omar had raised in ITM, and why I personally think these paragraphs are more benign than some people think they are.

1-the republic of Iraq (the Islamic, federal) is a sovereign, independent country and the governing system is a democratic, republican, federal one.

In the words of William Shakespeare, "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." It really doesn't matter what you call the country, it's what you do with it that is important.

Personally, I'm from Canada, which is legally known as the "Dominion of Canada". Likewise, Mexico is legally known as the "United States of Mexico". Of course, most people don't know either of these names, they just know these places as Canada and Mexico, just like they will always know Iraq as Iraq, no matter what other extraneous words you put in front of it.

2-Islam is the official religion of the state and it is the main source of legislations and it is not allowed to make laws that contradict the fundamental teachings of Islam and its rules (the ones agreed upon by all Muslims) and this constitution shall preserve the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people (with its Shea't majority and its Sunni component) and respect the rights of all other religions.

I would personally prefer this paragraph not to be there at all, but if it stays, it would not be a big concern to me if I was living in Iraq. For my reasoning, let's consider what a constitution is, and what it is not.

A constitution is not a law, it is the foundation upon which laws are built. How it is used is if the government passes a law that violates the constitution, someone may challenge that law in court as being unconstitutional, and if the court agrees, the offending law may be voided.

The way this paragraph #2 is written is vague and probably unenforceable (especially when they put the "agreed upon by all Muslims" condition). Saying that Islam is the official religion of the state has no more effect than saying the Bald Eagle is the official bird of the United States. Likewise saying that Islam is the "main source of legislation" has no real legal meaning either.

The second part of that sentence has a bit more punch in that it stipulates that the government may not pass a law that goes against the fundamental teachings of Islam and its rules. Let's think about this - laws generally stipulate what you are not allowed to do - in the absence of a law prohibiting an activity, you're allowed to do that activity. Thus, the only real effect of this paragraph is if the Iraqi government were to pass a law banning something required by Islam (daily prayers, etc.) this provision could be used to get that law thrown out.

3-The Iraqi community is made of two main ethnicities; these are Arabic and Kurdish and of other main ethnicities; these are Turkmen, Chalideans, Assyrian, Armenian, Shabak and (Persian) and Yazidi and Mendayeen, all of which are equal in rights and duties of citizenship.

All this paragraph is doing is saying that Iraq is made up of a number of different ethnicities, but each of these ethnicities are equal in rights and duties of citizenship. The main effect of this paragraph would be to preclude someone arguing in court, "I don't need to pay taxes to the Iraqi government because I'm not Iraqi, I'm Kurdish (or Chaldean, or Yazidi, or Turkoman, etc.)" This paragraph specifically states that all of those various ethnic groups in Iraq are Iraqi citizens and subject to the same duties (taxes, military service, etc.).

6-The state protects the basic rights of women including equality with men in accordance to the Islamic share'at and the state helps the women in creating balance between their duties within their families and their duties within the community.

One could argue here that men and women are not equal under Islamic share'at, but this would not matter because in either case this paragraph #6 does clearly state women are equal to men. In addition, paragraph #1 in the Bill of Rights says, "all Iraqis are equal before the law regardless of gender..." That paragraph #1 is VERY specific, and does not mention anything about "according to share'at".

This paragraph #6 actually seems to guarantee some extra rights to women in "creating balance between their duties within their families and their duties within the community." Duties within their family suggest raising children, and duties within the community suggests their work. I personally read this as guaranteeing women certain rights with respect to childbirth.

We all know that women bear the brunt of the load in raising a family. They have to carry the fetus around with them for nine months, then risk their lives giving birth, and spend the first few months recuperating from the birth process and (in many cases) breast-feeding the baby. This can put an undue strain on a woman's career. Here in America, women fought long and hard for the right to maternity leave, where they can take several months away from their job to give birth, and return and be guaranteed their job back. This paragraph appears to guarantee women rights like maternity leave.


In short, some of these paragraphs may seem odious on the surface, but when you look at them further, they seem more benign, at least by my interpretation.

I do hope Iraq does not go down the same road we went down in Canada ten years ago. Ten years ago, we tried to pass a constitutional amendment, it was voted down because of nitpicking over a few sticking points, and the resulting discord almost tore Canada apart. The lesson many of us in Canada learned the hard way is that a constitution does not need to be perfect, it just needs to meet the basic needs of all involved.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

A New Blog

I'd like to extend a warm welcome to "Mama", a regular reader of this blog who just started her own blog last week. Mama is a 34 year old dentist from the Iraqi city of Mosul, and yes, she is related to at least one of the other bloggers from Iraq - let's see who can guess which one... :)

Mosul seems to be becoming the blog capital of Iraq: I know at least six other people in Mosul who are actively blogging in English.


Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Leaked Draft Iraqi Constitution

Leaks, leaks, leaks. Politicians here in America seem to love leaks - they sometimes use them as a low-risk way to gauge public opinion. You leak something and see how the public reacts to it, if the public hates it, you can deny it (after all, it's just an unsubstantiated leak), but if they like it, you can confirm it.

It seems some politicians in Iraq have discovered the art of the leak also, and sure enough, a draft copy of the new Iraqi bill of rights surfaced a couple of weeks ago. And, Nathan Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University was kind enough to put out a translation and commentary.

Of course the other nice thing about leaks is they give guys like me the ability to comment on them before they're official....

I had a look through this draft bill of rights, and while I realize it may change over the next couple of weeks, I am very pleased to see it seems to be heading in the right direction. The first paragraph in this draft bill of rights seems to set the tone for the entire document:

1. a. Iraqis are all equal before the law without regard to gender, opinion, belief, nationality, religion, sect, or origin. Discrimination on the bases of gender, nationality, religion sect, origin, or social position is forbidden. They [Iraqis] have the right to personal security, life, and liberty. Nobody may be deprived of his life or liberty except in accordance with law.

Personally, after hearing warnings about possible erosion of women's rights and marginalization of certain minority groups (Christians, etc.) in the new Iraqi constitution, seeing this early draft was a pleasant surprise. In addition to equal rights for all, this draft bill of rights guarantees freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, and property ownership rights, among others. In fact, on looking through this draft bill of rights, I did not see anything that would have looked out-of-place in the constitution for any modern and progressive democracy (Canada, the United States, Britain, France, etc.). This draft document is definitely a step in the right direction.

I am happy that the authors of the new Iraqi constitution seem to be taking their jobs seriously, and (at least from this leaked draft bill of rights) seem to be building a framework that is equitable for everyone involved. I only hope this trend continues and they are able to reach agreement on a well-balanced constitution by the August 15 deadline.


A more recent draft of the constitution was published earlier this week by the al-Sabah daily newspaper and Omar at Iraq the Model was kind enough to publish an English translation. While I do think Omar is justified in his concern about a couple of paragraphs that designate Islam as the official religion of Iraq, I do still think the overall document is off to a very good start.

As we learned the hard way in Canada ten years ago, a constitution does not have to be perfect, it just needs to be good enough to meet the basic needs of all parties. If you keep haggling over it until you think it is perfect, you will never reach agreement on it, and this disagreement will foment regional fractiousness and discord.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Terrorism: a perplexing ideology

Yesterday, terrorists launched a series of attacks in Egypt's Sharm el-Sheikh resort town, killing at least 88 people. According to news reports, at least one of the attackers was a suicide bomber, who drove a car bomb into the front of a hotel.

The ideology that causes terrorists to create mass carnage of the type we saw in Egypt yesterday is perplexing. In particular, at least one of those terrorists was fanatical enough about it to take his own life in the process, but why?

There were a few foreign tourists killed in today's attack, but the vast majority of the people killed were local Egyptians: people whose only crime was to be working at a hotel, or shopping in the market when the terrorists struck.

In addition to the innocent lives lost, a major impact of these terrorist attacks will likely be felt in the Egyptian economy. The single biggest industry in Egypt is tourism. From a macroeconomic perspective, tourism is one of the best industries: foreigners coming into the country and spending money in hotels, meals, in shops, and the like. This injection of cash directly benefits everyone connected to it, creating jobs in hotels, resorts, restaurants, and the like. In addition, the workers hired by these hotels, restaurants, etc. will have money to spend, which creates a ripple effect throughout the economy. However, if you make tourists afraid to go to Egypt on vacation, they will go elsewhere, and take their money with them. Hotels will downsize, and restaurants, tour-outfits and other small companies making their living from tourists will go out of business. People are thrown out of work, and the ripples from this will be felt throughout the Egyptian economy. The people who will be really hurt by this are average Egyptians.

And, what is particularly perplexing is at least one of those terrorists bought into this bunk so deeply that he was willing to give up his own life in the process.

These terrorist groups like al-Qaeda claim to be defending Islam, and yet in these attacks, they killed 88 innocent people, most of whom were fellow Muslims, and damaged the economy of a predominantly Islamic country, which may toss hundreds of their fellow Muslims out of work. Muslims in Egypt should be asking themselves, "with idiots like this 'defending' our religion, who needs enemies fighting it?"

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Khalid is free!

Khalid Jarrar was freed from jail today. A very positive day for freedom of speech in Iraq, and a decisive step in the direction of true democracy.


(Note: I was going to put up a post today about the awful terrorist attacks in Egypt and Lebanon, but when I found out about Khalid getting released today I was in too good a mood to finish it. Stay tuned tomorrow....)

Friday, July 22, 2005

Daylight Saving Time: Computer chaos this fall

Yesterday, the American House and Senate reached an agreement to extend Daylight Saving Time, beginning it three weeks earlier each year, and ending it one week later.

What the authors of this bill fail to realize is how much chaos this will cause for computer systems around the country.

Many computer operating systems like Windows actually base their clocks on Universal Coordinated Time (UTC), also known as Greenwich Mean Time, and the time they display is calculated as an offset from Greenwish Mean Time. For example, here in New York, we are UTC minus 5 hours, and during the months when Daylight Saving Time is in effect, an hour is added, making us UTC minus four hours.

The problem is that most computers today automatically make the switch to and from Daylight Saving Time, and since most North American and European countries make this switch on the same day, this is very strightforward. Now, the US government is throwing a wrench into this whole thing by changing the dates on which Daylight Saving Time kicks in and when it stops.

To accomodate this change, computer operating system manufacturers like Microsoft, Apple, and IBM, the whole Linux community, and network router/switch vendors like Cisco will need to scramble to create software patches that will accomodate this change, so that their respective systems will make the change on the correct date.

What will cause problems is that undoubtedly, some people will fail to apply the patches, and their computer systems will fail to automatically adjust to the time change. And, if these computer systems run time-sensitive applications (financial systems, etc.), this may cause some problems.

It will also throw the United States out of whack with the rest of the world, leaving other countries to decide whether to allow this disjoint to continue, or to join the United States in making this change.

I really do not think the implications of this bill were very well thought through.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Homemade Bombs

Two weeks ago, I wrote a post about the terrorist attack that struck the public transportation system in London, killing over 50 people. Today, bombers struck the London "Tube" system again, although early reports indicate the explosions were much smaller than the ones two weeks ago.

What most people do not realize is how readily available the ingredients are that can be used to make a workable bomb. According to news reports, the London Tube bombings two weeks ago used a crude explosive called triacetone triperoxide (TATP). TATP is also the explosive that was packed into the shoes of Richard Reid, the infamous "shoe bomber" who tried to bring down a transatlantic flight with it. TATP is a powerful explosive, but is highly unstable (meaning it can blow up when you don't want it to), making it too unsafe for use for any "normal" purpose. But, for a terrorist, it is an explosive of choice, due to the ready availability of the ingredients: TATP can be made from a combination of paint thinner, an antiseptic first-aid solution, and toilet bowl cleaner, and using equipment you can find in a typical household kitchen. However, TATP is very dangerous to make, and the maker also needs to know enough about chemistry to calculate the ratios to mix the ingredients in, what temperature to make it at, how to keep the solution at that temperature while the chemical reaction is going on, how to separate out the product, and how to do all this without it blowing up in his face.

Another type of explosive that has been used by terrorists is Ammonium Nitrate / Fuel Oil (ANFO), an explosive that is frequently used in the mining industry. America's notorious "home-grown terrorist" Timothy McVeigh used a large amount of ANFO packed into a rental truck to bring down the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. The ANFO he used was made by a combination of fertilizer and diesel fuel, and while ANFO is not a very powerful explosive, when you use a large amount of it (McVeigh used a whole truckload) it can do a lot of damage. And (more importantly for McVeigh) the ingredients were available from his local farm supply store and his local gas station!

I remember when I was studying chemistry in university, thinking to myself how lucky we all are that most people in the world do not know these skills I was learning. Any university-educated chemist is capable of making explosives, and at the college I studied at, a number of people liked to experiment with them for fun. The year before I got there, one student was expelled when they caught him with a beaker of the high explosive TNT cooking under a fume hood. And, I will never forget one evening while I was there and a group of students detonated a test bomb that was so powerful it shook the ground and shattered windows around the whole campus. Explosive compounds like NI3 and thermite were occasionally made in small quantities for use in practical jokes.

Needless to say, it is a good thing that the vast majority of chemists are like me: good hearted people with benign intentions, who use our scientific knowledge for productive purposes. We would all be in a whole lot of trouble if this were not the case.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Free Khalid

I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.

-- Voltaire (letter to M. le Riche, Feb 6, 1770)

For me, this statement is sometimes very applicable to the Jarrar family. I sometimes agree with them, and a lot of times I don't. However, I like and respect all of them as people, and I applaud their courage in expressing their opinions despite the risk this may pose to themselves.

Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of any successful democracy. You cannot have true democracy without people being free to express their opinions and debate current issues. In a true democracy, you cannot expect everyone to agree with you all the time, and if they all seem to agree with you, this is probably a bad sign.

In that light, it has been a good sign to see bloggers like the Jarrar family emerge after the Iraq war. Well educated and fluent in English, they have expressed their opinions with veracity, in individual blogs, as well as on television. And in a real demonstration of courage, they have done all this under their real names, and with their real pictures, knowing that someone who takes offense to their opinions would not have much difficulty in finding them.

The Jarrar clan have tended to be critical of the American actions in Iraq, but have varied greatly in their individual approaches. The oldest brother Raed is the most critical, lashing out at the "occupation" at every opportunity. The mother, Faiza, is more calm in her approach, writing long flowing essays and looking at historical analogies. And, the youngest brother Majid has been too busy with school to pay much attention to his blog.

Of the group, Khalid is possibly the most interesting, preferring to try to find humor in even the most horrible situations: terrorist attacks, people breaking into his house, and the inconveniences posed by security countermeasures. A few months ago, I watched Khalid in the Canadian television special, and he was hillarious - despite the serious nature of the topic, I broke out laughing several times while watching it. Khalid poked fun at electrical problems, water shortages, the security situation, and even his own physical appearance (joking that his beard makes him look like a terrorist). When I talked with Khalid afterward, I told him that he could easily make a living as a stand-up comic if he gets sick of engineering.

I've spoken to Khalid a few times on Instant Messenger, and I can say he is even funnier in person. He is a natural comedian, and a naturally very open and likeable guy: the kind of person who you would always want to have at a social gathering.

Khalid is also a guy who really loves his country. When his family chose to leave Iraq and go to Jordan, Khalid remained behind in Baghdad. A few weeks ago, Khalid joined his family in Amman for a vacation, but when someone broke into their family house in Baghdad, Khalid took that first opportunity to return to Baghdad. When I spoke with Khalid a little over a week ago, he sounded relieved to be back in Baghdad, much like a beached whale might feel upon being returned to the ocean. Despite the violence and uncertainty, Baghdad is home to him, and he likes it there.

What is sad about this whole situation is it is guys like Khalid Jarrar who will be key to the ongoing economic success of the new Iraq: people who are educated, and who could get a job anywhere in the world, but who choose to remain in Iraq despite all the problems.

Khalid Jarrar has been in jail for six nights now, and so far there has not been any reasonable explanation as to why.

It is important to keep talking about Khalid's plight, otherwise he will rot in jail and be forgotten. So, this will probably not be my last blog post on this topic. A few other things that are being done:
  • Liminal setup a blog called Give us our Khalid Back with up to date information on Khalid.
  • A petition has been started to free Khalid.
  • Emails have been written to journalists alerting them of this situation.
  • Letters and emails have been written to the Iraqi embassy in Washington, to members of the US Congress, and to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
  • A number of bloggers have put up posts in support of Khalid, including my online friends Fayrouz and Najma, and Khalid's brother Raed.

For the Iraqi authorities to jail Khalid Jarrar simply for his blogging activity is morally repugnant, and an affront to democracy. I hope the Iraqi authorities come to their senses soon and release him.

Update [July 18]

Thanks to my friend and resident Photoshop expert Najma, we now have a small "Free Khalid" button that will fit on the sidebar of a typical Blogger blog. I've already added this on mine, but for anyone else who is interested in adding this to your blog, here is the HTML code you need to insert in your template (substituting angled-brackets < > for square brackets [ ], of course).

[p][a href=""][img src="

Update [July 20]

Some schmuck seems to be putting up comments on Khalid's blog and others, pretending to be Khalid, and saying he has been released. As of this morning, the official word from the Jarrar family is there is no new news - Khalid is still in jail. Please remember, if you see a odd-looking comment on this blog or anyone else's blog, that it is possible to comment under someone else's name in the comments section any blog (there really isn't any security there). So, if you see any comments suggesting Khalid has been freed, verify that information with a reliable source before you believe it.

Blog Roll Housecleaning

Today, I did a bit of housecleaning on my blog roll (the "links" section to the right). I deleted a few blogs that either had been deleted by their authors ("Paint it Black"), or which had not been updated by their authors for a long time.

I also added a few links:

An Average Iraqi: A blog written by a friend of mine, Hassan Kharrufa, who is a civil engineering student in Baghdad, and is also a regular reader/commenter here. Frankly, I should have added Hassan's blog a long time ago (sorry, Hassan). Hassan has been very busy over the past couple of months, between his final exams and moving to his grandparents' house, and (most importantly) getting high-speed Internet hooked up at his grandparents' house. So his blog has fallen idle for a couple of months, but now all that is done, and I expect Hassan will be blogging a bit more frequently now.

Hootsbuddy's Place: A very interesting political analysis blog, written by a 60 something food services manager, who is also a regular commenter here on this blog. Hootsbuddy wrote a very good post yesterday about Gaza violence, in which he quotes me, but also pulls in a number of other interesting sources. If you like my blog, you'll probably like Hootsbuddy's also, since he and I seem to have a very similar take on current events.

Raising Yousuf: An interesting blog I just found yesterday (through Hootsbuddy's blog), about life and the challenges of raising a 1 year old boy in the Gaza Strip. The author of this blog, Laila el-Haddad, is a 27 year old woman who lives in Gaza, and works as a news reporter.

Days of my Life: A new blog written by a 14 year old girl in Mosul, Iraq who goes by the nickname "Sunshine". For those of you who follow Iraqi blogs, you may remember an old post from Rose from Baghdad where she talked about her sister's 14 year old daughter in Mosul who was "very angry" about being forced to wear hijab (Islamic head-scarf) to school. Anyway, "Sunshine" is that same girl, and is Rose's niece. I know both Sunshine and her mom are regular readers here, and will probably read this tomorrow, so hello to both of you and welcome to my blog roll... :)

Three of the four blogs I'm adding today are written by people who speak Arabic as their native language, but who have learned English, and who have chosen to publish their thoughts in English. It is hard enough writing your thoughts down and publishing them on the Internet for people to rip apart, but when you are doing it in a language that is not your native tongue, it is even more difficult.

Arab culture is different enough from Western culture that I've heard some people refer to it as the "Arab Parallel Universe". It is people like these bloggers, who have made the effort to learn our language and communicate with us in it, who can help to bridge this cultural divide and gain a better understanding of their viewpoints. I applaud them for their efforts.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Haloscan Problems

Some of you may have noticed that some comments that were left on my blog in the last day or so are gone. Don't fret, I didn't delete them, there is a system-wide problem with Haloscan today, and it seems to have happened to a lot of blogs, not just mine.

Anyway, the nice folks at Haloscan said it is a "database synchronization" problem, and promised to have the missing comments restored within 24 hours.

Update [July 17]:

According to Haloscan, the comments were successfully restored to about 95% of their users. I guess I'm in the other 5% and my comments aren't coming back. Sorry...

Friday, July 15, 2005

Today's violence in Gaza

Earlier today, a wave of violence rocked Gaza. First, Palestinian Hamas militants launched over a dozen rockets into Israel on Thursday night, killing a 22 year old Israeli woman named Dana Glakowitz who was just sitting on her porch when a volley of rockets came in. Then on Friday, the Israeli air force launched targeted attacks against Hamas, killing six of them. Then, Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas ordered the Palestinian police to use force to rein in Hamas, and Hamas retaliated by engaging Palestinian police in open gunfights on the street, and torching police stations, armored personnel carriers, and other police vehicles. Here are links to more details on this from CTV and Haaretz.

What a waste! And, what impeccably poor timing: with the Israeli/Palestinian ceasefire now in tatters, the upcoming Israeli withdrawal from Gaza is seeming less likely.

In my personal opinion, this whole unnecessary wave of violence was caused by two ignorant and trigger-happy bunches of thugs, one on each side of the dispute:

Trigger-happy thug group #1: Hamas

Hamas started this whole mess by firing rockets into Israel in violation of the ceasefire agreement they signed a few months ago.

Hamas seems to have no concept of how parliamentary democracy in Israel works. They do not realize that Ariel Sharon is trying to push through a plan to unilaterally withdraw Israeli settlers and troops from Gaza this summer, something that would benefit the Palestinians immensely. Sharon faces an uphill battle, including opposition for his plan from within his own party, and violent resistance from Israeli settlers. And, by launching rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza, Hamas is providing fuel to those arguing against Sharon's withdrawal plan.

Hamas also does not seem to realize how tenuous Sharon's position is. No matter how little they like Sharon, there are other Israeli leaders (Benjamin Netanyahu, etc.) who they would like even less, and with every terrorist attack, Hamas undermines Sharon and bolsters more extreme-minded Israeli leaders like Netanyahu.

Launching a missile attack on Israel on a normal day is bad enough. But, launching it a few weeks before Israel's planned pullout from Gaza borders on insane. Why would Hamas want to hurt the Palestinian cause like this? Are they really that stupid?

Likewise, Hamas did not do the Palestinian cause any favors by openly attacking the Palestinian police forces - men who were directed by the freely elected leader of the Palestinian people to crack down on Hamas. This only serves to undermine the Palestinian Authority government and delay any possible Palestinian independent state.

The Palestinian people should be asking themselves today, "with friends like these idiots, who needs enemies?"

Trigger-happy thug group #2: the Israeli army

A very valid question for the Israeli army's leadership is this: are they serious about allowing and encouraging the Palestinians to provide security in their own territory? Are they serious about wanting peace? Because, if the answer is yes, they should not have been so quick to retaliate for the rocket attacks. Instead, they should have allowed the Palestinian security forces to handle the situation, and provided intelligence support as needed.

The fact that today the Palestinian security forces did stand up to Hamas is a positive sign that they are willing to take steps against those who violate ceasefire agreements. If they were given the opportunity, perhaps they would have moved against the Hamas missile-men themselves. But, they were not given that opportunity: Israel retaliated quickly, and in doing so undermined the Palestinian Authority.

Perhaps the lesson that should be learned here is that better communication and cooperation can solve many ills. If terrorist attacks harm the interests of both Israelis and Palestinians, would it not be beneficial for the Israelis to provide intelligence information to the Palestinians - let the Palestinians know what is going on and let them act on the information.

Let's consider this scenario: Palestinian militants launch missiles on Israel in violation of the ceasefire. Israeli radar picks up the source of the missiles and Israeli drones see the militants launching the rockets. The Israeli commander picks up the phone to his Palestinian counterpart, and the Palestinian security forces move in and handle the situation. If this scenario had happened today, most of this unnecessary violence would not have taken place and the ceasefire agreement would still be intact.

Of course, to enable this scenario, Israeli military leaders need to start treating their Palestinian counterparts as their partners, and not their enemies. If there is to be lasting peace in Israel and the occupied territories, the Palestinians will need to be able to provide their own security, and by undermining the Palestinians in this effort, the Israeli military is hurting their own interests.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Khalid Jarrar in jail

Earlier today, one of my online friends sent me an urgent message telling me to check Raed Jarrar's blog:

My mom called me today at 7 in the morning, shouting with happiness: "Khalid is okay!". Niki and I were the last members of the family to know the "happy news". Khalid called my dad from the Iraqi mokhabarat's jail to inform us he was alive; he said he was abducted by the mukhabarat men from his university. My dad called my mom and Majed, and they informed us then.

It seems Raed's brother Khalid (who also has a blog) was arrested by the Mukhabarat (secret police) at his university (where he was probably checking his grades) and thrown in jail two days ago. This morning, Khalid was able to call his father in Jordan to let him know where he is and that he is okay.

I have spoken to Khalid a few times via Instant Messenger, most recently this past Friday. When I spoke to him on Friday, he was cracking jokes about the guys who broke into his house, and talking about his anxiety about his final grades from university (as of last week, he didn't know for sure whether he'd passed his exams or not). Now, today I find out he's spent part of the last week sitting in jail.

This whole situation is a bit surprising and troubling for me. My first reaction on reading this story was, "what mukhabarat?" Wasn't this the state agency that Saddam Hussein used to maintain his iron grip on power? Why are we still hearing about something called mukhabarat after so many of our troops died fighting to get rid of entities like this in Iraq? And what interest would this mukhabarat have in arresting a guy whose only crime was to run a blog from Baghdad and star in a Canadian television special? Sure, Khalid was critical of the administration in Iraq and of the US army, but we are all entitled to our opinions, and in any case, Khalid's opinions are much more moderate than some of the opinions I've heard over here in America.

One other thing that is curious here is that Khalid's house in Baghdad was broken into a week or so ago. The thieves did not steal his entire computer, but removed his hard drive. I wonder if whoever broke into his house was from this same government agency that arrested him - perhaps they found something on his hard drive they didn't like.

In any case, I do hope that Khalid being allowed to call his father in Jordan is a good sign: hopefully this means he is being treated well, and might even be released soon.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

African Debt Relief

Neither a borrower nor a lender be, for a loan oft loses both itself and friend.
-- William Shakespeare

Almost two weeks ago, several musical artists gathered together to perform the "Live 8", a series of concerts in 10 cities around the world in advance of the G8 summit in Scotland last week. One of the main goals of the organizers of this concert series was African debt relief: getting rich countries like those in the G8 to forgive debt owed by poor African countries.

On the surface, African debt relief may seem to make sense, but when you dig a bit deeper, things start to break down. Many African countries have had abysmal records of corruption, fiscal irresponsibility, and misuse of funds over the past several years. African leaders have squandered Western aid money with impunity. By forgiving the debt these African leaders have racked up, we are, in essence, giving them a "get out of jail free" card. I am not convinced this is a good idea.

Let's look at some examples. Perhaps the worst example is King Mswati III of Swaziland. With the highest AIDS infection rate of any country (33% of the population), and many of his subjects starving, King Mswati spent $45 million of his country's funds on a private jet for himself, and another $15 million building palaces for each of his dozen wives. Just a few months ago, King Mswati spent another $500,000 of his country's money buying himself a new Maybach 62 luxury limousine.

Then there is Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, who over the past two years has caused chaos in his own economy, evicting white farmers from their land (many of whom had farmed on that land for generations), giving the land to black supporters of his own party. Zimbabwe had previously been a net food exporter and a successful economy, but under Mugabe, the economy has been decimated. Recently, Mugabe has launched a program his government euphamistically calls, "Operation Drive Out Rubbish", where they are demolishing slum areas with bulldozers and throwing thousands of poor people out on the street.

When foreign countries spend their own money on foolish projects, it is their problem. But, if they fund these projects by borrowing money from us, and we subsequently forgive that debt, we have just agreed to pay for all of these past excesses out of our own tax money. Do leaders like this deserve a "get out of jail free" card from us? I think not. By forgiving the debt these irresponsible leaders have racked up, we are turning a blind eye to their abuses, and are paying for their excesses through our tax dollars. I personally do not like the idea of my tax dollars going to pay for King Mswati III's private jet, or Mugabe's brutal actions against his own citizens, or similar abuses elsewhere on the African continent.

Don't get me wrong, I do think we should help Africa. But, this help should come with strings attached, so we can be sure the hard-earned money that we donate is used for worthwhile causes, and not to build a palace for the local despot's fourteenth wife or buy the local despot the latest luxury car. We, the people in the West, work hard for our money, and when we part with it for charitable causes, we have the right to demand that it is used properly to benefit the people we want it to benefit.

As the old saying goes, "he who pays the piper picks the tune."

Blindly forgiving African debt sends a message to African leaders that the excesses that led to this debt are okay. This is precisely the wrong message to send. Some of these African despots have been irresponsibly borrowing money from us and spending it on lavish excesses and ill-conceived pet projects that have not served their people well, and have squandered the money they borrowed from us on foolishness with no accountability.

Rather than perpetuating this problem by loaning out money with little chance of getting it back, Western countries need to cut off the source of this problem. Stop loaning African despots money to do what they want with it, and instead give targeted donations (not loans) towards infrastructure projects of our choosing. And, especially in countries with high corruption rates, these donations should come with lots of strings attached: if we donate money, we decide precisely what it is used for, and get to manage the project to whatever degree we like (ensuring none of the money is siphoned off). And, if the recipient country doesn't like these conditions, tough. If they don't like the conditions, don't accept the money - we'll find someone else who will.

This "tough love" recipe may sound harsh, but it is necessary. Otherwise, our tax dollars will continue being thrown into the bottomless pit of despotic greed, while the African people who we so desperately want to help see none of it.

Monday, July 11, 2005

A Cult Called al-Qaeda

In November of 2001, I was in Toronto, Canada eating lunch with a Muslim friend of mine, and talking about the terrorist attacks of 9/11. At the time, my friend was still in denial over these attacks: he could not accept that a fellow Muslim could have possibly carried out such a heinous crime and murdered so many innocent people. Many other Muslims went through similar periods of denial, latching onto conspiracy theories and the like, because they simply could not understand how someone who really believed in the teachings of their religion could do something so evil in its name. Of course, my friend has since come to realize that Muslims did perpetrate 9/11, but that did not make it any less puzzling for him to understand.

Last week's bombings in London were equally perplexing, with bombs on three subway trains and a bus wounding hundreds and killing dozens of innocent people whose only crime was to be on a train going to work. What is particularly perplexing is that these attacks were not done despite the teachings of Islam (like someone might want to sneak off to a bar for a beer, hoping nobody from the mosque sees them drinking it): no, these evil acts were done in the name of Islam. The "snuff" videos coming out of Iraq have been even more explicit about this, with hooded men shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great) while severing the head of innocent and unarmed hostages.

I personally am a Christian, but I have spent a lot of time around Muslims and find it very difficult to reconcile the religion of my Muslim friends with the religion that has led so many of these terrorists to commit acts of evil in God's name. Muslims are generally among the most respectful, honest, generous, and peace-loving people you will ever meet, and it is very perplexing for me to try to understand how this same set of teachings could become so warped as to be used to justify cold-blooded murder. For the Muslim friends I have spoken to about this topic, the quandary is even deeper - they find it even harder to understand.

In Christianity, we have a word to describe a splinter-group with dangerous and destructive ideology: a cult. In Christianity, however, it is a bit easier to categorize a group as being a cult because we tend to operate in well-defined denominations (Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Mormons, etc.), and the border-lines around a cult are much better defined. With Islam, however, there are a lot more gray fuzzy boundaries than there are lines: Islam has two main branches (Shia and Sunni), but beyond that, there isn't a well defined hierarchy of leadership or division of sects. So, a cult can operate within Islam, and you cannot easily discern where normal Islam stops and the cult begins.

Kevin Crawley of the University of Iowa defines a cult as follows:

An organization that uses intensive indoctrination techniques to recruit and maintain members into a totalist ideology.

Intensive indoctrination techniques include:
1) Subjection to stress and fatigue
2) Social disruption, isolation and pressure
3) Self criticism and humiliation
4) Fear, anxiety and paranoia
5) Control of information
6) Escalating commitment
7) Use of auto-hypnosis to induce 'peak' experiences

Totalism is defined by psychiatrist Robert Lifton as the tendency to view the world in terms of 'all or nothing' alignments. Lifton details 8 'psychological themes' that can be found in totalist groups:
-- A 'sacred science' -- an ideology that is held to be true for all people at all times. This ideology generally claims to be inspired and scientific at the same time.
-- 'Milieu control,' the control of human communication, not only over our communications with others, but also with ourselves.
-- 'Mystical manipulation' -- including deception and 'planned spontaneity' which seeks limit self-expression and independent action.
-- The demand for purity, the notion that absolute purity exists, and that anything done in the name of this purity is ultimately moral.
-- 'The cult of confession' -- "There is the demand that one confess to crimes one has not committed, to sinfulness that artificially induced, in the name of a cure that arbitrarily imposed." (Lifton, _Thought_ Reform_and_the_Psychology_of_Totalism")
-- 'Loading the language' -- redefinition of language, with an emphasis on moral polarization, and thought terminating cliches.
-- 'Doctrine over person' -- the subordination of personal experiences to the doctrines of the sacred science.
-- 'Dispensing of existance' -- the doctrine that the group can decide who has the right to exist, and who does not.In other words, the cult manipulates the environment to 'set up' the recruit to trap him or herself in a black and white mindset

This description does not sound much like the Islam I am familiar with, but does sound remarkably like al-Qaeda and other "Islamic" terrorist groups.

Let's start calling a spade a spade, and a cult a cult. al-Qaeda is not an Islamic group, it is a dangerous and violent cult operating under the label of "Islam". And, while its members may profess to be Muslims, they have warped the teachings of their religion to the point it can be used to justify cold-blooded murder and do evil in God's name.

al-Qaeda, like some other dangerous cults, is a cancer. A malignant tumor growing within mainstream Islam, sapping Islam's resources, and denigrating the reputation of all Muslims by the evil acts it carries out in their names. Its members may start out as regular Muslims, but when they join the cult of al-Qaeda, they join the cancerous tumor, and start to act against the interest of the host (Islam).

Like other cancerous tumors, the cult of al-Qaeda needs to be surgically removed from the host or otherwise eliminated, or the damage it will cause to the host will continue to escalate.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

London Bombings

Earlier this morning, a number of bomb blasts rocked the London public transporation system, hitting buses and subway trains. So far, there are only reports of two people confirmed dead, but I am sure this number is going to grow substantially as they pull people out of the wreckage.

On the surface, these attacks seem to have been well coordinated and timed in such a way as to cause extensive disruption. Consider this:
  • The attacks took place on the first day of the G8 summit in Scotland, obviously intended to send a message to the attendees.
  • Londoners, like New Yorkers and residents of many other major cities, tend to depend heavily on public transportation rather than private automobiles to get to work. These attacks this morning have completely disrupted this public transporation system.
  • The attacks took place near the end of rush hour, a time where there are likely to be a lot of casualties, but also a time when most Londoners would have already arrived at work. By disrupting the transporation system, now many Londoners are stuck there without a decent way to get home. This afternoon in London will likely be chaotic.

While it is still unclear who perpetrated this attack, this type of coordination bears the hallmarks of al-Qaeda, and bears a striking similarity to the coordination of the Madrid train bombings and the 9/11 attacks in America.

What is clear from these attacks is that the terrorist scum who perpetrated them are among the lowest forms of life on this planet. The people riding those trains and buses were a regular cross-section of London, just a random group of innocent people whose only "crime" was to be on a train on their way to work. What purpose did killing those people this morning serve? Nothing!

Terrorists who randomly murder people like this are the epitome of the word evil, and deserve nothing less than to be hunted down like the ferocious beasts that they are, and to burn in hell afterward.

It's about time

We should all look to a future when every government respects the will of its citizens -- because the ideal of democracy is universal. For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East -- and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.

If I was the one who wrote this, some people would accuse me of being anti-American. But, it was not me - this is an excerpt from a speech given in Cairo a couple of weeks ago by Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State. Rice did not stop there - her speech continued on lambasting other countries in the Middle East, including traditional American allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and even drew an analogy between the slavery her ancestors suffered and Western colonialism in the Middle East. The full text of Rice's speech can be found here.

It was pleasing for me to read the text of Rice's speech. It's about time that an official of the American government has publicly admitted America's prior mistakes in foreign relations. As Rice acknowledged, America's has not done a very good job of promoting the ideals of democracy outside its own borders over the past several decades, choosing instead to prop up various tin-pot dictators who in turn agreed to safeguard America's short-term interests. This type of policy has given the US a reputation as a nation of hypocrites, and has fomented hatred for Americans in many places, particularly in the Middle East.

Admitting that one has a problem is the first step in rehabilitation, and in that context, it was very reassuring to hear this type of statement coming from Condoleezza Rice, a woman who I think is well placed to be the next US president. I only hope that the US government continues this trend and puts their money where their mouths are over the next few years, putting long-term goals and the promotion of real American values ahead of short-term interests. If this trend does continue, it will take the wind out of the sails of hate-fueled terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, and will help to promote world stability.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Karla Homolka

Today, the notorious Canadian serial killer Karla Homolka is getting out of jail after serving just 12 years in prison. For those of you unfamiliar with Homolka, she is a woman who was offered a plea deal to testify against her husband, Paul Bernardo, in the brutal kidnapping, rape, and murder of two teenagers: Kristen French, and Leslie Mahaffy. It was assumed by the authorities that Bernardo was the ringleader and Homolka was the poor, beaten, and abused wife who went along with her abusive husband's demands.

Then, the videotapes were found....

It turned out that the sadistic couple had videotaped the captivity, rape, and murder of French and Mahaffy, and the tape revealed Homolka as an active and eager participant. They also showed Homolka as an active participant in a number of other rapes, including the rape and inadvertent death of her own sister, Tammy Homolka.

Tammy Homolka had died a few years previously. The authorities exhumed body up for an autopsy, and it was proven that she had been drugged to an unconscious state, and had choked on her own vomit while she was being raped by Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo. Karla Homolka had given her sister to her husband Paul Bernardo as a perverted Christmas present. She had come up with the idea of using sedatives to knock out her sister so her husband could rape her, and she even obtained the drugs from her job at a veterinary clinic.

Homolka went on to help Bernardo rape an indeterminate number of other women and murder two. However, at the time the authorities struck a plea bargain with Homolka, they were not aware of this. If they had been, they would never have agreed to a plea bargain, and Homolka would be rotting the rest of her life away behind bars.

Many Canadians are justifiably outraged that a serial murderer like Homolka could be released from prison at all. After all, a person who has murdered more than once could easily murder again.

However, there may still be some solace in Homolka being released from prison. Homolka was safe in prison, and she knew it. Being on the street, however, she does not have any of that kind of reassurance. Many Canadians view Homolka and Bernardo as living arguments in favor of the death penalty (which they do not have in Canada) and I expect there are at least a few Canadians who would be willing to administer to Homolka the type of final justice they feel she deserves.

In fact, Homolka is so reviled in Canada, her facing vigilante justice up there is not a question "if", it is "when". Until recently, one Canadian had run a website called the "Karla Homolka Death Pool" allowing visitors to place bets on how many days Karla would live after she is released from prison, and included a rule against "fixing the bet by killing her yourself -- this is not only illegal but you will forfeit your place as Karla Homolka Death Pool Champion. Remember, killing is wrong." Even if Homolka never faces vigilante justice, she will have to spend the rest of her life worrying about it, and asking herself every day, "is this the day they find me?"

Homolka being released from prison today is a travesty of justice, and a blight on the face of the Canadian justice system. For sadistic murderers like Homolka, there is no such thing as rehabilitation, the primary goal of justice should be to punish the offender and protect society from him/her. And, in this case, the system failed miserably.

Happy 4th of July!

Happy Fourth of July (Independence Day) to all my American readers. I hope all of you have a safe and enjoyable day.

Friday, July 01, 2005

The Amazing Disappearing Milblogs

Earlier today, Kevin from Boots on the Ground wrote a post revealing an interesting bit of news:

Another blow to the military blog community. A 3 star General approved an "order" that all milbloggers have to tell their chain of command about their blog. This is very unfortunate obviously that alot of people want to see the soldier's side and plus see alot of what is going on that the news cannot and will not cover. I think the news papers do a better job at revealing US military tactics and strategy to insurgents than our blogs could ever do. I, and many other people, even many civilians I know say there shouldn't be any reporters embedded with US troops or that they don't even belong there.

On another interesting note, Sgt. Devore, one of my favorite milblogs disappeared today, replaced by a "404-Page not found" error. When I first saw this, I thought it was a recurrent technical problem with Blogger (sometimes blogs temporarily disappear and reappear a day or so later), but then I noticed Sgt. Devore's old blog is also gone, and looking at what Kevin wrote above, I think this seems a bit too much of a coincidence for my liking.

I really think the US military is shooting themselves in the foot by trying to clamp down on military blogs. Blogs are a powerful public relations tool, much more effective than embedded reporters, or any of the vapid official press releases that the military tends to issue. Blogs are by their basic nature unedited, exposing the raw thoughts and emotions of their writers, and giving readers a real taste of what being there would really be like.

Blogs can also be powerful recruitment tools: personally, if I were an 18 year old guy thinking about whether to enlist or not, reading the writing of guys like Sgt. Devore would make me far more likely to sign up than any flashy commercials or recruitment videos the army recruitment office might put together. Flashy videos may look pretty, but reading a blog gives you a real taste of what you are getting yourself into.

Blogs are also very good ways for communicating across cultural lines, and establishing channels of understanding and trust. The Internet, by its nature, always provides a comfortable distance for people, and thus enables communication channels that would otherwise be impossible. A number of Iraqi civilians have gotten into blogging (either reading them or writing their own or both), and through this has allowed them to learn about other cultures and helped others learn about them, which has helped to dispel many of the myths we previously held about each other. Allowing soldiers to blog allows Iraqi civilians to see their perspective, and also allows the soldiers to understand why they might be perceived a particular way by people on the street.

This is one of these blog posts where I really do hope I get proven wrong (and if Sgt Devore's blog pops back up tomorrow, that will be the case). But, if not, today's events are a major disappointment to me. And if Sgt Devore was forced to take his blog down, this is a major loss for the blogosphere, a major blow against freedom of expression in the military, and a major erosion of the US public's visibility into the events in Iraq.

Happy Canada Day!

It's easy to forget when you are living in another country that it's your own country's national holiday today, but indeed it is today. July 1 is Canada Day, a holiday very similar to the American July 4 Independence Day in that both holidays celebrate the anniversary of each country's independence from Britain.

Canada Day celebrates the anniversary of July 1, 1867, the day the British North America Act was proclaimed in Britain, granting the independence of several of the British colonies in North America, and forming the Dominion of Canada.

Happy Canada Day to all my readers from Canada!