Monday, August 29, 2005

Stay tuned....

Stay tuned folks... the Iraq constitution post is coming back on top, and is going to get even longer. I'm going to keep the post the same, so all the comments stay where they are.

I have in my hands a complete translation of the constitution draft, and will be publishing it in the next day or so along with my commentary on each section.

I realize this post will be long, but it is an important exercise, I think, especially given the importance of this constitutional process in Iraq.

Stay tuned... :)

Happy Blog-a-versary!!!

It's amazing how time flies when you're having fun: my blog is 1 year old today!

My first post, from a year ago, was about the 2004 Republican convention in New York City, and wondering what herbal substance the convention planners had been smoking when they decided to hold that convention in a city that was predominantly Democrat-leaning, and also the biggest terror-target in America. Here is a link to that first post.

Of course, my blog wasn't getting nearly as many visitors a year ago as I am getting today, so I think I can probably count the number of people who actually read that post on one hand!

Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Geographically Retarded (Part II)

This is the second part of a two part article.

Last week, I wrote about how the US education system is failing America's youth by not adequately teaching them geography. Today, I will talk about some of the reasons behind this, and some of the effects.

In the United States, they do teach a bit of geography and history, mostly focused within the US borders. They schools lump geography and history together into a class called "social studies", focusing mostly on memorizing facts: pointing out states and capitals on a map, memorizing the dates of historical events, etc. What is missing is the why factor - building an understanding of the historical context in which the events took place. American students learn how to regurgitate memorized facts, but do not learn how to critically analyze these facts.

Before anyone thinks I am suggesting that the US should emulate Canada's education system in this regard, let me point out that Canada's is only marginally better. In Canada, we do learn more about our southern neighbor (the US) than American children learn about Canada, but this is expected since Canada's history and economy are very much intertwined with those of the United States. Unfortunately, many Canadians wrongly view this as our system being significantly better, which it is not.

It is almost as if the US and Canadian school systems have a very low impression of the capabilities of their students. They figure, since the students are too stupid to be able to critically analyze facts and form an opinion, they'll present them a dumbed-down version of historical events, and spoon-feed them the opinions they should form about these events, and just ask them to repeat all this stuff at test time.

Unfortunately, this trend continues after students become adults. The mainstream US media seems to feel that the average American is incapable of critical analysis, so they dumb-down the story and feed it along with a presupposed opinion to their unsuspecting readers, almost like them saying, "Okay, guys, I know you're too dumb to figure this stuff out for yourself, so here are the basic facts, and here is your what your opinion of them should be." Is there any wonder why there is such a lack of controversy here in the US about some very complex and multifaceted situations going on in the world (the simmering Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the status of Taiwan, the disputed status of Kashmir, the confiscation of white-owned farms in Zimbabwe, etc.). Americans are presented one set of facts by the news media and, by using the same skills they learned in high school, they simply accept them as facts without questioning them.

One major problem spawned by this is stereotyping. Racial, ethnic, and religious stereotypes are rife here in America, and here are just a few common ones I've seen:
  • All Jews are cheap and selfish.
  • All Muslims are religious fanatics and terrorists.
  • All Mexicans are poor and uneducated people who will do any kind of schlep work nobody else wants to do.
  • All blacks are uneducated and lazy, and all black males are criminals.
  • Etc., etc., ad nauseum.

Of course, none of these stereotypes are true. Yes, there are some people in each of these ethnic groups who fit these stereotypes, but there are far more people who do not fit these stereotypes. However, in the simplified and dumbed-down world portrayed by the domestic news media, the picture painted of each of these ethnic groups is often consistent with these stereotypes, and thus all members of these groups are tarred by the same brush.

To fix this problem, we need to fix the way we teach geography and history in schools. Rather than emphasizing the memorization of dates and events, emphasis should be shifted to a critical analysis of these events, much like they do when they teach these subjects at the university level. Tests should consist of essay-type questions, where students should graded based on the originality of their analysis. This analytical approach should also be extended to include current events, with students asked to read the newspaper, pick an article once a week that they are interested in, and write a few paragraphs about it.

If we encourage our children to think independently and to critically analyze current events, they will grow up to be adults who think independently.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Iraq Constitution Final Draft

Earlier today, the Guardian newspaper in the UK published a partial English translation of the final draft of the Iraq constitution. You can see by the section numbering that there are still some large gaps in the translation. Since this is not a complete translation, I will reserve my final conclusions for after the translation is complete.

One paragraph I have not seen in this translation was the guarantee of equality under the law with respect to gender, religion, or ethnicity. This was in the last draft, and may be in this version, but just not in this partial translation (perhaps one of my Arabic-speaking friends reading this can enlighten me as to whether it's in the full Arabic version or not... *hint, hint*)

As for the rest of this translation, I'm reserving my judgement until I see the rest. Here are my thoughts on what I've seen so far:

PREAMBLE"... We rushed in the millions to the ballot boxes for the first time in our history - men, women, the elderly, young people - on January 30, 2005, remembering the pain of sectarian repression practised against the majority and the suffering of Iraq's Shias, Sunnis, Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen and other martyrs, remembering the tyranny practised against the holy cities in the popular Intifada, the Marsh region, the national repression in the massacres of Halabja, Barazan, the Anfal campaign, the Faili Kurds, the Turkmen in Bashir, the suffering of the people of the western region where terrorists and their allies have striven to prevent people from taking part in the elections and establishing a civil society and cooperating in building our new Iraq of the future, without sectarian strife, racism, regional complexes, discrimination and marginalisation.

"Terrorism and the denunciation of people as non-Muslims have not stopped us going forward to build a state of law, and sectarianism and racism have not stopped us ... following the peaceful rotation of power, adopting the principle of fair distribution of resources and allowing equality of opportunity for all.

"We, the Iraqi people now rising from suppression and looking forward to a future in a republican, federal, democratic and pluralist system, have made a pact to respect the rule of law, reject the politics of aggression, give attention to the rights of women, men and children, spread the culture of diversity, and uproot terrorism.

"We, the people of Iraq, have taken upon ourselves to write this constitution in freedom and unity, to learn from what has preceded it and let it be a guide to us in the future, and to draft it using the values and examples of the prophets of old and new developments in knowledge and civilization. Abiding by this constitution will preserve for Iraq the free unity of its components in terms of people, land and sovereignty."
The preamble has no real legal meaning. It is analogous to the "we the people" section of the US constitution. It is simply a prologue written by the authors of the constitution, expressing their thought processes in writing the constitution.

Article One
The Republic of Iraq is an independent state.
I certainly hope so...

Article Two
The political system is republican, parliamentary, democratic and federal.
1. Islam is a main source for legislation.
a. No law may contradict Islamic standards.
b. No law may contradict democratic standards.
c. No law may contradict the essential rights and freedoms mentioned in this constitution.

This paragraph has changed a bit since the last draft. They've made it more prominent in its placement, but diluted it: there is a BIG difference between "a main source for legislation" and "the main source for legislation" (which is what it said in the last draft. Plus, this version clarifies it with three subpoints, indicating that no law may contradict Islamic standards, but also that no law may contradict democratic standards, and that no law may contradict the essential rights and freedoms mentioned in this constitution.

An important question here is whether the "equality with respect to gender" paragraph made it into the other (untranslated) parts of the draft. If so, this paragraph 1(c) would guarantee equal rights for women. If not... who knows.

2. This constitution guarantees the Islamic identity of the Iraqi people and guarantees all religious rights; all persons are free within their ideology and the practice of their ideological practices.
3. Iraq is part of the Islamic world, and the Arabs are part of the Arab nation.
These two paragraphs seem like "window dressing" - a whole lot of words, but minimal legal impact.

4. a. Arabic and Kurdish are the two official languages, and Iraqis have the right to teach their sons their mother language like the Turkomen and Assyrian in the government educational institutes.
b. The language used orally in official institutions such as the Parliament and the Cabinet as well as official conventions should be one of the two languages.
c. Recognising the official documents with the two languages.
d. Opening the schools with two languages.
Bienvenue au Canada / Welcome to Canada

I hope the Iraqis realize how much work it is to maintain an officially bilingual society, with all official documents being translated from one language to the next. We do this in Canada, and it can be done, but it is a lot of work.

For my Iraqi friends, if you want a job, go study Kurdish (or if you're a Kurd, study Arabic). There will be LOTS of work for translators in the new government if this goes through.

Article Three
Federal institutions in Kurdistan should use the two languages.
More translator jobs...

Article Four
The Turkomen and Assyrian languages are the official languages in the Turkomen and Assyrian areas, and each territory or province has the right to use its own official language if residents have approved in a general referendum vote.
Even more translator jobs..... if this keeps up, the whole government will be made up of translators!

Article Five
Power is transferred peacefully through democratic ways.
Of course, if power is transfered violently through undemocratic ways, this constitution won't be worth the paper it's printed on. But, I guess it can't hurt to say it...

Article Seven
1. Any organisation that follow a racist, terrorist, extremist, sectarian-cleaning ideology or circulates or justifies such beliefs is banned, especially Saddam's Ba'ath Party in Iraq and its symbols under any name. And this should not be part of the political pluralism in Iraq.
2. The government is committed to fighting terrorism in all its forms, and works to protect Iraqi soil from being a centre or passage for terrorist activities.

Wow, they don't mince words in this section, do they?


Article 35
a. Human freedom and dignity are guaranteed.
b. No person can be detained or interrogated without a judicial order.
c. All kinds of physical and psychological torture and inhumane treatment are prohibited, and any confession is considered void if it was taken by force, threats and torture. The person who was harmed has the right to ask for compensation for the financial and moral damage he/she suffered.
Good. This whole article 35 seems well-written. Someone should go show a copy to the bonehead who was interrogating Khalid Jarrar a couple of weeks ago.

Article 36
The State guarantees:
1. Freedom of expression by all means.
2. Freedom of the press, printing, advertising and publishing.
Very good. This seems a lot broader than the wording in the last version I saw. This should definitely protect activities like blogging.

I cannot understate how important freedom of expression is in a true democracy. If people are not free to criticize the government, there is no accountability.

Article 37
Freedom to establish political groups and organisations.

Excellent. Another basic cornerstone in any successful democracy.

Article 39
Iraqis are free to abide in their personal lives according to their religion, sects, beliefs or choice. This should be organised by law.
Very good. This also sounds like it would protect the rights of different Muslim sects (Shia/Sunni) as well as Christians, Jews, and any other non-Muslim minority groups living in Iraq.

Article 66
A presidential candidate should:
1. Be Iraqi by birth and the offspring of two Iraqi parents.
2. Be no less than 40 years old.
3. Have a good reputation and political experience, and be known as honest and faithful to the nation.

Article 75
The prime minister should have all the qualifications as the presidential candidate and should have a

university degree or its equivalent and should not be less than 35 years old.

Article 104
A general commission should be set up to observe and specify the central (government) revenues, and the commission should be made up of experts from the central government, regions, provinces and representatives.

Article 107
Federal authorities should preserve Iraq's unity, security, independence and sovereignty and its democratic federal system.

No issue here.

Article 109
Oil and gas are the property of all the Iraqi people in regions and provinces.

Article 110
The central government administers oil and gas extracted from current wells, along with governments of the producing regions and provinces, on the condition that revenues are distributed in a way that suits population distribution around the country.

These two articles are a recipe for a fight. They say that the central government administers oil and gas wells "along with" the regions and provinces. It does not specify which government body (the central, regional, or provincial) takes precedence if these bodies disagree with each other, or how disputes are settled.

Article 114
1. A region consists of one or more provinces, and two or more regions have the right to create a single region.
2. A province or more has the right to set a region according to a referendum called for in one of two ways:
a. A demand by one-third of all members of each of the provincial councils that aims to set up a
b. A demand by one-tenth of voters of the provinces that aim to set up a region.

Article 117
A region's legislative authority is made up of one council, named the National Assembly of the region.

Article 118
The National Council of the region drafts the region's constitution and issues laws, which must not contradict this constitution and Iraq's central laws.

Article 120
The executive authority of the region is made up of the president of the region and the region's government.

Article 128
The region's revenues are made up from the specified allotment from the national budget and from the local revenues of the region.

Article 129
The regional government does what is needed to administer the region, especially setting up internal security forces, such as police, security and region guards.

The articles above are likely a main source of disagreement in the constitution. This basically says that any province or collection of provinces can have a referendum and form a semi-autonomous region, headed by a "National Assembly", which can form its own laws, and establish its own internal security forces.

It doesn't take a lot of guessing to figure out the first region formed will probably be Kurdistan.

Does this weaken the constitution? I don't think so. These paragraphs seem fairly reasonable in terms of how each region would fit within an Iraqi federal framework, and stipulate that no region can pass laws that contradict the federal laws or constitution. And, if you think about it, this type of regional autonomy is not unprecedented: the degree of autonomy granted to a region here is actually less than what each of the 50 US states enjoy in the American constitution.

Article 135
This constitution guarantees the administrative, political, cultural and educational rights of different ethnic groups such as Turkomen, Chaldean, Assyrians and other groups.

This article is better than the last version I wrote about in that it includes an all-inclusive "and other groups" at the end.

Article 144
The Iraq Supreme Criminal Court continues its work as a legislative, independent commission to look into the crimes of the former dictatorial regime and its symbols, and the Council of Deputies has the right to annul it after it ends its duties.

Article 145
a. The Supreme National Commission for de-Ba'athification continues its work as an independent commission, in coordination with the judicial authority and executive institutions and according to laws that organise its work.
b. Parliament has the right to dissolve this commission after it ends its work, with a two-thirds majority.

This seems dangerous...

The issue here is the statement "after it ends its work." If the de-Ba'athification commission never ends its work, Parliament can never dissolve it, even by a two-thirds majority. By this article, since this commission sets its own scope, it could continue working for decades, ripping apart every segment of society with no checks or balances.

Parliament should have the right to dissolve this commission at anytime whether it "ends its work" or not.

Article 151
No less than 25% of Council of Deputies seats go to women.

Interesting... On one side, I can see how this can encourage representation by women, but on the other side, I am not sure how this can be easily enforced. What happens if voters don't vote for the female candidates? Do they keep holding elections until 25% of the elected group are women?

Article 153
This law is considered in force after people vote on it in a general referendum and when it is published in the official Gazette and the Council of Deputies is elected according to it.

Monday, August 22, 2005

The Great Debate

Tomorrow (Tuesday) evening at 7 PM Eastern time, Radio Open Source is hosting a live debate between two bloggers with very different perspectives on Israel's recent unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

On one side, we have Laila el-Haddad, a Palestinian blogger (and a recent friend of mine) living in Gaza City. Laila is an extremely intelligent woman with a masters degree from Harvard University in Boston. Laila's blog, Raising Yousuf, talks about her challenges of raising her young son Yousuf in the occupied Gaza Strip. When she's not blogging, Laila is a professional journalist, writing for the English-language edition of al-Jazeera. Laila's journalism credits also include radio journalism for a number of US radio stations (including a news report this evening for WBAI 99.5 FM in New York) and a recent Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post.

On the other side, we have Shlomo Wollins, an Israeli blogger who until his forcible removal last week was one of the Jewish settlers living in the Gush Katif settlement block in Gaza. Shlomo's blog, Israel Reporter, chronicles the experiences of himself and his neighboring settlers over the past hundred days leading up to their "deportation" from Gaza. I have never met Shlomo myself, but from his blog he appears to be an intelligent and well spoken man.

Pull up a chair... this one should be good!

The debate will be broadcast on several US radio stations (most of which offer live streaming audio), and will also be available on podcast.

Update (August 23)

It sounds like this is supposed to be more of a discussion show than a debate, and they've invited a few other participants: Amira Hass (an Israeli journalist for Ha'aretz), Ganit Nave-Farhan (a former Israeli settler), and Deema Arafah (a Gaza resident). Knowing how many raw nerves and emotions were exposed by this past week's pullout, I would not be surprised to see this show end up being more of an argument than a friendly chat. Here is a link to the streaming audio.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Geographically Retarded (Part I)

This is the first of a two-part article being published this week

I've been living in the United States for a few years now, and I've traveled through many parts of this country. In my travels, I've been consistently amazed at the level of geographic ignorance I see. I've met people from the north side of Chicago who've never even been to the south side of Chicago, or New Yorkers from the Bronx who've never even been to Queens.

As a Canadian, the questions I've gotten are sometimes comical. Someone asks me where I'm from, and I tell them "Canada", and then the questions start. Here are some gems I've been asked over the years:
  • Wow, you came here all the way from Canada! [this question in Chicago, just a 5 hour drive from the Canadian border]
  • What time is it up there in Canada? [Canada is a huge country that spans 6 timezones]
  • Did you grow up in an igloo? [NO!]
  • Do you take a dogsled to work? [HELL NO!]
  • Hey, I know a guy who lives in Canada, his name is Fred and he lives in this place called Vancouver, do you know him? [I'm from Toronto... Vancouver is a 4.5 hour plane ride away, so NO!]
  • Canada's not really a different country, is it? [I should remember to ask the customs guys this question the next time I'm on my way to visit my parents...]

The sad thing is, these were honest questions, asked by real Americans, about their neighbor to their immediate north. When you look at countries further away, the ignorance gets even worse.

Three years ago, National Geographic Magazine commissioned the Roper Geographic Survey, which studied the relative level of geographic knowledge of young Americans versus other countries. Some interesting tidbits:

  • A third of Americans grossly overestimated the US population as being 1 to 2 billion (a third of the world's population) - almost ten times the actual population.
  • Less than half of Americans could identify the Pacific Ocean on a map (yes, that big blue thing on the left side of the US map!)
  • Just 58% percent of Americans knew that Afghanistan was where the Taliban was from, despite the fact that American troops were in the process of invading Afghanistan when this survey was done in 2002. Likewise, only 17% of Americans could pick out Afghanistan on a map.

The US school systems are failing America's youth by not doing a good job of teaching geography. Most students spend their time in the classroom looking not at a globe, not at a map of the world, but at a map of the 48 contingous American states. They may become experts at picking out Boise, Idaho on a map, but they don't learn much beyond their own borders.

America's geographical ignorance has cost some American companies in the business world. For instance, last year, the Guardian Newspaper in the UK published an article about how geographic ignorance has cost Microsoft Corporation hundreds of millions of dollars over the past few years in several blunders.

Perhaps a bigger problem is that geographic ignorance often translates into stereotypes and misconceptions about other cultures that impair America's foreign relations and foster animosity of foreigners towards Americans. But, I will save that whole discussion for Part II of this post, which I'll publish later this week.

Don't get me wrong, I have met plenty of smart Americans who are extremely savvy in terms of world affairs. However, these Americans usually develop these skills despite their educational background, and not because of it.

In summary, America's youth are being failed by their school system. Instead of being adequately prepared to play a leading role on the stage of world business, American youth are being turned into geographically retarded automatons who are incapable of critically analyzing world events and being able to correctly assess culpability in foreign conflicts. If America wants to continue to play a leading role in world affairs, this basic weakness needs to be fixed.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

The "Jewish Terrorist": how low can we humans sink?

Earlier this week, the news media reported about a West Bank Israeli settler named Asher Weisgan who had gone berzerk and murdered four Palestinian workers and injured a fifth. The news media here shrugged it off, and Israeli politicians derided it as the act of another "Jewish terrorist", a man who had gone crazy and taken out his frustrations on a group of nearby Palestinians. I shrugged it off too.

Today, I read a bit more detail about the story, and was absolutely shocked. This was not a simple case of terrorism, it was the cold-blooded murder of men who the murderer had worked with for many years, and who he even ate lunch with on the day of the murders.

Asher Weisgan is a man who made his living driving Palestinian workers to and from their jobs at the Ortal factory in the Jewish settlement of Shilo. He spoke fluent Arabic, and was regarded by several of the Palestinians as their friend. Two of the workers he murdered he had known for over eight years.

The wife of one of the murdered Palestinian workers was quoted by the BBC as saying, "They used to say how decent he was, how they used to eat together, how he used to ask them for our food to take to his wife."

The Jewish factory manager was quoted by Ynetnews as saying, "He spoke Arabic, he was their friend. No one who spoke to him could have known this would happen, there were no warning signs. I just can’t believe it. Three months ago, when I became angry with one of the Palestinian workers and yelled at him, Asher came to me and said, ‘do me a favor, leave him alone. This is a good guy.’"

There was one thing all the Palestinians and Jewish settlers who was interviewed by the news media seemed to have in common: all of them who had knew Weisgan were shocked, and thought he was the last person they could imagine doing something like this.

I remember a few years ago seeing the cold eyes of Mohammed Atta staring back at me from the television screen, and thinking how cold-blooded Atta must have been to have lived quietly here in the US for such a long time only to launch such a vicious attack against us. Looking at the cold eyes of Asher Weisgan staring at me from this computer monitor, I feel the same sensation. While Atta may have killed more people, he did not personally know his victims; Weisgan had worked with his victims for years. And, Weisgan is still alive to allow us all to see his lack of remorse.

Mohammed Atta and Asher Weisgan are both examples of how dangerous ideological extremism can be. Atta and Weisgan may have fought for different causes, and would probably have hated each other in person, but they are both fruit of the same poisonous seeds of hatred that have been sown in the Middle East and beyond.

Events like this brutal murder are cause for us to take a step back and think about who we are and what we stand for. Everyone who lives on this earth is a person, no matter what the color of their skin, what language they speak, what their cultural heritage is, or by what name they call God. We are all God's children, and worthy of being treated with respect by our brothers and sisters. The poisonous ideologies of hatred, exclusion, and racism that spawn the likes of Mohammed Atta and Asher Weisgan need to be eschewed and replaced with tolerance and inclusion. It is then, and only then, that we will know true peace in this world.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Satan's Minions Strike Again in Iraq

Earlier today, a few of Satan's minions in Iraq set off two car bombs in front of the al-Nahda bus terminal in Baghdad, killing scores of people. These same bastards later set off a car bomb in front of the al-Kindi hospital, the place most of the victims of the first two bombs were being taken. At least 43 people were killed in these diabolical attacks.

You may notice my choice of words here. Over the past few months, some of the Iraqi bloggers have been referring to terrorists as "cockroaches". But, today's attacks far more resemble the actions of minions of hell than cockroaches.

When you think about it, some of the violence in Iraq has some logic or reason to it. Attacking military targets is what one might expect from a legitimate "resistance". But attacking a bus terminal, and killing scores of random people, is just plain evil. There is no other word I can think to adequately describe today's random bloodbath.

What is particularly nauseating is that some of these same minions like to wrap themselves in their warped version of Islam, chanting "Allahu Akbar" while murdering innocents and sullying the teachings of what is normally a very benign religion. The one thing I know most Christians and Muslims can agree on is that a very hot part of hell awaits people like this who do evil in the name of God.

I am personally disgusted by the bloodthirsty nature of today's attack - not only bombing a bus terminal and killing scores of random innocent people, but later bombing the hospital to which the victims were being taken. The demons who perpetrated this attack deserve no pity.

Offshore Outsourcing: you get what you pay for...

Yesterday, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation exposed a very interesting scandal on their news program Four Corners, about a black market in which the personal details about bank customers can be purchased from workers employed at offshore outsourcing companies in India. In this exposé, an undercover journalist with ABC was able to purchase a shocking amount of personal information about Australian citizens for about $7 each: passport numbers, credit card numbers, ATM card numbers, and the like. Enough information for any enterprising criminal to steal the identities of any of these innocent people.

A similar situation happened recently in Britain, where the Sun newspaper was able to buy personal details of a thousand Britons for about $4 each.

Why does this not surprise me?

In my career, there are two sayings I have always seen to be true about business. The first is, "there is no such thing as a free lunch." The second is, "you get what you pay for."

This is not the first time that offshore outsourcing has resulted in intellectual property concerns. Last year, the world-leading networking company Cisco Systems settled a copyright infringement lawsuit they had filed against China's Huawei. Huawei has been making cheap knock-off routers that bore more than a striking resemblance to Cisco routers for a few years. In the settlement, Huawei admitted they had actually used a stolen copy of the source code of Cisco's flagship IOS operating system in their software.

Offshore outsourcing may look attractive on the surface, but when you start outsourcing critical business functions in sensitive areas, you run the risk of failure, and of having intellectual property underpinnings of your business stolen.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Gaza Pullout - it's about time!

Today, as I write this post, marks the start of Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. As I write this post, Israeli troops have sealed off Gaza and are preparing for the forcible removal of Jewish settlers in 48 hours.

I have never liked the concept of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories. While I do support Israel's right to exist as a sovereign nation, I also support the Palestinians in their aspiration to exist in peace as a sovereign nation side-by-side with Israel, and not underneath the sole of Israel's combat boot. Israeli citizens should realize that Palestinians need to live somewhere, and that most Palestinians want many of the same things they do: a productive livelihood, and a safe and stable place to raise their children. Israeli settlements, and the security apparatus necessitated by them, only act to destroy these aspirations. There is a saying, "the devil makes work for idle hands", and the Palestinian territories are no exception to this. Unemployed or underemployed people are a ripe recruiting ground for terrorist groups.

The Gaza strip is one of the most heavily populated areas on Earth, with about 1.3 million Palestinians crammed into an area roughly twice the size of Washington, DC. (a city of 563,000). By that statistic alone, it is liveable, but when you insert 5,000 or so Israeli settlers, along with thousands more Israeli soldiers to "protect" those settlers from those 1.3 million Palestinians, you end up with scenes like this picture: an old man, walking around a deep trench dug through the middle of one of Gaza's main roads, with a sniper tower watching him in the background.

The damage that this type of security does to the Gaza economy cannot be overstated. According to the CIA World FactBook, the annual per-capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Gaza is just $600 - which translates into the average Gaza Palestinian living on less than $2 a day! To put this in perspective, this is the same per-capita GDP as Somalia, the morass of a country in Western Africa, that has not had a functioning government for over 10 years, and which has sent streams of starving refugees into Kenya and other neighboring countries. Iraq, even in the midst of its current violent disarray, has a per-capita GDP nearly four times as high as Gaza's.

Of course, all of these numbers pale in comparison with Israel, whose per-capita GDP is at $20,800.

Even for purely selfish reasons, keeping Gaza in this state of perpetual destitution does not benefit Israel either. Israel spends far more money on security forces in Gaza than it reaps from tax revenue there. Cutting its losses in Gaza will enable Israel to channel its tax revenue to more productive initiatives.

With the settlers gone, from Gaza, there will be no need for Israeli troops to dig up roads or divide Gaza with checkpoints, and Gazans will free to move about their territory and conduct business. However, this is only part of the solution. In order to thrive, Gaza needs to have a viable economy, and in order for this to happen, the free-flow of material and people between Gaza and neighboring countries will need to be ensured. As it is, Israel is planning to retain control of all border crossings into and out of Gaza, and if this is abused, it could instead turn Gaza into the world's largest open-air prison camp.

In addition to the obvious benefits to Palestinians, having an economically viable Gaza as a neighbor would benefit Israel as well. Productive people are happy people, and happy people are very unlikely to strap an explosive vest onto themselves and go find a bus to board.

For many people, what I am saying makes sense, however in Israel, statements like mine can be a political anathema in certain circles. It is for this reason that I applaud Ariel Sharon for having had the guts to unilaterally do something that needed to be done, no matter how much political capital it will cost him. Many people in Sharon's own party now hate him and consider him a traitor for pushing through this "disengagement" plan to pull settlers out of Gaza, and it is quite possible Sharon may not survive the next election. Sharon has had a long career in Israeli politics, and he has wagered his whole political legacy on this one move. For the sake of world peace, and for the sake of both the Palestinians and the Israelis, I hope Sharon's gamble pays off.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Hassan in the Washington Post

A few days ago, my friend Hassan in Baghdad was interviewed by a reporter named Jonathan Finer from the Washington Post. Today, there was an article about Hassan on page A14, titled "Iraqi Bloggers Describe Life Lived Amid Long Turmoil".

Here is an excerpt:

BAGHDAD -- Hassan Kharrufa said he had never heard of Salam Pax when he created his Web site "An Average Iraqi" ( ), but he's following in the famous blogger's footsteps.

Pax was the screen name of the Iraqi blogger whose musings from Baghdad, written as letters to a friend in Amman, Jordan, were widely read during the U.S. invasion. He later became a correspondent for a British newspaper, the Guardian, and wrote a book. Kharrufa, 20, an engineering student in the Iraqi capital, is one of a legion of new bloggers who have emerged with the expanding Internet access enjoyed here since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Congratulations, Hassan! I'm really happy for you. The Washington Post is a major newspaper, and it's a big honor to have an article written about you in it.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Talking point: Israel's Gaza withdrawal

I've noticed an interesting trend: the longer the post I write, the less comments I get on it. If I write something short, I get several comments. If I do research and write a lengthy post referencing other sources, I get no comments at all.

So, I think I'll try something new on this one. Let's see if we can get some good discussion going before I publish the post.

Next week is going to be a very interesting week in the Middle East: it is the start of Israel's scheduled withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. To give a bit of background, Israel has occupied the Gaza strip since the 1967 war, and has built a number of settlements in Gaza. Many Israeli settlers were born in the settlements and have known nothing else, and many Gaza Palestinians were born under Israeli occupation and have known nothing else.

Here are some articles with decidedly different perspectives on the withdrawal:

MSNBC: Gasa Surfers will be forced to find new waves
al-Jazeera: Gazans cautious, but eager for pullout
Haaretz: pretty much the whole main page of their site
Jerusalem Post: 150,000 protest pullout in Tel Aviv

(Interesting note: the al-Jazeera article was written by Laila el-Haddad, the blogger in Gaza whose blog, Raising Yousuf, is in my blog roll.)

I have some strong thoughts on this topic, and will be writing a post on this over the next day or two. In the meantime, let's try to get some discussion going. What do you all think?

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

"Neurotic Iraqi Wife" is now very Neurotic

Neurotic Iraqi Wife posted today:

So many things have happened during the past month and to be honest Im not a happy Bunny anymore. I dont like being here, in fact I cant stand it anymore. These words are very difficult to utter even to myself cuz its a sign of weakness, its a sign of hopelessness, but it is the truth and the only truth that I came to realize. Im disappointed in myself for feeling that way but there you go I ve said it.

This is quite a shift for her - just a few short months ago, she was living in Dubai and ecstatic that she had gotten a job in Iraq and would be able to go there to be with her husband. It is quite a shift for her to be talking like this.

Here is a link to the rest of her post.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Iraq Stock Exchange

Brokers trading stocks on the Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX) Trade Floor

With all the violence that has been going on in Iraq, there are a few positive developments that have gone on behind the scenes and have not been widely reported. One of these is the Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX), which has been open for just over a year now, and currently trades shares in over seventy publicly traded Iraqi companies: hotels, construction companies, banks, soft drink bottlers, textiles, pharmaceuticals, transportation, insurance, and real estate companies among others.

The ISX opened for its first trading day on June 24, 2004 with only 15 listed companies, and by December had grown to 78 listed companies. Over the past year, they have undertaken a number of modernization steps, including a project to computerize many of the manual processes running the trade floor, and a recent move to allow brokers to set their own commissions. The Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX) is based on a similar model as the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE): a non-profit entity, owned by its members, and which uses the "open-outcry" system with human traders executing all trades. Perhaps the most interesting difference between the ISX and the NYSE: the NYSE is largely a male bastion, while an overwhelming majority of the ISX's staff are women.

A stock exchange is the great liberator of a free-market economy, the one thing that brings business ownership down to the people. With a stock exchange, any ordinary citizen can own a piece of a company. Here in the United States, millions of ordinary American workers are also corporate shareholders, either directly through stock ownership, or indirectly through mutual funds or pension funds. With the presence of the ISX this becomes possible in Iraq also.

A stock exchange is also an enabler of small entrepreneurs who want to raise investment capital to expand their companies. Rather than having to seek out investors on his own, an entrepreneur may take his company public and sell shares on the open market through an Initial Public Offering (IPO), thereby bringing in valuable investment capital that allows his company to grow. For a fledgling economy like post-Saddam Iraq, one important detail is that investment capital can also come from outside the country: a stock exchange enables foreign entities to directly inject money into the economy, buying shares of domestic companies, and enabling more rapid growth than might otherwise be possible.

For good reason, the launch of the Iraq Stock Exchange has happened with very little fanfare over the past year: with terrorists in Iraq attacking anything they view as a harbinger of modernization or Americanization, something as important as a national stock exchange would make an important target. So, the ISX operates in a nondescript building in Baghdad, and keeps a low profile. But, in the coming few years, this institution will likely become more and more important to Iraq's growth and economic success.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post called Why I am Bullish on Iraq. Despite all the violence in Iraq, and all the problems, it is developments like the ISX that keep me feeling bullish on Iraq's long-term future.


Iraq Stock Exchange (ISX) Website
ISX Market Data

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Pakistan's madrassas: education or brainwashing?

A few days ago, the BBC ran an interesting article called Views from Inside Islam's Schools, in which they interview five young men studying at madrassas in Pakistan. On reading this article, I could not help but shake my head and wonder how what these students were describing could be considered education in any modern sense of the word.

One student described the curriculum at his madrassa, which included:

  • Hiffaz (memorizing the entire Quran from cover to cover)
  • Islamiyat (history of Islam)
  • Arabic grammar
  • Usool-e-Fiqa (Islamic jurisprudence)
  • Hadith (the teachings of Mohammed other than what are in the Quran)
  • Usool al-Hadith (the history and historical context of al-Hadith)
  • Mantiq (Logic)
  • A cursory study in mathematics and English

The value of some of these subjects is questionable. For example, does it really help someone to understand Islam by memorizing word for word the entire contents of the Quran? I think not. In Christianity, I've never heard of anyone trying to memorize the whole bible - instead, biblical scholars try to study the meaning behind each of the chapters. Likewise in Islam, trying to memorize the Quran word-for-word would not help a student understand the true meaning behind those words.

What is interesting in this madrassa's curriculum is not just what it contains, it is what is missing: chemistry, physics, biology, world history, geography, computer science, etc.. With these key subjects missing, and just a bare scratching of the surface of mathematics and English, students would graduate such a madrassa lacking the basic skills needed for gainful employment.

We have a saying in English, "the devil makes work for idle hands." A student could graduate a madrassa like this as a Quran-reciting automaton, with no logical thinking, no practical knowledge, no job prospects, and no forseeable future. After a couple of months of unemployment, these madrassa graduates will be feeling frustrated and disillusioned, and could easily be a prime recruiting ground for extremist terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.

What is sad is that the regular mainstream education system in Pakistan is quite good, and gives a solid foundation in mathematics and sciences. I have worked with a number of technical professionals from Pakistan and have been frequently impressed by their skills. However, schools in Pakistan are not free, and many parents cannot afford the school fees required to allow their children to complete their formal schooling. With some madrassas providing free education, they are viewed by some parents as an adequate substitute.

In the aftermath of the London bombings and the news that at least one of the bombers had studied at a Pakistani madrassa, the government of Pakistan took some steps this week, ordering all foreigners studying at Pakistani madrassas to leave the country. This does not fix the domestic problem, however, as there are still many Pakistani children enrolled in madrassas.

Pakistan seems to be shying away from fixing the real problem, which is the curricula of these schools. A madrassa should be required to teach the same core subjects as a regular school (science, math, English, history, geography, etc.), and should be prohibited from filling their students' heads with anti-Western vitriol and other hatemongering. Madrassas that do not comply should be shut down. As long as Pakistan shies away from fixing this real root cause, these madrassas will continue to deliver a constant stream of unemployable misfits into the arms of extremist and terrorist groups.

Author's note: According to one of my Arabic-speaking friends, the correct plural for "madrassa" is "madaris", but since the BBC and other mainstream media use "madrassas" as the plural, I've used it here also to reduce confusion.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

English Language School

Let's take a break from serious topics for a few minutes. I saw this picture on another forum, of a sign for a foreign language school in a Middle-Eastern country, and I had to close my office door because I was laughing so hard.

Can you imagine what type of English a person would learn at this school?

(I'm starting to wonder if any of the people I work with went to school at this place.... )

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Steven Vincent Murdered

This past Sunday, Steven Vincent, a freelance journalist and blogger working in Basra, wrote an Op-Ed article in the New York times called Switched Off in Basra. In his article, Steven Vincent complained about how the majority of Iraqi police officers in Basra were affiliated with Shia religious parties, that hundreds of politically-motivated assassinations had been carried out by police officers, and that people in Basra were afraid to call the police to report crime out of fear. He even wrote about a white police "death car" that was used to shuttle off-duty officers to their next nefarious assignment.

Sure enough, on Tuseday night, Steven Vincent was seen being pushed into a white pickup truck with the word "police" written on the side of it, and a few hours later was found shot dead at the side of the road, with his Iraqi interpreter alive but in critical condition with a gunshot wound to the chest.

This timing does not sound like much of a coincidence to me.

Basra is starting to sound more and more like the many places in the world where the police are so corrupt that they become worse than useless, they become a criminal enterprise paid for by tax dollars. If this trend is allowed to continue, I would not be surprised if we start seeing communities forming neighborhood street gangs to protect the communities' interests, and citizens resorting to lynch mobs and vigilante justice to protect themselves against criminals, just like they do in some other parts of the world. I just hope Basra and other parts of Iraq are able to pull away from that anarchical abyss before they fall in head-first.