Friday, 30 July 2010

Black, white, grey ... and the middle way

Theoretically, the middle ground is the most populated. It is where the 'average' is supposed to lie. The extremes are outliers, places which are sparsely inhabited.
So it is with ideas. 'Normal' people hold 'normal' ideas, ensuring that society generally functions 'normally.'
Unfortunately, societies are sometimes overcome with extreme ideas espoused by small groups of people. These extremists are often so highly motivated that slowly they come to monopolize the direct and indirect levers of power within a society.

At some point, the masses of 'normal' people have a tough choice to make: go with the flow and join the ugly system or place the economic livelihood of their families at risk by shunning the system.
Such was the case with Hitler's Germany or Mussolini's Italy.
Today, we have situations in several geographies where societies are grappling between accepting extremism for reasons of expediency versus fighting the propagating individual groups at great cost.
Parts of the Islamic world suffer such a fate. Grow a beard and be labelled a Taliban sympathizer or remain clean shaven and be hassled by talibs instead. By sending a girl to school, is a parent giving his daughter a future or endangering her and family by upsetting bearded black turbaned brutes? It's hard to say.
Ultimately, the ideological battle seems to be a way to justify power and, therefore, control of a society's resources. Over time the ideology is either voluntarily accepted or rejected by the population.
There are few examples of a 'top down' ideological approach working. The most conspicuous failure is the former Soviet Union where communism unravelled pretty quickly, despite almost a century of ideological brainwashing. (The jury is still out for Ataturk's Turkey although we have passed the eighty year mark.)
Why am I writing about the 'middle ground?' Well, sometimes I find myself uncomfortably standing smack, bang in the line of fire of both the left and right! I am not extreme enough for some rigid Ataturk style secularists and too extreme for religious conservatives.
My response – it's about the operating environment. What works in Turkey may not work in Pakistan. Likewise, a legal framework appropriate for Malaysia is not necessarily correct for Singapore. A suit may be appropriate attire for a wedding reception at a hotel but on the streets of Peshawar a shalwar kameez is a better bet.
Unfortunately, the middle ground often becomes the proverbial 'no man's land,' an area where one finds the most casualties as two violently hostile extremes battle for supremacy.
Not surprisingly, most ordinary people whether in Herat, Afghanistan or Wana, South Waziristan couldn't care less about the president or the mayor's ideological leanings. They just want to be able to walk the streets in safety.
Fortunately, as an armchair general, I only fight my wars in the blogosphere. And I like to see the world in colour – not purely in black and white.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Wearing ties and sporting mullets: Iranian paradise?

It may be due to Persia's rich history that Iranian pride sometimes gets in the way of their leadership. Like their neighbour to the west (Iraq), Iran has been grappling with achieving a sense of independence acceptable to their people's aspirations.
Unfortunately, as with most Muslim contributions to progress, Persian participation disappeared many centuries ago.
Iran remains a post-colonial work in progress. And it will remain so while its leadership focuses its energies on futile debates. I am not referring to the nuclear controversy but to theological deliberations over appearance.
Most are aware of Irani government restrictions on women, such as the mandatory hijab or ban on wearing make-up, but the rules don't stop there. Men are also subject to similar restrictions. (In case a man wants to wear make-up in Iran he better be prepared for a few lashings!)
Take the simple neck tie – the traditional appendage to the 'monkey suit' which most men wear to work day in and day out. Iran's President and religious lobby are embroiled in a controversy as to whether men are permitted to wear ties. The clerics, in their infinite wisdom, have declared the tie (and bowtie) as "decadent, un-Islamic, 'symbols of the Cross' and the oppressive west."
Or take the case of hairstyles. Surely, there are many in the west who would be happy to see the mullet disappear from their streets. But when the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance issues edicts on approved male hairstyles then the matter is being taken to a ridiculous extreme.
(As an aside, shoulder length hair for men was banned in Singapore during the 1970s. My cousin was denied entry until he had his hair cut at the airport.)
No mullets or ties permitted in paradise!

Yes, Persia has come a long way from the civilization which gave us the word 'paradise.' Pairi-daeza meant 'surrounded by a wall' and was used to describe gardens in ancient times. The word was picked up by Alexander's Greek soldiers in the form of paradeisos.
Unfortunately, such a spirit of give and take has evaporated from many parts of the Islamic and Western world. The Muslim world has much to learn from the west. In fact, some may argue that many Western societies, with their respect for human dignity and freedom, are truer to traditional Islamic ideals than the repressive stagnant regimes peppered across the Islamic world.
Muslim leaders and clerics have to move beyond discussion of superficial issues, e.g. the ideal length of male beards or how many locks of a woman's hair may be visible under her hijab, and address the real reasons of modern Islam's decay. Unfortunately, until such introspection leads us to a better place, Muslims must tolerate the embarrassment that in the modern world Islam has come to symbolize terrorism and religious bigotry.  
The modern world is nothing but eclectic – to deny Muslims the right to pick and choose their world view (and hairstyles!) is simply wrong.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Afghanistan: the US military negotiates with the Taliban?

Clinton rode into Islamabad atop her pure white horse last week. (Anyone remember the Whitewater scandal and the suspicious death / suicide of Vince Foster?) She may have been clutching a check of USD 500 million in her left hand but her right hand was, as always, admonishing Pakistan.

Go and occupy North Waziristan? Why haven't you dealt with the Haqqani group in North Waziristan yet? You must do more. Look at what we the Americans have achieved in Afghanistan.
Wells, she didn't really make that last statement. How could she.
Other than dethroning the Taliban regime there are few tangible success stories in Afghanistan for the Americans to tout. Hasn't US nurtured economic development created a viable middle class and broken the back of the insurgency yet?
Based on the USD 3.65 billion capital flight from Afghanistan one would think we are referring to a wealthy state.
I am referring to the USD 3.65 billion cash that leaves Afghanistan annually. Yes, that is cash, mostly US Dollar bills. Suitcases and suitcases stuffed with cash. "Because the cash leaving the country is so large, it has little to do with the aid money Afghanistan manages," said Afghanistan's finance minister Mr. Zakhilwal.
The bulk of the cash finds its way into the international banking system via Dubai. For those who are interested, the United Arab Emirates through a regional organization, is a party to the anti-terrorism and money laundering rules determined by the global Financial Action Task Force body.
Any economist can tell you that Afghanistan's dynamic economy is so productive none should be suspicious of such large cash transactions. It's part of the free market system foisted on the backward tribal land by the US and its partners.
Is this the same country where a firebrand mullah can preach vicious Islam and raise a militia to fight for a few thousand dollars a month? Yes, I made up that last number. But surely with a per capita income of USD 935 and few job opportunities, it can't be too expensive to buy loyalty in Afghanistan. Weapons are not the issue. Guns can easily be purchased from disgruntled recruits of the Afghanistan National Army.

But I digress.
I was talking about America lecturing Pakistan to get tough with the Taliban in North Waziristan. (South Waziristan is no longer a topic of discussion. Nor Swat.)
Never mind that the US military does deals with the Taliban on the Afghan ('its') side of the border, that's development.
The most recent US - Taliban deal to become public concerns the Kajaki hydropower project. The facility was upgraded with the help of USD 100 million in US aid. It now provides electricity to large parts of southern Afghanistan. Almost half of the electricity flows into Taliban controlled districts where the residents pay a flat fee for the luxury.
Nothing unusual about paying electricity bills, except when the fee is paid to the Taliban, not the utility company. The fee is a flat monthly rate of 1,000 Pakistani Rupees.
The Wall Street Journal quotes Haji Gul Mohammad Khan, tribal-affairs adviser to the government of Helmand, as saying, "The more electricity there is, the more money the Taliban make." Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior representative in Kabul and the civilian counterpart to General Petraeus said, "Some compromises are inevitable in such a complex conflict. We always want to be in a situation where the government of Afghanistan has full authority over every square inch of its territory—but that's not yet the situation."
There can be no doubt there are many more unpublicized deals.
Are the Americans suddenly realizing that conflicts are multidimensional? Weaponry can only take combatants so far. Much of the road to peace is travelled by negotiations and governed by practical ground realities.
In Afghanistan, the unpleasant reality is that the Taliban have a legitimate political constituency. After nine years of military occupation, the Taliban's unconditional surrender to US / NATO forces is a remote possibility. If anything, the Taliban is positioned to declare 'victory' following the planned US 'retreat' from Afghanistan in 2011.
The US behaviour in Afghanistan demonstrates that Pakistan's deal making attempts in its tribal areas are legitimate in advancing the interests of the state. Especially when these agreements are placed in the context of the legal status of the tribal areas – the districts are not a part of 'settled' Pakistan.
The Pakistani army is as much an occupying force in Pakistan's tribal areas as the Americans are in Afghanistan.
Swat is a different matter. It is not a tribal district. It is subject to the laws of Pakistan, as interpreted by the Supreme Court. Restoring federal government control over Swat was not an option, it was a necessity.
Islamabad, it may be recalled, was about to fall to the Taliban. From Swat, Taliban warriors were preparing to drive into the capital on pick-ups mounted with machine guns while the Pakistan military and population were readying a rose petal parade for the grand entrance.
After approximately one year of a military presence in Swat, the government is back in control.
Pakistan's success in Swat is measured through various indicators. The level of violence in the district has diminished considerably. A locally recruited police force is making progress in 'civilianizing' the responsibility for maintaining law and order. Tourists are trickling back into the valley. The recently concluded eight day Swat Film and Music Festival is of particular importance, given the hostility of the Taliban to both forms of entertainment.
More telling is the notion that the western media has 'forgotten' about Swat. (No excuse to keep Pakistan in the doghouse is typically left untouched.)  This fact alone is enough to suggest that the military's Swat campaign has been successful.  
Pakistan's regional interests are not the same as the Americans. Pakistan will share a 2,640 kilometres border with Afghanistan long after Western troops have left.
So, Madam Secretary Clinton, the Pakistani people are grateful for the promise of USD 500 million. However, alongside the aid please request Admiral Mullen to launch an operation against Swat's dreaded Mullah Fazlullah, currently hiding in Afghanistan's Nuristan province. And since the dreaded Haqqani clan spend a large portion of their time inside Afghanistan please arrest them on your own turf rather than pass the buck to Pakistan.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Life as a game of Backgammon

My blog's been getting pretty heavy lately, so much so that I almost feel weighed down by it. I thought it's time I dial down the seriousness and put on my rose tinted glasses again.
Yes, I am a big believer that life is determined by attitude. Roll the dice positively and if they don't give you what you want then roll again. And keep rolling until lady luck smiles.

Of course, as an avid student of backgammon I appreciate one has to play with the odds in order to win consistently. A principle as true of life as it is of trading short term set-ups on the stock market. Accepting a 'double' at backgammon when double sixes are required to win may give me a short term rush but, in the long run, it's not a recipe for success.
Some call it high probability trading. I call it common sense. Something which we all have but often choose not to use – sacrificed at the altar of emotion.
Anyway, I recently attended an inspiring seminar organized by the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP). Two Muslim academics spoke about Islam and its role in the modern world, including Singapore.
The seminar brought back the feel good, fuzzy warm sensation which religion is supposed to bring into our lives. Not the mentally straining theological debates about hijab, alcohol or, dare I say it, suicide bombings. The seminar reminded me of the idealism which religion, any religion, ought to bring to the human condition.
Additionally, the seminar provided me an opportunity to raise my concerns regarding legislating a unitary vision of Islam with Singapore's very own custodians of Islam, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS). Unfortunately, I got the distinct impression that MUIS was not interested in my opinions – surprise, surprise!
Still, it felt good to personally inform a MUIS representative that legislating one particular version of Sharia in Singapore puts the Republic on a path not very different from the Taliban's Afghanistan. The main distinction being that Singapore's Sharia is not physically harsh and covers only certain aspects of personal freedoms. (Although I would suggest that distributing a dead person's assets contrary to her desire is not necessarily gentle behaviour.)
In the final analysis, Singaporean Muslims are told how to order their lives under threat of legal sanctions backed by the full force of the state.
Ok, so I am getting back to one of my pet peeves again. I better drop this subject lest people start to think I am a broken record. Or, more sinisterly, I start receiving vague, unsolicited warnings about deviating from the 'one true path.'
But, hey, what sort of a Grand Moofti would I be if I didn't pontificate from time to time? Let no one accuse me of being a fraud.
PS - The professors who spoke at the forum were Professor Abdullah Saeed (Sultan of Oman Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies, University of Melbourne) and Professor Azyumardi Azra (Professor of History, Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University, Jakarta).

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Singapore’s religious law and common space: time for a review

The recent arrest of full time national serviceman Muhammad Fadil under Singapore's Internal Security Act is a reminder that extremist Islamist ideologies can be nurtured in any environment. The Ministry of Home Affairs states that twenty year old Fadil actively sought out jihadist websites, even going so far as to try to contact a radical Yemeni cleric.
Undoubtedly, Fadil's arrest is an isolated incident among Singapore's Muslim minority population. (Muslim's comprise approximately 14% of Singapore's total population.) Like most Muslims, Singaporean Muslims are more interested in improving their quality of life rather than waging jihad against the non-Muslims.
Yet, Fadil's detention raises interesting questions about Singapore's Muslim community; questions concerning integration, self-erected barriers and the role of Sharia in a modern civil society.


Historically, Singapore's Muslims have been synonymous with the Malay community. Given the sensitivities associated with Singapore's break from Malaysia, a 'light touch' approach was adopted. In essence, Malays were given a relatively free hand to regulate themselves, even being granted a parallel legal structure via the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA) in 1968.
Through AMLA, Sharia courts were established to regulate aspects of personal and family law for Singapore's Malays. AMLA led to the establishment of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) as a statutory body to "advise the President of Singapore on all matters relating to Muslims in Singapore."
Among other tasks, MUIS regulates Singapore's religious teachers and sermons. Both are important roles to minimize the influence of extremist ideologies within Singapore.
So, Singapore did what all Muslim societies have done since the advent of Islam: it subordinated organized religion to the state, basically by making Islam an (autonomous) organ of the state. The Malay community became a 'millet' within the Singapore state, much like the Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire.
That was 1968. Today's Singapore has developed a national identity distinct from its regional neighbours. Singaporean Muslims are no exceptions, they too have benefitted from the transformation of the city-state into a wealthy and cosmopolitan global city.
Along with the disappearance of the kampong, the kampong mindset is also no more. Singapore's national personality is visible in the younger generation of Malay and non-Malay Muslims.
Singapore's cosmopolitan and largely secular atmosphere colours the nature of national debate, including within the Muslim community. For example, in Singapore, serious deliberations surrounding 'khalwat' or banning Muslims from drinking alcohol are non-starters. More important are discussions about the role of religion in Singapore's 'common space,' homosexuality, or single mothers.
Today's Singaporean rightly views religion as a matter of personal conscience. In a uniquely Singaporean paradox, she is 'religion-blind' while yet being supersensitive to religion, say in dietary matters.
Parallel religious legal frameworks eat into precious common space and potentially foster a communal identity, at the expense of a national Singaporean identity. Additionally, contentious issues relating to the interpretation of 'genuine' Islamic law will likely increase as Singapore's Muslim community becomes more diverse in character.
2010 Singapore is far removed from the Singapore of 1968. It is time the government establish an independent commission with broad terms of reference to evaluate the role of religiously inspired legislation within Singapore's primarily secular legal framework. A Sharia based legal system is an anachronism in modern Singapore.
As Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said, "Ours is a secular society. This allows us to treat all religions equally and no one religion is regarded by the state as superior to another."

__________________


Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of small and medium sized businesses. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Singapore Inc., Temasek and reaping rewards

All Singaporeans are shareholders in Singapore Inc. A fact which the government has a tendency to remind us particularly around election time. The reminders often come in the form of various 'Bonus Shares,' i.e. cash taken by from the taxpayer by the right hand and subsequently returned to the taxpayer with the left hand.
Recently, a university student studying Temasek emailed me some questions about the entity. (I assume the questions were prompted by my earlier letter published by the Straits Times recommending an independent board of directors modelled upon Calpers' example.) The questions started me thinking about Temasek's contribution to its shareholders, the Singaporean people.

GOVT'S NEXT CHALLENGE
Find ways to let S'poreans reap Temasek's excess gains
I AM certain that Singaporeans want Temasek's investment performance to outperform all long-term benchmarks adopted by its management and the Government ('Temasek's assets hit record $186b'; last Friday).
However, there is the question as to how Temasek uses any excess returns. Currently, it reinvests these returns back into its investment portfolio. Hence, through Temasek's growing domestic portfolio, some of these funds find their way back into the Singapore economy. Temasek's role in fostering aspects of the domestic corporate sector is well known.
Having been constructed over many years, Temasek's investment portfolio is now mature, that is, it is self-sustaining. Therefore, the portfolio is now satisfactorily able to absorb payouts to its ultimate beneficiaries: Singaporeans.
The Government should explore alternative mechanisms to share Temasek's investment successes with the population at large.
One recommendation is to distribute a small percentage of excess returns directly to Singaporeans. For example, the Government could consider reinvesting 80 per cent of excess investment returns into Temasek's portfolio, while the remaining 20 per cent is paid out to citizens in the form of annual 'Temasek Bonus Shares'.
A high watermark may be implemented to ensure that payouts are sensible and do not eat into Temasek's long-term portfolio.
Temasek is a fiduciary tasked with generating investment returns on behalf of Singapore and Singaporeans. Thus, any excess returns over its rolling five-year benchmarks should accrue to the Singaporean population. As with any prudent portfolio, much of the returns should be ploughed back into the investment account while a limited portion may be used for current consumption.
Sovereign wealth funds like Temasek clearly have a role in managing a nation's wealth. However, in the economic context of modern Singapore, transforming their role into delivering additional concrete benefits for Singaporeans is the Government's next challenge.
Imran Ahmed

Temasek's response published on July 17 is reproduced below.
Jul 17, 2010
Sharing excess gains: Temasek replies
WE THANK Mr Imran Ahmed for his proposal yesterday ('Find ways to let S'poreans reap Temasek's excess gains').
Temasek invests for the long term, by focusing on value creation and growth. Far from managing a 'mature' portfolio, we have been actively reshaping our portfolio to increase our exposure to various growth economies in Asia and elsewhere.
As a result, excluding Singapore and Japan, our underlying exposure to Asia is nearly half of our $186 billion portfolio compared to less than one-fifth of a much smaller portfolio six years ago. Post-2002 investments constitute just over half of our portfolio today.
There are inherent investment risks. Our portfolio value fell as equity markets plunged the year before, and rebounded $56 billion as markets recovered and our continued investments paid off. Although markets are calmer, there remains a one-in-six risk of losing 14 per cent or more of our portfolio value during this financial year.
We recognise there may be some interest to co-invest with Temasek. We are exploring such possibilities, particularly for co-investors who have a long-term investment horizon and the ability to tolerate the volatility. We will share these ideas when we are ready.
As for sharing returns with the wider community, Temasek has committed more than $1 billion since inception to community, philanthropic and public good causes.
We have, since 2003, formalised our commitment to set aside a share of our returns for community contributions whenever we deliver returns above our risk-adjusted hurdles.
Our most recent contributions were three philanthropic endowments for Singaporeans totalling $170 million last year, with $70 million specifically for supporting health-care and special needs programmes in Singapore.
Myrna Thomas (Ms)
Managing Director
Corporate Affairs
Temasek Holdings
I end with a comment to the Temasek response posted by JohnKeats8008 who wrote, "To summarise, what is lost is lost, what is gained is kept to be lost later, and nothing for you."
Now there's a real cynic.

__________________


Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of small and medium sized businesses. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Nicolas ‘Ataturk’ Sarkozy and French republican principles

Ataturk (1881-1938) was a product of his time and generation. Having watched the once great Ottoman Empire humbled, he struggled to save what territory he could for modern Turkey. Once Turkey's borders were secured he set about trying to modernize Turkey and bring it into the modern age.

A key plank of his strategy was to fully integrate women into mainstream Turkish society. To this end, he granted women the right to vote and banned the wearing of the veil.
In the authoritarian environment of the 1920s, such actions were possible. Not easy, but possible. (As part of Ataturk's modernizing reforms, in 1925 Ataturk outlawed men from wearing the Fez. The ban resulted in civil unrest in many parts of Turkey.)
French civil society of 2010 is an entirely different matter. And Sarkozy is not a national war hero with cult-like standing whose every word is sacred to the French people.
So when the French Parliament's lower house passes legislation banning the face veil there are bound to be repercussions. One need only examine the politicization of the hijab (not niqab) in Turkey and other parts of the world to determine how polarizing such issues can become.
Of course, the niqab and hijab are distinct items of clothing. Sheikh Mohamed Tantawi, the late Dean of Islam's oldest and most respected center of learning, Al-Azhar University, is on record stating that full face veiling has no relationship with Islam. In fact, during a visit to a girls' school in Cairo he ordered a student to remove the face veil.
Arguments against the niqab notwithstanding, the action by French lawmakers' raises another question. Is it worthwhile for a national legislative body to spend so much time and energy devising a law which affects as estimated 2,000 people out of a population of 64 million? Surely, a management consultant would argue that such efforts are a waste of taxpayer money.
Psychologists generally suggest that in order to modify behaviour, positive reinforcement works better than negative reinforcement. Imposing fines for wearing the niqab is negative reinforcement. Perhaps picking out Muslim women role models from mainstream French society – 'middle of the road' mothers, housewives and professionals – and projecting them as the embodiment of 'French' values might work better?
Although the niqab is primarily worn by Arabs, it has slowly permeated other parts of the Islamic world. Here a woman is shown wearing the niqab in Palu, Indonesia

Yes, the niqab is misguided and deviant Islam must be fought tooth and nail. (Perhaps the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' inspired one-eyed veil suggested by a Saudi cleric will be replace the niqab one day!) However, populist legislation may not be the best way forward. Isn't there enough fodder for Islamic extremists to feed upon while espousing their jihad against Western civilization – banning mosque minarets, cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, foreign troops in Iraq and Afghanistan?
France is for the French, just as Switzerland is for the Swiss. But to the Islamic world it does seem as if Muslims are needlessly singled out for recrimination by the rest of the world.
For ordinary Muslims, it's tough to see the world only in black and white. But global political trends are fast shrinking the shades of grey in which I and millions of other Muslims thrive!

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Lightning rods and acts of God

Doesn't 'death by misadventure' sound like a good way to go? The phrase suggests death occurred while pursuing a passion. This is exactly what happened in the unfortunate case of a 57 year old golfer who died recently after being struck by lightning on a golf course last year.

I have seen golfing do silly things to otherwise rational people. On holidays all they wish to do is wake up at unearthly hours, drive several hours, then walk around in the blazing sun while hitting a little white ball around.
Often golfers' scheme, plot, plan and even lie to get away from their wives in order to reach their place of worship: the country club. Sunstroke, beauty sleep and family be damned. It's all about the golf ball and the green.
Neither, it seems, is death caused by being struck by bolts of lightning. (Surely nothing can be classified as an 'Act of God' more perfectly than being struck by lightning!) Well, it occurs at least often enough for a group of academics to spend someone else's money and their own time studying the phenomenon.
According to a 1981 study published in the Singapore Medical Journal, Singaporeans are more likely to be struck by lightning than most people. Not surprising given the frequency of thunderstorms in the city. Among a sample of seven countries, national 'lightning death' rates vary from Britain's low of 0.2 per million to Singapore's high of 1.7 deaths per million.
Ok, so the probability of being struck by lightning is slim. Of course, the odds of a lightning strike for a golfer are higher. The golfer holds an iron rod in the middle of an open field – it's almost an open challenge to a lightning bolt!
We all must go someday so, for a golfer what better way than on a golf course; or an entertainer dying on stage during a performance, although such an event might traumatize the audience.
Like most forms of death, death by misadventure does not discriminate between kings and ordinary people. If a court were to rule on Mogul Emperor Humayun's death, the verdict would most certainly be recorded as death by misadventure. On January 27, 1556, Humayun tripped down the stairs of his library and struck a mortal blow to his head. (Few scholars mention that his poor balance may have been caused by his alcohol habit.)
Mogul Emperor Humayun (1508-1556) seated in a garden

In my case the odds of being struck by a lightning rod increase each time I publish a blog post challenging 'Mullahism' in Islam. Praise be to Allah, all lightning bolts have eluded me so far.

Monday, 12 July 2010

‘Collateral damage’ joins mainstream modern warfare

In the old days, wars were fought with honour. Soldiers met on appointed battlefields and fought until one army was victorious. The losers surrendered and to the victor went the spoils. Undoubtedly, there were incidents of looting, pillaging and other unsavoury stuff that soldiers are apt to do during wars.
However, by and large, civilians continued with their dreary lives in villages and hamlets. Only their 'masters' changed as armies won and lost wars on battlefields.

Yes, then as now, it was said that 'all's fair in love and war.' In the old days perhaps that meant bribing someone inside a walled city to open the city gates, poisoning the king or buying the loyalty of a general. Today, it more likely refers to the justified killing of civilians as part of a broader war effort.
Whether one speaks of suicide bombers or UN mandated stabilization forces erroneously killing civilians, such conclusions are not merely based on anecdotal evidence. (Although the daily newspapers sufficiently portray the horrific amount of civilian suffering in today's war zones.)
In her 1999 book 'New and Old Wars,' Mary Kaldor reveals the facts underlying the dreadful trend in modern warfare. In the early part of the twentieth century, almost 90% of all were casualties were soldiers. Of all the casualties in World War Two, 50% were civilians. (Dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki coupled with allied air force bombing raids on 'strategic' targets in Germany during the last few years of the war started racking up the civilian numbers.) Today, more than 50% of wartime casualties are civilian.*
The mushroom cloud from the nuclear explosion at Nagasaki. Within four months of its detonation, the bomb resulted in the deaths of 60,000 - 80,000 people in the city

Dropping bombs on civilian areas by air force planes as done during World War Two is one thing. Killing civilians by uniformed, disciplined soldiers during engagements with rebel groups is another. However, the worst of the lot is intentionally killing 'soft' civilian targets by suicide bombers, intending to browbeat populations into submission.
(It's irrelevant whether the suicide attack takes place in Tel Aviv, Kabul or Pakistan's tribal areas – by targeting civilians such attacks are morally and religiously unjustifiable.)
Sadly, the way warfare has been transformed into 'total warfare' leaves little doubt that civilian deaths will continue to dominate warfare for many years to come.
Warfare, like everything else in the digital age, has been 'democratized.' The front lines are no longer manned by soldiers but by unwitting civilians. Unfortunately, neither bombs nor bullets discriminate when choosing victims for death.  

*The data is referenced in Loretta Napoleoni's book, 'Terror Inc.' published in 2003.

Friday, 9 July 2010

‘Hippocratic’ journalism and modern war zones

Like doctors, one presumes that most journalists have an ethical obligation to report the truth. Reality is expected to pass untainted from the journalist's eyes to her pen.
I guess most of us know that is not always the case, either with doctors or journalists.
Some doctors refuse to treat patients unless evidence of payment is made or, more likely, doctors make patients undergo superfluous tests in order to increase their own earnings. Both actions directly violate the Hippocratic Oath which doctors adhere to as medical professionals. (The ancient Greek version of the oath was updated in 1964 by Louis Lasagna, Dean of the Tufts University School of Medicine.)

Journalists, as far as I know, make no similar pledges. Scribes are only answerable to their own conscience.  Among other practices, journalists have been known to be on the payroll of intelligence agencies, politicians or simply to obtain money from special interest groups for espousing certain causes.
In this sense, journalists walk an ethical 'grey area.' Is it wrong for a journalist committed to, say, green causes to receive funds from environmental groups for writing about her passion? It's a debatable subject.
However, sometimes journalists just happen to be in the right place at the right time. Take Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone journalist largely responsible for US general McChrystal's fall from grace. Sure, Hastings' article was the result of his own journalistic endeavours. He engineered the opportunity by cultivating a relationship with McChrystal's staff such that the staff made uncharacteristically blunt and politically incorrect statements.
Based on Hastings' 'breaking' story about McChrystal, he has signed a book publishing deal on the Afghan War. According to the publishers, the book "will offer an unfiltered look at the war, and the soldiers, diplomats and politicians who are waging it."
One cannot and should not begrudge a man his due, so it is with Hastings' book on Afghanistan. Hastings has capitalized on similar fortunes in the past.
In April 2007, Hastings was the Iraq correspondent for Newsweek magazine. Three weeks after his girlfriend was killed in an ambush in Baghdad, Hastings rushed off a book proposal which "focuses on the author's relationship with 28-year-old Andrea "Andi" Parhamovich, a civilian consulting with NGO National Democratic Institute in Baghdad who was killed January 2717, 2007 in an ambush there."
Hastings received USD 500,000 for the book from Scribner. (I have not read the book.)
Maybe the book was a cathartic experience for Hastings but sending the pitch three weeks following her death. It sounds more like he had to cash a check before it expired. Or maybe Hastings simply wished to reveal the truth about his experiences in a war zone.
Content is dictated by consumers. Most readers are more interested in intimate relationships forged in war zones than the finer points of my personal religious philosophy!

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The halal trinity: simplicity, hygiene and faith

I came across a restaurant advertising itself as a 'Muslim seafood' restaurant recently. I am aware that the halal certification is a big thing in Singapore and Malaysia, especially given that pork products are freely sold alongside other types of food.
In fact, it was fascinating to learn that in Singapore fast food restaurants like McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken are 'halal' certified, or that food courts which only serve halal food exist. In most Muslim societies one does not worry about food being halal – by definition most everything is halal. Truth be told, for those seeking non-halal food, it is not easily available in many Muslim countries!
I do not intend for this post to be a theological debate about personal dietary habits. For all I care, people can eat pork, fry their parathas in lard or cook their pet dog. It's not my place to decide what others eat.

However, the notion of 'Muslim seafood' can be entertaining. Does that mean the crabs, lobsters and prawns were netted in 'Muslim' seas, thus conferring 'Islamic' status upon them? Were the fishermen Muslim or non-Muslim? Or perhaps the male crustaceans were circumcised by having a tiny piece of their shell removed at an early age!
Most Muslims are aware that, in general, all seafood is halal. The Islamic Council of Singapore (MUIS) halal guidelines state, "Aquatic animals are those, which live in water and cannot survive outside it, such as fish. All aquatic animals are halal except those that are poisonous, intoxicating or hazardous to health." (I suppose theologians have spent endless hours debating whether 'land crabs,' are halal or not.)
The notion of halal, as defined by MUIS, is interesting. MUIS guidelines suggest only Muslim employees may slaughter and tag poultry. In fact, the guidelines even require that the 'slaughterers' (odd word choice) "shall rotate duties with other qualified slaughterers every half an hour" so as to "ensure optimal concentration and prevent fatigue."  
I could not find any information on the guidelines pertaining to slaughtering other types of animal, such as cows and sheep. I guess in the modern era of industrial food processing, it's probably not easy (and most likely illegal) to ensure that all Australian and Argentine 'beef processors' be exclusively Muslim?
The question then becomes how does one square the circle – Muslims must personally slaughter chicken in a prescribed manner but non-Muslims may slaughter cows, although also in a prescribed manner? If not, then that coveted 'halal' certificate is missing. (The halal certificate is kind of like a professional certification, a prerequisite for selling into Muslim markets.)
Additionally, the question of 'non-halal' certified premises selling halal food products arises. While this is not an issue for packaged foods sold in supermarkets, it is for restaurants and bakeries? Can a baker place bread prepared using non-halal animal fats next to 'regular' bread?
Next stop 'interracial' cutlery and dishes – shall I walk around with my own forks and knives to ensure 'clean' cutlery to use while dining out? Where does it stop, as with each step we place barriers between people of different faiths?

It all seems a bit complicated to me. So, I keep it simple and just stay away from obviously 'haram' food, e.g. pig meat. I believe that is sufficient to remain a Muslim. And I trust that cutlery is kept clean and 'pollutants' are washed away after each use. Of course there is one final step, have faith.
For 'true' believers, nothing short of the following flow chart will suffice: A Brief Guide to Halal Food Selection. Surely, all true believers carry the chart in their pocket when walking the aisles of their local supermarket?

Monday, 5 July 2010

Life's all about stuff, stuff and still more stuff

It's human nature to want more stuff. Purchasing the 'must have' CD only to listen to it only once, or the expensive shirt that's been hanging in the closet for years. Then there's that pile of unread books sitting in the 'to read' pile collecting in the study.
But greed is most pronounced when measured in plain, simple cash. We all want to win the lottery and become overnight millionaires. Millionaires don't have any problems – at least none that money can't solve.
1907 photograph of Alaskan Inuit woman

After hitting the million dollar mark, everyone agrees that the rest of our lives will be happy? I tend to disagree – greed knows no limits.
(Given inflation and the decline in the value of paper currencies, perhaps we should be talking about eight digits and not merely seven? With the resale price of some (subsidized) Housing Development Board flats in Singapore nearing SGD one million (USD 714,000) then adding one more digit does seem appropriate.)
Humans always covet the next million dollars, the better car and the better home. Will a CEO be happy with his existing pay check, even if it is one hundred million dollars? Or will the Wall Street trader be content with a twenty million dollars annual performance bonus?  No. It's human nature to want more, irrespective of how much we already have.
The nascent field of 'neuroeconomics' contends that many of these behavioural traits, including greed, are reflexive and instinctual. Just pre-programmed responses controlled by emotions which reside in certain parts of the brain.
But is wealth a necessary condition for happiness? To a large extent, the answer depends on how one defines wealth.
Take away a CEO's private jet and she might be extremely unhappy. The CEO takes a private jet for granted. Give a factory worker an enhanced transport allowance and she will consider her company management to be enlightened and benevolent capitalists, for a few days at any rate.
In a sense, the fewer our wants the easier it is to be happy. Like a child who is just as delighted playing with a worthless piece of paper as with an expensive 'designer' toy. (I assume there is such a thing as a designer toy?)

No, I don't suggest that we 'turn on, tune in, and drop out,' Timothy Leary style. (Remember, in Singapore graffiti vandalism results in caning but illegal drug use is punishable by death!) Or become monks and renounce all material possessions.
Nevertheless, taking a step back to determine what is important and necessary is a worthwhile exercise. In all likelihood, one will conclude that, other than family and friends, little else matters.
We need only ask the Maasai tribal people in Kenya or the Inuit people living in harsh snowy climate of the Arctic. On an annual global survey conducted by psychologists both the Maasais and Inuits score just as high as members of the Forbes 400 'Rich List' on a 'Happiness Index,' despite their relative lack of wealth and bleak weather conditions in the Arctic.*
*See "Your Money and Your Brain" by Jason Zweig. 2007. At the time of the survey, the minimum net worth for someone to be on the Forbes 400 list was USD 125 million.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Where are today’s heroes? Detained at JFK airport by US immigration!

Role models are important. They help us aspire to be better than we are and give us concrete examples of success. Role models possess those qualities which help us achieve our goals.
Of course, the operative word here is success.
There are successful scientists, doctors, businessmen and politicians. But to some, negative role models such as Osama Bin Laden, Mullah Omar or their local variants may have greater appeal than members of mainstream society.
That the Islamic world has not been able to throw up vigorous contemporary role models may lie at the heart of the problem. Sure, aspiring politicians may look towards Ataturk, Jinnah or other nationalists for inspiration. However, their appeal is jaded and historical, not in tune with today's iPod generation. The jihadists and other radicals are far more likely to appeal to the young.
At a practical level, there are hardly any instances of world class scientists, doctors or the like produced by the Islamic world. When Dr. Abdus Salam, the Pakistani physicist received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979, he was the exception that proves the rule.
And, being a member of a 'deviant' Islamic sect, Dr. Salam's status as a Muslim will be disputed by many traditional bearded 'scholars.' (That's another story for another day.)
Islamic scholars will hark back to the glory days of Islamic history when Muslims led the advancement of thought in most any field, including medicine, mathematics, physics and their derivatives. History provides context but is not sufficiently strong to shape the next generation. Especially today's digital generation which requires everything to be 'here and now.'
There are two major flaws with my argument. Firstly, I have restricted role models by religious persuasion. Secondly, not all role models must have achieved greatness on the international stage. Local, even parochial, role models are sufficient for most of us.
Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bishop Desmond Tutu are not excluded from being role models simply because they are non-Muslims. Far from it, as role models for humanity these three are among the finest examples we can emulate.
However, the reality is that for most young in today's Muslim world the ability to 'connect and relate' with a role model increases exponentially if the individual is a Muslim. Perhaps this is an unfortunate by product of 9/11 or academic debates being anchored around Huntington's 'clash of civilizations' thesis – who knows.
Additionally, publicity within the Islamic world naturally gravitates towards 'indigenous' leaders. Just as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has a natural bias towards reporting British news, the national media of Muslim nations has a domestic and subsequently 'Islamic' bias in its reporting.
Undoubtedly, 'local' role models play as significant (if not more) a role as national models. Who can argue that a parent, teacher or some other relative did not help shape their worldly outlook?
A doctor looks to the specialist in her ward for leadership by example, a scientist to the lead scientist at her institute and so on.
However, a purely 'local' approach is fraught with the danger that a truly gifted individual remains 'undiscovered' – a loss to all of humanity. The approach implies functioning filtering systems to ensure that the individual is 'pushed up' to the next level of achievement. Much is left to chance.
Hence, individuals must have larger greatness to emulate. Ideally, these people must have visible achievements, readily seen by all. Bangladeshi 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammad Yunus, famed for his community banking concepts and Pakistani philanthropist Abdus Sattar Edhi and the Edhi Foundation come immediately to my mind.
Abdus Salam Road in Geneva, Switzerland

Let's hope that the next century holds more heroes for Muslims – and Osama doesn't count! And that these Muslim heroes are recognized beyond Islam's borders too. That US authorities confiscated 79 year old Maulana Edhi's passport and interrogated him for nine hours at New York's JFK airport in 2008, considering him a potential terrorist threat,' only underscores to Muslims the unfortunate (but real) notion that there is a clear distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim role models in the world today.