30 Mar 2009

Thoughts on the Satanic Verses Affair

I watched The Satanic Verses Affair late last night on the BBC, and thought it was really good. Salman Rushdie isn't the perfect hero of free speech, but who is? It's a great reminder that people's real character emerge through their conflict with the world, and their ideas are shaped by this encounters, life is not a Hollywood film. Rushdie made a lot of concessions, re-converted to Islam, issued apologies, and then announced that his experiment with Islam was over and admitted that he hadn't converted out of conviction.

Hanif Kureishi came across as a more heroic figure, dismissing Rushdie's enemies as the 'bearded ones', but he didn't have to go through what Rushdie experienced. The real hero to me was Frances D'Souza entirely committed to the cause of defending Rushdie's right to free speech without compromise, she was very convincing in her defense of the principled stance that drove her and her colleagues to form the International Committee for the defence of Rushdie.

The other notable contributor to the program was Inayat Bunglawala, one of the Islamic activists who were shaped by the Rushdie affair and took their first steps in politics through the campaigns to ban the book. At the end of the program, Bunglawala admitted that they were wrong in calling for the book to be banned and for supporting the Fatwa against Rushdie. Instead, he said, they should have fought it on 'the plain of ideas'. It's an amazing admission, and shows that at least some people did learn from the whole episode.

If Islamic 'fundamentalists' manage to learn the value of free speech, perhaps the environmental 'movement' should take notice that its tactics of intimidation and accusing people of denial do not serve its cause. Who's more reactionary today, an Islamist whose willing to discuss his most sacred ideas publicly or an environmentalist who goes out of his or her way to silence opponents?

27 Mar 2009

Dam those Ethiopians!

Another day, another Western campaign to prevent a Third World country from developing. As has become customary, the BBC instead of covering 'both sides of the story' is so skewed in its coverage to the extent that it has become a party in this debate. The Gilgel Gibe III hydroelectricity project in Ethiopia will be in impressive feat of engineering once it's completed in 2012, rising to a height of 240m, the highest of its kind in the world, and creating a reservoir 150 kilometres long. It will double Ethiopia's current generating capacity, allowing it to sell the surplus to its neighbours in exchange for hard currency, bringing extra economic benefit to the country.

This will be clean, renewable energy, and it is the type of project that governments in the West should be doing instead of wasting their time on solar panels on top of houses in places like London, where the Sun hardly ever shines. Instead of celebrating the project, the eco-whining has started in force, led by some turnip called Richard Leakey, a white Kenyan ecologist who has accused the Ethiopian government and energy company of fiddling with the environmental impact statements in order to pass the approval for the project.

The BBC and their fellow opponents of the dam have been focusing on the fate of about half a million tribes people who live down river of the dam, claiming that this will lead them into a civil war. The BBC television coverage last night was so hysterical and scare-mongering that it was impossible to take it seriously. Of course the BBC managed to summon someone "from the local community" to voice opposition to the dam, in this case an elderly man whom someone had obviously prepped for the interview with enough myths to scare him into giving his 'testimony'. Then in a classic example of how the BBC is blurring the line between drama and news, they lined up a number of tribesmen with their Chinese Ak47's, posing menacingly for the camera. But we will never know they were there, for all we know it was just a photo shoot for them.

What is quite obvious about the whole episode is that Western media and environmentalists think now that their word is more important than that of a sovereign, democratically elected government. What Ethiopia does on its own territory is its own business, and it's up to the Ethiopian people to contest or support the dam project. The BBC has a responsibility to cover general interest stories, but doesn't have a mandate to become a party to this debate, as it clearly becoming through its skewed coverage. Equally, I would rather listen to the Ethiopian people who will benefit from the project, rather than to the "African Resources Working Group", described by the BBC as a 'collection of European, American, and East African academics" who are also critical of the way the environmental impact statement has been carried out.

Leakey and the other 'scientists' have not actually pointed out any serious flows with the report itself, all they are relying on is the 'precautionary principle', the last refuge of the contemporary eco-scoundrel. If they had anything tangible against the project, they would have presented it, instead they are summoning the prospect of some future unforeseen consequence that might prove that the dam project is harmful. If humanity had always taken decisions this way, we would still be living in caves, where Leakey and his colleagues would presumably be warning us against using fire before we complete an 'environmental impact statement'.

The disturbing thing about this whole saga is how little trust Western media and 'scientists' have in African governments, as if the Ethiopian government would have anything to gain by depriving half a million people of their livelihood or forcing them into a civil war. This is the most blatant example of Western racism that masquerades behinds science and ecological concerns, to claim that Africans cannot be trusted to run their own countries. But, for once, it seems that Ethiopian officials are standing up to those interfering Western scientists and journalists. The energy minister and the head of the Electricity Corporation have defended their right to develop the project, and they both argued that Ethiopia needs this project for it to develop.

Those who prefer to see Africans still living without the basic necessities that they take for granted at home are only expressing their patronising contempt for African people and governments. This is not the colonial racism of yesterday, but one that is far more insidious and potentially destructive, it claims that it wants to save Africans from themselves by making sure they stay in mud huts. Any decent progressive in the world should oppose these interfering and patronising attitude.

16 Mar 2009

Lame Cultural Ideas -No.1- No Statue for Charlie Chaplin

I hope this will become an online archive for lame ideas that come about because of the obsession with cultural identity. No 1 comes today from India, where Hindu activists are upset by a proposal for a 20m tall statue of Charlie Chaplin, because he was a Christian. The activists have actually succeeded in preventing the statue from being built, however I don't agree with the Times' assessment that they are 'extremists'. This label is applied too easily these days.

When cultural identity takes the place of politics, this is the kind of excess that you can expect. Such protests are motivated less by bigotry than by a sense of insecurity and a fragile identity. All over the world there are examples of how cultural identity is distorting politics and producing more examples of these lame protests. Please send in your examples to this post.

Pubs should return to the centre of public life

It's not everyday that I find myself agreeing with Tristram Hunt, reading his column in the Times today about controls on drinking was a pleasant surprise, until I got to the end and Hunt shows his true colours. Hunt argues that pubs should take their place at the heart of public life in Britain, and criticises measures like the smoking ban for driving people away from pubs. All very true, until Hunt says that the "...ban on smoking in public places has driven drinking back into the home, where social safeguards are absent".

Hunt is not arguing for the freedom of drinkers, he wants them to drink in public where they can be monitored and controlled, by each other and by the state. It's another version of the 'eye on the street' that institutionalises suspicion between citizens, and is abhorred by what they might get up to in the privacy of their homes. Hunt has used a similar logic in the past to argue against suburbs, again blaming them for moral degeneracy.

Hunt is not a campaigner for freedom, he's a pragmatic authoritarian who thinks it's better to monitor drinkers in public than attempting to limit their consumption of alcohol through punitive measure, simply because they haven't worked in the past. What a truly miserable view of humanity.

On a similar subject, I am trying to oppose the proposal to turn the area around the Arsenal Emirates Stadium into a Controlled Drinking Zone, a measure that the metropolitan police has asked Islington Council to consider. Very few people know what CDZs are, and what they actually mean. Effectively, this gives the police extra powers to stop you and confiscate drinks you are carrying, even if they are unopened. Either the police have developed psychic skills, or as I am more inclined to believe, they would use these powers to make their lives easier, and in the process making everyone walking with a drink a suspect.

The proposal is calculated and worded to create tension between the residents and the Arsenal fans, the fans are not being consulted only the residents are. What I found to my surprise, is that some Arsenal fans actually support this measure because they blame the away fans for bad behaviour. This is exactly the type of suspicion that such policies promote, and we should fight it.I agree with Hunt, let's put the pub at the centre of public life again, but let's remove all the constraints that have been imposed by the government and councils on public drinking to enable that.

11 Mar 2009

Permanent Settlement of the Palestinians in Lebanon: What's so scary about it?

The resettlement of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is an old preoccupation that keeps surfacing up. In the past few years, the Christian parties in the "8th of March" coalition have insisted on keeping this particular subject in circulation, warning that there is an international conspiracy to 'resettle' the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. In the past month alone, there are more than 20 references to 'resettlement' on the Free Patriotic Movement website, tayyar.org. These come from statements by the leader of the FPM Michel Aoun, MPs and leaders in the movement, as well as other political leaders allied with the FPM, including the speaker of the parliament Nabih Berri. Why is this particularly old theme being kept in public discussion?
A bit of clarification. resettlement in English does not exactly convey what is intended by the Arabic term 'tawteen'. The Arabic term refers more to the permanent settlement of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and granting them the Lebanese nationality. The UNRWA figures show that there are 416,000 refugees registered with the agency in Lebanon, of which 220,000 live in refugee camps. The majority of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon came after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Six decades later, more than half of them still live in refugee camps with severe restrictions imposed by the Lebanese authorities on their rights to education, employment, property ownership and political rights.
The old argument often rehashed in defence of this arrangement is that a permanent settlement of those refugees in Lebanon would mean an effective recognition of Israel and giving up their historic right to the land of Palestine. Presumably, the more uncomfortable they are made, the more zealous they would be in trying to reclaim their land. For the Christians in particular, the threat of being 'overwhelmed' by Muslims demographically was an important factor, as the majority of Palestinian refugees are Muslims. And in a country like Lebanon which is based on strict quotas for religious groups, this causes concern.
Yet, it is hard to understand why the subject of resettlement is being constantly pushed into the limelight, when there is no indication that there are any such projects being proposed, not by the Palestinian Authority, nor by the international community, and certainly not by any of the members of the 14th of March 'pro-Western' coalition. The illusion that Aoun and his allies try to give is that the 14th of March leaders are in secret contact with Israel to allow the permanent resettlement of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, stirring up old apprehensions to shore up Aoun's support among the Christians. The elections will perhaps tell if this is a successful tactic, but this important issue needs a more mature discussion that the 'politic of fear' tabloid-style discussion we're getting now.
The more enlightened voices in Lebanon, a minority by any measure, have argued for better living conditions and more rights for the Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, and this is certainly a good starting point. The situation did improve slightly since 2005, but there are still huge restrictions on Palestinian refugees. Even if all the current restrictions were to be lifted, the Palestinian refugees would still not have any political rights, and consequently no say in the running of a country that the majority of them has been born in and lived all their lives there. Insisting that granting them the Lebanese nationality would in effect mean giving up 'the right of return' to Palestine is meaningless.
There are precedents in Lebanon for large groups of refugees being granted Lebanese nationality, the largest of which was the Armenian refugees that fled Turkish persecution in the aftermath of World War I, and the smaller Christian groups that came to Lebanon around the same time such the Assyrians and the Syriacs. The Armenians form about 5% of the Lebanese population and have integrated well in Lebanese society, albeit by following the 'Lebanese model' of confessional politics. The overtly racist claim in Lebanon is that this is because they are insular, in fact it is a sign of how well they have integrated in Lebanon.
The fear of the prospect of the Palestinians being naturalised in Lebanon that all parties stoke is irrational. Nor will it mean giving up the right of return. After the Oslo Accord, many Palestinians who had immigrated to the West came back to the West Bank and Gaza and invested in local industries and businesses. To claim that all that keeps that hope alive is the misery in the diaspora is a miserable view of the Palestinians and their cause. But regardless of that, the naturalisation of the Palestinians in Lebanon is an essential part of the modernisation of the country and a way to build politics that break away from sectarian determinism.
The aftermath of the 'cedar revolution' has taught us that the sectarian system always reinvents itself to meet the demands of the moment. It is capable of restructuring itself and its alliances, but maintains its effective grasp on politics all the time. The most effective tool it has is fear and the claim of protecting 'cultural identity'. This pre-modern idea of politics needs to be challenged, not by removing reference to our sect from our identity cards, but by building a new sense of politics that rejects irrational fears and deterministic ideas about culture.
Thus, if we are to behave as a civilised nation, it is imperative that the subject of the permanent resettlement of Palestinians be removed from this poisonous context, by naturalising the Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon and granting them full civil rights. Those who claim that Lebanon is a fragile country that cannot handle such shocks are only expressing how little faith and belief they have in their country and how little they trust its citizens. If you believed that Lebanon is so fragile, why do you want to live in it?

More on this at: http://www.karlsharro.co.uk/out_of_breath.html

10 Mar 2009

ManTowNHuman: The Fountainhead Rewritten by Jeremy Clarkson

Best description I ever heard of our manifesto: "The Fountainhead re-written by Jeremy Clarkson." Thanks to Charles Holland, the director of FAT, for that. I couldn't have thought of a better way of putting it myself. Second prize goes to Justin McGuirk in the Architects' Journal, who described ManTowNHuman as the "anti-sustainability manifesto". No link for that, you'll have to buy your own copy of the AJ for the pleasure.
Holland meant it as a critique, of course, but it's still a brilliant line. Back in October, I spoke on a panel with Holland's colleague from FAT, Sean Griffiths and I actually thought he was quite good as a speaker and he stood up for the freedom of architects. Admittedly, their stuff is a bit flippant, but those aren't heroic times. Perhaps the recession will sort that out, someone will realize that we will need genuine development and big ideas instead of messing around the edges.
Holland got everything else about us wrong. I don't think I've ever been called a conservative before, but there's a first time for everything. His grasp of politics is very shallow, but you can't expect nice white middle class boys to be Renaissance Men, that would be too old fashioned. Still, thank for the quote, Charlie Boy.

9 Mar 2009

'Help' Lebanese Film and Freedom of Expression, or Christians Learn from Khomeini

‘HELP! was pasted all over Beirut in February on bright blue posters advertising the new Lebanese film addressing sex, prostitution, drugs and homelessness. But anticipation for the movie, which cost over $200,000 to make, came to nothing. The film's directors told NOW that the Censorship Department in the General Security withdrew permission for a planned screening on February 16.’ (NOW Lebanon)

With Nadine Labaki's 'Caramel', it appeared that Lebanese cinema was taking a new direction. For starters, it was refreshing to see a film that addressed the contemporary reality of Beirut and moving away from the subject matter of the civil war that had for long occupied Lebanese filmmakers. Also, the film tackled, ever so gently, some of the 'taboos' in Lebanese society, such as homosexuality, virginity, and extra-marital affairs. Lebanese audiences were waiting for the release of Marc Abi Rached's film 'Help' which was expected to be more daring in dealing with such social issues, however this was not meant to be. As Pierre Abi Saab reports today in Al-Akhbar, the Lebanese film censoring authority has withdrawn a license that it had previously issued, meaning that the film has effectively been banned.

There has been speculation since the license for the film was revoked about the reasons for this decision. One theory was that the officer in charge of the licensing the film was replaced, a bit flimsy in my opinion. Others said it was because of the nudity in the film, especially that the actress involved is the daughter of a Lebanese MP. But Abi Rached said in an interview that he stayed well within the limit allowed by Lebanese Law on nudity. The organization Skeyes, the Centre for Defending Media and Cultural Freedoms founded in memory of murdered Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir, claimed that a Catholic organization had a role in the decision to ban Abi Rached’s film.

On the Lebanese Forces discussion forum, (don't ask) the contributors were in favour of showing the film, and someone suggested that it was because 'our southern Iranian neighbours don't like nudity'. (A not-so-subtle reference to the Shiite community). According to Abi Saab's piece in Al-Akhbar today, it appears that they are in for a surprise. Abi Saab attributes the decision to withdraw the license to a 'protest' made by the 'Centre Catholique d’Information', the mouthpiece of the Maronite church in Lebanon. Abi Saab does not cite any sources for his claim, but he is a good critic and a trustworthy journalist, and I would have no reason to doubt his claim.

The film apparently describes the experiences of some of the ‘marginal’ characters of Beirut, a young prostitute, a homeless teenager, and an overtly camp gay character. Abi Saab thinks that it is this character in particular that seems to have offended the church authorities most, and he might be right. Such subjects have certainly been addressed by Lebanese filmmakers in the past, such in Mohammed Soueid’s 'Cinema Fouad' and Akram Zaatari’s 'Majnounak', but those were short ‘documentary’ style films, shown mostly to small audiences. With Help, Abi Rached was preparing to take those subjects to a mass audience in a feature-length format, which might still make it to Europe before it will be seen by Lebanese audiences.

Like 'Caramel' before it, 'Help' appears to be influenced by Almodovar’s work, and certainly from the trailer available online appears to be ‘polished’ technically. It was boldly advertised through a ‘teaser’ campaign, the aforementioned Help signs did not mention the film until sometime later. All of this is significant. Whereas Zaatari’s and Soueid’s work took advantage of the small ‘art house’ context to push the limits, it is high time that the wider audience gets the benefit of a similar experience. I have no idea if Help is any good, but I would have liked to have the opportunity to judge for myself.

What is interesting about the whole episode is the extent to which the language of cultural sensitivity is being deployed nowadays. Those who argue that the Satanic Verses saga was about Islam, and its incompatibility with the modern world, are entirely wrong. It wasn’t Islamists that came up with the idea that speech hurts, in fact it was a by-product of feminism that found its way into the mainstream. Once feminism was dissociated from a wider idea of liberation and started arguing in favour of a particular experience that is distinct from the universal, it inevitably started dabbling with restrictions on speech and expression. That lesson has been learned by everyone, from cultural groups to religious organisations to gay rights campaigners, who all compete nowadays in what they see as defending their constituents from offense.

In that sense, the Catholic Information Centre is not being an outdated religious institution, but a thoroughly postmodern one. Even if it turns out that it was not behind this particular decision to ban 'Help', it has certainly led campaigns in the past against some films and books that it considered offensive, such as The Da Vinci Code. The response should be not to blame religion, but to insist that there is no right not to be offended. This is even more important when the film in question is not an imported one, but someone holding a mirror to the society he lives in, as Abi Rached is trying to do. Let’s find out for ourselves whether we can see our reflection in that mirror.

For more articles on film, see: