Thursday, September 28, 2006


"I never saw an Arab or an African soldier in my history books", says 23-year-old Salima, a student from the Paris suburb of Seine-St-Denis. (1)

"Ultimately, [the] is a challenge as much for European societies as for European governments. Much of the discrimination in France, for example, is the result of decisions by individual employers, who are going against the grain of public policy and the law of the land. It's the personal attitudes and behavior of hundreds of millions of non-Muslim Europeans, in countless small, everyday interactions, that will determine whether their Muslim fellow citizens begin to feel at home in Europe or not. Together, of course, with the personal choices of millions of individual Muslims, and the example given by their spiritual and political leaders. Is it likely that Europeans will rise to this challenge? I fear not. Is it still possible? Yes." -- Timothy Garton Ash (2)

1. French film aims to unite nation, BBC online, 27 Sep

2. Islam in Europe, NYRB, 6 Sep

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Joining climate dots

In the summer Martin Rees called for a radical increase in spending energy R&D to tackle climate change. (see Science 313, 571. 2006)

On 25 Sep it was reported that the Earth may be close to the warmest it has been in the last million years.

On 26 Sep Tony Blair (keep a straight face, now) called for radical overhaul of energy policy.

And if the political will really was there where would the money come from?

On 26 Sep Tom Burke made this modest proposal on openDemocracy:
"Europe currently spends 46% of its annual budget on a problem it has already solved: food security. It spends practically nothing on a problem that threatens the livelihoods and wellbeing of every single citizen in the union: climate security. It is time to look to the future rather than remain trapped in the past. That means a radical reallocation of European funds from the common agricultural policy into a climate security fund."
I'm not saying this is the only idea in town or even the best, but it is one for discussion in search for justice that balances liberty and security.

Western NGOs concerned with international development and justice could strengthen their case against agricultural subsidies in rich [European] countries, recommending reallocation to both energy R&D (and some the "good" bits of the Lisbon Agenda) and agricultural and use adaptation in Europe and its "near abroad".

Maybe our Chinese friends can help somehow.

Meanwhile, in another part of the wood, Nature reports that the Bush administration has blocked release of a report that suggests global warming is contributing to the frequency and strength of hurricanes.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

A triumph for state terror?

"Consider the juxtaposition of the phrase 'free thinking for the world' adorning the magazine's logo with Derakhshan's disparagement of an intellectual engaging in "comparative analysis of socio-political change in contemporary east-central Europe and the Islamic Republic of Iran". Perish the thought that a scholar should be free to undertake such studies and explore such terrain openly" -- Danny Postel on Jahanbegloo, Hoder and openDemocracy

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Lost

"It is sobering to realize that one little story can keep someone living on in a descendent's memory. Once even that is forgotten, the person vanishes as if he never existed" -- Charls Simic in a review of Daniel Mendelson's The Lost


"In the taxi, he began to tell unintelligible stories about Haile Selassie and about wrestling Ethiopian sheep". -- Nick Paumgarten reports from the Department of Everlasting Peace

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Full of noises

"Walnut Tree Farm, the house he eventually completed, and in which he died a month ago, is made largely of wood. It is as close to a living thing as a building can be. When big easterlies blow, its timbers creak and groan "like a ship in a storm", as Deakin put it, "or a whale on the move". He kept the doors and the windows open, in order to let air and animals circulate. Leaves gusted in through one door and out of another. Swallows flew to and from their nest in the main chimney. It was a house which breathed. Spiders slung swags and trusses of silk in every corner. As I sat with Deakin, 10 days before his death, a brown cricket with long spindly antennae clicked along the edge of an old biscuit tin".
-- Robert Macfarlane on Roger Deakin

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The empire of Islam

"In Pakistan, rape is dealt with under Islamic laws known as the Hudood Ordinances. These criminalise all sex outside marriage. So, under Hudood, if a rape victim fails to present four male witnesses to the crime, she herself could face punishment. This has made it almost impossible to prosecute rape cases. According to the country's independent Human Rights Commission, a woman is raped every two hours and gang-raped every eight hours in Pakistan".
-- How Pakistan's rape reform ran aground

"Islam strong enough to survive Islamism. Perhaps, in time, the religion's centrality will subside, but, for the forseeable future, the Islamic enlightenment in which so many Western thinkers have placed their hopes -- that is, secularism -- will not sweep the Muslim world. The Islamic revival, and its attendant struggles and ills, is less like the eighteenth century in Europe than like the sixteenth, the age of Luther".
George Packer in The Moderate Martyr, a profile of Mahmound Muhamad Taha and his legacy in Sudan.

P.S. 17 Sept:
"The attackers shot the [seventy year old] nun three times in the back at a children's hospital in the south of [Mogadishu]" - BBC

Friday, September 15, 2006

Military solutions to climate change

This map shows the rough location of forces from Europe's Frontex border agency -- in this case largely Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Senegalese -- attempting to guard the doors of fortress Europe. The accompanying BBC story reports that some authorities describe the influx of about 20,000 West Africans to the Canary Islands as Spain's greatest humanitarian emergency since the Civil War.

The causes of migration from West Africa and elsewhere to Europe are various, and may at present have little to do with climate change. But if conditions in large parts of Africa deteriorate significantly as a result of climate change (as they may do in Bangladesh and elsewhere) then could we be looking at "real" numbers -- hundreds of thousands of refugees or more? John Schellnhuber has referred to the prospect of this scenario. What kind of maps would we be looking at then?

Several years ago Aubrey Meyer attributed the quote "there is no military solution to climate change" to Colin Powell (who has just distinguished himself by coming out against Bush's politics of fear). Regardless of whoever said it first, will people listen?

Climate: UK numbers and US rumours

The report from Kevin Anderson and colleagues at the Tyndall Centre outlining how the UK could "do its fair share" in keeping global atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases below 450ppm looks like a serious, professional bit of work (press release here, full report -- a 175 page pdf -- here, sensational Guardian coverage here). It charts a route to reducing UK emissions by 70% by 2030, with greater cuts beyond that.

Also interesting is a report in Platts that the Bush administration "may announce as early as next week a goal of stabilizing carbon dioxide levels in the global atmosphere at 450 parts per million by the year 2106".

This rumour, if proved true, looks like a canny bit of political triangulation: seize your opponents' issue and sound visionary while not actually committing to anything that requires real action or pain. 2106 is like 110 years from now, man. Dave Hamilton of the Sierra Club is reportedly of this view, saying that the stabilisation target should be reached much sooner, and by 2050 at the latest.

But Jon Gibbins argues it is not as simple as that: atmospheric concentrations will actually have to be lower than 450ppm in 2050 if (barring what he thinks are unlikely developments in capacity to draw down CO2 from the atmosphere at an accelerated rate) there is to be a chance of stabilising at that level by 2106. If correct, this would mean that if the Bush administration were serious about their target they would have to act even more urgently than even their harshest critics suggest -- a corollary that may have escaped them so far.

The reasoning here is simpler than I may have made it sound. An explanation from Jon is attached, with his kind permission.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Daughter, get your Irgun

"The native population, civilised or uncivilised, have always stubbornly resisted the colonists." It was thus "utterly impossible to obtain the voluntary consent of the Palestine Arabs", and the Zionists must be ready to use force by building an "Iron Wall".
--Geoffrey Wheatcroft quoting Vladimir Jabotinsky in Olmert should have more of an insight than most into terrorism

See also Cut off, Gazan economy nears collapse by Steven Erlanger

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Changing tunes

Conservative and Labour politicians are heeding the tide of British public opinion with recent statements attempting to put distance between themselves and the thugs in the Bush administration. First David Cameron attacked the “unrealistic and simplistic” neoconservative philosophy (to the author of Neoconservatism: why we need it, I say "Ha ha ha ha ha ha"). Then Charlie Falconer calls Guantanamo "a shocking affront to the principles democracy".

Regarding what to do about Afghanistan, British foreign policy is still in use-full-force-mode. Informed and thoughtful voices such as Rory Stewart, who served with the British mission to southern Iraq and seems to know Afghanistan quite well too, are asking whether putting more force into the south may only inflame affront to local identity and increase the sense of threat to local power elites. The question I haven't heard much asked is how far if at all those local interests can be split from others with, shall we say, an internationalist mission, not to speak of how if at all heroin supply could be reduced.

Friday, September 08, 2006

More torture

"Many of the harsh interrogation techniques repudiated by the Pentagon ... would be made lawful by legislation put forward the same day by the Bush administration. And the courts would be forbidden from intervening". (more)

And collective punishment in Gaza continues with Israeli military action "creating suffering and mass despair rather than any desire for political compromise"
, according to Karen Aybzayd of UNRWA.

"Whatever it costs"

John Ashton argues on BBC online today that:
"We need to see the pursuit of a stable climate as an imperative to be secured whatever it costs through the urgent construction of a low carbon global economy, because the cost of not securing it will be far greater."
I have forwarded his piece to colleagues working on development issues, including in Africa. One responds that the ways Ashton chooses and describes his examples may undermine what may otherwise be a strong case.

This is something that it would be useful to examine further (including, perhaps, in context of

Climate change may be important, but on the morning this story appears, the most popular story on BBC online site is about a man forced to marry a goat.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Fourth Afghan War

Two quite thoughtful pieces of journalism in recent days on what has gone wrong in Afghanistan. In the 5 Sep New York Times, David Rohde reports from Lashkah Gah, "An Afghan symbol for change, then failure"(with Carlotta Gall contributing from Kabul). And in Financial Times, also on 5 Sep, Rachel Morarjee writes that Afghanistan is on course for failure:
"The invasion of Iraq in 2003 drew attention, money and troops away from Afghanistan as the job of reconstruction was just beginning. The 'sexier aspects of state-building', namely drafting a constitution and holding elections, were the first to be accomplished, [Francesc] Vendrell [special representative of the European Union in Afghanistan] points out. The more painstaking business of paying a police force, training a judiciary and building a competent civil service fell by the wayside, as did channelling aid money in a manner that would create jobs for nskilled labourers".
But Rohde and Gall's report suggests that it may not have been so much that the less sexy aspects of state-building fell by the wayside as that they were poorly managed, not to say messed up. The key failure -- d'oh and double d'oh -- was a failure to establish security.

Failure of imagination

"It was on the Thursday after September 11 that 'Persians' first started making sense to me. All those years I'd been teaching it, I'd failed to notice the most obviously remarkable thing about it—the device that transmutes the raw and chaotic stuff of lived history into something bigger, something with a universal resonance. As I have said, the play was produced a mere eight years after the Greeks' fabulous and unexpected victory over their immense foe. How much more striking, then, that Aeschylus—who, it's perhaps necessary to point out, fought in the Persian Wars, and lost a brother in the aftermath of the great naval triumph at Salamis, a description of which, put in the mouth of an impressed Persian, furnishes his play with its glittering rhetorical climax—should have chosen to focus is imaginative sympathy not on the exulting Greeks, but on the sorrowing Persians. Which is to say that in the very moment of their greatest victory, he asked his fellow Athenians to think radically, to imagine something outside of their own experience, to situate the feelings they were having just then—about themselves, about those others—in a vaster frame: one in which they might see that present triumph could induce a complacency that just might bring about future disaster. The sense of these larger, moral themes hovering over the play's spectacle is, in the end, what gives the play a resonance that transcends the particulars of the history it purports to represent. No wonder the Athenians, for whom tragedy was a form of political dialogue as well as popular entertainment, gave it the prize that year."
Daniel Mendelsohn - September 11 at the movies

My comment on United 93 is here.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Bike to the stars

It's said there is a film festival for everything, and -- lo -- there is a bicycle film festival (hat tip Rob Cawston, who remembered The peach wins!).

A film in Estonian, Russian and Chinese about a bike trip from Mongolia to Nepal looks particularly promising...

Monday, September 04, 2006

Laughter and forgetting

Here’s how brazen Mr. Rumsfeld was when he invoked Hitler’s appeasers to score his cheap points: Since Hitler was photographed warmly shaking Neville Chamberlain’s hand at Munich in 1938, the only image that comes close to matching it in epochal obsequiousness is the December 1983 photograph of Mr. Rumsfeld himself in Baghdad, warmly shaking the hand of Saddam Hussein in full fascist regalia. Is the defense secretary so self-deluded that he thought no one would remember a picture so easily Googled on the Web? Or worse, is he just too shameless to care?
Frank Rich -- Donald Rumsfeld's dance with the Nazis

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Naghib Mahfouz

Writing was a joy to him. He loved the sheer act of it, writing every morning and always in longhand. This made the worst drama of his own life particularly cruel. In his 83rd year, a knife-wielding religious fanatic stabbed him in the neck. The would-be killer—inspired, it seems, by clerical objections to allegorical characters in one of Mr Mahfouz's books—failed in his mission, but nerve damage stopped Mr Mahfouz writing for five years.

He himself might possibly have dreamed up such an act of sudden violence for one of his plots, but religion would never have been the motive. As he accepted the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, he declared himself a happy and grateful receiver of Egyptian, Islamic and Western cultural traditions. What exemplified Islam for him, he said, was the decision by one early Muslim ruler to ransom Christian prisoners in exchange for works of Greek philosophy, medicine and mathematics. It was that curiosity, and generosity of spirit, that Mr Mahfouz wished to prevail in his city.

Obituary of Naghib Mahfouz in The Economist

End of an auld sang

"at least half of these Christians - around 350,000 people - have fled Bush's new Iraq and its violence, mass abductions and economic meltdown...The Christian community in Iraq [was] one of the oldest in the world.

...Almost everywhere [across the Middle East] the Christians are leaving, as ill-judged Anglo-American adventures, intended to suppress terrorism, actually have the reverse effect and steadily radicalise the entire region".
William Dalrymple, arguing that Syria"the final place of refuge for Christians in the Middle East is under threat."