Monthly Archives: September 2012

Your Muslim Neighbor

There are about 1 billion Muslims and they are probably here to stay. Historically, Muslims cared little about others and kept to themselves. Christians and Jews were strange sects that were deserving of a certain amount of condescending respect as people of the book and part of the Abrahamic religious tradition, but were assumed to be misguided and lost. Even as transportation and new technology made the world smaller, and Islam fell behind on measures of progress, Muslims stayed within the confines of their religion and allowed themselves to become subjects of European rulers.

Muslims are now our neighbors both locally and globally and, like it or not, we are required to live with them. But the relationship is not very neighborly. Our Muslim neighbors have formed a block party in which they regularly claim they are disrespected. The easiest way to do this is to assert that Mohammed and their holy book have been insulted. That’s why the silly and amateurish film “The Innocence of Muslims” was so easily effective. Neighborhood watch leaders have to do little more than claim disrespect in order to stoke the fires that burn in their followers. We Western neighbors are particular targets and have always been the subject of Muslim criticism. The defining leaders of modern Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood such as al-Banna and Qutb saw America as the palatial neighborhood whorehouse that was libidinous and unkempt.

Our new global neighbors have obliterated boundaries so there are unclear distinctions between groups and each believes in its own foundational truths. We in the western portion of the neighborhood have “free speech” and “democratic rights” and our Muslim friends hold dear to the belief that Allah is the God of everyone. Therefore both neighborhood groups feel authorized and permitted to force their values on the other. The distasteful Internet video was insensitive but still protected by freedom of expression according to the Western neighbors; on the other hand, our Muslim friends in the East hold the same foundational belief about insulting Islam – it’s not protected symbolic expression. The clash of these “universal” values is powerful and the streets are aflame in riots and protests.

Egyptians have a difficult future ahead of them as more extreme fundamentalists fight pragmatic politicians. Difficult as it may be to understand, and as conservative as the Muslim Brotherhood might be, they are no match for the Salafists and their desire to purge Islam and Muslim lands of all Western influences. The Salafist leaders, if they get their way, will destroy tourism because they do not want to see people in bathing suits; they will stunt the growth of business and the economy by refusing to conduct transactions with certain cultures; half of the population (women) will be denied basic human rights and prevented from contributing productively to the economy.

During the Egyptian “revolution” when Mubarak was removed there was a glimmer of hope that the key political and intellectual battle would be between the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s secular nationalists and developing liberals. But it looks like the closer relationship (Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist) will contend for the soul of Egypt. And as events play out in the news the same might be true of Libya and Syria. So the neighborhood is reorganizing itself such that more difficult groups will be contending for leadership. This does not bode well for future problems with respect to weapons accumulation. It’s likely that proud and conservative governments, with traditions of demands for dignity and respect, like the one emerging in Egypt may want to follow in the footsteps of Iran and amass weapons thereby consolidating their demands for respect but making the neighborhood an even more dangerous place to live.

Trouble with my neighbor can be handled in one of two ways – arm and isolate my household to protect myself, or carry over fresh baked goods and chat. Neither alternative will do all by itself but we should stand firm on our demands that our neighbors learn from us and trust us. And, of course, we have to engage them. Yes, protected symbolic expression is important and one does not behave violently or riotously just because they were insulted. But it’s also true that “holding one’s tongue” and cultural adaptability remain part of the democratic governance we want to encourage.

Fauxtography in the Political Conflict Media

The above is the Pulitzer prize-winning
photograph taken by Kevin Carter in the Sudan in 1993. The girl was trying to
make it to a feeding center when the vulture landed. Carter waited about 20
minutes, took the picture, and then the vulture flew off. Carter was criticized
for not doing more to help the girl. He committed suicide a year later.

The photograph is haunting and
grippingly captures the consequences of famine and poverty. But what is the
practical effect of these photographs? They are powerful but there are some
misconceptions about such media effects. This is essentially a question of the
CNN effect, the idea that persistent around-the-clock media coverage influences
official political decision-making. It is termed the CNN effect but really refers
to a broad range of persistent real-time media that can set political agendas,
impede governmental actions, or accelerate them because of immediate news
coverage. There are some general misconceptions about this media effect.

To spend a moment looking at this picture and absorbing its impact is an
emotional experience. The vulture’s presence is ominous and captures the agony
between deep human identification and the raw reality of nature. But what is
the practical and political impact of these pictures? Do they cause people to
act, do pictures of suffering pressure governments to initiate humanitarian
aid? Surely, such pictures sometimes encourage action but not always. Political
leaders calculate the costs of interventions. If providing aid is relatively
easy and cheap then aid is easily forthcoming. But governments are conservative
about interventions when it involves troops and long-term commitments.

There was pressure to do something in
Bosnia where there was horrific Serbian violence against Muslims and pictures
of emaciated corpses. But the Bush administration was not going to commit the
troops and resources necessary to effect change. The media were manipulated in
this case to make it appear as though the US were providing aid when in fact
our reaction was minimal. Media images of suffering had little effect on
foreign policy. Clinton did not intervene in Rwanda in 1994 and the airways
were full of coverage of slaughter. A study once showed that contributions to
relief agencies do not increase during periods of wartime and images of dead
soldiers. But there is an uptick in contributions when the pictures are of
innocents – women and children. So the CNN effect must be conditioned. It can
inform and energize a public as it makes the public aware of atrocities, but it
does not dictate so easily to governments.

The two photos below are from the public relations service of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and first appeared 2008. As was explained at that time, a second missile from the right seems to be the sum of the two missiles in the image. The shape of the smoke match perfectly near the ground as well as the immediate wake of the missile. There are some slight variations of color but they are very minor. The photos were quickly retracted. After being shown the photos a representative of a London-based Institute for Strategic Studies pointed out that the photos appeared to be doctored to cover up what was apparently a firing mistake on the part of one of the missiles.

These photos actually have appeared more than a few times over the last four years. They are a good example of fauxtography.

The media do play some role in either stoking or calming passions – especially with visual images. In the Middle East, for example, no reporter leaves the scene indifferent to the passions involved in the region. And a thoughtful reporter recognizes the feelings of both sides. This requires reporters and analysts to be “morally careful” so that the true enduring and important issues are represented as accurately as possible. Visual images are coded and cognitively processed quickly with a high-impact message. They are not the medium of careful analysis but better communicators of passions and feelings.
Television is a visual medium and the primary source of information about political conflict for most people. Television sets the agenda and signals which issues are most and least important. This is done at least primarily through visual means. It hasbecome so easy to manipulate visual images that it is only a matter of time before our memories and images for history are increasingly distorted. I suppose the only answer is a sort of visual fact checker who finds the truth about either starving children or misfiring artillery.

Pro/Con One State or Two States

  The below represents the two general reaction statements to the two state solution. They lack details and represent the general reactive position. It is from: Procon I invite reactions and comments.

 PRO Israel and/or CON Palestine Statements





 PRO Palestine and/or CON Israel Statements

1. Two-State Solution

PRO:“Well, there has emerged, over the course of the past ten years at least, a sense that the only way out of the situation in the Middle East is to establish a State of Palestine alongside Israel so that there will be an end of conflict. There is no other solution to end the conflict in reality.There is an international consensus about it as reflected by the so-called Road Map Quartet [the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations], which is after all the whole world. You have the United States, you have Europe, you have the Russians and the United Nations, which is the whole world, and then there is the Arab League, which is twenty-two different states, and there is the previous Palestinian administration, and the Israeli administration, all of them committed to the two-state solution.”

Ziad J. Asali, MD
President and Founder of the American Task Force on Palestine
Interview with Bernard Gwertzman of the Council on Foreign Relations
June 2, 2006

CON:“The paradigm of the Two States will not bring about stability. No! . . . (The Two-State solution) is not relevant. Not relevant . . . (The Palestinian state) will undermine the State of Israel. From there, the confrontation will go on.The State of Israel is ready to give the Palestinians an independent Palestinian state, but the Palestinians are not ready to give us an independent Jewish state . . . Every agreement you make will be the starting point of the next irredenta. The next conflict. The next war.The establishment of a Palestinian state will lead at some stage to war. Such a war can be dangerous to the State of Israel. The idea that it is possible to set up a Palestinian state by 2008 and to achieve stability is disconnected from reality and dangerous.”


Moshe Yaalon
Lieutenant-General and former Chief-of-Staff of the Israel Defense Forces
Quoted by Uri Avnery in “The Bogyman”
May 3, 2005

2. One-State Solution

PRO: “The next diplomatic formula that will replace the ‘two states for two peoples’ will be a civilian formula. All the people between the Jordan and the sea have the same right to equality, justice and freedom.. [T]here is a very reasonable chance that there will be only one state between the Jordan and the sea – neither ours nor theirs but a mutual one. It is likely to be a country with nationalist, racist and religious discrimination and one that is patently not democratic… But it could be something entirely different. An entity with a common basis for at least three players: an ideological right that is prepared to examine its feasibility; a left, part of which is starting to free itself of the illusions of ‘Jewish and democratic’; and a not inconsiderable part of the Palestinian intelligentsia.The conceptual framework will be agreed upon – a democratic state that belongs to all of its citizens. The practicable substance could be fertile ground for arguments and creativity. This is an opportunity worth taking, despite our grand experience of missing every opportunity and accusing everyone else except ourselves.” CON: “Although the one-state approach proposes a united entity between the Jordan and the sea, in fact it represents King Solomon’s original proposal to cut the baby in half. In reality, one state means that Israelis and Palestinians each receive a mutilated and unsustainable version of its national dream. The Palestinians will never get the national self-determination they seek in a Jewish-dominated single state. Jews will achieve neither the democracy and inner harmony they seek (or ought to), nor legitimacy from the world, as long as they obstruct Palestinian rights to national self-expression in their single state – even before Jews become a minority.Finally, this conflict is tragically likely to ignite again over ‘some damn foolish thing in the settlements’ (with apologies to Bismark). A one-state solution not only fails to prevent settlements from ripping into Palestinian land and courting violence, it legitimizes expansion – since there is no border. Sadly, we all need one.”

Julian Assange and Information Rights: Part 2

As I stated in the previous post, Julian Assange is clinging to free speech rights and access to information rights to defend his release of government documents. He’s being held criminally for releasing such information and violating presumed security rights of the state.

All speech is free speech except for that which is justifiably constrained. The nature of this constraint and meaning of “justifiably constrained” is what we will explore here for the moment. We begin with the entering assumption that freedom of expression is a basic human right and if we are going to error than we will error on the side of free expression. So, we take the most well-known example of yelling “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire, people rush to the exits and hundreds are trampled to death, and then “free speech” is your defense of what you did. You do not of course have the right to freedom of expression when it endangers so many people. You obviously cannot be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of moviegoers and stroll away comfortably on the basis of freedom of speech.

Moreover, the most specific constraint on freedom of expression is “imminence.” This means that you cannot cause imminent or immediate danger as a result of your expressive behavior. So the Nazis and skinheads have a right to express their political opinions (noxious as they might be) but they do not have the right to express those opinions while marching through a Jewish neighborhood creating imminent danger and clearly provoking violence. One of the legal arguments against Assange is that he retrieved government documents that had been classified and were not available to the public. But it is easy to “classify” something. And even though we cannot have individuals making their own decisions about what justifies being classified and what does not, the principle of available access to information and free expression does require justification if your rights are going to be constrained. Last February on this blog I wrote about bloggers and new media with respect to their contribution to the Arab Spring. I retrieved from Wikileaks a copy of a briefing (reference ID 09CAIRO544) about bloggers broadening their discourse. The briefing from 2009 warned that Egypt’s bloggers were playing an increasingly important role in broadening the scope of the acceptable political communication. Bloggers’ discussion of sensitive issues such as the military and politics represented a significant change from the previous five years and had influenced society.

As recently as 2009 the cable noted that a more open atmosphere had been created. Bloggers were influencing independent media to break important news and cover previously ignored or forbidden topics. One personal rights activist in Egypt stated that the youth were able to express their views about social and political issues in ways they never could before. Free speech tends to produce free speech, and the accumulation of effects from blogs in Egypt is apparent.

This post about blogs was an effort to explain how more information was circulating in Egypt and that was at least partially responsible for political uprising demanding even more freedoms. Was the release of a cable that reported on the general state of bloggers in Egypt a security matter? Surely such a cable does not rise to the level of significance of military secrets or something that can directly affect the safety of the state. In fact, if a government is tracking bloggers and writing reports about blogging in an effort to thwart access to certain information then this should be known to the public. It does not threaten the security of the state.

It does hold, and is imperative, that if citizens of a state are going to monitor the conduct of their government and engage fully democratically then they have to have access to state information – at least certain types of state information. Moreover, government should not be allowed to impose limitations on the citizenry under the pretext of national security and their rights to “classify” information.

The burden, if you will, must be not on access to information but on the government’s decisions to constrain that access by classifying information; that is, freedom of information and symbolic expression is the default political condition and the burden of proof that communicative rights must be limited is on the state. Below are a few more specific principles:

  1. As much as possible any restrictions on freedom of information must be prescribed by law beforehand. Restriction conditions should be drawn as precisely as possible.
  2. There must be opportunities for independent courts to judge the quality of safeguards for freedom of information.
  3. To restrict freedom of expression or information there must be a compelling explanation for the protection of national security. Some examples are in cases of war or military threat, internal sources of discord, or incitement to overthrow the government. This explanation must not only be compelling but able to show specific harm.

I’m not defending Julian Assange per se. His methods are of course illegal and of all the thousands of documents he gained access to and released there are probably more than a few that could have been classified as genuine security threats. But it becomes a little easy to accept government restrictions on freedom of information rather than honor the rights of a democratic society. A good way to keep the proper balance between democratic rights and security is to remember the principles below:

  1. People have the right to information about public officials in the workings of the state. Limitations on those rights must be clearly and strongly justified. A security justification designed to deny information must be unequivocal with respect to protecting national security interests.
  2. The public’s right to know is the most foundational assumption.
  3. There should be a clear system in place which provides independent review and credible oversight of situations where information rights are limited.
  4. If a person discloses information that is not harmful and is found not to pass the test of legitimate constraints, then that person should not be criminally charged.
  5. It should be possible for the public’s right to know to outweigh the importance of disclosed information.
  6. Confidential sources should be protected.
  7. New technology should make information as available as possible and open to scrutiny by the public.

Assange is not the newest hero for freedom of information. He not only has a grandiose ego and sees himself as the great liberator of information, but Assange goes at the problem with a machete rather than a scalpel. He captured access to thousands of documents with no concern for the nuances of their importance. Still, he has infused new energy into a tired but important democratic principle.

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