Tyranny


On Monday a Kuwaiti received ten years in jail for a blasphemous tweet. On Tuesday a Bangladeshi court issued an arrest warrant over a blasphemous book. The case of theocratic suppression of ideas contrary to Islamic doctrine that I’d like to focus on, however – as they are so numerous that once you’ve begun to notice them they grow almost routine and, thus, fail to be as affecting as they really should be – is taking place on a sunny island in the Maldives.

The blogger and journalist Ismail Rasheed has been stabbed in the neck near his home in the capital Malé. It’s possible that the crime is unrelated to his work but once you’ve acquainted yourself with the formidable struggles this man has endured you’ll see this is unlikely.

Mr Rasheed, a Sufi Muslim, was critical of the religious totalism that’s a feature of the Islamic state. In return he was besieged with death threats. Websites demanded his prompt beheading. Rasheed weathered that storm but in November of 2011 the government closed his blog: accusing him of publishing “anti-Islamic material”.

Rasheed was undaunted. Despite the fact that his support base was as large as a Wolves football fan’s in West Bromwich he organised a small protest against this intolerance. A group of thugs swept down; pelted him and his supporters with rocks and fractured his skull. The government sprang into action! They arrested Rasheed. Amnesty International, in its aggrieved response, noted that despite credible photographic evidence of the event no efforts were made to arrest the man’s attackers.

Now, after years of abuse from the state and his fellow citizens, Mr Rasheed seems to have faced his most serious challenge yet. The only heartening fact is that the bastards still can’t kill him. In a letter to Amnesty a couple of years ago he wrote that he…

…would greatly appreciate if you can help me find temporary asylum in a friendly democratic country until I feel it is safe for me to return to Maldives…

It would be nice if a government could offer this after he’s recovered. Such a courageous defender of the freedom of conscience would be a privilege to host.

The suppression of dissenting or just differing opinion is, in callous terms, a somewhat useful feature of a creed. Sure, it’s terrible for the society it inhabits – a recipe for cultural and intellectual barrenness – but in the sense that it ensures that minds will be starved of nourishment for their doubts and scepticism it has an unpleasant logic. This is also why it could be the most dangerous feature of totalistic belief: because it ensures that everything else associated with it is perpetuated.

Nick Cohen has discovered that Tony Blair is a man who’ll thumb his nose at one tyrant while shaking hands with another…

He won’t explain why he’s helping the Kazakh dictator present a better face to the west. Apparently, he has said that he is not personally profiting from appearing in a propaganda video praising the dictatorship’s “progress” and hymning its “extraordinary economic potential”. (I say apparently because his office would not respond to my repeated inquiries.) But it is beyond doubt that his commitment to democracy is now as flimsy as any relativist’s: free elections may be good enough for the people of Britain, but the Kazakhs cannot expect to enjoy the same privileges.

I’m in no position to deride people who realise things long after they’ve been obvious as I’ve done this more times than I’ve scored runs in cricket. If you are in such an undignified position, though, you must admit to having been wrong. Cohen avoids this stage by proposing that Blair’s hypocrisy is a bewildering new phenomenon. He laments his “decline” from the good old days of his premiership, inspiring thoughts of people claiming that Mike Tyson is losing his edge; Damien Hirst has grown a tad pretentious and the Rolling Stones are in danger of becoming past-it.

This exchange is from Newsnight over 10 years ago…

JEREMY PAXMAN:
You called [Saudi Arabia] a friend of the civilised world.

TONY BLAIR:
It is. In my view, what it is doing in respect of the Middle East now…

JEREMY PAXMAN:
It chops people’s arms off. It tortures people.

TONY BLAIR:
They have their culture, their way of life.

Aggressive Western international wasn’t merely fraudulent inasmuch as its stated aims were nigh-on impossible to realise; it was fraudulent in the sense that its stated aims were as sincere as a bookmaker’s smile. I’m glad to see this is becoming harder to deny.

The man whose less than wholly respectful tweets about Mohammad made King Abdullah cry fled to Malaysia. This baffled me, and with good reason, as they’ve shipped him back to Saudi Arabia

The two countries do not have a formal extradition treaty but Malaysia has good relations with Saudi Arabia as a fellow Muslim country, says the BBC’s Jennifer Pak, in Kuala Lumpur.

Okay, a nation’s borders are its business but refusing sanctuary to a man who – in lieu of a stink that would make the outcry that followed Yousef Nadarkhani’s prosecution look like a polite cough – is destined to be killed is nauseating.

Then again, it doesn’t come as a surprise. The Malaysian government is proud to declare that it’s “moderate”, not “extremist”, but as noted in Back Towards the… passim its state and civil society are marked by communitarian rhetoric; hostile exclusivism and absurd paranoia. Deviations from the lifestyles and beliefs of the religious majority – effeminacy, say, or apparent sympathy with minority religions – are liable to get you packed off for “re-education”. Elsewhere, more traditional and straightforwardly punitive sentences like caning are enthusiastically upheld.

There are major difference between Malaysia and Saudi Arabia – and they’d seem really big if you lived in either – but the cruel absurdity of Islamic law unites them nonetheless; they’re kindred, at least, in spirit. And, thus, “moderation” remains barely meaningful.

[H/t.]

The future is a place the optimists expect will favour us and pessimists believe spells doom. One or other of them may be right, of course, but the trouble is that these assumptions colour their perception of the present. And without an understanding of the here and now one can’t predict how it might change. Anyway, Ghaffar Hussain writes on “post-Islamism”…

Post-Islamist parties tend to retain an emotional attachment to faith and seek to create a cultural shift towards Islamic principles (as defined by them) rather than imposing a prefabricated political model deemed to be an Islamic one. In other words, they still envisage a society where Islam guides public policy but without dictating it in a dogmatic and dictatorial fashion. Post-Islamists are Islamists mugged by reality.

There are, of course, more liberal versions of illiberal things. That’s true of Islam in politics. So, the governance in Indonesia is unpleasant but it’s hugely preferable to that in Pakistan. Still, I find it telling that Hussain can’t find examples of existing governments that practice it – instead brandishing potential governments like Ennahda and, somewhat bewilderingly, the Muslim Brotherhood. (What’s inspired him to think the latter – even if we’re to accept the former – wouldn’t have “Islam guid[ing] policy” is beyond me, I’m afraid. Heck they’ve said they would.) And, as documented at some length, even self-proclaimedly “moderate” Islamic governments are darned authoritarian. Here’s a recent case, from, again, Malaysia…

Two Malaysian states are set to change their Islamic laws to punish Muslims who engage in homosexuality…Homosexuality is punishable by law in Malaysia by caning and up to 20 years in jail, but the legal amendments planned by Pahang and Malacca religious authorities would give the state governments additional ammunition.

“So many people like to promote human rights, even up to the point they want to allow lesbian activities and homosexuality,” [Malacca's chief minister] told Reuters. “In Islam, we cannot do all this. It is against Islamic law.”

They aren’t killed, no, but if you’ve been caned and thrown in jail for twenty years I doubt that’s much consolation.

Hussain’s point, I think, is that Islamic states will have to liberalise because the most dogmatic ones have been unmitigated failures – poor, conflicted and isolated from the international community. In response I’d make two points. Firstly, a state can be prosperous, with numerous important friends, and still retain the doctrine of its leadership – think Saudi Arabia. Of course, it helps to be perched atop massive oil reserves but the point is that it happens. Secondly, of course, a government need not be sane. Still, I’ll go along with the idea that at least some of the new Middle Eastern leaders will be (a) not so fortunate with their geography that they’ll be able to dictate terms to prospective allies and (b), er – not insane and, thus, may plump for vaguely liberal economic systems.

Here’s the thing, though: economic liberalism doesn’t come hand-in-hand with social liberalism. I remember watching Yaron Brook, director of the Ayn Rand Institute, deliver an impassioned paean to the “freedom” he’d observed in Singapore. A listener politely interjected; told him he was Singaporean and commented that a state with such severe restrictions on the freedom of expression was hardly liberal. Oops, said Brook – he’d meant economic freedom. More famous examples of these finance-friendly tyrannies are Pinochet’s Chile and the present-day China. Examples of Islamic states that reap the fruits of globalisation while enforcing their age-old doctrines are numerous: Indonesia; Saudi Arabia; Qatar; Bahrain. It’s possible that governments Hussain considers will be different, of course, but to be confident they will is to regurgitate a theory of man’s inevitable progress towards freedom that, as many commentators have been inspired to note, is problematic for one simple reason: it’s untrue.

In conclusion, then – we’re pre-post-Islamism.

While I’m being pessimistic about the “Arab Spring” let’s allow our gaze to drift to Egypt

An Egyptian court sentenced a man to three years in jail with hard labour on Saturday for insulting Islam in postings on Facebook, the official MENA news agency reported.

The Cairo court found that Ayman Yusef Mansur “intentionally insulted the dignity of the Islamic religion and attacked it with insults and ridicule on Facebook,” the agency reported.

In 2007, a court sentenced blogger Kareem Amer to jail for insulting the Muslim prophet and then president Hosni Mubarak. He was released last year.

Business as usual, then. They claim this blasphemy law stops people from “endangering national unity“. It’s grimly ironic, then, that this man is facing such a brutal sentence while the Egyptian media churns out blatant anti-Coptic propaganda.

Meanwhile, in Libya the new establishment is showing its priorities

…interim leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil, thought to be a moderate, declared in his “liberation” address that Libya would be an Islamic state and that sharia law would be a fundamental source of legislation…What did catch people’s attention was when he got into specifics: Libya’s new constitution “will not disallow polygamy,” he said, and charging interest will be forbidden.

Liberté, égalité and, er – polygamy? This is the moment where idealists begin to question what they’re cheering for.

There’s a fallacy that gets promoted when regimes change – after revolutions, invasions and even elections. It’s the idea that the freedom of societies is only hindered by the evil doings of one or several men. Thus, people identify with those who resist them. Well, that can be true it’s sometimes fair enough but what’s worth remembering is that forces of opposition needn’t be resisting leaders on the grounds we’d think they’d want to. And, depending on their expectations from their governments, a population needn’t either. Freedom – however you conceive it – is not a universal desire.

I hope that people will be happy with the states they build – whether I can understand this happiness or not. But their ambitions aren’t our’s and therefore, by and large, their fights aren’t either.

So, Tunisia’s rare secularist majority will nonetheless be ruled by Ennahda. I don’t, at present, have a lot to add to last week’s comments. I’m just sad to hear it.

Someone who’s elated is George Galloway. I thought I’d said my last words on the man after – for want of a better phrase – becoming “indecent”. The trouble with the criticism of him, though, wasn’t that it was unfair – by and large – but that it was irrelevant. He’s even more irrelevant now but, still, unpleasantness deserves to be rebuked sometimes merely for being unpleasant…

They “should” choose them because their founder is “kind“? Jesus, George, if you’re going to lecture foreigners on who they should elect to rule their home you could at least give decent reasons.

There is a tendency – not restricted to “the Left” – to admire the strength of will and clarity of purpose of Islamists. (I doubt such people would endorse the consequences of their ideologies, but they do overlook them.) Their dogmatism is, to them, a sign of character and their contrary attitudes are a sign of independence. This seems especially attractive when they’re in conflict with imperialist states but for some this isn’t necessary. It’s a veneration of strong leadership; the kind of authoritarian instinct that makes a campaign seem attractive not because of its policies but because of its “brave” commander.

I’ve used the example of Malaysia to demonstrate the point that a “moderate” theocracy remains a theocracy and, thus, is still “extreme” in relation to liberal societies. Once you’ve concluded that the will of individuals must be subordinate to the commands of your God you can’t claim to be all inclusive and peaceful and nice. The cruel authoritarianism of your society has been established. You can’t become liberal any more than someone who’s tattooed a pentacle over their face can become a supermodel.

Apostates and others who don’t quite meet the standards of the officials’ faith aren’t beaten (yet). No, they’re packed off to re-education camps or, it’s claimed, into therapy

Islamic authorities will provide counselling to a dozen Malaysian Muslims to “restore their belief and faith” after they attended a community dinner at a church hall, a royal sultan said on Monday.

So, here we have a bunch of neurotic moralists, unquestioningly obedient to the demands of a silent, invisible being, telling other people to get counselling. We’re in bizarro world here.

The case has triggered worries among officials in Muslim-majority Malaysia that some non-Muslims were trying to convert Muslims. Proselytising of Muslims is punishable by prison terms of various lengths in most Malaysian states.

The church was invaded by religious authorities in August. After mild criticism in the media politicians reacted swiftly – by taking offence at the people who’d criticised their clerics.

It’s temping to simply write, “WHY CAN’T YOU LEAVE THEM ALONE, YOU BASTARDS!” Sadly, though, once you’ve reached their level of dogmatism, where commands are to be merely followed and the very act of questioning them is a grave betrayal, even that level of discourse is a little too nuanced. And that – sweet convenience! – allows me to return to the initial point: there’s no way to make something reasonable from something so enormously and unashamedly unreasonable.

The Boston Globe has a bleak but fascinating gallery of photographs from North Korea.

They were captured on a tour of Chinese visitors. I can’t say that Pyongyang looks like an inspiring destination…

If you’d like a game to occupy your afternoon with, count the lights in this photograph.

A caption informs us that the North Korean government is trying to show the “vitality and possibilities of their country”. Here’s the picture it’s attached to…


Children, by and large, are the happiest of people. It says a lot about North Korea that they couldn’t find a genuinely happy child.

A Wash Po article discusses the contents of Al-Saadi Gaddafi’s looted mansion…

In an office area in the villa, reporters saw large piles of catalogues for yachts and cars. A catalog by the firm Benetti had a yellow handwritten post-it note attached listing the price for a 30-meter-long yacht as 7 million euros. A DVD with gay porn entitled “Boyz Tracks” slipped out of the stack of documents.

Business cards were scattered on the floor for a firm called “Natural Selection” that listed al-Saadi as partner and executive producer with an address on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. The looters left behind a black cloth, apparently the back of a “director’s chair,” that read, in green: “Executive Producer al-Saadi Gadhafi.”

As with the time they “found” porn at bin Laden’s crib as well, this detail bears the whiff of propaganda. Still, who knows. It’s not as if a bloke with nudie pics is a mystifying aberration. The playboy son of the Libyan dictator was an odd fish – even by the standard of dicators’ offspring. It had escaped me, for example, that he’d ventured into films. Yes, he was an executive producer on the straight-to-video remake of the splendid German movie Das Experiment, starring Adrian “Pianist” Brody and Forest “Idi Amin” Whitaker. What’s intriguing is the film’s plot…

26 men are chosen to participate in the roles of guards and prisoners in a psychological study that ultimately spirals out of control.

It’s a loose adaptation of Philip Zimbardo’s notorious Stanford prison study. That the son of a mass-murdering dictator could blithely work on a film about the terrible effects of power is — weird. It’s akin to Jenna Bush producing Idiocracy. I guess that’s what privilege can do to self-awareness.

Over at Crispin Sartwell’s Eye of the Storm blog, “King-Walters” makes an intriguing and sinister point apropos of a discussion of “drones” and mechanised warfare…

…a related issue I worry about is the automation of the national security apparatus, both in the developed and developing worlds. If we ever succeed in removing the human element from organized state-sanctioned violence, we will also remove all possibility of sympathy, mutiny and defection on the part of the perpetuators. In other words, while there is always a chance human soldiers wil refuse to fire on a crowd of demonstrators, there is never a chance of robots doing the same. I don’t think I need to explain why this situation would be problematic.

If you’ve wanted to enact brutal, widespread violence you’ve always had to make sure there are lots of people unscrupulous or obedient enough to help – arseholes, in other words. If you can minimise the need for humans you minimise the need for arseholes.

Fans of parapolitics (or, at least, investigating the rotten stuff) will be aware of the complaint that “too many people would have to have known” about conspiracies. It’s worth remembering how much new technologies could reduce the need for humans: a few blokes with good computers can maneuver everything from millions of pounds to devastating rockets. Human conscience and incompetence become far more, er – administrable factors.

Still, we’ll always have twitter. They’ll be first behind the firewall when the #revolution comes.

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