Thursday, April 17, 2008

Assorted Links

I'm afraid I'm going to have to take a two week hiatus from blogging in order to experience the joys of something called Warrior Leader Course. In the meantime, I leave you with a few items of interest:

-Lebanon is the most liberal country in the Arab world. However, as Agence France Presse reports, "state censorship is also rife on any topics that touch upon Israel or sensitive issues such as religion."

-The Christian Science Monitor takes an interesting look at the impact of blogging in Africa.

-Courtesy of Martin Kramer, the Chronicle of Higher Education examines the scholarly debate on jihad in Islamic tradition.

-Finally, I highly recommend Ethan Gutmann's Weekly Standard essay on the moral issues surrounding the Beijing Olympics.

Also, I'll mention a pair of conservative/libertarian blogs for your consideration: Safe Libraries and Jeffrey Quick's site. We don't necessarily agree on every issue, but feel free to read them for yourself.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"It Is Time for Arab States to Make Declarations of Apostasy (Tafkir) A Crime"

On March 14, a radical Saudi cleric named Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak issued a fatwa stating that two authors who wrote newspaper articles arguing that non-Muslims should not be considered "infidels" were themselves apostates who needed to be killed. On March 19, Reuters reported that a group of Saudi clerics issued their own statement on this question. The contents were sadly predictable:

A group of 20 clerics, all associated with Barrak, issued a statement on Tuesday asking God to support him in the face of a "wicked attack" by liberals with "polluted beliefs".

"We know the Sheikh's knowledge in religion and status in the Islamic nation and trust Muslims place in his opinions ... The fatwa is based on the book of God (Koran) and the path of the Prophet," they said in the statement posted on Web sites.

"The Sheikh's words were clear in placing the issue in the hands of the temporal authorities when he said that there must be a trial. We affirm there should be a trial."

Barrak, who is thought to be around 75, is viewed by Islamists as the leading independent authority of Saudi Arabia's hardline version of Sunni Islam, often termed Wahhabism.

In a piece for National Review Online, Raymond Ibrahim pointed out that this incident is merely a symptom of the broader intolerance prevalent in Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabi version of Islam:

In Saudi Arabia, the facts remain: native citizens who dare convert to Christianity must be slain; absolutely no churches or any other “symbol” of non-Muslim worship (e.g., crosses, rosaries, Bibles) is permitted on the peninsula; non-Muslims are barred from entering Mecca or Medina.

To cite another example of Wahhabi intolerance, the MEMRI Blog reported on March 18 that the Saudi Shura Council rejected "a proposal to draw up an international agreement banning harming other religions and their prophets." While I believe that such an agreement would be a very bad idea, unfortunately the opposition was motivated by anything but a commitment to free expression. Rather, the critics argued "that such agreements require recognition of polytheistic religions."

Fortunately, even in the oppressive intellectual climate of Saudi Arabia, there are signs of hope. As the Christian Science Monitor noted recently, there is an "expanding awareness of human rights among the public and government officials." Obviously, this process is still in its infancy. However, it will only benefit from the example of the numerous Arab and Muslim intellectuals who have come forward to condemn the obscurantist barbarism Barrak and his fatwa represent.

For example, in a piece for the Guardian's Comment is Free web site, Ed Husain points out that there is a Muslim case to be made against the Islamist practice of threatening death for those allegedly guilty of apostasy:

Saudi writers Yusuf Aba al-Khail and Abdullah bin Bejad al-Otaibi have started a rigorous debate inside Saudi Arabia about the right of Muslims to adopt other religions with impunity. Rather than address their strong scriptural and intellectual reasoning, a leading Saudi cleric has called for the writers' deaths, unless they "repent".

Literalist, ahistorical readings of scripture have lead Saudi and other rigid clerics to pronounce death on those who they consider to have left Islam. However, more erudite and mainstream scholars have cited scripture and history to illustrate the false notion of a death penalty for those who abandon Islam. For example, Shaikh Abdal-Hakim Murad from Cambridge or the hugely popular Grand Mufti of Egypt. In my recent debate with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I made similar points based on what I learned from Muslim luminaries.

Saudi Arabian clerics must stop enforcing their medieval, outdated opinions on ordinary Muslims. The Saudi royal family, close allies of the clerical class, has a moral duty to rein in the bigots who masquerade as "scholars". True scholarship, as Tariq Ramadan puts it, understands text in historical and contemporary context.

The same newspaper reported on April 3 that Husain is not alone in his outrage and revulsion:

Arab human rights activists have condemned a Saudi religious edict calling for the execution of two writers for apostasy - giving a rare glimpse of tensions over Islam inside the conservative kingdom.

The ruling by Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Barrak was called "intellectual terrorism" by "clerics of darkness" in a statement obtained by Reuters and signed by 100 human rights groups and intellectuals from the region. Last month Barrak issued a fatwa against two Saudi writers he denounced as "infidels".

On March 24, Dr. Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari, former Dean of Islamic Law at Qatar University, published a scathing attack on Barrak and his fatwa. Al-Ansari offers a devastating critique of the Islamist penchant for using apostasy accusations as an ideological tool to justify the murder of Muslim reformers and freethinkers. MEMRI has a translation of his article:

"It is part of the misery of Arab life that the 'sheikhs of excommunication' have the right to excommunicate and declare apostasy against intellectuals, while no one has the right to sue these 'sheikhs' in court. This contradiction is a travesty of Arab law, for you have the right in Arab law to sue someone who insults you and slanders you, but you do not have the right to sue a person who declares you an infidel, which is the most serious and the most dangerous accusation! And why?

"The reason is that the religious sheikhs are placed above the people and have immunity, which prevents their being prosecuted. Several years ago 'Imam University' in Riyadh granted a Ph.D. 'with distinction' to a Saudi researcher who, in his doctoral thesis, declared 200 Arab intellectuals - prominent proponents of modernity, rationality and enlightenment - to be infidels. He said 'they are infidels and it is legal to kill them,' and not one of these accused intellectuals is able to demand justice for himself!

"Imagine the misery, absurdity, and contradictions in the Arab world when one person is able to excommunicate all of the Arab reformists in a Ph.D. thesis without any of them having the right to go to court against him!"


"And if an ignorant person believed what that researcher wrote and assassinated one of the scholars who was labeled and infidel, because the researcher made the shedding of his blood licit, there is no legal blame on the researcher who instigated the crime and misled the killer.

(Emphasis added-DD)

The doctoral dissertation referenced by Al-Ansari is discussed here. It is indeed a call for the murder of those writers and intellectuals that the author, Sa'id Al-Ghamdi, declared guilty of "heresy". Al-Ghamdi was even cited as an authority by Osama bin Laden in the latter's April 2006 audiotape in which he called for the killing of "freethinkers and heretics".

Al-Ansari, then, is clearly right when he notes that accusations of apostasy are not merely hateful or offensive speech; they are literally a form of incitement to murder. Thus, he argues that there is only one solution:

"It is time for Arab states to make declarations of apostasy (tafkir) a crime, just as murder is a crime, and an issue of great gravity not to be left to the unilateral declaration of an individual sheikh. We must have legislation to govern this matter to prevent anarchy and protect the dignity and reputation of the Muslim and his family...."

(Emphasis added-DD)

Such a move is long overdue and would be a major victory for free thought and expression in the Islamic world.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

UNESCO Pulps Nearly 100,000 Books

The Washington Post reports that UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, pulped nearly 100,000 of its own works as a cost and space saving measure (article available via the New York Sun):

According to the report, the destruction occurred in 2004 and 2005, when UNESCO's overflowing book storage warehouses in Paris were relocated to Brussels. rather than pay to move 94,500 books, auditors reported, UNESCO officials ordered them destroyed. The books were turned to pulp for recycling, the audit says. The director of UNESCO's Bureau of Public information and chief of the publishing division, Nino Munoz Gomez, said that at least half of the destroyed volumes were outdated and contained obsolete statistical data.

The audit notes that some publications were out of date but says others "on historical or purely literary themes were not at all affected by obsolescence." These included poetry anthologies and stories from all lands in translation. It says a "solution other than destruction" should have been considered, "such as free distribution to libraries."

Several irate African and Latin American ambassadors said libraries and schools in their impoverished countries would have been eager to receive comprehensive history books

(Emphasis added-DD)

Monday, April 14, 2008

Standing up Against Article 301

The BBC takes a look at those brave individuals in Turkey who risk prosecution under Article 301 or even worse for daring to publish books that "insult Turkishness":

It is a very difficult time to be a writer in Turkey.

Last year the prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink, was murdered. This year, an ultra-nationalist gang allegedly had the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk on its hit list.

Both men had been prosecuted for "insulting Turkishness".

Today, many writers once known for their forthright views have fallen silent. But one man is still putting himself on the line in a fight for free speech.

Fighting for free speech in Turkey

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Disturbing Analogy of the Day

Screw Loose Change, an excellent blog devoted to combating the moral and intellectual plague known as "9/11 trutherism", quoted the following passage from a 9/11 conspiracy web site. The individual in question is bemoaning the loss of influence of parts of the "truth movement":

I have a theory about what is happening here. In the last year we've seen two major trends in the movement. Hits at our prominent websites have gone down, while new chapters of our grassroots organization and street actions have gone up. The people who have been trying to create national coordination for this movement are likely feeling frustrated as people are turning to local coordination.

In contrast, groups like TruthAction and WeAreChange have been drawing participants and forming chapters that can directly address their regional concerns. I wouldn't be surprised to find that there are more people on the street promoting 9/11 truth than ever before.

So I'm thinking that maybe some of the "movement veterans" that we really do respect a great deal for their knowledge and commitment, are feeling some of their influence diminish. Like librarians in the age of the internet. I'm not saying we don't need these people, but possibly some of them are out of step with the direction this is all heading.

(Emphasis added-DD)

It is a bad sign for the library profession when even purveyors of deranged conspiracy theories use us as an analogy for being behind the times.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Obama to Choudhury: No, We Can't

Via Hot Air, here is the latest video contribution to the Barack Obama personality cult. It manages to be creepily Orwellian and unintentionally hilarious all at the same time:

In the meantime, there is one individual who is probably somewhat less than impressed by Obama's gloriously vague paeans to hope and change. His name is Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury and I have written about his situation a number of times.

Choudhury is a Bangladeshi journalist arrested in 2003 and charged with sedition, treason and blasphemy, offenses that carry the death penalty in that country. His real crimes consisted of speaking out in defense of Israel and condemning the spread of radical Islamism in Bangladesh. Richard Benkin, an American friend of Choudhury's, began to lobby members of Congress on his behalf. In a March 28 piece for The American Thinker web site, Benkin explains how his efforts drew a positive response from every lawmaker he lobbied, with one exception:

In fact, I approached about 15 percent of the House and a handful of Senators: Democratic, Republican, left, right, moderate; you name it. And every one of them reacted with support; every one of them, that is, except one. Who was the one lawmaker that took a pass on saving the life of an imprisoned US ally and opponent of Islamist extremism? That's right, my own Illinois Senator Barack Obama.

I first met with his staff in April 2005 in his DC office. Keep in mind this was the same week that Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL) spent hours learning about the case and then met well after "working hours" in a very difficult meeting with the Bangladeshi ambassador and me to secure Shoaib's release. I brought Obama's staff extensive documentation of the injustice, as well as other evidence of Shoaib's activities; we spoke for quite a long time, but they never called back. In fact, they ignored all my subsequent follow-up contacts. But it was, after all soon after his election; perhaps early disorganization was to blame.

Yet, I spoke personally with Obama 13 months later at a general meeting hosted by Obama and Durbin. To my delight, when my name was mentioned, Durbin responded immediately with praise and support, saying that it was "an important human rights case," and asked to see me privately about the matter. I spoke with to both him and Obama, who at his best moments looked quizzical and confused. While Durbin later sent a formal protest to the Bangladeshis, Obama never responded; nor again did he or his staff reply to my subsequent entreaties.

I spoke with Obama one other time about Shoaib's case, less than six months later. I reminded him or our last encounter, gave him an update on the case, and asked for his support in one of any number of ways. He hesitated a moment then held out his hand and said, "Well, we're sure happy for all the work you are doing." Propriety prevents me from verbalizing what I was thinking then. I offered to send him more information, which he asked me to do. And, guess what, I never heard back despite the reams of evidence I did send.

(Emphasis added-DD)

In a recent post, Irshad Manji proclaimed Barack Obama to be an "Agent of Moral Courage". Yet said agent of courage cannot be bothered to take the simplest of actions on behalf of a Muslim dissident facing possible execution for his beliefs. "Yes, we can"? Apparently not if you're a persecuted Muslim freethinker.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

A Look at Iran's Blogosphere

The New York Times/International Herald Tribune takes a fascinating look at the state of Iranian blogging:

Troll through the Iranian blogosphere and you can find all manner of unexpectedly harsh critiques denouncing the government of the Islamic republic, from reformists who revile it as well as conservatives who support it.

One conservative blogger deplored the rampant inflation undermining the middle class, saying it forced girls into prostitution to support their families. Others identified themselves as fans of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, yet they condemned government corruption and what they called arbitrary arrests. A fourth declared that government statistics were a lot of nonsense.

What gets filtered out is not entirely predictable, either. Even some religious topics are deemed unacceptable. The government blocked the site of a blogger advocating the Shiite Muslim custom of temporary marriage, which is legal and considered a way for the young to relieve their sexual frustration without breaking religious laws.

Over all, a new study by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School shows that Iran's blogosphere mirrors the erratic, fickle and often startling qualities of life in the Islamic republic itself. The rules of what is permissible fluctuate with maddening imprecision, so people test the limits.

The Berkman Center report is available from their web site. If the Times article summarizing it is correct, Iran's efforts at online censorship are not nearly as comprehensive or effective as people like myself have believed. Hopefully, blogging will continue to provide a forum for opposition to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "Second Islamic Cultural Revolution".

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Manji on Fitna

Irshad Manji has posted an interesting review of Fitna at the Washington Post web site. Here is a brief preview:

"Fitna," the Arabic word for "social strife," is being trumpeted as a provocative manifesto with the potential to create yet more strife in the cosmic confrontation between Islam and the West.

I have watched it. Others should too, not because it is compelling but because, in its utter predictability, the film reminds us why freedom of expression is worth defending. To remain powerful, freedom demands creativity -- the very creativity that Fitna lacks.

Anti-Muslim Film Boorish and Boring

Friday, April 04, 2008

Undercover Journalism in North Korea

The BBC takes a fascinating look at a handful of brave North Koreans who risk imprisonment to reveal the truth about life in Kim Jong-Il's totalitarian "paradise":

In the Chinese city of Yanji, just a few kilometres from the North Korean border, one of the most risky journalistic endeavours ever undertaken is taking shape.

A North Korean citizen is being trained in the techniques of using a hidden camera.

His identity is a closely guarded secret, so he chooses to use the name Lee Jun.

Mr Lee is one of a group of citizen journalists that has begun working inside North Korea, producing written reports and video footage which are then smuggled to the outside world.

He has crossed the border on numerous occasions, bringing hours of material showing everyday life in the street, on trains, even in police stations.

His images, caught on a camera concealed inside his bag, give a rarely seen glimpse of one of the world's most closed societies.

Going undercover in North Korea

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Reader Reassurance

First of all, thank you to everyone who responded to my recent post on the decline of the conservative librarian blogosphere (and the impending end of this site). To answer your questions:

-The official end of this blog will probably come in June. I will try to maintain a regular posting schedule until then, but no guarantees. I will provide advance notice of the exact date.

-For the benefit of future generations, and to ensure the futility of any job searches or romantic opportunities I might pursue, this blog will remain online after I officially sign off.

-In response to the question about taking up blogging, that is up to you. If you feel the desire to blog, then by all means do it. You can always walk away if you don't like it.

Fitna Update

As a commenter pointed out, Geert Wilders' film Fitna has again been removed from LiveLeak. This time, by Wilders himself due to copyright issues. This is almost certainly because of the film's inclusion of the most controversial of the Danish Muhammed Cartoons. The cartoonist, Kurt Westergaard, has criticized Fitna and objected to Wilders's use of his drawing.

In the meantime, the March 31 Wall Street Journal had an excellent op-ed piece on the meaning and implications of this latest incident in Islamism's war on intellectual freedom. The author, Afshin Ellian, is an exiled Iranian and strong critic of radical Islam living in the Netherlands. His essay is well worth reading. Here is a preview:

The Western world long ago learned to criticize, even mock, religion. Think of such movies as "The Life of Brian" and "The Da Vinci Code" or more serious texts on Christianity by Nietzsche, whose famous phrase "God is Dead" is part of popular culture. Competition of ideas is fundamental to the Western way of life. The Islamic world isn't accustomed to such discussions.


When Ms. Hirsi Ali went to live in the U.S. in 2006, Geert Wilders picked up the baton. He takes a hard stance on Islamic terrorism and calls for a stop to immigration, at least until Dutch Muslims are better integrated. Some of his arguments are pure polemic. For instance, he says the Quran is a "fascist" book. Since it is illegal in the Netherlands to publish Hitler's "Mein Kampf," he argues, so it should be illegal to publish the Quran. One can have a debate about the Quran, but to ban the book altogether is ridiculous, and he knows it.

Yet his outrageous remarks have stirred a constructive discussion about the Quran and Islam in the Netherlands that is more vigorous than in any Western or, for that matter, Muslim country. And uncomfortable as they may be for Dutch Muslims, they help them view their religion in a more critical light. Notwithstanding the growing appeal of radical Islam, the political participation of moderate Muslims is on the rise, a positive sign of integration. For the first time in Dutch history, two Muslims are in the cabinet.

Criticism and Islam

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

A Controversial "Libraries and Human Rights" Conference

A few weeks ago, Librarians for Fairness alerted me to a conference being held in Ramallah, in the Palestinian Authority. Running from March 31 - April 2, the event, "International Conference on Libraries from a Human Rights Perspective", is designed to "highlight the importance of achieving human rights related to library work and these rights include: freedom of expression, freedom of access to information, tolerance, acceptance of the other, respect of diversity and cultural rights."

The conference is sponsored by an organization called the Ramallah Center for Human Rights Studies in cooperation with IFLA. The stated goals of the event sound entirely laudable. Unfortunately, the pro-Israel group NGO Monitor has looked at the record of RCHRS and found some cause for concern. The group's Executive Director, Professor Gerald Steinberg, expressed these reservations in an open letter to IFLA President Claudia Lux:

NGO Monitor's analysis demonstrates that, despite its stated mission to develop internal norms of Palestinian democracy and respect for human rights, some of statements focus on condemnations of Israel, and its activities often contribute to conflict and fail to condemn violence. For example, RCHRS has often referred to Palestinian terrorists as “martyrs”. Following the March 2002 suicide bombing attacks and the Israeli response, RCHRS issued a statement promoting the false claim that Israel committed “massacres” in Jenin and Nablus. RCHRS has also accused Israel of “terrirorist [sic] crimes,” and making children the “sacrifice for the racial hatred [sic].”

As a political organization, RCHRS consistently calls for “pressure on the Israeli Government" to "deter it from violating the international law”, and has stated that “all world countries should adhere to their ethical and political responsibilities in putting an end for the Israeli racial aggression.” Such rhetoric clearly reflects an extreme pro-Palestinian political position, which ignores RCHRS' mandate to promote "a culture of tolerance and respect for human rights," and does not contribute to mutual understanding and conflict resolution.

In addition, RCHRS is an active member of the the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations Network (PNGO), which plays a major role in promoting campaigns to delegitimize and demonize Israel. These activities include the NGO Forum of the 2001 Durban conference, which promoted demonization and boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel, and has been widely renounced as a form of political warfare.

A look at RCHRS's English-language press releases bears out these concerns. Israeli actions are predictably and uniformly condemned, often in strident terms, while suicide bombings and other acts of Palestinian terrorism merit not a single word of condemnation. Several of the releases address incidents of violence and intolerance in Palestinian society. These are criticized in relatively measured tones. No mention is made of the widespread anti-Semitic indoctrination and incitement engaged in by Hamas and others. Nor does RCHRS offer any condemnation of attacks by Palestinian Islamists on libraries and the people in them. It is possible that their Arabic content addresses such issues, but I have my doubts.

Arab NGOs that push for the spread of tolerance and intellectual freedom are a welcome development and I fully understand IFLA wanting to foster such a trend. Unfortunately, it appears that RCHRS is willing to subordinate such concerns to pursuing the destruction of Israel. This does, in fact, bring their commitment to intellectual freedom into question. I agree with NGO Monitor that IFLA should think twice about working with such an organization.