Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Almost Home

I am almost done with Annual Training. As you may have noticed, I didn't have nearly as much time to post as I thought. Regular posting will resume this weekend and continue through the month of June. In the meantime, I leave you with a link to the worst music video ever.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

""Our goal is to have Sharia as the permanent law of our country"

The Somali news site Garowe Online reports that a number of local journalists have been forced to flee that country following death threats from Islamist insurgents:

A group of Somali journalists have fled their home country after receiving death threats and facing intimidation from the government and insurgent groups vying for power in Somalia.

The group consists of 13 journalists, who represent various government-owned media outlets and privately-operated news agencies.

"The al Shabaab group does not want [published] reports of positive steps taken by the Transitional Government and the African Union peacekeepers," says Ali Muhiyadin Ali, formerly a Mogadishu-based reporter for Somali news network Garowe Online.

(Link via Long War Journal)

Al-Shabab is the name of the jihadist movement fighting to restore the repressive Islamist regime that briefly ruled Somalia in 2006. Their rule was epitomized by the brutal Taliban-like censorship of any form of expression deemed "un-Islamic". This April BBC profile of Al-Shabab confirms the group's extremist worldview through the words of one of its members:

"Our goal is to have Sharia as the permanent law of our country, and to get the infidels out of our country, whether they are Ethiopians or Americans."

His message to those Somalis who do not pray five times a day is clear.

"First of all, we will call them to return to Islam and pray - because what differentiates a Muslim and a non-Muslim is praying five times," he says.

"If they refuse we will call them again and again to pray. If they entirely refuse, we will jail them and we will keep them without food until they return to praying."

(Emphasis added-DD)

The same article contains this account from a young woman who lived in Mogadishu in 2006 when the Islamists ordered the closure of a local cinema. After a boy living with her family condemned the move, Al-Shabab came looking for him:

"There were many of them - they came to our house in two pick-up trucks," she recalled.

"Then two of the men came and knocked on the door. I opened it - and they said, 'bring the boy out of the house.'

"I said: 'The boy is not here'. They said: 'Bring him out.' I told them: 'He's not here.' Then they started kicking me, they kicked me to the ground.

"Then they started shooting."

"They shot me three times in the legs - one into my right leg then two into my left. It was terrible, my mother was in the house and she shouted: 'Why are you shooting my girl?'. They started beating her. They threw my mother on the ground and they kicked her."

According to the BBC, "The cinema was closed, and those who had been using it had their heads shaved to mark them out."

This May 11 article from the Times of London confirms that Al-Shabab is back in the business of closing down movie houses:

When Ibrahim Saeed Abdullah saw a neighbour’s cinema burnt down by a barrage of grenades, he realised that he had no choice but to heed the death threats he had received from the big men with guns in their hands and hatred in their hearts. Last week he closed the doors of his own cinema for the last time.

It was two years since Abdullah had opened for business in Mogadishu, the largely ruined capital of war-torn Somalia. The location may have been inauspicious but the timing seemed right: the Islamic Courts Union, an Islamist coalition that briefly took over much of the country in 2006, had just been driven out by an American-backed Ethiopian invasion.


Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al-Shabab does not approve of the showing of films.

Soon Abdullah’s cinema was the last one standing in Mogadishu and he was threatened repeatedly. “They came with weapons, surrounded my cinema and told me, ‘We will kill you if you don’t close’,” he said.

Somalia has been mired in chaos and civil war for almost two decades now. The return of the Taliban style totalitarianism of Al-Shabab will only deepen that country's misery.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Movement Against Scholarship

Anne Applebaum has written a fascinating review of the recent book by Nicholson Baker entitled Human Smoke. I have not read Baker's book; however, it seems that many reviewers and historians regard the work as a monument to moral and intellectual vacuity.

According to critics, Baker takes the anti-American moral relativism of the last 35 years and retroactively applies it to World War II. He implicitly argues that the Western Allies were in no way morally superior to the Third Reich and Imperial Japan and should never have taken up arms against them.

Applebaum fully agrees with these critics and shreds Baker's book accordingly. However, she also tries to put Human Smoke into a broader context, comparing Baker to Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown. She also cites Baker's recently expressed approval of Wikipedia. Though she doesn't use the term, Applebaum argues that Baker's book is yet another disturbing example of a phenomenon called counterknowledge:

Yes, Wikipedia is democratic; and yes, it treats all authors as equally worthy; and yes, it lets the self-tutored compete with the academics--and yes, it is deeply and profoundly anti-intellectual, as well as often wrong. Who needs a Ph.D., or even a college course? What is the use of studying for years in boring old libraries? So what if you have accumulated, through hard work, some real expertise? Who cares if you know a few languages? On Wikipedia it doesn't matter, since, as Baker explains approvingly, "everyone's identity was hidden behind a jokey username" in any case.

Baker did not adopt these views in a vacuum. Anyone who has ever spent any time surfing the blogosphere will recognize his perspective immediately. It is true that there are many excellent, well-educated bloggers, whose contributions to public debates are invaluable, and who have served to prod the establishment institutions of many professions to try harder. At the same time, there are also many bloggers who, without any knowledge or expertise whatsoever, believe their opinions must by definition surpass those found in the "mainstream media, " or the "conventional histories," simply because they are self-appointed "critics," whether right-wing, left-wing, or off the charts. The result of their efforts is that quality--accuracy, truthfulness, learnedness--is disappearing beneath the sheer quantity of random, wrong, and irrelevant information.

Until now, I had assumed, like everyone else, that the main victim of this new vogue for arrogant ignorance would ultimately be the "mainstream media" itself. Who needs The New York Times or The Washington Post if you can get your news from Google and your opinions from the latest, hottest, angriest blog? But Human Smoke might be a harbinger of what is to come in other spheres: Baker, after all, is the historians' equivalent of the smug bloggers who think that because the mainstream media is sometimes wrong, they are always right--and that if they can find a link to a "fact," that proves it is "true." If Baker can find a compelling anecdote, from Mein Kampf or The New York Times, that's good enough to make it a part of the historical record. Thus will "conventional" history eventually vanish.

Human Smoke, in other words, is not a conscientious pacifist tract. It is not a clever contribution to today's debate on warfare, and it does not add anything to what we know about World War II. It is a cheerful contribution to the movement against scholarship--a movement which has advanced so far, in fact, that I fully expect these observations, too, to be condemned as "elitism." As one who does contribute (it's pathetic, I know) to the mainstream media on a regular basis, I know that any author who expresses a sliver of doubt about the wisdom of amateurs risks bringing down a torrent of recrimination and insult upon his head. But if we have arrived at the point where a solemn and excited individual can cobble together anecdotes from old newspapers and Nazi diaries, and write them up in the completely contextless manner of blog posts, and suggest that he has composed a serious critique of America's decision to enter World War II, and then receive praise from respected reviewers in distinguished publications, then maybe it is time to say: Stop.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Off to Annual Training

No sooner do I return from South Carolina and Warrior Leader Course than I have to leave for Annual Training. This year's installment sees my long anticipated return to Ft. Huachuca, AZ. I should be able to do some posting over the course of the next three weeks. In the meantime, considering Ft. Huachuca's close proximity to Mexico, what better video to leave you with than this gripping animated dramatization of the illegal immigration controversy:

China's Golden Shield

The German magazine Der Spiegel takes an in-depth look at China's all too extensive system of Internet censorship:

Conventional wisdom has it that the Internet can withstand anything. Attempts to censor it are about as futile as trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. Experts have claimed that if blocked, the flow of information will simply reroute to reach its target. Too bad China isn’t listening to the experts.

"Golden Shield" is the term Chinese officials use for what may be the most sophisticated censorship system in the world. Critics like to refer to it as the Great Firewall of China (GFC). Whichever term you choose, it’s clear that over the past two weeks this virtual wall has withstood its first major trial by fire.

The Chinese crackdowns in Tibet have sparked bitter protests around the world, both online and off, since March. The Olympic torch relay has provided a particular focus (more...) for pro-Tibet activists’ wrath -- but in the People’s Republic, cyberspace has become a wholly pro-China zone.

How China Leads the World in Web Censorship

Thursday, May 08, 2008

"What they want is very dangerous"

MEMRI has some revealing excerpts from an interview with a Saudi cleric named Muhammed Al-Munajid. The following paragraphs, in which Al-Munajid describes his view of Muslim reformers, provide a clear example of the fear and hatred Islamists feel towards free thought:

"The problem is that they want to open a debate on whether Islam is true or not, and on whether Judaism and Christianity are false or not. In other words, they want to open up everything for debate. Now they want to open up all issues for debate. That's it.

"It begins with freedom of thought, it continues with freedom of speech, and it ends up with freedom of belief. So where's the conspiracy? They say: Let's have freedom of thought in Islam. Well, what do they want?

"They say: I think, therefore I want to express my thoughts. I want to express myself, I want to talk and say, for example, that there are loopholes in Islam, or that Christianity is the truth.

"Then they will talk about freedom of belief, and say that anyone is entitled to believe in whatever he wants... If you want to become an apostate - go ahead. You like Buddhism? Leave Islam, and join Buddhism. No problem. That's what freedom of belief is all about. They want freedom of everything. What they want is very dangerous.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Remembering Samizdat

In the Soviet Union in the late 1960s, as the hopes of reform aroused by Khrushchev's "Thaw" were thwarted by the post-Stalinist totalitarianism of the Brezhnev era, a new form of surreptitious free expression appeared. Called Samizdat, this form of underground literature was published in either handwritten or typewritten form and circulated from person to person. The items distributed via samizdat included both periodicals and manuscripts such as Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. Those who produced, distributed and read samizdat risked jail, the Gulag, or imprisonment in psychiatric facilities if caught by Soviet authorities.

Approximately 40 years ago, the most famous samizdat periodical was first published: The Chronicle of Current Events. To commemorate this anniversary, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has a fascinating article about the Chronicle and the woman who started it. It is not often that I agree with Joan Baez, but the following quote is not much of an exaggeration:

"Because of people like Natalya Gorbanevskaya," Joan Baez once said, "I am convinced that you and I are still alive and walking around on the face of the Earth."

Natalya Gorbanevskaya was the dissident behind "The Chronicle Of Current Events," a samizdat publication that first appeared 40 years ago this week in the Soviet Union.

It was Gorbanevskaya who single-handedly produced its first few editions, before she was arrested in 1969 and spent more than two years in a Soviet psychiatric facility.

But her fellow dissidents continued the publication of "Chronicle" after her arrest. Following its 1968 debut, for 15 years and 65 issues the "Chronicle" documented the Soviet regime's persecution of its own people. Its mimeographed issues waged an uneven struggle against the daily million-copy editions of "Pravda," "Izvestia," and other Soviet propaganda organs.

This additional quote, from liberal Russian politician Grigory Yavlinsky, aptly describes the courage of Gorbanevskaya and her comrades:

"These people knowingly sealed their own fate. They knew that sooner or later they would be cruelly punished for this, whether by imprisonment or by exile. But even knowing this, not doubting it, they held the free movement of information, the reporting to the entire world of what was happening to people in the Soviet Union, more dearly than their own fates."

(Emphasis added-DD)

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Sam Harris on Islamist Censorship

Sam Harris has published a provocative essay, at the Huffington Post of all places, on the recent controversy over Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders' film Fitna. Harris is one of several famous atheist writers who have recently published books attacking religion. As he points out in the following passage, drawing on his own experience, many Westerners are far more circumspect about criticizing one religion in particular than they are others:

Wilders, like Westergaard and the other Danish cartoonists, has been widely vilified for "seeking to inflame" the Muslim community. Even if this had been his intention, this criticism represents an almost supernatural coincidence of moral blindness and political imprudence. The point is not (and will never be) that some free person spoke, or wrote, or illustrated in such a manner as to inflame the Muslim community. The point is that only the Muslim community is combustible in this way. The controversy over Fitna, like all such controversies, renders one fact about our world especially salient: Muslims appear to be far more concerned about perceived slights to their religion than about the atrocities committed daily in its name. Our accommodation of this psychopathic skewing of priorities has, more and more, taken the form of craven and blinkered acquiescence.

There is an uncanny irony here that many have noticed. The position of the Muslim community in the face of all provocations seems to be: Islam is a religion of peace, and if you say that it isn't, we will kill you. Of course, the truth is often more nuanced, but this is about as nuanced as it ever gets: Islam is a religion of peace, and if you say that it isn't, we peaceful Muslims cannot be held responsible for what our less peaceful brothers and sisters do. When they burn your embassies or kidnap and slaughter your journalists, know that we will hold you primarily responsible and will spend the bulk of our energies criticizing you for "racism" and "Islamophobia."

Our capitulations in the face of these threats have had what is often called "a chilling effect" on our exercise of free speech. I have, in my own small way, experienced this chill first hand. First, and most important, my friend and colleague Ayaan Hirsi Ali happens to be among the hunted. Because of the failure of Western governments to make it safe for people to speak openly about the problem of Islam, I and others must raise a mountain of private funds to help pay for her round-the-clock protection. The problem is not, as is often alleged, that governments cannot afford to protect every person who speaks out against Muslim intolerance. The problem is that so few people do speak out. If there were ten thousand Ayaan Hirsi Ali's, the risk to each would be radically reduced.

As for infringements of my own speech, my first book, The End of Faith, almost did not get published for fear of offending the sensibilities of (probably non-reading) religious fanatics. W.W. Norton, which did publish the book, was widely seen as taking a risk--one probably attenuated by the fact that I am an equal-opportunity offender critical of all religious faith. However, when it came time to make final edits to the galleys of The End of Faith, many of the people I had thanked by name in my acknowledgments (including my agent at the time and my editor at Norton) independently asked to have their names removed from the book. Their concerns were explicitly for their personal safety. Given our shamefully ineffectual response to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, their concerns were perfectly understandable.

(Emphasis added-DD)

Ironically, Harris's point was proven by the Washington Post, which commissioned this piece but then refused to run it. Please read it all:

Losing Our Spines to Save Our Necks

(Link courtesy of Hot Air)