November 27, 2007

What Can I Do For Him, Here, Now?

Just before Ramadan, a non-Muslim friend asked me if I'd be willing to talk to his wife, who's been looking into Islam. She fasted part of Ramadan with us (alhamdulillah), but she's still unsure of herself. So I wrote the following as part of my most recent e-mail back to her. I'm posting a slightly revised copy of my response here, not for her sake (she's already received my e-mail), but for the sake of others who may be considering a reversion to Islam, insha'allah.

One of the reasons why this e-mail has taken a few days to write is because I wanted to address this section at length (but not too long ;) ). First, remember that the length of time in making a decision is not so important (as long as you make the right decision ;) ). I think what it all boils down to is, what type of relationship do you want to have with God? I would call this the one inescapable relationship. When someone dies, Muslims will say, "Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raje'un," meaning, "From Allah do we come and to Him do we return." Of course, many people think that they can escape this inescapable relationship (atheists and the like), but we all go back to Him in the end, when we will be judged and then sent either to Heaven or Hell. A lot of people don't like to believe in this, but that's their nafs talking. (Some people take a "universalist" approach - as in the Unitarian Universalists, which I used to belong to a long time ago. A Universalist would argue, "I can't believe that God is willing to send any human to Hell." That's their nafs, their ego, talking.)

And I think a lot of nominal Christians (and members of other religions) are going to be surprised on the Day of Judgment when they say, "Well, I lived a good life. I didn't do too much wrong." I don't think that excuse is going to fly either. Every now and then, I hear of someone's dream that, real or otherwise, sounds like it has a kernel of truth to it. One dream I heard of a few months ago was the dream of a man who had a friend, an Islamic scholar, who had died. And the dead friend said in the dream something to the effect of, "All that other stuff that we did, it didn't count for so much. What really counted was our prayer." (I told this to Milady and asked her what her parents would say in reaction to this story; she said her parents would say, "Of course!" :) )

I think we need to recognize that we need Him, but that He doesn't need us. We depend upon Him for our sustenance, whether it be physical, intellectual or spiritual, but that the way will not be easy. Of course we will go through challenging times. Does that give us the right to whine during those times, or to ignore Him as soon as the danger has passed? (There's a great pair of ayat in the Qur'an that deals with this issue, 10:22-3, where sailors pray to Allah (swt) while out on the ocean in the middle of a storm, but return to insolence once they're back on land.) Are we grateful to Him? Do we show it? I know I don't show it nearly enough. Reading the Qur'an the past couple of nights, I've read through passages that say how wonderful Heaven will be. Lounging around, eating and drinking. And I think to myself, if I reach there, insha'allah, will I be satisfied with all that? Or am I the sort of person who might say to Allah (swt), "What can I do for you, here, now?" And I realize that this is the question I need to ask myself now. What can I do for Him, here, now?

First Image of the Moon by Chang'e-1

Credit: China National Space Administration

Recently, Japan launched its first moon probe, Kaguya (Selene), which has taken some very beautiful HDTV images of the Earth and Moon. Yesterday (November 26th), the China National Space Administration released the first photo taken by their new lunar orbiter, Chang'e-1. According to Chuck Wood at LPOD, "...the first image of the Moon taken by China’s Chang’e orbiter stretches from dark-floored Hanno H to Helmholtz at bottom left. This view of the southeast limb is actually a composite of 19 frames, each 60 km wide, taken on Nov 20 and 21. When available at full size the mosaic will have a nominal resolution of 120 m, roughly comparable to that of Lunar Orbiter IV (58 - 134 m), Clementine (100 m) and SMART-1 (50 m)."

BTW, do you think the person who came up with the CNSA logo (the blue logo on top) may be a Star Trek fan? ;)

Sinking to a New Low

The group "Muslims Against Sharia" sank to a new low today when they left a comment on one of my posts. The comment was in praise of the recent Islamophobic Awareness Week (where David Horowitz and others made college students aware as to just how Islamophobic they are). I find it odd that an anti-Muslim group should resort to commenting on Muslim blogs; sorry, your voice won't be heard here. I've already deleted your comment, and will continue to do so in the future, insha'allah.

Update: "Muslims Against Sharia" continues to post comments here, which continue to be deleted. What's interesting is that, without knowing me (for I certainly don't know who they are), they've resorted to name calling ("...Islamonazis like you...") because I'm not willing to let them comment on my blog. (BTW, I did keep your comment in my e-mail in case you dispute your name calling.) Yes, I do censor comments like many other blogs; yes, this is a long-standing policy; no, I don't care about your so-called "free speech." My blog, my rules. Comprendé?

Update #2: On second thought, I've decided to publish Mr.'s ( most recent comment (his third so far), to show you all the so-called adab of this "Muslim."

Muslims Against Sharia has left a new comment on your post "Sinking to a New Low":

That wasn't name calling, you cocksucking Islamonazi (this was), that was a description. I was merely pointing out the difference between Islamonazi fucks and Muslims, but you are too fucking stupid to understand it.

If giving up Shariah means becoming like this clown, then I will gladly keep Shariah, alhamdulillah!

Update #3: There's an old saying that's applicable here: "Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt." Unfortunately, the very immature Mr. is either ignorant of this saying or hasn't taken it to heart, as he should. My point in publishing his third comment seems to have escaped him completely when he wrote his fourth (which I've already deleted). That is (because Mr. seems to need my spelling things out for him), as a supposed representative for his "organization," he thinks that being rude, vulgar and immature will make people look upon him (and them) favorably. Actually, he is his own worst enemy, making himself and his "organization" look bad all by himself. This doesn't surprise me, though, as I find it very typical of neocons. In that regard, Mr. seems to be taking lessons from "Muslims Against Shariah" member Pamela Geller Oshry (below) of the blog Atlas Shrugs who, as a neocon Islamophobe (sorry for being redundant) Jew, doesn't seem quite to fit the definition for being a Muslim. But, then, logic has never been the strong suit of the neocons.

Update #4: Mr. (who apparently has nothing else better to do in Iowa during the winter - you'd think Update #3 would have been enough of a clue - but for once writing from a computer not at work although still in the same city - and remaining just as vulgar) protests that Islamophobe Pam Atlas isn't a member of Muslims Against Sharia but merely a contributor. Whatever! The fact that Pam Atlas is affiliated in any way with Muslims Against Shariah is signal enough to any sane person that said organization shouldn't be taken seriously. (Certainly no sane person takes Pam Atlas seriously.)

Be that as it may, I do thank Mr. for all the traffic he's sent me. It's a pleasure to provide some truth about Islam and Muslims to your readers, unlike the lies and misinformation you present. I was especially happy when I got a visitor from New York yesterday, who spent over two hours on my blog (with a total of 21 hits). Say... isn't Pam Atlas from New York? ;)

November 25, 2007

What's the Airspeed Velocity of an Unladen Swallow?

It's the last week for weekly tests at my school, and I've decided to give my students a bonus question (not that I'll give them any extra points; just to amuse and confuse them ;) ):

"What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?"

"Well, you have to know these things when you're a king, you know."

November 24, 2007

Juan Cole on the Iraq War, Chretien, Bush and Afghanistan

Juan Cole at Informed Comment has an important post today that bears repeating. The first half of the post reads:

Whoever is responsible for this disgusting travesty is an automatic candidate for Keith Olbermann's "Worst Person in the World." My guess is that the trail will lead back to Donald "its not a guerrilla war" Rumsfeld and Richard Bruce "most prominent traitor in American history" Cheney. Gregg Zoroya of USA Today reports that 20,000 US troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and suffered brain injuries were never classified as wounded by the Pentagon and are not included in the official statistics for the wounded issued by the Department of Defense. Although some of the under-reporting of this condition could be inadvertent, the scale of it strongly suggests an underlying policy.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien says that it was among the great victories in his life that he stood against US pressure to join in the Iraq War.

Uh, the purpose of a wise and mature US foreign policy is to avoid close allies ending up speaking like that. Bush has destroyed half a century of good will among NATO allies, most of whom now think they are better off not following Washington's lead. Leaders who threw in with Bush, like Aznar of Spain and Berlusconi of Italy, have been ushered off the political stage by enraged publics. As someone who grew up when the US (and its currency) was respected by most Europeans and other North Americans, I am sad to see the way W. has debased our position and humiliated our country.

Among the biggest irritants in NATO countries against the US now is the mission in Afghanistan, which seems both open-ended and ultimately fruitless. Canada did not dodge that bullet, and has lost dozens of soldiers there, though you would not know it from reading US newspapers. On Friday, Pushtun guerrillas killed an Australian soldier in Uruzgan province (Mulla Omar's birthplace), and others killed 3 civilians, attacked a police checkpoint and killed 7 officers and kidnapped 6 others. (What is the mission? If the mission is to get Pushtuns to stop worrying about Islam and start welcoming foreign troops in their country, I wouldn't hold my breath).

November 19, 2007

I Didn't Vote for Bush Either

I'd been meaning to write about this since last week, but hadn't had the chance. Last Wednesday, the New York Times published an article about the American representatives at the World Bridge Championships who held up a small sign at the awards dinner that read, "We did not vote for Bush." The photograph of the woman holding up the sign, along with her teammates, all smiling broadly, brought out the typical hysterical overreaction from the right, with accusations of "treason" and "sedition." And while that overreaction might be worth a blog post in and of itself (which I don't expect to write), what I wanted to focus on was the issue of public diplomacy among citizens overseas.

As an expatriate who's lived in Asia for a long time now (six years and counting), this is an issue that I'm rather familiar with. Now, these women at the Bridge tournament were not expatriates, but they were overseas, representing our country. Regardless of whether we think of ourselves as "ambassadors" for our country when we travel abroad, we in fact are.

Now, as an unofficial "ambassador" for their country, holding up that sign was in poor taste, even though the team's captain, Gail Greenberg, said in the NYT article that the sign was "...a spontaneous gesture, 'a moment of levity...'” I've no doubt that it was. I can also sympathize with the women. In situations like this, when you're overseas and your government isn't behaving normally, it's quite common for others to ask for your opinion. "What's going on over there?" Been there, done that...lots of times. And in private, I'll be very blunt with my criticisms about the U.S. (Ask Milady. ;) ) Those of us who lived in Arizona during the turmoil of the Evan Mecham administration (January 1987 - April 1988) know all too well what it's like to have a daft, unpopular government embarrassing the rest of the populace. Stories abounded in the newspapers at the time of Arizonans going out of state and having people ask them, "Just what the f*** is going on in Arizona?" It's the same situation now with the Bush administration. As the NYT wrote,

Ms. Greenberg said she decided to put up the sign in response to questions from players from other countries about American interrogation techniques, the war in Iraq and other foreign policy issues.

“There was a lot of anti-Bush feeling, questioning of our Iraq policy and about torture,” Ms. Greenberg said. “I can’t tell you it was an overwhelming amount, but there were several specific comments, and there wasn’t the same warmth you usually feel at these events.”


“What we were trying to say, not to Americans but to our friends from other countries, was that we understand that they are questioning and critical of what our country is doing these days, and we want you to know that we, too, are critical...”

I've no problem with that; as far as I'm concerned, let people around the world know that you're unhappy with the way the United States is being governed at this time. In a country that prides itself on free speech, that's neither treason nor sedition. As an "ambassador" for your country, people will trust you and your opinions more for being truly "fair and balanced," instead of toeing the line like some party apparatchik. People around the world can see through the BS just as well as anyone else. But do everyone a favor and leave the signs at home.

By the way, I didn't vote for Bush (or Mecham) either.

November 18, 2007


A print ad for the Head snowboard ad campaign, "Jump Higher." From the advertising agency Advico Young & Rubicam of Zurich, Switzerland.

(HT: Advertising is Good for You)

November 17, 2007

Earth, by Kaguya

The other day I posted several high-definition TV pictures of the Earth and Moon by the Japanese satellite Kaguya ("Selene"). That post has been fairly popular so far, and so I've decided to add a second post.

Credit: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

This photo, also taken by the HDTV camera, shows the Earth from 110,000 kilometers on September 29th. (The photo was released to the public on October 1st.) Both Greenland and the western half of South America are easily seen in this image. North America is not as easy to make out, although I believe I can see landmarks such as Florida and the Chesapeake Bay region in the photo.

Funeral Masks

"Pastor Dan" at Street Prophets had an interesting diary the other day about a recent funeral he attended. He saw a woman take a picture of the deceased and asked the question, "Why do people take pictures of the dead?" While I'm certainly no expert on the subject, I decided to add a couple of comments to that diary, which have been expanded upon below. This is what Dan originally had to say:

An Aged Relative took a snapshot of the deceased to add to her collection. She said she had one of her mother, father, and sister.

This is one of those customs I don't judge but can't pretend to understand. I suppose it's no odder than laying out the decedent in the front parlor, a custom still followed in some sub-cultures.

But yeah, what gives?

Several people who had made earlier comments on Pastor Dan's diary noted the popularity of photographs taken of the dead during the Victorian age, but the practice actually goes back thousands of years. I'm not sure if anyone knows exactly when the practice of making a death mask or funeral mask first started, but this practice has occurred in many different cultures. Both the ancient Egyptians and Greeks made funeral masks for their dead, especially for royalty. Some of these masks are very famous and familiar to us; others not so much. Of course, nearly everyone will recognize the funeral mask of King Tutankhamen, made of gold and a number of semi-precious stones, including lapis lazuli, carnelian, quartz, turquoise and obsidian, plus colored glass. However, the Egyptians also made mummy masks for non-royal subjects, both men and women, up through the Roman era. These masks were much less expensive than royal masks, of course, often being made of "cartonnage," which was a process similar to papier-mâché in which layers of linen were plastered together, molded and then painted. In later periods, papyrus scrolls were used in place of the linen. (Source)

Heinrich Schliemann, the amateur archaeologist who discovered the ruins of Troy, is also famous for having dug up the shaft graves of Mycenae. Among the art objects found in the shaft graves of Mycenae's Grave Circle A included what is now known as the Mask of Agamemnon, made of gold, although the mask (along with four others found at Mycenae) are now dated to the Late Helladic I period (c. 1500-1550 BCE), perhaps 200-250 years or so before the life of the actual Agamemnon (if he was, in fact, an historical figure, which I believe he was).

Gold, of course, was a popular choice of material for royal death masks around the world, but other materials were used as well. Wood was a popular material in many cultures, such as the Ibo (right) and the Egyptians, being abundant and easy to carve. Jade was popular among the Mayans and the Chinese, the latter also making funeral masks in bronze.

Into the Roman era, we find a significant difference between the earlier peoples versus those of the later antiquity: the funeral masks are kept among the living instead of being buried with the dead. The ancient Romans made funeral masks of their ancestors, normally of wax, but hung them in the front lobby to their home so that visitors could see the visages of prominent ancestors (especially those who had held public office, such as the consulship). In Tom Holland's book, Rubicon, he wrote:

"Beyond a portico designed to echo the features of a temple, the walls of the atrium were hung with forbidding images, the wax death-masks of magistrattes, bearing witness to the honours won by the family in the past. Painted lines connected the portraits, reaching backwards into time..." (p. 116)

In the West, the practice of creating funeral masks has lasted into the twentieth century, even at a time when photography has made the masks irrelevant. Ludwig van Beethoven's plaster funeral mask has survived to this day (top photo, above), as has that of the Bohemian-Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. What's interesting is a comment made by a friend of Beethoven, Stephan von Breuning:

"Such casts of great men are often permitted," wrote Bruening beforehand, "and if we forbade it, our refusal might afterwards be regarded as an encroachment upon the rights of the public."

The alleged death mask of Bruce Lee.

Your Tax Dollars at Work

The Carpetbagger Report has an odd, disturbing account about Associate Justice Clarence Thomas' behavior at a recent 25th anniversary dinner for the Federalist Society. The man's only 59, but this anecdote doesn't strike me as behavior or thinking befitting a Supreme Court Justice:

It’s hardly the most substantive of observations, but I couldn’t help but notice that Clarence Thomas, one of the three sitting high-court justices on hand, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence with his public appearances.

[T]here were signs that Thomas is not a regular on the speaking circuit. "You know, it’s really hard to talk up here when this guy in front of me keeps moving," Thomas announced early in his speech. He was referring to a television screen on the floor in front of him that was showing his own image — but because nobody but Thomas could see the TV, nobody knew what he was talking about.

"It’s me! I see myself moving around!" Thomas explained, then let out a resonant laugh: "Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!" He continued: "This guy keeps moving around in front of me. Jeez! At any rate, stop looking at this guy in front of me! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You look at it and think, it’s too much of a good thing!"

A technician covered up the offending screen with a black cloth.

Thomas, who is well known for not saying a word during 16 years of oral arguments, probably should start bringing his reticence on the road with him.

The last comment, about Thomas "not saying a word during 16 years of oral arguments" is not completely true - he has spoken occasionally during oral arguments - but one has to wonder about his state of mind in situations like this.

November 15, 2007

Update to "LAPD Announces Muslim Mapping Project"


Five days ago, I wrote about how the Los Angeles Police Department was trying to map "likely terrorist breeding grounds in Muslim areas" of LA. I just received an e-mail from the Muslim American Society which announced that the LAPD has canceled the mapping project:

A police plan to map out Muslim communities, a proposal that civil rights groups sharply criticized as racial and religious profiling, has been shelved, a police spokeswoman said Wednesday.

The LAPD planned to have its counterterrorism bureau identify Muslim enclaves to determine which might be likely to become isolated and susceptible to "violent, ideologically based extremism."

Several Muslim groups and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California criticized the plan and sent a letter to Deputy Chief Michael P. Downing expressing their concerns.

"There was a clear message from the Muslim community that they were not comfortable with it. So we listened," said Mary Grady, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Police Department. She couldn't immediately say when the plan might resume.

Grady said the remaining part of the initiative, which includes outreach efforts to strengthen ties with Muslim communities, would continue, and police planned to meet with Muslim leaders Thursday.


There are an estimated 500,000 Muslims in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties.

November 14, 2007

Earth Over the Moon and Earthset, by Kaguya

Credit (both photos): Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

Some beautiful photos (actually video outtakes from a high definition TV camera) from the new Japanese spacecraft Kaguya (aka "Selene"). In the above image (click on the photo to enlarge), taken on November 7th, the Moon's surface is near the South Pole, and the Australian Continent (center left) and Asian Continent (lower right) can be seen. In this image, the upper side of the Earth is the Southern Hemisphere, thus the Australian Continent looks upside-down. According to Chuck Wood over at LPOD, the crater in the lower center right (where you only the rim is exposed to the sunlight) is Shackleton; the far hill underneath the Earth is Malapert Peak, and the hill in front of that (with the crater to the left) is the "Peak of Sunlight."

In the image below, the Earth is setting toward the horizon near the Moon's South Pole. It took about 70 seconds from the left image to the right image (complete setting).

One thing I find interesting about these images is that, even though they are video outtakes, they have a different "texture" than one might expect. The images of the Earth almost look like paintings (perhaps in an Impressionist style; whaddyathink, Izzy Mo? :) )

November 13, 2007

Update to "Physician, Heal Thyself"

My blog post from the other day, Physician, Heal Thyself, got a mixed reaction. Personally, I felt it was one of my better posts in quite some time. And initial reactions were quite positive. Being selected for Ijtema was an honor, being the first time they had noticed me. And then, when I cross-posted the diary over at Street Prophets, it was quickly promoted to the "front page," which happens for noteworthy diaries (and was another first-time honor for me). Moreover, my essay inspired another man to write the diary, Can America Respect Islam?, which also generated a lot of comment.

However, when I posted this essay over at Daily Kos, the diary was largely ignored. I'd like to say that this was because I posted it at the wrong time of day (during the middle of the night over in the US), but the next diary posted after mine got well over 500 comments and immediately made it to the "Recommended Diaries" listing. C'est la vie.

What I wanted to do here was to highlight three sets of comments between myself and others from both Street Prophets and Daily Kos that I thought were of interest. The first comment was by StarWoman on Street Prophets, who wrote:

Cultural arrogance, alas, has long been part of American culture.

The real problem is not that American needs to promote its own values and cultures to the world, but that the world needs to promote its values and cultures to the U.S.

Amen to that.

Do you have any suggestions as to how the rest of the world can do that?

My response:

Start with TV

In S'pore, we have documentaries and TV series that focus on different parts of the world. Two weekly programs that my wife and I watch every now and then are "Japan Hour" and "Dynamic Korea." (In fact, I caught the tail end of this week's "Dynamic Korea" about an hour ago.) These are programs that focus on cultural aspects of these two countries; "Japan Hour" is primarily about food and inns, while "Dynamic Korea" covers a broader variety of topics. Now the distance between Singapore and these two countries is about seven hours' flight, which is exactly how long it took me to fly from NYC to Switzerland back in 2001. So, although it's all part of eastern Asia, it's still a considerable distance from here (like crossing the Atlantic).

Of course these are only two programs. Much of the news here focuses on the arc of Asia from Pakistan to Japan, occasionally from the Middle East and Australia. The BBC World Service gives the British perspective, CNN the American, CNA (Channel News Asia) the Asian. With respect to sports, S'poreans prolly have a better knowledge of the placement of teams in the English Premier League and the Spanish Primera Liga than they do of their own teams in the "S League." I catch sports broadcasts for cricket, rugby, badminton, table tennis, billiards, and several other sports, in addition to the traditional slew of American sports. (About the only American league that's not shown here consistently is the NHL, although the broadcasters will show the Stanley Cup finals. Also, I got really upset this summer when the Tour de France wasn't broadcast, which I've watched every other year here.)

So if I were going to expand American horizons by showing them the world, I'd start with TV first.

The second set of comments was started by "DreadWolf" at Daily Kos, who wrote:

I've worked with Muslims for many years and have mutual respect for those I know personally.

I think you are actually contributing to the problem, though perhaps unintentionally. For most Americans who do not work with Muslims, all they hear from the Muslim community is cries of victimization. Though there is certainly much America can do, I notice you do not mention anything the Muslim world could or should do to address the discord. Sadly, that one-sidedness is the common theme that usually comes through quite clearly from Muslim advocates.

For example, your main message is that Americans should try to learn more about Muslim/world values and culture, but you preface it with "we're not necessarily interested in yours".

Whether intended or not, that comes across as an air of superiority, and Americans pick up on it quite well. It only reinforces the existing perceptions.

My response:

...I notice you do not mention anything the Muslim world could or should do to address the discord. Sadly, that one-sidedness is the common theme that usually comes through quite clearly from Muslim advocates.

I believe the "one-sidedness" only appears that way because American culture is so self-absorbed. The rest of the world is plugged into all of the world; we frequently know what's going on elsewhere and not just at "home." American culture is mostly plugged into America, with a little bit plugged into western Europe and Japan. Take the news, for example. Most Americans get their news from American networks: CNN, Fox, the three primary networks. How many news networks do they get from overseas? I live in SE Asia; I get CNN, BBC and Channel News Asia (plus two business news networks, plus a couple other stations/minor networks). The Asian networks normally cover everything that happens from Pakistan to Japan, plus the Middle East and Australia on occasion. You'll be lucky if you find that coverage on CNN. The Muslim world discusses the "discord" fairly frequently; one of the local TV channels here often discusses social problems among the local Muslim community, such programs being aired during prime time. The problem isn't that the issues aren't being discussed locally or internationally (ever catch the Doha Debates?), it's that Americans don't pay attention - and that makes it seem "one-sided."

For example, your main message is that Americans should try to learn more about Muslim/world values and culture, but you preface it with "we're not necessarily interested in yours".

You must remember, the rest of the world knows far more about America and American culture than the typical American knows about what it's like in the rest of the world. They've already been able to judge American culture and values, and have largely found it lacking. (A lot of Americans find their own culture lacking; I'm sure I don't need to provide you with any examples.)

Whether intended or not, that comes across as an air of superiority, and Americans pick up on it quite well. It only reinforces the existing perceptions.

This as to, say, all the Americans telling the rest of the world how superior American culture and values are to their own? The Muslim world in particular tends to view everything with a moral lens. The ends and the means. It's not so difficult for the rest of the world to see American culture for what it is: shallow, vapid, arrogant and ignorant. L.C.D. The point of Kaplan's argument was that Americans used music (jazz and rock) to help smooth out their differences with communist societies. "Hey, those Americans can play really good jazz, no? They can't be all bad." Today, Muslim society - and the rest of the world - get an extremely steady stream of American culture - in all forms of media. And having viewed that stream of culture with their moral lens, they have to question the type of values that produce that culture. It's as if Americans were saying, "Hey, come be decadent with us." Why would Muslims want to debase themselves to the American cultural level? If that comes across as an "air of superiority," then that's a good thing.

The last set of comments was started by "pico," who was reviewing the post as part of the "Diary Rescue" the Daily Kos staff do every day (highlighting noteworthy diaries that might otherwise be missed by the "Kossack" community; there are so many diaries being published on Daily Kos every day that it's quite easy to miss some of the better ones):

...[W]hile I agree with much of what you say, here's one point of disagreement:

[America] perhaps even needs to tone down the amount of "culture" it bombards the world with.

I'm not exactly sure what you mean by that, since there's no monolithic America that exports culture: what goes around the world goes via individual artists, groups, and companies. Are you suggesting, for example, that bands agree not to tour as much? Otherwise I'm not sure what you mean.

My response:

You're right when you say there's no "monolithic America" when it comes to culture. Much of the culture exported comes in drips and drabs (the individual artists and groups), and that's not going to ruffle too many feathers. It's the corporations, acting singly and together, that can cause problems.

For example, when I lived in Korea, there was a law at the time which stated that foreign films (read, "Hollywood") could only have x% of all movie showings. The law was put into place to help protect the Korean film industry, which has been growing over the decades and now produces some quality films. However, the government wanted to make sure the Korean theaters weren't overwhelmed with the numerous Hollywood productions that could otherwise flood into that country's cinemas. Hollywood had been trying to lift that restriction for some time (I don't know if it's been lifted since I left there).

The practical benefit to the Korean public was that they got to watch the better movies made in America. Hollywood wasn't going to waste their percentage of theater showings by sending over schlock; they sent over the better movies. Hollywood still made a significant chunk of change from the film rentals; they just didn't make as much as they would have wanted. And the Korean film industry was given some breathing space, which has helped the industry to grow. (Hopefully, Korean movies are making their way to the US because some of them are quite good.)

TV is in a similar situation, in which you have large, powerful corporations that are able to sell broadcasts of many TV series. However, that problem is somewhat muted in that American networks aren't able to dominate, say, Asian TV as much as Hollywood can dominate the theaters in that there are significant numbers of native-language networks that broadcast here as well. Still, you could easily spend all day watching American television (and movies) here in Asia. And that's the problem I find when America bombards the world with its culture.

Pico's response:

Fair points

Although it seems the scaling-back effort still has to come from other nations, right? I can't imagine how one would ask film producers not to market their films overseas: but you've given a good example of how a nation can stem the flow of Hollywood into its theatres.

November 11, 2007

Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet (1)

Over at Street Prophets, in response to my Physician, Heal Thyself" post, I was asked what novels, movies or documentaries I might recommend that would give insight into other cultures or sensibilities. One of the documentaries I recommended with regard to Islam is Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet, originally aired by PBS. I just stumbled across five video clips from that documentary, and will put them on my blog one at a time, insha'allah. All of the clips can be found here.

November 10, 2007

"Physician, Heal Thyself"

Fred Kaplan at Slate has an article that asks the question, "Can American culture make Muslims love us?" Most of the first page of this two-page article meanders, but Kaplan gets to the point on the second page:

So, again, here's the question: What does America have going for it now? What could we send out to the world that might have the same impact on, say, Arabs and Muslims today that rock, jazz, and B-movies had on Russians and Europeans during the Cold War?

It may be, as Hughes (and both women who preceded her in the job) concluded, that there are no answers. The roar of Abu Ghraib, water-boarding, and military occupation—or even the quieter but still teeth-gnashing encounters with rude officials at U.S. embassies and airports—drowns out, or infects, our most engaging art forms and most strenuous attempts at public diplomacy. Even in its heyday, the U.S. Information Agency could do little to counter the clear "message" transmitted by the war in Vietnam. In that sense, policies do trump culture.

But let's say the next president begins to readjust American policy. It's not clear that anything in our culture might help restore our image.

First, the case of Cold War Europe might hold few lessons on how to mold the hearts and minds of current-day Arabs and Muslims.

Many people under Communist rule hated their governments. Since the world was divided into two blocs (the American-led West and the Soviet-led East), those who hated the East were predisposed to like the West. But today, in a world of dispersed power, people have many models from which to choose; Saudis or Egyptians who despise their autocratic regimes are more likely to find solace in Islamic fundamentalism than in any Western beacon.

During the Cold War, information was also divided in two: the Communist organs on the one hand, the BBC World Service and Voice of America on the other. The choice was stark and clear. One appeal of jazz and rock, especially in times of intense crackdown, was their forbidden status. Now, with satellite dishes and the Internet, everything is accessible. The challenge of sending out a message isn't that the foes are jamming the signal; it's that the channels are cluttered with so many other messages.

Once more, then: What is to be done? What should—what can—the next president do to improve America's image in the world?

There are some obvious measures. Train immigration and customs officials to lighten up; there are ways to stay on alert while making ordinary tourists feel welcome. Send speakers on foreign tours, even if they're (within reason) critical of U.S. policies. Translate more classic American books and documents, and make them available at foreign libraries. (Another way of putting these last two ideas: Bring back the U.S. Information Agency—an independent bureau, separate from the State Department, that promotes American values and culture, not an administration's policies.)

But what else? If you were president, or chairman of this revived USIA, how would you promote our values and culture? Quite apart from changing foreign and military policy (that's the subject of another column), how would you make America more appealing or at least less hated?

I had been thinking about this article for a couple hours when I mentioned it to Milady. "Are we [Muslims] supposed to hate them?" she asked.

I then explained that this is what Americans have been thinking since 2001, repeating that obnoxious line, "They hate us for our freedoms."
Milady laughed. She doesn't keep up with American politics as much as I do, for the obvious reason. "That's so narrow-minded," she said. Then, after a few seconds, she said, "If anything, I hate them for their ignorance."

And I would agree. On the one hand, if you want to improve relations with the Muslim world, changing foreign and military policy is the best thing the U.S. could do (NOW), starting with Iraq and Palestine. But if you want to focus only on soft issues like values and culture, I'd say that communications is the key. But not just a one-sided dialog, the United States to the Muslim world, as is currently happening, but with the United States also willing to both listen and learn from the Muslim world (and the rest of the world, for that matter).

Too many Westerners are well-meaning but ignorant fools who think, "If only Muslims would be more like us." That's not going to work. We Muslims have our own values and cultures, thank you very much, and we're not necessarily interested in yours. "But if only you knew what American culture is really like." Sorry, that's not really the case. As an American, I'm all too familiar with American values and culture, but I've been to Europe and Asia and have seen how pervasive American culture is around the world. Yes, granted, much of it is "Hollywood," and sometimes non-Americans take the wrong impression away from watching American films and TV shows. (I knew a Muslim woman who often watched the "woman in danger"-type movie that was prevalent on the Lifetime channel, and she was more or less convinced that that was how everyday life was like for American women.) Regardless, even with the distorted image, I think most non-Americans understand American values and culture fairly well. The problem then isn't so much that America needs to promote its values and culture to the world, but that it perhaps even needs to tone down the amount of "culture" it bombards the world with. American culture, especially in the form of music, movies and television, but even through the Internet, is extremely pervasive. I live literally on the other side of the world from where I was born, yet eleven of the twenty cable TV channels I receive are American.

The real problem is not that America needs to promote its own values and cultures to the world, but that the world needs to promote its values and cultures to the U.S. Most Americans are terribly parochial and ignorant about the rest of the world. What makes matters worse is that, in addition to the well-meaning but ignorant fools, you also have the malicious but equally ignorant fools (witness the recent "Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week"). Many of the suggestions Mr. Kaplan made are fine, in and of themselves, but the single most important recommendation I could make to him would come from the Bible (Luke 4:23): "Physician, heal thyself." Instead of spending money seeking to change others, spend your money on trying to change yourselves. Educate yourselves on what the rest of the world is like. Those decades worth of dusty National Geographic magazines obviously haven't done much good in teaching you all about foreign lands and cultures. Instead of seeking foreign college students to attend American universities, hoping that they will be favorably impressed with the U.S., send American college students abroad for at least one year to see what the world is like. (And don't make this program only for those students whose families can afford this; set a goal of, say, 10% of all American college students to study abroad.) Tone down the missionary attitudes and seek to understand how other cultures work the way they do. Often there's a logic that not only makes sense, but may be a superior method for problems common to all of us. Work to tamp down the misinformation being spewed by the malicious but equally ignorant fools. Muslims know the score; relations will never improve as long as Islamophobia runs rampant through the U.S. We can see the obvious historical parallel between today and the antisemitism of Nazi Germany. And last, but certainly not least, please just accept us for the way we are.

One, be sure to visit my update to this post.

Second, this post was linked to the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy. (Thanks to John Brown!)

And, third, I noted in my web statistics counter that someone at the U.S. State Department visited this post early Tuesday morning (Washington DC time). I hope that this administration will take some of these suggestions (in both this post and in my update) to heart. We are all concerned about the relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world; let's open the doors of communication and keep Clausewitz and his theory on war ("war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means") in the closet where he belongs.

Darth Vader in Love

This is rather funny. Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, finds his knees turning to jelly when he meets Commander Ada Larkin, who wears a pink near-replica of his outfit (I love the little bangs curve on the front of her helmet, over her forehead).

"I am such an idiot!"

From the Peter Serafinowicz Show, on BBC Two:

(HT: IZ Reloaded)

LAPD Announces Muslim Mapping Project

Falafel; Try it, you'll like it!Just visited Talking Points Memo for the first time and came across this link to a UPI story about the LAPD mapping "likely terrorist breeding grounds in Muslim areas" of LA. Maybe they should be contacting the FBI office up in San Francisco for some "inter-departmental co-oper-a-shun" over a "de-lish-shus" plate of falafel.

And, guys? Make sure that map is three-dimensional, because most of the clowns you're looking for are probably going to be living underground in Mama's basement (like this guy).

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 9 (UPI) -- The Los Angeles Police Department announced a mapping program used by its anti-terrorism bureau to identity likely terrorist breeding grounds in Muslim areas.

Michael P. Downing, a deputy Los Angeles police chief, detailed a joint program with the University of Southern California to compile mapping data demarcating Muslim areas deemed "at-risk communities," the Los Angeles Times reported Friday.

"We are looking for communities and enclaves based on risk factors that are likely to become isolated," Downing said.

Civil liberties and Muslim groups decried the project saying it is "nothing short of racial profiling."

"When the starting point for a police investigation is 'let's look at all Muslims,' we are going down a dangerous road," said Peter Bibring, a lawyer with the ACLU of Southern California, in an interview with The New York Times.

Hussam Ayloush, the head of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Los Angeles, said the project "turns the LAPD officers into religious political analysts, while their role is to fight crime and enforce the laws."

Downing said the Muslim Public Affairs Council accepted the program "in concept."

"We will work with the LAPD and give them input, while at the same time making sure that people's civil liberties are protected," Salam Al-Marayati, the group's director, said in the Los Angeles Times.

November 8, 2007

Drop the Falafel, and Put Your Hands Up!

A strange story out of CQ Politics the other day; apparently, the FBI had been trying to data mine Bay area grocery stores in an effort to find Iranian terrorists:

Like Hansel and Gretel hoping to follow their bread crumbs out of the forest, the FBI sifted through customer data collected by San Francisco-area grocery stores in 2005 and 2006, hoping that sales records of Middle Eastern food would lead to Iranian terrorists.

The idea was that a spike in, say, falafel sales, combined with other data, would lead to Iranian secret agents in the south San Francisco-San Jose area.

The brainchild of top FBI counterterrorism officials Phil Mudd and Willie T. Hulon, according to well-informed sources, the project didn’t last long. It was torpedoed by the head of the FBI’s criminal investigations division, Michael A. Mason, who argued that putting somebody on a terrorist list for what they ate was ridiculous — and possibly illegal.

A check of federal court records in California did not reveal any prosecutions developed from falafel trails.


As ridiculous as it sounds, the groceries counting scheme is a measure of how desperate the FBI is to disrupt domestic terrorism plots.

Of course, if the FBI really believes tracking falafel sales will lead them to terrorists and their sympathizers, they might just start with this man:

November 1, 2007

Singapore Scavenger Hunt

I had to create a scavenger hunt for some of our students wherein the teenagers have to take photographs of six landmarks in the Singapore financial district (where our school is located). These are the clues I wrote and the photos I took for my colleague, who'll be judging the various teams' efforts:

If you know the Financial District well, you can find:
1. Seven columns that support no roof
(artwork in a small park behind Capital Tower, on Cecil Street)

2. Three men who never move (two photo murals of Singaporeans of the early 1900s on a building's exterior wall, on Amoy Street)

3. Two stars and moons that reach toward heaven (the twin minarets of Masjid Al-Abrar, on Telok Ayer Street)

4. A green demon who watches over an intersection (a statue of a Thai demon (?) in front of the Thai Air offices, on Cecil Street)

5. A Phoenix bird that can never fly away (a bas-relief sculpture on a wall of the Thiam Hock Keng Temple, on Telok Ayer Street)

6. A sign for a forgotten seashore bay (a local historical society sign with regard to Telok Ayer Street; Telok Ayer (which literally means "Bay Water" in Malay) was once the shoreline for this part of the island; all of the land to the southeast of Telok Ayer, including Cecil Street and Shenton Way, is reclaimed land)