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Posts For: March 15, 2007

Sunshine on a Rainy Week

You may not have heard the exciting news, but this is Sunshine Week.

According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the sponsor of this occasion, we should spend these seven days engaged in “dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.” Who could be against that?

But let’s dig a little deeper. Among the things exercising the advocates of “open government” these days is the fact that, on the basis of security concerns, the Bush administration has been withdrawing from circulation lots of official documents–more than a million of them–from the National Archive in Washington D.C. Some of the withdrawn documents apparently are old. Some more than a century old.

The Associated Press told the story in a March 13 dispatch. “In some cases, entire file boxes were removed without significant review”; inside them may have been a wealth of innocuous materials. Tom Blanton, who runs the National Security Archive at George Washington University, finds this to be “a scandal, a case of misplaced priorities.” Patrice McDermott, who heads up a web-based organization called OpenTheGovernment.org, calls it “a questionable use of tax dollars.”

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You may not have heard the exciting news, but this is Sunshine Week.

According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the sponsor of this occasion, we should spend these seven days engaged in “dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.” Who could be against that?

But let’s dig a little deeper. Among the things exercising the advocates of “open government” these days is the fact that, on the basis of security concerns, the Bush administration has been withdrawing from circulation lots of official documents–more than a million of them–from the National Archive in Washington D.C. Some of the withdrawn documents apparently are old. Some more than a century old.

The Associated Press told the story in a March 13 dispatch. “In some cases, entire file boxes were removed without significant review”; inside them may have been a wealth of innocuous materials. Tom Blanton, who runs the National Security Archive at George Washington University, finds this to be “a scandal, a case of misplaced priorities.” Patrice McDermott, who heads up a web-based organization called OpenTheGovernment.org, calls it “a questionable use of tax dollars.”

And it certainly does sound questionable, perhaps even worse.

But there is more to this story.

The AP report goes on to inform us that many of the documents removed from circulation “include the presumably dangerous, such as nearly half an enormous database from the Federal Emergency Management Agency with information about all federal facilities.” They also encompassed about “80 cubic feet of naval facility plans and blueprints.”

The entire effort to remove official documents from public view was set in motion after September 11 to safeguard “records of concern,” i.e., reports, blueprints, material pertaining to nuclear-technology, photos or sketches of sensitive installations, anything else that could be useful to terrorists.

Yes, a lot of perfectly mundane information was caught up in the sweep, including architectural drawings of LBJ’s presidential library in Austin, Texas. But as archive officials told the AP “We just felt we couldn’t take the time and didn’t always have the expertise” to review them all. The more urgent task was to get the sensitive ones–like information about the vulnerability of chemical plants and recipes for making biological warfare agents–off the shelves and away from terrorist hands.

Is this a scandal? Is the Bush administration wasting taxpayer money to pursue its obsession with secrecy? Or is it something else?

We certainly do need more dialogue about open government in the age of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. A nuclear explosion over New York would be brighter than a thousand suns. Let’s use the occasion of Sunshine Week to engage in seven days of dialogue about that.

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Is Ayaan Hirsi Ali a “Fundamentalist”?

The novelist Peter De Vries once observed that there are certain people who appear profound on the surface while deep down they remain superficial. This seems a fair characterization of anyone who could take seriously as an indictment the term “Enlightenment fundamentalist,” coined by Timothy Garton Ash to describe the fearless critic of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. As an act of verbal jujitsu, “Enlightenment fundamentalist” seems arresting at first. But just try to locate the intellectual and moral ties that bind, say, Sayyid Qutb to Baruch Spinoza, and you will come up empty-handed.

Hirsi Ali’s unapologetic preference for rationalism over “revealed” truth is not rooted in her own bone-chilling experiences, as she emphasizes in her new memoir, Infidel. (She was subjected to genital mutilation, arranged marriage, and regular beatings delivered by both kin and cleric.) Rather, through reading and common sense, she concluded that the open, secular society, where women are not treated as divinely licensed sex slaves, is self-evidently better than the closed, Islamic one, where they are.

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The novelist Peter De Vries once observed that there are certain people who appear profound on the surface while deep down they remain superficial. This seems a fair characterization of anyone who could take seriously as an indictment the term “Enlightenment fundamentalist,” coined by Timothy Garton Ash to describe the fearless critic of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. As an act of verbal jujitsu, “Enlightenment fundamentalist” seems arresting at first. But just try to locate the intellectual and moral ties that bind, say, Sayyid Qutb to Baruch Spinoza, and you will come up empty-handed.

Hirsi Ali’s unapologetic preference for rationalism over “revealed” truth is not rooted in her own bone-chilling experiences, as she emphasizes in her new memoir, Infidel. (She was subjected to genital mutilation, arranged marriage, and regular beatings delivered by both kin and cleric.) Rather, through reading and common sense, she concluded that the open, secular society, where women are not treated as divinely licensed sex slaves, is self-evidently better than the closed, Islamic one, where they are.

This did not stop Garton Ash from writing, apropos of Hirsi Ali’s previous book, The Caged Virgin, that her career exhibited “a pattern familiar to historians of political intellectuals.” As he put it, she “has gone from one extreme to the other, with an emotional energy perfectly summed up by Shakespeare: ‘As the heresies that men do leave/are hated most of those they did deceive.’” (It’s in keeping with such generous standards of analysis that Garton Ash fails to mention the high irony of the fact that his quotation’s source, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, lampoons the foolishness of . . . arranged marriage, one of Hirsi Ali’s bêtes-noires.)

In both of her books, Hirsi Ali shows that her disgust and outrage have been fueled not by a feeling of having been personally “deceived” but by the conditions she has witnessed around her. She ran for a seat in the Dutch parliament in order to force Holland to gather information about the incidence of domestic violence—including sexual abuse and incest—and the ethnic background of its perpetrators. She also wanted the government to “investigate the number of excisions of little girls that took place every year on Dutch kitchen tables.”

Right-thinking intellectuals may choose to ignore or rationalize Koranic injunctions like “Your wives are your tillage, go in unto your tillage in what manner so ever you will,” arguing that these are only interpreted literally in a few third-world countries. Yet Hirsi Ali, who grew up in Somalia and traveled with her divided family to Saudi Arabia and Kenya, stands as a living reply: these literalists really get around. They are now, in fact, comfortably ensconced in cosmopolitan cities like London and Amsterdam, where Theo van Gogh, her friend and collaborator on the film Submission, was pulled off his bicycle and shot to death by Mohammed Bouyeri in 2004.

What best refutes Garton Ash’s charge of fundamentalism is the demonstrable fact that, even in her newfound atheism, Hirsi Ali can still pay homage to the rituals of faith. She writes in Infidel: “People were patient with each other in the Grand Mosque, and communal—everyone washing his or her feet in the same fountain, with no shoving or prejudice. We were all Muslims in God’s house, and it was beautiful. It had a quality of timelessness. I think this is one reasons Muslims believe that Islam means peace: because in a large, cool place full of kindness you do feel peaceful.”

Now show me bin Laden’s public acknowledgment that the Bill of Rights has its charms, too.

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Free Suleiman!

On March 12 an Egyptian court began hearing the appeal of Abdel Kareem Suleiman, an Egyptian blogger sentenced to four years in prison for his writings. This case is unlike that of Alaa, a prominent Egyptian blogger imprisoned for forty days last year. Alaa had been arrested at a demonstration, thus leaving some ambiguity about whether he had been singled out because of his blog or merely suffered the fate of other street protesters in Egypt. But Abdel Kareem was charged purely on account of his writing.

This is therefore a portentous civil liberties case. Blogging has exploded in the Middle East, rapidly eroding the region’s tradition of state control of communications. Not everyone has access to the Internet today, but it is only a matter of time until they do. Last year, an association of Egyptian bloggers announced that it had passed the milestone of one thousand members. The number in Iran is much larger. And even in Saudi Arabia, with its tight traditional controls, I discovered many bloggers on a recent visit. State interference has consisted of blocking sites that go too far, but this can be circumvented by the tech-savvy, and it cannot stop communications that rely on a satellite signal rather than on a wire, as will also become universal.

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On March 12 an Egyptian court began hearing the appeal of Abdel Kareem Suleiman, an Egyptian blogger sentenced to four years in prison for his writings. This case is unlike that of Alaa, a prominent Egyptian blogger imprisoned for forty days last year. Alaa had been arrested at a demonstration, thus leaving some ambiguity about whether he had been singled out because of his blog or merely suffered the fate of other street protesters in Egypt. But Abdel Kareem was charged purely on account of his writing.

This is therefore a portentous civil liberties case. Blogging has exploded in the Middle East, rapidly eroding the region’s tradition of state control of communications. Not everyone has access to the Internet today, but it is only a matter of time until they do. Last year, an association of Egyptian bloggers announced that it had passed the milestone of one thousand members. The number in Iran is much larger. And even in Saudi Arabia, with its tight traditional controls, I discovered many bloggers on a recent visit. State interference has consisted of blocking sites that go too far, but this can be circumvented by the tech-savvy, and it cannot stop communications that rely on a satellite signal rather than on a wire, as will also become universal.

The prosecution of Abdel Kareem sets a chilling precedent that threatens the emerging free space of the Arab blogosphere. His harsh sentence raises the stakes.

There is also one other important aspect to this case. Even while the Mubarak government maintains strong prescriptions against the Muslim Botherhood and often imprisons its activists, the two camps collaborate, sub rosa, against Egypt’s liberals. Suleiman’s conviction reflects this unholy alliance. A former student at the theological center Al Azhar, Suleiman was given three years for insulting Islam by calling the prophet Mohammed and his contemporary followers “spillers of blood.” He got an additional year for calling President Mubarak a “dictator.” (His conviction puts the lie to that one, eh?)

The Egyptian blogosphere is understandably up in arms about this case. (You can follow it at the delightful blog, Freedom for Egyptians, and at other Egyptian blogs linked there.) With the U.S. government now soft-peddling the promotion of democracy in Egypt, it’s all the more important that American bloggers, who have spoken up on this matter but not loudly or often enough, raise their voices in defense of Abdel Kareem.

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The Closing of the European Mind

The Times of London reports today on yet another episode in the closing of the European mind—in this instance, a shocking case of academic censorship.

Matthias Küntzel, a German political scientist from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was invited by the German department at Leeds University for three days of lectures and seminars this week. His lecture on “Hitler’s Legacy: Islamic Anti-Semitism in the Middle East” was expected to draw a large audience. Then the university’s student Islamic society complained about the lecture’s “provocative” title. Last Tuesday, at the behest of university authorities, the words “Hitler” and “Islamic” were excised and the title was amended to read: “The Nazi Legacy: The Export of Anti-Semitism to the Middle East.” But when Küntzel arrived at Leeds this Wednesday, he was informed that his lecture and the rest of his program had been cancelled “on security grounds.” Küntzel was understandably indignant: “I value the integrity of academic debate, and I feel that it really is in danger here.”

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The Times of London reports today on yet another episode in the closing of the European mind—in this instance, a shocking case of academic censorship.

Matthias Küntzel, a German political scientist from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was invited by the German department at Leeds University for three days of lectures and seminars this week. His lecture on “Hitler’s Legacy: Islamic Anti-Semitism in the Middle East” was expected to draw a large audience. Then the university’s student Islamic society complained about the lecture’s “provocative” title. Last Tuesday, at the behest of university authorities, the words “Hitler” and “Islamic” were excised and the title was amended to read: “The Nazi Legacy: The Export of Anti-Semitism to the Middle East.” But when Küntzel arrived at Leeds this Wednesday, he was informed that his lecture and the rest of his program had been cancelled “on security grounds.” Küntzel was understandably indignant: “I value the integrity of academic debate, and I feel that it really is in danger here.”

What had happened? Stuart Taberner, the head of the German department, says he was summoned to a last-minute meeting with staff from the office of Michael Arthur, the university’s vice-chancellor, and the head of security, after which he was obliged to cancel Küntzel’s lectures and seminars. The university claimed that proper arrangements for stewarding the lecture on anti-Semitism had not been made, and that it had been cancelled for purely bureaucratic reasons. “The decision to cancel the meeting has nothing to do with academic freedom, freedom of speech, anti-Semitism, or Islamophobia,” a Leeds spokeswoman said. (She added insult to injury by accusing “those claiming that is the case”—including Küntzel—of “making mischief.”) The spokeswoman did not explain why the university had not offered to provide additional security during the visit, nor whether the police had been involved.

Was there a threat to security? The president of the Islamic society, Ahmed Sawalem, denied responsibility for the affair: “We just sent a complaint, we did not ask for the talk to be cancelled.” Küntzel was shown two e-mails, one of which—apparently written by an Arab Muslim student—is quoted in the Times. The writer claims that the lecture is an “open racist attack” but makes no explicit threats.

The Küntzel case shows that Muslims do not even need to resort to the threat of violence in order to close down academic debate on subjects they dislike. Anthony Glees of Brunel University has been warning for years of the danger posed by Islamists on campus—a danger to which university authorities are notoriously weak in responding. Before his death last year, I spoke to Zaki Badawi, the leading Muslim opponent of Islamism in Britain, about this problem, which he saw as one of appeasement. This case, however, goes beyond appeasement. Leeds has set a new precedent: the pre-emptive cringe. Islamists everywhere will take heart from the spectacle of a reputable university setting a lower value on academic freedom than on the possibility that Muslim students might take offense.

It will be fascinating to see whether any other British university tries to efface this shameful episode by inviting Küntzel to give the lecture cancelled by Leeds. Perhaps Oxford will follow the example of Yale and many others by offering Küntzel a platform to explain how the Nazis supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. After all, Oxford is proud to provide just such a platform for that scion of the Muslim Brotherhood, Tariq Ramadan.

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Big-Screen Spartans

No one is going to confuse 300, Zack Snyder’s film about the battle of Thermopylae, with Citizen Kane. Adapted from Frank Miller’s graphic novel, it is in essence an animated comic book, its lavish sets and special effects created entirely by computer. Computers seem to have generated the dialogue as well; characters speak in the sort of timber-hewn oratory last heard from Victor Mature in his sword-and-sandal spectacles of the 1950′s.

This is not the worst of it. The film’s creators seem not to have trusted the story itself, which they have tinkered with shamelessly. Evidently it is insufficiently dramatic that three hundred Spartans sacrificed themselves 2500 years ago, holding off the Persian army long enough for the Greek city-states to rally. That story must be tarted up with prehistoric wolves, eight-foot giants, and a monstrous hunchback straight from the set of Lord of the Rings. As is often the case with surgical enhancements, something stately and simple has been disfigured beyond recognition.

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No one is going to confuse 300, Zack Snyder’s film about the battle of Thermopylae, with Citizen Kane. Adapted from Frank Miller’s graphic novel, it is in essence an animated comic book, its lavish sets and special effects created entirely by computer. Computers seem to have generated the dialogue as well; characters speak in the sort of timber-hewn oratory last heard from Victor Mature in his sword-and-sandal spectacles of the 1950′s.

This is not the worst of it. The film’s creators seem not to have trusted the story itself, which they have tinkered with shamelessly. Evidently it is insufficiently dramatic that three hundred Spartans sacrificed themselves 2500 years ago, holding off the Persian army long enough for the Greek city-states to rally. That story must be tarted up with prehistoric wolves, eight-foot giants, and a monstrous hunchback straight from the set of Lord of the Rings. As is often the case with surgical enhancements, something stately and simple has been disfigured beyond recognition.

Equally distorted is the film’s morality. The Spartan king Leonidas speaks thunderously against Persian cruelty and despotism, although we see that the Spartans practice a merciless form of eugenics as state policy (at the film’s beginning we learn that they toss sickly infants from cliffs), an exaggerated nod to the tyrannic propensities of the historical Spartan state. And Leonidas’s denunciations of the Persians have (somewhat predictably) called forth condemnation: the film is “simple propaganda, demonizing an alien enemy” (Philadelphia Inquirer) or “race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth” that might easily serve as an incitement to total war (Slate). (It has even been attacked, in the modern-day counterpart of Persia, as “psychological warfare aimed at the Iranian culture.”)

But despite the worries of film critics, 300 contains not a jot of the considerable skill needed to create effective propaganda. Snyder’s ham-handedness reveals itself in the film’s odd juxtaposition of stupefying brutality and a quaint idealism of valor, resolve, and self-sacrifice—which are blithely depicted, amid the cartoonish gore, as noble qualities toward which one should aspire.

Still, a mediocre or downright bad work of art can be, oddly, more revealing than a great one: it often brings to light the broadest cultural forces and longings of an era. To judge from its unexpected box office success, 300 certainly satisfies some need. It is worth pondering what is filling the seats: a love of violent spectacle or a still-strong admiration for martial valor and self-sacrifice. One hopes it is the latter.

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