Friday, February 17, 2006

Blogging blackout for the next week

I'll be visiting my wife's family in Austria for the next week and likely won't post in that time.

Auf Wiedersehen!

Where is the Islamic Erasmus?

Where is the Muslim intellectual who will stand up as did Erasmus 500 years ago, and say:
almost all [Muslims are] wretchedly enslaved by blindness and ingnorance
Is Islam ripe for a reformation (as opposed to another schism)? Even if the answer is yes, who would lead it? Given Islam's decentralized nature, there are few opportunities for a reformer to attack the problems inherent in Islam's innumerable strictly interpreted prohibitions and prescriptions. Were such people to come forward, they would have an extremely difficult time as political and radical Islam are very much on the rise.

What can be done to inject a little 16th century Humanist thought, and18th century Enlightenment into Islam? Clearly Islam needs to be interpreted more along the lines of God's overall hopes for His worshippers, and less of the minutae of worship.

Perhaps the most one can hope for is that moderates gain influence in the West and in the more westernized Islamic nations, and some of their views make their way to the less open Muslim states.

One person fighting for change is profiled in today's IHT:

Sometimes it seems that Zainah Anwar - articulate, a little brassy, a presence wherever she goes - singlehandedly keeps the flame for women's rights alive in Malaysia, a country that sells itself as the model of a progressive Muslim society.

Anwar, Malaysian- and American-educated and one of her nation's best known figures, is the founder of Sisters in Islam - sassily known as SIS - a feminist group that lobbies for justice for women, always within the framework of Islam and the words of the Koran.

In doing so, she confronts the conundrum that is Malaysia, a relatively prosperous, politically stable nation of 24 million, yet where powerful Islamic Affairs Departments in the 13 states administer Shariah courts that control matters of marriage, divorce and death. [...]

She's got a tough fight ahead of her. Perhaps, like Luther, she'll see that her religion is incompatible with her views. More likely, though, she'll follow Erasmus and remain within the church, but criticize it when necessary.

"A model progressive Muslim country cannot show the world that it makes laws that discriminate against women [...] Anwar said.

As Anwar, 51, a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, goes into battle, she holds some formidable cards. Chief among them are candor and an attitude that she doesn't care what others think. [...]

Another trump card: Anwar is close to two progressive women with powerful connections, Marina Mahathir, the daughter of the former prime minister, and Nori Abdullah, the daughter of the leader. "He gets an earful from her," Anwar said of Nori Abdullah and her father.

So it seems that there are counterweights to radical Islam. It is a pity that they tend to be so few that they can be individually profiled. Whether any of them has sufficeint heft and impact to be Islam's Erasmus is doubtful.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

France ups the rhetoric over Iran's nuclear program

France reachs down and discovers it still has a pair--shrivelled and atrophied to be sure, but still usable.
France has for the first time explicitly accused Iran of using its nuclear programme as a cover for clandestine military nuclear activity.

Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told French TV no civilian programme could explain Iran's activity. [...]

But Tehran insists the programme is solely for peaceful purposes.

Iranian chief nuclear negotiator sharply denied the charges made by Mr Douste-Blazy.

"Contrary to all the propaganda against us, we are not seeking a nuclear bomb, since we are a signatory to (the nuclear) Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)," he said on French radio.

"We are a responsible country - it is Western propaganda that keeps on saying that Iran is seeking a bomb, but it is not true." [...]

But Mr Douste-Blazy said Iran was being disingenuous.

"No civil nuclear programme can explain the Iranian nuclear programme. It is a clandestine military nuclear programme," he said.

"The international community has sent a very strong message to the Iranians - show reason, suspend all nuclear activities and uranium enrichment. And they're not listening to us."

"That is the reason why, for the first time for days, the international community is united. It's not just the Europeans - France, Germany and the British - it's also Russia and China."
The US remains chopped liver in his eyes, but at least the pressure is being maintained.

Invasion and the evolution of speed in Australian cane toads

Evolution and its real world implications: the disgusting and poisonous frogs are everywhere thanks to the benefit of longer legs, as reported in New Scientist:
IF A toxic toad invading your backyard is bad, a toxic toad with long legs has got to be worse. Cane toads, the poisonous, invasive pests that have caused mayhem in Australia, are evolving longer legs, enabling them to hop further and invade new territory faster.

After being introduced to Queensland in 1935 to control sugar-cane pests, the toads quickly moved outside their remit, and began preying on and outcompeting native species. Rick Shine and colleagues at the University of Sydney studied toads at the invasion front in Northern Territory, 60 kilometres east of Darwin. They found that those in the vanguard of the invasion had hind legs that were on average 45 per cent of their body length. After a year, the average at the same site had dropped to about 40 per cent, as the invasion front moved on and shorter-legged toads caught up. Measurements going back 60 years show that relative leg length has increased, as has the rate at which toads invade new areas.

Longer legs make for a faster toad. Over three days, the invasion-front toads travelled about 500 metres further than the shorter-legged stragglers. The advantage for these toads is access to fresh territory with a good food supply and less competition, which could be the factor driving selection for longer legs, Shine says.
The article in Nature provides an example of science at work: Make observations, come up with a hypothesis that explains your observations, test your hypothesis, publish your results and conclusions in a peer-reviewed journal.
If the invasion process has been assisted by the evolution of improved dispersal ability among toads at the front, three consequences would be expected. First, longer-legged toads should be disproportionately common among the first wave of arrivals at any site. As the toad invasion front passed our study site, we measured relative leg lengths of all toads encountered over a 10-month period. Longer-legged toads were the first to pass through, followed by shorter-legged conspecifics. Longer-legged toads therefore moved faster through the landscape.

Second, toads at the invasion front should be longer-legged than toads from older populations. As predicted, longer-term historical analysis within Queensland populations shows that relative leg length is greatest in new arrivals and then declines over a 60-year period.

Third, the rate of progress of the toad invasion front should increase through time. As predicted, rates of frontal progress have consistently increased. Toads expanded their range by about 10 km a year during the 1940s to 1960s, but are now invading new areas at a rate of over 50 km a year. Accordingly, previous predictions about the time course of future expansion of the toads' range seriously underestimate their actual rates of movement.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Publishing cartoons an offense under Swiss Law?

Short answer: Probably not. Here is a translation of the operative part of the statute (Article 261 of the Swiss Criminal Code (Schweizerisches Strafgesetzbuch)):
Whomever openly and in a vile manner insults or derides the beliefs of others in matters of faith [...] or profanes objects of religious worship [...] will be subject to a prison sentence of up to six months or a fine.
Clearly what the court views as vile will control the outcome of any trial, as the other two prongs: "openly" (already published in Switzerland) and "insults or derides" (a subjective test; likely standard used by the court: sensibilities of an average Swiss Muslim) look to have been met.

It is hard to imagine that a court would see the caricatures as being vile. Had the cartoons shown Muhammed servicing a pig during his marriage ceremony to a trans-sexual infidel camel, the "vileness" prong might be met, but just barely.

Anyway, no complaint has yet been received by Swiss authorities, which may mean that attorneys for offended Muslims see it the same way.

Physician, heal thyself; Islamic version

Through the WSJ Best of the web, we have this Reuters article discussing how some cartoon protestors are waking up to the fact that Muhammed wouldn't be too pleased with the governments which often claim to rule in his name:

Uproar in the Islamic world over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad has prompted many in the Middle East to ask why Muslims have rarely mobilized to address other pressing issues such as democracy and human rights.

In a region largely dominated by absolute rulers, there has been little momentum for protests against restrictions on political freedom, sky-high unemployment or human rights violations regularly reported by international organizations. [...]

"Why today we see all this solidarity to protest the cartoons…as if only these pictures had insulted the Prophet Mohammad," Ali Mahdi wrote in a letter published in Lebanon's left-wing daily As-Safir.

"Don't you think that injustice, torture, illiteracy and the restrictions on freedoms (in the Muslim world) are also considered an insult to the Prophet…who called for the respect for human rights?"

A United Nations report in September said the Arab world was unlikely to meet the world body's goals for cutting poverty, hunger and unemployment by 2015, partly because of the unequal distribution of wealth.

Several Arab Web logs posted the cartoons and hosted online debates about them. Many left-wing and secular-minded Muslims also circulated the cartoons by e-mail.

"What is the use of getting angry for the sake of the Prophet when I have a thousand poor people in my neighborhood?" wrote one Egyptian blogger on his Web site "Justice for Everyone."

"What is the use of writing a million letters (about the Prophet's greatness) when I wet my pants every time a police car passes by my house?" [...]

To hell with the cartoons, these people need to get out and protest what their fellow Muslims are doing to them and their families.

The Univ. of Southern California has a website with commentary on the Koran and other Islamic texts (much is highly pro-Islam), including this bit about what the Holy book has to say about which human rights are guaranteed in an Islamic state:

The Security Of Life And Property

The Protection Of Honor

Sanctity And Security Of Private Life

The Security Of Personal

The Right To Protest Against Tyranny

Freedom Of Expression (I include a partial examination of the topic, because it is so manifestly untrue in practice; the more devout the Islamic state, the more harmful their cartoons and editorials): [...] The Islamic concept of freedom of expression is much superior to the concept prevalent in the West. Under no circumstances would Islam allow evil and wickedness to be propagated. It also does not give anybody the right to use abusive or offensive language in the name of criticism. (an aside: my Labor Law professor was fond of saying that he didn't care who wrote the law, so long as he was permitted to define the terms--clearly the Islamic prohibition on abuse has several loopholes)

Freedom Of Association

Freedom Of Conscience And Conviction

Protection Of Religious Sentiments

Protection From Arbitrary Imprisonment

The Right To Basic Necessities of Life

Equality Before Law

Rulers Not Above The Law

The Right To Participate In The Affairs Of State

Muhammed must weep when observing what is done in his name, by his followers, to his followers.

Granted, few Muslim nations claim to be fully Islamic, but nearly all claim to operate under the principles of Islam.

A Brit celebrates America's gun culture

Hell said to be chilling rapidly:

[...] British readers will cluck with disapproval at this breezy exoneration of a former US Defence Secretary for his responsibility in such an ugly outbreak of friendly fire.

The sort of person on this side of the Atlantic who deplores America's "gun culture" will almost certainly despise Mr Cheney's politics, and wish to see him carted off by a Texas sheriff and charged with reckless endangerment. But as one who, during seven years of living in America, occasionally went duck shooting - or huntin', as I learnt to call it - I confess that I loudly cheer the Vice-President's speedy exculpation.

In Britain, the man with the gun is always at fault. Our culture and our law enforcement agencies deplore gun ownership; rural police forces persecute owners, treating them as freaks. [...]

Our world-beating Olympic shooters must practise abroad because of the post-Dunblane handgun ban - a ban ignored by gangsters on the streets of our larger cities, whose criminal antics have driven an exponential rise in gun crime since the legislation was passed.

This could never happen in America, where gun ownership is not just constitutionally protected, but is part of a great levelling exercise. In many of the southern states, the first day of the hunting season is a school holiday, so that fathers can take their sons out with rifle, shotgun, and paramilitary fatigues [also in much of the Midwest--Pigilito].

Hunting is an affirmation of the frontier spirit of the nation. More, it is a celebration of democratic participation - not, as is the case over here, an exclusive club for social climbers in plus fours. [...]

When I moved to America, I acquired my first and only gun - a pump-action 12-bore, which I kept under the sofa in my Washington home and which I would bring out to appal namby-pamby visitors from England. [...]

The first time I was taken duck hunting, my hosts and I chanced on half a dozen ducks paddling genially across a lake. Before I could begin to consider the implications, my comrades had unleashed a volley of covering fire, turning the lake into a cauldron of shot and feather.

When I questioned the protocol of shooting birds that were not actually flying, I was kindly put in my place. They all taste the same, I was informed, especially if you have drunk enough bourbon while feathering them.

In America, you do all the gruesome stuff involving feathers and innards yourself, and you would never even think of handing over the menial work to a gamekeeper or beater. [...]

And where it is always wise to remember, to adapt the preferred slogan of America's all-powerful National Rifle Association, that guns do not kill people; vice-presidents do.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Holland and Denmark discuss immigration and assimilation

Jonh Vinocur's column in the IHT ($) lists examples of modern, liberal nations attempting to meet the challange of not just integrating Muslims, but assimilating them into the host nation's culture, and setting limits of what immigrant communities can expect by way of accomodation.

Politicians have noticed that fighting for one's culture, traditions and history are increasingly vote getters; which means something will get done, but the risk of populist immigrant bashing has risen. On to the article:
Post-politically correct Europe starts here. It loops north to Denmark. These days, it branches east, although less distinctly, to Germany.

But in the Netherlands the words are free, and inhibitions about describing and dealing with the problems caused by immigration, particularly from Islamic countries, are largely gone. [...]

For a decade, anyone expressing concern about projections that Amsterdam would have a Muslim majority by 2020 (about 65 percent of its young people now have Islamic backgrounds) risked disgrace as a closet fascist. Now the Dutch discuss the implications of similar population projections and similar time frames for cities like Rotterdam and The Hague without cramped circumlocution.

In comparison, direct official- and politician-speak in places like Britain, France and Spain shies from the idea that failed national policies accommodating (or avoiding) Muslim integration have been factors in the most confidence-shaking European events of the new century:

Bomb attacks by local Islamic extremists in Madrid and London, the murder of a Dutch filmmaker by a member of the Amsterdam Moroccan community, riots in immigrant towns around Paris, and now, Denmark and Danes coming under threat and attack around the world after a newspaper published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. [...]

By way of an explanation, this comes down to both the Netherlands and Denmark, countries with small but dense populations, cherished cultures, and languages that require protection, feeling a new precariousness in their national identity as a result of substantial Islamic immigration. In both places, the mainstream left has followed the center-right onto this track.

Perhaps because there has been open contempt for assimilation by Muslims in supposedly soft and marginal places like the Netherlands and Denmark, both countries have been intent on demarcating the line where their accommodation of immigrants stops. [...]

A Dutch example: In more politically correct France, race or national origin are excluded from official statistics, whether they involve job-seekers or the prison population. In calmly talking about Leeuwarden, Dales says point-blank that an immigrant group from Curaçao, making up 1 percent of the city's population - Muslims represent 16 percent - is responsible for 50 to 60 percent of its crime. [...]

He told me about a national pilot program that would let cities like Leeuwarden initiate proceedings "to send them back."

Dales, a member of the center-right Liberal Party, a component of the government coalition, believes all the same that Dutch history suggests the country can successfully absorb its Islamic immigrants. He very much trusts in the possibility of their integration and sees there are successful examples of it in every Dutch town. "But it involves an approach that says, again and again, exactly what is non-negotiable and exactly what is required."
Exactly. Knowing what is expected from all Dutch citizens and immigrants is a necessary step. A detailed formulation of what the expectations are will prove difficult. Although the basics seem simple enough:
Requirements, according to Dales: educational achievement, speaking Dutch, acceptance of the work ethic. [...]

Above all, Dales said, the difficulty for some Muslims was that Islam had principles that are no way in line with those of Dutch society.

When I asked Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Copenhagen last week about a Dutch-Danish post-politically correct link (a phrase first used by the American writer Christopher Caldwell), he talked about insisting on the same core values that Frits Bolkestein, the original politically incorrect Dutchman and former European Union commissioner, first described in relation to Islam as "non-negotiable." Like the separation of religion from politics, the importance of work, and Western notions of freedom of expression and gender equality.

"We're on the right track," Rasmussen said. "I see a very clear tendency that other European countries will go in our direction."

In Germany, where the former Social Democratic interior minister, Otto Schily, said two years ago that multiculturalism was dead, there are indications that Rasmussen's view of a European trend has some reality.

The Bundestag's vice president, Wolfgang Thierse, a Social Democrat, has recommended that only German be spoken on school grounds and received unexpected support from teachers' unions, while Christian Democratic state governors are backing a plan that would require testing acceptance of the principles of the Constitution and genuine German language skills as requirements for citizenship. Parliamentary debate in Berlin on the Danish situation on Friday was not so much a succession of calls to tolerance but of remarks that there should be respect for religion "but not its instrumentalization" and that this respect must not be a "one-way street." [...]

Iranian newspaper seeks cartoons. Let's give them some

The Iranian paper seeking cartoon entries of the Holocaust for its contest has opened the festivities:

Iran's biggest newspaper launched a competition for cartoons satirizing the Holocaust. Hamshahri issued an English-language invitation on its Web site for submissions this week, saying the cartoons can focus on "looting and crimes perpetrated by the United States and Israel as well as alleged historical events like the Holocaust."
The deadline for entering is May 5, and the newspaper has promised $140 in gold to the 12 winners (same number as the original ones appearing in the Denmark; get the irony?). Interestingly this bit from Islam Online notes that all who enter will receive a book containing the submitted cartoons:

The newspaper said the contest was open until May 5. It did not announce what the prize would be but said each cartoonist would receive a book of the cartoons submitted.
Think of the prestige of being a published cartoonist. No longer will you have to take guff from such cartoon luminaries as Michael Leunig and Ted Rall; you'll be colleagues in a great fraternity.

I'm going to submit something. Unfortunately, I can't draw a straight line and color it brown. So if anyone has a cartoon of a Semitic Holocaust-denying Arab laying about, I'd like to plagiarize it. If not, please draw one up and send it to me: aschoel AT excite DOT com. If I use it, I'll ship you a bottle of fine Swiss wine costing about 20 ChF.

Send your own work--with cover letter--to (this is the best address I can find):

Hamshahri Daily Graphics Editor
Mr. Farid Mortazavi
P.O. Box 19395-5446
Tehran, Iran
Tel: +98 21 204-2490
Fax: +98 21 870-7754

If enough people send entries, we can mock their anti-hypocrisy contest, cause their printing costs to soar, and get a book in the bargain.

Any gold I win (probability: approaching zero) goes to an Israeli charity. The book will either become a treasured memento, or I'll sell it eBay.

Bonus contact info: If you want to contact the top mad Mullah, perhaps to explain the critical difference between being 'da bomb', and being 'the bombed':

His Excellency Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran
Fax: +98 21 650-203 (via Interior Ministry, ask for fax to be forwarded)

UPDATE: The Israeli News Agency is asking for links so that it remains the top hit when someone googles "Iranian Holocaust cartoon contest". The Commissar has the details.

From the department of "Life isn't so bad after all"

Think you have problems? This catalog of oddball diseases, afflictions and ailments will give you a frisson of Schadenfreude.

For the roughly 50% of the population:
A hysterical condition known medically as Genital Retraction Syndrome, whose victims become convinced that their genitals are disappearing into their bodies. It can be contagious, sparking off "penis panics", such as the one that overtook Singapore in 1967 in which thousands of men became convinced that their penises were being stolen; it was contained by a complete media blackout on the condition. Often blamed on witchcraft, Koro typically strikes in less developed parts of the world, including Africa and Asia, where belief in sorcery remains strong. It's thought to be an extreme overreaction to normal genital shrinking from cold or other causes. Koro can be treated with medical reassurance and anti-anxiety medications.
Thankfully, it's only the feeling that something's gone terribly wrong.

Not all are funny, though:
ONDINE'S CURSE is a wonderful name for a nasty problem, this is a sleep disorder resulting from a malfunctioning autonomic nervous system. Its victims are unable to breathe spontaneously but must consciously will each breath, so will suffocate if they fall asleep. [...]
First seen on Medgadget

Monday, February 13, 2006

Arab leaders are officially on the tiger. Good luck dismounting

Leaders of many Muslim nations were only too happy to allow demonstrations in their countries over the cartoon intifada. They saw it as a way of burnishing their Islamist credentials. It additionally served as a convenient method of channeling the masses' anger and dissatisfaction with the generally horrible rulers with which they are lumbered.

This policy is extremely short-sighted as it ultimately strengthens the radical Islamists--the very people from whom the ruling class have most to fear. As economic and cultural conditions continue to worsen or, at best, stagnate, disaffected youths search for something true and worthy of support. What they often find is a perverted from of Islam. One which sees things in black and white, and predicts ultimate victory over the hateful West and their own corrupt governments.

By adopting and advancing the fundamentalists' ideas, the rulers legitimize the radicals. If they hope to co-opt them, they must necessarily move into a position of increasing friction and hostility to the West. This can only further inflame the populace, leading to a kind of death spiral for West-Islamic relations, and has dangerous implications for regional and global security.

Equally troubling is that once the corrupt rulers have ascended the radical Islamic tiger, getting off without being devoured will be very difficult. Should the rulers continue to tolerate or support the radicals, there will come a time when the radicals will be so strengthened that they will take power--either democratically or through force and intimidation.

Of course, running a country tends to moderate a groups' actions and words, but this only works in democracies; precious few are found in the Arab/Muslim region. Nevertheless, Bush and company are entirely correct in calling for democracy for the region--even at the risk of installing anti-Western governments. Only when the rulers are accountable to their people will reason and commonsense have a chance to prevail.

Given the weakness of human nature, it seems clear that the authoritarian regimes will continue to appeal to their citizens by trying to appear more-Islamic-than-thou. This can only work up to a certain point. When they seek to get off the tiger, they will be consumed. Expect things in the Middle East and Southern Asia to get considerably worse before they get better.

Islamic parties having to choose between bullets and ballots

Jackson Diehl--a columnist I don't often agree with--has a thoughtful piece in today's WaPo dealing with the moderating effect of being democratically elected. He notes that as democracy expands, previously hard-line terror groups have temepered their rhetoric and their actions.

While democracy is no panacea for the ills of the Middle East, nor will it magically turn terror groups into peace advocates, it is far better to have an inclusive democratic process where the need to secure votes will move even hard-line religious parties towards the middle ground.

In the short and medium term, however, blood will continue to be shed as the most radical among Hamas seek to ensure their view triumphs. The best way to do this is to provoke an Israeli counter strike on Palestinian controlled lands.

Here is Diehl's article in full:

Probably the most interesting reaction to Hamas's victory in the Palestinian elections was one of the least noticed. It came from Essam Erian, a leading spokesman of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is a branch. Erian duly lauded Hamas's "great victory." But then he added, according to a report by the Associated Press, that the Islamic militant movement should take up the challenge "of maintaining good relations with the Arab governments and world powers to secure support for the Palestinian cause."

The message from one Muslim fundamentalist to another was unmistakable: Don't be evil. Go along with the Egyptian government and the Arab League, which are demanding that Hamas renounce violence and accept previous Palestinian accords with Israel. Find a way to keep the aid dollars of the European Union and United States. No more suicide bombings.

Such rhetoric confounds the common assumption in Washington that Islamic extremists -- al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood -- are merely different versions of the enemy with which the United States has been at war since Sept. 11, 2001. But Erian's words would come as no surprise to Ayman Zawahiri, the Egyptian who is Osama bin Laden's deputy, or Abu Musab Zarqawi, the al Qaeda commander in Iraq. Both recently condemned the Muslim Brotherhood, and by extension Hamas, for playing George W. Bush's game of democracy. "How can anyone choose any other path but that of jihad?" lamented Zarqawi.

In fact, Bush's strategy of insisting on elections -- in Iraq, in Egypt, in Lebanon and in the Palestinian Authority -- has had the effect of widening a rift among the region's Islamic fundamentalists. Some, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, have embraced democracy, and broken with the terrorists. Erian recently published an article in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram defending Ayman Nour, the secular democrat who was jailed in December on trumped-up charges by the government of Hosni Mubarak. His Muslim Brotherhood won 88 seats, about 20 percent of the total, in Egypt's parliamentary elections last fall. In Jordan the Brotherhood, which will soon participate in local elections, helped to organize popular demonstrations against Zarqawi and al Qaeda after the bombings of three Amman hotels in November.

Hamas and Hezbollah, once firmly in al Qaeda's camp, now straddle the gap. Both movements have joined in parliamentary elections, and both have ceased acts of terrorism for the past year while refusing to give up their militias, weapons or the option of violence. Because of their participation in democratic politics, each is under unprecedented pressure to choose between Zarqawi and Erian; between pursuing an Islamic agenda by violence or by ballots. Because Hamas is the first Sunni Islamic movement to win an election outright, its choice is particularly important: If it were to fully embrace democratic politics, the sponsors of terrorism in the Middle East -- not just al Qaeda but Syria and Iran -- would suffer a momentous loss.

It's in that light that the Bush administration watches the complex, multi-sided maneuvering that has followed the Palestinian elections. On one side stand Israeli hawks and their hard-line supporters in Congress, who insist a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority would be "a terrorist entity," or "Hamastan," as Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu calls it. They urge that the Islamists be prevented from taking office -- or that the Palestinian Authority be strangled if they do. On a second side is Iran, which demands that Hamas make no concessions and offers fresh funding in the event of a Western boycott. On a third side are Egypt and other secular Arab regimes, which support neither democracy nor Islamic movements; they'd like to make the secular Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, into a strongman. On a fourth are the Europeans, who are likely to soften their current resistance to a Hamas government, and Russia, which already has. Hamas itself is divided between hard-line outsiders, who live in Damascus on Iranian funding, and leaders in Gaza who won the elections by stumping on a moderate platform of clean government and better services.

The pitfalls here are abundant: Rob Hamas of its victory and it will return to the terrorism of Iran and al Qaeda, while the Palestinian Authority collapses. Let it off the hook and it will try to simultaneously govern and wage war on Israel, much as did Yasser Arafat. Somewhere in the middle lies the possible outcome suggested by the Brotherhood -- a nonviolent Palestinian Islamic cabinet that, while unready to endorse Israel, will accept existing Palestinian-Israeli agreements and the results of future elections. A peace accord would have to wait -- one was in any case most improbable -- but a foundation for the peaceful and democratic Palestinian state Bush has called for could at last be laid.

The odds are not great. Even if the administration can calibrate the right mix of pressure and de facto tolerance, and get Israel to go along, Hamas might not respond. It may be, as some argue, that Islamic militants are incapable of converting to democracy as have secular terrorist movements. But without the elections, there would be no opportunity at all.
Whether democracy can take hold is also questionable. I believe it will, but only after fits and starts. The ruling classes are hardly likely to give up their power, so revolutions installing Islamic governments become increasingly probable.

The world is distressingly interesting at the moment.

RINO carnival (Rush Limbaugh memorial edition) is up

The latest round-up of RINO sightings is up at Enrevanche. This week's host had some tooth trouble but managed to put together a first rate collection of posts despite being heavily medicated.

Friday, February 10, 2006

France seeks to reform immigration rules

In an effort to draw more skilled immigrants, France is overhauling its immigration statutes, with the new proposals modelled loosely on those of the US and Canada. They have two main prongs: make it more difficult for poorly skilled immigrants to import family members and, more critically, attract skilled workers.

The IHT reports:

In a twin initiative to bolster economic competitiveness and clamp down on immigration, the French government unveiled draft legislation Thursday that would impose tougher conditions on unskilled, low-income immigrants while significantly easing access for highly qualified foreigners.

The bill includes the introduction of a three-year work permit for educated professionals such as scientists, executives and academics. It also makes it harder for unskilled immigrants from outside the European Union to bring family members to France.

If adopted in Parliament, the new rules would represent a fundamental shift from a system where the families of immigrants have been the single biggest source of legal immigration.

Sharply criticized by human rights groups and opposition politicians, the concept of selective immigration has been championed by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy as the only way to stay competitive in the global battle for talent and knowledge.

"The most qualified migrants, the most dynamic and competent ones head to the American continent, while immigrants with little or no skills come to Europe," [Interior Minister] Sarkozy wrote in the newspaper Le Figaro on Thursday. "We can't be satisfied with this situation." [...]

The draft law was inspired in part by selective immigration rules in the United States and Canada, officials said.

Under the new rules, immigrants would be allowed to bring over family members only if they could prove that they could financially provide for them outside of welfare benefits.

Foreign residents will also have to sign a "welcome and integration contract" that obliges them to learn French, respect the values of the republic and actively look for work.

Illegal immigrants will lose their right to receive residency papers after 10 years on French soil. [...]

Although these reforms make it easier for desirable immigrants to obtain visas, it only addressess one side of the coin. More importantly, the skilled must be given economic reasons to select France.

The qualified and ambitious will continue to choose the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand over Europe for the simple reason that these countries continue to offer real opportunities to do well. Choosing Europe means choosing high taxes, endless redtape, racial and ethnic discrimination, and a poor long-term economic outlook.

That said, France is doing the right thing. They must still compete with other European countries for desirable immigrants unwilling to emmigrate to one of the former English colonies. These reforms give them a leg up.

More volcanic eruptions means less global warming and sea-level rise

Krakatoa's huge eruption slowed sea-level rise and ocean warming well into the following century reports the journal Nature (internal citations and links removed):
We have analysed a suite of 12 state-of-the-art climate models and show that ocean warming and sea-level rise in the twentieth century were substantially reduced by the colossal eruption in 1883 of the volcano Krakatoa in the Sunda strait, Indonesia. Volcanically induced cooling of the ocean surface penetrated into deeper layers, where it persisted for decades after the event. This remarkable effect on oceanic thermal structure is longer lasting than has previously been suspected and is sufficient to offset a large fraction of ocean warming and sea-level rise caused by anthropogenic influences. [...]

We compared the evolution of global ocean heat content over 1880–2000 in six models that include the effects of volcanic eruptions (V) with six that do not. [...]

An abrupt drop in heat content in the V simulations follows the 1883 Krakatoa eruption, augmented by much smaller eruptions in 1886 and 1888. Volcanic aerosols scatter and absorb sunlight and result in a cold ocean-surface-temperature anomaly. This is gradually subducted into deeper layers where it persists for decades. Although surface warming in the late twentieth century is apparent in all V simulations, a cold anomaly remains discernible at depth. [...]

Ocean warming (or cooling) contributes to sea-level changes by thermal expansion (or contraction). Global mean thermal expansion is highly correlated with changes in heat content [...]

In model simulations, Krakatoa has long-lasting effects, offsetting a large fraction of the changes in ocean heat content and thermal expansion caused by twentieth-century anthropogenic influences. These results are robust to current uncertainties in climate models and in the historical forcings applied to them. Inclusion of volcanic forcing from Krakatoa (and, by implication, from even earlier eruptions) is important for a reliable simulation of historical increases in ocean heat content and sea-level change due to thermal expansion.
Forget Kyoto. What we need are more Krakatoas. Paradoxically, vulcanism on a huge scale leads to runaway global warming as the gases released serve to trap heat in the atmosphere.

Important to note that sea-level changes are not only due to an increase of water (from melting glaciers and ice sheets). The thermal expansion of water as it warms means that a given amount of water will occupy more volume at a higher temperature.

Der Spiegel interviews leading European Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan

Tariq Ramadan (website) is Europe's most media savvy Islamic scholar. He is, however, something of an enigma. At once the face of moderate Islam, he is also deeply distrusted by the French authorities--who accuse him of being two-faced, and was refused a visa to take up a post at the University of Notre Dame (with the help of the ACLU, he is suing the US government).

He lives in Switzerland, where he taught at Freiburg University. In addition, he keeps an office in Paris, and currently teaches at Oxford University.

In an interview with Der Spiegel, he has this to say about Islamic intergration in France, and by extension Europe (emphasis supplied):
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, what makes the integration of Muslims so difficult, compared with earlier immigrants from Poland, Italy, Spain and Portugal.

Ramadan: Two things, I believe. First, this immigration no longer occurs in individual waves; instead, it is a large-scale and continuous immigration. That's the problem of quantity. And then there is the issue of quality. For Muslim immigrants, religion is inseparable from their roots and identity. They feel that transforming themselves from Moroccans or Algerians into Frenchmen makes them bad Muslims. This makes integration more difficult because it apparently forces Muslims to choose between two alternatives: self-abandonment or self-isolation.

His conclusion that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for immigrants to feel they can be both a good Muslim and a good Frenchman is rather disturbing. Granted that this was an interview, not a carefully written paper; nevertheless, this admission that Islam impedes full assimilation is important.

In his defense: Prof. Ramadan regularly strongly argues that Muslims need to become part of whichever society they immigrate to.

On to the question of reforming Islam.
SPIEGEL: Where do you see the process of reform and modernization of Islam, of which you have been a proponent? Has it made any progress anywhere?

Ramadan: In Europe. The impetus must come from European Islam and then influence the Arab world. There is some overlap between the universal values of Western democracy and those of Islam -- the constitutional state operating under the rule of law, the equality of citizens, universal suffrage, the changeover of power, separation of the private and public spheres. These are basic principles, and although they are not spelled out in the Koran, I do not believe that they contradict Islamic tradition.

SPIEGEL: That is an opinion that many Muslim legal scholars do not share.

Ramadan: An excessively literal interpretation of the Koran ever since the 13th century has led Islam into intellectual calcification and political tension. Remaining faithful to the texts must be distinguished from interpretation of historical and social context. If we begin applying this exegesis and hermeneutics, we will begin to see progress in Islam thought.

I see it differently: Islamic thought is becoming increasingly radicalized, in Europe and around the world. It is doubtless not so bad as the LGF crowd believes, but things are certainly going to get worse before they get better.

For what it's worth, I find much of what he says very comforting. Nevertheless, I seriously doubt his sincerity.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Juan Cole: Blame Bush for the cartoon Intifada

As usual, Prof. Cole misses the forest for the trees, this time in an article for Der Spiegel Online (and Salon). His article covers much of what is already known about the controversy (politicians using it for their own benefit, etc.), but then devotes itself to blaming Bush for stirring up local political rivalries. In between he calls the Danish Prime Minister right wing, neglects to mention that the cartoons were published in Cairo last year without censure, and uses colonialism to justify Muslim touchiness. Left out is any mention of the role Islamic fundamentalism plays.

Give him credit, though, he knows what Der Speigel's readers want.

His concluding paragraph:

The "global crisis" of which Rasmussen spoke has been exacerbated by the decision of the Bush administration to invade Iraq and throw the region into turmoil. It isn't just about some cartoons. It is about independence and the genuine liberty to define yourself rather than being defined by the imperial West.

Prof. Cole obviously knows many intricate details of Middle Eastern politics, and tends to view everything through its prism; though he seems to not accept that Islamic fundamentalism plays a part in this controversy. He is right when he describes politicians seeking to profit from the cartoons' publication, but fails to note that the rise of fundamentalism is what makes depiction of the prophet such an easy target for the politicians.

Publish, and be damned, er, beheaded

Image hosting by Photobucket

How quaint the Duke of Wellington's response to a British courtesan's threats to publish details of his private life now seems.

Fresh from abusing some Americans, Times columnist now praises them

A week after his anti-Bush opinion piece appeared in The Times, Anatole Kaletsky has something nice (mixed in with visions of stereotypical Americans) to say about the country. What brought him around: the vitriol he received because of the original piece. He explains:
[...] Within hours of publication I received nearly 500 e-mails from American readers. About a quarter of these emails were split between praise and rational disagreement. However, the vast majority — some 300 — were abusive to the point of obscenity (homo Arab ass-f*****, Commie Jew-boy, Nigger-lover and so on). What opened the sluices on this flood of electronic sewerage was neither the offensiveness nor the originality of my article. [...] It seems, however, that an article in a foreign newspaper full of condescending derision for the US President touched a raw nerve in America’s conservative heartland — and that is why, with the Muslim world apparently in turmoil over some mediocre cartoons in a little-known Danish paper, I return to this subject. [...]

Despite the hypersensitivity of the Americans who showered me with linguistic ordure, nobody would dream of suggesting that insulting America and its President should be banned. These 300 right-wing nuts wanted me sacked for my ignorance; they wanted The Times used as toilet paper, but none of them would suggest that I should be legally prevented from saying that President Bush was a fool.

How different from the paranoid religiosity of the Muslim fundamentalists who insist that “insulting religion” should not be a question of taste or of judgment, but a subject for criminal law. Yet this obvious distinction between what is offensive and what should be illegal is deliberately ignored by the Blair Government, which wants to make insulting religion a criminal offence.

The second, and related, distinction is between verbal abuse and physical violence. Returning to my self-selected sample of nutty Americans, none of them threatened me with physical harm, or suggested that such harm might be my just desert. How different from the violence of the Muslim rent-a-crowds whose banners portray their enemies beheaded. Yet this obvious distinction between verbal abuse and physical violence is deliberately overlooked by British police, who have refused to prosecute Muslim demonstrators threatening their enemies with hideous violence. Meanwhile, British judges have sentenced Abu Hamza, convicted for inciting multiple murders, to just seven years. Presumably this means that religiously motivated murder is less serious in the eyes of our learned judges than such offences as drug-dealing or fraud.

This brings me to the third and most important distinction that Americans seem to understand much better than we in Europe. This is the distinction between religion and other beliefs. Why should religions be entitled to legal protection from “insults” and “attacks”? Would anyone suggest that communists and fascists or, for that matter, Tories and social democrats, should be protected from insults? Yet the first two of these movements were all-embracing secular religions and their believers, who numbered in the hundreds of millions, believed in them every bit as passionately as Christians, Jews and Muslims believe in their religions.

Far from commanding any special respect or protection from the State, religions must be exposed to relentless criticism, like all non-rational traditions and beliefs. Some religions will survive this contest between tradition and modernity, between reason and revelation, as Christianity, Judaism and Islam have done for centuries. Others, such as Marxism and Scientology, will fall by the wayside. In America, the Constitution, with its prohibition against the establishment of any state religion and its absolute defence of free speech, demands a robust competition between faith and reason and among the religions themselves. And in the end, as America’s surprisingpiety clearly shows, it is not just society but also religion that emerges stronger from the refiner’s fire of competition, criticism and even insult.

I wouldn't go that far. Nevertheless, he is correct in noting that criminalizing insults to one's religion is wrong. Aside from the fairness of not protecting religion more than other deeply held ideas, criminalizing insults would lead to a legal nightmare. Where would one draw the line between free exchange of opinion and deliberate insult?

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Le Figaro has had enough of Islam's double standards

Le Figaro [an influential French newspaper] has an English website where several articles a week are translated from the French. This editiorial notes that Muslims in Europe urgently need to assimilate some of Europe's core values (yes, there still remain some). The time for European concessions to its immigrants is past the article concludes.
So what is happening now? Is it we Westerners that have a problem with Islam, or is it Islam that has a problem with us? Clearly, it is the latter.

In order to understand this, let us reconsider the facts. Four months ago a Danish newspaper published some cartoons that nobody particularly noticed. Then suddenly this became the focus of attention and was portrayed as a "crime" justifying the burning of European embassies in the Arab and Muslim world.

The incriminated drawings show Muhammad. But what they really caricature is the use that Islamist terrorists make of the prophet, the fact that suicide bombers cite him before perpetrating an attack. The drawing that shocked people most is the one in which Muhammad's turban is replaced by a bomb, a weapon that did not exist in the Prophet's day but that is constantly used by militants who cite his teaching. The Danes, a small and peaceable, industrious, and tolerant people of northern Europe, have nothing against Muhammad, or for him. They do not know him and have never encountered him in their history. They, like every other people in the world, merely have to submit to draconian security checks in order to take a plane, since the suicide attacks of 11 September, committed in the name of Islam.

We are fully entitled to consider these cartoons in dubious taste. The interesting thing about Muhammad is not the caricature of his teaching provided by the second-rate digest provided by Bin-Ladin and his cohorts, but his actual history. In his day (the seventh century), Muhammad was a progressive. The fact that he civilized public life in Medina cannot be denied. Before him, women enjoyed no rights. He gave them rights. The article of Islamic law which states that a woman's evidence is worth half a man's now seems particularly regressive. But at that time it was a huge step forward. The problem of the Muslim religion in the modern world has to do not so much with the particular teaching of Muhammad, in his day, as with the fact that, starting in the 12th century, its interpretation (ijtihad) has become frozen in Islam, in practice blocking any reform. [...]

But irrespective of inevitable manipulations [by Syria and Iran], the many demonstrations around the Arab and Muslim world indicate an extremely deep cultural gulf. If we draw attention to obvious facts about the functioning of Western societies, we come up against a brick wall. How can the Danish government be responsible for what is published in the Danish press, which is obviously a free press? [...]

If ignorance can explain the mobilization of such numbers in Afghanistan, the same cannot be said of a demonstration by Muslim immigrants in Belgium. They shamelessly exploited the West's supreme value, that of political freedom. In Brussels, Muslim demonstrators used the freedom to demonstrate to try to destroy freedom of expression.

But why had these Muslims in Belgium never demonstrated before over much more important topics? Did we see them in the streets voicing their rejection of Bin-Ladin's thinking following the 11 September attacks? Did we hear them proclaiming their horror at the filmed decapitation of US engineer Nick Berg? How is it that they, who enjoy freedom of religion in Belgium, never thought of demonstrating outside the Saudi Arabian embassy, a country that denies the hundreds of thousands of Christian Filipinos that live there the right to celebrate mass? Are they not ashamed of this Saudi regime, which, in the name of Islam, denies poor immigrant workers the simple practice of their religion? Are there double standards of outrage in Islam?

And yet these Muslims in Belgium are not unaware that, during the course of history, peoples have sometimes dared to protest their shame in public. Following the massacres at Sabra and Shatila [in Lebanon] in 1982, over half a million Israelis went into the streets of Tel Aviv to express their shame to the Palestinian families that had been massacred (by the Phalangist militia of Elie Hubayka, which the Israeli army had allowed to enter the camps).

If the 5,000 Muslims who demonstrated in Brussels Sunday [5 February] are so horrified by the Western values of freedom and secularism, why does it not occur to them to go and live in Saudi Arabia?

In Europe, the right of political asylum, the wonderful legacy of the Enlightenment, has been abused. This, because it has always been understood that the asylum seeker must share the same fundamental values of the country to which he would like to be invited.

It remains for host countries to defend themselves unconditionally. How can Martine Aubry [socialist mayor of Lille] have created, as in Pakistan, male-female "apartheid" at Lille's swimming pools?

Let us be sure to defend our own values in our own country. To paraphrase Churchill, let us not choose the dishonour of concessions in order to avert war. This, because we would ultimately thereby have both dishonour and war.

Cartoons' warning for Europe

John Vinocur of the IHT ($) looks at the flap over the Muhammad and sees a pattern and plan to the manufactured outrage:
Explanations for the continuing upheaval in Islamic countries about caricatures of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper have moved past a debate about freedom of the press and its depiction of Islam and into areas that project hard, new problems. Possibly greater ones for Europe than the United States.

"It's about more than the caricatures," the Danish foreign minister, Per Stig Moller, has said. "There are forces that want a confrontation between our cultures."

Syria has been accused of being behind mobs' invasions of Danish embassies in Damascus and Beirut, and on Tuesday extremists briefly stormed Denmark's embassy in Tehran, not a place where violence is often aimed spontaneously at diplomatic missions.

This has led to a refocused evaluation of events.

Western governments' initial (and understandable) attempts to confine the Danish issue to a manageable discussion about Islam's justified sensitivities and the Western press's justified concern for its liberty are now overtaken by the seemingly patent involvement of Islamic governments in much of the violence directed against the Danes and other Europeans.

Two different - or until now, reluctantly articulated - interpretations of what's going on are emerging:

That the attacks are a direct warning to Europe from Iran, Syria and Islamic extremists of the consequences of its markedly hardened positions on taking Iran's development of nuclear weapons to the United Nations Security Council, and its refusal to consider the newly elected Hamas party as a legitimate Palestinian interlocutor.

That, in a general sense well beyond the caricatures, an attempt is being made to force Denmark to ask forgiveness for making clear its limits in accommodating Islam. This line argues that Denmark has been singled out as the post politically correct European country that is most actively insisting that its immigrants from the Middle East demonstrate compatibility with the European humanist tradition.

The chronology of events reinforces the pertinence of this analysis.

The caricatures were initially published in a Danish newspaper four months ago. Shortly after the New Year, Muslim leaders in Denmark praised the government for expressing concern about the insulting character of drawings, while saying at the same time no apology could be forthcoming from a country that prized the freedom and independence of the press.

But it was only after Europe's subsequent show of determination on the Iran nuclear issue and Hamas's refusal to renounce terrorism and its determination to destroy Israel that the attacks on Danish and other European installations began. Iran and Syria appear to be the leaders of a campaign that other Islamic countries, often running behind sentiment in their streets, have joined.

The Danish center-right government of Anders Fogh Rasmussen, while trying to avoid confrontation, has privately told friends that it now believes that not only its own but also Europe's society and sovereignty are being targeted.

The most coherent case that the upheaval is a specific political warning directed at Europe has been made by Olivier Roy, a highly respected French analyst of Iran and the Islamic world.

In a telephone interview, Roy described a significantly changed Middle Eastern equation involving an increased European role in actual fighting in Afghanistan, France's statement that its nuclear deterrence doctrine extends to terrorists and rogue states, and the hard French posture on Syria and its destabilizing role in Lebanon. All this comes alongside Europe's resistant stance on Iran's nuclear ambitions and Hamas.

"There is new trend," he said. "Before you might have argued it was the United States that was interventionist and Europe the neutralists."

And he added: "There is a message going out here to Europe. Don't replace the Americans. Denmark is under attack because it represents Europe. They have gone after Denmark because it is small. There is real desire for vengeance."

The Bush administration's recognition of these circumstances, Roy believes, was characterized by its cautious and secondary role in backing Denmark.

That reserve, possibly explained by a genuinely religious country's discomfort with what it regards as an offensive depiction of a great religion, has been angrily criticized in some Danish newspapers as failed American solidarity. Washington, in turn, expressed its "unambiguous support" for Denmark on Monday.

The argument that Islamic extremist elements want to intimidate Europe from demarcating the areas at home where it will defend its national cultures from the establishment of (at least notional) no-go Islamic enclaves is not part of Roy's thesis.

In fact, the Danish government has been in the forefront in Europe in formulating rules on immigration and integration that instead of new accommodations by the majority essentially demand compatibility with Danish lifestyles from the Muslim immigrant community.

The Danes' sensitivity to the issue has been heightened since the onset of the crisis by statements from imams in that community. In Danish, some imams have talked of reconciliation. But in Arabic, according to press reports, when appearing on Arab radio stations, the imams have been inciters referring to caricatures that never appeared in Denmark or turned out to be fakes.

The government has been in the awkward position of avoiding any justification of its views of the stakes at hand for all of Europe because the Danish opposition has held Rasmussen's line on integration as responsible in part for the problem.

But the reality is that Danish concern for its Danishness crosses party lines, rather as similar worries do in Europe's more powerful nations. When the center-right ousted the Social Democrats from office two elections ago, the then Social Democratic prime minister, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, campaigned with similar themes, saying Denmark was populated in some cases by people who don't care "a whit for our fundamental values."

Now, the chances for bringing the crisis to a credible end simply by means of new statements about a common will for tolerance are slim.

With eight demonstrators dead this week in Afghanistan - as in Iraq, Danish troops are present there - the real explanations for what is taking place surely go beyond clumsy caricatures first published in a country that once was a preserve of good nature and gentle fortune.

Now, the chances for bringing the crisis to a credible end simply by means of new statements about a common will for tolerance are slim.

I've long felt the phrase "clash of cultures" to be used too often in describing the friction between the West and Islam. This, however seems to be a bona fide instance.

How will Europe react to the pressure? And what will be the long term outcome of the cartoons? Certainly Europes' Muslims will become more marginalized--both willingly and unwillingly--and thus more militant. Denmark doubtless moved near the top of the list for terrorists eager to teach the West a lesson. Beyond that, things will definitely go downhill for the short, medium, and long term.

Excerpt of the day, ethnic cleansing version

From an article reporting a predicted mini ice age:
The Northern Hemisphere's most recent cool-down period occurred between 1645 and 1705. The resulting period, known as the Little Ice Age, left canals in the Netherlands frozen solid and forced people in Greenland to abandon their houses to glaciers, the scientist said.
Lousy, pushy Ice ages and Greenland glaciers, always looking to expand.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Give yourself the gift of peace: convert to Islam

Want peace? Islam--the religion of peace, guarantees it. After deciding to follow the religion of peace, your first question is which branch to join.

Perhaps most importantly, your new religion should not upset fellow Muslims. Peace-seekers everywhere are advised to not make the mistake of choosing a heretical sect of Islam; some of your peaceful co-religionists might take it badly:
[...] To the east, in a village on Lombok, about 2,000 people attacked a compound housing 31 families of followers of Ahmadiyah, an Islamic sect with origins in India. Police sent to protect the families were far outnumbered and helpless to stop the attackers from burning the houses. Fortunately, there were no deaths and all of the families were safely evacuated. Still, the ugly attack had the tacit approval of the local administration and Muslim ulema. [...]
Also, you may have heard of something called the Sunni-Shi'a split. Your choice here is also critically important if peaceful co-existance--not to mention staying alive--is your goal.

One over riding factor should inform your decision of which sect you choose: where you live. If you live in Iran or Iraq, then Shi'a is probably your best bet. Most other nations either follow the Sunni strain of Islam, or are mixed. Remember, your co-religionists will support you to the extent they don't have to live near your heretical self. Plumping for Sunni-ism is highly recommended in Saudi Arabia, where it remains a crime to belong to the Shi'a sect.

Having selected your branch of Islam, here is a tip for bonding with fellow followers of the religion of peace: express frequent anger at the West, especially the Jew-controlled WASPs (or is that the WASP-controlled Jews? No matter, both are infidel) in the US. Denouncing Zionism and calling for the destruction of Israel remain sure-fire conversation starters.

Keep as your goal the eventual "voluntary" conversion of the world to your sect's beliefs. To this end demand Sharia law be enacted to protect your rights. Especially useful in the decadent West is the tactic of invoking the holy (meant in a purely secular way; please, issue no fatwas) Leftist goal of multi-culturism. If you live in a German speaking nation, demand that the tradition of giving "lucky pigs" as Christmas gifts cease.

Unexpected bonus: Islam supports marriage, so feel free to take up to four brides. You may beat the disobediant ones, knowing yourself to be a righteous follower of Muhammed (peace be upon him).

Above all, remember that apostasy is punishable by death under all four main Islamic schools of jurisprudence. So, once a Muslim, always a Muslim.

In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful: welcome to the religion of peace.

P.S. Remember to keep your knife sharp:
And fight in the cause of Allah with those who fight with you [...]. And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from where they drove you out [...] but if they do fight you, then slay them; such is the reward of the unbelievers. (Koran 2:190-192)

If nuclear diplomacy fails

Read this analysis from the Times on possible consequences of an Allied strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. Although the article is short and limited to military and political fallout, it makes for sobering reading. While Iran has yet to dismiss Russia's offer to enrich (and control) uranium for Iran's civil nuclear power plants, it also shows no let up in its drive to develop nuclear weapons.

Unless the world comes up with some ingenious diplomatic proposal, we are left with the options of sanctions and force--and the hope for some Deus ex machina solution. Iran won't be terribly troubled by sanctions, leaving only military force and prayer.

IT IS the option of last resort with consequences too hideous to contemplate. And yet, with diplomacy nearly exhausted, the use of military force to destroy Iran’s nuclear programme is being actively considered by those grappling with one of the world’s most pressing security problems. [...]

Tehran scoffs at threats by the West, has pledged to press on with its nuclear progamme and defend itself if attacked.

The military option may be the only means of halting a regime that has threatened to annihilate Israel from developing a bomb and triggering a regional nuclear arms race.

Experts agree that America has the military capability to destroy Iran’s dozen known atomic sites. US forces virtually surround Iran with military air bases to the west in Afghanistan, to the east in Iraq, Turkey and Qatar and the south in Oman and Diego Garcia. The US Navy also has a carrier group in the Gulf, armed with attack aircraft and Tomahawk cruise missiles. B2 stealth bombers flying from mainland America could also be used.

The air campaign would not be easy. The Iranians have been preparing for an attack. Key sites are ringed with air defences and buried underground. Sensitive parts of the Natanz facility are concealed 18 meters (60ft) underground and protected by reinforced concrete two meters thick. Similar protection has been built around the uranium conversion site at Esfahan. [...]

Lieutenant-Colonel Sam Gardiner, a former US Air Force officer, predicted that knocking out nuclear sites could be over in less than a week. But he gave warning that would only be the beginning.

Iran has threatened to defend itself if attacked. It could use medium-range missiles to hit Israel or US military targets in Iraq and the region. It could also use its missiles and submarines to attack shipping in the Gulf, the main export route for much of the world’s energy needs. “Once you have dealt with the nuclear sites you would have to expand the targets,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Gardiner. “There are another 125 to deal with including chemical plants, missile launchers, airfields and submarines.”

While this huge US offensive is underway Iran would almost certainly deploy its most powerful weapon. It would unleash a counter-attack through proxies in the region. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia, would attack Israel. Moqtadr al-Sadr, the militant Iraqi Shia religious leader, could order his Mahdi Army to rise up against American and British forces in Iraq. Iranian-backed groups could wreak havoc against Western targets across the world. What began as a military operation to maintain a balance of power in the Middle East, could instead plunge the region into another conflict.

“It will have to be diplomats, not F15s that stop the mullahs,” said Joseph Cirincione, an expert on non-proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “An air strike against the uranium conversion facility at Esfahan would inflame Muslim anger, rally the Iranian public around an otherwise unpopular government. Finally, the strike would not, as it often said, delay the Iranian programme. It would almost certainly speed it up,” he wrote in an article.

Indeed, a military strike without some sort of action to physically secure as many facilities as possible would be counter productive. Iran knows this. I am very pessimistic that Iran will will voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons program. Unless it takes the face-saving Russian offer, and agrees to a strick inspection regime, it will be left to the military to put an end to this threat.

Unintended consequences from an attack, such as spurring other states to develop covert nuclear programs, are likely to occur. Moreover, attacking rogue states as a matter of policy is untenable. The nuclear genie is out of the bottle and the most nations can hope to accomplish is keeping such weapons out of the hands of truly dangerous countries.

Clearly a new means of controlling proliferation is called for. Unfortunately, I have yet to read any decent proposals. The main difficulty is that any solution requires international cooperation--which will never going to happen so long as money and influence are to be gained from supplying rogue nations.

More clay = more early atmospheric oxygen

Some seriously original thinking behind this research, which must still be tested and supported by other evidence. The idea has implications for the Cambrian "explosion" (less an explosion than the widespread development and adoption of hard body parts that are prone to fossilization).

New Scientist reports on an article appearing in the journal Science:
An increase in clay production may have lead to the rapid increase in atmospheric oxygen thought essential for the evolution of multi-celled organisms, new research suggests.

While physical weathering of rocks produces silt and sand, fungi, microbes and plants break down rock into clays. These clays are much better at trapping organic material [such as carbon and hydrogen] that would otherwise react with oxygen, so a rise in clay should lead to a rise in atmospheric oxygen.

The new work, led by Martin Kennedy at the University of California at Riverside, US, shed light on this idea by looking for a rise in clay in sediments deposited during the 300 million years leading up to the start of the Cambrian period, 544 million years ago.

That is also the period when oxygen levels rose and multicellular life evolved. An increase in clay would have been produced by microbes and fungi colonising the land - plants had yet to evolve.The idea originated when Kennedy earlier found that clay content affects the burial of organic carbon in much younger rocks. He had also noticed that Precambrian shales differ in texture from post-Cambrian shales.

In the latest work, he analysed Precambrian shales in Australia dating from 850 to 530 million years ago. He found the clay fraction increased during the period, meaning the sediments were able to trap more organic carbon.

The event "occurs over tens of millions of years, beginning at about 620 million years ago", as primitive life spread across the continents, Kennedy told New Scientist.

"Fungi are the things that probably turned the balance," he suggests, noting they have root-like structures that can dig into rocks and accelerate weathering.

But other scientists are more cautious, warning that little evidence exists for extensive early land biota and that wider studies are needed of shales. "It is at this point an interesting idea that needs testing with larger data sets," says palaeontologist Andrew Knoll, a leading expert on Precambrian life at Harvard University in the US.

Monday, February 06, 2006

RINO carnival is up at In the Agora

This week's carnival--displaying many opinions on the Muslim cartoon controversy--is up. In The Agora is hosting.

The Economist: Bush got the democracy thing right

I posted on this subject just last week (OK, I excerpted from an aditorial I agreed with), now the Economist has a fine article (follow the internal link to an article on political Islam) on the need for democracy. Although I share some of the second paragraph's criticism of Bush, I won't nit-pick over my disagreements.

“AND always keep a-hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse.” To judge by their reaction to his state-of-the-union message, some critics of George Bush's foreign policy have been paying rather too much attention lately to Hilaire Belloc's rhyme. In his speech, Mr Bush said again that America was committed to the “historic long-term goal” of spreading democracy. But in the Middle East, ask his critics, hasn't his democracy agenda ushered in something worse than the previous pattern of rule by strongmen: the rise in Iraq, Egypt and now Palestine of a form of political Islam that is hostile both to the West and to the underlying values of democracy itself?

The detailed answer to this question has to be long, if only because the thing people call “political Islam” comes in so many different shapes and sizes (see article). The short answer, however, is no. Mr Bush has made many big mistakes in the Middle East. They range from inept planning and follow-through in Iraq to supine neglect of Palestine. But his democratisation policy is not one of them. In fact, it may be the one big thing that this president has got right in the region.

Democracy's defining feature—the freedom to hire and fire your government—does not guarantee that countries will make wise choices, or that democracies will be good neighbours. The lesson of the 20th century is that no people is immune from falling under the spell of some hypnotic voice or pernicious doctrine. In 1933 Germans freely elected the Nazi Party, which went on to reduce Europe to rubble. But only the most twisted history could blame democracy rather than dictatorship for the depredations of Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong. The merits of democracy are obvious and the appeal of it seems universal. So why do the familiar arguments have to be rehashed all over again in the case of the Middle East?

One reason people on the left object to Mr Bush's “freedom agenda” is that they see it as a veil for something else: an American policy of stomping about the world deposing unfriendly regimes at will. If such a policy existed, it would be wrong. But Mr Bush's agenda so far consists mainly of using the bully pulpit of superpowerdom to extol democracy's virtues. His administration has deposed only two regimes—the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq—and in neither case was spreading democracy his principal motive, given or real. It was much more old-fashioned than that.

Rightly or wrongly, both regimes were seen as threats to America. Afghanistan, which gave safe haven to al-Qaeda, surely was. As for Iraq, when weapons of mass destruction failed to materialise, Mr Bush talked up the humanitarian case for having got rid of Mr Hussein and conveniently forgot about his WMD case. To that extent, he is to blame for the cynicism his freedom talk now engenders [I disagree; many on the Left reflexively say black if Bush says white]. But the fact remains that he had to install some sort of successor regime in these two countries, and instead of imposing a friendly strongman, as America did in cold-war days, he plumped for democracy. Some of the consequences are messy. It was presumably no part of Mr Bush's design to deliver power in Iraq to Islamists friendly to Iran's ayatollahs. But the decision to allow Afghans and Iraqis a free choice was surely right in principle.

Will it turn out right in practice? Here from the opposite direction comes a second criticism, this time from the foreign-policy realists. However fine in the abstract, democracy is delivering dangerous results. Fanatical religious types rather than secular liberals are expanding into the space American guns and influence have forced open in the politics of Iraq, Egypt and Palestine. This will split multi-sectarian Iraq apart, set Arab against Jew in Palestine and deliver Egypt into the anti-western hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. Like Jimmy Carter's human-rights foreign policy in the 1970s, George Bush's democracy policy will be remembered for its dangerous naivety—a luxury a superpower cannot afford.

In time, the realists may be proved right. An Arab country might one day vote in an al-Qaeda government and make war on America. But where is their evidence? Having attempted an insurrection in Saudi Arabia, al-Qaeda is growing less popular there. Iraq under the dictator was neither at peace nor friendly to the West; the present haggling between elected parties may be the only realistic way to bind a fissiparous [Tending to break up into parts or break away from a main body; factious--Pigilito] country together. In Egypt, the good showing of the Brotherhood in December's election was a salutary warning to the eternally ruling Hosni Mubarak that it is not such a clever idea to keep locking up your liberal opponents. Where Islamists do well, it is often because they are the only opposition left standing [More importantly, they also do particulary well because they are seen as less corrupt than the regimes they seek to replace].

As for last week's election in the Palestinian territories, this did not create the Hamas problem: the organisation was murdering Israelis long before winning power. It remains to be seen whether victory will make it more murderous. Having to keep voters sweet may instead force it to pay less heed to its ideology of destroying Israel and more to the Palestinians' real needs and achievable goals. If it does not change it can be cajoled and punished accordingly. A democratic mandate does not license any government to make war on its neighbour or ignore its obligations under international law.

It is sometimes argued that political Islam is itself a pernicious doctrine, logically incompatible with the values of democracy, and that this is what makes its promotion in the Arab world a futile exercise. Many Islamists do insist that because God alone can make law, men who make their own laws are apostates. But this idea is held only by a minority in the world of Islam, where democracy has in recent years both spread and put down powerful roots in countries as far apart as Turkey and Indonesia. There is no obvious reason why the Arab world must remain an exception.

Holding elections is not a panacea. Democracy cannot at a stroke heal national conflicts, create civic institutions or modernise traditional societies. But whatever else people think of Mr Bush, on this one thing—the universal potential and appeal of the democratic idea—he is on the side of history.

My dream of watching a World Cup soccer match

in Germany is dead:

Dear Mr. Alex XXXX,

Due to the high demand for tickets for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany (TM), the ticket applications correctly processed and accepted had to be entered into a draw. Unfortunately, you have not been allocated any tickets for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany (TM).

You may of course reapply for tickets in one of the subsequent sales phases.

Kind regards,Your 2006 FIFA World Cup (TM) Ticketing Center

Anti Swiss-American bastards. At least I saved lots of Euros as those tickets were way expensive. Now I'll have to watch the US and Swiss teams play in the 2006 FIFA World Cup (TM) on the tube (I wonder if the "(TM)" will appear on the field with the rest of the logo).

French economy lags Germany's: France surrenders again

The Economist notes that Germany's economy has better prospects than France's. Not the biggest news, but for the French this is somewhat humiliating. Because if they can't look down their nose at Germany, what do the French have to live for?

FOR the past few years, the morose French have at least been able to console themselves with one thought: while their economy may be lacklustre, Germany's is far worse. Now even that consolation is fading. With business confidence strong and a new government in charge, Germans are talking up their prospects for the first time in years, while the French remain in the dumps. If reform is beginning to pay off across the Rhine, whatever happened to France?

To be sure, the French economy is far from collapsing. This year, predicts INSEE, the official statistics body, GDP will grow by 1.7%, a notch up on last year's 1.6%. Consumer demand remains strong. And unemployment, although still a high 9.5%, fell yet again in December. For the first time in years, France's economy is now expanding almost as fast as Britain's, and it will also match German growth this year.

Yet the closing gap between France and Germany represents a marked change from previous years. Throughout the recent downturn, as well as the booming late 1990s, France's economy has consistently outperformed Germany's. Unlike Germany, France has avoided outright recession. For the French, this has been an unspoken source of comfort. If the American and British economies were tearing ahead, leaving France looking torpid, well, no matter: Germany was even farther behind.

That is no longer true. Admittedly, signs of revival in Germany remain somewhat mixed. German retail sales in December were disappointing, and unemployment has risen once more. But the German business-confidence index in January was at its highest in over five years, whereas the French equivalent has been flat for three months in a row. The talk in Germany is of a revival and of enthusiasm about Angela Merkel; in France it is still about policy blockage. [...] “Germany, which has recovered its lost competitiveness, is leading the pack,” comments Eric Chaney, chief European economist at Morgan Stanley, “while France is lagging.”

How far has France got with economic reform? In recent years, a string of reports now gathering dust on ministerial shelves have identified the chief brakes on growth: the weight of the public sector, high taxation, a rigid labour market. The difficulty has not been deciding what to do, but doing it. And the centre-right majority elected in 2002 has proved little better in this respect than its centre-left predecessor. A few reforms have been passed in the face of fierce protests. Under Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the previous centre-right prime minister, reforms of both public-sector pensions and public health-insurance were pushed through despite demonstrations and strikes. Yet, in retrospect, these look like reformettes, not thorough overhauls. [...]

On the labour market, Mr de Villepin has at least grasped the need both to bring down joblessness and to loosen rules that deter job creation. He has made jobs his
central preoccupation, conducting weekly pit-stop trips to job centres or training schemes. He has introduced a more flexible two-year contract for firms employing fewer than 20 workers. Now he is trying to rush through parliament a similar contract for those aged under 26, which would make it far easier to shed workers during their first two years. This has prompted an outcry from the unions and the opposition, which accuse him of institutionalising insecurity for the young.

Mr de Villepin is surely right to try to reduce joblessness, but he also has a political need to secure results fast. A presidential election is due in the spring of 2007, at which he may well be a candidate. So he is not prepared to wait for the private sector to create jobs, but has embarked on an ambitious state job-creation scheme, which will recruit tens of thousands of young people to work in job centres, town halls, sports stadiums and the like.

Particularly after last autumn's suburban riots, the need to create more jobs for young people has become pressing. But Mr de Villepin has set himself a potential trap. The more he subsidises a fall in unemployment, the more pressure he will put on the public finances—and the more this will weigh on any economic revival. As Germany has found by bitter experience, in the short run tough economic reforms and falling joblessness do not easily go hand in hand. But if France is to keep up with Germany, let alone the rest of the world, they remain essential.

Prime Minister Villepin has opted for the politically beneficial route--which is also more in keeping with France's statist outlook. It may not help him in 2007, as French voters look across the Rhine to Germany, where Merkel's bolder leadership is bringing results. Bold will be political gold in 2007. And mainstream French politicians don't come bolder than Interior Minister Sarkozy.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Angela Merkel in the mold of Maggie Thatcher?

Bully for Angela; she doesn't seem to have any doubts about the intentions of Iran's leaders:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel likened Iran's nuclear plans on Saturday to the threat posed by the Nazis in their early days, as top U.S. officials urged a tough line to stop Tehran from making an atomic bomb. [...]

Addressing the annual Munich security conference, Merkel said countries around the world had underestimated the Nazi threat as Adolf Hitler rose to power.

"Looking back to German history in the early 1930s when National Socialism (Nazism) was on the rise, there were many outside Germany who said 'It's only rhetoric -- don't get excited'," she told the assembled world defense policy makers.

"There were times when people could have reacted differently and, in my view, Germany is obliged to do something at the early stages ... We want to, we must prevent Iran from developing its nuclear program."

As she was speaking a few hundred metres (yards) from the Munich pub where Hitler launched his "Beer Hall Putsch" in 1923, the board of governors of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency voted in Vienna to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council over concerns it is secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran says its nuclear program is purely aimed at civilian energy production.

But Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has compounded concerns in the West and elsewhere with recent comments denying that the Nazi Holocaust happened and calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map".

Post-war Germany, conscious of the Nazis' crimes, has made support for Israel a pillar of its foreign policy and Merkel said her country could not tolerate Ahmadinejad's stance.

There is no outside limit to what Iran will contemplate once it has nuclear weapons. Merkel is spot on with her analogy.

The time to act is now. Continued diplomacy, backed with tough sanction is the way to go. If Russia and China act to preclude these measures, then military action must be used.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Dirty glaciers melt slower? Science says: maybe

For those interested in methods to limit the effects of global warming comes this article from Nature News. By sprinkling dust or a light layer of dirt on ice, researchers replicated shapes in the ice which serve to shield it from the sun’s rays. The solution is counter intuitive since dark colors absorb energy and transfer it as heat.

However, the formation of the shapes depends critically on the thickness of the dust/dirt layer, so it seems that just chucking dirt on the Greenland Ice sheet wouldn’t be sufficient. Moreover, dry air is called for; air over the Greenland sheet may be too moist, but Antarctica certainly is dry enough. And anyway, the amount of dust to be delivered to an ice sheet must be beyond our abilities. (internal links removed)
Researchers have recreated miniature versions of curious spiky glaciers found in the Andes. By studying how these structures form in the lab, they conclude that inducing such spikes in glaciers should help to slow their melting, and perhaps provide a way to preserve glaciers that are under threat from global warming.

The spikes appear naturally in the high-altitude snowfields of the Andes, where glaciers can be moulded into a forest of ice spires. The spikes, which are typically 1–4 metres high, are known as 'penitentes' because of their resemblance to a procession of white-hooded monks. They form only in dry air, when intense sunlight burning into ice transforms it straight into water vapour.

Physicist Vance Bergeron of the higher teacher training school in Lyon and his co-workers made 'micro-penitentes' in their laboratory by exposing blocks of snow or ice to a bright spotlight. After a few hours of illumination, tiny peaks just a few centimetres tall appeared. Structures of this size have also been seen naturally, and are thought to be the precursors of full-scale penitentes.

The formation of the ice pinnacles is a self-amplifying process, Bergeron explains. First, the light evaporates small patches of snow at random, creating small dimples in the flat surface. "The little cavities then act like lenses, focusing energy into their centre," Bergeron says. This makes the troughs get deeper, and eventually pinnacles of ice are left standing between the troughs.

Once the spikes get big enough, they cast most of the snow surface into shadow. This slows down subsequent evaporation of the ice, they will report in Physical Review Letters.

"It's fascinatingly charming, and a really nice piece of physics," says glaciologist Elizabeth Morris at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, UK.

The process is accelerated by a fine coating of dirt on the snow surface. As the troughs deepen they expose clean snow that is prone to further evaporation, whereas dirt in the old snow at the peaks covers the ice crystals like a cap and insulates them.

This seems to contradict the observation that snow or ice melts faster if it's dirty than if it's clean, because it absorbs more sunlight. But Bergeron explains that whether a layer of dirt acts primarily as an insulator or an absorber depends on how thick it is.

Bergeron and colleagues think that glaciers and ice fields at risk of melting could be protected by scattering a little dirt or dust on their surface to promote the formation of penitentes. "That's one of the things we now want to investigate," Bergeron says.

The research comes as scientists advising the British government publish a report warning that major world deposits of ice, including the Greenland ice cap and parts of the Antarctic, are in danger of melting.

Their 30 January report, launched about a year after their meeting in February 2005, warns that the risks associated with climate change seem to be more serious than thought just a few years ago. [...]

Bush is right, the Middle East is ripe for democracy

An interesting opinion piece in today’s The Australian by Michael Costello nicely refutes those who claim bringing democracy to the Middle East was a mistake. The paths to democracy are varied. Surely no one seeing the rise of fascism in Germany and the aftermath of the war would have predicted that Germany would quickly emerge as one of the world’s leading democracies. Ditto for Japan, which lacked any meaningful history of democratic institutions and the mindset held to be necessary for democratic success.

Hamas is now accountable for its words and deeds. The Palestinians may—in principle—want Israel to be brought low, but they voted for a Palestinian Authority that works for them, one which ensures a better future for their children. Whether Hamas is capable of that is debatable. But a Hamas that openly acts to destroy Israel will make things harder on the Palestinians, and won’t long be tolerated. (for the opposite view, see Charles Krauthammer’s opinion in the WaPo)

THE election of Hamas in Palestine, together with the strong showing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and of the Shia parties in Iraq, is being cited by many on the Left and the Right as proof that it's naive folly for the US to not just support but propagate democracy to the world at large, and the Middle East in particular.The reasons given for this are many. They are wrong.

Let's begin with the most common, which is that, although these elections were free and fair, they are likely to produce a Hamas government committed to the destruction of Israel and the use of violence, including terror. The Muslim Brotherhood is hardly pro-American, and the Shia-led Government in Iraq has close links with an extremely hostile Iran. We did not like these outcomes so it was folly to allow, let alone encourage, these elections to take place at all.

You only have to state this argument to see how truly odious it is. Furthermore, it's an argument that assumes democratic elections give legitimacy not just to the government elected, but to all the policies of that government. Why should this be so? The policies of the governments of the US, Australia, Spain, France, Japan, South Korea and any number of other democratically elected governments are deeply opposed by many other countries and peoples, including, often, by many of their own citizens. Does that mean we should oppose democratic elections for these countries? It's a nonsense.

The Palestinians have made their choice (which I suspect was driven much more by a desire for peace and economic security than Islamic fundamentalism or a desire to obliterate Israel). Whatever their reasons, they now have to live with the consequences of their choice of government, which are likely to be severe in economic and political terms.

George W. Bush was not naive in his second inaugural address last year when he said it was long-term US policy to pursue the end of tyranny in the world because that was vital to US security interests. He said this would take "the concentrated work of generations". And he said that when people vote, "the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own".

In his State of the Union address this week he said: "Democracies in the Middle East will not look like our own."

In any case, is there some view that Iraq under Saddam Hussein was more positive for our interests than a democratically elected Shia government? Or that the shambles that was Palestine under a corrupt and incompetent Fatah, in which Hamas was able to operate freely and without responsibility, was a better scenario for the future than now, when it is open to accountability as a government? Elections may or may not have made things better, but things won't be worse.

The second argument is one I recently heard in a high-quality forum discussing global affairs. These countries in the Middle East, we were told, "are not ready for democracy". [...]

This argument about being "not ready" frequently morphs into a discussion about the need for prior development of civil institutions and the rule of law if democracy is to take root. Yet there's little evidence to support this as a general proposition.

Before the end of World War II in 1945, there were only a handful of democracies. Today there are more than 100. Those 100-plus democracies were created in many different ways. Some were imposed by World War II victors: Germany, for example, Japan and South Korea. Many grew out of the post-colonial environment, with only the most flimsy indigenous civil society and rule of law.

And of course the fate of democracy is by no means assured. There are plenty of examples of the "one man, one vote, one time" situation where democracy is followed by dictatorship. […] These failures are said to show that these countries were "not ready".

The remarkable thing is that many countries have bounced back from democratic regression to renewed democracy: Thailand, South Korea, Chile are just a few examples. The whole of eastern Europe is another. It's incredibly difficult to keep down the instinct for liberty. […]

The Soviet and east European moment to shift from authoritarian stability to democracy came as a bolt from the blue in the 1980s.

Bush has judged that the same historic moment has come for the Middle East.