Friday, December 30, 2005

Kyrgyz Constitution Writing

I haven't been following this closely enough to provide much insight, but nine months after the Tulip Revolution which toppled Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev, the process of reforming the Kyrgyz constitutional system has reached an impasse. Reforms were to have been made by the end of the year, but now President Kurmanbak Bakiev, whom delegates accused of seeking to impose his own version on them, is suggesting a delay in reforms until 2009. While in a nation with Kyrgyzstan's history one must be wary of continuing autocratic tendencies from the President's office, he might have a point, as the IWPR article makes it sound like there is really no national consensus on what the government should look like. Now there's talk of a referendum on basic issues, with some calling for one in early 2006 while Bakiev wants to wait until July at the earliest.

(Crossposted to American Footprints.)

Sex in Bahrain

A Bahraini student has been sentenced to three months in prison for having sex with her boyfriend in a car park. The amusing part is that she tried to challenge the law under which she was arrested, citing her democratic rights:
"'What my friend and I were doing is part of our individual freedom. This is a democratic and free country,' the student, who is above the age of 21, told the judge sentencing her. Police said they found the girl and her boyfriend in 'an intimate position' in a car park."

The judge, meanwhile, suggested she learn that, "Our laws are different from those in the West." Often there are cultural stereotypes on all sides. Or perhaps the judge just got forwarded this post.

Sudanese Protest Broken Up

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Public Diplomacy

Now let's see if I understand this. The United States has undertaken significant public diplomacy initiatives in the Middle East, including our own TV and radio stations, with the specific purpose of influencing Arab opinion. Now, Mexico hires someone to effectively be a public diplomacy czar, and they're accused of meddling in American foreign policy.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005


Something seems to be missing from this chart:

You scored as Journalism. You are an aspiring journalist, and you should major in journalism! Like me, you are passionate about writing and expressing yourself, and you want the world to understand your beliefs through writing.





























What is your Perfect Major?
created with

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Hoax People Right

Via Daily Kos, the UMass student who alleged he had been visited by DHS agents has admitted it was a hoax:
"The UMass Dartmouth student who claimed to have been visited by Homeland Security agents over his request for "The Little Red Book" by Mao Zedong has admitted to making up the entire story.

"The 22-year-old student tearfully admitted he made the story up to his history professor, Dr. Brian Glyn Williams, and his parents, after being confronted with the inconsistencies in his account.

"Had the student stuck to his original story, it might never have been proved false.

"But on Thursday, when the student told his tale in the office of UMass Dartmouth professor Dr. Robert Pontbriand to Dr. Williams, Dr. Pontbriand, university spokesman John Hoey and The Standard-Times, the student added new details.

"The agents had returned, the student said, just last night. The two agents, the student, his parents and the student's uncle all signed confidentiality agreements, he claimed, to put an end to the matter.

"But when Dr. Williams went to the student's home yesterday and relayed that part of the story to his parents, it was the first time they had heard it. The story began to unravel, and the student, faced with the truth, broke down and cried."

I'm furious with this student, and not just because of the professional sympathy for professors who were lied to. There are serious civil liberties issues in this country, and this student has hurt the credibility of any story that comes out in the future. The local newspaper should also not have run the story without more verification. I also think we've all learned something about how easily the local can become global.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

UMass-Dartmouth Update

A liberal Wisconsin newspaper updates the story of the UMass-Dartmouth student allegedly visited by Homeland Security personnel after requesting a certain edition of the Little Red Book of Mao Zedong. It includes as new information that the student did not make this request through the UMass-Dartmouth library, though it doesn't say where he did. So the whole issue of the fact that school doesn't use a social security number and whether that could simply have been confused with a student ID number at some point in the telling goes away, at least temporarily. The Department of Homeland Security is also declining comment while they investigate.

UPDATE: Also, via LISNews, a new article from South Coast Today, which includes skeptical quotes from government agencies. It also mentions that the library which processed the request was UMass-Amherst, and refused to say whether they had received a government request for their records due to secrecy provisions under the Patriot Act.

UPDATE: Heretical Librarian gives a rundown of holes in the reported version of the student's story. My own opinion hasn't changed much. I still think that either the student is lying, or that there's more to this than we know. It can't just be the book.

UPDATE: Inside Higher Ed now has an article on this topic. It's new information is that the student's travels were to South America, and that he went to an FBI office to defend himself. I think the muddled picture of the first article could be explained if the professor, who was actually asked about the eavesdropping story, got some details muddled about these events of earlier this semester, not realizing they would become the centerpiece of the story.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Secure Borders

In RFE-RL's latest Afghanistan report, they have a short article on the state of the country's drug trade. I don't really have much analysis of it, and my own opinion that we should consider making Afghanistan a treaty supplier of opium has been states elsewhere. However, take note how it's smuggled through neighboring nations, especially Iran. Iran definitely does not want all that opium and heroin in their country, and yet the percentage that does pass their borders has increased. Where I'm going, of course, is that borders are not airtight, and the fact terrorists or other kinds of militants may slip across a country's frontiers does not mean that country is aiding terrorism.

Christmas in Egypt

Greg Aldous has some spiritual reflections on Christmas in Egypt. As he notes, however, Egyptian Christians are on the eastern calendar in which Christmas falls after New Year's Day. Hopefully, he'll tell us a little about an Egyptian Christmas, which is observed as an important religious holiday. Meanwhile, an MP from the Liberal al-Ghad party has called for a ban on alcohol during Christmas and New Year's. Someone tell Bill O'Reilly he was right about liberal secularists all along!

Brian Glyn Williams

I've noticed some on the right are drawing upon stereotypes of liberal college professors to attempt to discredit the DHS/Mao Zedong story. If you glance through some of his Jamestown Foundation pieces however, it seems clear we have a very sharp, mainstream scholar doing work of national importance regarding international terrorist networks.

UPDATE: I just noticed this was my 2000th post.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Spying Targets

Via TAPPED, I see that John Aravosis suggests journalists may be a target of President Bush's controversial eavesdropping. One other possibility may be lawyers of terror suspects who have family abroad.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum suggests technological differences leading to differences in the scope of the eavesdropping accounts for the change.

Afghan Parliament

For the first time since the 1970's, Afghanistan has seen the meeting of a democratically elected Parliament. One thing I clearly did not predict several years ago is that Afghanistan would turn out so much better than Iraq has. While the situation in Afghanistan is far from perfect, its power holders seem to have settled on collaboration with each other to play the game and mediate disputes through good old-fashioned political corruption rather than violence. This is a situation which could lay the groundwork for a democratic society.


As the Bush administration says, this wiretap program is a useful intelligence tool:
"Several officials said the eavesdropping program had helped uncover a plot by Iyman Faris, an Ohio trucker and naturalized citizen who pleaded guilty in 2003 to supporting Al Qaeda by planning to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge with blowtorches. What appeared to be another Qaeda plot, involving fertilizer bomb attacks on British pubs and train stations, was exposed last year in part through the program, the officials said. But they said most people targeted for N.S.A. monitoring have never been charged with a crime, including an Iranian-American doctor in the South who came under suspicion because of what one official described as dubious ties to Osama bin Laden."

However, that's not the point. As people like Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein have pointed out, the issue is one of Presidential power, an unprecedented arrogation of authority over American lives to a single branch of government under the control of one person. I suspect that the reasons for this are not as devious as might be supposed, and that the root motive was the fact that this administration does not like to be contained, whether by the United Nations or American laws, and will use any excuse to gain freedom of action. But this is not healthy for a democratic society. Results count, but so does process.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum notes that the FISA court almost always approves requests Almost, as in well over 99% of the time. He also calls attention to the point that the court can grant approval after the fact in emergency situations. The Josh Marshall post he links to, however, notes that 2003 marked a change in court behavior. This is probably significant, but why? Presumably something changed in the administrations policy regarding their use, but what?

It's possible there are sound intelligence reasons leading to a dispute between the administration and the court over the proper use of these powers, and we legitimately won't find out for decades. On the other hand, my trust in the Bush administration really isn't that great.

UPDATE: Actually, "unprecedented" might be extreme. Pejman Yousefzadeh leads me to do some googling which turns up Operation Shamrock:
"Besides intercepting ILC communications at radio stations, NSA, GCHQ and their counterparts also collected printed copies of all international telegrams from public and commercial operators in London, New York and other centres. They were then taken to sigint analysts and processed in the same way as foreign telegrams snatched from the air at sites like Chicksands and Kirknewton. Britain had done this since 1920, and the United States since 1945. The joint programme was known as Operation Shamrock, and continued until it was exposed by US Congressional intelligence investigations in the wake of the Watergate affair.

On 8 August 1975, NSA Director Lt General Lew Allen admitted to the Pike Committee of the US House of Representatives that : 'NSA systematically intercepts international communications, both voice and cable.' He also admitted that 'messages to and from American citizens have been picked up in the course of gathering foreign intelligence'. At a later hearing, he described how NSA used '"watch lists" an aid to watch for foreign activity of reportable intelligence interest'.[8]

US legislators considered that these operations might have been unconstitutional. During 1976, a Department of Justice team investigated possible criminal offences by NSA. Part of their report was released in 1980 It described how intelligence on US citizens, known as MINARET 'was obtained incidentally in the course of NSA's interception of aural and non-aural (e.g, telex) international communications and the receipt of GCHQ-acquired telex and ILC (International Leased Carrier) cable traffic (SHAMROCK)" (emphasis in original)."

Cole on Book Surveillance

Juan Cole:
"I have personal knowledge of DHS folks visiting intellectuals over books. I know an Arab-American professor who was doing development work in the Middle East who shipped back some Arabic books, some of them on water and sewage systems. These were intercepted at customs and he received a visit from two agents who questioned him about the books. They were, of course, innocuous, and he had been working on a USG contract!"

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Fourth Sunday of Advent

The Fourth Sunday of Advent began with the lighting of the Candle of Hope:
"'This is what the Sovereign Lord says:
See, I will beckon to the Gentiles, I will lift up my banner to the peoples;
They will bring your sons in their arms and carry your daughters on their shoulders.
Kings will be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers.
They will bow down before you with their faces to the ground; they will lick the dust at your feet.
Then you will know that I am the Lord; those who hope in me will not be disappointed.' (Isaiah 49:22-23)

"Today we light the fourth candle of the Advent Wreath. It is the candle of hope. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah was giving hope to God’s people who had been defeated by their enemies and taken off to a foreign land – away from their center of worship, separated from the house of God; living among the customs and traditions of foreign people. Is it any wonder they needed the hope of God’s presence, and the hope of a future restored to them through a powerful military leader – the Messiah for whom they longed? The prophet could tell of enemies becoming the servants of God’s people.

"What a topsy-turvy fulfillment of prophecy with the birth of the baby Jesus who would grow into the likeness of God and lead His followers into the Kingdom of God. Instead of being served, we are called to serve. Instead of having our enemies under our feet, we work toward justice and equality. And as we live this life, united by our faith in Jesus the Christ, we hope for what is yet to be ours.

"'Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you ….'(1 Peter 1:3-4)"

The main part of the rest of the service was taken up with the Children's Lovefeast. The lovefeast is a Moravian tradition based on the agape meals practiced in the early days of Christianity, in which people would partake of simple meals together in the context of their common Christian community. The practice did not outlast the Roman Empire, but was revived in the early 18th century by the Moravian community in Herrnhut. Take it away, Moravian FAQ:
"The lovefeast of Apostolic times was resuscitated in its original simplicity by the Moravian Church in 1727. After the memorable celebration of the holy communion on August 13, seven groups of the participants continued to talk over the great spiritual blessing which they had experienced and were reluctant to separate and return to their own homes for the noonday meal. Count Zinzendorf, sensing the situation, sent them food from his manor house, and each group partook together, continuing in prayer, religious conversation, and the singing of hymns. This incident reminded Zinzendorf of the primitive agape, and the idea was fostered until lovefeasts became a custom in Moravian life. They were introduced wherever new settlements were founded and so came to America.

"The lovefeast is primarily a song service, opened with prayer. Often there is no address; the hymns in the ode, or order of service, furnish the subject matter for devotional thoughts. If many visitors are present, the presiding minister often says a few words, explaining the purpose of the service, just before the congregation partakes of the bun and coffee, or whatever is served. On special occasions an address may be added, giving opportunity to remind the congregation of the history of the anniversary or the deeper import of the day.

"There is no rule as to the food to be offered, except that it be very simple and easily distributed. The drink may be coffee, tea, or lemonade, fully prepared in advance, so that it may be served very quietly and without interruption of the singing. Usually mugs are used, which may be passed from hand to hand along a pew from a tray brought along the aisle. A slightly sweetened bun, which can be served in baskets passed along the pews, is a convenient form of bread. Usually men handle the trays of mugs, and women the baskets of buns. While the congregation partakes, the choir sings an anthem. Later the mugs are quietly gathered and removed. The food served is not consecrated, as in the communion. Children and members of any denomination may partake."

In this case, the lovefeast was distributed and blessed by the children, who while the congregation was partaking read the Scripture and brief Advent-themed devotional passages, and played or sang Christmas hymns. Its place in the season was similar to that of the more common children's Christmas pageant. (I think this church did one of those last year, but our current pastor is trying to put the church more in touch with its Moravian roots.)

Saturday, December 17, 2005


This is a bit of Aleppo, taken from the Citadel:


This is the scariest thing I've read in awhile:
"A senior at UMass Dartmouth was visited by federal agents two months ago, after he requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung's tome on Communism called 'The Little Red Book.'

"Two history professors at UMass Dartmouth, Brian Glyn Williams and Robert Pontbriand, said the student told them he requested the book through the UMass Dartmouth library's interlibrary loan program.

"The student, who was completing a research paper on Communism for Professor Pontbriand's class on fascism and totalitarianism, filled out a form for the request, leaving his name, address, phone number and Social Security number. He was later visited at his parents' home in New Bedford by two agents of the Department of Homeland Security, the professors said.

"The professors said the student was told by the agents that the book is on a 'watch list,' and that his background, which included significant time abroad, triggered them to investigate the student further.

"'I tell my students to go to the direct source, and so he asked for the official Peking version of the book,' Professor Pontbriand said. 'Apparently, the Department of Homeland Security is monitoring inter-library loans, because that's what triggered the visit, as I understand it.'"

It's really enough to make me wonder if this was a joke newspaper. Sadly, it doesn't appear to be. Is this as it seems? And if so, is this the scariest news of the month?

UPDATE: Here's one question I have. Does anyone know anything about the paper this is from? It's a local thing, and I have no idea what its quality is.

UPDATE: Instapundit suggests an analogy between this and a case involving one Nancy Oden. I don't think that's a good idea. Oden really was refused passage, even if her political persecution complex at being asked to undergo extra screening was the direct cause. Here, either the source is lying and the newspaper didn't pick up on that, or the core of this story is true. The missing piece is perhaps other things this student has been involved in that would make him stand out from all the other students who read Mao Zedong at some point.

UPDATE: One last comment: My hunch here is that the core of this story is true, and that the student's travel resume stands out and he's been involved in some of the left-wing activity we know has been monitored in this country. But that's just my hunch.

UPDATE: This is a problem. The Massachusetts - Dartmouth ILL form does not have a blank for social security numbers. I don't think that's the sort of error that does things in entirely, but that does suggest the news account is imperfect.

(Crossposted to American Footprints.)

Friday, December 16, 2005

Long-Awaited Marriages

Bahrain seems to produce a lot of romance-related stories:
"An Indian woman who has waited 34 years for her Bahrain-based sweetheart will finally meet him in Cochin on Tuesday where they will get married.

"The 50-year-old woman was just 16 when K.S. Paramesh-waran left Kerala to take up a position as a pipefitter in Bahrain, and has persistently refused all marriage proposals in the hope that the man she loved would come home one day to marry her.

"Parameshwaran, 65, told Gulf Daily News that he had spent all those years thinking the woman he loved had forgotten him. 'I came to Bahrain as a pipefitter. I was earning 80 dinars a month and was not financially stable to get married nor was I in a condition to ask her to wait for me,' he said."

Saudi Councils Formed

The municipal councils partially elected in Saudi Arabia early this year have now actually been formed. I suppose I should be happy that there is now some formal channel for public input into decision-making, but this is just so little even compared to other Gulf states like Bahrain and Kuwait that it barely seems worth noting. On the other hand, it's more meaningful that the UAE's reform, in which elections by a handful of voters specially chosen by the voters is trumpeted as progress.

Awards Season

It's that time of year again, when nominations are open for the Koufax Awards. Meanwuile, I have judging duties to perform with the Cliopatra Awards.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

O'Reilly Speaks

According to Bill O'Reilly, this is "Madison, Wisconsin, where you expect those people to be communing with Satan." I guess I'm out of the loop on local religious life. Can anyone recommend a good satanic cult center here in town?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Saint Lucia's Day

I won't bother with the details, but my mood today has been such that it seems very appropriate for Saint Lucia's Day, the Swedish Festival of Lights yanked from the Winter Solstice due to a calendar reform.

Another Wampler Post

Damian Wampler has another post from Kyrgyzstan, this time on ethnicity and language where he lives in the middle of nowhere:
"Now I’m living in Shagm. It is a ‘real’ ‘Kyrygz’ village. It is so far off the beaten path that people in Osh have never heard of it. It is 10 km up the mountains from Korshab, a tiny town near the elbow of the earth. To get cell phone service I have to climbs a small hill and hang out with the sheep and donkeys for a little while. To take a bath I have to go back to Osh. Same goes if I want to use a real toilet, although I’m a fan of the outhouse. Go Peace Corps. I’m spending a month here in Shagm living with a family and getting the real ‘Kyrgyz’ experience. My host mother is actually the village matriarch. She is 83 years old, the oldest woman in the village, and she calls the shots around here. She has 40 grandchildren and 20 great grandchildren. And she speaks Kyrgyz, some Russian, German, Arabic and any English I teach her. No and Go are her two favorite words in English. She prays 5 times a day, and knows a lot of prayers. In this town, when you throw a toi, you invite everyone. And their brother. It starts at 8am and goes all night. You feed the whole town, kill lots of sheep, and give away tons of food. There are literally mountains of food. If a real poor person came from Africa or India, they would swear that the Kyrgyz are the richest people on earth. Piles of bread, piles of meat. Huge pots (called Kazans, they look like woks, but bigger) of soup and rice, pots so big you could swim in it. Can you imagine cooking for 1000 people? And the houses aren’t big enough, so you borrow your neighbors houses so everyone can sit. People come in shifts.

Dictators and Liberals

Issandr El Amrani takes note of Husni Mubarak's decision to appoint women and Copts to Parliament. This is something Arab regimes often do to drive a wedge between the social reform and pro-democracy movements. If your main cause is women's rights, for example, how far would you go in advocating for totally free elections in a conservative country?

Iraqi Elections

I've been trying to get on my dissertation and holiday preparations, and so haven't followed the Iraqi elections as closely as I might have wanted to, despite the signs they and their aftermath will prove decisive for conditions in Iraq and the U.S. begins to withdraw. Nonetheless, at American Footprints I have commented on the nature of the progress seen in Sunni interest in voting, while this post on TAPPED rounds up several links, including Democracy Arsenal's list of 10 key things to watch. Meanwhile, voting has already begun.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Website Design Contest

I'll be disappointed if John Stewart doesn't pick this up. Of course, it might just be too easy for him.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Third Sunday of Advent

On the Third Sunday of Advent, we lit the pink candle on the Advent Wreath, the Candle of Joy:
"Today we light the third candle of the Advent Wreath. It is the candle of joy. Now three will be lit: love, peace and joy.

"There was a time, described in the Old Testament, when God’s people had been defeated by their enemies and the best of Israel, its leaders, were taken to Babylonia. There God’s people were without their Temple in which to make sacrifices to God. The point – from the enemy’s perspective – was to mix ethnic groups together and dilute their strengths, their religion, their history. It worked well. God’s people had drifted away from God and their faith practices.

"Enter the prophet Isaiah. He wrote about the Suffering Servant who would come out of King David’s descendants, who would save God’s people. From chapter 55, verse 12, we have a wonderful image of God’s people being led away from their enemies, and returning – with joy – to their homeland.

"'You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees will clap their hands.' (Isaiah 55:12)

"And God did bring forth a suffering servant. He was Jesus of Nazareth, destined to be the Christ of Calvary and the herald of Good News for all people. On the night the Babe of Bethlehem was born, the angel said to the Shepherds: 'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.'

"And today, 2000 years later, that joy which Jesus brought, continues to come into the life and heart of the Christian. How uplifting is it to hear the words from First Peter, chapter 1: 'Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.' (1 Peter 1:8-9)

"May the Joy of the Risen Lord be yours today and always."

This evening was also the church's annual Christmas concert and candlelight service. Music has always been an important part of the Moravian tradition, and it is not unheard of for a service to consist entirely of hymns. The candlelight service was the same as the core of the Christmas Eve candlelight service, and featured the distribution by children of beeswax candles tied with a red ribbon to all in attendance while the congregation sings. (Adults hold the trays, so the kids aren't out there by themselves, though since occasionally one of the designated tray-holders - such as myself - hasn't done this nearly as much as the children and there's a certain balance in figuring things out =))

After this, candles are lit from the Christ Candle on the Advent Wreath, and then the bearers of those candles light those of the people sitting on the center aisle seat in each pew, who then light the candles of those sitting next to them and so on until the end of each row. Then, led by another child, the congregation sings the antiphonal hymn, "Morning Star, O Cheering Sight," the lyrics to which seem to be a closely guarded secret not yet trusted to the Internet, though you can find the beginning here. During this, the sanctuary is lit only by the candles and the Moravian Star hanging in the front of the church. The service concluded with everyone singing "Silent Night" with candles held aloft. In the old days, people would have used the candles to light those in their home, thus passing the light of the Christ Candle even further.

The Moravian Church FAQ has a good page on these traditions, which were partially devised by Bishop John de Watteville for a children's lovefeast. (Some say "Morning Star" is a 19th century hymn, but that was just a reworking of a 17th-century original.) Moravians claim to be the first denomination to symbolically use candles in Christmas services. The Christmas Eve service is so popular that Glenwood Moravian is having two, which they don't even do for Easter.

Insurgents to Protect Voters

Something has definitely shifted in Iraq during the past year:
"Saddam Hussain loyalists who violently opposed January elections have made an about-face as Thursday's polls near, urging fellow Sunni Arabs to vote and warning Al Qaida militants not to attack.

"In a move unthinkable in the bloody run-up to the last election, guerrillas in the western insurgent heartland of Anbar province say they are even prepared to protect voting stations from fighters loyal to Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaida in Iraq.

"Graffiti calling for holy war is now hard to find.

"Instead, election campaign posters dominate buildings in the rebel strongholds of Ramadi and nearby Fallujah, where Sunnis staged a boycott or were too scared to vote last time around."

Wisconsin HS Quiz Bowl

Yesterday marked the annual University of Wisconsin NAQT High School Pre-Winter Quiz Bowl Tournament. After bubbling under last year (1, 2), LaCrosse Logan simply dominated this tournament. Some similarity can be drawn between team points per game averages and baseball batting averages, and Logan finished round robin play with a gaudy 395 ppg, over a hundred points more than their closest competitors in that category. Their opponents' ppg average was also down in the 90's, I think. They stayed undefeated right through the championship, where they swept perennial contenders Conserve School. LaCrosse Logan's B team also came on strong in winning third place over Rufus King High School from Milwaukee.

Normally in these posts I've thanked all the people who helped, but this year I've finally stepped back from running things, and there's been enough turnover that I don't really know who all the people involved were. So instead let me commend my successor as UW Quiz Bowl's High School Operations Director, Eli Morris-Heft, for a smooth-running tournament.

Friday, December 09, 2005

A Poll from Israel

Polls show that Ariel Sharon and his Kadima party are set to win in March's elections. Likud looks to be hurting badly, suggesting a gap between the Likud activists who drove Sharon out of the party and mainstream Israeli opinion, a gap also shown in that even though Kadima is drawing majority support among those who last voted for Likud and Shinui while only a minority of former Labor voters, Labor is the preferred coalition partner. If this holds, the 2006 election will send a clear message that Israel wants to move toward peace, with the preference being for a strong leader who can get things done while making obstacles seem like temporary background noise.

The Likud people can't be happy about all this, as I suspect they've interpreted their parties frequent electoral success as a mandate for their own agenda rather than just least-of-evils status with unsatisfying Labor leaders, which is how it came across to me. At the same time, if Kadima develops a lasting political identity beyond Sharon's security policies, it could become the new Shinui and slash the potential clout of rightist religious parties in Israeli politics.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Holiday Tree

Today's Capital Times has a paragraph which includes the major flaw I see in persistently calling Christmas trees "holiday trees": "Some religious conservatives have objected to the use of the term 'holiday tree,' saying it seeks to minimize the Christian origins of Christmas. Others argue that calling it a 'holiday tree' is more inclusive for other religions that celebrate their own holidays this time of year."

Do any of these other religions have such trees? If not, does rhetorically forcing them to note this one under the banner of "holiday tree" not constitute a greater offense than the state simply having a "Christmas tree?" I can see a valid constitutional argument over whether government should decorate for religious holidays, but since they do it makes sense for each religion to retain its own symbolism rather than try to generalize everything to everyone. You can treat it as a learning experience in the area of cultural diversity.

Worth noting is that although only 80% of Americans are Christian, I recently saw a stat on a TV network (FOXNews, I think) indicating that 95% of Americans celebrated Christmas. It's really not unusual for a holiday with religious origins to develop a more generalized cultural identity. I find it amusing that Santa Claus is often listed as a secular aspect of Christmas when he is, in fact, derived from a religious figure.

Ahmadinejad Doubts Holocaust

I periodically note that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might be good for fighting corruption in Iran, but I really wish there was some way he could do it without ever opening his mouth.

Sunni Vote

IWPR reports on the determination of Iraqi Sunni Arabs to vote despite what they insist are military operations designed to reduce their turnout. While I find that charge implausible, except perhaps for some militias, it has the same counterpoint effect to the Sunni aspirations as the threat of insurgent attacks did in the January elections, and those aspirations can only be considered a good sign. While the situation on the ground may be a stalemate, the political process has lurched steadily along, and combined with the possibility of negotiations following last month's Cairo Conference, the situation in Iraq might not be as hopeless as some would claim.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Red Crystal

Iran's threatened refusal to approve a new international humanitarian emblem that would benefit Israel's Magen David Adom is contemptible, but it doesn't seem to be in the same class as Syria's demands that their Red Crescent workers be allowed into the Golan Heights. In fact, since the Golan is still occupied Syrian territory, the Syrian demands seem quite reasonable. What's interesting to me is that Damascus says it wants the same deal on humanitarian non-interference Israel struck with the Palestinians. Does that mean Syria would not interfere with prospective Israeli humanitarian missions? Would such a move have any larger importance?


I try really hard to ignore the whole "War on Christmas" discussion. While I'm a strong supporter of the separation of church and state, these sorts of cultural events seem a strange place to emphasize it regardless of their religious origins. Have any communities tried to rename St. Patrick's Day as Irish Day? By the same token, does the existence of a "Holiday Tree" as opposed to a Christmas tree really ruin anyone's good cheer?

I like what Matthew Yglesias says:
"It seems to me, really, that the whole Christmas spectacular would be much better if it just went unapologetically as 'Christmas.' If someone wants to know why I'm not in the 'Christmas spirit' the answer is easily enough: not Christian, don't celebrate the day, no spirit. The 'holiday season' has a weirdly insidious universalizing effect. Nobody's tricked into thinking it's anything other Christmas, but all of a sudden it's for all of us instead of merely the overwhelming majority of us. There's nothing wrong, really, with an overwhelming majority lording it over a small minority in such trivial ways as putting decorated conifers all over the place, but one might as well be clear on what's going on."

Monday, December 05, 2005

Midan al-Qala'a

This is a view of the Muhammad Ali Mosque within the Citadel in Cairo looking between the Mosque of al-Hassan and ar-Rifa'i Mosque across the square. Some description of this place can be found here.

Clashes in Aleppo

Several news sources are reporting that there has been fighting in Aleppo between the government and terrorists. Few details have been released, and Joshua Landis has gone to Dubai. While there have been some reports that Aleppo serves as a transit point for those seeking to join the Iraqi insurgency, these incidents are reportedly related to planned attacks inside Syria, though that may be some kind of cover if Damascus doesn't want to admit anyone is slipping through Syria into Iraq.

2nd Sunday of Advent

Yesterday featured the lighting of a second purple candle on the Advent Wreath, the Candle of Peace, featuring this reading:
"'For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.'(Isaiah 9:6-7)

"Today we light the second candle of the Advent Wreath. It is the candle of peace. If only our world could be at peace. Instead we are sending men and women, our neighbors, relatives, fellow citizens, into hot-beds of hostility and hatred. One religion against another. Will the nations of the world ever be at peace?

"Will members of the same family be able to settle differences? Will neighbors learn to live with respect for diversity and acceptance of one another? Jesus said: 'Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.' We are called to be active peacemakers, working with one another – friends and strangers alike – to bring harmony into a discordant world.

"How? We follow the example of our Lord as described by Paul in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus:

"'The Messiah has made things up between us so that we're now together on this, both non-Jewish outsiders and Jewish insiders. He tore down the wall we used - to keep each other at a distance. He repealed the law code that had become so clogged with fine print and footnotes that it hindered more than it helped. Then he started over. Instead of continuing with two groups of people separated by centuries of animosity and suspicion, he created a new kind of human being, a fresh start for everybody. Christ brought us together through his death on the Cross. The Cross got us to embrace, and that was the end of the hostility. Christ came and preached peace to you outsiders and peace to us insiders. He treated us as equals, and so made us equals. Through him we both share the same Spirit and have equal access to the Father.'(Ephesians 2:14-18)"

Last week, the church was also decorated with the Christmas Putz. Although sometimes these can be so elaborate they include many of the events lead up to the Nativity, Glenwood's was focused just on the standard shepherds, magi, etc.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Star Trek XI

Now this is interesting:
"Stewart also told UK's Teletext that plans are afoot to make another TNG feature film for the big screen, as revealed this week by SFX Magazine.

"Despite plans at Paramount for a TREK prequel movie featuring an all-new cast -- currently titled STAR TREK: THE BEGINNING, Stewart said, 'About four months ago at a meeting in Los Angeles the subject was raised quite seriously from a very interesting point of view. I have been saying for four years now that it's over. No fantasies about it coming back, the space suits have been hung up for good.'

"'But there are weighty people in Hollywood who are very interested in one more run around the holodeck. There are serious plans.'"

Blog Display

I just switched browsers to Mozilla Firefox and discovered the posts weren't displaying properly. There was apparently an extra space in the template code that didn't affect Explorer, but does Firefox. I've fixed it - apologies to those of you who have been living with it all this time.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Picking Up Women in Tel Aviv

Just one amusing part of this story is the rather unenthusiastic description of "it" with this apparently well-known ladies' man, a description that is now on the Internet for all to ponder.

(Edited for clarity)

Democracy Comes to UAE

Well, so that's a significant exaggeration. In fact, it's completely inaccurate. Here's what's happening:
"Elaborating on his historic decision which was announced on Thursday, Shaikh Khalifa said that the decision stipulates that the Ruler of each of the seven UAE emirates will form a local council which is to be at least 100 times as much as the number of its representatives in the FNC.

"That means for each FNC member, a local council in the concerned emirate will have 100 members.

"The local council will then conduct a poll to elect half of the representatives of each emirate to the FNC while the Ruler will appoint the other half."

So in other words, small bodies appointed by the rulers will have the power to elect half of the national assembly, while the rulers themselves appoint the other half. That actually ranks behind Saudi Arabia's municipal elections, in which all males at least got to vote, though unlike the Saudi councils this Federal National Council might actually meet.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Book Tag

Long, long ago, when I was in a land far away, Imshin tagged me. Because the alternative would be writing my dissertation, I'm finally going to acknowledge it.

Number of books I own: I'm going to quote Imshin on this one - "Are you mad? You want me to count them all?"

Last book I bought: I ordered Robert Jordan's Knife of Dreams and Volume 20 of the SUNY translation of Tabari's History from Amazon at the same time last month. I usually buy more than one at once to take advantage of the free shipping.

Last book I read: That would be Laila Lalami's Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, I think. I've just started a volume of plays by Christopher Marlowe, but haven't gotten very far.

Five books that mean a lot to me: This is a tricky one. Like Imshin, I feel I should include some holy text such as The Bible, but that seems too easy somehow. So what I'll do instead is focus on influence, and name these as the five most influential books in my life:

The Glass Bead Game, by Hermann Hesse. This feels more like a ritual mention than anything else, as while for ages I gave this top billing, at this point I haven't read it in years. I should check in again and see how it holds up as a challenge the idea of leading a strictly "ivory tower" intellectual life.

Deep River, by Endo Shusaku, with a companion mention of his Silence and The Samurai. These works gave shape to my broad-based spiritual and religious outlook when I was an undergraduate, forming a nice extension of the liberal Franciscanism of my undergraduate school.

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkein. For one thing, reading epic fantasy is among my favorite leisure activities, and this book was the first. At the same time, I suspect my love of exploring the world has its roots in simple hobbits headed off on grand adventures.

Pilgrim, by Leonard Biallas. Those who like my travel writing will find in here the source of my attitudes, attitudes which extend into the rest of my exploration of life, as well.

I feel like there should be some book that's been crucial to my political views or career, but there really hasn't. So following Imshin's lead, I'll name this history of the United States that was in the Dewey Elementary School library, and that during the 3rd grade I read over and over again. Did it play a role in my career choice? That was a winding road, but the book may have planted the seeds.

Rather than resurrect this, I'll tag some off-line friends who have personal sites.