Sunday, September 30, 2012

‘Freedom to criticize religion is a touchstone of free expression’ - Interview with Gilbert Achcar

Anyone incensed by symbolic violence, such as the video in the US or cartoons in France, should retaliate with symbolic violence in the same way or with peaceful protest. Not through physical violence

Muslims should ‘simply ignore the crazy provocations,’ Gilbert Achcar says. He thinks that those who engaged in violent protests against the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video did exactly what the video’s production team were hoping for as a result of their provocation.

Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon and teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Among his books are The Clash of Barbarisms, which came out in a second expanded edition in 2006; a book of dialogues with Noam Chomsky on the Middle East, Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy (2nd edition in 2008); and most recently The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives (2010). His next book analyzing the Arab upheaval will come out in the spring of 2013. While Achcar strongly condemns Islamophobic hate material, he rejects any curtailment of free speech in the name of preventing blasphemy. ‘Freedom to criticize religion is a major touchstone of the right to free expression,’ he says in an interview with Farooq Sulehria for Pakistan’s Viewpoint Online.

Q: A decade after your book The Clash of Barbarisms, written in the aftermath of 9/11, it seems that the situation has only worsened. A caricature in an obscure newspaper, an immature video: anything can ignite a ‘clash of barbarisms’ disguised as a ‘clash of civilisations’. How would you analyse the ongoing wave of protests against the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video in parts of the Muslim world?

Gilbert Achcar (GA): The clash of barbarisms that I analysed should not be seen through the lens of such incidents, but rather through much more serious issues such as Guantanamo, the invasion of Iraq, the torture at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, the increasing resort of the USA to extra-judicial killings, etc. Such events do indeed represent setbacks in the civilizing process. The reactive barbarism found in the Muslim world is mostly incarnated by al-Qaida and other ultra-fundamentalist currents such as the Taliban (whatever goes under this umbrella) and exhibited in much more serious events than the recent demonstrations, such as the dreadful and endless sectarian killings in Iraq, for instance. These antagonistic barbarisms feed off each other. Of course, the main culprits remain the most powerful: the world powers, the Western powers as well as Russia, which have created this dynamic of adverse barbarisms in the first place.

Q: In Pakistan, at least, the mainstream discourse is to point out Western, especially US, hypocrisy when it comes to freed om of expression. ‘Holocaust denial is a crime,’ is a common refrain. Your comment?

GA: First of all, let us set the record straight. Denying Holocaust is a punishable offence only in some Western countries, not in all of them. It is not liable for punishment in the USA itself. Holocaust deniers freely publish their insanities in the US. This fact is disregarded by all those who use the ban on Holocaust denial as an argument against the USA. As a matter of fact, there are laws against hate speech in all Western countries, except the US where the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits any restriction to free speech. In upholding this principle, the US Supreme Court went so far, in 1977, as defending the right of the American Nazi Party to march through the village of Skokie a substantial proportion ofwhose inhabitants were Jewish concentration camp survivors. True, there have been violations of this right, particularly for Muslims in the US in the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent surge of Islamophobia. But it remains always possible to fight back legally, and civil rights movements are active on such issues.

In Europe, when you feel you have been a victim of hate speech, you can resort to legal action. The question of Western double standard is usually raised with regard to Jews there, as it is much more difficult in Europe to articulate an anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic speech than an Islamophobic one. But this state of affairs owes to two factors. The first is Europe’s sense of guilt with regard to the Jewish genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany during the Second World War with much European complicity.

The second is that there are powerful Jewish institutions that react vigilantly against any gesture they deem anti-Semitic, often abusively by equating the critique of Israel with anti-Semitism. They are powerful, but note how they react. Not by holding violent demonstrations that would actually increase anti-Semitism, but by engaging in legal proceedings, publishing articles, and so on. Sometimes they even resort to what may be called intellectual terrorism in trying to intimidate critics of the Israeli state or Zionism with accusations of anti-Semitism. 

This said, those who say that freedom of expression in the West is biased against Islam because it is less tolerant of anti-Jewish expression forget that the religion of the overwhelming majority in the West is not Judaism, but Christianity. When it comes to Christianity, Westerners are free to mock the Pope, Jesus Christ, or even God without fear of reprisals. Some of the major artistic and literary works in the West are satirical of Christianity or religion in general in ways that you can’t imagine nowadays when it comes to Islam in the Muslim world.

True, there are some Christian fundamentalist groups that can resort to violence every now and then against anti-religious works. But they are completely marginal. Their violence is punished by law and it never reaches the level of what has been done these last days in the name of religion, which is matched only by the violence of Jewish fundamentalist colonial settlers in Palestine. Moreover, one should not forget that freedom of expression in Europe – in the UK in particular – has been of much greater benefit to Islamic fundamentalists of all brands who sought a refuge there fleeing oppression in Muslim countries than it has to people committing provocations such as those we are discussing.

Anyone incensed by symbolic violence, such as the video in the US or cartoons in France, should retaliate with symbolic violence in the same way or with peaceful protest. Not through physical violence. Resorting to physical violence against a symbolic act is a sign of intellectual weakness. You remember how the Taliban destroyed the gigantic Buddhas in Bamyan. These Buddhas were a World Heritage Site. Did Buddhists react violently? In Egypt and Nigeria, Christians and churches have been repeatedly and bloodily attacked in recent months. Did you see violent demonstrations of Christians worldwide retaliating against Muslim countries? People appreciate the difference between the lunatic fringe that carries out attacks on Christians and the general Muslim population. Muslims should also realise that the violent Islamophobic lunatic fringe in Western countries is marginal, actually much more marginal than the violent Islamic fundamentalist lunatic fringe in Muslim countries.

Crazy provocations like the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ film or the burning of Korans by the crackpot Terry Jones are best ignored. They are so stupid that they don’t deserve any reaction at all. The greatest service one can render to these provocateurs is to respond wildly to their provocations. Agitators are successful when they are able to arouse the feelings of the targeted group. This is why some people rightly argue that the ban on Holocaust denial in France, for instance, is counter-productive. Due to that ban, French Holocaust deniers have become very famous in France, whereas hardly anybody knows the name of US Holocaust deniers in the USA. Had nobody reacted to Terry Jones’s damn-fool provocations, they would have remained unknown, as have thousands of such anti-Islamic utterances. Had nobody paid attention to him, he would not have carried on his dreadful farce. These lunatics have an Islamophobic agenda. Muslim political forces that react in the violent way that we have seen actually reinforce the very Islamophobia against which they protest.

Salman Rushdie’s kind of work falls into a different category, of course. It cannot be dismissed as rubbish. He is a major contemporary writer. However, his Satanic Verses are very innocuous indeed compared to satires of Christianity, or even Judaism for that matter, which are freely available in the West.

Q: Since the Salman Rushdie affair there have been the Danish cartoons, Geert Wilders’ film, and now the film produced in the US. Every time we see wild massive reactions. How do you explain that?

GA: The fact is, very obviously, that certain political forces exploit such events to agitate for their cause, as Khomeini did in the case of the Rushdie affair. He never read Salman Rushdie’s book, in the same way as most demonstrators against the anti-Islam film have not seen it. It is always the same story: some political forces exploit such occasions by stirring up the raw feelings of politically illiterate people in order to push their own political agenda. Fundamentalist forces have always seized upon such provocations. This is how they build their influence.

Q: In Pakistan, a common idea peddled by the government, Islamists and mainstream media is to demand worldwide UN legislation banning blasphemy? What do you think of this demand?

GA: I am hundred percent against it. The notion of blasphemy is a medieval notion. Those who make such a demand want to bring us back to the Middle Ages. If you want to prohibit criticism of religion, you will have to prohibit it for all religions. To implement a ban on blasphemy one will have to proscribe a huge number of works of literature, art and philosophy accumulated over many centuries in all languages, including Arabic of course. Such works are presently banned in the Arab world, but this is a testimony to the lack of freedom of expression.

The freedom to criticize religion is a major touchstone of the right to free expression. As long as a society does not tolerate this freedom, it has not achieved freedom of expression. It is a duty of all people committed to democratic freedoms to raise their voices against barbaric reactions to lunatic provocations. Capitulation to religious demagogy will entail a huge cost at all levels. Once set in motion this process of curtailment of free speech will have no limit. Who will decide what is blasphemous and what is not?

Q: The demonstrators in Pakistan targeted symbols of wealth (banks, cars, ATM machines) or Western culture (cinemas, theatres). Some people view these violent actions in the Muslim world as part of a wider political conflict between the West and the Muslim world. What is your opinion?

GA: I disagree. Violence can be understandable under certain circumstances when people are demonstrating against social and economic assaults on their livelihood or in protest against actual slaughter, massacres, invasions, or occupations perpetrated by Western powers, or the Zionist occupation in Palestine. And yet, the fact is that many real massacres committed by Western powers or Zionists did not lead to any comparable reactions. The truth is that the violence on display is above all a political exploitation by fundamentalists of a provocation for utterly reactionary purposes.

Q: The left in most of the Muslim countries is a small force and is often caught in a strange situation during such crises. While the left, in Pakistan for instance, condemns racist provocations, it advocates curtailment of free speech with regard to religion. What do you think of this attitude?

GA: We are reaping today the result of the left’s failure over many decades to raise the basic secular demand of separation of religion from state. Secularism – including freedom of belief, religion, and irreligion – is an elementary condition of democracy. It should be, therefore, an elementary part of any democratic project, let alone a left project. But most of the left in my part of the world, the Arab region, has capitulated on this issue.

For instance, in Egypt, large sections of the left, including the radical left, have all but dropped the term secularism from their vocabulary. Ironically, when the ‘Islamist’ Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan visited Egypt, he stated publicly that he stood for secularism, to the chagrin of the Muslim Brotherhood. If the left wants to challenge the hegemony of Islamic forces and develop a counter-hegemonic movement in the political, social and cultural spheres, it must fight resolutely for secularism as well as against gender oppression – another fight from which many on the left also shy away in fear of ‘hurting the feelings’ of the believers. This is a self-defeating strategy.

Film remembers Indian lawyer Shahid Azmi as symbol of hope


A film about a murdered Indian human rights lawyer has been creating waves on the international film circuit. Film critic Saibal Chatterjee talks to director Hansal Mehta about the film. Shahid - the eponymous film about Shahid Azmi, the defence lawyer for one of three men accused of involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks - had its world premiere at the recent Toronto Film Festival. Mr Azmi represented Indian national Fahim Ansari who was subsequently acquitted of charges of involvement. The November 2008 attacks, which targeted luxury hotels, Mumbai's main railway station and a Jewish cultural centre, claimed 166 lives. Nine of the attackers were also killed.

Lawyer Shahid Azmi secured 17 acquittals in a seven-year career Mr Azmi, who was himself once detained under India's anti-terror laws, and then became a lawyer and defended those who were wrongly accused in cases of terrorism, was shot dead in his Mumbai office in February 2010. He was only 32.  "The incredible story of this man simply had to be told," says Mehta who came out of a long self-imposed break to make the film., "Shahid Azmi rose from humble origins to become a symbol of hope for all those who were at the receiving end of potential miscarriages of justice," adds Mehta., "His life was tragically cut short by killers hired by forces opposed to the young lawyer's spirited defence of Mumbai terror attack accused Fahim Ansari," says Mehta, the co-writer and director of Shahid., Mehta points out that Mr Ansari has since been acquitted by the Supreme Court, vindicating Shahid Azmi's conviction.


One of the film's end titles reveals that the human rights lawyer secured as many as 17 acquittals in an outstanding seven-year career. The film focuses on two principal cases - the Mumbai train attacks of 11 July 2006 and the 2008 Mumbai attacks. "I went through all the petitions filed by Shahid Azmi and decided to combine several of them into a single case for the purpose of clarity and dramatic impact," Mehta explains. After Shahid Azmi was shot dead, some media reports and political activists alleged that he had paid with his life for links with the underworld. "That was utterly baseless and sad. He was not alive to tell his side of the story when aspersions were being cast on him. I decided to stand up for him."
Shahid has a scene in which actor Raj Kumar Yadav, who plays the protagonist, has his face blackened by assailants outside a courtroom. "It is a re-enactment of an incident from my own life," says Mehta. He was attacked in his office in 2000 by a mob led by the Hindu hardline Shiv Sena party, which was protesting against a line in his film Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar (Don't take it to heart). The film dealt with the plight of migrants in Mumbai. Despite receiving threats from within and outside the Mumbai film industry since he wrapped up Shahid, Mehta is confident that the film, co-produced by top director Anurag Kashyap, will eventually reach the public. Mehta debuted in 1997 with Jayate and his other directorial credits include films like Chhal and Woodstock Villa.
Provocation : "I took a four-year break from film making because I wasn't making the films I wanted to." Shahid Azmi's killing was provocation enough for the disillusioned director to return to the thick of the action. Shahid, a low-budget film shot in complete secrecy, articulates Mehta's anger at the state of affairs that the late lawyer fought against, but the director presents the details of his subject's life in a low-key, matter-of-fact manner.
Shahid Azmi never sought to hide his past, which included a short-lived stint in a militant training camp in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and seven years in Delhi's Tihar Jail, on charges of plotting against the state. The allegations could never be proved and Shahid Azmi walked free and went on to touch many lives as an activist lawyer. The film takes forward the principal burden of Mr Azmi's defining argument against the law enforcement and judicial system's callous tendency to brand every single accused as a terrorist solely on the basis of mere charges.
But, it does so without having recourse to any kind of emotional manipulation. The film is anchored by a steady lead performance by Raj Kumar Yadav, who has played character roles in films such as Love Sex Aur Dhoka, Ragini MMS, Shaitan and Gangs of Wasseypur 2. "When you see Raj Kumar, you do not remember him, you remember the character. That is precisely the kind of actor that I needed to play Shahid Azmi," says Mehta.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Hubble's hidden treasures

A month in Space: Hubble's Hidden Treasures Revealed
Among the million-plus observations that have been made by the Hubble Space Telescope are 'Hubble's Hidden Treasures' – beautiful images that have never been seen by the public. Nasa launched a competition to identify some of the best. First prize and winner of the public vote was Josh Lake for finding this image of the star-forming region NGC 1763 in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Lake produced a two-colour image from the data, showing glowing hydrogen in blue and nitrogen in red

A month in Space: Magnificent CME Erupts on the Sun with Earth to Scale

A close-up of the Sun's coronal mass ejection with Earth to scale

A month in Space: sugar
Astronomers have found molecules of glycolaldehyde – a simple sugar – in 
the gas surrounding a young binary star with a similar mass to our sun. 
This is the first time sugar has been found in space around such a star, 
and the discovery shows that some of the building blocks of life are potentially 
in the right place, at the right time, to become part of planets forming around stars

A month in Space:  Sloan Digital Sky Survey

Experience what it's like to fly through the universe faster than the speed of light by watching this video animation. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey III (SDSS-III) released the largest-ever three-dimensional map of massive galaxies and distant black holes, which will help astronomers explain the whopping 96% of the universe that is unaccounted for – ordinary matter makes up just 4%, the rest is mysterious dark energy and dark matter. SDSS used the map to create a video fly-through of its galaxy images

See morehttp://www.guardian.co.uk/science/gallery/2012/sep/28/hubble-space-sugar-pictures

Greek police in an open alliance with neo-Nazis?


Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party is increasingly assuming the role of law enforcement officers on the streets of the bankrupt country, with mounting evidence that Athenians are being openly directed by police to seek help from the neo-Nazi group, analysts, activists and lawyers say. In return, a growing number of Greek crime victims have come to see the party, whose symbol bears an uncanny resemblance to the swastika, as a "protector". One victim of crime, an eloquent US-trained civil servant, told the Guardian of her family's shock at being referred to the party when her mother recently called the police following an incident involving Albanian immigrants in their downtown apartment block.
"They immediately said if it's an issue with immigrants go to Golden Dawn," said the 38-year-old, who fearing for her job and safety, spoke only on condition of anonymity. "We don't condone Golden Dawn but there is an acute social problem that has come with the breakdown of feeling of security among lower and middle class people in the urban centre," she told the Guardian. "If the police and official mechanism can't deliver and there is no recourse to justice, then you have to turn to other maverick solutions."
Other Greeks with similar experiences said the far-rightists, catapulted into parliament on a ticket of tackling "immigrant scum" were simply doing the job of a defunct state that had left a growing number feeling overwhelmed by a "sense of powerlessness". "Nature hates vacuums and Golden Dawn is just filling a vacuum that no other party is addressing," one woman lamented. "It gives 'little people' a sense that they can survive, that they are safe in their own homes." Far from being tamed, parliamentary legitimacy appears only to have emboldened the extremists. In recent weeks racially-motivated attacks have proliferated. Immigrants have spoken of their fear of roaming the streets at night following a spate of attacks by black-clad men on motorbikes. Street vendors from Africa and Asia have also been targeted.
"For a lot of people in poorer neighbourhoods we are liberators," crowed Yiannis Lagos, one of 18 MPs from the stridently patriot "popular nationalist movement" to enter the 300-seat house in June. "The state does nothing," he told a TV chat show, adding that Golden Dawn was the only party that was helping Greeks, hit by record levels of poverty and unemployment, on the ground. Through an expansive social outreach programme, which also includes providing services to the elderly in crime-ridden areas, the group regularly distributes food and clothes parcels to the needy.
But the hand-outs come at a price: allegiance to Golden Dawn. "A friend who was being seriously harassed by her husband and was referred to the party by the police very soon found herself giving it clothes and food in return," said a Greek teacher, who, citing the worsening environment enveloping the country, again spoke only on condition of anonymity. "She's a liberal and certainly no racist and is disgusted by what she has had to do." The strategy, however, appears to be paying off. On the back of widespread anger over biting austerity measures that have also hit the poorest hardest, the popularity of the far-rightists has grown dramatically with polls indicating a surge in support for the party.
One survey last week showed a near doubling in the number of people voicing "positive opinions" about Golden Dawn, up from 12% in May to 22%. The popularity of Nikos Michaloliakos, the party's rabble-rousing leader had shot up by 8 points, much more than any other party leader. Paschos Mandravelis, a prominent political analyst, attributed the rise in part to the symbiotic relationship between the police and Golden Dawn. "Greeks haven't turned extremist overnight. A lot of the party's backing comes from the police, young recruits who are a-political and know nothing about the Nazis or Hitler," he said. "For them, Golden Dawn supporters are their only allies on the frontline when there are clashes between riot police and leftists." Riding the wave, the party has taken steps to set up branches among diaspora Greek communities abroad, opening an office in New York last week. Others are expected to open in Australia and Canada. Cadres say they are seeing particular momentum in support from women.
With Greeks becoming ever more radicalised, the conservative-led government has also clamped down on illegal immigration, detaining thousands in camps and increasing patrols along the country's land and sea frontier with Turkey. But in an environment of ever increasing hate speech and mounting tensions, the party's heavy-handedness is also causing divisions. A threat by Golden Dawn to conduct raids against vendors attending an annual fair in the town of Arta this weekend has caused uproar.
"They say they have received complaints about immigrant vendors from shop owners here but that is simply untrue," said socialist mayor Yiannis Papalexis. "Extra police have been sent down from Athens and if they come they will be met by leftists who have said they will beat them up with clubs. I worry for the stability of my country." Seated in her office beneath the Acropolis, Anna Diamantopoulou, a former EU commissioner, shakes her head in disbelief. Despair, she says, has brought Greece to a dangerous place. "I never imagined that something like Golden Dawn would happen here, that Greeks could vote for such people," she sighed. "This policy they have of giving food only to the Greeks and blood only to the Greeks. The whole package is terrifying. This is a party based on hate of 'the other'. Now 'the other' is immigrants, but who will 'the other' be tomorrow?"

Friday, September 28, 2012

Samar Halarnkar: Accepting Aamir

Mohammed Aamir tells me he forgets things easily, a consequence of frequent beatings, 14 years in jail and the trauma of being called a terrorist and - this appears to bother him the most - traitor to his country. There are some things he never forgets: that he was 18 years old, an 11th-grade student, walking down a poorly lit Old Delhi street at 9:30 pm on the night of February 20, 1998, when some men grabbed and bundled him into a Maruti Gypsy; that it was January 9, 2012, when he walked out of Delhi's Tihar Jail, a free man. His father, a toy dealer, was dead. His mother was paralysed and mute.


Aamir has had to learn many things, such as using a mobile phone. "Only the rich had cellphones when I went to jail," says Aamir, now 32. "I've learned to use a computer, e-mail, and I am on Facebook. I want to be a part of society and my country again." For a man who was tortured and charged with 17 counts of murder, terrorism and waging war against his country, Aamir is affable and remarkably free of rancour.
In this age of terrorism and religious polarisation, too many stories like Aamir's play out across India's flawed - but functional - judicial system. Aamir's case is one of 16 documented in a report called 'Framed, Damned, Acquitted: Dossiers of a very special cell', a reference to the Delhi Police anti-terror unit, the Special Cell, which was primarily responsible for most anti-terror prosecutions in Delhi between 1992 and 2012.
Released earlier this month by the Jamia Teachers' Solidarity Association (a body of teachers at Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia University), the report, in large part based on court orders, argues that the acquittals were "not simply for want of evidence", a common hurdle in anti-terror investigations. "What judgement after judgement comments on is the manner in which the so-called evidence provided by the police and prosecution was tampered with and fabricated," says the report. For instance, the evidence offered by the police against Aamir included dollars, diaries with details of explosives, his birth certificate, school character certificate, school identity card, school marksheets. Why, asked a judge, would a man planning an act of terror carry school identity cards, marksheets & a birth certificate? The implicit answer: these were ham-handedly planted by the police to establish he was not a minor.
"The prosecution has failed miserably to adduce any evidence to connect the accused-appellant with the charges framed, much less prove them. Accordingly, the appeal is allowed and the judgment of conviction (by a lower court)... set aside," the Delhi High Court said on August 4, 2006. Although Aamir was exonerated, the police brought more cases to trial, keeping Aamir in jail for six more years.
The Delhi Police deny any wrongdoing by the Special Cell, even refusing action against officers indicted by courts for extra-judicial killings. Police Commissioner Neeraj Kumar dismisses demands that the Special Cell be disbanded, as the Jamia report recommends, and as Mumbai's "encounter specialists" were. "Why don't they list out (sic) the special cell's successes, the Parliament attack case, the Red Fort shootout and so on?" said Kumar, quoted in Mail Today. To be sure, keeping India safe from terror is a formidable task. Many bombings have been solved and terror cells busted by hardworking officers; most convicts are indeed zealots from the Islamic fringes. It is hard to say if police excesses surpass their successes, but it is clear that too many officers go rogue and too many young Muslims are arrested on the flimsiest of grounds, which include the possession of religious texts and newspaper clippings. In the long term, the Indian battle against terror is setting itself up for failure if innocents are implicated, and if set free, offered no apology or reparation.
The first low-intensity bombings - on buses, in trash cans, on motorcycles, in public places - in India began in the 1980s and grew in the 1990s as a handful of angry, educated Muslim youth, urged on by a few radicalised leaders and, often supported by Pakistan, sought revenge for religious riots and discrimination against Muslims. It is hard to infer causality, but these bombings coincided with a rise in literacy, globalisation, the spread of television and the rise of Salafism.
This script changed between 2006 and 2008, a period when mosques and a train to Pakistan were bombed. More than 116 people died in six bombings; in all the cases, young Muslims, previously arrested, "confessed". As the cases fell apart in court, special investigators joined the dots: all the bombers were Hindu. Ever since, police cases that automatically blame Muslims face close questioning. Terrorism is yet a fringe phenomenon. Whenever I've checked with intelligence agencies, they say no more than a few hundred individuals, Muslim and Hindu, are committed to being terrorists. But, as an atmosphere of intolerance spreads through mainstream India, there is no count of sympathisers who might cross the line.
Such sympathy can only grow unless wrongfully arrested young men are rehabilitated and compensated for what Aamir calls "a loss of the golden years". After his release, the Indian home ministry called to discuss compensation and a possible job offer. That was the last he heard from the government. "What has given me hope is the help I have received, particularly from non-Muslims," says Aamir, now an office assistant and LLB student (he completed his BA in sociology and political science while in jail).
He's engaged to be married, and benefactors have pooled money to buy him a flat. Aamir waits for the day when he will be "reunited" with his country. "I feel my country has re-accepted me 70%," he says. "One day, I know, it will be 100%."
Good luck Aamir. God be with you - Dilip

"We are Europe's misery" - plight of the Romany people in France

The Roma families who live in the Voltaire settlement in Saint-Denis, near Paris, count themselves lucky. They live on a piece of land owned by the State, they have houses – modest prefab affairs that they built themselves, using materials put at their disposal by a philantropic entrepreneur – and their children go to school. It's early September, la rentrée, and I'm following the steps of Adriana, a 30 year-old charity worker, who's going from house to house to help parents fill up school forms in French (the ones that say who to call in case of emergency, and whether you want your kid to have school meals). Adriana makes sure parents understand how parent-teacher books work, and I am reminded of my own childhood: a mother holds a notebook covered in yellow plastic, and nods intently to explanations given in Romanian. Here, school is taken seriously too.


In Romania, Adriana, who studied psychology, used to work in a bank. She moved to France three years ago and now acts as a mediator between the 200 Roma people who live in this settlement and the council (which finances her job). As all Romanians, she is free to visit France but, in theory, not allowed to stay for longer than 3 months. She's been fighting to obtain the right to live in France, with the help of Rues et Cités, the charity that employs her. "I didn't know much about Roma culture before," she says. "I discovered they have values I can identify with." She confirms school is important to parents and their children. "In this settlement, there's a 13 year-old girl who was born in France. She's always been to school here. When kids have been going to school in France for a few years, there's never any problems with them. We don't receive reports from the schools signaling that they have been called this or that by their schoolmates – which can happen when they're only starting and don't speak French." Prejudice, she thinks, is largely fuelled by the French media. "If you were to believe them, you'd think there were 100 000 Roma people in France. As it happens, there's only 15 000 of them." Adriana was  hoping that after Hollande election "people would stop talking about 'Roma', and only talk about 'Romanians' or 'Bulgarians', that the ethnicisation would be abandoned." But it hasn't. "I suppose headlines about Roma sell well," she says, shrugging.
Prejudice, indeed, is not hard to come across. As I take the tram to leave the settlement, I hear a black teenage schoolgirl tell her friends what she saw on a popular TV program (Jean-Luc Morandini's) the night before: "The police visited the slum in front of my house and found out that there were not 300, like they thought, but 600 Roma living there. And they only expelled 300. What are they waiting for? They say they're going to make Roma people work. I say: why don't they send them to work in the North Pole instead?" The girl has, I find out, strong suspicions that Roma boys stole her phone on the previous week, in this same tram.
The way Saint-Denis council treats its Roma inhabitants does not match up with what is happening in the rest of the country. The Saint-Denis district concentrates one fifth of Roma population in France, while wealthier districts like the Hauts de Seine (Sarkozy's electoral heartland) are very prompt, I am told, to let Roma know that they are not welcomed on their territory, effectively washing their hands of these migrants. Saint-Denis councillors have been pleading for a fairer repartition of newcomers in the country – to no avail so far. They have also had to appease the outrage and racist reactions of some of the local residents when Roma people settle near their houses... 
Back at the Voltaire settlement, people are worried, because of the slum clearance that happened in Saint-Denis the same morning. "Is Hollande going to expel us all?," they ask. I cross paths with Lisa, who's 12 and excelling at school. I also meet a man who's holding a little babygirl in his arms. "We are Europe's misery", he says, several times in French, squeazing the little girl's cheeks. I look at him, puzzled, before suddenly realising he's using the words that Manuel Valls had been using on TV the day before when he declared that :"France cannot accommodate all Europe's misery". Meanwhile, the children who live here go to school. They know better than the French government.

At last, some human solidarity! Sisterhood triumphs over caste in Hissar

DABRA (HISAR, HARYANA): He sat at the back of the crowded bus, hiding part of his face with an angochcha, looking away at the passing countryside. But one glance and she knew it was him. She got off the bus, rushed home, told her elders. They made a call, and at the next stop, the police stood waiting to take the young man away.


And thus Baljeet, better known in Dabra as Sittu, one of the dozen-odd jat boys on the run after allegedly raping a 16-year-old dalit girl on September 9 and filming the act to blackmail her not to squeal, was finally arrested on Saturday. The case has roiled Hisar, the district of Haryana infamous for jat-dalit tensions. But in small mercies, Baljeet's arrest — the first in the case — took place on information shared by a jat girl. The college student prefers to be anonymous. Baljeet is her neighbour. So are the other boys still on the run. It is not easy to act against your own community, her mother explains, even if they are goondas. "But these boys should be punished," says the girl. "She (the victim) was my junior in school. What happened to her could have happened to me. It could have been any of us."
In the dalit quarter, not everyone agrees. "They would not have touched a jat girl. Aag lag jaati. They could only do this to a poor girl," says Ommi, a young woman from the victim's extended family. According to the FIR, the girl had been forcibly picked up from the road and taken to a secluded spot near a canal, where seven boys took turns to rape her, while five others stood watching.
At the small brick house of the victim, a group of women have huddled around her mother, who sits statue-like, mourning what is a double loss — her daughter's trauma and her husband's suicide. She remembers the fateful afternoon when her daughter, a student of 12th grade, had stepped out to meet her granny, only to come back in the evening listless and subdued. "She didn't eat for days, complained of fever. Her father finally sat her down and asked her what was wrong. When she finally spoke, he could not handle it. He consumed poison the same evening," the mother narrates, her voice breaking. The girl's father, 42-year-old Krishna, was a gardener and worked at the bungalow of a prominent, politically influential jat family.
In the dalit quarter, there is constant refrain of how some of the boys belong to powerful jat families — erstwhile zamindars, modern-day politicians — who are now trying to influence the investigation. "The assistant sub-inspector handling the case is a jat. Intially, he tried to fudge the facts by inserting in the FIR that the girl was friendly with the boys and had gone with them willingly. But we ensured that he could not do that. Now, they are trying to falsely implicate other village boys who are innocent," says Sanjay Chauhan of the Bahujan Samaj Morcha, a local group. The superintendent of police, B Sateesh Balan, denies this. "We have made another arrest. The young man is yet to be identified," he says.
But the villagers claim the second boy to be arrested is from the Yadav community. "He is innocent. He was not even in the village when the incident occurred. He was with me in Udaipur, transporting material," vouches Baljit Kumar, a dalit youth. "By arresting the wrong people, the police are spreading dushmanayi (enmity)," said a Dalit woman. "Already, we are living in fear," she adds. The fear is not just of a backlash but also of a breakdown of economic ties. Dalits are landless and work in the fields of the jats. If tensions were to rise between the two communities, their livelihoods would be jeopardized.
While the incident shows how caste hierarchies have endured, it also offers a glimpse of the gradual shifts underway. In recent years, the region has seen a resurgence of dalit groups and parties like the BSP. Oustide the district headquarters, dalits from Bhagana village have been sitting on a strike, demanding access to the village's common land, blocked by jats. Since last week, they have been joined by dalits from Dabra, who have been taking out candle-light processions in the city, protesting police inaction in the rape case. As TV cameras crowd the village, the young Dalits speak forcefully and articulately. "Earlier, our community would take all the injustices without a murmur," says Baljit Kumar. "But the educated youth are no longer willing to cow down."
If education has empowered young dalits, it has also created spaces of empathy among the jats. When it came to choosing between her schoolmate and her caste-cousin, the college girl who tipped off the police says she didn't have to think twice.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Private Prisons: Immigration Convictions In Record Numbers Fueling Corporate Profits


Privatised jails! There's no limit to the institutions of private property..
This spring, a group of inmates at a privately operated federal prison in Mississippi -- most of them undocumented immigrants from Mexico -- rose up against their guards, setting fires, taking hostages and ultimately killing one correctional officer. The riot, the latest in a string of uprisings at low-security private prisons housing undocumented immigrants, came after complaints from prisoners about "substandard food, medical conditions and disrespectful staff members," according to a federal court affidavit filed by the FBI.
The inmates incarcerated in the Mississippi prison and more than a dozen private facilities across the country are not awaiting deportation in the immigrant detention system. Instead, many are serving prison time for the crime of crossing the border, a federal offense that prosecutors are filing in record numbers as part of a government crackdown on illegal immigration. For three years in a row, more people have been convicted of immigration offenses than of any other type of federal crime, according to the United States Sentencing Commission. Illegal re-entry into the United States was the most commonly filed federal charge last year, marking a dramatic shift in the makeup of the U.S. criminal justice system, which has been dominated by drug crimes in recent decades.
As a surge of new immigration offenders flow into the federal prison system, they are being held primarily in private prisons operated by multibillion-dollar corporations that contract with the government. Federal prison officials argue that privatization saves money and frees up space for more violent criminals in government-run prisons. But critics contend that the expanding web of privatized prisons for undocumented immigrants is substandard, where prisoner uprisings have become common due to poor conditions and inadequate medical care. "These are basically second-class prisoners," said Judith Greene, the director of Justice Strategies, who has researched the rise of private prisons over nearly three decades and recently wrote a report on federal prisons for undocumented immigrants. "They're hiring cheap labor, and they're not putting dollars into the things that keep prisoners relatively content: medical care and food."
Congress is on the verge of appropriating more than $25 million for another 1,000 contracted private prison beds to hold more undocumented immigrant offenders, and the offer from the federal Bureau of Prisons contains a 90 percent occupancy guarantee. Nearly 100 civil and human rights groups wrote a letter this month urging prominent members of the Senate and House appropriations committees to vote against additional expansion.
"We call upon you to redirect funding from the wasteful prosecution and incarceration of low-level immigration violations and focus resources instead on correctional programs that will better prepare federal prisoners for constructive lives when they are released," read the letter. Representatives for the private prison industry argue that they are providing an essential service to taxpayers as state and federal budgets are tightening.. 


Are you going to Kudankulam?

On Tuesday this week, three Japanese visitors who are part of the anti-nuclear movement in Japan were refused entry to India and deported on arrival at Chennai. 

Reading the account sent by them from Kuala Lumpur makes for not-exactly-pleasant reading. “When we got off the plane and approached the immigration counter, one personnel came to us smiling... [and took] us to the immigration office. [There were more than five personnel there.] ... one asked me [Yoko Unoda] whether I am a member of No Nukes Asia Forum Japan. ‘You signed the international petition on Kudankulam, didn’t you?’ ... another person asked, ‘Mr Watarida ... he is involved in the anti-nuclear movement in Kaminoseki, right?’


‘Are you going to Kudankulam? Who invited you all? … Who will pick you up at Tuticorin airport? [they had a copy of the itinerary of the domestic flight] Tell me their names. Tell me their telephone numbers. Will you join the agitation?’ They asked many questions and surprisingly, they knew our names. I felt scared. I felt something wrong would happen to you. So I didn’t answer anything. Mr [Masahiro] Watarida and Mr [Shinsuke] Nakai also refused to answer.
At first they talked in a friendly manner. They told us that we can enter India if we gave them information about the movement in Kudankulam. But gradually they got irritated. [After] .. more than one hour ... they said ‘Answer within five minutes, otherwise you will be deported.’ We answered ...but they didn’t get satisfied with our answer. ...We were taken to the Air Asia air plane and it took off immediately.”
This is a telling statement about our democracy. So, only certain kinds of imports are allowed. A harmful technology that more advanced nations like Germany are pulling out of is allowed. The French Areva and its 18 billion euros to fund the EPRs (European Pressurized Reactors) in Jaitapur, a dangerous and expensive experiment to say the least (these will cost many times more than the indigenous reactors that have been used in India so far and pose unforeseen hazards since it is untried technology) are allowed. The scientists and other advocates of nuclear energy are allowed. 
Allowed, so unquestioningly that hundreds of policemen are deployed to wield their lathis on a peacefully protesting people, thousands can find false cases slapped on them, and non-bailable arrest warrants can be issued against their leaders. Their crime? Saying ‘No’ to the violence of a technology that represents “poisonous development” to them. It is a sad day for India when activists of a movement like PMANE (Peoples’ Movement Against Nuclear Energy) that has used non-violent and democratic means of struggle for the last three decades are forced to go underground.
So let’s get this straight. What are Indian citizens supposed to do? Are we supposed to, with quiet acquiescence, only say “yes”.Yes to plunder and loot of natural resources; yes to dehumanising poverty and growing inequalities despite national “growth”; yes to endemic corruption; yes to intimidation and strong arm tactics; yes to fabrication of charges and ignominy of faceless undertrials; yes to the definitions that the State imposes on us – of what construes “development”, “national”, “public-interest”, “legal”, “democracy”? When law is misused by a legal authority — authoritatively — such an “authority” makes you shudder.
Perhaps the government should be reminded of the long history of another kind of “globalisation” that has existed between peoples of the world. To give one example, Buddhism travelled to Japan and is today more embedded in Japan than in India.Knowledge knows no borders. Nuclear-related mistakes made by one government need not be repeated by another. In this respect, the experience of the people of Japan – regarding nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants – is unparalleled.
The three activists were going to visit India for only a few days. They had hoped to avail of the tourist visa on arrival to visit the “temples of modern India”. They came in solidarity, good will and peace. Neither they nor their friends in India had imagined that being “anti-nuclear” would be seen as a threat by the Indian government.
Kaminoseki and Kudankulam are two struggles that started at roughly the same time. The fisher-folk and farmers of Kaminoseki have been protesting the proposed Kaminoseki nuclear power plant arguing that their present way of life was harmonious with nature and that they did not want the “development” that the nuclear power plant offered, especially with its concomitant dangers. The struggle of the people of Kaminoseki and Kudankulam is a struggle for determining a way of life – a different kind of self-determination.
People in many parts of the world today have enough evidence at their command to come to the conclusion that there can be no “peaceful” use of a technology that has seeds of destruction and annihilation. I am not a member of the No Nukes Asia Forum. But I will soon be. And am I going to Kudankulam?Definitely. Coming?
by Bela Bhatia, honorary professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai
NB - in 1998, the year of Pokharan II, the GOI censored a travelling exhibition on nuclear explosions organised by the Hiroshima Municipality - it ordered the section on ground water pollution to be removed. In an act of even greater stupidity, some Hindutva organisations than planned to collect and circulate  samples of the 'sacred soil' to patriots who wanted a memento of the great event.. Perhaps someone can research this further.. Dilip

The banality of evil: The day I confronted my troll

He drove me off Twitter, hacked my Facebook, and abused and terrified my family. Yet the biggest shock of all was meeting him: by Leo Traynor


I'm back on Twitter.
I can imagine the cries of "I knew he wouldn't last!" from the Twitterati.
But give me a few minutes of your time and I'll tell you why I'm back and the real truth about exactly why I left in the first place.
In my blog of 12 August entitled Walking, Not Running, I talked about my time on Twitter and my basic reasons for leaving. I stand over a lot of what I said. The atmosphere there has changed and there have been negative stories in the media about trolling, etc, for months now. The brand has been damaged and Twitter needs to act fairly swiftly to repair it. At the time of writing that blog, for reasons that will become obvious, I was very sketchy about my own personal experience.
When I left Twitter numerous people thought it was as a result of an overreaction on my behalf. That my departure was a kneejerk reaction to a couple of "trolling" or "flaming" incidents or that I was attention seeking. The reality of the situation is that my wife and I were targeted for over three years.
It started in July 2009. I'd been on Twitter for over two years at that point, having joined in May 2007, and I'd never had a problem. My account was followed by a fairly innocuous looking one which I followed back and within 10 minutes I had received a direct message (DM) calling me a "Dirty fucking Jewish scumbag". I blocked the account and reported it as spam. The following week it happened again in an identical manner. A new follower, I followed back, received a string of abusive DMs, blocked and reported for spam. Two or three times a week. Sometimes two or three times a day. An almost daily cycle of blocking and reporting and intense verbal abuse. So I made my account private and the problem went away for a short while. There were no problems on Twitter but my Facebook account was hacked, my blog was spammed and my email address was flooded with foulmouthed and disgusting comments and images. Images of corpses and concentration camps and dismembered bodies.
Again, it eased off for a couple of weeks. I relaxed. Thought they'd finally tired of failing to get a reaction from me. Boy, was I wrong.
I didn't mention it to my wife. Didn't see the point of worrying her. But then she joined Twitter to see what it was like and grew to enjoy it. It wouldn't have been immediately obvious to outsiders that we were man and wife. She made the mistake, though, of changing her profile to state that she was "The long suffering wife of @LeoTraynor". Not a good idea. She received a DM stating: "Your husband is scum. A rotten bastard and you're a whore." She laughed it off. Blocked and reported and then the pattern started again. We got to the point of not accepting new followers at all and then one day my wife received a torrent of abuse via DM and on the timeline that was so vile she's never been on Twitter since – which is a real shame as she has so much to share and is far more interesting than I am.
People kept asking me, "Why you? Why would these guys want to have a go at you?" I couldn't answer them other than it was a couple of random idiots who didn't appreciate my political views or ethnic origins. Or even someone who couldn't solve my cryptic crosswords!
The whole thing escalated in June, July and August this year. I received more and more abuse on the timeline and via DMs. A crossword clue account I'd started (@Leo'sClue) was inundated with abuse too.
Then one day something happened that truly frightened me. I don't scare easily but this was vile.
I received a parcel at my home address. Nothing unusual there – I get lots of post. I ripped it open and there was a Tupperware lunchbox inside full of ashes. There was a note included, saying, "Say hello to your relatives from Auschwitz". I was physically sick... 

Hummingbirds' backward flight

Although hummingbirds routinely fly backwards, it has never before been scientifically described in detail. University of California scientists Dr Nir Sapir and Robert Dudley, recorded the birds' flight biomechanics using high-speed cameras and oxygen uptake. They found that hummingbirds' backward flight uses similar amounts of energy to flying forwards. The results are published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
Anna's hummingbird hovering in front of a flower (c) AllCanadaPhotos/Photoshot
Backward flight is frequently used by members of the hummingbird family as they reverse from a nectar-bearing flower after feeding. Dr Sapir noticed this while observing hummingbirds on a feeder. "I actually saw it happening in a feeder that was positioned in my balcony. Many hummingbirds were using it and they all were flying backwards. It puzzled me that we know almost nothing about this flight style." To further understand this type of flight Dr Sapir and Robert Dudley devised an experiment using a sucrose-filled syringe disguised as a flower at the end of a wind tunnel.
Five captive Anna's hummingbirds (Calypte anna) fed individually from the syringe while airflow in the wind tunnel was activated and the direction of the syringe was altered. High-speed cameras captured their movements. The scientists looked at hummingbirds' oxygen uptake, body posture and wing stroke plane as they flew forwards, backwards or hovered. According to Dr Sapir, the most important finding of the study was that flying backwards uses a similar amount of energy to flying forwards, both of which were more efficient than hovering. This was discovered by using a respiratory mask to measure the rate of oxygen consumption during feeding.
"The findings were very exciting because we expected that backward flight will come with a greater metabolic cost," explained Dr Sapir. He continued, "During backward flight, the bird's body is held in [a] much more upright posture. We were expecting the body will experience a much higher drag and that the bird will need to invest much more work to overcome this drag." Further investigation using life-sized models determined that drag during backward flight is only slightly higher than when the bird is flying forward. "[This is] probably because drag forces are relatively negligible at flight in relatively slow airspeeds, as characterising backward flight," he said. http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/19731176

Nature’s water purifiers help clean up lakes


More and more of our waterways are being starved of life through pollution. One simple, yet improbable, solution? Cover rafts in plants.
Just five years ago, Fish Fry Lake was dying. The groundwater flowing into the lake situated 30 miles northeast of Billings, Montana, contained high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, common ingredients in agricultural fertilisers and animal waste. The nitrogen and phosphorus had fostered an overgrowth of algae, which covered the lake and blocked sunlight from penetrating the surface. The deep water was a dead zone, devoid of oxygen and home to very little aquatic life.
The solution was as simple as it was improbable: cover rafts with plants, and set them afloat in the lake. Within a year-and-a-half, the algal blooms were gone. Water clarity improved. Oxygen levels rose. Today, the lake is home to a thriving community of fish, including black crappieyellow perchand Yellowstone cutthroat troutThe story of Fish Fry Lake demonstrates the power of mimicking wetlands to clean up dirty waterways. Wetlands are sometimes called nature’s own water purifiers: as dirty water moves through a sprawling marsh, the bacteria that cling to wetland plants, timber, rocks, and other debris consume and process some common water pollutants. Other contaminants get trapped in the mud and muck. As result of these and other processes, the water that eventually flows out of a wetland is much cleaner than the stream that came trickling in.
Nature’s water purifiers help clean up lakes
By creating floating treatment wetlands out of small, human-engineered rafts of vegetation, researchers and entrepreneurs hope to provide these same ecological services to small, polluted bodies of water that may be far from a natural marsh. “BioHaven floating islands are concentrated wetland systems that are essentially biomimicking nature’s wetland effect,” says Bruce Kania, the founder and research director of Floating Island International, the company behind the Fish Fry Lake rafts.
Cleansing power: To construct a BioHaven island, the company starts with layers of mesh made from recycled plastic. They assemble this mesh into a floating raft – which can be as small as a home aquarium or nearly as large as a football field – and top it with soil and plants. They launch the island into a lake, pond, stream, or lagoon, anchoring it in place. Over time, the plants’ roots grow into and through the raft’s porous matrix, descending into the water below. At the same time, bacteria colonise the island, assembling into sticky, slimy sheets called biofilm that coat the floating matrix and the suspended plant roots.
This bacterial biofilm is the secret to a floating island’s cleansing power. Overgrowth of algae from nitrogen and phosphorus pollution can cause several problems, preventing sunlight from reaching subaquatic plants and starving a body of water of the oxygen needed to sustain fish populations and other animal life. A dead zone, like the one is Fish Fry Lake, is often the ultimate result. The biofilm bacteria consume nitrogen and phosphorous, however, and as polluted water flows through and around a floating island, the bacteria converts these contaminants into less harmful substances. Though the bacteria do the brunt of the work, the plant roots suspended from the floating island also play their part, absorbing some of the nitrogen and phosphorous through their roots.
In Fish Fry Lake, for instance, Floating Island International deployed several islands, which together covered almost 2% of the lake’s 6.5-acre (2.6-hectare) surface area. Over the course of four years, the islands helped reduce nitrogen concentrations by 95% and phosphorus concentrations by nearly 40%. Today, levels of dissolved oxygen are sixty times what they once were.
Clearer, cleaner, healthier : The system also mechanically filters out other pollutants, like metals and particulates. “The sticky biofilm essentially keeps the water clear because all the suspended solids tend to bond to it,” says Kania. Floating Island International, which has deployed more than 4,400 of their artificial wetland systems worldwide, has documented this effect in multiple case studies. For example, the concentrations of suspended solids, copper, lead, zinc, and oil and grease fell dramatically after a floating island was installed in a stormwater pond in Montana. Controlled laboratory studies and research by scientists not affiliated with the company have also foundthat floating treatment wetlands can reduce the levels of many common water pollutants.
Some scientists are now exploring how to optimise the design of floating islands – probing, for instance, which plants do the best job of removing pollutants. Gary Burtle, an aquaculture specialist at the University of Georgia, thinks we can get even more out of these artificial wetlands by seeding the rafts with plants that are of commercial value, such as lettuces and herbs. Burtle is screening a number of potential plant candidates – if he finds one that grows well on a floating island, we may soon see constructed wetland systems that “give us a little bit more return”, he says, producing saleable crops while purifying the water.
Meanwhile, the removal of contaminants not only improves the water itself, but also helps to foster a healthier ecosystem. Clearer water allows light to penetrate deeper, encouraging the growth of various aquatic plants, which produce oxygen and become part of the food chain, supporting larger populations of fish and other animals. “You end up with a waterway that can be abundant,” Kania says, “that can be verdant even at depth.” The organic debris that attaches itself to the underside of a floating island also becomes a source of food for fish and other aquatic organisms, and the island itself provides new habitat for birds.
“The concept of how to get back to a healthy waterway,” Kania says, “is very simple: nature’s wetland effect.” All we have to do is simulate it.