Sunday, August 15, 2010

In Support of the Imam

Spending this past weekend in New York, talking to the taxi-wallahs and the museum security-guards and waiters I have realized this: everyone who is not in New York City has a very strong opinion about Cordoba house. To New Yorkers the answer is as simple as it is profound: duh. Of course. What is the debate about? The loudest voices of disapproval stem from places far away from NYC, and from a class of largely bigoted people who want to make voters afraid of Muslims, of foreigners, and then to exploit this fear and skim their votes. It is important to support the building of the Cordoba House for two reasons: first, to oppose it because it is a Muslim institution is to oppose everything that America stands for. Second: to oppose it would be a strategic blunder that would seriously impede America’s security interests.

Let’s face it: the opposition is only from a sliver or the political spectrum and has, as its best predictor, a membership in the GOP. They dislike Muslims and foreigners (except when it comes to sending money to Pakistan, when they are exceedingly generous) and blame them for everything. If Arizona has a copious serving of crime, it is because of immigrants. If the jobs are going abroad, it is those evil Chinese/Indian/Bangladeshi sweatshops; if a Chinese company wants to acquire an American one, it is the evil Communist Chinese government plotting to overthrow America. These politicians look to blame foreigners for everything that they do not understand. Their world view is simple and toxic. They are simply angry at Muslims, but know better than to oppose the construction of Cordoba House on any legal ground. To do so would be legally unjustifiable.

Instead, they have turned, using Twitter, to tell Muslims that it was their fault that a bunch of lunatic people flew planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. That by practicing their religion Muslims are celebrating the fall of the Twin Towers. How else can you interpret the following from the WSJ:
But the objection here is not about the right to religious free expression. It is about the prudence—and some would say effrontery—of seeking to build a symbol of Islamic faith at the doorstep of a site where terrorists invoking the name of Islam killed 3,000 Americans.
A logical extension of this would be to denounce the building of any Christian Church anywhere that was affected by the Crusade. It would be to tear down every building built by a white man that condoned slavery. The matter of time—the pain is too raw, Sarah Palin says—is rather silly. Would 100 years be enough? How about 49? How about now? This center is an expression of the best of Islam in America, a symbol of the maturing of Islamic institutions in America, where a place to formally deliberate Islam out in the open is being created. It is spearheaded by an imam who unequivocally condemned the 9/11 attacks just like any other American; an imam who has done more to promote interfaith dialogue than most politicians. Ask Sarah Palin if she knows the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite.

Ostensibly their problem is location. It is two blocks away, but their geographical skills are so weak that commentators are calling this the Ground Zero mosque. Still, what if it was three blocks away? Would that be ok? I suspect that the only way to pacify this would be to build Cordoba House in Saudi Arabia or Iran. The only problem is that it would be of no use to Muslims in NYC. A corollary of this is as follows: by denying Muslims their rights to practice religion, politicians would be fueling that sense of alienation that Muslims in America already feel. It would push Muslim youth into that very alienation which terrorist cells can exploit to recruit American jihadis. An easily accessible space where Muslims can come to debate their religion and discuss questions of identity and solidarity, something this center would encourage, is probably the most damning message America can send to pseudo-Muslim terrorists around the world: we, in America, have a Muslim community that is out and engaged in the civic process; it enjoys civil liberties that people in your countries can scarcely imagine.

There is no reason to oppose this center, and every reason to support it. It is indeed comforting to note that the President and the Mayor of NYC thinks so too. I look forward to the day when a Hindu center would open in America: a center which would encompass a place of worship as well as a place of debate, and which would allow community engagement at the level of the YMCAs. Until then I am content in knowing the people of America continue to embrace the people of the rest of the world, like their founding fathers had intended. 

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Reputation of Pakistan and the Belligerence of the American Polity


Says the Washington Post: "Pakistani officials dismissed the disclosures that their country's spies meet and coordinate attacks with Taliban leaders. Several officials and analysts suggested that the Obama administration is trying to exert pressure on their government or smear Pakistan's reputation."
What is this reputation that Pakistan prides itself on? A failed state, where Prime Ministers never finish their terms, where thugs and self-proclaimed-mullahs—one in the same—rule, where the gossip of husband assassinating wife spirits openly and freely—acknowledged widely—on the street, where barbaric jihadis rampage, gouging eyes and kidneys and livers, where citizens flee abroad to find themselves food and survival, where millionaires pay no taxes, where entire political parties are bequeathed to children yet unfinished with college, where the constitution is only upheld because it is so often changed, where does Pakistan get the ink to print its fiat reputation from?
America, of course, a belligerent nation whose official line today is: "The key thing to bear in mind is that the administration is not naive about Pakistan… [t]he problem with the Pakistanis is that the more you threaten them, the more they become entrenched and don't see a path forward with you." Yes, yes, a brute throws a tantrum, and what does the richest-strongest-bravest-mostintelligent-capitalist-freedomingloving nation do? Give $7.5bn? To the heads of a Failed State? So that they can continue failing their already failed state? And alongside it, pushing-prodding-bombing failing neighbouring states too? The thing to bear in mind is that every successive American president thinks that he will be able to tame Pakistan. Yes, yes, go give them aid for water-schools-mangofarming, and watch while they make bombs out of that humanitarian aid and throw them at people left-right-center.
So the problem is not entirely Pakistan. It is the Pakistan-American axis, where Pakistan coalesces money out of Washington to kill. For more than half a century it has been killing Indians and making life hell for Kashmiris, but now it is also killing Americans. If America thinks that the savages in Afghanistan can be fought with the savages in Pakistan, it should look at its own recent history, at the heat-sinking missiles it provided anit-Soviet Afghan mujaheddin in the 1980s. These now attack American helicopters in Afghanistan. Paying brutes to fight other brutes only empowers the brute entity. Innocent citizens everyone pay the price, in taxes or in blood. We have seen that a failed state cannot be fixed; that belligerence only costs more lives everywhere. It is time to stop funding the terrorists.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Terrorism-- Pakistan and the GOP connection

In light of the attempted bombing of Times Square, a few politically incorrect observations must be made. First, of course, is Mayor Bloomberg's defense of Pakistan's primary export to the rest of the world: terrorism and terrorists. A news report:
Mayor Michael Bloomberg says New York City "will not tolerate any bias" following the arrest of a U.S. citizen from Pakistan in the Times Square car bombing attempt... The mayor said there are "a few bad apples" among any groups.
The implication is that we are to, under the pretext of civility, ignore that the state of Pakistan harbors, trains, and sponsors terrorists. The point isn't that all Pakistanis are terrorists, but that a clear trend indicates that most terrorists have Pakistani connections, that the Pakistani government is either incompetent in controlling its industry of violence or that it refuses to do so. Most terrorists that have fled Afghanistan have found refuge in Pakistan. The Taliban have resurfaced in Pakistan to plan more strikes. And Pakistan regularly exports these, often state-sponsored, terrorists to India. Most recently we saw the brutal killings in Mumbai followed by the lack of action on the part of the Pakistani government to investigate into the terrorist networks despite ample evidence provided by India.

The second observation is that Republican seem eager to provide military aid to Pakistan. In India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy, Guha writes about Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who readily supplied military aid to Pakistan:
Dulles was the coldest of cold warriors, whose foreign policy was dominated by his obsession with communism. In the battle against the Soviet Union Dulles was prepared to disregard the internal political systems of other nations. Dictators who toed the American line were to be preferred to democrats who didn't: "if he is a bastard, at least he is our bastard," Dulles is famously supposed to have said.
The then Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to G.D. Birla about "the American military aid to Pakistan, which is a constant and growing threat to us and, in effect, adds to our burdens much more than the actual aid they give to us." Notwithstanding this sentiment, which Birla conveyed to Dulles on his trip to America, Dulles chose to visit India and hold a press-conference. But he could not stand being questioned about his aid-to-Pakistan policy:
Then the talk turned to military aid to Pakistan, and the possibility that it might lead to an escalation of the conflict in Kashmir... Dulles angrily remarked that "we do not feel that because there is a dispute over Kashimr... Pakistan should be unarmed so that it could not resist Soviet Communist aggression." The secretary of state then threatened to walk out if any more questions were asked on Goa or Kashmir.
There is more evidence of the claim that Republicans obsessively think of aid to Pakistan as a short-cut to solving all of American's foreign policy problems. Consider the chart below from the testimony of Lawrence Korb in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that shows that each time a Republican President is elected, money starts rolling in for military aid in Pakistan. Observe the beginning of the trend in 1953 and the increase towards the end of Eisenhower's term in 61, the spike under Reagan (81-90), and, of course, Bush 43. This, despite the admission of the administration itself admits that it has very little knowledge of how the aid given to Pakistan is actually used. One wonders: is American sponsoring the terrorists that it is trying to eradicate?
It is best that American policy-makers be careful about what short-cuts are being used to cope with terrorism. In the last elections, the Republicans presented Sarah Palin as an expert enough on foreign policy to be Vice-President (and President, given McCain's age). She described these credentials in a manner that was embarrassing: it involved Putin rearing his ugly head over American air-space and Sarah Palin standing guard from Alaska, where on clear days she could keep a watch on him with her naked eye. Republicans would do well to educate themselves on facts rather than ideology and chose officials that stop creating terrorism that needs to be cleaned out. And all Americans best come to terms with the reality that they have created a terrorism exporting apparatus in Pakistan, and that avoiding discourse on it under the pretext of civility will do them no good.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

American Double Standards

From Freefall by Joseph Stiglitz:
For the critics of American-style capitalism in the Third World, the way that America has responded to the current economic crisis has smacked of double standard. During the East Asian crisis, just a decade ago, America and the IMF demanded that the affected countries reduce their government's deficits by cutting back expenditures-- even if, as in Thailand, this resulted in a resurgence of the AIDS epidemic, or even if, as in Indonesia, this meant curtailing food subsidies for the starving, or even if, as in Pakistan, the shortage of public schools led parents to send their children to madrassas, where they would become indoctrinated in Islamic fundamentalism. America and the IMF forced countries to raise interest rates, in some cases (such as Indonesia) to more than 50 percent. They lectured Indonesia about being tough on its banks and demanded that the government not bail them out. What a terrible precedent this would set, they said, and what a terrible intervention into the smooth-running mechanisms of the free market.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Maoist Rebellion

Last week the Indian police organized an insurgency into the tribal forests of India. An ambush by the Maoists left 76 dead. Operation Green Hunt is underway to annihilate these Maoists. In fact, for the last two years the Indian government has claimed that they are the biggest threat to India’s security, conveniently forgetting its own actions in compelling this violence. The tribal people of India, whom the Maoists represent, have been robbed of the legal right to their lands. The government has repeatedly displaced their kind without compensating them for the loss of their homes or livelihood in the pretext of economic development. Unruly security forces repeatedly burned their homes, raped their women, and starved their children. If the violence is to stop, the tribal people of India must be properly compensated for the loss of their homes, those who have committed crimes against them must also be held accountable, and the government must introduce transparency into the process of allocating public land to private firms.

Market reforms of the last twenty years have allowed consumers and firms access to markets that were hitherto denied to them (by a government of the same political party). Firms could tap capital from foreign markets and consumers could buy cheap Chinese goods, but this applied only to certain strata of the Indian society—those who were middle-income and above. The dissolute tribal people were not privy to this party: their primary asset had been usurped by the state and their livelihoods were constantly under attack by politicians who wanted to transfer their land to giant mining companies. While there is nothing wrong with big corporations or mining, it is unjust and immoral when the poorest of the poor are deprived of their primary asset to save the well-connected the trouble of paying market value for this land. These ideologically bankrupt reforms that robbed the poor are at the heart of the Maoists’ legitimate grievance against the Indian state.

Anecdotes of the crimes committed by the police—raping tribal women and burning their villages are made credible by statistics from the Asian Center of Human Rights. The 170 custodial deaths notwithstanding, 125 out of the 148 cases of torture, and 20 out of the 26 cases of rapes that were filed at the National Human Rights Commission were committed by security forces. Compare that with 11 cases of abuse (read: a police officer was beaten up and allowed to return to the city) by all the armed opposition groups. When journalists like Arundhati Roy return from Maoists camps bringing stories of atrocities committed by the police, I am inclined to believe that these have substantial merit. The rapists and arsonists amongst the police must also be brought to justice, and the role of their superior officers in instigating this violence must be examined by an independent commission.

At the root of all these displacements are secret agreements signed between the government and private companies. These agreements must be made public to ensure that ministers aren’t simply handing over the property of the Indian people to their friends and business partners without ensuring a good bargain for the Indian people and safeguards for the Indian ecology. Additionally, future agreements must be open, transparent, and involve actual stakeholders. Currently, companies hire a handful of villagers to be present at their farcical public deliberations and then claim that they received the input of those they will displace. In the future, the proceeds from these land deals must directly benefit the people they have displaced, not Indian ministers who have a well documented addiction to corruption.

India refuses to acknowledge the grievances of the tribal people at its our own peril. Until these are addressed, and those guilty of bringing violence to tribal homes are brought to justice, such insurgencies will not end. The Indian polity can quack all it wants.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Empowering Women, Global Warming, and Markets

In a very thoughtful series of posts Lisa Hymas presents her case for being child-free and highlights the effects on the environment of the availability of contraception to women with the following arithmetic:
Each $7 spent on basic family planning over the next four decades would reduce global CO2 emissions by more than a metric ton, while achieving that same reduction with the leading low-carbon technologies would cost a minimum of $32.
These numbers tell us that in the fight against global warming, making contraception available to women can be important step. But Hymas also writes that many women already demand, but do not have access to such technology. This may be an important reason, and it seems like there is some work being done to provide free condoms and educate women about contraception. However, I'm not sure I'm convinced that this is a whole story. If there were indeed a market for contraception, since contraception is perfectly legal in so many countries, someone would have sold it and made a profit.

I suspect that the real reason for the slow uptake of contraception is a lack of information in the marketplace for women. Two things come to mind: first, women may not know about the opportunities available to them should they choose to stop having children and work, and second: there are very few role-models for that life of the woman who, amongst other things, uses contraception and goes to work. In an excellent study on the effects of cable television on the status of women in India, Oster and Jensen show that as women in rural India gained access to cable television they stopped to have as many babies, sent their children to school, and became more independent in making decisions about their health (more accessible version here). As rural women saw on television how women in urban settings drive cars, have jobs, and send their children to school, they start to engage in the same activities. Maybe we don't even need campaigns to distribute condoms; if only we can persuade cable providers to connect a few more villages, we'll have done a lot of good.

But we can also see that this isn't a result that we expected from the introduction of television. The government of India spent millions of dollars trying to stop women from having children. Then some cable-wallah decided that he could make money by adding one more village to his network, a villager decided to buy access to cable-television, and his wife stopped having as many children. This wasn't what any of the participants in these activities intended or expected. A wave of modernity triggered by access to the globalized world unintentionally changed the outcome for the better. And this isn't the only case where access to modernity has propelled social change for the better. Consider this excerpt from The Economist on how the sex-ratio in South Korea stabilized in the 1990s
In the 1990s South Korea had a sex ratio almost as skewed as China’s. Now, it is heading towards normality. It has achieved this not deliberately, but because the culture changed. Female education, anti-discrimination suits and equal-rights rulings made son preference seem old-fashioned and unnecessary. The forces of modernity first exacerbated prejudice—then overwhelmed it.
The influence of modernity had a profound impact on attitudes towards son-preference in South Korea in the 1990s, just as it is empowering women in India today.

This may raise difficult questions for some environmentalists who associate much of modernity with plastic, waste, and pollution. Televisions, when being disposed may be hazardous. Television commercials are full of advertisements for goods made out of plastic and other environmentally toxic material, and viewers will buy that stuff. But we'll have to trust the rationality of these consumers so that when they learn about dangers of plastic, they will decided to use it carefully, just as they decided, after learning that women could lead lives that weren't completely about bearing and raising children and being homemakers, to empower themselves. Markets often work just fine when participants have good information about the decisions that they are making. In this case, consumers can be made aware of issues relating to global warming over television or by NGOs on the ground. But we must realize that while empowered women may well stop global warming, we should think harder about how effective our traditional means of empowering them are, and be less confident about what route they'll take to save the world.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Developing Infrastructure in Kenya

The Economist reports of the possibility of a IT boom in Kenya following the arrival of fiber-optic cables that will lower the cost of communication with foreign countries. But it also highlights problems:
Would-be investors say Kenya’s tax code is unfriendly and, given the complete lack of public services, poor value. Crime is rife and electricity is patchy. The extra cost of paying for private security and backup generators can upend a business model. Some expect widespread violence in the run-up to elections next year. High costs and jammed roads make Nairobi an expensive place to build a giant call centre. Setting up further away from the capital would be cheaper, but a proposed high-tech city has stalled.

Of course there are problems with the state of infrastructure. Most of India doesn't have good roads, or decent public services, or electricity, but there are pockets where these are provided because companies have been able to pressure elected officials into doing their job (and not just sitting idly waiting to collect bribes). But there is a downside to this sort of behavior-- it can be the case that these companies capture the public services process. That they become the primary dictators of where funds flow, how they are spent, and so on. This will lead to pockets of development, which is certainly good, but also inequality, which isn't always so good.

A better way lies in the hands of the electorate. It can decide whether it will hold its public servants accountable to their responsibilities. When there is a lack of service, citizens need to complain so that their elected officials understand that they cannot get away with providing shoddy services. This is a slow and expensive process because it requires many individuals to invest significant amounts of resources to communicate with public officials. The cost is compounded because elected officials may threaten proactive citizens with violence to keep quiet about these problems. But this will also ensure that in the long run public services develop to cater to the people, and these services are bound to help entrepreneurs and big businesses in many fields, not just the BPO industry.

But either way is good. When there is enough money on the table, firms will make sure that public officials work to ensure electricity and good roads and whatnot. These will in turn help local patches of growth that will spread outwards. If it hadn't be demonstrated so well that politicians have the ability and inclination to ruin anything that will empower the electorate, we would be more optimistic about Kenya's BPO industry.