24 June 2009

Islam's Last Gasp

As witnessed by my post of June 2008, I have been intending to write about this subject for some time now. The recent events in Iran makes this issue more pressing, but I am under no illusion that this is the start of a Muslim version of the fall of the iron curtain (although that would certainly be welcomed!) I am just reminded of a disappointing time exactly 20 years ago this month that I thought we were seeing the beginning of a revolution in China. Although the Tiananmen Square protests did not result in the toppling of a repressive regime as we hoped then, China has certainly changed in the intervening years, so a gradual liberalization is hopefully possible in the Muslim world as well.

The other preliminary issue that must be addressed is the frenetic Internet activity regarding Iran’s recent elections, which—by too many people—is being used as evidence that the protests in Tehran represent the majority of Iranian public opinion. While “citizen journalism” (blogging, twittering, posting pictures & video) is a valuable supplement to traditional media and intelligence sources, especially when those are restricted, we must remember that we are hearing from a self-selected group. By virtue of the fact that these people speak English, have Internet access, Twitter accounts, camera phones, etc. we must assume that they are richer, better educated, and more western-oriented than the average Iranian. I don’t want to discount the suffering evident from some of the gruesome photos and videos we have recently seen from Tehran, but there seems too much incestuous (think “re-tweeting”) and unverifiable hysteria circulating around the Internet lately, contributing nothing, just decreasing the “signal-to-noise ratio” of any intelligent discussion. And don't get me started on the useless, feel-good actions of changing your avatar to green and setting your time zone to GMT +3.5. Jack Shafer of Slate agrees.

I must first address America’s perception of the Muslim world. Especially since 2001, we have been led to believe that radical Islam is a cancer spreading over the world much in the same way as the supposed scourge of Soviet-style communism was in the previous century. It seems we must always have a bogeyman—an enemy to unite us. With the fall of the iron curtain in 1989, we—especially as Americans—were somewhat confused regarding our place in the world; we were the proverbial dog who finally caught the automobile he had always been barking at. There was no longer the clear division between countries, leaders, and movements that were pro-communism (our enemies) and those that were anti-communist and therefore our friends (which had, incidentally made us strange bedfellows with some really questionable characters!) Thankfully—and of course I say this tongue in cheek—a new enemy arrived just in time: Islamo-fascism. Ironically our first major enemy, Saddam Hussein, was actually quite secular and we actually climbed in bed with the strictest Muslims around—Saudi Arabia—to fight him. But our worldview was not sufficiently polarized until that fateful day in September 2001. Then we were bombarded from all sides: political leaders, religious leaders, military friends and elderly aunts were all wringing their hands over the danger posed by radical Islam. Terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, refugee unrest in and around Israel, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the rise of Islamic parties in Egypt and Turkey, and even riots in France and England all seemed to be conclusive proof of the grave threat we were under (besides, of course, the 3000 countrymen we lost on American soil that day.) A population already growing faster through natural means (greater birthrate) now was proselytizing and radicalizing moderate/cultural Muslims from Europe to Africa and even Southeast Asia! And best of all, we now had a man—with a very distinctive visage—to pin our fears and anger on: Osama Bin Laden.

A Power Shift
Despite the fact there are some young men falling under the influence of radical clerics and running off to madrasas and training camps to become terrorists—a few of which then actually will commit acts of terrorism—they represent a minuscule percentage of young Muslims in the world. In fact, I predict that the saber rattling and actual terrorist attacks we have witnessed in the last decade or so, are in fact the death-throes fundamentalist Islam. We generally don’t hear much about the vast majority of young people—and this is important because the median age of most predominately Muslim countries is in the teens to twenties—who actually yearn for, if not devour, western pop culture and all its accoutrements. It seems only natural then that as older religious and political leaders die off, we will see liberalism sweep over—or at least creep into—these young nations. Of course power being what it is, I am not na├»ve enough to think that anyone is going to willingly give up their control regardless of their age; these leaders still want to groom their young, like-minded lieutenants to eventually take the reigns of power and carry on the status quo. But with the advent of modern communications, health care, and education, combined with family structure intended for a bygone era (i.e. numerous children,) it will continuously become more difficult for them to retain this power. I really do believe that we will see a change in our lifetime…and certainly this not limited to the Muslim world; it has happened and will continue to happen all over the world; young people in even the remotest corners of the world are being exposed to most exciting aspects of what the west has to offer via satellite TV and the Internet (granted, often an unrealistic view.) The grip of their elders and their culture/traditions naturally weakens in this onslaught.

I trust that I have stated my case sufficiently to demonstrate that we don’t need to send troops to instill freedom and democracy in these lands; in fact, it is quite evident from our failures over the last seven years in Iraq and Afghanistan that this cannot work, and is a terrible waste of billions of dollars and thousands of lives. It should be obvious that we needn’t do anything but foster social engagement; if we really want to spend billions to conquer al-Qaeda, the Taliban, et. al, let’s just distribute free satellite dishes, TVs, Internet routers, computers, and license MTV programming for Voice of America and similar propaganda outlets—we can just let Hollywood “degenerate” the young people of the Muslim world to our liking! I say this half-jokingly, but also half-serious; we really need to look at the long-term cost/benefit of any strategy. In the July 19-25, 2008 of The Economist, I found a perceptive article titled “How to win the war within Islam” that summarized the situation thusly: “In the long run, al-Qaeda will be defeated by Muslims, not foreigners.”

Below is a chart listing the median age (meaning half of the population is younger than this age) in selected, predominately Muslim countries (by comparison, the US is 36.7 and EU countries are all within a couple of years of 40!)
CountryMedian Age
Gaza Strip 17.4
Jordan 24.3
Libya 23.9
Saudi Arabia 21.6
- CIA factbook accessed 24 June 2009

Further Reading
Interesting books about young Muslims:
  • Muhajababes 25-year old author Allegra Stratton talks to other her age across Middle East
  • Heavy Metal Islam by Mark LeVine; youth embracing western music in failed societies
  • Lipstick Jihad by Azadeh Moaveni; teenagers being teenagers even under the watchful eye of morality police

09 June 2009

A Tale of Two Tragedies

This might just get me in more trouble, but here goes...

A few days ago two young Bulgarki, in effect, chided me for being an insensitive boor in the face of tragedies affecting people I don’t personally know. I will argue that—at least when it comes to discussions of policy—we absolutely need the cold, hard calculation that only a disinterested third party can make.

This past week we witnessed two transportation-related catastrophes: on May 28th an old bus likely suffering from faulty brakes, plowed through a crowd of pedestrians near Yambol, Bulgaria killing 17 and injuring another 20. Then—of course—on the first of June, Air France 447 went down over the South Atlantic Ocean taking all 228 people aboard to a watery grave. While the numbers differ by an order of magnitude, the tragic loss is the same for the surviving friends and family whose lives were lost. Besides the grief they share, there must certainly be some anger and outrage over the fact that their loved ones’ lives were cut short. Everyone realizes that nothing can bring these people back, but I am sure each one of the victims' families would love to see measures taken to prevent another such incidents in the future, so at least their loved one did not die in vain…and certainly we should thoroughly investigate these accidents to determine the cause and possible changes in equipment or procedures that would prevent such an accident in the future. However—and this is where the cold, calculating third party comes in—it is necessary to determine the cost/benefit of any changes. For example, a $100,000 per plane retrofit may actually not be justified for an issue that occurs once in a million flights. This may sound callous, but in the larger scheme of things, it might be justified since this kind of money could be spent elsewhere, potentially save many more lives per dollar/euro or whatever metric you wish to use.

What is really ironic in this past week's accidents is the (probable) response: French and international officials will spend a million plus Euros on an extremely thorough investigation resulting in recommendations that will likely cost even more to implement, for what is likely a very rare confluence of event that caused this airliner to crash into the ocean. (Already they have issues a warning about the possible faulty airspeed indicators.) On the other hand, Bulgarian officials will likely go through the motions of a cursory investigation, whose results will be rubber-stamped and forever filed away in some obscure archive. Just like in the rest of Eastern Europe, auto, tuck, and bus drivers will continue to obtain their drivers licenses through bribes, vehicle inspections will continue to be a joke, and Bulgaria will continue to be one of the EU’s leader in highway deaths.

What really irks me though, is that all this seems acceptable to the general public! While air travel continues to be the safest method of travel (per passenger mile/km)—because we feel in control behind the wheel of our own vehicles—we accept and even insist on onerous restrictions and other measures to ostensibly make air travel safer [seriously, how am I going to make a bomb with a full-sized container of toothpaste or shampoo?!], yet we balk at any invasion of the supposed sanctity of our own vehicles, such as the reasonable expectation that you shouldn't use your mobile phone while driving. Probably the wisest use of any transportation safety budget would be to retrofit all automobiles with 5-point, racing-style seatbelts and issuing (and insisting on the use of) helmets for all auto passengers; just in the US, this would dramatically cut into the 40,000 plus deaths that occur on the roads every year! Of course the public would never accept this, so we spend more money on other issues that—in the end—save fewer lives.

Likewise, our opinion of the importance of any heath or safety issue is directly proportional to how “closed to home” the issue or incident hits. We are much more concerned if someone has been in affected in: our family, among our friends, then friends of friends, and finally the celebrities’ lives we follow. Instead we should look at the broad picture: what are the biggest killers and what are the most cost effective methods our governments can effectively implement to save live regardless familiarity, race, nationality, etc.