Archive for the 'World Politics' Category


Paris attacks: Italy, Canada and me


I must admit that the first feeling I had on reading about the ISIS attacks in Paris on November 13 was relief that there were no Canadians killed. Relief gave way, however, to the news that two Italians had died in the incident (Italy is my father’s homeland, and I’ve spent a great deal of time there too). The victims in question were Valeria Solesin, a student at Sorbonne University, and Sven Perugini, a computer programmer then working in Mallorca, Spain. While both were at the Bataclan theatre in Paris at the time, they did not appear to have known one another; they apparently had no connection other than their nationality and manner of their deaths.

When news of the attacks first broke, Sven Perugini’s mother went on a desperate search to find her son. It was painful to read her pleas on social media entreating anyone who knew of his fate to contact her. She then booked a flight to Paris, but when she arrived, she learned he was dead. Also moving was the reaction of Valeria Solesin’s family. At her funeral at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice – in which a Catholic priest, Jewish rabbi, and Muslim imam participated – her father thanked the three religious figures ‘who are here together in this square as a symbol of our common humanity.’

Other responses to the tragedy were not so noble. For example, Pastor Steven Anderson of the Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Arizona, basically said the victims at the Bataclan deserved what they got because they were listening to ‘Satanic’ music: the Eagles of Death Metal band. I found his implied portrayal of the theatre-goers as would-be Satanists particularly ironic in that one picture of Sven Perugini his mother posted on Facebook shows him wearing a crucifix around his neck – although, as a Catholic, perhaps Perugini might not qualify as a ‘real Christian’ in Anderson’s eyes.

It’s easy to dismiss the rantings of a man like Anderson, whose other public statements have included advocating capital punishment for homosexuals and praying for US President Barack Obama’s death, as an attention-seeking ploy reminiscent of the late Pastor Fred ‘God hates fags’ Phelps. On the other hand, the reaction of some members of the (largely secular) Left to the events in Paris was hardly more heartening. For instance, one site by a self-described atheist calling herself ‘Chicana on the Edge’ (real name: Regina Rodríguez-Martin) said she had a ‘hard time whipping up a lot of sympathy for Paris.’ She chided the media for focusing on the recent events in France but ignoring the ‘suffering of people in Mexico, Kenya, Iraq, etc.’

Regina Rodríguez-Martin apparently leaves out the fact that not all the victims of the ISIS attacks in Paris were White. They would include, in some people’s eyes, Sven Perugini, whose mother is Italian but his father of African descent, which would make Perugini ‘Black’ as well according to the so-called One Drop Rule. ‘Chicana on the Edge’ has admitted to suffering from mental illness, so in a way, I’m tempted to dismiss her screeds as I would Steven Anderson’s. Nonetheless, as someone who, like her, opposed the war in Iraq and has qualms about the US’ involvement in military efforts in other nations, I cannot help but think there might be some truth in the description of pacifists and other allegedly ‘progressive’ individuals as ‘some of the most miserable people around’ – like certain members of the Democratic Underground forum who lamented the attention that murder victim Laci Peterson received when ‘thousands have died and are dying in Iraq.’

Now from France and Italy to North America, what do the events in Paris mean for Canada? There is some speculation that the attacks spurred the new Justin Trudeau government to postpone its plan to admit 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada from the end of 2015 to February 2016 in order to better screen them. Like most Canadians (according to a recent poll), I support bringing those fleeing the conflict in Syria to Canada. Nonetheless, I understand the trepidation of many Canadians about receiving large numbers of people from a region beset by terrorism and agree on the need for thorough screening. Some have compared the acceptance of Syrian refugees to Canada’s decision to provide asylum to the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s. The comparison, though, is not entirely fitting: welcoming the Vietnamese carried almost no risk of admitting any potential terrorists, whereas at least one Islamic terrorist posed as a refugee when going from the Middle East to Europe. Therefore, in light of the tragedy in France, I believe a mixture of compassion and caution on Canada’s part is warranted.


Same-sex marriage in Ireland

I’m of (part) Irish descent, so I like to keep up-to-date with what is happening in the so-called old country. Last May, however, a piece of news out of Ireland grasped the attention of many people with no connection to that country whatsoever: the Irish public voted in a referendum to legalize same-sex marriage. ‘Gay Couples Awake to New Ireland,’ shouted The New York Times.

Part of the headline grabbing stemmed from the fact that Ireland was long considered one of the most socially conservative countries in Western Europe. It was one of the last nations in the world to legally permit divorce (in 1995) – interestingly, also after a referendum. Abortion still remains highly restricted. With regard specifically to same-sex relations, male homosexuality was a criminal offence in Ireland until 1993 (lesbianism in contrast was never illegal).

On the other hand, it is clear that Ireland has changed. For instance, in 2007 33% of babies in that country were born outside marriage – although a couple of studies suggest that these children are not born to mothers truly on their own but to women living in what are marriages in everything but name. Public support for same-sex marriage seems less surprising in light of these figures.

One perceived hindrance to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Ireland was the Roman Catholic Church, the religion to which most Irish adhere and which officially opposes gay marriage and homosexuality in general. However, many individual Catholics do not necessarily share the church hierarchy’s views on same-sex marriage. Polls in the United States have shown that Catholics are actually more likely than the general population to approve of marriage between two people of the same sex, at about the same level as mainline Protestants and at far higher levels than Christian fundamentalists. Even some Catholic priests in Ireland have voiced support for same-sex marriage. One priest in County Donegal explained why he would be voting ‘yes’ in the referendum in defiance of ecclesiastical doctrine. Finally, not all homophobia is religiously motivated: for example, male same-sex relations were punishable by jail time in the militantly atheistic Soviet Union.

Ireland’s ‘yes’ vote appears to be part of a trend toward the recognition of same-sex relationships throughout the Western world, whether in the form of actual marriage or civil unions, which even some people who feel marriage should be between a man and a woman can accept. Canada legalized marriages between members of the same sex in 2003. An effort to re-open the issue by the federal Conservative government in 2006 failed. Ireland now simply seems to be coming in line with the rest of the West.

As a person of Irish descent (and, for the record, a heterosexual), I lack strong feelings about same-sex marriage in Ireland or elsewhere, for that matter. I tend to be fairly skeptical of marriage as a whole, regardless of the gender of the people involved. Part of this may be due to my own parents’ highly dysfunctional marriage. My skepticism is further boosted by news reports, for instance, of a woman forced to pay alimony to her ex-husband ‘disabled’ by his alcoholism. On the other hand, if heterosexuals have the option of legally marrying, homosexual couples should be able to do so too, with all the rights and responsibilities that come with legal wedlock – such as having to pick up an alcoholic ex-spouse’s bar tabs. Speaking more seriously, I can understand why a gay or lesbian couple might want to have an official seal of approval on their relationship, especially if they have children. I wouldn’t begrudge any gays or lesbians the right to marry – not in spite but perhaps because of my own disinterest in the institution of matrimony.

To Irish gays and lesbians hoping to take advantage of their new right, choose wisely!


Moammar Gadhafi: A Man for all Seasons?

The rais is dead. On Thursday, October 20, it was reported that Colonel Moammar Gadhafi had died at the hands of rebels near his hometown of Sirte, Libya. Compared to the demise of Osama bin Laden several months earlier, the death of Gadhafi was somewhat anti-climatic. While bin Laden had been missing in action for nearly a decade, the world’s eyes had been on the Colonel for the previous half year.

Many people wonder what will happen in Libya with Moammar Gadhafi gone for good. It is of course impossible to answer that question with any certainty. Nonetheless, it seems almost equally impossible to say who Gadhafi really was or what he represented during his lifetime. Was he a defender of the poor and oppressed of the (Third) World, a revolutionary hero, an archenemy of the United States (and by extension, the entire Western world), or the West’s trusted ally against the forces of what Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called Islamicism? Or was Gadhafi like a perpetual adolescent, trying on many identities without settling definitely on any one of them in particular?

Born into a poor family, Gadhafi came to power in 1969, toppling Libya’s monarchy and setting himself up as the country’s absolute ruler. He at first embraced the notion of pan-Arabism, or unity among all Arab peoples throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Most leaders of other Arab countries were uninterested in the idea, so he eventually abandoned it. Perhaps among the casualties of Gadhafi’s Arab nationalism was the suppression of the Berbers, the original people of Libya. For example, Berbers were forbidden to register their children under Berber names. Moammar Gadhafi later turned to the philosophy of pan-Africanism. One consequence of this new love affair was the marriage of one of his daughters to Ugandan ruler Idi Amin. Gadhafi’s pan-Africanism never got much further off the ground, however, for one because Libya and other North African countries had little in common with Africa south of the Sahara desert, as some observers have noted.

Moammar Gadhafi posed as the ally of revolutionaries around the world. His protégés in this regard included the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the ETA (a Basque separatist group in Northern Spain) in addition to a number of rebel groups in the Third World, like the FARC in Colombia or Moro (Muslim) secessionists in the Philippines. Race, religion or nationality did not seem to play a role in his choice of favourites here. His friends among other national leaders similarly consisted of a panoply of figures of various ethnicities, from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi.

In 1986, Libya became the target of air raids by the United States when Libyan agents were accused of planting a bomb in a Berlin discotheque which led to the death of two American servicemen and injury of over 200 other people, many of them US military personnel. The US, under President Ronald Reagan, retaliated by carrying out several air strikes on Libya. Moammar Gadhafi entered the Western public consciousness at that moment, with even a satirical song called ‘Mo Gadhafi’ (to the tune of Austrian singer Falco’s ‘Amadeus’) dedicated to him. Reagan called Gadhafi a ‘mad dog.’ Over two years later (in December of 1988), a bomb exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland on a Pan Am flight travelling from London, England to New York, killing all the crew and passengers as well as several individuals on the ground. Libya ultimately admitted involvement in the Lockerbie bombing, although Gadhafi denied ordering the bombing himself.

While Gadhafi fancied himself a protector of the poor and downtrodden, especially in the Third World, and while the Berlin discotheque and Lockerbie incidents put him in the mainstream West’s bad books, he did not completely shy away from relations with Western leaders. He cultivated friendships with among others Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, Libya’s former colonial master, a relationship that continued almost until the end of Gadhafi’s rule.

After being out of the spotlight for some time after the air raids on Libya and the Lockerbie affair, Moammar Gadhafi re-emerged after 9/11 with a new image: that of the ally of the West against al-Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism. Though a Muslim himself who sometimes flirted with the idea of an Islamic state, he never quite fit into the fundamentalist mould. Perhaps his associations with so-called infidels prevented hardcore Islamists from ever accepting him as one of their own. His potential as a Muslim leader was further hampered by the fact that the Islam practised in his native Libya was and still is more moderate than that in places like Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. However, Gadhafi’s rehabilitated reputation was questioned when his government sentenced five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor employed at a children’s hospital in Benghazi, Libya to death for supposedly infecting patients with the virus that causes AIDS. Evidence accumulated that the spread of AIDS at the hospital was not due to a deliberate ploy but to poor hygiene and improper sterilization of instruments. The healthcare workers’ sentence was eventually commuted to life in prison; they were subsequently sent back to Bulgaria and released there.

Towards the end, perhaps in a bid to salvage his decreasing popularity among his people, Gadhafi began voicing pro-Islamic and anti-Western ideas. He once exhorted Western women to convert to Islam during a visit to Italy in 2010. Some Italians were outraged, with one woman saying that women in Gadhafi’s culture were treated ‘pathetically,’ even though women in Libya probably enjoyed more freedom than those in much of the rest of the Arab world, with the Colonel himself even employing female bodyguards. His role as a champion of Islam did not last long, though, and by the time his subjects began to rebel, Muslim religious leaders in other countries were issuing fatwas against him.

Moammar Gadhafi was a man who tried on many hats, but perhaps in the end none of them quite fit him. He rushed into pan-Arabism, for instance, long after it had become passé (partly as a result of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s failed experiment with the ideology). Some observers, like Pakistani-Canadian commentator Zuhair Kashmeri, have attempted to portray Gadhafi as a Third World hero victimized by the evils of colonialism/imperialism. However, his relations with Western political leaders – particularly Silvio Berlusconi, who once called Islamic civilization ‘backward’ – and forceful expulsion of Palestinians from his territory after the Palestinian Authority decided to negotiate with Israel did not mesh very well with his underdog image.

One might also ask whether Gadhafi was a man of high ideals – ideals that may have nonetheless changed over time – or an opportunist who adopted various personae in order to further his own goals, a bit like how Serbian warlord Arkan went from being a gang leader to Communist activist to devout Orthodox Christian patriot. But while Arkan was, in the words of one of his biographers, clearly ‘no ideologue,’ it is more difficult to determine Gadhafi’s motivations. Maybe he was both: a man of principle and a man on the make. Defying easy classification, Moammar Gadhafi remained alone, literally and figuratively, in death as well as in life.


Something Rotten in Norway: The Breivik Tragedy

The events in Norway two weekends ago came, literally, like a blast. When the news of the bombings in Oslo first broke, a large number of people immediately concluded that it was the work of Islamic terrorists (I, pardon the pun, remained agnostic on the issue). Several hours afterwards, it was revealed that the author of the explosions and of a subsequent shooting spree on an island outside the city was a very Aryan-looking young Norwegian man named Anders Behring Breivik who was in fact vehemently opposed to Muslim immigration to his country. He had previously written a 1,500-page manifesto detailing his political philosophy. He is now in custody awaiting psychiatric evaluation.

As soon as the culprit’s identity was disclosed, reaction was quick to follow. Many Muslims understandably took offence at being blamed for a crime of which they had no part and which was committed, to add insult to injury, by an individual with profoundly anti-Islamic sentiments. Other commentators, Muslim and non-Muslim, cited the event and the immediate response to it as an example of the widespread Islamophobia in Western societies like Norway. Finally, following reports describing Breivik as a ‘conservative Christian,’ some left-wing observers used the tragedy to expound on the alleged evils of the right wing, Christianity, and religion in general. But as with other calamities of this nature, the truth lies somewhere in between the extremes presented on all sides.

As mentioned above, it is not hard to sympathize with Muslims who felt that they were once again unfairly smeared for an atrocity in which they apparently played no role. I say ‘once again’ because Muslims were originally (and wrongly) suspected in the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building – which turned out to be masterminded by homegrown American ‘patriot’ Timothy McVeigh. Some commentators have even attempted to link Muslims, or the Islamic faith, to mass murderers/serial killers whose connection to Islam was tenuous at best and non-existent at worst. For example, some anti-Islamic websites have made much of the fact that Marc Lepine, a lone gunman who in 1989 killed 14 women at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique because he ‘hated feminists,’ was the son of an Algerian-born Muslim father. However, Lepine (whose name at birth was Gamil Gharbi) was actually baptized a Roman Catholic by his French-Canadian mother and eventually became an atheist. Even more absurdly, it was suggested that Rolando del Rosario Mendoza, a Filipino former police officer who took passengers of a tour bus in Manila hostage in August 2010 and killed eight of them, was a Muslim. (While the Philippines do have a Muslim population in the south of the country, it seems somewhat far-fetched that a person with a middle name that literally means ‘of the rosary’ would be one of them.)

On the other hand, should all those who initially thought that the bombings in Oslo were the actions of Muslim extremists be tarred as Islamophobic? The fact that Muslim groups were behind 9/11 in New York City and the later bombings in Madrid and London might have led some reasonable and not necessarily ‘Islamophobic’ people to this conclusion. In addition, an Islamic group linked to Al-Qaeda called ‘Helpers of the Global Jihad’ originally claimed responsibility for the explosions in Oslo, although they later retracted the statement. The notion that Muslims might have been involved in the attacks was, at least in the beginning, a plausible hypothesis.

Also somewhat dubious was the attempt to portray Anders Behring Breivik as a ‘Christian terrorist.’ Although like most Norwegians, he was most likely baptized into the Lutheran Church as a baby, in his manifesto he denied having a ‘personal relationship with God or Jesus Christ.’ He appeared to see Christianity as a cultural rather than religious phenomenon. In his own words, ‘I am first and foremost a man of logic. However, I am a supporter of a multicultural Christian Europe.’ In this respect he resembles the late Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, a self-confessed atheist who nonetheless viewed Christianity as a bulwark against the encroachment of Islam in Europe.

Still, some people have tried to depict Breivik as an example of right-wing Christianity gone wild. OMNI TV commentator Zuhair Kashmeri, for instance, calls Breivik a ‘right-wing Christian nutbar.’ While Kashmeri’s statement might be forgivable given that initial reports described the culprit as a conservative Christian, Kashmeri weakens his case by later referring to Timothy McVeigh as a ‘fundamentalist crackpot.’ A crackpot McVeigh may have been; however, he was by no means a Christian fundamentalist but a Catholic-turned-agnostic – a similar trajectory to that of Marc Lepine. I strongly suspect that Kashmeri, author of a book titled The Gulf Within: Canadian Arabs, Racism & The Gulf War about the experience of Arabs/Muslims in Canada, is desperately seeking proof that yes, Christians can be terrorists too. Kashmeri further sinks his own ship by seemingly acting as an apologist for Muslim terrorists. In one commentary, he says that Canada can expect to see more terrorist plots like that of the Toronto 18 if the country continues to wreak destruction on Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq – even though Canada did not join the war in the latter nation.

To be fair, Kashmeri has in the past criticized Islamic fundamentalism in places like Pakistan. His seeming acquiescence to Muslim extremism, though, doesn’t help his cause of defending the Muslim population – especially that in Canada and other Western nations – in general. On the other hand, fervent anti-Islamists like those who claim that everybody from Marc Lepine to Rolando del Rosario Mendoza to even Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui were Muslims might diminish the credibility of people who raise legitimate concerns about the way Islam is currently practised. These include concerns, for instance, that there is a fanatical element within Islam today which is more prominent than that in other major belief systems, including Christianity. (This of course does not mean that all or even most Muslims are fanatics but that probably a higher percentage of Muslims than members of other religions are.) If any good comes out of the Breivik tragedy, perhaps reaching a balance between these extremes and discussing the event logically may be among them.


Is the War Over? Reflections on Iraq

Is the war over?  President Barack Obama is reportedly pulling the US troops out of Iraq after more than seven years on the battlefield. Polls show that the American public’s support for the invasion of Iraq has declined during this time – though of course some of the non-supporters opposed the war from the beginning and did not “convert” to the other side. As someone who is part American myself (my mother is from Wisconsin ), I have always been against the war, albeit as an isolationist rather than a pacifist. However oppressive Saddam Hussein may have been towards his own people, he posed no threat to the United States . His much-feared (and much-doubted) stockpile of nuclear weapons never materialized. Hence the premise for the war was based on a non-reality at best and a deliberate falsehood at worst. Nor were Hussein’s alleged links to al-Qaeda or other Islamic fundamentalist groups ever proven; for one thing, religion did not play any part in his government.

Watching the military endeavour in Iraq was painful at times: the mistreatment of prisoners of war and the spectre of young men – and some young women – returning to the United States physically or, perhaps even worse, psychologically damaged by the fighting come to mind as prime examples. In coldly materialistic terms, the war has ended up costing an enormous amount of money. And for what, I wonder: a country halfway around the world that really had nothing to do with the US and the everyday lives of ordinary Americans.

On the other hand, I’m not totally comfortable with the anti-war faction. It was to a certain degree taken over by those who saw the war as a Western imperialist venture. For instance, in The Walrus magazine commentator Tariq Ali described the abuse of Iraqi detainees by American forces as “Western civilization at its rawest.” A reader cleverly pointed out afterwards in a letter to the editor that many Western nations, including the United States ’ NAFTA partners Canada and Mexico , declined to join the war effort. Likewise, one pacifist website accused the Roman Catholic Church of not speaking out as loudly against the war as they do against abortion because Iraqi children were not “White” – a curious leap of logic given that the Catholic Church condemned US intervention in Iraq from the very start. Unfortunately, the anti-colonialist kooks diminished the anti-war movement’s credibility.

To conclude, I hope this war is really over. I am proud as a Canadian that Canada never took part in it – no matter how much Stephen Harper was accused of being a Bush toady, he made no move to send Canadian troops to Iraq . And fingers crossed that the troops will come home once and for all.


Should the West Ban the Minaret?

Some years ago I was driving around Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, with the editor of a magazine to which I sometimes contribute. On one block stood a Catholic church, a synagogue, and a mosque. My editor exclaimed that in his city, followers of the three great monotheistic religions were able to live in harmony with one another.

I understood his pride. Toronto boasts a similar religious diversity. A small Lutheran church I occasionally attend on College Street, for example, is in walking distance of a Buddhist temple, two synagogues (in Kensington Market, a traditional Jewish enclave) as well as several Christian churches of other denominations. Though Canada and Venezuela are for the most part at least nominally Christian nations, both have received immigrants from other religious traditions who have left their mark on their host societies. Thus a mosque like Toronto’s Masjid-El-Noor, complete with minaret (the tall slender tower attached to the mosque), does not look out-of-place in a major urban centre in a neo-Europe.

But perhaps not in Old Europe. At least that is what 57% OF Swiss citizens thought when in a referendum last month they voted in favour of a constitutional amendment that would ban the further construction of minarets in their country. The minaret, as mentioned above, is the tower attached to the mosque from which, in Islamic countries, the faithful are called to prayer.* Switzerland currently has four minarets. The amendment would not see them destroyed but would prohibit others to be built in future.

The amendment itself was spearheaded by the Swiss People’s Party, a right-wing group that made news a year ago by proposing that the families of immigrants who commit crimes be deported along with their offending member. The Party’s rationale for banning the minaret is that the structure symbolizes “political Islam and sharia law.” They emphasize the importance of guarding Switzerland against the alleged growing threat of Islamicization in Europe. In addition, they say, Muslims in the country would still be allowed to practise their religion and even to build new mosques (minus the minaret, of course).

The result of the referendum received widespread attention. On the one hand, it was praised by many conservatives, including several who openly stated “God bless the Swiss” (a somewhat ironic remark in that the Swiss aren’t especially religious). Some saw the decision as a kind of “tit for tat,” as the construction of churches is legally forbidden in a number of Islamic nations, such as Saudi Arabia. On the other side, the proposed ban was condemned as discriminatory and even racist. This criticism came not only from Muslims themselves but even from some Christian church leaders who viewed the ban as an infringement on religious freedom. Some Muslims furthermore pointed out what they believed was the injustice of the decision, noting that Serbian Orthodox churches and Sikh temples (called gurdwaras) are now being built on Swiss soil. Another frequent observation is that most of the Muslims in Switzerland do not hail from Islamic theocracies but from relatively secular places like Bosnia and thus hardly appear to be involved in any scheme to “Islamicize” their host country.

On a purely aesthetic level I can understand the ban. A minaret does seem somewhat incongruous in a landscape of chalets and church steeples. The Swiss may not be particularly observant judging by measures like church attendance, but they may hold a certain attachment to the religious traditions that form part of their history. And while neo-Europes like Canada and Venezuela have enjoyed their present-day Western culture for 500 years at most (the oldest Western city in the Americas, Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, was founded in 1498), Switzerland’s roots go back centuries. So the Swiss may regard the minaret as a sort of intrusion on those traditions.

On the other hand, I can’t help seeing the Swiss People’s Party’s spectre of Islamicization as a cheap ploy for votes. The fact that most Muslims in Switzerland aren’t radicals and aren’t even native to countries where militant Islam holds sway confirms my feeling, as does the Party’s ad for the ban, a picture of missile-like minarets sprouting up from a Swiss flag fronted by a woman in a black veil Also, logically it strikes me a bit puzzling that if the Swiss People’s Party is so concerned about an Islamic takeover why don’t they ban mosques themselves, in which after all the dreaded Muslim teaching supposedly goes on, rather than just the minarets? I fail to understand what is so dangerous about the minaret per se.

Throughout this debate the issue of religious freedom frequently arises. It is true that Muslims will not be forbidden to practise their faith or even build new mosques. Yet the ban on the minaret, without any justification other than it supposedly represents Islamic power, does come across as arbitrary and authoritarian. Similarly, the argument that what Switzerland decided was right because Islamic nations do the same or worse isn’t very convincing. Call me ethnocentric, but I like to think that we in the West are above fighting intolerance with more intolerance. (It’s moreover doubtful whether the Muslims affected by the minaret ban are the same people who would proscribe the construction of Christian houses of worship in their own countries.) The West should in my view show a good example of religious tolerance to the rest of the world.

We should now address the question of Serbian Orthodox churches and Sikh temples being permitted on Swiss territory. To put it simply, these faiths don’t have the same implications in the West that Islam does. While there are few if any “native” Orthodox Christians in Switzerland, Eastern Orthodoxy is not much different from Catholicism or Protestantism (the main religions in Switzerland). More importantly, the Orthodox do not seem to harbour any particular animosity towards the West. Nor do most Sikhs. Despite its doctrinal distance from Christianity, Sikhism as a faith and Sikhs as individuals are not perceived as a threat to the West or Western culture. Islam, and by extension all Muslims, are. Undoubtedly the members of the Swiss People’s Party know this, hence their silence on gurdwaras and Orthodox churches.

I am sure that if a similar referendum had been held in Canada I would have voted to allow the minarets, even though I’m not Muslim myself and even though I’m uncomfortable with some of the ways Islam is practised today. I like to believe that if I lived in Switzerland I would do the same. But I’m not Swiss. I’m not part of a country with ingrained traditions going back at least a millennium, not mere generations.

However, in the end the Swiss are masters of their own nation, and I won’t challenge the decisions they make in democratically held referenda. The best way to reverse the results of this decision is by internal dialogue, not by rulings made from on high. Further discussions on the matter promise to be interesting.

* The “adhan,” or call to prayer, was not an issue here, as it was in Britain, given that in Switzerland the call only takes place within the confines of the mosque itself.


Movie Review: Zeitgeist Addendum

Title: Zeitgeist Addendum
Release: 2008
Genre: Documentary
Run Time: 123 Minutes
Author: Peter Joseph
Rating: 73%
URL: (watch online)

The word “Addendum” implies a small addition or expansion of a larger body of work. Clocking in at 2 hours and 3 minutes, Zeitgeist Addendum is a full-fledged sequel to Zeitgeist the Movie rather than a mere addendum. “Zeitgeist 2” picks up where its predecessor left off by launching a detailed explanation on the mechanics behind the monetary system and fractional reserve banking. Using the American economic system for its examples, the brooding narration explains how the central bank issues notes to the government for deposit in commercial banks, who in turn loan a large fraction of these deposits to consumers. The explanation of money purely as an instrument of debt seems philosophically valid, if not a little cynical. Filmmaker Peter Joseph’s view of the monetary system as both a pyramid scheme and a form of organized slavery serves as a basis for the remainder of the film.

Screenshot from Zeitgeist AddendumThe second phase of the movie features a long interview with John Perkins, author of “Confessions of an Economic Hitman”. Perkins outlines the role and evolution of the so-called economic hitman – a private or public sector agent who corrupts foreign leaders and economies to enable cheap access to national resources. Foreign leaders who do not comply with agents of the corrupting nation (typically from the West) are typically assassinated and replaced with a more “business-friendly” regime. Perkins cites the Iranian coup of 1953 and subsequent installation of the Shah as the first true economic hit while citing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Panamanian president Omar Torrijos Herrera (who signed the bill transferring the Panama Canal from American control) as examples of leaders who refused to be corrupted and were subsequently killed.

Visions of Utopia

Part three and four of the movie deal with The Venus Project, a visionary design for a resource-based economy whose proponents believe all of humanity’s problems can be solved by technology. In such world, the representatives claim, all humans can be fed, housed and otherwise placated by the abundant resources available in a society that uses technology to cater to social needs rather than military or capitalistic objectives. This portion of Zeitgeist Addendum is the most challenging to watch – not just because it is too long, but also because it mixes equal portions of science fiction (e.g. magnetic levitation tube trains traveling 4000 miles/hour), societal absurdities (e.g. no need for laws since every human’s economic needs to be met with technology and there will be no need to commit crime) and genuinely good ideas (e.g. harnessing solar, wind, wave, tidal and geothermal power to minimize or eliminate dependency on fossil fuels).

Screenshot from Zeitgeist AddendumFocus returns to the monetary system, citing its inherent corruption as the primary reason why societies similar to that outlined by the Venus Project aren’t possible. After once again maligning the banking system as the root of all human woe, Zeitgeist Addendum offers a surprisingly practical list of what the average person can do to exploit the current financial chaos for social transformation. Among the suggested measures are divestment from America’s three largest banks, boycotting mainstream media sources in favour of independent news sources, avoiding military service (extra focus was placed on the effect of post-traumatic stress disorder on Gulf war veterans) and removing from the energy grid.

You’re Either With us or Against us

The movie closes with a stark choice for the viewer – remain a materialistic slave of the monetary system and its divisionary institutions or discover truth and oneness by joining the Zeitgeist movement. The accompanying dramatic sequence depicts a series of business, military and religious people throwing down the symbols and tools of their respective institutions before looking to the sky and embracing a re-colorized earth.

Timing can mean everything to a movie’s success and Joseph chose the perfect time to release Zeitgeist Addendum. The monetary system is in retreat worldwide while defaults skyrocket among consumers and once-unshakable mega-corporations. One narrative at the end of the movie should resonate with even the hardest critic of anti-establishment sentiment:

As of now, the world financial system is on the brink of collapse, due to its own shortcomings. The comptroller of currency stated in 2003 that the interest on the U.S. national debt will not be affordable in less than 10 years. This theoretically means total bankruptcy for the U.S. economy and its implications for the world are immense. In turn, the fractional reserve-based monetary system is reaching its theoretical limits of expansion and the banking failures you are seeing is just the beginning. This is why inflation is skyrocketing, all debt is at record levels, and the government and fed are hemorrhaging new money to bail out the corrupt system – for the only way to keep the banks going is by making more money. The only way to make more money is to create more debt and inflation. It is simply a matter of time before the tables turn and there is no one willing to take new loans while defaults grow, as people are unable to afford their current loans. Then the expansion of money will stop and contraction will begin on a scale never before seen.
-Narration, Zeitgeist Addendum

Sadly, Zeitgeist Addendum devalues such timely and thought-provoking observations with the same dishonest recitation and logical leaps that earned its predecessor the “conspiracy theory” label from skeptics.

  • Yes-Yes persuasion. This subtle but effective technique starts with reciting two or more verifiable/probable statements and forcing a conclusion on the plausibility of the previous statements. While a decent argument can be made that debt and interest will inevitably force some foreclosures in any society, one cannot therefore assume that the banks INTEND to bankrupt people and hold them to any kind of modern bondage. In truth, bankruptcy is bad news for the modern bank because most of the assets purchased with consumer debt have limited resale value … and of course the bank is out of the money it loaned. People in many U.S. states can legally walk away from their homes without legal penalty. Furthermore, the existence of a relationship between government and business does not imply premeditation, and in the case of the current sub-prime meltdown even most bankers were not aware of the exposure presented by mortgage-backed securities. If there exists a conspiracy to enslave humanity and consolidate power, it’s proving a colossal failure.
  • Willful omission. Attacking banks as omnipotent forces of profit may be fair game, but who owns the banks? The majority of banks are publicly held, traded on the open market. Huge contributors include pension funds, mutual funds and exchange-traded funds. The ultimate owners of these funds are the same “wage-slaves” said to be indirectly working for the bank, regardless of their actually occupation. With few exceptions, the slave does not own the farm. The recent collapse of Lehman Brothers did not result in mass freedom but did wipe out thousands of average people’s retirement savings.
  • Drive-by accusations. Alarming accusations and insinuations are placed amid factual statements without elaboration or future reference. While defining terrorism, the narrator claims that the organization Al Qaeda never existed, with the name referring to a database created by American operatives. Another passage insinuates that 9/11 was executed by American forces as a pretext to invade Afghanistan and revive the opium trade.

Shaman or Charlatan?

Screenshot from Zeitgeist AddendumZeigeist Addendum’s core message is somewhat contradictory. Firstly, the narrator suggests divesting from the three largest banks as a form of protest, but wouldn’t reinvesting those funds in alternative firms perpetuate the same fractional reserve system? All banks in a nation hold deposits with the same central bank – that’s why it’s a CENTRAL bank.

Secondly, the film suggests joining The Zeitgeist Movement to attain critical mass and inform the world that resources should be free for all of mankind to use. This, the narrator claims is “the only true sustainable solution”. Previously, the film dismissed the world’s major religions (Islam, Christianity and Hinduism) as closed-world views. Why, then, wouldn’t this criticism hold true for a movement promoting the inalienable truth of environmentally-conscious collectivism?

Thirdly, the film states several times that politicians cannot solve humanity’s problems since they are controlled by the same few corporations. These statements are accompanied by flashing images of Democrat/Republican symbols and pictures of the 2008 presidential candidates. However, the film also flashes a picture of failed Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul when speaking of honest politicians who are sidelined by the system. Paul also appears in a C-SPAN clip, sternly questioning FRB Chairman Ben Bernanke. How do we know Ron Paul isn’t also controlled by the same corporations, provided as a distraction to create the illusion of dissidence?

With such gaping inconsistencies in mind, who should watch this film? In some respects, everyone should view this film because it at least challenges our understanding of and allegiance to the social institutions we rarely question. The high points of this film are the initial explanation of fractional reserve banking and entire economic hitman segment – both can be easily verified and/or criticized. The rest is somewhat pie in the sky to this cold pragmatist but can stoke the imagination of more eccentric types. Like Zeitgeist the Movie, Zeitgeist Addendum is primarily a conversation starter, but now the presentation is a bit slicker and the content more relevant to current events.


Movie Review: Fitna

Title: Fitna
Release: 2008
Genre: Documentary
Run Time: 15 Minutes
Studio/Publisher: Geert Wilders
Rating: 20%

Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), released a bombshell in the form of Fitna – a self-proclaimed documentary and wake up call to Europe in the face of growing Islamicization. Arabic for “disagreement and division among people”, Fitna has caused much division among nations and even within the ranks of those critical to radical Islam. Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist whose bomb-laden depiction of Mohammed resulted in worldwide riots and death threats, publicly condemned Wilders’ use of his drawings due to the film’s sweeping indictment of Islam as a whole. Web host Network Solutions suspended film’s website and video streaming company LiveLeak hosted the movie for only two days. Pakistan briefly banned YouTube while Al Qaeda has issued a fatwa against the blonde instigator. Controversy, thy name is Geert.

Fitna The Movie (screenshot)

Information-wise, Fitna offers little new material to those who have spent much time studying radical Islam. The 15-minute presentation consists of gory footage spliced with inflammatory Muslim speeches and confrontational suras from the Qur’an. Some viewers will recognize footage originally seen in Islamist documentaries like Beneath the Veil and Cult of the Suicide Bomber. Other video includes of people jumping from the Twin Towers during the 9/11 attacks and neatly-edited clips of executions by Iraqi insurgents.

The soundtrack consists of passages from Edvard Greig’s brooding “Aase’s Death” and Tchaikovsky’s “Arabian Dance” looping intermittently between apocalyptic Muslim prayers. Much of the dialog is in Arabic so most viewers will rely on the [thankfully minimal] English/Dutch subtitles. There is no narration in the film per se but the violent speeches by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and various Imams set the pace just as effectively.

The latter portion of the film pushes the immigration buttons familiar to Wilders’ PVV platform. Under the title “The Netherlands of the Future?”, a graphic slideshow displays images of gay/female executions, blood-smeared children and female circumcisions. This macabre presentation is followed by a series of inflammatory news headlines:
“We do not agree with freedom of speech, because we denounce democracy”
“Explosive increase honor killings in Amsterdam”
“School closes on muslim holidays”
“Jihad-lessons in elementary school”
“Foreign imams allowed in more quickly”
“Mosques under the spell of radical muslim group”
“Suicide commandos in the Netherlands”
“Hamas gathers in Rotterdam”
“Mosque: turning the Netherlands into a muslim state”

Fitna The Movie (screenshot)

Fitna closes with a short clip of a hand turning a page of the Koran. The image fades as the sound of a page tearing is heard. The implication is quickly followed by the message “The sound you just heard was a page being removed from the phone book. For it is not up to me, but to Muslims themselves to tear out the hateful verses from the Quran”. The film’s final message states that Muslim Europeans have no interest but to conquer the west and that Islamic ideology must be defeated by freedom-loving Europeans as Nazism and Communism were before it.

It shouldn’t even need to be said that Fitna is a hatchet job, plain and simple. Compressing 15 minutes of footage and inspiration from Islam’s violent minority and passing it off as the summation of a centuries-old religion that contains over a billion followers smacks of a “solution” in search of a problem. A structurally identical film could be made in the Islamic world about the invasion of Christian (re: coalition) warriors, splicing scenes of dead Iraqi citizens with violent passages in the old testament and assorted rants by Jerry Falwell. The facts presented would be “true”, but hardly representative of the entire Christian world.

Nontheless, such a film would stand as firm proof to Islamists about the need for Muslim forces to crush the Christian enemy. Fitna will appeal similarly to modern-day crusaders who have already convinced themselves of the necessity for a second Crusade.

Fitna The Movie (screenshot)

Offense is in the eye of the beholder, so it would be difficult for an outsider to say whether this film warrants the extreme outcry and calls for censorship – perhaps that’s a Westerner mindset. Stronger anti-Islamic sentiment has long existed on the pages of FrontPageMag or Little Green Footballs and to my knowledge neither of these online publications have been threatened.

Fitna preaches a drastic scenario to the converted and would likely fail to penetrate mainstream Western thought even if it were given wide release. Wilders’ political associations, combined with his decision to attack all of Islam rather than its extremist elements, will cost credibility among discerning audiences.


Movie Review: Zeitgeist – The Movie

Title: Zeitgeist – The Movie
Release: 2007
Genre: Documentary
Run Time: 116 Minutes
Author: Peter Joseph
Rating: 68%
URL: (watch online)

After an excessively long introduction, Zeitgeist launches into a dissection of religion (titled “The Greatest Story Ever Told”), and by religion the film-makers mean Christianity. A brief summary of astrology gives way to a comparison of earlier Middle-Eastern mythologies to the mythology which predated all of them. Indeed there are many coincidences to between the Egyptian Sun God Horus and the central figures of later faiths:

  • Horus was born December 25th to the virgin Isis
  • He was adorned by three “kings” who followed an eastern star
  • He was deemed a prodigy at 12 and was baptized at the Age of 30
  • He traveled with 12 disciples and traveled around performing miracles like healing the sick and walking on water
  • His alternate names included “Lamb of God”, “The truth, the light”
  • He was betrayed, crucified, buried from the dead and rose three days later

Anyone who paid attention during Sunday school or at least made an effort to read a bible (a group encompassing fewer Christians that one would think) should be a bit uneasy, as the Story of Jesus Christ is nearly identical – only the names differ. Strangely (or perhaps not) the same general sequence of events can be found many other mythologies across the world. The film then attempts to link common attributes of these stories to astrological symbolism and does a fairly convincing job of it.

None of this information (or at least the discussion of its legitimacy) should be new to armchair theologians, but it was not initially clear why Christianity was singled out above all others for astrological plagiarism – it was not the first, last or worst offender among the emerging faiths. Eventually, the answer is provided – the Romans apparently invented the myth of Jesus Christ solely to exercise social and economic control over Europe. Never mind Karl Marx’s Opiate of the Masses attack – the Zeitgeist narrator directly refers to Christianity and similar faiths as “the fraud of the age”. Them be Fightin’ words.

Alas, Zeitgeist is a film about conspiracy theories – an emphatic diatribe of how small groups of shadowy figures conspire to control the masses.

Bush’s Brawn

The second part of the movie, titled “All the World’s a Stage”, attempts to prove that the US government plotted the 9/11 attacks in New York and contracted the dirty work to international resources. Provided evidence includes a mixture of the apparent “TV clips of witnesses describing a second explosion”, the questionable “government efforts to hide any conclusive evidence of a Boeing 757 hitting the Pentagon” and the perplexing “the demolition-like accuracy with which the buildings collapsed”. Again, the viewer is presented with a series of facts that are true or at least believable, some arousing anecdotes and a consequential induction that implicates shadowy powers.

If film-maker Peter Joseph can be credited for one thing, it’s flawlessly utilizing Dale Carnegie’s yes-yes technique to influence the viewer. Like any good conspiracy theorist, he starts with information that is true (yes #1), follows with information that is apparent enough to make the viewer question previous dogma (yes #2) and inserts his interpretation of what is driving those occurrences (in this case, that the US government intentionally detonated the twin towers). One major distinction between a conspiracy theory and a valid explanation is that conspiracy theories rarely work inversely as deduction. As a Math Professor of mine loved to recite, proving all poodles are dogs does not prove all dogs are poodles.

Hand in my Pocket

The third section is called “Don’t Mind The Men Behind The Curtain” and deals with disproportionate influence exercised by early banking tycoons like JP Morgan and John D Rockefeller. The stock market crash of 1929 is alleged to have been deliberately engineered by the “international bankers” to allow a large-scale cash grab and easy purchase of failed rivals. The 1933 American gold seizure, establishment of the US Federal Reserve and the major world wars of the 20th century are also attributed to the objectives of the international bankers, who stood to gain from the interest on loans made to both the state and consumers. These bankers are never clearly defined after the first generation of financial barons. More alarmingly, the Federal Income Tax is declared unconstitutional – a declaration backed by a pair of former IRS agents who testify to avoiding tax payment for years without penalty. Perhaps they could share what they know with Wesley Snipes.

Zeitgeist closes, strangely, with a motivational speech about unity and how the human race should unshackle themselves from the social structures imposed by a diabolical few. It did provide levity for an otherwise bleak film, but nonetheless sounded kitschy.

Worth a Tin-Foil Hat?

Is Zeitgeist worth the watch? Probably, as you can watch it for free via the URL provided above. The movie also provides an opportunity to test your critical thinking – the real enjoyment in indulging conspiracy theories is not self-congratulation for being skeptical, but being able to explain precisely where they fail.

Conversely, you may find yourself occasionally saying “wait a minute!” and questioning what you thought you knew. Sadly, conspiracy theories are one of the few remaining outlets for some good old-fashioned, politically-incorrect debate, and one area Zeitgest excels at is stimulating debate. Invite a friend or two over and have fun.

Update (2008-10-12):
Review for Zeitgeist Addendum


New Swiss Immigration Law Causes Controversy

Switzerland is known for a number of things, like the St. Bernard dog, the cuckoo clock, the Swiss army knife, and my all-time favourite the Brown Swiss cow. Now the country is making news for another reason: a proposed law that would deport immigrant families if their child were convicted of a violent crime, drug offence, or benefits fraud (see story). The bill is being presented by the nationalist Swiss People’s Party. If the party collects enough signatures in its favour, a referendum will be held on the bill and it could become law.

The proposal has, not surprisingly, been described as racist. First off was the campaign poster showing three white sheep kicking out a black sheep over the words, in German, “For security.” While the term “black sheep” as in “black sheep of the family” generally does not have any racial connotations, critics charge that this particular sheep conjures up images of dark-skinned criminals. In 2004 the Swiss People’s Party used a poster depicting black hands reaching into a pot filled with Swiss passports in a – successful – bid to restrict immigration to the country. The party has also proposed a ban on the construction of minaret towers alongside mosques. On the other hand, it is difficult to tell whether the group is racist per se, that is, in the sense of believing that Whites are superior to members of other races and should receive preferential treatment. For example, the party has called for the cancellation of Swiss aid to Eastern Europe, a region where nearly all the inhabitants are White.

Ueli Maurer, president of the Swiss People’s Party, does not seem too perturbed by this criticism. He reports that there have been “no complaints” about his proposal and expresses confidence that “as soon as the first ten families and their children have been expelled from the country, then things will get better at a stroke.” Furthermore, the party claims that foreigners, who constitute roughly a fifth of Switzerland’s population, are four times more likely to become involved in crime than are Swiss nationals. According to an official study conducted by the Federal Foreigners’ Commission, non-citizens are in fact overrepresented in violent offences.

The bill has been attacked as well on the grounds that it hearkens back to the Nazi practice of “Sippenhaft” (kin liability) whereby a criminal’s family members were punished alongside the offender him- or herself for the crime in question. On one hand, the idea that an individual might be held accountable and made to pay for a relative’s crime goes against our sense of justice. Even the supposedly wrathful God of the Old Testament states that “Parents must not be put to death for the crimes of their children, and children must not be put to death for the crimes of their parents.” Though deportation rarely leads to death, the substance of the argument remains the same.

Nonetheless, many of us feel that at a moral if not legal level parents are responsible to a certain extent for the conduct of their children. As another Biblical saying goes, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Certainly most people would recognize some mitigating circumstances. For instance, few would entirely blame the adoptive parents of a teenager born with fetal alcohol syndrome for an offence he or she might not even be aware of having committed. The vast majority of parents, though, have at least some control over how their sons and daughters turn out.

Another issue raised by the Swiss People’s Party’s bill deals with the rights of non-citizens when they commit crimes in their country of residence. Even individuals such as myself who would probably oppose a law that penalized parents for the misdeeds of their offspring might agree there is a strong case to be made that non-nationals guilty of serious offences in their adopted nations forfeit their right to continue living there. Canada faced this dilemma twice in 1994 and again in 2005. In separate incidents, Georgina Leimonis, police officer Todd Baylis, and Jane Creba were killed by people who had been ordered deported from Canada after committing violent crimes here. In the aftermath of the murders, some legal experts, professors and newspaper columnists (like the Globe and Mail’s Michael Valpy) argued that deporting the offenders in question would be too harsh because they had spent most of their childhoods in Canada, the “only country they knew.” They simply had never become Canadian citizens. One might counter that citizenship is like marriage: if you take the step of obtaining citizenship of a particular country, you are entitled to certain rights and protections that those who decline to do so are not, just like, as I wrote in a previous article, married couples should enjoy privileges that their common-law counterparts do not. Therefore by not making an effort to get the proper papers, the killers of the three above-mentioned individuals lose the legal as well as moral right to stay in this country. (Of course citizens who commit crimes should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.) In this respect the Swiss proposal to deport immigrants – though not their families – who fail to abide by the laws of the land in which they reside would probably not strike most people as a great injustice.

The future of this bill is yet to be seen. Stay tuned.

Further Research