Agam's Gecko
Tuesday, May 17, 2005
Members of Raza Academy, a Muslim organization, in Bombay, India, protest against the alleged desecration of the Koran at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo

fter some pondering here this morning -- in the Gecko's opulent, yet tastefully designed editing suites, high above the majestic Chao Phraya -- regarding whether or not to use the "L" word in this article's headline, I've decided to go with it. As a concession to standard journalistic impropriety, I've placed it alongside NEWSWEEK's new nickname, so as not to besmirch their impeccable reputation.

But get a load of that photo above, eh? (The photo links to the VOA story from which I lifted it) That's quite a juxtaposition of demands there. The sign on the right is correct: President Bush should apologise for desecration of al Qur'an by any members of his country's services -- if there was any. And I'm very sure that he would do so, given what I listened to this morning on News Hour about the strict guidelines given to military personel about proper handling of the Muslims' sacred book. They are even directed to use gloves when handling one (i.e. giving one to a detainee at Guantanamo, all of whom are given one), to avoid "desecrating" it with their infidel fingers. Condoleezza Rice last week, while testifying before a congressional committee, made a special point -- unprompted by any question, and before anything else was said -- to make it absolutely unambiguous that any such desecration of any religion's holy books or revered objects, such as that alleged in the Newsweek magazine "news article", will not be tolerated in any way, shape or form. We can count on the international media, especially in Muslim countries, and firebrand Muslim demagogues (as those who stoked the fires in Afghanistan and South Asia last week), to not say a word about this policy.

Meanwhile, the guy holding the sign on the left in that photo, seems to think that it was Newsweek which desecrated al Qur'an. Frankly, I wonder if that boy even knows what his sign says, as they were obviously mass produced at a print shop. Seeing as it was Newsweek which made this most inflammatory of acts (in a Muslim's eyes) known to the Muslim world in the first place (with the help of Pakistani cricket legend Imran Khan's ranting and waving a copy at his press conference last week), it seems odd to call for the magazine's banning for having "blown the whistle". Of course media will periodically make mistakes, and hopefully this is one lesson the Muslim world will take away from this -- that just because something is in a western magazine, newspaper or network, doesn't necessarily make it true. Newsweek should not be banned, despite the fact that it now has blood on its editorial desks. A boycott of the magazine and its advertisers however, would be entirely proper in my opinion.

It may be unfair for me to have used the "L" word, for I don't really believe they lied. They goofed up badly, relied on a single anonymous source without any corroboration, and were completely ignorant as to the severe inflammatory effect their story would have on Muslims worldwide. They were at least ten times less justified in relying on one dubious piece of intelligence for their assertion, than was Colin Powell in relying on intel from many separate sources (most of them friendly foreign intel services) and asserting that Iraq had active WMD programs. If that could be twisted so widely into "Bush lied", then this turnabout is more than fair play.

In America, as probably in most western democracies, you can legally desecrate the Bible all you like, in as vile a manner as you might dream up, and it's considered art. That's only one of the eleventeen gazillion reasons that many devout Muslims believe the West to be decadent and immoral, something that Newsweek's editors are apparently oblivious to. Even if the allegations of desecration were corroborated by more than one anonymous source, a responsible editor should have still considered the negative consequence vs. benefit of publishing it. It seems as if that never enters the equation anymore, it's simply the desire to "get the scoop" -- and if it makes America look worse, then so much the better. That Newsweek's editors were shocked by the Muslim reaction, just proves how clueless they are with cross-cultural understanding.

Readers here (all six of you!) will recall that I've just spent time with some of my Aceh family in Jakarta. I spent a lot of time sitting with Mother, talking about all and sundry, just the two of us. She and Father left Aceh a couple of months after the tsunami. Father was unwell, and he passed away before I could get down to see them. His absence left a big hole that Ibu and I both felt. I always loved our conversations, for he was, like me, always keen to discuss everything from local politics to the state of the world. My Ibu and Bapak from Tapaktuan were the most devout Muslims I had ever known, and I learned much from both of them. I received a gift from them which will never tarnish, the knowledge that I have been in the presence of the true heart of Islam -- a generous and accepting heart which is nothing like the intolerance one finds in the black hearts of people like bin Laden and Zarqawi.

While I stayed with my family during the visit, I had a book along to read late at night. The book is "Deliver Us from Evil" by William Shawcross, probably best known for his "Sideshow" (about the Cambodian holocaust). In "Deliver Us from Evil," he looks at the international community's various responses during the 1990's to some of the terrible conflicts and even genocide which were taking place then, and some which had happened decades before like the Khmer Rouge's killing fields. The UNTAC program to help with Cambodia's transition; "peacekeeping" efforts in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Haiti; military interventions in Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq and lots more. I'd never really understood the Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo mess before reading this book. Some of these subjects crept into my conversations with Ibu, while she ironed her son's family's laundry (she never wanted to stop working, either ironing or cooking constantly!).

Ibu is not someone who follows the news, but she picks up a lot listening to others discuss things. We talked generally about September 11 and terrorism in Indonesia, about the Taliban's destruction of the ancient Buddhist monuments (which she understands how hurtful that was to people of the Buddhist faith), about the coalition which overthrew that regime and Afghanistan's new democratic future, and many other things. In many of these cases I could tell her about some things which she didn't know, like some of Saddam's prior depravities (and Zarqawi's current ones). Her sense of right and wrong is still firmly grounded, which is of course no surprise given that Bapak and I had discussed intolerant Islamic fundamentalism the last time I visited them in Aceh, just months before September 11 (but following the Bamiyan Buddhas' destruction). I was quite delighted with his attitude toward such lunatic interpretations of Islam.

But I was rather surprised when, during our talk, I described some of the horrible atrocities carried out against Muslims in Bosnia (or was it Serbia? It's so confusing!), and non-Muslim countries intervened to save them from an ongoing mass slaughter (including US airstrikes on Serb positions which were bombarding unarmed Muslim towns and refugees), I had said something like, "And some people think the US wants to destroy Islam, while they did their best to save Muslim lives." She replied, "That's right. The US wants to destroy Islam."

It was practically irrational for us to have agreed during the entire conversation, about this was right, and that was wrong; this was good, and that was bad, in all those earlier events -- and then for her to still conclude that the American aim in all this is to destroy Islam! Does. Not. Compute. Her reason was, that many people say it. People she trusts, say it. "Who?" I asked. Of course the fashion of being reflexively anti-American is always a factor, something that I only broke free of myself after some serious soul searching in recent years. Well, she said, there was Pak B., our neighbour in Tapaktuan. He always says that America wants to destroy Islam.

Ah, Pak B. A retired policeman, the neighbour that my late brother Uddin always had a prickly relationship with (Uddin was a bit of a "bad boy" for Tapaktuan; that is to say, a pretty normal young guy for just about anywhere else -- he liked smoking ahem, and the odd drink now and then). I recall my last visit there, sitting outside Pak B.'s house with he and Uddin's father, and talking about the world. He was explaining to me why the word Yahudi (Indonesian word for "Jewish") is used to denote an atheist! That's right -- in his lexicon (and many others', I'm sad to say), someone who does not believe in any God at all, is Yahudi! I did my best to explain that Yahudi is a religion, indeed one that believes in the same God as Christians and Muslims, just with different scriptures, special days and customs. Of course, Islamic writings refer to both Christians and Jews as "People of the Book" and "Children of Abraham", and as such they are supposed to have special status in Islam. Anyway, maybe I can soon go back and continue my conversation with Pak B., and I can take him up on this "America wants to destroy Islam" stuff.

But all this is just by way of example, that such a good-hearted and kind woman as my Ibu, even knowing all the contradicting evidence, and with her ethical sense intact, can still follow it up with the "America wants to destroy Islam" mantra -- logical or not. I'm sure there are fundamentalist teachers who could entertain one for hours with amazing logical acrobatics, to find ways to reconcile the evidence to the conclusion, and tie it all together. Newsweek's false assertion (now retracted in full, by the way) is just one more piece in their puzzle, which will be used to increase antipathy -- and it will live on for a long time with folks like Pak B. The retraction will not be noticed. Neither will the other reports in the media, that while investigators have yet to uncover any corroboration of the Qur'an in the toilet caper, they have found corroboration for a story that a Muslim detainee in Guantanamo had ripped pages out of the holy book, and flushed those down a toilet in an effort to plug the thing up -- a form of protest! True blue believers will be convinced that the flimsy anonymously sourced first story are absolutely true, while the verified from several sources second story, is a lie. No Muslim would ever do such a thing!

It should be unnecessary to repeat (but I will anyway), that it's right in the Al Qaeda Training Manual (wai to Michelle Malkin), what the jihadis are taught to do; if they are detained by infidels, they are to make up all sorts of claims of religious disrespect and desecration of holy books, against their enemies. Lying in the cause of their twisted form of jihad, is not a sin but a blessed tactic. And these people understand western politically correct societies much better than our politically correct societies understand them.

How destructive can this tendency to believe the worst, or put faith in conspiracy theories propounded by demagogic religious figures and other trusted sources, for Muslims? I need look no further than the major issue in Indonesia when I was leaving a few weeks ago. The polio virus, which Indonesia had been free of for the past decade, had re-emerged, attacking some young children in Sukabumi regency, West Java. Scientific tests showed the strain was the same as that now on the rampage in some parts of Africa, which has been attributed to the vaccination fiasco in Muslim sections of Nigeria some time back. International health workers were trying to proceed with a vaccination campaign, which was refused due to the efforts of imams there, who convinced the people that the vaccinations were an American plot to either infect the population with AIDS, or to make them sterile (or both). Because, of course, they were sure that America is trying to destroy Islam. And Polio gets going again in that part of Africa, where the same strain is doing its worst in Sudan and Somalia, and has now made the jump to Indonesia where it continues infecting mainly Muslim children.


t happened completely by accident: chancing upon Newspeak's retractable non-retraction yesterday. I was innocently cleaning up my outdated RSS feed links, adding a few new ones from Washington Post, when at the bottom of the page was an RSS feed for Newsweek. Hmm, strange, I thought, and checked it. I have since learned that the Post actually owns News/peak/week, so now it all makes sense -- the willingness to believe the worst about America, the impetus to play up the bad and ignore the good, and so on. Like everyone else, I had seen the days of coverage of the violent anti-American riots in Pakistan and Afghanistan where innocent citizens and policemen were killed by the fury over that one small "Periscope" item in the current edition. I'd seen Hamid Karzai saying that the anti-US aspect had been played out of proportion, and that the issue was being used in his country for domestic political fodder. And I'd been feeling that somebody at Newsweek really screwed up badly for them to have been so clueless about the story's power to offend -- almost regardless of whether it was true or not.

So serendipitously, I chanced upon the Newsweek main page, and to my amazement they seemed to be backtracking on their "scoop". They had obviously grasped the gravity of what had taken place, solely on the basis of one, brief, almost gossipy item, in a page of gossipy items which they call "Periscope". Sixteen people lay dead at last count, an untold number had been injured in these riots, in blind rage at a story based on a single anonymous tip! As I read the Newsweek editor's strained justifications and covering of the ass, it all seemed too familiar. The weaselly language and reaching out for even more unsubstantiated incidents, as if to paper over their goof-up -- carried echoes of CBS News and 60 Minutes back in September, and certainly of Dan Rather's own soft stepping of core issues at the time. Eason Jordan never said a word in public after resigning, but his defenders were masters of the "Well, there's no evidence at all, but it could happen," strategy. Newsweek looked to be going down the same tired old path: Yes, we demand rock solid intelligence from others, and if there are flaws in it, then Bush lied. But we did our best, and even with our lofty journalistic ethics, we were let down by our single, nameless source (who now isn't quite sure what he read anyway), and now we're not quite sure if it's true or not. Oh yeah, sorry about the dead people.

"How a Fire Broke Out," indeed!
As early as last spring and summer, similar re--ports from released detainees started surfacing in British and Russian news reports, and in the Arab news agency Al-Jazeera; claims by other released detainees have been covered in other media since then.
Oh, but there are lots of other examples of desecration! Russian media, Al-Jazeera! (And, if I were to guess, the Guardian and old Pilger over at the Independent). Don't blame us! There are lots of claims by lots of detainees; and we also know about al Qaeda's prime directive for detainees -- make up accusations just like this one, the more vile the better. We know that, but we've got a magazine to run!
When they are released, many complain of abuse. President Karzai is still largely respected, but many Afghans regard him as too dependent on and too obsequious to the United States. With Karzai scheduled to come to Washington next week, this is a good time for his enemies to make trouble.
So the timing was particularly awkward for President Karzai, just what his enemies were waiting for. So why would this "respected" magazine assume that such a flimsy and practically unsourced story was true? Are they his enemy as well?

Note to MSM: when admitting that a story like this is wrong, make sure to make plenty of references to "reports of torture" and Abu Ghraib Abu Ghraib Abu Ghraib, and don't forget to dig up all other unsubstantiated claims of bad treatment of al Qur'an that you can find. Your single goof-up won't look so bad among all the other rumours. Make sure you quote known fanatics with al Qaeda credentials, as though they were as trustworthy as your kids' Sunday school teacher, especially if they claim to have recurring nightmares involving al Qur'an and latrines. Enumerate all such stories you can dig up -- verification is not important.

And then wrap up your non-apology with:
Such stories may spark more trouble. Though decrepit and still run largely by warlords, Afghanistan was not considered by U.S. officials to be a candidate for serious anti-American riots. But Westerners, including those at NEWSWEEK, may underestimate how severely Muslims resent the American presence, especially when it in any way interferes with Islamic religious faith.
As far as I could tell, this is the closest to a mea culpa these editors were willing to go. "Westerners, including those at NEWSWEEK..." Everybody's just as clueless about Muslim sensibilities as we are. But notice: it's not that they underestimated the rage they could spark with their unsubstantiated story. It's the underestimation of how much they resent Americans!

Now, why would that be, I wonder? Maybe they already want to believe the worst, and Newsweek (so full of itself, that it must refer to itself in ALL CAPS) was ready to give them exactly that.

Maybe they've learned something, but I'm not holding my breath. "Procedures" are being reviewed, now that they've come clean (the day after the article I've cited), and unconditionally retracted the entire story. There was some good discussion on today's PBS New Hour, particularly from Jeff Jarvis. The Newsweek chief editor, Mark Whitaker looked and sounded in full damage control mode, and wouldn't admit to a lapse in anything resembling journalistic ethics. But he was absolutely clear (between his constant repetitions of "Uh, ummm, er, uh...") that the story is fully retracted, and said that the mag has some responsibility for those deaths.... along with this, and that, and that other thing, and also ... etc. Enough to go around. But he did make a curious verbal slip, when he referred to the anonymous official (which the blogosphere sounds to be getting close to outing, by the way) as "a source which we knew to be critical..."

He meant to say "credible" of course, but the word "critical" was quite clear. And I feel pretty sure that it more represents the desired quality as it played out in the editorial "procedures", than what he wishes he'd said.

According to The Radio Equalizer, Newsweek is already starting to lose its radio spots, starting with Boston. But don't miss the intrepid Michelle Malkin on this one: she's been all over it from the beginning, and has some very important links as well. Just keep scrolling.

UPDATE: You must check out this cartoon by Day By Day artist Chris Muir.


ith that terrible crushing of demonstrations in Uzbekistan -- I heard one report that perhaps 700 people were shot dead by security forces at Andizhan, in the far eastern part of the country -- the accusations of American hypocrisy were not long in coming. Does the US make noise about human rights and democracy only for people in antagonistic countries, but not in friendly ones? Well, they could have perhaps been a little quicker in denouncing President Karimov's forces and the apparent massacre of unarmed demonstrators. But the scale of the atrocity is only now becoming known, and I see a strong denunciation coming out yesterday from the US administration. But because Karimov had given permission for the US to use bases there for Afghanistan operations, he's assumed to be "our bastard" (c.f. Kissinger on Suharto: "He's a bastard, but he's our bastard.")

Poking my head into a discussion forum which is normally used to debate the Tibet - China issue, it was interesting yesterday to find that the usual apologists for Chinese communist repression of Tibet had taken to flooding the group with Uzbekistan stuff (a normal strategy for them, only varied by the changing of non-Tibet related stories of the day). The 'America is always wrong / bad / cause of all injustice... etc.' playbook says that the US is propping up Karimov unconditionally to further their warlike aims, does nothing for democratisation there, and will not criticise their "friend". Their point is, that American rhetoric on human rights is completely self serving, and they don't really care about the Tibetans and Uyghurs any more than they do the Uzbeks. They use it only to "bash China" and "not bash Uzbekistan".

But according to one actual democracy lover in the forum (as opposed to the fake democracy lovers whose real true love is the CCP), Human Right's Watch sees it differently -- or at least they did 10 months ago:
Uzbekistan: U.S. Cuts Aid Over Rights Concerns

(New York, July 14, 2004) - The U.S. State Department's decision to
cut aid to the Uzbek government over its lack of progress on human
rights is a welcome show of principled leadership, Human Rights Watch
said today. In response, the Uzbek government should bring its human
rights performance into conformity with its international commitments.

"This decision has been long in coming," said Rachel Denber, acting
executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia
division. "It shows that the United States takes human rights records
seriously and means what it says. Now the United States needs to
continue its engagement with the Uzbek government and press for human
rights improvements."
Has anybody else been putting pressure on Karimov's government, besides the US? I didn't hear anything about China taking positive action for democratisation there, Karimov is probably on better terms with them than with the Americans. He may well be taking tips from them, on how they handle their "Uyghur problem." Indeed, this article on China's Zombie Countries makes it clear that, for China's ruling clique, the more dictatorial a friendly country is, the better.

Speaking of which, readers may remember the story of Rebiya Kadeer I cited a while back. This morning I was watching the morning briefing from the US State Dept. spokesman, and just the final bit of this exchange caught my ear. So I found the transcript to find out what I'd missed:
QUESTION: There was a report that Chinese authorities apparently ransacked the business of Rebiya Kadir the dissident who they released several weeks ago, and -- if you have a response?

MR. BOUCHER: Yeah. We are in touch with her family in the United States. We're aware of reports that one of her sons is in hiding and that five family members and associates -- five family friends and associates may have been subjected to harassment. We have expressed our concern about these reports to the Chinese, both in Washington and in Beijing. We would see such actions as contrary to the cooperative spirit between our two countries that led to the release of Ms. Kadir to the United States two months ago.
A bit of searching turned up these stories:

Uighur Activist's Family Threatened

Chinese police ransack activist's offices

U.S. raises concern with China over exile's family

Apparently the Chinese authorities raided Ms. Kadeer's company, Akida, ransacked the place and arrested the workers (dragging one nursing mother out by the hair, according to witnesses). Her son is now in hiding, but thought to be safe. Rebiya Kadeer was a successful Uyghur businesswoman before her arrest and almost 6 years of imprisonment for violating state security (she had mailed newspaper clippings to her husband in the US). She is also quite successful in efforts to empower other Uyghur women, who've taken her on as a role model. She was released just prior to Condoleezza Rice's visit to Beijing, in what appeared to be a trade-off for the US not introducing a critical motion on China at the Human Rights Commission meeting. She's now staying with her daughter in the US. I've written a bit about Rebiya Kadeer here (scroll down to "Tibet's Stolen Child", and a bit further to the last 2 paragraphs of that article), and linked to a story about her, and an interview with her on Radio Free Asia.

More on the Uyghur situation in Saving the Uyghurs, written by Uyghur-American Nury Turkel, who is president of the Uyghur American Association.


his new blog from Syria is just full of a wonderful sardonic humour to leaven the bitterness of the Syrian reality (a quality that seems to grow well in closely controlled societies like Syria -- the sardonic humour, I mean). Particularly interesting to read it in conjuction with the accounts on the Lebanon blog, written by Michael Totten (his own blog here) during his last few days in Beirut, on the evident success of the "Cedar Revolution". All their goals were met, elections will be held on schedule (coming up pretty soon too), and the tent city has been dismantled. Check out Michael's pictures on Lebanon Blog, and don't miss the tent city's own Pulse of Freedom.

There are many things revealed in Syria Exposed which really help to explain how absolutely neurotic a society can become. The blog is by "Karfan", whose name means disgusted, and "a friend" who secretly sends the posts from "a neighbouring country". There have been no new posts since the beginning of this month, so I do hope they're alright. Their goal is apparently the exploding of "external myths and internal taboos", and they've gotten up to Myth #10 in about six weeks of posting. A highly entertaining and yet sobering read, and I'll betcha can't read just one! (Myth, that is!)

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