Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Behind the Burqa

The French President Sarkozy says “In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. The burqa is not a religious sign; it’s a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic.”

Is the burqa a sign of subservience as Sarkozy says or this is a typical Western cliche which derides the understanding of other religions, without understanding their cultural subtleties? The burqa has become a symbol of oppression (rightly or wrongly) and we are appalled at the Burqa culture being carried out by the Taliban and the rest of extremist Islam, in the name of safeguarding their religion. But the very presence of a burqa does not make a nation backward or its women subservient.

The very principle of freedom of expression that Sarkozy and the West invokes while outlawing the burqa is violated by this ban. If the burqa is a forced wear, as in some nations, it definitely needs to be condemned but when people wear it out of their own accord as in many parts of the world, including the liberal West, it is undemocratic for the State to step in and ban it. For every woman who has the right not to wear a burqa, every woman also has the right to wear the burqa.

There is a difference between a secular state and an irreligious one and what Sarkozy is doing is moving away from the principle of equal respect to all religions and enforcing the might of the State. The threat of radical Islam and terrorism is scaring Europe leading to such “popular” actions as seen in France and Turkey. The melting pot culture of US provides freedom to religions to practice freely without getting into the debate of State Vs Religion while what Europe is trying to do is essentially force a spirit of Europeanism on its people, fearing an invasion of its culture (assuming that something called homogeneous European culture actually exists).

While Sarkozy has gone public with his remarks and set up a Commission to look into the burqa laws, France’s reaction is not an isolated one. For the past 80 years, Turks have lived in a secular state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who rejected headscarves as backward-looking in his campaign to secularise Turkish society. (Even so, it is estimated that as many as 65% of Turkish women cover their heads with a scarf).

The city council in Maaseik, Belgium on December 27, 2004 criminalized the wearing of the burqa and the niqab in its public places. The Dutch Government has been debating a law to say ‘no’ to the burqa in public spaces, claiming that it disturbed public order, citizens and safety. In July 05 the Italian parliament approved anti-terrorist laws which make hiding one's features from the public - including through wearing the burqa - an offence.

There are cultural differences among various nationalities and religions, which Sarkozy has not attempted to understand. What exhibits itself as subservience to one culture probably reflects the urge of the other to assert oneself using one’s religious identity, here clearly, a frontal expression of Islamic identity. When the State tries to crush such symbolism, it invites trouble for itself and makes it difficult for it to reach out to its own people. Coercing someone not to wear something in the name of freedom does not make you very different from the perpetrators of the original threat.

As Amit Varma also points out, wearing a burqa may be a rational decision taken by an individual to handle societal and family cultures to adhere one’s traditions. While this may not be a perfect situation, it does not give the State the freedom to impose its ideas of mistaken freedom on people, who are happy with their freedom.

Also, Sarkozy needs to realize that irrespective of the symbolic nature of the burqa in the Western Eye, not every woman wears it out a sense of coercion and that there are many who like to wear it either due to a personal liking or because it presents them with an opportunity to associate themselves with their identity of being a Muslim.

Thomas Jefferson said we can use our laws to coerce the acts of the body, but not the operations of the mind. People should be free to worship their god freely, so long as other laws, neutral laws of general applicability, are not violated. Coercive attitudes towards any direction can be counter-productive and banning the burqa may only push the liberal Muslim more towards radicalism as he fears his culture being trampled by a majoritarian culture.

In the same vein, if burqa represents an ugly side of Islam, what stops Governments from looking at Sikhs with turbans and bearded Muslims as militants ? Who determines what constitutes the dress of a fundamentalist vis-a-vis that of a liberal. Should the State get involved in personal matters and dilute its rule in administration by bringing in regulations in areas where it has no business to be in?

Nothing symbolizes the rift between Islam and the West so non-violently but pungently as the burqa, which Westerners find especially offensive when located on their own streets. The real issue of security and religious freedom is being drowned by focusing attention on symbols which are merely periphery items on the war on global terrorism. But then banning a headscarf is so much easier to do than trying to make an effort to dig and sort out the larger brewing problem of religious fundamentalism.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Emergency Sex (And Other Desperate Measures)

Blame the authors of this brilliant book for giving it such a cheesy title that readers may dismiss as some wannabe silly book written by a set of junkies or at best, a medical book. Emergency Sex is anything but that; it is a brilliant thrilling narrative told through the eyes of three UN Officials as they navigate through some of the world’s most horrendous war zones and see violence which is shocking even when read on print.

Heidi Postlewait joins the UN after leaving her husband, in search of adventure and a meaning in life. Kenneth Cain is a Harvard Law School graduate who decides to chuck a corporate career and make a difference by being a human rights lawyer for the UN. Dr. Andrew Thomson is a New Zealand-born doctor who goes to work at a Red Cross hospital in Phnom Penh and then moves into the UN.

The trio meet in Cambodia in the early '90s, as part of a team that is monitoring the elections there. Their task is to ensure a free and fair poll and export democracy (in Ken’s language) to the country, which is slowly recovering from the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. The experience of running a successful election emboldens them on the path of changing the world wherever they go. (It is later revealed that the elections do not make much of a difference and it takes five more years to bring a semblance of peace to the country).

Heidi and Ken are then assigned to Somalia while Andrew goes to Haiti. After the Cold War, the Somalian government collapses and the US, in concert with the UN, steps in to impose a full-scale ‘humanitarian intervention’ to impose peace and rebuild the nation; something not accepted by one of the warlords Mohammed Aidid, leading to a prolonged conflict. In Haiti, Jean Bertrand Aristide, a former priest, wins the first elections but is overthrown in a bloody coup. The UN then steps in to deploy an ambitious civilian human rights observer mission to document the torture and violence, hoping to pressurize the return of the Aristide Government.

But unlike the peaceful Cambodian peninsula, Somalia and Haiti present violent conflicts which expose the soft stance of the UN in these areas. After a bout of violence, the troops slowly withdraw and the same Aidid who is a war criminal before the conflict is treated as a tribal leader to do negotiations. Aidid’s success against the UN leads to a similar counter-attack in Haiti, forcing the US and subsequently, the UN to withdraw its personnel from there.

Andrew wonders how a group of tiny personnel with allegiance to a local gang in a small country like Haiti can force the mighty Clinton administration to withdraw its forces. He realises that the effort taken in documenting the rights violations is a waste and that they have let down all the people who have come forward to help them, against all odds.

While Heidi is later on sent to Haiti once peace returns, Andrew and Ken are assigned to Rwanda where more than 800,000 members of the Tutsi tribe are massacred by the Hutus in retaliation to the assassination of the Hutu President. The Tutsis, led by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) defeat the rebels and take over the country but by that time, the massacre is already done. Though the news of the massacre is known, the UN officials step back, allowing the country to explode in flames. Having failed to intervene in the genocide, the UN steps in later to setup an International Tribunal to prosecute the perpetrators of the horrific crimes- another case of too little, too late.

Andrew and Ken wonder at the almost inanity of their operations. When the massacres in Haiti, Bosnia and Rwanda could have been stopped, the UN bureaucracy holds back and once the vultures have wiped out all the carcasses, they step in trying to count the dead and use the courts and judiciary to bring the criminals to justice.

In Bosnia, the UN enables genocide by declaring Srebrenica a "safe zone" for Bosnian Muslims and then refusing to defend the city. Andrew is sent as a forensic expert to Bosnia to excavate bodies and bring in forensic evidence of a massacre that the Serbs, under Milosevic, refused to acknowledge. In what is probably the most openly damning indictment of the UN, Andrew says:

One day someone at UNHQ will commission an official report about this disaster, replete with mea culpas and lessons learned. But for me there's only one lesson and it's staring right at me every day as I eat lunch: If blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers show up in your town or village and offer to protect you, run. Or else get weapons. Your lives are worth so much less than theirs. I learned that the day we were evacuated from Haiti.

The UN and the West’s double standards in addressing conflicts is reflected by Ken when he says - One hundred and fifty thousand humans died from war crimes in Yugoslavia, in the middle of Europe, and 150,000 died from exactly the same war crimes here, in West Africa. For Yugoslavia, the UN created the first formal war crimes tribunal since Nuremberg and is deploying batteries of human rights officers, forensic pathologists, lawyers, and investigator. For war crimes in Liberia, the UN sent, well me…Liberia has no oil, no strategic relevance, and the airport, hotels and beaches offer neither rest nor recreation. No one comes, no one cares. During the Liberian conflict, the UN and West are reluctant to send forces and so they send unarmed observers to monitor the Nigerian forces who act as peacekeepers but who probably are worse than the fighters of the place.

But the book is not just a political journey and takes us through the everyday lives of the UN and its administration. For a global organisation like UN, it is difficult to isolate itself from politics and play a truly non-partisan role in all conflicts. There are young men and women who have been led on the path of idealism, which forces them to embrace a life of hardships in areas far away from their daily existence.

Witnessing such extreme acts of violence (the book narrates gut wrenching stories of mutilations, rapes and extreme tortures) is tough for anyone and one wonders whether these youngsters are ready to face such crises in their lives which threaten their very foundations. I guess I could not find a more apt sense of distress which caught my attention than when Ken says - If there is a God, Doctor, I want him prosecuted for crimes against humanity – after the Rwanda Genocide.

In the end, all three return to private life, all with mixed emotions about how they spent their youths. Andrew gets married, returns to Cambodia and builds a home on the Mekong River; Heidi takes an office job at the UN headquarters; and Cain is now a writer / scholar. All of them take a more pragmatic view towards life and realize that good intentions are not enough to change the world; this is a sign of maturity but also a mild sense of defeat after living (rather surviving) through horrific times.

While the indictment of the UN is primarily for its role or rather lack of it in conflict resolution in these places, the book also highlights many other things. Peacekeeping troops" sent by Bulgaria to Cambodia were not military personnel but prison inmates and the patients of psychiatric wards--even though they arrived in military uniform to become UN Blue Helmets!!! There was mass booth capturing and ballot burning in Haiti elections held under the aegis of the UN, but the UN remains silent and it allows the government to conjure an imaginary winning percentage. The UNs total incompetency in safeguarding its personnel in several war zones (In Somalia, one of its men is killed by carelessness and an inquiry hushes it up) is exposed, so is its complicity in worsening the crises through corruption and mismanagement.

It seems that the grumpy old men and holier-than-thous running the UN, who have made their diplomatic careers on saving the wicked world, were really scared of this book and so Kofi Annan and Co, actually tried to have the book suppressed. But anyone, who reads this book, will realize that it does not tell anything more about the UN than is known but then the powers-to-be are always jittery, aren’t they? As you read the book, you tend to agree with this assessment by an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald - The United Nations does some good but too often it is just a lie or a fig leaf or even a cause of evil itself. Over a long period it's proved incapable of significant reform. Maybe it's time to abolish it and start again.

The story is told in first person and the authors take turns telling the narrative, but the different story lines which run parallel never put you off the track. Emergency Sex is a funny, sincere, and devastatingly honest account of life in the War Zones from an insider’s perspective, which forces you to gallop through the pages, despite the discomfort of its many tragedies.

P.S. I’d like to confess that I am fascinated by the thought of young men and women giving up the idea of a comfortable life and heading into the unknown in search of life – the idea never ceases to amaze me and the banker within me wants to rebel against this artificial life…