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The latest refugee in Australia's archipelago of detention centres: an Iranian heavy metal drummer, fleeing persecution by the theocratic regime:
The man wrote that he abandoned his beloved drums after authorities began to increasingly target music fans.''In an underground concert more than 60 fans were arrested, charged and locked up. Players were taken to Intelligence. Two teachers of mine were arrested also.''
He panicked. He sold his drums, moved to a new location and changed his phone number, cut ties with everyone but family and sank into depression. ''I deleted every history of my music from my life because of my fear of being arrested by the government who were intent on stopping this music. During this time six musicians that I knew were arrested in their training place. After that no one contacted each other, even on Facebook.''The Iranian regime's war on popular music is old news: a documentary from 2009, Nobody Knows About Persian Cats, recounts the travails of an underground twee pop band in Tehran. If anything, heavy metal musicians would be singled out for particularly harsh prosecution, possibly even executed for religious crimes, as the unnamed drummer suggests. (Metal bands in neighbouring Iraq haven't fared well either recently; the country's one and only well-known band, Acrassicauda, fled via Turkey and sought asylum in the US.)
(It's interesting that Facebook is (a) not blocked inside Iran, and (b) avoided by those fearing persecution; which suggests that the regime has the means to monitor it, possibly using those forged SSL root certificates it is speculated to have, enabling it to carry out man-in-the-middle attacks on any SSL connections.)
The conservative theocracy of Saudi Arabia is embracing modern technology on its own terms; it has just implemented a tracking system for women, whereby, whenever a woman travels abroad through a Saudi airport or border crossing, her male guardian (and all women in Saudi Arabia, being perpetual minors in law, have those) is informed by text message.
“The authorities are using technology to monitor women,” said columnist Badriya al-Bishr, who criticised the “state of slavery under which women are held” in the ultra-conservative kingdom. Women are not allowed to leave the kingdom without permission from their male guardian, who must give his consent by signing what is known as the “yellow sheet” at the airport or borderSo far, the system is just tied into fixed borders, but once the principle that the men who have custody of a woman are entitled to know her whereabouts is accepted, the potential for expansion is huge. For example, the mobile phone network in Saudi Arabia could be configured to store each subscriber's sex and, if they're female, a link to her male guardian, and to allow him to get her phone's location at any moment. (I heard once that the Saudi mobile phone network is already configured to segregate subscribers by gender and disallow women from placing calls to men outside of a short list, though don't have confirmation of this factoid.) Think of it like Apple's “Find My iPhone” feature, only for your wives. But why stop there? Why not a daring programme of IT streamlining, giving male guardians real-time access to any data generated by about the women in their custody, from credit card purchases (with perhaps even an option for the custodian to approve or decline a transaction) to telephone and SMS logs of whom they're communicating with. When one is committed to using modern technology to mediaeval ends, the sky's the limit.
Technology is, however, helping to undermine traditional strictures in other places in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, here is an interview with a Saudi atheist, speaking under the pseudonym Jabir, who says that, with services like Facebook and Twitter, the few closeted atheists in the severely religious country are discovering that there are others who think like them:
“I was shocked to meet older people in their forties and fifties who been hiding their atheism for decades. They said that only recently with the young generation in their twenties had they found other people who think like them and were able to find social group that they can talk and debate about their ideas in.” Jabir politely demurs when asked about the backgrounds of these people; confidentiality and secrecy run deep in the Saudi Arabian atheism milieu.
Yet, it may also, as the political system reacts to these new conditions, be a time of tightening and ever greater social and religious restrictions. The nightmare situation for Jabir is that when the relatively reform-minded King Abdullah dies it will bring about a new monarch who will let the religious police and certain segments of the Saudi community start an aggressive witch-hunt for ‘non-believers’.Meanwhile, in nearby Qatar, censors are going through Winnie The Pooh picture books and blacking out Piglet, because pigs are unclean in Islam.
Wary of the possibility that a population of educated, frustrated women could result in pressure for political liberalisation, Iran's government has moved to preempt this by declared 70 university courses to be for men only:
It follows years in which Iranian women students have outperformed men, a trend at odds with the traditional male-dominated outlook of the country's religious leaders. Women outnumbered men by three to two in passing this year's university entrance exam.
Senior clerics in Iran's theocratic regime have become concerned about the social side-effects of rising educational standards among women, including declining birth and marriage rates.Of course, if women outperform men in academic fields, banning women may make the men feel better about their performance, but it will be less salutary for Iran's economy if half of all potential knowledge workers are prohibited by law from developing their potential.
This is at odds with the arguably more progressive Saudi approach (and "progressive" and "Saudi" aren't two words I expected to write adjacent to each other) of planning segregated women-only cities, where the nation's educated, otherwise frustrated women can work in industry on a “separate but equal” basis. (I wonder how long that will last; eventually, I imagine it'll lead to those invested in the status quo deciding that it's a threat and attacking it; starving it of resources, imposing crippling restrictions on it, and eventually shutting it down and sending the women back to the authority of their male family members, and the city will go the way the the USSR's Jewish Autonomous Oblast did once Stalin found it too threatening.)
And Iran is moving to further remind women of their place under an Islamic theocracy, by moving to legalise the marriage of girls under 10. The current age at which girls can be married in the Islamic Republic is 10, down from 16 before the revolution.
Religious dictatorships find their own use for international policing protocols, it seems. After Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari fled to Malaysia after posting a Twitter comment critical of Islam, Saudi Arabia used Interpol's red notice system to have him arrested. He has been hastily deported to Saudi Arabia, where he may face the death penalty for "insulting the Prophet Mohammed".
The Malaysian home minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said: "Malaysia has a long-standing arrangement by which individuals wanted by one country are extradited when detained by the other, and [Kashgari] will be repatriated under this agreement. The nature of the charges against the individual in this case are a matter for the Saudi Arabian authorities."
Kashgari said in an interview that he was being made a "scapegoat for a larger conflict" over his comments, Reuters reported. Amnesty International labelled Kashgari a prisoner of conscience and called for his release.This incident has brought to attention Interpol's notice regime, and ways in which it could be used to suppress human rights. While the system does have ways to challenge notices, that amounts to little when an extradition for a religious offence is fast-tracked.
Whether or not there are any atheists in foxholes, there don't seem to be any in positions of political power who are willing to stand by their principles. Firstly Australia's outspokenly atheistic Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, proclaimed her wholehearted conviction in supporting an unaccountably authoritarian internet censorship system demanded by a Christian Fundamentalist fringe party, and now, Britain's deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, rules out eliminating the bishops from the House of Lords, instead planning to add unelected ministers of other religions for equality's sake. This token sliver of theocracy, these bishops, rabbis and imams will get to vote on legislation which affects all Britons, from waiving anti-discrimination legislation when the discrimination is guided by religious beliefs to blocking equal marriage rights for non-heterosexuals to keeping it a crime for the terminally ill to end their lives with dignity, going against the majority opinion of what is a largely secular society:
Here's a Trivial Pursuit question with an answer that isn't at all trivial. Which two nations still reserve places in their parliaments for unelected religious clerics, who then get an automatic say in writing the laws the country's citizens must obey? The answer is Iran... and Britain.
And here's the strangest kicker in this strange story: it looks like the plans being drawn up by Nick Clegg to "modernise" the House of Lords will not listen to the overwhelming majority of us and end these religious privileges. No – they are poised to do the opposite. Sources close to the reform team say they are going to add even more unelected religious figures to parliament. These plans are being drawn up as you read this and will be published soon. The time to fight is today, while we can still sway the agenda.
The atheists and secularists who are campaigning for democracy are consistently branded "arrogant" by the bishops and their noisy cheerleaders. But who is arrogant here? Is it atheists who say that since we have no evidence about how the universe came into being, we should be humble, admit we don't know, and keep investigating? Or is it the bishops, who claim that they not only "know" how everything was created, but they know exactly what that Creator thinks, how he wants us to have sex, and which pills we can take when we are dying? What could be more arrogant than claiming you have a right to an unelected seat in parliament to impose beliefs for which there is no evidence on an unbelieving population?Fortunately, there are organisations in Britain fighting against such unaccountable religious privilege: the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association are both active in campaigns on issues such as this, and when the plans are published, they're certain to be at the front of the campaign against them. Whether the government will pay any heed to them depends on how many people are in the campaign.
Iran's reactionary Islamist regime has tightened the screws of censorship and blocked access to numerous evil Zionist-crusader websites like YouTube, Amazon, Wikipedia and IMDB. This seems to be an escalation from the theocracy's relatively more liberal policy until now of only specifically blocking politically or religiously sensitive materials:
Critics accuse Iran of using filtering technology to censor more sites than any country apart from China. Until now, targets have been mainly linked to opposition groups or those deemed "immoral" under Iran's Islamic legal code. Some news sites, such as the BBC's Farsi service, are also blocked.
With some 7.5 million surfers, Iran is believed to have the highest rate of web use in the Middle East after Israel. The net's popularity has prompted an estimated 100,000 bloggers, many opposed to the Islamic regime. Some blogs are substitutes for Iran's once-flourishing, but now largely supressed, reformist press.The new restrictions come a few weeks after the banning of numerous books.
Meanwhile, Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadine-Jihad, who isn't known for his liberal views, is in hot water with hardliners in his own regime after he was seen watching unveiled women dancers at the opening of the Asian games in Qatar, which appears to be the Iranian equivalent of being caught in a strip club. MPs are calling for an investigation, and probably beheadings, stonings and limb amputations of those involved.
Bad news for the neo-conservative pipe dream of making Iraq the start of a domino chain of neo-liberal democracies across the Middle East, too busy eating Big Macs, watching MTV and monitoring their Halliburton shares to consider annihilating Israel or supporting international terrorism, thus ushering in a new age of peace and contented consumerism across the entire Middle East. The US Government have indicated that they will accept a theocracy emerging in Iraq. I'm sure John Ashcroft wouldn't object.
Meanwhile, two cities in southern California are designating themselves no-communist zones; very retro.
The Dalai Lama: cuddly, celebrity-endorsed embodiment of Peace'n'Love and self-help and feeling good about yourself and universal acceptance, or bigoted reactionary snake-oil peddler, whose mediæval views are modulated by a hypocritical pandering to gullible, moneyed westerners?
In reality, Tibetan Buddhism is not a values-free system oriented around smiles and a warm heart. It is a religion with tough ethical underpinnings that sometimes get lost in translation. For example, the Dalai Lama explicitly condemns homosexuality, as well as all oral and anal sex. His stand is close to that of Pope John Paul II, something his Western followers find embarrassing and prefer to ignore. His American publisher even asked him to remove the injunctions against homosexuality from his book, "Ethics for the New Millennium," for fear they would offend American readers, and the Dalai Lama acquiesced.
I remember a public talk he gave at his headquarters in Dharamsala in northern India in 1990, after conflict between Tibetans and Indians there. He spoke in Tibetan, and his delivery was stern and admonitory, like a forbidding, old-fashioned father reprimanding his children. The crowd listened respectfully, and went away chastened.
All this reminds me of claims about various parties in the Middle East (on both sides) saying one thing in English for the benefit of gullible western liberals and another, considerably more warlike, thing in their people's own language. The moral of the story: the dumb Yanqui (and that includes Americans, Britons, Australians, Canadians and such) are mugs to be played as such.
But yes, back to the subject at hand. I once got a book "by" the Dalai Lama as a present from a new-age relative. Little surprise that it consisted of the most vapidly insipid pabulum, a lowest-common-denominator collection of self-help aphorisms with the Dalai Lama brand slapped on it. It's highly unlikely that its wisdom came from any tradition older then 1960s California. The Dalai Lama appears to have become the leading brand of guilt-assuagement for affluent Westerners whose TV doesn't quite drown out the awareness that they're living high off the hog amidst massive injustice and thus need to be reassured that they're good people and their positive thoughts cancel out any contribution their lifestyle makes to global suffering. Either that or he's just an incredibly successful conman. Or both.
And here's an article on rampant brutality in feudal Tibet; not quite the happy valley of bliss Richard Gere would have you believe. Mind you, it seems a bit pro-Chinese in places. And here's Hitchens' opinion on the Dalai Lama. (via MeFi)
Healing the rift between church and state: An insightful look at two faith-based government regimes: Bush II's America (atheists need not apply), and the Taliban's destruction of priceless ancient statues in Afghanistan.
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