Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Republicans and the Corporate Attack on Science

Thomas Riggins

Last month the AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science] the premier science organization in the U.S. and publisher of Science magazine held its annual conference, this year in Vancouver. Over 8000 scientists attended what has become the largest organization of scientists in the world.

This annual meeting, however, was unusual. Robin McKie, science editor of the Observer (part of The Guardian, U.K.) covered the meeting and reported that the out going president of the AAAS, Nina Fedoroff , broke with the usual tradition of shying away from political controversy that is customary for high ranking scientific spokespersons in the scientific world.

Dr. Fedoroff told her colleagues, according to McKie, that she was "scared to death" at the continuing attacks on science throughout the West and in the U.S. Dr. Fedoroff said, "We are sliding back into a dark era and there is little we can do about it. I am profoundly depressed at just how difficult it has become merely to get a realistic conversation started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified organisms."

Fedoroff and other scientists are positively amazed at the hostility towards scientific methods and scientific proposals put forth to solve many of the problems facing the world today. Not only do powerful corporations and the (mostly) Republican politicians they control brush aside scientific evidence regarding climate change, endangered species, health issues, food safety, etc., etc., whenever this evidence conflicts with the profit motive that inspires and motivates them, but they also have begun to personally attack individual scientists and scientific institutions trying to damage their reputations or to have them defunded.

Fedoroff understands that President Obama, at least, is not against science. "The trouble is," she says, "that he still hasn't been able to do anything to help. He is continually blocked by Congress, and that only adds to our worries and sense of desperation. If the current president is for us, but still cannot do anything to help us, then what will happen if a Republican gets into the White House this year?" Actually that would not happen until Jan. 20th of next year-- but the point is well made. Fedoroff has learned a lot, it seems, since she was appointed to high scientific office by George W. Bush and then served as science advisor to Condoleezza Rice in the the State Department.

Even though the overwhelming scientific consensus is that man made atmospheric pollution with greenhouse gases is causing the earth to warm up and this is leading us down the road to a world wide catastrophe, all of the leading Republican contenders, egged on by lobbyists and corporate funding, especially from industries producing, or dependent on, oil, gas, coal and other pollutants, deny the scientific evidence. Rick Santorum goes so far as to call global warming a "hoax".

Naomi Oreskes, a professor at U of C San Diego, who attended the meeting, remarked that, "Those of us who grew up in the sixties, when we put men on the Moon, now have to watch as every Republican candidate for this year's presidential election denies the science behind climate change and evolution. That is a staggering state of affairs and it is very worrying."

Professor Oreskes adds, according to McKie, "Our present crisis over the rise of anti-science has been coming for a long time and we should have seen it coming. It has taken the scientific community a long time to realize what it is up against. In the past, it thought the problem was just a matter of education. All its practioners had to do was make an effort to reach out and talk to teachers, the public and business leaders. Then these people would see the issues and understand the need for action. But now they are beginning to realize what they are really up against: massive organized attempts to undermine scientific data by people for whom the data represents a threat to their status quo. Given the power of these people, scientists will have their work cut out dealing with them."

But what does this say about our educational system in the U.S.? The fact so many people have been through the public school system and are so scientifically illiterate that their ignorance of evolution and the science behind climate change can form the basis for a major political party (and still have plenty of people left over) should tell us that a major reform of the educational system is in order-- not only of the curriculum but of the qualifications of teachers as well. This reform should involve the unions,elected officials, parents, students, and teachers-- it cannot be made from above by the imposition of privatization, ill conceived standardized tests, mass school closings, or firings and lay offs of school workers for lack of finances.

A real educational reform would solve the problem brought up by Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists since an educated population would not be open to the corrupting influences she discusses. She is attacking the Supreme Court decision that opened the flood gates of unlimited corporate contributions to candidates for elected office (the Citizens United vs the Federal Election Commission ruling).

"That has opened the gates for corporations," Grifo said, "often those associated with coal and oil industries, to flood the market with adverts that support right wing politicians and which attack government bodies that impose environmental regulations that these companies don't like. The science that supports these regulations is attacked as well. That has made a terrible difference over the past year and it is now bringing matters to a head. People may believe that political interference in science went extinct when George W.Bush left office, but the reality is that the pressure to politicize science is still with us."

Now that the scales have fallen from the eyes of the scientific community we can only hope that scientists will become more active in the fight to preserve democracy and join with the rest of the progressive community in the struggle to prevent the take over of the U.S. government by the ultra-right and anti-scientific Republicans.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Tunisia: Moderate Political Islam Eschews Violence

Thomas Riggins

The world of journalism and that of the broader reading public suffered a major loss
last week with the death of Anthony Shadid in Syria. Shadid one of the most daring, and daringly honest, journalists in the world succumbed to an asthma attack at the age of 43 last Thursday while on assignment for the New York Times. Before he died he sent this story ["Exile Over, Tunisian Sets Task: Building a Democracy"] which appeared in the NYT 2-18-2012 two days after his death. It is important to discuss and evaluate the story as it reveals the complexity of modern political Islam and upends many current false and bigoted notions being spread in the US and Europe.

The story revolves around the return to Tunis of Said Ferjani, a self educated Islamic politician, who lived in the U.K. for 22 years and is a member of the Ennanah Party -- an Islamic political party that won the recent elections in Tunisia after the overthrow of the dictatorial former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.

Ferjani sees the task of his party as building a society both democratic and Islamic. "This is our test," he said. The test, of course, is to see if it is truly possible to create a modern democratic society, even a bourgeois democracy, based on Islamic rather than secular foundations. Shadid pointed out that the Islamists of Ferjani's generation (and the Ennanah Party ) are the spiritual descendants of the movements spawned under the aegis of the Muslim Brotherhood- a society founded in 1928 in Egypt by Hassan al-Banne who was inspired both by European fascist movements and the desire to impose Sharia law.

Many Arab secularists and political liberals doubt that so-called "moderate" political Islam, such as is represented by the Ennanah Party, can, given its roots in fascism and Sharia, actually lead the way to a real representative democracy. We shall see, in the course of this article, if their fears are warranted or not.

"I can tell you one thing," Ferjani is quoted as saying, "we now have a golden opportunity. And in this golden opportunity, I'm not interested in control. I'm interested delivering the best charismatic system, a charismatic democratic system. This is my dream." It is strange for a Sunni to be using the term "charismatic" as this is a term usually associated with the Shia tradition and a "charismatic" and mystical element that can be found in leaders; it is also associated with fascist ideology.

As a young teenager Ferjani came under the influence his school teacher, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, who went on to become a political activist and the founder of the Ennahda Party. The questions that were discussed by Ghannouchi centered around the theme of Muslim backwardness. Ferjani remembers his teacher asking "What makes us backwards? Is it our destiny to be so?"

At this time these questions were being answered by the Muslim Brotherhood founded by Hassan al-Banna whose ideas had spread beyond Egypt to other Arab countries including Tunisia. Banna was a pan-Arabist and anti-imperialist who build the Brotherhood he founded in 1928 from a small group to a large international organization of 500,000 members. He was assassinated in 1949 at the age of 42 because he opposed violence and denounced terrorism as a way for Muslims to fight imperialism and to further democratic rights.

After Banna's death Sayyid Qutb rose to prominence in the leadership of the Brotherhood. Originally a man with secular values that did not conflict with Islam he became a radical jihadist in theory after a sojourn in the US (1948-50 he was turned off by the "immodesty" of the women and he hated jazz) and rejecting the secular government in Egypt that resulted from the overthrow of the monarchy (which he approved) by Nasser, who later executed him as a terrorist-- although he had only advocated it not engaged in it personally.

Qutb's faction of the Brotherhood advocates offensive jihad, violence, and eventual world conquest by militant Islam and the universal imposition of Sharia law. World conquest has never worked out for those who advocate it and Qutb's version of radical Islam, which was very influential in the ideology of bin Ladin and al-Queda, is a minority viewpoint within the Sunni branch of Islam where it originated (although past and current US policy in the Middle East is making it more popular day by day.)

Despite its rejection by the majority of Muslims it is almost the only version of Islam
that the American public is exposed to from the preachings of right wing fundamentalists calling themselves "Christians", the screechings of talking lunkheads on Fox TV, to the frothy mixture of political opportunism and misinformation bandied about by Rick Santorum and other Republican presidential wannabes.

Over in Tunisia, Ghannouchi and his followers did not adopt Qutb's extremism and instead argued for an Islam compatible with pluralism and democratic values (a move away from fascism). This did not stop their falling victims to political oppression and in some cases imprisonment, torture and exile. In the late 1980s Ferjani found himself in jail, tortured, and finally forced to flee into exile in London.

London in the 1990s was a hot bed of Islamic thought. Ghannouchi followed Ferjani and there were Muslim exiles from all the Arab countries and of all stripes and Islamic positions. There was also exposure to Western values and ideas. Here was no Chinese wall between western and eastern ideals. Ferjani told Shadid that while all the different exiles were mixing it up they did not all agree. "We know each other. But knowing is one thing, doing things together in every sense--- as many may think--- is another. In politics, its not that we all agree." The moral here, I think, is that any attempt to paint political Islam with broad strokes as some kind of monolithic movement threatening the West at every turn, is a gross error.

The NYT report makes an important point, often overlooked by other Western media and especially by conservatives in the US-- including the Republican party leaders whose grip on reality is questionable to say the least. The idea of a unified and radically violent political Islam grew out of three sources in the 90s and early 2000s. These were the revolt in Egypt by radical islamists, the civil war in Algeria, and the rise of Bin Laden. And, the Times points out, Bin Laden's distorted "Manichaean" world view was the mirror image of "the most vitriolic statements of the Bush administration."

To place al-Queda and the Bush administration on the same level of ideological putrescence took a lot of courage. This should tell us what is at stake in the 2012 elections. The Republican Party is the standard bearer of Bush's ideological putrescence and lack of understanding of the world as it really is. For this crypto-fascistic party to take control of the US would be a disaster for the American people and the world taking us down the road to more wars and inviting the growth of radical anti-Western sentiments at the expense of more moderate outlooks. It would be especially disastrous to working people here and abroad whose class interests would be sacrificed for the illusory well being of what has come to be called the 1%.

This article also makes the case for a real moderate Islamic political trend such as the one now heading the governing alliance in Tunisia and led by Ghannouchi who favors democracy and maintains that majority rule is not anti-Islamic as the radicals claim. He also wants more participation by women in the political process and in the Parliament-- a very different position from what we see in Saudi Arabia and the Taliban (although the King in S.A. has recently allowed women to participate in municipal elections; but no car driving). "Frankly," Ferjani told the NYT, "the guy who brought democracy into the Islamic movement is Ghannouchi." As for resorting to violence, Ghannouchi has publicly said that "Rulers benefit from violence more than their opponents do."

Ghannouchi, and many others, have evolved away from the rigid stances of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood itself has undergone changes and while many of its positions such as the subordination and separate education of women, since their natures are unlike those of men (this is a little analogous to the Southern Baptist position on women but the Baptists allow for co-education), are unacceptable to progressives, and it now says it is against violence and supports political democracy. However, the Brotherhood is an international multi-tendency organization and still has many militant radical fundamentalists within some of its chapters.

The Brotherhood's old motto, still in use, "hearing and obeying" is increasing being rejected by the new generation of Islamists. "That's over," Tariq Ramadan said (best remembered by Americans as the Islamic scholar barred from visiting the US by the second Bush administration and thus prevented from teaching at that hot bed of radical Islamic thinking Notre Dame University). "The new generation is saying if it's going to be this, then we're leaving. You have a new understanding and a new energy." Ramadan pointed out that this has a lot to do with the contact of the Islamic exiles with Western thought and ideals. The ideology of Islamists is "not just coming from the Middle East anymore. It's coming from North African countries and from the West. These are new visions and there are new ways of understanding. Now they are bringing these thoughts back to the Middle East." Ferjani, for example, who left Tunisia an anti-Leftist, returned from London a believer in the economic theories of Karl Marx and a critic of capitalism; views not usually associated with Islamic politics. "Exile," he remarked, "changed me a lot, profoundly."

Well, we shall see what the results of the Constituent Assembly are with respect to writing a new constitution for Tunisia. The October election won by Ennahna allows this party to have a major influence now in running the country and in composing the constitution. It is actually ruling in a coalition with two other parties, a center left secular party and a "populist" party set up by a wealthy businessman with alleged ties to the ousted president Ben Ali. Of the 217 people elected three are members of the Tunisian Communist Workers Party so Marxism will be represented in a small way at least. If a real democratic constitution is drawn up it should put to rest the anti-Islamic hysteria in Europe and the US. Time will tell.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Behind the Scenes: The Secret NATO Report on Afghanistan

Thomas Riggins

The secret NATO report, "State of the Taliban 2012," commissioned by the US and NATO was never supposed to see the light of day. Unfortunately for the US war party it was leaked to the press and the New York Times has published many of its observations and conclusions ("Taliban Captives Dispute U.S. View on State of War" 2-2-2012).

The report was based on information taken from 4000 prisoners, Taliban and others, that have fallen into the hands of US forces. To the surprise of the US the prisoners are rather upbeat about the progress of the war and think they are actually winning it. The report says that while the US thinks it is winning and is about to start winding down its own participation the interviews of the captives shows, according to the NYT, "a Taliban insurgency that is far from vanquished or demoralized." The same issue of the Times reported the optimistic statement of Defense Secretary Panetta that the US would set 2013 not 2014 as the date for ending US combat in Afghanistan. This was later corrected by the ground commanders in Afghanistan-- 2014 is the date-- and we may still remain after that date for a long, long time. They wish.

The report says the prisoners state that in those areas where the US forces withdraw and turn over control to the Afghan Army, that army begins to cooperate with the Taliban-- as do the local Afghan government officials. "Many Afghans are already bracing themselves for an eventual return of the Taliban." The report also says that while the Afghan government says it will carry on the war after the US withdraws "many of its personnel have secretly reached out to insurgents, seeking long-term options in the event of a possible Taliban victory." Well of course, all options should be kept on the table.

The report gives the impression that the war is lost and the government can't deal with this reality. Lt. Col. Jimmie E. Cummings a US-NATO spokesperson had this to say about the information gotten from the prisoners. "This document aggregates the comments of Taliban detainees in a captive environment without considering the validity of or motivation behind their reflections. Any conclusions drawn from this would be questionable at best."

Wait a minute. We captured these people and interrogated them to get information about the enemy. We don't like the information we get so then say due to a "captive environment" the conclusions are "questionable." But all interrogations of prisoners take place in a "captive environment" and are therefore "questionable." So why bother? It appears that if the government likes the information it gets it's credible otherwise it's "questionable." This is completely intellectually dishonest and we should not believe a word we are told by the military unless we have independent third person verification.

What could be more comical than NATO spokespersons attempting to refute their own report once it became public. The State Department has also gotten into the act. The report mentions the fact that the Taliban has strained relations with their "Pakistani patrons." But Pakistan is supposed to be a US "ally." How foolish does the US look when the money it lavishes on the Pakistanis is redirected to the Taliban and used to kill US troops. How can you even dream of winning a war when you are all tied up in these contradictory circumstances? The State Department realizes how bad this looks and also played down the significance of the NATO report, saying it was "in no way designed to impact our on going efforts to be back on track with Pakistan." Were we ever "on track" with Pakistan or just being used by the Pakistanis after they realized we didn't know what we were doing in Afghanistan?

For example, the Pakistani government, according to the report, "is thoroughly aware of Taliban activities and the whereabouts of all senior Taliban personnel." And, "There is a wide spread assumption that Pakistan will never allow the Taliban the chance to become independent of ISI [the CIA/FBI of Pakistan-the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate] control." Yes, lets get back on track-- the US is at "war" with the Taliban, the Taliban is controlled by Pakistan therefore….. draw your own conclusions.

An important conclusion of the report, that NATO and the US really don't want people to know about, is the following: "Taliban commanders, along with rank and file members, increasingly believe that their control of Afghanistan is inevitable. Though the Taliban suffered severely in 2011, its strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact."

Where does the funding come from? It comes from us! Money from the US to Pakistan goes to the Taliban. Trucks and weapons we give to the Afghan Army are sold off at bargain basement rates, or "donated", to the Taliban by corrupt elements in the Karzai government. The Taliban's strength is intact-- we are withdrawing. Their motivation is intact-- we just want to get out as soon as possible (sooner). Their tactical proficiency is intact, we are turning operations over to the Afghan Army many of whose troops would rather shoot us than the Taliban. Is it really too hard to see how all this is going to end? Oh, I forgot to add that besides the ISI, the report says the Afghan intelligence agency also supplies the Taliban with information about where American troops are located so that they can be attacked.

So there you have it. We are spending 2 billion dollars a week to support the war against the Taliban and both our "ally" Pakistan and the Afghan government we set up and are "defending" are on the side of the Taliban. General Petraeus retired just in time. If he runs the CIA as well as he did the war in Afghanistan the decline of US imperialism will be well underway.