Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The greatest dangers to Jordanians

Al Ghad today has two interesting health related stories. The first involves a study on obesity in Jordan, claiming that 73% of adult Jordanians are overweight, and 46% have high blood cholesterol levels. By comparison, US levels obesity levels are around 65%. The researchers attribute these numbers to low levels of physical activity, as studies show that 50% of Jordanians don't exercise. The data in the article is somewhat contradictory, saying the rate of incidence of diabetes is 13%, and refering to a 1996 study which says that incidence rate for this disease was 76%. Have we conquered diabetes, or is there a problem with the sampling? Anyway, it is well known that obesity is closely related to cardiovascular disease as well as other nasty conditions.

The second story is about how the government is forcing cigarette companies to put a picture of diseased lungs on packs of cigarettes. The cigarette companies are complaining, saying that this might lower sales. Duh. I think that's the idea. Anyway, there is interesting data on the prevalence of smoking. In Jordan 50% of adult males and 18% of adult females smoke, as well as an alarming 21% in the 13 to 15 year old age group.

A study published last year (based on 2003 data) shows that 38% of deaths in Jordan can be attributed to heart disease, 14% to cancer and 11% to accidents. The King Hussein Cancer Center has data showing that lung cancer is the most prevalent type among males, with breast cancer being the most prevalent among females.

So, while Jordanians seem to have irrational fears about earthquakes, bird flu and nuclear leaks, they also seem to have irrational ambivalence towards the real dangers that affect their health, doing little to live healthier lives, exercise, fight first and second hand smoke and treat the roads with the reverence they deserve.

Are you still sitting there? Go for a walk, and stay on the sidewalk if you can.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Radiation threats and credibility

A couple of days ago, the government and the parliament agreed to set up an independent committee to look into whether iron imported from Ukraine contained high levels of radiation, as some reports have suggested.

The interesting thing about this is that testing for radiation is as simple as passing a Geiger counter over the suspected material. Why is an independent committee needed for such a simple task? Clearly, the agency with the Geiger counters (the Jordan Nuclear Energy Commission) has a credibility problem, not just with the public, but with the deputies and possibly with the government.

This is not the first such case where the credibility of the JNEC has been questioned. A couple of years ago, statements by the Israeli whistle blower, Mordachai Vanunu, led to a similar call for an IAEA inquiry into whether the Dimona facility is causing increased radiation levels in the south of the country. At the time, the assurances of the JNEC were not heeded, and an international team eventually reported that there was no increased radiation that could be attributed to Dimona.

It is hard to say specifically why nobody trusts the JNEC. One answer might relate to how it responded to the Dimona question. In effect, Vanunu made two important statements relating to Jordan. The JNEC focused on the speculation that radiation might have been released from the reactor, and thus might have affected the Jordanian population. This speculation was untrue. The second statement was that Jordan should take measures to distribute iodine tablets to regions adjacent to the reactor, because the aging facility is susceptible to leaking, and contingencies are always good to have. Until now, as far as I know, the government has done nothing to mitigate the effects of a radiation leak in case it happens. Israel has distributed the iodine pills to residents who might be affected in the area, so it is not clear why Jordan is so timid about the issue.

Now, I realize that the JNEC is a technical agency which provides data to the politicians. It was (and is) the government that doesn't want to make too much of a fuss about the issue for political considerations. However, the JNEC lent itself to the political agenda of the government by overstating Vanunu's first suggestion and ignoring the second. Once a technical agency shows willingness to subjugate its statements to political expediency, it loses its credibility. This is one problem.

The second problem relates to releasing information. Any technical agency that wishes to inspire confidence should be generous with data. The JNEC doesn't even have a web site. To inspire some level of trust, information about the type of equipment, and their distribution as well as sampling protocols followed should be made available to the public, as well as at least a sample of data collected. In this report, written prior to the establishment of the latest committee, the following sentence is prominent "For his part, the JNEC director, Dr. Ziad Al Qudah refused to give any information about the examination procedures that the commission will take (to test the iron)". Of course, this is not something that inspires confidence.

Friday, February 24, 2006

The great 50 million dinar give-away

As I wrote before, the government is thinking of ways to help low income families who will be hurt by rising fuel prices. Today all four major dailies tell us that the government is planning to spend 50 to 60 million dinars a year to do this. Two formulas are reported. Al Ghad and Al Dustour report (quoting deputy Mohammad Arslan) that the government will give payments to any individual who makes less than 1000 dinars per year, whereas Al Arab Al Yawm says that the government will pay 130 dinars to every individual who's family income is less than 1000 dinars a year. Al Rai says that the payments will be for families who's annual income is less than 4800 dinars a year.

My hunch is that the Al Rai report is closest to government thinking, since all the other proposals reward larger families over smaller ones. I would be surprised if the government is going to give based on family size, especially if they start talking about age cut offs (does a new-born baby count?).

According to the Department of Statistics census of 2002-2003, about 21000 households with 84000 family members have incomes of less than 1200 dinars a year. Dividing 50 million over 84000 yields almost 600 dinars a year, not 130 as reported by Al Arab Al Yawm. I have trouble picturing the government handing over 6000 dinars a year to a family of 10, so I will set aside this scenario.

The DOS numbers show that about half a million households with 3.3 million family members make less than 4800 dinars a year. Dividing 50 million over half a million households yields 100 dinars a year per household. Bumping the number to 10 dinars a month will cost 60 million. Al Rai further says that these payments will be made for one or two years before ending.

Thus, it is clear that the amount of money each family will receive will be modest, and of little real help, especially given that the payments will be temporary. Moreover, it is useful to remember that many people underreport their income for tax purposes. This scheme will give people even more incentive for tax evasion.

As I wrote before, such a scheme will not be particularly helpful for lower income families. It is just a temporary sedative which will be subject to ridicule and abuse. I hope that the government would set aside more money for strengthening services that people need. This is why taxes are collected in the first place.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Disi project again

Last December, the government decided that it would go ahead and build the Disi conveyance system itself, after failing to attract investors to built and operate it under the BOT (build, operate and transfer) model. Previously, it had taken a decision to establish public holding company to do the investment, and before that it had contracted to Armed Forces Investment fund to do the work.

A couple of days ago, the government changed its mind again. According to the press reports, a new tender will be floated to attract an investor to do it according to the BOT model. It is not obvious that they will get any offer that is superior to what was offered to them three years ago, although the Al Rai report suggests that some new investors are interested.

Call me cynical, but I don't buy it. The bottom line is that the project doesn't make economic or environmental sense. This hesitation as to what "model" to use is simply a thin cover for the fact that the government doesn't have the heart to tell people that it doesn't want to do it. The project has broad support from the public and from politicians, so the government is buying more time by going again into the cycle of tenders, bids, studies and negotiations. It will be another year before they have to make another decision, maybe longer if they can stretch out the negotiations.

Now, it is not unheard of for governments to build projects that are economically unfeasible but have social benefits. Estimates of the building costs are around the 600 million dollar mark. However, a thin budget for capital investments means that the government simply is paying its running costs, with no extra money to fund a project like this. The minister of water and irrigation says that his ministry has the staff and expertise needed to do it themselves. I am sure that is true, but it does us little good.

The structural problem is that the water is too far away. A conveyance system to Aqaba was built because it made sense, without much fan fare. I don't see why it is important to encourage the growth of Amman. A fresh look at the issue might lead to the conclusion that the water might be better used to foster economic growth in the south of the country, which needs the water more desperately than Amman does.


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The chicken crisis

The worldwide Avian Flu panic has hit Jordanian poultry farmers hard. Consumption of eggs and chicken has plummeted, along with the prices of these commodities, and some farmers are close to going out of business. The Jordanian Veterinarians Association blames the government, implying that it's high profile attempts to stop the disease are panicking customers.

I hate to see entrepreneurs in Jordan getting hurt like this. People are indeed panicking, and official assurances have little effect in convincing people that Jordan is free of bird flu. Al Ghad cites a crisis of confidence between consumers and the government on this and many other issues. This is like the government trying to convince people that there was no earthquake eminent last September.

In my humble opinion, people who don't fully understand the reason for the panic should visit a place where most Jordanians buy their chicken. These are small stores called nattafat (from the colloquial verb nataf, meaning plucked). In these pluckeries, if you like, live chickens are kept in cages piled up to near the ceiling. After the customer chooses his chicken, the unsanitary looking worker pulls the bird out of the cage, and slits its neck, putting it out of its misery. A large vat of hot water is available, where the carcass is dunked for a couple of minutes, to loosen the feathers. At the end of the day, the water is thrown out. The chicken is then put in a centrifugical device which does the natif. The remaining feathers are removed manually, and the chicken is degutted and cut up on a dirty old stone slab. The nattafeh is a small store, where the entire set up described is in a space of 4x4 meters. It stinks terribly. I always wondered how people could eat chicken bought in this way, and I prefer to buy more expensive chicken slaughtered out of my sight. This way I can at least pretend that the thing is clean.

Anyway, when I read about the issue of Avian flu on the WHO website I found this:

Exposure is considered most likely during slaughter, defeathering, butchering, and preparation of poultry for cooking.

Apparently, Jordanian officials are aware of this. So, the poor soul in the nattafeh is the most likely victim, and the house wife, rather than the consumer. Is the government doing anything for them? No. Measures that are being implemented include closing down bird markets (which are different from the nattafat), closing down a bird zoo, and attempting to monopolize the flow of information. This isn't necessarily a way to enhance confidence.

Management of the issue has been poor since the beginning, with the government announcing that it would not compensate for birds lost due to the disease. I didn't think that was a good idea at the time. Now, the government is scaring people without doing anything to prevent the spread of the disease, except designing response scenarios. This is probably good enough, but doesn't solve the problem of the Jordanian families who are loosing their livelihood now. A good step would be to convince people that poultry is a hygienic product, and subject to strict health monitoring. The media is not a substitute for what people see with their own eyes.

By the way, I had a couple of fried eggs this morning. I enjoyed them very much. I encourage you to try some for breakfast.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Hamas' leaders and Jordan

The impending visit by Hamas leader to Jordan seems to be the subject of discussions in the region. Elaph reports that the Qataris are mediating to arrange the visit. The major stumbling block is Khaled Mesha'al, who was given the choice in 1999 between retaining his leadership role in Hamas and staying in Jordan. He chose the former. The government's argument then and now is that it is inappropriate for a Jordanian national to hold a leadership position in an outside organization or government. Other issues, as I noted before, were Hamas' interference in Jordanian security and politics.

A few days ago, another Hamas leader, Mohammad Nazzal, made the astonishing statement that Hamas does not recognize the disengagement decision of 1988, by which Jordan renounced claims to the West Bank and withdrew Jordanian citizenship from residents of the WB. Samih Ma'aitah discussed this in Al Ghad a couple of days ago. Because of his Islamist tendencies, Ma'aitah (probably driven by embarrassment) tried to portray the statement as an individual mistake driven by a selfish desire to retain Jordanian citizenship without understanding the broader consequences of this position. I find this hard to swallow, and I am waiting for other Hamas leaders to explain what their position is on this statement.

Saleh Gallab, a vocal opponent of Hamas interference in Jordan, took a less generous view of this statement, saying flatly that "It is clear from Nazzal's statement that there is a [Hamas] intention to use [the Palestinian election] victory to go back to it it's old habits, to interfere in Jordanian internal affairs, and renew it's previous attempts (a generous word) to control the MB and the IAF. All of this would be a huge affront to the warm relations between two brotherly peoples, the Palestinians and the Jordanians, and an attack on the national unity of Jordan" (it sounds better in Arabic).

I find it amusing that many people are optimistic that Hamas will eventually be able to cut a deal with Israel, while it seems hesitant to recognize Jordan's sovereignty. Jordan must deal with Hamas on the basis of preservation of Jordan's national interests. If this is not possible, so be it. As Abderaouf Rawabdeh said "We will not be intimidated in our position by a threat we remember, or coercion we were aware of, or allegations that forgo justice and truth".


Compensation for fuel rises

Rising fuel prices have been accepted by parliament as part of the 2006 budget. World oil prices have risen sharply over the last couple of years. Because the government fixes fuel prices in Jordan, it has had to shoulder the difference in cost between local and international prices.

In principle, the government has no business fixing the price of anything, including fuel. This situation is the result of a historic anomaly, when Arab countries (especially Iraq) used to give us oil free, and the government would sell it as a source of revenue (claiming even then that it was subsidized). Now nobody is giving us any oil for free, and the prices have risen, which means that the government is paying cash for oil imports. The cost to the budget is over a half a billion dinars per year.

So, raising the prices is a first step from the government to get out of pricing fuel, which is a good thing. The bad part is that it will cost businesses and individuals a lot more money for transportation and heating. Clearly, this will cause a lot of short term hardship, especially for low income families. How can this be alleviated?

Some ideas being suggested is distributing coupons for fuel and raising the salaries of employees. The idea is reminiscent of Abdulkarim Kabariti's promise to compensate for raising the price of bread in 1996. At the time, he promised "paying before raising", with the term ending up as a running joke because of its sexual implications. The government gave people coupons for a few dinars for about a year before stopping. I doubt that any coupon scheme would really be a long term endeavor. Ideas are to restrict these coupons to families with monthly incomes of less than 300 dinars, although there are no suggestions concerning the value of these coupons.

The idea to raise salaries is especially inappropriate. On a practical level, only government workers will benefit from such compensation. Why should only government workers be compensated? Furthermore, the government would do well to think about cutting its payroll rather than increasing it.

What should be done? I believe that we should see what government typically does to help poor people. This includes direct welfare payments to people who are already known to be poor. What about people who are not on welfare but have low incomes? A reasonable approach would be to alleviate their economic conditions through expanding the services that the government offers. This means spending more for better and more affordable public transportation, improving and expanding access to health care and subsidizing university education at public institutions. The last item is especially important, since higher education is becoming a heavy burden on poor families, and it is an investment in the future as well as in the present. 500 million dinars a year is a huge amount of money for a country like Jordan. If it becomes available for prudent spending, it could go a long way towards helping the low income families. This would be much more useful than some phony coupon scheme or something along those lines. I think only North Korea still uses coupons.

The worse part of all of this is that private businesses that actually produce things and employ people to do something useful will not be compensated. This may result is harming sectors that actually should be helped, as they represent the model for what we want businesses to do in Jordan.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The budget fiasco

Yesterday parliament passed the budget for 2006. It was how the budget was passed which was most embarrassing, rather than the passage itself. 34 MP's left the chamber during the voting in protest over the way the vote was conducted.

Actually two factors were cited in the protest, the second was that the members of the finance committee were voting against their own recommendations. As far as I can gather, this is what happened:

  1. The members of the finance committee voted for Abdallah Akaileh to be the chair over the objections of the supporters of Hashem Dabbas. Since Dabbas is a member of Abdulhadi Majjali's parliamentary block, new elections were held so that he could chair the committee.
  2. The committee made it's recommendations, which included a new tax on cell phone calls and on transactions in the stock market, as well as shaving money from some projects that the government wants to implement.
  3. The government was not happy with the recommendations, because some of the projects that were to be axed are already committed to (I don't know how the government committed to projects it doesn't yet have funding for), and it thought that the taxes would hurt the telecommunications industry and the stock market. I for one believe that since I have to pay taxes after working my butt off, then people who make money in the stock market should pay as well. In any case, what I think is beyond the point.
  4. The government lobbied Majjali and members of parliament (including members of the finance committee) to reject the proposed amendments, and renegotiated cuts to the tune of 56 million dinars.
  5. My guess is that Majjali wasn't sure that the votes were there to defeat the amendments that the government didn't like, so he engineered the voting in a way that would confuse the MP's. MP's complained that they didn't know what they were voting for.
  6. The 34 MP's walked out of the voting, and seven stayed to vote against, with about 68 voting for the budget as it passed. The exact numbers were not announced.
  7. The budget passed with cuts of three million dinars, rather than the 56 million negotiated with the finance committee.

So, after a week of boring speeches and rhetoric, the budget passed essentially unchanged. It seems to me that Majjali put his reputation on the line to get this done, and he will pay in some way in the future. Many IAF and other deputies strongly criticized him during the session. Abderaouf Rawabdeh made his opening comeback salvo yesterday. Read all about it in the Al Ghad article.

As I argued before, the budget discussion revolves over details and ignores fundamental problems related to the over staffing of the government. Thus, the finance committee suggested most of the cuts to be from capital expenditures rather than running costs. While this is expedient, it is bad management. What good is it to have a bunch of employees in the Ministry of Public Works, for example, who are paid salaries but don't have money to spend on building and maintaining roads? Thus, in principle I believe that cuts in capital expenditures are not prudent although they may be more expedient. Thus, since nobody is suggesting to cut the fat out of the bureaucracy, then this outcome is the second best alternative.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


Young enough to think he can make a difference
Old enough to know that he should probably know better.

Rich enough to afford the time
Poor enough to feel the need to get involved.

Optimistic enough to feel that killing a mosquito will make a difference
Realistic enough to know that it won't

He writes this blog to say what many people are thinking and saying, but don't bother to write down.

Maybe people think that much of it is so obvious, that it wouldn't add much to document.

I hope that it will help to understand what many people in Jordan feel inside, in case anybody cares.

(on the occasion of joining toot)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

More dishonesty from the left

Yesterday, Nahid Hattar wrote and amazing article titled "looking together for new horizons". In it, he outlines a view to deal with Hamas, which he says we should embrace. Why? Because Russia is talking to Hamas and the US doesn't want us to. Sounds reasonable. Moreover, he argues that the problem between Jordan and the PA was Fateh's relationship with Israel. I had to read that a couple of times to make sure that is what he said.

The dangerous part of the analysis comes at the end, where he sees the insistence of Hamas' leaders on retaining their Jordanian nationality as a willingness and desire to reunite with Jordan. Now this is where it gets scary. We should renounce both our peace agreements, reunite and demand for full Israeli withdrawal.

Now, I doubt that Palestinian voters elected Hamas so that the would come back to the Jordanian monarchy. So, under what conditions would Hamas want to reunite with Jordan (bypassing the question as to whether Jordanians want this)? Obviously, they wouldn't agree to playing a secondary role as the IAF does here. They would look to take over. So, basically Hattar is asking for a Hamas theocracy on both sides of the river, and we can live happily ever after.

I had trouble before understanding Hattar's leftist-East Jordanian world view. Now he has bastardized it even further demanding Hamas rule on the East Bank as well, so now I am totally confused. Of course, I have written before about the strange relationship between Jordanian Leftists and Islamists, and why nobody takes leftists seriously any more.

The bottom line is that leftist thought is fundamentally different from Islamist thought. A leftist shouldn't be simply a Christian Islamist. And if Christian leftists think that they will be able to ingratiate themselves with the Islamists by using cheap political stunts, they are sadly mistaken. They simply make disposable clowns out of themselves.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Hamas and Jordan: Take care

The victory of Hamas in the latest Palestinian legislative elections has brought up some awkward questions. In 1999, the government of then-prime minister Abderaouf Rawabdeh expelled four leaders of Hamas who were headquartered in Jordan. The stated rationale was that Hamas' presence gave the impression that Jordan was undermining the Palestinian Authority and the peace process. The entanglement of Hamas in the local politics and threats to the security of Jordan were probably important factors as well.

But things have changed now, and Hamas is an important component of the PA. Moreover, as I have argued before, it is Jordans interest to stabilize the situation in the Palestinian territories. This is why the king has strongly argued for continued funding of the PA and positive engagement with Hamas during his latest trip to the US. Whether Hamas and Israel will eventually be able to work out the illusive peace deal between themselves or not is still questionable, but even if not, it is still in our interest for Palestine to remain as peaceful and prosperous as is permissible by the circumstances.

In fact, the orientation of Hamas with regard to the peace process and regional conditions is a critical question. Will they work towards a peace deal (with a strident public posture, of course) or will they join the Iran-Syria-Hizbollah axis (or will they be pushed to this axis?). This is question that is difficult to answer, but has serious implications.

If Hamas opts to continue with the peace process, then Jordan and Egypt will try to work with them to create circumstances to make that happen. On the other hand, if it opts to join the Iran Syria axis, than one would expect this axis to develop a joint negotiating strategy. What is the strategy of Syria and Iran? Well, basically to create trouble in Iraq and in Lebanon as a way to project influence and hold leverage. How would Hamas fit in to this? The scary answer is that its role would be to create trouble in Jordan. This is not a far fetched scenario, and we should be aware that it is a possibility.

Interference of Hamas in Jordanian politics was a sore spot that eventually led to the clash and expulsion from Jordan. The links between the Moslem Brotherhood and Hamas are well known, and some even believe that they are fundamentally the same organization. Given the reach of the MB into Jordanian politics and society, this should be a question of extreme concern. This is especially true given the lack of a strong political counterbalance to the MB. This is probably why the government is bending over backward to out maneuver the Islamists on THE CARTOON issue.

Thus, now that there seems to be a rapprochement between Hamas and Jordan, it should be quite clear that Jordan will not tolerate any form of meddling in Jordanian security or in Jordanian politics.


Thursday, February 09, 2006

Budget debate

I wrote earlier about the house finance committee and the problems that arose on electing the chairman of the committee. Well, new elections were conducted so that Hashem Dabbas could be installed as the chair, over the objections of the deputy who had originally won. While it is the prerogative of the permanent committee of the house to do this, it was highly irregular.

Anyway, the finance committee did its job, making 23 recommendations to the full house. These recommendations include shaving 90 million dinars (3 % of the budget) off of money earmarked to fund NA projects. In return, the committee recommended increasing salaries for the public and private sector, and increasing taxes on cell phone calls. Other recommendations included restricting tenders to Jordanian contractors (who can't compete in cost, or else this recommendation wouldn't be necessary), moving forward with the Disi project, and reconsidering vocational training programs. Don't ask me what these recommendations have to do with the budget, because I don't know.

The budget is suffering from rising oil prices and a drop in foreign assistance. To compensate, the government want to cut subsidies and raise taxes. According to the finance minister, the rejection of the income tax law will not affect the 2006 budget.

In fact, collecting or saving a few tens of millions of dinars here or there really ignores the elephant in the room. 42% of the budget goes to pay an over inflated bureaucracy. The finance committee obliquely referred to this when it refers to "vertical and horizontal expansion of the government, and working to merge agencies with similar mandates in order to reach higher levels of achievement". Abderahim Malhas said it very well yesterday, saying that the creation of fake jobs and fake organizations is a form of influence buying, which is not needed and which we can't afford.

The only way to fix the budget it to reconsider the big ticket items that are eating away at our resources with nothing to show for them. These are subsidies for oil and our over inflated government. It is clear that the subsidies are going to be phased out. The government is too afraid to consider cutting its workforce. As Malhas says, this is because many of these employees are appointed to buy loyalty, and not because the government needs them. Even plans to restructure the government emphasize that no employee will be laid off, but some will be retrained and rehabilitated. Give me a break. If an employee is lazy and/or incompetent, fire him or her. Retraining is useful for good employees, not for bad ones. The NAC is eager to give this right to private sector employers. Why not give it to the government?

As it is, the lack of real accountability for government employees encourages laziness and complacency. Various governments over the years have pushed for more liberalization of the economy, including a wide ranging privatization program. They have failed to take it to the final step, which is to reduce the size of the government and reduce the tax burden, creating a leaner and meaner work force.

According to the same philosophy of liberalization, it is necessary to reduce taxes in order to stimulate the economy and create jobs. Trying to shift the tax burden to the poor and the middle class will simply not create the resources needed to keep the budget in a healthy state. The only answer is to cut deeply into the fat of government bureaucracy.

If you expect a discussion on these lines in parliament, I have one word for you. Ha.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

A slippery slope

Yesterday I wrote my feelings about the issue of THE CARTOONS. In the last paragraph, I hinted that the magnification of this issue is probably not coincidental, and various governments are using the feelings aroused (actually whipped into a frenzy) to achieve certain agendas. There are a number of indications that this is the case in Jordan.

Yesterday, Lina pointed out that MP's are feeding the demagoguery. They are leading the call to toughen laws on "insulting of prophets", asking for jail terms for up to three years for anybody who "Insults a prophet openly and whoever sends a written or electronic document or any drawing or representation in a way that demeans the prophets or ridicules them or downloads or reproduces any of the above". The government plans to go along (as if they are just innocent onlookers).

In the same article, the honorable MP's asked the government to "Reject the licensing of new religious (Christian) groups", which they claimed the government was being pressured to accept. I am not sure what this has to do with the cartoons, but there are other indications that many agendas are at play and that the cartoon issue is an appropriate cover. Don't ask me why the government needs to issue licenses for religions, because I don't know.

Within this atmosphere, Al Ghad tells us of a crackdown on internet centers in Irbid. The article says that the governor of Irbid met with the owners of the internet centers to "Prevent the use of unauthorized sites". The sites include "those that evoke sexual instincts, degrade religious feelings, or the system of government or encourage the use of illegal drugs".

This rush of censorship was precipitated by the publishing of THE CARTOONS by Shihan and Al Mihwar in Jordan. The editors were dragged to jail and charges are being dug up to teach them a lesson. What is interesting is that editor of Shihan, Jihad Momani, is an ex senator, and is known for being pro regime. The publication of THE CARTOONS by Shihan came at a most opportune time, I must say.

Of course, as this undemocratic rush continues, we can expect a lot of add-ons to proposed legislation that would involve wish lists of all those involved. After terrorist attacks in Amman killed more than 60 innocent victims in Amman, people were afraid that the government would use this to limit freedom of speech. What the terrorists couldn't do was achieved by some cartoons. Talk about sense of proportion.

Oh. You can forget about freedom square.


Monday, February 06, 2006

On symbolism

Well, I am back after giving my senses a break from the computer. Now I think I have given you enough of a break, so here it goes.

I am always amazed about how much people attach to symbolism. Of course, the latest eruption of Muslim anger over cartoon drawings of the Prophet Mohammad is not the only case. In the US, the issue of flag burning is a good example. People often burn the US flag in demonstrations. The issue has become so big that a constitutional amendment was proposed in order to ban the burning of the American flag. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed, although the issue highlighted the debate between free speech advocates and those who would ban "unacceptable" forms of expression, in a way which would contravene the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the first amendment of the US constitution.

Therefore, the issue of the preservation of the sanctity of symbols is not limited to Moslems or Arabs by any stretch of the imagination. Danes were offended by burning of their own flag.

What one should remember that attaching too much importance on symbols is inherently illogical. A flag, after all, is just a piece of cloth. Now, I would be offended by the burning of a Jordanian flag, and I would be the first to admit that this is basically illogical. I am willing to live with the fact that people, including myself, can be illogically attached to a low priced inanimate object or representation. However, having accepted one's own illogic, must be aware of this and place his or her reaction within the context of the entire framework of the situation, so that the response will be proportional to the offense and the context.

Attacking symbols is a way of eliciting visceral responses. It is certainly not a gateway to dialog, and does not contribute to civilized discussion of differences. Having said that, one should ask some questions that might a proper frame on the issue of what would be a reasonable response:

  1. Why were the cartoons published? It is important to answer this question, as this should guide the reaction. Was the purpose to offend Moslems, or defend free speech? It turns out that the same newspaper (Jyllands-Posten) refused to publish cartoons in the past that would be offensive to Christians. So, Even if one were to take the newspapers assertion that it is defending freedom of speech at face values, this freedom is only there to offend Moslems, and not Christians or Jews. So, according to the actions of Jyllands-Posten, the feelings of Moslems are less important than those of other religions. Therefore, Moslem anger at the newspaper is justified.
  2. Does the Danish government have the authority to ban or control the editorial content of the press in Denmark. The answer is no.
  3. Does the publication of these cartoons reflect a prevailing anti-Islamic attitude in Denmark? The demonstrations that political parties have organized in Denmark show that there is a variety of opinions, but important components in Danish society reject the purposed insulting of Moslems. It is interesting that the US administration is sympathetic with the Moslem protesters on this.
  4. The most important question now: What do we want? In any struggle, there should be clearly defined objectives in order to decide when to stop. The Egyptian ambassador in Denmark has said that Jyllands-Posten should apologize. This is a good objective, and the newspaper has issued an apology here. I am inclined to think that the civilized boycott of Danish goods was more instrumental in this than the mobs burning the Danish embassies in Beirut and Damascus.

Moving beyond the issue of the cartoons, one should think about how we want to deal with Denmark and Europe in general. In other words, after all is said and done, Denmark and other Scandinavian countries are generally friendly to Arab and Moslem causes. Would it be useful to make enemies out of them?

A final thought has to do with the reason this became such an issue. The cartoons were published last September. It is important to keep our eyes on the ball instead of letting our regimes (and the US administration) channel our frustration to issues like this instead of focusing on the real issues that face the Arab and Moslem world. The Jordanian government seems to have jumped at the chance to prove that heavy-handed restrictions on freedom of the press are justified. What is this issue going to cost us in the long run?