Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Iran - lessons in democracy

The streets of Tehran are quiet for the moment, not because the UN secretary general and US president Obama spoke openly in support of the Iranian people against the Iranian government, but because the Mousavi opposition realised that they were unable to back up those words with anything else.
Now, after the Iranian version of the Ukrainian orange revolution didn't succeed in bringing down a government that has long been an eye-sore to Israel, the United States and their followers, foremost Britain, it may be time for some comparisons.

First of all, if any administration can be said to be out of tune with public opinion, the US and UK must come amongst the first. Obama is still riding a wave of support, but only because his predecessor was so immensely unpopular. When actions won't follow his words, the honeymoon will soon be over. In the UK, during the recent local and European elections the party of the yet unelected British prime minister just about received 15% of the votes cast, with the turnout being around 35%, in other words, only just over 5% of those eligible to vote supported him. Hardly a strong position from which to lecture the world on democracy. In contrast, the turnout at Iran's presidential elections was around 80% and president Ahmedinejad secured 63% of the votes cast, so more than half the country supports him. I know, it's hard to believe, how can the Iranians support somebody we, the self-styled champions of democracy, don't like.

To put it all down to electoral fraud is ludicrous. Iran is not as advanced in pulling off the kind of scheme that saw George W. Bush junior elected against all the odds. They don't use electronic counting machines sponsored by the office holder. They still do a hand count, closely watched but numerous monitors. If the elections in Iran had been fraudulent, the figures would have been of the kind we regularly see from Egypt, that other "democratic" haven beloved by America. Instead, Iran has been very open about the results, and those published about Iranians casting their votes from abroad are most instructive. Whilst one would expect Iranians in Europe or Australia to vote for Mousavi, it comes as a surprise that he also carried the vote in such suspected Islamic strongholds as Islamabad, Quetta, Lahore or even Kabul. Even in Jerusalem Ahmedinejad, no matter how vociferously he champions the Palestinian cause, fared poorly amongst his compatriots. On the other hand, he has support in Saudi Arabia. No-one in their right mind, if tasked with engineering a result, could have come up with these figures. And the votes cast abroad would have been a lot easier to edit than those cast under the watchful eyes of monitors inside Iran.

The simple fact is that if Ahmedinejad only presided over a country made up of the capital Tehran and expatriate communities scattered around the world, he would have lost. But in Iran's hinterland he is immensely popular because, unlike Western prime ministers and presidents, he remains in touch with them and their aspirations. And like it or not, they are also deeply religious. It is true that the Iranian economy is doing just as badly as, let's say, the British. Inflation is rampant, because the Islamic reforms of the revolution never extended to the financial system and interest has never been abolished. The economy remains strongly in the hands of a few powerful family oligarchies, and there is a high level of corruption. But that corruption does not extend to the personage of the president who has an integrity that would make British MPs or the Italian prime minister Berlusconi blush in spite of their lack of shame generally. Ahmedinejad refuses to be caught by the trappings of high office, does not wear a suit nor live in a luxury home paid for by the tax payer. Nobody could accuse him of excesses of the kind which recently pushed British politics into a deep crisis.

The US and UK may not like Ahmedinejad and prefer Mousavi, but in doing so they cannot claim to speak for the Iranian people. Western governments have a long history of viewing the world through their tinted spectacles and committing severe blunders by failing to understand other cultures. They expected to be welcomed by Iraqis as liberators and thought the indiscriminate bombing of Pakistani villagers should create stability in the region. Shouldn't Obama be mourning those innocent lives lost before turning his attention to Iran? It is too early to prove whether US clandestine operations were behind the opposition protests in the first place, hoping to unseat the Iranian government after having lost the appetite for another war, although it is telling that the protesters always seem to have English placards to hand, as if they want to be seen by those outside rather than by their own people. Be that as it may, I still lay the blame for the heavy price Iranians paid in innocent lives during those unrests at the doorstep of Western governments and media for having hyped up the loser's hopes of getting the vote annulled.

One could now talk about the heavy-handed response of the Iranian security forces in dealing with what were not merely peaceful demonstrations but an attempt to bring down the elected government. Here, too, Western hypocrisy abounds. The death of "Neda" does the rounds of Youtube and Twitter because she was an innocent bystander caught up in the fray. But doesn't that equally apply to Ian Tomlinson whose death the Metropolitan police caused at the G20 summit? In response to that revelation British police arrested a dozen Pakistani students under pretended terrorist charges to divert attention. The charges were subsequently dropped, but the students told they would be deported anyway as a security risk, although they had done nothing wrong. I don't remember UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon offering similar advice to the British government as he did to the Iranians about use of force against civilians or a call for an immediate stop to politically motivated arrests.

What we have, in sum total, is another political blunder by Western governments and media, who by believing their own delusions and openly showing their cards and bias destroyed the goodwill extended to them by the Iranian government after Obama's election. I guess from here it's politics as usual.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Europe speaks Arabic

A book under this title by Dr. V. Abdur Rahim deserves wider circulation as a potential bridge-builder. The book's key achievement is to popularise the subject of the influence of the Arabic language in those of Europe for lay readers. It is in no way as detailed and comprehensive as the most thorough work on the subject so far, the doctoral thesis by T.A Ismail entitled "Classic Arabic as the Ancestor of Indo-European Languages and Origin of Speech" which, sadly, will be hard to find even in the best stocked library. In that book, Ismail compares Classical Arabic with Latin and Old English and tries to establish a sequential relationship. Rahim makes no such claim. He is content with showing that Arabic, due to the great influence of Islam throughout European history, left its indelible mark. The book, published by Goodword (ISBN 978-81-7898-639-5) does not attempt to ascribe any kind of superiority to Arabic. And whilst well researched, it is not aimed at the linguist. Its stated intention is and understanding of "our common cultural heritage". In his preface the author gives ample credit to European achievements by saying that "in many cases Arabic provided the name and the raw material, and Europe developed it into a highly sophisticated finished product". He also cites numerous examples where European words of Arabic origin re-entered the Arabic language with a new meaning, for example the French "bougie d'allumage" or spark plug, which traces its history to the city of Bijayah in Algeria, famous for the candle-wax it exported.
Europe speaks Arabic makes reference to English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian as well as German, Dutch, Danish and Swedish, plus Russian, Macedonian and Serbo-Croatian and Greek and Albanian. Of course, many English readers are aware that Arabic has given them words for stars, mathematics, exotic foodstuffs, such as coffee, and seafaring, such as admiral, but they would be well surprised in learning that that most English location of Trafalgar Square takes its name from the Arabic al-taraf al-agharr, or that the exchequer takes his name from the chequered cloth covering the table on which the accounts were reckoned, and that in turn via Arabic from the Persian Shah, the title of the king in chess. The word subsequently denoted a monetary instrument (check/cheque) and was re-imported with this meaning into the Arabic language.
Some of the book's quotes of Shakespearean and other old English writings in support of the lineage of a word are an absolute delight. My only criticism is the way the author chose to present his subject. The artificially contrived dialogue between Ahmad and Eric, the former teaching the latter about the Arabic origins of English terms, a form very popular in Arabic language school books, strikes me as most unsuitable for a European audience. A straight-forward running narrative would have served the purpose better.