In the city's Muslim neighborhoods, an Afghan reporter finds a few too many uncomfortable reminders of home
I still don't know who wanted me dead. I was sitting in my car one day last november, not far from my house in the northwest Pakistani city of Peshawar, when a group of strangers walked up. One of them pointed a pistol through my window. I remember he wore a turban and shalwar kameez—the tunic and baggy pants common in the area—and he had a long beard, dyed red with henna. He shot me in the chest, hand and arm, and then fled with his friends. Miraculously, none of the bullets hit any arteries or vital organs, and as soon as a doctor patched me up and I was strong enough to travel, I booked a flight to London. I planned to lie low for a while, to rest and seek further medical help for a bullet that was lodged in my arm. But more than that, I just wanted to be somewhere calm and safe, far from AK-toting gunmen, suicide bombers and the daily, random violence of Pakistan's borderlands.
London was a revelation—cold, clean and orderly—but my sense of relief didn't last long. In one of the city's many South Asian neighborhoods, I saw a tall young Afghan who reminded me of my would-be assassin, striding down the street like a bad dream. He too wore a shalwar kameez, and a big turban of white silk was wrapped loosely around his head. His beard was long, and his hair was shoulder length. Anyone dressed like that in Islamabad would be immediately picked up for questioning by the police. I had flown halfway across the world to get away from killers who resembled this young Londoner. I stared after him until he was gone from view.
But as days passed I spotted him again and again. He stood out even in a neighborhood full of Asians dressed in traditional garb—shalwar kameez, saris, abayas. Locals had a nickname for him: Talib Jan. It's a friendly Afghan slang term for a Taliban member, something like GI Joe for Americans. The area's crowded, rundown row houses had become home to hundreds of Afghans who first arrived in England as fugitives from the Taliban's intolerance and brutality. Nevertheless, most of Jan's neighbors spoke of him tolerantly or even approvingly.
In fact, during my three-month stay in England I met a surprising number of Muslims who shared Jan's fascination with the Taliban. The older generation, urbane and relatively well educated, had little love for the extremists. But among some younger men, frustrated and marginalized in British society, I discovered a fury that was depressingly familiar. I met many immigrants who were blatant, vocal and unquestioning in their support for what they imagined to be "jihad." Few seemed troubled by the brutality that characterized Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar's reign, or by his banning of music or girls' education. Indeed, many looked back on Omar's rule as a kind of Islamic utopia, and they eagerly snapped up the Islamist leaflets handed out after Friday prayers at various mosques around town.
I first introduced myself to Jan at one of those mosques. I complimented his taste in clothes: that's how people dress back home in Afghanistan, I said. (I was born in northern Afghanistan; my family fled to Pakistan in 1979 to escape the Soviet invasion.) His fierce appearance to the contrary, Jan turned out to be friendly and outgoing. He listened with interest to my story, but mostly he talked about himself, his Islamist views, his fierce support for the Taliban and his contempt for the Brits and Americans fighting them.
His vehemence surprised me. Twenty-three years old, Jan had been born in eastern Afghanistan and attended a madrassa in Pakistan. The Taliban still ruled Afghanistan when his parents paid a people smuggler to sneak Jan to England at 14. There he applied for and was granted political asylum, claiming that the Taliban had persecuted him and his family. Now he's a legal resident, yet openly cheers for his supposed oppressors to defeat troops from his adopted homeland in Afghanistan. The irony seems lost on him.
Jan is a terror to his neighbors. He prowls the streets as a one-man, self-appointed morality patrol. He castigates young Muslim couples he sees holding hands in public, and he badgers acquaintances for shaping their beards into what he disapprovingly calls a "French cut" that frames the mouth. His diatribes can be frightening. Several young men told me they were afraid Jan had friends who could create problems for them or their relatives in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Some feared they might be disowned if Jan got word to their families about their "immoral" living in London.
At a neighborhood restaurant one day I noticed that my waiter looked miserable. Khalil is a clean-shaven, broad-shouldered young Afghan who wears a gold ring in one earlobe. I asked why he was so unhappy, and he told me his story as he cleaned the table and took my order. He said he had been dumped a few days earlier by his girlfriend, a beautiful young Englishwoman. They were out walking when Talib Jan marched up and began denouncing Khalil, threatening to let his family back in Afghanistan know that their son was having a forbidden affair. The girl was frightened by Jan, but more than that, she was furious at Khalil for lying to her: he had told her he was Turkish. She told him they were through.
Now Khalil worries that same routine will be repeated with every girl he meets in London. He's convinced that Jan knows how to find his family in Afghanistan and can make big trouble for him there. "I wanted to marry that girl, but now I have no hope," he told me. "My family lives in the insecure countryside. If I go back and the Taliban know I have an English girlfriend, they will behead me." I asked if he thought Jan was an actual Taliban member. "No," Khalil answered. "He is not with the militias, but he is a big headache for every Afghan who knows him."
As far as I could tell, Jan is an armchair jihadist. I saw no sign that he had direct ties to the Taliban, or that anyone was paying him to proselytize. On the contrary, he works hard to support himself with business deals like buying and selling used cars. I often found him in a little store that sells mobile phones and watches at a London shopping plaza. A crowd of young, bearded men hangs out there: more armchair jihadists. The shop's 35-year-old owner, a Pakistani from Peshawar, loves to show them the latest Taliban videos on his mobile phone, featuring beheadings of alleged anti-Taliban "spies" and ambushes of U.S. forces. When asked if he worried that British authorities might discover his collection of videos, he told me: "If our Taliban brothers can stand up to B-52 bombing and modern U.S. war technology, it would be cowardly of me to be afraid to watch and share their heroic actions."
Brave words, I thought, but still the shopkeeper disturbed me. He was relatively well educated and a former banker, but made no secret of his Islamist leanings. Giving change, he avoids touching a woman's hand. He also tells a chilling tale—maybe true, maybe not—of his days as a radical religious student in Peshawar in the mid-1990s. He claims that he and a group of friends murdered several prostitutes there in what he called a "moral cleansing drive." He warned me against speaking against the Taliban even in London: people's loved ones at home could get hurt, he said darkly.
Jan, too, is always glad to pull out his Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone and share streaming videos of Taliban training camps and Coalition convoys hitting IEDs. He even has Taliban ring tones—fire-and-brimstone sermons and Qur'anic recitals from jihadist mullahs. If you want copies, he'll transfer them to your phone or point you to the right Web site. "I'm winning converts to a holy cause every day," he says. As for the cops, Jan says he's careful to break no laws and claims he's never had problems with the police. They seem to regard him as a deeply religious man, he says, or at least as a harmless eccentric.
In fact, Jan embodies a powerful need among many young Muslims in Britain to preserve a sense of identity in a strange land. One 50-year-old engineer told me he worries constantly about his four children, especially his two sons, ages 19 and 20. He says they seem addicted to Internet porn, but what scares him even more is the amount of time they spend on jihadist Web sites. He worries as well about extremist operatives who hang out at local mosques trying to recruit young people to the Taliban cause.
Extremism's appeal is especially strong for immigrants fed up with hard times and bigotry. In economically depressed Birmingham I met an unemployed man from Kandahar. He said he had just lost his job and feared he wouldn't be able to feed his family. "If I get hit by a car or bus one day crossing the street, who will look after my family?" he asked. "It would be better for me to go and fight and die with the Taliban. Then at least I could see paradise." One 35-year-old British Muslim told me he's infuriated by widespread discrimination. An office worker, he says he hasn't had a promotion in 10 years. The reason, he believes, is that he's an ardent Muslim who wears a long beard and never joins his coworkers at the local pub. "This kind of behavior is what makes Muslims extremist," he said. Jan himself says most Britons look on him with "love and kindness," but others occasionally stare at him with "hate" and won't sit next to him on the train. Their hearts, he says, "are black and full of enmity toward Muslims."
Most of these young men, even Jan, would probably never give up their lives in Britain to join the jihad in Afghanistan. But something of that far-off fight, some tinge of blood and chaos and hatred, has certainly seeped into London's streets. Alokozai, 27, arrived in London a year ago after an arduous trip via the Afghans' underground railway. He used to be an interpreter/fixer for British troops in Kandahar. The pay was excellent by Afghan standards—some $1,600 a month—but then the death threats began. His family's life would be worthless unless he left his job, the anonymous letters warned. He quit as he was told; in Britain he applied for political asylum, thinking he had finally escaped the Taliban's wrath.
Then the phone woke him one night at 3 a.m. "Death angels will soon clutch at your throat," an Afghan voice warned. "Remember, we have Islamic brothers in the U.K. Your family should not rest easy in Kandahar either." He says he could only listen to the voice, too scared to say anything.
Alokozai worries all the time now. Too many Afghans in London sympathize with the Taliban, he says. He thinks many recent asylum seekers, especially from southern Afghanistan, have ties to the Taliban and remain under the sway of extremist ideas. "They will create trouble for Britain in the near future," he predicts. But equally disturbing to him are the thoroughly assimilated Muslims who also treat him like a traitor to his religion. When they find out he worked for British forces in Afghanistan, they ask him, "How many houses did you bomb?" and "How many innocents did you kill?" "These people are as narrow-minded and have as much hate in their eyes as the Taliban do in Afghanistan," he says. "I cannot understand how these Afghans and Pakistanis can wear Western clothes, dance and drink, and then condemn me and see the Taliban as their heroes."
Neither can I. As I was riding the train one day, Owais, a 27-year-old Pakistani from Kashmir, began praising the Taliban and talking seriously of going to live in Afghanistan after Mullah Omar returned to power. "My fervent wish is that next winter we may be able to breathe freely in the restored Islamic state of Afghanistan," he declared in Urdu. Here you can breathe freely too, I told him. "No, only in a true Islamic state can we be free," replied his friend Ishaq. A 25-year-old Afghan immigrant, Ishaq wore a long, white tunic over his blue jeans. "The West is destroying the spirit, soul and values of Islam. Muslims should avoid contact with and coming to the West." As I go home to my family, I too wonder and worry about such men. There is too much of Peshawar in them, and in London.
Blatant black racism finally checked
Attorney General Eric Holder calls the U.S. “a nation of cowards” because we “do not talk enough about race.” I find this ironic, since the Justice Department seems embarrassed about a recent judgment in its favor by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. U.S. v. Ike Brown is a major Voting Rights Act case involving intentional race-based discrimination by local officials in Noxubee County, Miss.
When the Fifth Circuit issued its decision on February 27, there was complete silence from Justice. The department typically issues a press release after any significant litigation victory, and the Civil Rights Division trumpets every success. But not here. The silence from the nation’s leading news outlets was also deafening: Not a word was published about the case by the New York Times, the Washington Post, or any other major publication. Why? Because the offensive conduct at issue did not conveniently track with the Left’s view of race discrimination.
The Noxubee County case presents a deeply disturbing account of some of the most egregious racial discrimination the Justice Department has encountered in decades. In Noxubee, 80 percent of Democrats are black; 20 percent are white. (There are some Republicans as well, but the number is negligible.) The chairman of the Democratic party, Ike Brown, is black, and he, along with the Noxubee County Democratic Executive Committee, set about to effectively disenfranchise white voters.
The court decision shows that Brown had his own local version of Tammany Hall, and local election officials followed his orders. This included publishing in the local newspaper a list of 174 white Democratic voters whose eligibility he intended to challenge if they tried to vote in an upcoming election. According to the court, Brown compiled the list based on the individuals’ perceived lack of support for black candidates. One voter testified that she was so intimidated she didn’t vote. Another testified that she was so scared she felt she couldn’t approach the polls alone.
The court also found that Brown took measures to ensure that absentee ballots from black voters were automatically counted even if they didn’t comply with Mississippi law, while absentee ballots from white voters with the same deficiencies were challenged and not counted. He even reviewed many absentee ballots the night before an election, placing notes on them saying which should be counted and which should be rejected.
One victim, whose absentee ballot was basically stolen by the defendants and whose signature on the application and ballot envelope were obviously forged, was brought in a second time to testify after she was confronted by a member of the local Democratic party following her initial testimony. The witness was told that “we black people need to stick together” and was urged to testify that she “probably didn’t understand what [she was] being asked” during the first go-around.
The court also found that Brown recruited black individuals to run for office against white incumbents despite knowing that they didn’t meet residency requirements; refused to appoint whites as poll workers; and sent out Democratic party members to give unrequested “assistance” to black voters, marking their ballots for them and telling them how to vote. All of this was intended to dilute the voting strength of white voters and to achieve his goal, which he openly expressed — “that all of the county’s elected officials should be black.”
Even after the lawsuit was filed and Brown’s lawyers told the federal court that Brown wouldn’t interfere in any ongoing elections, he continued his pervasive racial discrimination. In fact, he told a federal observer that “I don’t care what the court says. I am still primarily responsible for running this election.” That’s exactly the kind of defiance that white officials engaged in during the 1960s, when the Voting Rights Act was first passed.
None of these voting abuses in Noxubee County surprised the career lawyers at the Bush administration’s Civil Rights Division when they filed suit against Brown and the Noxubee County Democratic Executive Committee in 2005. Brown’s exploits were legendary. In fact, he had issued an open letter to county voters years before, urging them to “Keep Hope Alive [and] Vote Black in ’95.” Yet the Clinton administration’s Civil Rights Division consistently refused to take action.
This is probably one of the worst cases of intentional voting discrimination that the Justice Department has prosecuted since the 1960s. But the lawsuit was filed only after a vicious internal fight in the Civil Rights Division. Left-wing career lawyers in the Voting Section made it abundantly clear that they didn’t want to use the Voting Rights Act to protect white voters, no matter how egregious the violations. The former Voting Section chief even deleted the recommendation to file suit from the memo sent up to the Bush political appointees running the division. Other partisan career lawyers refused to work on the case. One who went to Noxubee County as an observer admitted to another lawyer that if he had seen the same type of illegal behavior being committed against black voters, he would have been outraged. But he wanted nothing to do with a suit filed on behalf of white voters.
Fortunately, the honest trial attorneys on the case did their best to ensure that the division’s political leadership knew about Brown’s outrageous conduct, and litigation was ultimately approved. Thanks to their hard work, the court found that the defendants had “intentionally discriminated against the county’s white voters in violation of § 2 of the Voting Rights Act,” “engaged in improper, and in some instances fraudulent conduct,” and “committed blatant violations of state election laws . . . for the purpose of diluting white voting strength.” These trial attorneys endured significant criticism and abuse from their colleagues for their work on the case and probably jeopardized their career advancement.
If the races had been reversed, does anyone doubt this would have been front-page news? Or that Eric Holder would have been prominently quoted in a Justice Department press release calling attention to this outrageous discrimination? The Department of Justice should be proud of this victory. If Attorney General Holder is serious about talking about race, perhaps he could start with this case.
New York's art world meets Cuba's communism
At the heart and soul of being an artist is freedom of expression. So how to explain all those upscale American artists, gallery owners, critics, and buyers, who are having a jolly good time at an art festival underway in Havana? How, in short, can these sophisticated folks reconcile the fact that artistic freedom does not exist in Cuba so long as Cubans do not enjoy the kinds of freedoms that Americans take for granted?
Well, don't look for an answer in a lengthy and upbeat article about the festival in the "Art and Design" section of the New York Times. The 10th biannual festival, as the Times cheerfully notes, is now in full swing after opening last Friday in Havana. And among the 300 artists on hand from 54 countries is "the biggest exhibition by American art galleries in Cuba since the 1959 revolution."
All in all, 30 American artists are having their wares presented in an exhibition called "Chelsea Visits Havana," put on by Megan Projects Gallery, located in Manhattan's trendy Chelsea section -- a hotbed for the city's trendy art scene. "The hope is that this will be a first step toward normalizing U.S.-Cuban relations," gallery owner Alberto Magnan, a Cuba-American, tells the Times. "Chelsea Visits Havana" includes works from more than two dozen trendy American art galleries.
As to the festival's theme, it's appropriate for one held in the hemisphere's last bastion of communism: "Integration and Resistance in the Global Age." Of course, there's apparently nothing in the exhibit about resistance to Cuba's communist government , which owns nearly all of the island's property and businesses and tolerates no serious non-violent dissent. In a brief paragraph, author Ian Urbina only hints at Cuba's repression, noting that a Cuban skate boarder whom he interviewed didn't want to be named. He was afraid he'd be "pegged as a dissident," Urbina explained.
While Urbana steers clear of criticizing Cuba's government, he does take some jabs at former President George Bush's administration, nothing it had denied many Cuban artists travel visas so that they could sell their work in the U.S. He writes:
Before the Bush administration stopped giving visas, many of Cuba's top artists spent months at a time in the United States or Europe. They stayed linked to the island partly because collectors are typically more interested in works produced by Cuban-based -- not immigrant -- artists. Now, with a new administration in Washington, many in the art world say they believe that there will be a loosening on restrictions, and that the Cuban art market will benefit.Of course, there's another side to this. Those who do well in Cuba, those who make a good U.S.-style living (including artists), are those who play along with the communist charade to one extent or another.
All in all, the Times article ("Havana Biennial, in Which Chelsea Takes a Field Trip to Cuba") is an interesting commentary on America's sophisticated art world: collectors and galleries are more interested in the work of artists based in Cuba -- as opposed to those of Cuban expatriates who are free to express their creative impulses!
What explains the cognitive dissonance of all these sophisticated American artists, buyers, and collectors who are frolicking under the watchful eye of Cuba's secret police? Sarah Thornton, an art historian and sociologist, provides something of an answer in her book, "Seven Days in the Art World." As Publishers Weekly notes:
The hot, hip contemporary art world, argues sociologist Thornton, is a cluster of intermingling subcultures unified by the belief, whether genuine or feigned, that nothing is more important than the art itself. It is a conviction, she asserts, that has transformed contemporary art into a kind of alternative religion for atheists.No wonder, then, that America's trendiest artist find it so easy to overlook and apologize for the regime that's providing them such a rollicking good time in Havana.
Bishops running amok
Pronouncing on matters outside their field of expertise is not confined to scientists. Comment below from Australia
There used to be a time when lefties regarded the church in all its forms as an enemy of freedom. In some of the bigger civil upheavals of the past century, Spain in the 1930s, France and Mexico in the late '60s, left-wing activists went so far as to physically attack the clergy. Today, the Left is more at risk of being rendered obsolete by the churches, which conspired this week to ensure that as the Group of 20 summit got under way in London, God should crash the party.
The God we saw in London this week was a much more supreme version of the supreme being most of us know. Not the kindly old white-bearded guy but an activist and thinker, a can-do, Keynesian God who believes that governments must play an interventionist role in the event of market failure. A God who regards climate change as the greatest moral challenge facing our generation, to quote St Kevin of Nambour, and wants us all to sign up to an emissions trading scheme.
Ahead of the G20 meeting most people would have assumed that the biggest lunatics would be the ones out on the street trying to set fire to Burger King, Laura Ashley and other examples of capitalism at its most sinister. But the anarcho-syndicalists and deep ecologists were out-weirded hands-down by the clergy.
In welcoming our Prime Minister to St Paul's Cathedral, Bishop of London Richard Chartres added a new ritual to the liturgy: not the jangling of the incense but the blowing of smoke up the arse. "It would not be too strong to say the election of Kevin Rudd constituted something of an Obama moment for that country," he said.
It's hard to fathom how the vicar drew such a parallel, although it should be remembered that this is the same bloke who wrote in The Times about the liberating powers of being retrenched and how "getting off the treadmill" can be good for the soul.
In fairness, it may have been the similarities between Rudd and Barack Obama's victory speeches that confused him. You'd remember Rudd saying: "We have put before the Australian people a plan, it's our agenda for work, and you know something? Everything I have said through this election campaign and in the year leading up to it is our agenda for work", in much the same way that Obama said: "Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope."
The Bishop of London was just the warm-up act. The star of the show was our very own George Browning, the former bishop of Canberra and Goulburn, who tastefully decided that a service in memory of the 173 people who died in the Victorian bushfires was the ideal spot for a free lecture on climate change. "We dare not contemplate a future without learning the lessons this experience has taught us," he said.
Browning didn't expand on the carbon footprint caused by the mileage of his Canberra-Sydney-Singapore-London-Singapore-Sydney-Canberra homily, as he was too busy making mileage out of our greatest natural disaster. It was audacity in the highest to deign to speak for the families of the dead, many of whom would not blame the disaster on climate change at all. Some of them might argue that it was more the result of staunch climate change adherents in local government who prevented land and home owners from cutting down trees.
Taste aside, the more fundamental point is whether a clergyman who makes a living talking fantasy has any standing to hold forth on the most complicated scientific question of our time. During the past year that great empiricist George Pell, the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, has written several columns saying he's yet to be convinced by the science on climate change. Now we have the likes of Browning at the other end of the spectrum. Both men also believe that it's possible to come back from the dead.
Maybe I should get the Bible out and have another flick-through, but I'm struggling to remember the passage about climate change, either for or against, unless it's referred to obliquely in Revelation along with that stuff about the seven-horned beast that will arrive shortly before The Rapture. I can't recall the section on financial regulation or monetary policy either, a problem not shared by the 32-member delegation of vicars, mullahs, rabbis and other holy men whose G20 communique just may solve the global financial crisis.
It went beyond the generic and vaguely admirable anti-greed stuff that underpins allreligions and instead offered precise suggestions to "restore that lost sense of balance between the requirements of market mechanisms that help deliver increased prosperity and the moral equivalent to safeguard human dignity". Sounds like God's backing the bailout, then. Maybe Kev sent him a $900 cheque, too; if dead people and prisoners got them, there's no reason deities should miss out.
A day ahead of the communique, the Pope upped the ante by urging Gordon Brown to embrace an ethical financial system and to ensure that developed nations did not wind back on their aid budgets as a proportion of gross domestic product, "especially for Africa and for less developed countries elsewhere". It was the Pope's first bit of assistance to Africa since his helpful observation to its vastly uneducated, highly religious poor last month that condoms only make AIDS worse, a bit like the old Methodist warning that sex should be avoided as it can lead to dancing.
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
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