I have seen tomorrow, and it looks like Kazakhstan

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Last week, I returned to Almaty for the first time in two years. It was a powerful experience, not because of anything new, but rather, because of things old: as a New Yorker, I feel natural in Almaty. This is a city I know, not in a concrete way — this or that street, these or those cliques, etc. — but in my bones. This is a city that I could have been born in. And that’s actually troubling.

As is well-known, Kazakhstan has been ruled by its Soviet-era president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, ever since its independence over twenty years ago. Nazarbayev is now approaching the end of his life; even if he were to live long enough to be a modern-day Rameses II, doubtlessly the extent to which he will be able to exert his will over the Kazakh state will soon begin to diminish. The question on everyone’s minds in Almaty is: what will come next?

The answer to the question depends on one’s political hermeneutics. Here’s my answer: the country will gradually, probably sooner rather than later, transition into a form of elite-driven presidential democracy, in which citizens will have the possibility (perhaps initially via plebiscite within the dominant Nur-Otan Party and then eventually through a two- or three-party system) of choosing as their president this or that member of the ruling class. The parliament may or may not gain more power, but whichever happens, for at least a generation or more to come, it will be under the careful tutelage of the office of the presidency (and if not directly, then indirectly).

The irony is, this system which Nazarbayev has engendered will greatly resemble, almost as though it were a satirical comment upon, the present system of the United States of America.

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The coming Global War on Hacking?

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I’ve got a suspicion that 2013 could very well go down as a fulcrum point in contemporary history, as well as in my own meager part in it. Julian Assange’s pinprick has now become Edward Snowden’s stab to the jugular vein, and meanwhile, I’ve had to provisionally decide how I’m going to steer the imminent deluge.

Here’s my thought process, and I’ll put it frankly to my audience: we should all be expecting in the near future the replacement of the GWOT (Global War on Terrorism) with the GWOH (Global War on Hacking). Consider: all it would take would be one massive power grid failure or some other similar immense infrastructural disruption, and then a logical but ultimately evidence-independent speculation (“we have reason to believe hackers were behind it”) to roll out new Patriot Act-like powers that effectively render criminal any technological attempt to maintain individual or collective privacy, much less to peer into the secrets of power.

The idea is not strictly-speaking mine. I heard it mumbled about in some quarters at the recent OHM2013 convention. However, other than an obscure comment to a 2011 editorial (copied in the post-script of this post), there’s nothing about in on the public web. So, let me spell it out a bit here, and then explain my own position, which I hope is moderate. And if not moderate, then at least independent…

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Looking through a prism darkly: citizen-spy epistemology

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So, this post is regarding the Prism program, and the phenomenon of mass-level metadata accumulation and pattern analysis that it represents. ProPublic has published an extremely useful timeline about how the United States intelligence community has developed to this point (such as we can know on the outside, given the high amount of top secret classification). Meanwhile, my colleague Joshua Foust (who has testified before Senate about over-classification and other problems in the intelligence industry — among other things, that it’s an industry), has published nine points about Prism that the public should think about. The most important are points #3, 7, and 8.

Joshua’s remarks border on the cynical, but nonetheless he is onto something. With respect to his last point, my job here is to explain about why this shouldn’t be a temporary outcry. And the explanatory methodology is simple (and I would say, spiritual). The consequences, however, are complex. (I) On the one hand, the citizen and the spy need to put themselves into each other’s shoes; and (II) on the other hand, the citizen needs to really understand what is being asked of him/her by the spy, but also why the spy shouldn’t be asking this of the citizen, either.

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The political-theological shadow of Maslow: “I have desired only what Thou didst desire”

Abaraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, often portrayed as a pyramid with the more basic material needs at the bottom, haunts much of the contemporary discourse in both religion and political science (and, perhaps, long before Maslow articulated it, the pyramid has been in the backs of everyone’s minds since time immemorial). In simplest terms, for the political, democracy and liberty can easily be undermined by a careful calculation of keeping the majority of society on the brink of physiological and psychological starvation. The religious almost seem to tacitly agree, as they counter-act by either outright denying the importance of the pyramid’s bottom tier (asceticism), sharply separating the apex from the lower tiers (“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”), or asserting the apex’s dictatorship over the lower tiers (fundamentalism, theocracy). However, Maslow’s shadow is much more intricate and dark.

My friend Maarten, a student and aspiring activist in peace and conflict studies, and I share what could be called a Maslowian obsession, mine religious, his political: the relationship, and often conflict, between body and soul, this world and the next, or put another way, resources and rights, stability and liberty. At root, it is really about, both individually or collectively, the clash of desires, heteronomy’s limits upon self-actualization and self-determination, and the struggle with contingency. We’ve been thinking about these issues as they appear under the light of material crisis — such as the one going on right now in the Great Recession and the deepening of the neo-liberal order — when history very much casts entire swathes of human beings into the seeming positions of winner and loser, successful and failure, celebrated and forgotten, survival or extinction.

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Social leaking / social whistleblowing

I’m thinking over this story about the Facebook group plotting to overthrow the Turkmen government. I’ve already pondered the journalistic ethics about publishing it (“Did I just kill a revolution?”), but there are some really interesting aspect I want to take a moment to discuss.

In terms of the technology: first, this remarkable feature of modern communication applications to serve as a mirror for humanity, revealing ourselves to ourselves, blemishes and all; second, the darkside of this mirror, namely, its potential to turn against us and become a tool of self-oppression; and third — and this is the pat I want to focus on right now — is the way in which it’s making our civilization vastly more leaky and transparent.

Back in April I was interviewed by Dr. Suelette Dreyfus, an international expert on digital whistleblowing. We had a long conversation on the definition of “whistleblowing”, and it occurred to me that besides the traditional, Daniel Elsberg-style leak, or its Julian Assange update, there may now also be “social leaking” or “social whistleblowing”. This is essentially unintentional releasing of information by the rank-and-file of an organization that at an authority, whether it be cultural, governmental or corporate, would have preferred not to be released.

So, as I see it, such leaking may often take the emotional form of venting. For example, neweurasia‘s Annasoltan has recounted the following anecdote about two Turkmen apparatchiks:

“Once I met two Turkmen diplomats who behaved as though they were in a race with each other to expound on the great achievements of our president. But when one them went to the toilet, the other quickly made scandalous revelations about the government and seemed desperate to convince me that he despised the regime. Imagine: a diplomat, our nation’s representative to the outside world!”

Or, as in the case of this Facebook group, the various reactions of everyday people confronted with a terrifying new idea, namely, the downfall of their government. In this latter example, the outside world has learned something very important about the current collective mindset within Turkmenistan — something we could not have easily determined before:

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Counter-martyrdom and the trial of bin Laden

In my last post, I talked briefly about the disturbing paganistic and technophilic aspects to Osama bin Laden’s brand of Islamism and the Americans’ War on Terror. Along the way, I remarked that I would have “infinitely more” preferred bin Laden to have been put on trial, although I still believed “justice had been served”. I feel that I should clarify both remarks, then invite my readers to share their thoughts.

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Why Hizb ut-Tahrir is wrong

Hizb Ut-Tahrir is one of the world’s leading radical Islamist organizations. They propose “restoring” the Caliphate as the necessary precondition for “rejuvenating” the global Islamic community. This essay, originally published in three parts on neweurasia, constitutes my attempt to deconstruct their ideology. It’s point of departure is an essay by the University of Ghent’s Bruno De Cordier, also published on neweurasia, in which he defends the cogency of their ideology. (The photograph to the right is of the last Calph, Abdülmecid II.)

Last week, neweurasia ran a post by the University of Ghent’s Bruno de Cordier concerning his views on why the radical Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir has been able to survive as long as it has despite sharp repression of its membership throughout Central Asia and the deep suspicion, even strong dislike for it evinced by the United States and many of its allies.

“I believe that the answer may lie in the extent to which the organization’s platform, if understood in a certain light, may be tapping into very real discontent and aspirations in the general population, and is responding to on-the-ground realities better than secular human rights organizations,” he argues. Fair enough, but let’s evaluate some of his evidence and lines of thought, and while we’re at it, Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s platform itself.

I shall move through Prof. De Cordier’s post and respond to it according to the order he uses therein. This first part shall deal with substance of the arguments for Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s vision of an Islamic super-state, particularly the Caliphate (paragraphs 2-6); the second part with Westernization, Modernization, and transnational integration (7-11), and the question of whether the global Islamic community needs a “defender” (12); and the final part with the bigger yet more fundamental questions of the efficacy and desirability of an Islamic super-state, faith, and “alter-globalism” (13). I’ve got a lot on my plate, but that’s because there’s a lot to dismantle, and much of it very crucial, because as I’ll ultimately argue in the third part, what’s rally at stake are differing visions of what it means to be human.

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The first truly European country

What does it really mean to be in a nation-state? I’m talking about, as it were, a political phenomenology, and I think it’s an intriguing question. Indeed, it’s the traveller’s question — where does the essence of a society lie? Is it unchanging or morphous? There’s a well-known elusive quality to the living human society of the nation-state, something very Heraclitan, as though the Egyptians who built the Pyramids and the Belgae who fought the Romans were somehow the ancestors of today’s Egyptians and Belgians, and yet somehow not: with each generation, they’ve stepped into the same river of time, event, and identity again and again, but because of that, it’s never the same river twice.

I think it’s very interesting to juxtapose the Egyptians to the Belgians because both societies are constituted of, on the one hand, very ancient geographical and demographic elements, and on the other hand, repeated and violent influxes of exotic blood — they are rich with relics of both stone and gene. And yet, the Egyptians have a much stronger sense of continuity, one that’s co-extensive with the borders of the current geopolitical place that history and the world have affixed as “Egypt”, whereas the Belgians have a profoundly weaker sense of of it for “Belgium”. Rather, Belgians’ continuities lie in their towns, in their families, and to some extent in the regional polities affixed as “Flanders”, “Brussels”, and “Wallonia” — that is, if they have any sense of continuity at all, which many of them self-avowedly don’t.

And then there’s the ongoing political crisis, which has left the federal central government hollowed out and in gradual decline, yet which hasn’t appeared to have harmed the three regional sub-governments all that much. Again and again I wonder: how is such a phenomenon enabled? It’s a subtle and tricky question, as most of my Belgian friends think I’m talking about what they always talk about, namely, how Belgium’s federal government “doesn’t matter” (wealth distribution and healthcare notwithstanding) and, moreover, how this might actually serve as a model or even paradigm for a future European federation or European nation-state. I’m actually not thinking about that; rather, I’m curious about the experiential and conceptual significance of the fact that there are three semi-sovereign governments here that are able to get by seemingly without the sovereign central government.

In other words, when I ask, How is Belgium possible? I’m actually really asking about the remarkable depth of Continental integration — and what this may really say about the future of the European Union.

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The spiritual meaning of September 11

The world over, particularly Muslims, stood in horror and outrage at the decision by an obscure group of religious fanatics in Florida to burn the Qur’an in the name of Christianity. For the moment, it seems they have decided to defer the terrible act, which allows the rest of us to pause and reflect about how our global society could have devolved to such a low point.

To begin with, untold millions are wondering, Why aren’t the American authorities stopping them?, especially considering the violence and instability that is likely to result from the deplorable act. There are very real and important legal and philosophical issues. In simplest terms, many Americans believe that to stop this group from burning the Qur’an would be to endanger one of the core principles of human rights, namely, the right to express one’s opinions, no matter how strange, controversial, or abhorrent.

To the charge that the United States’ own laws may have made it morally impotent, or worse, complicit in such an affront to humanity, Americans respond that they are reaching for a higher morality, one that encompasses the total civic community and not any one group. The rights of the few must be protected for the sake of all.

That argument is true and must be stated clearly, but I feel that what’s been missing from the discussion, though, has been the deeper spiritual and cultural dimensions. What kind of world are we living in when members of a religious community can so radically misunderstand or grossly misinterpret the principles of their faith and their nation as to attack the entirety of another religious community so symbolically and with such hatred?

Indeed, what kind of world are we living in when members of the recipient religious community themselves think it equally justified to rise up in violence and to exact vicious reprisals upon innocents who are in no way connected to, affiliated with, or approving of the desecration of their holy text?

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Injustice against Baha’is is injustice against all Iranians

Disheartening news everyone. Word from Iran Press Watch and the Muslim Network for Baha’i Rights is that the seven Baha’i leaders who have suffered unjust detention and trial in Iran have finally been sentenced — for 20 years each, a a total of 140 years! Their crimes? “Espionage,” translation: because our faith’s World Center happens to be in Israel; “acting against national security,” translation: informally organizing the Iranian Baha’i community after the formal administrative order had been forcibly disbanded by Iranian authorities; and being “enemies of God,” translation: being Baha’is.

Meanwhile, there’s the continuing persecution of rank and file Baha’is, including a new round of house demolitions. But I need to emphasize that even though Baha’is are suffering incredibly, they are not the only oppressed religious minority in Iran. Although many other religions have nominal official sanction, whereas Baha’is are totally illegal, this in no way should be taken to mean that their existences are any happier. Jews are also frequently threatened with the crime of espionage, to say nothing of the multitude quiet ways in which Christians and Zoroastrians are prejudiced against by the government.

In other words, the morally bankrupt sentencing of the seven Baha’i religious leaders is not only a blow against my religion, but a blow against religious freedom in Iran and a disheartening perversion of Islam’s principle of non-compulsion in religion. It’s high time Iran took to heart these words by Baha’u’llah:

O Son of Spirit! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes. — Hidden Words, Arabic #2

Justice and the facts in Kyrgyzstan

As Managing Editor of neweurasia, I want to take a moment to address something that’s been concerning me throughout the crisis in Southern Kyrgyzstan, namely, the conflation of speculation with fact, ultimately and especially regarding the issue of blame and the problem of evil.  To begin with, this is what the international journalistic community thinks it knows and only that: as affirmed by the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, it appears that gangs of masked men attacked, in an organized and premeditated fashion, Uzbek and Kyrgyz targets in Osh.

That’s all we know right now.  Even the Commissioner is unsure as to these gangs’ intentions, although it’s more than reasonable to conclude they were seeking to provoke a reaction.  More importantly, we don’t know who they are.  There is no smoking gun — yet.  In its place there are a lot of theories buzzing around, everything ranging from Russian special forces to secret agents of the Bakiyev network.  But these are only theories at the moment.  Until we have hard evidence, e.g., a confession, one that meets international standards of propriety, we do not know what was the plan behind these attacks.

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Kyrgyzbelgiastan

I’ve been following the tragic events in Southern Kyrgyzstan all weekend and coordinating neweurasia‘s English coverage.   It took me a while to re-establish contact with our team in Osh and Jalalabad, at least one of whom appeared to be hiding in his house.  The videos have been heartbreaking: entire neighborhoods burned down.

The whole disaster has cast a dim light back onto the society in which I currently find myself, Belgium.  This country also has long standing difficulties between its two major constituent ethnicities, and it has has just undergone an election in which apparent separatists emerged triumphant. Many of my friends here are alarmed by the results and fear for the future of their nation.

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Three years too long

As the seven Iranian Baha’i leaders known as the Yaren enter their third year of imprisonment, new details about the harsh conditions of their incarceration have emerged, prompting renewed calls for their immediate release.  Meanwhile, at the direction of the Universal House of Justice, Baha’is around the world are organizing special devotionals to commemorate this unfortunate anniversary.

I ask all my loved ones and readers, religious or not, to please offer a prayer or a meditation on behalf of the Yaren, as well as all those around the world suffering persecution for their beliefs.

O peoples of the world! The Sun of Truth hath risen to illumine the whole earth, and to spiritualize the community of man. Laudable are the results and the fruits thereof, abundant the holy evidences deriving from this grace. This is mercy unalloyed and purest bounty; it is light for the world and all its peoples; it is harmony and fellowship, and love and solidarity; indeed it is compassion and unity, and the end of foreignness; it is the being at one, in complete dignity and freedom, with all on earth. – Abdu’l-Baha

Seeing ourselves in our religions

As I get older (and granted, I’m far from elderly), I surprise myself by how I seem to get more radical, but not blindly so.  My misgivings toward capitalism in general run deeper and deeper.  Yet, I also surprise myself in the way that my perhaps peculiar brand of Leftism apparently has some bourgeois limits.

For one, I am not so foolish as to identify capitalism with democracy, although of course they both share roots in liberalism.  Moreover, I also make the perhaps bold distinction between democracy and methodology — something which most Americans don’t like to try.

The way I see it, for all of liberal democracy’s many strengths, it has become a breeding ground for discord.  I am critical of the system for the ways it manufactures consent, inspires egotism, partisanship, and mediocrity among public servants and the political class, and inevitably strips agency from the citizenry.  There has to be a better way of being democratic, of avoiding the short-sighted self-destructive cycles of liberalism without resorting to the sophistries of traditional Marxism.

For another, in light of the uprising in Kyrgyzstan and subsequent land seizures by impoverished citizens of that nation, I’ve had to seriously confront myself about my feelings toward private property.  After all, it’s easy to say I’m a Leftist, but Marx et al were prophetically correct that atomistic individualistic private property is at the core of capitalism, so am I  willing to put my money where my mouth is?  The answer is: not yet.

There are two reasons for my equivocal answer.  On the one hand, there were the Jewish and Protestant values I grew up with of hard personal labor, not to mention the hard lessons of my family’s struggles with money taught me about the need for thriftiness. However, at a more profound level is the sense of ownership itself, of possessing if nothing else one’s inner world and ultimate destiny.  Private property, then, is ultimately about the immortal soul.

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Eyjafjallajökull versus Adam Smith

In this corner, weighing several hundred million tons of stone and ice, and armed with smoke, ash, and an unpronounceable name — NATURE!

And in this corner, weighing several hundred thousand tons of winged steel, and armed with the cool precision of spreadsheets and elite business degrees — ECONOMICS!

Twelve rounds, one K.O. Let’s get ready to RUMBLE!!!! (For only $200 million per day on Pay-Per-View television.)

(Cautiously) optimistic for America’s future

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A World Series win in Philadelphia and the United States’ first Black president — wow.  WOW. Okay, Schwartzy, take a breath.

“How do you feel?” a close friend asked me this morning.  “Cautiously optimistic,” I replied, to which he remarked: “I think that’s the best thing intelligent people who are not quick to fire can feel right now.”

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