Israeli Fence

Let me just say that I agree wholeheartedly with Jonathan about the fence Israel is constructing.

I think the fence can have a positive effect in cooling down Israel-Palestinian relations and thus get them to the negotiating table.

Forward talks about the effects of the fence on Jenin.

Life is returning to normal here in the city once known as the suicide-bombing capital of the West Bank. The economy is picking up, services are being restored and local leaders describe a new optimism.

The reason, Israeli military officials say, is the nearly completed security fence separating this sector of the West Bank from Israel. A 50-mile stretch —- from the Jordan River to just north of Netanya —- is three months from completion. Already the barrier has virtually eliminated terrorist incidents, as well as car thefts and illegal infiltration, inside nearby parts of Israel. In response, the army has sharply curtailed the hated roadblocks and closures that had disrupted life for local Palestinians. Workers can now reach their jobs. Farmers can bring their crops to market, reviving Jenin’s business district.

[…]Last January 1, when the first stretch of fence was completed, Avman met with the mayor of Jenin at brigade headquarters. “On the way back home,” he promised the disbelieving mayor, “you will not see a single Israeli tank.”

The town has not been closed off for more than four months. This had major effects on both sides of the fence. In Jenin, life is closer to normal —- which, as Avman is quick to point out, creates an incentive to avoid terrorism, as people have more to lose. On the Israeli side, people seem to feel much safer. Three weeks ago, more than 30,000 Israelis turned out for a hike along the Gilboa ridge near here organized annually by local authorities. A year ago, the number of hikers was less than 6,000, and security expenses were five times higher.

There is, however, one catch.

There is another major distinction between Northern Samaria and other areas: The fence here largely follows the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 border. There are few Israeli settlements in this sector, and so there are few deviations eastward to appease the settlers, few Palestinians separated from their fields and orchards, and no enclaves of Palestinians forced to pass a gate every time they go to school, to work or to see a doctor. In several other regions under construction, this is not the case. The pressure around the fence in those spots is expected to be much greater, leading to more security problems and more pressure on the army.

A fence which follows the Green Line as closely as possible, thus allowing the Israeli army to withdraw, will make life much easier for Palestinians and hence enhance the prospects for peace.

Happy Easter

Happy Easter to my Christian readers.

Secularism, Islamism

It seems I wasn’t exactly clear in my post where I argued that there is lots of diversity among “Islamists.”

Ideofact writes about some statements and ideas of al-Ghannouchi which do seem quite bad to me. My point in my previous post was not to defend al-Ghannouchi or Fazlur Rahman or anyone for that matter. As a secular Muslim [what is that? —- ed. It means I am secular and would in fact like a more secular US, but at the same time I identify as a Muslim rather than an agnostic or atheist etc.], I have obviously some fundamental disagreements with anyone who wants religion (Islam or any other) to have a place in the political sphere.

My point was simply that we, and I include myself, people in the west as well as the Muslim world here, have a habit of sometimes conflating all Muslims together. Or at least considering all religion-based politics as equally bad. That is not the case. There are some pretty bad groups, some are less bad and some have some redeeming qualities/ideas. For example, I think the Justice and Development Party currently in power in Turkey has been a good positive development for that country. I also think that Algeria would have been better off with an FIS government in the early 1990s than the military coup and the civil war with the extremist groups that it actually experienced.

Ideofact also gives examples of fascism and communism as reasons for considering all Islamists together.

While there were variations among German, Italian and Spanish fascism, or Soviet, Chinese and Yugosalvian communism, that all these systems are illiberal, that the only difference is how heavy is the one wearing the boot while standing on your face.

This comparison depends on how widely you are casting the net for Islamists. For example, a number of people consider Alija Izetbegovich, the former Prime Minister of Bosnia, as an Islamist politician as well. Bill, on the other hand, has written glowingly about the guy on his old blog, Paleo-Ideofact. [I think Bill and I agree much more than disagree on this whole issue, but what’s the fun in agreeable blogging.]

As a secular guy, it is also not my purpose to decide which religious group is good or bad. However, as I argued in a post about secularism and the Middle East, we need to focus on specific actions rather than condemning all of political Islam. For better or worse, religion does play a large role in the lives of many people around the world. And there are a lot of things happening in the Muslim world with both positive and negative consequences. As Thebit points out, we sometimes blame everything on the “Wahabbis” and consider the traditionalists as the good guys. However, traditionalists are also responsible for a lot of bad stuff, like superstitious beliefs, cooperation with authoritarianism, etc.

On the other side, a lot of Muslims don’t like criticism of bad Muslim behavior by others. That is a wrong attitude. Criticism is definitely something to be engaged with and not condemned outright. See, for example, posts by Ideofact, Muslims Under Progress and Avari-Nameh on the criticism of the Muslim world by the former Archbishop of Canterbury.

No More Editing Embargo

It seems that the embargo on editing scientific and technical papers from countries on which the US has imposed economic sanctions (Iran, Cuba, Libya and Sudan) has been lifted. According to IEEE, they can now publish papers from the embargoed countries.

IEEE scored a victory for freedom of the press and the scholarly publishing community with the ruling it received Friday from the U.S. Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control. The ruling exempts peer review, editing and publication of scholarly manuscripts submitted to IEEE by authors living in countries that are under U.S. trade embargoes, such as Iran and Cuba. OFAC determined that IEEE’s publications process is “not constrained by OFAC’s regulatory programs.”

The government’s decision confirms the position IEEE has argued for over a year that its entire publishing process falls outside the scope of OFAC’s regulations because of the Berman Amendment to the trade sanctions law that excludes the free exchange of information from OFAC’s economic embargoes.

IEEE had earlier obtained a September 30, 2003 ruling from OFAC that exempted a large part of its editorial process but left uncertain whether it had to publish such papers “as is” or could edit such papers prior to final publication. This latest April 2 ruling clarifies IEEE’s full freedom to engage in scholarly peer review and style and copy editing of papers, all without OFAC regulation or licensing. The earlier September 30 ruling had also been limited to Iran, while the new ruling covers authors in Cuba, Libya and Sudan as well as in Iran.

What’s in a Name I

One of the interesting pastimes during pregnancy is choosing a name for the baby. Since we can’t be sure about the gender of the baby, we have to consider both boy and girl names.

The question then comes down to what sort of names to choose. Most people choose names either from their own culture or the culture they are surrounded by. For immigrants, the question can sometimes be quite important. I have heard arguments on both sides. On the one hand, a name in one’s native language is one of the basic links of one’s child to a culture they won’t exactly be part of. On the other hand, giving a strange (to the community one has settled in) name to one’s child can point the child out as an outsider.

We don’t care much about these issues, but there is a related problem that’s important. It is pronunciation. We want to pick a name that’s simple, beautiful as well as pronouncable by both Pakistanis and Americans.

The emphasis on pronunciation comes from the way my name has been distorted all my life. My name is “Zakaria” (زکریا). It’s a Hebrew name from the Old Testament. It is also found in the Quran as the Prophet Zakaria who was the father of John the Baptist (یحیی) [Yes, I know there are some differences between the Bible and Quran about my namesake]. Because it is a Biblical name, there are lots of different spellings and pronunciations. That, by itself, is not so problematic.

My pronunciation problems started in Pakistan over a confusion about the meaning of my name and some features of Urdu. My name means Yahweh (God) remembers. Now, remembrance of God is popularly known in Urdu and Arabic as zikr/dhikr (ذکر). Notice the difference in the first character in zikr (ذ) and in Zakaria (ز). They are two different letters, both pronounced as “z” in Urdu and Persian, but having somewhat different sounds in Arabic [In fact, there are four letters in Urdu that have the “z” sound]. This caused spelling errors of my name in Urdu, so much so that my Urdu teacher in middle school would try to “correct” my name on any work I turned in. I finally did win that battle with him.

The pronunciation errors were, however, not a result of this issue. They owed their explanation to another peculiarity of Urdu (and Persian and Arabic): lack of vowels. We have long vowels in Urdu but the short vowels are never written down. There are diacritical marks for short vowels, but they are almost never used. Let’s take a look at my name. Letter by letter, it would be transliterated from Urdu to English as “Zkrya.” Add in the people’s assumption that my name is related to “zikr” and you get “Zikree-a.” That used to piss me off.

Our pronunciation problems obviously weren’t over when we came to the US. Here, people do all sorts of stuff to my name. Those who call me “Zachary” or “Zachariah” are ok by me. The most common mistake, that I don’t like, though is to elongate the second “a” to say “zakaaria.”

I have been used to people mispronouncing my first name since birth. So I have gotten over it. However, I never thought someone would drastically mispronounce my last name. It really is pretty simple: “Ajmal.” The worst mistake you can make is elongating one or both of the short a’s. But I have heard worse. People have tried to think of the “J” in my last name as either a Spanish or German one. That sounds so awful, I usually don’t recognize it.

Enough about my problems. There are issues with Pakistani names due to lack of similar sounds in English. For example, Talha (طلحہ) has a soft “t” that doesn’t exist in English. There are other letters and sounds as well. I remember how amused I was to first hear the word khakis from a native English speaker. Its origin is Hindi/Urdu خاکی and we don’t pronounce “kh” as “k” at all.

Names in Pakistan can either be local (i.e., Punjabi, Sindhi, Pushto, etc.) or borrowed from Persian, Arabic or Turkish. There is a large number of such borrowed names.

When a name from a different script is transliterated into English, there are always multiple versions. For example, Muhammad/Mohammed, Usama/Osama, etc. Talking to Kianoush, it also seems that my Urdu-speaking instinct for transliteration is different from his Persian-speaking one. For example, where I would think an “i” as the appropriate vowel, he likes to use “e.” The Turks also use much more different spellings for the same words. This not only means different spellings for the same word, but also different pronunciations based on those different transliterations.

Therefore, we are limiting our search to names from either the US or Pakistan which would work in both places. Even if the name is strange to one country’s ears, they shouldn’t have to struggle to pronounce it.

Here are some online resources for names.

  • 1990 US Census name distributions: A list of first and last names in the US arranged by their popularity.
  • Behind the name: Lists of names from different cultures/languages and their meanings.
  • Popular baby names from the Social Security Administration.
  • Name Statistics: Check the popularity of specific first and last names in the US.
  • Baby Names lists more than 6,000 names. I noticed Persian and Arabic names in addition to European ones.
  • Parenthood has Norse, Phoenician, and Aramaic in addition to the regular ones.
  • Babycenter allows you to search names by first letter, last letter and number of syllables.
  • Popular baby names seems to have a good collection of names as well.
  • Or you could invent a name.
  • Muslim names: This requires a long discussion which will have to wait for part II.

Feel free to suggest any names you like in the comments.

Next: What’s a Muslim name?

Two Questions

I have two questions, one tongue in cheek and the other a serious question. I might actually regret putting the two together in one post, but here it goes.

First Question
Most (all?) US currency has “In God We Trust” written on the bill or coin. Let us suppose that proof is found that God doesn’t exist. What will happen to the US economy? Will the currency lose its value? Will the $100 bill be worth anything? Will it cease to be legal tender?

Second Question
The origins of this question lie in some discussions on blogs. I was asked once what I would do if I had to choose between my Muslim and American identity? The discussion ended when some decided that I wasn’t an American.

The question of loyalty is interesting and difficult, despite the obnoxiousness of some who ask that question. So let me ask what is more important to you? God or country? Family or country? Self or country? What is our loyalty to the state? Or what should it be?

Let’s look at this from another angle. During the Iraq war, a number of bloggers said something to the effect that they opposed the Iraq war but supported the troops. What exactly does that mean? What are the limits of such support? And when and why should we not support the troops of our country?

Does supporting the troops mean hoping that they win? When should we hope that they win? When would you be indifferent to their win or loss? And what conditions would make you hope your country loses the war? Or do you believe in “my country right or wrong”?

I am asking this question in the most general context and not in the specific case of the Iraq war. I am interested in hearing your thoughts on the limits or otherwise of loyalty, patriotism and nationalism.

Go Yellow Jackets!

This calls for a celebration.

Surprising Georgia Tech sure is making a name for itself at this Final Four.

Will Bynum shook loose for a layup with 1.5 seconds left and sent the Yellow Jackets further than they’ve ever been in the NCAA tournament, putting them into the championship game with a 67-65 victory over Oklahoma State on Saturday.

[…]Now coach Paul Hewitt and his third-seeded Jackets will play for the title Monday night against the Duke-Connecticut winner.

Here’s a good omen for them: Tech has already beaten both of those powers.

Picked to finish a lowly seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Jackets weren’t expected to do much of anything this season with a team of unknowns — hardly an All-American among them.

And surrounded by big names like Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Calhoun and Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton at this Final Four, they were considered the biggest underdogs of all.

UPDATE: We meet University of Connecticut for the final on Monday.

Go Jackets!