Thursday, October 18


You can explore online. Among the destinations of the British Museum's online tours is Arabic Script: Mightier than the Sword, an exhibit that explains how writing spread Islam.

Above is a page from the oldest known Koran. The British Museum explains that the text is from chapter 4 of the Koran, called "al-Nisa," or "The Women," from the end of verse 157 to the beginning of verse 161:

And their saying: Surely we have killed the Messiah, Isa son of Marium, the apostle of Allah; and they did not kill him nor did they crucify him, but it appeared to them so (like Isa) and most surely those who differ therein are only in a doubt about it; they have no knowledge respecting it, but only follow a conjecture, and they killed him not for sure.
Nay! Allah took him up to Himself; and Allah is Mighty, Wise.
And there is not one of the followers of the Book but most certainly believes in this before his death, and on the day of resurrection he (Isa) shall be a witness against them.
Wherefore for the iniquity of those who are Jews did We disallow to them the good things which had been made lawful for them and for their hindering many (people) from Allah's way.

Interesting, these are the verses the British Museum decided to post as an image, with no translation provided. The verses are on parchment in dark ink. "The format of the book is oblong, characteristic of early copies of the Qur'an, and traces of the original binding are visible to the right," the exhibit notes.

Also on display is a mosque lamp, a carved tombstone, tools, clothing, jewelry, calligraphy, an engraved brass ewer, a bowl, an etched jar, coins, a Persian tile with poetry, and other art and objects spanning many centuries and countries.

The exhibit notes, "To this day the versatile Arabic alphabet remains a source of inspiration to artists from the Islamic world."

Photo courtesy of British Museum.


"The American people may not have a binder full of women at the moment, but we have a binder with two resumes in it," Virginia Hefferman writes for Yahoo News. "And, as we do every four years, we get to decide who gets hired."

I must admit, the comment on "binders full of women" during the presidential debate only caught my attention as hyperbole.

But subsequent analysis of the comment  - and the entire debate - has been adept, exposing corporate executives' desire for desperate and marginalized groups of employees willing to work long hours for less than a fair wage.

Government can help some, but individuals must refuse to play the game. Walk away from the binders and the labels.

Photo courtesy of The Writing Range. 

Tuesday, October 16

Acts of terror

President Barack Obama on Benghazi consulate attack, Rose Garden, September 12, 2012
"No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for." 

Presidential Debate, Hempstead, NY, October 16, 2012:
MITT ROMNEY: There were many days that passed before we knew whether this was a spontaneous demonstration, or actually whether it was a terrorist attack.
 BARACK OBAMA: The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people in the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we're going to hunt down those who committed this crime.

ROMNEY: I — I think interesting the president just said something which — which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.

OBAMA: That's what I said.

ROMNEY: You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror. It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you're saying?

OBAMA: Please proceed, Governor.      

UPDATE, Oct 18: Some of the president's longtime critics suggest that the words "acts of terror" did not apply specifically to the Benghazi attacks. The statement's title is

 "Remarks by the President on the Deaths of U.S. Embassy Staff in Libya."

"Acts of terror" can only mean Libya. Those who suggest otherwise - their disrespect for the presidency, petulantly and desperately trying to remove meaning from words - are doing their candidate, Mitt Romney, a grave disservice.

The Koran and debate

Audiences in the US can expect to see more references to the Koran in many, many media forms, as I noted in a guest blog "The Koran upstages Bible in debate," for the Washington Post:

"Online translations and interpretations from American universities and beyond are plentiful... Because of that curiosity, along with the intense conflicts over faith in the modern world and the passion of adherents, audiences can expect to see more references to the Koran in politics and media discussions – and even as a central theme in films, novels and art."

The guest blog noted that the vice presidential debate made mention of the Koran and not the Bible. 

Moderator Martha Raddatz posed the question to Congressman Paul Ryan:  "I want to ask you about - the Romney campaign talks a lot about no apologies. He has a book called No Apologies. Should the US have apologized for Americans burning Korans in Afghanistan? Should the US apologize for US Marines urinating on Taliban corpses?"

Rayan's reply:  "Oh, gosh, yes. Urinating on Taliban corpses? What we should not apologize for..."

Raddatz:  "Burning Korans, immediately?"

Ryan: "What - what we should not be apologizing for are standing up for our values. What we should not be doing is saying to the Egyptian people, while Mubarak is cracking down on them, that he's a good guy and, in the next week, say he ought to go. What we should not be doing is rejecting claims for - for calls for more security in our barracks, in our Marine - we need Marines in Benghazi when the commander on the ground says we need more forces for security. There were requests for extra security; those requests were not honored. Look, this was the anniversary of 9/11. It was Libya, a country we knew we had Al Qaida cells there, as we know Al Qaida and its affiliates are on the rise in Northern Africa. And we did not give our ambassador in Benghazi a Marine detachment? Of course there's an investigation, so we can make sure that this never happens again, but when it comes to speaking up for our values, we should not apologize for those. Here's the problem. Look at all the various issues out there, and it's unraveling before our eyes. The vice president talks about sanctions on Iran. They got - we've had four..."

The conversation then moved to Iran. 

Some argue that Ryan specifically dodged endorsing apologies for mistreatment of the Koran - "finessed" and "pander" in the words of Robert Dreyfuss for The Nation. I do not agree, and believe his response, "Gosh, yes" covered both examples. He simply repeated one of the two choices, certainly the act regarded as more heinous in American culture. The Koran burning by Marines was undoubtedly an honest mistake.

The debate did not mention the Bible, though certainly great attention was devoted to Catholic doctrine and the candidates' descriptions on the role their Catholic faith played in developing their separate personal views on abortion. It's my observation that Catholics tend to lean less heavily on the Bible as a source for guidance than interpretations from the Pope and their own individual consciences. 

In the end, my point was that curiosity from others is an honor and should be welcomed: "The forays into studying, discussing, dissecting the Koran will include mistakes and misunderstandings. Artists of all types will test the boundaries. But that curiosity signals the ultimate desire for empathy, respect and desire for connections."

Photo courtesy of The Washington Post.

Saturday, October 13


Data from the CIA offer one strange look into the relativity of national poverty. The definitions of poverty vary wildly among nations. Here's a select group of nations ranked for percentage of the population living below the poverty line.

Poverty is in the eye of the beholder.

Tuesday, October 9

Moderates in our midst

"There are no moderates in Iran," morning show host Joe Scarborough said today. Less than 10 minutes later, he was smart enough to backtrack by noting, "The moderates are not in power."

His first comment rankled. Once a writing instructor, I regularly warned students against using "all," "none," "always," "never." Such words are hyperbole and immediately invite your readers to hunt for the one exception.

But such words are common in television talk shows and newspaper opinion essays. Massouda Jalal wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal in December 2011, entitled "There are no moderate Taliban":  "Seeking to negotiate with an implacable enemy could be seen either as foolish or foresighted. The West obviously sees a deal with the Taliban as essential to its transition, and therefore a pragmatic step. But this faith in negotiations appears to be based on the belief that there exist 'moderate' elements of the Taliban, and that they can be coaxed toward supporting constitutional democracy."

The sentiment was not new, and many lashed out after President Barack Obama suggested during a March 2009 interview with The New York Times that he would seek out and try to work with "moderate elements" of the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan.

 In March 2009,  for Forbes, Tunku Varadarajan struggled for a definition, suggesting it must be "those who'd contemplate an abandonment of their jihad against Western forces in Afghanistan in exchange for some sort of power-sharing arrangement with the government of Hamid Karzai." He continued:

"It is their willingness to do deals, in other words, that makes them moderate, not the essential make-up of their beliefs and culture. That said, if they are willing to set aside their adamantine opposition to the infidel West and its puppet, Karzai, they are clearly less purist in their pursuit of an Islamist society than those who would fight to the finish. That makes them relatively moderate, if you like. Or just plain cynical."

Yes, women and children will suffer the most if Afghanistan can't achieve peace, if the government cannot deliver law and order.

Obama's willingness and the flurry of essays that followed by Varadarajan  and others motivated me to find the exception to no moderates and write Fear of Beauty, about a village with people who want their children to attend school but who also appreciate their traditions, accept harsh penalties for violating those traditions, and do not want their lives to change. 

So what to do about diplomacy? What to say to those who scoff at diplomacy?

Diplomacy is a delicate and, too often, time-consuming process. Those who would talk through a problem must study and divide opponents, finding others who may be swayed to end the fighting and pursue peace. Opponents who are ready to think a little differently are there. Women who want to attend school. Taliban supporters who want to engage in trade. Political leaders who want legitimate regional power. Afghanistan could be a case for aid with a schedule of strict, strict, strict conditions on corruption and human rights. And similar conditions should be imposed on other allies, including Pakistan, where a 14-year-old girl was shot by Taliban for advocating education for girls.

Fighting forces opponents to entrench and harden their positions. Trade, diplomacy, education are the enemies to extremism.

The war in Afghanistan has entered its 12th year. I'm not suggesting that the moderates and their supporters can succeed in Afghanistan or Iran - that the extremism can be contained. Moderates struggle in the United States, facing vehement attacks within their own political party and communities because they are even willing to consider working with the other side.

I can only hope that the aim of hyperbolic language about opponents isn't intended to make it easier to launch an attack. Because there are - and I'll avoid saying always! - moderates in our midst.

Photo of Afghanistan market, courtesy of Staff Sgt. Russell Lee Klika, US Army National Guard, and Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, October 7

It's the economy ...

The top concerns for most voters are jobs and the economy.  Yet too many voters tend to box issues, as though the economy is different from health care or Social Security, Afghanistan, the nation’s schools or the housing crisis. And too many politicians ignore the economic implications of these issues.

Health care: Voters cannot work if they are seriously ill. Many who are healthy today realize that might not be the case tomorrow. Nearly half of Americans – seniors, veterans, the poor and disabled – are covered by public health.  Most people can well imagine the fear of losing their insurance, after a job loss or a medical condition. Yes, the seriously ill can seek care at the local emergency room, but that is not the most efficient form of treatment and hospitals are adept at pursuing payment.
Reproductive health: Women and many men do not want to risk new regulations on birth control. Sadly, an unexpected pregnancy during an economic downturn is a nightmare and not blessing.

Wars: The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has estimated that about 15 percent of the deficit can be attributed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Into its 12th year, Afghanistan is the longest war on record. Investments in diplomacy and non-military foreign aid can reduce wars.
Taxes: The Bush tax cuts account for about 30 percent of the deficit. The tax cuts were made without reducing programs. There’s a reason, Americans want many of those programs, especially during a time of need.  No leader can both keep the programs and reduce taxes. Income for the wealthiest rose while the income of middle-class went stagnant or decreased. Many voters support tax hikes to reduce the federal debt. The Bush tax cuts had a sunset clause – and so could any tax hikes. Businesses and households with budgets typically want to eliminate debt – and do so by rising prices before reducing service, production or quality.

Education: Children who receive a substandard education are more likely to cause social problems. Some may enter a life of crime. Others will become home health aides or serve us in fast-food restaurants and struggle to do their jobs. It’s wrong to put 30 or more children into a classroom with a math teacher who is paid a fraction of she or he could make in industry or a university – and expect high morale, good community relations or academic success. Children are the future workforce and future citizens, and their teachers need safe conditions, training, respect and appropriate wages.    

Immigration: More people produce growth – they work, buy products and fill houses languishing on the market.  Good policymaking, regulation and business could come up with an enforcement system that charges undocumented immigrants a fee.

Social Security and Medicare: The elderly depend on these programs, the centerpiece of any retirement planning in the middle class. Candidates who propose any privatization or reductions should be clear just how much people have to save to compensate for reductions. Age cut-offs won’t work among the elderly because they care fiercely about their children and economic health.  Younger workers will resist paying for a program that provides for current seniors but is slated to end.    

Climate Change: The science points to rising carbon dioxide emissions as contributing to volatile weather and rising seas. Ongoing denial will only add to future costs of food, shelter, insurance and business.

In the end, voters need to understand the economic implications of every issue. Optimism, confidence in addressing challenges and cooperation do more to boost revenues than criticism, fear and every man and women out for themselves. 

Photo courtesy of the US Department of Defense and Wikimedia Commons. US Army Spc. Tiffany Larriba teaches counting and English with the Soldier in the Classroom program at Karabti San, Djibouti.