Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Hizbollah vs Israel

With both sides claiming victory, I'll just split the difference and say that militarily, the outcome was a draw. Lebanon suffered heavy civilian casualties and hundreds of thousands of displaced. The rebuilding bill could be in the billions. Israel suffered 'only' about 150 dead, but they failed to destroy Hizbollah. Hizbollah can still launch rockets at civilian targets in Israel. Hizbollah also has anti-tank missiles capable of defeating the Merkava, Israel's primary main battle tank. It is one of the best tanks in the world.

Israel did succeed in increasing support for Hizbollah. Nidal Shahib, a taxi driver and loyalist of Lebanon's Communist Party, compared Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's Secretary General, to Che Guevara: "Now I totally accept him. He's a great leader," he said. "Even greater than Che Guevara." Certainly, this is something they should have expected. They indiscriminately bombed Lebanon, and then blamed the Lebanese for the bombings, saying they allowed Hizbollah to be there. They ordered civilians to leave south Lebanon. If the 1967 war had gone differently, and the Arab nations had invaded Israel and ordered the Israelis to leave, the Israelis would have stayed and fought to the death.

So, Israel has at best a military draw with Hizbollah. Aside from the US*, it has lost a great deal of moral standing in the eyes of the world. Israel targeted civilian infrastructure, including civilian convoys, ambulance convoys, pharmaceutical factories, dairy facilities, apartment buildings, entire neighborhoods, and power plants. Yes, Hizbollah fighters are cowards for hiding among civilians. But militarily, they have no choice. They can't fight aircraft and tanks in open ground.

Hizbollah now has greatly increased standing in the eyes of the Arab world for successfully resisting the Israeli Army. I wonder if the price the Lebanese people had to pay figures into their equation. It probably does not. Madeline Albright once said that the price of starving as many as half a million Iraqi children was "worth it" to get Saddam Hussein out (although, it must be pointed out, the sanctions did not remove Hussein). Hizbollah probably uses similar calculus.

I certainly do pray for an end to Hizbollah. But the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, and the invasions of Lebanon, all these must end also.

Also, I would like to offer prayers for David and Uri Grossman. David is said to be one of the few Israeli writers who offer nuanced, sympathetic portrayals of the Palestinians in his work. He initially supported the invasion to destroy Hizbollah, but later held a press conference with two other writers (Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua) to demand that Olmert reach a cease-fire agreement. Two days after this, his son, Staff Sgt Uri Grossman, was killed in the war.

* Inside the US, of course, Israel is still a Godly nation. It is pointed out in one of the articles below that there is more criticism of Israeli foreign policy in Israel itself than in the US. John Dingell, my congressman, was accused of being a Hizbollah apologist when he suggested that we needed to be evenhanded in condemning violence.

Some articles:
Prosperity gospel and investing fraud in church

I've previously mentioned the prosperity gospel, which is a semi-pejorative term applied to the Word of Faith movement within charismatic and pentecostal churches. Word of Faith's roots can be traced to EW Kenyon, a New Zealand preacher who taught that good health and finances were the right of every believer who would claim the promises of scripture. Kenyon claimed God's promises were realized by our believing and verbally confessing the relevant scriptures, and thus he coined the phrase, "What I confess, I possess." (This is taken from the wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosperity_gospel) Physical healing is said to be available to all who believe, frequently justified by Isaiah 53:5: "By his stripes we are healed." Teachings on prosperity are taken from 2 Corinthians 8:9 "Yet for your sakes he became poor, that you by his poverty might become rich" (2 Corinthians 8:9).

I believe that the Word of Faith movement lifts random passages out of the Bible and inflates them out of context. They teach that if you love God enough, God can heal you. Just to give one example, there are probably millions of devout Christians who are gay, and who have prayed to God to change their sexual orientation. Rates of success in conversion therapy are either zero or very low, so we can assume that in the majority of cases God did not change their sexual orientation. Did they not love God enough? Did God not love them enough?

I recently came across a story in which charlatans wormed their way into churches, and asked the congregation to invest in ventures that were "blessed by God." Believers were promised that their money would double, and that some of the proceeds were to be donated to the church. The con artists went to the pastors first, made large donations, and gained their confidence. The North American Securities Administrators Association estimates that from 1998 to 2001, $2 billion was swindled from churches.


Those who teach a gospel of superstition, that God will reward you just because you're a Christian, will be especially vulnerable to fraud that plays on religion. Of course, everyone is vulnerable to fraud; an ex-treasurer of the Episcopal Church embezzled a million dollars or so, and I hear that at trial she attempted to blame her actions on sexism. It's a sad commentary on human nature...

Friday, August 11, 2006

Refusenik: An Israeli who refuses to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces under certain conditions

Etymologically, a portmanteau of refuse and -nik, a Russian suffix denoting a person's occupation. Originally, Jewish citizens of the former USSR who were refused permission to emigrate. Later came into use to describe conscientious objectors to the IDF's mission in the Occupied Territories.

A lot of refuseniks are jailed because they refuse to carry out missions that may place civilian lives at risk. The IDF kills many more Palestinian civilians than the Israeli casualties inflicted by Hamas and/or Hizbollah. Some IDF soldiers refuse to serve, and are often arrested. Some IDF pilots are said to "miss" their assigned targets.

An interview with two refuseniks is posted here: http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=06/08/09/1422204

This is a site made by former combatants on both sides, the IDF and Palestinian militants, who have laid down their arms to walk the path of peace: http://www.combatantsforpeace.org/

This is a site featuring Israeli soldiers who have publicly declared their opposition to the occupation of Palestine and/or Lebanon, and their reasons for doing so: http://www.seruv.org.il/english/default.asp

Here, an Israeli soldier justifies a withdrawal from the Occupied Territories.
Ouval Tamari replies:
Palestinian terrorism is cruel and brutal. But if there is one thing the current Intifada has taught us, it is that terrorism cannot be beaten by force. At the moment the Israelis and Palestinians are caught in a vicious circle, where acts of terror and assassinations follow each other in an endless, bloody succession. It would be incredibly unwise to sustain this gridlock, which has already taken a heavy toll, killing thousands and injuring tens of thousands. The first step towards breaking the cycle is to minimize the friction and give both sides some hope. It takes a climate of total hopelessness for such hatred and disregard for human life to develop. We do not claim that leaving the territories will magically bring an end to the conflict, but it is preferable by far to staying there, because our being there fuels the hatred – and with it, the terror. No people in the world would be willing to live under occupation. From within clear boundaries, both geographical and moral, we would be able to defend ourselves much more efficiently, just as evacuating the “Security Zone” in south Lebanon has only served to improve our condition.

Prayers for all those on both sides who have the courage to lay their weapons down and just talk. Prayers for those who face persecution for their nonviolent actions. Prayers for an end to the fighting.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A shopping list for Singapore on her 41st National Day

I was born in Singapore and have most of my family there, so no one reading this blog should accuse me of presumption. From my perspective as a person of faith, there is no point in celebrating our 41st anniversary as an independent country. We are rich in things but poor in soul.

I take my national pledge as my inspiration:

We, the citizens of Singapore
Pledge ourselves as one united people
Regardless of race, language or religion
To build a democratic society
Based on justice and equality
So as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress
For our nation

1) More transparency and openness from the government.

Singapore claims to be a "democracy" - government by the people for the people. However, we have, as all other countries, a system of ingrained privilege. In our national ideology, this privilege is based on "meritocracy". The government offers prestigious scholarships to bright students with good extra-curricular records, they are sponsored for university educations at prestigious universities abroad, and come back to serve a bond. Thus, they are co-opted into the system. However, there is the common perception that they advance at the expense of regular workers.

Our ruling class is also very secretive about its affairs and does not tolerate dissent. Furthermore, Singapore is effectively a one-party democracy. There are 4 opposition seats in parliament and hundreds of PAP members of parliament (People's Action Party, the ruling party).

My problem is not with the one-party system. Perhaps this is a more "Asian" thing, where consensus is valued over discussion. What concerns me is the lack of openness and transparency. Singapore's ministers should be open about their salaries (they are very high, to compete with the private sector and eliminate temptations for corruption). Singapore's government must be open to criticism, and must involve average citizens in making major decisions. If you involve citizens in trivial decisions such as how to fund the local rubbish collection, you can then use that as an excuse for shutting them out of major decisions.

For example, Singapore recently opened two slots for casinos to be built. There was an outcry from the population, but their views were not taken into consideration. My problem is not so much with the casinos; I don't gamble but don't have a problem with people gambling if they can control it. My problem is this. Singaporeans have stated that casinos go against their values as a nation. The government has not listened, it has presumed to dictate our values to us. It claims to value consensus in decision making, but then ignores consensus.

Another problem is the ban on political films, and the restrictions on political organizations. This unjustly advantages the ruling party. They do not need help in publicizing themselves, but minority candidates do. There is also a lot of what Americans would call pork-barrel politics, in that opposition wards are placed last in line for housing upgrades (e.g. upgrades to the elevators, public lighting, other public facilities and housing in opposition wards).

All this must end. Our pledge calls us to build a democratic society. An Asian democracy may have a very different flavor from a Western liberal democracy. But ours is no Asian democracy, not yet.

2) Abandon the pretense of religious and racial harmony

Muslim girls are forbidden from wearing veils (locally called tudung) in public schools, since 2002. The rationale was to promote religious harmony. I fail to see how this does so, especially because Sikh males are allowed to wear turbans, which is a religious obligation for them also. Several girls were suspended over this issue: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/asia-pacific/1804470.stm

Like all Singaporean males, I served 2 and a half years in the Army, in a Signals unit. No Malays were allowed into Signals. There is, I believe, no official position that has been made public. The rationale that was informally given to us was that if we went to war with Malaysia or Indonesia, Malays might not want to fight their fellow Muslims. In a Signals unit, you can arguably do a lot more damage if you want to sabotage operations than in, say, an Infantry or Support unit. Also, it was only while I was in NS that we got our first Malay fighter pilot.

Singaporeans operate under the assumption that all the races are in harmony. And yet, in my Signals unit, one of my friends made a number of racist comments against Malays. We need to start admitting that we are all racist at heart, and then we need to deal with it.

3) Ditch the materialism

Our beloved government trumpets all of Singapore's economic achievements. On this score, they have done very well. However, as I said, we are a nation rich in things but poor in soul. By focusing on economic development, though, we have neglected political and spiritual development. As far as the lack of political development goes, I fault our government for being too restrictive. The spiritual bit, is our own fault.

When Warren Buffett made his mega-donation, newspapers here were wondering why there were no Singaporean Buffetts. In fact, there were a number, like Lee Kong Chian. Now, they seem to have died out. The Chinese can be very a materialistic people. I know it's not nice to make blanket statements like that, but I stand by this one (note I didn't say every single Chinese person is materialistic).

Conservation doesn't seem to be a concern for our government. Material wealth is. In fact, we have 4 million people now on nearly 700 sq km of land, and the government wants 5 million people, so that we can be competitive with our neighbors. When we hit 5 million, what then? Will we go for 6? Will we reclaim land all the way out to our national borders, and then go for 10 or 20? Will we dig underground, establish a lunar colony?

It is obvious how materialism impedes our spiritual development. I would only like to add that the government enthusiastically promotes the use of Mandarin to the exclusion of other Chinese dialects (killing a movie industry that did dialect films is one example of a crime against culture), bans chewing gum, is practically banning smoking ... if they applied the same amount of energy toward a campaign to get people recycling, then everyone would do it. But they have not.

4) Ditch the superstition

As for religion here, it's more superstition than religion. The Christianity that we've learnt (~15% of the population is Christian) is more superstition. For example, Joseph Prince, pastor of New Creation, preaches a prosperity gospel - that God will make you rich. Well, if you believe in the standard God (omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent), then I suppose it could be His will to make His believers rich. But, He could also cure cancer, diabetes, or homosexuality, but seems to choose not to do so, at least most of the time. The more mainstream Evangelicals are better, but their theology still lacks intellectual engagement. In fact, I was admonished by some of my cell group leaders not to take certain subjects, like psychology, in university, because they would make me "too secular." The irony is that Christians back home accuse everyone else of superstition. We'd better remove the planks from our eyes first. That being said, when they accuse everyone else of superstition, they are correct.

Superstitions impede genuine spiritual development. As we have seen two posts ago, superstitions in the form of purity codes can lead us to blame a girl who has been raped and execute her, and let her rapist off with a slap on the wrist.

With that done, we are a stable, multi-cultural nation. We could become a hub for positive inter-faith relations. We are wasting time, worshipping a candy-dispensing God.

5) Lee Kuan Yew, step down

I hate to get ad hominem. But, Minister Mentor Lee should retire. He's the primary architect of Singapore's national character. His authoritarianism has shaped us into a nation of sheep. It has made us very efficient, but it has also made us into followers. And still, he's in power - the title "Minister Mentor" was created for him when Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong resigned and let PM Lee Hsien Loong (LKY's son) take over. In fact, now-Senior Minister Goh took over Mr Lee's title or Senior Minister - another title created just for him.

It all leaves a bad taste in my mouth. There's something to be said for continuity of leadership, but Mr Lee has been around too long. The only good thing I can say is that he's a lot better than Mahatir Mohammed, ex-Prime Minister of Malaysia, a bitter old man, grasping at the power he relinquished, an anti-Semite and a fool. The only good thing I can say about Mahatir is that he wasn't afraid to stand up to the US, something which I wish we would do...

6) Stand up to the US and Israel

We have close military and economic ties to the US and Israel. Israel helped us start our Armed Forces. Good for them. However, the US launched an unjust war of aggression in Iraq. Israel is in defiance of UN resolutions calling it to withdraw to the Green Line, the pre-1967 border with Palestine, and to remove all settlements in the Occupied Territories. We have not stood against these acts of aggression. Have we no guts?

I'm not calling for severing ties with the US and Israel. I'm calling for us to simply speak the truth. The occupations are wrong, morally and legally. They must stop. Only if they stop will the US and Israel know peace. There will still be a lot to be done - there will still be Muslim extremists who want to wipe Israel and the "Great Satan" off the map, but if the occupations end, these idiots will have no excuse to do so and they will finally be exposed as the fools they really are. We can play a part in that Muslims in Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia, are often moderates. We are a place where the Islamic world engages and interacts with other faiths and cultures.

We think that we can afford to be silent, because the conflict will not spill over to our country, our children. This thinking is selfish. It will spill over to us. And even if it does not, we are one human family, children of (I believe) one God who transcends national and cultural boundaries. We owe it to ourselves to resist oppression, because if even one person is in chains, then none are truly free.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Lebanese death toll hits 1000

Today, I read in the papers that the Lebanese death toll has hit 1000, including some people missing but presumed dead. I do not know the Israeli death toll, but it is much lower. All human beings and all countries have the right to defend themselves if attacked, but Israel has been attacked, and yet has killed many more people than Hizbollah ... something is wrong.

Sabeel, an ecumenical liberation theology center in Palestine, analyzes the root causes of the conflict in Lebanon (http://www.sabeel.org/etemplate.php?id=35).

1. In 1948 over 300,000 Palestinian refugees were forcibly displaced by the Zionists from the north of Palestine into Lebanon and Syria where they have been living in refugee camps ever since. Most of them were driven out of an area that was slated for the Palestinian state according to the 1947 UN Partition Plan. Israel refused to implement UN Resolution 194 calling for their return. The Palestinians engaged in guerilla warfare against Israel insisting on their right of return to their homes and villages.
2. In 1978, Israel invaded Lebanon to destroy the Palestinian Liberation Organization resistance, killing almost 20,000 people, including the Sabra and Shatilla massacre, and destroying much of the country. Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon lasted 22 years in defiance of UN Resolution 425 calling for its withdrawal.
3. In 1984, Hizballah, a Lebanese Shiite organization emerged as a resistance movement to Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon. Hizballah proved more formidable than the Palestinians and managed to drive the Israeli army out of Lebanon in the year 2000.
4. In the 1990s, Israeli forces kidnapped Hizballah leaders including prominent religious figures and carried out exchanges of prisoners with the exception of three, in violation of mutual agreements.
5. It is important to point out that in the Middle East, it is the US and Israel that are occupying other people’s land, and paradoxically, it is they who brand the people they oppress and who resist their occupation as terrorists.

Sabeel outlines what, in their opinion, needs to be done to stop the conflict:

1. Immediate and unconditional ceasefire by all parties.
2. Implementation of all UN resolutions: The Middle East region has endured so much suffering and pain over the last sixty years. The time is now ripe for a comprehensive and lasting peace that will restore hope, and lead to a new Middle East established on justice and dignity for all its peoples. This can only be achieved by implementing ALL UN resolutions pertaining to the conflict without exception. No agreement will hold without first solving the Palestine-Israel conflict conclusively. This opportunity must not be lost.
3. Implementation of UN resolution 1559: Israel insists on the implementation of 1559 while ignoring its own obligations to dozens of UN resolutions since its establishment in 1948. It is hypocritical of Israel to insist on one resolution and totally disregarding others. If the implementation of 1559 in Lebanon helps to bring security to Israel, we believe that the implementation of UN resolutions 242 and 338 as well as others pertinent to the Palestine-Israel conflict will bring peace and security to Palestine, Israel, and the whole region. These include the return of the Golan Heights to Syria, the withdrawal from the Shebba farms, and the withdrawal from all the Occupied Palestinian Territories including East Jerusalem.
4. Exchange of Prisoners: One of the major root causes for the present war is the question of prisoners – Lebanese, Jordanian, Palestinian, and others – whom Israel refuses to free. The international community must find a solution to this humanitarian problem. Without the release of prisoners the conflict will be renewed. The release of the prisoners must be an integral part of the solution.

Finally, I would like to point out something disturbing about the US government's attitude towards the conflict. Condoleeza Rice initially refused to demand a ceasefire, stating that a solution had to address wider issues. She is right, a final solution to the conflict needs to address all the issues involved, but to get there, we first need a ceasefire. By this insistence, she shows that the US is less concerned about human lives than about achieving its ends, and arguably those of Israel. If those ends were good ends, that might be one thing. But those ends include imposing democracy on the Middle East, planting it with the point of a bayonet if necessary. Genuine democracies cannot be planted at gunpoint. Also, the US' uncompromising support for Israel is insane. A Muslim author I read points out that one can find more criticism of Israel's occupation in Israel itself than in the US.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The execution of a 16-year old girl for "crimes against chastity" - Purity vs Justice


In church when I was growing up (it was a Methodist church, very evangelical), we had what we call cell groups, which were small groups that studied the Bible and offered each other support. At more than one meeting, I recall my cell group leader warning us with great passion to resist, at all costs, "homosexual temptations."

Now, I have a confession to make that may startle some. Despite my strong support for gay rights ... I haven't really experienced any homosexual temptations. And so, I nodded my head and resolved to resist such temptations if they ever hit me. Even later on, though, when I had met a lot of really hot gay guys, the heterosexual temptations are always much stronger. So I was always a little uncomfortable with and puzzled by my leader's vehemence.

And when I started questioning my church's teachings on homosexuality, I also wondered, why was not an equal amount of venom directed at social sins, like economic exploitation, environmental degradation, unjust imprisonments and phony trials? Why was the church so concerned about sexual sins? I've never heard Evangelical leaders, for example, say that those who commit multi billion-dollar corporate fraud and cheat investors of their life savings are in danger of hellfire (although it seems one moron priest compared Ken Lay to Jesus and to MLK: http://money.cnn.com/2006/07/12/news/newsmakers/lay.reut/ )

The above link details the story of Atefah Sahaaleh, hanged in a public square in Iran in 2004. Her death sentence was imposed for "crimes against chastity." She was 16, although the newspapers reported that she was 22 and the kangaroo courts that tried her did not determine her age.

To make matters worse, she was raped several times by a 51-year old married man, Ali Darabi. Darabi was investigated by the court, and received 95 lashes. Atefah had a difficult childhood, having to care for her grandparents, and was arrested at age 13, for being alone with a boy. She was arrested several more times, and the locals apparently saw her as a loose woman. The last time, she was arrested by religious police, not secular police, and was tried in a religious court. These courts do not answer to the Iranian parliament, and are inaccessible to human rights campaigners. And in courts that operate under the fundamentalist interpretation of shariah (Islamic law), proving a rape requires 4 adult men or 8 adult women as witnesses. Atefah confessed to the sexual abuse, but Darabi would have been able to say, "she encouraged me," or "she didn't dress modestly," and get off. Atefah realized her case was hopeless, and she shouted at the judge, Haji Rezai, and threw off her veil. This outburst was fatal. Rezai was a head of judiciary. He summarily condemned her to death.

To many Westerners the notion of religious courts with the power to execute people is anathema, but Muslims do not believe in separation of religion and state in the same manner as Westerners do. How they organize their societies to ensure justice for all is their business, not mine, to work out. My business, though, is to condemn people like Rezai who commit such atrocities in the name of God. Such people twist the words of God to suit their own small-minded ends. And generally, when they do so, they focus on issues of purity. We can see such twisting in the actions of the Religious Right in America, trying to outlaw gay marriage and abortion.

But God said, "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings." (Hosea 6:6) Purity codes have their place. For the ancient Israelites, many aspects of their purity code kept them safe from infectious diseases - for example, you were unclean if you came into contact with a dead body. In modern hospitals, secular purity codes (washing, wearing gloves and masks, disinfection) keep us all safe from diseases as well. But purity codes have also been applied to oppress people. The Nazis did this with their race ideology, as did Americans before them. Much of Jesus' mission on earth was speaking out against the Pharisees' misues of the purity codes.

For Atefah Sahaaleh, I pray for eternal rest in the arms of a loving God. For Haji Rezai and others like him, I pray for mercy on the day of judgment, for liberation from power-over, the need to use power to dominate others, and for liberation from the misuse of the codes. And I pray for the safety of all those who find themselves at the wrong end of the purity codes.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

8 women to be ordained as Roman Catholic priests, 4 as deacons!! Today!!

And it's not the first time. "Rebel" Roman Catholic clergy have been ordaining women as priests and bishops for some time now. In my very limited understanding of Roman Catholic rules of order, since they were ordained by validly ordained bishops, their ordinations are valid. For those women who were validly ordained bishops, the ordinations they perform are valid. At least, all those things are valid until the RCC hierarchy revokes them. I ask your prayers: God, give these brave souls the grace to resist oppression, with strength and love, and without fear and hatred. Amen.

Roman Catholic Womenpriests
Ordination on Three Rivers
July, 2006
There will be an ordination of womenpriests and womendeacons in the Roman Catholic Church on Monday, July 31, 2006. The ordination ceremony is to take place on a chartered boat departing from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. at 3:00 p.m. (E.D.T.) to sail on the Three Rivers: the Allegheny, the Monongahela and the Ohio.

Bishop Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger of Austria and Bishops Gisela Forster and Patricia Fresen of Germany will officiate.

For further information contact Joan Houk: jhoukmdiv@earthlink.net