"One may demand of me that I should seek truth, but not that I should find it." - Denis Diderot

Friday, 12 November 2010

Move to Wordpress: http://charcoalandink.wordpress.com/

After having been advised on the various pros and cons of online blogging sites, I have decided to move my blog over to wordpress.com under the new name of "Charcoal and Ink" - a title I feel better reflects the personal and creative aspects of my blogging style. The new URL is: http://charcoalandink.wordpress.com/

Thursday, 4 November 2010

YouTube and Extremism

Image from telegraph.co.uk 

Roshanara Choudhry, the Muslim student who stabbed MP Stephen Timms for his views on the war in Iraq has revealed that she was motivated to violent action after having been exposed to radical lectures and videos by the notorious Islamist Anwar Al-Awlaki on YouTube

During her police interview of May 14, excerpts of which were published yesterday by The Guardian she tells her interlocutor that she wanted to die for her actions:

"Choudhry: I wanted to be a martyr.

Q Why's that then?

A 'Cos, erm, that's the best way to die.

Q Who told you that?

A It's an Islamic teaching.

Q Where did you learn that?

A It's … it's in the Koran and I learnt it from listening to lectures as well.

Q OK, what lectures are that?

A By Anwar al-Awlaki.

Q al-Awlaki?

A Yeah.

Q OK, well, how did you find out about him?

A On the internet ... if you go on YouTube there's a lot of his videos there and if you do a search they just come up ... I wasn't searching for him, I just came across him ... I used to watch videos that people used to put up about like how they became Muslim."

(full interview available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/nov/03/roshonara-choudhry-police-interview)

This disturbing revelation has raised all sorts of questions about the relative accessibility of radical and extremist views on mainstream websites. It is a well known fact that the internet is one of the main tools used by terrorist groups the world over to influence and recruit impressionable young idealists, this is an unavoidable part of having such a vast network of readily accessibly information. What is so disturbing in this case is that the website in question is not some obscure platform for terrorist recruitment, but one of the most well-loved and popular sites visited the world over.

YouTube has responded by removing many of Al-Awlaki's videos from its site, but the question remains as to what else might be out there; if videos posted by this prominent Islamist were able to slip through the security net so easily, there may well be a whole host of lesser-known radicals who are currently exploiting mainstream internet sites and using them as platforms to promote their own radicalised views.

The problem in policing this phenomenon, however, is ethically as well as practically difficult: freedom of speech is one of the most cherished values of our modern Western society, and any action that has the potential to compromise this value - no matter how good the intention - is necessarily going to raise all sorts of difficult moral issues. Where do we draw the line between giving people the freedom to express their views and forcibly obstructing them from doing so? This is a difficult question, and not one to which I am able to offer an easy answer. However, I do commend YouTube's decision in this case. Even in a free society, there are certain limits and rules that all citizens must follow in order for that society to function, and promoting and glorifying violence - in any form and under any guise - is in direct breach of those rules and cannot be tolerated. Sometimes it is necessary to curb certain freedoms in order that we may have more freedom in other areas - if Al-Awlaki had been prohibited from uploading content to YouTube, for example, Miss Choudhry may never have become radicalised in the first place. This fact alone is enough to make anyone think twice about the price we should put on freedom.

I am a professional journalist with a keen interest in the Middle East

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professional journalist with key interest in Middle East

Friday, 29 October 2010

A gene for Liberalism?

Image from telegraph.co.uk

According to a new study published by Cambridge University Press, Liberalism (as in the modern leftist kind, not the Classical kind) may be genetically determined by a certain type of dopamine receptor.

"Dopamine is a neurotransmitter affecting brain processes that control movement, emotional response, and ability to experience pleasure and pain. Previous research has identified a connection between a variant of this gene and novelty-seeking behaviour, and this behaviour has previously been associated with personality traits related to political liberalism."

The implication being that individuals who are genetically predetermined to seek and engage in a wider variety of experiences are more likely to adopt a leftist political ideology based on the principle of social egalitarianism. This may all be well and good - and indeed at least anecdotally verifiable (after all, those individuals who interact with others from more diverse social backgrounds are usually inclined to hold a belief about the equality of all individuals that may then be translated onto a more political spectrum) - but this also seems to suggests that those individuals who do not possess this gene are naturally more callous and inclined to shy away from novelty or excitement. This seems to me to be problematic on two levels. Firstly, it presupposes that political Liberalism is the natural expression of an intrinsic sense of humanity and understanding; and secondly, it assumes that those individuals who do not subscribe to Liberalism per se are necessarily more conservative and more closed than those who do.

And this serves to highlight the whole problem with Liberalism in the first place : that those who subscribe to it often consider themselves to be morally and socially superior to those who don't. Moreover, Liberalism also has the tendency to become polarised and exaggerated into dangerous political ideologies, like Communism and Socialism, that when fully developed threaten to undermine the very sentiment of common humanity that inspired them in the first place. It may well be true that nurturing a sense of human equality can only be a good thing; if it weren't for our concern with universal human rights and equality of opportunity then our society would not be where it is today. But to suggest that political Liberalism is both the natural and appropriate expression of this concern for human welfare betrays the very trap of self-righteousness and moral priggishness that Liberals so often fall into. Just because an act is motivated by a sense of benevolence and altruism (for example, giving money to a tramp on the street despite the likelihood that it will be spent on drugs or alcohol) does not necessarily make it right. Liberals need to take off their rose-tinted glasses and see the world as it really is - because grand theories of social egalitarianism cannot and will not work (as much as we might like them to) within the current social climate.

So this study, in its own way, has exposed two very important issues surrounding political Liberalism. One is the tendency for Liberals to consider themselves to be morally superior to non-Liberals; and the other is to prove, scientifically, that a subscription to Liberalism requires a certain type of mentality: one that is simultaneously idealistic and immune to any sense of reality or pain, be it social or physical (hence the dopamine connection). The fact that a gene that serves to make us more liable to take risks and to seek new and dangerous experiences also tends to make an individual more likely to adopt a Liberal mindset is itself highly telling.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

"In 'ertford, 'ereford and 'ampshire..."

Today, the British Library announced its quest to record the way people articulate the English language, and in the process to pave the way towards categorising the changes taking place in the pronunciation of certain words.

Apparently, the sounds of words such as says, ate, mischievous, harass, garage, schedule and aitch (as in the letter 'h') is gradually shifting, with younger speakers showing a preference for different pronunciations to their elders.

Inevitably, all languages are subject to natural changes as they evolve over time - speakers are usually exposed to a whole variety of social and linguistic variables, including class, age, sex etc. Interestingly, however, several of the changes noted by the study have indicated that in some cases class and social standing no longer have a role to play in the pronunciation of certain words and sounds. Words such as schedule and aitch have finally bowed down to the influence of America and are now acceptedly pronounced as skedule and haitch respectively.

In many ways, the study provides a fascinating insight into the way our language has changed over time, and it has also provided a glimmer of hope for proponents of social mobility by showing how pronunciation of certain words has become less a matter of class and breeding and more a reflection of our dynamic and changing modern society.

Still, my inner pedant will never cease to cringe when I hear the likes of skedule and haitch pronounced on the street, and I reserve the right to glare witheringly at any individual who chooses to affront my ears in this manner. It's enough to make Henry Higgins turn in his fictional grave...

Trying to stop the water from running out

Hundreds of Syrians in the occupied Golan Heights have staged a protest march over concerns that a lake could dry up due to pumping by Israel's national water company.

These harrowing images, published by the BBC, highlight the very human suffering that plagues such water shortages in the region.

Dead fish on the shores of lake Ram

Protestors symbolically pour water into the lake

They say that by the time 18-month-old Kaisar Fakher al-Din grows up, the lake could have all but disappeared, causing irreparable harm to the local environment. 

Pictures by Raya al-Deen

Thursday, 21 October 2010

A moment of folly in the captial

In the mad rush and noise that characterises the streets of London, it's all easy to become alienated and disillusioned by the assault of glass, steel and LED screens that have transformed this once ancient and historic city into a modern metropolis of the new age of technology and communications. The beating, throbbing life of the city is at once exhilarating and terrifying - a vast expanse of flashing lights and blaring sirens that assault the senses of the innocent bystander and beat them into begrudging submission. Whatever happened to the London of the imagination? The London of history? Long gone are the quaint sights of gentlemen in top hats and tails; of bawdy whorehouses and elegant cocktail parties; of the scent of tobacco smoke and the tinkle of piano keys. Indeed, everything that was once associated with the wonderful and faintly peculiar characteristic of being part of British society seems to have withered and died in a city that is now more famous for its crowds of unruly tourists than its Nancys, Sweeney Todds or Bertie Woosters.

And yet this city never fails to surprise and amaze. Sitting in the warmth of a rather shabby little bar in the heart of Soho last night, I was delighted to find myself serenaded by the doleful strains of Tom Jones' "Delilah" that were banged out on a decrepit looking piano in the corner which I had assumed was there merely for decoration. As I listened to the familiar plonk plonk of the keys, the whole pub began to resonate with the sound of singing - a low, mournful hum that united this handful of strangers in a common musical cause, only to die away as suddenly as it had begun. It was a strange, disembodied sort of singing: seemingly to emanate from everywhere and nowhere at once, almost as if it was growing organically out of the man whose fingers were manipulating the keys of the piano with such gusto. In the silence that followed the end of the piece, and before the commencement of another (an Elton John number, if I recall correctly), it occurred to me that perhaps the infamous British eccentric was not lost after all, and it was ordinary people like these, in this ordinary bar in Soho that in their own small way have continued the weird and wonderful cultural tradition that is 'Britishness'.

Later, as I left the pub to make my way home in the crisp evening air, I could still hear the gentle hum of the music drifting through the cold, dark streets of London town.

"Why, why why, Delilah?..."