February 16, 2011
February 16, 2011
February 16, 2011
This man is a word machine, a one-man talk show that leaves no subject unexamined. Youssef al-Qaradawi has to talk: about former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, about mothers’ milk banks, and about the right of Palestinian women to blow themselves up.
He is a driven man. There are so many decisions to be made in this godforsaken modern age, and yet there is only one mufti, only one Islamic scholar like Qaradawi, who knew the Koran by heart by the time he was 10, only one man who can help the faithful understand the world.
Qaradawi is the father figure of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s best-organized opposition group. The Brotherhood is sure to play a part in deciding what path Egypt will now take.
The Islamist group asked Qaradawi to be their leader in 2002, but he turned them down. Such a position would have been too limiting. He has a different mission. He feels compelled to talk.
The Al-Jazeera television network has been broadcasting Qaradawi’s program “Shariah and Life” every Sunday for the past 15 years. Some 60 million Muslims watch him as he talks imploringly about the genocide in Gaza or the unique dangers of female masturbation (“the hymen is very sensitive and could tear”).
‘Every Last One of Them’
Qaradawi advocates establishing a “United Muslim Nations” as a contemporary form of the caliphate and the only alternative to the hegemony of the West. He hates Israel and would love to take up arms himself. In one of his sermons, he asked God “to kill the Jewish Zionists, every last one of them.”
In January 2009, he said: “Throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the [Jews] people who would punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was carried out by [Adolf] Hitler.”
Will this man encourage his brothers in Cairo to uphold the peace treaty with Israel, should the Muslim Brotherhood become part of a government now that Mubarak has resigned?…
February 16, 2011
Silvio Berlusconi is at the center of two dramas in Italy today. The first centers on the prime minister’s notorious personal and political scandals: A judge will soon decide whether Berlusconi should immediately face trial on charges of paying for sex with a 17-year-old and abusing his office to have her released after being accused of theft. With its Roman settings and operatic staging, the effort to put Berlusconi on trial has had the makings of a comic opera, as if Benny Hill were playing Scarpia in Tosca.
The other battle is less acute, but more critical for Italy’s future. This past weekend, one million Italians and some foreign sympathizers marched — not only in Italy, but everywhere from New York to London to Honolulu to Jakarta — in order to air their grievances against “Berlusconi-ism,” the distorted political and social system that the media magnate has imposed on the country since he came on the scene in 1994. Even if Berlusconi leaves the soon, Italians realize he will leave behind a toxic legacy, one in which the media cynically undermine democratic norms and women have largely been robbed of their dignity in public and private life.
In the 1980s, Berlusconi succeeded in creating a near monopoly of national commercial television. The public broadcaster, RAI, has always been subservient to the government, so when Berlusconi became prime minister in practice he controlled five out of the seven national channels. He and his family also have extensive print and publishing interests which he has maintained even in office.
It is hardly news that a political leader has meetings with his staff to plan his media strategies, but what makes Berlusconi different is that the “staff” comprises editors of newspapers and TV channels that reach more than half the population. Given the concentration of media power in the hands of the prime minister, it is no surprise that for the past two years Freedom House has classified Italy’s media status as only “partly free.”
In the case of his current scandals, Berlusconi has unleashed his media companies to act as his public defenders. Over the last few days, they have started what looks like an organized campaign to defend the boss and attack his enemies. Last week, Giuliano Ferrara, the editor of a Berlusconi family paper — the low circulation daily Il Foglio — published a long interview with Berlusconi in which he accused the Milan prosecutors who are investigating him of carrying out a “moral coup” and acting illegally. He compared them to the Stasi and today’s Italy to East Germany. Ferrara was also allowed a six-minute monologue on RAI’s Channel 1 prime-time news program in which he attacked the main anti-Berlusconi media. Channel 1 is RAI’s flagship channel; its news editor, Augusto Minzolini is famous for his direct-to-camera opinion pieces in which he either praises Berlusconi or attacks the opposition. Last week, Channel 1 aired an interview with the prime minister without a single question about his trials.
Italy has never had a puritanical culture, but under the influence of Berlusconi’s media, the country has become positively shameless. That has been especially evident in his current scandal. Berlusconi makes no secret of giving parties for up to 30 young women, some under 18, and a few, usually elderly, male friends. Indeed, another of his family owned papers, Il Giornale, has just published photographs of one of the girls who calls him “Papi,” Noemi Letizia. She spent New Year’s Eve of 2008 in his Sardinian villa when she was only 17. Her friend who took photographs of her at that party admitted that they were given “money for little presents, 2,000 euros or sometimes presents like necklaces or bracelets, the usual sorts of presents that an uncle gives a niece.” Berlusconi doesn’t deny knowing the woman at the center of the current case, Karima el Mahroug (aka Ruby), nor having phoned the Milan police station where she was being held on charges of theft in order to get her released.
One needn’t be a moralistic American to be troubled by the prime minister’s casual openness about this kind of conduct. And the effects are being felt not only among a small group of young girls, but among Italy’s women more broadly…
February 16, 2011
…Egypt and Tunisia have just sent a sobering message to China and other authoritarian regimes around the world: don’t count on economic progress to keep you in power forever.
Perhaps the most striking finding in the United Nations’ recent 20th anniversary Human Development Report is the outstanding performance of the Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Here was Tunisia, ranked sixth among 135 countries in terms of improvement in its Human Development Index (HDI) over the previous four decades, ahead of Malaysia, Hong Kong, Mexico, and India. Not far behind was Egypt, ranked 14th.
The HDI is a measure of development that captures achievements in health and education alongside economic growth. Egypt and (especially) Tunisia did well enough on the growth front, but where they really shone was on these broader indicators. At 74, Tunisia’s life expectancy edges out Hungary’s and Estonia’s, countries that are more than twice as wealthy. Some 69% of Egypt’s children are in school, a ratio that matches much richer Malaysia’s. Clearly, these were states that did not fail in providing social services or distributing the benefits of economic growth widely.
Yet in the end it did not matter. The Tunisian and Egyptian people were, to paraphrase Howard Beale, mad as hell at their governments, and they were not going to take it anymore. If Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak were hoping for political popularity as a reward for economic gains, they must have been sorely disappointed.
One lesson of the Arab annus mirabilis, then, is that good economics need not always mean good politics; the two can part ways for quite some time. It is true that the world’s wealthy countries are almost all democracies. But democratic politics is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for economic development over a period of several decades.
Despite the economic advances they registered, Tunisia, Egypt, and many other Middle Eastern countries remained authoritarian countries ruled by a narrow group of cronies, with corruption, clientelism, and nepotism running rife. These countries’ rankings on political freedoms and corruption stand in glaring contrast to their rankings on development indicators.
In Tunisia, Freedom House reported prior to the Jasmine revolution, “the authorities continued to harass, arrest, and imprison journalists and bloggers, human rights activists, and political opponents of the government.” The Egyptian government was ranked 111th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2009 survey of corruption.
And of course, the converse is also true: India has been democratic since independence in 1947, yet the country didn’t begin to escape of its low “Hindu rate of growth” until the early 1980’s.
A second lesson is that rapid economic growth does not buy political stability on its own, unless political institutions are allowed to develop and mature rapidly as well. In fact, economic growth itself generates social and economic mobilization, a fundamental source of political instability.
As the late political scientist Samuel Huntington put it more than 40 years ago, “social and economic change – urbanization, increases in literacy and education, industrialization, mass media expansion – extend political consciousness, multiply political demands, broaden political participation.” Now add social media such as Twitter and Facebook to the equation, and the destabilizing forces that rapid economic change sets into motion can become overwhelming…