Thursday, November 29, 2012

Muslims accused of 'stealing' Christmas

Seven years after cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, published in a Danish newspaper, triggered world-wide protests leaving more than 100 dead, the country is again at the centre of another controversy, this time involving the actions of its own Muslim immigrants.
The row springs from an unexpected source, a meeting of the Egedalsvaenget Tenants Association in the town of Kokkedal, about 30 kilometres north of Copenhagen. With Christmas approaching the association’s board received a request for funds to set up a Christmas tree and festive lights in one of the housing estate’s public areas.
The request, for the equivalent of $1000, has been routinely approved in past years but on this occasion, the board, which now has a majority of Muslim members, turned it down.
Fuel was added to the flames when local media reported that the board had voted for the equivalent of $10,000 to fund a large communal celebration of the Muslim holiday of Eid earlier in the year.
As the controversy mounted Muslim members of the board attempted to back-pedal, saying the request was refused simply because no-one wanted to take on the responsibility for setting up the tree, but the board’s chair, non-Muslim Karin Leegaard Hansen, rejected this, saying she had been willing to organise the project, but that it had been voted down along racial lines.
The impasse took a sinister turn when a local television crew, sent to Egedalsvaenget to report on the story, were attacked by masked youths and forced to retreat unharmed but with considerable damage to their vehicle. The crew claimed their attackers were Muslims seeking to silence media coverage of the incident.
If so, they made a grave miscalculation. The story has sparked anger throughout the Scandinavian country and is now being covered overseas.
An anonymous donor has offered to cover the cost of the tree and it does look like the Christian residents of the housing complex will be able to celebrate Christmas in the traditional way. However, the incident has left a bad taste and threatens to put the question of Muslim immigration at the top of the Danish, if not the European agenda, as 2013 nears.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Is Modi India’s next PM?

Indian state elections can be robust affairs, but the campaign currently being conducted in Gujarat is extraordinary even by these standards, with the Chief Minister being branded a ‘monkey’ and the Opposition Congress Party described as the ‘forces of darkness…an evil that must be swept away’.
This is on top of the routine accusations of bribery and general corruption that both Congress and its main opponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), hurl at each other as the two-phase poll, on December 13 and 17, approaches.
What makes the election especially interesting is the speculation surrounding the flamboyant, BJP-supported Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, who is seeking an unprecedented fourth term. Commentators are saying that if he is successful he will be ideally placed to make the transition to national politics and lead the BJP into the election of 2014.
With the ruling Congress Party in a degree of disarray following a series of corruption scandals – and uncertainty about who will succeed 80-year-old Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – Modi, easily Gujarat’s longest-serving Chief Minister, could well be the next leader of the world’s biggest democracy.
The Chief Minister has some impressive credentials, but also some skeletons in his cupboard. He achieved hero status last year when, on a visit to China, he claimed to have been instrumental in securing the release of 13 Indian diamond traders who had been jailed in Shenzhen on customs offences.
However, he is still dogged by accusations that his then fledgling administration did not do enough to stop Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 in which more than 1000 died. Allegations that he actually encouraged violence against Muslims were rejected in court.
None of this appears to have affected his popularity in his own state and most recently he poured scorn on the ‘Cong’ (the BJP’s derogatory name for Congress) and its president, Sonja Gandhi, who visited the Gujarat on the election trail.
“Cong has no role to play in Gujarat, Sonia’s speech had nothing in it; the newspapers didn’t even publish it, just big pictures,” Modi said.
Congress’ main hope lies among the rural poor where the party’s national policies have led to some development, but while opinion polls are few and generally unreliable in India, the feeling is that Modi will win again.
If so, the 62-year-old will be ideally placed to take a shot and the top job in New Delhi.    

Monday, November 19, 2012

Hamas ploy – keep it on the battlefield

In just over a week’s time the United Nations is scheduled to vote on whether to upgrade the status of Palestine to that of a non-member observer State. On the face of it, this seems rather symbolic, regularising a situation that already exists. Palestine will have no more rights to do anything at the international body than it currently enjoys.

Its representatives can already address the General Assembly, take part in meetings and co-sponsor resolutions. They are not able to vote, or become voting members of any UN Committee. None of this will change.

But symbolism means a lot in Israel and the fact that Palestine would be accorded the status of a ‘state’, something that Israel has steadfastly refused to accept, is seen as a significant setback by the Government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That is why a few days ago Netanyahu seemed ready to scrap the Oslo Accords, agreed by former leaders Yasser Arafat (Palestine) and Yitzak Rabin (Israel) almost two decades ago, that gave the Palestinians some degree of autonomy and promised more in the future.

What has generally been forgotten in the current turmoil descending on the Middle East was that the threatened stick was followed by the proffered carrot.

A day later Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman put forward a draft document offering the Palestinians immediate recognition of statehood within provisional borders as an incentive for dropping their UN bid.

In other words, Israel was trying to wrest the question of statehood out of the international arena and back to face-to-face negotiations with the Government of Mahmoud Abbas on the West Bank.

It was then that the Hamas rockets began to fly.

Why? Because any moves along this line would have left Hamas isolated in the Gaza Strip and enhanced Abbas’ standing as the legitimate leader of the Palestinian people. Hamas always has and continues to call for the destruction of the Jewish State – a ‘push them into the sea’ mentality, which is quietly being discarded in many Arab capitals.

Hamas’ resort to arms is a calculated ploy to remove the Middle East peace process off the negotiating table and back to the battlefield, where it knows it can garner world attention and sympathy.

It is now inevitable that the UN vote will go ahead on November 29 and that Palestinian recognition will pass with an overwhelming majority in the veto-proof General Assembly. As I said at the beginning it will mean very little, apart from setting back the peace process generally, which has been Hamas’ aim from the very beginning.   

Monday, November 12, 2012

Away with the slash-and-burn merchants

In Greece another round of financial stringency has been voted on by the Parliament. The 2013 Budget has been passed with a diet that has become all too familiar to the population – more spending cuts, more raised taxes. The demonstrations that followed were small in comparison with those of the past. Demo fatigue has set in, or perhaps Greeks are now more concerned with survival and lack the energy to take to the streets.
In Australia conservative state governments continue their attacks on spending, to the point where in NSW Departmental hard copies of annual reports are reduced to four, in black and white, produced in-house on computers and photo-copiers.
The aftermath of the global financial crisis is stretching out over the years, with Governments of all shapes and sizes seemingly having no answer to it other than cut, cut, and cut.
And yet in California in the wake of the elections there, Governor Jerry Brown senses a change in mood.
“The cutting has got out of control,” Governor Brown told a television program. “And in California you can only cut schools and universities so much and then people say ‘enough already’ - and that’s exactly what they said on election night.”
Governor Brown was referring to Proposition 30 (a type of referendum that is voted on at the same time as the national and state polls) in which Californians voted, by a margin of 54 per cent to 46 per cent, to increase personal income taxes for individuals making more than $250,000 a year.
They also agreed to accept a temporary sales tax increase that will affect almost everybody.
The result means that the extra revenue raised will negate the need for spending cuts on education. Opponents fume, saying there will now be no reform of the education system.
But for so long ‘reform’ has been conservative jargon for slash and burn. Doing more with less has been the buzz word for too long. ‘Efficiencies’, when pushed past a certain point, cease to be efficient. That point has not been lost on the good people of California.
And so back to Greece. I have no doubt that genuine reform is needed there, especially in the workings of the bureaucracy. By some accounts if the country simply collected all the taxes it is owed, it would not have a financial crisis.
If so, isn’t there a good case for increasing the numbers of tax inspectors and really making them earn their pay instead of, as has happened, slashing them?
Maybe it is time to reject the methods of the slash-and-burn merchants, whether they are in the International Monetary Fund, or the bean-counters in the corner office. Maybe it is time for ‘stimulation’ to replace ‘austerity’ as the buzz word for the future.  

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

GOP’s blunder – right man, wrong message

The Romney-Ryan ticket was the best the Republicans could have put forward in 2012. It had all the hallmarks that Republicans support, ticked all the boxes that should bring out the voters in the handful of swing States were elections are decided.

Romney should be heading for the White House now because he was the right candidate for Republican America, which took to him after initial reservations about his Mormon background when he quickly shifted his position rightwards - and especially after he selected the solidly conservative Paul Ryan, an ideological hero of the radical right Tea Party movement, as his running mate.

The United States is a conservative country more at home with pro-business, small government Republicans than Democrats who are often perceived as wild-eyed free spenders contemptuous of traditional American values of family, community and church.

Apart from a few decades following Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, Republicans have dominated the White House since the Civil War and even when Democrats have won, their tenure has been short-lived.

So what happened to Romney, apparently a Republican ideal, who is left counting the Electoral College votes that got away, consigning him to a question for trivia quizmasters of the future?

Right candidate, wrong message. Romney failed to win over enough of the uncommitted voters who would have put him over the top because they had heard the slogans about ‘new directions’ and ‘fresh starts’ from so many other candidates in so many other elections. Obama had used them with success in 2008, but coming from a young man seeking to be the nation’s first black president, they sounded believable.

Romney is a white, late middle-aged male, one of a number of the kind who have tried unsuccessfully to win the White House for the Republicans (remember McCain? Remember Dole?) by attempting to be what they are not – youthful, exciting, stimulating.

There is nothing wrong with an ageing white Baby Boomer running for the White House on the Republican ticket as long as the message matches the image (Ronald Reagan’s ‘Morning in America’ hit the spot). Romney needed to have portrayed a strong calming persona, inspiring hard work, dedication to the flag, and a grim determination to dig America out of the hole that Republicans say the Democrats have dug.

If he wanted to see how it was done, take a look at Vice President Joe Biden.   

Instead he set the same manic pace as his younger opponent and in the final stages of the campaign, and especially when Hurricane Sandy interrupted the schedule, began to appear old and frazzled. Not a good look when talking about bright-eyed visions for the future as the final raft of uncommitted voters headed to the polls.