Friday, 25 December 2009

Book summary: "The Case For Christ" by Lee Strobel

I enjoyed this book so much that I decided to summarise it. It is a Gold-Medallion award-winning best-seller written by Lee Strobel, a former legal editor of the Chicago Tribune, who has a Master of Studies in Law degree from Yale Law School. The book retraces his own spiritual journey from atheism to belief in Christ. Using his investigative journalism skills he cross-examines a dozen experts, with doctorates from prestigious universities like Cambridge and Princeton, who are recognized authorities in their own fields. Strobel asks some tough, point-blank questions. With a predisposition to atheism he sets out to examine whether Jesus of Nazareth really was the Son of God. Being a skeptic he is interested in evidence, and that is what he tries to uncover. The book is remarkably easy to read, written in a captivating, fast-paced style.

The eyewitness evidence

Strobel starts by examining the eye witness testimony of Jesus, recorded in the gospels, and interviews Dr. Craig Blomberg, a New Testament scholar at Denver Seminary in Colorado. The gospels include: the Gospel of Matthew, by Matthew, also known as Levi, the tax collector; the Gospel of Mark, by John Mark, a companion of Peter; the Gospel of Luke, by Paul’s physician, Luke; and the Gospel of John, by another disciple of Jesus, John. All the gospels were written within sixty years of the life of Jesus, much earlier than biographies of other important persons in ancient history and too early for legendary interpretations to have formed, explains Blomberg. The Gospel of Mark was written first, no later than about 60AD, and it was a source for the gospels of Matthew and Luke. It is believed Matthew and Luke also used a common hypothetical source, called Q (from the German Quelle, meaning "source"), containing a collection of the sayings of Jesus.

Blomberg explains persuasively it was the intention of the gospel writers to preserve history accurately, they were able to do so, and that they were honest and didn’t allow bias to influence their reporting. They had nothing to gain except criticism, ostracism and martyrdom, yet because of their integrity and firm beliefs, they were willing to endure all this. The consistency of the gospels on the main facts, together with variations on some details, lends historical credibility to the accounts. Blomberg says, “It’s likely that a lot of the similarities and differences among the synoptics can be explained by assuming that the disciples and other early Christians had committed to memory a lot of what Jesus said and did, but they felt free to recount this information in various forms, always preserving the significance of Jesus’ original teachings and deeds.” Moreover, it is unlikely the early church would have grown if contemporaries of Jesus could have been exposed as propagating falsehoods.

The documentary evidence

Strobel then examines how carefully the biographies of Jesus have been preserved. He interviews Bruce Metzger, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, who has written many books on the New Testament. Metzger explains that although there are no surviving copies of the original New Testament, what it has in its favour is the unprecedented number of copies (more than 5,000), from different geographical locations, that have survived and date back close to the original writings. This indicates they can be traced back genealogically in a family tree to the original manuscripts. The oldest surviving manuscript is a fragment of the gospel of John which dates back to between 100 and 150 AD. The manuscripts are so remarkably consistent with one another that scholars Norman Geisler and William Nix conclude, “The New Testament has not only survived in more manuscripts than any other book from antiquity, but it has survived in a purer form than any other great book – a form that is 99.5% pure.” The early church did not include apocrypha, such as The Gospel of Thomas, in the New Testament because they contradicted Jesus’ teaching, having been written in the second century or later, and their mythical qualities made them less credible.

The corroborating evidence

Is there evidence outside of the gospels for Jesus? Strobel puts this question to Dr Edwin M. Yamauchi, a Japanese-American academic, who was born a Buddhist but became a believer of Christ. Josephus was a very important Jewish historian of the first century. In his work “The Antiquities “ he describes how a high priest named Ananias took advantage of the death of the Roman governor Festus in order to have James, the brother of Jesus, killed. An even lengthier section about Jesus is written in the “Testimonium Flavianum”, which is considered authentic by both Jewish and Christian scholars, although there may be some interpolations by early Christian copyists. Josephus corroborates important information about Jesus: he was the martyred leader of the church in Jerusalem; and he established a wide and lasting following, despite having been crucified under Pilate at the instigation of some Jewish leaders. Tacitus, a Roman historian of the first century, testifies to the success and spread of Christianity, based on a historical figure – “Christus” – who was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Pliny the Younger, another Roman who was provincial governor of Pontus and Bithynia, wrote to Emperor Trajan in 112 AD how to deal with Christians, who refused to worship the emperor and instead worshiped "Christus". A historian called Thallus refers to the solar eclipse at the time of the Crucifixion. The Jewish Talmud mentions Jesus, calling him a false messiah who practiced magic and who was justly condemned to death; and it repeats the rumour Jesus was born of a Roman soldier and Mary, suggesting there was something unusual about his birth; so in a negative way it corroborates some things about Jesus. Paul of Tarsus, a Jewish high priest who never met Jesus, was transformed from being a persecutor of Christians to history’s foremost Christian missionary after he encountered the resurrected Christ. His letters, written before the gospels, verifies the antiquity and traditions of Jesus, undermining a popular theory that the deity of Christ was later imported into Christianity by pagan beliefs. The ‘Apostolic Fathers’ – the earliest Christian writers after the New Testament – attest to the basic facts about Jesus, particularly his crucifixion, resurrection and divine nature. Yamauchi adds, “For me, the historical evidence has reinforced my commitment to Jesus Christ as the Son of God who loves us and died for us and was raised from the dead. It’s that simple.”

The scientific evidence

Next, Strobel examines the scientific evidence and interviews Dr John McRay, a professor of New Testament and archaeology. McRay explains how archaeological evidence has repeatedly enhanced the credibility of the New Testament. John’s gospel was sometimes considered suspect because he mentioned locations that couldn’t be verified, but new discoveries have backed it up. The Pool of Bethesda, where Jesus healed an invalid (John 5:1 – 15), has recently been excavated. Other discoveries include the Pool of Siloam (John 9:7), Jacob’s Well (John 4:12), the probable location of the Stone Pavement near Jaffa Gate where Jesus appeared before Pilate (John 19:13). Luke says the census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem was conducted when Quirinius was governing Syria. Strobel points out that Quirinius didn’t begin ruling Syria until 6 AD. But McRay says an archaeologist named Jerry Vardaman found a coin with the name of Quirinius on it in very small writing, which places him as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 BC until after the death of Herod the Great. Sir William Ramsay, the late archaeologist and professor at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, concluded from various inscriptions that while there was only one Quirinius, he ruled Syria on two separate occasions, which would cover the time of the census. Another contentious issue is the existence of Nazareth, which skeptics say didn’t exist during the time of Jesus. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Jewish priests were sent out to various other locations, including Galilee. Archaeologists have found a list in Aramaic describing the twenty four ‘courses’, or families, of priests who were relocated, and one of them was registered as having moved to Nazareth. There is no independent confirmation of the slaughter of new born children at Bethlehem. Bethlehem, McRay explains, was a small town, and the fact that Herod, a bloodthirsty king, killed some babies there wouldn’t have captured the attention of people in the Roman world. Ancient Palestine was a bloody place. The way archaeology has backed up the New Testament, concludes Strobel, contrasts with how it has proved to be devastating for other religions such as Mormonism.

The rebuttal evidence

With self-selected, liberal groups like the Jesus Seminar attracting a great deal of uncritical media attention with their claims disputing the gospels, is the Jesus of history the same as the Jesus of faith? Strobel puts this question to Dr Gregory A Boyd, a former atheist, who became professor of theology at Bethel University. The Jesus Seminar disputes most of what Jesus is purported to have said in the gospels, rules out the possibility of the supernatural, and uses questionable criteria to prove that a saying came from Jesus. Historians usually operate with the burden of proof to prove falsity or unreliability, since people generally are not compulsive liars, but the Jesus Seminar turns this logic on its head explains Boyd. He says the Jesus Seminar represents “an extremely small number of radical-fringe scholars who are on the far, far left wing of New Testament thinking.” The idea that Jesus emerged from mythology or was another Jewish wonder worker doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Jesus’ teachings are based on distinctively Jewish beliefs and the miracles he performed have no parallel in history. It is likely that mystery religions with parallels to Christianity, which emerged after the second century, borrowed from Christianity rather than the other way round. So the Jesus of faith is the Jesus of history, concludes Boyd.

The identity evidence

The second part of the book examines the identity of Jesus. Did he believe he was God? Strobel discusses the topic with Dr Ben Witherington III, Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Drawing upon Jesus’ miracles, his sense of mission, and some of his phrases (e.g. “Abba” to refer to God, “Amen I say to you” before starting his teachings) Witherton explains how Jesus saw himself in the very place of God. As Mark 10:45 says his purpose was to come into this world and, by sacrificing his life, redeem his people: “I did not come to be served but to serve and give my life as a ransom in place of the many.” Just as God formed his people in the Old Testament Jesus creates a renewed Israel, represented by his twelve disciples. This says quite a lot about what he thought of himself.

The psychological evidence

Was Jesus crazy when he claimed to be the son of God? Strobel examines this area with Dr Gary R Collins, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology from Purdue University. Collins says Jesus didn’t display the usual characteristics of madness: emotional imbalance (e.g. depression, anger, anxiety); misperceptions (e.g. paranoia); thinking disorders; or unsuitable behaviour (e.g. odd dress sense, poor social skills). On the contrary he was compassionate; he was not egotistical; he was emotionally balanced; he knew what he was doing and where he was going; he accepted people but didn’t ignore their sins; and he responded to people based on their unique needs. Jesus healed conditions like lifelong blindness and leprosy, for which a psychosomatic explanation isn’t likely. “I just don’t see signs that Jesus was suffering from any known mental illness,” he concluded.

The profile evidence

The Old Testament provides numerous details about the attributes of God. Did Jesus fulfil those attributes? Strobel put this question to Dr D A Carson, a research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, who has written more than forty books. While the Incarnation - God becoming man, the infinite becoming finite – is difficult for our finite minds to comprehend, Carson pointed out evidence that Jesus did exhibit the characteristics of deity, although theologians believe some kind of voluntary ‘emptying’ out (Philippians 2) of his independent use of his attributes took place. Every attribute of God, says the New Testament, is found in Jesus: omniscience (John 16:30); omnipresence (Matthew 28:20, Matthew 18:20); omnipotence (Matthew 28:18); eternality (John 1:1); and immutability (Hebrews 13:8).

The fingerprint evidence

Did Jesus, and he alone, match the identity of the Messiah given in the Old Testament? Could he have simply fitted the description of the Messiah by coincidence? Strobel interviews Dr Louis S. Lapides, who was born to a Jewish family, to discuss these questions. Lapides had experienced some anti-Semitism when he was an American soldier in the Vietnam War which put him off Christianity. However, looking at a bible given to him by an evangelist he was stopped cold when he read Isaiah 53, which was written seven hundred years before Jesus:

He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gave gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
And who can speak of his descendants?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was stricken.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
Nor was any deceit in his mouth...

For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

Lapides was so struck by this description of the Messiah that he believed Christians had rewritten the Old Testament to make Isaiah’s words sound as though the prophet had been foreshadowing Jesus. Jews in the Old Testament sought to atone for their sins through a system of animal sacrifices but here was Jesus, the ultimate sacrificial lamb of God, who paid for the sin of all man. He came across more than four dozen predictions of the Messiah in the Old Testament, all of which matched with Jesus. Mathematician Peter W. Stoner computed that the probability of a man fulfilling just eight prophesises would be 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000. Lapides realised the New Testament wasn’t a handbook for the American Nazi Party but an interaction between Jesus and the Jewish community. Lapides accepted Jesus as the Messiah and that also helped to transform his spiritual life.

The medical evidence

The third part of the book examines the Resurrection, the fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith, which is the ultimate vindication of Jesus’ teaching and personal claims. The idea that Jesus never really died on the cross can be found in the Koran. Ahmadiya Muslims believe that Jesus fled to India; and there’s a shrine that supposedly marks his real burial place in Srinagar, Kashmir. Many swoon hypotheses, that contend Jesus faked his death, continue to flourish. Strobel interviews Dr Alexander Metherell, M.D., Ph.D., who holds a medical doctorate from the University of Miami and a doctorate in engineering from the University of Bristol, to discuss the possibility whether Jesus could have faked his death. Metherell provides a medical account of the physical torture Jesus would have endured, from his sweating of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest to his crucifixion on the cross. The sweating of blood is a condition known as hematidrosis, which is associated with a high degree of psychological stress. The flogging Jesus received prior to his crucifixion would have been brutal, resulting in lacerations and significant blood loss, which would have caused hypovolemic shock as evidenced by the fact that he was too weak to carry the crossbar (patibulum) all the way to Golgotha. At the site of the crucifixion he would have been laid down and his wrists would have been nailed to the crossbar, piercing the median nerve which is the largest nerve going to the hand. The pain would have been unbearable, so much so that a new word was invented for it: excruciating. Once the crossbar was attached to the vertical skate, and nails driven through his feet, both shoulders would have become dislocated (Psalm 22: “My bones are out of joint”). Then it would have been a slow agonizing death by asphyxiation. Jesus’ death would have been guaranteed by the thrust of a spear into his side and heart, accounting for some fluid – the pericardial effusion and the pleural effusion – that has the appearance of a clear fluid, like water, described by the eyewitness John in his gospel. Metherell concludes that it would have been impossible for Jesus to survive this ordeal, and even if he somehow did his ghastly condition would not have inspired a worldwide movement.

The evidence of the missing body

If the resurrection is true, is there evidence that supports Jesus’ missing body from the tomb? Strobel seeks out Dr William Lane Craig, who has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Birmingham and a doctorate in theology from the University of Munich, to answer this question. Craig points out that the empty grave is reported or implied in extremely early sources – Mark’s gospel and the 1 Corinthians 15 creed – which date so close to the event that they could not have been products of legend. The fact the empty tomb was discovered by women, who had a very low status in first century Jewish society, bolsters the story’s authenticity. There are conflicting narratives about the empty tomb in the gospels but the inconsistencies are in the secondary details, suggesting we have multiple, independent attestation for the missing body; and all four accounts name Joseph of Arimathea, a Jewish high priest who gave Jesus a tomb. It is most likely that Joseph of Arimathea is a historical figure, and not invented by the gospel writers, considering the early Christian anger toward the Jewish leaders for instigating Jesus’ crucifixion. It is unlikely the women went to the wrong tomb because it was known to the Jewish authorities who would have been too happy to point it out, yet they invented the story that the disciples, despite having no motivation or opportunity, stole the body – a theory not even the most sceptical critic believes today.

The evidence of appearances

What is the evidence to support the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus? This question is put to Dr Gary Habermas, an expert on the resurrection of Jesus. Habermas begins by referring to Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul passes on a creed of the early church which names specific individuals and groups of people who encountered the risen Christ, written at a time when many of them were still alive and could be sought out to verify the truth. The evidence suggests the creed could be considered a statement of eyewitnesses. The Acts is littered with references to Jesus’ appearances, while the gospels describe numerous appearances in detail. Appearances to multiple people simultaneously, including to sceptics like James and Paul, rule out the possibility of hallucinations. Concluded British theologian Michael Green, “The appearances of Jesus are as well authenticated as anything in antiquity...There can be no rational doubt that they occurred, and that the main reason why Christians became sure of the resurrection in the earliest days was just this. They could say with assurance, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ They knew it was the case.”

The circumstantial evidence

Finally, what circumstantial evidence supports the Resurrection? Strobel interviews Dr J. P. Moreland, a philosopher with a doctorate from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree in theology from Dallas Theological Seminary, to answer this question. In a clear and methodical way Moreland outlined five reasons to believe in the Resurrection. Firstly, the disciples were transformed from being weak, cowardly men to zealous followers of Jesus, willing to spend their lives proclaiming about Jesus and, in the process, face hardship and death; it’s unlikely they would have endured so much if they weren’t sure of the Resurrection. Secondly, there’s no good reason other than the Resurrection that sceptics like James, the brother of Jesus, and Paul of Tarsus would have been converted and died for their faith. Thirdly, within five weeks of the Crucifixion over ten thousand Jews began abandoning key social practices that they had carefully preserved for centuries. For a people who thought that such social institutions were entrusted by God and abandoning them would risk their souls being damned, these changes represented a social earthquake, and earthquakes don’t happen without a reason. Fourthly, the early Christians adopted the sacraments of communion and baptism. Communion symbolised Jesus’ victory over death, and baptism a Gentile’s wish to take upon himself the laws of Moses. Fifthly, the spontaneous emergence of the church in the face of brutal Roman persecution “rips a great hole in history, a hole the size and shape of Resurrection,” as C. F D. Moule put it.

Conclusion

This is a certainly a compelling book and for those people who have open mind, there is sufficient evidence to support the case for Jesus’ divinity. However, it probably won’t convince the most ardent sceptics. They will obviously point out that all of the people Strobel interviewed were evangelical Christians. This maybe so but most of them have undertaken extensive research, often battling with their own beliefs, before becoming convinced about Jesus themselves. In some cases they were not believers of Christ at all but became believers in the course of their research. Even today, the majority of scholars are so convinced of the historicity of Jesus that it is only a small minority of non-historians who dispute the case. This book is testament to the fact that the evidence was strong enough that a former atheist, who was a well established award winning journalist, has become a pastor. Often converts who are the most ardent believers. Strobel has gone on to write a number of other books similar to this one, in which he tries to argue the case for a Creator, faith and the real Jesus, none of which I have read; he has also appeared on a television programme called "Faith Under Fire" in America. This book is most certainly worth a read if you want to explore the evidence for Jesus and you have an open mind.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Book review: "The Last Jews of Kerala" by Edna Fernandes

This is a fascinating and touching account of the dying Jewish community in Kerala, India. The book is well researched and skilfully written by Edna Fernandes, who is a British Indian journalist, pointing a spotlight on a community largely unknown to the rest of the world. The author explores the racial divide in the community between the White and Black Jews, the major landmarks in their history and what the future holds. The author’s direct meetings and conversations with members of the community adds a true sense of authenticity, which makes the book so much more interesting.

The Black or Malabari Jews trace their ancestry to the days of King Solomon in biblical times when Jewish traders would come to Kerala in search of spices, sandalwood and other exotic commodities. The White or Paradesi Jews came during the Inquisition in Europe. Unlike many other Jewish communities in the western world, the Jews never suffered persecution in Kerala. In fact, they were a privileged community with special favours bestowed upon them by princely rulers during the ages.

The divide between Black Jews and White Jews came about due to a fight for pre-eminence in Cochini society, resulting in a “Jewish apartheid in India that would last four centuries and eventually lead to the decline and fall of both Black and White.” The Paradesi Jews linked their skin colour to religious purity, alleging that the Malabari Jews were the offspring of slave converts. As Fernandes explains, this undermined the standing of Black Jews: “In caste-based India, where the concept of religious purity is prominent, the taint of slavery eventually undermined the Malabaris’ standing in the royal court of Cochin. Loss of status and economic influence was only part of the cost they had to bear. Dubbed the sons of slaves, the Black Jews were then barred from marrying the White Jews, barred from the Paradesi Synagogue, barred from forming their own place of worship in their homes.”

All this went against the tenets of Judaism, in which the link between justice and shalom are inviolable. As news of this discrimination reached overseas, foreign rabbis such as Rabbi ibn Zimra ruled that the Black Jews “did have the right to intermarry and enter the synagogue as equals, provided all the proper conversion rituals had taken place.” However, the Paradesi leaders did not listen and carried on with their discrimination. “If the segregation was ever challenged by the Blacks, the Whites would call upon the raja or local colonial powers to intervene on their behalf and quell any resistance.”

Eventually it took the bold efforts of a low-born, brilliant lawyer from Ernakulam, A. B. Salem, known as the “Jewish Gandhi”, to bring about change. Inspired by Gandhi’s non-violent methods of protest in the fight for Indian Independence, he applied similar tactics with the Paradesi community. One day he refused to sit in the antechamber designated for the Blacks and strode into the Paradesi Synagogue, dragging his sons behind him. Being a top lawyer, writer and knowing Gandhi and Nehru the Paradesi elders were powerless to stop this man. “Blessed with formidable patience as well as intellect, he relentlessly chipped away at the edifice of prejudice, piece by piece, until it came tumbling down.” Finally, within a few years of the creation of the state of Israel, the last taboo was broken when Balfour, the second son of A. B. Salem, fell in love and married Seema ‘Baby’ Koder, a beautiful White Jewess.

Fernandes briefly describes the other Jewish communities in India including the Bene Israel, who are based in Mumbai, and the Baghdadi Jews, who have now all but disappeared. “While British rule lasted, the educated Bene Israel did well. By the 1940s the community had reached a peak of 25,000 people in India. The Bene Israel were like the Cochinis in that they, too, differentiated between light and dark-skinned Jews, mirroring the indigenous society, which also put a premium on fairness.” However, the Bene Israel still number around 5,000 today which is evidence of their ability to put aside their differences unlike the Cochinis.

Faced with an uncertain future and the lure of Zionism many of the Jews of Cochin, and India, migrated to Israel after Indian Independence and the creation of the Jewish state. Fernandes visits a few Cochini Jews in Israel, most of whom have settled in the Negev, where the dry, barren, desert landscape contrasts with green, verdant Kerala. Despite the harshness of the land many of them have settled well, doing well in horticulture and agriculture. “After fifty years, the Cochini Jewish way of life was thriving in the Middle East just as it was dying in southern India. The community here took every opportunity to push things forward to the next generation. They were ruthless in their in their pragmatism, as one would expect of a desert people. If they could not marry a Cochini, they would marry another Jew and show them the Kerala Jewish life. It was better than the alternative.”

For some Cochinis, however, Israel wasn’t the paradise they had envisaged. Not only was it a “void of loneliness and rejection,” the constant conflict between the Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land was a far cry from their peaceful co-existence in Kerala. As Fernandes explains, the Malabari immigrants “sensed an echo of their own tragedy in the Palestinians.” “They too knew what it was to be usurped in their historical narrative, to face separation. In Kerala, division led to destruction. Perhaps their fear was of the cycle repeating itself.” One such person is seventy-eight year old Abraham Eliavoo, who came not for Zionism but the love of his faith, yet he wanted to return to Kerala to die there because he could not reconcile faith with conflict. “In the end, it was an age-old tolerance that drew him.”

The book is a touching and compelling tale of the Jews of Kerala whose existence, stretching back thousands of years, certainly looks bleak despite a prosperous past. There are some wonderful conversations with various people, as well as descriptions of the Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancheri and places such as Cranganore, Cochin, Chennamangalam, Parul, the Negev and Jerusalem which are important for the Cochinis. In the twilight of their existence in Kerala, at least, there is a belated bonhomie between the Black and White Jews, the latter depending on the former for life support. But as the last few Paradesi Jews come to the end of their lives, and a despondent resignation hangs over them, they will be questioning whether their own attitudes led to their plight, for without justice there can be no shalom.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

The Iraq War, oil and the Nobel Peace Prize

Yesterday, a service was held in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, to mark the end of combat operations in Iraq, which was attended by the Queen, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, his wife Sarah, and former Prime Minister Tony Blair, as well other members of the military and government. The event was an opportunity to honour the dead British servicemen and reflect on a highly controversial war, with questions on whether it was worth it resurfacing once again. The cost of the war, in both human and financial terms, was huge. It is arguable whether the war has made Iraq and the rest of the world a safer place, which was allegedly the aim of the intervention.

The father of one dead British soldier, Lance-Corporal Shaun Brierley, refused to shake hands with former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Later Peter Brierley said, "I believe Tony Blair is a war criminal. I can't bear to be in the same room as him. I can't believe he has been allowed to come to this reception. I believe he has got the blood of my son and all of the other men and women who died out there on his hand.” Tony Blair, who took this country to war, investing his allegiance with former President George W Bush, a failed oil man with a “tendency to concoct favourable facts” (Dilip Hiro), believed the world had changed irrevocably after 9/11 and pre-emptive action was necessary to make it a safer place.

The main reason given for the war was to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) which Saddam Hussein was allegedly concealing from the rest of the world. We all know that was hype now. Other reasons for the war were to “liberate” Iraqis from a genocidal dictator; to bring democracy to the country and the wider Middle East; and punish Saddam Hussein who, together with Al Qaeda, was responsible for 9/11. Many people succumbed to the anti-Iraq hype, but many others protested against it, believing that force was not the best solution. Despite the protests, Bush and Blair went ahead with their invasion.

As the dust settles, it becomes increasingly obvious that oil was the main reason behind the war. Even life-long Republican and former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, said so. The US was becoming increasingly dependent on Irqai oil after the Clinton administration introduced the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) in 1996, which banned trade with Iran; and realising his growing clout, Saddam Hussein threatened to postpone plans to raise Iraq’s output if the US held up Iraq’s contracts for food, medicine and economic infrastructure before the UN Sanctions Committee. This pushed up oil prices and forced Clinton to take the unprecedented step of releasing 1 million barrels per day for thirty days from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve during peacetime.

After George W Bush took office in January 2001, at the first meeting of National Security Council (NSC) at the White House, the number one item on the agenda was Iraq, and the next NSC meeting was devoted exclusively to Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld advocated “going after Saddam,” and said, “Imagine what Iraq will look like without Saddam and with a regime that’s aligned with US interests. It would change everything in the region and beyond. It would demonstrate what US policy is all about.” Among the documents later sent to NSC members, was one prepared by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which had mapped Iraq’s oil fields and exploration areas, and listed American companies likely to be interested in participating in Iraq’s oil industry.

According to a BBC Newsnight report, the Pentagon planners, influenced by neoconservatives, devised a super secret plan, which involved the sale of all Iraqi oil fields to private companies with a view to increasing output well above the normal OPEC quota for Iraq in order to destroy OPEC. Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi exile and a front runner to replace Saddam, told The Washington Post in 2002, "American companies will have a big shot at Iraqi oil." In public, however, the justification for the war was Iraq’s WMD and Saddam’s alleged connections with Al Qaeda.

The plan to exploit Iraq’s plentiful oil resources, however, didn’t go as smoothly as planned. The Bush administration realized it would violate the Geneva Convention on War, which bars an occupying power from altering the fundamental structure of the occupied territory’s economy, by denationalizing Iraq’s oil industry; and the highly revered Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Sistani, as well as other Shiite clerics, held that minerals belong to the “community,” meaning the state. The subsequent insurgency reduced Iraq’s oil output due to frequent attacks on oil pipelines and facilities, and Bush had to approach the US Congress for $2.1 billion to safeguard Iraq’s oil infrastructure. The new Iraqi constitution, endorsed by referendum in October 2005, finally dimmed the prospect of oil privatisation, stating that hydrocarbons are “national Iraqi property.” An auction for Iraq's new oil contracts was held last June, but many major Western companies withdrew their bids at the last minute because of controversial legislation setting terms for foreign investment in the country's oil sector, and for distributing its revenues.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who has always been critical about the war, delivered a stinging attack from the pulpit yesterday, even mentioning the evil hand of Satan: "The invisible enemy may be hiding in the temptation to look for shortcuts in the search for justice – letting ends justify means, letting others rather than oneself carry the cost, denying the difficulties or the failures so as to present a good public face." He said it is better if world leaders be patient and be guided by truth: "St Paul tells us to wrap ourselves around with the truth, to be defended by justice and to be impatient only for peace. These are not remote ideals for a religious minority. They are essential advice for those caught up in the anxious, fast-changing world of modern military operations, with the intense, even harsh, scrutiny they get from observers and commentators worldwide." For a man who has often been criticised for his indecisiveness, these were firm words indeed and I admire his courage for such a firm stand.

I was very surprised yesterday that President Barack Obama, who has not been in office for even a year, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite his rhetoric about nuclear non-proliferation the prize seemed premature as he has achieved so little. But the Nobel Peace Prize is more than a prize - it is also a statement, and this one is a damning indictment of the policies of the previous Bush administration, which involved the use of unilateral, pre-emptive action with little regard for diplomacy, human rights and ground reality. It remains to be seen if Obama can live to the expectations of the Nobel Peace Prize committee. So far he has made a number of corrective changes to US foreign policy, many of which are welcome, but I think even he will struggle to completely change US foreign policy.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Book review: "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam" by Reza Aslan

I have just finished reading Reza Aslan’s book “No God but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam”. I enjoyed it very much. Written in a lucid, precise and highly readable style, Aslan describes how Islam came into being in Arabia, which up to that time had a polytheistic religious culture. The ancient Arabs worshipped many Gods including the God of the Jews and the Christians. Then came Muhammad - the founder of Islam – who, after receiving the Revelation at Mt Hira in 610AD, preached a message of absolute monotheism and declared “there is no God but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger.” Aslan narrates the lives of Muhammad and his Companions who established the first Muslim community (“Ummah”) in Medina, their battles with the powerful Quraysh tribe and their eventual victory, and the subsequent evolution of Islam after Muhammad’s death.

Aslan knows his subject very well. It does often read like an unapologetic defence of Islam, which he acquiesces in the introduction, yet he is critical of the rise in Islamic extremism (Islamism) in recent times and sets out some ideas for reform at the end of the book. The diversity of Islam owes to “dozens of conflicting ideas about everything from how to interpret the Prophet’s words and deeds to who should do the interpreting, from whom to choose as leader of the community to how the community should be led.” These arguments often led to conflict, but also gave birth to various sects. Apart from the main Sunni or “orthodox” branch of Islam are the Shia and Sufi sects, both of which came into being as reactionary movements. Aslan goes into some detail about Sufism, the eclectic mystical tradition within Islam.

Muhammad was a very different kind of figure from Jesus Christ (whom he greatly revered), yet he strove to bring about radical religious, social and economic change in pre-Islamic Arabia. Aslan makes some interesting comparisons between Islam and Christianity, although his knowledge of the former is much better than of the latter. He says Christianity is an ‘orthodoxic’ religion; it is principally concerned with one’s beliefs in God while Islam, like Judaism, is an ‘orthopraxic’ religion, where it is one’s actions that makes one an observant follower. The five pillars of Islam are: “salat,” or ritual prayer (performed five times a day); “zakat,” or the paying of alms; fast (“sawn” in Arabic) during the month of Ramadan when Muslims believe the Quran was first revealed to Muhammad; the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca; and the “shahadah,” or profession of faith, which initiates every convert to Islam. Only the last pillar requires belief rather than action. Unlike Christianity, Islam is a communal religion; it abhors monasticism and reclusive individualism. The Quran also categorically derides celibacy as being against God’s command to be “fruitful and multiply.”

Aslan traces the roots of modern day Islamic fundamentalism to the influence of people such as Shah Wali Allah (d. 1762) as well as the experiences of the colonial period. Shah Wali Allah’s emphasis on orthodoxy, to strip Sufism of its “foreign” influences (e.g. Neoplatonism, Persian mysticism, Hindu Vedantism) and restore it to a former unadulterated form of Islamic mysticism, sparked a number of “puritan” movements in India like the Deobandi School. What angered political reformers, such as Jamāl-al-dīn al-Afghānī (1838-97) and Hassan al-Banna (1906-49), was the hypocrisy the British showed in preaching the values of the Enlightenment while cruelly pillaging the natural resources of their conquered lands and suppressing appeals for liberation. Al-Banna formed the Muslim Brotherhood, which was conceived to be an Islamic social movement “to present Islam as an all encompassing religious, political, social, economic, and cultural system.” Later, the movement underwent a more radical transformation under the influence of Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), who asserted the new ideology of Islamism which “called for the creation of an Islamic state in which the socio-political order would be defined solely according to Muslim values,” and he envisioned this process to be a “cataclysmic, revolutionary event.”

The book describes how the puritanical, fundamentalist sect of Islam known as Wahhabism became established in what is today Saudi Arabia. Thanks to oil money and Saudi evangelism, Wahhabism has now infiltrated every corner of the Muslim world, and it is the ideology of al-Qaeda. Aslan says that despite 9/11 and subsequent terrorist acts against western targets, “what is taking place now in the Muslim world is an internal conflict between Muslims, not an external battle between Islam and the West. The West is merely a bystander – an unwary yet complicit casualty of a rivalry that is raging in Islam over who will write the next chapter in its story.” This is not the “clash of civilisations” but a war within Islam between scores of first- and second-generation Muslim immigrants, indoctrinated in the democratic ideals of their new homes, and the bigotry and fanaticism of those who have replaced Muhammad.

Being a young boy who fled to America with his family during the Iranian Revolution, Aslan is able to narrate the events of that historic period well and how Iran was transformed into “a fascist country run by a corrupt clerical oligarchy committed to snuffing out any attempts at democratic reform.” Yet he says that democracy in the Middle East is possible because “it is pluralism, not secularism, that defines democracy,” and Islam has had a long commitment to religious pluralism. If America, which is “unapologetically founded on a Judeo-Christian – and more precisely Protestant – moral framework,” it should be possible to have Islamic democracy through a path of secularization.

Aslan compares the current conflict in Islam to the cataclysmic events of the Reformation in Christianity. The book ends with the sentences: “The Islamic Reformation is already here. We are all living in it.” What is happening in Islam, says Aslan, is an internal conflict about who will write the next chapter in its story. It’s an alluring thought and I sense his passion about his own faith makes him believe that this is the case. The book does have its biases, but for anyone who wants a fairly balanced introduction to Islam I recommend this book.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Will Delhi be ready for the 2010 Commonwealth Games?

According to a leaked government report in India this may not be the case, reports the Times of India:
"In what could bring huge embarrassment to the country, key Commonwealth Games (CWG) projects - including games venues, infrastructure for conducting the sports and major city upgrade plans - are running so much behind schedule that there's a real threat of India's showpiece Games turning into a non-event.

The Comptroller and Auditor General, which early this month submitted an evaluation report to the Prime Minister's Office and the sports ministry, has observed that in at least 13 of the 19 sporting venues, the work shortfall is between 25% and 50%. This means all these projects would either miss the deadline or compromise on quality in the haste to finish on time.

That's not all. Sources quoting the report said the Delhi government and some central agencies executing Games-related projects have officially shelved at least six infrastructure projects by delinking them from the Commonwealth Games.

Though the delinked projects are flyovers and bridges that could at best clog up traffic and hamper timely conduct of events, what could actually result in the Games being shifted elsewhere is the organizers' inability to complete sports venues even in the extended timeframe. As per international guidelines, all CWG projects were to be completed by May 2009 and the last year should have been kept for trial runs.

Far from that, sources quoting the CAG report said in the case of Jawaharlal Nehru stadium - the main venue of the Games - even the final designs were yet to be frozen. Authorities executing the projects hadn't received layout details for LAN, CCTV, broadcasting overlays, video screens, scoreboards and signages etc.

The evaluation report says these details, as well as the type of track and turf to be used, were required to be submitted in October 2008. Instead, these have been received by CPWD only recently. The location and the requirements for the photo finish room at JLN Stadium were finalized by the organizing committee as late as May 2009.

Meanwhile, the all-too-familiar finger-pointing is on. CPWD, the project executing agency, has blamed the organizing committee and its consultants for delaying the projects by constantly revising and re-revising designs for every venue, sources said."
This is so typical of the state of affairs in India today. To undertake any major project, there are a countless number of delays and objections, that by the time something is completed, it is either too late or there is a need for something even better. You would have thought seven years is sufficient time to prepare for these games, but not in India.

Contrast India’s struggling attempts to host the event and China’s highly successful running of the Olympics last year. Whether construction work will be completed before the start of the 2010 Commonwealth Games is anyone's guess. Even if the government pulls out all the stops to complete construction, there is no guarantee quality won't be compromised. One way or another, it seems India may not be spared the blushes.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

India trip 2009

I have just returned from a short holiday in India. It was an enjoyable and interesting trip in many ways. The last time I visited the country was in 2006, so this holiday enabled me to take stock of changes that have happened since then. This time I was determined to see some places other than my relatives’ houses because having a young daughter, who was born in the UK but has no knowledge of India, I wanted her to come away with a reasonably good impression of the country.

We landed in Mumbai on 14 August 2009, just one day before Independence Day. Mumbai was in a state of panic about swine flu. After disembarking, all passengers on my flight from London were screened for the illness. The screening process was largely a paperwork exercise, which wasted half an hour and left me wondering: was targeting foreigners the best way of tackling the virus given that it had already spread to India?

Despite warnings about possible terrorist attacks in the run-up to Independence Day, I did go out and see some of the major landmarks in the city of Mumbai including Nariman Point, the Gateway of India, the Taj Hotel, Malabar Hills, and Juhu Beach. The Taj Hotel has been largely restored to its erstwhile glory following the terror attacks in November 2008. It is a majestic building, as is the Gateway of India, just a stone throw away. I didn’t like Juhu Beach, which makes much derided Blackpool Beach seem clean. The many new shopping malls in Mumbai are very popular with the middle classes.

Mumbai is a city of striking contrasts. Here you find people from all walks of life, and all parts of India, and their differences are bewildering. The poor are very poor, and the rich are very rich. In Mumbai, people from just about every state in India rub shoulders with each other. The dilapidated buildings of Dharavi contrast with the tall, modern skyscrapers in the heart of the city. It is a bustling, noisy cosmopolitan that never sleeps. Unfortunately the traffic can be a nightmare, due to the burgeoning population, but that is a fact of life in every major town or city of India today.

After spending a couple of days in Mumbai, we flew down to Kochi and headed to Thrissur in the centre of Kerala. Thrissur is Kerala’s cultural capital, having a number of Hindu temples and Christian churches. Every year the Thrissur Pooram festival, held near Vadakkumnathan Temple in the centre of the city, is celebrated with much gusto by thousands of people, featuring caparisoned elephants and fireworks. The city is also famous for gold jewellery, producing 70% of Kerala’s ornaments. A number of new hotels have come up in Thrissur in recent years.

After visiting my in-laws and my mother’s family in Thrissur, we travelled north to Kozhikode by train. Train travel in India is much more comfortable, and less hazardous, than travelling by car. The passenger compartments are not always tidy, the food can be dodgy, but train travel in India is cheap; it is the best way to see the country. Now more of the tracks are becoming electrified, reducing the dependence on that polluting fossil fuel, diesel.

Situated on the Malabar Coast, Kozhikode is a bustling, multiethnic and muilti-religious city. Although Hindus form the largest community there is a substantial Muslim population here, and a smaller Christian community. The city played an important role in the spice trade during the Middle Ages, and even today there is a strong mercantile character about it. The shopping centre has expanded in recent years, with a wide variety of shops selling anything from Halwa to sarees.

We spent a couple of days in Kozhikode, visiting some of my paternal aunties, and then we travelled south to Alleppey. At Alleppey station, our tour operator from Indian Panorama met us and took us to the houseboat jetty. Alleppey is a small town where the main business is fishing, and more recently tourism. I was impressed with the facilities on board our houseboat including an area at the front for sightseeing and dining, an air-conditioned bedroom and en-suite bathroom, and a kitchen at the back for preparing food. The boat was manned by three crew members including the cook.

As our houseboat gently navigated the lotus-filled backwaters around Alleppey and headed toward Kumarakom via River Pampa, we sat and watched the beautiful green Kerala countryside. This was surely the best way to see Kerala, away from the maddening traffic on the roads, unhurried and relaxed. The palm trees arched over the banks of the waterways, their canopies hanging high over the water. The scenary was simply serene, composed of different shades of green, each shade owing to a different kind of crop. As we passed small villages and paddy fields, we saw people going about their daily lives. Women washed their clothes while fisherman ferried their catches in their skiffs.

We passed many other houseboats in the opposite direction, some occupied by foreign tourists, as well as other types of boats and small ships transporting goods to various trading centres in Kerala. The food we ate on board was fresh and tasty. We docked at a quiet spot not far from Kumarakom for the night, and completed the journey the next morning. It was truly a wonderful experience which I will not forget for a long time, and my five year old daughter particularly enjoyed it.

After a visit to St Mary’s Forane Church at Bharananganam, where Kerala’s first Christian saint, St Alphonsa, is buried, we travelled to Kochi, the commercial capital of Kerala, in our pre-arranged taxi. The traffic in Kochi was the worst of all the cities I visited in Kerala. Although many new businesses and people had moved into the city, the transport infrastructure had failed to keep up with the change. The result was heavy congestion especially during the morning and evening rush hours. We just spent a day in Kochi, visiting the homes of two uncles, before heading back to Thrissur where we spent the remainder of our holiday.

This was a most enjoyable holiday and I am very grateful to my relatives for all their hospitality. I have seen a lot of change in the country. Just about every consumer good that you get in the west can now be purchased in India. There is a new confidence among the middle classes with their increased opportunities and affluence. More people seem to know English, the language which enables Indians to communicate with the rest of the world. However, not all change has been for the better. As more and more people flock to the urban areas to get a share of the money pie, the transport infrastructure is struggling to cope. Due to bumbling bureaucracy, appreciating land prices, lack of planning and corruption the infrastructure, particularly the roads, is creaking at the seams.

Climate change is also adding to people’s woes in India. This year’s monsoon wasn’t heavy, especially in northern India, adversely affecting crop production and pushing prices up. India will have to improve its irrigation facilities if it wants to help its agriculture sector. The population continues to grow, putting further pressures on its limited resources, and there are still many areas where illiteracy and poverty are rife. Sectarian violence occasionally flares up in some trouble spots, and caste discrimination is still oppressive in various places, especially in some of the backward northern states. The threat of terrorism, motivated by internal and external elements, is ever present.

The challenges the country faces are indeed huge. Talk of it becoming a superpower, I think, is highly optimistic given India’s current social, political and cultural environment. India will continue to make economic progress, even if that growth is a little lopsided, but it probably won’t be much more than the regional power it currently is. Its success shouldn’t just be measured in pure economic terms. Despite its obvious flaws, what I find heartening is that the majority of its large and diverse population are tolerant of one another’s differences and get along fine. Long may that unity in diversity continue.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Maharajah begs for its survival

The last time I flew on India’s national carrier – Air India – was in August 2000. I was returning from India when my flight was delayed almost a full twenty four hours. My plane, an ageing Boeing 747-200, over twenty years old, developed a technical snag in Dubai which meant it couldn’t make the journey across the Arabian Sea until engineers from Bombay flew out spares there. I was used to the customary one or two hours delay with Air India, but this was extraordinary. My father wrote a letter of complaint to the airline after returning to UK, but he needn’t have bothered. There was no reply, except to say the airline would look into his complaint, but in all likelihood the letter probably just ended up in the waste bin with all the other letters of complaint at the Air India office.

I have never experienced such appalling customer service on an airline as Air India. So it comes as no surprise that I learn today that Air India is on the brink of collapse. Most airlines around the world, including British Airways, are struggling to cope with the current economic downturn, but Air India’s problems have been brewing for over fifteen years due to neglect. Today it neither has enough money to pay its daily operating costs nor the salaries of its bloated workforce of 31,000 employees. Last month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had asked Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel to prepare a restructuring plan by the month-end.

The restructuring plan will be presented to a committee on 25 July, and it is likely to include a number of changes in return for equity infusion from the government and other financial support. It is not easy to downsize Air India’s powerful unionized workforce, so Praful Patel is trying to involve them in the restructuring process. Measures are likely to include a recruitment freeze for the next three years, cut loss making routes, return leased planes to lessors, and defer deliveries of some new planes. Already Praful Patel has sought to change the management board within thirty days, bringing in top executives with proven track record from elsewhere.

It remains to be seen how successful this restructuring plan is going to be, but one thing for sure is that without a radical overhaul the airline is bound to fail. A few tweaks here and there is simply not going to be enough, for Air India has been steadily losing market share since the Indian civil aviation sector was liberalised in the early 1990s to both foreign and domestic operators. “Instead of meeting competition head on though, Air India allowed its decades of problems to pile up and up,” said Peter Morris, chief economist of Ascend, the London-based global air transport industry consultancy firm.

After years of pampering as India’s national carrier, the root of Air India’s problem was simply its inability to perform in a competitive market. “While every airline in the country calibrated their business model with appropriate cost and revenues structure to meet competition, Air India failed to capitalize on its dominant position, a position any airline would give anything to have,” said Morris. Air India also suffered from political interference, under investment in its fleet, and a weak management.

“I think the only way to make Air India viable again is privatization,” said Vivek Gupta, senior consultant with the Hyderabad-based ICMR Center for Management Research. “That is the key because AI’s management has never been serious about running AI as a competitive business. Privatization will allow AI to shed its national carrier tag, which looks imminent anyway, and will make it easier for the airline to focus on customer service and competition.”

Affectionately known as the “Maharajah” after its mascot for many years, Air India has unfortunately suffered the fate of many maharajahs since Indira Gandhi abolished the privy purse in 1971, and been reduced to the begging bowl. To survive in the fiercely competitive civil aviation market an airline has to be very nimble. Air India’s future seems far from rosy as it fights for its survival. The best thing the Indian government can do is bail it out one last time and privatise it. Then if it goes to the wall, let it go to the wall.

Monday, 6 July 2009

My visit to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea

Over the centuries a visit to the biblical city of Jerusalem has been a prized opportunity for many Christian pilgrims from various parts of the world. I have always had a personal ambition to visit Jerusalem – the city where Jesus Christ once walked, taught, died and rose from the dead; and finally I got my chance on Saturday 20 June 2009 due to a mixture of luck and circumstances related to work. There were ten other people on the tour bus with me from Haifa, in northern Israel, all of whom were visiting Jerusalem for the first time like myself.

The weather was gloriously sunny. After travelling south, parallel to the Mediterranean Sea, we turned east and passed Tel Aviv - the main commercial centre of Israel - and Ben Gurion Airport. Then the bus began to climb the Judean Mountains where Jerusalem is situated. As we made our way into the city I saw landmarks, such as old carefully preserved tanks, that Jerusalem has seen many attacks and conquests during its long bloody history. The status of Jerusalem is still not definitively decided and remains a central issue in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The city is important for all three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Situated 800m above sea level, Jerusalem is generally cooler than other cities in Israel, but on this blazing summer day it didn’t make much difference. The tour bus stopped at a spot on the Mount of Olives where a great panoramic view of the Old City could be seen. I quickly realised this was an ancient city, where many buildings date back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Other cities in Israel, like Tel Aviv and Haifa, are not so old; they are relatively new in comparison, resembling cities in the West with their modern high-rise flats and offices, highways and pavements.

Staring straight in front of me was the Dome of the Rock, with its distinctive golden dome. The tour guide pointed to specific sites relating to the final days of Jesus on earth, and I was surprised to see that they were all enclosed within a relatively small area. Along the sides of the Mount of Olives were thousands of Jewish tombstones. From biblical times, Jews have been buried on the Mount of Olives. You have to be extremely rich to be buried here today because of land prices.

We visited the Garden of Gethsemane, on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, where Jesus was betrayed by one of his disciples – Judas - and arrested by the Temple guards. Here there are some very old olive trees still standing. Next to the garden is the Church of All Nations – a Roman Catholic church – built between 1919 and 1924 using funds from many different countries. The church is situated on the location where Jesus prayed all night in anticipation of his arrest and subsequent death. A mass was getting underway when I visited the church.

Next stop was Mount Zion on the outskirts of the Old City. There I bought a big Australian straw hat to protect my face from the powerful rays of the sun and a bottle of cool mineral water. We visited the room where Jesus had his last supper, located near the tomb of David. Actually it wasn’t exactly the same room where Jesus had his last supper because the architectural elements indicated that the room was built by the Crusaders in the twelfth century, but it is presumed to be on or near the place where the Last Supper took place.

The Old City, barely one square km in area, is divided into four quarters: the Armenian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, and the Christian Quarter. We entered the Old City via Zion Gate, which leads to the south side of the Armenian Quarter. The Armenian Quarter is the smallest in size and inhabitants of all the quarters, although the quarter had its beginnings in the fourth century A.D. when a small group of Armenian monks and pilgrims settled in the area. The Armenian Quarter is closed to the public, so we headed to the Jewish Quarter.

The main feature of the Jewish Quarter is the Wailing Wall, which is all that remains of the Second Temple - built by Herod the Great - after it was destroyed by the Romans in the Jewish Revolt around 70 AD. Following the revolt, Jews were not allowed into Jerusalem until the Byzantine period, when they could visit once a year on the anniversary of the destruction of the temple and weep over its ruins. Hence the name “Wailing Wall”. Later, when the Muslims conquered Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock was built over the Temple Mount. It was only after the Six Day War in 1967, between the newly formed state of Israel and Arab countries, that the Jewish people once again regained control of what remained of their temple.

To get to the Wailing Wall, security is tight. All bags are x-rayed and each person has to walk past a metal detector. Photography is not allowed in front of the wall. I followed the rest of my tour party and, touching the wall, I prayed for my own intentions. I was surprised that on the Jewish Sabbath the wall was not crowded with worshippers. I discovered later that Jews prefer to go to air-conditioned synagogues near their places of residence rather than stand in the searing heat in front of the wall and pray. Nevertheless, the Wailing Wall is the holiest of shrines for the Jews.

Standing over the top of the Wailing Wall is the Dome of the Rock, built on the Temple Mount, which is an impressive piece of Islamic architecture. With its exterior of pure gold the Dome stands out against a largely white and grey Jerusalem skyline. It was built between 685 and 691 AD by Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, from Mecca, who captured Jerusalem from the Byzantines. In 1998 the late King of Jordan sold one of his houses in London to fund the 80kg of gold required for refurbishing the Dome. According to Islamic tradition, the sacred rock over which the Dome is built is the place from which Muhammad ascended to heaven accompanied by the angel Gabriel.

I couldn’t help feeling that the position of the Dome, over the site of their old holy temple, must have caused some resentment among the Jews over the years. Sovereignty over the site remains a key issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in Israel there is already talk of building the third and final temple. My tour guide informed us that the Dome is not open to non-Muslims, and so we headed to the Muslim Quarter to wander through its streets.

The narrow, crowded streets of the Muslim Quarter were lined with small shops owned by Palestinians, selling a variety of items including souvenirs, food, clothes, carpets and household wares. This quarter was teeming with life. I passed veiled Arab women busy shopping, keffiyeh-clad elderly men chatting, and young boys in jeans playing with one another. We stopped at one diner to eat some falafel, a common food in the Middle East, made from fried balls of chickpeas. Then we headed for the Christian Quarter.

We followed the Stations of the Cross, the last few places Jesus visited before being crucified and buried. I found re-tracing his last footsteps a very moving experience as I could imagine Jesus struggling to walk up these winding roads with the cross, in hypovolemic shock, following the brutal flogging he received on the previous day. The cruelness of it all became so much more real to me, which was a reminder of how wicked man can be. There were inscriptions on the walls to signify different Stations of the Cross.

After stopping at a particular shop to purchase souvenir items, we proceeded to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – one of the holiest shrines in Christendom - which is the location of the last five Stations of the Cross including the site of the crucifixion and tomb of Jesus. Initially built by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine I in 330 AD, it was later destroyed by invading Persians and then Muslims, but eventually rebuilt by the Crusaders. The main custodians of the church are the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic churches, with the Greeks having the lion's share. The Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox own smaller sections within the church. The fractious nature of Christian denominations was very much in evidence here.

From the brilliant sunshine outside, I stepped inside a dimly lit church and turned to my right. I followed people up the Stairway to Golgotha. Beautiful murals and shrines, each owned by a particular denomination, marked important locations within the church. I visited the site of the crucifixion where an ornate Greek Orthodox altar commemorates the place. There were many visitors around this altar, taking photographs and remembering Jesus as he suffered a slow, agonizing death on the cross. Returning to the ground floor, near the entrance, I touched the Stone of the Anointing where Jesus’ body was laid and prepared for burial after being removed from the cross. Like other people, I put my souvenirs on the stone to get them blessed.

Moving to the other side of the church – to the left of the church entrance - was the sepulchre or tomb of Jesus Christ. A large, hollow monument encloses the original tomb. No one knows for sure whether this was the actual tomb of Jesus but what is beyond doubt is that the presence of other tombs, such as the “Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea”, shows that the area was used for burials during the 1st century AD. There were many pilgrims queuing up to go inside and see the tomb but, as my tour involved visiting other places, I had to move on.

We left the Old City via Jaffa Gate and headed back to our tour bus. Sitting down in my seat in the air-conditioned bus was a welcome respite after all the walking, and I felt hungry. The bus pulled away and headed to Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea. From Jerusalem in the Judean Mountains the bus descended more than 1km along a winding, sloping road to the depths of the Judean Desert, where Satan tempted Jesus for forty days and forty nights. The change in scenery from the moderately green mountains of Jerusalem to the parched, barren landscape of the desert, in a fairly short space of time, was quite dramatic.

Soon we were in Qumran where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered more than half a century ago. We stopped at a tourist centre where we satisfied our hunger with a hearty lunch. Then the bus drove us to the Dead Sea, about one mile away. I had reached the lowest point on earth, 400m below sea level. The temperature was at least 40°C.

The Dead Sea is unique in that it has a very high salt content of 30%, which means that the water is unusually dense, making it possible for human beings to float on the surface. With the rest of my tour group, I changed into swimming trunks and went into the water. Soon I was lying on my back, effortlessly floating on the water. It was an amazing experience and great fun. The water had a dark green complexion and it felt oily. I learnt that the surface level is decreasing at a rate of 1m per year, although there are plans are to build a canal from the Red Sea to replenish the receding water in the Dead Sea and desalinate it for human use.

I stayed in the water for fifteen minutes, and then after climbing out I washed myself with clean fresh water from a pipe. Soon I was on the road again, travelling northward along the Jordan Valley, on the border between the West Bank and Jordan. We passed the area where Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist. As we passed the biblical city of Jericho I noticed a greenness to this area, near the River Jordan, that contrasted with the desolate terrain of the Judean Desert. I passed by many plantations of palm trees, banana and other fruit.

As the tour bus headed back to Haifa, I quietly reflected on my visit to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. I had fulfilled a long personal ambition to visit Jerusalem, to see the places mentioned in the bible and experience the atmosphere. Although things have got a little commercialised in recent times, there is no mistaking the sense of history when one stands in this great, ancient city. Jerusalem has a timeless quality about it that I have not felt in any other city.

I did get the feeling that because of the proximity of the different communities that live in Jerusalem, particularly the Jews and Muslims, and the importance of the place to each community, there is always the possibility that anything that upsets their sensibilities could flare up into something explosive quite quickly. Indeed, that was one of my main fears before my trip. I discovered that there is enough security around to handle with such situations should they arise.

Seeing the Garden of Gethsemane, the Last Supper Room and other Stations of the Cross, the bible literally came alive before my eyes. Re-tracing Jesus’ last steps was a moving experience which I will never forget. To cap it all, I had a dip in the Dead Sea. I would like to come again sometime, if possible, and spend more time in Jerusalem. I would like to visit some of the other churches and sacred relics. Next time I would like to bring my family with me. For now, at least, I am thankful for having been able to see Jerusalem and I will cherish my memories of it for a long time.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Globalization and the illusion of stability

I am nearing the end of reading “The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It’s a very interesting book, and I recommend it you anyone curious about the possibility of Black Swans or the highly improbable events that affect our lives. The author explains the fallibility of using the median in the Gaussian bell curve for making predictions, while in reality many things defy this logic.

In chapter 15 he predicts the possibility of Black Swans occurring in our current highly globalized world:
“I spoke of globalization in Chapter 3; it is here, but it is not all for the good: it creates interlocking fragility, while reducing volatility and giving the appearance of stability. In other words it creates devastating Black Swans. We have never lived before under the threat of a global collapse. Financial institutions have been merging into a smaller number of very large banks. Almost all banks are now interrelated. So the financial ecology is swelling into gigantic, incestuous, bureaucratic banks (often Gaussianized in their risk measurement) – when one falls, they all fall. The increased concentration among banks seems to have the effect of making financial crisis less likely, but when they happen they are more global in scale and hit us very hard. We have moved from a diversified ecology of small banks, with varied lending policies, to a more homogeneous framework of firms that all resemble one another. True, we now have fewer failures, but when they occur...I shiver at the thought. I rephrase here: we will have fewer but more severe crises. The rarer the event, the less we know about its odds. It means that we know less and less about the possibility of a crisis.”
He continues by saying that in a network there are a few nodes that are highly connected while others are barely so. Although networks seem more robust, because a random hit is more likely to affect a poorly connected spot, they are more vulnerable to Black Swans because if there is a problem with a major node, this will have a major impact on the rest of the network.

Actually this is quite an accurate prediction of the present economic crisis, and considering the book was published in 2007, Taleb was clearly ahead of his times. He favours a larger number of smaller banks rather than a small set of very big banks. In such a scenario, banks can be allowed to go bust, without tax payer funded bail-outs, and new ones take their place. This would allow the banking industry per se to be more resilient and reduce the risk of a major crisis unfolding when one bank fails.

Once the current crisis has passed, the government should consider breaking up the current nationalised behemoths such RBS and Lloyds Banking Group. A more diversified banking industry is probably to everyone’s benefit. As well as that, there must be more effective regulation. Recently, an anonymous whistleblower has accused the Financial Services Authority (FSA) of being complacent in its dealings with building societies, which is quite a major indictment of the financial services regulator.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

A “perfect storm” of food, energy and water shortages by 2030

We are currently in the middle of a credit crunch – a crisis caused by our own risk taking trait in the economic sphere – and the effects of it are proving to be quite painful. But have you considered the possibility that we could be heading towards a different type of credit crunch, one affecting our environment, sometime in the future? This is what the UK government’s chief scientist, Prof John Beddington, warned recently at the Sustainable Development UK conference. He said the growing world population will cause a “perfect storm” of food, energy and water shortages by 2030.

The world population has tripled over the past 70 years and it is expected to reach 8.3 billion by 2030, by which time demand for food and energy will have risen by 50% and fresh water by 30%. Climate change will exacerbate matters in an unpredictable way. Prof Beddington thinks the UK will be relatively fortunate not to experience its own shortages but “we can expect prices of food and energy to rise.” In other parts of the world, particularly the developing world, the amount of fresh water available per head of the population is expected to drop significantly.

These are certainly grim predictions but not unreasonable considering current trends. Remember the spurt in food prices last year? In many countries, population growth has surpassed food production in recent years. Just because prices have eased a bit recently it does not mean that they are going to stay that way. If the world population continues to grow and we do not have the equivalent of another Green Revolution, there could be serious food shortages in the future and higher food prices are inevitable.

In the developed countries, where population growth is either negative or very small, there are no shortages of food. These countries have on average substantially higher rainfall than poorer countries; they have surpluses of food and could expand food production if they wish. This is not the case in developing countries, where populations are still growing quite fast; they do not produce enough food to feed their people and they cannot afford to import sufficient food to close the gap. Food production capabilities are deteriorating for a number of reasons:
  • Limited arable land. Not all land is good or receives sufficient rainfall. Increases in food production would have to come from existing arable land.
  • Shrinking size of family farms. In many developing countries, the size of small family farms have been cut in half over the past four decades, as plots are divided into smaller and smaller pieces for each new generation of heirs.
  • Land degradation. Overworked and exposed soils are eroded by wind and water. Faulty irrigation and drainage can make land useless through waterlogging and salinization. Misuse of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides also contribute to soil degradation.
  • Water shortages and degradation. When water becomes short, farmers find it difficult to maintain crop production.
  • Irrigation problems. Less than half of all water meant for irrigation purposes actually reaches the crops. The rest soaks into unlined canals, leaks out of pipes or evaporates on its way to the fields.
  • Waste. A lot of food is wasted simply by rat or insect infestation, spoilage and losses that occur during transportation.
Demand for meat in developing countries is growing much faster than for cereals – close to 3% per year compared to 1.8% for cereals. For instance, in China, rising incomes and changing diets have resulted in greater demand for poultry and pigs. This means that demand for cereals to feed livestock, and in turn water, will increase significantly in developing countries, putting pressure on grain producers. It takes 4-5kg of feed to produce 1kg of meat.

Slower population growth in developing countries would allow more time to achieve sustainable food production. Results have shown that higher female literacy and better access to health care services can lower fertility rates. Therefore, the widespread provision of basic education and health care should be a priority for governments in developing countries. There is still a lot of indifference to education in many places, so it is important that initiatives encourage people to view it in a more positive way.

As populations have grown, so too have carbon dioxide emissions. More people mean more houses, cars, planes, and power stations. Developed countries still have much higher per capita emissions than developing countries, but the gap is slowly narrowing. China has recently overtaken the US as the world’s biggest producer of carbon dioxide. More needs to be done to move to a low-carbon economy, otherwise the effects of climate change we are already seeing today are going to increase.

If we do not act now, I believe the combined effects of population growth and climate change are going to lead to serious problems in the future. As human beings we have a tendency to be very complacent when things appear to be going smoothly. It’s only in a time of crisis we actually realise our folly of ignoring past warnings, but scientists have been warning us for years about the effects our behaviour is having on the environment. Without more concerted international action a “perfect storm” of food, energy and water shortages could be far more painful and far-reaching than the current economic crisis. These problems, unlike the current credit crunch, won’t be temporary; they will last much, much longer.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Indian elections: a meaningless exercise in the machanics of democracy

It’s almost election time in the world’s largest democracy. Next month more than 700 million Indians will go to the polling booths and cast their vote, in what will be the biggest exercise in the democratic process anywhere on earth in recent years. The result will be interesting, as no single party is likely to win outright, but for many Indians, considering the state of Indian politics today, the elections will be a largely meaningless affair. Audacity of hope? Life will be the same as usual for most Indians after these elections.

Since the ‘golden era’ of Indian democracy in the first two decades following independence, Indian politics has become increasingly populist and chaotic. Today there are many, many parties at the national and regional levels, and central governments are usually coalitions. Gone are the days when India’s grand old party – Congress - ruled virtually unchallenged across the breadth and depth of the country. This broadening of democracy reflects the diverse nature of the Indian population, but along with this increased political pluralism has been a distressing corruption of the entire system.

Around a quarter of India’s politicians are facing charges of serious crime including murder, armed robbery, kidnapping and rape. Many politicians thrive on the use of muscle power, but this nexus between politics and crime only weakens the rule of law. The legal process is so slow and ineffective that it only facilitates the further criminalization of politics. How can one expect a parliamentary system infiltrated by criminals to serve the people, let alone uphold the rule of law?

Corruption is so endemic in public life that to get anything done one has to pay a bribe. A report by Transparency International India (TII) estimated that the total sum of bribes paid to access public services by poor people in India was more than 9 billon rupees. The protectors of the law, the police, topped the services accounting for the most bribes being paid, followed by housing services and land administration. Bribes are routinely paid for gaining admission to schools, to get a bed in a public hospital, or to get the electricity turned on. India is currently ranked 85 in a list of 180 countries worldwide for corruption by Transparency International.

There has been much praise for the rapid economic growth India has enjoyed in recent years. Certain sectors of the economy like IT, biotechnology, and pharmaceuticals have indeed experienced tremendous growth, but the effects of this economic growth are failing to trickle down. In the latest United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index, India is ranked a low position of 132 out of 179 countries, falling far behind other large countries such as China (94) and Brazil (70) with similar sets of challenges, and it has not improved its position for years.

Among two of the main failings of successive Indian governments have been the inability to make basic education and health care available to all its people. When India embraced free market reform in the early 1990s, with its elitist concentration on higher education, a semi-literate population was poorly prepared for a widely shared economic expansion. The situation is not much different today. The contrast with China couldn’t be greater. Chinese governments, even before China turned to capitalism in 1979, went for massive expansion of education, and later of health care too. The result has been that China has reaped the benefits of free market reforms much better than India.

India is, of course, a very diverse country and there are large variations in living conditions across different regions. The poorer states, mainly in central and northern India, such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Bihar, have living conditions not much different to the most deprived countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Here there are high levels of illiteracy, infant mortality and undernourishment. Meanwhile Kerala, in the southwest, has almost total universal literacy and good health care facilities. The result is that people in Kerala live longer, in smaller families, and they are less likely to suffer from acute poverty.

The Indian electorate has the uncanny ability to surprise political pundits. In the last general elections, against all odds, Italian born Sonia Gandhi led her Congress party to an unlikely victory over the incumbent right wing Hindu nationalist BJP party. Following her surprising victory, she stepped aside for the soft-spoken Oxford University educated economist, Manmohan Singh, who initiated India’s economic liberalization in the early 1990s. This year the newly formed Third Front, a grouping of secular left wing and regional parties, could possibly play the role of kingmaker.

There are huge challenges that lie ahead for the next government including poverty eradication, overpopulation, and an increasingly unstable neighbourhood. It is difficult to see how a coalition government, constrained by compulsions to please its internal partners, will be able to meet all these challenges. However, as Kerala has shown, the provision of basic education and health care, achieved without too much government expenditure, can lead to tangible social benefits in the long run. The next government must address such fundamental issues; otherwise, for many Indians, life will continue to be a misery and elections a meaningless affair.