Sunday, 26 July 2015

When "less is more"

Drisana Levitzke-Gray (Photo: Mamamia Women network)

A few days ago, I attended an event in Sydney where the public met 4 Australians of the Year. All women, all impressive, and all inspiring. However, Drisana Levitzke-Gray stole my heart. The young woman was born in a family with deaf history, but she proudly refuses to see that as an impairment: "We do not lack an ability, we have a different way of experiencing life", "deaf is not a disability but a minority language". For her many others, disability is not a liability but an asset.
In Norway, this is not just a dream but a reality. 72% of employers in the health sector reported employing people with disabilities. Greater knowledge of health problems and disability provide employers in the health sector a more accurate and less prejudiced approach.
In the end, we are all handicap. We are beaten, saddened, failed, and hammered by the harshness of life. But hey, let's try to learn from Drisana Levitzke-Gray, that "happiness is a state of mind", and that "less is more".
Below a piece I wrote for a Vietnamese news on this thought.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Sex workers - On the Edge of the Ethic War

Below is a two-part article I wrote to advocate the decriminalization of sex work. It came as a pleasant surprise for me to find out that more than 70 countries, including very religious and conservative ones in Asia and Latin America have legalized prostitution. Sex work is work, and it should be be seen from a realistic angle of life. The profession has been here since time immemorial, and it is here to stay. Denial or defense simply is not sustainable, and frankly, a big fat lie to ourselves.

http://www.thanhniennews.com/commentaries/sex-worker-on-the-edge-of-the-ethic-war-42615.html

http://www.thanhniennews.com/commentaries/sex-worker-on-the-edge-of-the-ethic-war-part-2-42664.html

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Part 1-  VICTIM and VICTIMIZED

I’m writing this amid a current scandal in Vietnam which involves a celebrity being publicly exposed by some media to be a prostitute. Her pictures have gone viral, with as much personal information included as possible. “Whore”, “hooker” and many other degrading words have been used to hurdle shame and guilt upon the woman.

In Vietnam, although the law only imposes moderate punishment (a fine of from 5-25 US dollars) on prostitutes, sex workers are subjected to harsh social criticism. Even the terminology “sex worker” is virtually non-existent since very few would consider trading sex for money as work.
In this article of two parts, let's consider some arguments that have consistently been used to ban prostitution, commonly seen as a profession which is as old as the humanity itself. The questions we want to answer is: “Is prostitution inherently immoral and harmful? Should it be criminalized and punished?”.

1.    "Sex workers are exploited and and coerced to work by criminals, that is why it is harmful"
One of the main reasons why prostitution is considered harmful stems from the fact that in many cases, sex workers are coerced into becoming a prostitute. They are considered victims of the last choice, human trafficking, economic hardship, domestic abuse, or criminal organizations.

According to a statistics from the UN, 80% of border-crossing human trafficking are women and girls, most of them are consequently subjected to sexual abuse and forced to work in the sex industry. It has become common knowledge that many women who end up in the Red Light District of Amsterdam, were promised a career in dance and entertainment.

Some prostitutes are unaware victims of lover boys who target vulnerable teenagers, make them fall in love, then isolate them from families. The girl are slowly trapped in the vicious circle of manipulated relationship with a terrifying mixture of emotional terrorism, dependent love affair, and confusing perceptions of sex, love and money.

Needless to say, those who coerce others into prostitution also include their loved ones: parents who are desperate for money, partners who see their “better half” as “better” in term of financial support. In India, several villages such as Ingonia are known to survive and thrive on the profession. “Born into brothels” is an award-winning documentary in which children of Sonagachi were given a camera to capture their daily life in this red light district. Most female sex workers in this documentary were portrayed as indirect victims of poverty or domestic coercion.

Ironically, if we accept that sex workers are genuinely victims of coercion and crimes, and that is why sex work should be banned, then criminalizing sex work is nothing more than an unethical act to punish the victims one more time. Blaming the victims is obviously easier than finding the culprits, especially when the culprits are hidden behind the thin veneer of families, love, sacrifice, or a corrupted system. We cannot punish a malfunctioning economy that creates such a terrible poverty that consequently puts people in to a situation of having to choose trading sex for survival, can we?

However, if the causal link between coercion and victimhood is the reason why prostitution is harmful and should be banned, then frankly, this can be argued to be the case with most of professions on earth. To a certain extent, all of us are coerced into doing what we are doing, since none of us is 100% free to do what we individually want. Freedom is never absolute, and as members of a society, we all have to sacrifice, compromise, or adjust ourselves to suit the situation, hence, allowing ourselves to be coerced into doing something we genuinely would not want to do. From this point of view, we are all victims of societal pressure, at varying degrees.

At this point, “degree” should be the focal point of this argument. To what degree is coercion acceptable? This is not a question of a bi-polar spectrum where one extreme is right and the other is wrong. This is a question of one single scale with one single attribute of “suffering”, one end more acceptable and the other end less so. Our hypothesis then can be stated as: “If we can somehow make the degree of coercion in prostitution at least similar to other lawful professions, then sex work should be considered a lawful profession”.

This leads the discussion away from the unfair treatment of punishing the victims and focuses the solution on regulations and law enforcement, which is the basis of a civil society. By decriminalizing prostitution and imposing strict rules, victims will be able to avoid double punishment, leading to an escape that is safer and more sustainable than what they have had to endure.

Many studies have proved that criminalizing prostitution creates double incrimination. A study in Florida shows that 82% of the sex workers have been assaulted, and 68% have been raped. They fear to report to police since this can be used as evidence to make them committed another felony charge of working as sex workers. A 2002 Chicago based study found that 30% of exotic dancers and 24 % of street-based sex workers who had been raped identified a police officer as the rapist. Up to 17% of sex workers interviewed reported sexual harassment and abuse, including rape, by police. They had been forced to strip or engage in other sexual conduct while in police detention. Again, a victim is victimized one more time, ironically with a punishment exactly the same as their accused felony.

Further, while acknowledging that this argument of victimhood is valid, we also need to accept the fact that not all sex workers are coerced into prostitution. Many of them choose this profession voluntarily because it fits their life style and personality, or because it is economically efficient, without any pressure.

In the last few months, I have been part of a volunteer group helping to deliver tea and coffee to sex workers in the Red Light District of Amsterdam. I started the job with the idea that all these people are victims, and I could not be more wrong. While some of them are surely coerced into prostitution, there are many who choose to work here freely. Sex work is exactly that, work. And what well-intended people should do is to protect those who are forced to enter the industry, and support those who are the boss of their life, regardless of who they choose to be, as long as it is honest labor.
At this point, we have the second hypothesis regarding the argument of victimhood: “If we can be sure that sex workers choose their profession freely, then sex work should be considered a lawful profession”.

Feminism has been torn between these two viewpoints since the end of the 20th century. Half of the feminists believe that sex workers are victims, even to the point that they themselves are not aware of their victim status. Liberal Nordic countries such as Sweden and Norway fall into this categories, punishing the buyers and not the sex workers themselves. The other half of the feminists believe that sex workers are also people who choose this profession on their voluntarily basis. The Netherlands and Germany legalize prostitution with strong regulations, making a genuine effort to ensure that sex workers are protected against abuse and coercion (to a certain acceptable degree on par with other lawful professions, of course).

2.    "Prostitution is degrading, that is why it is harmful"  
Prostitution suffers from a strong social stigma as a degrading profession. Being moral or immoral is not the point here, but the way societies look at it. One should not choose to be a sex worker simply because it is a degrading job to do. We try to avoid this profession not because it is wrong, but because societies attach very limited amount of respect to it.

More often than not, those who adhere to this argument are often hypocritical without even knowing it. When the Vietnamese celebrity was exposed on the media, some shook their head in a combination of disgust and empathy: “Sex work is also work, nothing wrong with it. But I still find her disgusting and I curse her for wanting to do that job. Why? Because she knows people dislike it, and yet, she still does it”.

This double standard is deafening, yet so well disguised under the cover page of social conformity. In a nut shell, the job itself is honest labor, but one still should succumb to social stigma and avoid it. Even people who accept that prostitution is pure honest work also cannot escape the need to surrender and bow to the negative social perception and betray their own genuine point of view.

Not only is this argument subject to hypocrisy, social perception towards prostitution as a degrading job cannot rule out the fact that many other professions in our societies are also degrading and not socially desired. Not so many of us can loudly claim to be Jesus-like and give convincing evidence that we love everyone without a tiny bit of bias based on what job they do for a living. Some of us use degrading words to address housemaids, shoe-shine boys, scrap scavengers, or street porters…despite the fact that they are earning money honestly with their labor. If we do not criminalize these professions on the basis of socially undesirableness, why should we do that to prostitution?

Clearly, the discussion should be focused on how to change the stigmatized social perception of sex work, and not the moral nature of sex work itself. If we criminalize a profession simply because it is an unwanted profession by the society at large, then again, we are punishing and victimizing the victims who are already marginalized by the society. Worse, this punishment is purely based on our fear of being seen as sympathizers for the oppressed. If that is not hypocrisy, then I don’t know what is.

Again, the hypothesis that should be stated here is: “To an extent that we can promote social acceptance and empathy towards sex workers, then sex work should be able to be considered as lawful work”.

PART 2: SOCIAL MENACE or SOCIAL NEED?  

While some sex workers choose their job voluntarily, others can be victims, and hence, need not to be victimized one more time with punishment from the legal system. Obviously, other arguments used to support the ban on sex work do not always come from the sympathy with the victim status of sex workers. Quite a contrary, these arguments target them as the source of social menace, the cause of ethics decadence and the reason why humanity is morally ruined. In another words, sex workers are no where near the status of being victim, they are squarely and simply the culprit.  

3.    Is prostitution being harmful to marriage?
Of all the arguments, this is the weakest one, since it is often used by those who inherently lack of confidence in their sexual prowess, a lack of trust in their partner's fidelity, or ability to maintain a stable marriage, or : “I oppose sex workers because my partner can cheat on me, and our marriage will be destroyed”.

Obviously, this argument is faulty since the burden of guilt should be borne by the unfaithful partners, not the sex workers. The society is full of temptation: sex, power, money, beautiful jewelries, expensive cars, delicious food, and so on and so forth. Ethical people know exactly what they can obtain and what not. If fast food is generally needed but can be unhealthy if eaten too much, should we criminalize fast-food and shut them down, or should we control ourselves not eating too much?  Blaming fast food, or blaming sex worker is just another way to profess our weakness in self-control and regulation.

In another counter-argument, it has been proved that prostitution, if regulated well, can help to protect marriage. Single, inexperienced, or sexually frustrated people can safely find an escape without engaging in rapes or illicit affair with other people’s partners and hence, ruining an otherwise happy marriage.

In 2010, the Family Protection Society in Australia was forced to publicly apologize to Tasmanian sex workers for saying the industry is harmful to women and breaking up marriages. The message is clear, if you eat the forbidden fruit, you are the culprit, not the fruit. Evidence? We still eat apple until this day.

4.    Is  prostitution spreading STD to wider population? 
Of all the arguments, this is the one that has been proven wrong at the strongest level. Study after study has shown that once sex work is regulated and decriminalized, sex workers have a much lower percentage of STD infection, compared to the wider population. Since the institution of mandatory condoms in Nevada's brothels in 1988, not a single sex worker has contracted HIV. In one Australian study carried out in 1998, the prevalence of sexually transmitted bacterial infections was 80 times greater in 63 illegal street prostitutes than in 753 of their legal brothel counterparts.  In the early '90s the Thai government began working with brothel owners to enforce 100% condom use. Free condoms were given to brothels, and sex workers were told to insist on condoms. Establishments that allowed unprotected sex were shut down. As a result, condom use increased from 14% in 1989 to over 90% by 1994. Over the same period, the number of new STD cases among men treated at government clinics plummeted by over 90%. HIV infection rates among military recruits fell from 4% in 1993 to below 1.5% in 1997.

Understandably, criminalizing prostitution fuels the possibility of STD, as it is uncontrolled, workers unprotected, and in many cases, they are willing to succumb to customer’s requests of unprotected sex in order to reduce the time spent on the street, and hence escape the police’s attention. Since condoms can be used as evidence and a form of harassment during street arrests, fear of felony charges can discourage safe sex, and contribute to the vicious circle of victim, being victimized, and then making others victims of STD.

5.    Is sex an inappropriate commodity?
Very often, sex is regarded as a product that should not be put on par with other commodities since it is too intimate, too divine, or too vulgar. Let’s take this down one by one.

Sex is intimate. No doubt. But is sex more intimate than personal thought, than dirty, seedy, deep dark secrets and scandals that have been commercialized, manipulated, written and crazily advertised to fame-boost and make money for celebrities worldwide?

Have a look at some of the world’s famous biographies and you will know what I mean. From incest, rapes, sexual violence, cheating to sex tactics; from family hatred, friendship betrayal, unmasking of loved ones, to deepest personal fear and obsession…you name it. Are these less intimate than an ordinary intercourse?

Sex is divine. Well, maybe. To be precise, sex deserves that status only when it is combined with other wonderful emotion and relationship such as love. It is almost ridiculous to consider sex always a product of love and genuine feeling between two parties. In its pure nature, sex is reproduction, and its foremost function is to help reproduce. This applies to everything on earth, from plants, animals, to humans. Of course sex as a result of love is the ideal, but this world is not populated by idealists, it thrives by realists who know all too well that we as human beings cannot rely on love to survive. If this planet was dependent on love to exist, none of us would be here today.

Sex is vulgar. For some, that is probably true, especially those who believe that humanity has been dammed for the original sin. In the end, sex contributes to the aftermaths of Adam and Eva being thrown off the Eden, and sex is religiously described as having only the function of reproducing. Having a pleasure from sex is taboo, since sex is not meant to be enjoying, but purely a process to make children.

But hey, hello! Criminalizing some product because it is religiously considered only for one specific God-given purpose does not seem to fit the idea of secularism, and still, it does not justify the verdict of sex work being harmful in nature. Looking further beyond the tiny society we live in, many civilizations have honored sex as the source of life, and continue to do so. Sacred prostitution on the rivers of Tigris and Euphrates was practiced in the house of heaven where all women were ordered to give themselves to strange men once in their life time, taking their sacred money and refusing no one. In ancient Greece, Hetaera often enjoyed their high status more than other women. Phallus worshiping, religious sex, sacred marriage, and many other sexual rituals are still the cores of many belief in civilizations from East to West. Vietnam, Japan, Bhutan and many other conservative countries still have festivals that focus on the glory of sex, of yin-yang harmony and revered origin of life.

Finally, there is this argument of seeing the body as a temple of God, and hence not appropriate to sell, meaning to let the consumer have the absolute right over it, is faulty. However, the more precise term for prostitution is that sex workers rent a part of their body in a fixed period of time with well-defined restrictions. Nobody owns their body, and hence, it is not selling in its conventional meaning.
In short, prostitution should be seen from a realistic angle of life. The profession has been here since time immemorial, and it is here to stay. Denial or defense simply is not sustainable, and frankly, a big fat lie to ourselves. More than 70 countries have legalized it to varying degrees, including very conservative Muslim countries such as Bangladesh, Tunisia or strongly Catholic Mexico and many other in Latin America.

There should be no absolute urge to criminalize or venerate such a basic need as sex. To quote a comedian: "There is not much difference between going to a date and meeting a prostitute. In the former, you HOPE to get sex. In the latter, you are SURE to get sex".

Sunday, 18 January 2015

On the Charlie attack: The real questions we should ask

Here are the pieces I wrote for BBC and Muslim Village on Charlie attack
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The attack on Charlie Hebdo is first and foremost an attack on France’s most fundamental value. Freedom of thought and speech was adopted during the revolution in the 18th century (Right of Man). French people are known for their love of arguments and rationales, so much that this has become their cultural identity. And rightfully, the country also has many extraordinary philosophers and thinkers. The Charlie attack therefore can be seen as an attack on the right to be French on the French soil.
However, there are questions we have taken for granted that we know the answer. Well, probably not.
 
1. Is this truly a clash between Islam and the West?
Let’s make a strong note that two of the victims are Muslims: Mustapha Ourrad – Charlie Hebdo’s copy editor, and Ahmed Merabet – a police officer. Twenty two Muslim countries condemned the attack, including countless of Muslims world-wide. Protests were held even in Ramallah, Palestine. Hezbollah leader stated that the attack is more offensive to Islam than the caricatures themselves.
Obviously, it cannot be Islam versus the West if Muslims are found on both side of the battle. In fact, Muslims are the first victims of terrorism and radical Islam. The number of Muslim being murdered by extremists is 8 times higher than that of non-Muslim.
Calling this incident a clash of Islam and the West also means denying that Muslims share some most fundamental human rights with the rest of humanity. It is a serious offence to perceive that because these people are Muslims, they don’t deserve to have the basic rights that Western people enjoy, simply because their values dictate the opposite.
Further, no one should forget that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are related religions from Abrahamic system, all hailed from the Middle East. During the Golden Age, Islam advanced ahead the rest of the world in human right, freedom of speech and belief, as well as gender equality.
Today, millions of Muslims have been on the front as dissidents and activists, fighting for the same right of freedom and democracy, by all the same means that we know in the West: peaceful protests, opinion giving, and of course satire. They are the Muslim Charlie whom we don’t know, have not heard of, or denied the right to exist because we are hopelessly trapped in our own polarized thinking system of Us versus Them.
My personal tweet a few days ago went like this: “I am Mustapha – the cartoon editor who exercised the freedom to criticize his own religion and was murdered for doing so”.

2. Are Muslims responsible for the attack?
One of the most disgusting tweets in the last few days comes from media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. He wrote: “Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jhadist cancer they must be held accountable”.
If we take this ridiculous tweet for real, that 1.6 billion Muslims have to be made responsible for the act of some radicals in the name of Islam, then every single one of us should immediately hang our head in shame. To be more specific, more than 2 billion Christians should be accountable for the Crusades since these were conducted in the name of Jesus, or 80 million Germans should be kept saying apology because Hitler murdered some 5 million innocent souls in the name of German pure blood and nationalism.
Similarly, nobody has the right to ask Muslims in all corners of the world to confirm their stand on being moderate. By doing so, you assume every single Muslim to be guilty of terrorism until they profess their view.
Muslims bear no particular responsibilities in this attack, except responsibilities that are expected to be exercised by law-abiding and decent citizens. They have been the victims of their co-religious radicals, they need not to become victims of everyone else. Their situation resembles that of other marginalized groups. A popular tweet of Sally Kohn hits this hypocrisy:
“Muslim shooter = entire religion guilty
Black shooter = entire race guilty
White shooter = mentally troubled lone wolf “
Author Rowling replied to Murdoch’s ignorant tweet: “I was born Christian. If that makes Rupert Murdoch my responsibility, I’ll auto-excommunicate”

3. Do the attackers deserve their martyr “titles”?
Kouachi brothers were reported to drink and smoke pots, an image that is far from what a decent Muslim is supposed to be, let alone a martyr.
They grew up without care from parents, very little education, jiggling on temporary jobs such as pizza delivery or at the supermarket. Unfortunately, being marginalized makes young people like them easy preys for religious radicals who manipulate the vulnerability of the situation.
Millions of Muslims who were born and raised in the West from immigrant families are prone to self-confusion and value clash. Their parents were too busy settling down in a new home land and did not or could not give the education needed for so big of a contrast and so complex an identity. Being French, Muslim, Arab, and Algerian (in this case of Kouachi) all at the same time together with all different customs and norms can be problem for young kids. Those that overcome this hiccup fare further, but not without struggles. Those that are left behind become the human robots of radicalism: “Are you confused with who you are? Let me give you your true identity. You are Islamist. Your country is the universal Islamic state. And your life purpose is to be a jihadist to serve God”. Problem solved!
Kouachi is a typical case. His marginalized youth was fully exploited by political grieves as he tried to fly to Iraq to fight against America’s invasion. Three years in an over-loaded prison put him in a heaven of radical Muslims and hardened the young man. At the core of the issue, it is much wiser to see his motivation from political point of view rather than a genuine cause from religious appeal.
Writer Joan Coal also supports this point of view by stating that Al-Qaeda’s intention was to trigger hatred on Muslims in France, creating distrust, promoting revenge and a collapse from inside.
According to Centre de Prevention Contre les Derives Sectaires Liees a l'Islam (CPDSI), two third of the French nationals volunteering to fight as jihadists in Syria are European converts. More statistics shows that more than one fourth of jihadist candidates come from Seine St Denis, known for its high rate of unemployment and family breakdown*
Professor Mathieu Guidere at University of Toulouse sees this phenomenon as a result of a how angry and misguided young people want to wage their own revolution in the vacuum of ideologies to counter-balance the often unegalitarian and ostracizing meta-structure of the modern world*.

4. Can violence be justified?
Freedom is never unlimited. There are the principle of harm (John Stuart Mill) and the principle of offense (Joel Feinberg) that dictate the limit someone can exercise his/her freedom. The issue here is that each person, each culture, and each nation has its own interpretation of what is harmful and offensive, as well as the acceptable threshold of freedom. This is stated in the constitution and law. In case of conflicts, parties can sue each other for crossing the red line. Charlie Hebdo has been sued before.
So the rule of the game is very clear. One needs to pick equivalent weapon for a fair play. The attack on Charlie violated this rule. It is as if one has entered the ring with a stick and the other armed himself with a gun. One’s purpose is to have a fearless fight while the other’s purpose is to kill the opponent, so no more fights EVER can be played.
Honestly, Charlie Hebdo is a tad too much for my taste. In many other countries, their drawings can be downright hate speech. A serious law suit can see them closing down and getting a new job. However, their right to exist in France is undebatable, unless a French court issues a verdict that their work is harmful for the society. This is the foundation of a law-enforcement country. Nobody has the right to hijack the legal system and take law in their own hands.
For Ahmed the police officer, his death is a powerful statement of this very fundamental right: “Chalie Hebdo offended my religion. And I died protecting their right to offend, and my right to be offended”.
Within the boundaries of laws, this is the only choice to do since it is the only lawful way to give everyone a chance to fight back (even with equal amount of offensiveness), and retrieve the justice.

5. What’s next?
It is understandable that many of us are suspicious towards Muslims. Very likely, most of us have never communicated properly with a Muslim, let alone befriend with them. Their distorted profile is formed by breaking news where every attack is overdone with religious tone. According to PEW, 27% of the French dislike Muslim. The number is 33% in Italy and 64% in Germany.
The attack on Charlie also reminds us to re-examine our right to freedom of speech, since it never separates from the responsibility to our actions. We can rest assure that the law protects our right to be offensive, but we should also listen to our Jimini cricket of conscience. As Sally Kohn said: “When I open my mouth, I don’t want to be part of the problem, I want to be part of the solution”.
Since the war on terror in 2001, terrorism has even increased. In a "chemotherapy treatment" style, this war not only indiscriminately kills both cancerous and healthy cells, but also spreads the disease to other parts of the body. Hence, it is wise to look at the problem and see if our solution is actually counter-active. For example, if we know that the core of the issue are not religious but political and economical grieves, then despite the label it wages, we should be cautious when to bring Islam into this context. It is probably for this reason that Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said , “We have chosen not to use that label [radical Islam] because it doesn't seem to accurately describe what happened.”
After all, we also don't seem to fight with terrorism with appropriate weapons. 90% of the jihadists are recruited via social networks. Radical individuals and organizations from Qatar and Saudi Arabia bump hundred millions of dollars in spreading Wahhabism doctrine through free books, outlets, and broadcasting channels. We can't win this battle if we do not use a weapon of equivalence. Immagine what a power it can be if the government and other faith organizations have resources to sponsor a deep-rooted network of counter-radicalism, run by the Muslims, advocated by the Muslims, and policed by the Muslims *.
Finally, what we can do to deal with extremism is NOT to act the same. Letting a battle cry to kill the extremists makes us no worthier than the extremists themselves. We lose the battle by letting the demons demonize us. In Norway, the country replied to Utoya massacre NOT with a war on terror but a promise to bring even more democracy, more openness, and more freedom *.
I am curious whether similar thing will happen in France, whether Le Pen will mount, whether people can understand that 5 million French Muslims are actually French. They are here to stay. They cannot and will not go anywhere since this is their homeland. They are part of France’s blood and flesh, inseparable. And when they can gain a decent forum, those that have been voiceless will voice surprisingly the very best of French values: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.
(*) These paragraphs are not included in the published piece.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Sex, Sexuality and Sin at the Dead Sea

Dear everyone,
Here is my first attempt to self-publish on Kindle Direct. The book-chapter-to-be is on sale on Amazon as an article with the title "Sex, Sexuality, and Sin at the Dead Sea".
This is part of a series detailing my field trip at the height of the Arab Spring: "Alone, Asian, and Atheist in the Middle East". Check it out to see why you can't be more wrong to assume that this region is a monolith of barren sex life. Check it out to know why 13% of prostitutes in Morocco are still virgins. And check it out to join the discussion with me on how and what way the use of Western terminologies have cornered homosexuals in the Middle East into a religious suicide.
This article is a personal account of my observations and research whilst I stayed in Jordan. Here in the land of the Dead Sea, I encountered incidents that helped me look at sex and sexuality in the Middle East from a totally different angle. The spirit of the Dead Sea is far more alive and kicking than any image which mainstream media has ever created. 
When I was still a teenage girl in Vietnam reading about faraway places, the Middle East appeared to be a fairy tale land full of romantic love stories. It seemed to be full of intrigue, lustful decadence, secret lecherous harems, where princely young men passionately fought for exotic beauty. Now in our modern era, the opposite idea prevails: the Middle East through the lens of mainstream media is sexually barren, horribly oppressed while love can be considered a transgression rather than a natural human life event to be celebrated.
After living in this fascinating region for a while, both seem flawed to me. Every single person walking the street may very well be occupied by both sides of life: one is so conservative, even to the level of being almost archaic and feeling primitive; the other can be sensual, erotic and even rebellious. Hidden under any flowing robe can be some repressed desire, and averted modest eyes can be sizzling and fizzing with lust.   
Curious?
You can click on the link below and the article will be in your kindle or PC in a few seconds.
Happy reading!
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Với những bạn đã mong chờ cuốn Con Đường Hồi Giáo bản tiếng Anh (Alone, Asian, and Atheist in the Middle East), xin lỗi vì đã trễ hẹn. Thay vì một bữa no căng, mời bạn thưởng thức từng chương một theo kiểu vừa nhấm nháp vừa thúc giục chủ nhà vậy nhé J
Nếu bạn đã có Kindle, bạn có thể mua thẳng từ Amazon và đọc sau vài giây.
Nếu bạn không dùng Kindle, phía bên tay phải ở dưới cùng của box "Try it free" là link để bạn download Kindle for PC. Bạn có thể dùng phần mềm này để đọc các sản phẩm của kindle trên máy tính, điện thoại hoặc tablet.
Happy reading!

Saturday, 15 November 2014

When will Mecca welcome a Christian prayer?

Imam Khalifa El-Krif performs a Muslim call to prayer in an interfaith service aimed at combating anti-muslim bigotry held at The National Cathedral in Washington, DC on June 27, 2011. A rabbi, imam and reverend read selected passages and offered introspect from the Torah and the Koran as well as the Bible (Getty Images)


Yesterday, the national Washington Cathedral opened the door to welcome its first Muslim prayer. This is more than an act of hospitality, it is a brave step to show the world that Christianity and Islam come from the same root, that the followers are siblings and able to live peacefully under one roof. Let's us not forget that Prophet Muhammad invited his Christian guests to pray in Medina mosque, laying the foundation for interfaith trust and friendship. 

Similar acts of trust and friendship are not hard to find, even in the modern time. Minhaj - uh- Quran mosque in Pakistan invited Christians to pray in 2002. Scottish church St John’s Episcopal has become the first in the UK to share its premises with Muslim worshipers, welcoming hundreds of Muslims praying five times a day in their building as the nearby mosque was so small that they were forced to pray outside. In 2011, two Florida churches were opening their doors to Muslim groups. The University of Chicago even removed pews (rows of chairs) in its chapel to accommodate Muslim students to pray. During the bombing in Gaza, Muslims were invited to pray in Saint Porphyrius Church. And more powerful than ever, Pope Francis held several interfaith prayers in Vatican this year where the Islamic prayer was echoed all over the ultimate heart land of Catholics. 

When will we see such an event happening in Mecca? 

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Ngày hôm qua, một sự kiện quan trọng diễn ra tại nhà thờ Washington khi cánh cửa ngôi nhà của Thiên Chúa giáo mở rộng đón chào một buổi thánh lễ của Hồi giáo. Tiếng cầu kinh Hồi giáo vang lên trong ngôi nhà của Thiên Chúa gửi đến cho thế giới một thông điệp mạnh mẽ: "Các tôn giáo dòng Abraham là con cùng cha cùng mẹ, thờ cùng một Thượng Đế và hoàn toàn có thể chung sống yên lành bên nhau".

Trở lại thế kỷ thứ 7, thiên sứ Muhammad khi đón tiếp những vị khách Thiên Chúa tới thăm đã mời họ cầu nguyện trong thánh đường Hồi giáo Madina. Mối quan hệ giữa hai nhánh tôn giáo của Abrahamic suốt 1400 năm qua được đánh dấu bằng cạnh tranh, nhưng cũng không kém phần thiện chí. Kể cả trong một tương quan thế giới đầy xung khắc như hiện nay, Thánh đường Hồi Minhaj - uh- Quran ở Pakistan mở cửa đón người Thiên Chúa vào làm lễ năm 2002. Nhà thờ Thiên Chúa Scottish St John’s Episcopal là nơi đầu tiên ở Anh mời tín đồ Hồi vào làm lễ khi thấy họ phải cầu nguyện ngoài đường vì thánh đường chật chội. Năm 2011, hai nhà thờ khác ở Florida cũng mở cửa đón chào người Hồi. Nhà nguyện của ĐH Chicago thậm chí phá bỏ nhiều hàng ghế để lấy chỗ cho SV Hồi quỳ lạy. Giữa những đợt đánh bom ác liệt ở Gaza, người Hồi vừa lánh nạn vừa cầu nguyện trong thánh đường của nhà thờ Thiên Chúa Saint Porphyrius. Nhà vô địch của giải hòa tôn giáo có lẽ là Giáo hoàng Francis khi ông làm chủ nhà tổ chức hàng loạt buổi lễ Hồi giáo/Do thái giáo trong khuôn viên của tòa thánh Vatican, làm nên một điều thần kỳ mà chỉ có Giáo hoàng mới có thể biến thành hiện thực: tiếng cầu kinh Hồi giáo vang vọng trong trái tim thiêng liêng của Công giáo.

Cho đến bao giờ thì một buổi lễ tương tự mới có thể diễn ra ở trái tim thiêng liêng của Hồi giáo: Mecca?

(Tranh thủ than thở: Trong cuốn Con Đường Hồi Giáo, tôi kể rằng mình mất 2 năm không xin được visa đi Saudi, đơn giản vì Saudi đóng cửa hoàn toàn không hề có khách du lịch, chỉ có khách hành hương người Hồi đi theo tiêu chuẩn hàng năm. Đến đặt chân vào Saudi còn là một nhiệm vụ bất khả thi như vậy, nói gì đến Mecca?)



Sunday, 21 September 2014

IS and the conspiracies

A piece I wrote for BBC Vietnam on the IS, tackling some of the common conspiracies among the Muslims I have been talking to recently. Here is the summary:

1. Who funds the IS?
Conspiracies: Israel (of course), Jews, the US
Reality check: IS gets its revenues mainly from two sources: oil and the Gulf. They are Taliban with oil. Each day IS can sell up to 30.000 barrels, with black market price around $25-60, pocketing 2-3 million dollars. Middle men take care of the process, selling oil to local business beyond Turkey and to Assad regime itself. Assad and IS are “frienemy”, reaping benefit from the war economy and the status quo. Note that Al-Qaeda needed only 30 millions/ year to maintain its terrorist network and only 1 million to prepare for September 11.

2. Who created the IS?
Conspiracies: Israel (of course), Jews, the US
Reality check: The spiritual father of IS is none other than Wahhabism. IS has been funded by individuals and organizations from Saudi, Qatar and Kuwait who support an extreme version of Sunni Islam. 
Back in 1744, the Saud family and Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab swore a traditional Muslim oath in which they promised to work together to establish a state run according to puritanical Islamic principles. Politics and religions were married in a relationship which allowed both parties to secure power in the name of the one and the only "true Islam". Since then, the cancer of Wahhabi’s radicalism has taken root in the Kingdom, despite the King’s gradual reforms.
IS’s foreign soldiers come from various countries where Wahhabism has spread its extreme doctrine with oil money, converting mosques, putting imams on payrolls, stocking religious books, sponsoring young scholars to live and study in Saudi and then return home to teach Wahhabism and radicalize local believers.
All over the world, diverse Saudis networks and individuals have spent 70 billions to spread out its radical doctrine, according to David Kaplan. Saudi has funded more than 1500 mosques, 202 colleges, and 210 religion centers. How many of them are soaked with Wahhabism is an open question for us all. Osama bin Ladin himself came from a billionaire family in Saudi and used his fortune to set up Al-Qaeda networks of Sunni extremists. 
The IS, hence, is capable to take root on global scale much easier than we can imagine. Each jihadist returns will bring a seed of the IS. The most fertile ground is everywhere to find, as long as it is imbued with oil money from radical Wahhabist patronages in the Gulf.
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Bài Phương Mai mới viết cho BBC về IS. Để biết thêm về sự nguy hiểm của Wahhabism, bạn có thể tìm đọc thêm chương Saudi trong cuốn "Con Đường Hồi giáo" tôi vừa xuất bản.

Monday, 18 August 2014

A necessary Evil


This is one of my favorite stimuli in Intercultural Communication course. I would draw this on the board and ask students "What do you see?". Among the answer there will be always some enthusiastic voices: "A triangle".

What really interesting is, I don't draw a triangle. I just give them three dots. So why some people do see a triangle? This simple psychological activity shows us how our mind automatically links the dots together in order to give us a meaningful big picture. From cultural perspectives, a stereotype is formed in exactly a similar way, connecting bits and bits of loose information in order to reach a wholesome idea, more often than not, a false projection of reality. It is our survival skill, our way to predict problems and protect ourselves. It is bad, but it is crucial. Some call it a "necessary evil", and I couldn't find a better way to describe it.

We use stereotype on the daily basis. We have a few (not-so-) nice experience with people from a certain country and... BAM, we are ready to link the dots and draw a triangle, pigeon holing everyone in that country under one single label. Like it or not, each of us is a dot, and others will (sub)consciously see us not as an individual but a representative of a collectivity. Unfair? yes! Necessary? No doubt.

The text in Vietnamese is one of my recent articles that analyzes a psychological paradox of this amazing country: a legacy of glory and humiliation, and how this plays a role in the stereotypical Vietnamese.

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https://www.facebook.com/dr.nguyenphuongmai

Cách đây ít lâu báo Thanh Niên có đặt bài Phương Mai viết về thói xấu của người Việt. Bài gửi đi không có tít, nên được chêm vào một cái tiêu đề nói về "thói xấu của du học sinh", có thể khiến độc giả hiểu lầm. PM xin đăng lại bài gốc, và thêm một số câu chữ để rõ ý. PM hoan nghênh các ý kiến lịch sự, có tính xây dựng, và xin nhấn mạnh sự quan trọng của tinh thần tự phê bình. Ai thấy mình hoàn hảo rồi thì xin đừng tốn thời gian với post này nhé. Thân mến!

Khi tiếp xúc với bạn mới quen, tôi thường cố tránh tự giới thiệu ngay từ đầu mình là người Việt Nam. Tại sao? Đơn giản vì tôi đã phát ngán việc chưa kịp để cho thiên hạ hiểu bản thân mình là ai thì đã ngay lập tức bị đóng khung hoặc găm kim vào những định kiến tốt xấu, hoặc bị đem ra so sánh với những người Việt mà họ có dịp tiếp xúc trước đó. Những biểu cảm trên gương mặt họ, những câu cảm thán thốt ra, và nhất là những suy nghĩ không buông thành lời luôn khiến tôi chột dạ. Tôi thấy bất công khi nhất cử nhất động của mình với tư cách một cá nhân chưa hoàn hảo đều có thể bị đem ra đánh đồng cho văn hóa và tính cách của cả một dân tộc. 

Nhưng đó chính là điều mà dù không thích tôi vẫn buộc phải chấp nhận. Trong bài giảng đầu tiên của Giao Tiếp Đa Văn Hóa nhập môn, tôi thường vẽ lên bảng hình sau và hỏi SV: “Các em nhìn thấy cái gì?”

Trong những câu trả lời khác nhau, thể nào cũng có em nói “hình tam giác”.

Vấn đề là tôi không có vẽ hình tam giác, tôi vẽ ba dấu chấm. Vậy tại sao một vài SV nhìn ra hình tam giác? Đơn giản bởi trí não con người luôn có xu hướng đi tìm ý nghĩa khái quát, tổng thể. Ba dấu chấm không đưa ra được cái nhìn đại cục, không đưa ra được ý nghĩa hòan chỉnh nào, nên ba đường thẳng đã được não tự ý chêm vào để tạo thành một hình ảnh hoàn chỉnh cho chúng ta dễ dàng tiêu hóa. 

Định kiến không hòan toàn xấu, nó thậm chí là kỹ năng sống còn của loài người, sử dụng những kinh nghiệm rời rạc sai đúng lẫn lộn để tiết kiệm thời gian trong quá trình phán xét. Nhìn thấy một gã thanh niên đầu tóc bặm trợn xăm trổ đầy người thì lập tức “tránh voi chẳng xấu mặt nào”. Đi ngang một cô ả ăn mặc hở hang thì không kìm được ý nghĩ “đúng là loại đàn bà con gái lẳng lơ”. 

Không thể đếm xuể số lần tôi nghe bạn bè ca thán hoặc ca ngợi cả một dân tộc chỉ dựa vào một vài cuộc gặp gỡ, một chuyến công tác nước ngoài ngắn ngủi, hoặc một bộ phim tư liệu tình cờ hoặc hữu ý rơi vào tay. Không chỉ là một dân tộc, đôi khi cả một dải văn minh bị tổng kết dựa vào hành động của một vài kẻ trời ơi: "Bọn Trung Đông" nó hiếu chiến nhỉ/ hiếu khách nhỉ; "Bọn Tây" nó sạch nhỉ/ bẩn nhỉ/ lịch sự nhỉ/ thô lỗ nhỉ…vv

Nói dài dòng thế để khẳng định rằng đừng bao giờ đòi thế gian này phải sạch bỏ định kiến. Và khi chính bản thân mình với tư cách là một cá thể của “thế gian” về bản chất cũng không thể thoát ra khỏi cái vòng kim cô đó thì đừng có giãy nảy lên khi ra nước ngoài nghe thấy thiên hạ chỉ gặp mấy con sâu làm rầu nồi canh (nhìn thấy ba dấu chấm) mà vơ đũa cả nắm với cụm từ “người Việt chúng mày” (vẽ hình tam giác); hoặc chỉ gặp mấy người Việt tốt tính đẹp long lanh (gặp ba dấu chấm) mà nhẹ dạ đem lòng yêu cả một dân tộc xa lạ (lại vẽ hình tam giác). Bản chất của định kiến là vậy, cho nên khi đó là lời khen tặng, bản thân tôi không dám nhận. Khi đó là lời chê bai, nhiều khi cũng phải ngậm bồ hòn làm ngọt. 

Những lời khen tặng thường dễ đoán trước, như “chăm chỉ học hành”, “chăm chỉ làm ăn”, “đánh giặc giỏi” (!). Những lời chê bai thường muôn hình vạn trạng, biến chuyển đầy bất ngờ. Cái hồ sơ của người Việt - ở thời điểm được dân bản xứ thường dùng như một thước đo để thẩm định nhân cách của tôi trong lần đầu gặp gỡ - bao gồm đầy đủ những hệ quả của một đất nước có quá khứ chiến tranh oai hùng nhưng về đích với thân phận nhược tiểu. Vì bài viết này được đặt hàng để “phê bình” nên tôi xin phép sẽ không đề cập đến “tính tốt”, cũng không đề cập đến "nguyên nhân" hay "giải pháp", mà chỉ nhanh chóng liệt kê 4 thói xấu nổi lều bều, chưa biết đúng sai ra sao, nhưng tôi thường nghe bạn bè nước ngoài than phiền nhiều nhất: 

Thứ nhất là "bẩn". Tôi nhớ mãi ánh nhìn dò hỏi của họ khi kể rằng SV Việt Nam đi mua cá tươi ở chợ trời về xách cái mớ trơn lẳn tanh nồng ròng ròng nước ấy lướt thướt qua khắp ba tầng gác. Thứ nhì là sự "khoa trương lố bịch" khi chính những kẻ luôn kêu gào đòi học bổng hay trợ cấp chính phủ ấy lại hào hứng khoe khoang về những đồ chơi công nghệ mới nhất. Tiếp theo nữa là sự "vô kỷ luật", coi việc có thể qua mặt những luật lệ lớn nhỏ là một chiến công hơn là một sự cố đường cùng. Tôi vẫn còn nhớ sự hào hứng phấn khích của những khuôn mặt trẻ du học sinh Việt khi họ bày cho tôi cách trốn vé tàu, cách ăn cắp mật mã mạng, hay cách dùng một đồng xu nhỏ và một chiếc kim băng để có thể hack các máy điện thoại công cộng và gọi về nhà hàng tiếng liền miễn phí. 

Cuối cùng, đó là sự "gian dối và thói tắt mắt", nhất là chuyện tiền nong, từ những vấn đề nhỏ như cầm nhầm, trộm đồ siêu thị, cho đến những vấn đề lớn hơn nhiều như mở cửa hàng hoặc công ty rồi thuê nhân công trái phép để khỏi đóng thuế, nói dối là thất nghiệp để hưởng trợ cấp chính phủ, giả mạo giấy tờ để trốn thuế, thoặc thậm chí lên đến thành hàng thiện nghệ như nhân vật Don Nguyen, người đang cùng ngân hàng Commonwealth đối mặt với bản cáo trạng khiến cả nước Úc sửng sốt sau khi bài phóng sự về những gian dối trong quá trình tư vấn khách hàng được phát đi ngày 5 tháng 5 vừa qua khiến số tiền đền bù có thể lên đến 20 triệu đôla. 

Gánh nặng của hai chữ “người Việt” không dễ định hình. Đó là một tay nải lẫn lộn rất nhiều tự ti nhưng cũng tràn ngập tự hào. Người Việt sinh ra đã được nhét vào tay một chiếc sào để có thể chông chênh đi thăng bằng giữa hai dợi dây: sợi dây thứ nhất viền bằng là những vinh quang vàng son của quá khứ và cội nguồn, những điểm ưu việt của một nền văn hóa có nội lực mạnh mẽ, tính cách dẻo dai, tư duy linh loạt, tâm thế dám làm dám chịu. Sợi dây thứ hai hoen ố bởi những vết chàm nô lệ, và nhất là sự tụt dốc bất ngờ không phanh vào 40 năm của triền miên đói nghèo, tụt hậu cả về kinh tế, tư tưởng lẫn bật gốc về văn hóa. Thế giới có khá nhiều quốc gia với số phận đi trên hai sợi dây tương tự như Việt Nam, những dân tộc bị “sốc thực tế”, như một gã tiểu vương lưng túi tiền qua một đêm bỗng thành trắng tay và bị người đời khinh rẻ. Gã tiểu vương ấy lầm than tự kiếm sống qua ngày, mang trong trái tim cả sự tự ti đến thành khiếp nhược và tự hào đến thành mù quáng. 

Sự đối chọi mãnh liệt giữa hai khối gia tài vừa thơm tho vừa xấu xí ấy khiến việc trở nên chẳng có gì thiếu logic cả khi cùng một cơ thể nhưng một tay chìa ra xin tiền (xin được tội gì không xin, nước nó bóc lột/ đánh chiếm/có lỗi với nước mình ngày xưa hồi xưa mãi) và một tay vung lên khoe hàng hiệu (chớ có coi thường con rồng cháu tiên). Dân tộc lập nước cả mấy ngàn năm, thống nhất gần 40 năm, nhưng tư tưởng nô lệ còn thấm đẫm đến nỗi vắng mặt chủ là trốn việc, thiếu cái roi kè kè của quản lý giám sát là thành vô kỷ luật, coi việc vi phạm nguyên tắc xã hội như một chiến công vì đã qua được mặt chủ chứ không phải bản thân mình đã có một hành vi thiếu văn minh. Một người bạn gợi ý tôi nhìn vào những kẻ vượt đèn đỏ. Đối với họ, cây đèn giao thông không phải là một công cụ để đảm bảo an toàn cho chính họ mà được coi như một dạng gông xiềng nô lệ cần phải phá bỏ để có thể tự do (được chết!!!).

Đáng sợ hơn, tự ti và tự hào, hai mớ quần áo vừa bẩn vừa sạch đó lại bị xếp lẫn lộn vào nhau, khiến chính kẻ phu thồ khi mở ra đôi khi cũng không biết mình phải tự hào về cái gì, và niềm tự hào đó có chính đáng hay không. Không phải ngẫu nhiên mà người Việt tha thứ được cho kẻ thù nhưng mãi không thể xóa hết hằn học với chính đồng bào của mình. Tội lỗi của sự lẫn lộn đó một phần là ở môn lịch sử. Không phải ngẫu nhiên mà học sinh chán ghét môn lịch sử. Bởi nó bản chất là môn chính trị học, không rành mạch, sàng lọc sự kiện để phục vụ cho mục đích cầm quyền. Nó khiến thế hệ kế thừa khi được tiếp cận với những nguồn thông tin cởi mở hơn thì bỗng trở nên hoang mang về một di sản vàng thau lẫn lộn, không biết cái gì là hệ quả của “đói nghèo”, cái gì là hệ quả của “văn hóa” để mà còn có sự lựa chọn giữa “chấp nhận” hoặc “sửa chữa”. 

Sự trưởng thành của một dân tộc thể hiện rất rõ ở thái độ đối với những lời khen chê. Kẻ tự tin lập tức thành thật thú nhận hoặc phân tích ngọn ngành đúng sai, đôi khi chỉ cười xòa, hoặc thậm chí nhiều khi hùa vào châm biếm hạ bệ chính bản thân dân tộc mình cho xôm chuyện. Kẻ tự ti hoặc là mặc cảm đến ê chề mà câm nín, tốt xấu nhận hết bất kể đúng sai, hoặc nổi đóa nhảy lên, chửi chết bà cái đứa mõ làng không để cho con người ta được ngồi yên mà ngượng. Thái độ của người Việt sẽ hơi khác một chút, bởi chúng ta tuy tự ti đầy mình nhưng cũng tự hào đầy vài tay nải, rồi lại đôi khi không biết cái gì nên tự hào và cái gì nên xấu hổ. Và thế là mỗi người Việt thế hệ này dường như đều phải đối mặt với nguy cơ trở thành một kẻ nhạy cảm đến đáng thương. Nghe thấy một lời vinh danh thì vừa muốn nghe lại vừa muốn chối bỏ. Nghe thấy một lời phê bình thì vừa muốn nhận khuyết điểm, vừa muốn hất tung bàn mà chửi. Một lời khen chưa biết đúng sai cũng khiến trái tim kẻ này thì ngượng nghịu không dám nhận, trong khi kẻ khác lại sung sướng hả hê; một lời chê chưa biết đúng sai cũng khiến đầu gối kẻ này khuỵu xuống vì xấu hổ, nhưng lại khiến kẻ khác điên máu lên vì mất mặt.

Bước chân qua biên giới hình chữ S để hòa vào thế giới xôn xao ngoài kia, đương nhiên, không người Việt nào vác theo một tay nải giống nhau, nhưng có một điều chắc chắn rằng mỗi cá nhân đó góp phần hình thành nên định kiến về dân tộc Việt trong con mắt thiên hạ. Đừng vội trách thiên hạ hồ đồ nhìn thấy 3 dấu chấm bất kể tốt xấu là lập tức vẽ hình tam giác, vơ đũa cả nắm. Bản thân cá nhân ta đối xử với thiên hạ đâu có tốt đẹp hơn là bao? 

Khoan chưa nói đến những giải pháp vĩ mô đổi thay hệ thống, đôi khi điều đơn giản nhất chúng ta có thể làm ngay bây giờ mà không cần phải chờ ai, là đặt cái tay nải nặng trịch kia xuống, rồi trên đôi chân của chính mình, phải cố gắng sống và cư xử sao cho trước hết chính bản thân mình phải trở thành một dấu chấm tròn vành không nhục nhã.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

War does not determine who is right - only who is left


Beginning of August 2014 marks the First World War centenary. The world's first modern war was triggered by the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir on the river bank in Sarajevo. When Austria-Hungary took over the former Turkish province of Bosnia, it angered Serbians who felt the province should be theirs. The war started with Austro-Hungary and its allies (Germany and Turkey Ottoman). The war ended with 17 million deaths, one Armenian genocide by the Turkish Ottoman, the collapse of 2 powerful empires (Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian), the pie-cutting of the Middle East (former Ottoman territory) between Britain and France, and the Treaty of Versailles - a harsh agreement in which Germany was brutally punished in order to scare it off from starting a new war.

Well, Germany was not happy with that verdict since they had to pay a massive amount of money and their territory was lost to other countries. They moved on to support a leader who vowed to fight and gain back their pride. His name is Hitler.

As Hitler allied with Italy and Japan, proceeding to invade multiple borders, World War II broke out. The war ended with around 80 million deaths, a horrified genocide of roughly 5 million Jews and Romanis, the destructive use of nuclear weapons, the emergence of two super powers America and Russia, and this ideology war consequently lead to at least 3 other proxy wars in Vietnam, Korea and Afghanistan.

So, while some people laughed at the Nobel Peace prize awarded to the EU, I personally nodded in agreement. A history of bloodshed has finally closed, so to make it possible for me to fall sound asleep in a night bus, travelling across a few dozen of European countries without even waking up. And in this picture, I was enjoying myself at the place where the two world wars and most of our current wars began: The Miljacka river bank in Sarajevo.

As Hamas refused the peace talk initiated by Egypt, we are still watching the legacies of these two world wars unfolding in the Middle East. For those who take side, do you honestly think millions of people died on each side because right or wrong is easy to spot? (I don't look sarcastic on this picture but I wish I would) 

War does not determine who is right - only who is left (Bertrand Russell). If we can leave the punch line of survived vs. dead aside, I personally interpret this saying as "war does not determine who is righteous, only the who is on the right, and who is one the left".

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Những ngày đầu tháng 8, bản tin thế giới xôn xao bởi những hoạt động kỷ niệm 100 năm ngày Thế chiến thứ nhất bùng nổ. Đúng 1 thế kỷ trước, người kế vị ngai vàng của đế chế Áo-Hung bị ám sát tại bờ sông Miljacka in Sarajevo (Bosnia). Người Serbs giận giữ vì Bosnia từ lãnh thổ của đế chế Hồi giáo Thổ Ottoman được đặt vào tay đế chế Áo Hung. Thế chiến thứ nhất bùng nổ với đế chế Áo Hung và đồng minh Đức-Thổ Ottoman. Thế chiến kết thúc với 17 triệu người chết, một cuộc diệt chủng man rợ của người Thổ đối với người Armenia, hai đế chế hùng mạnh Áo-Hung và Thổ Ottoman sụp đổ, Trung Đông trở thành miếng bánh cho Anh và Pháp chia chác đất đai, và cuối cùng là hiệp ước Versailles với những điều khoản hà khắc nhằm mục đích ngăn chặn Đức khơi nguồn một cuộc chiến mới.

Người Đức đương nhiên lòng không thể yên, nhất là khi họ phải đền bù một khoản tiền khổng lồ và một phần đất bị thuộc về nước khác. Trong bối cảnh đó, sự ủng hộ của dân chúng lớn dần lên, hướng về một nhân vật đã hùng hồn hứa hẹn sẽ khôi phục lại niềm tự hào của dân tộc Đức: Hitler.

Sự ngạo mạn và bành trướng của Hitler khiến thế chiến thứ 2 bùng nổ. 6 năm bom đạn khép lại với hơn 80 triệu người chết, một cuộc diệt chủng kinh hoàng với 5 triệu người Do Thái và Romani, sức tàn phá ngày tận thế của bom nguyên tử, sự trỗi dậy của hai cường quốc Mỹ-Nga, và cuộc chiến tư tưởng giữa hai phe đã diễn ra ở ít nhất 3 chiến trường Vietnam, Hàn Quốc và Afghanistan.

Còn nhớ khi giải Nobel Hòa Bình được trao cho Liên minh châu Âu, không ít người cười nhạo. Bản thân tôi cho là họ xứng đáng. Từ một lò lửa của chiến tranh và hận thù, chỉ vài thập kỷ sau, tôi và hàng triệu người khác đã có thể yên tâm vo tròn trên một chiếc xe bus xuyên đêm, xuyên qua hàng chục biên giới quốc gia mà không một lần phải tỉnh giấc.

Nhưng những hệ lụy của cuộc chiến vẫn chát chúa hàng ngày hàng giờ ở Trung Đông. Bật TV lên từ ngày hôm qua bạn sẽ thấy headline Hamas từ chối cuộc thương thảo hòa bình do Ai Cập dàn xếp. Bức ảnh tôi chụp bên bờ sông Miljacka ở Sarajevo không chỉ nhắc nhở rằng nơi đây là điểm sôi dẫn đến hai cuộc thế chiến và vô vàn cuộc chiến khác vẫn đang tiếp tục diễn ra. Bức ảnh đóng vai trò cười vào mũi tôi mỗi khi tôi dám nghĩ rằng hàng chục triệu người ngã xuống vì họ dễ dàng phân biệt được đúng sai. Cuộc sống mà cứ như những bộ phim bom tấn Hollywood nơi anh hùng và kẻ xấu rõ ràng ở hai chiến tuyến thì chúng ta đã mọc cánh thành thiên thần hết lượt. War does not determine who is right - only who is left (Hiểu theo cách của riêng tôi: Trong chiến tranh không có kẻ nắm trong tay lẽ phải. Chiến tranh chỉ phân định ai ở bên phải, ai ở bên trái mà thôi (Bertrand Russell).

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Israel - Loser in a winning battle

My latest piece published by BBC-Vietnam on Gaza. Here are a few summary points:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/vietnamese/forum/2014/07/140729_gaza_clashes_nguyen_phuong_mai_comments.shtml

1.  Israel has become a loser in its own winning war partly because of the social media's devastating force. Pro-Palestine supporters won the world's vulnerable hearts by posting a bombardment of children's bodies torn apart by shrapnel. Nothing is louder than an image of an innocent child being destroyed by the war. If the photo of Nick Ut capturing Napalm girl being burned in 1972 helped to stop the war in Vietnam, there are thousands of "Nick Ut" out there posting millions of "Napalm girls" to surely make Israel look like a monster. On top of that, in a conflict between a state-actor and a non-state actor, the latter can win just by staying alive.

2. Israel has been using "deterrence" war strategies in dealing with Hamas, which requires to show it is ready to act even against its own best benefit. This explains why Israel is firm on its standing even though its leaders know more than anyone else that each civilian's death is a big blow to tarnish Israel's image.

3. It is crucial to know that not all people in Gaza support Hamas, many of them are victims of the war between Israel and Hamas, having no other option but to face a catastrophic crossfire while Israel brutally attempts to destroy Hamas's rocket and tunnel systems. Israel argues that Hamas stores weapons in civilian's living areas so to make it hard for Israel to hit without killing the innocent.

4. Last but not least, while the world's outcry for Palestinian's casualties is completely justified, and Israel is having nothing less than a massacre in Gaza, and this horrendous situation is a shame on humanity, there is still a difficult question but should  not be avoided otherwise: "What would each side do if they had the ultimate power to destroy?". Israel does not need that hypothesis. They already have that power. With their military capacity they can flatten Gaza and kill every living thing in a day. But what if Hamas had that absolute power to destroy? I'll leave this very uncomfortable imagination to you.

It is outrageous that Syria has been completely forgotten even though its casualties in one day is tantamount to the total death in Gaza after 3 weeks. But I guess the obsession with Gaza is that Muslim fighting Muslim can not be as sensitive as Muslim fighting Jews.

If you want to ask about my personal opinion, then frankly, I think a more sustainable solution can not be found without the immediate stop of the new settlements. That is where the talking point begins. If not, this is certainly not the last war.

P/S Dear my good friends from both sides, I know reading this may make you squirm. But honestly, there is NO possible way to say anything on the Israel-Palestine matter without being shot dead. As simple as that.