Sunday, February 27, 2011
Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan said it right the first time on Feb. 17: “It’s like Cairo has moved to Madison these days.” He was viewing the 70,000 protestors demonstrating against Gov. Scott Walker’s dogged attempts to deny public unions the right to collective bargaining. Many thought Ryan’s remark unfortunate, since it seemed to compare Gov. Walker to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, effectively deposed by the street demonstrators of Egypt.
But Governor Walker certainly hit a nerve with the American public that is no less jolting than that which called Mubarak’s autocratic rule into question. Walker may not have killed people, but his dictates are, in an American context, no less autocratic or unthinkable than the excesses of Mubarak.
The Wisconsin demonstrators, and those following their lead in Ohio protests against a bill that would similarly deprive public employees bargaining rights, showed that they were unwilling to give up an essential element of American culture -- the ability to shape their own destiny through negotiated choice.
Freedom of choice is one of the most sacred of American cultural values. It lies at the core of our commercial, civic and social lives. Any imposed limitation on choice is eventually doomed, as has been shown time and time again throughout American history.
Anti-miscegenation laws eventually fell to the ground, as gay marriage laws are slowly overcoming the forces that would outlaw them. Civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination have been established throughout the land. They have the support of the vast majority of Americans because they protect the freedom to choose whom to marry, where to live and whom to work for.
Collective bargaining is at core mutual freedom of choice. One person can rarely negotiate with a huge industry; hence the group nature of the bargaining. In labor negotiations, both sides present what they are willing to live with in hopes of reaching mutual compromise. In this situation, no party gets entirely what they want, but both sides get some of what they want, and they come to a conclusion when they choose to settle for something that is perhaps not ideal but comes close to being satisfactory. When both sides agree, there can be no blame since the choice to accept or not was always there.
Gov. Walker’s mistake was in trying to eliminate the ability of workers to exercise this fundamental choice. In essence, he is saying that union workers will never get even close to what they want in terms of working conditions or compensation, but his administration, as employer, will always get all of what they want. When one is employed under circumstances where no negotiation of work conditions or compensation is allowed—no choice, effectively—that work is tantamount to slavery. It allows only one choice — to quit. This draconian choice might be acceptable, perhaps, in flush economic times, but it is not an option in times like the present.
The pretext put forward by Gov. Walker for his action was budgetary. However, as numerous analysts have pointed out, Wisconsin’s budgetary woes will not be solved by removing public service union bargaining rights. To make this point clearer, the unions agreed to the financial requests put forward by the Walker administration, alongside its call for the elimination of bargaining rights. But the governor was unrelenting; the money apparently didn’t matter. It was the strength of the unions he was trying to eliminate.
Of course, Gov. Walker is not alone. Republican administrations in a half dozen states are hoping to use the current financial crisis to break the public service unions. When employees lose the right to bargain, what good is the union? Why continue to belong and pay dues?
From the standpoint of the Republican Party, the disappearance of unions removes a financial obstacle to its political ambitions. Unions not only negotiate on behalf of their members; they also work to elect politicians that are sympathetic to workers’ rights. These are most often Democrats. Therefore, to get rid of political challenges, officials like Gov. Walker are happy to destroy the right to negotiated choice in the service of partisan political advantage.
In other nations, the exercise of choice might not enjoy the sacred quality it has in the United States. It is now clear that this fundamental right is something that thousands are willing to make sacrifices to protect. Gov. Walker and Republican legislators are learning this the hard way.
William O. Beeman is a professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota.
Thursday, February 24, 2011
Timely U of M conference can help Minnesota explore backdrop to Mideast unrest
By Sharon Schmickle | Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011
The protests that are rattling Arab governments from Tunisia to Egypt, Bahrain to Libya have many mothers, many explanations. To understand them fully, you can’t stop with the modern-day problems of corrupt dictatorships and frustrated, under-employed youth.
A good share of the rage erupting now is rooted in a profound loss of Arab dignity and pride. All educated Arab children know that their region once led the world in science, medicine, literature and so many other academic and artistic achievements.
Now, they are seen by the West – appropriately or not – as lagging in research intensity and investments in science. And many of their achievements in literature and the arts are not internationally respected.
“We are just now seeing that the seeds for this uprising were sown way back when,” said Prof. William Beeman, chair of the University of Minnesota’s Anthropology Department. “And it is not surprising that you now see it popping up everywhere.”
‘Shared Cultural Spaces’
Beeman and other U of M scholars have organized a timely conference that can help Minnesota explore this backdrop to the Middle East’s unrest.
“Shared Cultural Spaces,” is presented by the university's religious studies program with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The public is welcome for several sessions beginning today on the West Bank of the Minneapolis campus, where experts in relevant fields will take a fresh look at humanities and sciences in Islamic civilization and reveal the connections between the old and the new as well as between the Islamic and western worlds.
At the same time, the university is presenting the world premiere of "Journey," a stage adaptation of one of the spiritual and scientific masterpieces of the medieval Islamic world: Ibn Tufayl's "Hayy ibn Yaqzan." Performances begin tonight at the Rarig Center and continue through select dates in March at the Children's Theater Company.
Pillars of the intellectual world
While the conference material is fascinating and relevant to these times, much of it would be old hat to Muslim students. Even many Minnesota youngsters – for example, those who attend the Al-Amal School in Fridley – are well schooled in the story of what happened after the Roman Empire collapsed in the Fifth Century and Europe plunged into the Dark Ages.
Art, scholarly learning and scientific inquiry began to flourish in modern-day Iraq, Egypt and Iran. So respected was universal learning that Muslim caliphs paid for the preservation of Greek texts. And they supported scholars who translated the work that otherwise would have been lost to Europe.
Further, these scholars forged ahead with achievements that stood as pillars of the intellectual world for more than 1,000 years.
Indeed, many scholars and artists of the time still are considered to be giants in their fields: Muhammad Ibn Mūsā Al-Khawārizmī is credited with founding algebra. Ibn Sina's medical texts have been honored for centuries as the most authoritative works in human healing. Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, the great 13th Century Persian mystic poet, remains popular today inside and outside literature classrooms.
The list goes on and on.
Somehow, though, that prominence faded over the centuries. How and why the Arab and Muslim countries declined as intellectual leaders — including if that actually happened or whether it is a mistaken perception in the West — are subjects for intense debate.
Certainly, we can point to prominent exceptions. Take Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988.
When it comes to science, some critics say that corrupt Arab leaders lined their own pockets and paid off vast patronage systems rather than investing their countries' resources in research and technology. Many of us know brilliant but frustrated Muslim scientists who left their homelands to pursue careers in the West.
Beeman is among scholars who argue that there are many more Maguib Mahfouzes in Muslim countries. They just haven't been recognized by the West.
Beeman also said, though, that the Industrial Revolution did eclipse advances in the Middle East.
In less than a century, European nations surpassed their Muslim neighbors with superior technologies in military equipment, manufacturing systems, transportation, etc. The Europeans also organized themselves in nation-state systems that were utterly foreign to the orientation of the Muslim world, where it had been possible to travel from northern Africa to China without encountering the obstacles of customs, tariffs and strict national borders.
"It was very sudden," Beeman said.
And it set the stage for what happened as the colonial era ended in the Middle East.
Strapped for money to modernize their own states, Middle Eastern leaders forged partnerships with Europeans. Eventually the European nations and later the Americans were propping up dictators who couldn't have stood on their own.
"This was what set up the protests for today," Beeman said. "You have potentates, in league with external economic and political powers, who ruled in dictatorial fashion over their populations."
What the protesters have made abundantly clear is that these propped-up dictators have outlived their time. The protestors are demanding a chance to stand on their own and reclaim the dignity and cultural respect that is their heritage.
Information on U of M conference
The U of M conference is to highlight that heritage, exploring Islamic culture in its history and also its modern-day facets on topics including architecture, the arts and aesthetics, science and theater.
Most of the lectures and other events are free and open to the public. A schedule and more information is available here. The presentations of "Journey" are free at the Rarig Center, but there is a charge of $10 to $20 after it moves to the Children's Theater in March. For both venues, you'll need to make reservations.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Thursday, February 17, 2011
Professor Discusses Iran Opposition, Clashes
Iranian government, opposition clash at funeral
Updated: Thursday, 17 Feb 2011, 9:18 AM CST
Published : Thursday, 17 Feb 2011, 9:18 AM CST
On Wednesday in Iran, opposition activists and government supports clashed at a funeral for a student who was killed during protests on Monday.
The images coming out of the country are reminiscent of the change Egyptians brought to their country last week. In light of the conflict, FOX 9 News invited professor William Beeman, chair of the University of Minnesota’s Anthropology Department discuss his experiences in the country this past summer.
Watch the video for more information
Friday, February 11, 2011
Conflict in Egypt May Affect U.S. Oil, Military
Historical shift may hinder Middle East relations
Published : Friday, 11 Feb 2011, 12:03 AM CST
“It’s a moment of transformation that’s taking place because the people of Egypt are calling for change,” Obama said.
With the dramatic developments happening almost every day, it seems the eyes of the entire world are on Egypt.
"Its history in our lives,” said Seth Bixbydaugherty. “Its a big as anything we've seen in our lives."
It has a lot of people in Egypt and abroad talking, wondering and worrying.
"I discuss it with pretty much every group I meet with,” said Sharon Stipkowvits, of Minneapolis.
Yet, even in a place as international as the Global Midtown Market, not everyone understands why the conflict is important.
“I’m guessing most people don’t know why it’s a big deal,” said Amber Bakken, admitting that she has not been following the conflict. “I'm just being honest."
But professor William Beeman, from the University of Minnesota, said what happens in Egypt could eventually affect us all -- even across the seas in the U.S.
“First of all, this is an Earth-changing event,” Beeman said.
Every day, 2 million gallons of oil pass through the Suez Canal en route to the U.S., Europe and Asia. If a new Egyptian government were to shut down the canal, it would add weeks to the oil’s voyage and raise the cost for a gallon of gas.
“Oil has already topped $100 a barrel,” Beeman stated. “It has gone up since this conflict started and we are going to start paying higher prices at the pump because of what's going on in Egypt."
Also, since the Camp David Accord was signed in the late ‘70s, the U.S. has given a third of its foreign aid to Egypt and another third to Israel to keep the peace in the Middle Easte; however, if a new government in Egypt were to start a conflict with Israel, the U.S. could be pulled into another war.
Finally, as the most powerful democracy in the world, Beeman said we have a moral obligation to help others who put their lives on the line to be free.
"It’s bad for the U.S. if you believe the U.S. should have stable partners for heads of state. It’s not so bad if you believe people around the world should have self determination and democracy," Beeman said of the conflict.
GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. -- Protestors continue to gather in Egypt, rallying after President Hosni Mubarak announced he would not step down from his position. However, the Egyptian President did announce that he would hand over power to his Vice President.
Bill Beeman from the University of Minnesota joined us on KARE 11 News Sunrise to discuss the latest developments in Egypt.
Tuesday, February 01, 2011
The symbolic value of “Islamic governance” is of critical importance for Muslims, since as a matter of faith, Islam is supposed to be the governing principle for all of human life. However, theologically speaking, even if a nation labels itself as an Islamic republic, all government structures would not necessarily be determined by Islamic Shari'a (sacred law). Moreover, even those aspects of governance that appear to be directly determined by Shari'a principles are subject to interpretation by religious officials, many of whom disagree on their application.
Beyond this, Islamic government incorporates a broad set of ethical principles that few in the West would disagree with, namely that public resources should be used for the good of all, that honesty should be a hallmark of public life, and that the poor, sick and disadvantaged should be provided for.
Most Americans look at the term “Islamic republic” and immediately think of Iran, with clerical rule, mandatory head covering for women, and prohibitions on various forms of public and private behavior. However, the Iranian government is in some ways an anomaly in the Muslim world because it is very specifically based on a bedrock principle of the Velayat-e Faqih, or “rule of the chief jurisprudent,” which mandates a hierarchy of clerical decision-making with the chief cleric being the last word on all decisions. The Iranian state structure is a miracle of complexity with interlocking leadership positions, staggered election terms, and baroque combinations of direct and indirect election of leadership posts.
In other countries where Shari’a principles are included in the law, this doctrine is anathema, though clerical authority is nonetheless imperative. Thus, it is highly unlikely that any emerging Islamic state would mandate total clerical jurisprudence as in Iran.
Of course, Islam does have a specific set of laws that pious Muslims want to see an Islamic state preserve and protect. These include family law (including custody of children), inheritance law, laws against charging interest, laws governing certain aspects of personal behavior (such as personal dress), and specific punishments for certain crimes. These are frequently the battleground areas for those who want to protect the Islamic nature of the state, and those who want to approximate the secular laws of Europe and North America.
However, most people who object to Shari'a law have no idea how it is applied in the Islamic world. The laws are modified differently from country to country depending on who is making the religious determination and how strongly they are imbedded in the constitution and other legal documents of the state. For example, in some Muslim countries, the law that allows a man to have four wives is modified by the equally important religious demand that he prove that he will be able to treat all of his wives equally. In some Muslim countries, devices such as requiring written permission from the earlier wives before a second, third or fourth marriage can take place keep this practice in check, while still preserving the Islamic law.
Naturally, many in the United States and Israel are afraid that an Islamic government in Egypt would spell renewed hostilities with Israel. This depends entirely on the ability of moderate Muslims, of which there are millions in Egypt, to exert political control over the small minority of rabid extremists in the state. It is thus a political, not a religious question. The benefits of peace with Israel have been very great, and a sensible Muslim citizenry realizes that this is not something to renege on lightly.
It is also important to understand that under religious law, an Islamic government must be in place in order to protect religious minorities. Jews and Christians are all "people of the book," whose religious practices must be respected under Islamic law. This protection has been logically extended to Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and Taoists in South and East Asia in de facto observance. For example, in Iran, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians are allowed to manufacture, sell and consume alcoholic beverages, even though alcohol is prohibited for Muslims.
It is somewhat odd that Western commentators find it difficult to accept the desire to preserve a small number of characteristic religious structures in the laws of the state, when many of their countries already do so. Israeli law accommodates Orthodox Jewish religious practice. European nations until recently had prohibitions against divorce and abortion to uphold Catholic Canon Law. The opposition to same-sex marriage on religious grounds is a reality in American politics today, having resulted in legal prohibition in the laws of the majority of states. In fact, many religious-minded people in the United States would find such laws welcome, and regularly lobby for them.
There should be no interference to impose some imagined set of secular Western values on Egypt, given the serious problems that legislators would have to face. The United States in particular would do well not to obsess over the potential Islamic nature of the Egyptian state.
William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He has lived and worked in the Middle East for more than 30 years. His most recent book is “The ‘Great Satan’ vs. the ‘Mad Mullahs’: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other” (Chicago).