Asylum for Apostates

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We just got the news that Rahal al-Qunun has been granted asylum in Canada. Indeed, the 18-year-old Saudi woman is already on her way to her new home.

Rahal al-Qunun

Most people applaud her courageous escape from an oppressive regime, under which the renunciation of Islam (apostasy) is punishable by death. One hopes that by her action she will embolden other women to rebel.

One can also feel sympathy for her family, who will surely be condemned for letting this happen while they were on holiday in Kuwait; and for Canadian authorities who will be responsible for protecting Rahal from vengeful attacks by Muslims who consider death a necessary punishment for apostasy.

How likely are such attacks? According to the Independent newspaper there are twelve Muslim-majority countries in which apostasy carries the death penalty. Scholars are divided over this issue. As often happens where religious belief is based on a very old book, texts can be cited to support any point of view; and because the Quran has been supplemented by a body of writings known as the Hadith (meaning ‘tradition’) Islam is especially vulnerable to this phenomenon.

Asia Bibi

But judging by the scale of violent outrage when Asia Bibi, a Christian woman in Pakistan, was acquitted of a charge of blasphemy against Islam, views that most non-Muslims would consider extreme are not necessarily rare. (Blasphemy is a capital offence in Pakistan, but apostasy is not.)

Given that a) most people in the world would rather live in Western Europe, North America, Australia or New Zealand than in their own countries, and b) some of the nastiest countries to live in have Muslim-majority populations, should we not expect a blossoming of apostasy in the expectation that it will confer immediate refugee status and resettlement somewhere nice?

Muslim readers are especially welcome to comment on this post. I claim no theological expertise.

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Privatisation

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I was always a reluctant believer in the conventional wisdom of privatising everything that wasn’t nailed down, and much that wasn’t. Some services really should be provided by governments, I thought, especially in cases where:

  • There is a natural monopoly.
  • Access should not be restricted by ability to pay.
  • Private control may confer disproportionate power.

I deplored the rush to privatise utilities, transport infrastructure and a mind-boggling range of government activities including even prisons and aspects of the military.

Land Titles Office, South Australia

The stupidest example to come to my attention recently was the South Australian Land Titles Office in my home state of South Australia. Did the cash-hungry Labour government never pause to wonder why a consortium comprising a commercial bank and a foreign pension fund would be willing to part with A$1.6 billion for the right to run the LTO for 40 years?

Anyway, I have just read a concise and well-documented article by Ross Gittings, economics columnist with Fairfax Media, entitled ‘The Experts Told Us Not To Worry’. I recommend it – if you can find a way to read it without subscribing to the Sydney Morning Herald. He chiefly blames state governments and their supposedly expert advisors, who little dreamt of the depths to which private investors would sink in the pursuit of monopoly profits, or the enormity of the loopholes in the regulatory frameworks conscientiously erected in a vain effort to protect consumers.

Do you have a favourite privatisation horror story to share?

Brickbat for Pegasus (the airline)

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Later this month Mrs SG and I will be flying from Tel Aviv to London on the Turkish airline Pegasus. I’ve flown with them before and they’re OK – except that they’re very mean when it comes to the check-in baggage allowance: 20kg. Not 23kg, but 20kg. This is a nuisance, because from Adelaide to Tel Aviv we’re flying Cathay Pacific which allows 30kg.

So I went to the Pegasus website and found that we could ‘buy’ an extra baggage allowance. If booked at least 7 days in advance it would cost €33 for an extra 20kg bag: €16.50 Israel-Turkey (see screen-shot) + another €16.50 Turkey-UK.

That looked reasonable, so I set about arranging for an extra bag online. Aah, but as soon as I entered our reservation code an algorithm took over and the advertised International Baggage Fare rates were ignored. Suddenly it was going to cost us more than 6 times as much (see 2nd screen-shot, €1 = TL 6.17).

I put the matter to our travel agent, who simply confirmed the higher charge. I called Pegasus’s Israeli call centre and spoke to a lady who did the same and knew nothing of the advertised International Baggage Fare. I called Pegasus’s Turkish call centre and found myself speaking to the same lady.

Finally I asked my travel agent to make a formal complaint to Pegasus about their misleading website. Now I’m shaming Pegasus by the only means at the disposal of a powerless, unvalued, stroppy customer.

Sex Robots

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I just read an article in the online version of the Sydney Morning Herald, about the development and possible consequences of lifelike intelligent sex robots.

If this prospect interests, excites or appals you, I recommend clicking on this link to read the article and watch the embedded video. I also recommend buying Goldiloxians (The Eeks Trilogy in a single volume) which features sex robots and the practical and ethical complications they may give rise to.

Life Imitates Monty Python – Again

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Three recent news items had me shaking my head, unsure whether to laugh or cry. You have almost certainly heard or read them already, but I’ll share them anyway…

No.1: President Trump nominates Brett Kavanaugh to fill a vacancy on the US Supreme Court. A woman comes forward saying that he attempted to rape her at a teenage party 35 years before. BK denies it. The FBI is asked to investigate the allegation – with a whole week to complete the task. Not surprisingly, they could find no evidence one way or the other. If everything I did when I was 17 were made public, incompetent fumbling included… well, I just hope it never is. How about you?

No.2: The promoters of a new horse race (The Everest) want to project advertising material on the ‘sails’ of the Sydney Opera House. The CEO is interviewed by notorious radio shock jock Alan Jones, explains that the Opera House’s charter forbids commercial advertising, and is vilified, shouted over and threatened on air.

The Premier of New South Wales immediately orders the advertising to go ahead and the Prime Minister backs her, describing the Opera House sails as ‘the biggest billboard in Sydney’. 300,000+ people sign an online petition against the decision and a crown gathers to shine torch-beams on the sails to disrupt the display.

At one stroke the Liberal Party, already in bad odour because of the ongoing civil war that toppled Malcolm Turnbull, has alienated lovers of culture, opponents of gambling and anyone who was appalled by a) the on-air bullying of a conscientious public servant and b) the State Premier’s kowtowing to a shock jock. It is not known whether the scandal has also jeopardised the Opera House’s World Heritage status.

No.3: There is to be an APEC meeting in Port Morseby. To ensure that the participants can travel between their hotels and meeting places, a fleet of 40 Maserati Quattroportes is being airfreighted into PNG. Reportedly, they are to be distributed to Provincial Governors when their very brief service to world leaders is over. I cannot think of any words that would usefully embellish the raw facts of this act of lunacy.

Musings from Bangkok

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That’s not a very informative title, but I’m posting about two separate things and I happen to be in a transit lounge in Bangkok with a lot of time to spare.

I just came off a flight where I watched a film I’d vaguely heard about and a documentary about the Cassini mission to Saturn. Both affected me to the extent that I want to share.

The film was ‘Downsizing’, starring Matt Damon. It has been described as sci-fi satire but I don’t think that does it justice. The title relates to a scientific breakthrough that reduces people to 1/14 their height, and consequently 1/2744 their volume and mass. The aim is to reduce humankind’s environmental footprint before we destroy our habitat, but it has the side effect of allowing the ‘small people’ to use their savings to buy huge mansions in special resort-like communities and live lives of leisure and luxury.

I want you to see the film, so I won’t say any more – except to laud the actress who was for me the de facto star (see photo). Her name is Hong Chau, born in Thailand of Vietnamese refugee parents and now living in the USA. She plays a Vietnamese activist and amputee and she is superb.

The Cassini documentary starred the gallant little spacecraft itself, which was sacrificed at the end of a spectacularly successful mission. It was vaporised in a fireball in Saturn’s atmosphere, with eerie echoes of ancestral sacrifices to uncaring gods. This sacrifice was necessary to avoid the danger of terrestrial contamination of an environment where life already exists or one day may.

I found myself tearing up, not because of Cassini’s death, but because the whole enterprise showed what our species can do and be at our very very best. NASA had a huge team of specialists, men and women, young and old, from many nationalities. They had a common goal to know, a dedication to science, and no malign intent.

The NASA team’s goodness contrasted starkly with the recent horror in Indonesia where a whole family, young children included, wiped itself out in coordinated murderous attacks. This was a team effort too, but instead of being enthused by science their minds were infected by a perverted ideology that thrives only on ignorance and superstition. This was our species as its very very worst.

Doing Right by Sheep

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Australia exports about 2 million live sheep per year, 95% of them to the Middle East. Demand peaks before Eid-ul-Fitr, when devout Muslims slaughter animals in imitation of Abraham’s sacrifice of a lamb in place of his son Ishmael (Quran: Surah 37, verses 99–109) or Isaac (Bible: Genesis 22, verses 1–2). It’s a gruesome story, so don’t read it if you’re at all squeamish; in fact, don’t even look at the picture below.

Transporting live animals across large expanses of ocean is a gruesome business too. Every so often the Australian public is shown evidence of extreme cruelty to animals, whereupon government agencies and lobbyists express outrage and give assurances that rules will be tightened, enforcement will be strengthened and it will never happen again. And then it does.

The latest shock-horror story is about a shipload of sheep bound for the Middle East. We are told that more than 2,000 of them died of heatstroke and thirst.

I will not lapse into a diatribe against archaic, barbaric and horrific practices in the name of religion, which might attract accusations of antisemitism and islamophobia. I will simply draw a parallel between the export of live animals in appalling conditions, just so that they can be killed somewhere else, and the slave trade.

An interviewee from the livestock industry conceded that there was inevitable cruelty in the raising, transporting and slaughter of animals people like to eat, but pointed out that many Australian jobs depend on this economic activity. I imagine that slave traders were making similar statements 200 years ago.