Thursday, June 27, 2013

Treating Our Indian Muslims Right

I've received an email from a friend implying India should emulate Japan when it comes to keeping Islam in check and the Muslims at a distance.  The email includes a lot of the claims about Japan and the Muslims mentioned in this supposedly Muslim hating website "BNI" that instead refutes them. 

I'd instead like to see our Hindu majority to go out of its way to reassure Indian Muslims that they are a welcome and valuable part of the fabric of our society. This will strengthen our secular values and further distance our Muslim community from extremist elements.  I admired and appreciated Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee's sponsoring in 2002 of prominent scientist Dr. Abdul Kalam (a Muslim) to be President of India.  This significantly reshaped my perceptions about Mr. Vajpayee's BJP party which has Hindu-centric origins and affiliations. 

Our Muslim community braces for silent suspicion and hostility towards them whenever there's a terrorist act in India by Muslim extremists.  This is in spite of most Muslims having no links or sympathies with such radicals.  Ideally, after any such incident our Hindu leaders and community figures should rush to declare that we know our Muslim community condemns these acts as much as anyone else.  And our leaders should follow through by exhorting their followers to make Muslims living among them feel as safe as possible.  Thomas Friedman in his Times columns speaks glowingly of Indian tolerance and minorities largely thriving and safe in our society, and we should remain committed to this ideal.

Then there are my personal experiences.  When I visit Mumbai in India I often happen to use cabs driven by Muslim drivers.  Mumbai residents are often compared to New Yorkers in their disinterested demeanor as both belong to large bustling cities and tend to mind their own business.  I'm sometimes surprised at how these supposedly impersonal Mumbai drivers warm up and become almost sentimental if I (who they think is Hindu) talk to them amiably and respectfully after knowing that they're Muslim. 

In Pune in 2008 we hired attendants for my in-laws (Daddy and Mummy) who were both hospitalized.  It didn't even register with me that one of them named Shabana was a Muslim until another of them referred to her as "woh Musulman" ("that Muslim" in slightly derogatory terms.)  When Daddy and Mummy left the hospital, on advice from our family and friends we asked if they were comfortable having a Muslim like Shabana working for them at home (along with three others who were Hindu).  They said yes.  Shabana turned out to be the most caring and kindest to Mummy, who passed away in Dec. 2010.  After we had to terminate her service Shabana came to visit Daddy three times in the next two years just out of fondness and concern. 

Daddy's favorite doctor in his neighborhood was the reputed Dr. Inamdar, a deeply religious Muslim, who has a very busy practice and sees over a hundred patients a day. He had no time for house calls but made an exception when I appealed to his sentiments and informed that Daddy and Mummy were in no condition to leave home.  From 2008 till they both passed away (Daddy in May 2013) Dr. Inamdar regularly and devotedly attended to them at home.  He would tell me how he was impelled in part by the respect and affection that Daddy and the rest of us accorded to him.

From time to time I get forwarded emails from friends and family in India faulting some political parties for pampering and pandering to Muslims.  Other emails are more vehement about Muslim teachings and customs that make this populace as a whole untrustworthy or prone to militancy. I'd urge more understanding, and regard a more relevant distinction to be between the zealots and bigots who make trouble, and the moderates in any religion.  Hindus comprise over 80% of India's population with Muslims at about 13.5%.  A little magnanimity on the part of our Hindu majority will counter some inevitable feelings of insecurity among our Muslim community and considerably help in their regarding themselves as Indians first.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Sensible Security Vs. Paranoid Privacy

I've viewed the ACLU as a mixed blessing at best, as some of their laudable defense of civil liberties and social equality has been offset by needlessly obstructive litigation.  In the second category I'd include their lawsuit against the government's "phone spying program" that aims to prevent or detect terrorism.

The US National Security Agency (NSA) collects meta data (place and time of calls, and to whom) and likely records a lot of calls made overseas as well.  It is not clear from news reports if their analysts can mine that data and access recorded conversations without a court order.  Even if they can, I'm fine with it so long as there are stringent penalties for misuse or unauthorized disclosure of such information, e.g., to expose extra-marital affairs or other embarrassing but non-criminal acts.

In a dangerous and uncertain time when there are inevitably those living within the US who'd like to do us harm I'd much rather choose security over some loss of privacy.  That includes measures like widespread video surveillance in public places, a national ID card, a national gun registry, some degree of profiling as I wrote in August 2009, and yes, electronic eavesdropping.  Tom Friedman in his June 11 Times column voices a lot of my thoughts except that I'd not so "reluctantly, very reluctantly, trade off the government using data mining" but strongly endorse it.  In the same spirit I consider Bradley Manning who sent a trove of secret State cables to Wikileaks and NSA leaker Edward Snowden (if the US ever gets him) to be deserving of stiff jail terms. 

Many Americans agree with me, though poll results over the past couple of weeks vary depending on whom you ask and how you frame the questions.  According to USA Today on June 18, most Americans support prosecuting Snowden who is sought by the US and is for now in Russia.  There's an age divide, with the younger generation much more supportive of Snowden's leaks, which I attribute to their naivete.  After all, this is the demographic that helped Obama top a more capable and qualified Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic Primary. (Sorry, past and present Obama fans, I couldn't resist this dig.)

Curiously, I see some mainstream media reports referring to Snowden and even Manning as "whistle blowers" which is a term for exposing illegality or wrongdoing.  That is not the case here, as they've instead leaked secret but legal acts or communications, so the the term "whistle blower" shouldn't be debased by applying it to them.

About the other security measures I reeled off above, to my mind privacy for privacy's sake is overrated, especially when it tips the scales heavily in favor of criminals.  Why not introduce a national ID?  Accompanied by biometric markers it would be much harder to fake and could significantly impede identity theft.  It could also make life for the truly innocent and harmless more convenient, as in airport security screening.

Why not have everyone's DNA and fingerprints in a national registry along with criminal information, so long as access to it is graduated and available to the authority only to the extent justified?  For example, police officers making a traffic stop could access if there are any outstanding arrest warrants for anyone they pull over, but not prior convictions that could prejudice them.  This type of comprehensive registry would enormously expedite and ensure detection and apprehending of the guilty if their DNA or fingerprints are found at the crime scene.  For the same reason we should indeed have not just a national gun registry but also to the extent feasible the ballistic records of every weapon to make criminal forensics more effective.

Privacy is another term for concealment, and I can see why we'd want things like our bedroom behavior, non-criminal fetishes or even some misdemeanor offenses to be inaccessible to the public at large.  But that's very different from information we're talking about here, which can seriously impede crime, terrorism and other really bad stuff.  Modern technology makes it possible for us to not just store vast amounts of useful information about people but also to selectively restrict access to it.

Of course, data hacking and cyber security failures can expose secret information but that happens anyway in other settings like email and other records, and lapses can be mitigated with extra care.  After all, our banks, the Pentagon and the CIA do not avoid collecting and storing confidential information in electronic format just 'cause this can possibly be hacked. The same logic should apply to keeping relevant and useful information about all Americans in a common, well secured database.

So while the ACLU and libertarians keep crusading against NSA "excesses" like warehousing electronic communications and centralized databases  I view most of these as sensible measures to make us safer.