Sunday, January 21, 2007

Muslim Policewoman Refused to Shake Hands

Just three months after Alexander Basha's request to be transferred to another section of the police so he wouldn't have to guard Israel's embassy in London, a new police row is in the making in Great Britain: a Muslim policewoman refused to shake hands with Sir Ian Blair, head of the Metropolitan Police Service, because it was against her religious beliefs. Apparently Sir Ian Blair wasn't very amused.

The case is very clear for the policewoman though: she is a woman, and Sir Ian Blair is neither close family nor her husband, and therefore she refuses to touch him. In order not to spoil the ceremony for the others, the policewoman was granted her request, though Sir Ian Blair questioned whether it could be valid at all. The other question that pops up is how she'll be able to carry out her duties if she doesn't allow herself to have any physical contact with men.

A spokeswoman for the police has already said that the woman, described as a «non-Asian Muslim» and wearing a hijab-uniform on the ceremony, will have to do her job properly if she wants to stay with the force. Furthermore, the Metropolitan Police Service has started an inquiry into what really happened and what the consequences will be. It's clear though that this sets yet another precedent, but perhaps next time they'll be better prepared when they're suddenly confronted once again with multicultural society during a ceremony.

In the meantime several Muslim leaders have already taken up the defense of the policewoman. Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission is one of them. He confirms that women should try to avoid all physical contact with men, whenever possible. However, in the context of their job, this should not lead to any problems. According to him the problem is rather one of cultural and religious ignorance and misunderstanding.
In fact, the woman confirmed that she'll put her duty as a policewoman before her religion, but it remains to be seen what will happen the day she'll have to arrest a man. Massoud Shadjareh added to his comments that shaking hands doesn't make or break a relationship, but if this is true, he should have explained too exactly what would be the problem if the woman had shaken hands with Sir Ian Blair. But I guess that just proves my cultural and religious ignorance.

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Lithuania Demands Russian Compensations for 1991

On 16 January the Lithuanian Parliament, the Seimas, voted on a resolution demanding compensations from Moscow for the Soviet-Russian attack of 1991. On 13 January that year troops stormed the television tower in the capital Vilnius, while thousands of unarmed Lithuanians tried to defend the building, hand-in-hand. Thirteen people lost their lives, and hundreds were wounded.

For the sake of clarity, it wasn't the today so much criticized president Vladimir Putin who was in charge in the Kremlin, nor was it Boris Yeltsin who ordered the raid in his usual but not so sober condition. The Soviet Union still existed at that time, even though it was becoming clear that union was coming to its end. And the head of state at that time was still, indeed, Mikhail Gorbachev. In fact, only a month earlier he had been in Oslo to collect the Nobel Peace Prize, and in the West he never had to account much for the attack on Lithuania and the deaths it caused. The intervention in Lithuania came a few days after an ultimatum he had given to Lithuania to respect the constitution of the Soviet Union and withdraw its declaration of independence of 11 March 1990. A month later though, on 9 February 1991, 90.47% of Lithuanians voted in favor of independence in a referendum, and yet another month later Lithuania's de facto independence was already recognized by a range of countries. Estonia and Latvia followed soon the Lithuanian example, and today the three Baltic states are members of both NATO and the European Union.

But sixteen years after the facts, no compensations have been paid yet for the victims of the attack, and the events continue to cause conflicts between Lithuania and Russia. The Russian Federation is internationally recognized as the legal successor of the Soviet Union, and therefore Lithuania sent the damage claim to Moscow. Already in 2000 a special governmental commission had estimated the damage of the fifty year occupation to roughly 28 billion dollars. The bill the Lithuanian Parliament sent to Moscow this year mentions 24 billion euro. In 1992, Lithuanians decided in a referendum that the government should try to collect compensations for the events of January 1991, but until now not much has happened.

As could be expected, the Russians aren't amused by the new Lithuanian initiative. Liberal democrat (Russian style) Vladimir K. Gusev (LDPR), first deputy chairman of the committee on economic policy, business and property of the Russian Federation Council, told in a reaction that «before adopting such resolutions politicians should have counted how much all the former Soviet republics have invested in Lithuania's development». According to him, Lithuania owes Russia a sum exceeding Lithuania's claims dozens of times, recalling that the Soviet Union built two thirds of Lithuania's industrial facilities, including petrochemical plants, the Klaipėda seaport and several arms manufacturing plants.

Valery T. Kadokhov, first deputy chairman of the committee on federation affairs and regional policies shares Gusev's view. «If we extend Seimas's line of thought, the damage can be calculated since the times of the Lithuanian Principality's hit-and-run raids against Russia,» he said. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs wasn't impressed either by the Lithuanian resolution, and said it ignored all legal, historical and political realities.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

«Uppsala University Guilty of Anti-Swedish Discrimination»

At the end of last month, Uppsala University has been found guilty of discrimination against Swedes by the Swedish Supreme Court (Högsta domstolen). Three years ago, the university had refused to enroll Cecilia Lönn and Josefine Milander to its Law Faculty, even though they had better grades than thirty other students with a foreign background.

In 2003, thirty of the available places for the law courses had been reserved for students with a foreign background. Cecilia Lönn and Josefine Milander, both with better grades than all of those thirty students who were allowed in, were refused by the university. The two young ladies didn't leave it with that, and sued the university. They won two times in lower courts, but now the Supreme Court too has ruled in their favor and acknowledged them a compensation of SEK 75,000 (approximately €8,200). The court expenses they made, about SEK 41,000 (approximately $4,500), will be reimbursed too by the state.

Nor the Supreme Court, nor the two women question the principle of positive discrimination, as long as it is practiced between candidates who are otherwise equivalent for the studies, or the job for that matter. This becomes different when somebody with an ethnic background is favored even though the Swede had better grades, since this is not positive discrimination any more, but just plain discrimination. Therefore the Supreme Court wanted to set a clear example this time of what cannot be considered to be positive discrimination and therefore is illegal.

Of course, the two students have had two tough years, but ironically the whole case may rather be an advantage than a disadvantage to them at the end of the day. As law students, they have now practical experience in bringing a case to court and conduct it, up to the level of the Supreme Court. Moreover, they have had the possibility to profile themselves in an important case, and this will undoubtedly help them when they start looking for a job.

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Monday, January 08, 2007

A Throne in Brussels

Good thing the anti-monarchistic Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) didn't take over power in the city of Antwerp after the last local elections, because that certainly would have hurt Belgium's reputation abroad…

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Sami Alphabet in The Norwegian Curriculum

Today the Norwegian social-democratic Minister of Work and Integration Bjarne Håkon Hanssen officially opened the «Sami Finger Posts», created to help the teaching of the Sami alphabet in Norwegian schools. He did this by going back to the school desks at Slemdal skole to learn the Northern Sami alphabet in a class of twelve year olds.

In the summer of last year it became public that the Sami alphabet was added to the Norwegian curriculum for the seventh grade of the primary school. This led of course to quite some discussions, in which especially party president Siv Jensen of the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet) was noticed saying she didn't even know Sami was an official language in Norway, and that she didn't know whether she should laugh or cry. A lot of people didn't know in their turn whether they were supposed to laugh or cry with Siv Jensen's remark.

A lot of response came from a number of pedagogues too. In their typical May '68 style they proclaimed that learning the Sami alphabet was just a waste of time. Learning any information at all is actually taboo in the Norwegian schools: pupils do not attend school to learn things, but to acquire social skills and have fun. It may therefore not come as a surprise that in international tests, Norwegian education usually doesn't score very high, especially when compared to its neighbor Finland, where old fashioned concepts like diligence and discipline aren't banned from school yet. They even teach Latin there! As a comparison: if I really want to scare my colleagues, I tell them I had six years of Latin during secondary school. This doesn't mean that these Norwegian pedagogues become somewhat humble when they are confronted with those international comparisons: each time the Norwegian education system gets a bad mark, they are quick to point out that the social merits of the Norwegian system isn't taken into account in those tests. I don't think they'll ever get it.

There's of course another problem: thousands of teachers who have never learned the Sami alphabet, let alone anything more about the Sami language than that it's awfully difficult, will have to teach the Sami alphabet to their pupils. But that raises the question how that Sami alphabet looks like. Is it like Chinese, with thousands of strange little drawings? Or is it more like Cyrillic or Georgian, consisting of a dozen or two of funny scribblings that look like letters? Well no, because even though there are three variants of it, it is based on the Latin alphabet, just like the Norwegian, and most of the letters are actually completely identical to the Norwegian. One can therefore wonder what a teacher is doing in front of a class-room if he can't figure the Sami alphabet out in an evening or two, and whether it really will hurt these twelve year olds children that much if they will be confronted with it for a few hours. I'm actually more surprised --but maybe that's just my Flemish reflex speaking-- that they're not supposed to learn more, like some basic grammar and a bit of vocabulary, so they would be able to say hello to their fellow-countrymen if they would happen to end up in the far North one day. But perhaps that's not the sort of social skills that fits will in the world of those Norwegian pedagogues, because then those poor children actually will have to learn something at school…

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