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April 13 2012

British Muslims have given David Cameron an object lesson in democracy | Parveen Akhtar

In Indonesia, Cameron called for Islam to embrace democracy; the young Muslim voters of Bradford West would agree

In his speech in Jakarta on Thursday, David Cameron told Muslims in the east that "democracy and Islam can flourish together", the implication being that they often don't. Especially with a focus on Britain, these comments are not without irony. Exactly two weeks previously, Muslims in a northern city of Britain had exercised their democratic right to vote, helping to elect George Galloway as MP for Bradford West. In so doing, they highlighted that although the issues of Islam, Muslims abroad, the east and the Middle East matter to them, of equal importance is local life.

Galloway's "Bradford spring" saw politicians and journalists bandying about terms such as "biraderi", "clan" and "kinship politics". Biraderi, which literally translates as "patrilineage" is commonly used by Pakistanis to refer to networks of individuals who share a common ancestry. Kinship networks are indeed an important form of social organisation amongst British Pakistanis, a type of internal welfare system for family and blood relations. However, the biraderi politics referred to in comment pieces discussing Bradford West is a very British phenomenon. Biraderi politics in the UK refers to the practices of British politicians of using community leaders in British constituencies with significant Pakistani voters to attain bloc votes. Roy Hattersley, who held the Sparkbrook constituency in Birmingham with a large Pakistani population, once remarked that whenever he saw a Pakistani name on a ballot paper he knew the vote was his.

In Bradford West, Galloway's supporters are largely young, British-born Bradfordians of Pakistani Muslim descent. They are the children and grandchildren of postwar economic migrants: manual labourers in the textile mills and manufacturing industries of the north. Biraderi-based politics had a successful run for nearly 40 years in these areas, but the children of the pioneer generation, born and bought up in the UK, do not identify with this kind of politics. They believe that community leaders do not engage with the issues that concern them.

The whole point of patronage-based politics is that politicians don't have to work for their votes. Alienated by this system, these young people were drawn to George Galloway. Galloway's oratorical skills and abilities in public debate have led some to suggest that Bradford West was a one-off result engineered by a truly individual politician who is a "standard bearer" for British Muslims in a constituency with a large Muslim population.

Galloway is certainly regarded as a hero among British Pakistanis, because he is seen as the only politician to challenge the status quo with regards to Iraq and other issues of Muslim concern. This may have won him the election in 2005 in Bethnal Green and Bow, but it would be misleading to think that he won in Bradford West because young British Muslims are preoccupied with the war. They may have an interest in Muslim issues abroad, but international politics plays only one part in their attitudes. What really matters is the unglamorous world of local politics: street lighting, children's schools, rubbish collection, the problems of vermin and drugs, the lack of opportunities: the bread-and-butter issues of life in the UK.

In electing George Galloway, some Pakistanis made a cognitive leap and reasoned that if Galloway is speaking positively about Muslims abroad, he will also care about them here, and help fight a fight which they believe the older generation of Pakistani community leaders has abandoned, by accepting patronage roles from mainstream politicians who want to stay propped up in their constituencies.

Trying to explain the defeat in Bradford West, John Mann, Labour MP for Bassetlaw, blamed the party for having no strategy in the area. On the contrary: the party did have a strategy. The problem was that it was an old strategy, based on the belief that community leaders could guarantee the local Labour candidate a win.

What the Bradford West byelection highlighted so dramatically was that Labour, and indeed all the mainstream political parties, can ill-afford to rely on the patronage-based relationships they enjoyed with the older generation of Pakistanis. Young British Pakistani Muslims are actively participating in British democracy. Religious identity and local concerns flourish side by side. Politicians have to earn and not expect their votes. That is democracy, in east and west.

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September 04 2011

9/11 ten years on: America's tallest building rises from the rubble of Ground Zero

A decade after September 11, a towering monument to US resilience is finally joining the Manhattan skyline

When the twin towers collapsed that day, they left behind two giant holes in the world's most famous skyline, like missing milk teeth in a child's smile. Once the dust cloud – visible 20 miles away – had settled, all that remained was a cathedral-sized mound of rubble and over 3m cubic metres of air.

In the subsequent decade, New Yorkers have instinctively turned to the twin towers to orientate themselves, only to find nothing there.

But over the last few months, and with the 10th anniversary of the 21st century's most notorious event imminent, a new structure has started to stretch upwards, piercing the Manhattan skyline, its roof sprouting cranes like the leaves of a young plant. The building already stands boldly above the others around it and it is only two-thirds complete.

With every week that passes, it is claiming its status as the pre-eminent Manhattan landmark. By early next year it will supersede the Empire State Building in height. Even now it draws the eye, particularly at night when its construction lights twinkle like a brooch from Tiffany.

This week the tower stands at 80 floors and counting. It is going up at the rate of a floor a week, the product of 24/7 activity by a team of 1,100 workers. By the time it opens, it will be 104 floors; a beacon will take it to the historically resonant height of 1,776ft (541 metres).

Up on the 55th floor of the emerging skyscraper – once called Freedom Tower but now known by the more temperate name 1 World Trade Centre – the stunning views are ample evidence of the building's potential.

You can see way across the water, beyond Ellis Island and Lady Liberty to New Jersey, while below us, the memorial gardens are being assembled in honour of those who died.

"This is the worst disaster in our country's history and we're up 55 storeys and climbing," says Lee Ielpi, a New York firefighter who knows more about Ground Zero than most. For the past 10 years he has spent most of his waking life here. He arrived at the site soon after the towers fell and for the next nine months he worked 12-hour days atop the rubble searching for bodies. After the site was cleared, he founded a tribute centre that houses a 9/11 exhibition and works with bereaved families.

Ielpi's son Jonathan, also a firefighter, was called out with the Queens-based Squad 288 after the first plane struck and he was in the south tower helping people escape when it came down. His body was discovered three months to the day after the disaster; Ielpi carried his son out with his own hands.

Ielpi rattles off the key statistics, by now as familiar to him as his son's name. "On this site 2,749 people were murdered in a matter of 102 minutes. There are still 1,125 people missing, 10 years later. Only 174 whole bodies were found. One of them was Jonathan."

Later, he says: "People ask me, 'It's been 10 years, what's it like?' Well, it's like I haven't seen my son for 10 years. Nothing more than that."

Ielpi takes us on a tour of the 16-acre site, which, on 12 September will be opened to the public for the first time. We walk around the footprint of the south tower and come to a stop in front of an oak tree, one of 415 planted at Ground Zero.

"This is the first time I've seen that guy blooming," Ielpi says. "I see it and I think of my son. Twenty nine. Married with two little boys. Loved helping people. Knew where he was going on the 11th, knew what he had to do. So yeah, I look at this tree, and this is nice."

Jonathan's name is etched in a bronze panel that runs around the four sides of the footprint of the south tower. Also named here are the other victims – those on the aircraft, the emergency workers, and the victims of the Pentagon and Pennsylvania crashes. A second tribute at the north tower bears the names of those who died there as well as those killed in the first terror attack on the World Trade Centre, on 26 February 1993. From Sunday both footprints will be transformed into massive reflective pools with water falling 30 feet from their edges.

"I can't tell you how powerful it is," Ielpi says. "I've stood by that edge and listened as the water cascades down. If you want to hear somebody, there's a good likelihood you're going to hear somebody."

Standing in the middle of Ground Zero, you can now start to appreciate the fusion of commemoration and rebirth that is gathering pace. Next year the 9/11 Memorial Museum will open, running underneath the plaza and housing many artefacts from the twin towers, including two enormous tridents from the north tower that are already in place. In 2013 the fourth tower on the site, a 60-floor skyscraper designed by Fumihiko Maki that is now going up, is scheduled to open, followed in January 2014 by 1 World Trade Centre.

Towers two and three, by the British architects Lord (Norman) Foster and Lord (Richard) Rogers respectively, have yet to have firm completion dates.

The relief that there is something finally happening at the site is palpable. To have had nothing to show a decade after the attacks would have been an enormous embarrassment for New York and for America.

Part of the reason for the painfully slow progress has been physical – the World Trade Centre was built on more than 20 metres of landfill on the Hudson river which, added to the maze of commuter and subway lines that runs beneath it, makes for a fiendishly complicated infrastructure.

But a less acceptable cause of delay has been the messy and at times ugly interaction between the countless entities that have vied to control aspects of the project, from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that owns the site, to the private developer Larry Silverstein who leases much of it, through New York city, the railway and subway authorities, insurance companies, local businesses and residents of Lower Manhattan and, of course, the relatives of those who died.

Paul Goldberger, the New Yorker's architecture critic, who has tracked the project over the last decade, says the rebuilding has been beset by "enormous battles between all the participants who could not agree on what to do, how to do it and who should pay for it". At its lowest point, the paralysis that took hold after 9/11 made a mockery of New York's reputation as the can-do city where anything is possible.

"That's a myth left over from another age. As New York has become older and more mature, it has lost the we'll-do-it-no-matter-what attitude that it pioneered but that now exists in places like Dubai or Singapore."

Goldberger has mixed feelings about the redevelopment as it takes shape. He praises the memorial features of the project, with the footprints of the twin towers as their centrepiece, which he thinks will honour the victims in a moving and important way. But he harbours doubts about the buildings that will surround the memorial, particularly 1 World Trade Centre. Designed by the American architect David Childs, it has gone through several incarnations, each one more conventional than the last.

"It's going to be a good building, but no more than that," Goldberger says. "We lost the opportunity to build a great building by being overly conservative in the design, overly concerned with security. It saddens me that we didn't take this opportunity to reassert American leadership. America is where the skyscraper began. We could have taken this piece of land, in the city of skyscrapers, and built the greenest, most exciting and innovative skyscraper that will show a whole new direction. We didn't do that."

Despite the reservations of the city's pre-eminent architecture critic, commercially 1 World Trade Centre looks set on a path towards success. Tara Stacom, vice chairman of Cushman & Wakefield, the property firm handling the leasing of the office space, predicts it will be the "most important building in the western hemisphere – it's going to be the coolest, hippest place to work and live."

She says a range of media and law firms, entertainment companies and financial businesses have expressed interest in taking up space, including some from Europe and the UK. In the biggest deal to date, the magazine publisher Conde Nast has signed up for one million square feet – more than a third of the building.

When the idea of another vast tower, which on completion will be the tallest in the Americas, was first suggested, sceptics argued that it would never be built because nobody would ever want to sit in an office high in the New York sky for fear of a repeat attack. But Stacom insists that has not been a worry for prospective clients. "When we tour the site it's all about what an incredible place this is going to be."

Back at Ground Zero, overlooking the pool at the south tower where his son died, Lee Ielpi says it's time to move on. "There are some family members – and you can understand it – who can't get beyond 9/11. Their loved ones were taken away in a horrible way. But you have to get on. You never forget, but if you don't get on you're going to be trapped."

Ielpi believes that when the rebuilding is finally finished, it will radiate its message far beyond the limits of Manhattan, of New York or even of the US. "We're putting a memorial here, a museum here, we are going to remember our loved ones, and then we are going to surround it with beautiful buildings to replace those that were destroyed through hatred. We're going to show the terrorists that through our resilience – ours, as a world's – we can do it. We will overcome the obstructions that come along."


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May 06 2011

Incendiary image: Osama bin Laden's body

Obama's decision not to release the photograph of Bin Laden's body speaks volumes about the continuing power of the photograph

President Obama's decision not to release images of Osama bin Laden's corpse, and the heated debate it has engendered, speaks volumes about the continuing power of the photograph even in a time when we are overwhelmed by digital images of every hue, from the mundane to the ultra-explicit.

Revealingly, Obama chose to frame his decision in both practical and moral terms. "It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence, as a propaganda tool," he said. "You know, that's not who we are."

Others – most notably more hawkish Republicans and their supporters in the US media – argue that the images should be released precisely to show that this is "who we are": an America that wants the world to know in the most graphic terms what happens to those who attack their country. Photography, for better or worse, possesses this immediate power in a way that words – too reflective – and the moving image – too animated – do not. It is a moment, freeze-framed forever.

History has shown that the intended message of such photographs can backfire. Back in 1967, when Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevara was captured and executed in Bolivia by troops loyal to military General Barrientos (with the help of the CIA), his corpse was photographed to leave the world in no doubt of his identity. With his unkempt hair and beard, the dead Che resembled the dead Christ in a Renaissance painting. In his biography of the insurgent, Compañero, Jorge G Castañeda wrote: "The Christ-like image prevailed ... It's as if the dead Guevara looks on his killers and forgives them, and upon the world, proclaiming that he who dies for an idea is beyond suffering."

Could an image of Bin Laden's bloodied corpse send out the same message to his followers? Almost certainly, and we will no doubt see that power soon enough when the photographs leak out into the media, as they surely will – with or without Obama's sanctioning.

More problematic for Obama's moral reasoning is the fact that other graphic images of the aftermath of the attack on Bin Laden's compound have already been leaked, showing the bloodied corpses of unidentified men. Why is it acceptable to show these bodies but not that of their leader, a figurehead for global terrorism? Indeed, why show such graphic images at all?

In her recent book, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, the American academic Susie Linfield argues that, in the internet age, we must regain our ability to distinguish between gratuitous images of violence and hardship – including "the onslaught of images from the Muslim world that celebrate suicide bombings, beheadings and other forms of barbarism" – and more morally defensible images of war and conflict, however explicit.

"If we want to construct a politics of human rights that isn't merely an abstraction, we need to look at these photographs of suffering, degradation and defeat," she writes. "We need to think clearly not only about the relationships among these images, how they function and what they communicate in aggregate, but about the specific conditions each one depicts, no matter how disturbing, shaming and bewildering an experience that may be." One senses that Linfield would support Obama in his decision, especially at a time when many Americans are in no mood for painstaking and self-searching moral debates of this kind.

Interesting, too, is the group photograph of President Obama, Hilary Clinton and their retinue of advisers in the situation room watching Bin Laden die via a camera fixed to a soldier's helmet. It gives some indication of the horror of the moment, if only in Clinton's look of shock and disbelief as well as in the president's stern gaze. Why, though, was this image released? Perhaps because it shows no trace of celebration or gloating – "That's not who we are" – but instead a grim acknowledgment of the horror of what is happening in all its cruel radiance. It is a fascinating document, for what it doesn't show us as much as what it does. That is the often-overlooked power of great photography: to suggest rather than to shock.


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April 28 2011

Big time: the Casio F-91W watch

The built-in longevity of this humble 1991 timepiece makes it the weapon of choice for both the retro and the righteous

There is one accessory de rigueur with both skinny jeans on the streets of Shoreditch and an orange jumpsuit and black hood in the searing heat of Guantánamo Bay. The latest WikiLeaks dump has revealed that a disproportionate number of terrorism suspects in America's most notorious prison were apprehended wearing a Casio F-91W, a plastic digital watch you can buy for £8.99 from Argos. Beloved of hipsters and jihadis alike, the model has a rare and divergent customer loyalty that suggests we are in the realm of great design. But are these latest revelations the kiss of death for Casio or marketing gold?

The Casio F-91W was launched in 1991 and remains unchanged 20 years later. Since the 1974 launch of its first wristwatch, the Casiotron, this Japanese calculator maker has come to dominate the digital watch market, rebranding the conventional timepiece as an "information device for the wrist". Casios famously include not only stopwatches and alarm clocks but calculators and calendars. Their calculator versions, with fiendishly small buttons, epitomised the Japanese passion for miniaturisation. But the F-91W was a simpler model, stripped back both in its form and its multifunctionality.

That simple form no doubt accounts for its enduring popularity. In an age when the technological convergence of the "information device" has migrated to the smartphone, the watch is something of an anachronism, worn as much as a fashion statement or status symbol as for its time-telling properties.

The F-91W features the classic seven-segment numerical display on a grey LCD screen. It's a trusty timepiece: water-resistant, extremely durable and accurate to within 30 seconds a month. And while it is possible to buy luxury watches at 10,000 times the price that tick with atomic accuracy, doing so for precision reasons is functionalist logic taken to its absurd extreme.

By contrast, the F-91W's popularity with the young, cool set follows a converse logic that is no less a form of snobbery. On the one hand, the model is consistent with a diehard 80s revivalism, the wrist-based equivalent of a pair of Ray–Bans and a taste for Kraftwerk – and, yes, there is even the requisite touch of irony in sporting a 20-year-old digital watch alongside an iPhone 4. But it's more than that: unlike supplicants in the temple of the luxury Swiss watch, hipsters treat their ability to pull off cheapness as a mark of sartorial confidence.

What, then, do terrorists see in this watch? With 28 inmates of Guantánamo found to have had one in their possession, the F-91W and its metallic twin, the A168WA, were described earlier this week as "the sign of al-Qaida". According to testimony given by one prisoner, the model was useful because it was water-resistant: Muslims wash their arms up to their elbows before prayers. Another, more hapless inmate cited the built-in compass that enabled him to pray towards Mecca. His interrogators will have smelled a rat: there is no compass in an F-91W.

In fact, the model is al-Qaida's equipment of choice as the timing device for improvised exploding devices (IEDs). They're handed out in terrorist training camps, where junior jihadis learn how to wire them up to a circuit board, a couple of 9V batteries and a wodge of plastic explosive. This nasty package is concealed in a standard electrical outlet box, with the F-91W a macabre calling card – programmable up to 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds, it allows the bombers to put ample distance between themselves and their targets. In truth any cheap, reliable digital watch would do, and it may be an accident of fate that led to the F-91W gaining notoriety: some flunky gets packed off to an electronics shop in Peshawar to bulk-buy cheap digital watches, likes the blue rim around the face of that Casio number and lumps a donkey-load of them over the Afghan border.

When I approached Casio's PR team for some information about their bestselling model, I got a curt email response saying: "Casio is not making any further comment on the F-91W watch at this point in time." Is this a case of too much negative publicity? Is the fact that Osama Bin Laden himself wears an F-91W bad for the brand's street cred? Yes and no. Arguably, it is a ringing endorsement of the product's lethal reliability. Many brands would embrace that cult status.

All of this is a colourful distraction from what is truly remarkable about the F-91W – the fact that it is a digital product that has remained unchanged for 20 years. How many other devices can we say that of, apart from the even more anachronistic calculator? Casio's mainstay comes from a parallel world where designed obsolescence – the sales strategy that has cursed everything from our lightbulbs to our computers – doesn't exist. We desire no improvements or embellishments: it just works. In that first flush of affordable consumer electronics, I'm sure no one dreamed that in two decades the F-91W would still be popular and still relevant – just as in the 1990s, when futurists thought videophones were just around the corner, no one imagined a technology as archaic as texting would take off. We are intoxicated by technological potential, but it's the primitive devices we reward with longevity.

Should we – in solidarity with those Guantánamo inmates who are innocent, and in the spirit of resistance to an illegal detention centre – flock to Argos to buy Casios and flood the obtuse immigration counters of American airports with our F-91W-appointed wrists in an "I am digi-Spartacus" moment? No thanks – life looks a lot better through a pair of retro Ray-Bans than it does through a black hood.


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September 09 2010

Jeremy Deller: the art of war

In pictures: The Turner prize winner unveils his latest piece: a car salvaged from a fatal Baghdad bombing



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