A martyr for bigoted loudmouths

“There is no such thing as moderate Islam,” proclaimed Geert Wilders confidently to BBC interviewer Stephen Sackur.

The Dutch MP, who made headlines last year with the release of Fitna, his anti-Islamic short, is in the news again for having been denied entry into the UK following a directive by the Home Office. Wilders, who leads Holland’s far right Party for Freedom, had come to screen the film at Britain’s House of Lords following an invitation from Labour Peer Lord Ahmed.

Fitna (an Arabic word, roughly translated as “strife”) is a poorly made, ten-minute short which likens Islam to fascism. It features a series of grisly, disturbing images of the 9/11 attacks and the Madrid and London bombings, accompanied by passages from the Koran. Unsurprisingly, the film elicited a wave of protest from Muslims and other religious groups across Europe, who charged Wilders with inciting hatred. He is currently due to stand trial in The Netherlands, and most Dutch TV networks have refused to show the film.

Wilders accused the UK government of showing “cowardice” and “anti-democracy” for denying his entry—a decision made likely for public safety reasons, given that Wilders has received numerous threats and now requires round-the-clock police protection in his home country.

The xenophobic, ultra-nationalist rhetoric propounded by Wilders and his Party for Freedom represents a conservative worldview that is increasingly popular in Europe. The party won nine of 150 seats in the 2006 Dutch election—making it the country’s third-largest opposition party—on a platform that pandered to domestic fears about immigration and its effects on the job market. But behind the veils of labour protectionism and economic liberalism is a sinister perception of the global relationship between Islam and the West.

Among other things, the party has espoused banning Islamic headgear from public functions, suppressing Islamic education in the country entirely, and working to prevent the “Islamification of the Dutch Nation.” In a speech before Parliament in 2007, Wilders proclaimed: “Islam is the Trojan horse in Europe. If we do not stop Islamification now, Eurabia and Netherabia will just be a matter of time. One century ago, there were approximately 50 Muslims in the Netherlands. Today, there are about one million Muslims in this country. Where will it end? We are heading for the end of European and Dutch civilization as we know it.”

Since his election and the release of his film, Wilders has become a central figure in Europe’s free speech debate, triggered by the infamous Danish cartoons of Muhammad in 2007. Positioning himself as a martyr for free speech, Wilders proclaims anyone who disagrees with him an opponent of social expression. “The film isn’t offensive unless you are a violent Islamist,” he told the BBC after being turned away by British customs last week. Although they claim to champion free speech, Wilders and his supporters would deny Holland’s one million Muslim residents the liberty to practice and express their faith.

In a recent interview circulating on YouTube, Wilders reiterated his anti-immigration stance and his virulent dislike of Islam: “I don’t believe in a moderate Islam, but I do believe if Muslims try to assimilate into Dutch society and take our values to their values, then they should have the same opportunities as you or me. I believe our culture is much better than a retarded Islamic culture.”

It’s a shame that at a time when the boundaries between states are breaking down, when good relations between the Islamic world and the West are more necessary than ever, cultural extremists like Geert Wilders continue to foist their baseless arguments upon us. They portray themselves as martyrs through carefully planned populist appeals and media stunts. Wilders’ right to free speech is not jeopardized: his film is widely available on the Internet, as are his editorials and speeches, and the Fitna screening scheduled for the House of Lords went ahead in his absence. The real question is, why is anybody listening?

Tough finish to a solid season

The University of Toronto Varsity Blues women’s volleyball team began the playoffs with a promising 3-0 victory over the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees (25-20, 25-19, 25-19) Feb. 14 at the Athletic Centre, securing a spot in the OUA quarter-final match.

The first set started with the Blues down by 3-7, but they quickly caught up to gain a 12-11 lead. Kristina Valjas knocked down balls that came her way and Heather Bansley sent strong serves over the net that the Gee-Gees weren’t able to return. The Blues closed the opening game with a score of 25-20.

The team’s focus and effort truly showed in the second game. At the first technical timeout, the Blues were up 8-4, and they continued to widen the gap, leading by 16-9 by the second technical timeout.

The Blues ended the second game without trouble. Bansley closed the game with a strong kill down the middle, allowing the team to total 25-19 for the second set.

“There was pressure starting the game because we knew that it was a quarter-final match and it obviously determined who went to the Final Four tournament […] but we came out strong, and dominated,” said Blues player Dana Collins.

The final set was closely fought. Untimely Blues errors combined with OUA’s top serving specialist Tess Edwards put the Gee-Gees in the lead by 16-11.

Bansley, the OUA’s second best serving specialist, broke their lead when she stepped up to serve. Bansley tallied 10 straight points, including three aces, putting the Blues back up at 22-16. Diane Burrows ended the rally with a game-winning kill, resulting in a final score of 25-19.

Valjas and Burrows tallied 12 kills each, while Bansley tallied eight kills, a game-high of 19 digs and six service aces. Michelle Wood added 12 digs in the game.

Head Coach Kristine Drakich has never failed to take her team to the Final Four match. This is the 20th straight season in which her team has made the semifinals, having won the championship six times.

“In the beginning, [the game] might have been interrupted a little bit, but we stayed strong and stayed focused for the vast majority,” said Coach Drakich. “It was a real team effort and we stayed on path, even though it was challenging at times with the noise and excitement of Ottawa and their strength.”

“We’ve been building to really playing as a team, and we totally came together here and it culminated in this game. There wasn’t anyone who wasn’t focused, wasn’t ready […] everyone had each other’s back,” said Blues player Caley Venn. “The most exciting thing going forward to the Final Four is knowing that we’re ready, we’re together, it’s time.”

Yet the Final Four ended in heartbreak.

On Feb. 20, the Blues lost to the McMaster Marauders in a five-set game (25-23, 21-25, 25-15, 26-28, 15-8).

With the loss, their season came down to a bronze medal game against the Western Mustangs the following day.

While the Blues fought hard against Western, they were unable to secure the win and the medal, falling 3-2 (21-25, 28-26, 25-18, 23-25, 8-15) for a fourth-place finish in the OUA championships.

Who’s afraid of Ahmadinejad? I am, and you should be too

In the February 12 issue of The Varsity, writer Ahmed Mahmoud asserted that Iran poses no real threat to world peace. If only this were the case. The reality is that President Ahmadinejad is pursuing a dangerous nuclear weapons program with a clear target in mind: Israel.

In 2005, Ahmadinejad gave a speech calling for the destruction of Israel. Instead of retracting his infamous statement that Israel should be “wiped off the map,” he continues to use genocidal language while boasting of his goal to eliminate the Jewish state.

In April 2006, Ahmadinejad renewed his verbal attacks, stating that “the Zionist regime is on the road to being eliminated.” In January 2008, Ahmadinejad claimed that “the occupiers’ days are numbered.” Months later, he stated that Iran would “not give up until the corrupt leadership in the world has been obliterated.”

During a 2007 visit to Columbia University, Ahmadinejad dodged questions about whether or not he sought to annihilate Israel. When pressed to respond “yes” or “no,” Ahmadinejad replied, “You ask the question and then you want the answer the way you want to hear it. I ask you, is the Palestinian issue not a question of international importance? Please tell me yes or no.”

Shortly after his visit to Columbia, an interviewer asked the President the same question. Instead of responding, Ahmadinejad requested a short break “for the interpreter.” After the break, he asserted that “the Zionist regime” had nuclear weapons, and that Iran’s uranium enrichment was for “fuel purposes.” Well, that certainly clears things up.

In his article, Mahmoud cites the National Intelligence Estimate’s (NIE) 2007 report on Iran’s nuclear development, which concluded that Iran “halted its nuclear weapons program” in 2003. Valerie Lincy and Gary Milhollin, experts in the field of nuclear arms, have warned of the consequences of this misleading report on the Iranian nuclear threat. In a New York Times op-ed, they pointed out that Iran’s gas centrifuges have no real civilian purposes. They note that Iran’s nuclear technology “is ideal for producing plutonium for nuclear bombs, but is of little use in an energy program like Iran’s, which does not use plutonium for reactor fuel.” Iran has the fourth-largest oil reserve in the world. The pursuit of nuclear energy should rank far down on its list of priorities.

The NIE report is a dangerous and misleading document that ignores the serious implications of Iran’s continual nuclear development. British intelligence and the United Nations recognized these implications. Soon after the NIE report came out, a British intelligence report concluded that there was a “strong possibility” that Iran would have “the ability to manufacture a nuclear device within a short period of time.” The chief nuclear inspector for the United Nations came to the same conclusion, along with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). After reviewing evidence of Iran’s nuclear technology, the inspector concluded that it was “not consistent with any application other than the development of a nuclear weapon.” A recent IAEA inspection of Iran’s nuclear program revealed that Iran understated by a third the amount of uranium it has enriched, and now has enough to make an atom bomb.

The threats against Israel did not begin with Ahmadinejad, and they will not end with him. Israelis remember all too well a leader whose anti-Semitic rhetoric was ignored until it amounted to genocide. Today, too many people are willing to diminish the threats posed by Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Maybe these threats will turn out to be nothing more than “heated rhetoric.” I’m not willing to wait around to find out.

Protectionism is a dirty word

The original stimulus bill drawn up by congressional Democrats contained, in addition to many frivolous wastes of taxpayer money, a particularly offensive section entitled “Buy America.” This was a wolf in sheep’s clothing—or more specifically, protectionism dressed up as patriotism, with little attempt at disguise. After facing international criticism for exhibiting the kind of stupidity that caused a recession in 1929 and led to the Great Depression, Obama wisely reassured trading partners that America would not break any of its existing free trade pacts. He was hailed as the second coming by the global media for yanking his party back from the brink of an economic abyss. This may seem like a lower standard of leadership than we usually apply to politicians, but maybe that’s just me.

Observers feared that American protectionism would encourage other countries to follow suit, marking the beginning of a global trade war. The only response offered by protectionist and socialist lawmakers was the lackluster excuse that it would protect American jobs. What these reactionary fools didn’t understand is that until the world economy starts to recover, nothing America does individually will help their economy—not even a $2.7 trillion injection into the private market. Protectionism would harm recovery by reducing gains from trade, making everyone poorer. Some speculated that other nations might respond by putting up their own trade barriers. And lo and behold, within days of the “Buy America” announcement, Jack Layton and his gang in the far left corner of Parliament were trumpeting the need for Canada to introduce similar protectionism in our country.

While erecting trade barriers around America might reap an extremely limited short-term benefit, it’s certainly not in Canada’s interest. Our export sector, a huge driver of our economy, is only now beginning to recover from the decimation it suffered when our dollar climbed over parity last year. A new round of tariffs would doubtlessly lead to reciprocation from other countries and eliminate the profit margins of export-based firms, or force them to raise prices to uncompetitive levels. Canada is not a large enough player in most industries to meaningfully influence global market prices. Only our suppliers, manufacturers, and small businesses will be affected, resulting in massive layoffs and stagnation once again.

In an increasingly connected global economy, no country—not even America—can afford to go it alone. President Obama demonstrated as much when removing the worst parts of a stimulus bill that, despite the spin of bipartisanship, was party-line Democratic. Congressional leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid need to realize that in spite of their congressional majorities, they must resist the urge to slam their pet projects through Congress without even seeking a modicum of bipartisan support.

If there is one thing in short supply right now, it is public tolerance for political gamesmanship. The first effort at pandering to big labour ended with a presidential reversal and widespread global condemnation. This is one case where, if at first you don’t succeed, giving up is the better option—for America, its leaders, and the world.

Kellogg’s dumps dolphin boy

As university students, most of us have taken a hit (or two) off of our friends’ bongs. Michael Phelps is like most of us. But while our pot escapades lead to fits of giggles and sprawling out on the nearest futon, Phelps’ tomfoolery lead to a twenty-minute lecture from The View’s youngest hag, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, who demanded a reprimand as harsh as she is dense.

Well, ask and you shall receive: the 14-time Olympic medal winner is barred from competition for the next three months, effective February 5, 2009. Phelps accepted his punishment, and is determined to “earn back our trust.” But that’s not enough.

In a statement, Kellogg’s representatives wrote, “Michael’s most recent behavior is not consistent with the image of Kellogg’s. His contract expires at the end of February and we have made a decision not to extend his contract.” I wonder, what is the image of Kellogg’s? We all know Tony the Tiger is hopped up on something, and it’s not Frosted Flakes. Should a little marijuana disqualify a world-class athlete from selling corn flakes?

Really, we should be doubly impressed with Phelps’ abilities now that we know something about his habits. Imagine how fast the guy would be if he didn’t smoke pot! Is that Michael Phelps or an HMS Dreadnought?

I’m left wondering if Kellogg’s missed a golden opportunity to tap into a market as old as time itself: 4:20 enthusiasts. Think of it this way: marijuana has the ability to make one stupendously hungry. The commercial practically writes itself:

What’s the first thing Michael Phelps does after taking a 40-minute (dolphin lung) inhale from his friend’s bong? He dives face-first into an Olympic-sized pool filled with Kellog’s Corn Flakes, that’s what! Get yourself a box today!

What a wasted opportunity. Let’s hope that the rest of Phelps’ endorsement deals don’t end the same way. He has 100 million reasons not to “shock and offend” them with his stoner conduct.

These mysterious eyes

Chances are you’ve seen these eyes. They’ve developed a near-mythical following among street artists and admirers, popping up all over the streets of Toronto the past two years. But who is the artist? Whose face is this? And what is behind these mysterious eyes?

The stories told about this face have created a new Torontonian myth: an angst-ridden romantic purging the demons of an unrequited love; a gorgeous young egotist turning our city into a self-portrait; some even speculate it’s a memorial. As rumours abound, The Varsity sought out the artist to get some answers.

After much investigation, we uncovered the mastermind behind the face. The artist goes by the name of Anser (she has asked journalists to arbitrarily choose a gender for her to protect her identity).

The piece’s official name is Mysterious Date, a moniker coined by a local photographer. That the name has been embraced by the artist speaks to the heart of what Anser is trying to achieve—a free public art piece that belongs to all Torontonians. Anser stresses this interconnectedness, saying, “I want to connect with people. I want people to feel connected to this city.”

The face’s defining characteristics are its eyes, often the only part of the painting done in colour (the rest is usually in black). Sometimes the colour literally bleeds out of the pupils, gushing down her face like tears. Anser explains: “The colour in the eyes is a metaphor for our life force—the things that give us colour in our lives. The face is our mask, the eyes are the life behind it, and the life is trying to get out. There is a certain morbidity in it, [which] has a lot to do with how I see the world.”

“The world is made up of so many barriers, but things like beauty and love—even though its so cliché to say it—break down those barriers. They [break down] the separation between you and that woman, or you and that painting. Beauty is about that connection, touching those deeper things that aren’t so superficial.”

Though she maintains a dedication to graffiti, Anser struggled for many years with the effects of the medium. One of her major reservations was graffiti’s inaccessibility.

“I did letter-based graffiti for a long time, and then I stopped…because I didn’t feel like it meant anything,” she says. “Graffiti has its own language and syntax. To really understand graffiti letters, you have to participate in the community. You can’t understand the aesthetics without being [part of] it. With Mysterious Date, I’m trying to throw [the inaccessibility] out the window and say, ‘You can do something that everybody can love.’”

Anser defies what she sees as an elitism within traditional letter-based graffiti, which is why she chooses not to work in coded letters that the average pedestrian can’t understand. The simplicity of Mysterious Date is its greatest attribute—the beautiful face stares back at the viewer, making it a rare example of graffiti art that maintains a dialogue with the public.

The piece is also Anser’s attempt to straddle the two worlds of graffiti and street art. “To me, they are two very separate things…I’m bringing [together] art and graffiti. [The face] is an act of creation under very strict pressure—that’s the beauty of graffiti. And I still use spray paint, so if people can come to appreciate Mysterious Date, hopefully they can look at [more traditional graffiti] and understand that there is an art within that too.”

Despite its clear legal violation of the property of others, Anser insists that good street art is not vandalism, but rather an ethically viable solution to an alienating urban landscape. “People don’t understand street art, so they fear it. We’re trying to better the space by putting organic forms into inorganic places.”

She argues that her attempt to bring beauty and creativity into the lives of Torontonians resists the elitism that she claims characterizes both today’s mainstream art world and Toronto’s graffiti subculture.

Bridging the gap between these exclusive worlds is one of Anser’s principal goals in painting Mysterious Date. On the one side is an exclusive graffiti culture; on the other is “high art,” although these distinctions are now beginning to blur. For example, London’s Tate Modern has showcased multiple retrospective exhibitions of world-renowned street artists, such as the Os Gêmeos twins from Sao Paolo, whose works are valued in the multi-millions. In fact, the Tate Modern has recently gone one step further, featuring six large-scale street art murals on the outdoor walls of the gallery.

It is in the context of this “slow permeation of graffiti into high art” that Anser has launched herself, currently boasting a gallery exhibit of her own devoted almost entirely to Mysterious Date. After a ten-day showing at the Funktion Gallery at Bloor and Lansdowne this past month, the exhibit is slated to re-open by popular demand for an additional two weeks, from February 27 to March 14.

Anser is ambivalent about her movement into the gallery: “One thing I hate about bringing it into the gallery is that a gallery is a huge barrier. 90 per cent of the population doesn’t go into a gallery, but 90 per cent of the population walks down the street. That’s the whole point of graffiti—bringing the gallery to the street.”

Anser also has no love for the historical traditions of the conventional art gallery. For example, she dislikes the canvas, preferring to work on found objects.

“The canvas is a box that is historically charged with meaning. By using found objects, I’m not participating in the consumerist and unsustainable culture of canvasses. When I use these found objects, not only am I having a greater dialogue with the world, but I also have something that’s sustainable because it’s recyclable.”

In her rejection of consumerism, formal elitism, and the distinctions between high and low culture, Anser seems to have a postmodern sensibility. However, she refuses any such categorization, saying, “I think it’s hilarious how retrospective and self-conscious it is. I’m in the postmodern state because I’m basically forced to be, and yet I still have these Romantic ideas that exist in me.”

Are there deeper, more personal meanings behind the mysterious face? Does the girl have an identity? Anser is reticent: “I don’t know, it’s completely subconscious.” She also insists that Mysterious Date is an aesthetic formula, and she is unwilling to reveal any more personal explanations for the passion behind her mysterious eyes. What is truly important, Anser repeats, is what the face means to Torontonians.

“It’s not the face, it’s what the face does to you.” And the mystery continues.

U of T canned Palestinian solidarity group’s plans: activist

The U of T administration stands accused of silencing pro-Palestine views after denying a Students Against Israeli Apartheid space request.

Last Wednesday, Liisa Schofield posted a provocative commentary on the alternative news website rabble.ca, accusing U of T’s senior administration of “repression, stifling of dissent and bureaucratic harassment.”

Schofield is the volunteering and programming coordinator at the Toronto chapter of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group, a collection of semi-independent social justice student groups including SAIA.

SAIA was planning a cross-Ontario conference, where business included Israeli Apartheid Week, for the first weekend of October. The event was to take place at OISE; when the request was denied, it happened just off-campus at Trinity St. Paul’s United Church.

Schofield obtained documents proving that U of T admin decided to cancel the event before the space request was made, after being alerted by a pro-Israeli group.

She claimed that U of T was pressured by lobbyists to cancel the conference and that the stated reasons for denying the space request were fabricated.

Although the denial letter said the booking was not made five days prior to the weekend event, the document was faxed the Sunday before.

“This whole thing has been taken out of context. It seems they’re orchestrating outlash,” said U of T president David Naylor. “We’ve followed proper procedure.”

The documents, released under the Ontario Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, consist of 250 pages of emails among U of T admin during the week before the space denial was issued.

Schofield requested through FIPPA any communication pertaining to the conference, suspecting admin of being unfair.

“I have seen a consistent pattern of any space requests that are submitted for events pertaining to the issue … being singled out by the bureaucracy,” said Schofield, who claimed that such requests can take twice as long to process.

Jim Delaney, director of the office of the Vice-Provost, stresses it was a matter of procedure.

“They gave us incorrect information about the event,” said Delaney. “There aren’t many reasons for denying booking requests, unless a group doesn’t follow procedure.”

Naylor agreed.

“The group is not following standard procedure. A few weeks ago, an event at OISE was supposed to be open to the public when it was not.”

Naylor was referring to an OISE event in February last year for high school students opposing the Israeli government, where only students with a high school ID card were admitted. Accusations of brainwashing students were raised in national newspapers. The event was not organized by OPIRG.

Schofield questioned why senior admin was involved in the bookings.

“When we hear of any controversial event that’s high profile, we must be prudent in how we respond,” said Naylor, citing abortion protests as another controversy. “Administration getting involved is simple, given the profile of the issue.”

Talitha Kozak, president of U of T Students for Life, said she was unaware of any admin involvement in her club’s activities, and that her group has had no problems with space bookings for the past two years.

SAIA has previously butted heads with U of T admin. In Nov. 2007, the group successfully contested a bill for undercover police officers’ presence at an International Apartheid Week event featuring high-profile speakers. Campus Police regularly check booked spaces on campus and send officers, at the expense of event operators, if they deem it necessary.

Naylor has described IAW as “the consistently worst week of a president’s life.” The event draws international media attention each year, mainly due to its name.

Schofield alleged that admin is siding with Israel after forming partnerships with Israeli universities.

“I don’t think we have a bias. Our interest is forging relationships with research-intensive universities, and there is massive growth in Israel. We try to avoid the politicization of academic issues, although it seems others don’t,” said Naylor, citing minimal criticism for ties to China despite its human rights record.

Pre-Raphaelites star at the AGO

Sin and Salvation: Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision, the latest exhibit at the newly renovated AGO, opened to a packed house on Valentine’s Day. The display, which runs until May 10, showcases some of legendary British artist William Holman Hunt’s most recognized canvases, along with items from his everyday life and the works of other notable Pre-Raphaelites, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais.

The exhibit provides insight not only into Hunt’s artistic work, but the most pressing issues of his day. Nineteenth-century England struggled with social and political concerns, such as the role of women in society, gender relations, and a loss of faith. Curator Dr. Katharine Lochnan added that the main concerns of the Pre-Raphaelites have yet to be solved, saying, “The issues he addresses are as relevant today as they were in his own day.”

Hunt’s vibrant application of colour, curious incorporation of figures, and fascinating use of symbolism sheds light on the moments of insight and revelation that changed the course of individual lives. His preoccupation with piety and salvation is especially evident in The Light of the World, Isabella and the Pot of Basil, and The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple.

The ROM has also donated textiles worn by Hunt in his studio. These peculiar fashion choices are reminiscent of the prints and patterns used in his artwork, showing that Hunt incorporated his artistic visions into many different aspects of his life, including his wardrobe. Also on display are the artist’s palette and pigments, which provide a reminder of the old school techniques once used by painters.

The highlight of the exhibit is Hunt’s most famous piece, The Awakening Conscience. A young woman leaps from her lover’s embrace, intrigued by an unseen subject through the window. The glass-covered clock, a bird held captive by a cat, and the woman’s noticeably ring-less left hand all suggest she is a kept woman—a mistress. The light coming through the open window illuminates her face, depicting her realization of the errors of her luxurious life, and her turn toward salvation. The painting’s usage of realism and suggestion of spiritual enlightenment were central to the Pre-Raphaelite vision. The Awakening Conscience is the focal point of the room, and should not be missed.