Politics & Policy

In Davos, Part Vi

Here are your links to previous installments: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V. Now, on with it.

Queen Rania of Jordan is simply the most lissome thing on two legs. She is almost certainly the most beautiful woman in Davos–and there are thousands of them here. You know how when you were little, the fairy tales all included beautiful, beautiful queens? But that’s not how they are in real life? Well, Rania is–a dream queen.

And she speaks beautifully too, and sensibly. On a panel with others from the Muslim world–Pakistan’s president Musharraf, Afghanistan’s president Karzai, and the president of the Iraqi National Assembly, Hajim Alhasani–she preaches a moderate Islam. She inveighs against Islamists, who combine a “Stone Age mentality” with “21st-century technology.” That combination is a misery.

Turning to the Palestinian elections, she says that people voted not so much for Hamas as “against the situation in which they find themselves.”

Queen Rania speaks a spiffy, up-to-date American English, which includes such phrases as “step up to the plate.”

When it is his turn, President Musharraf says there is no conflict whatever between Islam and modernization. There is a conflict, however, between Islam and Westernization. Musharraf goes on in this vein for quite a while. He’s a weird kind of general, a weird kind of strongman: an intellectual, with a considerable memory, and a considerable education.

He says that Muslim extremists are, above all, obscurantists. And they love to equate modernization with Westernization. It’s not true, says Musharraf–don’t let them get away with it.

President Karzai is elegant in his cape (or whatever), as always. He says that Islam and democracy are not only compatible, but practically best friends–for Islam includes equality, the participation of individuals, protection for the unprotected, insistence on “what we would define in today’s language as human rights.” He says that, for many years, Islam was “one of the most advanced forms of existence.” But then something happened. When he holds forth in this way, he sounds exactly–exactly–like Bernard Lewis (author of What Went Wrong, and other important and true books).

Karzai takes particular note of the participation of women in the new Afghanistan. Twenty percent of the parliament is women, he says, and “some of them received higher percentages in their constituencies than the men did.”

No doubt. And that’s a long way from burkas and banishment.

Then comes Alhasani–he says, boldly, that the principles of Islam are more commonly found in Western countries than in Muslim countries. The problem with Muslim countries is that you don’t find Islamic values and principles there. Instead, you find corruption, and “Muslims are against corruption, against terrorism,” and so on.

His great wish is that the Muslim world not be “afraid to open to the West.” Islam flourished when it was open, he says–to the Romans and everyone else. Then, when Western scientists were persecuted, or stifled, Islamic scientists took those principles and methods and ran with them, outpacing the West.

At some juncture, however–a stoppage, and reversal.

What about Hamas? Alhasani answers–simply–”I like ballots. I dislike bullets. I welcome them to the political process.” Besides which, “isolation” is bad, giving “strength” to extremism.

President Karzai speaks again, about Hamas. They must have “courage,” he says–”courage to treat Israel as a nation with as much right to live as any other nation.” Israel must have the same “courage.” The crowd in the Congress Center responds warmly–and disperses.

I must say that the columnist Thomas L. Friedman has done an excellent job as moderator. I have taken my jabs–sharp ones–at him over the years. But he is almost an ideal moderator, staying out of the way, not showing off, letting the speakers have their say, keeping things moving.

Just so you know.

‐Remember how I was talking about Monica Seles the other day? Well, get a load of this: An acquaintance of mine–a business whiz–was at a party. The McKinsey party, to be specific. Monica was there, and he asked to dance with her. They did. Was she planning on playing any tennis while in Davos? Why, yes–at the sports center, tomorrow morning. Could my acquaintance hit around with her a little bit? (I should have mentioned that he is a big tennis player.) Why, yes–no problem.

So, the next morning, they hit–for 45 minutes. A Walter Mitty fantasy come absolutely true.

What a beautiful development.

‐As I told you, Muhammad Ali–”The Greatest”–is here. And his organization–I read somewhere–is called “The Greatest of All Time,” or “GOAT.” Interesting acronym: GOAT.

‐I moderate a dinner on the subject of music, or rather, the subject of music and leadership: “Leadership and the Musical Mind,” the evening is headlined. “Are musicians better adapted for success in an increasingly multicultural world? Do musicians make good leaders?” You can probably sing along with the rest.

Among the panelists are Marin Alsop, the conductor, and Peter Sellars, the artistic director. Another panelist begins his remarks by saying that it would be “a disaster” if musicians assumed political leadership–he knows too many musicians to think otherwise.


But Ignace Jan Paderewski did pretty well, and so did another pianist: Vytautas Landsbergis, the first president of free, post-Soviet Lithuania.

‐Gilberto Gil–the Brazilian musician who doubles as that nation’s culture minister–is awfully cool-looking, with his dreadlocks and so on. You can’t help grinning at him, and locking hands with him. You just can’t. He exudes a charisma–even when he’s sort of standing around, forget a stage, or a platform.

‐I’ve been in German-speaking countries a lot–a lot–and I don’t think I’ll ever get used to hearing two words: jawohl and achtung. I watched just too many WWII movies and shows as I was growing up. There’s no reason those words should be stigmatized (there’s no reason arbeit and frei should be). But . . .

‐I have a funny experience, early one morning: I walk out of town, past the ski slopes, up some other slope–and there, at a certain point, I see a cemetery. All picturesque, in the snow. I look at the gravestones, and they have Hebrew writing on them. This is a Jewish cemetery–utterly unexpected (by me), in these Davosian Alps.

‐No, I don’t actually ski, in Davos, or anywhere else. My favorite part of skiing–by far–is après. In fact, I’ll even do après before.

‐I’ll tell you something funny, dear readers–really, really funny. When I first got here, I went through the catalogue listing all the panels, all the sessions, and I saw one called “The Hand of God in American Politics.” It was on the “Religious Right,” and the panelists included Jim Wallis, the Sojourners guy; Joe Biden; an imam; and a couple of others. I thought: Oh, gosh, what a minefield, that session. I can well imagine how it will turn out. Wouldn’t get near it, on a bet–even to attend it for 15 minutes, for the sake of describing a little of it in Impromptus.

How much scaremongering about the “Religious Right” can you hear, in one lifetime? I’ve heard these people demonized as Klansmen and zealots and enemies of democracy pretty much all my life. I’ve had my fill, thank you very much.

Well, be careful what you’re thinking, as you flip through a catalogue, being glad that you can avoid a particular panel–you may just be put on the panel. This is what happens to me. The one right-of-center panelist, Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, is unable to make it, and I am asked to take his place.

About this experience–not a bad one–I will say only this (and I have said it before, in dispatches from various conferences): It is very, very disconcerting to speak to a sea of faces, many of which are scowling at you. You see eye-rolls, you see pickled mouths, you see head-shakes. During this religion session, one guy, sitting over to my left, shakes his head after just about every sentence I speak. I feel like stopping and saying, “Sir, you don’t have to keep shaking your head: I’ll just trust that you disagree with whatever I say.”

Anyway . . . one gratifying thing about this panel is that the moderator, Ray Suarez of PBS, does an admirable, and admirably balanced, job.

‐Talk about gratifying: After this panel, I fall into the arms of the National Review Club of Switzerland. Yes, you heard me right. These are readers of National Review, resident in this country, who have managed to find one another–and you’ll never encounter a warmer, more delightful, or more interesting group. (By the way, if you’re interested in joining, please e-mail me, and I’ll put you in touch.) Like a lot of Europe, Switzerland can be a lonely place for people who think in a National Review-like way, and these people face scorn and ostracism from neighbors, colleagues–even family. You can be afraid to open your mouth. When you find others who are on the same wavelength–you are almost giddy with gratitude, and relief.

I’m told that about 80 conservative bloggers and such got together for a meeting in Munich–at some hotel. What joy, to be able to speak honestly and openly, without the cold fist of hatred!

Anyway, I have a marvelous fondue dinner with the NRCoS–the National Review Club of Switzerland–and am already licking my chops for the next one.

‐I end this installment with a correction–a mega-correction. You know the old expression “I don’t care what you say about me, as long as you spell my name right”? Politicians have used it for years. Well, in my item two days ago about Prime Minister Nazif of Egypt, I spelled his name wrong: as “Nazir,” all through. I have a feeling I had “Nasser” in the back of my mind. But thank goodness there’s a great difference between the two–and “Nazif” it is.

And I’ll see you tomorrow, with many more tales.


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