Remembering the secret neighbor

I’m not a boxing fan; in fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever watched a match. But Muhammad Ali, who passed away last Friday, was a household name when I grew up. Not only was he a famous world champion, who had somewhat obscurely changed his name after converting to Islam, he also lived next-door.

Yes, of all the places in the world, Muhammad Ali had chosen to settle after retirement in Berrien Springs, Michigan, a small town of 2,000 people. He moved there in 1986, the same year my father’s academic pursuits brought our family to the very same town.

I never saw or met him myself, and according to media he mostly kept to himself. But just knowing the fact that a world-famous sports champion was living in the neighborhood brought a sense of excitement and awe to us. And as was later been revealed, he provided anonymous support to many local causes.

We moved away, and so did he, leaving Michigan in 2006 for Arizona for health reasons due to his battle with Parkinson’s. But his estate is still there – in fact, it’s just half a mile from my parent’s current home, and we regularly walk past the gates when taking an afternoon stroll. This is a picture I took of his main gate back in 2012.

Muhammad Ali Berrien Springs home

Muhammad Ali Google

Although he made a career hitting people, it is perhaps Ali’s legacy of peace that stands out the most. His resistance to the draft for Vietnam earned him fame, and a lawsuit. Troubled by xenophobic America, he found solace in religion, standing up for Islam as a religion of peace especially in the tensions following 9/11.

Muhammad Ali will be buried tomorrow in Louisville, Kentucky. May he rest in peace.


Olympic Gays

Tomorrow the second instalment of World Outgames begins here in Copenhagen. A mixture of sports and culture, this is a festival of all things queer. Homosexuals from around the world will visit our fair city and make the streets colourful. More than just a sports tournament, this is a celebration of diversity. And as such, I’m proud to live in a city this open. (In many other ways we’re somewhat closed, actually, but in my opinion this festival is a good thing.)

Some would doubtless criticise, and they might ask questions such as:

Why do gays need their own event? Can’t they just join the regular Olympic Games? To be short, no. In many countries being openly gay means condemnation, expulsion from professional sports or other careers, or even (capital) punishment. That’s not right.

You’re a Christian – shouldn’t you be condemning gays? It is true that the Bible opposes practised homosexuality. But much more vehemently, the Bible teaches love, acceptance and non-condemnation. Homosexuals and Christians are both minority groups, and as such we ought to have a common cause: the right to live as we wish, regardless of what the majority thinks. Instead of fighting each other, wouldn’t it be wonderful if gays and Christians could join hands in fighting for diversity and minority rights?

Are you gay? No, but if I were, would you think less of me? I hope not.

Dear Enemies, Please Don’t Hate Us

Danish intelligence has warned our participants at the Olympic Games in Beijing that they are among those under the most threat by terrorists. The assessment has been made by Chinese authorities, which put Denmark in the same grade as the US and Israel.

This is not good news of course, and might serve as a wake-up call for Danes to some of the realities of the world today. Not so for handball and Olympic delegate player Kasper Hvidt, though, who comments:

“I must say that as a Dane I am shocked that we even want to be in the same league as such extreme countries. I have to say. It really saddens me. Not just because of my participation in the Games, but as a Danish citizen.” (In Berlingske Tidende, my translation)

How naïve. First of all, calling the US and Israel “extreme” is exaggeration at the least. But as if him being sad would make any difference. Nobody wants to be hated. People might speculate that the threat is due to our engagement in Afghanistan or the Mohammed cartoons, and that had we just minded our own business, none of this would have happened. But while the cartoons have obviously made a difference, the notion that the terrorist threat could be avoided is utterly wrong.

In the world of today there is no such thing as minding your own business. There is only closing or opening your eyes. To some, the mere existence of Denmark as a secular and liberal state, is an offence. These are the real extremists: jihadists and fundamentalists. Not the average Muslim or the majority of Muslims (if they were ever asked). But some people in Denmark need to open their eyes to the fact that certain people actually hate them for being Danish, and there’s absolutely nothing they can do about it. Except taking the necessary consequences and moving on.

Beijing: Boycott or Engagement?

Recent events have put China in the spotlight once again as an oppressive regime that abused human rights and what not. China’s friendliness with Sudan, their alleged oppression of minorities in Tibet, and the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing have led numerous western figures to denounce the regime, protest the Olympic torch relay and even call for boycotts of the Olympics. There is no easy answer, but let’s get real for a moment.

I don’t believe the Tibet situation has been handled very well. China should long ago have taken up on the offer to meet the Dalai Lama. He is not a separatist, and he could be the key to a peaceful normalisation if only Beijing would swallow their pride and start talking to him. While calling the crackdowns in Lhasa genocide is surely exaggerated, there probably have been mishandlings of the minority. In principle, Tibet should have the right to declare independence, but that may not even be the wish of the majority – the Dalai Lama does not call for independence, only greater autonomy.

I am also of the opinion that China (as many other nations) could do more to pressure Sudan in the case of Darfur. We should continue trying to convince China that action here is needed. Hardly a cause for boycott, though.

When it comes to freedom of speech in China, I generally take the optimistic stand that quite a lot is actually tolerated. I do not know, however, whether I would be able to write so openly on this blog if I were in China. (To any PRC readers: I’d love to hear your comments, if possible.)

These disagreements with China are to some a cause for boycotting the whole or parts of the Olympic Games. While the Olympics are a huge media event, it is still a very cheap shot for western politicians wanting to look good and human rights-oriented. The reality is that nobody can foresee a regular economic boycott – this would not be affordable to any western economy, especially not under the current downturn. Bashing the Chinese now is a hollow call with fairly few consequences.

Some then would argue that greater measures are needed. Michael D. Peabody writes today on the Spectrum Blog that free trade with China has not, as previously thought, lead to improvements on human rights, and that “as an individual consumer you do have the choice to effect a positive change in China, and you can vote with your wallet.”

I disagree. I think that human rights, while still not equal to Western Europe or America, have improved in China. And no matter what, we may never agree on which rights are fundamental. America historically have a tendency to promote on democracy and freedom of speech, while Europe is more focused on social security and living standards. Yes, China may lag behind in democracy, but their progress over the last decades in living standards, economic freedoms, quality of life, and also freedom of religion are staggering.

Furthermore, history should teach us that boycotts rarely actually give the wanted results. Think of Cuba, Iraq, North Korea, or even the Mohammad crisis. Economic sanctions sound nice and peaceful, but usually fail to deliver. There are things that we may disagree on with China, and they should not be overlooked. However, as stated previously on this blog, I believe engagement is a much more worthwhile option than boycott.

Well Done, Caroline!

Caroline WozniackiOne of my favourite sports is tennis, probably even more so after watching a couple of Australian Open matches first-hand back in 2006. The sport has even more appeal now with – for the first time in decades – a Danish player with potential. Caroline Wozniacki, just 17 years old, who won the junior championship at Wimbledon in 2006, made it to the fourth round at this year’s Australian Open, quite a remarkable feat.

At this morning’s match, 4th seeded Ana Ivanovic proved too much of a challenge. Ivanovic took the first set easily 6-1, but Wozniacki managed to get back in the game in the second set, getting two set points and forcing Ivanovic into her first tiebreak of the tournament. Eventually, Ivanovic won the match, but Wozniacki did a decent and impressive performance.

Caroline has been climbing the world ranking lately, and we should expect too see more from her. I will look forward to cheering for her in the upcoming grand slams of this year.

On another note, watching the match was a delicate matter – I have no television and even if I did, I wouldn’t have a channel that carries these tournaments. I found a great online service however: a peer-to-peer network called SopCast, which lets you watch live streams of a wide array of TV channels, mostly Asian. So my carrier last night was the Hong Kong-based (but English language) Star Sports, an ESPN-subsidy. Service was fine, no glitches or anything. Whether this is completely legal or not though, I don’t really now.

Hats off to Australia

What a sad way to go 😦 Totti scored on a penalty during extra time in th 95th minute, securing Italy the 1-0 win and sending the Socceroos back home to Australia after a magnificent performance in the World Cup.

The same can’t be said of the referee’s performance. There should have been no penalty. Arguably, the expulsion of Italy’s Materazzi was a harsh sentence, as well. But faking your way to a penalty in the last minute is no honourable way to win a match.

Anyway, the Australian team can certainly feel proud. Nobody expected them to get beyond the first round, but they made their way to the quarter finals, and put up a very good fight all the way. Hopefully this isn’t the last time we see the Socceroos make a difference in the World Cup.

(Incidently, the team is sponsored by Sanitarium, a food company affiliated with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.)

I, for one, feel more like an aussie than I have for a long time.

GC – Cardinals

Being in St. Louis with no official responsibilities does have its advantages. This afternoon I decided to let session be session and do something very American, and in the spirit of St. Louis–baseball at Busch Stadium. The St. Louis Cardinals were playing the Colorado Rockies at home in beautiful summer weather. (Incidently I did bring two delegates to the game–but don’t tell anyone.)

There were considerably more people and also more cheering here than at the Edward Jones Dome, where shortly after the game GC vice presidents were (mostly re-)elected. These are the people who, under the president, govern our church, and from which the next president will probably arise. If you will, our cardinals.

Who are the real heroes? Actually, neither. The SDA is a church of the people. The GC officers do a tremendous job, I’m sure–but the real games are played on the field. If most members are somewhat indifferent, it’s because they’re busy covering bases back home. There are no spectators–we’re all players.

Oh, and the Cardinals won 5 to 4.