12 March, 2011

Libya's Tantalising Archives

When the unrest gripping the Arab world spread to Libya and the regime there started looking shaky I must admit to having experienced a certain excitement. It is always great to see a brutal dictator like Colonel Gaddafi being overthrown by his people, even if he is a rather colourful character who brings a certain excitement to the normally bland world of international relations. More than that, though, were the treats that could become available to researchers if the regime fell and its archives became accessible. Some quantification of the level of support given by Gaddafi to the IRA in the 1980s would be fascinating. Particularly interesting would be the possibility of getting some answers to some questions that have divided opinion for the last number of years.

Older readers will recall how in 1986 the Americans bombed Libya, killing one of Gaddafi's adopted children in a botched attempt to decapitate his regime by taking him out*. This was ostensibly a response to the bombing of a discotheque in Berlin frequented by US servicemen. Now, at the time there was some discussion over whether Libya really had any hand or part in the Berlin bombing, with some suggestion that it had been perpetrated by figures linked to other unsavoury Middle Eastern regimes but seized on by the USA as a handy stick with which to beat the then-troublesome Gaddafi. It would be interesting to see what Libyan archives had to say about the Berlin bombing.

A controversy of more recent vintage is the dispute over the release from prison in Scotland of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the Libyan man convicted for planting the bomb that brought down an American airliner over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988. Doubts had been raised as to the safety of al-Megrahi's conviction and he had been appealing against the original verdict before he was released (his dropping of that appeal was a condition of his release, which meant conveniently that the arguments against his original conviction were never stated in open court). Libyan secret service archives might shed some light on the Lockerbie bombing, perhaps revealing whether he had been involved in the bomb plot, whether he had not but other Libyans had, or whether Libya had nothing whatsoever to do with the Lockerbie bombing (as has been suggested by some writers, who point the figure at certain other shady regimes).

Now, it might be naïve to expect Libyan archives to shed light on these fascinating questions. In the event of regime collapse, incriminating documents might well end up being destroyed before they can be accessed, or any newly emergent Libyan regime might itself be loth to let random academics and researchers trawl around in what would still be very sensitive files. And the people who may have been involved in organising shady events may well have taken care to keep their efforts out of potentially troublesome files. In any case, after initial successes, it does rather look like the Libyan rebels have rather run out of steam. Gaddafi looks like his thuggish rule will be continuing for some time, at least in part of Libya, so the opening up of the country's archives will probably not be happening any time soon.

EDIT: I forgot to mention the curious case of Musa Sadr. Sadr is not exactly a household name in Ireland, but in Lebanon you will still see posters of this Shia Muslim cleric in parts of the country where his co-religionists live. Musa Sadr founded the political movement that subsequently acquired the name Amal as a secular political movement for the then impoverished Shia Muslims of Lebanon. In 1978 he disappeared while visiting Libya, widely believed to have been murdered by Gaddafi's secret service. Again, Libya's archives have the potential to confirm Musa Sadr's fate, and to cast light on the reasons for his murder.

From Hunting Monsters

*though I see on Wikipedia that it has been argued that this adopted daughter of Gaddafi was essentially made up for propaganda purposes, not that anyone is denying that actual Libyan people were killed in the bombing raid.

Modelling Language Survival

Some physicists in Spain, led by Jorge Mira Pérez, have produced an interesting mathematical model for how languages succeed and fail (see here). Their particular interest in this case is in what happens to languages where two coexist in the one location. This question is one with more than academic interest in Spain, a country where the central language, Spanish (or Castilian), has to deal with a host of other languages spoken by people in regions. In these regions, the local languages (not limited to Basque, Catalan, and Galician) coexist with Spanish. As languages are often bound up with questions of ethnic and national identity, the projected likelihood of any particular Spanish language surviving can have significant long-term political ramifications.

Now, of course, the fellows producing this model are physicists and they are not directly familiar with the socio-political factors that can strengthen or weaken a language, though they did attempt to factor some of these into their results. Their model nevertheless produced some interesting findings. They reckoned that there are three factors that allow two languages to coexist indefinitely in an area. Firstly, there needs to be a significant number of speakers of each language there. Secondly, the languages need to be somewhat similar. And thirdly, there needs to be a large bloc of people who can speak both languages. Their model is apparently fairly good at retrospectively predicting the historical data on the relative strength of Spanish and Galician in northwest Spain.

The last requirement is being presented as the most surprising one, but I was struck by their model's suggestion that the two co-existing languages need to be somewhat similar. I think maybe this might be resulting from the model being over-based on the situation in Galicia, where the researchers are based. I find it difficult to see how the coexistence of two similar languages in an area can be stable into the long term. My expectation would be that the languages would merge (or that one would absorb the other) if they were that similar, or else that over time the differences in the languages would be accentuated and they would diverge into more straightforwardly dissimilar tongues. Particularly with similar languages sharing a space, one has to ask the question what are the two languages for? If the language is basically a form of communication then why two similar ones when one language will do. If languages instead serve at least partly as badges of group identity then wildly different languages do the job far better.

Still, for all that the model can be criticised, any attempt to abstract the question of what makes languages survive and fail is to be welcomed, as it takes the debate away from the more emotive and political question of whether languages should be assisted or left to fend for themselves. At this stage, though, the model is clearly too weak to even think of making any kind of policy-prescriptions based on it. As this is an area I am not particularly familiar with, I am curious as to whether there are other people working in this area and producing more robust models.

From Hunting Monsters