Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Syrian Regime Defends the Nation Against Mortal Threats

The ever vigilant Baathist regime is keeping its citizens safe from all mortal threats aimed at the heart of the nation. Apparently, concerned students seeking to find ways to move their stagnant country forward represent such a threat. Josh Landis at Syria Comment reports on the plight of 8 students jailed for the past 9 months for trying to set up discussion groups dealing with cultural and political issues. The regime's paranoia and stupidity appears to have no bounds. These young people are the hope and the future of Syria. Instead of harnassing their idealism and energy to catapult the country out of its forty years of stagnation, they are treated like common criminals.

Below is information about the eight young men copied from Syria Comment:

1. Husam Mulhim: 22 years old, second year student at the Faculty of Law at the University of Damascus. He is also a poet and organized poetry readings and lectures at the university.
2. Omar Al Abdullah: 21 years old, young writer and second year student of philosophy at the University of Damascus. He was first arrested for discussion youth issues in 2004 with a group of young students and held for 11 days. He is the son of activist and writer Ali Al Abdullah, a former prisoner of conscience in Syria.
3. Ali Nazir Ali: 22 years old, young writer and second year business student at the University of Damascus.
4. Allam Atieh Fakhour: 27 years old, graduate of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Damascus. Current graduate student of art and sculpture.
5. Aiham Muhhamad Sakr: 30 years old, writer.
6. Tarek Ghorani: 21 years old, associate engineer and writer.
7. Maher Esper: 26 years old, writer.
8. Diab Surrieh: 21 years old, student and writer.

The report on Syria Comment originated from a group called Syrian Youth for Justice, a recent (at least judging from its web presence) addition to the list of Syrian human and civil rights groups.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Muslim scholars Join Anti-female Circumcision Summit. IT'S ABOUT TIME!!!!!

Better late than never! It is telling -and depressing- that it took a German human rights group to organize the meeting.

w w w . h a a r e t z . c o m
Last update - 17:07 22/11/2006

Muslim scholars join rare summit on anti-female circumcision in Cairo

By The Associated PressCAIRO - Prominent Muslim scholars from around the world, including conservative religious leaders from Egypt and Africa, met Wednesday to speak out against female genital mutilation at a rare high-level conference on the age-old practice.The meeting was organized by a German human rights group and held under the patronage of Dar Al-Iftaa, Egypt's main religious-edicts organization. It was held at the conference center of Al-Azhar, the highest Sunni Islamic institution in the world.Al Azhar's grand sheik, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, attended as well as Egypt's Grand Mufti, Ali Goma'a, whose fatwas are considered binding religious edicts.It is rare for such religious figures in Egypt to attend such a conference on an issue that remains sensitive and controversial here. An estimated 50 percent of schoolgirls in Egypt are thought to undergo the procedure, according to government statistics.At the conference, Tantawi said circumcision, another name for the practice, was not mentioned in the Islamic holy book, the Quran, or in Islam's Sunna - which are sayings and deeds of the prophet Mohammed. Those are the two main religious texts followed by Sunni Islam."In Islam, circumcision is for men only," he told the conference. "From a religious point of view, I don't find anything that says that circumcision is a must [for women]."Female genital mutilation usually involves removal of the clitoris. Those who practice it believe it lowers a girl's sexual desires and thus helps maintain her honor. With age-old cultural roots, it is practiced today in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Egypt and other parts of the Arab world such as Yemen and Oman.Laws against the practice exist in many of the regions where it is practiced, but poor enforcement and publicity can hinder the laws, some human rights groups and women activists say. They say laws aren't effective unless those practicing the tradition are first made aware of its physical and mental damage.In Egypt, there is no law that specifically bans the practice, although it can be prosecuted under other laws related to assault and bodily harm.Senior clerics from Africa and as far afield as Russia also were invited to the conference by the German human rights group, TARGET, founded in 2000. The group contends that practitioners in Africa and elsewhere often use the Quran to justify the practice.UNICEF says an estimated 3 million women and girls undergo female genital mutilation each year and that the age at which it is carried out is getting lower in some countries. A survey conducted in 2000 in Ethiopia indicated 80 percent of women between 15-49 years of age there had been circumcised.In Egypt, a recent study of schoolgirls by the Ministry of Health and Population found 50 percent of girls ages 10-18 had been circumcised."Our mission today is not easy, because we're fighting against rumors and habits and traditions and ideas that have been established for long centuries," said Moushira Khattab, secretary general of Egypt's National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, which is headed by the wife of Egypt's president, Suzanne Mubarak.Egypt is sensitive to outsiders intervening in controversial religious and cultural issues and the conference was expected to raise some dissent.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Gemayel Assassination and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Many people who care about Lebanon, were collectively holding their breath over the last several weeks expecting trouble. The political jockeying was reaching a climax and it was unclear if this maneuvering would break down into violence. Little did I suspect, though, that the trouble will come in the form of resumption of political assassinations. The story and the pictures are nauseatingly familiar. I knew little of Gemayel or his politics but that is beside the point. I have little sympathy for the Lebanese Forces of old but I will not saddle Pierre Gemayel with the sins of his predecessors. As far as I am concerned he is a Lebanese politician, part of legitimate and democratically elected government –warts and all- who was trying to serve his country. He was also, sadly, a young man at 34 and a new father at that.

Logic would dictate that the assassins are either directly or indirectly connected to the Syrian government. There is, however, at this point proof of that despite the certainty with which many pundits and bloggers are pointing fingers. I could say that we ought to wait for the evidence but we know from past experience that such investigations in Lebanon rarely yield much. Of the hundreds (thousands?) of political assassination in Lebanon over the past 30 years, only a handful have ever been solved. But beyond the personal tragedy though, the big question is what next?

If this assassination was meant to intimidate the Sanioura government and the March 14 group, it may backfire. It was popular outrage at the wanton destruction caused by the Israeli military machine this summer and Hizbullah’s response to it that catapulted the party into its present position of power. Ironically it may be popular outrage at the murder and Hizbullah’s close ties with the prime suspect that may suddenly change Hizbullah’s fortunes. The measured, yet arrogant rhetoric of Hizbullah over the past few days reflected the party’s sense that their day had come. They will have to tone it down in light of the present assassination or risk being associated with the culprits.

The size of the turnout at Gemayel’s funeral on Thursday will be a measure of whether popular outrage outweighs popular fears and sense of desperation. Additionally the next few days will also test the Lebanese people’s political maturity by their ability to resist attempts at inciting civil strife.

I, for one, am hopeful. Can one afford to be otherwise?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

English AlJazeera is Good Thing

The vast difference in the world view between the Arab world and the West (especially the US) has come into focus again with the recent announcement that AlJazeera is inaugurating its English language news channel. I have watched with amusement over the past two days at the almost uniformly negative (or at best tepid) response in the various broadcast and written media in the U.S. at this announcement. Even liberal journalists treated the news with reservation and suspicion. The major cable providers indignantly refused to offer it to their viewers. It was after the all the channel that showed dead Iraqi civilians and dead American soldiers. Imagine that, showing the real consequences of war! You'd think from the way it is represented that it is the mouthpiece of al-Qaida. It becomes clear by what is being said, that most of the journalists who write about AlJazeera had never bothered to watch it or listen to what was is actually being said.

I don't get it. I don't necessarily like all of what AlJazeera puts out but its establishment in 1997 was a watershed event in broadcast journalism in the Middle East where TV stations were almost uniformly propaganda outlets for the various autocratic governments. Logically, anyone interested in democracy in the Middle East should helping to spawn more AlJazeeras.

English AlJazeera is good thing and should be widely availabe to viewers in the U.S. It would certainly broaden the world view of the general American public. It would only be fair. Afterall, all American networks (yes, even FoxNews) are widely available in the Middle East.

Below is a good article from Foreign Policy refuting the common criticisms leveled at AlJazeera in the Western media.

Think Again: Al Jazeera
By Hugh Miles

Page 1 of 3
July/August 2006

It is vilified as a propaganda machine and Osama bin Laden’s mouthpiece. In truth, though, Al Jazeera is as hated in the palaces of Riyadh as it is in the White House. But, as millions of loyal viewers already know, Al Jazeera promotes a level of free speech and dissent rarely seen in the Arab world. With plans to go global, it might just become your network of choice.

“Al Jazeera Supports Terrorism” : False, though the network makes little attempt to disassociate itself from those who do. This claim is one of the loudest arguments that Western critics have levied against the Arabic-language news channel since its inception 10 years ago, when the Doha, Qatar-based network pledged to present all viewpoints. Just as it describes in its motto, “The opinion and the other opinion,” Al Jazeera has lent airtime even to hated political figures and extremists, including prominent members of al Qaeda. It’s this willingness to present terrorists as legitimate political commentators that has prompted outspoken critics such as U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to refer to Al Jazeera’s coverage of the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as “inaccurate and inexcusable.”

After all, when Al Jazeera offers its estimated 50 million viewers exclusive interviews of Osama bin Laden, it’s easy to confuse access with endorsement. And when a journalist who conducts those interviews is jailed for collaboration with al Qaeda, as Tayssir Alouni was in a Spanish court last year, the line between impartial observer and impassioned supporter is certainly blurred. In addition, al Qaeda is not the only terrorist group that reaches out to Al Jazeera. Besides the infamous bin Laden tapes—at least six of which the network has still never aired—Al Jazeera has also received tapes from insurgent groups in Iraq, renegade Afghan warlords, and the London suicide bombers.
But the network has never supported violence against the United States. Not once have its correspondents praised attacks on coalition forces in Iraq. The network has never captured an attack on the coalition “live,” and there’s no evidence Al Jazeera has known about any attack beforehand. Despite claims to the contrary, the network has never aired footage of a beheading. As for Alouni’s case, conclusive evidence has yet to be presented to the public. And there is nothing to suggest that the network’s funding is illegitimate. Allegations of supporting terrorism remain just that—allegations.

“Al Jazeera Is Anti-Semitic”: Wrong. Just as Al Jazeera has proven willing to present al Qaeda’s “perspective,” it has also devoted airtime to and welcomed another regional pariah—Israel. The network was the first Arab channel to allow Israelis to present their case in their own words, in Hebrew, English, or Arabic. This move was a major departure from past practices and truly shocked the Arab public. Until Al Jazeera arrived, most Arabs had never even heard an Israeli’s voice. Al Jazeera regularly airs clips of Israeli officials within news bulletins and conducts live interviews with six to 10 Israelis each month. The network covers Israeli affairs extensively and is widely watched in Israel. In fact, Al Jazeera gives more airtime to Israeli issues than any other channel outside Israel itself.

Although Israel has accused Al Jazeera of bias and anti-Semitism (and some of the network’s guests have certainly fit that bill), the network’s coverage has occasionally been of concrete benefit to the Israelis. When Israel invaded Jenin in the spring of 2002, Al Jazeera’s exclusive television reports from within the besieged city thoroughly dispelled rumors of a “massacre,” leading to a U.N. special investigating committee appointed by the secretary-general being unceremoniously disbanded.

Many Israelis even regard Al Jazeera as an important new force for change in the Arab world. Gideon Ezra, former deputy head of the Israeli General Security Service, once remarked that he wished “all Arab media were like Al-Jazeera.” Not all Arabs would agree. Although many Westerners think Al Jazeera has a pro-Arab bias, many Arabs believe exactly the opposite. It is widely held in the Arab world that Al Jazeera is financed and run by Mossad, MI5, or the CIA, so as to undermine Arab unity. Just as Bahrain banned Al Jazeera from reporting from inside the country because of a perceived Zionist bias in 2002, Al Jazeera’s bureaus in Arab countries have often been closed down, accused of besmirching the Palestinians or disseminating other kinds of imperialistic anti-Arab propaganda.

“Al Jazeera Is Spreading Political Freedom”: Wishful thinking. It’s true that Al Jazeera established the tradition of investigative reporting in the Arab world and rolled back the boundaries of debate within Arab families, breaking all kinds of taboos about what could be discussed on television. Improving upon the sycophantic Arab news channels that existed prior to 1996, Al Jazeera better informs the Arab public about their leadership and provides Arabs with a forum through which they can more easily ask of their rulers, “Why are we in this mess?”
In fact, Al Jazeera’s programs about Western politics have done more to inform Arabs about democracy than any nation or station. After 9/11, Al Jazeera’s Washington bureau started two weekly talk shows to illuminate American democracy for a foreign audience: From Washington, in which the bureau chief interviewed U.S. politicians, including members of the Bush administration; and U.S. Presidential Race, which covered the U.S. elections in great depth, including most of the major primaries. (Continued Here)

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Why America Failed in Iraq

It is true that hindsight is 20/20 but the reasons for the United States’ failures in Iraq could have been foreseen by a blind man. It was a war waged under false pretenses in an unstable region by a superpower that had little credibility among the people it claimed to want to help. If that is not a recipe for disaster, I don’t know what is. It was not that the outcome of the military enterprise was in any doubt, the concern was about the morning after. American foreign policy is shortsighted. It is good at showy –Shock and Awe- intervention but is lousy on prevention or long term commitments. There was no reason to expect that the intervention in Iraq was going to be any different. The only difference here was the neocon’s expressed interest in long term change, beyond the removal of Saddam, in bringing democratic change to the Middle East. It was a seductive proposition for many in the Middle East who thought that the status quo was untenable. But the true intentions of the neocons, was, at best, suspect and I for one, believed that even if the intentions were pure, that this “gift” would come at an unacceptable price. After all, there are many conflicting interests: Oil, war on terrorism, the Christian right agenda and Israel, all of whom rank much higher on the priority list than the goal of achieving Arab freedom and democracy. Nevertheless, when war started, I really hoped that I would be proven wrong.

It was wishful thinking as it became clear that the United States’ bungling started early on. Baghdad was allowed to be looted, the Iraqi army was dissolved and the bureaucrats that ran the country were let go. The American civilian administration AND the new Iraqi government barricaded themselves in the Green Zone – so much for freedom and independence. Contracts for rebuilding the country were handed out to American companies. The U.S. forces alienated Iraqi civilians by their harsh treatment that only worsened as the U.S. forces became increasingly targeted. Long before the iconic images of Abu Ghraib became public, an image from early in the war stuck with me and foretold much of what was to follow. It was the photograph of an Iraqi man sitting in the dirt behind barbed wire, his hand tied behind his back, a hood on his head and his infant son crying in his lap. The photograph said much about the whole American approach: paranoid, arrogant, condescending and ignorant all at the same time. This is not to say that many civilian administrators and military officers were not sincerely trying to help Iraq and the Iraqis, it is just that overall heavy-handed approach of the administration conspired to render such individual valiant efforts useless.

Beyond all the mistakes and missteps, there is one basic reason why the whole Iraq project was doomed from the beginning. Two incompatible reasons were given for going to war. The American public was told the reason for war was to protect the United States from terrorism. The Iraqis were told, on the other hand, that the war was necessary to liberate them from a dictatorship and to establish democracy. But how can you promise a nation freedom and democracy if this very freedom and democracy is subservient to your interests as a superpower? This is especially true when the United States, after ridding Iraq of its dictator, hangs around for three years looking more and more like occupier than liberator. The longer Americans stayed, the more ordinary Iraqis resented them, the more fuel was provided for the native insurgency and, even more dangerously, the more Zarqawi-inspired foreign jihadists were able to establish roots in Iraq. So now the war that was falsely sold as part of the “war on terror” has become part of the war on terror which the United States says that it cannot afford to lose. Does that mean that they are willing to fight to the last Iraqi rather than leave Iraq and risk being perceived as losers? Again, American short term interests trump Iraqi freedom and democracy.

The best and sincerest approach after the fall of Baghdad would have been to replace all the high ranking Iraqi army officers, replace the ministers and senior civilian administrators, redeploy the Iraqi army and phase out the U.S. forces within months of arrival. Sure it would have been a very a risky proposition but would it have been much worse than it is today? The quick exit of American military would have quickly taken the wind out of the insurgency, especially the jihadists. It would also have prevented the build up of resentment by Iraqis against their onetime liberators and now tormentors. But most importantly, it would put the onus on the Iraqis to take ownership of their own destiny and showed the world –especially the Arab world- that the U.S. is not interested in occupation and hegemony but in bringing about real, positive change for the people of the region.
Photo: A.K. + Photoshop, Faluga on the Nile

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Paradise Deferred

With the never-ending daily toll of death and destruction in Iraq occupying the headlines, Israel has had a free hand, away from the limelight of the world media, to continue to savagely pummel Gaza. Yes, one can say much about the Palestinians' own culpability for their current predicament, but the fact remains that it is ultimately Israel that has complete control over every facet of Palestinian existence. The homemade rockets are no match for the savagery and destructive power of the Israeli military machine. And as if that is not enough, Israel's economic stranglehold on Gaza and the West Bank is making the lives of ordinary Palestinians miserable.

It is with these events unfolding that I finally watched Paradise Now the 2005 film by Hany Abu-Assad about two childhood friends recruited to become suicide bombers. It is an emotionally intense film that examines the issue of suicide bombing in an unflinchingly direct and objective way; all without resorting to a single scene of violence. The movie provides no easy answers. It is not that the director tries to justify or glorify suicide bombing. To be sure, the viewer is left with the distinct impression that the impending act is horrific and repugnant both for the victims and the perpetrators. Let me say that I too find suicide bombing immoral and that the vacuous excuses made in support of such acts by some is completely unacceptable. If all Israelis are fair game then we (Arabs) cannot complain when the Israeli army uses the same guilt-by-association reasoning to justify the targeting of civilians. It is in fact this mind set on both sides that has contributed to the unending cycles of senseless violence. What Abu-Assad does best in this film is to provide the context in which these acts become possible. He manages to convey the sheer misery of Palestinian existence under Israeli occupation. It is a claustrophobic, humiliating and ultimately dehumanizing existence. This is felt all the more acutely as the scene shift from the misery of the occupied Palestinian territories to the immaculate appearance of an Israeli city, literally minutes away.

I often wonder what the Israeli endgame in Gaza and the West Bank is. The stated short term goal is to get rid of Hamas, but then what? Do they really think that after brutally punishing every Palestinian man, woman and child that they will find someone more amenable to their vision of a peaceful solution?

Though the neocons and their supporters here and in the Middle East want to shift attention away from the festering Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it remains the greatest threat to regional stability as it radicalizes public opinion, empowers extremists, and helps keep autocratic rulers in place. I wonder what the Middle East would look like today had the United States after 9/11, instead of invading Iraq, spent its considerable resources and influence into finding a permanent solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It is not an insurmountable problem, what constitutes a fair and just solution is known to all. What is lacking is the political will to push for such a solution.