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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Robert Fisk: Why Bombing Ashkelon is the Most Tragic Irony

From the Independent - December 30, 2008

Johann Hari: The true story behind this war is not the one Israel is telling

From the Independent - December 29, 2008

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Kids Traumatized as Israeli Bombs Rain Down

From - December 31, 2008

Kids traumatized as Israeli bombs rain down
GAZA CITY: "We are scared ... that we can die at any moment," said 11-year-old Mohammed Ayyad, still terrified hours after a massive Israeli bombardment of Hamas government buildings next to his house in Gaza.

Like the rest of Gaza's children, he has been traumatized by the four-day assault on Islamist Hamas targets which has transformed many areas of the overcrowded territory into piles of rubble and shattered glass.

"As they were hitting the center (of Gaza City), we heard an enormous explosion and our house was filled with dust," he said. "We immediately ran toward the ground floor." His six-year-old brother Ahmad "peed his pants. We were all scared because the planes are in the sky all the time and we could die at any moment."

Schools in Gaza have been closed since the Israeli strikes began on Saturday and children have passed the time examining the damage caused by the raids.

Near Ayyad's home, a group of children milled around rubble that used to be Hamas government buildings. One shrugged off the danger of being outside as the Israeli warplanes continued their sorties overhead. "I run the same risk if I am at home or in the street," he said.

Another boy, Mohammed Bassal, said he and his brothers were shaken awake by explosions in the night. "Debris from the broken windows fell on our heads, the electricity was cut off and we started screaming," he said. "My mother came and hugged us."

His 12-year-old brother Nidal added: "We're still scared. The Jews are crazy and they don't spare anyone, even children." Iyad Al-Sayagh, a mother who lives in the area, called the bombardment "a night of horror, the way the earth shook."

After the strikes began "I immediately got my kids down to my father's, who lives on the ground floor," she said. "With each missile the little ones became hysterical." The overnight raids "turned the night in Gaza into hell," said Sarah Radi, a 29-year-old teacher. "They say that they want to destroy Hamas, but it's not true. They want to annihilate the Palestinian people. What did the women and children do that they destroy their houses?"

According to Gaza medics, at least 39 children under 16 years of age have died as a result of the Israeli savage bombardment that have killed at least 367 Palestinians in Gaza since Saturday.

Among the latest victims were two sisters aged four and 11. "What's happening is a massacre that Gazans will remember for always," warned Samir Zaqut, a psychologist with the Gaza Community Mental Health Program (GCMHP).

"When 360 people die under the bombs and the missiles, this causes post-traumatic stress amid children and adults, like depression, insomnia and schizophrenia," he added. The UN children's agency UNICEF has said it is "deeply concerned about the impact of the current violence in Gaza on children."

It urged "all parties to the conflict to abide by their international legal obligation to ensure that children are protected and that they receive essential humanitarian supplies and support."

Fires continue to burn across the Gaza Strip's main city, where five government buildings were badly damaged in air attacks. Rescue workers said 40 people were injured yesterday when warplanes dropped more than a dozen bombs on the government compound.

A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross says a delegation that visited Gaza's largest hospital, Shifa, has found conditions there had stabilized. "The situation is difficult but increasingly under control," Florian Westphal told The Associated Press.

CAIR says Israel Has Turned Gaza into a Giant Jail

From - December 31, 2008

Full article.

UN Slams Israel's "Shocking Atrocities"

UN Slams Israel's "Shocking Atrocities"

"The entire 1.5 million people who live in the crowded Gaza Strip are being punished for the actions of a few militants," Falk said.

Full article.

Gaza By the Numbers - from Amnesty International

Gaza By The Numbers

Middle East | Posted by: Zahir Janmohamed, December 30, 2008 at 3:25 PM

A snapshot of Gaza by the numbers:

Humanitarian Assistance

  • Movement in and out of Gaza is all but impossible and supplies of food, water, sewage treatment, basic health care have been drastically affected by the blockade of aid. Food prices are rising and wheat, flour, baby milk, and rose 34%, 30%, and 20.5% respectively during the period May-June 2007 alone.
  • Prior to the blockade (implemented after Hamas took over total adminstration over Gaza in June 2007), around 250 trucks carrying aid entered Gaza each day.
  • As of March 2008, that number was reduced to 45.
  • According to UN figures reported in the Guardian, that number dropped to just 5 in December.
  • Most recently, the Israeli government prevented a Libyan ship carrying 3000 tons of aid from entering Gaza.

Poverty and Dependency on Food Aid

  • Number of people living in absolute poverty in Gaza in 2008: 80%
  • Number of people living in absolute poverty in Gaza in 2006: 63%
  • In 2007, households were spending 62% of their income on food.
  • In 2004, households were spending 37% of their income on food.
  • As of March 2008, there were over 1.1 million people—three quarters of Gaza—who are dependent on food aid. In less than ten years, the numbers of families who depending on UNRWA food aid has increased ten-fold


  • In June 2005, there were 3,900 factories in Gaza employing 35,000 people.
  • In December 2007, there were just 195, employing only 1,700.
  • Unemployment is close to 40%.
  • 40,000 agriculture works who depend on cash crops now have no income.
  • In September 2000, 24,000 Gazans crossed into Israel to seek cheap labor. Now that number is zero.

Schools, Electricity, Medical Supplies

  • In January 2008, UNICEF reported that schools in Gaza had been cancelling classes that required high energy consumption like IT, science lab, and extra-curricular classes.
  • Hospitals cannot generate electricity to keep lifesaving equipment working or to generate oxygen, while 40-50 million liters of sewage continues to pour into the sea daily.
  • Hospitals are currently experiencing power cuts lasting for 8-12 hours a day.
  • There is currently a 60-70 percent shortage reported in the diesel required for hospital power generators.
  • According to the World Health Organization, the proportion of patients given permits to exit Gaza for medical care dropped from 89.3% in January 2007 to 64.3% in December 2007.
  • Many of those who are given permits are blocked at the crossing itself. In October 2007 alone, the WHO confirmed that 20 patients died because they were denied access to refereal services. Five of these deaths were children.

In speaking about the current wave of violence, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Gabriela Shalev pledged that Israel will "destroy completely" the "terrorist gang."

But the facts show that much more than a "terrorist gang" is being destroyed in Gaza.

(Unless otherwise indicated, all facts in this post are from the report "The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian implosion" co-authored by Amnesty International, Oxfam, Medcins de Monde UK, CAFOD, Save the Children UK, TroCAIRE, CARE, and Christian Aid).

Al-Jazeera Broadcasts Live from Gaza to Satellite & Internet Viewers Around the World (Except the US)

Al-Jazeera has also just become available to computer users ... in every country except the US, where it is blocked.

Al-Jazeera sees off satellite rivals

Millions of Arabs across the Middle East and north Africa are watching vivid and often shocking coverage of the Israeli military onslaught on Hamas in the Gaza Strip on Arabic satellite TV channels, with al-Jazeera again leading the field.

Al-Jazeera, based in Qatar, has four correspondents in Gaza and its bulletins are broadcasting graphic images that would never find their way on to western TV screens. "It's very dangerous inside Gaza for our people, but they are trying to focus on humanitarian issues," said Ahmad Jaballah, the channel's deputy editor.

On Saturday, the first day of Israel's Operation Cast Lead, it broadcast live from Gaza City's Shifa hospital as the victims of the first bombing raids were being treated. Yesterday much of the footage was of funerals. Precise audience figures are hard to come by, but al-Jazeera claims it has a regular audience of 50 million, rising during a crisis of this magnitude. Anecdotal evidence suggests that from Yemen to Morocco it is easily beating its nearest satellite rivals, the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya and the BBC Arabic TV, launched this year.

Al-Jazeera pictures are now also available free on its YouTube site. Its sister English-language channel ensures they have a global reach, though the Arabic channel and website show the bloodiest pictures: one yesterday featured a dead Palestinian toddler over the caption: "Children of Gaza: for what sin were they killed?"

Al-Jazeera has also just become available to computer users live over broadband on the Livestation Network in every country except the US, where it is blocked.

The Gaza violence is being covered intensively by al-Manar, the TV station of Lebanon's militant Shia Hezbollah movement. Coverage elsewhere on Arab state-run TV channels reflects the views of individual governments, with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia openly critical of Hamas as well as Israel. Syria, Iran's only Arab ally, highlights Palestinian resistance.

In this febrile atmosphere, everything is intensely political: Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, this week attacked al-Arabiya by dubbing it "al-Ibriya," a pun suggesting it is serving Jewish interests.

Al-Jazeera, sensitive to charges of partisanship, has interviewed Israeli ministers and officials as well as the exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Damascus. But it has been unable to interview Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, who is presumably in hiding in Gaza. It has reported from Sderot and other Israeli towns hit by Palestinian rocket and mortar fire.

On Monday it interviewed Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister and prime ministerial hopeful, who criticised the channel. But its coverage is controversial in the Arab world too. The western-backed Palestinian Authority has accused it of being biased in favour of Hamas.

British MPs: Growing Horror at the Bloodletting in Gaza

Growing Horror at the Bloodletting in Gaza - from the Guardian in UK - December 31, 2008

Israel's continuing massive military strikes on Gaza are an outrage that the international community must not allow to continue (Reports, 30 December). Palestinian rocket attacks that traumatise the lives of communities in southern Israel are also utterly unacceptable. Both sides must cease fire. Israel's actions are disproportionate and counterproductive to achieving either security for the people of Israel or peace in the Middle East. Physicians for Human Rights (Israel) have warned that "targeting of civilians and of medical facilities is a breach of international humanitarian law. The targets chosen by the Israeli military include also clearly civilian installations."

Gaza is one of the poorest and most densely populated places on Earth. For the past two years, the blockade and previous Israeli strikes had already disrupted electricity supplies and access to clean water. Even before the current attack, Gaza's health system was near collapse. Hospitals are short of medicines, blood and essential equipment. Only half of Gaza's 58 ambulances are functioning.

We call on the international community, and especially the high contracting parties to the Fourth Geneva convention, to intervene to stop the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Gaza. We call for an immediate ceasefire by all parties and for an embargo on the supply of military equipment to both sides. The international community must also assert unambiguously that there is no military route to peace in the Middle East and redouble its efforts to create a secure and independent state of Palestine alongside a secure and independent Israel.

Richard Burden MP, Lyn Brown MP, Peter Bottomley MP, Sir Gerard Kaufman MP, John Hemming MP, Martin Linton MP, Karen Buck MP, Nia Griffith MP, Natascha Engel MP, Martin Salter MP, Paul Flynn MP, Rob Marris MP, Andy Love MP, David Drew MP, Neil Gerrard MP, Hywel Francis MP, Clive Efford MP, Ian Taylor MP, Phyllis Starkey MP, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Andy Slaughter MP, Jim Devine MP, John McDonnell MP, Frank Cook MP, Tom Levitt MP, Michael Connarty MP, Chris McCafferty MP, Roberta Blackman-Woods MP, Simon Hughes MP, Danny Alexander MP, Sarah Teather MP, Madeleine Moon MP

We write to express our disgust, condemnation and concern at the attacks by Israel on the Gaza Strip killing over 350 people - including women and children. There is little doubt civilian deaths will continue to rise as Israel shows no signs of stopping its offensive on the people of Gaza. The situation is bleak, with hospitals running out of medical supplies as the Israeli blockade continues to suffocate the people of Gaza. The region's power and infrastructure networks are on the verge of collapse with more than 85% of Gazans depending on UN food aid - which is at critically low levels.

We call on the Scottish and UK governments to do all they can to pressure the Israeli government to halt attacks on the Gazan people who are being collectively punished for the actions of a minority. While we believe that Israel has the right to defend itself and its civilians from rocket attacks, it cannot be allowed to collectively punish, maim and kill innocent Palestinian civilians in the process. When the assault first began, Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak said the action would not be short and would become increasingly intense. We believe that a strong statement of condemnation of Israel's actions must be forthcoming from world leaders and political institutions before the air attacks escalate and ground troops sent into Gaza.

We urge our leaders to do all they can to halt the killing of innocent lives and send a strong message of condemnation to the Israelis for their current attacks.

Mohammad Sarwar MP, Katy Clark MP, Angus Robertson MP (Westminster SNP Leader), Jim McGovern MP, Jim Sheridan MP, Russell Brown MP, Mike Weir MP, Angus MacNeil MP, Anne Moffat MP, Tom Clarke MP, Mark Lazarowicz MP, Baroness Jenny Tonge, Alyn Smith MEP, Pauline McNeill MSP, Sandra White MSP, Jamie Hepburn MSP and 23 others

We are horrified by the bloodletting and destruction in Gaza, but we cannot ignore that it was Hamas that called an end to the ceasefire last week and escalated its rockets, mortars and missiles launched at Israeli civilians.

Following years of attack and with hundreds of thousands of Israelis - both Jew and Arab - unable to go about their daily lives due to this intolerable threat, Israel has been left with very few options. Hamas shows no interest in peace. Not only is it unwilling to seek reconciliation with Israel, it torpedoed Egyptian-brokered talks to bring about reconciliation with their fellow Palestinians.

It is therefore Hamas, and its Iranian sponsors, who must answer to their own people, as to why they brought this destruction on Gaza.

Louise Ellman MP, Andrew Dismore MP, Andrew Gwynne MP, Eric Joyce MP, Baroness Meta Ramsay

Thousands Protest Against Israeli Raids in Gaza

A protester joins a coalition of groups calling for an end to Israeli attacks in Gaza at the New York Israeli Consulate

Thousands of Protestors Demand End to Israeli Raids in Gaza - from AFP

Hundreds of Arab-Americans and others gather in Dearborn, Mich, Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2008 during a protest against Israeli military strikes in the Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Hundreds in Michigan, NYC Protest Strikes in Gaza
- from the AP

Israel, Palestinian Protesters Face Off in Los Angeles - from the San Jose Mercury News

Jewish Organizations (in US) Call for End to Gaza Bombings

From IPS - December 30, 2008

Jewish Organisations Call For End to Gaza Bombings

By Ali Gharib

WASHINGTON, Dec 30 (IPS) - With a fresh outbreak of violence between Israel and Palestine, a battle of a different sort is being waged in Washington between various interests in Mid- East policy circles.

As Israeli air strikes continue to pummel the Gaza Strip for a fourth day and crude home-made rockets launched by Palestinian militants land in Israeli towns near the densely populated and besieged Strip, Jewish groups in the U.S. are taking two distinctly differing tacks at addressing the latest Middle East bloodshed.

Some of what are traditionally thought of as pro-Israel groups are undertaking a major public relations campaign to support the bombing runs against Hamas that have claimed more than 370 Palestinian lives -- largely parroting the Israeli government that the attacks are a justified defence of Israelis.

The American Jewish Committee "expressed strong support for Israel… in its military operation aimed at terrorist targets in Gaza."

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) urged U.S. leadership to "stand firmly with Israel as it strives to defend itself…."

In addition to a flurry of press releases, officials from the groups are making regular appearances in the media and organising conference calls.

But, rather than unquestioning support of Israel's latest military venture in the decades-long conflict, four major Jewish organisations here are calling for an immediate end to the bombings, and for humanitarian aid in the Gaza Strip.

One of the groups, Americans for Peace Now, the sister organisation of the Israel-based Peace Now, called for "the government of Israel to end its military operation in the Gaza Strip and to act toward achieving a ceasefire."

And Bit Tzedek v'Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, called on the outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush administration "to initiate an international effort aimed at negotiating and immediate ceasefire."

These strong statements, along with ones from J Street (the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement) and the Israel Policy Forum (IPF), are in sharp contrast to many of the more hawkish traditional pro-Israel groups, who make no mention of a cessation of armed hostilities. The confident assertions from the four groups are a relatively new sort of campaign.

"You see a voice that is increasingly clear and has a significant resonance in the American Jewish community, and beyond the Jewish community, that takes a position, stakes it grounds and won't be intimidated," said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli negotiator and the director of New America Foundation's Middle East Task Force, one of the four groups.

"This is an important position to be taking," he told IPS. "It's moving the ball forward on redefining the parameters of the debate on what it means to be responsibly and thoughtfully -- rather than reflexively -- pro-Israel."

The move by the groups is in many ways the culmination of a public relations effort of its own that seeks to establish a strong pro-peace, pro-Israeli voice that is not afraid to depart from the line of the Israeli government.

The groups are expressing a position that they, too, appreciate and support Israel and believe in its right to defend itself, just like their counterparts in the traditional, more powerful, so-called pro-Israel groups.

But Jeremy Ben-Ami, the executive director of J Street, says that the issue does not lie in a right to self-defence -- a given -- but whether an operation like the attacks on Gaza will even work.

"While… air strikes by Israeli Defence Forces in Gaza can be understood and even justified in the wake of recent rocket attacks," according to Ben-Ami, "we believe that real friends of Israel recognise that escalating the conflict will prove counterproductive, igniting further anger in the region and damaging long-term prospects for peace and stability."

J Street echoed its director's statement with a press release declaring that the recent massive escalation was "pushing the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict further down a path of never-ending violence."

Therein lays the crux of these groups' assertions. While many of the other Jewish groups have been at best lukewarm on the peace process and the two-state solution, the peace groups see them as essential to the continued existence of Jewish state.

By encouraging steps that they see as contributing to peace between Israel and her Arab neighbours, including the Palestinians, they contend they are helping Israel in the long run.

Levy said that the groups are essentially saying, "We love Israel too, but it doesn't do us or Israel any good to be the mouthpiece for the talking points of the Israeli foreign ministry."

Levy also pointed to the peace groups' statements as an indication of a U.S. Jewish perspective, rather than strictly an Israeli one.

Indeed, the J Street release stated that re-establishing the ceasefire and making a concerted, international-led effort towards a sustainable resolution to the broader conflict "is a fundamental American interest."

"We too stand to suffer as the situation spirals, rage in the region is directed at the United States, and our regional allies are further undermined," said the statement, speaking from a U.S. perspective.

J Street is circulating a petition that has already garnered 14,000 signatures and which the group says it is already using to lobby President-elect Barack Obama's transition team and congressional leaders.

The petition calls for "strong U.S.-led diplomatic efforts to urgently reinstate a meaningful ceasefire that ends all military operations, stops the rockets aimed at Israel and lifts the blockade of Gaza." Those actions, it says, are "in the best interests of Israel, the Palestinian people and the United States."

The intense pressure from both sets of groups is very much aimed at the transition team, with Obama just three weeks away from being sworn into office, said an analysis of varying views in Jewish Week, a New York-based newspaper.

Obama and his transition team have been very cautious in their brief statements about the escalation, often repeating a talking point that there is only one president at a time.

But Obama campaigned on a renewed and vigorous attempt at Israeli-Arab peace, and he reiterated his commitment when announcing his foreign policy team last month.

Iranian Security Services Arrest Five Dervishes

December 30, 2008

Iranian Security Services Arrest Five Dervishes

RFE/RL - Iranian security services recently arrested five dervishes -- members of the Nematollahi Gonabadi Sufi Muslim community -- without any official charges in southern Hormozgan Province.

Sources close to the Gonabadi community told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that security officers also confiscated the dervishes' computers, discs, and books.

Rights groups say state intolerance for dervishes has increased in Iran in recent years. In 2006, some 1,200 Sufis were arrested in a major crackdown after police sought to close a Sufi house of worship in the holy city of Qom. 

A number of Gonabadi dervishes have been arrested this year in other Iranian cities, including Esfahan and Karaj.

The UN General Assembly recently adopted a resolution expressing deep concern at serious human rights violations in Iran, citing among other violations state pressure on the dervish community and other minority groups. 

Sufism is not illegal in Iran, but many clerics regard the practice as an affront to Islam.

Earlier this year, conservative clerics in Qom accused dervishes of opposing Islamic ideas, a claim the Sufi community vehemently rejects. Sufis insist that they strictly observe Islamic beliefs and principles.

(by RFE/RL correspondent Farangis Najibullah)

Op-Ed: Injustice of Israel's Heavy Hand

Injustice of Israel's heavy hand

Amin Saikal | December 31, 2008

Article from:  The Australian

ISRAEL'S response to rocket attacks by the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip - one of the world's most densely populated and squalid places - can only fuel the cause of Islamic radicalism in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

The killing and injuring of hundreds of Palestinians, many of them civilians, and the bombing of Hamas political and security infrastructure as well as mosques and Gaza's Islamic University, have the potential to play into the hands of al-Qa'ida and its supporters.

Israel could not have chosen a more inappropriate time to attack than the period between Christmas and New Year, when the world's attention is focused on messages of peace and goodwill, and when the US presidency is in a transitional mode. This is precisely the time the Soviets chose when they invaded Afghanistan nearly 30 years ago. For this, the Soviets were roundly condemned, but one wonders whether Israel will be criticised.

Israeli leaders have tried to be too clever by half. They preceded their onslaught by opening the Gaza crossing into Israel to allow some humanitarian aid to get through to the besieged and starving people of Gaza.

The purpose was to cast Israel as a compassionate actor in international eyes, and then to pound the territory so intensely that Gazans could not benefit from the aid. The result is even greater shortages of food, medicine and essential services, endangering the lives of many more Gazans.

Meanwhile, like the former right-wing Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon - who took advantage in 2002 of George W. Bush's declaration of war against al-Qa'ida and its Taliban allies to punish the Palestinians as terrorists - Israeli spokesman Mark Regev has equated Hamas with the Taliban. The intention is to impress on the US and its allies that Israel is as justified in fighting Hamas as they are in their struggle against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has already blamed Hamas for the present situation. This is despite the fact that the primitive Qassim rockets fired by Hamas militants last week, in response to the Israeli killing of three Hamas figures at a time when there was supposed to be a ceasefire in place, has taken only three Israeli lives.

The Hamas leadership has vowed not to surrender and has called for a third intifada (Palestinian uprising) against Israel, while the Arab and Muslim world has rallied in support of the Palestinian cause. The Israeli leadership seems to have learned little from the history of Israel's application of excessive force. Since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, Israel's military might has not succeeded in suppressing the Palestinian nationalist movement.

At first, Israel targeted the secular Palestine Liberation Organisation as a terrorist group and even supported Hamas when it came into existence in the late 1980s as a counter to the PLO. However, when it realised that an increasing number of Palestinians was turning to Hamas for salvation, it adopted the PLO as a partner in peace to combat Hamas as a terrorist group. What Israeli leaders do not want to acknowledge is that the issue is not Hamas or the PLO, but the demand of the Palestinian people for justice, freedom and independence.

As long as this demand remains unfulfilled, neither Israel's partnership with the PLO nor its military assaults against Hamas will work.

The PLO has gained nothing from its partnership to make it credible in the eyes of a majority of Palestinians, while Hamas has proved resilient enough to make an Islamist imprint on the nationalist movement and become a popular force capable of fighting for the Palestinian cause.

The branding of Hamas as a terrorist group has been a strategic mistake on the part of Israel and some of its international backers, especially the now widely discredited Bush administration. This much is now recognised across the world, including by former US president Jimmy Carter and his national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, as well as former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser, who have strongly urged a dialogue with Hamas as a necessary and reasonable step toward a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

If Israel and its international supporters fail to move in this direction, there is little hope of peace in the Middle East. Just as Israel's disproportionate attack on Lebanon against Hezbollah in mid-2006 failed to achieve its objectives and resulted in enhancing rather than diminishing Hezbollah's credibility, Israel's military onslaught carries the risk of making Hamas stronger and providing the forces of radical political Islam with more oxygen.

Such a legacy would not help US president-elect Barack Obama in his desire to improve America's standing in the Muslim world.

Amin Saikal is professor of political science and director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University inCanberra.

Violence Against Women in Balochistan (Pakistan) Increased in 2008

From the Daily Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Violence against women in Balochistan increased in 2008

* NGO says 115 of 600 cases were of 'honour' killing
* Dialogue participant says nationalist and communal sentiments, colonial mindset confront those protesting against violence

By Malik Siraj Akbar

QUETTA: Aurat Foundation, a non-governmental organisation working for women's rights, has said violence against women in Balochistan intensified in 2008, but Baloch society still adopts a defensive attitude and justifies the killing of women in the name of honour and tradition.

In a dialogue with media representatives on 'Problems in accessibility of information about violence against women' on Monday, the organisation said Baloch women were victims of violence due to widespread illiteracy, entrenched tribal traditions, distorted interpretation of Islam and economic dependence of women on men.

Cases: The organisation said around 600 cases of violence against women were reported in 2008, which included the murder of 89 women in the first nine months of the year. At least 115 women were murdered in cases of honour killing. The reported cases included 255 incidents of women being subjected to domestic violence. People are unwilling to discuss the violence as a majority of Balochistan people justify such acts in the name of tradition, it said. In some other cases, violence against women in rural areas remains unreported in media because of inaccessibility of the area as well as the dominance of men in society, who believe the publication of reports of violence against women amounts to the disrepute of their respective tribes.

The year's most disturbing news concerning the plight of women came from Naseerabad district in Balochistan, where five women were allegedly buried alive by tribal elders in the name of honour. Federal Minister Mir Israrullah Zehri and Senate Deputy Speaker Jan Muhammad Jamli defended the incident on the Senate floor and called it "a part of Baloch traditions" and the government failed to expose the culprits and the motives behind the killings. The Naseerabad killings still remain a mystery. "Violence against women is a global phenomenon. It takes place in different parts of the world under varying pretexts," Aurat Foundation Balochistan Co-ordinator Saima Javaid said. She said, "Our biggest concern is that such violence is unabated, rampant and unnoticed." Dostain Khan Jamaldini, a researcher, said various hurdles hindered objective reporting of women's issues in the province. He said violence against women is not taken seriously or addressed at the community level.

Confront: Nationalist as well as communal sentiments and a colonial mindset confront those protesting violence against women. Political leaders remain defensive on the issue, and describe media and NGO reporting as an intrusion in internal matters and traditions. Similarly, communal segments of society dismiss such reports as Western propaganda against Islam. "We need to set our house in order before becoming defensive. The poor state of women's rights is a bitter reality in our society and we cannot ignore this serious matter for long under different subterfuges," Jamaldini said. The participants of the day-long dialogue agreed that print and electronic media could best highlight violence against women by describing it as a practice being promoted in the name of Islam and tribal traditions. Journalists and scholars should not use unqualified religious leaders as their primary source in write-ups and reports. Those who contend that Islam is responsible for the suppression of women and violence against women are oblivious to the true teachings of the religion. Islam gives equal status to women in the social, educational and economic spheres, according to one of the speakers.

Illahuddin Khilji, another Aurat Foundation representative, said gender discrimination towards women by male lawmakers, journalists and religious scholars contributed to 'biased reporting' of events, while their female counterparts often exaggerated the issues in their reports.

CAIR: U.S. Muslims Urged to Speak Out on Gaza Crisis

WASHINGTON, Dec. 28 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The Council on American-Islamic
Relations (CAIR) today called on American Muslims and other people of
conscience to contact public officials and urge them to condemn Israeli
attacks on the Gaza Strip that have killed almost 300 people and injured
hundreds more, including women and children. In its bombardment of Gaza,
Israel has targeted at least one mosque, a university and a warehouse for
medical supplies.

SEE: Israel Pounds Gaza for Second Day, 296 Killed (Reuters)
SEE: Gaza Humanitarian Plight 'Disastrous,' U.N. Official Says (CNN)

[NOTE: U.S. Muslim Leaders to Address Gaza Crisis - On Monday, December 29,
the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections (AMT), a coalition
of 12 major Islamic organizations, will hold a 10 a.m. news conference at the
National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to release an open letter to
President-elect Obama outlining suggested domestic and foreign policy
priorities for the new administration. At that news conference, the Muslim
leaders will also address the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. CONTACT:
CAIR National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper, 202-488-8787 or
202-744-7726, E-Mail:]

CAIR also called on anyone concerned about the "disproportionate and
counterproductive" Israeli attacks to call radio talk show programs, write
letters to the editor and use social media websites such as Facebook, YouTube
and Twitter to voice their concerns.

Those contacting the media or using social media networks are being asked to
offer support for the Palestinian right to freedom from occupation, to call
for an end to the Israeli blockade of humanitarian supplies to Gaza and to
demand a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Washington-based group's "action alert" also stated: "Point out that such
attacks block efforts to bring peace with justice to the Middle East, harm our
nation's image and interests worldwide and strengthen voices of extremism in
the region. Ask your elected officials to adopt an ever-handed Middle East
policy that is in our nation's, not Israel's interest."

CAIR's alert listed other points to be raised when communicating with public

* The Palestinian people must be given some hope of freedom from Israeli
occupation and domination.
* Israel's immoral and illegal collective punishment of the Palestinian people
living in the Gaza Strip must end.
* America must support a just and comprehensive resolution to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict that takes into account the rights and
responsibilities of all parties.

Yesterday, CAIR issued a statement condemning the Israeli attacks and calling
on President-elect Obama to speak out on the crisis. Today's action alert
asked American Muslims to contact the Obama transition team.

CAIR, America's largest Islamic civil liberties group, has 35 offices and
chapters nationwide and in Canada. Its mission is to enhance the understanding
of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American
Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.

CONTACT: CAIR National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper, 202-488-8787 or
202-744-7726, E-Mail:; CAIR Communications Coordinator Amina
Rubin, 202-488-8787, E-Mail:

SOURCE Council on American-Islamic Relations

CAIR National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper, +1-202-488-8787 or
+1-202-744-7726,; CAIR Communications Coordinator Amina
Rubin, +1-202-488-8787,

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Premarital Sex on Rise as Iranians Delay Marriage, Survey FInds

From the Guardian

Premarital sex on rise as Iranians delay marriage, survey finds

   * Robert Tait
   * The Guardian, Monday 29 December 2008

Rising numbers of Iranians are spurning marriage and having sex illegally outside wedlock, Iran's state-run body for youth affairs has said.

A survey by the national youth organisation found that more than one in four men aged 19 to 29 had experienced sex before marriage. About 13% of such cases resulted in unwanted pregnancies that led to abortions. Sex outside marriage and abortion are outlawed under Iran's Islamic legal code.

The survey also revealed that the average marrying age had risen to 40 for men and 35 for women, a blow to the government's goal of promoting marriage to shore up society's Islamic foundations.

The statistics were disclosed by the national youth organisation's social-cultural deputy, Ali Alkbar Asarnia, at a conference celebrating family values and were widely reported in Iranian media. However, the organisation later attempted to dismiss the findings as based on an unrepresentative sample and attacked media outlets that reported them.

Asarnia said Iran had around 15 million single young people and that 1.5 million more were becoming eligible for marriage each year. Seven million were already past the government's recommended marrying guideline age of 29. The trend was producing the "unpleasant and dangerous social side effects" of premarital sex, Asarnia said.

The government has already tried to boost the marriage rate, which had an unprecedented 1.2% decline in 2005. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has introduced a £720m "Reza love fund" - named after one of Shia Islam's 12 imams - to provide marriage loans. Plans have been announced to establish marriage bureaux to help people find partners.

Many blame economic circumstances for their failure to marry, citing high inflation, unemployment and a housing shortage along with cultural traditions that expect brides' families to provide dowries and husbands to commit themselves to mehrieh, an agreed cash gift.

However, Hojatoleslam Ghasem Ebrahimipour, a sociologist, told Shabestan news agency that the trend was due to the availability of premarital sex, and feminism among educated women. "When a woman is educated and has an income, she does not want to accept masculine domination through marriage," he said.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Jordanian Students Rebel, Embracing Conservative Arm of Islam

From The New York Times

December 24, 2008
Generation Faithful

Jordanian Students Rebel, Embracing Conservative Arm of Islam


AMMAN, Jordan — Muhammad Fawaz is a very serious college junior with a stern gaze and a reluctant smile that barely cloaks suppressed anger. He never wanted to attend Jordan University. He hates spending hours each day commuting.

As a high school student, Mr. Fawaz, 20, had dreamed of earning a scholarship to study abroad. But that was impossible, he said, because he did not have a "wasta," or connection. In Jordan, connections are seen as essential for advancement and the wasta system is routinely cited by young people as their primary grievance with their country.

So Mr. Fawaz decided to rebel. He adopted the serene, disciplined demeanor of an Islamic activist. In his sophomore year he was accepted into the student group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan's largest, most influential religious, social and political movement, one that would ultimately like to see the state governed by Islamic law, or Shariah. Now he works to recruit other students to the cause.

"I find there is justice in the Islamic movement," Mr. Fawaz said one day as he walked beneath the towering cypress trees at Jordan University. "I can express myself. There is no wasta needed."

Across the Middle East, young people like Mr. Fawaz, angry, alienated and deprived of opportunity, have accepted Islam as an agent of change and rebellion. It is their rock 'n' roll, their long hair and love beads. Through Islam, they defy the status quo and challenge governments seen as corrupt and incompetent.

These young people — 60 percent of those in the region are under 25 — are propelling a worldwide Islamic revival, driven by a thirst for political change and social justice. That fervor has popularized a more conservative interpretation of the faith.

"Islamism for us is what pan-Arabism was for our parents," said Naseem Tarawnah, 25, a business writer and blogger, who is not part of the movement.

The long-term implications of this are likely to complicate American foreign policy calculations, making it more costly to continue supporting governments that do not let secular or moderate religious political movements take root.

Washington will also be likely to find it harder to maintain the policy of shunning leaders of groups like the Brotherhood in Egypt, or Hamas in Gaza, or Hezbollah in Lebanon, which command tremendous public sympathy.

Leaders of Muslim countries have tried to appease public sentiment while doing all they can to discourage the West from engaging religious movements directly. They see the prospect of a thaw in relations with the West, and see these groups as a threat to their monopoly on power.

Authoritarian governments view relative moderation as more of a political challenge than extremism, which is a security problem that can be contained through harsh methods.

"What happens if Islamists accepted the peace process and became more pragmatic?" said Muhammad Abu Rumman, research editor at the newspaper Al Ghad in Amman. "People see them as less corrupt and as the only real opposition. Israel and the U.S. might look at them differently. The regime is afraid of the Brotherhood when it becomes more pragmatic."

The financial crisis only adds to the anxiety of governments in the Middle East that had hoped economic development could appease their citizens, create jobs for legions of unemployed and underemployed young people and dilute the appeal of Islamic movements. But the crisis and the drop in oil prices have hit hard, throwing the brakes on once-booming economies in the Persian Gulf region, and modest economic growth elsewhere in the region.

In this environment, governments are forced to confront a reality of their own creation. By choking off democracy and free speech, the only space where groups could gather and discuss critical ideas became the mosque, and the only movements that had room to prosper were religion-based.

Today, the search for identity in the Middle East no longer involves tension between the secular and religious. Religion has won.

The struggle, instead, is over how to define an Islamic society and government. Zeinah Hamdan, 24, has traveled a typical journey in Jordan. She says she wants a more religious government guided by Shariah law, and she took the head scarf at a younger age than anyone else in her family.

But when she was in college, she was offended when an Islamist student activist chastised her for shaking a young man's hand. She wants to be a modern religious woman, and she defines that as working and socializing in a coed environment.

"If we implement Shariah law, we will be more comfortable," she said. "But what happens is, the people who come to power are extremists."

Like others here, she is torn between her discomfort with what she sees as the extreme attitudes of the Muslim Brotherhood and her alienation from a government she does not consider to be Islamic enough. "The middle is very difficult," she said.

Focus on Popular Causes

Under a bright midday sun one recent day, Mr. Fawaz and his allies in the Islamic student movement put on green baseball caps that read, in Arabic, "Islamic Current of Jordan University" and prepared to demonstrate. Mr. Fawaz carried a large poster board reading, "We are with you Gaza."

The university protest reflected the tactics of the Muslim Brotherhood in the country as a whole: precisely organized, deliberately nonthreatening and focused on popular causes here such as the Palestinians. The Brotherhood says it supports democracy and moderation, but its commitment to pluralism, tolerance and compromise has never been tested in Jordan.

Mr. Fawaz and about 200 other students stood in a straight line, extending nearly two city blocks, parallel to the traffic on the major roadway in front of the university. More than half of the students were women, many with their faces veiled.

State security men in plain clothes hurried up and down the line. "Brother, for God's sake, when will you be angry?" one security agent screamed into his phone, recording for headquarters the slogan on a student's placard.

At 12:30 p.m., the male students stepped into the road, blocking traffic, while the women rushed off to the sidewalk and melted back into the campus. One minute later, they walked out of traffic, took off their caps and folded up their signs, tucked them into computer bags and went back to school.

"I want to be able to express what I want; I want freedom," Mr. Fawaz said, after returning to the campus. His glasses always rest crooked on his face, making him look younger, and a bit out of sorts. "I don't want to be afraid to express my opinion."

Mr. Fawaz grew up in a small village called Anjara, near Ajloun, about 50 miles from Amman. His father grew up in the Jordan Valley and worked as a nurse in Irbid. Mr. Fawaz said he was 8 years old he was first invited to "leadership retreats" with a youth organization of the Brotherhood.

When he was 13, the youth group took him on a minor pilgrimage to Mecca. So, he said, he had been enticed by religion at an early age. But he only decided to become politically active — and to join the Brotherhood — when he was denied a scholarship to study abroad.

While there are no official statistics on student membership in the Brotherhood, only a fraction of Jordan University students are formally affiliated. Yet many others say they share the same vague sense of discontent and yearning, the same embrace of the Brotherhood's slogan, "Islam Is the Solution," a resonant catchall in the face of many problems.

The university, with about 30,000 students from across the country, has long served as a proxy battlefield for Jordan's competing interests.

Competing Loyalties

In Jordan, unlike Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is legal, with a political party and a vast network of social services. It also has a political party, called the Islamic Action Front. While some fear it as too extreme, others argue that it has sold out by working within a political system they see as corrupt and un-Islamic. On campus, the Islamists try to build sympathy, handing out study sheets or copying notes for students.

Mr. Fawaz decided this year to run as an Islamist candidate for the student council, an influential organization with its own budget and the right to put up posters, distribute fliers and hold on-campus events.

The Islamic students' movement had boycotted the elections for years to protest a change of election rules that called for appointing — not electing — half of the council's 80 members. The rule change, decreed by the former university president, was made in order to block the Islamists, who were the most organized group on campus, from controlling the council.

That is a direct echo of how the state has long tried to contain the Islamist movement in Jordan. The Brotherhood is allowed to operate, but the government and the security services broadly control the outcome of elections.

Indeed, as Islamist movements have swelled, governments across the Middle East have chosen both to contain and to embrace them. Many governments have aggressively moved to roll back the few democratic practices that had started to take root in their societies, and to prevent Islamists from winning power through the voting booth. That risks driving the leaders and the followers of Islamic organizations toward extremism.

At the same time, many governments have tried to appease popular Islamist fervor. Jordan recently granted a Muslim Brotherhood-aligned newspaper the right to publish daily instead of weekly; held private talks with Hamas leaders; arrested a poet, saying he had insulted Islam by using verses of the Koran in love poems; and shut down restaurants that had served alcohol during Ramadan, though they had been licensed by the state to do so.

This year, the new president of Jordan University permitted all student council seats to be elected, but with rules in place that would, again, make it nearly impossible for the Islamist bloc to have control.

Two days before the voting took place, Mr. Fawaz was campaigning on the steps of the education building, dressed in his best suit and tie. His campaign message to the students was simply, "For your sake."

Running as an Islamist risks consequences: Mr. Fawaz said that he was approached by a student in his class who he believed was delivering a message from the security services. "He told me that they will write about me; I will never get a job," Mr. Fawaz said.

But even when the police ordered him to take down his posters on election day, he remained resolute and confident.

"Everybody knows that I am going to win," Mr. Fawaz said, without sounding boastful. "Because I represent the Islamic movement."

But he did not win. Instead, a candidate representing a large tribe from the city of Salt won, reflecting the loyalty to bonds of kinship and family heritage even as tribal culture has begun to absorb more conservative Islamic practices and beliefs.

Yet Mr. Fawaz was untroubled. "What is important for me," he said, "is to serve the movement by spreading the word among the students."

Amjad al-Absy, 28, remembers the moment when he pledged to join the Muslim Brotherhood. He was 15 and he was identified by Brotherhood recruiters when he was playing soccer in a Palestinian refugee camp. He described how the Brotherhood monitors young men — when they play soccer, go to school, to mosque, to work, as well as in the street and singles out those who appear receptive.

"Once you say yes, they put you in a ring, in a family," said Mr. Absy. "Outside of the Brotherhood, there is no concern for young men, there is no respect. You are alone."

Mr. Absy and his friend Tarak Naimat, 24, said that while they were students at the university, they had helped to recruit other young men.

"In the computer lab, in the mosque, you buddy up," Mr. Naimat said. "Then you participate in events together. Then he becomes a member. If he's advanced, it can take six months. If less, maybe two years."

The appeal, Mr. Naimat said, was simple: "It gives you the feeling you can change things, you can act, you can be a leader. You feel like you are part of something important."

Recruiters to the movement operate in a social atmosphere far more receptive than in the past. Every one of five young men talking near the cafeteria of the university recently insisted that the only way Jordan would have democracy was under an Islamic government, which is what the Brotherhood says it wants to achieve.

Muhammad Safi is a 23-year-old with neatly gelled hair and a television-white smile who described himself as the least religious student at the table. He said he had lived in the United States for five years and was eager to marry an American so he could return. Yet he declared: "An Islamic state would be better. At least it would take care of people."

A Political Crossroads

The task facing Middle East governments and Islamic leaders is to figure out how to harness the energy of the Islamic revival. The young — the demographic bulge that is defining the future of the Islamic world and the way the West will have to engage it — have embraced Islam with all the fervor of the counterculture.

But the movement is still up for grabs — whether it will lead to greater extremism, even terrorism in some cases, and whether the vague dissatisfaction of young people will translate into political engagement or disaffection.

So the cycle is likely to continue, with religious identification fueled not only by the Islamic movements, but also by governments eager to use religion to enhance legitimacy and to satisfy demands of their citizens. That, in turn, broadens support for groups like the Brotherhood, while undermining support for the government, said many researchers, intellectuals and political scientists in Jordan.

The battle lines are clear on the campus of Jordan University. Bilal Abu Sulaih, 24, is a leader in the Islamic student movement. He returned to school this year to study Islamic law after being suspended for one year for organizing protests, he said. During the year off, he said, he worked as a student organizer for the political party office of the Brotherhood. "We are trying to participate," he said of the movement's role on campus. "We do not want to overpower everyone else."

But his reassurances were brushed aside as another student confronted him. "It's not true," shouted Ahmed Qabai, 28, who was seated on a nearby bench. He thrust a finger in Mr. Sulaih's direction.

"You want to try to control everything," Mr. Qabai said. "I've seen it before, your people talking to women and asking them why they're not veiled."

Mr. Sulaih, embarrassed by the challenge, said, "It's not true."

Mr. Qabai made it clear that he detested the Muslim Brotherhood, getting more and more worked up, until finally he was screaming. But what he said summed up the challenge ahead for Jordan, and for so many governments in the region: "We all know Islam is the solution. That we agree on."

Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting.

Egypt Clerics Back Woman's Koran

From the BBC - December 23, 2008

Egypt clerics back woman's Koran

Azhar University Campus
Students At Azhar University Campus holding Koran

The highest authority of Sunni Islam, al-Azhar University in Cairo, says it has approved the first interpretation of the Koran by a woman.

A senior cleric told an Egyptian daily that the new book respected established tradition, adding that gender was irrelevant to interpretation.

Liberal Muslim women have been critical of established interpretations, saying they are patriarchal.

The author says she wanted to make Koran accessible for the young.

Sheikh Ali Abdelbaqi Mitwali told the daily al-Masri al-Youm that al-Azhar has approved the interpretation (tafseer) submitted by Kariman Hamza, a former broadcaster.

Sheikh Mitwali said there was no such thing as a "male" or "female" reading of the holy book and that "what mattered for us was that the interpretation was in line with the text of the sacred Koran and that it did not contradict the rulings of Sharia".

Ms Hamza - who is a former presenter of religious programmes on radio - said she was delighted by al-Azhar's decision.

She said she wanted to write a book that simplified and clarified the Koran for the young and that she had no commercial motive.

Books in Egypt dealing with the Koran or Islamic tradition have to secure the approval of al-Azhar before publication.

Iraq's Boy Band Stars

From the BBC - December 25, 2008

Video of the band at

Iraq's boy band stars

By Caroline Hawley
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Giggling blondes squeal with delight as five tight-shirted men strut forward on the stage, beautifully turned out and moving towards the crowds in perfect unison.

UTN1- Nadeem,Akhlad, Art, Shand and Hassan
UTN1 hope to perform in their native Iraq again
They are the Iraqi boy band UTN1 - short for "Unknown to No-one" - and they are in Geneva to perform at a peace festival, another step towards their dreams of international stardom.

It is a long way from the band's beginnings in Baghdad, in the final decade of Saddam Hussein's dictatorial rule.

Art and Shant - both Armenian Christians - founded the group in 1999. They were doing their military service at the time. Shant drove a tank. Now he drives the band's dance routines. Art made up lyrics as he marched.

They put adverts in the Iraqi press to find other band members.

Hassan, Akhlad and Nadeem are all Shia Muslims. Not that Iraq's religious and sectarian divisions matter to the band. They see themselves first and foremost as Iraqis - united by their love of music.

The band members were drawn to Western music while their country was under sanctions and Saddam Hussein was railing against Western imperialism. "We loved anything that came from the West," says Art. "We wanted to put action in our lives, to start something new, to break the routine."


Modelling themselves on Take That and the Backstreet Boys, they began composing and singing love songs in English. "Hey Girl" was an early favourite for their small fan base.

Meet the band

I first met the band in Baghdad in the scorching summer of 2003 - just a few weeks after the American-led invasion of Iraq.

The chaos and looting that followed the war was almost under control and the bombs, killings and kidnappings that were to tear the country apart had not yet begun.

But there was virtually no electricity in Baghdad. The boys were rehearsing in the back of a beaten-up Volkswagen Passat. And they had to be home every night for the American-imposed curfew at 11pm.

They were undaunted by the difficulties they faced. Bursting with enthusiasm, they shrugged off the threat of rising Islamic militancy and insisted - at the time - that they would not be silenced. "No-one is ready any more to give up his freedom," said Art.

But as the months wore on, Iraq became increasingly dangerous. A record store owned by Alan Enwiya, their first manager, was targeted. With few jobs to choose from, Enwiya found work as a translator for an American journalist. He was later kidnapped with her, and killed.

In 2004, I bumped into Nadeem again in Baghdad's Green Zone. He, too, was working for journalists then as the band members went their separate ways. "Remember me," he said, with a grin. "Unknown to No-one … We're still, it seems, unknown to everyone."


As the violence in Iraq escalated in 2004, the band members knew that being pop pioneers in a war zone was courting danger. "We needed to go to a safe place," says Art. In 2005, they moved to Jordan, waiting for visas to get to Britain, where they had been promised musical training in Birmingham.

Shant of UTN1
In front of everyone, I sang "Do Ray Me Fah …" and everyone around us started laughing


One day, in the BBC Baghdad office, I received a phone call from Hassan.

He told me the British consulate was refusing to accept that they were a boy band and he needed my help to vouch for them - which I did, by sending them a tape of the television story we had done on them in 2003.

Shant, it turned out, also had to sing to consular staff to prove he was a musician. "In front of everyone, I sang 'Doh Reh Me Fah' and everyone around us started laughing."

Shant remembers arriving, wide-eyed, in Jordan for the first time. "We went to a shopping mall and I'd never been to a mall before. I saw Levis - I'd heard about them but never seen them."

Saddam Hussein's Iraq had been a paranoid, isolated place. There were no mobile phones, satellite television was banned and they - like other artists - had been forced to pay tribute to Saddam Hussein to have any hope of seeing their songs played on the radio.

Their specially-composed birthday ode - "Man of Glory" - embarrasses them now.

It goes: "Blessings to the man who brightens our days. Shining through the times, your light never ends ... You're the answer to all our hopes and dreams … Long Live Dear Saddam."

"You have to understand that we had no choice," says Nadeem, whose brother was jailed for several months under Saddam.


Today, they live in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, where they have artists' visas and access to state-of-the-art recording studios. They are free to sing what they want, and they now have two hit singles in Arabic. They are also safe from the violence that still plagues Iraq.

Akhlad of UTN1
We wish one day to play a concert in the centre of Baghdad. We hope

But like so many Iraqis now living in exile, they worry about friends and family back home. They know that they are only guests in their host country. "I feel like an outsider wherever I go," says Nadeem.

And they dream - when it is safe - of returning.

"I miss Iraq," says Nadeem, most of whose friends are now scattered around the world. "I miss the food, the river, the smell of the streets after it rains. Despite everything, it's a great country. We've had the best and the worst of times there."

Hassan wants to return and build a music studio. "Once things are secure there, I'll go back. That's for sure," he says. "I have lots of lovely memories."

And Akhlad dreams of a big performance in front of a home crowd.

"We wish one day," he says, "to play a concert in the centre of Baghdad. We hope."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Rumi: Where do the Ignorant Live?

When we are ignorant we live in His prison;
when we become prudent we live in His palace;
when we fall asleep we become intoxicated;
when we are awakened we are in His hands.

-Rumi, "Mathnawi"

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Kennedy Center to Showcase Upcoming Festival of the Arab World

Kennedy Center International Committee on the Arts Co-Chairs Mr. A. Huda Farouki and Mrs. Samia Farouki Prepare for Upcoming Festival of the Arab World

Mr. A. Huda Farouki and Mrs. Samia Farouki prepare for upcoming Festival of the Arab World

This year's festival will be unprecedented
The event will allow Arab life and culture to be seen in a whole new light. We are tremendously excited that this festival is coming to the Kennedy Center.

Vienna, VA (PRWEB) December 22, 2008 -- As a central part of its 2008-2009 season, the Kennedy Center's ( International Committee on the Arts (KCICA) will present a major international art festival, Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World. KCICA co-chairs Mr. A. Huda Farouki, CEO of Nour USA, Ltd. ( and Mrs. Samia Farouki, President of HII-Finance Corporation ( are major sponsors of this festival which celebrates the rich artistic and cultural diversity of Arab artists and art forms. It will be held at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC from February 23 - March 15, 2009.

KCICA supports the Kennedy Center's international programs which have allowed the Center to expand its network to over 60 countries. Representing both the United States and Jordan as co-chairs of KCICA, Mr. and Mrs. Farouki will contribute their unique insight in showcasing the talents of artists from all 22 Arab League Nations. The festival will include all of the performing arts - music, theatre and dance as well as visual and literary arts and film, which the Kennedy Center plans to feature through the transformation of its galleries, foyers and exhibition spaces. The goal is to have the best representation of both historic and contemporary traditions of Arab culture.

"This year's festival will be unprecedented," said Mr. Farouki. "The event will allow Arab life and culture to be seen in a whole new light. We are tremendously excited that this festival is coming to the Kennedy Center."

At KCICA's recent annual meeting, Dan Hagerty, Director of Individual Campaigns for the Kennedy Center, thanked Samia and Huda Farouki for their significant feedback and support for the upcoming Arab Festival.

"We're thrilled to work with the Kennedy Center to present the beauty and uniqueness of Arab traditions and aesthetics," stated Mr. Farouki.

About Hii Finance Corporation

Hii Finance Corp. ( is an investment company that targets dynamic industries and innovative enterprises. HFC specializes in funding international expansion for U.S. growth companies. HFC provides entrepreneurs with the capital, expertise and resources essential to success, adding value in such areas as business and financial planning, strategic sourcing and market development. As an active and engaged investor, HFC enhances value, profitability, and growth, making long-term successes of promising start-ups as well as rapidly expanding companies. HFC is distinguished further by both the international character of its investments and management, and a team with extensive international, management trade and investment experience.

About Nour USA, Limited

Nour USA, Limited ( prides itself on its capabilities and approaches every project with the understanding that close coordination with local affiliates and personnel is paramount to success and that every region requires a unique incorporation of local culture and customs. As a result, Nour has set the industry standard for conducting operations in the most trying conditions and continue to challenge themselves and the industry through the ongoing development of innovative approaches and solutions. Nour USA, Limited leverages their experience and skills by providing specialized contract management services for their internationally focused business and corporate clients. Since its incorporation in the Commonwealth of Virginia in 2003, Nour has proven itself to be a crucial contact in the management services industry for private businesses, educational facilities, universities, and governments worldwide.


Annual Camel Beauty Competition Held in Saudi Arabia

From the Saudi Gazette

Camel contest ends beautifully
By Shahid Ali Khan

RIYADH – Around 20,000 camels participated in a beauty contest concluded this week at Umm Ruqaiba, some 350 km from Riyadh. Apart from Saudi Arabia, the competition drew contestants from as far away as Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait.

The contestants were judged according to strict criteria that included long eyelashes and neck, curvature of the ears, the size of the nose relative to the face and fullness of the hump.

Camels of different colors and sizes were paraded in front of the judges during the 26-day competition. Out of 20,000 only 125 camels were short-listed to participate in the final.

Saudi Arabia's camel beauty pageant is considered to be one of the Gulf's most lucrative with a total of SR50 million awarded in prize money to the winners. The winners were also awarded 25 cars as prizes.

Umm Ruquaiba, a small suburb of Riyadh known for its extreme summer heat and scorching sun, came into the limelight when the site was chosen for the annual King Abdul Aziz Camel Beauty Contest a few years ago. The idea to hold such an event came from Prince Mishaal Bin Abdul Aziz, chief of the Allegiance Commission.

Prince Mishaal, an ardent admirer of camel beauty himself, distributed the prizes among the winners on Friday, the final day of the contest.
The owners of the contesting camels were divided into three different categories based on the number of camels each one owned such as 100, 50 and 30 animals, respectively.

The basic eligibility criteria to participate in the contest was to own at least 30 camels.

Five pedigrees of camels contested for the coveted prizes. Based on color, they included the most valued Al-Wadah (white), the dependable and heat-enduring
Al- Majaheem (black), the tough Ahmar (red), the Sha'al (light brown) and the Safar (dark brown).

Special enclosures were made for these valuable animals at the contest site. Each one of them was accommodated in a separate enclosure, with special veterinary teams and emergency service units available to them.

According to Professor Saeed Ba-Ismael of Animal Production and Nutrition in the College of Food and Agriculture, King Saud University, the Riyadh camel has the inherent ability to adjust to the arid climate, and can survive without water for long periods of time.

Besides, it has a remarkable capacity of adjusting its body temperature. Tests have shown that the desert herbivore can lower its body temperature to six degrees and raise it to 41 degrees Celsius adjusting itself to changing weather conditions, he said.

"There have been instances when the camel has endured thirst for two months during extreme summer conditions and six months in winter," he said.

A camel's life span is between 25 and 30 years. A she-camel usually yields from 7 to 15 liters of milk every day. However, those imported from Pakistan are
known to give a yield of up to around 20 liters a day, he said.

He said the camel festival offered an opportunity for researchers in Saudi Arabia to conduct studies on different breeds in the Peninsula. The study would also focus on what health disorders these animals are prone to.

Prof. Ba-Ismael, who has conducted many research studies and is the author of a book on camels, said that "the Umm Ruquaiba Camel Festival was a novel and commendable effort in preserving the varieties and purity of these animals."

Saudis Indulge Long Banned Passion for Silver Screen

A Saudi holds up his cinema ticket

Saudis indulge long banned passion for silver screen

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AFP) — They howled and clapped, munching popcorn while cheering the figures on the screen -- a normal movie theatre scene elsewhere, but revolutionary in Saudi Arabia where films have not played publicly for decades.

Massive lines snaked out from the King Abdul Aziz Cultural Centre as Jeddah residents queued up to see the first feature film open to the public for 30 years, hoping the event heralded a big change in the ultra-conservative kingdom's stinted cultural scene.

In what took hush-hush negotiations with senior political officials and the strict religious police, the Red Sea port of Jeddah and the nearby city of Taif allowed the Rotana entertainment group, owned by powerful Saudi tycoon Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, to put on its new comedy "Manahi" for nine days.

The result was overwhelming, the 1,200-seat hall hardly meeting the demand for the 15-riyal (four-dollar) tickets over more than a week.

"The hall was filled up to the very last seat during the two shows scheduled each day, forcing us to add a third show after midnight," organiser Mamdouh Salem told AFP.

Decades ago film lovers in Saudi Arabia would crowd into clubs and halls to watch the same movies enjoyed throughout the Arab world.

But in the 1970s, clerics of the ultra-conservative Wahhabist version of Islam which is practised in the country cracked down and banned cinemas as having a corrupting influence on society.

The taboo has been broken somewhat in recent years, with videos and satellite television, and movies shown surreptitiously at night in popular coffee shops.

But to see a movie in a real theatre, Saudis still have to travel to neighbouring countries.

Putting on the film in Jeddah, a progressive city compared to the capital Riyadh, took the support of Prince Khalid al-Faisal, the powerful governor of the province of Mecca, himself a poet and supporter of the arts.

The local religious police, from the feared Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, inspected the hall ahead of the screenings to ensure that women and men would be separated, following Saudi Arabia's strict rules of segregation between the sexes.

Salem said it was an adventure to get "Manahi" shown in a place where there are no real cinemas, adding that it was exciting to see the audience's thirst for movies.

"This is a hall with 1,200 seats. It was not built for movies, and the projector is not made for 35mm films," he said.

With women sitting apart in the balcony, and men and boys on the ground floor below them, the hall echoed with raucous laughter as they took in the story of the misadventures of a Saudi country farmer who finds himself in the city of Dubai.

On hand for the opening, "Manahi" star Fayez Malki said he was pleased at the turnout.

"This encourages me to play in more Saudi films and I plan to make a new one with Rotana," he said.

"It is an honour to have my name associated with the first Saudi film shown in public here."

Khaled al-Amri, who brought his children to see "Manahi", said he slakes his passion for film on trips to Cairo and Dubai.

Roua Mohammed, an interior designer, said she visits Cairo three times a year to check out the latest releases in the theatres.

"Why can't they be shown here?" she asked.

Despite the success in Jeddah, it was not yet clear whether Rotana would be able to show "Manahi" in Riyadh, where the religious police are much tougher and government officials more conservative.

As the shows drew to a close, religious police chief Sheikh Ibrahim al-Gaith branded movies "an absolute evil".

But on Saturday he eased his stance, allowing that some films might be appropriate.

"I did not say that we reject all cinema," Sheikh Gaith said.

"A movie could possibly be acceptable if it serves good and is suitable under Islam, but I said that we were not consulted during the organisation of these movie showings."

And while a senior government official told AFP that "it was not the right time yet" to toss out controls on movies, some property developers appear ahead of the game: their newly-built malls seem already set up to install cinemas, if and when the time comes.

A man and his children outside a theatre in Jeddah

Young Muslims Build a Subculture on an Underground Book

From the New York Times - December 22, 2008

Young Muslims Build a Subculture on an Underground Book

David Ahntholz for The New York Times

Michael Muhammad Knight, the author of "The Taqwacores," which a college professor has called "The Catcher in the Rye" for young Muslims.

Published: December 22, 2008

CLEVELAND — Five years ago, young Muslims across the United States began reading and passing along a blurry, photocopied novel called "The Taqwacores," about imaginary punk rock Muslims in Buffalo.

"This book helped me create my identity," said Naina Syed, 14, a high school freshman in Coventry, Conn.

A Muslim born in Pakistan, Naina said she spent hours on the phone listening to her older sister read the novel to her. "When I finally read the book for myself," she said, "it was an amazing experience."

The novel is "The Catcher in the Rye" for young Muslims, said Carl W. Ernst, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Springing from the imagination of Michael Muhammad Knight, it inspired disaffected young Muslims in the United States to form real Muslim punk bands and build their own subculture.

Now the underground success of Muslim punk has resulted in a low-budget independent film based on the book.

A group of punk artists living in a communal house in Cleveland called the Tower of Treason offered the house as the set for the movie. The crumbling streets and boarded-up storefronts of their neighborhood resemble parts of Buffalo. Filming took place in October, and the movie will be released next year, said Eyad Zahra, the director.

"To see these characters that used to live only inside my head out here walking around, and to think of all these kids living out parts of the book, it's totally surreal," Mr. Muhammad Knight, 31, said as he roamed the movie set.

As part of the set, a Muslim punk rock musician, Marwan Kamel, 23, painted "Osama McDonald," a figure with Osama bin Laden's face atop Ronald McDonald's body. Mr. Kamel said the painting was a protest against imperialism by American corporations and against Wahhabism, the strictest form of Islam.

Noureen DeWulf, 24, an actress who plays a rocker in the movie, defended the film's message.

"I'm a Muslim and I'm 100-percent American," Ms. DeWulf said, "so I can criticize my faith and my country. Rebellion? Punk? This is totally American."

The novel's title combines "taqwa," the Arabic word for "piety," with "hardcore," used to describe many genres of angry Western music.

For many young American Muslims, stigmatized by their peers after the Sept. 11 attacks but repelled by both the Bush administration's reaction to the attacks and the rigid conservatism of many Muslim leaders, the novel became a blueprint for their lives.

"Reading the book was totally liberating for me," said Areej Zufari, 34, a Muslim and a humanities professor at Valencia Community College in Orlando, Fla.

Ms. Zufari said she had listened to punk music growing up in Arkansas and found "The Taqwacores" four years ago.

"Here was someone as frustrated with Islam as me," she said, "and he expressed it using bands I love, like the Dead Kennedys. It all came together."

The novel's Muslim characters include Rabeya, a riot girl who plays guitar onstage wearing a burqa and leads a group of men and women in prayer. There is also Fasiq, a pot-smoking skater, and Jehangir, a drunk.

Such acts — playing Western music, women leading prayer, men and women praying together, drinking, smoking — are considered haram, or forbidden, by millions of Muslims.

Mr. Muhammad Knight was born an Irish Catholic in upstate New York and converted to Islam as a teenager. He studied at a mosque in Pakistan but became disillusioned with Islam after learning about the sectarian battles after the death of Muhammad.

He said he wrote "The Taqwacores" to mend the rift between his being an observant Muslim and an angry American youth. He found validation in the life of Muhammad, who instructed people to ignore their leaders, destroy their petty deities and follow only Allah.

After reading the novel, many Muslims e-mailed Mr. Muhammad Knight, asking for directions to the next Muslim punk show. Told that no such bands existed, some of them created their own, with names like Vote Hezbollah and Secret Trial Five.

One band, the Kominas, wrote a song called "Suicide Bomb the Gap," which became Muslim punk rock's first anthem.

"As Muslims, we're not being honest if we criticize the United States without first criticizing ourselves," said Mr. Kamel, 23, who grew up in a Syrian family in Chicago. He is lead singer of the band al-Thawra, "the Revolution" in Arabic.

For many young American Muslims, the merger of Islam and rebellion resonated.

Hanan Arzay, 15, is a daughter of Muslim immigrants from Morocco who lives in East Islip, N.Y. In the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, pedestrians threw eggs and coffee cups at the van that transported her to a Muslim school, she said, and one person threw a wine bottle, shattering the van's window.

At school, her Koran teacher threw chalk at her for requesting literal translations of the holy book, Ms. Arzay said. After she was expelled from two Muslim schools, her uncle gave her "The Taqwacores."

"This book is my lifeline," Ms. Arzay said. "It saved my faith."

David Ahntholz for The New York Times

Noureen DeWulf and Bobby Naderi, both actors, with Jay Verkamp, center, the sound mixer for the film version of Mr. Knight's novel. The film was shot in Cleveland.

Valentine's Day Across the Muslim World (2012)