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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Arabs and Muslims Give Obama Benefit of Doubt

From Reuters

Arabs and Muslims give Obama benefit of doubt

Wed Jan 21, 2009 12:18pm EST

By Jonathan Wright

CAIRO (Reuters) - Arabs and Muslims gave the benefit of some doubt on Wednesday to U.S. President Barack Obama's offer of "a new way forward" with the Muslim world, but many said it would take deeds rather than words to convince them.

After eight years of President George W. Bush, who invaded two Muslim countries and gave strong support to Israel, Arabs and Muslims watched Obama's inaugural speech on Tuesday closely for any sign that U.S. policy toward them will change.

With some exceptions on the fringes, a clear majority said they welcomed a new tone from Obama, who promised relations based on mutual interest and mutual respect.

"This is a speech that reflected a new spirit of dialogue, reaching out and working together. This is a new direction that is certainly not what the Bush administration has been pursuing," said former Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher.

Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut, noted Obama's reference to Muslims as a significant part of the patchwork of the United States, an attitude not common in U.S. political discourse.

"The fact that he mentioned Muslims means a lot. This is a symbolic gesture to the Muslim world that they are part of the world. He's inclusive," he said.

In Britain, the umbrella Muslim Council of Britain welcomed Obama's offer of new relations with the Muslim world.

"His intentions are noble. I hope it ends the rift between the United States and the Muslim world, which has grown further and further in the last eight years," said Muhammad Abdul Bari, the secretary general of the organization.


Even in Sudan, which has had poor relations with the United States for years because of disagreements over the conflict in Darfur, the government said it was positive about Obama.

"We are very optimistic... This is based on the background of what (President Obama) has been saying, about a change in foreign policy, about moving away from Iraq," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Ali al-Sadig.

In Egypt the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, which has borne the brunt of repression by a government backed by the United States, said it too saw hope in Obama's words.

"I was happy when I heard him saying the relationship with the Arab and Muslim world should be based on respect," said Essam el-Erian, head of the Brotherhood's political committee.

"We need mutual respect. If this attitude persists, I think it will transform relations between the United States and Arabs," he added.

Gameela Ismail, whose politician husband Ayman Nour has been in jail for three years after challenging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in elections, noted Obama's words on leaders who cling to power through "deceit and the silencing of dissent."

Obama told such leaders that they were "on the wrong side of history." "We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist," the U.S. president added.

"This is very strong... The words make anyone feel optimistic about the future, but I hope it will develop into real actions and real policies and strategies," Ismail added.

The George W. Bush administration also promised to make democracy in the Arab world a priority but analysts say it lost interest when Islamists made electoral gains in the region. Arab liberals and democrats felt abandoned and deceived.


Many ordinary people were more skeptical that Obama will match his rhetoric with real changes in U.S. policy.

Zoubeir Ben Sassi, a 40-year-old technician in Tunis, said: "We thought that Obama would be different and we hoped that his policy in the Middle East would be fair. But it seemed that he is like his predecessors.

"He was silent over the Gaza massacre... When Israel stopped the war he spoke about a new start with the Muslim world. They are just words and nothing will be done on the ground."

Obama's reluctance to comment during three weeks of Israeli attacks on Gaza reduced expectations in the Arab world that he will adjust the U.S. policy of support for Israel -- the main Arab and Muslim grievance against successive U.S. presidents.

"All of this talk won't result in anything. He's just the same as Bush," said Zahi Abdo, a Lebanese man.

Adil Gatae, 42, a guard at a government building in Baghdad, said: "The West doesn't seek to benefit Islam. Islam for them is a religion of terror. I don't think there will be big change in the course of U.S. policy. These are false promises."

Lebanese political commentator Sateh Noureddin said: "It is change in the language (addressing) the Muslim world but I don't think there will be any change in the essence of the relationship with the Muslim world."

In Morocco Abdelilah Benkirane, chief of the main Islamist opposition party, said he liked Obama's words but doubts he has sufficient freedom of movement to put them into practice.

"We are waiting for action, for deeds. Barack Obama's words are nice but we want to see action. He does not rule America alone. He leads the U.S. on behalf of global companies including the ones that make and sell weapons," he said.

(Additional reporting by Reuters bureaux in Beirut, Tunis, Rabat, Cairo, Baghdad, Tehran, Khartoum, Ankara, London and Kuwait; Writing by Jonathan Wright; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)

Friday, January 23, 2009

British Muslims Offer Obama Cautious Welcome

From Reuters

British Muslims offer Obama cautious welcome

Wed Jan 21, 2009 12:49pm GMT

LONDON (Reuters) - British Islamic groups gave a cautious welcome to new U.S. President Barack Obama's pledge to reach out to the Muslim world, saying his policies needed to match his words.

In his inauguration address on Tuesday, Obama promised a "new way forward" based on "mutual interest and mutual respect" following tensions that followed the September 11 attacks, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and U.S. support for Israel.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, said the new president's intentions were "noble."

"I hope it ends the rift between the US and the Muslim world which has grown further and further in the last eight years," Bari said.

"As a first step, I hope the president will address the tragedy in Gaza. The strength of feeling against what the Israelis have done should not be underestimated."

Former President George W. Bush's foreign policy led to much anger among Muslims and is regarded by many commentators as acting as a recruiting sergeant for extremists in Britain.

Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of Muslim youth organisation the Ramadhan Foundation, said the fact that Obama spent time as a child in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, would help Muslims warm to him.

But he said what Obama did would be more important than his words.

"He will be judged on his actions not based on his rhetoric, not based on soundbites," he said.

He said they wanted to see equal treatment of Palestinians in the Middle East and an end "to the occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Radical group Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organisation the government threatened to ban after the July 7, 2005 London bomb attacks, said "a makeover" did not amount to the "remaking" of America Obama promised.

"America is not one man, it is its institutions," a spokesman said.

"Moreover, many Muslims will feel that Obama's poetic rhetoric and criticism of Bush's failings can't hide the fact that he has threatened to bomb Pakistan, vowed to escalate the Afghanistan war, expressed unreserved support for Israel and will likely continue the long-standing US policy of supporting oppressive dictators in the Muslim world."

(Reporting by Michael Holden)

Indonesia Islamic Body to Mull Ban on Smoking and Yoga

From Reuters

Indonesia Islamic body to mull ban on smoking and yoga

Fri Jan 23, 2009 8:19am GMT

By Olivia Rondonuwu

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia's top Islamic body meets at the weekend
for what looks set to be a hot theological debate on a range of issues
including whether Muslims should be allowed to smoke, abstain from
voting or even do yoga.

Officially secular, Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim
population, accounting for roughly 85 percent of the country's 226
million people. Most follow a moderate form of Islam, although there
is vocal radical fringe.

About 700 people, including Muslim clerics and theological experts,
are due in West Sumatra for the National Edict Commission meeting,
which has the power to issue fatwas.

"There will be debate before we reach conclusions. We need to listen
to the pros and cons and it's likely to be a hot debate," said Ma'ruf
Amin, a chairman of the Ulema Council, known as MUI.

The MUI has carved a key role for itself in Indonesia and its
pronouncements on everything from Islamic banking to halal food can
have a big influence on Southeast Asia's top economy.

The fatwas are not legally binding but place pressure on Muslims to
adhere to them and can influence government policy.

A call from some ulema, or religious councils, for a ban on smoking
will be discussed at the meeting in Padang Panjang, around 870 km (540
miles) north west of the capital Jakarta.

The motion has also ready met opposition from councils in parts of
east and central Java, where the tobacco industry is a key part of the

Indonesia is the world's No. 5 tobacco market and at around $1 (73
pence) a pack, cigarettes are among the cheapest in the world.

Some cities in Indonesia, including Jakarta, have banned smoking in
public places, but the rules are widely flouted.

The Ulema Council was established in 1975 under the influence of
former autocratic president Suharto, backing his policy of trying to
restrict families to having just two children despite opposition from
some Muslims.

It has since reinvented itself in the post-Suharto era, with some
members pushing a more radical agenda, including pressing the
government to restrict some Muslim sects or liberal groups.

The weekend meeting will also debate whether Muslims should avoid yoga
because of the view it uses Hindu prayers that could erode Muslims'

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi intervened last year to
say that Muslims could carry on doing yoga minus chanting after its
National Fatwa Council had issued a ban.

The Sumatra meeting will also debate whether abstaining from voting is
"haram," or not allowed. Indonesia holds legislative and presidential
elections in April and July, respectively.

Abdurrahman Wahid, a former president and leader of Indonesia's
biggest Muslim group, Nahdlatul Ulama, has advised his supporters not
to vote amid dissatisfaction with politics.

Underage marriage will also be debated after an Islamic cleric last
year incited uproar when he married a 12-year old girl with her
parents consent.

Under Indonesian law, men can marry at 19 and women at 16, although
under some Islamic laws there is no age limit.

Muslim Nations React to Obama Inaugural Speech

From Voice of America

Muslim Nations React to Obama Inaugural Speech

22 January 2009

Many Muslim nations are welcoming Barack Obama as the new president of the United States - yet there are also expressions of caution over whether much will really change in U.S. relations with the Muslim world.  

President Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address at the U.S. Capitol, 20 Jan 2009
President Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address at the U.S. Capitol, 20 Jan 2009
Mr. Obama made a special point of addressing Muslims around the world in his inaugural speech Tuesday and reaction has been coming in.

In his inaugural address Tuesday President Obama offered a new relationship with the Muslim world.

"To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy," President Obama said.

With some exceptions on the fringes, most Muslims appear to have welcomed the new tone from President Obama.

Ayman Daraghmeh, a Hamas official in the Palestinian Legislative Council,is optimistic. 

"I could expect something better because he said that he will deal with the Muslim world, the Islamic world in a new way, Daraghmeh said."

In Iraq, the government expressed its hope to have the U.S. withdraw its troops even before the end of 2011 - the departure date agreed to by former President Bush.

"Iraqis were worried from the premature withdrawal of the troops, but with the vision which has been clarified from the new administration, as well as the improvement in the security situation in Iraq, the Iraqi government is willing," said Ali al-Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman.

In Afghanistan, former Taliban official Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef denounced Mr. Obama's plan to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Others in the country argue the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan will bring more insecurity.  

But some members of parliament are more optimistic about the intentions of the new American president.  

"Last night, Obama's speech was very crystal clear," said Shukria Barakzai, a member of the Afghan parliament. He says that mutual understanding, mutual respect, this is what Muslims want.

Following President Obama's inauguration, there were also mixed feelings in Tehran.

The Iranian government says it is waiting to see what practical steps President Obama will take toward Tehran - which has been at odds with the United States over its nuclear program.  

But a Tehran resident was optimistic.

"I think it is the best opportunity for Iran to improve its relations with the U.S. because this absence of ties with America has imposed a pressure on us from all countries, and this way we can reduce the pressure," the man said.

In Indian Kashmir, some expect a different U.S. policy because there were reports Mr. Obama may appoint a special envoy to resolve the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan.

"The foreign policy of the United States would be the same as earlier but would be a little different since they have come with a different agenda and a different background," says Khursheed-Ul-Islam, a political expert.

In Kenya, at the school named after President Obama, the sentiments were personal.

"Obama became something and we believe that he will inspire our students and that they will work hard," said Lamek Awinyo, who teaches at the school.  "And they will become something in the society."

President Obama made history Tuesday as the first African-American president to be inaugurated. He is riding a wave of hope in the United States and in the rest of the world as he prepares to set out a new course in U.S. relations with Muslim nations.

Shackled Reformation: Egypt Persecutes Muslim Moderates

From the International Herald Tribune

Egypt persecutes Muslim moderates
By Ahmed Subhy Mansour

Friday, January 23, 2009

Many Americans do not realize that there is a war being waged in Egypt against Muslim reformers. These reformers call themselves "Koranists" because they focus solely on the Koran and advocate a modern interpretation of Islam that rejects Shariah law.

These self-declared leaders of the "Islamic Reformation" number in the thousands and are connected globally through the Internet. For nearly a decade, as this movement has gained momentum, they have come under increased attack from the Egyptian government for their religious ideas. Al Azhar University, which is based in Cairo and is the leading center for conservative Sunni learning in the world, has rejected the views of the Koranists and has sought to systematically dismantle the movement.

To curry favor with this influential religious establishment, the Egyptian government has brutally cracked down on members of the Koranist movement, leading to the imprisonment and torture of over 20 members and the exile of many more. This unique collaboration between the government and Islamic traditionalists refutes current claims by the state that Egypt is secular and that it is working to fight extremism and terrorism.

In the latest effort to destroy this fledgling reform movement, a young Koranist blogger named Reda Abdel Rahman was arrested on Oct. 27 and charged with "insulting Islam." Rahman's popular blog criticizes the religious establishment - largely based on his training at Al Azhar. His blog calls for widespread religious and political reform in Egypt and the larger Muslim world. According to Rahman's lawyers, his arrest was requested by the head of Al Azhar after Rahman refused to suspend his blog. He was then detained and tortured in an unknown location for over a month until international pressure forced the government to disclose his whereabouts.

"The Egyptian security position against Reda is incomprehensible" said Heba Abdel Rahman, Reda's sister. "They allow visits to the families of Muslim Brotherhood detainees, but they would not allow us the same rights. When we protested they pointed their guns at us, threatened to open fire, and threw us out of the police station."

Six local human rights organizations have volunteered to defend Reda and sent lawyers to his interrogation. "It was like an inquisition from the Middle Ages," said Ahmed Samih, head of the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies. "The Egyptian general prosecutor was asking Reda whether he prays or not, how he prays, and why he denies some of the Sunni traditions."

Prominent Egyptian activists like Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim blame the Egyptian Emergency Law for the human rights abuses characterized by Rahman's arrest. The law, which was enacted after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, effectively suspended the Constitution and allowed the government unprecedented powers. While the government insists that the law is important in the fight against terrorism, Ibrahim asserts that it is being used instead to limit the freedom of reformers.

"The government promised to use emergency laws only in terrorism cases," he said. "The irony is that the Emergency Law is now being used against bloggers who use the Internet to fight terrorism!"

In a surprising twist, the Egyptian High National Security Court has ordered Rahman's release. Despite this ruling - and the unprecedented statement by the court that "arresting people solely on the basis of their religious beliefs is not acceptable" - Rahman remains in prison.

This refusal by the state to execute the court's order is clear evidence of the collaboration between Egypt's security establishment and the religious institutions against any reform.

Islamic reformers in Egypt face severe political obstacles in their efforts to confront religious extremists. It is important that the United States and the international community reaffirm their support for Reda and his fellow Muslim reformers in order to ensure that those fighting for an "Islamic Reformation" are successful.

Ahmed Subhy Mansour is president of the International Quranic Center in Washington.

Malaysia Muslims Want Rihanna Concert Banned Because 'She is Too Sexy'

Malaysia Muslims want Rihanna concert banned because 'she is too sexy'

Malaysia's conservative Islamic party has called for R&B sensation Rihanna to be banned from performing here next month, saying her outfits are too sexy.

 22 Jan 2009
Rihanna: Malaysia Muslims want Rihanna concert banned because 'she is too sexy'
Rihanna: The concert's sponsor told the daily that Rihanna has agreed to follow local regulations for her performance Photo: AP

The Pan-Malaysian Islamic party (PAS), which has mounted protests against the United States over its support of Israel, said that concertgoers would also contribute to an outflow of local currency to the United States.

"Whether Rihanna realises it or not, we know that the taxes she has paid also contributed to the war in Gaza," Kamaruzaman Mohamad, a PAS youth wing leader, told the Star daily.

Kamaruzaman said that the show planned for February 13, part of Rihanna's "Good Girl Gone Bad" tour, would be an insult to Asian values as she often performed suggestively and wore skimpy outfits.

The event was "akin to insulting Eastern culture, belittling local artistes, internationally causing losses to the country's economy and supporting Israel's war policy, which is supported by America," he said.

Kamaruzaman urged authorities who issued concert permits in Muslim-majority Malaysia to reject the organiser's application.

The concert's sponsor told the daily that Rihanna has agreed to follow local regulations for her performance but did not give details.

US singer Beyoncé scrapped a planned concert in Malaysia last year due to fears of protests, while Gwen Stefani went ahead with a performance but was forced to cover up after complaints about her outfits.

PAS also mounted protests against Canadian rocker Avril Lavigne's concert last year after failing to have it banned, saying her performance would weaken the younger generation "morally and mentally".

Valentine's Day Across the Muslim World (2012)