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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Yemen's Jews Uneasy as Muslim Hostility Grows


The Associated Press

Sunday, April 26, 2009 1:19 PM

KHARIF, Yemen -- In this village in northern Yemen, where a kosher butcher slaughters chickens and the school bus carries young boys in side curls along a dirt track to their Hebrew studies, one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Arab world is fighting for its survival.

Yemen's Jews, here and elsewhere in the country, are thought to have roots dating back nearly 3,000 years to King Solomon. The community used to number 60,000 but shrank dramatically when most left for the newborn state of Israel.

Those remaining, variously estimated to number 250 to 400, are feeling new and sometimes violent pressure from Yemeni Muslims, lately inflamed by Israel's fierce offensive against Hamas militants in Gaza that cost over 1,000 Palestinian lives.

They face a Yemeni government that is ambivalent _ publicly supportive but also lax in keeping its promises _ in an Arab world where Islamic extremism and hostility to minorities are generally on the rise.

"There is hardly a mosque sermon that's free of bigotry. The government's own political rhetoric marginalizes the Jews, and civil society is too weak to protect them," says Mansour Hayel, a Muslim Yemeni and human rights activist who is an expert on Yemen's Jewry.

"The government's policies are to blame for the suffering of the Jews," he says.

The pressures have long existed. But an Associated Press reporter who traveled recently to the rarely visited north and interviewed Jews, Muslim tribal sheiks, rights activists and lawyers in Yemen's capital of San'a, heard complaints that the frequency of harassment _ including a murder and the pelting of homes with rocks _ has markedly increased.

The testimony was particularly striking because Jews in Arab lands often refrain from airing grievances, lest they antagonize the government and provoke Muslim militants.

Yemen's government says it is trying to stop the harassment. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has proposed that the 45 Jewish families in the farming communities of Kharif and the nearby town of Raydah in Omran province be moved 50 miles southeast to San'a, where they can be better protected. He has offered them free plots of land to build homes.

But the government has taken no concrete steps since presidential aides first spoke of the offer late last year.

For 18 Jewish families who moved to San'a in 2007 from Saada, another northern province, things have not gone well. They fled fighting between troops and rebels, during which some Jewish homes were ransacked and ancient books destroyed. Now they live in cramped apartments under tight guard, entirely dependent on small government handouts.

The families in Kharif and Raydah say they too would like to leave, but only if compensated for property they leave behind.

Migrating to Israel or the U.S. is a possibility, and the government says it will not stop anyone from leaving. But Jews here don't discuss that option publicly, because in Yemen, Israel is anathema and America is deeply distrusted.

At least one outside group has tried to bring the Yemeni Jews out, said an Israeli official in Jerusalem, speaking on condition of anonymity because the subject is highly sensitive. But many are loath to become refugees and lose all they have, the official said.

"It is in the interest of the government for the Jews to stay," said Sheik Mohammed Nagi al-Shayef, a wealthy tribal leader and the Yemeni president's point man on Jewish affairs. "It will be a disgrace for the government if they leave."

But that view appears far from universal.

In Kharif, Yahya Yaish Al-Qedeimi has a long list of complaints about how he and his fellow Jews are treated: harassment in the market, stones thrown at the school bus, insults from villagers walking past his house.

When Saddam Hussein was executed, "they pelted our house with rocks," he said.

Al-Qedeimi is a rabbi's son in a village that no longer has a rabbi. He is uncertain about the future but fears that if the community moves to the capital it will be grouped in one place and become a tempting target for militants.

He says younger members of the community are pressuring the elders to leave Yemen altogether.

Tensions rise each time Israel conducts military operations in Gaza or the West Bank, he says.

"We complain to the police about the more serious incidents, but they never investigate," Al-Qedeimi said. "Our fears have grown after Moshe's killing. The lenient sentence against his killer will encourage others to do the same."

By "Moshe" he means Moshe Yaish Youssef Nahari, who was gunned down on a December day near his home in Raydah. Compounding the Jews' shock and dread, the self-confessed killer was spared the death penalty, though it's usually mandatory in such cases.

Nahari, a father of nine in his early 30s, taught Hebrew to the children, and was also in charge of slaughtering sheep and poultry according to kosher laws.

He had Jewish and Muslim friends and occasionally invited them to his home to chew qat, the mildly narcotic leaf that is a Yemeni staple and symbol of social togetherness. He also was an active campaigner for Yemen's president.

The killer was Abdul-Aziz Yehia Hamoud al-Abdi, a former air force pilot. He was convicted of murder in the first degree, but the judge ruled him mentally unfit, sent him to a mental institution and ordered his clan to pay the victim's family 5.5 million riyals ($27,500).

Nahari's family has refused to accept the money and is appealing the March 2 sentence.

It was al-Abdi's second murder. The 38-year-old Muslim had killed his wife five years earlier but the case never reached a court because tribal leaders protected him, saying he suffered from depression.

According to witnesses cited by Khaled al-Anasi, the Nahari family's Muslim lawyer, al-Abdi confronted Nahari shouting, "You, Jew, convert to Islam so your life is safe." Nahari said something to the effect of "mind your own business" and al-Abdi pumped 11 bullets from a Kalashnikov assault rifle into the victim, killing him, the witness statements said.

Al-Anasi said the judge, having convicted al-Abdi of first-degree murder, was obliged to sentence him to life imprisonment or death. He also complained that the trial was held in Omran province, with hundreds of al-Abdi's fellow tribesmen frequently disrupting the proceedings and intimidating the judge and Nahari's family.

"I used to like living in Raydah, now I just want to leave," said 12-year-old Sasson, the oldest of the murdered man's four boys.

Sasson was taught Hebrew and religion by his late father. He says his education has been disrupted by his father's death and that he may travel abroad to study. Four of his aunts are married and settled in Israel, the family says.

"I will be back when I finish my studies," said Sasson, a soft-spoken boy who wore a dark suit, it being the day before Passover, the holiday that celebrates the Jews' exodus from slavery in ancient Egypt.

The history of Jews in the Arab world is a narrative of discrimination and persecution, but also some prosperity. The hundreds of thousands who arrived after their expulsion from 15th century Spain mostly lived in ghettos with limited rights, although some professionals prospered.

Most migrated to Israel in the 1950s. The small numbers who stayed behind lived at the mercy of nationalist governments in places like Iraq and Egypt.

For Jews, Yemen has more symbolic significance than almost any place in the Arab world. Historians believe the first Jews arrived here in around 900 B.C. as part of King Solomon's trading network. Evidence of a Jewish presence in Yemen can be traced back to the 3rd century A.D.

The Jews of today's Yemen zealously guard their customs. Men wear skull caps, women black robes and veils. Children must learn Hebrew and Torah. Holy days are celebrated in bare makeshift synagogues attached to the homes of community elders. On a recent day, two men bumped along a dirt track on a motorcycle near Kharif, side curls blowing horizontal in the wind.

In the dusty courtyard of al-Qedeimi's mud-brick home, Jewish men stood chatting, while a man murmured prayers as he slaughtered a chicken.

Al-Qedeimi is a car repairman and traditional healer who says he made lifelong Muslim friends at the government school he attended.

Because of the harassment, young Jews no longer can go to that school and make such friends, he said.

Receiving visitors in a room with Hebrew writings on the wall, he comes back to his friend Nahari's murder.

"If the sentence had been appropriately strong, the Jews would have stayed quiet and dropped any plans to leave for San'a. Most of us want to stay, but we are worried about our lives," he said.

In the capital, the 18 families evacuated by the government from Saada in 2007 celebrated Passover. In the apartment block assigned to them by the government, the boys were wearing suits so new they still showed the designer labels on the sleeves. Girls with dark hair and eyes wore new white dresses.

The government, eager to show benevolence toward the uprooted Jews, let Yemeni reporters and TV crews record the celebrations. Plainclothes security men listened to every word spoken by Yahya Youssef Moussa, the families' rabbi.

Moussa, while the cameras are on, lavishly praised the president as a "loving father" and a leader. "We are ready to sacrifice our lives for him," he said.

Compared with the fighting they fled, "This is a place where we feel completely safe," said Moussa. "We can never return."

When the cameras were off, however, Moussa had grievances to air: The government wasn't giving the community money to rent stores and buy craftsmen's tools; the evacuees hadn't been compensated for property they left behind in Saada; they were crammed into six small apartments, sometimes 18 to an apartment.

Many want their young men to travel to the U.S. or Europe for study, but insist they should return after graduation.

Physical safety is their overriding concern.

"If we are ever to move from here," the rabbi said, "we want homes with high walls and armed guards."

Muslims Are Cool to Pope's Holy Land Pilgrimage


The Associated Press

Wednesday, April 29, 2009 5:55 AM

NAZARETH, Israel -- A banner across the main square in Jesus' boyhood town condemns those who insult Islam's Prophet Muhammad _ a message by Muslim hard-liners for Pope Benedict XVI during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land next month.

The pontiff may have to tread carefully with his visit to Nazareth. Many Muslims are still angry over a 2006 speech in which Benedict quoted a medieval text depicting the prophet as violent.

Even some Christians are nervous that Benedict could stir up trouble for them. They worry that if he says anything contentious about Islam again, Muslims might lash out.

"He must know that every word he will utter will have an impact on Christian Palestinians and religious relations," said Naim Ateek, an Anglican reverend and director of Sabeel, an ecumenical Palestinian Christian group that includes Catholics.

The banner was put up by followers of Nazem Abu Salim, a radical Muslim preacher, right next to the Church of the Annunciation, where tradition says the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus.

It is there for the pope, Abu Salim said. "He is not welcome here."

The banner _ clearly visible from the church, which Benedict is to visit _ trumpets a verse from the Quran declaring, "Those who harm God and His Messenger _ God has cursed them in this world and in the hereafter, and has prepared for them a humiliating punishment."

Municipal official Suheil Diab wouldn't say if the banner, along with a small sign in English with the verse, would be removed before the pope arrives May 14.

Benedict plans to meet with Muslim leaders, though not Abu Salim, throughout his May 8-15 tour of the Holy Land, which includes stops in Jordan, the West Bank, Jerusalem and Nazareth, one of Israel's largest Arab cities.

Islamic leaders in Israel are divided over the visit.

One of the leading Muslim groups in Israel, the Northern Islamic Movement, is calling for a boycott of meetings unless Benedict apologizes for his 2006 remarks, said a spokesman, Zahi Nujeidat. The movement, which has not been invited to meet with the pontiff, can marshal thousands of supporters, but has not yet decided whether to stage protests.

Other Muslim clerics said they would sit down with Benedict but ask for an apology. One of those is Sheik Taysir Tamimi, a leading cleric in the Palestinian Authority, which has welcomed the pope's trip.

Muslims are a growing and increasingly assertive majority in Nazareth, which is 70 percent Muslim but has a communist mayor from the city's Christian community.

A decade ago, brawls erupted over Muslim attempts to build a mosque beside the Church of the Annunciation. The project was eventually thwarted. What remains is a stone-paved square and a small mosque, headed by Abu Salim.

Nazareth is one of the main cities for Israel's Arab minority, who make up around 20 percent of the country's 7 million people. Christians number around 120,000 of the Arab community, roughly half Catholic, half Eastern Orthodox.

Benedict's 2006 speech citing obscure medieval text that characterized some of Muhammad's teachings as "evil and inhuman" sparked protests in the West Bank and Gaza _ though not in Israel. Attackers fired guns and threw firebombs at Palestinian churches.

Benedict later said the text did not reflect his views, but many Muslims believe he did not apologize properly.

In Nazareth, the pontiff is to visit the Church of the Annunciation, host an interfaith discussion and meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He'll also celebrate Mass on nearby Mount Precipice, where many Christians believe a mob pursued Jesus and tried to throw him from a cliff.

The pope will strive to improve interfaith relations throughout his tour, said Wadi Abunassar, a spokesman for the pontiff's visit.

Nazareth's local government has set aside $5 million to spruce up the crowded, shabby city overlooking the Galilee hills, hoping the papal visit will boost tourism, Mayor Ramiz Jaraisy said.

Few in Nazareth's bazaar show any excitement, however. Many remain bitter over Israel's offensive in Gaza against Hamas militants, which killed more than 1,000 Palestinians in December and January.

"People here are tired and exhausted from this situation," said Amin Ali, 72, an antique seller who described himself as a secular Muslim. "And nobody likes this pope, anyway."

Benedict should use his visit to censure Israel over Gaza and the lack of progress in reaching peace with the Palestinians, said Ateek, the Anglican reverend.

"If the pope is brave enough to do that, people will respect him more," Ateek said.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Pakistanis Find Success in Fetish Business

From the New York Times - April 27, 2009

Related Video

Zackary Canepari for The New York Times

A factory worker assembles a flogging whip manufactured by AQTH, a Karachi-based fetish and bondage products company.


April 28, 2009

Karachi Journal

Pakistanis Find Success in Fetish Business


KARACHI, Pakistan — In Pakistan, a flogger is known only as the Taliban's choice whip for beating those who defy their strict codes of Islam.

But deep in the nation's commercial capital, just next door to a mosque and the offices of a radical Islamic organization, in an unmarked house two Pakistani brothers have discovered a more liberal and lucrative use for the scourge: the $3 billion fetish and bondage industry in the West.

Their mom-and-pop-style garment business, AQTH, earns more than $1 million a year manufacturing 2,000 fetish and bondage products, including the Mistress Flogger, and exporting them to the United States and Europe.

The Qadeer brothers, Adnan, 34, and Rizwan, 32, have made the business into an improbable success story in a country where bars are illegal and the poor are often bound to a lifetime in poverty.

If the bondage business seems an unlikely pursuit for two button-down, slightly awkward, decidedly deadpan lower-class Pakistanis, it is. But then, discretion has been their byword. The brothers have taken extreme measures to conceal a business that in this deeply conservative Muslim country is as risky as it is risqué.

It helps that the dozens of veiled and uneducated female laborers who assemble the handmade items — gag balls, lime-green corsets, thonged spanking skirts — have no idea what the items are used for. Even the owners' wives, and their conservative Muslim mother, have not been informed.

"If our mom knew, she would disown us," said Adnan, seated on a leopard-print fabric covering his desk chair.

"Due to cultural barriers and religion, people don't discuss these things openly," Rizwan said. "We have to hide this information."

Even customs officials were perplexed at how to tax the items, not quite sure what they were, they said.

Recently, when a curious employee inquired about the purpose of the sleep sack, a sleeping bag-like product used in certain kinds of bondage, she was told it was a body bag for the American military in Iraq.

Adnan Ahmed, a former air traffic controller who is now AQTH's chief operating officer, said the items were undergarments. When asked if he considered a red-hot puppy mask an undergarment, he had a straightforward, but honest reply: "No. It's just for joking."

Still, word of the business has at times escaped. Last year four "powerful guys" from a conservative Muslim group threatened to burn down the factory if it was not closed within a week. The brothers calmly explained that it was merely a business, and that the items were not used in Pakistan. The next day they bribed a local Islamic political organization to ensure their safety.

These days, the gravest danger is Pakistan's crumbling economy. The brothers idolize former President Pervez Musharraf, crediting their success to his industry friendly policies, like not requiring export licenses and banning trade unions. When Mr. Musharraf resigned last year, the brothers "didn't eat for three days," Adnan said.

Since President Asif Ali Zardari took office, Adnan said, trade unions have been legalized and prices of some raw materials, including leather, have shot up, as have interest rates. The result: a 15 percent dip in AQTH's profits.

Echoing the pervasive fears of entrepreneurs across the country, the brothers are considering relocating to East Asia if Pakistan becomes more unstable — or if they receive another threat.

The shoddy factory seems like an ode to their humble upbringing. Adnan's executive bathroom has no toilet paper. Rizwan has no office. And their preferred lunch is Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Their inspiration for success came from their father, a civil servant who supported a family of six with a $150 monthly salary. While other children were forced into labor, or played aimlessly, the Qadeer brothers had to study.

In 2001, after the brothers graduated from a university, their father lent them $800, enough to purchase their first computer and to cover several months of rent in a studio apartment. There, the brothers searched the Internet day and night for a high-value garment product that was not widely available.

They experimented with basic leather goods, like jackets and pants. Adnan slept at mosquito-infested stitching factories to oversee sample runs that, in the end, proved more costly than their Chinese competitors.

"It was very hard time," Adnan said. "We had nothing in our pockets, not even money to fuel our motorbike."

"People used to say: 'You can't do business in Pakistan. You're wasting your time. Just go get a job,' " Rizwan said. "But our father boosted our morale."

The brothers said Pakistan's "stone-age production" worked to their advantage. The country, they said, lacks visionary product development. "Everyone's still making the same products," Adnan said.

Then, they discovered a kind of straitjacket online. At first, they thought it was used for psychiatric patients, but it quickly led them to learn about the lucrative fetish industry.

Without family connections in the finance industry, and with nothing to mortgage, they were refused a loan by four banks. "Our education was our only connection," Rizwan said.

They finally secured a loan from an American bank, and then the Sept. 11 attacks offered a timely chance. Orders for garment exports were canceled across Pakistan in the slower economic climate, allowing the prices of raw materials like leather to be cut in half.

But fear after Sept. 11 raised suspicions among their own Western clients. On Sept. 12, 2001, a customer sent an e-mail message with a photo of two F-16s flying over Pakistan. Orders were canceled.

Today, they sell their products to online shops, commercial stores and to individuals via eBay. Their market research, they said, showed that 70 percent of their customers were middle- to upper-class Americans, and a majority of them Democrats. The Netherlands and Germany account for the bulk of their European sales.

"We really believe that if you are persistent and hard working, there is an opportunity, in any harsh environment, even in an economically depressed environment like Pakistan," Rizwan said.

A major perk, they say, is attending international fetish shows to see how their products hold up in action.

"I go to Sin City every year," said Rizwan, referring to Las Vegas in a sheepish laugh. It's all business, he said. "Clients know our country and culture, and they don't invite us to participate. We're a little bit shy."

Video: Cracking the Whip in Pakistan - Fetish and Bondage Wear

Video Library Home Page - The New York Times: "A Pakistani Underworld"

Despite a threat from Islamists, two Pakistani brothers stealthily manufacture fetish and bondage wear, earning more than $1 million a year from their Western customers.

Related Article from the NY Times - April 27, 2009

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Picture of the Week: Islam's Soft Revolution

Olivia Arthur / Magnum for TIME

Karate Kid

Norhan, 10, returns from a training session at Shabab El-Gezira youth center.

Feminist Reforms in Turkey Reflect the Progressive Face of Islam

Islam and Feminism: By Asma Barlas

New Statesman

Islam and feminism

Asma Barlas

Published 22 April 2009

In the third of our series on faith and feminism, Asma Barlas writes about the message of sexual equality in the Qur'an

I have been asked to write about how feminism informs my understanding of faith and if and how faith influences my feminist views. I've discussed the intersection between Islam and feminism many times before and every time I have clarified that I do not like to call myself a feminist; yet, the label continues to stick!

The truth is that long before I learned about feminism, I had begun to glimpse a message of sexual equality in the Qur'an. Perhaps this is paradoxical given that all the translations and interpretations that I read growing up were by men and given that I was born and raised in Pakistan, a society that can hardly be considered egalitarian. Yet, the Qur'an's message of equality resonated in the teaching that women and men have been created from a single self and are each other's guides who have the mutual obligation to enjoin what is right and to forbid what is wrong.

But, then, there are those other verses that Muslims read as saying that men are better than women and their guardians and giving men the right to unfettered polygyny and even to beat a recalcitrant wife. To read the Qur'an in my youth was thus to be caught up in a seemingly irresolvable and agonizing dilemma of how to reconcile these two sets of verses not just with one another but also with a view of God as just, consistent, merciful, and above sexual partisanship.

It has taken the better part of my life to resolve this dilemma and it has involved learning (from the discipline of hermeneutics) that language--hence interpretation—is not fixed or transparent and that the meanings of a text change depending on who interprets it and how. From reading Muslim history, on the other hand, I discovered that Qur'anic exegesis became more hostile to women only gradually and as a result of shifts in religious knowledge and methodology as well as in the political priorities of Muslim states. And, from feminism, I got the language to speak about patriarchy and sexual equality. In other words, it was all these universes of knowledge that enabled me to encounter the Qur'an anew and to give voice to my intuition that a God who is beyond sex/ gender has no investment in favoring males or oppressing women either.

Most Muslims, however, are unconvinced by this argument and it may be because viewing God's speech (thus also God) as patriarchal allows the conservatives to justify male privilege and many progressive Muslims to advocate for secularism on the grounds that Islam is oppressive. As for me, I continue to respond to the Qur'an's call to use my reason and intellect to decipher the signs (ayat) of God. Thus far, such an exercise has only brought me to more liberatory understandings of the text itself.

Asma Barlas is professor of Politics and director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity at Ithaca College, New York.

Faith and Feminism: By Zohra Moosa

New Statesman

Faith and feminism

Zohra Moosa

Published 21 April 2009

In the second of our series on faith and feminism, Zohra Moosa writes about the complementary nature of the two.

I am often probed about how I reconcile my faith with my feminism. Sometimes it comes as an explicit question, as happened when I was interviewed earlier this year for a book on Islam and feminism. I was asked directly whether I found it difficult to reconcile the two, whether there were inherent tensions I had to navigate and how did I square my religion and my belief (the two were conflated in the question) with my feminist convictions.

More often, it is an implied critique, a suggestion that I suffer from some combination of any of: false consciousness, limited agency/choice (where my family, 'community' and/or 'culture' is presumed to be oppressing me), insufficiently robust or analytical intellectual capacities (no one has actually called me 'stupid' yet though), political defensiveness about being Muslim (i.e. refusing to engage in critiques of Islam within the current political/security climate), political or social naiveté, opportunism (some people think it's a good time to peddle being a 'Muslim woman feminist'), and/or a misreading of feminism and/or Islam.

Having grown up with both faith and feminism and never really not had either, I continue to find the suggestion that they are anything other than complementary in my life a bit alien. Intellectually I understand the confusion that prompts the question; I've had enough people quote parts of the Qu'ran at me to have received the message that they would like to tell me: 'your primary text is sexist don't you know'. But to equate a spiritual practice with some people's literal, and historically and politically vacuous, interpretations of a text is to miss the point in a pretty profound way.

My feminism is informed by my faith and vice-versa because of how I live both. Just as my feminism is more than the job I do at the Fawcett Society, so too is my faith more than the prayers I say.

I came to the feminist movement from religious teachings about empathy, peace, social justice, and the need to work for the betterment of others and the world. I was schooled, in religious contexts, to have a healthy intolerance of exploitation, abuse, marginalization, and dis-empowerment. In addition, there were particular religiously-sourced stories about the importance of respecting women, the righteousness of treating women with dignity and fairness, the value in educating girl children over boy children that reinforced feminist principles for me from an early age.

Over time, feminism has become the natural extension of the moral framework that I was inculcated into from birth. There need not have been anything particularly 'Muslim' about my feminist awakenings, but the reality is that in my case there was. In turn, I come to my faith, every day, with a sense of purpose and direction because of my feminist ethics. My spiritual journey is intimately connected with my ideas about humanity and life. As these ideas evolve over time, so too does my spiritual path change, which then affects my politics.

My life is richer for having both faith and feminism in it. So that's how I reconcile the two.

Zohra Moosa is the senior policy and campaigns officer at the Fawcett Society

Valentine's Day Across the Muslim World (2012)