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Friday, May 8, 2009

Study: Poverty Fueling Muslim Tension with West

The Associated Press
Thursday, May 7, 2009 5:22 PM

LONDON -- Joblessness and poverty are a more potent source of tension between Muslims and wider European and U.S. society than religious differences, one of the first major studies of Muslim integration since the Sept. 11 terror attacks claimed on Thursday.

Attacks by Islamic extremists on the United States and European capitals such as Madrid and London have sparked debate on whether a failure of Muslims to integrate into Western society has fueled extremism.

But a study of around 30,000 people in 27 countries by the Gallup polling company claims non-Muslims _ including the public and lawmakers _ have misunderstood the attitudes of most Muslims in the West, stifling attempts to promote understanding.

These Muslims are more patriotic, more tolerant and more likely to reject violence than the rest of Western society believes they are, the study claims. It suggests most European Muslims, for example, are as happy as other Europeans to live alongside people of other faiths and ethnic backgrounds, and share broadly similar views with their neighbors.

The findings appear to contradict the impression created by angry protests across Europe following the 2005 publication in Denmark of 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, and recent rallies in which small groups of British Muslims have disrupted homecoming parades for soldiers returning from Iraq.

But Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the London and New York-based Gallup Center for Muslim Studies and a faith adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama, said the survey shows most Muslims welcome closer ties to the rest of society. The study focused chiefly on European Muslims, and the mistaken perceptions about their attitudes in wider European society.

"Many of the assumptions about Muslims and integration couldn't be more wide of the mark," she said. "European Muslims want to be part of the wider community and contribute to society."

The study did not produce detailed data on attitudes of American Muslims on this subject. But Mogahed said that in the United States Muslims enjoy relatively good relations with the rest of society, and suffer less from economic inequality.

Despite their desire to belong, only a small number of Muslims questioned in Britain, for example _ 10 percent _ consider themselves integrated into British society. That compares to 46 percent of Muslims in France and 35 percent in Germany.

The global economic crisis could exacerbate such issues, with competition for jobs and resources adding stress to race relations, the study claimed.

Researchers found 38 percent of British Muslims said they had a job, much lower than the figure for the British general public _ 62 percent _ and lower than Muslims in Germany or France, where 53 percent and 45 percent respectively said they were employed. No figures were compiled for the United States.

"Economic integration may become more precarious in light of the current financial crisis affecting Europe," Mogahed said.

Muslims questioned by Gallup were pessimistic about their prospects. It found 71 percent of Britain's Muslims considered themselves to be struggling to get by, as did 56 percent of Muslims questioned in the United States. Research for the study was conducted in mid-2008, before the full impact of the current financial crisis hit.

"It's not about faith, it's not about ethnicity. The key thing that divides people is poverty and depravation," said Mohammed Shafiq, of the British Muslim organization the Ramadhan Foundation.

British government research into radicalization also has highlighted joblessness and low pay as among factors that can push people toward extremism. Those with poor prospects can look to violent extremism to improve their sense of achievement and status, according to the research by security officials.

Another key finding of the study was that Muslims don't prioritize their faith over patriotism, Mogahed said.

Attempts to create a greater sense of national identity among Muslims have been a key concern for European lawmakers, particularly in Britain _ where British-born Muslims have been behind several attempted terror attacks since 2001.

Four suicide bombers who killed 52 commuters and themselves in an attack on London's subway and bus network on July 7, 2005 were Muslims born or raised in Britain _ three with family ties to Pakistan.

The study found that 77 percent of British Muslims feel a strong sense of British identity, compared to 50 percent of the country's non-Muslims. In France, around half of Muslims and non-Muslims say they feel a strong sense of patriotism.

Muslims account for around 3 percent, or 2 million people out of Britain's 60 million population. In France, Muslims represent almost 8 percent _ or 5 million people of the population of 65 million. In Germany they make up 4 percent _ or 3.3 million Muslims out of 82 million inhabitants.

Estimates of the U.S. Muslim population vary dramatically from 2 million to 6 million _ and beyond.

Gallup conducted multiple surveys in 27 countries in 2008. Polls of the general public typically questioned around 1,000 people, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. The company said the polls of Muslims involved samples of 500 people, with a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Researchers interviewed Muslims and non-Muslims in Norway, France, Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Canada, Israel, the U.S., Italy, India, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Brazil, Ethiopia, Mali, Chad, Malaysia, Tanzania, Niger, Mauritania, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Djibouti and Bangladesh.

Here She Comes: Saudi's Miss Beautiful Morals

From the Washington Post

The Associated Press
Wednesday, May 6, 2009 3:08 PM

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Sukaina al-Zayer is an unlikely beauty queen hopeful. She covers her face and body in black robes and an Islamic veil, so no one can tell what she looks like. She also admits she's a little on the plump side.

But at Saudi Arabia's only beauty pageant, the judges don't care about a perfect figure or face. What they're looking for in the quest for "Miss Beautiful Morals" is the contestant who shows the most devotion and respect for her parents.

"The idea of the pageant is to measure the contestants' commitment to Islamic morals... It's an alternative to the calls for decadence in the other beauty contests that only take into account a woman's body and looks," said pageant founder Khadra al-Mubarak.

"The winner won't necessarily be pretty," she added. "We care about the beauty of the soul and the morals."

So after the pageant opens Saturday, the nearly 200 contestants will spend the next 10 weeks attending classes and being quizzed on themes including "Discovering your inner strength," "The making of leaders" and "Mom, paradise is at your feet" _ a saying attributed to Islam's Prophet Muhammad to underline that respect for parents is among the faith's most important tenets.

Pageant hopefuls will also spend a day at a country house with their mothers, where they will be observed by female judges and graded on how they interact with their mothers, al-Mubarak said. Since the pageant is not televised and no men are involved, contestants can take off the veils and black figure-hiding abayas they always wear in public.

The Miss Beautiful Morals pageant is the latest example of conservative Muslims co-opting Western-style formats to spread their message in the face of the onslaught of foreign influences flooding the region through the Internet and satellite television.

A newly created Islamic music channel owned by an Egyptian businessman aired an "American Idol"-style contest for religious-themed singers this month. And several Muslim preachers have become talk-show celebrities by adopting an informal, almost Oprah-like television style, in contrast to the solemn clerics who traditionally appear in the media.

Now in its second year, the number of pageant contestants has nearly tripled from the 75 women who participated in 2008. The pageant is open to women between 15 and 25. The winner and two runners up will be announced in July, with the queen taking home $2,600 and other prizes. The runners up get $1,300 each.

Last year's winner, Zahra al-Shurafa, said the contest gives an incentive to young women and teens to show more consideration toward their parents.

"I tell this year's contestants that winning is not important," said al-Shurafa, a 21-year-old English major. "What is important is obeying your parents."

There are few beauty pageants in the largely conservative Arab world. The most dazzling is in Lebanon, the region's most liberal country, where contestants appear on TV in one-piece swimsuits and glamorous evening gowns and answer questions that test their confidence and general knowledge.

There are no such displays in ultra-strict Saudi Arabia, where until Miss Beautiful Morals was inaugurated last year, the only pageants were for goats, sheep, camels and other animals, aimed at encouraging livestock breeding.

This year's event kicks off Saturday in the mainly Shiite Muslim town of Safwa, and mostly draws local Shiite contestants. But it's open to anyone _ and this year, 15 Sunni Muslims are participating, al-Mubarak said. "This is a beautiful thing," she added.

There have long been tensions between the two sects in the kingdom. Hard-liners in the Sunni majority consider Shiites infidels, and the Shiites often complain of discrimination and greater levels of poverty.

Al-Zayer, a 24-year-old international management student, said she signed up because she is the "spitting image" of her mother. "I'm proud of my devotion to my parents," she said.

What does she think of Lebanon's beauty contests?

"It's a matter of cultural differences," she said. "In Saudi Arabia, they are Islamically unacceptable."

Awsaf al-Mislim, another contestant, said if she does not win the crown, she will have won something more important.

"I will be proud to show everyone that I competed with the others over my devotion to my parents," the 24-year-old said.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Human Rights Activists Troubled by Administration's Approach

From the Washington Post

By Glenn Kessler and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Obama administration has backed away from overt expressions of support for human rights and democracy in favor of a more subtle approach, worrying advocates who say that the issues are being given short shrift as President Obama seeks to rebuild relations with allies and reach out to adversaries.

Although Obama moved quickly to announce the closure of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, drawing praise from human rights activists, many say other actions by the administration have been troubling. Administration officials have suggested that sanctions against human rights pariahs Burma and Sudan could be eased, that concerns over China's treatment of Tibetans and dissidents should take a back seat to issues such as climate change, and that the United States might once again grant Egypt's autocratic government veto power over the disbursement of U.S. funds to nongovernmental groups.

"They need to be careful here that they don't set a pattern they will regret later on," said Jennifer Windsor, a former Clinton administration official who is executive director of Freedom House, a group that supports democracy activists. "There are some good people in the administration, but the instinct of abandoning everything President Bush has stood for has done a disservice."

Administration officials acknowledge they have approached the issue of human rights differently but deny that there has been a reduction in commitment. Instead, they say, they are first seeking to restore U.S. credibility on the issue by acknowledging U.S. failings and then pushing for progress on human rights and democracy.

In a speech last month in Istanbul, for instance, Obama noted his decision on Guantanamo and the fact that until recently the United States "made it hard for somebody who looks like me to vote." Then he urged Turkish authorities to bolster the rule of law and reopen a Greek Orthodox seminary, a step that U.S. officials say would ease religious animosity.

Former President George W. Bush made promoting "freedom" and "ending tyranny" around the globe one of the central themes of his administration. But, in the view of Obama advisers, Bush undermined that effort with an often-strident tone and an inconsistent application.

Human rights advocates now fear the pendulum may be swinging too far the other way, with the criticism of Obama from the right particularly intense.

"The most striking thing about the first steps in foreign policy of this administration is its sharp turning of its back on the issues of human rights and democracy and the victims of the abuse of human rights and the absence of democracy," said Joshua Muravchik, whose 1991 book, "Exporting Democracy," helped form the basis of the neoconservative policies of the past eight years.

Muravchik and others say Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have gone out of their way to play down concerns about human rights and democratic movements in favor of an approach to other countries and their leaders that emphasizes cooperation on issues such as containing Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Just before visiting Beijing in February on her first trip overseas, Clinton said that pressing China on human rights "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis." Then, while traveling in the Middle East in March, Clinton appeared to play down human rights issues in Egypt and Turkey that had been raised in recent State Department reports. Clinton later tried to repair the damage by declaring that "a mutual and collective commitment to human rights is [as] important to bettering our world as our efforts on security, global economics, energy, climate change and other pressing issues."

Lorne W. Craner, a former assistant secretary of state for human rights under Bush, said he thinks Obama and Clinton had strong records on human rights before they came into office. But he said he has been surprised at the administration's initial steps.

"I am finding these guys very reactive and not creative. You can't just offer hope to Castro, Chávez and Mubarak," Craner said, referring to the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Egypt. "You have to offer hope to others" toiling in those countries for greater liberties.

Administration officials counter that they have a consistent vision of how to emphasize human rights in international discourse, which includes taking on tough issues but in a respectful and less rhetorical manner. "Any fair reading of this set of issues over the course of a broad sweep of time underscores that it's a fundamental issue for the president," said Denis McDonough, director of strategic communications at the National Security Council.

During a November 2007 Democratic primary debate, Obama eloquently insisted that American security is not more important than human rights, saying the two aims were "complementary." As Obama put it, "We've got to understand that, if we simply prop up antidemocratic practices, that that feeds the sense that America is only concerned about us and that our fates are not tied to these other folks."

But outside activists say they have a hard time perceiving such a balance, at least at this early juncture.

Many human rights activists have been shocked at the administration's apparent willingness to consider easing sanctions on Burma and Sudan. The Obama presidential campaign was scornful of Bush's handling of the killings in Sudan's Darfur region, which Bush labeled as genocide, but since taking office, the administration has been caught flat-footed by Sudan's recent ousting of international humanitarian organizations.

Obama appointed a special envoy for Sudan, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, who has alarmed activists by telling them privately that he is looking at easing sanctions imposed by Bush and at whether Sudan should be removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. "He thinks that to keep banging on Khartoum is not the right way," said Omar Ismail, a Darfurian refugee and policy activist who has met with Gration three times. "He said he wants to build rapport with Khartoum."

Gration did not respond to a request for comment, and administration officials refused to say whether lifting sanctions was under consideration.

Eric Reeves, an activist who closely watches Sudan, said, "The real situation on the ground is extremely grim, and getting worse in many places. The Obama people must know this, which makes the decision to go the accommodationist route even more bewildering."

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Picture of the Week: Islam's Soft Revolution

Magda Amer walks in Haj Ahmed Uthman mosque, where she teaches.
Olivia Arthur / Magnum for TIME


Magda Amer walks in Haj Ahmed Uthman mosque, where she teaches. By preaching in a mosque, Magda chaleenges 14 centuries of Islamic tradition, which tends to relegate women to small side rooms for prayer and exclude them from leadership roles.

Valentine's Day Across the Muslim World (2012)