Wednesday 31 March 2010

The battle goes on, though men often object—and sometimes women too

THE sight of hundreds of women cheering a proposed law banning child marriage, as they did on March 22nd in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, was hardly amazing. No country has escaped the global trend towards greater equality between the sexes, not even one as poor and tradition-bound as Yemen, where half of girls are married off before the age of 18 and many even before the age of 10. Yet the day before that demonstration even more women (pictured), nearly all wearing full face veils, gathered at the same spot to denounce the law as an imposition of unIslamic, Western values.

Arab women have made huge if uneven strides since the issue of their rights arose a hundred years ago. Female education, for instance, was once virtually unknown. Today, even in arch-conservative Saudi Arabia, two-thirds of university students are women. But still, among 134 countries in the latest Global Gender Gap Report prepared by the Swiss-based World Economic Forum, a survey that measures opportunity for women in education, health, business and politics, all 14 of the Arab countries that were included ranked in the bottom 30.

Not surprisingly, Yemen came last of all. But the clashing demonstrations in its capital illustrated an important aspect of the Arabs’ lag in women’s rights. Quite often the obstacles to their progress have been not just ill-educated male chauvinists and conservative clerics. Women themselves have also stood in the way.

In the relatively liberal and rich emirate of Kuwait, for instance, women got the right to vote five years ago and won their first seats in parliament last year. But to get there, reformists found themselves battling not only against apathy among many women but even deep-seated female hostility. By contrast Syria, long secular under the Baath party’s rule, denies political rights without sexual discrimination. But veiling and other forms of pious ostentation among women have recently returned, largely because of groups such as the Qubaysiyat, an all-female Islamist society which has schools, nurseries and mosques that now attract many of the Syrian elite.

Egyptian women, who fought to drop their veils in the 1920s and have voted since 1956, have made very slow progress ever since. Many retain deeply traditional outlooks. A survey in 2009 of 15,000 Egyptian youths, for instance, found that 67% of female respondents believe that a husband is justified in beating his wife if she speaks to another man. By contrast, a recent initiative by Egypt’s government to appoint female judges roused little general protest. But fellow members of Egypt’s ostensibly secular judiciary have proved harder to convince. Last month some 334 out of 380 judges on the state council, a grand body that adjudicates cases between individuals and the state, voted against accepting female members. The matter is still pending. Egypt’s supreme court has now ruled in favour of women judges but deferred a final decision to yet another all-male panel.

So the bigger share of blame for Arab women’s slow progress still lies with the usual suspects, namely men. Saudi Arabia recently ruled that female lawyers may actually appear in court. But the concession was heavily qualified. Women will be able only to represent women—and only in family cases.


Tuesday 30 March 2010

A beautiful story about how I reverted to Islam. This is my story. From Catherine Huntley

Asalamu Alaikum,

My name is Catherine and I’m 20 years old. I’m from south west of England and quite frankly there are very few muslims in my home town. I was never brought up with a religion, although always believed in a creator, a God, I guess I just didnt know which path to follow. I went to a local school and have always been interested in studying religion so I guess for me, everything just took its place very quickly, at a young age. I was 15 when i started studying for my gcse’s, one of which was religious studies concentrating on Christianity and Islam. I had one muslim friend at the time, and they did help me alot by bringing back leaflets etc from the mosque, although I would like to say that it was not because of them I reverted, but more my own decision completely, as this is a common mistake.

During the first year of my gcse’s (year 10), I decided to take part in ramadan, and completed it. So I had my first experience of actualy doing something physically for my creator, and it felt amazing. So I studied more and more, during lunch breaks, after school etc. I had a thirst for knowledge that I never had before, I mean I had never even finnished a book in my life, but all of a sudden was able to read about Islam, and quotes from the Qur’an whenever I could. So it carried on this way for about 2 years. I really wanted to revert pretty much a year after I had been introduced to Islam, but my family did not agree at all, in fact, they hated it. So there way of (dealing) with me, was to say your not 18 yet so until then its our roof, our rules. So time went by, and it got to roughly 2 weeks before my 18th birthday. I couldnt take it anymore, I had to revert, it was like my heart was yerning for this peace and blessing that I couldnt wait anymore. So I went to the local mosque, of which I had never even been before, to take my Shahadah. I stepped in, talked with the Imam, and was so nervous its pretty much a blurr. Although, bottom line is, I did it!.. I was so happy and started to learn how to pray pretty much straight away. Alhamdulilah (praise be to Allah) that now I have been a muslimah for nearly 3 years. I learn new things every day and love to take pride in myself, and my beliefs.

My Family are starting to get used to me being muslim, I know 3 years later… but to be honest i dont think they will ever truly accept me, only Allah knows. I am now at a point where I am nearly married, insha allah, and would love to wear the hijab all the time. I do my prayers, as much as i can, and i wear the hijab whenever i can. Ive done talks at my old school about Islam, and I love to tell people about it, hoping that with every person i talk to, will be one more who understands, insha allah.

Well thats my story about done…. I could go on forever but im sure this is pretty much the basics… Thank you for reading this article about my revertion to Islam… May Allah (God), bless you, guide you, protect you and keep you safe insha allah (God willing)…

Asalamu Alaikum (Peace be with you)



Intermarriage worries Gulf states

Marriage between relatives is seen as distasteful within some cultures, but it has been a common feature in many others for thousands of years.

However, growing evidence has shown that children born to parents from the same extended family face a higher risk of developing a range of health problems.

Research from 2008 shows that marriage between cousins in the US, Europe, Russia and Australia is less than one per cent.

In countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, more than half of the population marry a spouse who is considered a relative.

Some of these countries and a number of African and Asian countries have the world's highest rates of birth defects - up to 69 cases in every thousand people.

Some experts say the real figure is much higher. Like its Gulf neighbours, Qatar has now made pre-marital medical tests mandatory.

Khalid bin Jabor al-Thani, the chairman of Qatar's cancer society and former deputy director of its national health authority, told Al Jazeera that inter-family marriages are tolerated because they are the product of "tribal traditions".

"The tolerance comes from people who used to live in very remote areas and tribes would always want to keep their blood within the family and not go outside," he said.

"In Islamic religion it is always advisable to go outside the family. But since this has [been happening] for such a long time ago, and has been carried forward, it [is] one of the issues that people overlook."

Al Jazeera's Charles Stratford reports from Doha.

Monday 29 March 2010

Quebec's witch hunt against niqabi minority

Governments intervene against the religious wishes of Jehovah's Witness families to give blood transfusions to save the lives of their kin. The Quebec government wants to intervene to deny health care to women whose religious wish is to wear the niqab.

In Saudi Arabia, Iran and parts of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, police or vigilante militias crack down on women not wearing the niqab or the burqa. In Quebec, authorities want to crack down on women who do.

Quebec officials have already chased down one niqab-wearing woman to oust her from a second French language class after she had been hounded out of her first. The bureaucrats are emulating the gendarmes of autocrats Kemal Ataturk of Turkey in the 1920s and the first Shah of Iran in the 1930s who persecuted women wearing either the niqab or the hijab.

It is scary when a state feels compelled to keep women either covered or uncovered.

It is scarier when majorities in democracies feel threatened by a minority – in this case, a tiny minority within the Muslim minority. Or feel the need to crush an isolated religious or cultural practice. Had such attitudes prevailed in an earlier era, we may not have been blessed today with Hutterites, Orthodox Jews, Sikhs and others in the rich religious tapestry of Canada.

Across Europe and now sadly in Quebec, populations and governments are in a tizzy over a few dozen niqabi women. Sadder still, Quebec is not only out of step with the rest of Canada but has taken a bigoted leap ahead of Europe, the historic home of Islamophobia.

In France – where out of 5 million Muslims, 367 wear the niqab (as counted by the domestic intelligence service, no less) – a parliamentary panel has pondered the issue for a year and suggested a ban from schools and hospitals but nowhere else.

In Denmark – where out of 100,000 Muslims, there are less than 200 niqabis (as estimated by the ministry of social affairs), the government is still mulling a ban.

In Quebec, less than 25 women are said to wear the niqab – of whom only 10 turned up last year at the Montreal office of the provincial health board out of 118,000 visitors.

Yet the obsession with the niqab continues. On the day Jean Charest tabled his anti-niqab bill, Hydro Quebec's $3.2 billion deal to take over NB Power and gain access to the lucrative U.S. market collapsed – with nary a public concern.

His bill calls not only for showing the face for the legitimate purposes of a photo ID and security. It also bans niqabis from working for, or even receiving services from, government and the broader public sector. These taxpayers may be denied all schooling, including French language instruction, and all non-emergency health care, including regular checkups.

Charest rationalized it on the basis of gender equity, the secular nature of the state, the need to integrate immigrants, and the importance of personal interaction. Except that:

The giant crucifix in the National Assembly will stay.

Property and other tax breaks given the churches will remain, including for the Catholic Church, where women must remain in the pews and not ascend to the pulpit.

Niqabi women will be driven out of the public sphere, end up with less personal interaction with others and be ghettoized. It is a strange way to advance gender equity.

It is argued, as by Nicolas Sarkozy in France, that banning the niqab is not anti-Islamic, since it may not be a religious requirement, as opined by a senior Egyptian cleric last year. We elect politicians not to propound fatwas but to implement secular, democratic laws in an equitable manner for one and all. As for those enamoured of the authoritarian ways of Egypt, they are free to move there.

We are witnessing collective hysteria, prompting even liberal governments to cave in. It was not a pretty sight to see Charest, a Liberal, competing for headlines with Ann Coulter, the Muslim-baiting neo-con from America.

That's democracy in action, it can be said. But we have seen many ugly manifestations of the popular will before. Targeting the niqabis may not be in the same league as past Canadian sins against some minorities but history should provide us with the perspective to pause.

Haroon Siddiqui is the Star's editorial page editor emeritus. His column appears Thursday and Sunday.

Sunday 28 March 2010

Muslims quietly take Wilders' abuse

Day in and day out, Dutch Muslims are told their religion is "a fascist ideology" and "a threat to Dutch society"

By Sheila Kamerman and Dirk Vlasblom for NRC Handelsblad

They hear their "so-called prophet Muhammad" is "a barbarian, a mass murderer and a paedophile", or words to that effect. The indignities come from a member of parliament: Geert Wilders.

After leaving the right-wing liberal VVD party in 2006 and setting up his own Party for Freedom (PVV), Wilders has made criticism of Islam his one main issue.

He is being heard by native Dutch people who fear the country of 16 million is suffering under the burden of its estimated one million Muslim citizens. Wilders obtained 5 of the 25 Dutch seats in European parliament last year. His PVV did very well in the two municipalities in which it participated in recent local elections. Some polls have predicted his party could become the biggest in parliament after the upcoming national election.

One wonders why the Muslims he is targeting are not standing up against his attacks and letting themselves be heard.

When asked this question, Islam expert Mohammed Cheppih immediately countered it: "Aren't we all Dutch?," he asked. "Society as a whole should stand up to Wilders. Wilders is destroying the Netherlands. We should all ignore him."

Counterproductive? Farid Azarkan, the director of an interest group of Moroccan-Dutch people, SMN, agreed. "Where are all the reasonable Dutch people who say: 'This is not how we treat each other here'?" Ideally, non-Muslims would support their Muslim compatriots en masse, Azarkan ventured. "Suppose that all the women in Almere [the one city where Wilders' PVV won the most council seats in the local election] would don a headscarf." Azarkan chuckled at the idea of such a form of protest against the PVV's proposed headscarf ban in municipal buildings there: "But that is not realistic."

Azarkan has thought about instigating large-scale protests, but believes it would ultimately be counterproductive. "Imagine we would organise a mass demonstration, say, on the Malieveld in The Hague," he said, referring to a meadow near buildings housing the national government. "It would suddenly be filled with thousands of headscarves. People who don't fear Islam wouldn't be bothered by it. But those are not the people we need to convince. The people who support Wilders however, will go ’Yuk, there they are'."

The fear of rubbing native Dutch people the wrong way by lashing out at Wilders is one argument why Muslims aren't organising themselves. Another is that a movement would be hard to establish because there is no single Muslim community in the Netherlands. Moroccans, Turks, Somalis, Surinamese, Iranians and Iraqis in the Netherlands all have their own religious lives and communities. They are impossible to mobilise, according to Azarkan. Faith in democracy A unifying, Dutch Islam has yet to develop, said Loubna el Morabet, who is a PhD researcher in social science at Leiden University. "This is an ongoing process. Muslims in the Netherlands are already very Dutch," she said. "I have done research in the Netherlands and England and learnt that Muslim students here have adopted the Dutch mentality. This is their country."

Arkazan offered the example of the lack of success of Muslim parties as an argument why any fear of Muslims "taking over" the Netherlands is "a joke". In this month's municipal elections, Islamic parties failed to obtain a single council seat anywhere but in The Hague. "Obviously, Muslims vote for a party that suits them, they don't vote for a religion," said Arkazan. "We call that integration."

Many Muslims and non-Muslims in the Netherlands are uncomfortable with the things the PVV has been saying. The party has suggested Muslims who don't adjust to the dominant Dutch culture should be deported. It has also talked about shooting criminals of Moroccan descent in the knees.

But for most who disagree with him, their faith in democracy is larger than their fear of Wilders.

"Of course I feel threatened when I hear Wilders speaking," said Loubna el Morabet. "But if I take a step back, I realise he will never be able to carry out his ideas. Taxing headscarves is nonsense and halting immigration from Islamic countries is discrimination. The principle of equality is deeply embedded in Dutch law." Compromises Even if he wins the upcoming national election, many Muslims don't believe he can change Dutch, let alone European, laws that protect them. "And you can't rule a country ranting and raving," Farid Azarkan said about Wilders' politics.

Several Muslims interviewed said they would welcome a large PVV after the June election. If Wilders were to be forced to take responsibility and make compromises, his rank and file would realise he can't deliver, they said.

The Netherlands is always ruled by coalition governments and if Wilders were to form one "he would need to have clear ideas about other issues than just Muslims," said El Morabet. "What does he really want for our country? The only statements he yells are anti-Islam, everything else is hazy."

Cheppih, however, disagreed. "It is extremely frustrating that other parties don't preclude governing with Wilders. It would be a clear sign if other parties would say: 'We don't want to cooperate with the PVV'. The party is empty and has hardly taken positions on anything." Cheppih encouraged other political parties to rule out any coalition with the PVV after the election. "Society as a whole should hit back hard: we do not accept this! Make that clear. Otherwise, things could escalate. The fear he sows is imaginary, but he is being heard. The higher the minarets, the more frightened the people." Personal encounters This fear of Islam is fuelled by the media hype surrounding Wilders, said El Morabet. "I think it is ridiculous that media pay so much attention to a party that has garnered a handful of seats in the municipal elections. [Left-wing liberal party] D66 was the real winner of the local elections and that happens to be the one party that tells Wilders: 'You are shutting people out, you discriminate'. That gets relatively little attention."

To counter the anxiety some native Dutch feel for Islam, Farid Azarkan thinks, Muslims need to try to remove this through personal encounters. "You have to reach out to people. A minority happens to be xenophobe. I don't believe you can sway all of them. They have to notice out on the streets that you may be Muslim, but apart from that, you are all right.”


Saturday 27 March 2010

Women rally in Yemen to ban child brides

SANA’A // Following demonstrations on Sunday against a proposed law that would set a minimum age for marriage, hundreds of Yemeni women held a counter protest yesterday outside Yemen’s parliament building in support of the legislation.

The participants in the protest, organised by civil society organisations and women’s rights groups, carried posters demanding the protection of childhood by establishing a minimum age for marriage.

“No to the abuse of childhood, prevention of happiness and usurpation of life,” one poster read. “Setting an age for marriage is a legal, humanitarian and developmental necessity,” said another.

Among yesterday’s protesters was Nojoud Mohammed Ali, 11, who obtained a divorce in 2008 after her father married her off to a 30-year-old man when she was only nine. “I went to ask the parliament not to touch the law that sets the marriage age at 17 years,” said Nojoud.

“We have presented to them signatures from all over the country. Children like me should be protected and should go to school.”

The parliament voted last year for an amendment to the civil status law that stipulated that parents who marry off their daughters before the age of 17 and sons before 18 could face a year in jail or be fined US$500 (Dh1,800).

Some conservative MPs who had opposed the legislation said it was against Sharia. The draft measure was sent back to the Sharia committee in the parliament for review. It recommended that no age for marriage be set, according to Mohammed al Hazmi, an outspoken MP who is against a minimum age for marriage.

A delegation of 50 protesters met yesterday with Yahia al Ra’e, the parliament speaker, who set up a committee to negotiate with the MPs opposed to setting an age for marriage, according to Hooria Mashhoor, the vice chairwoman of Woman’s National Committee, a government agency, and a delegation member.

“I feel happy about the rally as it brought together all women activists regardless of our differences. There is a consensus among all of us that a minimum age for marriage should be set. We have got one objective to strive for,” Ms Mashhoor said.

“The speaker of parliament named a committee to sit down and talk with the MPs who repealed the minimum age article. He suggested that the committee can discuss with these MPs that the marriage age remains as it is but the fine on parents violating it can be removed. Some of the delegates, however, refused. We will see what comes up,” she said. “We really need a strong political will to pass the draft law.”

Nafissa al Jaifi, a doctor who heads the Supreme Council of Women and Children, a government agency that has strongly supported the law, said that from her experience child marriages “increase the proportion of maternal mortality at birth”.

Before North and South Yemen united in 1990, the minimum legal age for marriage age was 15 in the North and 16 in the South. After the unification, it was set at 15 years.

The civil status law was later amended and the minimum age was abolished “without any justifications and no restrictions were set”, according to a letter women’s rights groups sent Sunday to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, urging him to intervene in favour of a minimum marriage age.

The legislative debate followed the highly publicised plight of Nojoud, whose story and that of Fawziya Abdullah Youssef, a 12-year-old Yemeni girl forced into marriage and who died delivering a baby, fuelled the movement in favour of a minimum age for marriage.

More than half Yemen’s girls are married before they reach puberty.

A study carried out in 2008 by the Gender Development Research and Studies Centre at Sana’a University on early marriage in Yemen said 52.1 per cent of girls are underage when they wed, compared with 6.7 per cent of boys.


Friday 26 March 2010

Somali population, cultural tension rising in St. Cloud, Minnesota

St. Cloud, Minn. — The Facebook group, "I hate the Somalians at Tech High," didn't live online for a long time, but word traveled fast among high school students in the St. Cloud area.

While that page no longer exists, students of Somali descent say the attitudes expressed on that Facebook page have a strong presence on two of St. Cloud's public high schools.

Sahra Alin Ahmed, a Somali student and freshman at Apollo High School, wasn't surprised by the group's views as she regularly hears them on campus.

The atmosphere at the city's high schools is so hostile to Somali students that Alin Ahmed finds herself having to stand up for newly arrived immigrant students.

"They don't say anything to the people that know English, but the ones who just came from Africa, who don't really know English, you know, who don't really understand, those are the ones they get at most," she said.

Somali students now make up about 10 percent of the student population in the St. Cloud Area School District 742 and their numbers have been steadily growing. The entire district has about 10,000 students.

Alin Ahmed said white students make disparaging remarks about how they perceive their Muslim classmates to dress, speak, and smell.

Apollo sophomore Fadumo Adan said she's been the target of those comments ever since she moved to Minnesota from Somalia two years ago.

"They always make fun of us and they say, 'Go back to your countries,' and, 'You guys stink,' and, 'This is our country, and we don't need black people,' so it's every single day," Adan said. "It's not several times, it's all the time."

Adan said some of her classmates spray perfume as Muslim students exit classrooms. Although she has complained about that to teachers and her counselor, sometimes they won't do anything, she said.

But Alin Ahmed said that in her experience, school administrators do try to address racial tensions when problems arise.

St. Cloud Area School District 742 Superintendent Steve Jordahl said school administrators do follow district discipline policies when students report any kind of inappropriate behavior. When district officials receive complaints of bullying, racial, sexual or religious harassment, he said, they take action.

"Detention can happen [and] legal authority, the police, in other words, can be called in," Jordahl said. "Kids can be suspended or dismissed from school. Sometimes expulsion things can happen. Of course, that doesn't happen very often, but it does happen."

That's what happened to 18-year-old Kyle Adams, a senior at Area Learning Center Wilson, an alternative school. Adams used to go to Technical High School, but officials expelled him when he was in the tenth grade.

"I was young and dumb and saying some stuff and then a Somalian came up at swung at me and I ducked out of the way and then I said, 'you stupid, f'ing n----- and all of this,'" Adams said. "And then I got in trouble and got kicked out and there was nothing followed up on them for swinging at me or yelling at me and that really made me kind of mad."

This wasn't Adams' first altercation with classmates of Somali descent.

Though Adams now says he shouldn't have said the things he said, he still harbors resentment. He was one of the people who joined the Facebook group, "I hate the Somalians at Tech High." He's also a member of another Facebook group called, "I am a 'Rasist' [sic].. ok,, So Deal With It."

Adams, who grew up in Kentucky, explains he called his classmate a racial epithet because his beliefs about race are deep-seated.

"I was raised in believing that this country was founded upon a white Christian nation and the belief of racial separation," he said.

Adams said his family and friends think it's normal to use racial slurs. He said his attitude toward Muslim students is also common among many of his classmates.

His friend, 18-year-old Matt Mayavski, said a few people at the school call themselves "rednecks" on campus. Others make their views known by wearing Confederate flag belt buckles or belts or wearing certain brands of clothing, said Mayavski, a lifelong St. Cloud resident who also went to Technical High School.

Adams and Mayavski say they flash the Confederate battle flag -- an offensive symbol to many blacks -- because they believe in small government. They say it has nothing to do with race.

The resentment stems from feeling like Muslim students receive preferential treatment, Mayavski said.

"Towards the end of my junior year, I was in math class and the Somalians asked to go pray before lunch," he said. "Well, I went to ask my teacher for [a prayer break] and [she] sent me down to the office and I got written up for it. And I was like, 'Well, how can the school respect their religion, but they can't respect ours?'"

Nimco Ahmed, a policy aide to a Minneapolis City Council member, said it's understandable that white students in St. Cloud have such questions.

"Why can they go every Friday and step out of class and have a Friday prayer while I have to be in class is a good question," said Ahmed, who is from Somalia. "It is a legitimate question and somebody needs to answer these questions to them."

When Ahmed went to Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis ten years ago, the Somali population was growing rapidly, and cultural misunderstandings were common.

Ahmed said school administrators have to take extra steps to educate students about other cultures. That's how her school was able to overcome cultural tensions.

"They reached out to other people outside of our school. They had people come in and educate us and sit down with us and mediate us," she said. "That's exactly what is needed. And when we learned how to do it, we reached out to other schools that had the same problems. We didn't stop."

Ahmed said such challenges are typical of any area undergoing significant demographic changes. But the issues at St. Cloud schools need to be addressed quickly before they escalate, she said.

Superintendent Jordahl said he wants people to understand that his schools are doing what they can to address these problems.

"As adults in the system, we recognize that the issues exist and our job is to raise student achievement," Jordahl said. "We recognize that if kids don't feel good, feel safe, they are not going to do as well as if they did. So we want to make sure we are addressing this all the time."

But schools can't tackle them alone, he said.

"We really, really want our parents to understand that they have a huge role in this," Jordahl said. "In fact, I always say this, parents, you are the first and most important teacher your child has."

While Jordahl said St. Cloud schools are working hard to address racial tensions, critics in the wider St. Cloud community say the district isn't doing enough. They've called on the district to adopt a more aggressive anti-bias curriculum than what the district currently has.


Why I Was Banned in the U.S.A.

When the American embassy called in August 2004, I was just nine days away from starting a job at Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. I had already shipped my possessions from Geneva, Switzerland, where I was living, to Indiana, and enrolled my kids in a school near our new home. Suddenly, however, an embassy official was telling me my visa had been revoked. I was "welcome to reapply," the official said, but no reason was offered for my rejection. Sitting in a barren apartment, I decided the process had become too unpredictable; I didn't want to keep my family in limbo, so I resigned my professorship before it began. I launched a legal battle instead.

It was hardly a fight I had expected. Less than a year earlier, the State Department had invited me to speak in Washington, D.C., and introduced me as a "moderate" Muslim intellectual who denounced terrorism and attacks against civilians. Now it was banning me from U.S. soil under a provision of the Patriot Act that allows for "ideological exclusions." My offense, it seemed, had been to forcefully criticize America's support for Israel and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. accused me of endorsing terrorism through my words and funding it through donations to a Swiss charity with alleged ties to Gaza. Civil-liberties groups challenged my case in court for almost six years until, in late January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dropped the allegations against me, effectively ending my ban.

In early April I will make my first public appearance in the U.S., at New York City's Cooper Union, participating in a panel discussion about Muslims. While it's a victory of sorts, the fight is not over. Numerous foreign scholars remain banned from U.S. soil. Until the section of the Patriot Act that kept me out of the country is lifted, more people will suffer the same fate. Although the exclusions are carried out in the name of security and stability, they actually threaten both by closing off the open, critical, and constructive dialogue that once defined this country.

In my case, criticizing America's Middle East policies cast doubt on my loyalty to Western values and cost me a job. But prejudice may ultimately cost the U.S. more. By creating divisions and disregarding its values, even in the name of security, America tells the world that it is frightened and unstable—above all, vulnerable. In the long term, it also reinforces the religious, cultural, and social isolation of minority groups, encouraging the very kind of disloyalty that these ideological exclusions are meant to prevent.

It's not the first time America has tried to shield itself from dissenting opinions. During the Cold War, dozens of overseas artists, activists, and intellectuals—including British novelist Doris Lessing, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez—were denied visas because of their left-leaning ideas. Today, though, the American concept of the "other" has taken on a relatively new and specific form: the Muslim. America must face the reality that, in the West, many adherents to Islam demonstrate loyalty to democratic values through criticism. While violence must always be condemned, such debate must be encouraged if those values are to last.

Ramadan is a professor of Islamic studies at St. Antony's College, Oxford, and author of What I Believe.


Thursday 25 March 2010

Israeli soldiers 'used child to check for booby-traps

Two Israeli soldiers have been accused of using a nine-year-old Palestinian boy to check for booby-traps during last year's Gaza war.

The staff sergeants in the Givati infantry brigade have been charged with acting "in breach of military norms" by forcing the child at gunpoint to open bags they believed might be rigged with explosives.

The child, identified only as "Majd R", said he feared for his life.

"I thought they would kill me. I became very scared and wet my pants," he said in an affidavit to Geneva-based children's group, Defence for Children International.

"There were two bags in front of me. I grabbed the first one as he stood one and a half metres away. I opened the bag as he pointed his weapon directly at me. I emptied the bag on the floor. It contained money and papers. I looked at him and he was laughing."

One of the defendants, who have not been identified, said in an army radio interview he felt he and his comrade were being made scapegoats in the face of international criticism of Israel's offensive, in which about 1,400 Palestinians were killed, among them 400 children.

"They were looking for someone to blame in front of the entire world," the soldier said. "Sadly it was people who really didn't do anything.

The military said that it began its investigation of the incident in June. It said the probe was unrelated to a UN fact-finding mission which was visiting the Gaza Strip at the same time.
The UN mission, headed by South African former judge Richard Goldstone, later filed a report which concluded that both the Israeli military and Palestinian militants committed war crimes during the 22-day offensive launched on December 27, 2008.

Thirteen Israelis were killed during the war, which Israel launched in response to rocket and mortar attacks from the Islamist Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.


Veiled Saudi poet rises to stardom after bashing clerics

DUBAI — A Saudi housewife's bold poems which blast "evil" extremist fatwas by Muslim clerics have earned her death threats but could yet win her a 1.3-million-dollar poetry contest on Emirati television.

Ahead of Wednesday's finals of the "Million's Poet" aired weekly on Abu Dhabi state television, the poems have put Hissa Hilal, who wears a traditional head-to-toe black "abaya" cloak and veils her face, in the spotlight.

If on March 31 she is announced the winner, she will walk away with the grand prize from the competition, which draws masters of bedouin dialect poetry, known as Nabati, which is highly appreciated by Gulf Arabs.

But Hilal has drawn the wrath of Islamist conservatives in her country after criticising its strict segregation of the sexes and blasting fatwas that reject an easing to allow women to take on jobs that are currently for men only.

The Saudi mother's loud opinions have resulted in death threats on Islamist websites like Ana Al-Muslim, an online forum known for posting messages from Al-Qaeda, the Saudi daily Al-Watan said.

A participant in the forum even asked for her address, in an apparent threat to kill her.

"Of course, my husband, my family and I are afraid," she told AFP, adding that she has not been contacted directly with threats.

Hilal, who has not been to university, said that through her poems, she wants to "fight extremism, which has become a worrying phenomenon."

"A few years ago, society was more open. Now, things have become heavier. Some men do not even shake hands with female family members as they did in the past," she said.

In her poem entitled "The Chaos of Fatwas," which she has recited during the popular televised competition, she boldly charged that the "evil comes from those fatwas."

She compared their authors to "monsters wearing belts," an apparent reference to explosive belts worn by suicide bombers.

The contest's panel praised Hilal's courage for expressing her opinion "honestly and powerfully," giving her the highest score of last Wednesday's round at 47 out of 50.

Videos of Hilal's recital of the poem are available on the Internet.

The poem was seen as hitting out at Saudi cleric Abdul Rahman al-Barrak, who issued a fatwa last month calling for those promoting a mixing of the sexes in education and at the workplace to be put to death.

Hilal said, however, that she was not referring to Barrak's fatwa in particular, but said that she was "against the idea of killing a human being because of his beliefs."

She considers the mixing of men and women at work "a necessity for daily life."

"We are always told: haram," or prohibited, she lamented. "This dangerous extremism is no longer limited to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, but has spread to other countries like Egypt, Jordan and Syria."

Radical Saudi clerics were infuriated when the reform-minded King Abdullah inaugurated in September the kingdom's first mixed-gender university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, on the Red Sea coast.

"Saudi Arabia has made great strides over the past five years" to improve women's status, Hilal said, praising the "courage" of the Saudi monarch.

In an attempt to prove his commitment to improving the status of women, the king appointed Norah al-Fayez deputy minister of education for women's education in 2009, the first appointment of a woman to a ministerial post.

Women in Saudi Arabia must cover from head to toe in public. They are also forbidden to drive and can not travel without a male guardian, while segregation rules severely restrict work opportunities for women.


Wednesday 24 March 2010

Muslim fashion label conquers streets of Europe

WITTEN, Germany — T-shirts and hoodies declare "Terrorism has no religion." A head-covering tunic bears the message: "Hijab. My right. My choice. My life."

A German fashion label is out to tell the world that Islam isn't just compatible with Western values of tolerance and free expression — it can be hip, too.

The project was born in 2006 as Muslim mobs rampaged across Europe against Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Designer Melih Kesmen became fed up with the anti-Muslim stereotypes that sprang up over the protests as well as the rioters' attempts to stifle free speech.

So Kesmen, a practicing Muslim born and raised in Germany to Turkish parents, decided to express his feelings through fashion.

"I first created a sweater just for myself with the slogan 'I love my Prophet' to take a stand as a peace-loving, tolerant Muslim," said the 34-year-old designer, sporting designer glasses and a black goatee.

The reaction was huge: People kept stopping him in the street to ask where he had found the top.

Kesmen quickly realized he'd found a market gap.

Together with his wife, Yeliz, he set out to create Style Islam, a brand of hip, casual clothing with Islamic-themed sayings as its focus.

More than three years on, Style Islam offers 35 different motifs that playfully merge Islam and pop culture. Besides clothing, their collection also features bags and posters.

"Women love buying rompers with the writing "Mini Muslim" across their chest,'" said Yeliz Kesmen, 30, who wears a brown hijab, or headscarf, and silver nose stud.

On its Web site, Style Islam's creators explain every motif they sell.

For hijabs they write: "In today's society, it is not easy for a woman to wear a headscarf. Often she is exposed to discrimination and prejudice ... even though from an Islamic point of view, the headscarf is a symbol for women's liberation from society's constraints."

Above all, the brand strives to spread a message of tolerance. One design reads: "Jesus & Muhammad/ Brothers in Faith."

Cotton T-shirts sell for just under euro20 ($27), laptop bags and hooded long-sleeve shirts go for around euro35 ($47). Style Islam also offers key chains featuring praying, covered-up Muslim girls.

Through the Internet, the company sells its clothes across western Europe, the U.S., Canada and Turkey. The next target market is the Middle East.

"We're ... getting a lot of requests from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates or Morocco," Kesmen said in his sleek white office in Witten, a town nestled in a western region known more for its steel mills than avant-garde fashion.

"They all want to buy our products, but we simply haven't built up the infrastructure yet to ship to the Arab world."

Currently the label sells thousands of items each month and has a team of seven designers, according to Kesmen.

Exact sales figures have not been released. But Kesmen says sales growth has prompted plans for a brick-and-mortar store in Berlin, with other locations likely.

Both Melih and Yeliz studied graphic design and worked in advertising before they founded Style Islam. Like her husband, Yeliz was born to Turkish immigrant parents who came to Germany in the 1960s as so-called guest workers.

Kesmen said he's approaching his work from a European point of view.

"First and foremost we're European Muslims. We were born here and we're at home here," said Kesmen. "When we go to Turkey, we're strangers. They call us the German Turks over there."

Kesmen says that Style Islam's key buyers are young Muslim immigrants, typically between 17 and 35 years-old. Their street wear is proving especially popular among university students.

"We want to give people food for thought with our clothes and signal that it's not a contradiction to be a practicing Muslim and to be modern, witty and critical at the same time," he said.

Not everyone agrees. The company gets mail decrying its use of Islamic-themed sayings and symbols, typically from devout Muslims who say the fashion label does not promote the seriousness of the faith.

Kesmen said they don't aim to offend. There are no T-shirts bearing images of Muhammad, for example, but the brand don't shy away from controversy, either. One shirt bears the legend "Gaza Stop the Killing Now" with a bloody palm print in red.

Abbas Schulz, a young imam from Berlin, has no problem with Style Islam's religious messages.

"Friends told me about it and I right away ordered a black 'I Love My Prophet' hoodie," Schulz told the AP. "I like the message and the oriental design looks really pretty."


Tuesday 23 March 2010

Hadith: The Ninety-nine names of Allah (swt)

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "Allah has ninety-nine names, one hundred less one. He who memorizes them all by heart will enter Paradise." [Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 93, Number 489]

Muslim women reject cleric's advice to stay away from politics

Muslim women have reacted angrily to a leading Muslim cleric's advice to keep away from politics and concentrate on home and family, saying this could be his personal view and there is no such stipulation in Islam.

Even as the debate over the women's reservation bill continues, Shia cleric Maulana Syed Kalbe Jawwad had said Saturday that women should have no role in politics and stay at home.

'They should become mothers of good leaders rather than try to be leaders themselves,' he reportedly said. Also, the Lucknow-based Nadwatul Ulema had also issued a 'fatwa' (edict) against Muslim women's participation in politics, in line with the 2005 fatwa of the influential Darul Uloom Deoband, which contends that Muslim women cannot remain in purdah when in politics.

However, the advice has not been taken well by Muslim women here who not only described them as 'personal views' and also disagreed that it could be a fatwa as Islam does not prohibit women from being leaders and a fatwa can only be issued in reply to religious queries.

'Who is he to advise us on what to do and what not to do? It is a conspiracy of vested interests to keep women within the four walls of a house under the garb of Islam's strictures despite our religion giving equal status to men and women,' social activist Shahala Masood told IANS.

Her views were supported by 'Shahar Qazi' (city religious judge) Abdul Lateef Qasmi. 'Islam does not prohibit women from being leaders but if some one has issued any fatwa, it needs to be checked under what circumstances it was delivered,' he said.

Masood's stand has more adherents.

'The views expressed by ulema could be their personal thoughts as no one had sought their opinion. I am of the view that more and more women from the community should come forward and contest elections as Islam does not put any bar on it,' Samajwadi Party member Nazma Parveen told IANS.

'Everyone has the liberty to express views, and the statement of the Maulana could be his personal view, because as far as my knowledge is concerned, Islam does not prohibit women from entering politics,' Congress state unit women cell general secretary Noori Khan said.

Madhya Pradesh Urdu Academy secretary Nusrat Mehndi contended women should prepare themselves for a double responsibility 'looking after domestic activities and performing well in professional life as well, be it politics or job,' she said.

'No religion including Islam prohibits anyone from serving the people and in the present time, entering politics is the best way to serve the people. Women can also serve the people and Islalm does not stop them from doing so,' Shamim Nasir, a corporator, said


Monday 22 March 2010

The Princess and the burqa, female driving and male guardians

During a recent visit to Paris, Princess Loulwah al-Faisal, a prominent member of the Saudi royal family, spoke to FRANCE 24 about the accomplishments and challenges women face in Saudi Arabia.

The most prominent princess in Saudi Arabia’s royal family, Princess Loulwah al-Faisal is a champion of women’s education. A vice chairman on the board of the Effat University in Jeddah, al-Faisal is the granddaughter of former Saudi King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud - the founder of the kingdom - and the daughter of the former King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz.

She spoke to FRANCE24 during a recent visit to Paris, where she, along with a delegation from Saudi Arabia, addressed the French Senate about the changes in modern Saudi life.

FRANCE24: In Davos 2007, at a World Economic Forum panel, you created a stir when you were asked what you would do if you were queen for a day and you replied, “I would let women drive”. It’s almost three years since that memorable admission. Has there been any progress on the issue of women driving in Saudi Arabia? Is this a topic that’s up for discussion?

Al-Faisal: This has always been an issue because everybody in the world keeps asking us about it (laughs). The government’s position is not against women’s driving but they have left it to the people to decide whether they accept it or not.

No representatives of the people in majlis shura – [the consultative council of Saudi Arabia, made up of 150 member appointed by the King, six of them women] for example, they have had no demands in that area. The majority, from what I know, is still against giving licenses to women. In some cases, I think because the driving is so bad in Saudi Arabia (laughs).

But personally, I think that a woman should be allowed to drive because there are more and more women in the workforce in Saudi Arabia and there are many families living on the pay that these women bring in. She has to spend a big percentage – I can’t say a big percentage, that depends – but quite a percentage of her salary, to hire either a driver or a limousine service that we have, where several women get together and they do a pool - they hire a car to take them to their jobs and bring them back. Or the husbands or the fathers or the brothers lose a lot of man-hours just to transport their female relatives.
So, it’s just not practical. Driving is a practical medium. It’s a transportation issue. People seem to put some sort of...I don’t know...extraordinary philosophies into driving. It’s not. The car is a tool. It takes you from one place to the other.

FRANCE24: So, you see this not so much as a women’s issue, but an economic one?

Al-Faisal: Certainly, that’s it. It’s no different from any other economic progress that we’ve had in Saudi Arabia.

FRANCE24: At the conference in the French Senate, some high-profile Saudi women talked about how they were encouraged by extraordinary parents and spouses. I’d like to ask you what happens to Saudi women who do not have progressive male relatives. I’m wondering about the system of male guardianship in Saudi Arabia. It often surfaces in human rights reports on the kingdom. Is this an issue that is being discussed or negotiated in Saudi Arabia today?

Al-Faisal: It’s always being discussed in Saudi Arabia since we entered, how do I put it, a new mode of living. In the cities, women are working everywhere, it’s always discussed. And it always comes back to the same thing. The government has encouraged all women to find any work to be able to put your child through school, to have your own bank account - you have to have an identity card of your own, not your husband’s identity card. In Islam, this is the law. Wealth is yours, no one has the right - unless you give them a legal document signed and witnessed that you give this person the right to do your work.

There are families, as you said, who accept it, there’s no problem. Other families don’t accept it. Until those families change their minds it will always be there. In Saudi Arabia if you wish, nothing is enforced, but it has to come from the people themselves. You cannot force a people to do something in spite of themselves. They have to believe in it.
FRANCE24: And is there a means to express the people’s will?

Al-Faisal: Oh yes. There is the shura, the King’s house is open to everybody, we have the ministers, we have women in responsible positions, there are no restrictions on conveying your wants. Believe it or not, there is consensus in Saudi Arabia, maybe we don’t go to the voting booth, but there is a system of consensus in Saudi Arabia, our own way of doing it.

FRANCE24: Let’s talk about your personal relationship with France. You’re here in Paris, you speak fluent French...

Al-Faisal: Well I finished my studies in Switzerland… so, I have a high school degree in French...I like Paris, I’ve always loved Paris. I have an apartment in Paris, and if you wish, this is my second home. When I’m traveling, I always have to come through Paris because I leave most of my winter clothes here as I don’t really need them in Saudi Arabia (laughs).

FRANCE24: Talking about clothes, there’s been a lot of discussion about Muslim women’s wardrobes here. I’m sure you’re aware of the ongoing discourse about the burqa in France and the recent moved to ban the burqa in public institutions. What’s your opinion about it?

Al-Faisal: I think this is a choice that has to be made by the French. No one can think for the French. It is their decision. If you’re asking me about us, for us, it’s the norm in Saudi Arabia.

The burqa for us is the veil that only the eyes show. As you see, this is the way we dress in Saudi Arabia, the veil and everything. In Islam, the veil is required to cover the head. The face is still under discussion in different countries, under different schools of thought, but I have the freedom to choose for myself whether I’m going to cover my face or uncover it. I think that’s up to the French to decide what to do amongst themselves.


Sunday 21 March 2010

Joe Sacco's Footnotes in Gaza

Joe Sacco has brought the plight of the Palestinians to people across the world - but he is not a journalist, historian or human rights activist, he is a cartoonist.

In his most recent work he investigated the mass killing of Palestinians in Gaza in 1956.

He told Al Jazeera why he uses comics to tell their story.

Saturday 20 March 2010

India's 'modern-day Nero' to be grilled over Muslim bloodbath

With his face gazing from posters celebrating the 600th anniversary of the founding of this historic city, Narendra Modi – chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat – likes to present himself as a man of destiny. Yet slowly but surely history may be catching up with India's most controversial politician.

Eight years after perhaps the worst episode of religious violence since Partition, a frenzy of brutality in which hundreds of Muslims were raped and murdered by sword-wielding mobs, the slow-turning wheels of Indian justice have finally stopped outside Mr Modi's door. A special investigation team set up by the country's Supreme Court has summoned him to appear and answer allegations that he should be held responsible for the violence.

"He has been summoned to appear from the week starting this Sunday," confirmed the inquiry's head, RK Raghavan. "[As to whether he appears] your guess is as good as mine."

No one alleges Mr Modi, a member of the right-wing, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), personally took part in the wave of killings that engulfed several Gujarati cities in the spring of 2002, an orgy of violence triggered by the deaths of dozens of Hindu activists in a train fire. But it is said that at the very least he did insufficient to stop it, even when he was contacted by those whose lives were fatally threatened. Others say he actively seized on the violence for political reasons and allowed it to burn for several days. He has always denied the allegations.

One man who says he can prove Mr Modi's guilt is Imtiyaz Pathan. The 33-year-old electrician survived a singularly notorious incident of the slaughter after a Hindu mob surrounded a Muslim apartment compound called the Gulbarg Society in the east of Ahmedabad. Anywhere up to 70 people were killed after they sought refuge in the home of a Muslim former MP, Ehsan Jafri. The mob laid siege to the house with firebombs, rocks and an assortment of weapons for up to seven hours before the police – their office barely a mile away – arrived. Many of the bodies of those killed that day, including that of Mr Jafri, who gave himself up to the mob to try to "buy" the safety of his neighbours, were never found.

Earlier this week, Mr Pathan, accompanied by his government-appointed police guard carrying an ageing .303 Lee Enfield rifle, led The Independent through the ruins of the now largely abandoned housing block, the walls of many of the wrecked buildings still blackened by the fires set that day. Several members of his family were killed, including his mother. As he crossed the threshold into Mr Jafri's building, he pointed to the spot where his great grandfather was hacked to death. "Being here brings back the whole thing," said Mr Pathan.

Crucially, Mr Pathan has testified he was present when the MP made a series of increasingly desperate calls for help, both to the local police and officials. As the rain of petrol and acid bombs being hurled at the three-storey house continued, Mr Jafri knew someone had to rescue them or else everyone would die. Finally the 72-year-old called Mr Modi directly. "After calling Modi, Jafri was totally depressed," said Mr Pathan. "When I asked him what happened, Jafri said 'There will be no deployment [of police].' In fact, he said that Modi had abused him, that he had used abusive language."

Rupa Mody was also present that day. Like Mr Pathan, she and her two young children took refuge inside Mr Jafri's house. She and her daughter, now aged 11, survived the violence but her teenage son, Azar, become separated. The last time she saw him was as he warned her not to reach out and try to lock a metal gate because the mob would cut off her hand.

In her small, neat apartment, Mrs Mody said she still refused to believe Azar was dead, hoping against the odds for a miracle. She and her husband wept as they passed round the family photo album, displaying carefree images of family trips and religious festivals. "Modi is a powerful man. He could get anything done," she said. "Now we are following the legal course. Let's see what comes of it."

It remains unclear what damage, if any, the inquiry will inflict on Mr Modi, who has been twice re-elected since coming to office in 2001 as the state's chief minister and who has sometimes been mentioned as a possible future prime minister of India. Indeed, with no small irony, in both his re-election campaigns, the 59-year-old has projected himself as someone capable of protecting Gujarat against "terrorism". While never specifically attacking Muslims, he has wrapped himself in the orange robes of Hindu nationalism.

He and his advisers have also projected him as a man who can do business and someone capable of pushing the development of Gujarat. Many say he has also encouraged a cult of personality, controlled with a firmness that borders on the authoritarian. Not only did Mr Modi refuse to be interviewed but his spokesman declined to comment or answer written questions, and both personal friends and senior members of his party refused to speak without his permission.

One of those quick to give credit to the chief minister was Rupesh Shah, president of the Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He said that for 10 years the state had enjoyed doubled-digit growth that was comparable to that of China and that Mr Modi has overseen an expansion of electricity generation, infrastructure and higher education facilities.

"He has also provided safety. Since Modi has come to power – forget about 2002 – there has not been a single incident of religious violence for seven-and-a-half years," he said. "Today, a Muslim is more safe here than anywhere else in India. The average Muslim's income is double that anywhere else." The minister has certainly been quick to embrace India's major industries and has in return received warm words from many of its major tycoons, including Ratan Tata, who switched production of his 100,000 rupee Nano car to Gujarat after running into a labour dispute in West Bengal. Anil Ambani, one of the country's richest industrialists, last year said at a conference in Gujarat: "[Modi] has done good for Gujarat and what will happen if he leads the nation?"

Analysts say that Mr Modi's success has come from selling himself, with a deft gift for slogans and public rhetoric, to the state's growing affluent consumers. While the media in Gujarat might grumble about his authoritarian manner and readiness to launch legal actions, the middle-class appears less concerned. He is basically supported by the middle class," said analyst Achyut Yagnik. "The rise of Modi is a reflection of the rise of the Gujarati middle-class."

It is unclear where the questioning of Mr Modi will lead. The inquiry itself has already been rocked by controversy with its lead prosecutor last month resigning and complaining that some police officers involved were deliberately altering evidence to "protect some of those accused".

Others think it is at least progress that Mr Modi is being questioned, though they say questions alone are not enough. Tanveer Jafri, son of the murdered politician who gave his life trying to save his neighbours, said: "This will be a whitewash unless charges are brought."

Religious tensions: The Gujarat Riots

The Gujarat Riots broke out following the death of 58 Hindu activists and pilgrims following a fire that swept through the Sabarmarti Express while the train was stopped at the city of Godhra on 27 February 2002.

It was alleged that the inferno was started by a gang of Muslims, but subsequent investigations suggested it was a cooking fire incident. Among those killed were 20 children. Word spread that Muslims had caused the deaths and that they had stockpiled petrol to hurl at the train. Across the state, Hindu groups announced that the following day they would enforce a strike, or "bandh", in protest.

The backlash was swift. In more than 150 towns and almost 1,000 villages, violence erupted, overwhelmingly Hindu attacks on Muslim communi- ties. While there are some reports of Muslims attacking Hindus, few dispute that most victims were members of the minority community that make up 10 per cent of the state's population. The official death toll said 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed, though a number of rights groups estimate the toll at double that. The Indian Supreme Court likened Mr Modi to a "modern-day Nero", while the US government refused him a visa on the grounds that he had "violated religious freedom".

In 2007, an investigation by the magazine Tehelka claimed that Mr Modi had approved of the killings. Using hidden cameras, it quoted Haresh Batt, at the time the leader of a fundamentalist Hindu organisation, as saying: "[Modi] had given us three days to do whatever we could."