Friday 30 April 2010

Respect stands for fairness in an unequal Britain

By Salma Yaqoob

The only choice the mainstream parties are offering between themselves is that of those who call for savage cuts now to public spending, or savage cuts a bit later.

The Chancellor, Alistair Darling, has set the tone. He promises cuts that will be “deeper and tougher” than those carried out by Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s.

Those cuts, we should remember, led to city after city in Britain becoming industrial ghost-towns, as millions were thrown on the scrap heap of the dole and there were scenes of riots on our streets.

The election is being dominated by the national deficit. But the debate around this issued is skewed by the shared consensus of the three main parties about the necessity for deep cuts.

There is a different, and in my view, much more convincing argument that can be put.

The deficit in Britain is not exceptionally high by historical standards. Britain’s deficit was higher throughout much of the nineteenth century, when it expanded to be the workshop of the world. It was much higher in 1945, when the country was devastated after six years of war, and in every year through to the 1960s.

Yet this was the time when real Labour policies led to the creation of the National Health Service and the building of 200,000 council houses a year. Millions of people who had endured slum conditions in the 1930s moved into decent housing for the first time.

The way to reduce the deficit is through investment, not cutbacks which will leave more people out of work and less spending, which both result in less money paid in tax and a HIGHER deficit.

But to finance that investment, we have to reorder priorities.

Instead of spending up to £96 billion on Trident nuclear weapons we should scrap it.

A clampdown on tax avoidance by the super rich, who find lawyers to find loopholes, could save this country £25 billion in lost taxes.

Dumping plans to introduce ID cards and withdrawing troops from Afghanistan could save £10 billion.

There are alternatives to getting us out of the recession without ordinary people, who have no responsibility for getting us into it, having to pay the cost.

In these elections, local and national, Respect is arguing for something different. And we stand a chance of winning more seats in Parliament and local councils, where we can make those policies a part of the political picture, as we have in east London and Birmingham over the last five years.

With the possibility of a parliament where no party has an overall majority, Respect’s presence could prove critical. If just three Respect MPs are returned from our strongest areas, we will have an impact way beyond our numbers.

And we have got a real chance of making a breakthrough. In my own seat of Hall Green, the retiring Labour MP Lynne Jones has issued a statement endorsing my campaign and attacking my Labour opponent Roger Godsiff. Speaking in the House of Commons and to the Birmingham media, she criticised the selection of the Labour candidate and said, “Salma Yaqoob is an excellent candidate of great ability who, as a councillor, has shown she works hard for her constituents. I have a lot of time for her.”

Lynne’s endorsement of me follows on from the Green Party stepping down their candidate and calling for a vote for me as they support my stances on social justice and believe I can win this seat. When I stood in the 2005 General Election I came from nowhere to slash a 16,000 Labour majority to 3,000 and nearly win the seat. This time I believe we can go one further. And so do growing numbers of voters in the community. My election launch rally earlier this month had over 1,300 people. Not only was this the largest in the city, it was probably the largest in the country.

In this election voters in a number of constituencies will have an opportunity to vote for Respect candidates who have records second to none in being a voice for the voiceless, either in this country or abroad. At a time when waves of Islamophobic hatred are sweeping across Europe and lapping at out shores, the Muslim community is going to need as many advocates and defenders in the Parliament. With its support, I can be one of those. But the prize is not just about Muslims having a voice, but having a voice for all those who feel they have been abandoned, regardless of their background.

If we want representatives who want to bring some fairness to a grotesquely unequal Britain and to change the political system that has become so discredited, then helping to get Respect elected will be a major step in that direction.

Salma Yaqoob is standing as a Parliamentary candidate for Respect Unity Coalition in Hall Green, Birmingham. She is also Leader of the Party.


Thursday 29 April 2010

Egypt sentences 26 for plotting Hezbollah terrorist campaign

22 jailed, four on the run, as Cairo court convicts on charges of spying, arms smuggling and Sinai resorts attack plot

Twenty-six Arabs have been sentenced to prison in Egypt after being convicted of planning terrorist attacks on ships and tourist sites on behalf of the Lebanese Shia organisation Hezbollah, which claimed it was seeking to support Palestinian resistance to Israel in the Gaza Strip.

The emergency state security court in Cairo today handed down jail terms ranging from six months to life to 22 suspects of Palestinian, Lebanese, Egyptian and Sudanese origin. Four other men who are still on the run, including the alleged cell leader, were convicted in their absence. Sami Shihab, a Lebanese citizen who Hezbollah had previously confirmed was a member, was given a 15-year sentence.

The defendants were charged with spying on ships in the Suez canal, planning attacks on resorts popular with Israeli tourists in the Sinai peninsula and with smuggling weapons into the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas. Three of the suspects were charged with digging tunnels under Egypt's border with Gaza.

Cries of "Allahu akbar" – God is great – rang out when the sentences were handed down in the heavily guarded courtroom.

Lawyers said the accused were trying to support the Palestinian resistance and that some of them had been tortured – a common occurrence in Egyptian prisons.

"The verdict proves only that the case is politically motivated," defence lawyer Abdul-Monem Abdel-Maqsud told al-Jazeera TV. "It only serves the Zionist entity which has welcomed the trial as it diverts attention away from calls to try their Gaza war criminals."

The controversial case illuminated one of the Middle East's great divides: between US-backed Egypt, with its peace treaty with Israel – and Hezbollah, which is supported by Syria and Iran. Hezbollah has sought to play it down since the trial began last summer but maintains that its only interest was backing Palestinian resistance to the Jewish state.

Judge Adel Abdel-Salam Gomaa said investigations showed the group had intended "to strike Egypt's economy, destroy the bonds between its people and create chaos and instability." The accused denied the charges but prosecutors produced video footage showing explosives in premises they had used.

No appeal against the sentences is possible but there is already speculation in Cairo about possible presidential pardons as the Egyptian leader, Hosni Mubarak, seeks to improve his long-strained relations with his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad.

Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's secretary-general, described the charges as revenge for the organisation's denunciation of Egypt's support for the Israeli blockade of Gaza. In December 2008, as Israel carried out its offensive in the Gaza Strip, Nasrallah accused Mubarak of "taking part in the crime" of Israel's onslaught an called for the overthrow of his regime.


Wednesday 28 April 2010

Mosques slam politicisation of ‘burqa driver’ incident

A grouping of Mosques in the French city of Nantes, where a local woman was fined earlier this month for driving in an Islamic veil, complained on Sunday of the media hype and politicisation of the incident.

A grouping of mosques in the western French city of Nantes issued a statement condemning the political controversy and media hype surrounding a fine levyed on a local Muslim woman earlier this month for wearing a full Islamic veil while driving.

“The Association of Nantes Mosques considers that the decision to detain and fine a woman for driving in a full Islamic veil is a judicial procedure. It should in no way be turned into a political affair or a debate on Islam,” the statement said.

“Once again, Muslims and Islam are the victims of a wave of media frenzy surrounding a minor, insignificant incident which does not represent the beliefs or lifestyle of the vast majority of Muslims living in France," the statement went on to say, adding: "We are concerned about this systematic stigmatisation, which goes against the fundamental values of the Republic."

Safety risk

The 31-year-old Algerian-born French woman was fined €22 for driving in a niqab, a black veil that covers the face but not the eyes. Police said the veil posed a “safety risk” when worn while driving.

The incident reached ministerial levels on Saturday, when French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux asked Immigration Minister Eric Besson to look into whether the woman’s husband could be stripped of his French nationality after an investigation revealed that he was a polygamist who was simultaneously married to four women. The man also has 12 children.

"Each of these women benefits from single-parent benefits and ... each one wears the full veil," Hortefeux said, in a letter seen by the Reuters news agency. Hortefeux also asked authorities to look into bringing fraud charges against the family for taking advantage of French social services.

The unnamed woman has contested the fine, arguing that neither her vision nor her movements are impaired by wearing theniqab.

The controversy comes just two days after French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged parliament to pass a ban on wearing the full Islamic veil in all public places, eschewing more moderate proposals that focused on imposing limits only within state institutions such as schools and town halls.


Monday 26 April 2010

Tragedy Shines Light On Lives Of Yemeni Child Brides

Nujood Ali, a former child bride in Yemen, demonstrates outside parliament in San'a, Yemen, on March 23 in support of proposed legislation banning the marriage of girls under 17. Ali was granted a historic divorce in 2008 at age 9 after her impoverished father forced her into an arranged marriage with a man 20 years older

In early April, a 13-year-old girl in Yemen bled to death after being forced to have intercourse with her 23-year-old husband.

More than one-quarter of girls in Yemen are married before the age of 15, according to a 2009 study by the government's Ministry of Social Affairs, but they rarely come forward to protest or complain.

That's been changing lately, and later this month, the Yemeni parliament is set to vote on whether to impose a minimum-marriage age of 17 for women and 18 for men.

It all started with a little girl named Nujood Ali, who had a little voice and a bold plan.

In February 2008, when she was 9, Ali was married to a man in his 30s. Her father -- a poor shepherd who had more than a dozen children -- was paid a dowry of about $750.

Ali was sent to a remote village to live with her husband's family. From the first night, her husband forced himself on her and beat her when she resisted.

She persuaded her husband to let her visit her family in Yemen's capital, San'a. She went to her stepmother for advice. If you want to end this marriage, the stepmother said, why don't you go to court?

Ali says that she spoke with her stepmother on a Tuesday, spent the whole night thinking about it, and then decided to go the next morning.

Four feet tall and dirt poor, Ali took a minibus to a taxi and a taxi to the courthouse. She recalls how frightened she was when she walked up to the first judge she saw -- and asked for a divorce.

The divorce eventually was granted in April 2008. Ali was flown to New York to receive an award from Glamour magazine, and her story is the subject of new a memoir she wrote with a French journalist. These days, she is somewhat of a celebrity in Yemen.

New Kind Of Child Marriage

But women's-rights advocates in Yemen say Nujood Ali's story is only one of what could be millions. Rashida al-Hamdani heads a government organization for the advancement of women. She says the custom of child marriage is not new in this region. What's new is the way it's practiced.

"All our mothers got married at the age of 13, 12, 11. The men usually were [a] similar age ... and [the girl] was mostly living [with] the families. So they were taking care of her, and she was not to be touched until maturation. It's different now," Hamdani says.

In other words, the larger extended family made sure the young man waited to consummate the marriage at least until his wife had reached puberty. But now, that tribal culture is breaking down, and nuclear families live apart from the larger group.

And because Yemen is increasingly overpopulated and impoverished, many families see marrying their young daughters and receiving dowries as a way to survive.

"Some families are getting rid of their girls because of poverty. Some of them are selling their children, and some of them are -- they think it's what you call sitr istr bintak, which means you have to cover the girl, put her in a place where she will be protected," Hamdani says

Edict Of Islam Or Ingrained Tradition?

This idea of sitr in the Arab world means it's better to marry off your daughter than to let her become the object of men's desires, which brings shame to the family. The debate in Yemen, and in neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia, is whether Islam -- or merely tradition -- dictates these practices. It's said that the Prophet Muhammad's beloved wife Aisha was just 9 years old when the two were betrothed.

But Islamic scholar Shoqi al-Qahdi says that doesn't mean all Muslims should do the same now.

"That was 1,400 years ago," Qahdi says. "Nowadays we are more protective of children."

Qahdi is also a member of parliament who supports a law that would set the minimum marriage age at 17. The law passed last year but then was repealed and sent back to committee after some lawmakers called it un-Islamic. The committee is expected to make a final decision later this month.

Qahdi says he thinks those who oppose the bill will come around, mainly because of the health risks associated with early marriage.

The mother of the girl who died earlier this month said the victim bled to death after she was tied down and raped by her husband. And last year, a 12-year-old girl died after three days in labor.

Matrimony And The Matter Of Money

Shada Nasr is the lawyer who defended now-famous Nujood Ali. She says even if the law passes, it will take time and resources to implement it. But at least now girls know they have a way out.

"After Nujood's case, now we have proof to explain [to] parliament and the government, this marriage ... is illegal. ... This is official rape, OK, this is not marriage," she says.

Most times, Nasr says, the way to get a girl divorced is with money. But money is in short supply in Yemen these days.

Take the example of how one Yemeni father who sells spices on the street struggles to get by, Nasr says. He makes about $1 or $2 a day, with which he needs to support his family of five.

But then, someone comes to ask about his daughters and offers $1,000 or $2,000.

"That means this man, he can open ... a very nice window for new future," she says.

Suppose, though, that the daughter in this family later wants a divorce from the man who paid $1,000 for her. Her husband might grant the divorce, but only if he can get his money back, so he can pay for another wife. The girl's father has already spent the money. So who will pay for the divorce?

'I Should Be In School'

One girl, who goes only by the name Sali, was forced to marry her older cousin when she was 10. Her husband, too, forced her to have sex with him and beat her when she resisted. She eventually ran away and now wants a divorce.

Sali says she followed Ali's example and took her case to court. The police detained Sali's husband and father while her divorce proceedings went forward. Aid groups and private individuals raised the $1,000 the husband demanded in lost dowry. Now, Sali says she will never marry again.

Sali says that she didn't know what marriage was really about: "I thought it was just a dress, it was just [about] gold."

At one point, Sali looks over her shoulder, worried that a neighbor might see her talking to a reporter. "I should be in school," she says, looking down. A girl like me, she says, should be going to school.


Sunday 25 April 2010

Stop Telling Muslim Women How to Dress

A lot of people need to calm down about this subject. Whether it’s among non-Muslims, Muslims, or fascist Islamophobes in Europe and North America, there seems to be a growing obsession with Muslim women and the way they dress.

A few weeks ago, I attended an event as part of “Islamic Awareness Week” hosted by a local university where a panel of three Muslim women shared their personal experiences and views on Islam and modesty. Two of the women wore hijaab (headscarf) and one didn’t, which apparently, I’m sorry to say, seemed enough to draw controversy.

In the Q&A discussion, a young Muslim man said something that made me take pause and then realize how utterly offensive and repulsive his comment was. He argued that the Qur’an is “not spiritual,” but rather “practical,” especially in regards to hijaab because, according to him, “the hijaab is supposed to cover a woman’s neck and I admit, when I see a woman’s neck, I get attracted.” I smiled and looked at one of the panelists, a friend of mine, who also smiled at the absurdity of his comment. I followed up by tossing the panel a question that was set up for my friend to spike the young man’s comment: “I am sick and tired of men telling Muslim women how to dress,” she said boldly. She included both the Muslim men who impose hijaab/niqaab/burqa on Muslim women and the Islamophobes who are hell-bent on banning these styles of dress.

I am familiar with the young man’s views on hijaab and modesty. I used to say similar things myself. I would see Muslim women wearing tight shirts, jeans, and no hijaab, and I would judge them in my thoughts: “Look at how she’s dressed and she calls herself ‘Muslim’?” Then I would gripe to my Muslim friends, both female and male, about how “westernized” Muslim women are becoming. I remember coming across Muslim women wearing hijaab and tight jeans and thinking how hypocritical she must be. And the reason why my Muslim friends and I were so upset about this was because such manner of dress drew lustful and sexual gazes from men. In other words, I believed that, for the most part, Muslim women were responsible for the “uncontrollable” sexual urges of men.

It was always a Muslim woman’s fault. If some ignorant non-Muslim playfully tugged her hijaab in the computer lab, it was her fault because she gave him the liberty to be that free with her. If a man was checking her out, it was her fault because she didn’t choose to wear a long shirt. Unfortunately, I find this sexist mentality to be very prevalent in Sunni orthodoxies, especially among Muslim men. The disturbing thing, in my opinion, is how I thought that everything I believed about Muslim women, how they should dress, and how they should behave was not sexist, but actually liberating because it taught Muslim women how to be “real,” “respectable” women.

Over the years, I learned that it wasn’t about liberating women. It was about controlling them and molding them the way *I* wanted them to be. The way a lot Muslim *men* want them to be: obedient, passive, soft-spoken, sensitive, reserved, etc. In my mind, it was improper and sacrilegious for Muslim women to even flirt with a man, to even make a mentioning of sex, to even have male friends. Why? Because with this sexist, over-controlling, and uber-conservative mindset, it is always about sex.


Why can’t Muslim women be friends with men? Because there is a chance of sex. Why can’t Muslim women laugh or smile at a man? Because one of them might be thinking about sex. Why can’t Muslim women and Muslim men shake hands? Because they might get so turned on that they’ll rip each other’s clothes off and start having sex. Oh my God, if I hear a woman give the azaan (call to prayer), I’ll start thinking about sex because a woman’s voice is attractive and alluring. Oh no, we can’t take the partition out of the Mosques, the women and men won’t be able to keep their hands off each other. As if there’s a high risk of a giant orgy or something. That sounds practical.

And it’s not that sex is a bad thing — it’s not — but when it’s used in this hyper-sexual context to control the way women think, behave, and dress, it becomes something very dirty. Extremely dirty (see the paragraph above). Over time, this made me very uncomfortable because on one hand, Muslims would stress so much on “modesty” and not seeing each other as sex objects, but ironically, that is exactly what we were doing: sexually objectifying each other. The young Muslim man at the event who said he gets attracted by a woman’s neck is talking about her as a sex object, as if her body is so tempting that he cannot resist it, hence she must cover up. It also made me wonder if he had any idea how disgusting and sexual his comment was, considering that the majority of women (Muslim and non-Muslim) in the room had their necks visible? What is he saying, that he is thinking about each and every one of them sexually? And that if his mind is flooded with sexual thoughts, it is their fault?

This needs to stop. Muslim men need to stop examining Muslim women like lab specimens and instead, turn inward and look at themselves. It’s like blaming a rape victim and saying “she was just asking for it” because of the way she was dressed. Too often, I’ve heard Muslim men tell me, “Oh brother, look at the way Muslim women dress these days. They have no dignity, they don’t care about the Sunnah or Islam.” Too often, I’ve heard Muslim men point out a Muslim woman and say, “Look at how she’s wearing tight jeans” or a “t-shirt” or “not even wearing hijaab.”

My response is: So? Let them dress however they want. Look at you, I say sometimes to certain Muslim men, you’re wearing a muscle shirt, you don’t think you’re showing off your skin or that women can’t get attracted? How can you look into a person’s soul and judge them based on what they are wearing? The Qur’an talks so much about humility, yet so many of us are quick to make judgments about a person’s faith, as if we have some authority to do so. I have known Muslim women who don’t wear hijaab and are more religious/spiritual than I am. I have known Muslim women who wear hijaab, but hardly know anything about the Prophet’s life (peace be upon him). This doesn’t mean one is better than the other. The way a Muslim woman dresses should not be seen as reflective of her faith.

As a Muslim man, I tend to stay away from this topic of how Muslim women dress only because I see so many other Muslim men arrogantly giving lectures, writing books, and dictating in Mosques about how Muslim women *should* dress. Where are the lectures, books, and sermons that tell men to keep themselves in check? Why is there this sexist double-standard and attitude that Muslim women cannot be attracted to Muslim men either? Where are the imams and religious leaders who say, “If you’re getting turned on by a woman’s neck, that is your problem because *you* are seeing her as a sex object?” The truth is that Muslim men can have sexual thoughts about Muslim women regardless if they’re wearing hijaab or not, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. If a man feels distracted by sexual thoughts, it is not because of the way Muslim women are dressed, it is because his mind has wandered off in that direction. He should not blame a Muslim woman for his issues, he should turn inward and deal with it himself.

There is nothing wrong with desire and attraction. We are naturally attracted to each other as human beings. It is the way God made us and Islam does not teach celibacy, but rather to fulfill our desires in responsible ways. I am not saying we should see each other as sex objects, I am saying we should be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that yes, you may see someone in the Mosque or at an MSA event that you are attracted to, but that doesn’t mean your thoughts are “evil” and “impure.” How can we talk so much about marriage in Muslim communities without also talking about attraction, physical and non-physical? There is such a thing as Love and marriage where people find their partners beautiful and attractive, and don’t view/treat one another as sex objects.

We need to stop obsessing over the way Muslim women dress because it continues to lead to many problems that exists in our communities today: awkward and often hypersexualized gender interactions/relations, stigmatization of non-hijaab Muslim women, sexism and misogyny, and even problems in relationships/marriage, among many other things. If we really care about God’s Love and Compassion, then why make others in our community — people we are supposed to consider our spiritual sisters and brothers — feel like “bad” or “deviant” Muslims just because they don’t dress the way *we* want them to?

Why not express our compassion by accepting each other for who they are, treat everyone equally and refrain from making judgments? Isn’t that what humility is about?


Saturday 24 April 2010

Women to blame for earthquakes, says Iran cleric

A senior Iranian cleric says women who wear revealing clothing and behave promiscuously are to blame for earthquakes.

Iran is one of the world's most earthquake-prone countries, and the cleric's unusual explanation for why the earth shakes follows a prediction by the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that a quake is certain to hit Tehran and that many of its 12 million inhabitants should relocate.

"Many women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes," Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi was quoted as saying by Iranian media. Women in the Islamic Republic are required by law to cover from head to toe, but many, especially the young, ignore some of the more strict codes and wear tight coats and scarves pulled back that show much of the hair. "What can we do to avoid being buried under the rubble?" Sedighi asked during a prayer sermon last week. "There is no other solution but to take refuge in religion and to adapt our lives to Islam's moral codes." Seismologists have warned for at least two decades that it is likely the sprawling capital will be struck by a catastrophic quake in the near future. Some experts have even suggested Iran should move its capital to a less seismically active location. Tehran straddles scores of fault lines, including one more than 50 miles long, though it has not suffered a major quake since 1830.

In 2003, a powerful earthquake hit the southern city of Bam, killing 31,000 people – about a quarter of that city's population – and destroying its ancient mud-built citadel.

"A divine authority told me to tell the people to make a general repentance. Why? Because calamities threaten us," said Sedighi, Tehran's acting Friday prayer leader. Referring to the violence that followed last June's disputed presidential election, he said: "The political earthquake that occurred was a reaction to some of the actions [that took place]. And now, if a natural earthquake hits Tehran, no one will be able to confront such a calamity but God's power, only God's power ... So let's not disappoint God."

The Iranian government and its security forces have been locked in a bloody battle with a large opposition movement that accuses Ahmadinejad of winning last year's vote by fraud.

Ahmadinejad made his quake prediction two weeks ago but said he could not give an exact date. He acknowledged that he could not order all of Tehran's 12m people to evacuate. "But provisions have to be made ... at least 5 million should leave Tehran so it is less crowded," the president said.

The welfare minister, Sadeq Mahsooli, said prayers and pleas for forgiveness were the best "formulae to repel earthquakes. We cannot invent a system that prevents earthquakes, but God has created this system and that is to avoid sins, to pray, to seek forgiveness, pay alms and self-sacrifice," Mahsooli said.


Friday 23 April 2010

The Turkish Imam and His Global Educational Mission

October, 1992. the Soviet Union has disbanded and chaos reigns in its former territories. Three times a week, a rattly Russian charter plane filled with young Muslim devotees flies east from Istanbul across barren, low-lying steppes to the capitals of Central Asia. The men are clean-cut, sharply dressed in dark suits and ties, trim of mustache and purposeful. It is the first foray out of their hometown for most, let alone on a plane, but such is their faith in Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish Muslim imam they revere. "Fly like swallows," Gulen exhorted, "to these countries that are newly free, as an expression of our brotherhood."

Fly they did. Hundreds of volunteer teachers fanned out across five Central Asian republics. It was the start of a global movement that is now one of the largest and most powerful competing for the future of Islam around the world. There are an estimated 1,000 Gulen-affiliated schools in 100 countries — from Malawi to the U.S. — offering a blend of religious faith and largely Western curriculum. All are inspired by Gulen, an enigmatic retired preacher who oversees the schools — and a multibillion-dollar business empire — from the unlikeliest of locales: rural Pennsylvania.

Tall, lanky and possessing a smooth American accent, chemistry teacher Abdurrahman Sel was introduced to the Gulen movement while a high school student in Istanbul. His dad thought his garrulous nature would make him a good lawyer, but Sel was inspired to become a teacher because Gulen considers it the highest form of service. The only way for Islam to survive godless modernity and regain a place in public life, Gulen believes, is through a new "golden generation" who can combine Western scientific thinking with religious belief. Hence the schools.

Sel signed on for Central Asia in 1993 and drew Shymkent, a city in southern Kazakhstan. "It wasn't even on a map or in the encyclopedia," he recalls. "There was no Internet then. But I was just out of university, I was single, and it was all a big adventure. Besides, we owed the people of Central Asia a moral debt. They are our brothers." Many Turks see Central Asia as their ancestral homeland and share an ethnic and linguistic bond with its people.

From Kazakhstan's then capital Almaty, Sel traveled by bus and shared car to the grim mining city and a shell of a school building donated by Kazakh authorities. "There was no heating. I taught in fur hat and gloves for months. We spent our weekends mixing cement and laying bricks." At first locals were wary of these strangers who couldn't speak their language, wore a tie even on weekends and refused vodka, as ubiquitous as water. "Everyone expected us to leave after a few months," Sel says. "But when we stayed, they embraced us."
Sel is now director of 28 high schools in Kazakhstan, from three when he first arrived. Entrance is by competitive exam. This year, 30,000 students applied for 1,400 spots and everyone I spoke to in Almaty, from a fashion editor to a construction magnate, wanted their child enrolled. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev's nephews are among Sel's students.

Gulen, the 68-year-old retired imam behind this colossal enterprise has never visited Central Asia. He leads an ascetic life on an estate in Pennsylvania, where he has lived since 1999 for medical reasons, and to avoid facing (recently dropped) charges of seeking to overthrow the secular regime in Turkey. Gulen declined TIME's request for an interview, citing poor health.

His life mission has been to create a new Turkish-affiliated Muslim elite, well versed in science and technology, successful in a global free-market economy, yet extremely devout. The schools — they are autonomous, so not technically "his" — teach an English-language Western curriculum emphasizing science and math in the classroom (though creationism is offered as fact alongside evolution) and Muslim family-values-style conservatism outside it. In an era when most denominational schools are struggling, the Turkish schools, as they are known, are thriving.

"Gulen propagates a kind of 'educational Islamism' as opposed to a 'political Islamism,' " says Bill Park, a defense studies lecturer at King's College, London, who covers Turkey. Through the schools, Park says, Gulen hoped to effect "an 'Islamization' of modernity."

Emotional Appeal

Gulen's method is similar to the way in which Catholic Jesuits spread religion by emphasizing a well-rounded education. In fact, Gulen's first recruits were instructed by Christian missionaries with experience in Africa and South America. The method is also deeply controversial, and Russia and Uzbekistan have closed several of the schools. Depending on whom you ask, Gulen is either a saint or the next Khomeini (although he criticizes Iran and Saudi Arabia, for giving Islam a bad name). To followers, he is Hodjaefendi (respected teacher).
Gulen was born in a poor eastern Turkish village and began studying the Koran as a child under the tutelage of his father, a preacher. He was "electrified" as a young adult by the work of Said Nursi, a Sufi-inspired Islamic thinker of the early 1900s who emphasized the individual dimension of faith and sought to reconcile Western scientific thought and Islam. Gulen trained as a state-licensed preacher and, from 1966, he began building up a base of devotees in the western city of Izmir.

He started summer camps teaching Islamic tenets and then persuaded local businessmen to fund private dorms for low-income university students from rural areas. Students were given free room and board in exchange for a daily diet of prayer and listening to Gulen audiotapes. It was the start of a vast network of schools, universities and businesses, all promoting Islam-based ethics. He toured Turkey throughout the 1980s and '90s to cement it.
Like an American evangelist, Gulen's appeal lies mainly in his delivery. He is media savvy and emotional, frequently breaking into poetry or tears. That strikes a chord with millions of Turks who feel that modern, secular Turkey has alienated them from their Muslim belief. He also glorifies the Ottoman imperial past, appealing to a time when religion was a part of public life and the Turks were far mightier.

His is not a new interpretation of Islam — he believes that Islamic tenets as revealed in the Koran are unalterable — but he engages with modern concerns like running a successful business or how to pray while on a plane. He doesn't sport a beard and he wears suits. Since 9/11, he has made interfaith dialogue a priority. His followers hold dozens of such meetings across North America every week.

To secularist Turks, however, Gulen is a sinister figure, a puppet master readying his cadres for the great Islamist takeover. They accuse Gulen of taqiya, an Islamic concept by which believers can conceal their real intentions if circumstances so require. One oft-cited tape released in 1999 featured Gulen calling on his supporters to "work patiently" and "creep silently" into state institutions in order to gain power. He claimed his words were manipulated.

Secularist hostility makes the movement secretive. There is no reliable data on the size of Gulen's following because one doesn't sign up to join and it has no official legal status. But it is growing in power. Gulen supporters are estimated to number at least 6 million, according to academics researching the phenomenon. (More surprising is a former Interior Minister's estimate that 70% of Turkey's national police forces are Gulen devotees.) "If they were a political party, they could post 20 to 25 MPs," says Nedim Sener, an investigative journalist. "Any movement that wields that much power needs to be transparent, like an NGO. Who belongs to it? How is it funded? What goes on in the schools they run? What are its political goals? These are all issues shrouded in secrecy."

An Education

To my Catholic-school-trained eye, the schools I visit in Almaty and Bishkek appear familiar. They are largely segregated. Uniforms are compulsory. At the girls' school in Almaty, students wear checked skirts that are a little longer than their peers at other schools. Makeup is frowned upon, collars are buttoned and there is an emphasis on being "a good girl."
I am allowed to roam freely and speak to the students, a bright-eyed, earnest bunch who make the average Western high schooler seem terribly decadent in comparison. There are no punk kids smoking secretly in a corner, no baggy, low-waisted pants or pierced noses. They all want to be engineers and doctors "useful to my country." A group of seniors swotting for the SAT reel off a list of Ivy League schools they're applying to. I tease them by telling them about keg parties and they are mildly horrified. "I guess you can never say never," says Nazerkem Idibayeva, 16, cautiously adjusting wire-rimmed glasses. "But I don't think I will ever need beer to have fun."

The schools owe their success in part to strict control. Every minute of the day is structured. Boarding is mandatory and students live with older "brothers" and "sisters" who act as both confidants and mentors. Originally these came from Turkey but local graduates have taken over. Temsil, or leading by example, is key, not least because proselytizing in most Central Asian nations is banned. "The kids are socialized into a Muslim way of life," says Berna Turam, a sociologist at Northeastern University who has spent a decade studying the Gulen movement. "There is a very religious universe indoctrinated by extracurricular activities. That's what makes the schools like Catholic schools."

The schools also vigorously promote Turkic pride. They all teach Turkish language, and Istanbul occupies the aspirational place in students' imagination that New York City does elsewhere in the world. Unlike Western-looking Turkey, in identity-seeking post-Soviet Central Asia this blend of ethnic pride, Muslim values and secular education is welcomed. "Under Russian rule, we forgot our traditions and values," says Dana Arystanbekova, 33, who runs a large construction firm in Almaty and recently enrolled her daughter Dinara in the girls' school. "The schools have a very high level of education in English and they also teach good Turkish, Muslim values, terbiye [manners]." The schools started out free but now collect tuition — the aim being not to teach the poor but to train a future elite. Tuition in Almaty is $5,000 a year. Running a school costs about $800,000 a year and that's where businesses come in — and the tithe.

Here's how Gulen, Inc. works: in 1991 Gulen gathered several dozen businessmen from different Turkish cities and to each he entrusted a different city in Central Asia. The man from the western city of Adapazari got Bishkek, the one from Izmir got Almaty. Each sent a delegation to live there and establish businesses importing food or textiles or TVs. The group took advantage of the infrastructure vacuum created by the Soviet collapse and built up ties with officials. Eventually they were granted vacant buildings or classrooms. "Mutualism," says Sel, ever the science teacher. "The schools and businesses feed each other." Like cells, every country's program is fully autonomous, with their own office back in Turkey. Though just a two-hour drive apart, administrators in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan barely knew each other.

Saulesh Kusainova, then 35, was in charge of facilities at the Ministry of Education in Almaty in 1992 when a group of Turkish men appeared in her office. They spoke neither Kazakh nor Russian but "I understood they wanted a building for a school," she says. She eventually gave them two classrooms, one each for boys and girls, and was paid with bags of cash transported from Turkey. "I knew instantly they were good, decent people," she says, taking a framed photo of Gulen, whom she calls her teacher, from her purse. "It was impossible not to be affected by them. At that time, Kazakhstan was a mess and these people came to help us." Many people I speak to cite gratitude. "Kazakhstan then was like Afghanistan today," says Muhsin Karademir, a Kazakh real estate developer. "You couldn't walk down the street because someone would pull a gun."

The schools serve to reinforce the businesses; graduates patronize them and a network of alumni builds. Restaurateur Sancak Demirci started out in 1994 with a small shop serving kebabs in downtown Almaty. Two years ago he expanded to a sleek, marbled, two-story venue, and is about to launch three franchises across Kazakhstan. "When you are called on to serve and you believe, you do anything," he says. "Imagine a kind of love beyond what you feel for your children, that's what this community shares. Whatever I own, is for the schools." He says he contributes half his monthly earnings to the cause.
Two Faces

Schools are less reliant on Turkish donors now that parents and graduates contribute. "I don't know anyone who doesn't support these guys," says Karademir. "I'm not a religious guy. But I admire the work they do. Would I have come here under those conditions? Hell, no. But they did. People recognize that and are grateful."
The movement has two faces. Pushing abroad, largely under secular regimes, 
 it is maturing and becoming more tolerant. To be sure, the youthful men who run 
 it abide by a strict code. (The decision makers are all men, their wives rarely work.) They believe in one truth and see everybody else as in need of saving. But they also teach children of all religions, watch Kung-Fu Panda with their students, often speak fluent Russian and jump over bonfires at Newroz, a pagan new-year tradition. "If people are scared of us," says Sel, "it means we haven't explained ourselves. To judge someone's lifestyle is up to God, not me."
Add a quest for power to that fervor, though, and it gets complicated. In Turkey the movement is insular, growing and seems to harbor a mysterious political agenda. "On one level you have activities like the schools, which are hard not to be impressed by," says King's College lecturer Park. "Then there's the political element, which appears suspicious because it's rich, secretive and nobody really knows what it's up to." Gulen says he is opposed to theocracy, yet his supporters suggest that they would like more space for Islam in public life. But how will that come to pass? The future shape of secularism in Turkey — and around the Islamic world — might rest on that answer.


The Hijaab: Twenty years later

Over the last 10 years, the British Muslim community has endured and witnessed the toughest decade since the post-war period when mass migration of Muslims to Britain took place.

Unlike our elders whose self-segregation from mainstream British society was a defensive reaction to racism, second and third generation Muslims have been under attack for their faith.

By God’s Grace, as far back as 1990, my sister Fatima Alvi and I won the right to wear the Islamic headscarf at Altrincham Grammar School for Girls in Cheshire.

Prior to this, we were suspended from school after two long years of persuasion, and negotiations broke down. Finally, in December 1989, we made a completely independent decision to attend school and refused to remove the covering from our heads. What did we go armed with? Our faith in God and knowledge of our educational rights.

What was all the fuss about? This was not a battle of wills and we did not want to jeopardise our education. We were privileged and attended one of the best Grammar schools in the country, but we simply wanted to follow our religion as prescribed by the tenets of Islam.

Discussions ensued between ourselves and the head of the school, and on one notable occasion, the Holy Quran was opened and the school insisted that there was no evidence to suggest that we needed to cover our heads at the tender age of 14 and 15 respectively we were not only attempting to secure a basic right to practice our faith, but we were having to justify that donning, what was to us, an inconspicuous cloth on our heads was compulsory in Islam.

This was an out-of-court battle won by the media. Being the first such case of its kind in Britain, it hit the headlines, creating phenomenal national and international media interest.

The tabloid front-pages relished it. The school’s attitude was to find an alternative school, the public’s was, ‘if you don’t like our way of life, then you should go back to your own country.’ Everyone had an opinion and we were the centre of discussion everywhere.

Britain was being tested on its levels of tolerance, something novel for the Muslim community at the time. The school was in the limelight for the wrong reasons – not for their usual academic recognition, but for being intolerant of Islam.

We gained unexpected support from the Commission for Racial Equality, National Union of Teachers, Jewish Gazette, Manchester Council of Mosques; the list was growing and swinging the pendulum back in our direction. So the head and Governing Body were being forced to back down.

My love for wearing hijaab is purely, this: it is a commandment by Allah, my Creator, in the Quran. My scarf is my pride, honour and dignity and it has shaped the person who I am today.

It may bring hardships and difficulties but it is with pride that I deal with these. At the time, anti-Islamic sentiments were not widespread. Our conclusion from the school’s attitude and the piles of hate mail was simply that ignorance prevailed in Britain, but we never considered that these were deeply-rooted prejudices. How naïve we were.

20 years on? I am not so sure.

We are witnessing in Britain, like many in Europe, an unashamed national reaction to the new visibility of Muslims. Our memories are short but need we be reminded of the genocide of Bosnian Muslims in 1992, long before 9/11 and 7/7.

They did not practice Islam assiduously, they inter-married with fellow citizens, and were certainly not visibly Muslim. Nevertheless, this did not prevent a mass victimisation of Muslims through an ethnic cleansing.

In the Summer of 2009, Marwa Al-Sherbini died the ‘headscarf martyr’. Marwa was a 31-year-old veiled Egyptian pharmacist who was brutally stabbed eighteen times in a German courtroom as her 3-year-old son watched.

Her attacker was a German man who was being prosecuted for calling her a “terrorist” and, in one incident, tried to rip off her headscarf. Marwa’s tragic death took place just days after Nicolas Sarkozy gave a major policy speech denouncing the burka and the resurgence of far-right groups in the latest European elections.

We can now ask ourselves this question: does the law afford us any protection in our varying forms of Islamic dress?

The answer in short is ‘No’. The same battles rage on in a climate where prejudices towards Islam and Muslims have intensified beyond comprehension in my lifetime.

The right to wear the hijaab in schools has brought the same arguments back to the drawing board, the arguments which we once faced by our head, whose sentiments echoed “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”. Globalisation has changed multicultural Britain overnight.

New citizens, skins colours, traditions, cultures, religions and open ostentatious symbols means English society has dug its heels in hard and regurgitated the same old clichés of “our way of life”

and “our values”.

We cannot all be deported back to our motherlands, so we are being told the best Muslim is the one we cannot visibly see.

My vision for the next ten years is this. We need to enlighten people so they know that the hijab, niqab and jilbaab are part of our religious freedom.

If you don’t want religious freedom in this country, ban the religion, but don’t ban parts of a religion that don’t fit in with British sensibilities.

Islam is totalitarian and let us not be apologetic for that.

It is one and whole and not to be fragmented to divide Muslims with the introduction of various classifying notions, such as Radicals, Moderates and Islamists.

There is no difference between forcing the hijaab off or forcing it on.

Real practical progression over the next decade will only be seen when Muslims are truly accepted in wider British society and Muslims genuinely feel free to practice their faith.

My vision is a Britain that allows Muslims and all other faiths to practice their faiths openly and freely without the fear of England’s green and pleasant land being taken over by people who are not white enough, or not atheist, secular or Christian enough.

The future is bright, the future is an Islam which is part and parcel of British life.

The solution lies in the hands of each and every single Muslim living in the UK and all Muslim organisations.

I dedicate this short piece to my late father, Dr. Abdur Rab Alvi, 1929 -2006. The dedicated support and guidance through our long, drawn-out hijaab fiasco was exemplary of what a Muslim should be; he displayed humility, tolerance and gentility.

Aisha Alvi, Barrister at Law, LLM (Islamic Law) University of London, aims to use the privilege of her training not for personal gain, but to show the wisdom of the Shariah. Recently, her expertise in Islamic law and the English legal system has led her to be involved as a key advisor in several anti-terror prosecutions. We need to take ownership of our community before others do.


Wednesday 21 April 2010

Green Scare: The Making of the New Muslim Enemy

by Deepa Kumar
The events of September 11 laid the basis for the emergence of a vicious form of Islamophobia that facilitated the U.S. goals of empire building in the 21st century. This form of Islamophobia focused on the enemy "out there" against which the U.S. supposedly had to go to war to protect itself, from Afghanistan to Iraq.

As George Bush famously put it, "We're fighting them there, so we don't have to fight them here." Or as he stated in his West Point speech in 2002, "We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats." In short, an endless "war on terror" on the enemy beyond U.S. borders was now justified, according to Bush.

This initiative led to the arrest and harassment of countless innocent Arabs and Muslims across the U.S. as entire communities were put under suspicion, if not criminalized, in the wake of 9/11.

But the backlash against Muslims was even greater in various European nations. European conservatives argued that Muslims were not properly "integrated" into society and therefore susceptible to jihadist propaganda. Liberals and social democrats often echoed these arguments.

This dimension of Islamophobia has now come to the U.S. Over the last eight months, a string of high-profile cases has led to a media furor around "homegrown terrorism." By this, the media are referring not to the Michigan Militia or the Tea Party lunatics, but to a series of cases involving Muslim U.S. citizens or legal residents charged with planning or being involved in terrorist activity.

Whether the media spotlight was planned or accidental, the net result has been a new turn in Islamophobia and the politics of fear that has striking parallels with the Red Scare of the Cold War. Like the Red Scare, this new "Green Scare" (green referring here to Islam, as opposed to environmental activists) also attempts to promote fear and suspicion of our friends, neighbors, and co-workers.

The most virulent expression of this "Green Scare" was articulated by NYU professor Tunku Varadarajan. In a article titled "Going Muslim" published in November 2009, Varadarajan argued that what precipitated the tragedy at Food Hood -- when Major Nidal Hasan turned a gun against his co-workers and killed 13 -- was not the racist harassment that Hasan faced in the Army or the emotionally debilitating nature of being an overworked Army psychiatrist, but rather a condition that he sees as inherent to all Muslims: the tendency towards violence.

He argued that Hasan didn't "go postal" -- that is, break down and become violent, as postal workers have sometimes. Rather, Varadarajan argued, Hasan was simply enacting in a cold and calculated manner the teachings of Islam.

Varadarajan put it this way: "[T]his phrase ['going Muslim'] would describe the turn of events where a seemingly integrated Muslim-American -- a friendly donut vendor in New York, say, or an officer in the U.S. Army at Fort Hood -- discards his apparent integration into American society and elects to vindicate his religion in an act of messianic violence against his fellow Americans."

In short, Varadarajan argues that all Muslim Americans are "imminently violent," and while they appear to be integrated into American society, they are in fact ticking time bombs who will inevitable explode into a violent, murderous rage. Vardarajan builds his case on the actions of Hasan and Najibullah Zazi (the "friendly donut vendor"), who are made to stand in for all American Muslims.

The case of Zazi, an Afghan citizen and U.S. legal resident, who was arrested in September 2009 on charges of conspiracy to use "weapons of mass destruction," received significant media attention.

This was followed by the arrest of David Coleman Headley, a U.S. citizen arrested a month later for planning an attack on the Danish newspaper that had published racist cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Headley is also believed to have been involved with Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani group that carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks. In December 2009, five young men living in Virginia, all U.S. citizens and many born in the U.S., were arrested in Pakistan for having traveled there to work with the Taliban.

The quick succession of these cases and the attention in the news media inaugurated a new lexicon around "homegrown terrorism." The Washington Post was typical: "[T]he arrests came at a time of growing concern about homegrown terrorism after the recent shootings at the Fort Hood, Tex., military base [Hasan] and charges filed this week against a Chicago man [Headley] accused of playing a role in last year's terrorist attacks in Mumbai." The groundwork was being laid for the new "Green Scare."

For the Obama administration, these high-profile cases presented the perfect context in which to unveil the escalation of war in Afghanistan. Obama himself led the charge in December 2009, in a speech at West Point:

I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al-Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak. This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat. In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror.

Obama's speech doesn't directly refer to "homegrown terrorism." However, it plays on the fear of 9/11 and the threat of terror "coming home" akin to Bush's speeches cited above.

It also relies on the context set by media coverage of the Zazi, Headley, and the Virginia cases, all of which are related to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama's reference to "extremists within our borders" thus adds to the hype about the grave danger that terrorism and "violent extremism" allegedly pose to U.S. citizens. Conveniently, this threat also served to justify sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

The reality, however, flies in the face of this rhetoric. The "threat" to Americans from "global terrorism" is minute, and even this negligible threat has diminished as the number of "terror plots" have declined over the last half a decade. As many experts have noted, there has been a steady and dramatic decline since 2004, with only a slight increase in this overall trend in 2009. Public opinion as well has turned against such activities in Muslim majority countries.

Even Gregory Treverton of the Rand Corporation, a right-wing institution, admitted that the danger posed to Americans by "terrorism" is limited. In a piece that was published in the LA Times he noted that in "the five years after 2001, the number of Americans killed per year in terrorist attacks worldwide was never more than 100, and the toll some years was barely in double figures. Compare that with an average of 63 by tornadoes, 692 in bicycle accidents and 41,616 in motor-vehicle-related accidents." Indeed.

What's more, the State Department's terrorism report released April 2009 states, "Al-Qaeda (AQ) and associated networks continued to lose ground, both structurally and in the court of world public opinion." Nevertheless the report asserts that these organizations "remained the greatest terrorist threat to the United States and its partners in 2008."

What all this reveals is not only the disjuncture between rhetoric and reality, but also the mechanics involved in mobilizing a politics of fear. The end result is a "Green Scare" that serves at least two goals: to justify the existence of draconian measures like those unleashed by the Patriot Act, and to win public support for wars abroad -- not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but potentially Yemen and beyond.

In short, the new Islamophobia or "Green Scare" functions very similarly to the "Red Scare" of the Cold War, when fear of communism was sufficient to justify the McCarthy witch hunts and the policing of domestic dissent, while winning consent for wars in Korea and Vietnam.

The most sensational media treatment of "homegrown terrorism" was the recent case of "Jihad Jane." If the North Virginia case prompted speculation in the press about why five "normal" young men might be moved to fight with the Taliban, the case of Colleen LaRose -- a white, petite, blond, green-eyed woman -- set off a media frenzy. LaRose, a convert to Islam, was indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit terrorist acts in Europe.

Capturing the flavor of various news media reports, a CNN correspondent concluded that "the indictment of Jihad Jane shatters any thought that we can spot a terrorist just by appearance." Like the reds lurking in our neighborhoods, schools and workplaces, the "greens" like LaRose -- who, we are informed, used to live on Main Street and "blended into" American life -- are the new threat. In covering this story, the mainstream media came close to the kind of arguments advanced by Vardarajan and other right-wing ideologues.

This string of cases also prompted reports like the one from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, released in March 2010. Focusing on Zazi, Headley, and Hasan, as well as the North Virginia cases and others in Minnesota, the report suggests that the U.S. needs to clamp down on "internet radicalization" and continue to "puncture" the "clash of civilizations" narrative which is used by al-Qaeda in its recruitment efforts.

The report approvingly notes that "White House officials already have discarded phrases like 'war on radical Islam.'" Yet, the authors add that such rhetorical gestures are insufficient given the reality of war. The key challenge, the report states, is "how to balance the need to combat global terrorism [read: expand the empire] with the drawbacks of large-scale, direct military intervention [read: large scale casualties and the problems of occupation]."

Indeed, this is the challenge that the Obama administration inherited. While Obama may have dropped the use of phrases like the "war on terror" and mitigated some of the worst Islamophobic rhetoric of the Bush administration, he has continued the project of imperial domination.

Islamophobia is the ideological handmaiden of this project and Obama will wield it when necessary. Lest we forget, when "accused" of being a Muslim during the election campaign he "defended" himself rather than take a principled stance in support of Islam and religious freedom. This moment only strengthened the right's cultural racism and seems to have contributed to the new Islamophobia.

The Red Scare destroyed the lives of many people and created a climate of intimidation and fear. Today, the emerging "Green Scare" has a similar potential. It can, however, be successfully resisted by a left that is able to see beyond the dazzle of Obama's Nobel Peace Prize, and expose the project of U.S. imperialism for what it is.

Ultimately, the Red Scare and McCarthyism was ended by the social movements of the 1960s. We need to meet a similar challenge today.


Tuesday 20 April 2010

Cameroon's conjoined twins help spread Islam

By Francis Ngwa Niba
Babanki Tungo, Cameroon

Cameroonian conjoined twins Pheinbom and Shevoboh were seen as a bad omen when born, but their successful separation by Saudi surgeons has changed their lives - and the faith of some in their village.

They were joined at the chest, abdomen and pelvis when born and some of the delivery nurses in Babanki Tungo, a village in north-west Cameroon, were so shocked by the "strange birth" that they ran out of the small clinic.

The basic medical services in Babanki Tungo were ill-equipped to care for the girls and, following an internet appeal, the Saudi king agreed to pay for them to be flown to Saudi Arabia for surgery in 2007.

The 16-hour operation succeeded in separating the twins and now they each have their own stomach.

However, nearly three years on from the surgery, serious physical challenges remain.

After the separation, the girls were left with one leg each, and they are now waiting to return to Saudi Arabia to be fitted with artificial limbs and begin the arduous task of learning how to walk.

At the moment, they can only crawl. Even so, the twins are playful, talkative and mischievous - typical four-year-old girls, in fact.

But when they were born, they were anything but typical.

Islamic conversions

Some people in Babanki Tungo - a farming village known for producing many of Cameroon's vegetables - thought they were "satanic gifts" sent to punish their father, who already had 13 other children by two different wives.

Others believed that Pheinbom and Shevoboh were sent to punish the whole village, after a traditional leader in the region was burnt alive by his angry subjects.

"It was very difficult when the babies were still joined together," the girls' mother Emerencia Nyumale remembers.

"People used to see me carrying them and run away and I felt so guilty and alone," she says.

"Thank God all that has ended now since their separation."

The girls' story has had another importance consequence for the people of Babanki Tungo.

The Saudi government is funding an Islamic centre in the village consisting of a mosque, nursery, primary school and health centre.

This has led some village elders to predict that the largely Christian Babanki Tungo will be slowly Islamised.

The twins' parents have taken the lead.

As a mark of appreciation to their daughters' Saudi benefactors, they have converted to Islam.

The girl's father, Ngong James Akumbu, now calls himself "Abdallah", Emerencia goes by "Aisha", and five or their children attend the Islamic primary school.

Blessing or curse?

Kum Edwin, a teacher at the school, has also converted.

"Before the school was opened, I was unemployed, had many girlfriends and drank a lot," says Mr Edwin, who has changed his name to "Abdallah Wagf".

"When I heard an Islamic school will be opened here, I did a three-month Islamic studies [course]… I no longer drink a lot and I am now searching for a wife because having lots of girlfriends is not good."

Many people in Babanki Tungo now see the birth of Pheinbom and Shevoboh as a blessing rather than a curse.

The sight of the twins crawling around the village no longer attracts mistrustful looks, as once it did.

"I always tell every parent to be patient because God always tempts people by showing them bad things which are good things in the future," muses the girls' father.

Indeed, the twins have seen a remarkable change in their fortunes.

From outcasts at birth, they now have their own, separate lives and have played an important part in changing the lives of the people around them.

After all that, learning to walk may prove to be easy.


Channel 9 cameraman calls Aussie Muslim an "F***ing Terrorist"a

Monday 19 April 2010

Cleric's support for men and women mingling in public sparks furor in Saudi Arabia

Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, a Saudi cleric in the holy city of Mecca, recently declared that nothing in Islam bars men and women mingling in public places like schools and offices. For the first time in decades, religious scholars are debating the previously untouchable hallmark of gender segregation.

When a venerable Saudi cleric in the holy city of Mecca challenges a central pillar of Saudi society, it is big news.

That was the case when Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi recently declared that nothing in Islam bans men and women from mixing in public places like schools and offices.

Supporters of the status quo responded harshly. Anyone who permits men and women to work or study together is an apostate and should be put to death unless he repents, said Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Barrak.

Does Sheikh Barrak mean that King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz should be executed? Because it is the monarch who launched the country's first coeducational university.

Barrak has not answered that question. His website is now blocked by government censors.

Saudi religious scholars for the first time in decades are openly debating a previously untouchable hallmark of Saudi society: its strictly enforced gender segregation.

The debate reflects the more open atmosphere that has emerged under King Abdullah. Open-minded clerics and lay people have felt emboldened to challenge hard-liners.

The scholarly disputes over mixing also underscore a message King Abdullah has been implicitly sending his subjects: that some outdated social strictures – especially when it comes to women – will need revising if the kingdom is to develop into a modern, diversified economy less dependent on oil.

Drag on progress

Saudi society's "institutionalized segregation" is a huge drag on that transformation, says Hatoon Ajwad al-Fassi, a professor of history at King Saud University. "It is one of the major obstacles in normalizing our lives, and it's affected our work and our education ... [and] quality of life."

Saudi Arabia has the world's most stringent gender segregation. Men and women enter government offices and banks through different doors. Male professors teach female university students from separate rooms using closed-circuit television. Companies must create all-female rooms or floors if they hire women. And the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce just announced different work hours for male and female employees so the two don't mix on arrival and departure.

Many Saudi women say this segregation is ordained by Islam and accept it. Others chafe. "Gender apartheid is the best word to describe the situation in Saudi Arabia," wrote blogger Eman al-Nafjan.

The ban on public mixing is rooted in tribal customs but became institutionalized as the country urbanized. Clerics claimed that Islam requires it – a debatable position since no other Muslim country has similar practices.

Like all Saudi rulers, King Abdullah derives his political legitimacy from religion and wants to maintain the loyalty of the clerical establishment. But he has telegraphed that conservatives won't be allowed to hold back reforms. When it comes to women, the king has chipped at the edges of restrictive traditions. He has taken women on foreign trips, had his photo taken with them, and expanded opportunities for females to attend university.

"King Abdullah has a strategy: He's trying to empower women as much as he can," says Fawziah al-Bakr, a King Saud University professor.

Coed, independent graduate school

In September, the king inaugurated the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), a graduate-level school devoted to advanced scientific research. To attract foreign faculty and students, the king decreed that it would be coed and independent of the state educational system.

A few weeks later, a young religious scholar who sits on the top-level Senior Ulema Council (a group of religious scholars that consults with the monarch) said in a television interview that men and women should not study together at KAUST and that its curriculum should be supervised by clerics. The scholar, Sheikh Saad al-Shethri, was promptly removed from the council by the king.

Sheikh Ghamdi's two-page interview in Okaz newspaper came next. Public mixing is a natural part of life and was customary during the prophet Muhammad's time, Ghamdi told the paper. He suggested that those who preach otherwise are hypocritical because they undoubtedly have female servants at home, so they are "contradicting" themselves.

Ghamdi's comments made a big splash because he heads the Mecca chapter of the religious police, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. A prime task of the commission is patrolling public places to make sure men and women are not mingling.

Barrak responded that the death penalty applies. He added that anyone who allows his daughter, sister, or wife to work with men or attend mixed-gender schools is guilty of "a type of pimping."

Some online comments also have decried Ghamdi's stance. "It's so pathetic to hear this come out from a Muslim scholar," wrote one man on the Al Arabiya website. "Segregation of sexes is the soul of the social fabric of Islam."

Professor Fassi is not surprised at such comments. "You will have big resistance [because] a part of society is not happy with ... the fact that some [clerics] are telling the people that we were wrong and there is nothing wrong with mixing."

Professor Bakr says she has been encouraged by the recent debates because in the past, eliminating the ban on public mixing had been "unthinkable. Now, they are trying to make it thinkable. Not do-able at this stage. Just thinkable."


IslamOnline must not fail

The clear voice of the most successful website of its type must not be drowned out, writes Ramzy Baroud*

The popular Islamic website IslamOnline has been, until very recently, an undisputed success story. Here was a website that neither shunned nor alienated. Its influence was upbeat and positive rather than destructive and divisive. While it wasn't an apologetic outlet, it reached out patiently and progressively to present Islam and Muslim issues to the world. These were understood and communicated by hundreds of scholars and journalists, who toiled day and night from their Cairo offices. Then something happened to abruptly bring the noble mission to an end. The success story suddenly became a nightmare for hundreds of IslamOnline's principled employees. The website ( remained online, but it was seldom updated.

Instead, videos appeared on You Tube showing tired-looking IslamOnline staff chanting in the lobby of their building in Cairo. They were demanding the return of editorial freedom and rights. They were calling for justice. These bright journalists, some of the finest in the region, should have been sitting behind their computers writing, editing and managing live dialogues between inquisitive readers and learned scholars.

Instead, they were seated on the floor with signs and banners, shouting. Something had gone horribly wrong. In a recent Associated Press report Hadeel El-Shalchi tried to explain: "The Qatari government has forced out the moderate leadership of a popular Islamic website and plans to reshape it into a more religiously conservative outlet, former employees of the site said." According to the AP report, "the site was thrown into turmoil... when the owners attempted to change its approach, prompting 350 of its workers in Cairo to go on strike". "Management in Doha then cut off their access to the site and have been updating it with news articles but not the diverse content IslamOnline is known for, said the former employees." IslamOnline is funded by Al-Balagh, a Doha-based company. Al-Balagh was headed by Sheikh Youssef El-Qaradawi, a respected and judicious religious authority. He is known, and much liked, for his progressive views on Islam. El-Qaradawi is also very popular among Muslims around the world, not least because of his daring political views, his strong anti-war, pro-resistance stances and moral clarity on many issues.

In short, El-Qaradawi is the antithesis of religious clerics who do as they are told. A striking IslamOnline editor described to me how the crisis developed. It sounds similar to a coup. The sheikh was removed from Al-Balagh, the site's directors were demoted and a new management was imposed. The website's passwords were changed so that employees could no longer access it. Angered by such moves 350 employees went on strike only to find themselves the subject of legal investigation by company lawyers for exercising what is universally accepted as a fundamental right. The editor tells me that they were harshly criticised, in particular for their uncompromisingly courageous coverage of Palestine and Gaza. Indeed, IslamOnline had worked tirelessly to promote greater awareness of the struggle in Palestine, to Muslim and non-Muslim readers alike.

Following the tragic events of 11 September few websites have played the vital role that IslamOnline has. Its editors did not serve the cause of fanatics, with their dreadful interpretation of the world and themselves. But nor were they content to serve as mouthpieces for Arab governments. Equally important, they did not try to falsify a moderate position to please governments, whether Arab or not. They reflected and expressed the views of mainstream Muslims from all walks of life, and from all over the world. It was truly an impressive feat to see such an independent editorial line emerging from one Arab capital, largely funded by another. It seemed too good to be true. The story of IslamOnline is now being presented as one between rival Arabs: governments, groups and individuals. Reductionist terminologies -- such as conservatives vs moderates -- are once again permeating the predictable Middle East discourse.

Many questions still remain unanswered. Yet, the story of IslamOnline pertains more to media freedom and editorial independence in Arab countries than to inter-Arab rivalries. The struggle is between the self-serving politicking few, and hundreds of media professionals, the brilliant and inspiring young women and men who made up the staff at IslamOnline. For them, IslamOnline was not just another job. It was a mission, and millions of readers around the world appreciated their work, every word of it. One can only hope that IslamOnline will find its way back, with its staff and editorial line intact. The success story must not be allowed to end.

* The writer is editor of