Tuesday 29 November 2011

Love One Another-Alhamdulilah!

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: "You cannot enter heaven until you believe, and you will not truly believe until you (truly) love one another." - Muslim, Al-Iman (Faith) 93

Sunday 27 November 2011

Allah's mercy-SubhanAllah!

Coming upon a tree with withered leaves, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) struck it with his staff, and the leaves were scattered. He then said: (Saying) 'Praise be to God; Glory be to God; There is no god but God; and God is most great,' causes a person's sins to fall away just as the leaves of that tree were falling." - Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 737

Saturday 26 November 2011

Muslims proud to be British? There's something to learn from the surprise

The finding in Demos's report A Place for Pride that 83% of Muslims said they were proud to be a British citizen, compared with the national average of 79%, has been met with surprise in some parts of the press. Clearly many British citizens have both a strong religious identity and a strong national identity. Yet it also seems clear that many people see these identities as mutually exclusive. Why is this the case?

That 83% of Muslims are proud to be British does in fact make sense. Many British Muslims come from families that have sought the opportunity and refuge offered in this country. The Demos report suggests that "People who are religious are more likely to be patriotic than are those who self-define as atheists or nonbelievers"; 88% of Anglicans and Jews agreed that they were "proud to be a British citizen". Many British Jews have a family history of refugee status and it follows that this leads to a sense of pride in their British identity. People with a strong religious identity are also often part of a strong community, and benefit from the co-operation and collective goodwill that can come with this. Patriotism, the report suggests, isn't only concerned with Queen and flag, but also with community values.

There is a lot of misinformation about the British Muslim community. In 2009 the Gallup Coexist Index found that only 36% of the British public thought that British Muslims were "loyal to this country" as opposed to 82% of the British Muslim community. The surprise at the findings of Muslim pride in Britain is rooted in a prejudice that leads people to believe that it is paradoxical for someone to hold both their religious and national identities as important. Lazy caricatures of Islam as contradicting many of the rights and values that are seen as quintessentially British – particularly freedom and democracy – only exacerbate this problem.

So, how do we tackle the prejudice that leads to this view? We must start by challenging perceptions of faith groups that rely on broad stereotypes, and instead provide people with opportunities for meaningful engagement, where they can meet and learn about each other as individuals. The report quotes a student who participated in Three Faiths Forum's Undergraduate ParliaMentors programme, which gives young people the opportunity to work with students of different faiths and non-religious beliefs on social action projects, and to be mentored by MPs and peers.

The "people I worked with, neither of them had even met a Jewish person before. I found it quite daunting but it was good and it helped me in a way to understand who I am as well as to know more about Islam and Christianity. In the end, the things we sometimes fell out about were what we were doing on the project – not God."

Finding out that the difficulties that come with working with others are often simply the usual interpersonal challenges is an important part of seeing others as individuals, not just a Muslim, Jew, atheist etc.

What we need are more opportunities for this humanising process. If we can find these while people work together on a social cause then this is all to the good. One of the clear implications of the Demos research is that public pride is linked closely with "social engagement, interpersonal trust and volunteerism". If we embrace opportunities to work with people of all faiths and beliefs then we can start to overcome the prejudice that leads to surprise that other people are also proud of Britain. We will, in turn, also give ourselves more reasons for civic pride.


Friday 25 November 2011

Bridal slaves

India has one of the world's fastest growing economies. But the southwest Asian country also has the largest number of slaves in the world

In the midst of widespread poverty, fueled by economic inequality and rampant corruption, a new form of slavery - bridal slavery - has flourished. Women and young girls are sold for as little as $120 to men who often burden them with strenuous labour and abuse them.

In a country where female children are sometimes considered a financial burden, the common practice of infanticide and gender-selective abortion has led to a shortfall in the number of women available for marriage - something made all the more problematic by high dowry costs. Experts say this has encouraged bride trafficking.

Jamila, a former bride slave, says her traffickers kidnapped and drugged her, before selling her to an abusive man. "He would hit me and beat me day and night. I would have to work all day in the heat .... That's no life .... Is it worth living?"

Shafiq Khan, who runs a grassroots organisation dedicated to tracking down bride traffickers and their victims, explains: "The girls do equal amounts of work in two jobs. They are sex slaves, not just to one man but a group of 10 or 12 men. Apart from that there is agriculture - working on the farms with animals from morning until night."


Thursday 24 November 2011

FBI Reports Dramatic Spike in Anti-Muslim Hate Violence

Anti-Muslim hate crimes soared by an astounding 50% last year, skyrocketing over 2009 levels in a year marked by the vicious rhetoric of Islam-bashing politicians and activists, especially over the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" in New York City.

Although the national statistics compiled by the FBI each year are known to dramatically understate the real level of reported and unreported hate crimes, they do offer telling indications of some trends. The latest statistics, showing a jump from 107 anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2009 to 160 in 2010, seem to reflect a clear rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric from groups like Stop Islamization of America. Much of that rhetoric was aimed at stopping an Islamic center in lower Manhattan.
At the same time, the new FBI statistics showed a rise of almost 11% in anti-Latino hate crimes. The increase may be related to anti-immigrant rhetoric deployed as Arizona passed a harsh law targeting immigrants in 2010. Since then, even more anti-immigrant rhetoric has been heard around the country, suggesting that when the FBI's 2011 statistics come out, they will show a further rise in anti-Latino hate crime.

Earlier, anti-Latino hate crimes rose some 40% between 2003 and 2007, then diminished in 2008 and 2009. The newly reported apparent rise in these crimes last year also reflected, albeit in a diminished way, a 2010 rise in anti-Latino hate crimes of almost 50% reported earlier in California.

But it was the anti-Muslim numbers that were dramatic, and they occurred in a year when many watchdog organizations, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, reported an increase in Islam-bashing rhetoric. The year 2010 saw multiple verbal attacks on planned mosques, along with several violent attacks and arsons.

It's not provable precisely how hateful rhetoric from public figures drives criminal violence. But anecdotal evidence suggests the link is a tight one. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, anti-Muslim hate violence skyrocketed some 1,600%. But then-President Bush gave several speeches that fall emphasizing that Muslims and Arabs were not our enemies -- only Al Qaeda was. Almost certainly thanks to that, anti-Muslim violence declined the following year by almost two thirds.


Wednesday 23 November 2011

Heroine of Bangladesh!

Bangladesh bride disowns her 'dowry demanding' husband

A top human rights group in Bangladesh has praised a bride who disowned her husband within minutes of their wedding because he demanded a dowry.

Sultana Kamal of the Ask rights group said that Farzana Yasmin had taken a "principled and brave stand against the gross injustice of dowry payments".

Ms Yasmin told the BBC that dowries "were the cancer of society".

Giving or receiving dowries is a criminal offence in Bangladesh but is still widely practised.

"Ms Yasmin has shown considerable bravery in doing what she did to highlight the evil and oppressive dowry system," said Ms Kamal, the head of the Ain o Salish Kendra (Ask) rights group.

She said that the number of enforced dowries in rural areas was alarming, and that it was not diminishing despite government efforts to wipe out the tradition.

"Already she is facing recriminations with several parties trying to defame her and portray her as a loose woman. In fact she is a heroine of Bangladesh."

'Have to protest'
Ms Yasmin's decision to divorce her husband within minutes of their wedding in the conservative southern district of Barguna has sent shockwaves through the country, with supporters and opponents of her action fiercely arguing their cases on Facebook.

The "10-minute bride" told the BBC that she wanted other "dowry-oppressed women" in Bangladesh to be inspired by her actions, which correspondents say appear to be without precedent.

"The dowry has become a cancer of our society. I have read this in newspapers and always wondered why people should put up with it," the masters graduate told the BBC's Shakeel Anwar.

"When I found myself getting caught up with this, I thought I have to protest.

"I know I cannot change the fate of thousands of other similarly oppressed women in the country but at least I have taken a stand."

Ms Yasmin - who has fled her home village to take refuge with friends and family in Dhaka - denounced her husband as she was about to be taken to her wedding car at the end of her marriage celebrations.

She told the BBC that he and his family wanted to delay her departure until they had received "gifts", including a TV and a fridge.

"My older sister reacted: 'We are going to give you our girl only, nothing else was promised'," she said.

Ms Yasmin said that she was "dumbfounded" by the actions of her "rogue husband" and his family. She ended up discarding her wedding dress and storming out of the ceremony.

She says that she is now filing for divorce.


Tuesday 22 November 2011

EGYPT: Gynecologist & Cairo woman discuss female mutilation

CAIRO: Heba, a 27 year old Egyptian woman, closes the door, offering a tray of glasses of sparkling red Karkale-nectar. Hibiscus-petals swim to the surface of the drink.
The walls of her apartment are likewise painted in clear colors, and the floors are lined with pillows.

Heba does not live with her family, but with friends – something quite uncommon for a young Egyptian female. Though her life seems fairly ordinary– she works, sees friends and visits her family now and then– she is unusual.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 100-140 million women worldwide are circumcised, and an estimated 90% of Egyptian women are subject to the female genital mutilation (FGM), generally known as circumcision.
Although Egypt made FGM illegal,except in certain circumstances in 1997, the Egyptian government passed a more severe law in 2008 completely banning the practice, following the death of 12-year-old Badour Shaker in June 2007 during a circumcision.
However, female genitalia are still often cut in most of Egypt.
Amr Muhammad, a doctor dressed in white scrubs, opens the door to a hospital in Dokki, Cairo.

A soon-to-be graduate student of medicine and the doctor’s nephew greets him with a manly hug. These two men share a clean-cut technical approach to talk of birth, genital parts, constructed norms and rites of tradition.
Doctor Amr sits down behind his desk and calls for coffee and tea from reception. A young man enters and places a tray of starch black coffee on the bare desk. The door closes and leaves the clear light reflected on the bare walls of his consultation.
In Cairo, nine months have passed since former President Mubarak was wrested from power.
It is a mere two days after civilians were brutally murdered downtown by the same military which was “one hand” with the people just nine months earlier.
Heba did not participate much in this. She had her own battles to fight. She squats in the couch and starts a part of her story as a female growing up in Egypt.
Heba comes from a family with four daughters. As a child she remembers trying to look over the shoulders of her aunts performing a circumcision on her cousin. But she was not allowed to look.

That cousin was someone she looked up to. The cutting of her genitalia was not something that was “done” to her. It was a part of life, compatible with having the first period, getting married, having sex with your husband: a ritual confirming a young girl’s ‘womanhood.’
Heba remembers that her mother asked her to come upstairs, where female family members were waiting for her.
“She was saying all these things about being pretty, and at that age, you don’t wanna be unpretty,” she says with a grin. “Had I known back then, I would have fought her.”

The doctor smiles vaguely, as he picks up the topic of the talk tonight: Female circumcision.
The WHO defines the FGM procedures in stages, stage three being the most extensive operation.
The first level is a moderately simple removal of the clitoral hood or partial or total removal of the clitoris. This is the far most common one in Egypt.
From here, the span goes to type three, known as infibulation. It means a total removal of all external genitalia, causing a layer of skin to form outside the entire vulva as the wound heals.
By inserting a thin stick in the healing wound, a small hole is left as a passage for urine and menstruation blood.

“Myself I never performed a circumcision, but my colleagues tell me that it was a fairly ordinary practice here until the 1997s,” he says ”but in the years from then and until 2008, where it was made illegal, it became less ordinary.”
“I have only been repairing,” he says, referring to those one or two times a week, when a young woman will be brought in with a ‘traumatic case,’ as he calls it. This is a circumcision performed in an illegal, unauthorized clinic or in the home. The woman is often bleeding heavily and needs stitching.
Amr is obliged to report these cases to the police. But he does not always do so.
“They made a law, but I didn’t see anything change. People are doing it, and they always will. So I hesitate to report – it might put the families in great trouble,” he says.

In Hebas family, they did it as well.
“We went upstairs, and I was sat down,” she recounts, “My mother left me to my aunt and my grandmother. My grandmother sat behind me and put her feet down between my legs, pushing my thighs open with her ankles. My hands were held back.”

It seems very harsh to hold her like that. “But I might have done something stupid when I realized what they were doing. I might have injured myself.”
Heba was 12 at the time.
Most of her youth, Heba did not feel anything missing from her body. Like most women in Egypt, she had a circumcision of a ‘mild’ degree, and most of her genitalia are intact.

But in her early twenties, she started cramping up completely during sex and could not go through with the intercourse.
“It would hurt so bad. In Dubai, I went to a gynecologist to understand why this was suddenly a problem. But it wasn’t until his secretary asked me if I was circumcised, that I understood.”

Circumcision is known to cause psychological blockings due to the physical pain and unease that is connected to the genital area by memory.
The trauma causes the musculature to cramp up in a reflex to avoid further pain, and makes intercourse quite difficult. These are one of the very common long-term effects of the mild levels of FGM.

Extensive cutting to the genitalia is rarely done in Egypt. But the further you get away from Cairo, the more far-reaching is the norm of circumcision.
“We are dealing with two different Egypts, if not more than that. There is one Egypt, which belongs to Amr Diab’s songs and the lovely ladies on TV, politicians and revolutionary youth in Tahrir square,” he says, “but the majority of Egyptians are living in a very different reality.”

Heba is from one of these places that Amr is referring to, a village in Upper Egypt. She had a circumcision of a ‘mild’ degree, and most of her genitalia are intact.
“The only one time it came up,” she says, when asked if she discussed her own circumcision with friends at the time. “…was when I was living in a dormitory in college with girls from the North. I found out they didn’t do it (circumcision, red.) there. For us it was a natural component of a woman’s life; like eating, sleeping, having sex, bearing babies. And they just didn’t have the tradition of doing it.”
Egypt is an enormously socially stratified society. There is a very long way from the bottom of the social ladder to the top, and very few live an average “middle class” life in between. Rural areas suffer from great poverty and lack of political attention from center Cairo.

“We’ve got this culture here, which was imported to us along with the oil from Saudi, when Sadat came in power. It took a firm grip on those of us, who didn’t have a lot to hold on to,” Doctor Amr says. He is referring to the surge of a conservative form of Islam that has been growing forcefully during the reign of Mubarak and Sadat.
“And now, after a number of years with a totally corrupt regime, which has made life very hard for many…Now people start thinking that the problem of the Mubarak-era was not the moral bankruptcy of the political system, but the fact that it was secular.”
Amr sighs, though he does see himself as being in a place to judge what is right and wrong.
“When a family comes here and ask me to check a girl’s virginity,” he says, ”then I do the check, but I will always state that she is a virgin. Even with clear signs of defloration, I would never tell her family.”

Heba on the other hand, is completely unambiguous in the matter. Her trauma was mostly psychological, but the understanding of what happened and the backtracking of psychological blockings has been hard.
“Earlier I did not know anything. I didn’t feel that something was different because I had been circumcised. Until we were taught about female genitalia and the cutting in college – when I saw it and knew what had actually been done, I cried.”
Doctor Amr nods. Coming from a tragi-comic tale of a husband who wanted his wife circumcised in order to tone down a sexual desire he couldn’t match, Amr returns to his main point.

For him, circumcision is a consequence of people wanting to do the best thing for their daughters in the social and economic framework of their life.
“Even though I personally believe, that the demand for virginity is a misunderstood idea of validating a young female’s character and morality, I will still give her and her backdrop what they need to live up to the framework, they are given.”
When he speaks again, he underlines his point from earlier.
“Laws made from the center of political power in this country is not going to change their perceptions of right and wrong. Not until actual change, political inclusion and social justice arrive with us,” he concludes and snaps his fingers.
Heba is equally decided as she speaks now. She is frowning while she speaks.
“I don’t know why my mum wants to do it. I will talk to her again soon, as one of my sisters is growing up.”

“This is wrong. No matter what the reason might be, the body came to us complete, and should not be cut. First of all, your body is yours to utilize and experience in whatever way you want. Cutting in a young girl’s body equals to implying that something is wrong with the way she was shaped. And that is wrong,” she says, her voice firming.


Monday 21 November 2011

'My mother was wronged, gravely wronged'

A quarter of a century after the historic Supreme Court judgment on the maintenance lawsuit of Shah Bano and the ensuing storm which made the then Congress government rework the law, her youngest son Jameel Ahmed Khan recalls the deep financial distress and mortifying shame his mother suffered.

"My mother was wronged, gravely wronged," said Jameel, 60, as wrinkles on his face rearranged themselves in remembrance of circumstances triggered by her fight for maintenance.

"My mother was a simple, purdah-observing woman. Being divorced at such a late age (60, by most accounts), the publicity, paper-baazi… she was very ashamed of all this. She didn't say much but kept stewing over it."

This bottling up of emotions took its toll. "She developed high blood pressure and frequently fell ill," said Jameel, a 'property broker' (local euphemism for somebody without a steady job), who lives in a modest house in Indore. Shah Bano died of brain haemorrhage in 1992.

Mohammed Ahmed Khan, an affluent and well-known advocate, took a younger woman as second wife 14 years after he had married Shah Bano. After years of living with both wives, he threw Shah Bano and her five children out. When he stopped giving her Rs 200 per month he had apparently promised, she fought and won a seven-year legal battle for maintenance.

Prominent Muslim organisations opposed the Supreme Court verdict, which they felt, encroached on Muslim personal laws. The Congress government, which had the biggest majority in India's Parliamentary history, reworked the law — by enacting the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 — barring Muslim women from getting maintenance after divorce under civil laws.

A provision of the Act limited the husband's liability to pay maintenance to his divorced wife only for the period of iddat (roughly three months immediately after the divorce).

"Izzat ki ladai thi (It was a fight for self-respect). It was a fight against our izzat being maligned in the locality and a family matter," Jameel said.

Although Jameel, a god-fearing Muslim, was careful not to criticise his father, he conceded that Mohammed Khan increasingly favoured his younger wife's children after the two households became separate.

"It came to a pass where he'd only come on Eid, and even then my chhoti vaalida (stepmother) would send for him even before we could serve sevaiyan," he said.

In fact, it was a festive day attempt at rapprochement that finally tore things asunder. "Around two years after my mother had moved out, my brothers and I went to meet my father on Eid and asked him to forgive and forget. But he slapped me and threw us all out," said Jameel.

When the Supreme Court in 1985 upheld Shah Bano's maintenance claim, a political blizzard broke out.

"Former diplomat and prominent Muslim leader Syed Shahabuddin visited our house as did ulema (clergymen) from Indore and other cities, who told us that the verdict was against the Shariat," said Jameel. "We didn't know much about it (Shariat provisions for maintenance etc) then… our mother was illiterate. Clergymen from India and abroad contacted us and told us that there had been a mistake and explained how things should be according to the Shariat."

He added, "Several people including (names a well-known cleric from Gujarat) had offered money and even a job abroad (for refusing maintenance). But I was clear that if we refused, it would not be for material gain but Fi Sabeelillah (for Allah's cause)." Once the matter became public, journalists from India and abroad started landing up. "The pressure became such that I felt winning the case wasn't so good. It would've been better if we lost," said Jameel. "Massive processions against the judgment were staged across the country. In Mumbai, traffic was held up for hours. Even in Indore there was a lakh-strong rally which passed in front of our house. Even if every rallyist threw a pebble each, our kuchha house would have crumbled. This creates terror."

Simultaneously, the family started getting invitations from liberals in the community. "We accepted these thinking 'let's see what they have to say'," he said. A group from Ahmedabad organised a felicitation for Shah Bano.

In the meantime, the family received a message from then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. He wanted to meet them. Shah Bano and Jameel travelled to Delhi and met him.

"He said the situation was very critical, serious. 'We have to find a way,' he said," recalled Jameel. "I told him (I'd since read up on Shariat directives about marriage and maintenance) there was no provision for maintenance, except for money to be paid during iddat and mehr (money to be paid at the time of divorce). I told him the law should be amended. He, in turn, asked us to announce that we were refusing the maintenance."

Jameel was candid about vote-bank politics. "Muslims across the country were ranged against the verdict. The elections were approaching. Political parties think about their interests. It was felt that if Muslims voted en bloc against the Congress on the issue, the party would lose power."

After returning to Indore, Shah Bano held a press conference to announce that she was forsaking the maintenance because it was against the Shariat. "I thought if we didn't backtrack now, azaab (grief) would be on us. Since it was a matter of religion, I didn't want us to become a precedent," he said.

"I thought, 'My mother will live for another two, five, 10 years. But if we agree (to accept the judgment), we'll be forever branded as the people who got the government, or the courts, to interfere in the Shariat. There's no point in living with such a taint on you."

Almost immediately, the whole situation changed. "My mother was feted at public functions (by orthodox Muslims) and showered with titles like 'Deeni Bahan' (Righteous Sister) and 'Islami Behen' (Islamic Sister)," Jameel said.

"Although a section of the media continued to report that our decision was the result of pressure by the clergy, we chose not to respond. We also decided to withdraw a case for recovery of mehr, which was 3,000 kaldars (silver coins), but my father only paid Rs 3,000," he added.

Asked if he had taken issue with clergymen who approached him after the verdict for ignoring Shah Bano's plight earlier, he said, "The first question I asked them was, 'Where were you all these years?'"


Sunday 20 November 2011

The reality of the 'All-American Muslim' reality TV show

For those constantly fretting about the inability of Muslims to integrate or assimilate into western culture, fret no more!

American Muslims finally have their own reality TV show – the Learning Channel's "All-American Muslim" – focusing on the lives of five American Muslim families in Dearborn, Michigan, who are predominantly Lebanese and Shiite. The show's premiere gave TLC huge ratings and made the show No 2 in its time period. Mainstream critics have embraced the show citing it as "intimate and informative" and a "deeply intriguing, uncharacteristically thoughtful reality series".

Reality TV is the current zeitgeist of popular culture. Unlike the euro, it is the predominant cultural currency, whose value is skyrocketing. America is on a first-name basis with their cultural ambassadors: Snookie, Kate Plus 8, Paris, Ozzie and Kim. Could Shadia, the show's tattooed, country music-loving Lebanese American Muslim, with an Irish Catholic boyfriend, belong in the pantheon?

"[All American Muslim] is just a natural fit for us …We're always all about telling compelling stories about real families," says TLC's Alan Orstein, VP of production and development. But some have already taken deep offense to this "reality" show, which claims to portray the "real" lives of Muslims.

Within days of the show's premiere, the fear-mongering Islamphobia network complained the show is actually propaganda that promotes a "submission to Islam through the hijab" and "tries to make a religion which believes in world domination and the inferiority of women, seem normal". The author of this article, posted on David Horowitz's inflammatory Front Page Magazine, also goes on to compare Muslims to Nazis: "Muslims are like us [Americans]; that's the problem. The Nazis were like us too. So were the Communists."

Apparently, TLC is a stealth-jihadist outfit with grand schemes to brainwash American women into burning their swimsuits and tank tops and replacing them with modest, traditional Islamic clothing as a gradual means towards converting them to Islam. I'll be waiting for their next reality TV show: "UV Radiation Fighters."

Pamela Geller, founder of the shrill Atlas Shrugs blog and co-founder with blogger Robert Spencer of Stop Islamization of America, is convinced the show "is an attempt to manipulate Americans into ignoring the threat of jihad". Who would have thought a reality TV show could have so much brainwashing potential? Instead of mounting violent campaigns, all our enemies needed to secure victory was to produce "The Real Housewives of al-Qaida."

If Geller, Spencer and Horowitz were producing their version of American Muslim reality, the episodes would focus on the families' radical stealth jihadist plots. Through eight episodes, they would attempt to turn McDonald's golden arches into minarets, transform California to Caliph-ornia, place a burqa over the Statute of Liberty, creep sharia into the Denny's breakfast menu, and spike the elementary school eggnog with sumac and lentils.

A "real Muslim" according to many is this anti-American, extremist, violent stereotype – an image often plastered over news headlines. This myth is unsurprising, perhaps, considering 60% of Americans say they don't know a Muslim. Furthermore, the No 1 source of information about Muslims for American is the media, and often, the images are negative. Yet, according to all the studies and evidence, the reality of American Muslims is that they are moderate, loyal to America, optimistic about America's future, in tune with American values, well-educated, and are the nation's most diverse religious community.

That being said, nearly half of American Muslims say they have faced discrimination. The FBI just announced anti-Muslim hate crimes have risen 50%. And a Republican presidential candidate with an alleged proclivity towards sexual harassment and unintentionally hilarious campaign videos has claimed a majority of Muslim Americans are extremists.

The portrayal of Muslims living their daily lives is not only a welcome relief from the usual tawdry caricatures of Muslims as terrorists, extremists and taxi cab drivers, but it also helps defuse the deep-seated fears and bias that unfairly lumps 1.5 billion members of a faith in with the perverse criminal actions of a few.

However, even American Muslims have voiced their criticisms with the show. The Twitterverse exploded (figuratively) with comments reflecting the diversity of the American Muslim opinions. Some said the show misleads with the title "All-American Muslim", since it solely focuses on one niche religious, ethnic community (Lebanese Shiite in Dearborn, Michigan) and leaves out the majority of American Muslim communities, such as African Americans, South Asians, Sunnis and those from the low-income middle class. Others, apparently, want their TV Muslims to be avatars of religious and moral perfection and complained about some of the characters' portrayal of Islam. (Shadia is a tattooed, partying rebel dating a white, Irish Catholic man who converts to Islam in order to marry her. Nina is a busty, dyed-blonde, opinionated business woman, with a penchant for tight dresses and ambitions to open her own club.)

Which only goes to show that representing Muslims and Islam in the mainstream is an utterly thankless job. The term "Muslim" is itself so politically and culturally loaded that it is impossible to escape controversy, no matter how trivial or manufactured. Since Muslims are a marginalised community with very few positive mainstream representations, audiences unfairly project onto these five families all their own insecurities, assumptions, fears, political ideologies, religious opinions, personal stories and other gratuitous baggage. So, if the characters do not 100% reflect the reality of certain audience members, then they cease to be authentic or valid.

The five families on "All-American Muslim" should not be asked to represent all Muslims, Arabs or Americans. Does Jersey Shore represent all Italians? If so, you can hear Frank Sinatra crooning in his grave. Similarly, Kim Kardashian does not represent all narcissistic, wannabe socialites with a fetish for athletes. (That may be an insult to fetishes.)

The best way to view "All-American Muslim" is simply a show about five families doing their best to be themselves. They're just people, who happen to identify as Muslim, Arab and American. Their story isn't the wild-eyed, paranoid fantasy that is colored by the hate-filled minds of the Islamophobia network. It isn't the terrorist stereotype familiar to most American audiences thanks to mainstream Hollywood depictions and sensationalised news headlines. And it won't be the story of this nation's 3-4 million American Muslims (population estimates vary from 1.3 to 7 million), who will hopefully find more avenues to tell their unique narratives through mainstream outlets.

In the meantime, we should exhale and simply let this reality TV show succeed or fail on the merits of its ability to entertain, instead of obsessing about how "realistic" its depiction of Islam and Muslims is. If the ratings decline, TLC can always create a new talent show featuring the cast members of "The Real Housewives" and "All-American Muslim", judged by Kim Kardashian and Ozzy Osbourne, whose winner gets an opportunity to join all the previous winners from "Dancing with the Stars" in a new "Survivor" series about who lives beyond the 15th minute of fame.

That's a reality show whose authenticity cannot be denied.


Thursday 17 November 2011

Women & Islam: The rise and rise of the convert

Record numbers of young, white British women are converting to Islam, yet many are reporting a lack of help as they get used to their new religion, according to several surveys.

As Muslims celebrate the start of the religious holiday of Eid today and hundreds of thousands from around the world converge on Mecca for the haj, it emerged that of the 5,200 Britons who converted to Islam last year, more than half are white and 75 per cent of them women.

In the past 10 years some 100,000 British people have converted to Islam, of whom some three-quarters are women, according to the latest statistics. This is a significant increase on the 60,000 Britons in the previous decade, according to researchers based at Swansea University.

While the number of UK converts accelerates, many of the British women who adopt Islam say they have a daily struggle to assimilate their new beliefs within a wider culture that both implicitly and explicitly positions them as outsiders, regardless of their Western upbringing.

More than three-quarters told researchers they had experienced high levels of confusion after conversion, due to the conflicting ways Islam was presented to them. While other major religions have established programmes for guiding new believers through the rigours of their faith, Islam still lacks any such network, especially outside the Muslim hubs of major cities.

Many mosques still bar women from worship or provide scant resources for their needs, forcing them to rely on competing cultural and ideological interpretations within books or the internet for religious support.

A recent study of converts in Leicester, for example, found that 93 per cent of mosques in the region recognised they lacked services for new Muslims, yet only 7 per cent said they were making efforts to address the shortfall.

Many of the young women – the average age of conversion is 27 – are also coming to terms with experiences of discrimination for the first time, despite the only visible difference being a headscarf. Yet few find easy sanctuary within the established Muslim population, with the majority forming their closest bonds with fellow converts rather than born Muslims.

Kevin Brice, author of the Swansea study A Minority Within a Minority, said to be the most comprehensive study of British Muslim converts, added: "White Muslim converts are caught between two increasingly distant camps. Their best relationships remain with other converts, because of their shared experiences, while there is very little difference between the quality of their relationship with other Muslims or non-Muslims.

"My research also found converts came in two types: some are converts of convenience, who adopt the religion because of a life situation such as meeting a Muslim man, although the religion has little discernible impact on their day-to-day lives. For others it is a conversion of conviction where they feel a calling and embrace the religion robustly.

"That's not to say the two are mutually exclusive – sometimes converts start out on their religious path through convenience and become converts of conviction later on."

Another finding revealed by the Leicester study was that despite Western portraits of Islam casting it as oppressive to women, a quarter of female converts were attracted to the religion precisely because of thestatus it affords them.

Some analysts have argued that dizzying social and cultural upheavals in Britain over the past decades have meant that far from adopting an alien way of life, some female Muslim converts are re-embracing certain aspects of mid-20th-century Britain, such as rigid gender demarcation, rather than feeling expected to juggle career and family.

The first established Muslim communities started in Britain in the 1860s, when Yemani sailors and Somali labourers settled around the ports of London, Cardiff, Liverpool and Hull. Many married local women who converted to Islam, often suffering widespread discrimination as a result.

They also acted as a bridge between the two cultures, encouraging understanding among indigenous dwellers and helping to integrate the Muslim community they had joined. Today, there is growing recognition among community leaders that the latest generation of female converts has an equally vital role to play in fostering dialogue between an increasingly secular British majority and a minority religion, as misunderstood as it is vilified.

Kristiane Backer, 45

Television presenter and author, London

I converted to Islam in 1995 after Imran Khan introduced me to the faith. At the time I was a presenter for MTV. I used to have all the trappings of success, yet I felt an inner emptiness and somewhat dissatisfied in my life.

The entertainment industry is very much about "if you've got it, flaunt it", which is the exact opposite to the more inward-oriented spiritual attitude of my new faith. My value system changed and God became the centre point of my life and what I was striving towards.

I recognise some new converts feel isolated but, despite there being even fewer resources when I converted than there are now, it isn't so much an issue I've faced. I've always felt welcomed and embraced by the Muslims I met and developed a circle of friends and teachers. It helps living in London, because there is so much to engage in as part of the Muslim community. Yet, even in the capital you can be stared at on the Tube for wearing a headscarf. I usually don't wear one in the West except when praying. I wear the scarf in front of my heart though!

I always try to explain to people that I've converted to Islam, not to any culture. Suppression of women, honour killings or forced marriages are all cultural aberrations, not Islamic ones. Islam is also about dignity and respect for yourself and your femininity. Even in the dating game, Muslim men are very respectful. Women are cherished as mothers, too – as a Muslim woman you are not expected to do it all."

Amy Sall, 28

Retail assistant, Middlesbrough

I'd say I'm still a bit of a party animal – but I'm also a Muslim. I do go out on the town with the girls and I don't normally wear my headscarf – I know I should do, but I like to do my hair and look nice! I know there are certain clothes I shouldn't wear either, even things that just show off your arms, but I still do. My husband would like me to be a better Muslim – he thinks drinking is evil – so it does cause rows.

I haven't worshipped in a mosque since I got married, I find it intimidating. I worry about doing something wrong; people whispering because they see my blonde hair and blue eyes. Middlesbrough is a difficult place to be a Muslim who isn't Asian – you tend to be treated like an outsider. Once, I was out wearing my headscarf and a local man shouted abuse. It was weird because I'm white and he was white, but all he saw was the scarf, I suppose. It did make me angry. My family were surprisingly fine with me converting, probably because they thought it would rein me in from being a bit wild.

Nicola Penty-Alvarez, 26

Full-time mother, Uxbridge

I was always interested in philosophy and the meaning of life and when I came across Islam it all just clicked. In the space of four or five months I went from going to raves to wearing a headscarf, praying five times a day and generally being quite pious – I did occasionally smoke though.

I felt very welcomed into the Muslim community, but it was a mainly white convert community. My impression of the Asian community in west London was that women felt sidelined and were encouraged to stay at home and look after the men rather than attend mosque. I think this was more a cultural than religious thing, though.

Non-Muslims certainly treat you differently when you're wearing a headscarf – they're less friendly and as a smiley person I found that hard. After a year-and-a-half of being a Muslim I stopped. I remember the moment perfectly. I was in a beautiful mosque in Morocco praying beside an old lady and something just came over me. I thought: 'What the hell am I doing? How have I got into this?' It just suddenly didn't feel right. Needless to say my husband, who was a fellow convert, wasn't impressed. He remained devout and it put a lot of strain on our relationship. We split up, but are on amicable terms now. I'm not really in contact with the Muslim friends I made – we drifted apart.

I don't regret the experience. There is so much that I learnt spiritually that I've kept and I haven't gone back to my hard partying ways.

Donna Tunkara

Warehouse operative, Middlesbrough

I was a bit of a tearaway growing up – drinking, smoking, running away from home and being disrespectful to my parents. I converted 10 years ago because I met a Muslim man but I've probably become more devout than him.

Sometimes, I miss going shopping for clothes to hit the town and then going home and getting ready with my mates, having a laugh. The thing is no one is forcing me not to – it's my choice.

It did come as a shock to my family, who are Christian. They've not rejected me, but they find it difficult to understand. I feel bad because I don't now attend weddings, funerals or christenings because they're often at pubs and clubs and I won't step inside.

There needs to be more resources for women who convert. I know some mosques that won't allow women in. But in the Koran there is an emphasis on women being educated. I've learnt about the religion through my husband's family and books – if you want support you have to look for it. It's taken time to regain an identity I'm comfortable with. Because I'm mixed race and a Muslim ,people don't see me as British – but what's important is that I know who I am.


Wednesday 16 November 2011

PAKISTAN: Tormented by stigma after rape

The three-room house in the Korangi area of the Pakistani city of Karachi, occupied until two months ago by Alam Din and his family of six, stands empty.

Neighbours say Din, a street vendor, left suddenly after his 14-year-old daughter was raped by several local youths while on her way home from an evening lesson. The crime was never reported; Din and his brothers felt to do so would damage family honour and instead Din apparently bundled his family and possessions on to a truck and left in the dead of night for Punjab province.

“The girl had to be carried out,” said Aleena Bibi, a neighbour. “She had been injured. It is a tragedy this should happen to a child, but now people also consider the house unlucky and are reluctant to buy.”

Many rapes in Pakistan, due to stigma, are never reported, and there are no precise figures on how many occur. However, the US Department of State, in its 2010 Human Rights Report states 928 cases of rape were reported.

“Prosecutions of reported rapes were rare. Police and NGOs reported that false rape charges sometimes were filed in different types of disputes, reducing the ability of police to assess real cases and proceed with prosecution,” it said.

“NGOs reported that police at times were implicated in rape cases. NGOs also alleged that police sometimes abused or threatened victims, demanding that they drop charges, especially when police received a bribe from suspected perpetrators.”

The autonomous Human Rights Commission of Pakistan states in its annual report for 2010 that 2,903 women - almost eight a day - were raped last year.

The Karachi-based NGO War Against Rape, in a statement released last month, said data collected from three hospitals and police showed that the average age of victims had fallen from 18 years last year to 13 this year in the city. WAR also noted only a minority of the cases reported from hospitals had been brought to the notice of police.

“The insensitive attitude of police, and the fact [that] women face further harassment at the hands of police, discourages them from reporting abuse,” Sarah Zaman, director of WAR, told IRIN.

There have been some horrendous reports of abuse by police, including that of a 13-year-old schoolgirl, Natasha Bibi, raped over 21 days while she was held by police in the northern Punjab town of Wah Cantt.

“It is the growing brutalization of our society and its patriarchal nature that allows incidents of this kind to happen,” said Gulnar Tabassum, a consultant for the NGO Shirkatgah, based in Lahore, which works for the rights of women.

“My daughter, who was only 12 years old at the time, was violently raped last year by her cousin. We did not report the matter to avoid a scandal, and to protect her from stigma. But even now rumours fly, my child refuses to leave my side and says she feels ‘dirty’ and we wonder who will marry her with this dark stain hanging over her,” Gulab Bibi, 40, told IRIN in Karachi.

In rural areas, the reluctance to report rape runs even deeper. Laiq Muhammad, a farmer in the Khairpur district of Sindh, says his nine-year-old sister was raped by the son of a powerful land-owner in the area. “These people have connections, they would simply bribe the police, and I have daughters and another younger sister’s safety to consider,” he said. “We cannot run the risk of further punishment.

“My sister’s life has changed for ever. She is only a child, but we are powerless to help her,” Muhammad told IRIN.

The reluctance to report cases also means the survivors frequently receive no psychological support.

“A victim of sexual assault needs counselling and help. The fact that in our society she is not even able to talk of the incident in most cases only makes matters worse for the thousands of women who suffer rape each year,” Saima Akhtar, a Karachi-based psychiatrist, said.


Tuesday 15 November 2011

31 Indians Convicted in Violence That Killed Muslims in 2002- Not so swift justice....

An Indian court found 31 people guilty on Wednesday of killing 33 Muslims in Gujarat State in 2002 during sectarian riots that left more than 1,000 dead. Convicted of murder, arson, rioting and criminal conspiracy, they were sentenced to life in prison and fined. Forty-two other defendants were acquitted.

The verdicts were a milepost in a case whose savagery stunned many Indians. The riots broke out after a train carrying mostly Hindus was set on fire at the station in Godhra, a predominantly Muslim area, killing 59 people. Blaming Muslims, mobs of Hindus rampaged, raping, looting and killing in a spasm of violence that raged for days and persisted for weeks.

Gujarat’s Hindu nationalist government and its police were widely condemned for ineffectiveness in halting the rioting or prosecuting anyone promptly, and the National Human Rights Commission filed a petition with the Supreme Court to press for justice. Five years later, in 2008, the court ordered special investigations into the train fire along with a number of attacks on Muslims.

The case that ended with Wednesday’s verdicts was a particularly gruesome one.

On that evening, March 1, 2002, two days after the train burning, a mob of Hindu rioters surrounded houses belonging to Muslims in Sardarpura village in the district of Mehsana and set them on fire. Dozens of people inside were burned alive.

Killings, arson and looting continued throughout the night, aimed at Muslims. Most of the village’s Muslim families moved away after the episode.

Ghulam Ali, 31, a house painter, lost 13 extended family members, including a brother, a sister-in-law, an uncle and an aunt. He survived by sheltering with others in a half-burned house, and now lives 20 miles away.

“Allah saved us on that day,” Mr. Ali said after the verdict. “Now there is a ray of hope in Gujarat. It gives us confidence that justice will prevail in other cases as well.”

He said he and other relatives of victims were considering whether to appeal the acquittals, a step that Indian law allows.

The special investigation into the train attack led to the trial of 94 people; 31 were convicted. Twenty were given life sentences, and 11 were sentenced to death.

A handful of other group trials have focused on rioters, yielding a few dozen convictions and, in one case, 11 life sentences.

Left unresolved by the trial was the widespread belief in Gujarat that the violence against Muslims in Sardarpura and other villages was deliberately orchestrated.

“The special investigation team did not go into the issue of wider conspiracy of riots,” Teesta Setalvad, an activist who represents riot victims and their families, said after Wednesday’s judgment. “Some of the witnesses testified and hinted about the wider conspiracy, but that was overlooked.”

Ms. Setalvad said the victims were pleased with the life sentences in the case. “We are not in favor of death sentence,” she said.


Sunday 13 November 2011

Some thing funny....

"A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind."

Thursday 10 November 2011

Mexico's Tzotzil Indians convert to Islam

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico — Raised a Christian, Manuel Gomez now goes by Mohamed Chechev, and counts himself among a handful of Tzotzil Indians converted to Islam by Spaniards in southern Mexico.
"I am Muslim. I know the truth. I pray five times a day, celebrate Ramadan and have traveled to Mecca," Chechev said in rudimentary Spanish.

He lives in a mainly Protestant community in Chiapas called Nueva Esperanza on the outskirts of San Cristobal de las Casas, where he shares a modest house with 19 relatives and sells vegetables he grows on a plot of land.
Biblical references abound in Nueva Esperanza, with streets named Bethlehem and Damascus and a quarter called Palestine. But it is also home to some 300 Tzotzils, indigenous peoples of Mayan origin, who have converted to Islam and live in harmony with the rest of the population.

According to anthropologist Gaspar Morquecho, the 330,000 Tzotzil people of the Chiapas region have a history of changing religions, after the forced imposition of Catholicism at the height of the Spanish colonization in the 16th century although very few have become Muslims.

In the interior courtyard of the home, Chechev's wife Noora (born Juana) and his daughter-in-law Sharifa (Pascuala) swept and cleaned laundry. They wore long dresses and a veil covered their hair.
Noora is the daughter of a Protestant indigenous leader who was driven out of San Juan Chamula, a nearby town where the Institutional Revolutionary Party and Catholicism reigned supreme, with dozens of other families in 1961.
"In Chamula, not being Catholic or a PRI party member was a crime. They were also angry because Protestants stopped drinking alcohol, one of the main local businesses," said Susana Hernandez, who lives in the neighborhood.

Some indigenous people have been sharply critical of Catholics for identifying too closely with the Institutional Revolutionary Party which ruled Mexico for 70 years.
And Chechev followed in the footsteps of another indigenous leader, Domingo Lopes, who was an official at an Adventist church before converting to Islam, introduced to the region by the Marabutin movement which moved to Mexico from Spain in 1993 in a bid to create a self-sufficient community.

The Marabutin sect is a hangover from the days when Spain was part of the Muslim empire for some seven centuries.
A few steps from Chechev's home is a three-story building housing a madrassa, with a school, workshops and a prayer center run the Murabitun World Movement, a Sufi community founded in 1968 by a Scottish convert to Islam that now has offshoots in many parts of the world.

Mexico is 83 percent Catholic, but Chiapas state, with a population of some 4.5 million inhabitants, has the least numbers of practicing Catholics, according to the 2010 census.
Aurelanio Perez, a Spanish convert known as the Emir Mustafa, founded the Marabutin community in Chiapas and found converts among the Tzotzils.
Chechev speaks the Tzotzil dialect, but can neither read nor write Spanish. And yet, learning prayers in Arabic only took him a couple of months.

"Our prophet Mohammed could neither read nor write. I may not be able to read, but I can recite the holy Koran. It's a miracle to be able to enter Islam. Allah is merciful. He teaches us everything and gives us everything that comes from him," Chechev added.

He knows the prophet's hadith, or collection of accounts of what Mohammed said and did, and says he follows the five pillars of Islam: creed (shahada), daily prayers (salat), fasting during Ramadan (Sawm), charity (zakat) and the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj).
Chechev traveled to the heart of Islam, in Saudi Arabia, in 1998 with the help of Emir Mustapha. Some of Chechev's relatives, including his wife, also made the trip.
"Aureliano told me that if we accept Allah, we need to visit the house of Allah. It was like a dream, we were all dressed in white. There were white, black, brown people, but it didn't matter. We were all equal," he said.
Noora's face lit up as soon as she heard about Mecca.
"When I went there, I felt proud of Islam, of being a Muslim. We ask Allah for a mosque. Inshallah, if God wishes, it will come," she said.

Noora was hopeful that her son, Ibrahim (Anastacio), will become an imam.


Wednesday 9 November 2011

Pamela Geller: ‘I Endorse Herman Cain. What He Doesn’t Know, We’ll Teach Him’

Is this the kind of help Herman Cain is looking for this week?

Cain has now picked up a top endorsement from the right-wing blogosphere: Pamela Geller, the anti-Islam campaigner and Birther.

Geller posted an entry on her blog Wednesday evening, declaring her support for Cain. In the past, Geller has criticized Cain, when he backed down from his statement that local communities should be able to ban mosques. She had also hoped that Sarah Palin would run, a dream that came to naught when Palin declared a month ago that she would not run.

But now, recent developments have put her on board. Specifically, the allegations of past sexual harassment against Cain — and the counter-accusation from Team Cain that the Rick Perry campaign was behind it — have changed her mind. Geller has long detested Perry, calling him soft on “stealth jihad” by Muslims in America.

Key quote from Geller’s new blog post, with emphasis in the original:

Perry is a snake. Watch him. He is creepy. And his drunken, freak show speech this past weekend belonged in a Roger Corman film.

I questioned his very bad judgment when I exposed his entire Islamic curriculum, dawah and proselytizing, to Texas school children. But this? Perry is a really bad guy. Only a lowlife (or a Democrat — Perry was Al Gore’s campaign manager) would eliminate a better man with innuendo and gossip. Men like Perry do not win on merit.

I endorse Herman Cain. What he doesn’t know, we’ll teach him.

Geller, author of a recent book Stop the Islamization of America: A Practical Guide to the Resistance, is perhaps best known for her campaigning against the Park51 project, a Muslim community center in downtown New York City that Geller and others have dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque,” declaring that it is part of an international Muslim effort to subjugate America.

In addition, Geller called for a boycott of Campbell’s soup, when the company introduced a line of halal-certified products. In her denunciation of halal food, she has also made accusations that it is secretly being sold to non-Muslims: “we are being forced into consuming meat slaughtered by means of a barbaric, torturous, and inhuman method: Islamic slaughter, the cutting of the animal’s throat without stunning or any other form of mitigation for the animal’s pain.” It should be noted that this aspect of halal meat slaughter is the same as the Jewish kosher dietary rules.

She has also been waging a legal battle against the city’s transit authority, over their refusal of her submitted subway ad calling for support of Israel: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man.”

Also, some of her more creative claims have come from her contributions to the Birther conspiracy theory, alleging that President Obama is ineligible for the Oval Office. In addition to the standard claim insisting that the president’s birth certificate is “an obvious forgery,” Geller has also alleged that the marriage of the president’s parents was not legally valid — and that people like Obama had different rights in 1789: “Illegitimate children had different rights — at least they certainly did in 1789. There is no way that the founders of this great nation intended for an illegitimate child of a foreign bigamist to attain the highest, most powerful position in the new land.”

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Settlement building to ramp up as punishment for UNESCO vote

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the forum of eight senior ministers decided on Tuesday to initiate a new wave of settlement construction in the West Bank. The move is part of a broader set of sanctions against the Palestinian Authority in response to its acceptance as a member of UNESCO Monday.

The announcement was Israel's first real response to the Palestinian application in September for membership in the United Nations.

On Tuesday, the Prime Minister's Office said the construction of 2,000 housing units planned in East Jerusalem, Gush Etzion and Ma'aleh Adumim should be expedited.

"All of the mentioned areas are ones that would remain in Israeli control under any future peace agreement," the PMO said in a statement.

The "forum of eight" also resolved to suspend the transfer to the PA of tax remittances collected by Israel in October. More than NIS 300 million was to have been transferred to the PA before the Id al-Adha holiday, which starts on Sunday evening, to pay the salaries of PA employees.

During Tuesday's meeting Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Defense Minister Ehud Barak argues over whether to halt the tax transfers indefinitely. Barak argued that suspending the payments would jeopardize the future of security coordination with the Palestinians in the West Bank, while Steinitz supported the move.

Steinitz said Israel should also cut off its funding to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, as the United States has done. Israel contributes about $2 million a year to UNESCO.

The forum decided to start the process of revoking the VIP status of senior Palestinian officials, which allows them to pass through checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank. The ministers also decided to bar UNESCO missions from Israel and the PA and restrict the agency's activities here.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for PA President Mahmoud Abbas, said on Tuesday that Israel had decided "to speed up the destruction of the peace process" by accelerating the construction of settlements on land where the Palestinians aim to found an independent state. Abu Rudeineh also described as "inhumane" the decision to suspend tax payments.

After obtaining full membership in UNESCO, the PA will now seek membership in the World Health Organization and 15 smaller UN agencies.

Among the bodies the Palestinians seek to join are the UN's World Intellectual Property Organization, International Telecommunication Union, International Labor Organization and International Atomic Energy Agency. Acceptance to these bodies would be mostly symbolic and have little practical effect for the residents of the West Bank.

The PA was optimistic that France would change its position and support accepting Palestine as a UN member after France voted in favor of accepting Palestine in UNESCO.


Monday 7 November 2011

Sacred souvenirs

Pilgrims heading back home from Makkah not only carry memories of an unforgettable spiritual and historical journey, but they also take gifts and souvenirs for their loved ones who were not lucky enough to travel with them to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia offers a variety of gift selection that is perfect for pilgrims to take back home and share with family and friends. Gifts vary from books, clothing, mats, food and much more.

The Arab News team came up with a list of gift ideas, especially for pilgrims, to take back home. All gifts can be found in Saudi stores and departments.

1. Souvenirs such as pictures of the Two Holy Mosques are one of the most popular gifts bought by pilgrims. Those products remind pilgrims of their beautiful journey they experienced during their spiritual visit to the Kingdom. Price range is from SR10 to SR500.

2. Dates, honey and other sweets are also popular among pilgrims. Aside from being popular food in Saudi Arabia, these sweets reminds pilgrims of the sweet taste of Makkah. Price range is from SR50 to SR500.

3. Oud oil and chips are what make the famous Arabian scents that Saudis are known for. Pilgrims can buy these items at Arabian Oud, Ajmal and Abdul Samad Alqurashi who are famous for their high quality Oud. Price range is from SR100 to SR50,000.

4. Zamzam water is the first thing that comes to a pilgrim’s mind when visiting Makkah. This holy water is known to be an excellent drink that helps strengthen the body and mind. Many Muslims believe this water originated from heaven, so it is reputed to have healing powers. In the old days, pilgrims used to bring their empty bottles and fill it with the Zamzam tankers in the holy mosque. Now, however, water companies made it a lot easier by bottling the water. Price range is from SR 15 to SR25 per bottle.

5. Prayer mats with pictures of Makkah and Madinah and calligraphy and Islamic motifs on them are also very popular gifts. These mats with Islamic inscriptions are particular favorites among pilgrims for it gives them the opportunity to decorate their homes with those spiritual items. Their prices range from SR10 to SR100 depending on the materials and designs.

6. Prayer beads are known to be a charming choice for pilgrims. Those beads are used to count the prayers. Other people, however, look at it as a mark of prestige. Choosing the beads depends on the pilgrim’s wealth. Some choose Chinese-made prayer beads or beads with expensive gemstones. Price range is from SR25 to SR500 a dozen.

7. Miswak, which is Arabic for tooth stick, is a healthy yet traditional choice for Muslims following the example of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Miswak can be found all over Makkah especially made and sold by street peddlers, who carve, cut it and sell it in dozens. Price rate is SR10 per dozen.

8. The gold market is one of the most visited places in Saudi Arabia during Haj period for many pilgrims to buy precious gold items to either gift or sell back home. Price rate tops SR6,000 an ounce.

9. Saudi women are famous for their hijab clothing and abayas. Many pilgrims like to take back home some of the praying veils or black abayas for their female family members. There are many shops in Makkah and Jeddah that sell abayas with different colors, designs and sizes that match all styles. Prices start from SR200.

10. Last but not least, the Book of Islam is the perfect gift to give loved ones. The Qur’an comes in different colors, shapes and even sizes, which makes it the perfect gift. Prices start from SR35.


Thursday 3 November 2011

Egypt: Samira v. the Military One woman dares to sue after enduring a "virginity check" at the military's hands.

CAIRO – Samira Ibrahim likes pink, Che Guevara, and old revolutionary songs from the '50s. She doesn't like people picking on her younger brother. When she was a little girl, she landed a punch on a bully who was pushing him around.

She hasn't stopped fighting since. On a recent October afternoon, the 25-year-old traveled nine hours by train from her home in southern Egypt to Cairo to meet with her lawyers in a case she filed against the Egyptian military for what she claims was sexual assault in the administering of a so-called “virginity test” after she was arrested in Tahrir Square along with other female protesters.

On the ninth floor of a dingy hotel room in central Cairo, she recounted her ordeal for GlobalPost, sharing the details of what happened on March 9 when she was arrested along with 172 other protesters, including 17 women, as part of a crackdown on demonstrations that reignited in Tahrir Square one month after President Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down.

The women in the group were herded into police vans, taken to a military detention center on the outskirts of Cairo and ordered to separate into two lines — one for “virgins” and the other for “non virgins.” Then they were forced to undergo the so-called “virginity tests,” a controversial, some might even say ‘medieval,’ procedure in which women are forcefully penetrated in order to document blood from the hymen as proof of virginity. The invasive, painful, and often unreliable practice, which in some traditional societies in the Middle East and Africa has been used to ensure the virginity of a bride before marriage, has been condemned by Amnesty International as a form of torture.

“In the virginity test case, I was forced to take off my clothes in front of military officials,” says Samira, whose lip gloss matches her bold pink headscarf, a tradition of modesty for women in the conservative southern Egyptian region, where she was born and raised and still lives with her parents.

“Secondly, the person that conducted the test was an officer, not a doctor. He had his hand stuck in me for about five minutes. He made me lose my virginity. Every time I think of this, I don't know what to tell you, I feel awful. I don't know how to describe it to you, ” she adds.

“I know that to violate a woman in that way was considered rape,” she says. “I felt like I had been raped.”

Before her March 9 arrest, Samira was the general manager of a prominent marketing firm. Her four-day detainment prompted a military investigation at her office that cost her her job. She still can't find work.

Samira's decision to single-handedly challenge the military in court is rare for any woman, but particularly for a young woman from a traditional background. That her case has the support of her openly Islamist father is even more unusual, and her mother has been strongly behind her as well.

Her father, Ibrahim Muhammed Mahmud, a veteran political activist released from jail right before Mubarak was overthrown, says, “She's so much like me in her nature, so much like me. If we're doing the right thing, then we shouldn't be scared.”

“She has the right to file that lawsuit and demand her rights,” her father adds. “But you know, I'm skeptical of the judicial system.”

Samira's case against the military protests the use of “virginity tests” while she and the other women were held in a military detainment center.

So far, Samira is the only woman who has filed an administrative case in Egypt’s civil court against the military over the virginity test incident.

Mona Seif, the founder of the group “No To Military Trials Without Civilians,” said Samira's decision to file the court case “takes a very strong woman” and “a supportive family.”

“Samira is very strong and her family is behind her,” she says. Of the women who have come forward publicly, Seif says only Samira has filed a lawsuit because many victims fear reprisals from the authorities.

But other women have spoken out about the alleged so-called “virginity testing” believed administered to Samira and others. Victim Salwa El-Houseini described her experience to reporters at a “No To Military Trials Without Civilians” press conference in mid-March but can't file suit because she has no national identification papers.

“If I, Salwa El-Hosseini, had filed a lawsuit, I would not have been like Samira or others,” she says. “People don't even know how far I would have gone.”

Other victims are impressed by Samira's fortitude. “She is a true warrior and really loves her country,” says another victim, Rasha Abdelrahman, a 28-year-old seamstress. Abdelrahman initially filed the equivalent of a police report on the issue, but has not followed up due to emotional problems. Samira, she says, “dreams of freedom.” The two sat next to one another on the bus after they were arrested and Abdelrahman recalls how they shouted political chants through the windows in an effort to reach the people on the streets. “We kept each other strong, and told each other that freedom has a price,” she says.

The Egyptian military is reportedly investigating what happened to the women following their arrest on March 9. Officially, Samira was charged with assaulting authorities, taking part in an unsanctioned gathering, and breaking curfew. She was detained for four days and released with a one-year suspended sentence.

A spokesman for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military body now ruling Egypt, declined to comment on the details of the case.

According to documents provided by an attorney on her case and translated from Arabic, her court filing to the Chief Justice of the Administrative Judicial Court and the Deputy Chief Justice of the State Council states that Samira “was exposed to the ugliest forms of humiliation and torture and a violation of the sanctity of her body that included being given a virginity test before the eyes and ears of the workers in the military prison during the period of her detention from March 9, 2011 until March 11, 2011.”

She demands that those responsible be held to account and punished. She also says she was not informed of the charges on which she was being held. Her case requests compensation for all legal fees but does not demand any other restitution as part of the case. In a parallel legal action, Samira has also filed a case against the military for referring her to a military court even though she is a civilian and for refusing her request to see a lawyer. She is due in court Tuesday, but her attorney said her case may be postponed because cases related to the upcoming parliamentary election have been given top priority.

Rights groups representing Samira and other victims are not hopeful. “We really have a very weak case,” says Ibigan Hassan, a lawyer working pro bono with the El Nadim Center for the Management and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, one of the rights groups working on Samira's behalf. Hassan predicts the court will close the case due to lack of evidence.

Even veteran rights workers in Cairo are impressed by the Samira's determination to use civic channels like the judiciary despite their reputation for corruption and lack of transparency.

Heba Morayef, the director of Human Rights Watch's Cairo office, describes her as someone who “wants to continue to fight the system because what happened to her was sexual assault and she wants justice.”

“Compared to the other people detained and the girls that I saw in relation to this case, Samira has the clearest concept of violation — she understands what it means to be violated physically as a girl,” says the El Nadim Center’s Hassan.

For Samira, the case is about making sure this never happens again.

“If any woman is violated and she files a lawsuit against her perpetrators, then this is going to eventually stop, and they're not going to put pressure on political activists by threatening to violate their wives or daughters,” Samira says.

She insists that if her case fails in Egypt, she'll take it to international bodies like the United Nations.

Morayef believes the so-called “virginity testing” was done as part of a new strategy being pursued by Egypt's ruling military, describing them as having gone “on the offensive” in recent months. Hassan thinks the crackdown on March 9 was intended to break the spirit of the revolution by systematically targeting individual political activists, such as Samira.

“Civilians were clearly planted within the protests as spies early on,” Hassan says, “to identify key leaders of the revolution.”

"They said, 'get her,'” Samira recalls hearing military authorities saying as they swarmed Tahrir Square on March 9. The attack that day marked a particularly violent departure for the ruling military authorities. Human Rights Watch issued a strongly worded report condemning the violence.


Samira was first arrested for her political activities at age of 16. But her rebel streak showed itself much earlier — her favorite childhood game was cops and robbers.

“She comes from a politicized background,” Hassan says. “She is someone who understands her rights and she went out to fight for her rights, she knows exactly what she is fighting for and understands what it is like to be in the kind of position she was in.”

Her mother, who hails from a small village and cannot read or write, comes from a family of dissidents.

“Samira has always been brave: ever since she was a little girl,” she says. “A guy once hit her brother, so she hit him, even though he was older than her, she beat him up.”

She was kicked out of university three years ago for taking part in a protest with the key April 6 opposition group.

"They arrested me, but you know how they arrested me?” she asks, reliving the events of March 9. “They pulled me from my hair. They dragged me on the ground and my stomach was kind of showing.” She was so humiliated by the exposure that she's still taking preventative measures. “Since then,” she says, “I've been wearing a swimming suit under my clothes so if something like that happens again, that won't happen.”

“There was a military general [standing nearby] and he started to accuse me of being a prostitute,” she says. “I was extremely surprised, thinking, why is he accusing me of that?”

The prostitution charge emerged from a public campaign suggesting that orgies were being held and immoral behavior was the norm among activists camping out in Tahrir Square, rumors activists believe were encouraged by security officials. The military told Samira’s legal representatives that these rumors were the basis upon which the military created a rationale for administering the “virginity tests” so that the women could not later accuse officers of rape.

Samira had briefly studied law and knew what was happening to her during her four-day detainment was illegal. “It occurred to me to ask for an attorney, and when I first went to the prosecutor I asked for an attorney and he sort of looked at me and said, 'You ask for an attorney? You all deserve to be shot.'”

The kinds of problems facing young people like Samira are part of a larger narrative of disillusionment unfolding in Egypt, with once-united opposition parties fracturing ahead of the November parliamentary elections and military leadership actively discouraging dissent. Authorities are also pressuring rights agencies, raiding their offices, confiscating files on key opposition figures, and threatening to adopt restrictive funding laws.

Many believe the revolutionary honeymoon is over.

Her headscarf flapping in the wind, Samira is standing in the middle of Tahrir Square. Just months ago the area had been a bustling center of political activity — the protesters' home base, code name “tent city.” Today, it's an empty ring of dirt with only a few scribblings political graffiti hinting at the historic events that took place there. But Samira says she's “still optimistic” about Egypt's future.

“Even if there's just one revolutionary, he or she can start the revolution all over again,” she says.


Wednesday 2 November 2011

Holy Terror comic is 'Islamophobic', say critics

There is nothing subtle about Frank Miller's newest graphic novel, Holy Terror. The book opens with the quote: "If you meet the infidel, kill the infidel", which Mr Miller attributes to the Prophet. From there the jingoism, violence and Islamophobia take off.

Miller is no stranger to controversy. His stories, which include the famous Batman mini-series, The Dark Knight Returns, and comics-to-film 300 and Sin City, regularly explore the darker corners of society amid shades of moral grey. Any nuance, however, is all but absent in his latest work.

Originally envisioned as a Batman tale after September 11 attacks on the US, the comic features heroes The Fixer, and thief-come-love interest, Natalie, as they join forces to stop an Al Qaeda plot on Empire City, a thinly veiled New York City.

For some, the best-seller underlines a worrying shift in American entertainment. "We are witnessing a growing industry of information and fear-mongering, and this work fits in the centre … It's unfortunate that Islamophobia is becoming mainstream," said Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based Muslim civil-rights group. He described the work as "shameful".

Certainly, Miller's mixing of Muslims and Arabs – the book never differentiates – with terrorists highlights Holy Terror's unflattering portrayal of Muslims.

Jack Shaheen, a professor of mass communications at Southern Illinois University, said this combining is a "common thread" in post-September 11 media, and that Holy Terror warrants attention by rights groups as comics grow in influence within the American entertainment industry.

After the book's initial fight scene, The Fixer says to a captured terrorist: "So Mohammed, pardon me for guessing your name, but you've got to admit the odds are pretty good it's Mohammad…" The Fixer then tortures and cripples the man before detonating his explosive belt.

Miller's depictions of women in Islam were no better. A two-panel spread that juxtaposes westerners and Muslims/Arabs shows one of the comic's most gratuitous scenes. In stark contrast to westerners at a cinema in the first panel, the second depicts a brutalised woman buried to her neck as silhouetted men stone her while yelling insults.