Monday, November 30, 2009

Swiss Ban Minarets

I can't believe the Swiss actually banned minarets (a spire on a mosque traditionally used to call the faithful to prayer). But as the Christian Science Monitor aptly puts it, the "Swiss have just approved a constitutional change that won't do anything to solve its nonexistent problem of runaway Islamic extremism."

Well, they have more than solved a nonexistent problem. They have helped create several.

For one, the Swiss Muslim community was already respectful of their non-Muslim milieu. After all, there are only 4 minarets in the entire country, servicing approximately 400,000 Muslims. That's one minaret for 100,000 people.

But more importantly, none of the minarets actually broadcast the call to prayer. In other words, there is no public nuisance argument here about noise pollution nor any question of religious invasion of public space. Rather, the Swiss banned minarets because they object to their very physical existence. It's state-sanctioned religious persecution. And it's repugnant, whether the referendum passed democratically or not.

Furthermore, there are very real costs to this decision. One, the Swiss-Muslim community, if they are not alienated already, will be so now. Two, it fuels the Clash of Civilizations between Islam and the West, a self-fulfilling prophecy that only persists out of intellectual laziness and/or religious prejudice. Three, it diminishes the West's ability to criticize other governments for their civil and human rights abuses. After all, how can we lecture Saudi Arabia for its restrictions on churches when Switzerland holds a similar policy against minarets?

In the end, a ban on minarets is no different than a ban on church bell towers. Persecution is persecution, regardless of the victim.

But more than anything else, I'm just disappointed. It's one thing when autocratic regimes spew intolerance. It's quite another when a liberal democracy - and one famed for its pacifism no less - can enact a law so illiberal and so intolerant. Let's hope the international outcry continues and forces them to reconsider this shameful legislation.

PS Things are a bit hectic at work, so posts will be intermittent (or non-existent) for the next week or so. But I'll be back posting daily soon enough.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Failed Iran Op Ed

I recently wrote this op-ed and submitted it to the Baltimore Sun. It was rejected. So, now it's posted here instead. For those who are interested, the historical background comes from this fascinating article by Muhammad Sahimi at Tehran Bureau

Americans have learned many things about Iran these past few months. We’ve learned of the brutality of the baton-wielding Basij and the courage of the Iranian citizens who bear the brunt of their blows. We’ve learned of the cruelty of Evin Prison’s interrogators and the perseverance of the victims who endure their torture. We’ve learned of the ruthlessness of the hollow regime in Tehran and the strength of the opposition who demand their fundamental rights.

We have also learned about the utter complexity of Iranian politics. Take, for example, Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha, who Muhammad Sahimi at the Tehran Bureau calls “the power behind the scene” of the opposition movement.

The regime clearly wants to silence Khoeiniha. Yet given his impeccable revolutionary credentials, the regime cannot do so without revealing how ideologically hollow they have become. Khoeiniha served as one of Ayatollah Khomeini's most trusted advisers. Furthermore, it was Khoeiniha who gave approval to the students of the Office for Consolidation of Unity (OCU) to storm the American embassy on November 4, 1979. To this day, Khoeiniha proudly keeps a filing cabinet in his office that reads "Property of the General Services Administration" of the United States.

Most interestingly, two students on the OCU board opposed the decision to take over the American embassy. Instead, they argued that the students should target the Soviet Embassy (at this time, Communists were still influential throughout Iran). In an ironic twist of history, one of those dissenters was none other than current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

This history lesson should give pause to any American foreign policymaker. Iranian politics are incredibly complex, constantly evolving and frustratingly opaque. Even if we do have experts who understand its subtleties, and that's a big if, any nuanced analysis is likely lost as information is passed up the chain of command.

At a recent event on Capitol Hill, Brookings Institution expert Kenneth Pollack warned the audience that we must not try to meddle in internal Iranian affairs, especially given the difficulty in understanding all of its nuances. We simply don't understand how to intervene successfully. When we have tried in the past, such as supporting the Shah's coup in 1953, we only have laid the foundation for anti-Americanism, extremism and regime paranoia.

But at the same time, we cannot ignore the struggle for Iranian democracy as we negotiate over Iran’s nuclear program. No matter the checkered past of the opposition leaders, the Green Movement presents the best opportunity for a prosperous and stable Iran in the long-term, an Iran that will no longer poses a strategic threat to the United States and its allies.

Moving forward, U.S. policymakers should therefore follow three guidelines:

1. Listen to the Iranian people. None of the information above is news to the Iranian people. They know the history of their leaders and what implications those histories may entail. Where we are ignorant, they are knowledgeable. Where we are cumbersome, they are agile. Quite simply, they know what works and what doesn't. Admittedly, it will be sometimes difficult to determine what the Iranians want - they will often disagree and debate amongst themselves. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn't listen and learn as best we can.

2. Do no harm. Ultimately, this struggle belongs to the Iranians. They must answer the tough questions and take the bold actions. They have done so already and will continue to do so, as shown most recently by the protests on November 4th. We can help when it is clear our assistance is both needed and wanted. We must not rush policy for the appearance of solidarity, but rather we must carefully consider how our actions will impact the interests of the Iranian people. When the result is in doubt, doing less is better than doing harm.

3. Bolster institutions and processes, not personalities. It is exceedingly difficult to determine who in Iran deserves American support. It would be hard to explain why opposition leaders like Ayatollah Khoeiniha deserve our assistance, given his pedigree. Nor is his case special. Many of the opposition leaders, including Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, held high level government positions as the regime executed thousands of political prisoners in the 1980s. But even if we did find leaders deserving of support, it is unclear how the U.S. can substantively help them without risking their reputations as independent politicians free of foreign influence.

Instead, the U.S. should look to support efforts to strengthen the institutions and processes that uphold all healthy democracies - a free press, a thriving civil society, an independent judiciary, electoral safeguards and the rule of law. By bolstering Iranian democracy without elevating specific personalities, the U.S. can avoid most charges of meddling while exposing those who would deny the Iranian people their inalienable right of self-determination.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Arab Israeli Women At Work

As explained by Himmat Zoabi in Haaretz, Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz recently sought to explain high unemployment amongst Arab Israeli women. Citing low female employment across the Arab world, Minister Steinitz partially blamed conservative Arab culture.

However, Zoabi argues that this argument obscures a more important truth. Namely, not only do Arab Israeli women work less than other Israeli women, but they even suffer from higher unemployment than woman in other Arab countries. According to Zoabi, 21.1% of Arab Israeli women are employed compared to 51.3% of all Israeli women. Meanwhile, 29% of Saudi women, 27% of Omani women and 42% of Moroccan women are employed.

The question, therefore, is, "why do fewer Arab women have jobs in Israel than Saudi Arabia?"

Zoabi primarily blames the Israeli government and its "policy of deliberate and consistent discrimination against Arab citizens." Specifically, compared to their Jewish counterparts, Arab villages have insufficient access to public transportation and employment training programs. Furthermore, Zoabi cites:

the shortage of day-care centers in Arab towns (of 1,600 day-care centers for children under 3 that receive government assistance, only 25 operate in Arab communities) and government-supported industrial zones (only 3.2 percent are in Arab areas). In addition, Arab women constitute a mere 3 percent of civil servants, even though the civil service is the largest employer of women in Israel.

Importantly, Zoabi does not dismiss the problems posed by Arab culture, but urges the government to "leave the social barriers to us." And, in fact, I have personally seen the efforts undertaken by Arab Israeli women to make a better life for themselves and their families. During a recent trip to Israel, I visited the women of the Sharikat Haya program, which trains Arab women and helps find them employment. Specifically, the women learn a range of practical skills, such as how to write a resume and use a computer, as well as Hebrew language courses.

But the truly inspiring part comes from listening to their stories. Most of them are under the age of 25, already have at least one child, and have decided to attend the program against the better judgement of their spouses. They are driven. They want to help their families. And they seek to discover their potential.

Importantly, the funding for Sharikat Haya comes from the Abraham Fund Initiatives that "seeks civic equality for Israel's Jewish and Arab Citizens as a moral and pragmatic imperative." Therefore, significant amounts of the financial support (I'm sorry but I can't read Hebrew to be certain of exact numbers) comes from the Jewish community. And that's great, the more the better.

But at the same time, we cannot neglect the other half of the problem that Zoabi outlines. For to truly solve the problem of high female unemployment, we need to tackle all its aspects - political, cultural, economic, linguistic, pragmatic - all at once.

Since 1989, Israeli's GDP/capita has more than quadrupled, but it has done so by and large without the participation of its Arab minority, both male and female. Imagine what might happen if the Israeli government addressed even half the issues Zoabi identifies. Imagine what might be accomplished if 20% of the Israeli population finally began to fully contribute. And imagine the implications for peaceful coexistance and, yes, even cooperation.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Haredim Conundrum

Bernard Avishai at TPMCafe reports on a telling story about an Intel facility in Israel. Last Sabbath, ultra-orthodox Haredi rabbis and their disciples descended upon the Intel compound and vandalized it. After a meeting with the Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Knesset Speaker Ruby Rivlin, who Avishai calls "rightists tied to Haredi voters," the groups came to an agreement. Only 20 of the usual 120 employees would come to work on Saturdays and none of them would be Jewish. But, as Avishai informs, the compromise apparently did not go far enough and the Haredi "mobs were back yesterday demanding a complete shut down."

The Haredi Jews present a difficult conundrum for the Jewish State of Israel. On one hand, they claim that studying Torah is their profession. And, after all, what Jew can be against that? But on the other hand, studying Torah is their profession. In other words, they don't work. According to data from the Israeli and Housing Construction Ministry, approximately 70% of Haredi men are unemployed.

Not only do they fail to contribute to society in any material way, but Israel society actually has to pay them through various welfare programs. In fact, according to Meirav Arlosoroff, the Haredi Jews are offered such a large subsidy to study Torah that they have no economic incentive to seek regular employment. While there has been discrimination against the Haredim in the workplace, it is clear many are quite happy living off the largess of the state.

Beyond economics, the Haredim conundrum plays directly into the Israeli struggle of how to define the Jewish State and Judaism more generally. Ask a typical Haredi rabbi in Meah Shearim and he'll define Judaism in exactly the same way a rabbi would have in 17th century Eastern Europe. Obviously, most Jews in Israel (and elsewhere) have trouble with such an uncompromising definition.

The problem is not in the difference in opinion, but in the suggestion that Haredim maintain the sole prerogative to define Judaism to the exclusion of other equally-valid possibilities. It is this belief in their exclusive right to define Judaism that motivates their "defense" of the Sabbath, as exemplified with the protests at Intel (or, for anyone secular who has ventured too deeply into Haredim territory, the all-too-real threat of rock throwing).

I visited Israel for the first time this summer after an extended stay in the Arab world. Coincidentally, I visited at the same time the Haredim were protesting a parking lot that was open on the Sabbath. It is odd to admit that, after exploring countless Arab neighborhoods, I felt the most unwanted when visiting Haredi areas. But it is downright sad to admit that, after visiting so many mosques, I felt the most alien when visiting the epicenter of Judaism - the Wailing Wall - surrounded by Haredim, Jews that I do not fully understand nor fully understand me.

Below, I've added a picture from my excursion into Meah Shearim. Among other announcements, a flier exclaims, that people are "murdering" the Sabbath and calls for protests.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Scary Muslims in Sweden?

This video recently came to my attention through the Jewish grapevine about the threat of Islam in Malmö, Sweden:

Understandably, any Jew watching this clip would feel alarm. But there's more to this clip than the narrative it tells. I'll begin with its source: CBN. The Christian Broadcasting Network was founded by the conservative televangelist Pat Robertson. As a representative of the far-right evangelical Christian community, he is accustomed to inciting controversy for his views. Among other examples, he suggested Ariel Sharon was punished by God after suffering a stroke:

And in case you don't trust MSNBC, here's a clip from CBN two days after 9/11 with Pat Robertson and his ally Jerry Falwell. Not only do they claim God allowed the terrorists to attack us because we haven't pursued their ultra-conservative Christian agenda, but Falwell says we probably deserved it.

That clip was filmed more than a year after Sen. McCain called Robertson and his ally Jerry Falwell intolerant and wrongheaded during the 2000 presidential campaign (though he has since backtracked). The point is Robertson views the world through a religious lens - one most of us would not agree with.

As such, when we watch anything from CBN, we need to filter their narrative to determine what we should accept as fact and what we should evaluate as opinion. Of course, this advice holds true for any news source, but for CBN it is especially important. Unlike other news sources that strive for fair and balanced reporting - or at least claim to do so rhetorically - CBN has no qualms in admitting it adheres to an evangelical Christian perspective.

So let me provide another perspective from a Muslim friend who actually lives in Malmö. As the CBN video claims, there has been a large influx of Muslim immigrants to Sweden, as well as other Scandinavian and European countries. Many have come because of wars in Iraq and the Balkans or because of persecution in their home countries. However, as she told me, "there is no risk that Muslims will take over Sweden, EVER." Even in Malmö, there is only one mosque outside the city "since the people didn't want one and especially not close to the center."

Muslims face many challenges in Sweden. Many immigrants live in slums, not only because they can't afford better, but because "some areas won't accept immigrants." Meanwhile, Muslims in Denmark face special legal difficulty bringing their spouses to Europe. As such, they often live in Sweden while working in Denmark, further adding to the swell of immigrants in Malmö.

Denmark is now "very open" about their racism, as shown by the firebrand anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders, who pretended to tear a Qur'an in half in his documentary Fitna. Importantly, Wilders has strong ties with the Swedish Democrats (SD) party and the International Free Press Society quoted in the CBN clip. According to my friend, SD is a racist party and no other Swedish party is "willing to talk to them [and] the newspapers won't publish anything that has to do with them." Importantly, there is a mainstream Christian party called the Christian Democrats.

As for the demonstrations shown in the CBN segment, they occurred during the war in Gaza and tempers were running high. Nonetheless, my friend insists they weren't violent as the clip implies, but were instead just the result of "stupid youth" getting together. Nor do Jews get physically attacked all the time, as CBN claims.

What I find ironic is that, in a clip that seeks to expose discrimination against the Jewish community, discrimination against Islam lurks beneath the surface. As my friend points out, "he clearly thinks all Muslims are bad and that Islam is a threat." The problem is not that the clip identifies some Muslims behaving badly, but that it generalizes that behavior to all Muslims. Bill O'Reilly on Fox News has made that same point several times in light of Robertson's claims that Islam is a violent religion that seeks global domination. For example, see this recent segment below (or this one here).

In an interesting article on YNet, Rabbi Levi Brackman asks whether Israelis should accept the friendship of American Christians. He eschews the Islamophobia of Pat Robertson and others like him who condemn all Muslims as violent: "good people will study their holy books and only see goodness and love within its pages. Evil people, conversely, will see, within the same book, a mandate to hate, murder and terrorize." As such, Rabbi Brackman urges us to "be wary of those intolerant people who use their religion to look down upon and be intolerant of others." Luckily, there are many people "who care for what is good and right no matter which religion they believe in or from what part of the world they come."

Lucky indeed.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Thinking About the Temple Mount

Earlier this week, I called out the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star for mislabeling Israeli soldiers as "Jewish troops." It was a clear example of journalism gone awry.

While writing the post, I almost included another example of sloppy journalism, but I left it out for stylistic reasons. So I'm glad that Evelyn Gordon at Commentary has spotted the same mistake and taken the effort to correct it.

In a recent New York Times article, Isabel Kershner reviews an interesting new book about the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, entitled "Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Jerusalem's Sacred Esplanade." According to Kershner, the book combines Muslim, Christian and Jewish experts to discuss the "history, archaeology, aesthetics and politics of the place that Jews revere as the location of their two ancient temples, and that now houses the Al Aksa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam."

Everything was going great until I reached this sentence: "The lack of archaeological evidence of the ancient temples has led many Palestinians to deny any real Jewish attachment or claim to the plateau."

While there's no question some Palestinians have dubiously questioned the Temple Mount's Jewish roots, Kershner unfortunately phrases the sentence to imply that there is, in fact, a paucity of evidence. Except there is plenty of evidence.

As Gordon points out, the Jewish temple is "well-documented in extant writings from the period" and there are several walls still standing. I have physically touched the evidence, walked around the evidence and ventured beneath it - as have millions of other tourists who visited the Western Wall. It's existence is not in question to anyone who can see.

Gordon goes on to explain why such an important archaeological site has not received the amount of archaeological scrutiny it deserves. Namely, since the 1967 War and the capture of East Jerusalem, Israel has allowed the Temple Mount to remain under Muslim authority, making excavations impossible due to political and religious sensitivities.

And then Gordon makes a mistake, I believe, more damaging than the New York Times article she sets out to correct. She writes, "perhaps Jerusalem needs to rethink its tactics - and start demonstrating the Jewish connection to the Mount in actions rather than words [...] letting Jews pray on a designated section of the Mount devoid of mosques would be an excellent place to begin."

This would undoubtedly start the Third Intifada. As is, tensions are incredibly high throughout the Holy Land. Palestinians and Israelis are already clashing over the Temple Mount, with Muslim leaders calling to "defend the Temple Mount from conquest by Jews" as right-wing Jews flock to the Mount to raise holy hell. Meanwhile, scholar Steven Cook concluded this week that "a third intifada is likely to erupt in the near future" if the political situation continues to deteriorate. Nor should we forget what instigated the Second Intifada: Ariel Sharon's ill-fated visit to the Temple Mount.

In other words, the gasoline has already been poured over the tinder. All we're waiting for is a spark, one that Gordon seems ready to provide.

In the long-run, sure, it seems fair to let Jews pray on the Temple Mount in a cordoned-off section. After all, it's both a Jewish and a Muslim holy site. But until cooler heads prevail, political realities dictate otherwise.

*FYI, I read another bad idea today. From Sarah Palin. She argues for continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank because Israel's population "is going to grow [...] in the days and weeks and months ahead." Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy does a good job summing up why that's a horrible idea.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Playing Mubarak's Games

Earlier this week, an Egyptian opposition blogger was abducted, beaten, and left in the streets to bleed. Today, the Egyptian government suddenly released from prison (Arabic) a key leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Such is the arbitrary brutality of the Mubarak regime.

The blogger, Kareem el-Shae'r, moderates the Free Egypt blog and is a member of the el-Ghad (Tomorrow) party. The liberal, secular el-Ghad party is led by Ayman Nour, who mounted a historic and unsuccessful campaign against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt's first mutli-party presidential election in 2005. Nour was jailed for his chutzpah after the election on trumped up charges, only to be finally released this year. Beyond imprisoning Nour, the regime has sought to discredit and intimidate the el-Ghad party, as exemplified by the beating of el-Shae'r.*

The Muslim Brotherhood leader, Dr. Abdel Moneim Abul Futouh, serves as a member of the MB's Guidance Council. Currently, the MB is split between two ideological camps: a conservative faction that favors cultivating Islam within the organization and a reformist camp that seeks greater political participation outside the organization. Abul Futouh heads the reformist camp, and for that reason, was jailed by the government as a threat to the regime.

There is inconsistent tendency amongst some Western observers to criticize Mubarak for repressing secular democrats such as Ayman Nour while ignoring the offenses committed against Islamist opposition figures like Abul Futouh.

On some emotional level, our inconsistency makes sense. We understandably empathize with people who share our secular, liberal values. In turn, it is harder to commiserate with adherents to political Islam, an ideology we Americans find foreign and even threatening. But we must remember, repression is repression. We should be repulsed by the methods of repression, not its victims.

In fact, President Mubarak hopes that we distinguish between 'good' and 'bad' repression. For 28 years, he has painted himself as our only option in Egypt. He claims Islamists pose a mortal threat and the secularists are too weak to stop their spread. Therefore, we have no choice but to support his reign as our indispensable ally.

But it's a tricky game he plays. For one, he doesn't explain why the secular opposition is so weak (that's because he's the primary reason). And two, he purposefully paints the Muslim Brotherhood as violent-prone zealots. To be fair, some of their members are nothing short of unsavory. But there are other Brothers, such as Abul Futouh, who represent a moderate Islamist voice.

Except we're not listening. Despite Mubarak's fearmongering, the reformist camp within the Muslim Brotherhood represents some of Egypt's most fervent democrats. For example, Brotherhood blogger Abdel-Monem Mahmoud (who has also spent time in jail) writes:

We have an established principle in Islam which is equivalent to democracy — it’s Shura. This means that we, as young MBs, firmly believe that the only way we can come to power is through ballot boxes. And if we came to power and didn’t live up to the electorate’s expectations, we would be removed from power also through ballot boxes. We will not remain in power for ever, or abuse it.

With such a powerful affirmation of democracy, it's no wonder Mubarak fears the reformist camp in the Muslim Brotherhood just as much, if not more, than the secular opposition. It is a wonder, however, why the U.S. buys into Mubarak's games. If we can talk to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Sunni militias in Iraq - groups that actively seek to kill our troops - why can't we talk to the non-violent Muslim Brotherhood? What do we have to fear from the likes of Abul Futouh and Monem?

*I'm not aware of any physical proof the regime was responsible for the beating, but it's a safe bet they were involved somehow.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

When Leads Mislead

According to Reuters, Israeli soldiers killed a Palestinian and wounded two more near the Gaza border on Friday. An Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman stated the soldiers opened fire after suspecting the Palestinians were planting explosives near the security barrier. In turn, Hamas claimed that the wounded teenagers were out on a hunting trip.

The Lebanese English-language newspaper The Daily Star also reported on the same shooting. In fact, the paper printed the syndicated version of the Reuters article verbatim. Well, that is, except for the title.

In the original Reuters version, the title reads, "Israel kills Palestinian in Gaza confrontation." But The Daily Star editors opted for, "Jewish troops shoot Palestinian dead in Gaza confrontation."

Calling Israeli soldiers "Jewish troops" is both misleading and damaging.

It misleads because many non-Jews serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Israeli Druze and Circassian men fall under mandatory conscription laws like any Jewish Israeli. Furthermore, many Bedouin voluntarily join the IDF, often as a means of social mobility. Non-Jewish IDF soldiers have risen to highest ranks of the military, disproportionately volunteer for combat positions, and have fought and died for the state of Israel. Therefore, it's no surprise that IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi has praised minorities in the military, specifically calling the Druze "our generation's Maccabees."

It damages because it perpetuates the widespread conflation of Judaism and Zionism. For one, some of Israel's greatest critics are Jewish while some of its strongest supporters are not. But more importantly, it recasts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a political struggle of competing nationalisms into a religious struggle of irreconcilable faiths. While we can compromise to find a political solution, only God can resolve a dispute between religions.

*Out of curiosity, I also checked Al Jazeera English, which reported "Israeli troops kill Palestinian."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Food War Continues

Over the past few months, Lebanon has struck against Israel along several culinary fronts, claiming the world's largest plate of hummus, tabbouleh salad and kebbe dish.

But now, Israel is on the counterattack. The northern Israeli town of Shfaram is trying to reclaim the record for biggest tabbouleh salad. When finished, the salad will weigh four tons and use 1,540 pounds of tomatoes, as well as inordinate amounts of parsley, lemon juice and olive oil.

In a previous post, I worried that a simple food fight between Israel and Lebanon was taking on overblown proportions. Food should be used for enjoyment, not symbolic salvos. Well, I was wrong.

You see, the town of Shfaram isn't seeking the record to spite Lebanon. They are pursing a more noble goal of bringing together the town's disparate Muslims, Christians and Druze for a common cause. Earlier this year, riots broke out between the disparate groups over accusations of religious defamation. Now, according to the event organizer, they are cooking together "for the union of the town."

So, I've changed my mind. Using food as symbolic salvos is okay with me, so long as they're aimed at bringing people together, not keeping people apart.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Jolie Adopts Syrian Orphan

Angelina Jolie has reportedly filed papers to adopt a child from Syria. As part of her job as a UN Goodwill Ambassador, she recently journeyed to Syria with Brad Pitt to visit the large Iraqi refugee community there. During her trip, she remarked "it is clear that the Syrian people, no matter the challenges or difficulties they may face, have always shown generous hospitality to people in need."

It is also clear that Jolie has always shown her generous hospitality as well. She has already adopted children from Cambodia, Ethiopia and Vietnam, as well as having three biological children. Now, having fallen in love with the Syrian people, she has apparently decided to take in a fourth adopted child.

While it isn't clear whether the child is Muslim or Christian (Syria is 10% Christian), I'll take this as an opportunity to mention Islam pays special attention to the plight of orphans. There are countless references in the Qur'an to the necessity of caring for orphans.

For example, Surah 2:215: "Whatever of your wealth you spend shall [first] be for your parents, and for the near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer; and whatever good you do, verily, God has full knowledge thereof."

And 93:9: "Therefore, the orphan shalt thou never wrong."

Of course, such emphasis on treating orphans well makes sense given the Prophet Mohammed was an orphan himself. Mohammed's father died when he was a baby and his mother died a few years later. As such, the Prophet first lived with a Bedouin family in the desert, then with his grandfather. Upon his grandfather's death, he moved in with his uncle, who introduced him to the world of caravan trading.

Interestingly, while Islam promotes the welfare of orphans, it also prohibits adoptions in the Western sense. When a family takes an orphan into their household, the orphan traditionally keeps the name of the biological father. This has two implications. One, orphans are entitled to any inheritance that remains from their biological family, but do not receive anything from their adopted family unless otherwise specified in a will. Two, orphans can marry the biological children of their adopted family, because they are technically not family.

In the modern era, practical considerations have allowed some flexibility with these rules. For example, American Muslims might give change the name of their adopted child for tax exemption reasons.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

No Longer the Greatest Great Satan

Is America no longer the greatest Great Satan? While Iran’s Supreme Leader still froths at the mouth, the Iranian people has had enough with his hate speeches. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda is now spewing their spiteful rhetoric at someone else besides America for once. This week, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula declared Shi’ite Iran a greater threat than either the Jews or Christians. But most intriguingly, Al Qaeda has also set its sight on a new, rising threat: China.

This past year, the Chinese government has cracked down on their Uighur population, a Muslim minority group several million strong. This brutal treatment of Muslims provoked a surge of angry reactions throughout the Muslim world. The plight of the Uighurs cuts particularly deep for historical and ideological reasons.

Historically, China hosts a long and storied Muslim tradition, beginning when the Caliph Uthman sent an emissary to the Chinese Emperor in 650 AD, only 18 years after the Prophet Mohammed's death. In fact,while touring Xi’an, I spoke Arabic with several Chinese Muslims in a famous mosque built in the early 8th century. Eventually, Muslims ascended to high positions of power, such as the renown Muslim explorer Zheng He. Thus for Chinese Muslims to be persecuted in the 21st century is especially bitter.

Ideologically, Chinese Communism (or Red Capitalism if you prefer) is nothing short of morally bankrupt in the Muslim point of view. The Chinese ideological system is founded entirely upon material wealth and the physical world. Islam, on the other hand, shirks physical goods in favor of the spiritual hereafter. After all, what is this life worth when the Garden is promised in the next? Worse yet, not only do the Chinese worship the false idol of money, they are irrevocably atheistic. While Islam sets aside a special place for the monotheistic faiths of Judaism and Christianity, Eastern faiths are utter anathema.

In comparison, the United States boasts five million Muslims citizens who share equal rights, expounds Islamic-friendly principles like freedom, equality and justice to temper the excesses of capitalism, and remains a deeply religious, monotheistic country. For every complaint Al Qaeda harbors against America – our abuse of Muslims, our worship of money and our general godlessness – China commits the same sins to an even greater extreme. Thus it is no surprise that Al Qaeda leaders have declared jihad against Beijing.

The ultra-nationalistic Chinese were likely taken aback by this declaration of universal holy war. The government in Beijing believes, as they only source of legitimate authority within China, that they have the political prerogative to treat their citizens as they please. Any international forces, whether it be Al Qaeda or the UN, have no business intruding upon Chinese sovereignty. But no matter how hard China strains to maintain their sovereignty, they will eventually have to accept that in a globalizing world, there is no longer such a thing as a purely internal matter.

This new fact of life will grow increasingly important as China seeks a greater economic role in the Middle East. According to Ambassador Chas Freeman, by 2020 China will conduct $350-500 billion in trade annually with the region (the U.S. currently does $70 billion). With an increased economic role, politics will inexorably follow.

I would recommend that all Chinese leaders (and you too) should read Michael Oren’s Power, Faith and Fantasy on the history of American foreign policy in the Middle East. As a new player in the Middle East, the United States originally enjoyed both popularity and trust. But as we grew increasingly entangled economically and politically, we inevitably lost our luster. China should take heed. Al Qaeda already has.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Sanctioning Shalom

According to Deena Jawhar in the Middle East International, Bahrain's elected lower house of parliament has unanimously passed a bill sanctioning all contact with Israelis. If also passed by the upper house, a simple Shalom could result in fines up to $25,000 or five years of imprisonment.

Jawhar explains that while Bahrain's government (read: King Hamad) does not officially recognize Israel, it has taken several measures in recent years such as

the closure of an Israel boycott office in 2005; a proposal by the foreign minister last year to establish a regional forum including Israel; a call for dialogue with Israelis made by Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin-Hamad in a Washington Post article published in July; and King Hamad's regular meetings with pro-Israel groups during trips abroad.

As such, the King views the bill as an affront to his prerogative to formulate foreign policy. In fact, the crown prince has argued that normalisation with Israel could bring economic benefits to the country - an argument to which the lower house of parliament and its constituents obviously don't give much credence. However, the upper house may have little choice but to follow the government's line, given that they are appointed by the King himself. Therefore, it is unlikely the bill will ever become a law.

This episode serves as a reminder about how deeply and pervasively hatred towards Israel flows through the Arab world. I can understand why Arabs feel so strongly about the plight of the Palestinian people. I can even comprehend why, at the cost of their own economic welfare, the Bahraini parliament is willing to shoot symbolic salvos at Tel Aviv. But what I don't understand - and what I don't think they have considered - is how their anger also hurts the very people they ostensibly seek to help.

An Israel that feels under siege will not and cannot make peace. Nor is there any shortage of reasons for Israel to feel in danger. If not Hamas, then Hezbollah. If not Hezbollah, then Iran. Then let's not forget Syria. Oh, and al Qaeda-inspired Sunni splinter groups. So does Israel need to feel threatened by Bahrain's lower house of parliament? No, but it's just simply one more excuse to retreat into a psychological bunker.

For there to be a political peace, there must first be a minimum level of mutual trust and mutual confidence. And there can be neither trust nor confidence without contact between the Arabs and Israelis. That is why it is so essential, as President Obama has urged, for both sides to offer gradual confidence-building measures to undergird any political negotiations.

But episodes like these make me wonder whether the anger is simply too great right now to move forward. While President Obama was correct to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a top priority from the get-go, it might now be better for everyone to take a breather and try again after tempers have cooled.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Shoulda Put a Ring on It

Last week at my job, I was reading the State Department’s annual human rights report for Egypt when I came across a depressing study.

A survey by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (ECWR) found 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women in the country have been sexually harassed and half reported they endure harassment on a daily basis. According to the State Department’s report, “women reported men staring inappropriately at their bodies, touching them inappropriately, making sexually explicit comments, and stalking them.” Furthermore, the ECWR found that only 2.4 percent of Egyptian women and 7.5 percent of foreign women decide to seek help from the police. Worse yet, some police officers reportedly mocked or harassed the women brave enough to come forward.

Last week when I wondered whether I was safer living in Cairo or here in DC, I was asking the question as a guy. For women living in Egypt, the situation is entirely different, sometimes even scary. Not one of my female friends escaped sexual harassment. The longer I lived in Cairo, the better I became at staring down sketch balls and using my body as a shield against would-be gropers on the sidewalk. One of my friends, fed up with the constant badgering, clocked a guy over the head with a bag of bread. Lesson learned? Probably not.

So why is sexual harassment so pervasive? There are a few reasons. The first results from the perfect storm of conservative values, marriage and unemployment. For most Egyptians, sex before marriage is taboo (but it does happen). Meanwhile, Egyptian culture dictates that a man cannot marry until he can sustain himself and his would-be family. Normally this would not present a large problem, but because Egypt suffers from overwhelming unemployment, men often cannot marry until their late 20s or early 30s. Thus, young Egyptians constantly struggle to maintain their outward piety while restraining their inevitable internal urges. In the process, sexual tension is released in unhealthy ways.

But this phenomenon only helps explain why unmarried Egyptian men might sexually harass women, but unfortunately they are not the only culprits. Therefore, a second factor is the cultural acceptance of sexual harassment. If you grow up seeing your father sexually harass women, you’re likely going to do it too. And if you start doing it while you’re young, you’ll likely do it for life – and eventually become the father who serves as the bad example for the next generation.

Furthermore, Egyptian society has yet witnessed a women’s emancipation movement as we saw in the West. But that doesn’t mean one is impossible. It was only a few decades ago that sexual harassment was rampant in the United States, as any episode of Mad Men demonstrates. Currently, plenty of Egyptian women are standing up and powerfully asserting their rights.

This implicit endorsement of sexual harassment by Egyptian society also helps explain why the government hasn’t been responsive to the women who choose to stand up against their assailants. After all, an Egyptian police office is often little more than a bunch of bored men smoking cigarettes in a hot, crowded room. But just as women are standing up for their rights, the government has also begun to (slowly) come around. While there is no law specifically prohibiting sexual harassment, the government has prosecuted cases under the statute called "Public Exposure and the Corruption of Morals." In the first case of its kind, a man was sentenced to three years of hard labor last year after he groped a woman on the bus.

Finally, foreign women face additional harassment for two reasons. For one, sexual harassers don’t need to worry that the victim’s Uncle Ahmed will come seeking retribution the next day. There’s no fear of shame. Second, there is a pervasive misunderstanding about Western morals. Namely, a lot of Egyptians think we have none. For many Egyptians, America is best exemplified by The Hills, Lady Gaga and Las Vegas, not Seventh Heaven, Taylor Swift and Birmingham, Alabama. A recent concert by Beyonce stirred incredible controversy in Egypt, with the Muslim Brotherhood calling it an “insolent sex party.” This misunderstanding of Western culture leads to unrealistic and unhealthy expectations about Western women in general. But if Egyptian men only listened to Beyonce’s lyrics, they would know “you shoulda put a ring on it” first.

While sexual harassment currently poses an incredible problem for women in Egypt, there is reason to hope things will improve. As the indigenous women’s rights movement gains steam, as the government grows more responsive, and as increased cultural exchange between Egypt and the West helps erase damaging stereotypes, the cultural acceptance for sexual harassment will begin to wither. And none too soon.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Rivals, Not Enemies

Per Laura Rozen at Politico, Ambassador John Limbert has been named the new Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iran at the State Department. Thirty years ago, Limbert was taken hostage during the Tehran embassy takeover and held for fourteen months, much of it in solitary confinement. After his release, he continued to serve in the Foreign Service for 33 years and was awarded the Distinguished Service Award.

Given the next year will have serious implications for not only US-Iranian relations but the Middle East as a whole, it is obvious why State would want to bring Limbert back on board. As Rozen explains, "Limbert is one of the few U.S. diplomats to have actually served in Tehran and who speaks the language fluently."

And speak the langauge fluently he does. Not only is he a scholar of medieval Persian poetry, he employs pun and wordplay with ease. Take, for instance, this video of Limbert and Khamenei during the hostage crisis at the niacINsight blog. Limbert quips about the Iranian concept of "taarof" or hospitality, telling Khamenei: "Iranians are too hospitable to guests in their country, when we insist that we must be going, you tell us 'no, no, you must stay.'"

In another example, I recently attended a conference on Capitol Hill hosted by the National Iranian American Council in which Limbert participated. During his remarks, he made a pun in Farsi, sparking laughter amongst the Iranians in the room. The rest of us, wondering what just happened, chuckled quietly to not feel left out.

But his language skills, while impressive, are not as important as the analysis he'll bring to his office. At the NIAC conference, he emphasized three critical points. First, the U.S. must not narrowly focus on the nuclear issue, but instead must broaden the negotiations to focus on the issues Iranians care about as well. If we only demand our objectives and not listen to theirs, we will not succeed in achieving anything.

Second, he emphasized the importance of patience. During the hostage negotiations, the basic deal to release him and the other hostages was hammered out four months before the final release. But it is difficult to turn agreed principles into action. If the U.S. had imposed artificial deadlines on the Iranians, the negotiations would have failed and he may never have been freed.

Third, by seeking to engage the regime, President Obama has presented Khamenei with a real dilemma. For the past 30 years, American has been the Great Satan. But now that Obama has recast the US-Iran relationship as a rivalry and not a Manichean struggle between enemies, Khamenei is forced to rationalize his continued demonization of the U.S. Eventually, such efforts will discredit the regime.

The question is why did the State Department choose him? Is it only because he speaks the language and has experience? Or is it because of the policies he proffers? Obviously both are important, but it is unclear how well his voice will be heard over the din of the policy debate. But at the very least, I'm glad he'll be in the middle of the fray.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Grass is Greener

Gallup has released an interesting poll that asked people if they wanted to emigrate permanently from their home country and, if so, where would they go. In all, 16% of the world's adult population would leave their homeland if given the chance. That's approximately 700 million people.

Africans clearly stand out as the most willing to move from home, followed by Middle Easterners. Asians, meanwhile, seem most content where they are. Americans just slightly edge out Europeans as happier with their homes. Because the data is aggregated into regions, we shouldn't read draw too many conclusions from the map. For example, it's hard to imagine that the French are more willing to emigrate than the Afghans.

The second map, however, does break the data down into countries, revealing both some predictable and unexpected results. Predictably, as Andrew Sullivan points out, the United States is the most popular destination amongst the would-be emigrants. Approximately one quarter of the respondents, around 165 million people, chose the U.S. as their new home. Other popular countries included Canada, the U.K, France and Spain.

But surprisingly, even though 23% of Middle Easterners want to move elsewhere, Saudi Arabia was one of the most popular destination choices for emigrants, with 30 million people naming the desert Kingdom. In fact, if everyone actually moved to where they desired, Saudi Arabia's population would increase by 180%. Only Singapore would experience a larger percentage increase.

So, why do so many people want to move to a country that its own citizens want to leave? Without more exact data, it's hard to say for sure, but I'd bet the major factor is Islam. The Saudi interpretation of Islam, called Salafism, follows an extremely strict reading of the Qur'an. As such, it's largely a love it or hate it movement, with passionate followers and vehement detractors alike.

The Muslims who adhere to Salafism would understandably want to live in a country like Saudi Arabia. But I'd also imagine many Muslims around the world would willingly abide by such a strict interpretation of Islam, even if they personally do not subscribe to all of its tenants, in order to live near the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed and the revelation of Islam. But at the same time, many Saudis find the conservative culture of their country constricting. In fact, Saudis are notorious for traveling to more liberal countries, like Egypt and Lebanon, in order to, putting it nicely, enjoy themselves and let loose.

In fact, you may have noticed that Egypt is another popular destination, likely for that very reason. As both a Muslim-majority and (relatively) socially liberal country, Egypt offers a good compromise for Muslims who are seeking a more open atmosphere that still maintains a level of cultural and religious familiarity. As such, I'd guess many Saudis would prefer Egypt over the United States, but that's just a hunch.

In short, we likely have a case of the grass is greener on the other side. Many Muslims want to live in a more conservative society like Saudi Arabia, while some Saudis wouldn't mind a little more freedom.

*As a side note, the Gallup poll only included Arab nationals and expatriates while surveying the Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia. In other words, the huge numbers of migrant workers (usually from South Asia) that work throughout the Gulf Arab countires were ignored. This brings up another motivation to move to Saudi Arabia - finding employment.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Feeling Useless on Iran

Today, like I do every day, I sat in front of a computer screen for eight hours, talking, debating, and learning about democracy in the Middle East. But today, Iranians actually fought and bled for their democracy.

I can't help but feel a little sheepish - and useless - in comparison. In fact, I shouldn't make a comparison at all.

Thirty years ago, Iranian students stormed the American embassy in Tehran, igniting the hostage crisis and rupturing American-Iranian relations ever since. Every year Iranians have celebrated today as a great triumph against the Great Satan...until now. Today, the Iranian opposition usurped the anniversary to protest against the corrupt and brutal regime in Tehran. Tens of thousands of brave Iranians took to the streets, risking tear gas, batons, arrest, torture, rape and death.

Tehran Bureau has posted a collection of protest videos from today, but I'll pick out two for you which are particularly compelling.

In the first, a group of protesters chant anti-regime slogans until the government forces charge into the crowd (around the second minute).

The second video shows what happens to unlucky protesters who get separated from the group. In the words of Andrew Sullivan, "you see everything you need about what tyranny is" in this clip. If you're curious why most of the people don't help her, it's because all the people on the motorbikes are actually Basij militia, a thug gang employed by the regime.

May God help the Iranian people secure their rights and grant us the wisdom to not get in the way.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Bear Mauls Militants

The war on terror has found a much needed ally: hungry bears. The BBC reports (h/t Jonah Goldberg) that a bear killed two militants and wounded a third in the embattled region of Indian-administered Kashmir. According to the article, "the militants had assault rifles but were taken by surprise - police found the remains of pudding they had made to eat when the bear attacked."

Really? Pudding?

Interestingly, this is not the first time Muslim militants have been killed by animals. Shortly after the Taliban conquered Kabul, a lion killed and ate a Taliban fighter. The militant had jumped into the cage to prove Allah would protect him, but had not considered the fact that the lion had not been fed in weeks because of the civil war. Apparently, God helps those who help themselves - in this case, the starving lion.

The militant's brother sought retribution the next day by throwing a grenade at the lion, leaving the animal blind and lame. The lion, named Marjan, survived several more turbulent years and died shortly after the American invasion. According to the World Society for the Protection of Animals, the Afghan zookeepers showed the utmost dedication in trying to care for the lion, despite receiving intermittent pay and often lacking food themselves.

Perhaps the Taliban fighter should have read his Qur'an a little closer:

According to Surah 4:173: "whereupon unto those who attained to faith and did good deeds He will grant their just rewards, and give them yet more out of His bounty; whereas those who felt too proud and gloried in their arrogance He will chastise with grievous suffering: and they shall find none to protect them from God, and none to bring them succour."

And Surah 16:49: "For, before God prostrates itself all that is in the heavens and all that is on earth - every beast that moves, and the angels: [even] these do not bear themselves with false pride"

In other words, God has created everything in the universe, whether it be man, animal or angel. All of God's creations are equal in that sense that all prostrate in submission before God. Therefore, none have cause for pride or arrogance. By jumping into that lion cage, the Taliban fighter showed immense arrogance in believing he deserved God's protection against his own stupidity, and thus God granted him the "grievous suffering" he deserved.

At least, that's my non-expert non-Muslim interpretation.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Centenarian Passion

A Somalian man claiming to be 112 years-old has married a 17 year-old girl, according to Al Arabiya. The man, Ahmed Mohamed Dhore, explained to reporters that "married life is about love and passion."

He would know. He's been married six times.

Dhore was convinced to marry again by his children and grandchildren because "his only other surviving wife was 90 and ailing."

I've talked about polygamy and underage marriage before on this blog. To briefly reiterate, there is currently an internal debate within Islam to decide whether the example set by the Prophet Mohammed creates an eternal standard for morality or whether Muslim morality should be framed by the evolving historical/cultural environment. This debate has vast implications for many issues.

In this case, polygamy and underage marriage were the norm during the Prophet Mohammed's time, largely serving as a socioeconomic safety net in an unforgiving desert wilderness. The question is whether polygamy and underage marriage should now still be practiced in modern society. While we in the West know our answer, the Muslim world is still furiously debating to determine theirs.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Which is Safer?

Last night, I got mugged a few blocks away from my Columbia Heights apartment. Maybe I looked like easy prey in my Halloween attire. In any case, a taser, gun and stolen wallet later, I began to ask the question: was I safer in the Middle East?

On one hand, I never felt unsafe in any of the countries I visited. It didn't matter what time it was, what I street I was on, what I was doing or who I was doing it with. I was safe (admittedly, girls often have a different experience). All in all, the only muggers in the Middle East tend to be the thieves who run the government and the thugs who work for it.

On the other hand, there is no hiding the political and religious violence that troubles nearly every country. While I was in Cairo, terrorists bombed the famous market/tourist trap Khan Khalili. When I was in Dubai, I met a dozen Palestinian children maimed during the January war in Gaza. In Israel, I saw a bomb removal squad detonate a suspicious package. And then there's crossing the street, an all together different kind of terror.

In comparison, political and religious violence is relatively rare in United States. But miscreants, muggers and murderers abound. They're so common place that a police officer told me to not bother reporting my mugging - too many of them to deal with.

So which is safer? The sporadic, sensational, arbitrary violence of the Middle East? Or the frequent, common, ho hum violence of the United States?

Objectively, I'd have to go with the Middle East (I have no data, just anecdotal evidence). But safety hinges not so much on objectivity but on a psychological state of mind. There is a certain perverse logic to mugging. They took my money so they can spend it. I can understand that. In contrast, it's much harder to rationalize a bomb that indiscriminately kills civilians to make a political or religious point. It is that incomprehensibility that makes terrorism so frightening. And, in turn, it is what gives the Middle East its over-exaggerated reputation for danger.