$100 Million Mosque To Be Built Near Ground Zero

May 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

“$100 million project will create a venue for mainstream Islam and a counterbalance to radicalism”

By Cristian Salazar, Associated Press

ground-zero NEW YORK In a building damaged by debris from the Sept. 11 airliners that brought down the World Trade Center and soon to become a 13-story mosque, some see the bridging of a cultural divide and an opportunity to serve a burgeoning, peaceful religious population. Others see a painful reminder of the religious extremism that killed their loved ones.

Two Muslim organizations have partnered to open the mosque and cultural center in lower Manhattan, saying the $100 million project will create a venue for mainstream Islam and a counterbalance to radicalism. It earned a key endorsement this week from influential community leaders.

But some 9/11 victims’ families said they were angered that it would be built so close to where their relatives died.

“I don’t like it,” said Evelyn Pettigano, who lost a sister in the attacks, during a phone interview on Thursday. “I’m not prejudiced. … It’s too close to the area where our family members were murdered.”

But the growing number of congregants at the only other nearby mosque, open only one day a week, created a need for an additional space for Muslim prayer in the neighborhood, said Daisy Khan, the executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement and a board member of the Cordoba Initiative, the two organizations sponsoring the project.

The history associated with the building, a former Burlington Coat Factory store that closed after being damaged on 9/11, was a reason to pick it for the project, she said.

“We want to create a platform by which the voices of the mainstream and silent majority of Muslims will be amplified. A center of this scale and magnitude will do that,” Khan said. “We feel it’s an obligation as Muslims and Americans to be part of the rebuilding of downtown Manhattan.”

The organizations publicly unveiled the preliminary plan for the project, known as the Cordoba House, on Wednesday at a meeting of the finance committee of the local community board, which is composed of influential stakeholders in lower Manhattan. While the agency has no authority over what can be developed at the site, their support is viewed as key to gaining acceptance from residents.

Edward “Ro” Sheffe, the chairman of the financial district committee for Community Board 1, said the 15 members passed a resolution of support for the project, though he emphasized that the board had no authority to approve or disapprove of a house of worship, per se. Indeed, he said the developers could do whatever they wanted with the building, which they own.

“They came to tell us what they had in mind and see what we felt about it,” he said. “The understanding we came away with was that this was an ongoing dialogue.”

The members’ only concerns had to do with the aesthetics of the building, and whether it would fit with the surrounding architecture, he said. The overall feeling was one of goodwill because the financial district, a fast-growing residential area, lacks for amenities such as community centers.

“We very much need residential amenities for the people who live here,” he said.

But the simple idea of a mosque so near ground zero angered those whose family members were killed by adherents to radical Islam.

“I think it’s despicable, and I think it’s atrocious that anyone would even consider allowing them to build a mosque near the World Trade Center,” said Rosemary Cain, whose son, George Cain, a firefighter, died on Sept. 11.

Anita LaFond Korsonsky, a Livingston, N.J., woman who lost her sister, also said she had misgivings.

“I presume that these people aren’t going to be gathering there to plan another attack,” she said.

The Muslim organizations plan to announce the groundbreaking later this year, possibly to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the attacks, Khan said. It could take up to three years to build the Cordoba House; the groups currently have no funds for the project but plan to start raising money, she said.

A Friday prayer service has been held since September at the building, she said.

Marvin Bethea, a paramedic who survived the toxic collapse of the twin towers and suffers from a range of afflictions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and asthma, said he supports the mosque.

“Not all Muslims are terrorists,” Bethea said. “Muslims died on 9/11, as well. This is a tremendous gesture to show that we’re not all full of hatred and bigotry.”

[Associated Press writer Karen Matthews contributed to this report.]

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The Arabs and the Holocaust

April 15, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands, by Robert Satloff.
New York: Public Affairs, 2006, 204 pages. Notes to 227.
Bibl. to p. 239. Index to p. 251. $26.00.

Reviewed by Joseph V. Montville

On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, Robert Satloff was walking in the middle of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue which was devoid of traffic in a city stunned by the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers that morning. The question came into his mind: “Did any Arabs save any Jews during the Holocaust?” He judged, as did this writer after the second tower was hit, that Arabs were behind the deed. He wanted to teach Arabs about the Holocaust and the depths of its meaning for Israeli and Diaspora Jews. Satloff decided to answer his question, and this book is the result.

What establishes the nobility of Among the Righteous…is the conviction of its author, a historian, an Arabist and an American Jew, that there is much more to Arab and Muslim humanity than the destructive, suicidal rage that the 9/11 hijackers displayed that momentous day. While he had never heard of “righteous” Arabs—people who took great risks to protect Jews from the Nazis and their underlings–Satloff felt in his bones that he could find some. He did not believe that the apparent absence of knowledge or discussion about the Holocaust among Arabs was the complete picture.

The author thought that if he could prove that Arabs had saved Jewish lives during World War II, they might be induced to face the Holocaust squarely and understand its power in the final thrust to establish the Jewish state in Palestine. He hoped that the shared prosocial values of Islam and Judaism could induce Arab cooperation in his research and generate pride in Arab heroes. He cites Muslim and Jewish sacred literature to make his point. “‘Whoever saves one life saves the entire world,’ says the Qur’an, an echo of the Talmud’s injunction ‘If you save one life, it is as if you have saved the world.’” (p. 6.) In the process of searching for “righteous” Arabs in North Africa, Israel and Europe, Satloff has filled an important gap in the history of World War II, and he has also reflected the best traditions of Jewish humanism. It is not insignificant that Satloff is also executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy which the Jewish weekly, Forward, calls “a think tank known for its pro-Israel views and for its predominantly Jewish board.”1

The narrative concentrates on the North African states of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya under French—the first three—and Italian and therefore fascist colonial rule during the Vichy and Mussolini regimes. Half a million Jews lived in these countries, and the Nazi policy of degradation and ultimately destruction was meant to apply also to these trans-Mediterranean people. There were also 30,000 Libyan Jews who faced danger and abuse.

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Iranian Student With $750 Turns Billionaire — Made by Islamic Art

April 1, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

By William Green, Bloomberg

stoneHead_plate March 30 (Bloomberg) — Nasser David Khalili stands in an exhibition hall in St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace, gazing at an 18th-century painted enamel of flowers that’s one of 25,000 works of art he owns. “I’d have paid anything for it,” he says, appraising this miniature by Frenchman Philippe Parpette. “There’s no way I’d have let anybody else buy it.”

Khalili, 64, an Iranian-born billionaire who lives in London, has come to Russia to unveil his fifth art collection: On this overcast December afternoon, 320 of his 1,200 enamel treasures will go on display at the State Hermitage Museum, home to the collection of Catherine the Great, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its May issue.

Having flown in on a chartered plane, Khalili is relishing a private preview, peering through tinted eyeglasses at such possessions as a gilded clock with matching candelabras that once adorned the home of U.S. railroad tycoon William Vanderbilt. Khalili, who says he has a photographic memory, recalls paying $16,500 for these three pieces 34 years ago. He estimates that they’d now cost $600,000.

In all, Khalili says the enamels he has lent the museum are insured for more than 100 million pounds ($150 million). Even so, they are a trifle compared with the obsession that’s consumed him for four decades: his 20,000 pieces of Islamic art. “His collection is certainly the best in private hands,” says Edward Gibbs, Sotheby’s London-based head of Middle Eastern art. “He is the man who has everything. He’s come to define the market.”

Khalili is revealing his latest collection just as the $43 billion global art market is showing signs of reviving — with an Alberto Giacometti sculpture selling for a record 65 million pounds in February to a buyer later identified by dealers as London-based billionaire Lily Safra. In the Islamic art world, prices for the best pieces have been buoyed by a new generation of Middle Eastern buyers, including museums in Qatar and Abu Dhabi.

“There’s fierce competition for anything unique, rare, beautiful or important,” Gibbs says, noting that an Islamic textile Sotheby’s estimated would fetch $250,000 to $350,000 in a March 2009 auction went to Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art for $3.4 million.

The limited supply in this niche within the art market has made Khalili’s collection all the more precious, says Claire Penhallurick, an Islamic art consultant for Bonhams auction house. She says it’s impossible to guess what his entire collection is worth.

“How could you value something that’s unique and irreplaceable?” Penhallurick says. “If you had all the money in the world, you couldn’t assemble his collection now.”

When an exhibition of 471 of Khalili’s Islamic pieces opened at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris in October, they alone were insured for almost 600 million pounds.

The story behind how Khalili built his fortune has long been shrouded in secrets. As a property developer, he shunned publicity and didn’t slap his name on buildings or the company that is his main investment vehicle. He has also operated under the radar when buying art.

“During the collecting, I don’t say anything,” Khalili says. “When it’s done, then I speak.”

His elusiveness has fueled much speculation, often revolving around how he financed his collecting. Khalili, who left Iran in 1967 with $750, says he’s since spent $650 million on art. London’s Sunday Times, which estimated his fortune at 5.8 billion pounds in 2007, gave up guessing his worth the following year and removed him from its annual rich list.

Khalili, whose works are held in a family trust, says he used subterfuge to amass his Islamic collection, pretending for several years to be an art dealer so he could acquire pieces at wholesale prices. While his stealth has often obscured the scale of his buying, the magazine ARTnews says Khalili is one of Britain’s top collectors, along with Safra and private museum owner Charles Saatchi.

The Iranian says he’s aware of whispers within the art trade that he grew rich buying Islamic works for Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. Sitting in his office in London’s Mayfair neighborhood, where the treasures on display include an 8th- century bronze camel and a 7,000-year-old stone sculpture, Khalili beats his chest with his hand when asked about the rumors.

“I didn’t buy anything for anybody. Nobody, right?” he says. “I bought for myself. This is all bulls—, all right?”

The questions surrounding Khalili stem in part from his emergence in the 1980s as a trailblazer in Islamic collecting.

“There was this sudden transformation,” says William Robinson, director of Islamic art at Christie’s International. “In the late 1980s he was the No. 1 buyer.” Robinson and others thought he was buying as the exclusive agent for a powerful client. “It was assumed that the Sultan of Brunei was behind it,” Robinson says. “I really don’t know.”

Brunei’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Britain’s press also fueled speculation about the source of Khalili’s riches. “He spends on a scale no art collector has done before,” London’s Independent wrote in 1994. “Yet no one knows where his money comes from. … (Khalili) vehemently denies the suggestion that he has been secretly investing the sultan’s money rather than his own.”

Khalili says he met the Sultan of Brunei around 1984, after the U.K.’s Foreign Office asked him to advise the monarch on creating an Islamic gallery at the Brunei Museum.

“He had about 10,000 pieces,” Khalili says. “I chose about 1,000 pieces and said, ‘Throw the rest away. They’re junk.’”

As a favor, he says, he selected several items for the Sultan to buy at auction and the Khalili family trust sold him a dozen pieces from its Islamic collection, including Qurans, metalwork and textiles, for about 4 million pounds.

Khalili dismisses rumors that he sold art to the Sultan at inflated prices, pointing out that he later convinced him to donate 10 million pounds to the University of London for an Islamic gallery.

“If you rip somebody off, would they turn around and give you 10 million pounds to build a gallery?” he asks.

It’s now obvious he was buying for himself, Khalili says, since his Islamic collection is cataloged in 19 books written by an army of scholars he has hired to document its provenance and authenticity.

Khalili, who has also built collections of Japanese Meiji art, Spanish metalwork and Swedish textiles since 1975, says the value of his artworks is irrelevant, because he will never sell them.

“All five collections are priceless: 2 billion pounds, 3 billion pounds, 4 billion pounds, it doesn’t make any difference,” he says. “These collections cannot be replaced.”

His Islamic treasures include a 14th-century Iranian world history by Rashid al-Din Fadlallah, which he says cost him 12 million pounds in 1990. “It’s one of the greatest illustrated manuscripts in the world,” says Tim Stanley, senior curator for the Middle East at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

Khalili, who holds both U.S. and U.K. passports, offered to lend his Islamic collection to the British nation in 1992 if the government provided a museum to house it. Khalili says he stipulated that the loan would become a gift after 15 years if the collection was exhibited to his satisfaction; if not, he could take it back.

Outsider in London

“The offer to the British government was a really terrible one,” says Anna Somers Cocks, editor-in-chief of the London- based monthly Art Newspaper, because of this risk. After months with no response, Khalili abandoned the plan. Still lacking a permanent home, most of his artworks are stored in warehouses in London and Geneva.

Michael Franses, a U.K.-based retired dealer in rare carpets who’s known Khalili since the 1970s, says this rebuff reflected Khalili’s outsider status in his adopted country.

“The British establishment was very closed,” Franses says. “I don’t think people trusted him because he was Iranian and strange and different.”

That setback is a distant memory as Khalili strides through the Hermitage, musing on how far he’s come since leaving Iran. His artworks have been showcased by 40 museums, including the Victoria & Albert and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Khalili also prides himself on the honors he has won for his philanthropy. An observant Jew who says he avoids discussions of politics, Khalili co-founded the Maimonides Foundation in 1995 to foster dialogue between Jews and Muslims through sports, cultural events and education. He also endowed a research center for Middle Eastern culture at the University of Oxford.

In recognition of Khalili’s interfaith work, Pope Benedict XVI anointed him last year as a Knight Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Sylvester.
“I’m self-made. I’ve done it all on my own,” says Khalili, whose 14-page resume is headlined: “Scholar, Benefactor and Collector.”

Khalili sees no contradiction in being Jewish and owning an Islamic collection.

“I fell in love with it because it was the most beautiful and diverse art,” he says.

In 2005, at the launch party for Khalili’s book The Timeline History of Islamic Art and Architecture, Iran’s then- ambassador to London, Seyed Mohammad Hossein Adeli, hailed him as “an ambassador for the culture of Islam.”

First Treasure

Khalili’s journey to the top of the art world began in Iran on Dec. 18, 1945. The fourth of five children, he grew up in Tehran. His mother counseled divorced women. His father — like his father before him — visited homes to acquire artworks he could sell for a few dollars profit.

As a child, Khalili tagged along when his father traded art, once joining him at the home of a former education minister with a collection of pen boxes. The 12-year-old yeshiva student was enraptured by a lacquer pen box painted with 800 men and horses, each one different. Khalili recalls that when he rhapsodized about the box, the owner’s eyes filled with tears.

“He turned round to my dad and said, ‘I’m not selling this to you. I’m giving this to your son,’” Khalili says. He still has the pen box in his Islamic collection. “So the first piece I didn’t buy; I was given,” he says.

Art Mentor

After high school, Khalili did national service, training as an army medic. At 22, he left Iran for New York, where he worked at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant while studying at Queens College, part of New York’s public education system. One evening, as Khalili sipped cream to soothe an ulcer, the restaurant manager scolded him for taking it without permission. Khalili threw his waiter’s jacket at his boss and decided he’d trade art to pay his school fees.

At an auction of Russian enamels months later, Khalili noticed the main bidder was Alan Hartman, whose family ran a Manhattan antiques store. Khalili borrowed several enamels from Hartman on consignment. He says he sold them that evening for a $26,000 profit to Iranian collectors he knew on Long Island, where many wealthy Iranians were settling. (Khalili’s four siblings have since moved there.)

Hartman, now 80, says he wanted to help because Khalili was a Jewish immigrant struggling to build a new life. “We felt sorry for him,” he says.

“Alan and I did a hell of a lot after that,” Khalili says. “In two years, I was a millionaire.”

Friends say it was typical of Khalili that he’d launched himself by charming a stranger into lending him art.

“He has a way of winning people over,” says Sotheby’s Gibbs.

Tactile Billionaire

In person, Khalili exudes warmth: Meeting someone for the first time, he’s liable to introduce himself with a hug. He stands close to people, resting his hand on their arm, shoulder or back.

Before graduating from Queens in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in computer sciences, Khalili was already amassing his own collection.

“I used to buy a group of objects — let’s say, 10 objects for $100,000 — keep 3 or 4 of the best aside and sell the rest for $250,000,” he says. “I used my knowledge to create money to finance my dream.”

In 1978, Khalili married Marion Easton, an Englishwoman he’d met while buying jewelry from her in a London antique store, and they settled in the U.K. capital. They have three sons: Daniel, 28, a jewelry designer, and twins Benjamin and Raphael, 25, who invest family money in startups such as PlayPit Games Ltd., an online entertainment company.

Decoy Shop

In addition to dealing art, Khalili says he began in the late 1970s to buy commercial properties in the U.K., France, Portugal and Spain.

“As he made money with property, he put it into art,” says Franses, the retired carpet dealer. “He was only ever interested in the art.”

Khalili approached him whenever he had cash to spare, buying such rarities as two 16th-century rugs that Franses says would now cost 2 million pounds each.

Khalili deployed misdirection to his advantage when he opened an Islamic art store in London in 1978. For three years, Khalili says he used the shop as a ruse to obtain dealers’ prices.

“I never sold anything there; I used that place as a decoy and bought unbelievable stuff,” he says.

“His timing was impeccable,” says Penhallurick. Islamic art was such a backwater that dedicated Islamic auctions didn’t begin until the 1970s. Khalili — whose main rivals at the time included the Kuwaiti royal family and the David Collection, owned by a Danish foundation — says many pieces he acquired then would now cost 10 to 50 times more.

Beautiful and Overlooked

“Anything that is beautiful and was overlooked, I bought,” says Khalili, who received a Ph.D. in Islamic lacquer at the University of London in 1988.

By the mid-1980s, Khalili says, his purchases were partly funded by venture capital investments that he declines to name. He says he made 30 times his money off shares he had bought in the late 1970s in a company developing technology to treat tumors. In 1987, he says he pocketed $15 million from the sale of a private company that made indigestion pills.

Khalili says he stopped trading art around 1980 and bankrolled his collecting primarily with profits from property. In a typical deal, he says, he paid 32.5 million pounds in 1992 for Cameron Toll, an Edinburgh shopping mall, selling it two years later for 55 million pounds as the market revived. Public records show Khalili has owned various private property companies.

Property Development

His main vehicle, Favermead Ltd., was incorporated in the U.K. in 1992 and sold 97 million pounds of property in 1995 alone, according to the company’s financial statements.

“Business is the least of my pride,” Khalili says. “Compared to collecting, it’s a piece of cake.”

Still, he currently owns a 60,000-square-foot (5,574- square-meter) business park in Exeter, England; a 32,000-square- foot building in Mayfair; and a site in central London where he plans to build a 320,000-square-foot, 13-story office tower when the real estate market recovers.

“If he starts building in the next 12 months, it’ll be very good timing as there’s very little available in the market,” says Gerald Ronson, CEO of London-based developer Heron International, which also bid for the central London site.

Mayfair Mansion

One personal property venture proved more problematic.

In 1993, Khalili began combining two buildings in Kensington that once housed the Russian and Egyptian embassies into a 55,000-square-foot home. Khalili says he spent 90 million pounds on the house, including 45 million pounds on the refurbishment. He employed 400 craftsmen for 4 years, installing 3,200 square meters of marble, a Turkish bath and underground parking for 20 cars. Marion Khalili says she refused to move in, deeming the house too palatial.

In 2001, Khalili unloaded the property for 50 million pounds to Formula One tycoon Bernie Ecclestone, who sold it to steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal for 57 million pounds in 2004, according to public records. Khalili now lives instead in a seven-story Edwardian mansion in Mayfair.

These days, Khalili says, his buying of Islamic art has slowed. With competition intensifying, he’s turned his attention elsewhere. One afternoon in late February, he reveals that he’s already begun his sixth collection. This time, Khalili says, he’s acquired an existing trove of nearly 200 pieces, to which he’ll add more treasures.

And the collection’s theme?

“I’m not telling you,” Khalili says with a smile. With that, he draws a veil on the next chapter in the improbable story of the Iranian yeshiva student who became the world’s leading private collector of Islamic art.

–Editors: David Ellis, Jonathan Neumann

Community News (V12-I3)

January 14, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Dupage County denies permit for Islamic facility

WHEATON, IL (News Agencies)–The Irshad Learning Center, an Islamic educational institute, suffered a setback after it was denied permission to build a facility near Naperville. The DuPage County board voted 10-7 this Tuesday to deny a conditional-use permit. The board members said they were concerned about operation of the facility in a residential neighborhood and the accompanying problems.

They suggested it was time the board re-examine a special zoning proposal for religious institutions.

Officials from Irshad were upset by the decision and suggested legal actions against the county could be on the horizon.

Mahmood Ghassemi, chairman of the center’s board of trustees, said he didn’t feel the county decision was in keeping with the rule of law.

Muslim cabbie returns $21,000 left in taxi

NEW YORK, NY–A New York City Muslim cab driver is being praised for returning $21,000 left behind a tourist from Europe.
Italian Felicia Lettieri, 72, left her purse in a Manhattan taxi on Christmas Eve. It contained travelling money for her and six relatives.

Police told them not to get their hopes up about finding it.

But the cabbie, Mohammad “Mukal” Asadujjaman, drove about 50 miles, to a Long Island address he found in the purse. No-one was home, so he left his phone number and later returned with the money.

The 28-year-old driver, from Bangladesh, said that as an observant Muslim he could not accept a reward offered by the grateful passenger.

Free Admission To Ali Center On Champ’s Birthday

LOUISVILLE, KY–Muhammad Ali turns 68 years old on Jan. 17.To celebrate this occasion, the Muhammad Ali Center invites the community to tour the center’s award-winning exhibits for free and to participate in the day’s activities. The Center is also expanding its Sunday hours for this festive occasion; doors will open at 10 a.m. and close at 5 p.m.

Leading off the special events for the day will be a short program at 1 p.m. in the Ali Center’s Main Lobby. At 2:30 p.m., in the Auditorium, will be a showing of “Facing Ali,” an Academy Award contender this year for Best Documentary. Producer Derik Murray will be in attendance to introduce the film and answer questions about the production of this compelling film.

Other special activities for the day include a trivia contest, prizes, drawings, light refreshments, and an opportunity for kids to design birthday cards for Ali. Special Muhammad birthday merchandise will be available to purchase in the center’s retail store.

This event will also kick off a year of significant historical events for Ali: the 50th anniversary of his first professional fight (in Louisville) and his 1960 Olympic Gold Medal received in Rome.

12-3

How America Makes its Enemies Disappear

November 1, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Petra Bartosiewicz, Harpers

When I first read the U.S. government’s complaint against Aafia Siddiqui, who is awaiting trial in a Brooklyn detention center on charges of attempting to murder a group of U.S. Army officers and FBI agents in Afghanistan, the case it described was so impossibly convoluted—and yet so absurdly incriminating—that I simply assumed she was innocent. According to the complaint, on the evening of July 17, 2008, several local policemen discovered Siddiqui and a young boy loitering about a public square in Ghazni. She was carrying instructions for creating “weapons involving biological material,” descriptions of U.S. “military assets,” and numerous unnamed “chemical substances in gel and liquid form that were sealed in bottles and glass jars.” Siddiqui, an MIT-trained neuroscientist who lived in the United States for eleven years, had vanished from her hometown in Pakistan in 2003, along with all three of her children, two of whom were U.S. citizens. The complaint does not address where she was those five years or why she suddenly decided to emerge into a public square outside Pakistan and far from the United States , nor does it address why she would do so in the company of her American son. Various reports had her married to a high-level Al Qaeda operative, running diamonds out of Liberia for Osama bin Laden, and abetting the entry of terrorists into the United States . But those reports were countered by rumors that Siddiqui actually had spent the previous five years in the maw of the U.S. intelligence system—that she was a ghost prisoner, kidnapped by Pakistani spies, held in secret detention at a U.S. military prison, interrogated until she could provide no further intelligence, then spat back into the world in the manner most likely to render her story implausible. These dueling narratives of terrorist intrigue and imperial overreach were only further confounded when Siddiqui finally appeared before a judge in a Manhattan courtroom on August 5. Now, two weeks after her capture, she was bandaged and doubled over in a wheelchair, barely able to speak, because—somehow—she had been shot in the stomach by one of the very soldiers she stands accused of attempting to murder.

It is clear that the CIA and the FBI believed Aafia Siddiqui to be a potential source of intelligence and, as such, a prized commodity in the global war on terror. Every other aspect of the Siddiqui case, though, is shrouded in rumor and denial, with the result that we do not know, and may never know, whether her detention has made the United States any safer. Even the particulars of the arrest itself, which took place before a crowd of witnesses near Ghazni’s main mosque, are in dispute. According to the complaint, Siddiqui was detained not because she was wanted by the FBI but simply because she was loitering in a “suspicious” manner; she did not speak the local language and she was not escorted by an adult male. What drove her to risk such conspicuous behavior has not been revealed. When I later hired a local reporter in Afghanistan to re-interview several witnesses, the arresting officer, Abdul Ghani, said Siddiqui had been carrying “a box with some sort of chemicals,” but a shopkeeper named Farhad said the police had found only “a lot of papers.” Hekmat Ullah, who happened to be passing by at the time of her arrest, said Siddiqui “was attacking everyone who got close to her”—a detail that is not mentioned in the complaint. A man named Mirwais, who had come to the mosque that day to pray, said he saw police handcuff Siddiqui, but Massoud Nabizada, the owner of a local pharmacy, said the police had no handcuffs, “so they used her scarf to tie her hands.” What everyone appears to agree on is this: an unknown person called the police to warn that a possible suicide bomber was loitering outside a mosque; the police arrested Siddiqui and her son; and, Afghan sovereignty notwithstanding, they then dispatched the suspicious materials, whatever they were, to the nearest U.S. military base.

The events of the following day are also subject to dispute. According to the complaint, a U.S. Army captain and a warrant officer, two FBI agents, and two military interpreters came to question Siddiqui at Ghazni’s police headquarters. The team was shown to a meeting room that was partitioned by a yellow curtain. “None of the United States personnel were aware,” the complaint states, “that Siddiqui was being held, unsecured, behind the curtain.” No explanation is offered as to why no one thought to look behind it. The group sat down to talk and, in another odd lapse of vigilance, “the Warrant Officer placed his United States Army M-4 rifle on the floor to his right next to the curtain, near his right foot.” Siddiqui, like a villain in a stage play, reached from behind the curtain and pulled the three-foot rifle to her side. She unlatched the safety. She pulled the curtain “slightly back” and pointed the gun directly at the head of the captain. One of the interpreters saw her. He lunged for the gun. Siddiqui shouted, “Get the fuck out of here!” and fired twice. She hit no one. As the interpreter wrestled her to the ground, the warrant officer drew his sidearm and fired “approximately two rounds” into Siddiqui’s abdomen. She collapsed, still struggling, then fell unconscious.

The authorities in Afghanistan describe a different series of events. The governor of Ghazni Province , Usman Usmani, told my local reporter that the U.S. team had “demanded to take over custody” of Siddiqui. The governor refused. He could not release Siddiqui, he explained, until officials from the counterterrorism department in Kabul arrived to investigate. He proposed a compromise: the U.S. team could interview Siddiqui, but she would remain at the station. In a Reuters interview, however, a “senior Ghazni police officer” suggested that the compromise did not hold. The U.S. team arrived at the police station, he said, and demanded custody of Siddiqui, the Afghan officers refused, and the U.S. team proceeded to disarm them. Then, for reasons unexplained, Siddiqui herself somehow entered the scene. The U.S. team, “thinking that she had explosives and would attack them as a suicide bomber, shot her and took her.”

Siddiqui’s own version of the shooting is less complicated. As she explained it to a delegation of Pakistani senators who came to Texas to visit her in prison a few months after her arrest, she never touched anyone’s gun, nor did she shout at anyone or make any threats. She simply stood up to see who was on the other side of the curtain and startled the soldiers. One of them shouted, “She is loose,” and then someone shot her. When she regained consciousness she heard someone else say, “We could lose our jobs.”

Siddiqui’s trial is scheduled for this November. The charges against her stem solely from the shooting incident itself, not from any alleged act of terrorism. The prosecutors provide no explanation for how a scientist, mother, and wife came to be charged as a dangerous felon. Nor do they account for her missing years, or her two other children, who still are missing. What is known is that the United States wanted her in 2003, and it wanted her again in 2008, and now no one can explain why.

Petra Bartosiewicz is a writer living in Brooklyn . Her last story for Harper’s Magazine, “I.O.U. One Terrorist,” appeared in the August 2005 issue.

11-45

Many Guantanamo Cases Referred to US Prosecutors

August 6, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Devlin Barrett 

Washington – Dozens of Guantanamo Bay detainee cases have been referred to federal prosecutors for possible criminal trials in the nation’s capital, Virginia and New York City, officials told The Associated Press on Monday as a second strategy for trying the detainees emerged within the Obama administration.

The Justice Department’s strategy of holding trials in East Coast cities could be a sharp departure from a Pentagon plan to hold all Guantanamo-related civilian and military trials in the Midwest.

The politically volatile decisions about where and how to try Guantanamo Bay detainees ultimately will rest with President Barack Obama as he tries to meet his self-imposed January deadline for closing the island prison.

Obama administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations, said Attorney General Eric Holder met privately last week with the chief federal prosecutor in each of the East Coast areas to discuss the preparations for possible indictments and trials in those districts.

Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the Guantanamo Bay detainee task force “has referred a significant number of cases for possible prosecution, and those cases have now been sent to U.S. Attorney offices who are reviewing them with prosecutors from the Office of Military Commissions.” His statement didn’t identify the districts involved.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said no final decisions have been made on where in the U.S. to transfer Guantanamo detainees.

One official said prosecutors and military lawyers are now reviewing the individual cases. The work is aimed at indicting individuals in civilian courts, but final decisions have not been made on the cases and some of the inmates whose cases were referred could still end up before military commissions instead.

Officials said the districts which have been referred Guantanamo cases are: Washington, D.C.; the Eastern District of Virginia, which has a courthouse in Alexandria, Va.; the Southern District of New York, which is based in lower Manhattan in New York City; and the Eastern District of New York, which is based in the New York borough of Brooklyn.

Each district has experience prosecuting high-profile terrorism cases, and each courthouse has high-security facilities for holding particularly dangerous inmates.
Yet the plan to hold terror trials in those cities may run afoul of a separate initiative being considered to build a courtroom-within-a-prison complex in the U.S. heartland.

Several senior U.S. officials said the administration is eyeing a soon-to-be-shuttered state maximum security prison in Michigan and the military penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., as possible locations for a heavily guarded site to hold the suspected 229 al-Qaida, Taliban, and foreign fighters now jailed at Guantanamo.

The president has said some detainees will be tried in civilian courts, some in military commissions, and some will be held without trial because they are simply too dangerous but the evidence against them cannot be aired in any courtroom.

The proposed Midwest facility would operate as a hybrid prison system jointly operated by the Justice Department, the military and the Department of Homeland Security.

Both the Justice and Pentagon plans face legal and logistical problems.

If a significant number of civilian trials were to be held in the Midwest, the government might have to send in prosecutors and judges experienced in terrorism cases, and lawyers for the detainees could object to the jury pool.

Such a plan would also require an expensive upgrade of the facilities in Kansas or Michigan, and it’s unclear if there is enough time for such work under the president’s deadline.

But trying them on the East Coast could generate more of the kind of public opposition that led Congress earlier this year to yank funding for bringing such detainees to U.S. soil until the administration produces an acceptable plan for shuttering the Guantanamo facility.

The Obama administration has already transferred one detainee to U.S. courts – Ahmed Ghailani was sent to New York in June to face charges he helped blow up U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.

Associated Press Writer Lara Jakes contributed to this report.

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Obama Must Call Off This Folly Before Afghanistan Becomes his Vietnam

July 2, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Senseless slaughter and anti-western hysteria are all America and Britain’s billions have paid for in a counterproductive war

By Simon Jenkins

If good intentions ever paved a road to hell, they are doing so in Afghanistan. History rarely declares when folly turns to disaster, but it does so now. Barack Obama and his amanuensis, Gordon Brown, are uncannily repeating the route taken by American leaders in Vietnam from 1963 to 1975. Galbraith once said that the best thing about the Great Depression was that it warned against another. Does the same apply to Vietnam?

Vietnam began with Kennedy’s noble 1963 intervention, to keep the communist menace at bay and thus make the world safe for democracy. That is what George Bush and Tony Blair said of terrorism and Afghanistan. Vietnam escalated as the Diem regime in Saigon failed to contain Vietcong aggression and was deposed with American collusion. By 1965, despite Congress scepticism, American advisers, then planes, then ground forces were deployed. Allies were begged to join but few agreed and not Britain.

The presence of Americans on Asian soil turned a local insurgency into a regional crusade. Foreign aid rallied to the Vietcong cause to resist what was seen as a neo-imperialist invasion. The hard-pressed Americans resorted to eve r more extensive bombing, deep inside neighbouring countries, despite evidence that it was ineffective and politically counterproductive.

No amount of superior firepower could quell a peasant army that came and went by night and could terrorise or merge into the local population. Tales of American atrocities rolled in each month. The army counted success not in territory held but in enemy dead. A desperate attempt to “train and equip” a new Vietnamese army made it as corrupt as it was unreliable. Billions of dollars were wasted. A treaty with the Vietcong in 1973 did little to hide the humiliation of eventual defeat.

Every one of these steps is being re-enacted in Afghanistan. Every sane observer, even serving generals and diplomats, admit that “we are not winning” and show no sign of doing so. The head of the British army, Sir Richard Dannatt, remarked recently on the “mistakes” of Iraq as metaphor for Afghanistan. He has been supported by warnings from his officers on the ground.

Last year’s denial of reinforcements to Helmand is an open secret. Ever since the then defence secretary, John Reid, issued his 2006 “London diktats”, described in a recent British Army Review as “casual, naive and a comprehensive failure”, intelligence warnings of Taliban strength have been ignored. The army proceeded with a policy of disrupting the opium trade, neglecting hearts and minds and using US air power against “blind” targets. All have proved potent weapons in the Taliban armory.

Generals are entitled to plead for more resources and yet claim that -victory is just round the corner, even when they know it is not. They must lead men into battle. A heavier guilt lies with liberal apologists for this war on both sides of the Atlantic who continue to invent excuses for its failure and offer glib preconditions for victory.

A classic is a long editorial in Monday’s New York Times, congratulating Barack Obama on “sending more troops to the fight” but claiming that there were still not enough. In addition there were too many corrupt politicians, too many drugs, too many weapons in the wrong hands, too small a local army, too few police and not enough “trainers”. The place was damnably unlike Connecticut.

Strategy, declared the sages of Manhattan, should be “to confront the Taliban head on”, as if this had not been tried before. Afghanistan needed “a functioning army and national police that can hold back the insurgents”. The way to achieve victory was for the Pentagon, already spending a stupefying $60bn in Afghanistan, to spend a further $20bn increasing the size of the Afghan army from 90,000 to 250,000. This was because ordinary Afghans “must begin to trust their own government”.

These lines might have been written in 1972 by General Westmoreland in his Saigon bunker. The New York Times has clearly never seen the Afghan army, or police, in action. Eight years of training costing $15bn have been near useless, when men simply decline to fight except to defend their homes. Any Afghan pundit will attest that training a Pashtun to fight a Pashtun is a waste of money, while training a Tajik to the same end is a waste of time. Since the Pentagon originally armed and trained the Taliban to fight the Soviets, this must be the first war where it has trained both sides.

Neither the Pentagon nor the British Ministry of Defence will win Afghanistan through firepower. The strategy of “hearts and minds plus” cannot be realistic, turning Afghanistan into a vast and indefinite barracks with hundreds of thousands of western soldiers sitting atop a colonial Babel of administrators and professionals. It will never be secure. It offers Afghanistan a promise only of relentless war, one that Afghans outside Kabul know that warlords, drug cartels and Taliban sympathizers are winning.

The 2001 policy of invading, capturing Osama bin Laden and ridding the region of terrorist bases has been tested to destruction and failed. Strategy is reduced to the senseless slaughter of hundreds of young western soldiers and thousands of Afghans. Troops are being sent out because Labour ministers lack the guts to admit that Blair’s bid to quell the Islamist menace by force of arms was crazy. They parrot the line that they are making “the streets of London safe”, but they know they are doing the opposite.

Vietnam destroyed two presidents, Johnson and Nixon, and destroyed the global confidence of a generation of young Americans. Afghanistan obscenely dubbed the “good war” could do the same. There will soon be 68,000 American troops in that country, making a mockery of Donald Rumsfeld’s 2001 tactic of hit and run, which at least had the virtue of coherence.

This is set fair to be a war of awful proportions, cockpit for the feared clash of civilisations. Each new foreign battalion taps more cash for the Taliban from the Gulf. Each new massacre from the air recruits more youths from the madrasas. The sheer counterproductivity of the war has been devastatingly analysed by David Kilcullen, adviser to Obama’s key general David Petraeus no less.

Obama is trapped by past policy mistakes as were Kennedy and Johnson, cheered by an offstage chorus crying, “if only” and “not enough” and “just one more surge”. He and Petraeus have to find a means and a language to disengage from Afghanistan, to allow the anti-western hysteria of the Muslim world which the west has done so much to foster now to cool. It is hard to imagine a greater tragedy than for the most exciting American president in a generation to be led by a senseless intervention into a repeat of America’s greatest postwar debacle.

As for British politicians, they seek a proxy for their negligence in Afghanistan by staging a show trial of their negligence in Iraq. Why do they fiddle while Helmand burns? Might they at least ask how they can spend £40bn a year on defence yet watch a mere 8,000 troops on their one active front having to be rescued by Americans?

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