Of Black Magic and Witchcraft

May 13, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

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The case of Lebanese citizen Ali Hussain Sibat, who has been incarcerated for the past two years in a Saudi Arabian prison on charges of being a sorcerer, has brought the dark world of ‘black magic’ and witchcraft that exists in many countries of the Middle East into the limelight. Sibat has been sentenced to death by beheading for hosting a television show called, “The Hidden” in Lebanon in which he engaged in acts of sorcery on camera. Saudi officials also claim that he confessed while in custody to selling potions to his clients that supposedly fulfill their greatest desire.

Sorcery, voodoo, soothsaying and all sorts of witchcraft are strictly forbidden in the Islamic faith and laws against the evil practices are firmly upheld by most Islamic countries. Despite the severe penalties, which are sometimes lethal, many people claiming to have special powers continue to prey on the public. And in many cases, the soothsayers are sought out by people suffering from hardships ranging from issues of the heart to more worldly issues like financial struggles. There is a tangible market in the Middle East for sorcery as there is a plethora of people seeking to get a hold of, what they perceive to be, the unattainable.

However, personal gain is not the only reason why witchcraft has found a comfortable niche in the Gulf region. Jealousy, hatred and just plain loathing are often the driving forces behind the use of witchcraft or sorcery. In a recent cover story in the newspaper Saudi Gazette, a pair of Indonesian housemaids was arrested for committing acts of sorcery against their sponsor families. Both were duped into confessing to their crimes in exchange for a large amount of money, which was bogus and meant only to extract their confessions. The housemaids admitted to placing at least 55 ‘charms’ in various parts of each of the family homes. Just prior to their confessions, family members had become suspicious after several other members of the family fell ill mysteriously. According to the article the charms, some consisting of broken glass and nails, were found and ‘undone’ by religious authorities.

The problem of sorcery has become so widespread in the Gulf that many countries are taking preemptive actions to dissuade the practice. Bahrain is just one government that is trying to root out witchcraft from within its borders. The Bahraini government is set to pass a new appendix to the law that already exists on the books which forbids anyone in the country from performing sorcery on the behalf of others or even privately in the home. However, unlike in Saudi Arabia, anyone convicted of sorcery in Bahrain does not stand to lose his or her head. The penalty for sorcery in Bahrain is a stiff fine and possibly a prison stint followed by deportation.

Human rights groups are swift to criticize Middle East governments for taking a hard line when it comes to witchcraft and sorcery. Most recently Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized the Saudi government for turning Sibat’s case into a capital crime when in other countries it would be most likely be classified as a mere case of fraud.

12-20

Musharraf wants to enter into Pakistani Politics with a Big Bang

May 13, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

I will surely be in Pakistan before the next General Elections for one last contest: Musharraf in Houston

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         “You have mentioned in your English and Urdu newspapers that return of Musharraf is imminent. Now I will have to prove this statement,” said former President of Pakistan General (Retired) Pervez Musharraf, while talking to Pakistan Chronicle & Pakistan Journal Newspapers Publisher Tariq Nehal Khan and Marketing & Distribution Manager Mohammad Jameel Siddiqui, at luncheon held in his and his wife Mrs. Sehba Musharraf’s honor at the residence of famous Houston Attorney Nauman (Noami) Hussain. One day before this luncheon meeting, General (Retired) Pervez Musharraf and his wife had reached Houston and had meetings with members of a reputable think tank.

Large number of Pakistani Community and American personalities were present on the luncheon occasion, including Stephen Prentiss Payne, a most famous American lobbyist from Houston, Texas, who has been Mr. Musharraf’s lobbyist in Washington, D.C.; Counsel General of Pakistan in Houston Aqil Nadeem and his wife; Former City Councilman Masrur Javed Khan; Former Pakistan Cricket Board Chairman Dr. Naseem Ashraf and many more. Sumptuous luncheon of Mezban Restaurant and Demasis Mediterranean Restaurant was served.

Naomi Hussain introduced Pervez Musharraf as the person, who after President Bush said either you are with us or with the terrorists; stood besides USA. Musharraf started his ten minutes presentation by thanking Naomi Hussain & his wife and everyone in the large gathering and said whatever he did after 9/11 was first in the interest of Pakistan, then of the world and of course USA.

Talking about his political future, he said disinformation is being implanted into various Pakistani media that when I recently visited Washington, D.C., not a single important person met me. If it is not for privacy issues, he said he would have mentioned the names of top officials, with whom he had concrete talks; and that would have meant restless days and sleepless nights for these persons, who are merely doing false propaganda.

Former President Pervez Musarraf said that ground realty is recently I started my face-book and got the most clicks by any person in a day in the whole world, resulting in an interview with Becky Anderson of CNN in London England. I do a Q-&-A session every 14th day on my face-book and 85% of the people want me to return to Pakistan and play a positive role in the political arena of Pakistan. Several seasoned and credible politicians of Pakistan recently met him in Middle East and everyone wants his return. Nature is with him in that he is the only alive notable personality of Pakistan, who has the chance to take politicians, bureaucracy and arm-forces of Pakistan together and that present & future of Pakistan needs a personality, who especially has these credentials.

He said at present with no real responsibilities and traveling to various places for speaking tours, he is living very peacefully and in serenity. But when calls to return for the betterment of Pakistan reach him, they make him to think hard and he is at presently considering to remain living comfortably or returning to Pakistan and work hard to make the country the best in the world. He said he is strongly inclined to return as Pakistan comes first; for sure before the next national elections and final word will be coming from his camp within the next two months.

“I just do not want to return and be a mediocre player in Pakistani politics. I want to return with a big bang and give Pakistani people a real third choice in politics, where present government has failed miserably in resolving issues and problems have compounded, while on the other hand, we have Nawaz Sharif & PML (N). Mr. Sharif has some kink in his brain, as he is always confronting with some; previously with 4 Generals and presently making agreements with the government but then at time becoming angry and at other times remains quiet. I have called Mr. Sharif a Closet Taleban, who as in Urdu we say have beard in the tummy; he is most dangerous for Pakistan and for everybody. I am sure I will able to provide the most viable Third National Choice in the next elections. Pakistan deserves better leadership and if I do not try, that will not be good. I am not scared of failure. I will give it the best try,” said Musharraf amidst applause.

General (Retired) Pervez Musharraf said there is figure of Pakistan, who is more than 25 years veteran politician, but now-a-days dormant (he said he does not want to give his name). When recently he called him to get suggestions about future and referenced the scene from a famous cowboy movie, where only one bullet is left and person is contemplating to go back for one last fight or not. Musharraf was told by this politician that it is better to go back for one last fight and he may very well find this dormant politician besides him.

Former President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf said the way so many people have here to Naomi’s home, similarly people in other cities, like recently Chicago have met him. But all this effort is scattered. He said if you see him to work hard for Pakistan and Pakistanis, it is necessary that those who are in favor of my thumping return to Pakistan, collect their resources and efforts.

12-20

Obama to Hold Global Summit if Latest Middle East Talks Fail

May 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Catrina Stewart in Jerusalem

2010-05-05T172601Z_01_BTRE6441CFM00_RTROPTP_3_POLITICS-US-USA-COURT

File:  U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden smile as they are pictured with bipartisan members of the U.S. Senate in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, April 21, 2010.

REUTERS/Jason Reed 

Barack Obama could call a world summit by the end of the year to pave the way for a Palestinian state should hoped-for peace talks bring no breakthrough in coming months.

The US President is understood to have informed European leaders of his plan to break an Israeli-Palestinian deadlock if negotiations have not borne fruit by September or October, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz cited unidentified Israeli officials as saying.

The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday told reporters that special envoy George Mitchell would be returning to the Middle East next week, when she said that proximity talks – the first since peace talks stalled in January 2008 – would begin again. The planned return to the negotiating table was delayed last month after a row over Israeli plans to build new homes in East Jerusalem.

If those talks are again knocked off course, a broader summit will become more likely. The four members of the Middle East Quartet negotiating group – the US, the UN, the EU and Russia – would be expected to play a leading role in the summit to present a united front, the paper said. The summit would address core issues, including Jerusalem and final borders.

The bold move reflects Mr Obama’s resolve to find a solution to the decades-old conflict that has eluded his predecessors and raises the possibility that Washington might seek to impose its own settlement on the parties, a prospect viewed with hostility by Israeli politicians.

Mr Obama has placed negotiations at the forefront of his political agenda while acknowledging that a continued stalemate threatens the US’s own security interests.

After months of intense US diplomacy in the region, the indirect “proximity” talks represent the best chance of a breakthrough in the peace process.

While a final settlement has appeared tantalisingly close in the past, few Palestinians believe that a solution can be reached without outside help, and Israelis repeatedly insist they have no partner for peace.

“Leaving the peacemaking hostage to agreements between both sides is not a good idea,” said Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority. “The international community has to play a larger role.”

Earlier this month, the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged Mr Obama to impose a peace solution, a plea that will have worried Israeli officials, who insist that a negotiated solution between the two parties is the only way out of the impasse.

Mr Obama’s efforts to bring both sides to talks have stalled over the critical issue of Jewish settlements in Arab-dominated East Jerusalem, which Israel captured and later annexed after the Six-Day War in 1967. Palestinians covet East Jerusalem as the future capital of an independent Palestinian state.

Mr Abbas backed out of talks in early March after Israel announced plans to build 1,600 Jewish homes in East Jerusalem during a visit by the US Vice-President Joe Biden. The resulting row plunged relations between Israel and the US, its closest ally, to their lowest point in recent memory.

A US State Department official declined to confirm back-up plans for a global summit, saying: “Peace must be made by the parties and cannot be imposed from the outside. Our focus remains on seeing the discussions that are under way lead to formal negotiations that will address all of the complex issues.”

12-19

While You Were Sleeping

May 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

COV_iranFlag This week has seen a spurt of would-be terror plots that painfully highlights the reality that our world is still not as safe as it should be, despite the two wars still being waged against purported terrorist regimes. The most notable occurred in the heart of New York City as Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad has confessed to being the mastermind behind the car bomb that, luckily, did not explode in Times Square. Shahzad was just barely apprehended as he sat on an Emirates flight set for Dubai.

The tiny Gulf State of Kuwait also got its own dose of a potential terror-plot in the making when security personnel unraveled a tangled web of deceit within its own borders. A ‘sleeper cell’ network of spies, apparently working covertly for the Iranian government’s Revolutionary Guard, was exposed this past week much to the surprise of the denizens of the region. For weeks, local Kuwaiti newspapers have been reporting renewed ties between Kuwait and Iran as well as a couple of deals, like oil exports. By all appearances the sleeper cell was put into place to gather intelligence on primary Kuwaiti and American targets, in the event that America decided to take a preemptive military strike against Iran. Iranian President has always promised to lash out at any Gulf neighbor that allows its land to be used by the US and its allies in a show of force against Iran.

Kuwait’s security forces have arrested at least eleven high-ranking Kuwaiti citizens that worked in close proximity to both the interior and defense ministries as well as several Arab nationals whose nationalities have not been released. During the bust, Kuwaiti security personnel raided the home of one of the leaders of the sleeper cell and found a great deal of incriminating evidence including maps for sensitive targets in Kuwait, hi-tech gadgetry and an estimated $250,000 stockpile of cold hard cash. Key players within the sleeper cell have also revealed to Kuwait security forces that they were instructed to recruit new members from Kuwait that were sympathetic to the plight of Iranians.

It’s not surprising that Kuwait was chosen as a primary location for the Iranian sleeper cell to settle in unnoticed. There are several American army bases littered throughout the country and Kuwait is a key stopping point for American troops headed to the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the strongest reason is most likely the friendship that Kuwait and America have built ever since the 1991 Desert Storm war, where America and its allies literally pulled Kuwait out of the clutches of the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Word out of Iran is that the whole fiasco is merely a chance for Kuwait to discredit the country. However, the evidence is strongly leaning towards the validity of the sleeper cell and the Iranian governments full knowledge of its existence. And according to the Kuwaiti government there are still at least seven more members of the sleeper cell who have not yet been apprehended. But what is most disturbing is that interrogations with the suspects are slowly revealing that the espionage stretches clean across the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) member states with several Gulf countries supposedly having an invisible sleeper cell operating from within. Leaders from the Arab world are expected to meet in the foreseeable future to join forces in combating Iranian spy rings.

12-19

Why We Won’t Leave Afghanistan or Iraq

May 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Yes, We Could… Get Out!

By Tom Engelhardt

2010-05-05T120909Z_1306706484_GM1E6551JSJ01_RTRMADP_3_AFGHANISTAN

An Afghan man smiles after he received food aid in Kabul May 5, 2010. The Afghan Ministry of Defense distributed food aid such as wheat, cooking oil, sugar and beans to 220 poor families.        

REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

Yes, we could. No kidding. We really could withdraw our massive armies, now close to 200,000 troops combined, from Afghanistan and Iraq (and that’s not even counting our similarly large stealth army of private contractors, which helps keep the true size of our double occupations in the shadows). We could undoubtedly withdraw them all reasonably quickly and reasonably painlessly.

Not that you would know it from listening to the debates in Washington or catching the mainstream news. There, withdrawal, when discussed at all, seems like an undertaking beyond the waking imagination. In Iraq alone, all those bases to dismantle and millions of pieces of equipment to send home in a draw-down operation worthy of years of intensive effort, the sort of thing that makes the desperate British evacuation from Dunkirk in World War II look like a Sunday stroll in the park. And that’s only the technical side of the matter.

Then there’s the conviction that anything but a withdrawal that would make molasses in January look like the hare of Aesopian fable — at least two years in Iraq, five to ten in Afghanistan — would endanger the planet itself, or at least its most important country: us.

Without our eternally steadying hand, the Iraqis and Afghans, it’s taken for granted, would be lost. Without the help of U.S. forces, for example, would the Maliki government ever have been able to announce the death of the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq? Not likely, whereas the U.S. has knocked off its leadership twice, first in 2006, and again, evidently, last week.

Of course, before our troops entered Baghdad in 2003 and the American occupation of that country began, there was no al-Qaeda in Iraq. But that’s a distant past not worth bringing up. And forget as well the fact that our invasions and wars have proven thunderously destructive, bringing chaos, misery, and death in their wake, and turning, for instance, the health care system of Iraq, once considered an advanced country in the Arab world, into a disaster zone(that — it goes without saying — only we Americans are now equipped to properly fix). Similarly, while regularly knocking off Afghan civilians at checkpoints on their roads and in their homes, at their celebrations and at work, we ignore the fact that our invasion and occupation opened the way for the transformation of Afghanistan into the first all-drug-crop agricultural nation and so the planet’s premier narco-nation. It’s not just that the country now has an almost total monopoly on growing opium poppies (hence heroin), but according to the latest U.N. report, it’s now cornering the hashish market as well. That’s diversification for you.

It’s a record to stand on and, evidently, to stay on, even to expand on. We’re like the famed guest who came to dinner, broke a leg, wouldn’t leave, and promptly took over the lives of the entire household. Only in our case, we arrived, broke someone else’s leg, and then insisted we had to stay and break many more legs, lest the world become a far more terrible place.

It’s known and accepted in Washington that, if we were to leave Afghanistan precipitously, the Taliban would take over, al-Qaeda would be back big time in no time, and then more of our giant buildings would obviously bite the dust. And yet, the longer we’ve stayed and the more we’ve surged, the more resurgent the Taliban has become, the more territory this minority insurgency has spread into. If we stay long enough, we may, in fact, create the majority insurgency we claim to fear.

It’s common wisdom in the U.S. that, before we pull our military out, Afghanistan, like Iraq, must be secured as a stable enough ally, as well as at least a fragile junior democracy, which consigns real departure to some distant horizon. And that sense of time may help explain the desire of U.S. officials to hinder Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s attempts to negotiate with the Taliban and other rebel factions now. Washington, it seems, favors a “reconciliation process” that will last years and only begin after the U.S. military seizes the high ground on the battlefield.

The reality that dare not speak its name in Washington is this: no matter what might happen in an Afghanistan that lacked us — whether (as in the 1990s) the various factions there leaped for each other’s throats, or the Taliban established significant control, though (as in the 1990s) not over the whole country — the stakes for Americans would be minor in nature. Not that anyone of significance here would say such a thing.

Tell me, what kind of a stake could Americans really have in one of the most impoverished lands on the planet, about as distant from us as could be imagined, geographically, culturally, and religiously? Yet, as if to defy commonsense, we’ve been fighting there — by proxy and directly — on and off for 30 years now with no end in sight.

Most Americans evidently remain convinced that “safe haven” there was the key to al-Qaeda’s success, and that Afghanistan was the only place in which that organization could conceivably have planned 9/11, even though perfectly real planning also took place in Hamburg, Germany, which we neither bombed nor invaded.

In a future in which our surging armies actually succeeded in controlling Afghanistan and denying it to al-Qaeda, what about Somalia, Yemen, or, for that matter, England? It’s now conveniently forgotten that the first, nearly successful attempt to take down one of the World Trade Center towers in 1993 was planned in the wilds of New Jersey. Had the Bush administration been paying the slightest attention on September 10, 2001, or had reasonable precautions been taken, including locking the doors of airplane cockpits, 9/11 and so the invasion of Afghanistan would have been relegated to the far-fetched plot of some Tom Clancy novel.

Vietnam and Afghanistan

Have you noticed, by the way, that there’s always some obstacle in the path of withdrawal? Right now, in Iraq, it’s the aftermath of the March 7th election, hailed as proof that we brought democracy to the Middle East and so, whatever our missteps, did the right thing. As it happens, the election, as many predicted at the time, has led to a potentially explosive gridlock and has yet to come close to resulting in a new governing coalition. With violence on the rise, we’re told, the planned drawdown of American troops to the 50,000 level by August is imperiled. Already, the process, despite repeated assurances, seems to be proceeding slowly.

And yet, the thought that an American withdrawal should be held hostage to events among Iraqis all these years later, seems curious. There’s always some reason to hesitate — and it never has to do with us. Withdrawal would undoubtedly be far less of a brain-twister if Washington simply committed itself wholeheartedly to getting out, and if it stopped convincing itself that the presence of the U.S. military in distant lands was essential to a better world (and, of course, to a controlling position on planet Earth).

The annals of history are well stocked with countries which invaded and occupied other lands and then left, often ingloriously and under intense pressure. But they did it.

It’s worth remembering that, in 1975, when the South Vietnamese Army collapsed and we essentially fled the country, we abandoned staggering amounts of equipment there. Helicopters were pushed over the sides of aircraft carriers to make space; barrels of money were burned at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon; military bases as large as anything we’ve built in Iraq or Afghanistan fell into North Vietnamese hands; and South Vietnamese allies were deserted in the panic of the moment. Nonetheless, when there was no choice, we got out. Not elegantly, not nicely, not thoughtfully, not helpfully, but out.

Keep in mind that, then too, disaster was predicted for the planet, should we withdraw precipitously — including rolling communist takeovers of country after country, the loss of “credibility” for the American superpower, and a murderous bloodbath in Vietnam itself. All were not only predicted by Washington’s Cassandras, but endlessly cited in the war years as reasons not to leave. And yet here was the shock that somehow never registered among all the so-called lessons of Vietnam: nothing of that sort happened afterwards.

Today, Vietnam is a reasonably prosperous land with friendly relations with its former enemy, the United States. After Vietnam, no other “dominos” fell and there was no bloodbath in that country. Of course, it could have been different — and elsewhere, sometimes, it has been. But even when local skies darken, the world doesn’t end.

And here’s the truth of the matter: the world won’t end, not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, not in the United States, if we end our wars and withdraw. The sky won’t fall, even if the U.S. gets out reasonably quickly, even if subsequently blood is spilled and things don’t go well in either country.

We got our troops there remarkably quickly. We’re quite capable of removing them at a similar pace. We could, that is, leave. There are, undoubtedly, better and worse ways of doing this, ways that would further penalize the societies we’ve invaded, and ways that might be of some use to them, but either way we could go.

A Brief History of American Withdrawal

Of course, there’s a small problem here. All evidence indicates that Washington doesn’t want to withdraw — not really, not from either region. It has no interest in divesting itself of the global control-and-influence business, or of the military-power racket. That’s hardly surprising since we’re talking about a great imperial power and control (or at least imagined control) over the planet’s strategic oil lands.

And then there’s another factor to consider: habit. Over the decades, Washington has gotten used to staying. The U.S. has long been big on arriving, but not much for departure. After all, 65 years later, striking numbers of American forces are still garrisoning the two major defeated nations of World War II, Germany and Japan. We still have about three dozen military bases on the modest-sized Japanese island of Okinawa, and are at this very moment fighting tooth and nail, diplomatically speaking, not to be forced to abandon one of them. The Korean War was suspended in an armistice 57 years ago and, again, striking numbers of American troops still garrison South Korea.

Similarly, to skip a few decades, after the Serbian air campaign of the late 1990s, the U.S. built-up the enormous Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo with its seven-mile perimeter, and we’re still there. After Gulf War I, the U.S. either built or built up military bases and other facilities in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, as well as the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. And it’s never stopped building up its facilities throughout the Gulf region. In this sense, leaving Iraq, to the extent we do, is not quite as significant a matter as sometimes imagined, strategically speaking. It’s not as if the U.S. military were taking off for Dubuque.

A history of American withdrawal would prove a brief book indeed. Other than Vietnam, the U.S. military withdrew from the Philippines under the pressure of “people power” (and a local volcano) in the early 1990s, and from Saudi Arabia, in part under the pressure of Osama bin Laden. In both countries, however, it has retained or regained a foothold in recent years. President Ronald Reagan pulled American troops out of Lebanon after a devastating 1983 suicide truck bombing of a Marines barracks there, and the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, functionally expelled the U.S. from Manta Air Base in 2008 when he refused to renew its lease. (“We’ll renew the base on one condition: that they let us put a base in Miami — an Ecuadorian base,” he said slyly.) And there were a few places like the island of Grenada, invaded in 1983, that simply mattered too little to Washington to stay.

Unfortunately, whatever the administration, the urge to stay has seemed a constant. It’s evidently written into Washington’s DNA and embedded deep in domestic politics where sure-to-come “cut and run” charges and blame for “losing” Iraq or Afghanistan would cow any administration. Not surprisingly, when you look behind the main news stories in both Iraq and Afghanistan, you can see signs of the urge to stay everywhere.

In Iraq, while President Obama has committed himself to the withdrawal of American troops by the end of 2011, plenty of wiggle room remains. Already, the New York Times reports, General Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in that country, is lobbying Washington to establish “an Office of Military Cooperation within the American Embassy in Baghdad to sustain the relationship after… Dec. 31, 2011.” (“We have to stay committed to this past 2011,” Odierno is quoted as saying. “I believe the administration knows that. I believe that they have to do that in order to see this through to the end. It’s important to recognize that just because U.S. soldiers leave, Iraq is not finished.”)

If you want a true gauge of American withdrawal, keep your eye on the mega-bases the Pentagon has built in Iraq since 2003, especially gigantic Balad Air Base (since the Iraqis will not, by the end of 2011, have a real air force of their own), and perhaps Camp Victory, the vast, ill-named U.S. base and command center abutting Baghdad International Airport on the outskirts of the capital. Keep an eye as well on the 104-acre U.S. embassy built along the Tigris River in downtown Baghdad. At present, it’s the largest “embassy” on the planet and represents something new in “diplomacy,” being essentially a military-base-cum-command-and-control-center for the region. It is clearly going nowhere, withdrawal or not.

In fact, recent reports indicate that in the near future “embassy” personnel, including police trainers, military officials connected to that Office of Coordination, spies, U.S. advisors attached to various Iraqi ministries, and the like, may be more than doubled from the present staggering staff level of 1,400 to 3,000 or above. (The embassy, by the way, has requested $1,875 billion for its operations in fiscal year 2011, and that was assuming a staffing level of only 1,400.) Realistically, as long as such an embassy remains at Ground Zero Iraq, we will not have withdrawn from that country.

Similarly, we have a giant U.S. embassy in Kabul (being expanded) and another mega-embassy being built in the Pakistani capital Islamabad. These are not, rest assured, signs of departure. Nor is the fact that in Afghanistan and Pakistan, everything war-connected seems to be surging, even if in ways often not noticed here. President Obama’s surge decision has been described largely in terms of those 30,000-odd extra troops he’s sending in, not in terms of the shadow army of 30,000 or more extra private contractors taking on various military roles (and dying off the books in striking numbers); nor the extra contingent of CIA types and the escalating drone war they are overseeing in the Pakistani tribal borderlands; nor the quiet doubling of Special Operations units assigned to hunt down the Taliban leadership; nor the extra State department officials for the “civilian surge”; nor, for instance, the special $10 million “pool” of funds that up to 120 U.S. Special Operations forces, already in those borderlands training the paramilitary Pakistani Frontier Corps, may soon have available to spend “winning hearts and minds.”

Perhaps it’s historically accurate to say that great powers generally leave home, head elsewhere armed to the teeth, and then experience the urge to stay. With our trillion-dollar-plus wars and yearly trillion-dollar-plus national-security budget, there’s a lot at stake in staying, and undoubtedly in fighting two, three, many Afghanistans (and Iraqs) in the years to come.

Sooner or later, we will leave both Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s too late in the history of this planet to occupy them forever and a day. Better sooner.

Tom Engelhardt runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”).

12-19

The Pakistani (Acting) Consul General For the West Coast of the United States

May 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Geoffrey Cook, MMNS

Muhammad Khalid Ejaz

Los Angeles–April 10th–My last two articles came out of a discussion with the Indian (former) Ambassador to Afghanistan.  I was fortunate to hear a speech of the (Acting) Consul-General of Pakistan to the Western United State at the South Asian Studies Association (S.A.S.A) banquet here at U.S.C. (the University of Southern California).  His comments balanced those of Ambassador Maukapadya in Berkeley a month before.

Dr. Ejaz stated that Pakistan was the fifth most populous country in the world, but because of political disruptions over the land, (there has not been an accurate census since 1991, but it is safe to say that in early 1994, the inhabitants of Pakistan were appropriately estimated at 126 million, making it the ninth most populous country in the world although its land area, however, ranks thirty-second among nations.  Thus, Pakistan, then, had about 2 percent of the world’s population living on less than 0.7 percent of the world’s land. The population growth rate is among the world’s highest, officially assessed at 3.1 percent per annum, but privately considered to be closer to 3.3 percent for each year. Pakistan is assumed to have reached 150 million citizens ten years ago, and to have contributed to 4 percent of the world’s growth which is predicted to double by 2022.)  All this past paragraph demonstrates is that the  Consul-General’s approximation of Pakistan’s place in population today in relation to the demographics of the world probably is close to correct.

Strategically, his nation is at the intersection of four vital locales to the U.S. and to the developing world.  That is both Central and South Asia, and the Middle East and with China on its border connected by the Karkoram Highway.  Several of these regions are either oil/gas rich, or require Pakistan’s help to transport this energy to their ever-expanding economies.

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, Rawapindi was America’s most allied of (trusted) allies.  Now, NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) fulfills that function for Washington. 

In the 1980s, the two countries joined forces to help defeat the Russians in Afghanistan, but the District of Columbia deserted not only the Pakistanis, (but the Afghani and foreign fighters in the Hindu Kush Mountains. With the retreat of the Russians, and the collapse of their empire [the U.S.S.R, or [the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic], and [the whole “Second World” with it]), a five-way Civil War developed in Afghanistan, and eventually the rise of Taliban.) 

Thus, (your author consigns the blame the roots of 9/11 on the Reagan Administration ill-advised policy of not providing development aid and skills to Afghanistan and Pakistan.  This, in turn, has lead to our current War in the Pakistani-Afghanistani Mountains.  That is why your writer designates Reagan to have been one of the worst of American Presidents instead of one of the best which the vulgar declare him to be in the Metropole [the Center of Empire] here.  Besides Washington’s airport being named after, there is a movement to put his face on the fifty dollar bill!).

After the ninth of 9th of September 2001 Islamabad was (forced) to become a front line State once again.  Ejaz asserted our allied relationship with the U.S.A. should evolve into a more equitable one.  We should have a “normalized” relationship with both those in the West, (and with the Taliban)!

We (Pakistan) are, also, under the threat of terrorism whose roots reside along the Durand Line.  It is a porous border that dives a subnationality (the Pashtoons) that should have a right to regularly cross that frontier to visit their relatives on the other side!  We cannot seal the borderland where the tribes exist in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.  It is true, though, many things that happen on the Afghani side of the border deeply impact the Northwest Frontier Provinces.

With this porous borderland, there are fighters who cross into our country for sanctuary.  Thus, despite the West’s accusations, Rawalpindi has suffered high casualties!  Muhammad Khalid Ejaz called on the U.S.A. to become more involved with development in the Af-Pak territories.  There is a serious problem between Pakistan and India, too, over water rights; the great powers could help negotiate this.  Still, Pakistan, as a nuclear power, has issues with nuclear India.  He affirmed that Kashmir can be settled!

He concluded that the U.S.A. has a role in the Afghan conflict, but the tribes have to have their traditional rights of cross-border movement.

12-19

Bottled Water Sales Banned at Ottawa Campus

May 3, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Emily Chung, CBC News

Thirsty students won’t be able to buy bottled water from vending machines, food outlets or stores at the University of Ottawa starting Sept. 1.

That is when a ban on the sale of bottled water goes into effect across campus, the university announced Wednesday, the eve of Earth Day.

Pierre De Gagné, assistant director of engineering and sustainable development at the University of Ottawa’s infrastructure department, said the move is intended to encourage students to drink free, healthy tap water and reduce plastic bottle waste.

Michèle Lamarche, vice-president of student affairs at the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa, said the move was largely driven by students, who have been working with the university to bring in the ban for more than a year.

Contract issues

Initially, she said, the university was concerned about upgrades to water fountains that would need to be made, as well as contracts with food services and vending machine companies that sell bottled water.

Many food outlets on campus didn’t even have water fountains nearby, she said.

Bottled water bans

In 2009, the University of Winnipeg, Memorial University in St. John’s, and Brandon University in Manitoba all announced they were banning bottled water sales on campus.

The University of Ottawa says it is the first university in Ontario to do so. Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., announced earlier in April that it will phase in a bottled water sale ban as it renegotiates food and vending machine contracts over the next few years.

Twenty universities in Ontario participated in Bottled Water-Free Day on March 11.

“Why have a water fountain outside when they can get people to buy the water bottle inside?” she asked.

De Gagné said he was surprised how quickly the university’s food services staff managed to renegotiate with their suppliers to drop bottled water.

“It all happened through a lot of good will, I guess, and a lot of long-range thinking.”

He did not know the details of the renegotiated deals.

In preparation for the ban, the university said, it has spent more than $100,000 since 2008 to improve the availability of tap water by:

* Adding goose necks to about 75 water fountains to make it easier to fill reusable bottles.
* Installing new fountains near food service outlets.
* Upgrading existing fountains with features including wheelchair accessibility, stronger pressure and better refrigeration.

Lamarche said the student federation is also doing its part by giving away hundreds of reusable bottles. It will also be selling the reusable bottles at the student-run convenience store for around the same price as a regular disposable bottle of water. And it will be installing a bank of water fountains with goose necks in the store itself.

Maps, signage on the way

Both the student federation and the university are working on maps and signage similar to washroom signage to indicate where water fountains are located. Neither Lamarche nor De Gagné thought students thought the ban would encourage thirsty students to choose pop instead of water.

“It won’t reside anymore in the same machine as pop, but it won’t be far away,” De Gagné said.

Lamarche said drinking water issues are very personal for her because she is an archeology student who spends her summers working in the Middle East. There, drinking water isn’t readily available, she said.

“The more we buy bottled water in North America, the more we say it’s OK to charge people for something that should be free or really really cheap,” she said. “And then governments say why do we have to worry about water infrastructure if they can buy water?”

12-18

The Legacy of Lunch

April 22, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent

lunch%20tray For the past couple of months now I have been intrigued with an anonymous blog project based in America that has captured the imagination of countless Internet users. The topic of the blog is school lunches in America and the blogger is a schoolteacher that masks her identity for fear of losing her job. Every day, she shares the food that not only her students are eating but what she is eating herself in the school cafeteria. The blog, Fed Up With School Lunch, has ignited a rallying cry that stretches clean across the globe with teachers in countries like Korea and France chiming in to share their school lunch victories and disasters. Most notably, the blog highlights the poor quality of food served in most American schools and the lack of nutrition to sustain students.

What strikes me the most about the project is not the fact that American kids are eating a ton of processed foods intermingled with a mere sprinkling of fresh fruits and vegetables, but the fact that kids in the USA are actually served lunch every day whereas my own children in the Middle East are not offered any form of lunch in their schools whatsoever. In fact, the vast majority of schools in Kuwait don’t offer hot or even cold lunches. And vending machines are absolutely nowhere to be found on school campuses. Most parents send their kids a packed lunch, usually potato chips or chocolate and Pepsi. Some don’t even send lunch at all. And what’s worse is that there is not an allocated time slot for lunch in most schools in Kuwait, so many children bring their lunches back home with them or eat while they are studying.

Kuwait is not the only Gulf country lacking when it comes to school lunches. Even wealthy Arab neighbors like Dubai have a school system that rarely serves lunch. Parents are left to monitor their own children’s nutrition at lunchtime with zero support from the faculty at their school. The biggest problem for parents of school-aged children in the Gulf region is a lack of proper nutritional information. In a recent survey that I conducted in my own daughter’s 3rd grade class, a whopping 90% of children had been given junk food for their lunch with only a handful of children having a healthy lunch and an equal number having no lunch at all.

The price for the ‘rubbish’ lunches, as my hero/cooking guru Jamie Oliver would say, is more and more children in Kuwait are battling obesity before they even reach puberty. The Ministry of Health in Kuwait has recently projected that the rate of diabetes amongst children in Kuwait is set to double in the coming years. And, so far, no one is doing anything about it.

So no matter which way you, slice, dice or reheat it, the legacy of lunch is something that affects children from all walks of life and in every region of the world. It’s up to adults to make the right food decisions for the younger generations, and win the battle over lunch once and for all.

12-17

Kuwait Exposed

April 15, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS

ScreenShot003 Keeping secrets is a centuries-old ritual that typically occurs between friends and foes alike, held in a sacred trust that is often dependent upon just how juicy the ‘dirt’ is you have on one another. By definition, a secret is simply something that you don’t want someone else to know. Unfortunately, most people spill their secrets to a trusted friend or confidant and often find that the secret is not always kept in the confidence it was intended. If the secret revelations of some high-profile celebrities splashed all over the news in recent months is any indicator, the leaking of other people’s dirty laundry is big business.

Despite the conservative nature of the Middle East, most of the populace has just as many secrets as their western counterparts do. However, the spillage of secrets in the Middle East is not as ‘foot loose and fancy free’ as it is in the West. Certain secrets can land people in the slammer or worse. So, for many, they have little choice but to keep their secrets tucked safely inside where they slowly eat away at their very core.

For this reason alone, a string of secret exposing and tattle-telling websites have popped up on Kuwait-operated servers to help people in the tiny Gulf state clear out whatever skeletons they have lurking in their closet. The most recent website called ‘Kuwait Exposed’ was launched this past week. The website is very simplistic in nature, as minimalist as it is supposedly confidential. No one really knows the face, or faces, behind it. And the website’s mission statement leaves everything to the imagination, albeit in very questionable English, “Think of this place as a confession box, a place where you can share whatever you cant share out there in the real world. No one will know you, but you’ll get that junk of trash out of your mind. Sometimes things cant be shared with no one, its hard to, feel free to share whatever on your mind on here, this is our confession box. Let go on now, throw it all up!”

A foray into the posts is quite revealing and a bit painful as human tragedy is brought up close and personal. There is something a bit disconcerting about reading about the deep dark secrets of others. One anonymous poster shares, “Like every high school, there are always the girls who gossip and spread harsh rumors. Well, I was one of them and ruined someone’s high school days. She was practically the most beautiful girl on campus, with the most awkward personality among the other girls. With only one of two friends, she occasionally kept to herself and could be called a loner. I was envious of her beauty, and decided to make up the most random and crazy rumors which were mere lies concerning her having relationships with boys, even girls. Then on, she was the talk of the school. Fingers were pointed at her all the time. I always wondered if she ever questioned the origins of these lies.” There are dozens of entries that have already been shared, with romance and bitter scorn making up the bulk of posts.

Some critics of the new website has lambasted it as a mere imitation of another Kuwait-based website called Post Secret Kuwait, where users can send in their secrets on digital or real (delivered by mail) postcards. Others have said they detect a similar writing trend by most of the posters thus accusing Kuwait Exposed of being a scam. Quite notably the website administration issued this statement earlier in the week, “Thank you to every one who criticized us, either positively or negatively, we appreciate every word you guys said about us no matter how harsh or judgmental it was, we believe and respect different opinions, and we are open to hear any more future critiques.”

The website has gotten off to a running start thanks to some local bloggers in Kuwait helping it get off the ground. In it’s first week, Kuwait Exposed racked up over 10,000 hits. Looks like exposing secrets, in Kuwait at least, just might be the new national pastime.

12-16

Indispensable IslamOnline Must Not Fail

April 15, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Ramzy Baroud, Countercurrents.org

A widely popular Islamic website has been, until very recently, an undisputed success story. IslamOnline arrived at a time that millions of Muslims needed a common platform and a unifying outlet. Here was a website that neither shunned nor alienated. Its influence was upbeat and positive, rather than destructive or divisive. While it wasn’t an apologetic outlet, it reached out to patiently and progressively present Islam and Muslim issues to the world. These were understood and communicated by hundreds of scholars and qualified journalists, who toiled day and night from their Cairo offices.

Then something happened to abruptly bring the noble mission to an end. The success story suddenly became a terrible nightmare for hundreds of IslamOnline’s principled employees. The website (IslamOnline.net) remained online, but it was barely updated. Instead, videos were circulated on youtube, showing tired-looking IslamOnline staff chanting in the lobby of their building in Cairo. They were demanding the return of their editorial freedom and rights. They were calling for justice. These bright journalists, some of the finest in the region, should have been sitting behind their computers screens writing, editing and managing ‘live dialogues’ between inquisitive readers and learned scholars. Instead they were seated on the floor with signs and banners, shouting in coarse voices.

Something had gone horribly wrong.

Hadeel al-Shalchi tried to explain in a recent Associated Press report: “The Qatari government has forced out the moderate leadership of a popular Islamic Web site and plans to reshape it into a more religiously conservative outlet, former employees of the site said.”

According to the AP report, “The site was thrown into turmoil…when the owners attempted to change its approach, prompting 350 of its workers in Cairo to go on strike. Management in Doha then cut off their access to the site and have been updating it with news articles but not the diverse content IslamOnline is known for, said the former employees.”

IslamOnline is funded by al-Balagh, a Doha-based company. Al-Balagh was headed by well-respected Sheik Youssef al-Qaradawi, a most sensible and judicious religious authority. He is known, and much liked, for his progressive views on Islam. Al-Qaradawi is also very popular among Muslims around the world, not least because of his daring political views, his strong anti-war, pro-resistance stances and moral clarity on many issues. In short, al-Qaradawi is the antithesis of religious clerics who would do as they are told.

A striking IslamOnline editor described to me how the crisis developed. It sounded something similar to a coup: the Sheik was removed from al-Balagh, the site’s directors were relegated, a new management was installed (in fact imposed), and even the website passwords were changed so that employees could no longer access it. Devastated and enraged by the unwarranted moves, about 350 employees went on strike – only to find themselves subject to legal investigation by some company lawyers for exercising what is universally accepted as a fundamental right. The editor tells me that they were harshly criticized in particular for their uncompromisingly courageous coverage on Palestine and Gaza. Indeed, IslamOnline had worked tirelessly to bring greater awareness of the struggle in Palestine, to Muslim and non-Muslim readers alike.

Following the tragic events of September 11, few websites have played the vital role that IslamOnline has. Its editors did not serve the cause of fanatics, with their dreadful interpretation of the world and themselves, and nor did they adopt the mouthpiece position in favor of Arab governments. Equally important, they did not try to falsify a ‘moderate’ position to please any government – Arab or any other. Instead, they truly reflected and genuinely expressed the views of mainstream Muslims from all walks of life, and from all over the world. It was truly an impressive feat to see such an independent editorial line emerging from one Arab capital and largely funded by another.

But it seemed too good to be true – thus the terrible, chaotic and devastating changes that brought this vital to a standstill. The very means of presenting an eloquent Muslim voice to the world has been threatened.

The story of IslamOnline is being presented as that between rival Arabs: governments, groups and individuals. Reductionist terminologies– such as conservatives vs. moderates – are once again permeating the often predictable Middle East discourse. Many questions still remain unanswered.

In fact, the story of IslamOnline pertains more to media freedom and editorial independence in Arab countries than much of the above. The struggle is between the self-serving politicking few, and hundreds of media professionals – brilliant and inspiring young women and men who made up the staff at IslamOnline. For them, IslamOnline was not just another job. It was a mission, a calling even, and millions of readers around the world appreciated their work, every word of it.
One can only hope that IslamOnline will find its way back, with its current employees and current editorial line intact. The success story must not be allowed to end. Individual ambitions cannot stand in the way of this rare generational mission that is now simply indispensable.
- Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story” (Pluto Press, London), now available on Amazon.com.

Examining the Evil Eye

April 8, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent

hamsa_pattern002
The hamsa (also called a hamesh, Hand of Fatima, Hand of Miriam, or Hand of God) is an ancient Middle Eastern symbol for protection from the evil eye.

You woke up to a flat tire in the morning. You spilled a steaming hot coffee on your leg on your morning drive to work. A large tree branch fell on you as you took a stroll on a sidewalk. Most people would chalk these events up to mere coincidence or simply a bout of bad luck. But a trip across the ocean to the Middle East reveals that it is a whole other ball game.

Often labeled ‘fatalists’ by the heavily biased western media it’s true that most Muslims in the Middle East,as well as the rest of the world, put their lives wholeheartedly in the hands of God. However, for Arab Muslims there is an equally intense belief in the ‘evil eye’ and a plethora of preventative measures to ward it off, depending on the culture. In a nutshell, the evil eye basically means that someone covets something that you have and thus taints it. Soon after you, or the aforementioned item, typically faces some sort of calamity. It’s not uncommon for every ill to befall someone to be intensely scrutinized to find the exact moment that the evil eye contaminated it.

For this reason, amulets of various sorts adorn objects that would otherwise be left ‘unprotected’. It’s not uncommon to see brand new, or even passably nice, sports cars with decals in Arabic that read, “In the name of God” or “Praise God”. Other places for the amulets to reside include the front doors of apartments and mansions, sometimes in every room of the house. Even newborn babies often are adorned with a small gold brooch on their night suits with the words “In the Name of God” before they are brought out to visitors. The concept is to basically ensure that someone recognizes the gift the person possesses as coming from God before they can desire it.

To the person unfamiliar with Islam, it might seem like a whole lot of hocus-pocus. But the evil eye is a reality that is mentioned in the Holy Quran and something that the Prophet Muhammad (s) himself was very well acquainted with. The recommendation from the Sunnah of Muhammad (s) is to recite certain verses from the Holy Quran and to pray for sincere protection from God Almighty. For many Muslims, just the thought of the evil eye is enough to send a cold shudder right down the spine.

As a result, some clever opportunists have seized the opportunity to make a profit off the fear and suffering of others. In most of the Gulf countries there exists some people, who by all appearances are extremely religious, who claim to be specialists in treating the effects of the evil eye. Many offer their services albeit for a price. Most charge cash money for reciting verses of the Holy Quran over the afflicted person while others will recite the Quran for free so long as the person purchases one of their homemade homeopathic remedies. Since the belief in the evil eye is so widespread, and the people seeking to profit from it even wider, authorities can not do much to eradicate the supposed remedy which is often much more evil than the cause.

12-15

Economist Tallies Rising Cost of Israel on US Taxpayers

April 8, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By David R. Francis, Christian Science Monitor

Since 1973, Israel has cost the United States about $1.6 trillion. If divided by today’s population, that is more than $5,700 per person.

This is an estimate by Thomas Stauffer, a consulting economist in Washington. For decades, his analyses of the Middle East scene have made him a frequent thorn in the side of the Israel lobby.

For the first time in many years, Mr. Stauffer has tallied the total cost to the US of its backing of Israel in its drawn-out, violent dispute with the Palestinians. So far, he figures, the bill adds up to more than twice the cost of the Vietnam War.

And now Israel wants more. In a meeting at the White House late last month, Israeli officials made a pitch for $4 billion in additional military aid to defray the rising costs of dealing with the intifada and suicide bombings. They also asked for more than $8 billion in loan guarantees to help the country’s recession-bound economy.

Considering Israel’s deep economic troubles, Stauffer doubts the Israel bonds covered by the loan guarantees will ever be repaid. The bonds are likely to be structured so they don’t pay interest until they reach maturity. If Stauffer is right, the US would end up paying both principal and interest, perhaps 10 years out.
Israel’s request could be part of a supplemental spending bill that’s likely to be passed early next year, perhaps wrapped in with the cost of a war with Iraq.

Israel is the largest recipient of US foreign aid. It is already due to get $2.04 billion in military assistance and $720 million in economic aid in fiscal 2003. It has been getting $3 billion a year for years.

Adjusting the official aid to 2001 dollars in purchasing power, Israel has been given $240 billion since 1973, Stauffer reckons. In addition, the US has given Egypt $117 billion and Jordan $22 billion in foreign aid in return for signing peace treaties with Israel.

“Consequently, politically, if not administratively, those outlays are part of the total package of support for Israel,” argues Stauffer in a lecture on the total costs of US Middle East policy, commissioned by the US Army War College, for a recent conference at the University of Maine.

These foreign-aid costs are well known. Many Americans would probably say it is money well spent to support a beleagured democracy of some strategic interest. But Stauffer wonders if Americans are aware of the full bill for supporting Israel since some costs, if not hidden, are little known.

One huge cost is not secret. It is the higher cost of oil and other economic damage to the US after Israel-Arab wars.

In 1973, for instance, Arab nations attacked Israel in an attempt to win back territories Israel had conquered in the 1967 war. President Nixon resupplied Israel with US arms, triggering the Arab oil embargo against the US.

That shortfall in oil deliveries kicked off a deep recession. The US lost $420 billion (in 2001 dollars) of output as a result, Stauffer calculates. And a boost in oil prices cost another $450 billion.

Afraid that Arab nations might use their oil clout again, the US set up a Strategic Petroleum Reserve. That has since cost, conservatively, $134 billion, Stauffer reckons.

Other US help includes:

• US Jewish charities and organizations have remitted grants or bought Israel bonds worth $50 billion to $60 billion. Though private in origin, the money is “a net drain” on the United States economy, says Stauffer.

• The US has already guaranteed $10 billion in commercial loans to Israel, and $600 million in “housing loans.” (See editor’s note below.) Stauffer expects the US Treasury to cover these.

• The US has given $2.5 billion to support Israel’s Lavi fighter and Arrow missile projects.

• Israel buys discounted, serviceable “excess” US military equipment. Stauffer says these discounts amount to “several billion dollars” over recent years.

• Israel uses roughly 40 percent of its $1.8 billion per year in military aid, ostensibly earmarked for purchase of US weapons, to buy Israeli-made hardware. It also has won the right to require the Defense Department or US defense contractors to buy Israeli-made equipment or subsystems, paying 50 to 60 cents on every defense dollar the US gives to Israel.

US help, financial and technical, has enabled Israel to become a major weapons supplier. Weapons make up almost half of Israel’s manufactured exports. US defense contractors often resent the buy-Israel requirements and the extra competition subsidized by US taxpayers.

• US policy and trade sanctions reduce US exports to the Middle East about $5 billion a year, costing 70,000 or so American jobs, Stauffer estimates. Not requiring Israel to use its US aid to buy American goods, as is usual in foreign aid, costs another 125,000 jobs.

• Israel has blocked some major US arms sales, such as F-15 fighter aircraft to Saudi Arabia in the mid-1980s. That cost $40 billion over 10 years, says Stauffer.

Stauffer’s list will be controversial. He’s been assisted in this research by a number of mostly retired military or diplomatic officials who do not go public for fear of being labeled anti-Semitic if they criticize America’s policies toward Israel.

12-15

It’s All in the Bag

April 1, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

handbag Already set to celebrate her ten year anniversary, savvy Lebanese businesswoman Sarah Beydoun has dedicated her life creating a happy medium of harmony between her social activism beliefs and her love of fashion. Through her business, “Sarah’s Bags”, she has found a way to use her skills as an artisan to make a difference in the lives of both the rich and the poor, annihilating social stigmas all along the way.

Born and bred in Lebanon, Beydoun’s modus operandi is none other than most women’s most coveted accessory, the handbag. After writing her thesis about the plight of female Lebanese prisoners languishing in prisons for some of the most heinous crimes, Beydoun recognized an opportunity to make an impact in their lives. She spent some time on the ‘inside’ of a rehab center for female convicts and got up close and personal with their daily struggles. It would be that first encounter that would set the future path for Beydoun and what would become her life’s purpose in “Sarah’s Bags”.

Beydoun sought out her own potential seamstresses in some of the toughest prisons and rehab facilities in Lebanon to create the bags, even teaching inmates how to embroider and sew beads herself. She also reached out to the poorest of the poor in Lebanon’s rural areas to give those women a chance to have a better future. “Sarah’s Bags” currently employs 100 designers who create its entire line of haute couture quality purses.

As Beydoun admits herself, each bag carries with it just a little bit of the impoverished or imprisoned woman who created it. The designs range from glittering spectacles of bling wear to socially aware pieces, like the ones featuring high ranking celebrities like Lebanese singers and even a queen or two. And the results have been outstanding and certainly a surprise to Beydoun. Everyone from top celebrities to the richest elite has clamored to have their own bag.

“Sarah’s Bags” can be found all over the Middle East and in Europe gracing the shelves of the most select boutiques. A single bag starts at $400, with more detailed bags fetching a handsome ransom. The company has also expanded over the years to include everything from shoes to belts to custom-designer jewelry and scarves.

Seeking to mark her tenth anniversary in style, Beydoun plans to handpick ten women to use her purses as their own personal canvas. Each woman will be allowed to share her personal trials and tribulations right on the handbag. In some small measure, they can use the power of the purse to let their voices be heard.

The awards and accolades Beydoun has begun collecting have been quite notable. Most recently, Beydoun’s line of socially aware purses were featured in Washington D.C. as part of the Kennedy Center’s International Festival. The future looks bright for Beydoun as an eager buzz, stretching clean across the globe, surrounds her company. However, the designer remains true to her roots promising to make employing less fortunate women the lifeblood of her company.

12-14

OpEd–An Insulting Comment

April 1, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Geoffrey Cook, MMNS

I was very surprised to find a reference to my work while “googling” to see if a certain academic piece of mine was online, for I wished to make a reference to it, but I discovered, in the internet edition of Outlook India of August 27th 2007 (http://www. outlookindia/article.aspx?23514), I found an unflattering reference to myself.  In an interactive comment at the bottom of a travel article on Kashmir, “Eden’s Secret” by Parvaz Bukhavi, there was an attack not only on me,  but another American academic and three leading progressives in India.  To quote the comment by a Mr. Varun Shekkar of Toronto Ontario in Canada:

“Articles like this [it happened to be an apolitical travel piece] should give lie to Kashmiri separatists, but to their supporters across the border [i.e., Pakistan], and their vulgar sympathizers in the international media like Eric Margolis and Geoffrey Cook(!)..”  The interactive commentator goes on to say because of the comparative peacefulness of the region of Gurais in the (Indian, sic.[!]) State, “…the…Kashmiri movement is not a province-wide struggle against ‘Indian rule’…a strong rebuff to the likes of Arundhati Roy, Praful Bidwai and Nandita Haksar.”

Thank you, Mr. Shekkar, for including me in such a stellar array of fighters for human rights!  I am a great admirer of Mr. Margolis, but the Ms. and Mr. Roy, Bidwai and Haksar are, also, Indian citizens, and they are courageous individuals for speaking criticizing their own country’s policies when  those procedures are wrong!  I am afraid my name should not be listed with these brave and learned individuals, but I am glad at least someone is reading my works – even my critics!

For me this insult is praise!  From time to time I receive such “compliments” in the press and listservs.  That is one of the drawbacks for “opinion makers,” such as journalists politicians and other  individuals who expose their necks to the public.

Kashmir, after Palestine, is the most burning political issue within the Islamic world currently, for both sides of the argument are nuclear powers, and they almost came to explosive fisticuffs in 2001-2002 which would have killed and maimed hundreds of millions of human souls if not for the diplomatic skills of Perez Musharaf!
I do not wish to go over the recommendations that I made to the United States State Department through an elected Congressional official with whom I worked with on the conundrum and the United Nations — at their request. Because my scenario depends upon one step following after another, an order which is not the way how negotiations work – which are fraught with compromises, I shall not go into my suggestions as a whole.  Kashmir is a resolvable situation, though, but the problem lies within the Government buildings in New Delhi.

The Simla Agreement, where it was agreed that India and Pakistan would work out “outstanding differences bilaterally” without third party interference, has been unworkable!  Third parties (major extra-regional powers?) are needed – especially for shuttle diplomacy.

There is a fair enough chance that India’s right-wing political party, the BJP, who almost brought the region to catastrophe during the first year of this millennium, might be able to form a coalition after the next general election.

Kashmir can be settled, and it must be!  The sooner the better because of the  changing political landscape in South Asia  (Pakistan, too, is in danger that the struggle in the Northwest Frontier Provinces (N.W.P.)will descend into urban regions and their hinterlands there). 

The Arabian Sea area, which borders South Asia, portions of the Middle East and East Africa, does not only have a nuclear threat from Southern Asia but from the United States, France and Israel from  their nuclear missiles within their submarines which regularly prowl the vastness of that Sea.  The quandary lies not only with the Indo-Pak rivalry over Kashmir, but the other powers as well within that wide maritime territory.  The goal should be a nuclear-free zone in the expanse of that ocean and its surrounding nations!

The first step, though, is that Islamabad and New Delhi should begin consultations without preconditions!

12-14

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

Sukuk Market Starved of Benchmark Sovereign

March 25, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Carolyn Cohn and Shaheen Pasha

LONDON/DUBAI, March 23 (Reuters) – Sovereign borrowing still eludes the Islamic bond, or sukuk, market, leaving investors hungry for a benchmark issue to reinvigorate trading after the credit crunch and the Dubai World crisis.

Where issuance from euro zone and emerging market borrowers in 2010 has been fast and furious, with emerging market borrowers alone issuing over $50 billion, there have been no sovereign sukuk issues at all.

Only one international sukuk has been issued so far this year, a $450 million Islamic bond for Saudi property developer Dar al-Arkan.

A resolution of debt woes at state-owned Dubai World, the mounting of domestic regulatory hurdles for issuers and improved liquidity could bring sovereigns to the sukuk market from around the third quarter.

But for now borrowers have been deterred by thin trading, the extra premium which borrowers have to pay to attract investors into this relatively small and specialist market, question marks over sovereign guarantees and regulatory conundrums.

“There is genuine need for issuance,” said Muneer Khan, partner and head of Islamic finance at law firm Simmons & Simmons in Dubai.

“Government-related issuances and good credit corporate issuances can often open the gates for further corporates.”

A sukuk is similar to a bond but complies with Islamic law, which prohibits the charging or payment of interest.

The typical path for any debt market is that the initial borrowers are sovereigns, seen as relatively risk-free, followed by state-owned entities, and then by corporate borrowers who will offer a higher yield.

“If sovereigns get deals away at a certain level, corporates should trade 30-40-50 basis points above,” said a London-based Islamic finance specialist.

But without sovereign deals, it is hard for corporates to follow.

The Philippines last week shelved plans for a debut sukuk issue, citing legal hurdles.

Indonesia, which has previously issued in the sukuk market, has no plans to issue again before September.

Gulf borrowers such as Bahrain and Dubai have also previously issued sukuk. But trading is weak after the shock payment standstill on Dubai World debt, which includes Islamic debt, and other defaults in a market once boasting a zero default rate.

In addition, the lack of a government guarantee for some state-owned Dubai World debt came as a shock to many investors.

Sukuk prices are generally trading below par and the market is highly illiquid, market participants say, even as benchmark emerging sovereign debt spreads are trading at their tightest over U.S. Treasuries in nearly two years.

Global sukuk issuance is likely to range between $15-17 billion in 2010, down from $19 billion last year, a recent Reuters poll shows. Currently even those forecasts look ambitious — in 2009, nearly all sukuk issues were made by states and quasi-sovereign entities.

“The sukuk market has been doubly affected by the downturn and the situation in the Middle East, so people are not pushing ahead — it’s not an easy market for a first-time borrower,” said Farmida Bi, partner at law firm Norton Rose in London.

European sovereigns have failed to issue any sukuk at all.

The UK was at the forefront of plans for sukuk issuance, and has the legal framework in place. But its original plans coincided with the outbreak of the global financial crisis, and the country has since saddled itself with huge amounts of debt.

“The reality is that the UK government has to fund a 178 billion pound ($266 billion) deficit,” said the Islamic finance specialist.

“To come to the market with a $500 million to $1.0 billion sukuk is not the highest on their priority list.”

France was also hoping to issue a sukuk but has become bogged down in legal changes, and market participants say sukuk issuance in countries such as Turkey remains some way off.

However, there are a few signs of light.

Investors are awaiting a restructuring any day of $26 billion in Dubai World debt, which will draw a line under the four-month old problem.

“The more positive news that comes for resolutions, the better,” said Khan. “It can’t hinder further issuances, but it could help.”

Sovereigns such as Jordan and Kazakhstan have said they want to issue sukuk for the first time, although there is no set timing.

And as markets around the world recover, led by emerging debt which is seeing strong demand, sukuk could yet attract investors.

According to a Gulf regional banker at a major investment bank: “The sukuk market is a natural follower of the debt capital markets and we’re starting to see more activity there. There is liquidity in the bond market.”

12-13

Marriage 101

March 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

The wedding-cake-recipe-ideas divorce date, in the Middle East, has spiked considerably over the past few years, which has sounded the alarm for many of the conservative Islamic governments. In Saudi Arabia, the rate of divorce has escalated by almost 15% from 2008 to 2009. And in Kuwait, the divorce rate has skyrocketed to a whopping 187% over the last 23 years making it the highest rate of divorce in the entire world according to recent statistics released by the government. Most countries in the Middle East take a backseat role when it comes to divorce, leaving couples to figure it out for themselves. However, one country seeking to nip the notion of divorce in the bud, even prior to the marriage, is Iran.

Statistics on the Iranian divorce rate are sparse given the cultural and language chasm between the West and Iran, however a 1992 study by Sanasarian indicated that about 10% of Iranian marriages end in divorce (family.jrank.org), while according to divorcemag.com, less than 1 out of every 100 Iranian marriages end in divorce.

Regardless, Iran’s government-backed National Youth Organization has recently inaugurated its very first online pre-matrimonial course.  According to the group’s mission statement, the online course will seek to assist young Iranians in finding their perfect marital match while also maintaining strict Islamic values, which frowns upon premarital dating or relations of any kind. The organization also has high expectations, by educating Iranian youth prior to marriage, to cut Iran’s rate of divorce drastically.

The course is held, for free, in virtual classrooms online and lasts for 3 full months. Designed by top Iranian professionals and Islamic scholars, the course highlights the dangers of relationships out of wedlock and upholds arranged marriages as the best recipe for living happily ever after. Participants in the online course must also take a weekly test and, based on how well they do, will receive a diploma in the union of marriage.

However, since its inception, there is very little information known about the specifics of what the course teaches which has whipped critics into a frenzy. At the launch of the program a very general syllabus was released to the media, which provided more questions than answers. In a recent interview, well-known Iranian sociologist Shahla Ezazi said, “Awareness is fine but the question is what kind of a family they are seeking to promote.” In a blatant attempt to quell any controversy, the head of the National Youth Organization Mehrdad Bazrpash summated, “Marriage needs hundreds of hours of education.”

Iranian officials have also used the launch of the program as a soapbox to discourage harmful and extravagant practices when it comes to Iranian weddings, such as exorbitant dowries and expensive weddings that most families cannot afford. And to seal the deal in cementing the union of marriage, President Ahmadinejad has recently promised to give priority to employing newlyweds and providing affordable homes for recently married couples. Quite notably, the age in which Iranians now get married has increased exponentially due to financial circumstances and familial problems. For centuries, most Iranians would get married in their early twenties and today most Iranians marry in their late twenties or even early thirties. More and more couples in Iran are delaying their marriages indefinitely until the time is right or until they can afford to get married.

12-12

Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back

March 11, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent

kuwait28606_wideweb__470x311,0 The pages of history reveal the anguish, sweat and tears that women throughout the ages have suffered in winning suffrage rights from often male-dominated societies. Hard-fought, and eventually won, battles have been waged from the sunny coastlines of California all the way to the villages of France and back again. And, despite our extremely advanced technological age that has morphed the depths of our world into the palms of our hands, many women across the globe are still fighting for their rights.

One such country, where women have seen great progress in the area of women’s suffrage rights, is the tiny gulf State of Kuwait. Kuwaiti women won the right to vote and participate in parliamentary elections way back in 2005. However, it would take another 4 years for Kuwaiti women to circumvent political roadblocks intentionally put in their path and assert their right to participate in the inner workings of government. In 2009, Kuwaiti women cheered from their balconies and congregated in the streets to congratulate one another over no less than four Kuwaiti women being voted into the Kuwaiti parliament.

However, since that one sweet victory, women’s suffrage in Kuwait has come to a screeching halt. This past Monday, Kuwaiti women seized the opportunity of International Women’s Day to lodge a public complaint. The primary area of contention is the fact that Kuwaiti women are not allowed to become judges. And most are prevented from being promoted to higher positions in the government. Quite notably only 17 Kuwaiti women hold high-ranking government posts as opposed to 252 positions held by their male counterparts.

At a special symposium held to commemorate International Women’s Day in Kuwait, Kuwaiti women showed up in force to demand answers in an all too public forum. Kuwaiti women, ranging from lawyers to housewives, stood up to allow their voices to be heard. Gender discrimination was on the tip of all of the women’s tongues as the Kuwaiti government was branded too conservative and resistant to change. One speaker, a lawyer named Salwa al-Ajmi, told the symposium, “I have been working as a lawyer for the past 32 years but still I cannot become a judge. It is shameful that the government has accepted and signed international treaties banning discrimination against women and still bars females from becoming judges.”

The symposium also highlighted other areas where Kuwaiti females face gender discrimination and lack basic human rights which should be an embarrassment to a country that, at least on paper, purports to uphold the rights of women within its borders. For example, Kuwaiti women who choose to marry a non-Kuwaiti are legally barred from giving their children or even their husband the Kuwaiti nationality, which comes with countless financial perks and benefits from the government. Contrastingly, Kuwaiti males enjoy full nationality rights regardless of whom they marry. As a result, Kuwaiti women cannot receive a free home from the government or monthly social welfare payments for their children that, once again, Kuwaiti males benefit from.

All hope is not lost as a female member of parliament, MP Rula Dashti, used the symposium as an opportunity to announce her plans to draft a new gender equality bill that she will present at the next session of the Kuwaiti Parliament.  The timing could not be riper for Kuwaiti women to make headway with at least some of the rights they are after, as the Kuwaiti government is trying to amp up its global reputation as a beacon of human rights appreciation.

12-11

Celebrating Extraordinary Muslim Women

March 11, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

By Salma Hasan Ali

Washington, DC – On 10 March, three Muslim women will be honoured alongside philanthropist Melinda French Gates and human rights activists Panmelo Castro from Brazil and Rebecca Lolosoli from Kenya, by Vital Voices Global Partnership, a Washington, DC-based organisation that works to empower women around the world.

The need to recognise the work of Muslim women is important. Type the search terms “Muslim women” or “women in Islam” online and chances are that a majority of English-language hits will consist of stories relating to what Muslim women wear on their heads or how women in Muslim-majority countries are subjected to physical abuse, or subjugated under the false pretext of religious principle.

But there is another side to Muslim women that is too infrequently recognised, reported or discussed. The Vital Voices Global Partnership awards ceremony, taking pl ace two days after International Women’s Day, provides an opportunity to celebrate this not uncommon, yet too frequently overshadowed, side to Muslim women.

Andeisha Farid grew up in a refugee camp outside Afghanistan. As a teenager, she lived in a Pakistani hostel for six years, where she studied and tutored others. In 2008, at the age of 25, she started her own non-profit organisation, the Afghan Child Education and Care Organization (AFCECO), in Kabul. Today, AFCECO runs ten orphanages in Afghanistan and Pakistan for over 450 children of diverse ethnic backgrounds.

In a country where non-governmental organisations that work with women and girls are frequently targeted by religious extremists, Andeisha is constantly on guard. But she remains committed to providing Afghan children not only with food and shelter, but with a sense of mutual respect, regardless of ethnic differences, a feeling of khak – connection to the earth as their homeland – and a s ense of empowerment to shape their own future, and that of their country.

“The happy faces of these children give me hope,” she says. “It helps me conquer fear.”

Afnan Al Zayani is a wife, mother, social activist, television personality and CEO of a multi-million dollar business. It’s no wonder that Forbes and Arabian Business magazine call her one of the most powerful women in the Middle East. In addition, she helped ensure the first written personal status law that protects the rights of Muslim women in cases of divorce and child custody was passed in Bahrain.

She attributes her ability to juggle so many responsibilities to her strong faith. “God will judge us on whether we use our gifts of life and health towards good or evil,” she says. Immaculately dressed in her hijab, or headscarf, she shatters the Western stereotype of the downtrodden Muslim woman. Her guiding philosophy: “Live your life as if you will live forever; live yo ur day as if you will die tomorrow.”

Then there is Roshaneh Zafar. While studying development economics at Yale University in the United States, she came across the story of Khairoon, a woman in Bangladesh who owned only one sari. Khairoon borrowed $100 from the microfinance organisation Grameen Bank to invest in a business, and now owns a sweetshop, a poultry farm, a call centre – and a collection of colourful saris.

Roshaneh met Khairoon many years after her initial loan, and saw firsthand the miracle of microfinance in changing women’s lives. She decided to start a microfinance organisation in Pakistan called Kashf, which means “miracle”. It is now the third largest microfinance organisation in Pakistan, with 300,000 clients and a goal to reach more than half a million in the next four years.

Roshaneh’s message encapsulates the sentiment of many: “Women matter to the world. We need not accept the status quo. Freeing the world of poverty and disenfranchisement of women is possible. But it will only happen when 50 per cent of the world’s population is allowed to recognise its latent strength.”

It is these stories that must be reported, not only to herald the achievements of remarkable women, but to dispel falsely created perceptions of the role of Islam in defining the fate of Muslim women.

###

* Salma Hasan Ali is a Washington, DC-based writer focusing on promoting understanding between the West and the Muslim world. This article first appeared in Washington Post/Newsweek’s On Faith and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

12-11

The Road to Armageddon

March 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Paul Craig Roberts

Armageddon The Washington Times is a newspaper that looks with favor upon the Bush/Cheney/Obama/neocon wars of aggression in the Middle East and favors making terrorists pay for 9/11. Therefore, I was surprised to learn on February 24 that the most popular story on the paper’s website for the past three days was the “Inside the Beltway” report, “Explosive News,” about the 31 press conferences in cities in the US and abroad on February 19 held by Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth, an organization of professionals which now has 1,000 members.

I was even more surprised that the news report treated the press conference seriously. How did three World Trade Center skyscrapers suddenly disintegrate into fine dust? How did massive steel beams in three skyscrapers suddenly fail as a result of short-lived, isolated, and low temperature fires? “A thousand architects and engineers want to know, and are calling on Congress to order a new investigation into the destruction of the Twin Towers and Building 7,” reports the Washington Times.

The paper reports that the architects and engineers have concluded that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Institute of Standards and Technology provided “insufficient, contradictory and fraudulent accounts of the circumstances of the towers’ destruction” and are “calling for a grand jury investigation of NIST officials.”

The newspaper reports that Richard Gage, the spokesperson for the architects and engineers said: “Government officials will be notified that “Misprision of Treason,’ U.S. Code 18 (Sec. 2382) is a serious federal offense, which requires those with evidence of treason to act. The implications are enormous and may have profound impact on the forthcoming Khalid Sheik Mohammed trial.”

There is now an organization, Firefighters for 9/11 Truth. At the main press conference in San Francisco, Eric Lawyer,the head of that organization, announced the firefighters’ support for the architects and engineers’ demands. He reported that no forensic investigation was made of the fires that are alleged to have destroyed the three buildings and that this failure constitutes a crime.

Mandated procedures were not followed, and instead of being preserved and investigated, the crime scene was destroyed. He also reported that there are more than one hundred first responders who heard and experienced explosions and that there is radio, audio and video evidence of explosions.

Also at the press conference, physicist Steven Jones presented the evidence of nano-thermite in the residue of the WTC buildings found by an international panel of scientists led by University of Copenhagen nano-chemist Professor Niels Harrit. Nano-thermite is a high-tech explosive/pyrotechnic capable of instantly melting steel girders.

Before we yell “conspiracy theory,” we should be aware that the architects, engineers, firefighters, and scientists offer no theory. They provide evidence that challenges the official theory. This evidence is not going to go away.

If expressing doubts or reservations about the official story in the 9/11 Commission Report makes a person a conspiracy theory kook, then we have to include both co-chairmen of the 9/11 Commission and the Commission’s legal counsel, all of whom have written books in which they clearly state that they were lied to by government officials when they conducted their investigation, or, rather, when they presided over the investigation conducted by executive director Philip Zelikow, a member of President George W. Bush’s transition team and Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and a co-author of Bush Secretary of State Condi “Mushroom Cloud” Rice.

There will always be Americans who will believe whatever the government tells them no matter how many times they know the government has lied to them. Despite expensive wars that threaten Social Security and Medicare, wars based on non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, non-existent Saddam Hussein connections to al Qaida, non-existent Afghan participation in the 9/11 attacks, and the non-existent Iranian nukes that are being hyped as the reason for the next American war of aggression in the Middle East, more than half of the U.S. population still believes the fantastic story that the government has told them about 9/11, a Muslim conspiracy that outwitted the entire Western world.

Moreover, it doesn’t matter to these Americans how often the government changes its story. For example, Americans first heard of Osama bin Laden because the Bush regime pinned the 9/11 attacks on him. Over the years video after video was served up to the gullible American public of bin Laden’s pronouncements. Experts dismissed the videos as fakes, but Americans remained their gullible selves. Then suddenly last year a new 9/11 “mastermind” emerged to take bin Laden’s place, the captive Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the detainee waterboarded 183 times until he confessed to masterminding the 9/11 attack.

In the Middle Ages confessions extracted by torture constituted evidence, but self-incrimination has been a no-no in the U.S. legal system since our founding. But with the Bush regime and the Republican federal judges, whom we were assured would defend the U.S. Constitution, the self-incrimination of Sheik Mohammed stands today as the only evidence the U.S. government has that Muslim terrorists pulled off 9/11.

If a person considers the feats attributed to Khalid Sheik Mohammed, they are simply unbelievable. Sheik Mohammed is a more brilliant, capable superhero than V in the fantasy movie, “V for Vendetta.” Sheik Mohammed outwitted all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies along with those of all U.S. allies or puppets, including Israel’s Mossad. No intelligence service on earth, or all of them combined, was a match for Sheik Mohammed.

Sheik Mohammed outwitted the U.S. National Security Council, Dick Cheney, the Pentagon, the State Department, NORAD, the U.S. Air Force, and Air Traffic Control. He caused Airport Security to fail four times in one morning. He caused the state-of-the-art air defenses of the Pentagon to fail, allowing a hijacked airliner, which was off course all morning while the U.S. Air Force, for the first time in history, was unable to get aloft intercepter aircraft, to crash into the Pentagon.

Sheik Mohammed was able to perform these feats with unqualified pilots.

Sheik Mohammed, even as a waterboarded detainee, has managed to prevent the FBI from releasing the many confiscated videos that would show, according to the official story, the hijacked airliner hitting the Penagon.

How naive do you have to be to believe that any human, or for that matter Hollywood fantasy character, is this powerful and capable?

If Sheik Mohammed has these superhuman capabilities, how did the incompetent Americans catch him? This guy is a patsy tortured into confession in order to keep the American naifs believing the government’s conspiracy theory.

What is going on here is that the U.S. government has to bring the 9/11 mystery to an end. The government must put on trial and convict a culprit so that it can close the case before it explodes. Anyone waterboarded 183 times would confess to anything.

The U.S. government has responded to the evidence being arrayed against its outlandish 9/11 conspiracy theory by redefining the war on terror from external to internal enemies. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on February 21 that American extremists are now as big a concern as international terrorists. Extremists, of course, are people who get in the way of the government’s agenda, such as the 1,000 Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth. The group used to be 100, now it is 1,000. What if it becomes 10,000?

Cass Sunstein, an Obama regime official, has a solution for the 9/11 skeptics: Infiltrate them and provoke them into statements and actions that can be used to discredit or to arrest them. But get rid of them at all cost.

Why employ such extreme measures against alleged kooks if they only provide entertainment and laughs? Is the government worried that they are on to something?

Instead, why doesn’t the U.S. government simply confront the evidence that is presented and answer it?

If the architects, engineers, firefighters, and scientists are merely kooks, it would be a simple matter to acknowledge their evidence and refute it. Why is it necessary to infiltrate them with police agents and to set them up?

Many Americans would reply that “their” government would never even dream of killing Americans by hijacking airliners and destroying buildings in order to advance a government agenda. But on February 3, National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair told the House Intelligence Committee that the U.S. government can assassinate its own citizens when they are overseas. No arrest, trial, or conviction of a capital crime is necessary. Just straight out murder.

Obviously, if the U.S. government can murder its citizens abroad it can murder them at home, and has done so. For example, 100 Branch Davidians were murdered in Waco, Texas, by the Clinton administration for no legitimate reason. The government just decided to use its power knowing that it could get away with it, which it did.

Americans who think “their” government is some kind of morally pure operation would do well to familiarize themselves with Operation Northwoods. Operation Northwoods was a plot drawn up by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff for the CIA to commit acts of terrorism in American cities and fabricate evidence blaming Castro so that the U.S. could gain domestic and international support for regime change in Cuba. The secret plan was nixed by President John F. Kennedy and was declassified by the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board. It is available online in the National Security Archive. There are numerous online accounts available, including Wikipedia. James Bamford’s book, Body of Secrets, also summarizes the plot:

“Operation Northwoods, which had the written approval of the Chairman [Gen. Lemnitzer] and every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called for innocent people to be shot on American streets; for boats carrying refugees fleeing Cuba to be sunk on the high seas; for a wave of violent terrorism to be launched in Washington, D.C., Miami, and elsewhere. People would be framed for bombings they did not commit; planes would be hijacked. Using phony evidence, all of it would be blamed on Castro, thus giving Lemnitzer and his cabal the excuse, as well as the public and international backing, they needed to launch their war.”

Prior to 9/11 the American neoconservatives were explicit that the wars of aggression that they intended to launch in the Middle East required “a new Pearl Harbor.”

For their own good and that of the wider world, Americans need to pay attention to the growing body of experts who are telling them that the government’s account of 9/11 fails their investigation. 9/11 launched the neoconservative plan for U.S. world hegemony.

As I write, the U.S. government is purchasing the agreement of foreign governments that border Russia to accept U.S. missile interceptor bases. The U.S. intends to ring Russia with U.S. missile bases from Poland through central Europe and Kosovo to Georgia, Azerbaijan and central Asia. U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke declared on February 20 that al Qaida is moving into former central Asian constituent parts of the Soviet Union, such as Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. Holbrooke is soliciting U.S. bases in these former Soviet republics under the guise of the ever-expanding “war on terror.”

The U.S. has already encircled Iran with military bases. The U.S. government intends to neutralize China by seizing control over the Middle East and cutting China off from oil.

This plan assumes that Russia and China, nuclear armed states, will be intimidated by U.S. anti-missile defenses and acquiesce to U.S. hegemony and that China will lack oil for its industries and military.

The U.S. government is delusional. Russian military and political leaders have responded to the obvious threat by declaring NATO a direct threat to the security of Russia and by announcing a change in Russian war doctrine to the pre-emptive launch of nuclear weapons. The Chinese are too confident to be bullied by a washed-up American “superpower.”

The morons in Washington are pushing the envelope of nuclear war. The insane drive for American hegemony threatens life on earth. The American people, by accepting the lies and deceptions of “their” government, are facilitating this outcome.

[Paul Craig Roberts, a former Assistant Secretary of the US Treasury and former associate editor of the Wall Street Journal, has been reporting shocking cases of prosecutorial abuse for two decades. A new edition of his book, The Tyranny of Good Intentions, co-authored with Lawrence Stratton, a documented account of how Americans lost the protection of law, was published by Random House in March, 2008. His latest book, How The Economy Was Lost, has just been published by CounterPunch/AK Press.]

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