U.S. Bangladeshis Track Climate Changes Back Home

January 21, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By New America Media, Ngoc Nguyen

Mohammed Khan was a child when the deadliest cyclone ever recorded struck Bangladesh (at the time East Pakistan) in 1970. The cyclone brought torrential rains and winds stronger than those seen during Hurricane Katrina. As many as half a million people were killed. Then river waters rose and claimed the land.

“My family lives on an island called Bhola,” Khan recalls. “They have some land, but a lot of the land was taken by the river during a great flood.”

Khan, 51, who now lives in Queens, N.Y., has a daughter and more than 200 family members in Bangladesh. He’s worried about how his large extended family will fare when the next cyclone strikes, and he fears climate change will worsen such disasters.

“As the water levels rise in the next few years, much of southern Bangladesh will go into the womb of the river,” he says.

Concern about climate change among the public has waned, but the issue is foremost among many Bangladeshi Americans, because of the vulnerability of Bangladesh to climate change. Some community members are organizing seminars to learn about how rising seas and extreme weather will play out in their home country, and they’re making their voices heard on the political front.

Bangladesh is often considered ground zero for climate change. Crisscrossed by hundreds of rivers, much of the country is a massive flat delta, extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise. As global warming pushes sea levels higher, Bangladesh would have the most land inundated among its South Asian neighbors, according to the World Bank. If sea levels rise by one meter, as much as a fifth of the country could be submerged, displacing about 20 million people.

In the last few years, awareness about climate change has grown among Bangladeshi Americans.

Hasan Rahim, a software engineering consultant based in San Jose, says Al Gore’s documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” was a wake-up call for him and many Bangladeshis in Silicon Valley. Rahim, who also teaches math and statistics at San Jose City College, says he organized screenings of the film in his community.

Rahim connected the film’s dire predictions about climate change to his homeland. “We live here, but we have roots there,” he says. “We are connected and we have got to become more aware of [climate change impacts].”

More than a dozen rivers, including the mighty Ganges, Brahmaputra, Jamuna and Meghna, flow across Bangladesh, emptying into the Bay of Bengal. The southern part of the country is a massive delta, with its fertile land known as the country’s rice bowl.

“It’s really a concern. We’re a small country with 150 million people, so lots of people would lose their houses, land, and become homeless,” says Abu Taher, editor of the newspaper Bangla Patrik, in New York. He says people want to know the future consequences of climate change on the country so they can tell family members to take precautions.

When he travels to Bangladesh, Khan says he notices changes in the environment. There used to be three crop seasons, he says, but now there’s one. “Normally, we would have floods during the rainy season, but now there is no one season for floods anymore,” Khan adds.

A construction worker, Khan also heads up a group made up of immigrants from Barisal, a southern province that is frequently hard hit by cyclones and flooding. The group has organized seminars to learn more about how climate change will affect Bangladesh. From the United States, Khan says he sometimes feels powerless to help his family back home.

“There’s nowhere for them to go. Bangladesh is a small country,” he says. “Where would they get the land? Who will give us the money? I can just advise them to use the deep tube wells to get clean water.”

Khan says his group wants to share the information with U.S. elected officials, and tell them they want the United States to curb its own pollution and help vulnerable nations.

“America as a leader should help all the poor and affected countries, including Bangladesh,” Khan says. “Affected families are dying without food, without a roof over their heads. We should provide financial assistance and even bring them here.”

In the last two decades, Bangladesh suffered the most deaths and greatest economic losses as a result of extreme weather events, according to Germanwatch’s Global Climate Risk Index 2010.

At the climate change summit in Copenhagen in December, the United States and other developed nations pledged $100 billion in aid to countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts.

“It would make all the difference in the world if the aid were used not to buy finished products like solar panels, but to develop local indigenous talent,” says Rahim.

Bangladeshis have already had to adapt to higher sea levels, Rahim says.

“People who raised chickens are now raising ducks,” he says, and farmers are experimenting with “floating seed beds” to save crops during floods.

Until more funds are directed to helping people adapt to climate change, more frequent and more intense storms and floods will create more environmental refugees.

Queens resident Sheikh Islam says refugees have already poured into the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, which the World Wildlife Federation ranked as the city most vulnerable to climate change impacts out of 11 Asian coastal cities.

Islam says there’s more recognition now that climate change is causing the refugee surge into the city.

“They thought the migrants who came to the city were just jobless and landless. Now, the government is mentioning that they are jobless and landless because of climate change,” he says.

Islam says there’s also a growing perception that Western developed countries bear more responsibility for the problem because they contribute the most to carbon emissions blamed for global warming.

“Now, people know about climate change and they are talking about it,” Islam says. “Three to five years ago they don’t talk about it. They thought it was our problem. Now they think it is a global problem.”

12-4

Nigerians Parents Fear for Students Studying Abroad

January 7, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

New America Media, Commentary, Olugu Ukpai

My dear God, has it now become a crime to be a Nigerian? The headlines tell me so over and over again. Mutallab: Man Who Shamed Nigeria. Mutallab: The Nigerian Agent of Al Qaeda. The Boy Who Blew Nigeria’s Image.

Umar Faruq Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner has just landed Nigeria, my country of birth, on the list of 14 nations whose nationals are going to be singled out for special checks if they want to fly to the United States. Nigeria has become a uniquely insecure travel terrorism hub, they say.

But Abdulmutallab never studied in Nigeria. He did not have “terror connections” in Nigeria. Instead his initiation into terror clubs happened abroad in the countries where he was sent to study to become a better person.

Abdulmutallab went to a British high school in Togo. He studied in Dubai, Yemen and Egypt. Above all, he studied mechanical engineering at University College, London, one of the oldest in England. It makes me wonder how Nigerian parents who have sent their children to study abroad, and those children studying abroad, are looking at the story of “the boy who blew Nigeria’s image.”

I, too like Abdulmutallab, am a Nigerian student studying in the United Kingdom. I can understand the concerns of Nigerian parents like mine who sent their children abroad in hopes for a better education – a Western style education. Now there is a deep concern among the same parents, especially those at home who are skeptical of the kind of “cults” their children are being exposed to abroad in the name of acquiring “the white man’s” education. A study by the University of Notre Dame in 2009 found that parents tended to know only 10 percent of what their children were doing abroad.

Foreign education is no longer a safe haven. On the other hand fearful parents cannot bring their children back home either. After all, American media reports paint Nigeria as a hotbed of Al Qaeda terror. When I come back to the U.K. after Christmas break I do not know what will befall me. Will I be treated as a terror suspect because I am Nigerian? Will the U.K. government just wash its hands off me while it pockets my high tuition?

Nigerian parents and students worry whether the U.K. government is living up to its promises to protect the students in its charge. Has it allowed terrorist groups to penetrate its universities so that unsuspecting students can fall prey to their wiles? Already there is a systemic breakdown of security in U.K. institutions of higher learning. A King’s College, London report says more and more women are reporting rapes. Nigerian parents worry about their children abroad.

Instead of demonizing Nigeria, the international press and the world at large should be honoring and celebrating the alleged terror suspect’s 70-year-old father, who set aside blood bonds to report his son’s newfound religious extremism to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria. I contend that he deserves a Global Citizen Award, and Nigeria should honor him with a National Merit Award. He is an exemplary Nigerian whose act of integrity should be rewarded and recognized. This might help fight terrorism by encouraging others who might have similar useful information.

Instead of ganging up on Nigeria, world powers would do well to review security policies to better protect the lives of international students. Our parents sell their pound of flesh to provide a brighter future for us. No parent would ever dream their “well-behaved and humble” child — as many have described Abdulmutallab — would turn into a terrorist and end up in Guantanamo Bay, all in the name of acquiring the “white man’s” education.

Olugu Ukpai is a Ph.D student at School of Law at the University of Reading, U.K. He can be reached at oluukpaiolu@yahoo.com.

12-2

Is Yemen the New Hot Spot for Terrorism Training?

January 7, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

New America Media, Q&A, Aaron Glantz

Editor’s Note: Reports that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the suspect accused of trying to blow up an airliner on Christmas Day, was trained in Yemen have raised the specter of further U.S. military involvement in that country. To get a better sense of what’s going on in Yemen, NAM editor Aaron Glantz spoke with Jillian Schwedler, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of the book, “Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen.”

2010-01-06T200542Z_440314731_GM1E6170BC301_RTRMADP_3_YEMEN-QAEDA

A security personnel stands behind a machinegun installed on a vehicle in Sanaa January 6, 2010. Yemeni forces surrounded a suspected al Qaeda regional leader near the capital on Wednesday and captured three militants wounded in a raid, security sources said. Yemen, the poorest Arab country, was thrust into the foreground of the U.S.-led war against Islamist militants after a Yemen-based wing of al Qaeda said it was behind a Christmas Day attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound plane.                                

REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

What was your first reaction when you heard that Abdulmutallab was trained in Yemen?

Yemen has fairly porous borders and a lot of people are in and out of there. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything. It’s not like going to a camp in Afghanistan. It doesn’t have the same meaning. I mean, you go to a camp in Afghanistan, you’re pretty much going for one reason. It’s not the same as Yemen.

It seems like in the popular discussion, Yemen is becoming associated with fundamentalist clerics and terrorism.

There are definitely a lot of extremists there, but I think the bigger framework to think about Yemen is not as a hotbed of radicalism and terror but as a state where the government does not control all of the land. They’ve been fighting a significant insurgency in the North for six years now and there’s a separatist group in the South that’s in an armed conflict. The Ministry of Interior estimates that there are 60 million weapons outside of government hands in Yemen. And that’s in a country of 20 million people. So it’s a highly-armed, fragmented society and the government hasn’t really had control over the entire country for some time, if ever. So certainly there’s extremism there, but there’s a lot of stuff going on that the government isn’t really in control of.

So who is in the leadership of the government of Yemen?

The government of Ali Abdullah Saleh is essentially a central government, but there are many parts of the country that are not under the central government. There are armed areas that the government doesn’t police and doesn’t have anything to do with, except to offer very limited services. And we’re talking about big chunks of the country in the North and the East particularly. It’s not one little enclave.

And a huge part of the border with Saudi Arabia is not even defined because it’s a desert. There are not a lot of people there but there are chunks of the country that are frontier-land kind of areas where people move between those two states.

Yemen was two countries during the Cold War.

Even calling it two countries becomes sort of a fiction. For years, it was just sort of a bunch of enclaves including the British colony that was there for nearly 100 years in the South, various tribal governments, there was a Northern government. But from the ‘60s, you had two states, a Northern state which was the Yemen Arab Republic, and the Southern state which was the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, which was a Marxist, Soviet outpost. And so when the Soviet Union fell in 1989, they lost all their funding and then North Yemen was never particularly strong, and so the two decided that they would unite, which they did and initially had democratic elections in which nobody won a majority.

Northern loyalists were assassinating socialists in the South and the unification never really went forward. They unified the country formally, but former governments maintained their owned armies. That culminated in a civil war in 1994 that lasted two months. And the North defeated the South and has been in control ever since under the leadership of the same president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

So it’s really become an Egypt-style government where there’s a president who pretends to be elected and everyone else pretends to have candidates.

So during all this time, what has the U.S. government’s role been?

Well, right after Yemen unified in May 1990, Yemen had the unfortunate opportunity to have a rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council. So they had the seat during the first Gulf War in 1991 and they abstained from that Security Council vote. They did not vote for the coalition in 1990 and they did not vote against it; they abstained. So the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait all punished Yemen by unilaterally cutting all aid to the country. So it was a newly-unified country that had a tremendous amount of aid cut. Millions of Yemeni migrant workers in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were all deported and that had a devastating affect on the economy in Yemen.

But then relations gradually improved, with the U.S. not really having an interest in Yemen. Then, with the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and subsequent events, the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh has been working very closely with the U.S. government because in some ways these Islamists are threatening to him as well. That said, there’s an Islamist party that’s closely aligned with the regime. So while the government is working with the U.S. to battle extremists, at the same time he’s playing this delicate balancing act that includes allying himself with extremists.

So basically, he’s allying himself with the United States in the war on terror, and with the people who are opposing that at the same time.

Exactly. And I don’t think he’s that brilliant as a politician. It’s just luck that it’s all held together at this point. It’s surprising to me that he’s pulling it off. A lot of people think it could get really bad there really quick.

Already, the Fullbright program has been suspended. People aren’t going there to study or do research. It’s really not safe.

So when you’re watching the news right now, what are you looking for? What are you looking for in these reports that will help you decide what’s going on?

In so much of what’s coming through, I hear mistakes in reports that frustrate me. What I want to know is: Are things realigning? Are new people coming on top? I haven’t seen this in the media, but for example: Saudi Arabia would have a clear interest in Yemen not becoming a failed state. So is Saudi Arabia sending more government and trying to bolster them and is that creating more Wahabi influence? Or this: Are you seeing a lot of the tribal sheiks realigning themselves? Because with that many weapons out of government control a few significant shifts in alignment could be game changers. Those are the kinds of things I’m interested in, but you don’t tend to see them in media a lot.

Jillian Schwedler is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of the book, “Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen.”

12-2

American Hikers in Iran Are Too Useful to Release

December 17, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

William O. Beeman, Commentary, New America Media

NAM Editor’s Note: American hikers Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd are a precious catch for Iran, which is hoping to get some political mileage from their detention, observes NAM contributor William Beeman. Bauer freelanced for NAM.

the-three-hikers

Three Americans, journalist Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd, have been detained in Iran since July 31, 2009 for entering the Islamic Republic from Iraq at a remote mountain border without visas. Now, Iran’s Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki has announced that they will be tried in Iranian courts. It is likely they will be charged with espionage.

The three Americans appear to have strayed innocently into Iranian territory, but they have provided an unusually strong opportunity for the Iranian government to continue to engage the United States in tit-for-tat attacks.

Superficially, the detention and eventual trial of these three individuals resembles the earlier detention of a number of Iranian Americans traveling in Iran, the most recent being journalist Roxana Saberi, who was released last summer after having been charged with espionage. Iranian-American academic Kian Tajbakhsh remains in custody facing a 12-year jail sentence after his espionage conviction.

The case against Bauer and his friends provides many political advantages to the Iranian government.

First, there can be no question that people who stray over international borders without proper documentation are subject to scrutiny and legal action. Here, the Iranians have an open and shut justification for holding the three hikers, and can claim indisputable high legal ground for their actions.

Second, Iran wants to make the point that foreign spies are operating in its sovereign territory. The United States has admitted to maintaining operatives in Iran, as has Israel. Israel has even bragged about assassinating an Iranian nuclear scientist. Thus, although the three Americans are probably not spies, they serve as reminders to the Iranian public and to the international community of the real spies that Iranian authorities have not caught.

Third, Iran has reportedly linked the American detainees to 11 Iranians that have been held by U.S. federal officials, as reported by Laura Rozen in the blog, Politico . These individuals are charged with violating export laws — essentially by supplying arms and military equipment to Iran. They were arrested in several European countries, and have been held incognito and incommunicado for more than a year in some cases. The Iranians certainly hope to see movement on releasing these detainees.

Iran also charges the United States with engineering the disappearance of nuclear researcher Shahram Amiri during his pilgrimage to Mecca last spring.

Finally, the Iranian government is desperate for a distraction from the unprecedented opposition disturbances in protest of the June 12 presidential elections. December 18 marks the beginning of the month of Muharram, when Shi’a Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad (s), murdered in 680 C.E. There will be street processions, religious demonstrations and ritual mourning for 10 days. This is the perfect smokescreen for anti-government demonstrations.

To add to the government consternation, sections of the regular Iranian military have threatened to emerge from their barracks to protect “the people” from the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and Basij units that have been attacking the anti-government opposition. A big show trial against “foreign spies” will reinforce the Iranian government claims to its own citizenry that all the troubles in the Islamic Republic today are being fomented by foreign agents.

It is clear that both the United States and Iran have a lot of human traffic to account for on each others’ soil. The real impediment to sorting out these matters is that the United States and Iran still have no comprehensive way to talk to each other. Moreover, there is too much to be gained in both nations by mutual demonization to move forward toward rational discussion. Iran’s non-existent nuclear weapons program remains a red herring, preventing any real progress in reaching an accord between the two nations.

For the hapless hikers, the worst-case scenario is one where they get caught up in the maelstrom of events that have nothing to do with their meager crime, and end up as object lessons in the mutual hostilities between Iran and the West.

William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, and is past president of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association. He has lived and worked in the Middle East for more than 30 years. His most recent book is “’The Great Satan’ vs. the ‘Mad Mullahs’: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.” (Chicago, 2008).

11-52

Soldiers Often ‘Racialize’ to Cope

November 12, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

New America Media, Interview, Aaron Glantz

Editor’s Note: The horrific shooting Thursday at Fort Hood that claimed 13 lives and hospitalized another 30 people has set off a great deal of speculation as to why the alleged shooter, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, did what he did.

NAM Editor Aaron Glantz spoke to former Marine Corps Cpl. Dave Hassan, who served in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. Hassan, an Egyptian American, said that while he was in Iraq, racist language was so pervasive that he began to use it himself.

egyptian soldier guy from NAM article

When you heard that the shooter was an Arab-American major what was your reaction?

This is not going to end well. That was essentialy my first reaction. I don’t know if the guy did it or not but assuming that this guy did do it, somebody who shoots a whole bunch of people ought to get punished for it, but in a broader sense, it’s just going to fuel more of the anti-Arab racism that’s grown up in the past decade or so. It’s going to be fun for the rest of us. [laughs]

What about the fact that he was a psychiatrist?

He was probably treating guys with PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] and there’s a lot more overt racism in that crowd than there is in the rest of the military.

Talk about that.

Well, your average service member is not particularly racist and not necessarily more racist than your average American. But in order to go be involved with killing large [numbers] of other human beings, you have to dehumanize the enemy, and the easiest way to dehumanize them is to racialize them. In my experience, they’re much more prone to talking about ‘f** hajji’s,” if only “these f** hajjis wouldn’t be here, this wouldn’t have happened.’

But after you were deployed to Iraq, you used that language even though your family is Egyptian.

Oh, absolutely. I absolutely used those words. I didn’t think anything of it. It was just a part of how you talked about the people who were in Iraq and it didn’t even register that I was even talking about my own ethnic community until I started thinking about it after I got home. That was a little hard for me.

But it’s just how you talk about Iraqis and Afghans. It’s a word that’s used for specific people in Arabic. It means someone who has completed a pilgrimage so it’s a term of respect in Arab cultures. Now it’s present at every level of the military chain of command, so everybody uses it. In the military, things stop because commanders want them to stop and that wasn’t the case for that kind of language.

They’re hajji’s and you don’t even think about the fact that it’s a pretty racist term to be using it the way that we used it. And he [Hasan] would have heard a lot of it, because he was treating a lot of pretty angry folks.

And how was that day-to-day for you?

For me, it never went beyond the use of language. People would say, ‘Why are hajjis wearing dresses all the time,’ [talking about traditional Iraqi dishdash]. One or two of the officers that I had contact with would call me over and say ‘Hassan, how come these hajjis want to be doing this?’

So thinking of all this were you surprised when Major Hasan opened fire at Fort Hood?

I was surprised that it was a psychiatrist that shot a lot of people. It’s no longer surprising to me that returning veterans would kill a bunch of people. But this guy was a psychiatrist who hadn’t been deployed, and he was also a major, which means he was in for a long time. If he had been at Walter Reed for a long time it was probably the first time that he had to think in detail about actually deploying to a foreign country and what that means. He would have been a lot closer to the ‘action’ there.

11-47

Mothers of Captured Young Hikers Encouraged

October 22, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

New America Media, Mary Ambrose

 

Shane_Bauer_25
Reporter Shane Bauer

The wait for the release of three young Americans arrested on July 31 for allegedly crossing the border illegally into Iran continues, but their families hope they have made some progress towards bringing them home.

On Friday, Nora Shroud, Laura Fattal and Cindy Hickey, the mothers of Sarah Shroud, Josh Fattal, and Shane Bauer, met in New York City to deliver a petition to the Iranian trade mission. The 2,500 signatures and appeals were collected at the families’ site, Free The Hikers, and at vigils held across the country. They all want the same thing: release the hikers from jail and allow them to leave Iran.

The trade mission accepted the petition, which the women viewed as a good sign, as were encouraging noises from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but they want action.

About a month ago, a Swiss diplomat was granted the first consular access visit to the hikers. Switzerland represents U.S. diplomatic interests in Tehran, since the U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Iran. The diplomat phoned the parents and reported that their children were in good shape. The diplomat gave them chocolate and assured each of them that their companions were well. It’s assumed they are not being held together.

It’s been three weeks since Ahmadinejad said that the hikers entered the country illegally, which he noted was “considered a crime everywhere,” and despite insisting he has no control over the judiciary or the case, he told the Associated Press that he could ask that “the judiciary expedite the process and give it its full attention … and basically look at the case with maximum leniency.” The families want him to deliver on that promise.

Laura Fattal said they see this as a humanitarian issue and on CNN said she thinks that as a father, Ahmadinejad can “easily imagine how difficult it is for the families of the hikers.”

11-44

Still: Secret Bush-Era Prisons

August 6, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By John C. Trang, New America Media (NAM)

NAM Editor’s Note: Muslims make up 70 percent of inmates in two prisons the George W. Bush regime clandestinely established in the Midwest between 2006 and 2008.

razorwire

Despite President Barack Obama’s declaration that the United States is not and never will be at war with Islam, government practices suggest otherwise.

In June, the ACLU filed complaints against the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) for illegally establishing secret prisons called Communications Management Units, or CMUs. The ACLU also alleged unconstitutional restrictions on Muslim inmates’ right to religious freedom. As a law student investigating the CMUs, the existence of these secret prisons trouble me.

The first CMU was clandestinely established in late 2006 at the federal prison facility in Terre Haute, Ind. In 2008, another CMU was established in Marion, Ill. According to the government, CMUs were created to “house inmates who, due to their current offense of conviction, offense conduct or other verified information, require increased monitoring of communication between inmates and persons in the community in order to protect the safety, security, and orderly operations of Bureau facilities and protect the public.”

Sounds mundane, right? But the fact is CMUs are a palpable and disconcerting product of xenophobia and the war on terrorism. Concocted during the Bush administration, CMUs are alarmingly reminiscent of McCarthy-era practices and the Japanese American internment camps.

Although the number of inmates placed at the CMUs has not exceeded 40, around 70 percent are Muslim. The likelihood of finding another prison in the United States with similar proportions of Muslim inmates is zero. There is only one other facility under U.S. jurisdiction with similar demographics: Guantanamo Bay.

With such a high proportion of Muslim inmates, civil rights groups expressed concern about constitutional violations of equal protection. BOP officials deny CMU placement is based on religious identity. According to one government document, criteria for CMU placement includes continued misuse/abuse of approved communication privileges; history of judicial threats; and being convicted of, or associated with, involvement in terrorism. This odd mix of criteria that warrants CMU placement is applicable to hundreds of the incarcerated. Therefore, how and why specific inmates are chosen for CMU placement remains unclear.

Unlike other prisons in the United States, information about CMUs remains scarce. Few publicly available government documents mention “Communications Management Unit.” The secrecy is increased by restrictions on inmates’ communications. All communications to and from inmates are examined. If a message is not approved, it is never transmitted. In fact, in some respects CMU inmates – all of who are categorized as low to medium risk–have more restrictive conditions than inmates categorized with higher security risk levels.

While the government describes CMUs in innocuous terms, many groups have alternate theories as to the actual purpose and nature of CMUs. Some believe CMUs were created solely to house terrorists since some, though not all, inmates have terrorism related convictions. However, even the terrorism related convictions are suspect.

Take for example ACLU’s client and CMU inmate Sabri Benkahla. Benkahla, born in Virginia and a graduate of George Mason University, was studying Islamic law and jurisprudence in Saudi Arabia when he was abducted at Saudi secret police, flown back to America and charged with supplying services to the Taliban and using a firearm in connection with a crime of violence. He was found not guilty. Not satisfied with the acquittal, the U.S. government forced Benkahla to testify before a federal grand jury where he was accused and eventually convicted of perjury. Nonetheless, the presiding judge asserted Benkahla was “not a terrorist” and noted the chances of Benkahla committing another crime were “infinitesimal.”

While some view CMUs as facilities for terrorists, a majority of news articles assert the common thread uniting inmates is their strong community support and their politically unpopular views. That is, CMUs are political prisons.

I am not convinced CMUs are traditional political prisons – the sort used to silent inmates. There is growing evidence CMUs were created to extract information from inmates for the war on terrorism. Since privacy rights are reduced for the incarcerated, increasing attention to prisoners as a source of information was a logical step for proponents of sustaining a war on terrorism. And by stretching what constitutes a terrorism related charge, the government could consolidate prisoners believed to possess desired knowledge and ignore even basic civil liberties afforded other incarcerated people by invoking “war on terrorism.” To be sure, similar to the tenuous links to terrorism, the extent of any inmate’s knowledge about terrorism is questionable at best.

Ultimately, due to the secretive nature of CMUs, the real explanation continues to be a mystery. What is not a mystery is that the war on terrorism continues to be wrongfully conflated with Islam. This likely explains the disproportionate level of Muslim inmates. Although there are non-Muslim inmates at CMUs, at least one Muslim inmate claims that security guards have called non-Muslim inmates “racial balancers.” Whether or not non-Muslim inmates are mere decoys is unclear. But such a claim should heighten our concern that the government is targeting inmates based on a racial perception of who is a terrorist.

Any selective targeting of Muslims inside and outside the prison system in the name of war and national security would be dangerously similar to the selective targeting of Japanese Americans during World War II. After decades of struggle, the government officially apologized to the Japanese American community and admitted that xenophobia and wartime hysteria contributed to discriminatory policies that should never be repeated.

Granted there are differences between Japanese American internees and CMU inmates. CMU inmates have been convicted of at least one federal crime, albeit often minor crimes such as incorrectly filing taxes. However, the prison system should not strip inmates of all their constitutional rights, or segregate them in highly restrictive prisons based on religious identity.

Almost eight years after the September 11 attacks, the Obama administration has set a new tenor on the war on terrorism. But the continuing operation of CMUs that began under Bush is reminiscent of anti-Japanese policies and McCarthy era witch hunts. National security is a real concern but it can never justify the practices reportedly involved at CMUs. To do so would be a betrayal of the nation’s commitment to core civil liberties and freedoms.

John C. Trang is currently a law student at UCLA School of Law in the Epstein Public Interest Law and Policy Program with a Critical Race Studies Specialization.

11- 33

Journalist Shane Bauer Detained in Iran

August 6, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Aaron Glantz, NAM

shane bauer

New America Media correspondent Shane Bauer is among three Americans detained over the weekend along the Iranian-Iraq border, along with his girlfriend Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal.

Bauer, 27, who grew up in Onamia, Minn, had filed more than two dozen stories for NAM from Syria and was in Northern Iraq to cover the Kurdish elections, said NAM Executive Editor Sandy Close.

“We were awaiting his coverage when we learned that he and his girlfriend, and another friend, had been arrested by Iranian authorities,” she said.

A freelance journalist and fluent Arabic speaker, Bauer has contributed to numerous other publications including the Nation, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Los Angeles Times.

“Shane’s dispatches have been enlightening,” Close said. “His fluency in Arabic and his writing and photography skills enabled him to provide a valuable lens into what ordinary people are thinking and saying in the Arab world. We consider Shane to be a gifted young correspondent who typifies the long tradition of journalism by the student-traveler learning the craft by doing.”

At Iran’s Mission to the United Nation’s in New York, spokesperson Mohammed Sahraei refused to elaborate on official state media reports which had referred to Bauer and his fellow travelers as “infiltrators.”

Iranian state television reported on Sunday that the head of the Iranian Parliament’s foreign policy committee Alaedddin Boroujerdi said, “This case is currently on its natural course.”

Their detention has quickly become international news.

On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appealed to Iran for information, saying U.S. the interests in Iran are asking officials from the Iranian Foreign Ministry for details but have not yet gotten official confirmation of the trio’s arrest. She asked that Iran determine the facts of the case and to “return them as quickly as possible.”

“As of a few hours ago, we did not yet have official confirmation that the Iranian government or an instrument of the Iranian government were holding the three missing Americans,” Clinton told reporters at the State Department. “We asked our Swiss partners … to please pursue our inquiries to determine the status of the three missing Americans.”

“Obviously, we are concerned,” Clinton said. “We want this matter brought to a resolution as soon as possible and we call on the Iranian government to help us determine the whereabouts of the three missing Americans and return them as quickly as possible.”

In New York, the Committee to Protect Journalists said it appeared that the Americans were “targeted for being reporters” and that they were walking along the border because they were backpacking along the mountains that mark the border between Iran and Iraq, “for purely recreational purposes.”

“It’s possible that they walking back and forth the border numerous times without ever knowing it,” said CPJ’s Mohmmed Abdel Dayem. “We hope that it is a routine thing. We assume the best.”

11-33

China’s Rodney King Riots

July 9, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Vivian Po, New America Media

New America Media Editor’s Note: Tensions between Muslim Uighurs and majority Han Chinese escalated July 5 when a peaceful protest over the deaths of two Uighur workers in Southern China turned into riots, leaving at least 156 dead and more than 1,000 injured. China expert Dru C. Gladney, Ph.D., says the riots reflect longtime ethnic tensions caused by unequal resource distribution and employment. Gladney is president of the Pacific Basin Institute and professor of anthropology at Pomona College. His most recent book is “Dislocating China: Muslims, Minorities, and Other Subaltern Subjects” (2004). He was interviewed by NAM reporter Vivian Po.

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What was your first reaction when you learned about the riots in Xin Jiang?

I think it is quite remarkable. Mostly, incidents have taken place in the south of the province, so this is quite extraordinary to have such a high number of people involved in this many casualties, in the downtown district of Urumqi. This place has really a small Uighur population, about 11 to12 percent of the entire city population. Urumqi has never been a Uighur city. It is just one small district. I understand there is a sympathy riot in support of them in Kashgar, so it is interesting to see whether it will spread to the rest of the region.

What really caused the riot?

Clearly, there is a lot of tension underneath the surface. Though a lot of people make references to the uprising in Tibet, I think a better analogy is what happened in the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. There was a terrible beating of Rodney King, but there were so many other tensions in the city, racial tensions that were ignited by this incident. I think the Tibetan situation is different. It was much more internationally focused, monks were involved, and religion was a factor.

Is religion playing a part in this riot?

It is not. In the past, the problems of the region have been attributed to Islam and to complaints about religious freedom, independence, separatism and even jihad. But none of them seems to be an issue here. There are many complaints from the Uighurs about wanting more roles in government, and more freedom to practice religion, but that is not what prompted this riot.

The Uighurs organized the protest as a response to a fight that took place at a factory in Guangdong, after a Han Chinese man who used to work there accused Uighur men of raping two Han Chinese girls. How did relations between the Han and the Uighurs in China’s labor market contribute to this riot?

Labor is a very important issue in this whole situation. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Han Chinese man who accused the Uighurs of rape did it because he was angry over losing his job. Uighurs from Xin Jiang had jobs but he couldn’t get a job, so he made these allegations about rape that are totally unsubstantiated.

And Uighurs in Xin Jiang have complained that they get squeezed from both ends of the labor market, as both the skilled jobs go to the Han and then the unskilled and low-wage jobs go to the Han migrants, so Uighurs are really stuck in the middle. And when they go outside of the region to look for work, they are discriminated against and are not protected by the government. That was what a lot of the protests in Urumqi were about.

What is the Chinese government’s approach to ethnic minorities in China?

The policy and constitution in China are extremely enlightened and have some very positive policies for minorities, but the reality is that there is discontent. It is clear that these people have some legitimate concerns. You do not get that many people out on the streets if they are satisfied with their situations. So there are real problems.

How did technology play a role in the riot?

The role of the Internet in fostering Uighur national consciousness is very important. Now, Twitter and cell phones, YouTube and Youku, all this technology has made the region much more accessible. In the past, the region was very cut off and in some ways less accessible than Tibet because Tibet was a place people were interested in and people knew the history. Uighurs have always been isolated, and nobody really knew or cared about them. Now through technology, international organizations of exiled Uighur groups, as well as the media attention that the Uighur detainees in Guantanamo Bay have gotten, it has become a global issue.

The Chinese government claims political activist Rebiya Kadeer masterminded the riots. What do you think?

I think it is true that several international organizations, not just Rebiya’s, were engaged in this issue, but to suggest that any one of them has masterminded the event in Xin Jiang is very difficult to prove. I think the Chinese government is taking a cue from the Iranian situation, where they blamed the Americans for inciting people to go into the streets.

How would you compare the ethnic conflicts in China and those in the United States?

The Rodney King riots were an example of these extraordinary racial tensions. Hopefully we won’t have to wait for a Uighur to become president or premier of China before racial tensions improve. They run very deep. We also have the issue of the indigenous people here, like the Native Americans and their concerns, and many have similar problems such as joblessness and high mobility.

Is there any solution to the ethnic conflicts?

Uighurs are demanding a greater voice in their own affairs and greater representation. There are Uighurs in the government but they are handpicked by the party, so their real concerns aren’t being addressed. There are some policy issues the government could address, such as limiting Han migration, ensuring that Uighurs are given equal opportunities or even greater compensation for the mineral wealth that is extracted from their province. Residents of Xin Jiang should get some special privileges. Also, the Chinese have the “hukou” (household) residential privilege system where residents get certain benefits, such as education, and Uighurs do not feel they are getting those benefits in their autonomous region.

What do you think about the way China’s state-sanctioned media has approached covering the riots?

I find it quite striking that they immediately reported the uprising in the region. I think they’ve recognized the fact that they can’t keep a lid on the news anymore because of cell phones and easy access to media outlets. But you also see their bias. It is really extraordinary that the level of animosity between the Uighur and the Han population exhibits itself so clearly, so you can actually see Uighur men kicking a Han Chinese girl on TV. I am concerned that the reason this was shown on Chinese television, as opposed to a policeman beating protesters, was deliberate and can be very counterproductive.

11-29

Despite FBI Investigation, Minnesota Mosque Has Support

July 9, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Ramla Bile, Mshale, New America Media

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File:  A member of Minnesota’s Somali community

Despite fears of distractions from the missing Somali youth saga that has engulfed the Somali community in Minnesota, the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center held its 9th Annual Convention at the Minneapolis Convention Center over the weekend where thirty speakers addressed 10,000 people over three days.

Participants said it was encouraging to see the number of attendees, the breadth of topics, and the scope of talent.

Despite a tumultuous year, the mosque saw increased attendance at this year’s convention and a spike in monetary support. Since last fall, the mosque has come under fire for the “missing youth” debacle, a connection that the mosque administrators and its supporters continue to deny. People close to the mosque did not believe the annual event would occur this year, they feared that the need to address the allegations would distract the administration and volunteers from organizing the convention. But after successfully meeting fundraising goals and having a record attendance with the help of 200 volunteers, the Abubakar community believes it maintains the trust and love of the Somali community. “This crowd and their energy is a testimony to their commitment to the mosque and its respected leaders,” attendee Ali Abdi said.

People travelled from Columbus, Nashville, Toronto, Kansas City, and across the United States and Canada to listen, learn, and meet. Hundreds of others logged-in to a live broadcast through several websites that serve the Somali community. Twenty-year-old Anab Ibrahim travelled from Seattle to attend the convention. “We came because my aunt was impressed with the line-up. When we arrived, we were amazed with the number of people we saw standing and sitting around in the lobby… we were even more shocked to see the packed auditorium,” she said. At the peak of the event on Saturday, an estimated 7,000 thousand people filled the two auditoriums. Anab said she especially enjoyed the English lectures. “Other conferences are only about the politics of Somalia, and often make us feel hopeless. This was applicable to our lives here and our faith. It showed me what we could do for our community and ourselves.”

Speakers addressed a wide range of topics, including the future of Somalis in the diaspora, the prevalence of autism, the importance of knowing your rights, the danger of gangs and extremism, the notion of Islam as mercy among others.

The only wrinkle on the conference was keynote speaker, Sheikh Mustafa Harun, being denied entry to the United States upon landing at Newark airport. He ultimately addressed the audience via webcam the following day. Participants expressed outrage over their revered scholar being denied entry. Harun said he checked in with the U.S. Embassy in Norway weeks prior to his scheduled flight and was told he should not encounter any issues. Norway has a visa waiver program with the United States. Despite his attempt at planning ahead, he did not make it to the convention. After a 9-hour flight, he was questioned for 3 hours and was told that although his identity was cleared, he must leave the country. He was allowed to make a call before boarding another 9-hour flight back to Norway.

Other speakers included imams from around the U.S. including Minnesota, among them Sheikh Abdirahman Sheikh Omar, Sheikh Abdirizak Hashi, Sheikh Jamel Bin Ameur, and others. Audience members were astounded by the knowledge and wit of 12-year-old Mohamud Ahmed Mohamud, who was introduced as “Sheikh Mohamud.” He related the story of Salman Al-Farisi, a historic figure in Islamic history, and spoke on the importance of seeking knowledge and asking questions. He shared the Somali proverb of regret where a person says, “when I had youth, I did not want to learn, and when I had age, I wished I had learned during my youth.” Mohamud says he wanted to send a strong message to the youth, and encourage them to take advantage of their time. “I want young people to step up to the plate because I see so much good in them and it’s time for the youth to rise,” he said. Mohamud spent the past three years helping in the bookstore of the mosque, reading and writing as he could.

Gubernatorial candidate Steve Kelley, and Constituent Advocate to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Siad Ali spoke on the health, education, and anti-immigration sentiment. Klobuchar addressed the audience by video where she touched on the cultural and intellectual wealth Somalis bring to Minnesota. Minneapolis welcomed Abukar Arman, the President of the CAIR chapter in Columbus who did a “know your rights” presentation in Somali, while members of the local chapter of CAIR did a program in English. “It’s important for people to understand their legal rights and the implications of their actions – intentional or not. Wanting a lawyer is not an omission of guilt. We want people to cooperate with law enforcement and we want them to know their rights,” he said. Arman also addressed the allegations against certain mosques in the city, saying that, “we’re finding that people are being judged by public opinion, which is ridiculous because this is a nation of law and order, and rumors should not absolve or condemn people or institutions of allegations. Rather, this should be determined by an established legal process.”

Poets Sara Mohamed and Maryam Warsame made their début at the convention. Warsame is one of three organizers for the mosque’s “Youth to Youth” group, a mentorship program for young women. Sara is a student in the program, and the two began writing together this winter. They rhymed about the situation of women in their homeland, and shared the stories of those who did not find relief. “We don’t want to be famous, we just want to get message out and not forget about those who are suffering,” Warsame said. She added that the convention was a good opportunity for students to share their work.

In addition to the poetry and lectures, the convention also included a fundraising component. In a little over an hour, participants pledged $150,000 to help cover expenses incurred over the construction of the second floor of the mosque, as well as to jump-start the next phase of development. The administration hopes to complete the parking lot and make the exterior of the building more visually pleasing.

It is difficult to imagine that this is the same institution that operated from a garage in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood – the epicenter of the city’s newest wave of immigrants. Founding member Abdulaziz Sugule says this vision for a mosque comprehensively serving the community started over a decade ago and the organization began operations in 2000. Then called the Imam Shafi’i Mosque, the name was changed to the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center and the organization moved to an abandoned warehouse in South Minneapolis. “Today, that vision is a five million dollar project,” Sugule said. “The mosque plays a major role in advancing the community; it consists of all kinds of social services including providing family counseling, settling community disputes, celebrating Islamic holidays, working with local and national government leaders, mentoring youth, and providing a place of Islamic worship and education,” he said.

Looking up with a smile, he added, “Contrary to what some people are saying, they (the mosque administration) are trying to build a healthy community with good people… they’re starting a movement for positive change and people love the place and its people.”

11-29

Six Reasons Why Iran

July 9, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Cannot Be Explained in a Twitter Feed

New America Media, News Analysis, Jalal Ghazi

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A policeman stands guard in front of the British embassy during an anti-Britain protest gathering in Tehran, April 1, 2007. Picture taken April 1, 2007. 

REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl/Files

The world’s attention is on Iran. But the rhetoric of reformists vs. conservatives and students vs. mullahs cannot capture the complexity of what is happening on the streets of Tehran. Here are six reasons why the situation in Iran cannot be reduced to simplistic headlines or Twitter feeds.

First, the post-election crisis in Iran is not only a reflection of divisions between conservatives and reformers. Perhaps more importantly, it has brought divisions within the conservatives to the forefront.

“It is true that most of the armed forces, especially the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, support the Supreme Leader and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but the decision making in Iran is not exclusive to these two men,” said human rights activist Ghanim Jawad on the London-based (ANB-TV) Arab News Broadcast. He pointed to a “vertical division,” not only within the government but also within the society.

Ghanim added, “This vertical division is more dangerous to the Islamic revolution than the eight years of war between Iran and Iraq.” That war, he said, united Iranian society. Now Iranian society is split and there are divisions within the Expediency Council, the Guardian Council, the parliament and the Assembly of Experts -– all important decision-making institutions.

Most significantly, he added, the religious authority in the holy city of Qom is also divided.

Second, the disputed election results provided the spark that ignited the street demonstrations, but there were many other important reasons that pushed hundreds of thousands of Iranians into the streets.

The widely read journalist Fahmi Huwaidi wrote on Al Jazeera.net that “one must acknowledge that this is the first time since the Islamic revolution that people held such large demonstrations to express their anger toward the regime and the supreme leader.”

Huwaidi added, “It is hard to categorize all protesters under one title, but all have anger as a common denominator.” There is anger over the election results, lack of individual freedoms, tense relations with the West, high unemployment and inflation, government support of Hezbollah and Hamas, and lack of rights for Arab, Kurdish and Sunni minorities.

Third, presidential candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi has become the symbolic leader of the reformist movement, but that does not mean that he is the one who created this movement.

During his election campaign he was accompanied by former President Muhammad Khatami everywhere he went because Mousavi was not a good public speaker, wrote Huwaidi.

Many Iranians also question his alliance with pragmatic conservatives who are suspected of corruption, such as the head of the Expediency Council, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Arab author Azmi Bishara wrote on Al Jazeera.net that “corrupt conservatives within the regime such as Rafsanjani rely on reformists such as Mousavi and Khatami as a way to renew their appeal, weaken the Supreme Leader, promote a more pragmatic policy and create better relations with the West.” Bishara, however, warned that the pragmatic conservatives may temporarily agree to reforms, but reverse their position once they are in power.

Fourth, the street demonstrations are not necessarily an indication that Iran is an oppressive government or less democratic than neighboring Arab states.

“The position taken by the Iranian society toward claims of discrepancies in the elections is much better than the position of Arab societies toward similar claims,” wrote Huwaidi. Iranians at least protested on the streets and clashed with police and security forces for 10 days. Arab populations have now accepted election fraud as a fact of life and given up on trying to change it, wrote Huwaidi.

Political writer Ahmad Asfahani told ANB that he was impressed by the “vigorous Iranian society” that gave birth to three populist revolutions in less than 60 years: the uprising that followed the overthrow of Iranian Premier Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953, the Islamic revolution in 1979, and now, the 2009 street demonstrations.

Fifth, not all of the 20 people who were killed during the demonstrations were protesters. According to Ghanim, at least eight security force members were also killed. This shows that the security forces were not the only side that used violence.

Ghanim told ANB that in this situation it is hard to control either side. He added that this raised questions about who really killed the young Iranian woman Neda Agha-Soltan who became a symbol for the street demonstrations. Ghanem said that it is possible that she was killed by “some groups who wanted to escalate the situation.”

Sixth, the strong divisions within the major governing institutions in Iran show that the Iranian system is more similar to the American system than Arab regimes, whether they are ruled by presidents or monarchs. For example, the strong criticism that the Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani has made against the interior ministry as well as the criticism by Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri in Qom of the Guardian Council shows that Iran has its own system of checks and balances which does not exist in most Arab countries. This also was evident in the televised debates in which Ahmadinejad made strong accusations against senior Iranian officials, including Rafsanjani.

The Iranian system has many discrepancies but the same can be said about the American system. Bishara wrote that the differences between the Republicans and Democrats in the United States are not much bigger than the differences between the conservatives and reformists in Iran. There seems to be no fundamental change in many respects. Iranian mullahs have used their positions to become very wealthy, much as American corporations have used lobbyists to pass laws in Congress that benefit them.

The real question is how Iran will emerge from all of this. If it comes out more powerful, it will be a vindication of the political process in Iran and proof that its system works better than those of its Arab neighbors. That is what really makes Arab countries nervous.

11-29

The Time for Immigration Reform is Now

July 2, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Editor’s Note: This editorial was produced in association with New America Media (www.newamericamedia.org), a national association of ethnic media, and was published by ethnic media across the country this week to bring attention to the urgency of immigration reform.

The White House and members of Congress must move quickly on enacting a just and humane immigration reform package that will reunite families, reinvigorate the economy, and remove the term “illegal or undocumented immigrants” from the dialogue in this country. Ethnic media, which reaches over 60 million adults in the United States, calls on Congress to move decisively on immigration reform because there are few issues as important to the nation’s well-being as an overhaul of the inefficient, inhumane and economically debilitating immigration system. More importantly, we are also urging our readers and viewers to contact their Senators and Congressmen and let them know that immigration reform must be a national priority.

The immigration system is broken not just for 12 million undocumented immigrants, but also for specialized workers blocked from joining the American economy because of narrow quotas, and mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens who must wait for years before being reunited with their families.

Our nation needs comprehensive immigration policies that will replace a broken system of raids and roundups with one that protects all workers from exploitation, improves America’s security and builds strong communities. It’s time to end the division between workers, which has allowed big business to exploit both sides. Clearly, working-class citizens and immigrant workers have much in common – dreams of better homes, education for their families and quality healthcare.  There is more that brings us together, than separates us.  United we can be a strong force for change, changes that that bring more workforce safety and humane conditions.  

Immigration is often portrayed as an explosive, divisive issue. In reality it’s not. Since the repeal of the national origins quota system in 1965, which discriminated against certain immigrants, a consensus has been building towards an immigration system that respects the country’s core values. These include economic opportunity, equality under the law regardless of ethnic background, and an embrace of the world’s most innovative, energetic and ambitious workers. Now, with the country facing serious competition from workers abroad, it’s more important than ever to create a world-class immigration system. It’s for the good for families, good for communities and good for America.  

11-28

Unrest in Iran Inspires Pro-Democracy Activists in the Arab World

June 27, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

New America Media, Commentary, NAM Correspondent

NAM Editor’s Note: Arab regimes haven’t publicly criticized or even mentioned what is happening in neighboring Iran, triggering much speculation among Arab bloggers as to why that is. The author of this piece wished to remain anonymous due to safety concerns.

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Former Iranian Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi pauses while he speaks about Iran at the National Press Club in Washington June 22, 2009.    REUTERS/Larry Downing 

DAMASCUS — Images of bloody protesters and crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands in the streets of Tehran have been broadcast into living rooms across the Arab world for five consecutive days, enchanting and inspiring pro-democracy activists in a region where pushes for democratic reforms tend to be met with an iron fist.

Meanwhile, Arab regimes have largely remained silent over the contested election. Leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan—the major Sunni powers in the region—haven’t mentioned the elections or allegations of fraud. In normal circumstances, this would be strange — these countries are the regional archenemies of President Ahmedinejad’s Iran.

Some say the reason behind their silence lies in their fear of bolstering pro-democracy movements in their own countries. “The unrest in Iran frightens dictators in the region because it makes it harder for them to justify their own absolute authority,” says Syrian blogger Yasir Sadiq. “If they see tyrannies come down around them, they’ll be afraid.”

Whether or not the Iranian elections were “stolen,” Iran is a long way ahead of most Arab countries when it comes to democracy — the country has a functioning electoral system. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf states don’t hold elections, and in Egypt and Syria, “elections” are so tightly controlled that the results are always known in advance.

The state controlled media in authoritarian Arab countries have mostly downplayed the events in Iran. Government controlled newspapers like Al-Thawra in Syria, Iran’s strongest regional ally, have kept Iran off the front pages and run headlines like, “The West needs to stop intervening in Iranian elections,” using age-old claims of conspiracies to deflect attention from actual popular desire for democratic reform.

“Governments all over the Arab world accuse pro-democracy movements of serving the west, or of being tools of the CIA or Mosad (Israeli intelligence),” says Syrian freelance journalist Khaled Al-Khetyari. “They are just trying to manipulate people by using this language because the people in power don’t want their populations to analyze what is actually happening in Iran.”

The Obama administration has been relatively silent on the unrest in Iran. On Wednesday, Hillary Clinton said it was up to Iranians to “resolve this internal protest.”

Al-Khatyari says the U.S. administration’s measured distance is a strategy the U.S. should stick to. “The last American administration latched onto any internal opposition to regimes it didn’t like. This always hurts local movements because it connects them to a country that most people here see as harmful to the region and it justifies repression by our governments.”

Syrian blogger Yasir Sadiq says he is encouraged by the Iranian opposition’s seven-point manifesto being circulated on the internet, which calls for the “Dissolution of all organizations — both secret and public — designed for the oppression of the Iranian people.”

“It’s inspiring to see people in the Middle East call for the end of secret services,” Sadiq says. “Organizations like this have oppressed people in the Arab world so much.”

Sadiq is reticent to believe that what he calls Iran’s pro-democracy “intifada” could be exported to Arab countries any time soon. “It’s difficult to hope for this kind of movement in the Arab world. We have a long way to go, but we hope that eventually, something like that will happen here.”

For now, he says, Arab activists will attempt to learn what they can from their counterparts in Iran. For days, Sadiq has been pegged to Twitter, the social networking tool that has allowed Iranians to organize demonstrations while the Iranian government institutes a near blackout of internet services.

“Arab bloggers’ main interest in what is happening in Iran is in figuring out how Twitter can be used to organize and bring our voices forward in our own countries,” he says.

The government in Syria may eventually try to ban it, like they have with other networking sites like Facebook, but Sadiq says he is not deterred. “The more they ban, the more ways we will find to get around their restrictions.”

11-27

Somali Woman’s Illness and A Family’s Quest for Healing

June 27, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Joel Grostephan, New America Media

NAM Editor’s Note: A 31-year-old Somali woman goes missing after she’s diagnosed with psychosis, and her family is baffled when the county won’t tell them where she is so they could begin the spiritual healing treatment they believe will help her, writes NAM contributor, Joel Grostephan.

ST.CLOUD, Minn. — Samira Iman was missing for nearly two years. The 31-year-old Somali didn’t run away. She wasn’t kidnapped. She didn’t go to Africa to fight in Somalia’s decades-old civil war. She was living in St. Cloud, Minn., in a group home for the mentally ill. But Samira’s family lost track of her, and mental health officials did not help them locate her.

One day in the fall of 2007, Samira fainted at the poultry processing plant where she had begun working. She was taken to a hospital, where she was diagnosed with mental illness, according to her family. After she was discharged, she was either sent to a group home or released on to the street, but not to her family. When her younger brother, Yahya Iman, tried to find out where she was, Stearns County Human Services cited government privacy laws and would give no information.

Then, earlier this month, Samira reappeared as mysteriously as she disappeared. Now she’s living with her family. But in the two years she was away, she got herself into trouble. Samira faces felony assault charges for allegedly hitting staff members at the group home last fall. Given her mental state and the nature of the crime, she is likely to be convicted of a less serious offense. She missed her court hearing scheduled for February 2009, so Judge Paul Midwick issued a warrant for her arrest. Yahya doesn’t understand that.

“It don’t make sense how they would charge someone who is mentally ill with something,” he said.

Since the family arrived in the United States in 2001, many things haven’t made sense to them. They still are trying to figure out why the county didn’t allow the family to care for Samira for two years. Why would they not let them know where she was so she could be taken to an Islamic priest to treat her mental illness? Why would the county let Samira make decisions for herself when she wasn’t well?

The Imans are among 30,000 refugees from the civil war who have settled down in Minnesota. It wasn’t long after they came here that they realized that freedom from persecution comes with a price. Many have found that their culture and values don’t have a place in the United States. In Somalia, family takes care of family. Not being able to take care of them is considered shameful. Samira’s family is upset that for the past two years, they could not use traditional Islamic healing practices to help her.

“It’s a huge stigma when a family is unable to take care of one’s own,” said Abdirizak Bihi, a Somali community activist and former interpreter at Hennepin County Medical Center. “People in the community will feel that the family abandoned its own, and the family will feel it’s been robbed,” he said.

When Samira was in a county hospital in Willmar last fall, she was diagnosed with psychosis, and her doctor noted she was delusional. Psychosis is a broad diagnosis that could include anything from post-traumatic stress disorder to schizophrenia. In discharge papers obtained by New America Media, Dr. Richard Kokkila wrote about Samira’s violent outbursts at the facility, including throwing hot coffee at staff.

“She has been mocking staff, staring at staff, laughing hysterically at times,” his report stated. He also noted that “she doesn’t want anyone involved in her life,” including her social worker, group home providers or her family, who she believed tried to poison her food.

The emphasis on individual rights, including privacy, is a foreign concept for Somalis, said Dr. Abdirahman Mohamed, a Somali-born family doctor in Minneapolis, who treats mental illness. Somali culture is still communal, he said, and no one would decline help from family. “Her interest to be left alone doesn’t supersede the interest of the family’s need to help,” Mohamed said.

Health officials do not have statistics on the rate of mental illness in Minnesota’s Somali community, but a 2004 study of 1,134 Eritreans and Somalis in the state found that as many as 47 percent of Somali women and 25 percent of men had been tortured before they arrived in the United States. Many Somalis could therefore be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Few Somalis want to follow up with treatment because they are wary of authorities.

“You don’t share your problems with professionals,” said Dr. James Jaranson, a psychiatrist and author of the study. “You talk to family or religious leaders or traditional healers.”

Jaranson said if problems are severe enough, Somalis utilize both western and traditional medicine.

Since the 1990s, when Somalis started to arrive in Minneapolis, some mental health professionals have tailored treatment to fit with Somali culture, said therapist David McGraw Schuchman.

“What family means in the Somali community is different,” Schuchman said. “It is a source of identity, strength, comfort, and protection.”

Doctors and therapists describe patients are routinely accompanied by their family members — sometimes four or five of them.

Then there are other cultural beliefs in the community. About 90 percent of them believe spirit possession, or jinn, causes mental illness, according to Mohamed.
Mary Bradmiller, a psychologist who works with refugees at Hennepin County Medical Center, said being comfortable talking about religion is critical for health providers. She frequently hears about jinn possession, which her Somali patients insist can be treated by a priest.

“Reading the Koran might bring symptom reduction for a period of months,” Bradmiller said.

Samira’s family believes she is suffering from jinn possession. In the past, the family used a number of different priests to read the Koran over her. Samira would be fine for about six months after that, Yahya maintained.

Hassan Mohamud, head priest of the Dawa Center in St. Paul said jinn are invisible to humans. Some of them are neutral – they don’t mean any harm — but some of them are evil. Mohamud acknowledges that western medicine can help treat mental illness, but he believes Islamic traditional medicine should be tried first.

A priest’s exorcism of jinn involves reading certain prayers and verses from the Koran. “We ask the jinn: ‘Who are you? What’s your name? Where are you from? And, why are you harming this person?’” Mohamud said. That generally sends the jinn away.

The religious support may also encourage patients to take their medication.

When Samira joined her family in the United States in 2005, she refused to eat for nearly a month, her brother, Yahya, said. Sometimes Samira would get angry and have fainting spells, but her condition was remedied through prayer, her brother recalled.

When she was gone, contact with her was sporadic. In the fall of 2008 her younger sister, Bisharo Iman, said she met with Samira at a motel where she was staying temporarily. At that time, her sister didn’t want to come home to the family and declined their offer to rent an apartment for her.

For the Iman family, language and cultural barriers made it even more difficult in dealing with the bureaucratic challenges many families face in caring for a loved one with mental illness.

About a month before Samira returned home, Yahya spent the day trying to find his sister at her last known address: a church-run shelter. A worker there told him Samira’s social worker placed her in a group home for the mentally ill. He went downtown to find her. But like other trips to Stearns County Human Services, he came up empty. He said that he was told by Stearns County Human Services officials that privacy laws prevented them from discussing her case with the family. His mother had been there the day before and was told the same thing.

Sue Abderholden, of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Minnesota, said releasing some information against the client’s wishes is not against the law. She said many counties believe it is, but even so, they could still help the family. But on the other hand, if someone has dementia, the hospital will make efforts to contact the family.

It is unclear what steps the county took over the past two years to put Samira in touch with her family. When asked about this, Stearns County Human Services Community Support Division Director Janet Reigstad said she was “unable to give any information on this case due to restrictions of government data privacy act.”

After Samira returned home, her mother, Mano Dhuhul, began the process of getting legal guardianship of her. That would give her a say in her daughter’s life when dealing with social workers and health providers. Dhuhul speaks a little English, but relies on her kids to interpret for her. She sometimes regrets coming to the United States. “Back home, we had the power to do something,” Dhuhul said.

Dhuhul knows her daughter is not well. She paces around and around and laughs inappropriately. She doesn’t eat “normally,” the family says. In some ways, her condition seems worse than before she went missing, Dhuhul said. Despite all this, Dhuhul is hopeful that she will recover and be able to work again.

Yahya visits his sister regularly. The family hasn’t taken her to a priest yet, but everyday Samira listens to a CD of an priest reading the Koran.

“I feel good now, she’s safe in our hands,” he said.

11-27

Roxana Saberi’s Release Bodes Well for U.S.-Iran Relations

May 14, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By William O. Beeman, New America Media

2009-05-12T113428Z_01_TEH102_RTRMDNP_3_IRAN-USA-JOURNALIST Roxana Saberi, the 32-year-old Iranian-American journalist convicted of espionage in Iran has been released to her family, and will soon return to the United States.

While her international community of family, colleagues and friends can rejoice in her release, it was predictable from the moment of her arrest, based on the history of such events in Iran in the past.

Although no one will know for sure exactly how events proceeded against her, it is possible to speculate how Saberi’s arraignment and trial developed.

The espionage charges against Saberi were utterly unfounded. They were likely the result of an escalation within the Iranian judicial system as official after official tried to cover their tracks for a series of abortive attempts to charge her with a crime.

She was first detained for the relatively minor offense of having purchased a bottle of wine. Since religious minorities in Iran are allowed to manufacture, sell and consume alcohol, the country is awash in liquor. It is easily obtainable by everyone—even government officials. Most likely the arresting official did not know that Saberi was an American passport holder born in the United States, and was probably chagrined to discover that this case was likely to create international brouhaha.

A more serious charge was then sought to justify the first arrest. The discovery that her press credentials had expired some months earlier provided that opportunity. Saberi had continued to file stories for a number of American news outlets, reportedly because officials assured her that the expiration of her press pass was inconsequential. Since she could demonstrate that Iranian officials had allowed her to continue writing, this charge would also not hold water.

Finally, the serious charge of espionage was lodged. As foolish and unsubstantiated as this charge was, it was plausible in Iran. Rumors that American CIA operatives were active in Iran were widely promulgated in Iran. These suspicions were reinforced through extensive documentation found in New York Times reporter James Risen’s 2006 book “State of War.” Additionally, on April 4, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz confirmed an earlier rumor that an Iranian nuclear scientist had been assassinated by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, inside Iran.

Iran experienced one horrendous situation involving a foreigner arrested for spying in Iran in 2003. Canadian-Iranian Zahra Kazemi was raped, beaten and tortured to death (although Iranian authorities claimed she died of a stroke) for allegedly having photographed prohibited parts of Evin Prison, where she was later incarcerated. Her death caused an international uproar. The Iranian government, clearly badly burned by the Kazemi case has since been careful to make sure that her situation is not repeated.

Foreigners — dual nationals — accused of espionage have been held for a time, usually in conspicuously humane circumstances, while the government wrings as much publicity out of the event as possible for a domestic and regional audience. The accused prisoners are then released in a show of clemency.

This was the case with Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Ms. Efandiari was visiting her 90-year-old mother in 2006 when she was arrested. It is likely that her connection to Lee Hamilton, director of the Wilson Center, made her an object of suspicion. Hamilton had long connections to the CIA and to groups promoting democratic revolutions in places like Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

Kian Tajbakhsh was arrested at about the same time on the same charges. Tajbakhsh worked for George Soros’ Open Society Institute. Soros had also been active in the same “revolutions” in the region.

Both Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh were held under relatively humane circumstances and released some months later.

The Iranian presidential election next month was also a likely reason for a quick dispensation of Saberi’s case. Iran would like the world to focus on the election, and not on an ongoing saga of an international journalist in their prison system.

In the Saberi case, Iran actually did itself some good. It showed that it had a functioning judicial system—however imperfect—with an appeals process that eventually yielded the correct result.

The Obama administration, by engaging in diplomacy and sober statements of concern regarding Saberi, not only aided the process of her release, but likely set the stage for further improved relations between the United States and Iran. We now have a situation where Iran undertook an action of which the United States disapproved. The United States expressed itself in a non-hostile manner, and the Iranian government responded with a positive redress of that action. This bodes well for future U.S.-Iranian relations. It is only regrettable that this had to come at the price of Saberi’s unjust incarceration.

William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He is past president of the Middle East section of the American Anthropological Association. He has lived and worked in Iran for more than 30 years. His most recent book is The “’Great Satan’ vs. the ‘Mad Mullahs’: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other” (University of Chicago Press, 2008).

Is the U.S. Experiencing its First Brain Drain?

April 2, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Courtesy New America Media, Vivek Wadhwa

brain_drain Editor’s Note: When high-skilled immigrants and foreign students completing their degrees in the United States both consider returning to their home countries, it might be a sign that the United States is experiencing its first brain drain in history. NAM contributing writer Vivek Wadhwa has been tracking the effects of globalization on labor markets as a professor at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering and Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program. Immigration Matters regularly features the views of immigration experts and advocates.

The USA has long served as a magnet for the world’s talented scientists, engineers and mathematicians. But, this trend may now be reversing and the United States may be experiencing the first brain drain in its history.

Between 1990 and 2007, the proportion of immigrants in the US labor force increased from 9.3 percent to 15.7 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Approximately 45 percent of the growth of the workforce over this period consisted of immigrants.

They came for the traditional reasons – education, professional opportunities, a chance at a better life. With them, many of these immigrants brought high levels of education and advanced skills. As a result, immigrants have contributed disproportionately to the most dynamic part of the U.S. economy — the high-tech sector. In Silicon Valley, over 50 percent of the startups over the last decade have had an immigrant as a chief executive or lead technologist. Immigrants have co-founded firms such as Google, eBay, Intel and Yahoo, to name a few.

Now many are going back. While the economic downturn has caused a rise in xenophobia and the enactment of populist legislation to restrict the hiring of foreign nationals by some financial institutions, the economies of India and China have been rising. Some of the most highly skilled workers in American corporations are returning to the lands where they were born and foreign students who would normally be the next generation of U.S. science and engineering workers are buying one-way tickets home.

There are no hard numbers available, but anecdotal evidence suggests a sizeable reverse migration of skilled talent is in progress. Our team of academics at Duke, UC Berkeley and Harvard interviewed hundreds of company executives, surveyed more than 1,000 foreign students and more than 1,000 returnees, and made multiple trips to India and China to understand the trend.

What we learned should alarm policy-makers who are concerned about long-term U.S. competitiveness.

The average age of the skilled workers we located was in the low 30s, and more than 85 percent had advanced degrees — precisely the type of people that the United States needs to fuel economic recovery. Among the strongest factors cited by these ex-immigrants as a reason for coming to the United States were professional and educational development opportunities. Ironically, this was the same reason they returned home. And, they had advanced their careers in the process.

Respondents reported that they have moved up the organizational chart by returning home. Only 10 percent of the Indian returnees held senior management positions in the United States, but 44 percent found jobs at this level in India. Chinese returnees went from 9 percent in senior management in the United States to 36 percent in China. Opportunities for professional advancement were considered to be better at home than in the United States by 61 percent of Indians and 70 percent of Chinese. These groups also felt that opportunities to start a business were significantly better in their home countries.

Surprisingly, visa status was not the most important factor determining their decision to return home — even U.S. citizens and permanent residents were returning home. Three out of four indicated that considerations regarding their visa or residency permit status did not contribute to their decision to return to their home country. In fact, 27 percent of Indian respondents and 34 percent of Chinese held permanent resident status or were U.S. citizens. In addition to job opportunities, the returnees we surveyed were lured by social factors such as closeness to friends and ability to care for aging parents.

The rationale for returnees moving home was echoed by responses of surveyed foreign nationals currently enrolled in U.S. universities. These groups have traditionally represented a disproportionate percentage per capita of advanced degree students. During the 2004–2005 academic year, roughly 60 percent of engineering doctoral students and 40 percent of master’s degree students were foreign nationals, and foreign nationals made up a significant share of the U.S. graduate student population in all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine) disciplines.

In the past, the overwhelming majority of these students worked in the United States after graduation. The five-year stay rate for Chinese holding Ph.D.s has been 92 percent and for Indians 85 percent. Most end up staying permanently. Yet, the overall consensus among students we surveyed was that the United States was no longer the destination of choice for their professional careers.

Most students in our sample wanted to stay in the United States, but only for short periods. Among respondents, 58 percent of Indian, 54 percent of Chinese, and 40 percent of European students said that they would stay in the United States for at least a few years after graduation, if given the chance. However, only 6 percent of Indian, 10 percent of Chinese, and 15 percent of European students said they wanted to stay permanently. The largest group of respondents— 55 percent of Indian, 40 percent of Chinese, and 30 percent of European students— wants to return home within five years.

Visa concerns were more evident among students. More than three-fourths of these students expressed concern about obtaining work visas, and close to that number worry that they will not be able to find U.S. jobs in their field. Few said they found anything but a warm reception here from the American people. But their concern over work visas could only have been exacerbated by the ongoing attempts to curtail work possibilities for foreign nationals in the United States.

Further, the students’ assessment of their individual opportunities mirrored their view for the future of the U.S. economy. The survey found that only 7 percent of Chinese students, 9 percent of European students, and 25 percent of Indian students believe that the best days of the U.S. economy lie ahead. Conversely, 74 percent of Chinese students and 86 percent of Indian students believe that the best days for their home countries’ economies lie ahead.

The anti-immigrant groups will no doubt celebrate the departure of foreigners. But the impact of a reverse brain drain could potentially be profound and long lasting for the United States. The country is effectively exporting its economic stimulus.

Vivek Wadhwa co-authored his survey of returnees (http://www.kauffman.org/newsroom/united-states-losing-immigrants-who-spur-innovation-and-economic-growth.aspx) and foreign students (http://www.kauffman.org/newsroom/foreign-national-students-in-united-states-plan-to-return-to-native-countries.aspx) with the Kauffman Foundation.

11-15

Middle East Hit by U.S. Financial Crisis

October 16, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

Courtesy New America Media, Shane Bauer

Editor’s Note: Even oil-rich Arab countries, which until recently were smug about being insulated from the financial debacle on Wall Street, are starting to worry. Analysts are predicting that they are sure to increase regulations and start pulling their economies away from the United States. NAM contributor Shane Bauer is a journalist and photographer based in the Middle East.

Stock traders in the Middle East

SANA’A, Yemen–While Washington was hashing out the terms of its largest financial bailout in history, Arab bankers were saying everything in the Middle East was as good as ever.

A full-page ad in one Middle Eastern magazine advertised a proposed business park called Falcon City, another fantasy land to add to the skyscrapers and glitter of oil-rich Dubai. Office buildings were shaped to resemble the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Egypt, and the Taj Mahal.

“As a residential or business address, each wonder is a totally amazing investment,” the caption read.

A few days later, the same newsstands spelled dread. Images of fear-stricken men in white robes and kafiyyas, their eyes fixed on strings of red numbers, splashed the front pages. Headlines announced that the Middle East’s markets were crashing, and columnists spit fire, calling on the Arab world to free itself “from the shackles of American imperialism.”

The degree to which Arab investors, which have some $800 billion invested internationally, will rein in their international investments will likely depend on how heavily they are impacted by the crisis. But analysts say that at the very least, Arab countries are sure to increase regulations and start pulling their economies away from the United States.

“U.S. influence has long been waning, both in its capacity to inspire and to intimidate,” says David Levy, senior fellow and director of the Middle East Initiative at the Washington, D.C., think tank the New America Foundation. “The region has been increasingly looking elsewhere for investments and markets. The crisis on Wall Street will only hasten that process.”

2008-10-12T102958Z_01_DUB09_RTRMDNP_3_DFM-LIMITDOWN But Arab analysts say the United States was becoming increasingly unattractive for investment well before the financial crisis hit. Washington had rejected several investment attempts in recent years by Arab companies on the basis that they were, well, Arab.

The last rejection came when some Gulf companies showed interest in investing nearly $20 billion to help save Citi Group and Merrill Lynch when they were initially threatened with bankruptcy. The deal was stopped in Congress when opponents said an increase in Arab investment in the United States would present a national security problem.

As Arab stock markets fall for their third day since reopening after a one-week post-Ramadan holiday, one thing is clear: those with the most open markets and the strongest ties to the U.S. economy are being hit the hardest.

In the past three days alone, banks in the Persian Gulf have lost about $150 billion. On Tuesday, the Tadawul All-Shares Index, home to the Arab world’s biggest market, finished at its lowest close in four years.

Countries that last week were saying that their economies were “insulated” from international financial disasters are now bailing out their banks. The central bank of the United Arab Emirates pumped $17.5 billion into its banks this week and said it is ready to give more if needed.

Jan Randolph, an economic analyst at Global Insight, says that “Arab investors and banks are going to start looking locally for investments.”

The president of the Union of Arab Banks, Adnan Yusif, has announced that there needs to be an increase in regional investment, and economists have been calling for a meeting of financial ministers and policy makers to come up with a regionwide plan to deal with the crisis.

But inter-Arab economic cooperation might not be easy. The Middle East is home to some of the world’s most closed economies, like Syria, as well as countries whose names are virtually synonymous with unfettered growth, like the United Arab Emirates.

Antagonisms over competing economic ideologies run deep in the Arab world, and the current crisis seems to be reigniting debates about how much regional economies should be bound to the global economy.

“If this crisis does send real shockwaves through the region, and you start seeing that economies more closed to the world are more protected, people might start seeing open economies as a double-edged sword,” says David Levy.

Masa’ad al-Kurdi of the Saudi-owned Al-Majella magazine writes that neo-liberal globalization is to blame for the crisis. “The developing world’s economies are dependent on the U.S., the world’s largest importer, to buy their exports,” he argues. As the dollar weakens, “developing countries are going to pay the most,” writes Al-Kurdi, who concludes that “the United States of America is driving the world into the abyss.”

10-43

Islam in the Polls: Muslims Can Change Negative Views with Deeds

April 24, 2006 by · Leave a Comment 

Islam in the Polls: Muslims Can Change Negative Views With Deeds
By Hasan Zillur Rahim, Apr 17, 2006
Editor’s Note: Recent polls show that increasing numbers of Americans hold negative views of Islam. That isn’t surprising, writes New America Media contributor Hasan Rahim, considering which Muslims get all the press. Rahim writes on Islamic issues and has been an editor of Iqra, a national Islamic magazine.
SAN FRANCISCO—Americans know more about Islam than ever before — and they don’t like what they see.
A new CBS News poll conducted in early April suggests that 45 percent of Americans hold negative views of Islam, compared to 33 percent in the tense aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in March also showed a growing number of Americans (46 percent) expressing unfavorable opinions of Islam.
The situation has become so bleak that Muslim religious leaders sought the help of a Nobel Laureate to stem this rising tide of negativity. The Dalai Lama, 71, led leaders from Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Native American traditions at “A Gathering of Hearts Illuminating Compassion” conference in San Francisco recently. The leaders appealed to Americans not to equate Islam with terrorism.
What makes these polls so scary for Muslims is that the queried Americans confirmed that they were better informed about Islam now than they were five years ago.
In other words, despite all the mosque open houses, outreach and interfaith programs, books and articles on Islam, the idea that increased knowledge will lead to greater tolerance toward Islam and Muslims has become more elusive than ever.
Is there a contradiction here? Not really, if you think about it.
Consider the situation from the point of view of an average American.
During the week of April 10-16 alone (a remarkable convergence of Passover, Easter and the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday), the average American learned that Zacarias Moussaoui, the Al Qaeda terrorist, had “no regrets, no remorse” for the nearly 3,000 people killed on Sept. 11, 2001.
There is the consistent horror of Sunnis and Shias dismembering each other in Iraq and Pakistan, always when the gathering is large, as during the Friday congregational prayers.
There is also the daily genocide that the Muslim janjaweed militia wages against the indigenous tribes of Darfur, Sudan, most of whom are also Muslims but of darker skins.
Yes, most Muslims are as outraged by these horrors as the average American in question. But isn’t it too much to expect that this typical American will continue to be reassured by our words (the fanatics are not of us and we are not of them, and besides, every faith has its fanatics) while the horrific deeds continue unabated?
He sees what Muslims are doing to Muslims, how some of them are spewing murderous hatred for the West, and while he may hold his own country responsible for the catastrophe in Iraq, it does not diminish his growing conviction that Muslims are disproportionately prone to violence. Talk of peace and harmony can only go so far; he is more persuaded by the grim reality on the ground.
In the same week, however, quiet (and recurring) events of different sorts were taking place throughout America, far removed from the gaze of the mainstream media.
In a crime-infested neighborhood in East Oakland, Calif., for example, two Muslims stand at a street corner, giving out free popcorn and cotton candy to passersby. Their only goal is to spread some cheer and hope to their down-trodden neighbors. With help from their activist friends from the nearby mosque Masjid Al-Islam, they host year-round soup kitchens for the poor and the hungry.
We also learn that Habibe Husain, founder of Rahima Foundation, has received the Human Relations award of California’s Santa Clara County. Her organization distributes clothes, food and other necessities to the less fortunate residents of Silicon Valley and adjoining areas since 1993.
In cities like Sacramento, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Tampa Bay and Atlanta, local Muslim doctors provide poor and uninsured residents with free medical care. And through organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Muslims also volunteer their time and skills to build homes for the homeless.
Is average American aware of these “events?” Perhaps not. After all, we Muslims providing humanitarian services are doing so not to enhance our standing in the polls, but as a religious calling to help the less fortunate.
But these acts do teach us an important lesson. While it is undeniable that there is a need to educate Americans about Islam and Muslims, perhaps our efforts will go further if more of us engaged in deeds rather than words.
Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, an act of charity is worth a thousand sermons. So here’s a humble suggestion to my fellow American Muslims: Let’s cut down on the number of seminars and conferences at our local mosques by about half, and replace them with charitable acts that help the homeless, the needy and the destitute. That will require more effort than writing a check or listening to an Imam expound on the same tired topic. But in the end, it will make us better Muslims.
Perhaps it will even improve our standing in the eyes of our fellow Americans.