Sunday, July 31, 2005

"Taxation without representation"

One thing I think is really interesting about DC are the license plates coz they say, "Taxation Without Representation." DC which stands for "District of Columbia" is just that, so it's not considered a state and thus has no representation in Congress, except for an appointed delegate in the House of Representatives that can debate on issues but can't vote. Thus, people who live in the city pay taxes but are not represented, which I think is really unfair! So, while the District's official motto is "Justitia omnibus" (Justice to all), the words "Taxation Without Representation" were added to DC license plates in 2000 and there is a current movement to the add the words "No Taxation Without Representation" to the DC flag - the DC flag is one of the few things under direct local control without requiring approval from Congress.

Since it's the nation's capital, all the states have streets named after them in the city. I have not had the chance to visit Minnesota Avenue yet, which is also a metro stop. I'm really fortunate that my dorm is located right on Capitol Hill by Constitution Avenue, so I get to see the Capitol building everyday on my way to work. I have to admit, that no matter how many times I see it, I'm still awed by its beauty. Living here has allowed me to see politics in action which is really fascinating especially witnessing the rare moments when Republicans & Democrats work together on some issues. I'll never forget something that one of my professors once said: no matter how bitter & deeply divided the 2000 & 2004 elections were, the transition of power was still peaceful. This may sound cheesy, but it makes me grateful that I live in a country where that is possible.

I also get a chance to walk by the Supreme Court & the Library of Congress daily - when I think of how it was this Court that was responsible for things like giving women the right to vote or enforce de-segregation in the South, it is a very humbling experience & makes me realize that I'm a mere blip in this country's history. The city's architecture is beautiful - most government buildings are designed in Greek & Roman styles. What I love looking at are the residential homes because unlike in suburbs, they all look different. Some of them were built in the 1800 & 1900's, so they're really old - my favorite ones are red brick homes, and as I walk past these houses, I know they all have a story to tell & wonder what kind of historical treasures lay within them.

A favorite hangout in my neighborhood on the weekends is Eastern Market. Basically, it's like a bazaar where people put up stalls selling everything from fruits and vegetables, to African jewellery, to Indian shirts, to candles and flowers. There is a flea market every Sunday where you can browse through some cool antique furniture or old posters or junkie collector's items. I love the festive atmosphere here and enjoy the shopping more than in malls because many times, the items you buy are hand made or fair trade - yes, I know I'm a geek! A few weeks ago, my friend & I stumbled upon this really cute used old bookstore in an old house that was stacked with books all the way to the ceiling, even in the bathroom! Although DC has it's share of the usual corporate stores and restaurant/coffee shop franchises (a Starbucks at almost every block!!), there are many local options to explore too, which is refreshing & fun.

I think it's really ironic that I wrote my post on realistic idealism a day before the London bombings. I have to admit that after that incident and the violence in Egypt, I have been really down & just feel like crying sometimes - at times, I'm so confused & have a million questions but don't know who to turn to, which can be really frustrating. At a moment when I thought things could not get any worse, they did. The fact that the London bombers were British was disturbing but also proves something I have said many times - many Muslim communities lack visionary leaders who can foster political, social and economic means to address problems & frustrations. It's sad that it takes tragedies like these to serve as "wake-up" calls that these are not problems that happen "somewhere out there" but can hit close to home.

But not all is lost - I hope that just as many American Muslims were propelled into political activism after 9/11, the same will be true for British Muslims. I was at a Muslim Student Network banquet last week & it was heartening to see so many Muslims interning or working for a variety of organizations in the city. It was really cool to have two special keynote speakers - one, an elected Muslim council member from Texas & the other, our very own Congresswoman McCollum from MN's 4th District (Go Betty - thanks to Mohamed Sabur).

Last week, I also had an opportunity to visit the National Cathedral to listen to the National Symphony Orchestra play. The cathedral is a beautiful Gothic structure that reminded me of Westminster Abbey in London. I don't know whether it was the sonorous notes from the organ, the breathtaking architecture or the serenity of the place, but as I marveled at the magnificence of God, for a brief and rare moment, my mind was at peace...


Saturday, July 30, 2005

Happy Anniversary

Today marks the one-year anniversary of my blog - I can't believe it has been so long! All I can say is that it has truly been a pleasure to be part of the blogging community. My blog has been through several changes, and I'm going to make one more: although the colors will remain the same (purple for personal notes, red for copied text), I'm going to bring down the font to normal size instead of the large it is at now). Enjoy!


Thursday, July 28, 2005

Harry Potter & the "War on Terror"...

... or whatever the new name the Bush Administration has concocted!

I started reading Harry Potter in March because after a rough day at work, I was looking for some light reading. I have to admit, I got hooked and borrowed the rest of the series from my dorm mates and am now a big fan! I think Rowling is a brilliant writer and really admire her for her creativity in writing about a world that does not exist. I also am impressed by her foresight because as I read her later books, I realized that she had dropped hints about a particular situation in the first or second books.

Anyway, the plot in her books started getting a lot darker from the 4th book onwards. As I was reading the 5th & 6th ones, I remember thinking, "Wow, this sounds a lot like the political situation in this country today - people being detained in prisons without being charged, personal mail being screened, rules being passed violating civil liberties and familes being torn apart which side to support!" So, this morning, I get to work and my supervisor tells me the exact same thing & found this interesting article that was written on Slate a few days ago on When Harry Met Osama:

In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Voldemort takes up terrorism. The Dark Lord and his Death Eaters—who had gained strength in the earlier installments and have finally arrived in force—use their newfound power to spread fear in familiar ways. They destroy bridges. They murder innocents. They compel children to kill their elders. (They're also behind a magical and destructive hurricane. Does J.K. Rowling know something we don't?)

The response of the wizarding world also rings a few bells. The Ministry of Magic issues pamphlets on "Protecting Your Home and Family Against Dark Forces." Fred and George Weasley's shop makes a mint selling Shield Cloaks, which protect their wearers from harm. The new Minister of Magic jails an innocent man, hoping to stave off panic and create the impression that he's taking action. And Harry, Hermione, and Ron greet the morning paper with a familiar sense of dread: "Anyone we know dead?"

What is J.K. Rowling up to here? Is she criticizing the War on Terror or simply using it as a plot device? In some scenes, she does take jabs at the Bush and Blair administrations. The Ministry of Magic's security pamphlet, for example, recalls the much-scorned TIPS program: "Should you feel that a family member, colleague, friend or neighbor is acting in a strange manner, contact the Magical Law Enforcement Squad at once." And Harry has a telling confrontation with the Minister of Magic, who thinks that in the battle against Voldemort, perceptions matter most. "If you were to be seen popping in and out of the Ministry from time to time," he tells Harry, "that would give the right impression. ... It would give everyone a lift to think you were more involved." Harry refuses. He doesn't want to endorse the ministry when it's sending innocent men to Azkaban—the wizard penitentiary that becomes, in this installment, a stand-in for Gitmo. "It's your duty to check that people really are Death Eaters before you chuck them in prison," Harry says.

These moments elicit grim smiles of recognition and have led some bloggers to label Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince an anti-American screed. But close reading of the book suggests that Rowling's motives are more authorial than political. She's not using Harry to make points about terrorism. She's using terrorism to make points about Harry. Rowling culls the scariest elements of modern life and uses them as a kind of shorthand, a quick way to instill fear.

In many ways, this strategy makes sense. Half-Blood Prince is 200 pages shorter than the installment that preceded it, in part because Rowling does not spend as much time inventing bogeymen and describing how they frighten us. Instead she uses small touches here and there—the dismal tidings in The Daily Prophet, the escalating instances of parental panic—to evoke a fear that her readers have already felt. This new approach is powerful. In 1998, when the first Harry Potter book came out, Voldemort was a fantastical villain, a symbol of evil in the abstract. Today, however, as we substitute for our abstract fear of Voldemort the very real fear we've felt in our own immolated cities, the new book resonates in ways that the old ones have not.

It is hard not to wonder, though, whether making the books more timely will make them less timeless. Critics have been atwitter about Harry Potter lately. Some believe the books belong alongside the classics of children's literature. Others scoff that Hogwarts is no Narnia—that the world Rowling has imagined is narrowly conceived and filled with too many cheap references to our own. Reading the Half-Blood Prince today, Rowling's references to terrorism don't feel cheap. They feel terrifying. But how will they read in 50 years?

In the long run, Rowling may wish she hadn't relied so much on current events. Because the book plays on a very particular set of fears, it may begin to seem dated as time goes by. Which is a shame, because Rowling is more than capable of creating enduring villains. Her best are the soul-sucking dementors that first appear in The Prisoner of Azkaban. These ghouls are vividly drawn and very scary. "Get too near a dementor," she writes, "and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. ... You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life." With the dementor, Rowling managed to make a convincing thug out of depression itself. It is inspired creations like these that win readers over and make books last. Let's hope—for Rowling's sake, if not for Harry's—that it is she, and not Osama Bin Laden, who scares our pants off in the final installment.

Julia Turner is a Slate associate editor. You can e-mail her at


The bias against Madressahs

I found this BBC article very interesting as it tries to give an insider's view on what some madressahs are really about - although, I wish they had interviewed some women (unless unavailable) and I do think that religious education is not enough and needs to be balanced with education from all the sectors of life - something Islam strongly recommends as indicated by various verses from the Holy Qur'an and the sayings of the Holy Prophet & his family. I went to a Shia madressah in Dubai for about 10 years and think I turned out pretty ok! I'm not saying that there aren't any out there that teach very extremist views, but not all of them should be branded as evil. It was funny but I have been expressing some interest in attending Al-Mahdi Institute - an Islamic academic learning center in Birmingham, UK, that focuses on high level Islamic education with a Shia focus. When I mentioned this to one of my dorm mates, she looked at me and said something like, "That's great as long as you don't become a fanatic or anything!"

From BBC Online:

Attention has fallen on the role of madrassas, or Islamic religious schools, following evidence that one of the London bombers may have attended one.

Five young Muslims attending madrassas in Pakistan and Kashmir spoke to BBC Urdu Interactive about studying in the religious institutions and how they compare to secular education.

HAFIZ RAHMANULLAH, Shamshtoo refugee camp, Peshawar

I am Afghan but have been living at Shamshtoo refugee camp for the last 18 years.

When former USSR forces invaded Afghanistan, our family migrated to Pakistan and stayed at Shamshtoo camp, about 30km east of Peshawar City.

I recently completed Hiffaz [learnt the Koran by heart].

The seminary I attend was founded by famous Jihadi leader Maulvi Younas Khalis, the chief of Hizb-i-Islami, many years ago. More than 200 students, all Afghans, are studying with us.

Besides Hiffaz, the madrassa offers other Islamic subjects such as Islamiyat, Arabic grammar [surf wa nahoo], Usool-e-Fiqa, Hadith, Usool Hadith, Muntaq [logic], mathematics and English.

All these subjects are studied at a detailed level but English and mathematics are only learnt partly.

The religious seminaries in Pakistan are accused of being centres of terrorist activities and producing anti-Western and anti-American clerics.

But these accusations are totally baseless, unfounded and highly exaggerated.

There is no truth in these reports. We have even no time to spend on these useless things.

I have been in Hijrat madrassa for eight years and I swear that I have never noticed any special sermon or other activities against the West or America.

MUHAMMAD HASHIM, Madrassa Tajweedul Quran, Hangu

I am 13 years old. I come from Bagato village a few kilometres away from Hangu city. I was admitted to the Madrassa Tajweedual Quran two years ago.

The Holy Koran is comprised of 30 chapters and I have learnt seven chapters by heart so far.

My father is a mullah and he wants me to become a mullah like him.

I have a religious background. My grandfather was a mullah of Bagato village. He taught my father religious education and he is now the imam of a mosque in our village.

Our family is made up of three brothers and two sisters. My older brothers are studying in regular schools but my father has taught them the basics of an Islamic education.

I have also learnt about computers which is a very useful thing but unfortunately there is no computer in our madrassa.

I want to become a computer expert.

My father says that school education is now becoming necessary for madrassa students because the world is rapidly progressing and Muslims are far behind in some present-day subjects.

We have to answer for all our actions before God, so we should lead a peaceful life and obey orders of Allah Almighty and teachings of the last Prophet Muhammad.

Muslims will remain in decline if they do not stand together on one platform.

SHAKIRUR RAHMAN, Daraul Uloom-e-Islamia Hunfia, Peshawar

In the world today Muslims are being targeted everywhere. Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq are the places where innocent Muslims are being massacred and defamed.

I do not support the terrorist attacks.

Just take the example of Guantanamo Bay. A few copies of the Koran were put in the toilet.

I think desecration of any holy book whether it is of Christians, Jews or Muslims is an act to be greatly condemned.

I lived in the Eastern Ningarhar province, Afghanistan. Our family has four bothers and three sisters. My father is a government official at Jalalabad.

Learning the Koran by heart was my desire. My father is not a cleric but he is a religious-minded man and he supported me when I expressed a wish to be religiously educated.

Now restrictions are being imposed on religious seminaries. No one will oppose these changes if the outdated system is replaced with a new and modern one.

Seminaries should be required to register and a regulatory authority should set up to monitor their work.

But will any government assure that America and other Western powers refrain from anti-Muslim activities?

ABDUL BASEER, Leepa Valley, Kashmir

I quit the regular school in Class Nine. I believe my life at regular school was without any aim.

There was no respect for others.

I had even given up showing respect for my parents.

However, after joining this seminary, Islam gave me a lot. Here, I learnt to respect humanity, to respect my parents and other elders.

I believe that the seminary students have a far more positive attitude towards their country and humanity compared to the students of regular schools.

I am learning the Koran, Hadith [teachings of the Prophet of Islam other than the Koran], Fiqqah [study of Islamic jurisprudence] and many other Islamic subjects. I also regularly play sport.

I am in the fourth stage here and have to study for four more years before getting a degree.

This seminary is dearer to me than my own home - I have my friends here.

I would like to get a degree in law from the International Islamic University in Islamabad after completing my education here. Then I will go back home.

I come from a very backward area and the people do not know much about religion. I will try to introduce a system of learning in my village which caters for both religious and secular education.

We, the students of religious schools, have a positive attitude towards world affairs.

Just because I do not watch television does not mean I do not know anything about global events.

Our seminary has newspapers, computers and the internet and the students all discuss world affairs.


I had a regular education up to the fifth class. Then I quit that school and learnt the Holy Koran by heart.

I felt that the education system in our country was very outdated and not capable of creating good human beings. The system could make a man literate but not a good human being.

I joined a religious school to become a good human being.

After completing my education here, I want to introduce a similar education system where my family comes from so students can receive both religious and general education.

We are learning different subjects here - the more important being the study of the Koran and Hadith.

Our seminary also teaches computer studies and I have learnt the basics of computer science.

You might have come across newspaper reports saying that graduates commit suicide because of unemployment. But you would never hear that about a seminary graduate. This is because God helps them and they are never reduced to starvation.

All our politicians and political leaders are highly educated but they have given nothing to the country - most of them are involved in corruption.

However, if they had been trained as religious scholars those people would not act in a corrupt manner.

I can explain the Koran to the world in a very effective way.

This education has given me confidence.

My present course lasts for eight years and I have to study for three more years to complete it.

The type of education we are getting here is not meant to give us a big post. Rather, it is aimed to make us capable of serving the people.

I will set up my own institute to educate poor children.


U.S. Muslims issue anti-terrorism 'fatwa'

From Yahoo News:

Top U.S. Muslim scholars issued a "fatwa," or religious edict, against terrorism on Thursday and called on Muslims to help authorities fight the scourge of militant violence.

The fatwa was part of efforts by U.S. Muslims to counter perceived links between Islam and terrorism and avert any negative backlash after this month's bombings by suspected Islamic extremists in London and Egypt.

"Having our religious scholars side by side with our community leaders leaves no room for anybody to suggest that Islam and Muslims condone or support any forms or acts of terrorism," said Esam Omeish, president of the Muslim American Society, one of the groups which announced the fatwa.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said it was the first time Muslims in North America had issued an anti-terrorism edict, although they had repeatedly condemned such acts of violence.

American Muslims this month launched a nationwide advertising campaign in which they declared that those who committed terrorism in the name of Islam were betraying the teachings of the Koran.

Muslim organizations say they have not so far detected any widespread reaction against their community after the most recent bombings.

Hooper said Thursday's religious ruling, issued by the Fiqh Council of North America, said: "We clearly and strongly state (that) all acts of terrorism targeting civilians are 'haram' (forbidden) in Islam."

"It is 'haram' for a Muslim to cooperate with any individual or group that is involved in any act of terrorism or violence, and it is the civic and religious duty of Muslims to cooperate with law enforcement authorities to protect the lives of all civilians," he quoted the ruling as saying.

The Fiqh Council is an association of Islamic legal scholars that interprets Islamic religious law. Hooper said it was the only one of its kind in North America.

Some 130 North American Muslim organizations and leaders have signed and endorsed the fatwa.

Similar anti-terrorism fatwas have been issued by other Muslim communities. After the bombings in London religious leaders from about 500 British mosques issued such an edict and presented it to local politicians.

According to Islam, only responsible, religious authorities which are recognized by a Muslim community may issue fatwas. Many Muslims say extremists such as Osama bin Laden have given these edicts a bad name in the West because they have used them without authorization and to call for acts such as murder.

Because Islam is not based on a world-wide hierarchical structure, the edicts are not globally binding, and only affect the community whose religious leaders have issued the rulings. (additional reporting by Caroline Drees)


Tuesday, July 26, 2005

All Ears for Tom Cruise, All Eyes on Brad Pitt

From NY Times:

Some of us in the news media have been hounding President Bush for his shameful passivity in the face of genocide in Darfur.

More than two years have passed since the beginning of what Mr. Bush acknowledges is the first genocide of the 21st century, yet Mr. Bush barely manages to get the word "Darfur" out of his mouth. Still, it seems hypocritical of me to rage about Mr. Bush's negligence, when my own beloved institution - the American media - has been at least as passive as Mr. Bush.

Condi Rice finally showed up in Darfur a few days ago, and she went out of her way to talk to rape victims and spotlight the sexual violence used to terrorize civilians. Most American television networks and cable programs haven't done that much.

Even the coverage of Ms. Rice's trip underscored our self-absorption. The manhandling of journalists accompanying Ms. Rice got more coverage than any massacre in Darfur has.

This is a column I don't want to write - we in the media business have so many critics already that I hardly need to pipe in as well. But after more than a year of seething frustration, I feel I have to.

Like many others, I drifted toward journalism partly because it seemed an opportunity to do some good. (O.K., O.K.: it was also a blast, impressed girls and offered the glory of the byline.)

But to sustain the idealism in journalism - and to rebut the widespread perception that journalists are just irresponsible gossips - we need to show more interest in the first genocide of the 21st century than in the "runaway bride."

I'm outraged that one of my Times colleagues, Judith Miller, is in jail for protecting her sources. But if we journalists are to demand a legal privilege to protect our sources, we need to show that we serve the public good - which means covering genocide as seriously as we cover, say, Tom Cruise. In some ways, we've gone downhill: the American news media aren't even covering the Darfur genocide as well as we covered the Armenian genocide in 1915.

Serious newspapers have done the best job of covering Darfur, and I take my hat off to Emily Wax of The Washington Post and to several colleagues at The Times for their reporting. Time magazine gets credit for putting Darfur on its cover - but the newsweeklies should be embarrassed that better magazine coverage of Darfur has often been in Christianity Today.

The real failure has been television's. According to monitoring by the Tyndall Report, ABC News had a total of 18 minutes of the Darfur genocide in its nightly newscasts all last year - and that turns out to be a credit to Peter Jennings. NBC had only 5 minutes of coverage all last year, and CBS only 3 minutes - about a minute of coverage for every 100,000 deaths. In contrast, Martha Stewart received 130 minutes of coverage by the three networks.

Incredibly, more than two years into the genocide, NBC, aside from covering official trips, has still not bothered to send one of its own correspondents into Darfur for independent reporting.

"Generally speaking, it's been a total vacuum," said John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group, speaking of television coverage. "I blame policy makers for not making better policy, but it sure would be easier if we had more media coverage."

When I've asked television correspondents about this lapse, they've noted that visas to Sudan are difficult to get and that reporting in Darfur is expensive and dangerous. True, but TV crews could at least interview Darfur refugees in nearby Chad. After all, Diane Sawyer traveled to Africa this year - to interview Brad Pitt, underscoring the point that the networks are willing to devote resources to cover the African stories that they consider more important than genocide.

If only Michael Jackson's trial had been held in Darfur. Last month, CNN, Fox News, NBC, MSNBC, ABC and CBS collectively ran 55 times as many stories about Michael Jackson as they ran about genocide in Darfur.

The BBC has shown that outstanding television coverage of Darfur is possible. And, incredibly, mtvU (the MTV channel aimed at universities) has covered Darfur more seriously than any network or cable station. When MTV dispatches a crew to cover genocide and NBC doesn't, then we in journalism need to hang our heads.

So while we have every right to criticize Mr. Bush for his passivity, I hope that he criticizes us back. We've behaved as disgracefully as he has.


Monday, July 25, 2005

The killing of Jean Charles de Menezes

Although I understand the pressures that security officials are under in trying to catch suspected terrorists, I find it hard to support that killing innocent people is acceptable "just in case." In some ways, the argument is no different than the one to torture prisoners for information that may lead to information about other terrorist activities. I thought about Jean Charles today as I took the subway today carrying my bulky gym bag...I honestly was nervous. Will people think I'm a suspect? Will a security official stop to search me? BBC Online had a great article on this where minorities in London weigh in how they feel & have been treated on the Tube. I'm not saying it's easy, but as democracies that value human rights, actions such as these are simply unacceptable in my opinion.

From Electronic Iraq:

Since news broke that London police cornered a young man on the floor of an Underground train, and, in full view of other passengers, pumped five bullets into his head as he lay on the ground, I have been following the reports with increasing anger and sadness. The four bomb attacks on London on July 7 caused enormous carnage and fear. The attempted follow-up attacks the day before the subway shooting only added to the tension.

In this context, reactions to the killing were muted even after it became known that the dead man was a 27-year-old Brazilian immigrant named Jean Charles de Menezes totally unconnected with any terrorist plot. This caution then seems understandable, and that is prescisely the problem. The fact is that in Western societies, collective guilt for brown people is second-nature. We hardly notice it. There are always plenty of people ready to justify, to understand the "difficult" position of the police. But I just can't believe that all things being equal, de Menezes would be dead if he had blond hair and blue eyes. Perhaps if he had emerged from his house looking like David Beckham, one of the officers would have said, "hang on, are we sure we are watching the right house?" Someone might have asked one additional question that would have stopped the chain of events that ended with five bullets in a young man's head.

As soon as de Menezes' identity had been revealed, various British officials expressed sorrow and regret. But within hours the main theme turned to self-justification and rationalization. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair, expressed "regret," but said that such a shooting could happen again.

The director of the human rights group Liberty called for a "comprehensive" investigation into the killing, but even she urged the public to remember that police had to "make split second decisions" with "life-long consequences." Jack Straw, the UK Foreign Secretary, said on BBC Radio: "It is obviously deeply regrettable but what we have to appreciate is the very intense pressure under which the police officers have to work." Straw added, "We have to ensure that clear rules are operated but we also, tragically, have to ensure that the police do have effective discretion to deal with what could be terrorist suicide outrages about to take place. That's the dilemma."

The director of the human rights group Liberty called for a "comprehensive" investigation into the killing, but even she urged the public to remember that police had to "make split second decisions" with "life-long consequences." Jack Straw, the UK Foreign Secretary, said on BBC Radio: "It is obviously deeply regrettable but what we have to appreciate is the very intense pressure under which the police officers have to work." Straw added, "We have to ensure that clear rules are operated but we also, tragically, have to ensure that the police do have effective discretion to deal with what could be terrorist suicide outrages about to take place. That's the dilemma."

The prevailing "split-second decision" thesis, which has dominated UK press reaction, might be more reasonable if the police had received serious, credible information that de Menezes was a suicide bomber a short time before and really believed they were in hot pursuit of him on his way to carry out an attack. But the claim that the police officers only had a split second to act is contradicted by what is already known. The Observer reported on 24 July that de Menezes' "address in Tulse Hill was identified from materials found inside the bombers' unexploded rucksacks on Thursday and was immediately put under surveillance. When Menezes, dressed in baseball cap, blue fleece and baggy trousers, emerged from it at around 10am on Friday, he was followed. When he headed for the nearby tube station, officers decided to arrest him. An armed unit took over, ordering him to stop. He did not. His unseasonally thick jacket apparently prompted concern that he had explosives strapped beneath."

What is already known, therefore, is that almost 24 hours before they saw de Menezes emerge from his house, police had put it under surveillance based on information they found at the scene of one of the attempted bombings at lunchtime the day before. If the overriding goal of the police is to prevent further attacks, why did they not raid the house right away? They might have discovered sooner what they found out too late -- that de Menezes was totally uninvolved in any terrorist plot. The police clearly had more than a "split-second" to act and they need to explain why they did not act.

Yet, something made the police suspicious between the time de Menezes left his home on Friday morning and the time he ran from an armed squad drawing their guns on him. What was it? Surely de Menezes can't have been the only Londoner to leave his house on Friday morning heading for a Tube stop. We are told that it was his fleece jacket that was "unseasonably thick." Here in Chicago, a thick jacket in July would almost surely be unseasonable, although I often take one out at this time of year because I find the airconditioning in most buildings excessive. But in London? I have frozen through many northern European summers in my life, but perhaps the weather has been hot lately. So far as we have been told, all previous bomb attempts in London, like those in Madrid, were carried out with rucksacks, not suicide belts. Did the police have any reason other than de Menezes' appearance that morning to suspect a change in tactics? Had they searched his house when they had the chance, they might have satisfied themselves that he owned a fleece, but no explosives, without needing to kill him.

There is one crucial fact that has been stunningly absent from all the analysis. De Menezes was a brown man. He could have passed for an Arab or perhaps a Pakistani. To those who pursued and killed him, he must have looked the part of a suicide terrorist. After all, it doesn't appear the police knew anything else about him, even though they had almost 24 hours to find out.

In the United States we have many examples of the police making "split-second decisions" to protect the public. There was Amadou Diallo, shot 41 times by four New York City police officers in 1999, while standing at the door of his house. The officers, who were acquitted of any wrongdoing in Diallo's killing, claimed they thought he had pulled out a gun. Amadou had in fact pulled out a wallet. LaTanya Haggerty, a 26-year old Chicago woman, was shot dead during a routine traffic stop the same year because the officer who killed her said she saw her grabbing a gun. What the officer -- who was also black -- thought was a gun, was a cell phone. Chicago has a long, sad history of such "split-second decisions" and what they all seem to have in common is that the victim was not white. Somehow a wallet, a cell phone or a bunch of keys looks more like a gun in the hands of a black person, and a thick jacket looks more like a suicide belt on a brown man.

The police, in any country at any time, whatever strain they must be under, cannot simply be given a blank check. In London, this is the same police force that was famously called "institutionally racist" by the Macpherson Inquiry carried out after the force's incompetence and negligence meant that the perpetrators of the racially-motivated murder of black British teenager Stephen Lawrence got off scot-free. The 1999 report which found widespread racism at every level of the police, was seen as a turning point in inter-ethnic relations in Britain. While acknowledging some progress, one of the inquiry's advisors, Dr. Richard Stone said in 2004, "In some areas things have got a lot worse, random stops of young black men are now twice as likely as they were five years ago. Today a black man is eight times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police, this is definitely not progress." This is the same police force that shot Jean Charles de Menezes.

As the authorities fighting the "war on terror" claim more and more leeway, Muslim communities feel greater pressure. It is now de rigeur to demand that Muslims living in the west "do more" to root out extremism. Yes, we must all do our part. But it is not clear to me why a British Muslim, who works as a nurse, a bus driver or an accountant, has a greater responsibility or ability to fight Muslim extremists than an ordinary white British youth has to fight the rising tide of racism from groups like the British National Party. The responsibility ought to be the same, and yet it isn't. Muslims are increasingly held collectively responsible for whatever any other Muslim says or does, while members of the dominant society are always allowed their individuality and autonomy. White youths who get involved in anti-racism campaigns are sometimes lauded, but the vast majority who don't are certainly not condemned.

On June 28, an Israeli soldier was convicted in the killing of Tom Hurndall, an unarmed 23-year-old British peace activist, shot while he was assisting Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip in April 2003. Hurndall's death was only a rare example of hundreds of such killings by the Israeli army to lead to a trial and conviction. Initially, Israel lied that Hurndall had been armed. "It took months and months and a lot of pushing by the Hurndall family and the British military attaché before [the investigation] got going," said Jessica Montell director of the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. The problem is that Israel is a country where the tactics of the army are widely justified and rationalized as being the necessary actions of hard-pressed soldiers loyally protecting the country against ruthless terrorists. And the army is allowed to investigate itself. When the victim of these actions is a young westerner like Tom Hurndall, rather than a faceless, nameless Arab, the balloon of impunity can be briefly punctured.

Over the weekend, the Brazlian foreign minister Celso Amorim arrived in London to add his government's full weight to the demands for an independent investigation of de Menezes' killing. It remains to be seen whether the British government will demonstrate the same accountability they demanded of Israel, or whether the attitude that a state defending its citizens against terrorism is entitled do anything it wants with impunity has already sunk in too deeply.

Ali Abunimah is a co-founder of Electronic Iraq.


Sunday, July 24, 2005

Bollywood's Good Girls Learn to Be Bad

Coming from a person who enjoys Bollywood movies once in a while, I totally agree with this article. I always wonder why I still watch them & there are several reasons:

1. I love the language and Hindi movies allow me to retain it
2. I enjoy the music
3. I enjoy the light nature of most Hindi movies
4. It's fun to watch parts of my culture screened in films

However, it is rather disturbing how sexualized Hindi films have become in the past decade. A lot that is featured in the films is not representative of Indians or Indian culture, but I guess the same can be said for Hollywood films too. I distinctly remember of how the social culture around me changed in Dubai with the advent of satellite TV. Most Hindi films revolve around fluffy love stories, although a lot of that is changing with new young directors trying to explore new topics. Is this good or bad? I honestly don't have enough brain cells to analyze that at this moment!

From NY Times:

HALFWAY through "Aitraaz" ("Objection"), a Bollywood take on Barry Levinson's "Disclosure," Sonia grabs hold of Raj. Once upon a time, they were lovers. But when Sonia, an ambitious model, opted for an abortion instead of child and marriage, Raj left her. Now she is his boss. Sonia starts to undress him, whispering, "Show me you are an animal." When he refuses and walks away, she screams: "I'm not asking you to leave your wife. I just want a physical relationship. If I don't have an objection, why should you?"

The actress Priyanka Chopra had a difficult time playing this scene. A former Miss World, Ms. Chopra was a sophisticated, globally feted celebrity and she had prepared for her role by studying the calculated seductiveness of Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct." But on the day that scene was shot, Ms. Chopra broke down and cried. The directors, brothers who go by the hyphenate Abbas-Mustan, had to spend a few hours convincing her that she was only playing a character. Filming didn't start until late afternoon.

Ms. Chopra wasn't just being dramatic. She is a Bollywood actress, and as such, trained to play the role of a virginal glam-doll, not a sexual aggressor. By tradition, a Bollywood heroine is a one-dimensional creation who may wear eye-popping bustiers or writhe passionately during a song in the rain. But she is unfailingly virtuous. Whether girlfriend, wife or mother, she is the repository of Indian moral values. In the ancient epic "Ramayana," the hero Lakshman draws a furrow in the earth, the Line of Lakshman, which represents the limits of proper feminine behavior, and requests that his sister-in-law Sita not step outside it. As if heeding his exhortation, Bollywood heroines have rarely stepped out of line, even for a kiss.

But a decade-long cultural churning has overturned stereotypes in India. In 1991, the threat of fiscal collapse forced the government to introduce wide-ranging economic reforms and allow multinational corporations to operate in India. The same year, satellite television arrived. Today, consumerism, globalization, the proliferation of semiclad bodies in print and television, and the emergence of a more worldly audience have redefined the boundaries of what is permissible. Sex has been pulled out of the closet and actors have become more willing to experiment with their images. The latest Bollywood heroines seem to be taking a page out of Mae West's book: when they are good, they are very good, but when they are bad, they're better.

Mallika Sherawat, 24, a statuesque actress, needed little convincing to step out of the stereotype. Ms. Sherawat made her leading-lady debut in 2003 with "Khwahish" ("Desire"), which grabbed headlines for its 17 kisses. Her follow-up was even steamier. "Murder," released last year, a rehash of Adrian Lyne's "Unfaithful," had her playing a lonely housewife in Bangkok who has a passionate affair with an ex-boyfriend. Ms. Sherawat pushed the edge of the sexual envelope as far as the Indian Censor Board would allow. The lovemaking scenes featured bare backs, cleavage and passionate kissing.

Bolder still was the idea that a respectable upper-middle-class woman could have sexual desires and cheat on her husband - and get away with it. "Murder" made back its investment, approximately $750,000, several times over. Ashish Rajadhyaksha, a senior fellow at the Bangalore-based Center for the Study of Culture and Society, said the film established Ms. Sherawat as an Indian "postfeminist icon." The self-anointed "kissing queen of India" now has bigger ambitions. She plays an Indian princess in a coming Hong Kong movie, "The Myth," starring Jackie Chan. After making a splash on Mr. Chan's arm at the Cannes Film Festival, she is, she says, negotiating with Creative Artists Agency for representation.

Ms. Sherawat's journey from a traditional small-town nobody to an international sex symbol is a modern-day fairy tale that has already had an impact. (For Ms. Sherawat, it also has a downside: She says her father refuses to speak her.) Film studios here in Mumbai are overrun with starlets fiercely trading on their sexuality, and even established actresses are now taking chances. In "Fida" ("Crazy"), released last year, Kareena Kapoor played a scheming hedonist who beguiles her besotted lover into robbing a bank for her. Ms. Kapoor, a fourth-generation star, is Bollywood aristocracy. Her great-grandfather Prithviraj Kapoor was a leading man in the 1940's, and her grandfather (Raj Kapoor), parents, uncles and sister are famous actors. There were audible gasps from audiences when her true character was revealed with a dramatic flourish in "Fida": she steps out of the shower with a man who is not her lover.

Heroines aren't just discovering sex, they are positively reveling in bad behavior. In a forthcoming, still-untitled film, Sushmita Sen, a former Miss Universe, plays a protagonist who "enjoys being negative," she said. "She cheats, lies, sleeps with men, even kills them and gets away with it all. I want to give this bad woman a tremendous conviction. You have to fear her."

Aishwarya Rai also hopes to induce fear. Her ethereal good looks have been immortalized in wax at Madame Tussauds in London. In the July issue of the British magazine Harpers & Queen she is listed as the ninth most beautiful woman in the world. But in "Dhoom 2" ("Cacophony 2") to be shot later this year, she is to play a vamp. Ms. Rai won't comment on how badly her character will behave. "In this film, you can't define heroes and villains, but it's a character I've never played before," she said. "Why get pigeonholed?"

The good-girl heroine isn't the only standard Bollywood type to be transformed. The vamp, Hindi cinema's designated bad girl, was traditionally just as important a part of the typology. She did things that upright Indian girls weren't supposed to do - drink, smoke and have sex - and was usually seen on the villain's arm in garish dens or smoke-filled bars, wearing feather boas and revealing outfits. But in the 70's, a slew of more Westernized actresses appropriated the vamp's glamour for heroines by adopting more flashy clothes and more sexually assertive body language. By the 80's the vamp had disappeared.

A decade later, globalization further scrambled neat moral divisions. "The heroine," says Gyan Prakash, director of the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University, "now dressed by a fashion designer and placed in a consumerist mise en scène, was liberated. She could appear in a club and wear revealing clothes without being coded."

But though she was sexy, she wasn't necessarily having sex. In the last five years, however, the heroine has come full circle and outvamped the vamp. Even the good-girl heroines are becoming more complex. One of the year's biggest is "Bunty aur Bubli," a sanitized "Bonnie and Clyde" about two small-town con artists who go on a looting spree across India. The woman, Bubli, unapologetically uses her sexuality to cheat people. But she is not evil or predatory; she's just looking for a good time. Her disdain for the housewife role she is forced to play is comic: "If I have to make mango pickle one more time, I'll die," she tells the police officer who arrests the couple.

Interpreting the Hindi cinema heroine's latest avatar as a feminist, however, may be stretching the truth a bit. Earlier films like "Hunterwali" ("The Woman With a Whip," 1935) and "Amar Jyoti" ("Eternal Flame," 1936) featured more powerful female images - a whip-wielding, crime-fighting action heroine, and a female pirate who keeps men in captivity.

The scriptwriter Bhavani Iyer dismisses present-day heroines as "naïve attempts to portray reality," but admits that they are preferable to the deified women in earlier films.

They are, in any case, just a beginning. At present, Lakshman's line may be bent out of shape, but it is still visible. The box office occasionally applauds the sexual daring of a Mallika Sherawat, but as the director Karan Johar, who has made several wholesome, family-centered blockbusters, put it, "In Bollywood, the No. 1 position will always be reserved for the girl you can take home to Mom."

That's why most actresses are hedging their bets. Ms. Chopra got rave reviews and awards in "Aitraaz," but she has followed up with good-girl acts. "I'm not sure I can play such a sexually aggressive character again," she says. "My family and friends were very shocked."


Got morality?!

So, today I spend a good part of my day just clearing my Gmail account - I have successfully got my e-mail count from 80 to 9! Most of the e-mails had to do with the Middle East, the problems in the Muslim world & the London bombings. At this moment, my head hurts because I, myself am not sure what the problems are and how to solve them. As a practicing Muslim, I usually feel compelled to know all the answers to all the social ills in Muslim societies so that I can answer my friends and co-workers. But the honest truth is, sometimes, I simply don't know. Like everyone else, I can guess what compelled the 4 British Muslims to blow themselves up in London, but in the end, only God knows what the exact reasons were.

These past few weeks have been particularly emotionally draining for me as I question my identity as a Muslim, what it means and how to work to create ideal Muslim communities. Although I truly believe there is no compulsion in religion, I also believe that Islamic rules & regulations should be enforced in Islamic countries - now, I understand that the various and often misconstructed interpretations have created the problems we face in Muslim countries today, esp the treatment towards women; however, I don't believe that means, we should toss out all our values just to appease a Western approach to "reform."

What makes me say this is a conversation I had with a non-practicing but well-informed Muslim co-worker. She said that if people want to have rampant sex, they should be allowed to because you can't legislate "morality". I disagree. We already legislate moral issues such as murder, theft & other "moral" issues, so who decides which issues should be legislated or not. Even if one doesn't accept irresponsible sexual behavior as a moral issue, what about consequences: physical, psycholgical, social & economic? Again, I don't have the perfect answer but I am not going to accept that people should be able to do as they please because as humans, we err & need rules, else we end up causing much harm.

The response of British authorities in response to the terror acts are as expected, scary - the loss of an innocent life in the "shoot to kill" policy is truly tragic. From the flood of e-mails I receieved on the bombers & the reasons for the attacks, this is one I wanted to share - from The Independent:

That fine French historian of the 1914-18 world conflict, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, suggested not long ago that the West was the inheritor of a type of warfare of very great violence. "Then, after 1945," he wrote, "... the West externalised it, in Korea, in Algeria, in Vietnam, in Iraq... we stopped thinking about the experience of war and we do not understand its return (to us) in different forms like that of terrorism... We do not want to admit that there is now occurring a different type of confrontation..."

He might have added that politicians - and here I'm referring to Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara - would deliberately refuse to acknowledge this. We are fighting evil. Nothing to do with the occupation of Palestinian land, the occupation of Afghanistan, the occupation of Iraq, the torture at Abu Ghraib and Bagram and Guantanamo. Oh no, indeed. "An evil ideology", a nebulous, unspecified, dark force. That's the problem.

There are two things wrong with this. The first is that once you start talking about "evil", you are talking about religion. Good and evil, God and the Devil. The London suicide bombers were Muslims (or thought they were) so the entire Muslim community in Britain must stand to attention and - as Muslims - condemn them. We "Christians" were not required to do that because we are not Muslims - nor were we required as "Christians" to condemn the Christian Serb slaughter of 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica just over 10 years ago. All we had to do was say sorry for doing nothing at the time. But Muslims, because they are Muslims, must ritually condemn something they had nothing to do with.

But that, I suspect, is the point. Deep down, I wonder if we do not think that their religion does have something to do with all this, that Islam is a backward religion, un-renaissanced, potentially violent. It's not true, but our heritage of orientalism suggests otherwise.

It's weird the way we both despise and envy the "other". Many of those early orientalists showed both disgust and fascination with the East. They loathed the punishments and the pashas, but they rather liked the women; they were obsessed with harems. Westerners found the idea of having more than one wife quite appealing. Similarly, I rather think there are aspects of our Western "decadence" which are of interest to Muslims, even if they ritually condemn them.

I was very struck some years ago when the son of a Lebanese friend of mine went off to study for three years at a university in the south of England. When I passed through London from Beirut, I would sometimes bring audio tapes or letters from his parents - these were the glorious days before the internet - and the student would usually meet me in a pub in Bloomsbury. He would invariably turn up with a girl and would drink several beers before setting off to her flat for the night. Then in his last term at college, he called home and asked his mother to find him a bride. The days of fun and games were over. He wanted Mummy to find him a virgin to marry.

I thought about this a lot at the time. He was - and is - a most respectful, honourable man who has passed up much wealthier job opportunities abroad to teach college kids in Beirut. But had he been a weaker man, I can imagine he might have quite a few problems with his life. What was he doing in Britain? Why was he enjoying himself like "us", only to turn his back on that enjoyment for a more conservative life?

Take another example - though the two men have nothing in common - that of Ziad Jarrah. He lived in Germany with a Turkish girlfriend - not just dating but living with her - and then on 11 September 2001, he called up the girl to say "I love you". What's wrong, the young woman asked. "I love you," he said simply again and hung up the phone. And then he went off to board an airliner and slash the throats of its passengers and fly it into the ground in Pennsylvania. What happened in his brain as he heard the voice of the girlfriend he said he loved? His father, whom I know quite well, was as stunned as the parents of the London suicide bombers. To this day, he still cannot believe what Ziad Jarrah did. He is even waiting for him to come home.

It's not difficult to be cynical about the way in which Arabs can both hate the West and love it. In Arab capitals, I can read the anti-Bush fury expressed in the pages of local newspapers and then drive past the American embassy where sometimes hundreds of Arabs are standing round the walls in the hope of acquiring visas to the US. The Koran is a document of inestimable value. So is a green card.

But from the many letters I receive from Muslims, especially in Britain, I think I can understand some of the anger generated among them. They come, many of them, from countries of great repression and from lands where the strictest family and religious rules govern their lives. You know the rest.

So in Britain - and even the Muslims who were born in the country often grow up in traditional families - there can be a fierce dichotomy between their lives and that of the society around them. The freedoms of Britain - social as well as political - can be very attractive. Knowing that its elected government sends its soldiers to invade Iraq and kill quite a lot of Muslims at the same time might turn the "dichotomy" into something far more dangerous.

Here is a land - Britain - in which you could live a good life. Pretty girls to go out with (note, we are talking about men), or marry or just live with. Movies to watch - no snipping of the nude scenes in our films - and, if you like, a beer or two at the local. These things are haram, of course, wrong, but enjoyable, part of "our" life. Most British Muslim men I know don't actually drink alcohol and they behave honourably to women of every religion (so please, no angry letters). Others enjoy our freedoms with complete ease.

But those who cannot, those who have enjoyed our freedoms but feel guilty for doing so - who can be appalled by the pleasure they have taken in "our" society but equally appalled by the way in which they themselves feel corrupted (especially after a trip to Pakistan for a dose of old-fashioned ritualised religion) have a special problem.

Palestine or Afghanistan or Iraq turn it incendiary. They want both to break out of this world and to express their moral fury and political impotence as they do so. They want, I think, to destroy themselves for their own feelings of guilt and others for the crime of "corrupting" them. Even if that means murdering a few co-religionists and dozens of other innocents. So on go the backpacks - whoever supplied them is a different matter - and off go the bombs. Something happens, something that takes only a second, between saying "I love you" and then hanging up the phone.


The Iraq War is Over, and the Winner Is... Iran

By Juan Cole:

Iraq's new government has been trumpeted by the Bush administration as a close friend and a model for democracy in the region. In contrast, Bush calls Iran part of an axis of evil and dismisses its elections and government as illegitimate. So the Bush administration cannot have been filled with joy when Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and eight high-powered cabinet ministers paid an extremely friendly visit to Tehran this week.

The two governments went into a tizzy of wheeling and dealing of a sort not seen since Texas oil millionaires found out about Saudi Arabia. Oil pipelines, port access, pilgrimage, trade, security, military assistance, were all on the table in Tehran. All the sorts of contracts and deals that U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney had imagined for Halliburton, and that the Pentagon neoconservatives had hoped for Israel, were heading instead due east.

Jaafari's visit was a blow to the Bush administration's strategic vision, but a sweet triumph for political Shiism. In the dark days of 1982, Tehran was swarming with Iraqi Shiite expatriates who had been forced to flee Saddam Hussein's death decree against them. They had been forced abroad, to a country with which Iraq was then at war. Ayatollah Khomeini, the newly installed theocrat of Iran, pressured the expatriates to form an umbrella organization, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which he hoped would eventually take over Iraq. Among its members were Jaafari and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. On Jan. 30, 2005, Khomeini's dream finally came true, courtesy of the Bush administration, when the Supreme Council and the Dawa Party won the Iraqi elections.

Jaafari, a Dawa Party activist working for an Islamic republic, had been in exile in Tehran from 1980 to 1989. A physician trained at Mosul, the reserved and somewhat inarticulate Jaafari studied Shiite law and theology as an auditor at the seminaries of Qom. His party, Dawa, was briefly part of SCIRI but in 1984 split with it to maintain its autonomy.

Iraq has a Shiite Muslim majority of some 62 percent. Iran's Shiite majority is thought to be closer to 90 percent. The Shiites of the two countries have had a special relationship for over a millennium. Saddam had sealed the border for more than two decades, but throughout centuries, tens of thousands of Iranians have come on pilgrimage to the holy Shiite shrines of Najaf and Karbala every year. Iraqis likewise go to Iran for pilgrimage, study and trade. Although neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz maintained before the Iraq war that Iraqis are more secular and less interested in an Islamic state than Iranians, in fact the ideas of Khomeini had had a deep impact among Iraqi Shiites. When they could vote in January earlier this year, they put the Khomeini-influenced Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq in control of seven of the nine southern provinces, along with Baghdad itself.

It was not only history that brought Jaafari to the foothills of the Alborz mountains. The Iraqi prime minister was attempting to break out of the box into which his government has been stuffed by the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement. Jaafari's government does not control the center-north or west of the country and cannot pump much petroleum from Kirkuk because of oil sabotage. Trucking to Jordan is often difficult. The Jaafari government depends heavily on the Rumaila oil field in the south, but lacks refining capability. Iraq lacks a deep water port on the Gulf and needs to replace inland "ports" like Amman because of poor security. An initiative toward the east could resolve many of these problems, strengthening the Shiites against the Sunni guerrillas economically and militarily and so saving the new government.

The last time Iran and Iraq had really warm relations was the mid-1950s. Iraq then had a British-installed constitutional monarchy, and Prime Minister Nuri as-Said was fanatically pro-Western. The CIA had put Mohammad Reza Shah back on the throne in 1953, deposing the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh (who had angered the United States when he nationalized the Iranian oil industry). In 1955 Said and the shah both signed on to the Baghdad Pact, a U.S.-sponsored security agreement against the Soviet Union and Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. The pact proved ill-fated, however. A popular revolution overthrew the Iraqi monarchy in 1958, and Nuri's corpse was dragged in the street. Another popular revolution overthrew the shah in 1979. In 1980-1988, Iran-Iraq relations reached their nadir, as Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and Khomeini's Revolutionary Guards slugged it out on battlefields of a dreary horror not seen since World War I. Jaafari's visit was designed to erase the bitter legacies of that war.

Iraq's Eastern Policy does not come without at least symbolic costs. On Saturday, Jaafari made a ceremonial visit to the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini, on which he laid a wreath. In a meeting with Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei on Monday, according to the Tehran Times, Jaafari "called the late Imam Khomeini the key to the victory of the Islamic Revolution, adding, 'We hope to eliminate the dark pages Saddam caused in Iran-Iraq ties and open a new chapter in brotherly ties between the two nations.'" The American right just about had a heart attack at the possibility (later shown false) that newly elected Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been among the militants who took U.S. diplomats hostage in 1979. But the hostage takers had been blessed by Khomeini himself, to whom Jaafari was paying compliments.

When Jaafari met the head of the Iranian judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahrudi, on Tuesday, the two discussed expanding judicial cooperation between the two countries. Shahrudi said that cooperation with Iran's Draconian "justice system" has had a positive impact on other Muslim countries. He called for Iraq to coordinate with something called the "Islamic Human Rights Organization" -- an Orwellian phrase in dictatorial Iran, a state that tortures political prisoners and engages in other acts of brutality. And he urged the Iraqi government to put greater reliance on "popular forces" (local and national Shiite militias) in establishing security.

Jaafari was probably only indulging his clerical host, but his Dawa Party certainly does hope to have Islamic law play a greater role in Iraqi society. The New York Times revealed on Wednesday that the new draft of the Iraqi constitution will put personal status matters, many of them affecting women, under religious courts.

For his polite forbearance as his Iranian hosts boasted of the superiority of their Islamic government and grumbled about all those trouble-making American troops in the Iraqi countryside, Jaafari was richly rewarded. Iran offered to pay for three pipelines that would stretch across the southern border of the two countries. Iraq will ship 150,000 barrels a day of light crude to Iran to be refined, and Iran will ship back processed petroleum, kerosene and gasoline. The plan could be operational within a year, according to Petroleum Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum, whose father is a prominent Shiite cleric.

In addition, Iran will supply electricity. Iran will sell Iraq 200,000 tons of wheat. Iran is offering Iraq use of its ports to transship goods to Iraq. Iran is offering a billion dollars in foreign aid. Iran will step up cooperation in policing the borders of the two countries. Supreme Jurisprudent Khamenei has called for the preservation of the territorial integrity of Iraq. In fact, Iran is offering so much for so little that it looks an awful lot like influence peddling.

The previous week, Defense Minister Saadoun Dulaimi had made a preparatory trip to Tehran, exploring the possibility of military cooperation between the two countries. At one point it even seemed that the two had reached an agreement that Iran would help train Iraqi troops. One can only imagine that Washington went ballistic and applied enormous pressure on Jaafari to back off this plan. The Iraqi government abandoned it, on the grounds that an international agreement had already specified that out-of-country training of Iraqi troops in the region should be done in Jordan. But the Iraqi government did give Tehran assurances that they would not allow Iraqi territory to be used in any attack on Iran -- presumably a reference to the United States.

Iranian leaders pressed Jaafari on the continued presence in Iraq of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian terrorist organization with ties to the Pentagon, elements in the Israeli lobby, and members of the U.S. Congress and Senate. Saddam had used the MEK to foment trouble for Iran. Jaafari promised that they had been disarmed and would not be allowed to conduct terrorist raids from Iraqi soil.

Not surprisingly, the warming relations between Tehran and Baghdad have greatly alarmed Iraq's Sunni Muslims. They know that Iranian offers of help in training Iraqi security officers, and Iranian professions of support for a united, peaceful Iraq are code for the suppression by Shiite troops and militias of the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement. Many Iraqi Sunnis believe that the Sunni Arabs are the true majority, but that millions of illegal Iranian emigrants masquerading as Iraqi Shiites have flooded into the country, skewing vote totals in the recent elections. This belief, for all its irrationality, makes them especially suspicious of Shiite politicians cozying up to the ayatollahs in Tehran. A recent BBC documentary reported that the Sunnis of Fallujah despise Iraqi Shiites even more than they do the Americans, in part because they code them as Persians (in fact they are Arabs).

Although officials in Washington felt constrained to issue polite assurances that they want
good relations between Iraq and Iran, the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, and hawks in the Bush administration all have a grudge against Iran, and would as soon overthrow the mullahs as spit at them. But thanks to the Iraq debacle, that is no longer a viable option. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack revealed the true amount of influence Washington has in Baghdad when he admitted that the Bush administration has not "had a chance" to discuss Jaafari's trip to Iran with the prime minister.

The Iranians hold a powerful hand in the Iraqi poker game. They have geopolitical advantages, are flush with petroleum profits because of the high price of oil, and have much to offer their new Shiite Iraqi partners. Their long alliance with Iraqi president Jalal Talabani gives them Kurdish support as well. Bush's invasion removed the most powerful and dangerous regional enemy of Iran, Saddam Hussein, from power. In its aftermath, the religious Shiites came to power at the ballot box in Iraq, bestowing on Tehran firm allies in Baghdad for the first time since the 1950s. And in a historic irony, Iran's most dangerous enemy of all, the United States, invaded Iran's neighbor with an eye to eventually toppling the Tehran regime -- but succeeded only in defeating itself.

The ongoing chaos in Iraq has made it impossible for Bush administration hawks to carry out their long-held dream of overthrowing the Iranian regime, or even of forcing it to end its nuclear ambitions. (The Iranian nuclear research program will almost certainly continue, since the Iranians are bright enough to see what happened to the one member of the "axis of evil" that did not have an active nuclear weapons program.) The United States lacks the troops, but perhaps even more critically, it is now dependent on Iran to help it deal with a vicious guerrilla war that it cannot win. In the Middle East, the twists and turns of history tend to make strange bedfellows -- something the neocons, whose breathtaking ignorance of the region helped bring us to this place, are now learning to their dismay.

More than two years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, it is difficult to see what real benefits have accrued to the United States from the Iraq war, though a handful of corporations have benefited marginally. In contrast, Iran is the big winner. The Shiites of Iraq increasingly realize they need Iranian backing to defeat the Sunni guerrillas and put the Iraqi economy right, a task the Americans have proved unable to accomplish. And Iran will still be Iraq's neighbor long after the fickle American political class has switched its focus to some other global hot spot.


Fatah vs Hamas

From Al-Ahram Weekly:

After marathon talks, mediated by Egypt, that lasted till well past midnight on Tuesday the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas agreed to end their armed showdown in the Gaza Strip. At a press conference in downtown Gaza, Nizar Rayyan, a Hamas leader, and Sufyan Abu Zaydeh, PA minister for prisoners, announced that all fighters had been ordered to return to their homes.

"Nothing should compromise our unity against our enemy," said Rayyan.

The two sides agreed to continue dialogue and never again resort to violence in settling their differences, to end all forms of incitement and revive the "Cairo understandings".

However, early Wednesday Hamas fighters attacked the homes of the head of the Palestinian security services and the head of Fatah in Gaza, with seven injured in the incident. Conflicting reports emerged, each side blaming the other.

Earlier on Tuesday clashes between Fatah and Hamas fighters at the Jabalya refugee camp, and later in Beit Lahya in northern Gaza, had left more than 20 injured. The fighting between Hamas and Fatah alarmed a broad cross-section of Palestinian society, prompting civic and religious leaders as well as NGOs to call on both sides to stop the fitna, or divisiveness.

The deputy chief of Egyptian intelligence, Mustafa El-Beheiri, had held several meetings with PA and factional leaders in an attempt to persuade them to accept a draft agreement maintaining the "quiet", ie the fragile de facto cease-fire with Israel.

During a meeting with the Egyptian delegation on Monday night Hamas leaders agreed to end the "battle of declarations" with the PA and their demands for the sacking of Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Youssef.

According to informed sources, Hamas continues to hold grudges against Youssef who, in the mid-1990s, led a campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip during which dozens of activists -- including Mahmoud Al-Zahar, the movement's current leader in Gaza -- were arrested and tortured.

The enduring mistrust between the PA and Hamas deepened last month when the PA decided to postpone till further notice the legislative and local elections it had promised during the meeting of factions in Cairo only months earlier. In return for the elections, and for PA promises to take action against corruption and nepotism within its ranks, Hamas agreed to abide by the cease-fire. Yet the PA has effectively reneged on all its promises.

Hamas' frustration was exacerbated as rumours circulated in the Strip that the PA leadership was planning to reward its cronies with plots of land in the soon-to- be-vacated settlements. Despite PA denials, simmering resentment finally exploded when a missile was fired on an Israeli settlement outside Gaza earlier in the week. While officially Hamas claimed the attack was in retaliation for the killing by Israeli troops of a Fatah fighter a day earlier in Nablus, many insiders say it -- and subsequent missiles -- was a result of Hamas' indignation and frustration vis-à-vis the PA.

The situation further deteriorated Friday, 15 July, when armed men from both sides exchanged fire in central Gaza, killing two boys, with Hamas claiming the PA was implementing Israel's agenda, and the PA accusing Hamas of undermining national unity and acting as a state within a state.

When, on the same day, Israeli air forces began a series of assassinations, killing 12 Hamas members, the PA faced the embarrassing possibility that Palestinian public opinion would see it, and Israel, as fighting the same enemy.

By mid-week, with Israel threatening a ground offensive against the Gaza Strip, Abbas vowed to do his utmost to stop the firing of missiles on Jewish settlements and beyond the green line. The missiles, he argued, were threatening to delay the Israeli withdrawal and undermine Palestinian national interests.

Abbas also urged the EU and the Bush administration to exert pressure on Israel to exercise self-restraint, arguing that a fresh Israeli rampage through Gaza would "spoil everything".

His efforts bore fruit when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned her Israeli counterpart, Silvan Shalom, Sunday, asking him to refrain from authorising incursions in Gaza. Rice is due to arrive in the region this weekend in an effort to encourage a smooth and orderly withdrawal from the Strip.

For its part, Hamas reasserted its commitment to the cease-fire on condition of Israeli reciprocity. "We are committed to the 'quiet' on condition of reciprocity. This means that if Israel doesn't respect the cease-fire we won't," said Said Siyam, one of Hamas' leaders in the Strip.

That reciprocity is clearly not on Israel's agenda. Siyam was assassinated by Israeli sniper fire on Sunday, 17 July. And on Tuesday, while El-Beheiri was meeting with the leaders of Palestinian factions in Gaza, the Israeli army entered the town of Al-Yamon in the northern West Bank, destroying a number of homes and killing at least two members of the Fatah-affiliated Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. Medical teams were reportedly denied access to the town.

Despite El-Beheiri's efforts the tug-of- war between Hamas and the PA is likely to continue, threatening the possibility of intra-Palestinian conflict. For that possibility to be avoided, Egyptian mediators must seek a long-term rapprochement between the two main forces in Palestinian society, which means ending PA attempts to marginalise its rival.