Monday, February 28, 2005

Congrats Morgan Freeman!

I haven't watched the Oscars for a long time, but last night, a couple girls from my dorm went to watch it in the basement & I had a lot of fun. Although I haven't watched any of the big movies, I'm so glad Morgan Freeman finally got his first Oscar - he's one of my favorite actors & I loved his performance in The Shawshank Redemption, which is one of my favorite movies because it is about never giving up hope. I definitely am planning to watch Million Dollar Baby & Born into Brothels, which received an award for best documentary. I also his acceptance speech was the best - sweet & short & I liked the way he looked up to thank God - at least that's what I think he did! I was really surprised the movie got 4 Oscars but I am glad - I haven't watched The Aviator but I'm just not a big fan of Leo!

It was really disappointing to see Biance sing 3 songs - I'm sure there are more talented singers in the US that can sing - I still don't understand why she had to sing in French and the song from The Phantom of the Opera - I really liked that movie & its too bad it didn't receive anything.

Right after the Oscars, the weather warned of a severe snow storm in DC - about 7 inches. The morning started clear but it got really cold, windy & was snowing pretty hard - it's funny how schools close so easily here, leaving parents in a bind! Plus, Washingtonians don't know how to drive & the bad weather doesn't make it better! I think we're expecting freezing drizzle/rain overnight which probably means slippery roads tomorrow - it's just hard for me to walk to work because the sidewalks are not shoveled as effectively as in Minnesota!

Anyways, time to hit the sack. I'm excited about an interesting lecture I'll attend tomorrow on the Arab World - so I will be back to blog about the recent developments in Egypt & Lebanon.



Who tried to assassinate Bush?

I haven't found any good articles on this issue but this one is better than most. From MSNBC:

The confession came quickly, and it sounded damning. After a few days of allegedly rough interrogation, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali—a soft-spoken high-school valedictorian from the Washington, D.C., suburbs—either cracked or simply told his questioners what they wanted to hear. While studying in the holy city of Medina, Saudi Arabia, Abu Ali said, he had met with a Qaeda operative and offered to set up a sleeper cell in the United States to organize terror attacks. He wanted to be like September 11 ringleader Muhammad Atta, Abu Ali added in his confession. The young Muslim American even talked about an assassination plot. The purported target: President George W. Bush. Abu Ali allegedly suggested that Bush could either be shot on the street or blown up in a car-bomb attack.

An open-and-shut case, you might think. The problem with this Perry Mason moment, however, is that it occurred in a Saudi Arabian prison, where no U.S. officials were present and where, according to human-rights groups, suspects are often physically abused. One of Abu Ali's lawyers, Edward MacMahon, said after the suspect's first court hearing last week that he personally saw "multiple scars" all over Abu Ali's back, looking "exactly like somebody who has been whipped." Prosecutors deny this, but even U.S. law-enforcement officials admit there is a good chance Abu Ali could eventually walk out of prison a free man. The indictment of Abu Ali shows how the administration's aggressive pursuit of the global war on terror is increasingly getting tangled up in legal constraints at home.

An open-and-shut case, you might think. The problem with this Perry Mason moment, however, is that it occurred in a Saudi Arabian prison, where no U.S. officials were present and where, according to human-rights groups, suspects are often physically abused. One of Abu Ali's lawyers, Edward MacMahon, said after the suspect's first court hearing last week that he personally saw "multiple scars" all over Abu Ali's back, looking "exactly like somebody who has been whipped." Prosecutors deny this, but even U.S. law-enforcement officials admit there is a good chance Abu Ali could eventually walk out of prison a free man. The indictment of Abu Ali shows how the administration's aggressive pursuit of the global war on terror is increasingly getting tangled up in legal constraints at home.

Government officials are acutely aware of these problems—which is one reason Abu Ali's nearly two-year-old criminal case remained unaddressed in U.S. courts until last week. NEWSWEEK has learned that his confession, which occurred shortly after his arrest in June 2003, was videotaped by the Saudis and immediately turned over to the FBI. The tape became the chief piece of evidence against him. But back in Washington, the case presented an agonizing dilemma for top Justice Department officials, sources said.

After searching his home in Falls Church, Va., and finding seemingly incriminating documents (including a screed by Osama bin Laden's deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri), federal agents became convinced that Abu Ali was indeed "a really bad guy," as one put it. Yet even the top aides to the then Attorney General John Ashcroft didn't think they had anything resembling a solid criminal case. There was no indication the alleged Bush assassination plot ever advanced beyond the talking phase. No FBI agents were there when Abu Ali made his self-incriminating confession. If the Saudis sent Abu Ali home—as they kept offering to do—Justice officials fretted the videotape would likely get tossed out of court, and Abu Ali would walk. "We didn't know what to do with this guy," one former Justice official confided to NEWSWEEK.

So for the next 20 months, Justice let Abu Ali, a U.S. citizen, languish in a Saudi jail cell. He had no access to a lawyer, and no charges were filed against him. Critics say this is a prime example of how the Bush administration has "outsourced" the detention of terror suspects to cooperative Mideast countries with poor human-rights records. But Abu Ali's Virginia-based parents—his father works as a computer analyst for the Saudi Embassy—say their son was tortured into confessing to lies, and sued the federal government last year. The judge in the civil case, John Bates, grew impatient. Bates threatened to force Justice officials to explain under oath what they knew about Abu Ali's detention. So the department arranged to charge Abu Ali back in the United States with providing material support to terrorists.

The chief federal prosecutor in the case, Paul McNulty, asserted last week that the 23-year-old Houston-born Abu Ali had "turned his back on America and joined the cause of Al Qaeda." But inside Justice, many are still deeply uneasy. "I was amazed they did this," one veteran official said. "I don't know how [the prosecution] can be done successfully." Another senior law-enforcement official told NEWSWEEK that Justice was making the best of a bad situation. Even if the case ultimately collapses, an aggressive prosecution might be able to delay for years the day when Abu Ali will be able to "walk free," the official explained.

But is this a legitimate tactic in the war on terror? In the aftermath of September 11, the White House had resorted to even more brazen methods: it declared two other U.S. citizens, Yaser Hamdi and Jose Padilla, "enemy combatants" and threw them into military brigs without access to lawyers. But last June the Supreme Court ruled that the war on terror did not give the president a "blank check" to dispense with core constitutional rights. (Hamdi was released last fall.) The case against Abu Ali, legal experts say, could present even more daunting challenges.

The torture charge is an especially awkward one for the new Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who once reviewed alleged torture techniques in meetings at the White House. Under U.S. law, police brutality—or any hint of a coerced confession—is often ground for dismissal.

U.S. prosecutors insist that Abu Ali was examined by doctors and there were no signs of abuse. But a source close to the Saudi security forces told NEWSWEEK that the interrogations of Abu Ali had indeed been aggressive. "He definitely got slapped around," the source said. "But he was not tortured." Prosecutors will also have to explain how a man described as unfailingly polite became ensnared by terrorists. Abu Ali's family proudly notes that he graduated at the top of his class at the Islamic Saudi Academy outside Washington. But critics like Sen. Chuck Schumer accuse the school—which is funded by the Saudi Embassy—of teaching an intolerant brand of Islam that can breed sympathy for terrorist causes. Prosecutors also say Abu Ali was friendly with some members of a group of Islamic extremists who practiced paramilitary games in the Virginia woods, and sold one of them a rifle.

According to last week's indictment, one of the supposedly incriminating items found in the June 2003 search of his home was a copy of Handguns magazine with Abu Ali's name on the subscription label. That's not exactly a crime, though. One recent issue of Handguns hails President Bush's success in last year's election as a "Sportsmen's Victory." If prosecutors want to keep Abu Ali locked up in the long run, they will have to come up with something more. And if the Bush administration wants to fight a war that is increasingly becoming a legal morass, it may have to think up some new tactics.


Islam & the Ten Commandments

I don't really know what side to take with the issue of the 10 Commandments in public places. Although I understand the premise of separation of church and state, sometimes I feel that secularism is being pushed down the throats of people who do believe in religion - thus denying them their freedom of expression too.

I found this really interesting piece by the Council of American-Islamic Relations on how the commandments are not just a Christian/Judaic belief but important to Muslims too:

[Arsalan Iftikhar, is national legal director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation's largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy group. He may be reached at]

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether a monument engraved with the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Texas state Capitol "is an impermissible establishment of religion in violation of the First Amendment."Reaction from religious groups is mixed - Jewish and Christian groups seem divided and Muslims are largely absent from the debate. Muslim silence on the issue should not be misconstrued as ambivalence toward the Ten Commandments. In fact, the Quran, Islam's revealed text, contains injunctions similar to all ten commandments.

A few examples:
Commandment: Thou shall have no other gods before Me.
Quran: Know therefore that there is no god but God. (47:19)
Do not associate another deity with God. (17:22)

Commandment: Thou shall not make unto thee any graven image.
Quran: No visions can encompass Him, but He encompasses all visions. (6:103)

Commandment: Thou shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
Quran: Glorify the name of your Lord morning and evening. (76:25)
Remember the name of your Lord and devote yourself to Him exclusively. (73:8)
Do not use God's name in your oaths as an excuse to prevent you from dealing justly. (2:224)

Commandment: Honor thy father and thy mother.
Quran: You shall be kind to your parents. If one or both of them live to their old age in your lifetime, you shall not say to them any word of contempt nor repel them, and you shall address them in kind words. You shall lower to them the wing of humility and pray: "O Lord! Bestow on them Your blessings just as they cherished me when I was a little child." (17:23-24)

Commandment: Thou shall not kill.
Quran: And do not take any human being's life - [the life] that God has willed to be sacred - other than in [the pursuit of] justice." (17:33)

Commandment: Thou shall not commit adultery.
Quran: You shall not commit adultery. Surely it is a shameful deed and an evil way (opening the door to other evils). (17:32)

Commandment: Thou shall not bear false witness.
Quran: And (know that the true servants of God are) those who do not bear witness to falsehood. (25:72)

Commandment: Thou shall not covet.
Quran: Do not covet the bounties that God has bestowed more abundantly on some of you than on others. (4:32)

Such remarkable similarities are not surprising, because Muslims believe that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all originate from the same God. God's laws are universal, but their adoption is a matter of choice. The Quranic order that there be "no compulsion in religion" (2:256) reverberates in James Madison's, "The religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man.

"Opposition to the public display of the Ten Commandments should not imply disavowal of their validity, just as support for their display should not be an excuse for religious exclusivity.I love all Ten Commandments, for their values are my values as a Muslim. I also respect the Constitution and its support for religious pluralism. Just as I want my government to not establish a particular religion, I also desire that they not prohibit its free exercise. It is a delicate balancing act. Getting that balance right is what makes American freedom unique and enviable.


Don't Blame Walmart

Although I'm a strong advocate for fair trade, I am guilty as charged by this NY Times Op-Ed:

BOWING to intense pressure from neighborhood and labor groups, a real estate developer has just given up plans to include a Wal-Mart store in a mall in Queens, thereby blocking Wal-Mart's plan to open its first store in New York City. In the eyes of Wal-Mart's detractors, the Arkansas-based chain embodies the worst kind of economic exploitation: it pays its 1.2 million American workers an average of only $9.68 an hour, doesn't provide most of them with health insurance, keeps out unions, has a checkered history on labor law and turns main streets into ghost towns by sucking business away from small retailers.

But isn't Wal-Mart really being punished for our sins? After all, it's not as if Wal-Mart's founder, Sam Walton, and his successors created the world's largest retailer by putting a gun to our heads and forcing us to shop there.

Instead, Wal-Mart has lured customers with low prices. "We expect our suppliers to drive the costs out of the supply chain," a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart said. "It's good for us and good for them."

Wal-Mart may have perfected this technique, but you can find it almost everywhere these days. Corporations are in fierce competition to get and keep customers, so they pass the bulk of their cost cuts through to consumers as lower prices. Products are manufactured in China at a fraction of the cost of making them here, and American consumers get great deals. Back-office work, along with computer programming and data crunching, is "offshored" to India, so our dollars go even further.

Meanwhile, many of us pressure companies to give us even better bargains. I look on the Internet to find the lowest price I can and buy airline tickets, books, merchandise from just about anywhere with a click of a mouse. Don't you?

The fact is, today's economy offers us a Faustian bargain: it can give consumers deals largely because it hammers workers and communities.

We can blame big corporations, but we're mostly making this bargain with ourselves. The easier it is for us to get great deals, the stronger the downward pressure on wages and benefits. Last year, the real wages of hourly workers, who make up about 80 percent of the work force, actually dropped for the first time in more than a decade; hourly workers' health and pension benefits are in free fall. The easier it is for us to find better professional services, the harder professionals have to hustle to attract and keep clients. The more efficiently we can summon products from anywhere on the globe, the more stress we put on our own communities.

But you and I aren't just consumers. We're also workers and citizens. How do we strike the right balance? To claim that people shouldn't have access to Wal-Mart or to cut-rate airfares or services from India or to Internet shopping, because these somehow reduce their quality of life, is paternalistic tripe. No one is a better judge of what people want than they themselves.

The problem is, the choices we make in the market don't fully reflect our values as workers or as citizens. I didn't want our community bookstore in Cambridge, Mass., to close (as it did last fall) yet I still bought lots of books from In addition, we may not see the larger bargain when our own job or community isn't directly at stake. I don't like what's happening to airline workers, but I still try for the cheapest fare I can get.

The only way for the workers or citizens in us to trump the consumers in us is through laws and regulations that make our purchases a social choice as well as a personal one. A requirement that companies with more than 50 employees offer their workers affordable health insurance, for example, might increase slightly the price of their goods and services. My inner consumer won't like that very much, but the worker in me thinks it a fair price to pay. Same with an increase in the minimum wage or a change in labor laws making it easier for employees to organize and negotiate better terms.

I wouldn't go so far as to re-regulate the airline industry or hobble free trade with China and India - that would cost me as a consumer far too much - but I'd like the government to offer wage insurance to ease the pain of sudden losses of pay. And I'd support labor standards that make trade agreements a bit more fair.

These provisions might end up costing me some money, but the citizen in me thinks they are worth the price. You might think differently, but as a nation we aren't even having this sort of discussion. Instead, our debates about economic change take place between two warring camps: those who want the best consumer deals, and those who want to preserve jobs and communities much as they are. Instead of finding ways to soften the blows, compensate the losers or slow the pace of change - so the consumers in us can enjoy lower prices and better products without wreaking too much damage on us in our role as workers and citizens - we go to battle.

I don't know if Wal-Mart will ever make it into New York City. I do know that New Yorkers, like most other Americans, want the great deals that can be had in a rapidly globalizing high-tech economy. Yet the prices on sales tags don't reflect the full prices we have to pay as workers and citizens. A sensible public debate would focus on how to make that total price as low as possible.

Robert B. Reich, the author of "Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America," was secretary of labor from 1993 to 1997.


The controversy around Harvard president

I am briefly aware of the comments made by Harvard's president on the incapability of women in scientific fields - I really like the technological perspective in this NY Times editorial:

"You are here for four years," Henry Rosovsky, who long served as Harvard's dean of faculty, once told a group of students. "The faculty is here for life. And the institution is here forever." The quote became part of Harvard lore: a campus film society promoted a James Bond movie with the slogan, "You are here for four years; Dean Rosovsky is here for life; and Diamonds Are Forever." But it also came to embody, for my generation of students and alumni, Harvard's imperious view of its place in the world.

How times have changed. Harvard's president, Lawrence Summers, is fighting to keep his job, after suggesting that women might be intrinsically disadvantaged in studying science. The faculty has met twice recently to consider a no-confidence vote. And alumni, who are following events closely, have been writing and e-mailing in protest - and support - and threatening to cut off contributions.

The Summers controversy is being talked about as an ideological dispute, and a biodrama, and it is both. But it is also a story about Harvard in the Information Age. Today's Internet-driven, media-saturated era is promoting two things inimical to the sort of absolute power Harvard's leaders have long been used to: transparency and the ability of like-minded people to network easily.

Before the controversy is over, it is likely that Mr. Summers's critics will win some concessions. That is a good thing: Harvard needs more women faculty, and fewer comments from top administrators denigrating people's innate abilities. But there is also reason to be wary. The stunning success of the anti-Summers campaign suggests that Harvard, and universities in general, may be entering a new era of vulnerability to outside pressure, and there is no telling who the next villagers holding the torches in Harvard Yard will be, or who they will identify as the next monsters.

Harvard's leaders can be excused for feeling above the fray. The university has been running its own affairs since 1636, far longer than the United States government, and without checks and balances. Harvard's president reports to a board, known as the corporation, that fills its own vacancies as they come up. Neither the president, as in a democracy, nor the board, as in a business, stands for election.

Harvard has a long history of fighting off outside pressure. Many of the campaigns it has turned back - like the one for a living wage for Harvard employees - have come from the left. But in the 1950's, Harvard's president, Nathan Pusey, stood up to Senator Joseph McCarthy's demand that he fire professors for suspected Communist sympathies. More recently, Harvard argued in the Supreme Court in 2003 for affirmative action in admissions, over the objections of some alumni.

The current controversy is really two disputes rolled into one: the blow-up over Mr. Summers's comments about women, and lingering unhappiness in parts of the university community over his treatment of the Afro-American studies department, and of Cornel West, who left for Princeton after a disagreeable meeting with Mr. Summers. Both were private academic encounters. Mr. Summers made his comments about women at an invitation-only academic conference, and his talk with Mr. West occurred at a closed-door meeting. But intense media attention quickly lifted the veil of secrecy on both.

The Internet has played an unprecedented role, both in spreading the news and in rallying the troops on both sides. The liberal blogosphere has taken up the controversy energetically: a single anti-Summers post on Daily Kos drew more than 800 comments, some from Harvard alumni. Other sites have posted the main documents in the dispute, and are encouraging people to contact the media. Mr. Summers is being defended by conservative blogs and, which has an online petition. Even the normally reclusive Harvard Corporation has posted a letter supporting Mr. Summers on an alumni Web site.

As a formal matter, Mr. Summers's future depends solely on the corporation, where he has many friends. But two of his biggest jobs are raising money from alumni and protecting Harvard's name, which is critical for attracting top students and faculty, as well as research grants. The university cannot afford to have its president be regarded as divisive - or worse,

Mr. Summers's critics are likely to score some points this time. He will no doubt be more circumspect now, and the university can be expected to make greater - and long-overdue - efforts to hire more women. But once the floodgates open, it is unlikely that all of the pressure on Harvard will come from the left. Harvard has plenty of conservative alumni, particularly among its biggest donors. These alumni - or federal grant-makers - could one day pressure Harvard to scale back diversity efforts or curtail free expression.

Harvard has always been an academic trendsetter, and the campaign against Mr. Summers could encourage alumni, faculty and taxpayers to lay siege to other universities. Conservative talk radio and cable TV - fresh from the successful ousting of Dan Rather and the CNN executive Eason Jordan - are pressuring the University of Colorado to fire Ward Churchill, an ethnic studies professor who made moronic, offensive but constitutionally protected comments comparing some Sept. 11 victims to Nazis.

The question of whether a Harvard that is more transparent, and more attuned to the wishes of alumni and the public, is a good thing is irrelevant. It has arrived. Mr. Rosovsky's suggestion that students could be dismissed because they are on campus for only four years turns out to have been based on a distinctly 20th-century notion of geography. In the Information Age, we are all at Harvard - and everywhere else - for life, and it will be interesting to see how we all get along.


Sunday, February 27, 2005

Would we have done more if Africans were not black?

I have always wondered if the world would have turned a blind eye to the millions of Africans who suffer daily, had they not been black. Whether it is a matter of race or not, I am not sure; although this NY Times editorial does not address that specific aspect, it talks about the need to help Africa:

When a once-in-a-century natural disaster swept away the lives of more than 100,000 poor Asians last December, the developed world opened its hearts and its checkbooks. Yet when it comes to Africa, where hundreds of thousands of poor men, women and children die needlessly each year from preventable diseases, or unnatural disasters like civil wars, much of the developed world seems to have a heart of stone.

Not every African state is failing. Most are not. But the continent's most troubled regions - including Somalia and Sudan in the east, Congo in the center, Zimbabwe in the south and Ivory Coast, Liberia and Sierra Leone in the west - challenge not only our common humanity, but global security as well. The lethal combination of corrupt or destructive leaders, porous and unmonitored borders and rootless or hopeless young men has made some of these regions incubators of international terrorism and contagious diseases like AIDS. Others are sanctuaries for swindlers and drug traffickers whose victims can be found throughout the world.

In many of these places, poverty and unemployment and the desperation they spawn leave young men vulnerable to the lure of terrorist organizations, which, beyond offering two meals a day, also provide a target to vent their anger at rich societies, which they are led to believe view them with condescension and treat them with contempt. Training camps for Islamic extremists are now thought to be sprouting like anthills on the savanna.

"America is committed not only to the campaign against terrorism in a military sense, but the campaign against poverty, the campaign against illiteracy and ignorance." Former Secretary of State Colin Powell said that. Well, America launched its war on terror after Sept. 11, but did not bother to look at some of the deeper causes of global instability. This country is going to spend more than $400 billion on the military this year, and another $100 billion or so for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that amount is never going to buy Americans peace if the government continues to spend an anemic $16 billion - the Pentagon budget is 25 times that size - in foreign aid that addresses the plight of the poorest of the world's poor.

For decades, most Americans either have preferred not to hear about these problems, or, blanching at the scope of the human tragedy, have thrown up their hands. But in terms of the kind of money the West thinks nothing of spending, on such things as sports and entertainment extravaganzas, not to speak of defense budgets, meeting many of Africa's most urgent needs seems shockingly affordable. What has been missing is the political will.

This year, there is a real chance of scrounging up, and then mobilizing, this political will. Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, who has stood resolutely by President Bush at Mr. Blair's own political peril through the war in Iraq, has staked Britain's presidency of the Group of 8 industrial nations this year on tackling poverty in Africa. Mr. Blair wants his ally, Mr. Bush, to stand beside him at the coming G-8 summit meeting at Gleneagles in Scotland this July. After the G-8 meeting there will be a United Nations summit meeting in New York in September, where the world's leaders will examine progress made toward reaching the Millennium Development Goals of cutting global poverty in half by 2015. Chief among those goals was that developed countries like America, Britain and France would work toward giving 0.7 percent of their national incomes for development aid for poor countries.

If the progress made so far is any guide, it is going to be a short meeting. While Britain is about halfway to the goal, at 0.34 percent, and France is at 0.41 percent, America remains near rock bottom, at 0.18 percent. Undoubtedly, President Bush will point to his Millennium Challenge Account when he attends the summit meeting. He will be correct in saying that his administration has given more annually in foreign aid than the Clinton administration in sheer dollars. His Millennium Challenge Account was supposed to increase United States assistance to poor countries that are committed to policies promoting development. This is a worthy endeavor, but it has three big problems.

First, neither the administration nor Congress has come anywhere close to financing the program fully. Second, the program, announced back in 2002, has yet to disburse a single dollar.

Most important, relying mostly on programs like the Millennium Challenge Account, which tie foreign aid to good governance, condemns millions of Africans who have dreadful governments (Liberia, Congo, Ivory Coast) or no government (Somalia) to die. No donor nation is, or should be, willing to direct money to despotic, thieving or incompetent governments likely to misspend it or divert it to the personal bank accounts of their leaders. Strict international criteria of political accountability, financial transparency and development-friendly social and economic policies need to be established and enforced, not just by outside donors but by prominent and influential African leaders, like South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki.

Help for people living under governments that fail these criteria will have to be channeled mainly through international and nongovernmental organizations. Bypassed governments will not like this, but they cannot be allowed to stand in the way of outside help to the victims of their misrule. It is not the fault of Africa's millions of refugees that warring armies have burned their villages and fields and driven them into unsafe and disease-ridden camps, like those in the Darfur region of Sudan. And no fair-minded person would blame the victims of callous and destructive governments, like Zimbabwe's, for the economic and social misery they create.

In the next few months, Mr. Bush could take a giant step towards altering the way the world views America by joining Mr. Blair in pushing for more help in Africa. It's past time; the continent is dying. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is anything but, some 1,000 people die every day of preventable diseases like malaria and diarrhea. That's the equivalent of a tsunami every five months, in that one country alone. Throughout the continent of Africa, thousands of people die needlessly every day from diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

One hundred years ago, before we had the medical know-how to eradicate these illnesses, this might have been acceptable. But we are the first generation able to afford to end poverty and the diseases it spawns. It's past time we step up to the plate. We are all responsible for choosing to view the tsunami victims in Southeast Asia as more deserving of our help than the malaria victims in Africa. Jeffrey Sachs, the economist who heads the United Nations' Millennium Development Project to end global poverty, rightly takes issue with the press in his book "The End of Poverty": "Every morning," Mr. Sachs writes, "our newspapers could report, 'More than 20,000 people perished yesterday of extreme poverty.' "

So, on this page, we'd like to make a first step.

Yesterday, more than 20,000 people perished of extreme poverty.


Saturday, February 26, 2005

Women of Iraq

This was a really interesting article I came accross in New York Post titled Democracy V. Women:

The excuse for the man-bites-dog headlines is a new study from Amnesty International, detailing the challenges facing Iraqi women. They are subject to violent crime. They are subject to the retrograde attitudes of certain men, whether sanctioned by Islam or not. Rape is on the rise without Saddam to maintain order. And women who take an active role in politics are targeted by Islamic radicals.

The Amnesty report is complex, and addresses some critical issues for human rights — but that wasn't what the scribes got out of it. "RIGHTS REDUCED, SECURITY WORSE SINCE OCCUPATION," tsked the Toronto Star.


In each case, the subtext was clear: Things have gotten worse for Iraqi women, and America is to blame.

Under Saddam Hussein, Amnesty concedes, individual women may have been raped, tortured and murdered for their political activism, ethnic group or for no reason at all. But as a group — human-rights groups have become fond of noting — women were respected. Ideologically, Saddam was a great feminist.

The source for this is the 1970 Iraq Constitution, which established a secular regime and at least theoretically granted women equal rights. Saddam allowed, unlike the Taliban, that women be educated. His regime was happy to employ them in large numbers, as doctors, university professors — even as a chief biological-weapons expert, in one notorious case.

True, the literacy rate among women dropped from 75 percent in the late 70s to 25 percent in 2000, one of the lowest in the region. Saddam's fault? No, according to the chorus, the fault of the U.S. for imposing economic sanctions on Saddam's regime after the first Gulf War.
Yet they rose to the occasion. Women will hold 86 of 275 seats in the National Assembly, a number higher than the suggested quota and unparalleled among Iraq's Arab neighbors. That they did so despite the threats and reality of violence is only greater testament to what they can do when the situation cools.

The security situation in Iraq is bad, for women as for others. Like all Iraqis — at least those who favor a modernizing country — Iraqi women worry about whether democracy will just empower religious reactionaries. In fact, part of the trouble here is that the report singles out women. What about Jews, Christians, Sunni Muslims, secularists, those who enjoy a nip of adult beverage once in a while?

All Iraqis have fears and hopes for their country as Iraqi society fumbles its way toward a new order. But the headlines bespeak a journalistic mindset that really has little to do with Iraq. The editors who gave the Amnesty claim prominent play no doubt see the report as an extension of the Larry Summers controversy at Harvard. Women are deemed a special victim group; any critique of the U.S. occupation has instant credibility if it simply affirms our own society's guilt toward women.

That's not to say that the place of women in Iraq won't be just one more subject for Iraqis to argue and fight about — one hopes in democratic way. Fighting for equality wasn't a walk in the park even for American women, who didn't get the vote until 1920. During their struggle, suffragettes were assaulted, arrested and forced to campaign using aliases to hide from police and avoid embarrassment to their families.

Iraqi women will have their struggles, too. But they are in many ways well-prepared for the fight — already well organized and well buttressed with support from international groups. Women for Women International surveyed Iraqi women last year: 93.7 percent believe in legal rights for women and 87 percent wanted the right to vote on the constitution. Those ladies make up 60 percent of Iraqi society, otherwise so divided ethnically and religiously.

Democracy? You do the math. Not only can we expect democracy to be good for women in Iraq, but we can expect women to be good for democracy — precisely because they represent a principle and a cause that crosses tribal and religious boundaries.

The following is an e-mail I received a while ago regarding a conservative yet political active Iraqi woman, that I truly enjoyed:

Before plunging into politics, before surviving twoassassi-nation attempts and before losing her eldestson in an ambush, Salama Kha- faji had a simple wish:to be a good Shia Muslim woman.

But in the days of Saddam Hussein, a woman studyingthe tenets of Shiism was considered a subversive. Evenif Khafaji did not want to become involved inpolitics, she committed a political act by attending aclandestine religious academy. She risked imprisonment, perhaps even death.

From that experience, Khafaji has grown into one ofIraq's most popular politicians. She was one of three women who served on the Iraqi Governing Council after the U.S. invasion, and is now a member of the country's interim parliament. And despite repeated attempts on her life - the latest on Jan. 16 - she is a candidate for the National Assembly in Sunday's elections.

"I did not plan on entering politics, but after theAmerican invasion I realized that the voice of themajority of Iraqi women - who are religious and not returning exiles - was not being heard," said Khafaji,46, a soft-spoken dentistry professor with asympathetic smile. "I wanted that voice to be heard."

On the surface, Khafaji is a contradiction: She is a devout Shia, but she does not want Iraq to become atheocracy. She wears an abaya - an all-encompassingblack veil - but she is also an outspoken advocate for women's rights, and she favors quotas for women in government. Hers is a contradiction that embodies the complexity of Iraqi society, and shows why it isimpossible to fit all religious Iraqis into simple categories.

Khafaji played a key role in negotiating with renegadeShia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr during his numerousconfrontations last year with U.S. forces in Najaf andSadr City. This role raised her political profile andhas translated into broad popular support for Khafajiin Shia areas. But her political success has come witha steep personal price: She and her family have beenvirtually living on the run for more than a year. Shesleeps in a different place each night, her childrenmust travel with heavily armed guards and, after thesecond assassination attempt against her, she stoppedcampaigning.

In May, her 17-year-old son was killed when theirconvoy was ambushed on the road from Najaf to Baghdad(she had been in Najaf negotiating with al-Sadr). Inthe eyes of devout Shias, this gave Khafaji more

Khafaji has been ranked in several opinion polls asthe most popular female politician in Iraq. Becauseshe is running on the slate backed by Grand AyatollahAli al-Sistani, the most revered cleric in Iraq, sheis virtually assured a seat in the new parliament.

But Khafaji is engaged in a larger struggle thansimply campaigning for a parliamentary seat. She istrying to stake out a position as a homegrown Iraqileader. The next major fault-line in Iraqi societywill fall between two political forces: six parties,made up mostly of former exiles, and the indigenous leaders who never left Iraq.

"Those who came with the Americans are not well-known,or well-liked, inside Iraq," said Wamidh Nadhmi, apolitical science professor at Baghdad University. "Inthis context, Dr. Khafaji might have a role to play asa leader who never left and suffered under Saddam like everyone else."

Khafaji and her mentor, Sheik Fatih Kashif Ghitta, arean example of the indigenous Iraqi leadership that islikely to take power if elections are free and fair.Both espouse an Islamic vision of democracy, humanrights and women's rights. They supported a 40-percentquota for women in government, a radical demand thatput them in the company of Westernized feminists andexiles.

The American leadership in Iraq has been much morecomfortable with secular former exiles like theinterim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, and one-timePentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi, both of whom lived inthe West for decades. Homegrown leaders are lesspolitically skilled and have fewer resources than theformer exiles, many of whom received U.S. funding foryears.

Khafaji's story illuminates a critical question forIraq: Will former exiles like Allawi, who haveWashington lobbyists and public relations firms topush their case to U.S. politicians, continue todominate Iraq's government? Or will leaders withgrassroots support like Khafaji get a real chance torule?

Stayed away from politics

Salama Khafaji was born in 1958 to a middle-classBaghdad family; she was the second-youngest of five children. Her father was a carpenter, her mother ahousewife. Her parents were not overtly devout, but her father was a voracious reader and he enjoyed Islamic philosophy.

Growing up at a time when Iraq was roiled by repeatedmilitary coups and nationalist fervor, Khafaji noticedthat her parents stayed away from politics. She didthe same, focusing instead on her studies.

At age 15, she decided to wear a hijab, the Islamic headscarf. She discussed it with her parents and they supported her decision to become more outwardly religious.

"My father was a self-educated man. I was always closeto him, and I got a lot of my ideas from him," shesaid. "He made me love reading the same way he did.Since I was a child, I read about Islam and I knewthat wearing the hijab was important."

In 1979, the year Hussein became president andconsolidated his absolute power over Iraq, Khafajientered college. As a child, she had wanted to becomean artist or an engineer. She was not accepted intothe engineering school, but she got into the Collegeof Dentistry.

By then, she was wearing the head-to-toe abaya, whichmarked her as a pious Shia. Hussein's Sunni-dominatedregime persecuted the Shia, and those who showedoutward signs of religious devotion were monitored bythe secret police. Khafaji was certain that several ofher Baathist classmates were filing reports about her,and they sometimes tried to entice her into politicalconversations.

"Any woman wearing a hijab, there was a mark againsther," she said. "They had to follow her, find out whoshe was in contact with and what groups she was partof."

Khafaji went on to obtain a master's degree indentistry and, when she graduated in 1989, she wasoffered a teaching job at Baghdad University. She alsoopened a private practice, and most of her clientswere Shia women.

"In Iraq, they say that you have to have a man toextract teeth. But I always did my own extractions,"she said, laughing mischievously. "So I was famous atthe college because they knew that in my practice, Idid the extractions myself. My hand is bigger thanother women's - and this is from doing my ownextractions. Religious women like to have other womendo extractions for them."

A clandestine schoolWhile Khafaji was satisfied with her teaching anddentistry career, she yearned to learn more aboutIslamic law and philosophy. In the early 1990s, shesought out Ghitta, who was making plans to operate aclandestine school for Shia women at his Baghdad home.

Ghitta comes from a long line of Shia scholars and isthe leader of a prominent family rooted in the Shiaholy city of Najaf. He modeled his school on the Hawzaal-Ilmiya, the revered center of Shia learning inNajaf that has produced most of the religion's leadersfor centuries. But the Hawza is not open to women

With the help of his mother, a pharmacology professorand author, Ghitta recruited about a dozen women intohis academy. He required his students to have at leasta bachelor's degree and insisted that they undertake amuch wider course of study than just religion. Hetaught them philosophy, logic, rhetoric, jurisprudenceand history - the same Hawza curriculum that, aftertwo or three decades, produces Shia ayatollahs.

Khafaji persuaded her two sisters to join the classes,which met two or three times a week. But she did nottell her husband or four children what she was doing."I was afraid that someone might ask one of mychildren, and we would all be in great danger," shesaid. "We didn't hide the fact that we were gathering.We used to say that it was just a women's meeting.Sometimes, we would say that we were going to havelunch at one person's house. Another time, we wouldhave tea at someone else's house."

Once, Khafaji's husband asked her what she was doingduring her afternoon sojourns. "I am doing what isright," she responded.

Anticipating his almost inevitable arrest, Ghittataught his classes from behind a screen. He never sawhis students' faces and didn't know their names. "Ididn't want to know who my students were, becauseunder torture, I would be forced to give their names,"he said.

In Abu Ghraib

When he was arrested and tortured in 1998, therewasn't much he could give his interrogators. Ghittawas sentenced to death for teaching Shia theology. Buthis students, Khafaji among them, sold their gold andother possessions and managed to bribe the judge tosentence him to life at Abu Ghraib prison instead. Thestudents and Ghitta's mother raised nearly $20,000 - ahuge sum for Iraqis. They gave the judge about $8,000,and dispersed the rest to various Baathist officials.

"He's worth it. He's worth more than that," Khafajisaid of her teacher. "One lecture from him is worththat $20,000."

Listening to his student recount the story, Ghittatightened his thick eyebrows. "Well, everyone is worththat," he said. "Many others died in Abu Ghraib, andthey were worth that, too."

For six months after the sheik's arrest, the womenstopped studying together. After his sentencing, theybegan to meet once a week. Ghitta's mother led theclasses, and whenever she visited her son in prison hewould smuggle scraps of paper to her with suggestedreadings and assignments.

The sheik spent five years at Abu Ghraib, untilDecember 2002, when Hussein pardoned politicalprisoners before the U.S. invasion.

Her first political post

Even after his release from prison, it was toodangerous for Ghitta to meet his studentsface-to-face. But once Hussein's regime was toppled inApril 2003, the sheik sought out Khafaji, his star

Soon after the regime fell, Khafaji became active inthe Iraqi dentists' union. In June 2003, she waselected to her first political post - a member of theunion's executive committee. Before Hussein came topower, labor unions, student groups and other civilsociety associations produced many of Iraq's leadersand bureaucrats. These institutions are trying onceagain to generate homegrown leaders.

In December 2003, Khafaji was appointed to the IraqiGoverning Council, a 25-member body that ruled Iraqunder the auspices of the U.S. occupation. Shereplaced another Shia woman who had been assassinatedthree months earlier. Khafaji had the distinction ofbeing the only council member chosen by her fellowpoliticians, the others all having been appointed byU.S. officials. This helped Khafaji avoid the taint ofU.S. cooperation that has haunted most other councilmembers.

Khafaji infuriated women's groups and the two otherfemale council members when she supported a proposalto abolish Iraq's civil law on family matters. Themeasure would have placed family issues - such asmarriage, divorce, children's custody - underreligious jurisdiction, as is the practice in manyArab countries. The proposal eventually was nixed byU.S. officials.

While the episode turned women's groups against her,it earned her the respect of Muqtada al-Sadr and hisfollowers. Then, in April 2004, Khafaji's popularitysoared when she spoke out forcefully against the U.S.siege of the Sunni city of Fallujah and a crackdown onal-Sadr's militia in Shia areas.

"Salama Khafaji's shoe alone is worth more than theentire Governing Council," an al-Sadr aide told a20,000-strong congregation at Friday prayers in SadrCity in April.

As fighting between al-Sadr's militia and U.S. forcesintensified, Khafaji tried to mediate. She used hergrowing popularity and the religious credentials ofGhitta, who served as her deputy on the GoverningCouncil. Throughout April and May, Khafaji engaged ina kind of shuttle diplomacy, driving from Baghdad toal-Sadr's home in Najaf. She and Ghitta also lined uptribal leaders and members of the Shia religioushierarchy to pressure al-Sadr into agreeing to acease-fire.

Son, guard killed in ambush

On May 27, as she drove to Baghdad from Najaf toBaghdad after one of her marathon meetings withal-Sadr, Khafaji was ambushed. She escaped unharmed,but her son Ahmad and her favorite bodyguard werekilled. What haunts her most is that she had to driveaway without knowing their fate.

It was early evening and her three-car convoy wasracing through a militant Sunni area south of Baghdad.Suddenly, four men riding in a red Opel sedan overtookthem. The sedan then turned around and sped past theconvoy in the opposite direction.

"They looked at us and knew who we were. They wentaway to get their weapons and came back," sherecalled, betraying no emotion. "I saw Ahmad's carveering off the road into a canal, but there was somuch dust that I couldn't really see what happened."

To save her life, Khafaji's driver had to speed awayfrom the scene.

Later that night, Khafaji was told her bodyguard'scorpse had been found. Her son's body was notrecovered from the canal until the next day.

"The news about my bodyguard's death was veryupsetting. I thought that night about his mother, hiswife, his young child. There were a lot of people thatlost him," Khafaji said, her voice trailing off. "Thenext day, when I received the news about my son, itwas a little easier to accept it. ... I had lost myson, but a lot of Iraqi women have lost theirchildren.

"When I was in Najaf, I met many women who had losttheir sons, husbands, brothers and I was very moved bytheir desire for peace," she said. "It's the women whohave suffered the most under this occupation. Andthat's why it's women who want peace the most."

After her son's death, Khafaji became even morepopular. In a poll conducted by the InternationalRepublican Institute shortly after the transfer ofpower to an interim Iraqi government on June 28, shewas ranked as the most popular female leader in thecountry. She was the 11th most popular among both maleand female politicians.

Popular among devout Shia

Her base of support is among devout Shia men and womenin Sadr City and Shia-dominated southern Iraq. Shiawomen affectionately call her "Dr. Salama" and compareher to Zainab, the daughter of Shiism's 7th centuryfounding figure, Imam Ali.

"We need to have women in the government, especially adaughter of our country like Dr. Salama. She isstrong-willed and a fighter," said Shayma Khalida, 26,a student who lives in Sadr City. "Dr. Salamasacrificed the most valuable thing she had, which washer son. She showed her patriotism, strength andreligious devotion."

Despite her popularity, Khafaji is facing an uphillbattle as she tries to establish herself as anindependent national leader. So far, the budding Iraqipolitical system has favored political parties ratherthan independents.

Khafaji is running on a slate called the United IraqiAlliance, which is backed by al-Sistani. Last month,as she negotiated her position on the slate, she waspressured to join the two leading Shia politicalparties in Iraq.

The groups - the Supreme Council for IslamicRevolution in Iraq and the Dawa Party - are dominatedby former exiles, many of whom spent years inneighboring Iran. After Khafaji refused to join eitherparty, she was given the No. 30 slot on the slate,despite her national reputation and appeal.

"These parties are trying to control the politicalsystem," she said, "and I do not want to be part ofthat."

As the political wrangling over party slates unfoldedearly last month, a group of gunmen ambushed Khafaji'shusband on his way home from work. He was wounded inthe leg, hand and abdomen and spent two weeks in thehospital.

On Jan. 16, gunmen wearing Iraqi police uniformsattacked Khafaji's convoy in central Baghdad. Hersecurity guards returned fire and the gunmen fled. No

The ambush forced Khafaji to suspend her politicalcampaign. She canceled plans to drive to southern Iraqand she began sleeping in a different location everynight. "I'm frustrated that I cannot go out and meetwith people to talk about the election," she said. "Iwant to listen to their ideas and problems. This iswhat political leaders are supposed to do."

When her three surviving children complain that theyare tired of living on the run, she tells them topersevere. "They want to move around freely and have anormal life. They want to be able to leave the housewithout guards, and live as other children do," shesaid. "After I talk to them, they realize that we haveto work toward making a normal life for all Iraqis."

And what would she do if life in Iraq ever returned to"normal"?"

I would go back to teaching and practicingdentistry," she said, laughing. "I'm not really a politician."


Daniel Pipes strikes again

From Inter Press Service News Agency:

Despite the apparent decision by President George W. Bush against re-nominating him to the board of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), ”anti-Islamist” activist Daniel Pipes is working as diligently as ever to protect the United States and the Western world from the influence of radical Islamists.

He has proposed the creation of a new ”Anti-Islamist Institute” (AII) designed to expose legal ”political activities” of ”Islamists”, such as ”prohibiting families from sending pork or pork by-products to U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq”, which nonetheless, in his view, serve the interests of radical Islam. ”

In the long term...the legal activities of Islamists pose as much or even a greater set of challenges than the illegal ones,” according to the draft of a grant proposal by Pipes' Middle East Forum (MEF) obtained by IPS.

Pipes is also working with Stephen Schwartz on a new ”Centre for Islamic Pluralism” (CIP) whose aims are to ”promote moderate Islam in the U.S. and globally” and ”to oppose the influence of militant Islam, and, in particular, the Saudi-funded Wahhabi sect of Islam, among American Muslims, in the America media, in American education ...and with U.S. governmental bodies...”

Schwartz, a former Trotskyite militant who became a Sufi Muslim in 1997, has received seed money from MEF, which is also accepting contributions on CIP's behalf until the government gives it gets tax-exempt legal status, according to another grant proposal obtained by IPS.

The CIP proposal, which says it expects to receive funding from contributors in the ”American Shia community” and in ”Sunni mosques once liberated from Wahhabi influence”, also boasts ”strong links” with Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and other notable neo-conservatives, such as former Central Intelligence (CIA) director James Woolsey and the vice president for foreign policy programming at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Danielle Pletka, as well as with Pipes himself.

Pipes, who created MEF in Philadelphia in 1994, has long campaigned against ”radical” Islamists in the United States, especially the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and several other national Islamic groups.

Long before the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, he also raised alarms about the immigration of foreign Muslims, suggesting that they constituted a serious threat to the political clout of U.S. Jews, as well as a potential ”fifth column” for radical Islamists.

In addition, Pipes has been a fierce opponent of Palestinian nationalism. He told Australian television earlier this month, for example, that Israeli Prime Minister's Gaza disengagement plan and his agreement to negotiate with the new Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, were a ”mistake” because 80 percent of the Palestinian population, including Abbas, still favour Israel's destruction.

In 2002, Pipes launched ”Campus Watch”, a group dedicated to monitoring and exposing alleged anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian and/or Islamist bias in teachers of Middle Eastern studies at U.S. colleges and universities.

The group, which invites students to report on offending professors, has been assailed as a McCarthyite tactic to stifle open discussion of Middle East issues.

Pipes' nomination by Bush in 2003 to serve as a director on the board of the quasi-governmental USIP, a government-funded think tank set up in 1984 to ”promote the prevention, management and peaceful resolution of international conflicts”, moved the controversy over his work from academia into the U.S. Senate where such appointments are virtually always approved without controversy.

Pipes' nomination, however, offered a striking exception. Backed by major Muslim, Arab-American, and several academic groups, Democratic senators, led by Edward Kennedy, Christopher Dodd, and Tom Harkin, strongly opposed the nomination as inappropriate, particularly in light of some of his past writings, including one asserting that that Muslim immigrants were ”brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and not exactly maintaining Germanic standards of hygiene”.

Several Republican senators subsequently warned Bush that they would oppose the nomination if it came to a vote, and, in the end, the president made a ”recess appointment” that gave him a limited term lasting only until the end of 2004. It appears now that, despite the enhanced Republican majority in the Senate, Bush does not intend to re-nominate him.

Indeed, both the USIP and Bush now probably regret having nominated him in the first place. During his board tenure, Pipes blasted USIP for hosting a conference with the Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy, charging that it employed Muslim ”radicals” on its staff.

That accusation was publicly refuted by the USIP itself, which echoed the complaints of his long-time critics, accusing him of relying on ”quotes taken out of context, guilt by association, errors of fact, and innuendo”.

Pipes also criticised Bush for ”legitimising” various ”Islamist” groups, such as CAIR and the Arab-American Institute, by permitting their representatives to take part in White House and other government ceremonies and for failing to identify ”radical Islam” as ”the enemy” in the war on terror.

His own disillusionment with Bush is made clear in the AAI draft which notes that ”creative thinking in this war of ideas must be initiated outside the government, for the latter, due to the demands of political correctness, is not in a position to say what needs to be said.”

AII's goal, it goes on, ”is the delegitimation of the Islamists. We seek to have them shunned by the government, the media, the churches, the academy and the corporate world.”

Pipes' complementary goal -- to enhance the influence of ”moderate” Muslims -- is to guide the work of Schwartz's CIP which is to ”headed by one born Muslim (its President) and a 'new Muslim', i.e. an American not born in the faith, as its Executive Director. This is the best combination for leading such an effort.”

The ”extremists”, according to the CIP proposal, are mainly represented by the ”Wahhabi lobby”, an array of organisations consisting of CAIR, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT), the Muslim Students' Association of the U.S. and Canada (MSA), the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), as well as ”secular” groups, including the Arab-American Institute (AAI) and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). ”

The first goal of CIP will be the removal of CAIR and ISNA from monopoly status in representing Muslims to the American public,” the proposal goes on. ”...(S)o long as they retain a major foothold at the highest political level, no progress can be made for moderate American Islam.”

In achieving its goal, CIP cites the help it can expect from its ”strong links” to Wolfowitz, Woolsey and Pletka; as well as Sens Charles Schumer and Sen. Jon Kyl, among others, ”terrorism experts” Steven Emerson of the Investigative Project, Paul Marshall of Freedom House, and Glen Howard of the Jamestown Foundation; and journalists such as Fox News anchors David Asman, Brit Hume and Greta van Susteren, Dale Hurd of the Christian Broadcasting Network; and editors at the New York Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Interviewed by phone, Prof. Kemal Silay, ”president-designate” of the CIP who teaches Ottoman and Modern Turkish Studies at the Indiana University, told IPS he was not aware that he was to be group's president, but that he had talked about the group with Schwartz and agrees with both Pipes and Schwartz about the dangers posed by ”Wahhabi” groups in the U.S. and the world.

Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Saudi Institute and named as CIP's research director in the grant proposal, told IPS he had also talked with Schwartz about the group and strongly supported its goals, although he thought several of the groups listed as part of the ”Wahhabi” lobby were more independent.

He also said that he did not know that Pipes was involved with the group. ”

(Pipes) sees all Arabs and Muslims the same, because he has interest in the security of the state of Israel”, said al-Ahmed, who publicises human rights abuses committed in Saudi Arabia.

Schwartz refused to speak with IPS.


Thursday, February 24, 2005

Rumi's popularity in the West

I receive wise sayings from Beliefnet every day, and many times, it is a passage from Rumi which I truly enjoy, so I was delighted to see this article from the San Francisco Chronicle:

America's best-selling poet is not Billy Collins, whose folksy, humorous work won him two terms as U.S. poet laureate. It's not Robert Frost, the four-time Pulitzer Prize winner whose reading at John F. Kennedy's 1961 inauguration is still studied by students. ("The land was ours before we were the land's ...") And it's not Edgar Allan Poe, whose "The Raven" has been called "the best-known poem in the Western Hemisphere."

If you want to meet the most popular poet in the United States, you must board a plane and fly to Konya, Turkey, where you'll find the mausoleum of Jalal al-Din Muhammad Balkhi, who is better known by his Westernized name, Rumi.

Born in the early 13th century in what is now Afghanistan, Rumi was a Muslim religious leader whose name in Arabic means "greatness of faith."

Thanks to the faith of Rumi's U.S. fans, his books have sold more than 500,000 copies in the past 10 years. Rumi calendars, Rumi CDs, Rumi posters, Rumi T-shirts, even Rumi coffee mugs have also found a market in the United States.

Madonna, Demi Moore, Goldie Hawn, Martin Sheen, Debra Winger and Rosa Parks are among the big names who have publicly proclaimed Rumi's greatness as a poet.

Americans' fascination with Rumi is just one way in which Muslim literature and writing, from "A Thousand and One Nights" to the Quran, has influenced readers in this country seeking heightened spiritual awareness, approaches to the dilemmas and mysteries of life, or just a good read. An ironic fallout of Sept. 11 has been an even greater interest in Islamic writing -- not just among university students and general readers, but in the American military.

Lt. Gen. John Vines, who takes over command of U.S. ground forces in Iraq this month, has required his top officers to read several books on Muslim culture, including "Islam for Dummies" (which has a chapter on the Quran) and "Islam: A Short History."

Rumi's poetry refers often to God, but many of his poems aren't overtly religious. Rather, they could be classified as "spiritual" or "soulful."

Rumi tells stories of people wrestling with problems. He uses metaphors and aphorisms to guide lovers together again, or to explain the bonds of friendship, or to teach the quality of patience.

Not surprisingly, American readers seem especially drawn to Rumi's works about love. In 1998, New Age guru Deepak Chopra published "The Love Poems of Rumi," which included this passage from a poem called "Aroused Passion":

Oh God
Let all lovers be content
Give them happy endings
Let their lives be celebrations
Let their hearts dance in the fire of your love.

Rumi's words are beautiful, touching and reassuring -- a reflection of his belief in the mystical branch of Islam called Sufism, which emphasizes a universal connection to God.

For non-Muslims who first discover Rumi, the experience can be shocking. Sufism as a practice diverges widely from more orthodox branches of Islam, and some strict Muslims consider Sufis heretical.

Rumi said all people are connected, regardless of religion. He welcomed Jews, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists. He told stories that have descriptions of sex. He told stories that praise the sound of music. Rumi's readers in the United States cut across social, economic and political categories, as represented by Dan Lorey, a retired teacher in Cincinnati who in November wrote an opinion piece for the Cincinnati Enquirer that explained his support for President Bush and the war in Iraq.

Lorey, who was raised a Catholic and now identifies with pagan practices, said Bush understood Rumi's belief that people of different backgrounds really crave peace and coexistence.

"I saw it as a clear-cut thing," said Lorey in a phone interview from Cincinnati. "We're fighting people who pervert Islamic tradition. I purposely described Rumi as 'an Islamic mystical poet' because I think a lot of people mistrust Islam and they put Muslims in one category, but Rumi comes out of a tradition that I think is the real root of Islam, and it's a beautiful thing. You go back to the Middle Ages, and all the great art and philosophy and mathematics came out of Islamic tradition."

In his inaugural address on Jan. 20, Bush cited the Quran as a holy book that instills "an edifice of character" in people, but the president could also have said that the Quran is a major literary work that has inspired poets and is itself poetic.

Rumi's most celebrated work of poetry, the six-volume "Mathnawi" (which Iranians often refer to as the "Persian Quran"), takes direct quotes from the Quran, and Rumi's poems repeatedly refer to the Quran, as in "Zikr" and "Muhammad and the Huge Eater," which are included in Coleman Barks' "The Essential Rumi."

"Rumi has acknowledged that all his inspiration comes from the Quran and the prophet of Islam, Muhammad," says Postneshin Jelaluddin, who was born and raised in Konya and now lives in Hawaii, where he heads the Mevlevi Order of America.

Other Muslim poets have also "sampled" the Quran, which is full of poetic lines like "He begets not, nor is he begotten" and "The mountains shall vanish, as if they were a mirage." (Both lines are from the popular English-language Quran translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Muslims believe the Quran is the direct word of God.)

At the opposite end of Islamic writing is "A Thousand and One Nights," the centuries-old collection of stories that has influenced a Who's Who of American (and European) authors.

Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Washington Irving -- not to mention Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Hans Christian Andersen, Lord Byron and Voltaire -- all incorporated motifs from "A Thousand and One Nights" into their work, according to Robert Irwin, a retired professor of medieval history at the University of St. Andrews.

In his book "Arabian Nights: A Companion," Irwin points out that "Moby- Dick" is "enriched by covert embedded references to the Nights" (among them: captain Ahab's favorite harpoonist is a turbaned man named Fedallah), while Joyce's "Ulysses" makes repeated reference to one of the best-known stories in "A Thousand and One Nights": Sinbad the Sailor.

Folkloric stories that originated in Persia, India and the Arab world around the ninth century, "A Thousand and One Nights" (also published under the title "The Arabian Nights") became popular in the United States soon after it was translated into English by, among others, Sir Richard Burton. "A Thousand and One Nights" is replete with scenes of wild tales and licentious sex, but it also has scores of stories where God is omnipresent.

Many of the stories detail life in the street and behind closed doors, and in this way, "A Thousand and One Nights" is a window onto the social dynamics of medieval Muslim society.

Rumi's poems are also a reflection on them -- and, in fact, two stories in Barks' "The Essential Rumi" are virtually identical to stories in "Tales From The Thousand and One Nights" (an interpretation that was translated by N. J. Dawood, a Baghdad-born scholar).

In one story, a jealous woman tries unsuccessfully to keep her husband from getting together with a maid; in the other, a man in Baghdad acts on a dream that he'll find wealth in Cairo -- only to realize (after he gets beaten by authorities in Egypt) that his dream really pointed him to his own house.

Like Rumi's poetry, the West has gravitated toward the book's least religious tales, as in "Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp," which became a 1992 Walt Disney film with many sequels in which a poor street kid finds riches and romance. Disney's animated movies Americanize many things about the story, including the title: In the original Arabic, Aladdin is spelled Ala al-Din, which means "excellence of faith."

A similar disconnection from Muslim roots is found in the other major Muslim poet whose books have had a major impact in the United States: Ghiyath al-Din Abu'l-Fath Umar ibn Ibrahim Al-Nisaburi al-Khayyami, better known as Omar Khayyam.

An astronomer, mathematician and poet whose life spanned the 11th and 12th centuries, Khayyam has had a literary foothold in the United States since his "Rubaiyat" was first translated into English by Edward FitzGerald in 1859. The book features rhyming verses of four lines each.

On a surface level, many of Khayyam's quatrains seem to be about bacchanal pleasures. As translated by FitzGerald, Khayyam's Quatrain 42 reads, "And lately, by the tavern door agape, came stealing through the dusk an angel shape, bearing a vessel on his shoulder, and he bid me taste of it; and 'twas -- the grape!"

In the most recent edition by St. Martin's Press, that quatrain is accompanied by an illustration showing Khayyam with a wine glass in one hand, and a beautiful woman in the other, just as he is about to kiss her. Like Rumi, though, Khayyam used metaphors to express deeper meanings about love and faith.

The "Rubaiyat," according to many scholars, is really a spiritual framework that reflects Khayyam's belief in Sufism. Although some scholars say Khayyam was turned off by traditional religious practices, he studied the Quran and undertook the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca known as the hajj.

In Islamic studies classes at American universities and high schools, Khayyam's poems are studied side by side with Rumi's poems, "A Thousand and One Nights," the Quran, and other writers who've broken through in the West, including Naguib Mahfouz (the Egyptian novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988), and the Persian poets Hafez (whose full name was Khajeh Shamseddin Mohammad Hafez Shirazi) and Saadi (Mosleh al-Din Saadi Shirazi).

What might Rumi himself say about his popularity today? He might remark that his poems are themselves manifestations of Allah's beauty and benevolence, and that Americans are no different from anyone else who needs spiritual nourishment to keep going.

Or, as expressed in his poetry:

Something opens our wings.
Something makes boredom and hurt disappear.
Someone fills the cup in front of us.
We taste only sacredness.