Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Quran Project - Introduction

The last few months away from my blog have been a busy time of learning. One of the things I've learned about is the concept of taking on "small projects" - transforming little enjoyable activities into ventures that you can consciously benefit from. Another thing I learned about is the benefit of sharing your doubts, questions and ideas with others - no matter how you think they might be perceived. As long as you address things respectfully, you can discuss any topic and get a lot from that discussion.

One thing that I've long avoided blogging about directly is Islam. I'm no scholar on the subject, so I was afraid that I would say things that I would later regret. Or that I would tread on peoples' toes. But I realized that things like that shouldn't be an issue as long as respect and a true intention to learn form the foundation of my writing. Which, hopefully, they are.

So with that in mind, I thought it would be appropriate to take on an Islam-related project during these three weeks of vacation that I have before my last semester of college. I've been wanting to read Fazlur Rahman's Major Themes of the Qur'an for a few months now, and my plan was to read it during this break. But instead of keeping this a solitary activity, I thought I could share it with all of you guys.

Enter The Quran Project. I figured that by turning my reading into a project, several things could happen at once: I can reinforce what I've read by summarizing it; anyone interested in knowing more about the Quran can hopefully get an interesting fact or two from what’ll be posted here; and most importantly, we can all gain from the different ideas that we share in any conversations that come out of this.

But why do I want to read Fazlur Rahman’s Major Themes of the Qur'an? Because of Rahman's unique approach to Islam's foundational text. Instead of trying to analyze the Quran on a verse-by-verse basis (as most traditional Muslim scholars have done) or focusing on the historical factors that may have influenced the Quran (as most modern Western scholars have done), Rahman tries to approach the Quran's actual text with a holistic view. This, he believes, is the best way to understand the message of the Quran. He offers a study of the Quran based on its major themes, and presents each theme by bringing together the different verses relating to it and discussing them in one chapter.

What I hope to do here is summarize the major points of each chapter into a single post. For the sake of time and efficiency, I'll try to stick to no more than three points per chapter. (Of course, if there's a fourth point I just have to talk about, I won't be shy and will indulge.) I'll also include some of my thoughts on the points; ideas I'd like to get other peoples' opinions on instead of have them floating around aimlessly in my head.

Then it's your turn. If you guys have any questions or ideas of your own that you'd like to share, please leave comments. Don't be shy. Whether you’re Muslim or not, whether I know you or not, whether you know a lot about the Quran or haven't ever touched it before, please feel free to join in. And invite your friends too! This is an open forum for discussion. All I ask is that we be respectful. Freedom of speech implies power, and as Spiderman’s (wonderfully quotable) uncle said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” If you do want to join any discussions that come out of this, please keep those words in mind.

So here's the list of Quranic themes I'll be going through over the next three weeks, divided by chapter:

  1. God
  2. Man as Individual
  3. Man in Society
  4. Nature
  5. Prophethood and Revelation
  6. Eschatology (Concerning Death/Final Judgement.)
  7. Satan and Evil
  8. Emergence of the Muslim Community
  9. The Religious Situation of the Muslim Community in Mecca (Appendix I)
  10. The People of the Book and Diversity of Religions (Appendix II)

I'll be posting up a chapter summary every few days, inshallah. I'm not too sure whether or not I'll have time for the appendices, but I'll try to get them in as well.

I look forward to getting started and seeing what comes out of this. Hope you guys enjoy it as much as I will.

Till the next post!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Breaking Bread and Sharing Faith

(Originally published on WireTap.)

For the 1.8 million Muslims living in America, last week marked the end of the holiest month of the year, Ramadan. During this month of fasting from sunrise to sunset, Muslims across the country recharged their spiritual connection to God in order to learn how to better live in accordance with the values of mercy, justice and peace.

The end of Ramadan brought an opportunity to apply those values immediately. Last week, a convergence of the Muslim and Jewish calendars brought together the holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Rosh Hashana, and the American adherents of these two religions found themselves celebrating their faith on the same weekend. This overlap of holidays has happened for the last four years, but due to calendar differences this may be the last time that Ramadan and Rosh Hashana come together for decades.

Recognizing the significance of the event, Muslim and Jewish students at Butler University organized an interfaith dinner where they could share in food, conversation and celebration. The night's agenda was simple: introduce the basics of each holiday to both communities, and open the floor for questions about the two faiths.

Speaking about the event, campus Rabbi Aaron Spiegel at first critiqued the general trend that characterizes interfaith dialog. "We in the religion world use the word interfaith much too often. And in my opinion, most of what passes for interfaith dialogue is not dialogue at all -- it's a lecture about why I'm right and you're wrong."

Yet at Butler University, Rabbi Spiegel felt that he had witnessed a true attempt at interfaith dialogue. "On the surface, the conversation seemed light and conversational. Yet, the exchange was profound. These young Jews and young Muslims genuinely shared with each other. There was no attempt at making nice; they genuinely liked talking to each other. There were no overt attempts at finding commonality; it was inherent. They recognized the humanity in one another."

This attempt to recognize the humanity in one another, to try and bridge the gaps created by prejudice and misunderstanding, is crucial for a country as diverse as America. By coming together to do so, American youth of these two faiths were making a statement. They would not let "political conflicts dressed in religious clothing" keep them from forming a community based on the values central to all faiths: peace and brotherhood.

The reports of a new bomb threat that have been unfolding over the last week are a critical reminder to all Americans of the importance of these values. As Muslims and Jews mark a new period on their calendars, let us hope that the activities of their representatives at Butler University remind us how to create the understanding necessary to nurture a nation that provides peace, liberty and justice for all.

Friday, August 14, 2009

For America, Malaysia Matters

(Originally published on WireTap.)

What is Malaysia? A country at the edge of the map? A place with funny foods and foreign accents? A really green plot of earth, famous for.. rubber?

About two months ago, I landed an internship that dropped me into the heart of the Malaysian capital, stripping away these stereotypes to reveal a complex and dynamic Southeast Asian state. Between train commutes, Friday prayers at the National Mosque and dining like the locals at cheap food stalls known as mamaks, I got to speak to people, particularly youth, about their views of their country and how it relates to the United States. The answers I got to my questions were as interesting as they were surprising. These answers, from university professors to taxi drivers to young activists, made one thing clear at the end of my stay last week: for America, Malaysia matters.

As an American Muslim with an interest in international affairs, I already knew that Malaysians (60.4 percent of whom are Muslims) have reputations as moderate, peace-loving people. What I didn't know about was the deep cultural affinity Malaysians have with America — making it an opportune ally for the United States in the region. Malaysians' profound faith in democracy, as well as their unabashed admiration of the United States, surprised me at a time when the internationalization of democracy was losing ground and praise of the United States was rationed out with blushes and flustered excuses.

In my conversations, it became clear that what Malaysians like most about America is what they described as its culture of openness, the confidence it inspired in its citizens, and its legal foundation for democracy and equality - all things that they hoped to see more of in their country and around the world. What they didn't admire about the United States, of course, was the hypocrisy often witnessed in relation to these principles, usually manifested in racism towards minorities and foreigners.

As a majority Muslim country, Malaysia also represents a modern, “moderate” Islam that many Muslims around the world admire. Local groups, such as the Muslim Professionals Forum or their youth spin-off the Young Muslims Project, work to reconcile Westernization and modernity with Islamic values that stress tolerance, openness and acceptance. In this context, a positive American relationship with Malaysia will achieve two goals: first, it will show Muslims around the world that America is not anti-Islam and is open to cooperation with the Muslim world; second, it will help promote the environment needed to support the growth of the modern, moderate Islam seen in Malaysia.

Now is the best time to focus on deepening American-Malaysian ties. A partnership with Malaysia will give America a solid ally in Southeast Asia, as well as improve American standing in the Muslim world. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has already invited President Obama, who has well-known ties to the region, to visit Malaysia. What both leaders chose to do with this potential relationship will impact not only their two countries, but the greater international community.

Funny foods, foreign accents and colonial-era rubber are a thing of the past. It is now more important than ever that America makes high-potential partnerships with countries like Malaysia matter.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Mamak Chronicles

Ok, ok, forgive me. The new blog is finally up. Khalisah Stevens and Nour Merza are now writing of their Malaysian adventures exclusively for Minority Dreams!

The title of the blog is "The Mamak Chronicles." Wanna know why? Check out our first post, "Welcome to the Mamak," and you'll find out!

The second post is out too. Read and comment away!

The Mamak Chronicles at Minority Dreams.

Monday, June 8, 2009

On Home Turf

We finished our third day in KL yesterday. I realized that it’ll be impossible for me to go over everything we do every day we’re here, so I’ve decided to dedicate each post to a particular theme related to what happened to me during the day. It’ll give my posts a bit of structure – which I’ll of course end forgetting about as I write and go off on random tangents. Khalisah and I are still trying to figure out how to get this two-person blog together, and we’re each doing our own thing until we do. We’ll see how this works out. (Her version of our Malaysian adventures can be found here.)

So this post: all about our neighborhood. Here we go.

Khalisah and I are living with Winnie, one of Khalisah’s Chinese cousins. Malaysians, by the way, usually come from one of three ethnic groups: the Malays, the Chinese, and the Indians. This is a pretty general outline, and since race is a major (and sensitive) issue here, I’ll have to address it more fully in another post. For now, I’ll just say that Khalisah’s family is Malay-Chinese, and leave it at that.

Anyways, Winnie’s apartment is one of the many apartments that line the streets of her neighborhood. At the ground floor of all these apartments is occupied by some sort of shop: laundries, internet cafés, mini-grocery stores. It’s great because anything that we need is literally just a few steps away from home. On our second day in KL, we wanted to explore the neighborhood a little bit, so we went around to different shops and discovered an internet café with pretty good rates. One Chinese man stopped us while we were passing by his store and asked us where we were from. “Sini!” Khalisah and her sister Amani told him. “Here!” He was shocked, because Khalisah and Amani are half Malaysian, half Caucasian, and I’m Syrian-Circassian-American. Not your average Malaysians. The poor guy, we left him horribly confused.

As we were trying to find our way around the neighborhood, we stopped at the mamak we’d eaten at earlier to ask for some directions. A mamak is a little restaurant that sells local Malaysian fare. Mamaks are pretty basic, they’re usually the size of a small café, but without any of the fancy trappings of your local Starbucks. The furniture is usually nothing more than fold-up tables and plastic chairs, and most mamaks are open-air with nothing but a few poles and an awning that keeps potential rain away. Cats walk between tables and customers’ legs, hoping for a few scraps of food. A few people run around taking orders and making the food and drinks – mamaks are usually family-run. Most of these places sell the same standard fare, but they all have their special touch. According to Khalisah, “each greasy little mamak has something to offer.” The one on our street is made of beautiful dark wood, stands on stilts, and has electric lamps all along its parameter, so it looks some fancy restaurant you'd find on a beach. We love it.

Walking around our neighborhood every day is such a great experience. I have this theory that you can never really connect with a place until you walk its streets. You have to feel the sun on your back and the wind on your face; smell the exhaust when cars zoom by; bump into people who are going to work or school or the grocery; get to know your local laundry man; and memorize the different trees that line the street and the cracks that crisscross the pavement. Only then are you really a part of the place you’re in. It’s this process of interacting with a place intimately and appreciating its details that transforms it from being just another building or set of streets to being something sacred: sacred because it is now part of your consciousness, part of your life.

We’ll be going up and down these roads every day for the next few weeks, so I can’t wait to be more acquainted with this neighborhood, this city, and this country. I’m sure they have endless stories to tell.

Building Ourselves in America

(Originally published on Minority Dreams.)

As far back as I can remember, my family’s life has stretched across two parts of the world: America and the Middle East. We tore our hearts in two and buried them on opposite ends of the globe, traveling between them as we chased after a higher cause my dad labeled i’mar al-ard. Although the phrase doesn’t translate very well in English, it means something like “building the world,” and was my dad’s way of dedicating his life to doing something – anything – that would leave a positive impact on this planet he called home.

As he taught us later, building the world was a simple cycle in which we learned as much as humanly possible about the world we were in, while simultaneously working to make that world a better place. It was a wonderfully vague life plan that could adapt to any dream, take root in any soil. It would propel us around the globe, where we would meet all colors of people, and would (at least I hope) make us quite colorful as well. But my dad would never have dreamed, as he lay on his balcony in Syria watching the sky like a teenage Ché Guevara, that it would take him and his future family to America.

In preparation for his bit of building the world, my father spent his youth chasing knowledge the way he used to chase soccer balls in the alleys of Damascus. From the clutches of his family he ran to college in neighboring Halab. From a war that rained bombs in Halab he ran to Saudi Arabia to explore the uncharted territories of computer science. When machines didn’t satisfy his curiosity about the world, he set his sights on a place across the globe that was said to have enough libraries to satiate even Averroes. He and his wife packed all of their belongings in two suitcases, grabbed their two infants and jumped across a few continents and an ocean before landing in the middle of Chicago. They had nothing but those two suitcases, three thousand dollars in their wallets, and countless prayers to God – who they called by His Arabic name, Allah – that things would turn out alright.

My parents, when they set out, had no idea what was waiting for them in the country that was home to Hollywood and the White House. They would have been shocked to hear that they were going to stay there for over a decade, rather than the five years they had envisioned. They couldn’t foresee the Muslim communities that would take them in as long-lost cousins, my mom’s discovery of teaching and addiction to Burger King, my dad’s multiple lives as student, car dealer and activist, or their children’s mastery of English at the expense of the language of the Quran.

They didn’t know that a few years later they would make another life-changing trip, this time halfway across the continent, after my dad discovered an unmatchable political science program and a liberal Islamic Center in Los Angeles. They would fall in love with the San Fernando Valley, which eased the pain of homesickness with of all the Muslims it held in its lap and with its mountains, sisters of the mountains that encircled Damascus. I only understood what they were talking about years later when I drove through Damascus for the first time, and felt a sudden pang for the LA home I’d left when I was fifteen.

By the end of my freshman year of high school, we had decided to move to the Middle East, this time to Dubai. With two master’s degrees and a PhD under his belt, my dad felt that the time for his formal education was over. It was now to be the era of building. Building bridges between the two parts of the globe dearest to him. And as for us kids, it was time for us to formally meet the other half of our hearts – the annual summer trips we’d taken back to the Middle East were not enough to make us Middle Easterners. So we carted ourselves off to Dubai, not knowing whether to laugh or cry the whole way there.

Years later in the Middle East, my family is still under the spell of i’mar al-ard: that endless cycle of learning and working. And we’re still torn between our two halves. My dad makes trips back to the U.S. once or twice a year, my brother and I are doing our undergrad at a local American university with our eyes on New York for work and grad school, and my mom is a lover of all things organic in the best tradition of California culture.

But while we’re each busy trying to build our own world, it’s important to stop and recognize what built us. Among the many forces in our lives, America had no small role in helping us with our i’mar al-nafs, our “building the self.” It is the privileges, challenges and pleasures of American life that made us who we are today. And from the many lessons America taught us, perhaps the most important one is this: new worlds can always be created from those already existing. It’s a lesson we hold tight to, no matter what part of this Earth we find ourselves in.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

First Day in Malaysia!

Here's a quick entry from my Malaysia journal. A whole blog about this will be going up soon. Keep an eye out for it!

June 6, 200912:50 a.m. (Kuala Lumpur)

We arrived in Kuala Lumpur this afternoon at 2. Kay and I thought that we’d finally feel that we’d made it to Malaysia once we got out of the airplane. But in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, we were in the same plastic bubble that airplanes enter and exit in every major city around the world. Signs warning of swine flu were the newest addition to the airport since I’d last been there, but they were also sprouting out in sister buildings around the world. Once we got outside, managed to stuff our in-Dubai-everything-bigger-is-better-sized luggage into Winnie’s tiny beige car, and were on the road to the city, we managed to finally feel that we were in
Malaysia at last.

The country is beautiful, and it’s my exhaustion after a long day that began with the end of two uncomfortable hours of sleeping in an airplane seat that keep me from describing it in the way it deserves to be described. It’s green, green in a way that a desert can never dream of being. The short mountains and shallow valleys that marked the whole road home were so saturated with trees that not a spot of brown dirt or grey stone could be seen. Even when we got into Winnie’s apartment, which was in the middle of the industrial neighborhood of Subang Jaya, trees grew everywhere.

We dumped our stuff in Winnie’s tiny sky-blue apartment, then lounged there for a little while before heading off again to get some necessities for survival – shampoo, towels, etc. After that, we went for a pre-midnight snack at a little restaurant on stilts next to Winnie’s house, where we had satay, nasi ayam, and Milo Ice (a cold chocolate drink that’s very popular locally). Earlier that afternoon, on our way home from the airport, Winnie stopped at a nice rest-stop where I had my fist Malay meal of the trip. It was nasik lemak, which was coconut soak rice with anchovies, chilli, peanuts, and other fillings wrapped in banana paper. Delicious, but halfway through the meal I realized that my body might not by ready for Malaysian street food, and worried that I’d have to pay for that tantalizing meal for the next few days with some indigestion or something. Thankfully, I’ve been having Malay street food all day and I feel perfectly fine. Inshallah things’ll stay that way.

I wanna stay and write about all the details of going to the rest-stop, the mall, and the restaurant. How I could feel so many people staring at me, and how I was suddenly very conscious of being blue-eyed and white. I look different enough from everyone around me to seriously stand out. It’s pretty funny. But I can do that tomorrow, when I can actually think after a full night’s sleep. We’ll be going to the Central Market tomorrow too, so that’ll give me lots of material to work with.

But one thing before I go, because it was random and interesting and I might forget it. When the Maghrib adhan went off, Winnie got up from the sofa we’d been lounging on while watching Malay dramas to close the apartment door that had been since we’d arrived. All the flats in her apartment have two doors, one regular door like most apartments around the world have, and then a few steps outside that metal bars surrounding the flat entrance like a cage, with a bulky silver lock hanging heavily from it. That metal cage door is kept closed when we’re inside the flat, but the door is left open so air can circulate and neighbors can communicate (or spy on each other) more easily. It’s an interesting way of living, keeping yourself physically connected to the outside world even while in your home.

Anyways, at the Maghrib adhan, Winnie got up and closed the apartment door. Then she closed all the windows in the house. Why, I asked? “Because spirits roam mountains, forests, and apartment corridors at sunset, so you have to close your homes to them so they don’t try to come in,” came the answer. I’d heard a similar story from a Pakistani friend, and here I was hearing it again from a Malaysian. Pakistani women even cover their heads at maghrib so that the spirits don’t seep into their hair and then get tangled in it forever. Malaysians just try to stay home at maghrib, Winnie told me. It’s safer that way. Some cameras even captured the images of these spirits as the sun set, especially as they made their way across the threshold of a house. Stay inside, lock the doors and windows. It’s better.

Now it’s almost 2 a.m., and the air as sticky as honey spread across my body. Better get some sleep. Gnite.

Friday, May 29, 2009

"Milos" by Anis Mojgani

If everyone could hold tight onto feelings like these, all those yucky things that blot the world - war, greed, you know the rest - would be gone.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Breaking Through Poverty: Chicken a la Carte

Originally published on WireTap.

A little girl digging in a trashcan for spaghetti.

I couldn’t erase that image from my mind after a friend recently showed me a film on the poverty and hunger caused by globalization. Directed by Ferdinand Dimadura, the film Chicken a la Carte is a six-minute tour of the world of an impoverished Filipino community that lives in stark contrast to its country’s urban elite. Whereas well-off teens dine at the biggest international food-chains, this community lives off of the scraps left behind in trashcans after closing time.

This isn’t just happening in the Philippines, the film reminds the viewer in the end. Scenes like this can be found all over the globe, from the streets of Los Angeles to the slums of Bangladesh. Around the world, we have 25,000 people dying of hunger every single day. 25,000 people. What’s more scary is that this statistic is probably outdated, since Dimadura made the film back in 2005. With a global economic crisis on our hands, how much further will this number climb?

The whole economic crisis facing us today came about because of one very old human problem: greed. People in key decision-making positions wanted just another car, or just another house, or just the pleasure of knowing they have an extra million or so set aside. So they let things spiral out of control.

And let’s face it, this crisis is partly our fault as well. Those of us who live in a culture of consumption that doesn’t separate want from need, that throws aside the barely bought for the just released, and expects nothing less than free refills with our supersized meals while people are living off of a piece of bread a day. We are not innocent.

But it’s not because we’re evil. We all care about our kids, our neighbors and our friends. Heck, we even care about those people in far-off parts of the world that news broadcasts and films like Dimadura’s thrust in our faces every once in a while. We feel sorry, wish we could do something, and then drown back into our own lives until we are reminded of them again. A vicious cycle.

But one we can break. Although this global economic crisis is making things more difficult for a lot of us around the world, it also gives us an opportunity to reevaluate the culture of consumption we’ve awoken to find ourselves in. This is a culture that provides relative luxury for a minority at the expense of an impoverished majority. It is also a culture with a built-in time-bomb: things can only go so well for so long before the system implodes on itself. And when that happens, the circle of privilege shrinks even further, throwing many of us out to join those already in the fields of global poverty.

As we work towards a solution for our current crisis, we have the chance to recreate the culture we have found ourselves in.

But will we take that chance?

If we do, we have the power to transform films like Dimadura’s from stark portrayals of our current reality into fading images of a distant memory.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Religion Rising

"People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive."
These are the words of Joseph Campbell, one of America's most famous mythologists. A quick glance at the daily headlines or a look around your classroom or office reflects the truth written in the lines above. People, no matter where they are or what they are doing in the world, want to feel that their life has worth. That it is happening.

In our world of scientific discovery, we have emphasized science and reason at the expense of the aspects of ourselves that give us a sense of wholeness, meaning and "happening." Unlike civilizations before us that made matters of the material and spiritual realms compliment one another in a way that made us whole, we have pushed ourselves to the edge of where reason can take us while keeping us sane.

Maybe that's why there seems to be a rise in the number of people "defecting to faith," as reported in a New York Times article a few weeks back. Such people, in choosing to turn to God and religion, affirm their belief that "[w]e are more than cells, synapses and sex drives. We are amazing, mysterious creatures forever in search of something greater than ourselves."

An increased emphasis on the mythical and the spiritual will no doubt change society. But it will only be a change for the better if we free ourselves from our traditional ways of viewing religion, God, and our relationships with one another. Otherwise, we may well have a crisis on our hands.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

This is America

Mos Def's New York-inspired intro, followed by Beau Sia's "Asian Invasion," followed by Jason Carney's "Southern Heritage."


Thursday, May 7, 2009

Bahrain Working for Workers?

Bahrain is the first Gulf country to finally bring an end to its sponsorship system. Under this system, foreign workers who come into the Gulf states are almost completely under the control of their employers. Workers can't enter or leave the country, or even switch jobs, without the employer's consent. This has led to lots of abuses over the years, and to countless cases of exploitation. It's good to finally hear that the Gulf states are making a move on this issue.

Interested in reading more? Here are some links:

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Falling Back in Love With America

(This is a delayed article, originally posted on WireTap.)

"Why do they hate us?"

These are no longer the words that come to most Americans' minds when talking about the world beyond the borders of the United States. After President Obama's first trip overseas, Americans can breathe easy when their leader goes to represent them in the cities of Europe or the Muslim world. Because instead of getting a pair of shoes thrown at him, this American president had endless cheers and seas of admirers following his every move.

President Obama has indeed charmed his way around the world. From Strasbourg to Istanbul, huge crowds came out to greet him, waving flags and hoping to shake his hand. In Prague alone, over 30,000 people waited for hours just to catch of glimpse of him and the First Lady before he gave a speech on nuclear proliferation. The president delighted European youth with a taste of home-grown American politics when he held town hall-style meetings in which he gave them - and not the ever-inquisitive journalists - the chance to ask questions about everything from American-European relations to the economic crisis. The Obama couple even (quite literally), “touched” the British royalty, with the President presenting an iPod to Queen Elizabeth, and the First Lady embracing her – an act that could have been a major breach of protocol. But instead, for the first time in her public career, the British monarch returned the embrace.

President Obama can’t seem to go wrong.

But despite his popular reception by most Europeans, there are many at home and abroad who are critical of the President’s first trip overseas. "I think there was relatively little coverage of policy, partly because no one wanted to shatter the dream," says Adam Boulton, the political editor of UK-based Sky News. Just like in America, critics are saying, people around the world are projecting their hopes onto President Obama – often at the expense of seeing the real man and his very real policies before them.

While such criticism isn’t unfounded, and is even necessary to keep the new American administration on its toes, it doesn’t acknowledge President Obama’s major achievement: this one man has managed to infuse people around the world with a renewed belief in … themselves. And that’s why the President is so popular outside the U.S. He doesn’t just signify a shift in the foreign policy of the world’s major superpower. He embodies the potential that all countries’ leaders and citizens have to steer their countries towards change and improvement.

The world has entered into a love affair with the new American president. Some are warning that it could end in heartbreak if his administration doesn’t deliver on his promises. But from what we’ve seen, the benefits from this relationship are worth the risk.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Breaking Homes and Hearts in Jerusalem

(This article is also available on Minority Dreams.)

If home is where the heart is, then the hearts of countless Palestinians are being shattered as Israel continues to demolish Palestinian homes in Jerusalem.

Last Friday, the United Nations released a report on Israel's demolition plans for another 1,500 homes in East Jerusalem, based on Tel Aviv's claim that the homes were built without permits from Israel's Jerusalem municipality.

There are lots of issues with Israel's claims about what it calls a "planning crisis" in East Jerusalem. First of all, Israel's control of East Jerusalem itself is not recognized by the international community, as it illegally annexed the city after the 1967 war. But although Israel's control of East Jerusalem is unlawful, Palestinians have to deal with the facts that it created on the ground, applying for permits to build their homes on land that has belonged to their families for generations.

This brings us to the second issue: the Israeli authorities have only set aside 13 percent of East Jerusalem for Palestinian residents. Much of that area is already crowded, and with the Palestinian population jumping from 66,000 in 1967 to 250,000 today, Palestinians have been forced to build their homes "illegally," according to the Israeli government. And finally the third issue comes along, namely that few Palestinians who apply for permits within the designated Palestinian area of East Jerusalem are actually able to obtain them.

If the Israeli government goes ahead with its plans for solving its "planning crisis," at least 28 percent of all Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem are at risk of demolition. That's at least 60,000 Palestinians at risk of becoming homeless. Recognizing the situation that could arise from these plans, United Nations has called on Israel to immediately halt its demolitions, and provide real solutions for the housing crisis in the Holy City.

The international community must put pressure on Israel to end this inhumane eviction of Palestinians from their traditional home. It is both illegal and a serious obstacle to any progress on the peace process. Arab newspapers like the secular, pan-Arab al-Quds al-Arabi are calling Israel's actions in East Jerusalem "ethnic cleansing," indicating the level of anger felt on the Arab street. Similarly, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called the demolitions "unhelpful," and EU diplomats have described them as illegal and said they "fuel bitterness and extremism."

The Palestinians have fought, and continue to fight, for their rights under the state apparatus of Israel. But this is one fight that they cannot win on their own. All those who claim to support human rights and international law must rally together to bring an end to Israel's unlawful demolition of Palestinian homes. That way, the Palestinian people can focus their energies not on picking up the pieces of their shattered hearts, but on working towards the peace that both they and their counterparts in Israel so desperately need.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Day 101

President Obama's first 100 days in office are now comfortably settled in that untouchable realm called the past. Funny to think that just a few months ago, we didn't even know if we'd be getting these 100 days.

What do you think of the U.S. President's actions since his inauguration? Organizing for America (run by the Democratic National Committee) set up a website where you can review the changes the Obama Administration has implemented during his first 100 days in office. Take a look at them at the link below and judge for yourself!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Discovering What's Truly Asia

We've all seen those "Malaysia, truly Asia" commercials. My family saw them so much on T.V. a few years back that we decided to actually visit the country to get a taste of a completely different part of the world. We'd seen Europe, America and the Middle East, but Southeast Asia was a place we'd never really had exposure to.

So we whisked ourselves off to Malaysia for about a week to see what it was all about. We stayed mostly in Kwala Lumpur ("KL" for us cool people who know the local lingo), so we didn't get to see as much of the country as we wanted. But even though the capital city is nothing like the rest of the country according to my lovely Malaysian-American friend, even being in the most globalized part of the country was a shockingly "Asian" experience for us.

For one thing, it rained almost every hour or two. It was really weird having to carry an umbrella around in the summer - tropical weather was something completely alien to us. But that's probably why the country was so green. After years of living in deserts (LA and Dubai), seeing all that foliage made us dizzy. In a good, I'm-drunk-on-nature, type of way. Then there was the food. Sweet and savoury - together?! That was completely bizarre to my family's Arab palate. But delicious. Then of course, there were the people, effortlessly friendly and speaking the most interesting language. Their words bounced around like little rubber balls - nothing like the rhythm of English or Arabic. Or French. Or Spanish. Or any other language I'd been exposed to, for that matter. I loved it.

So, I spent a week in Malaysia - I mean KL. That means I now officially knew all about the region. Right?

Gwahaha, I laugh at such foolish thoughts.

Over the last few weeks, I've been getting more "Asian" exposure than I've ever had in my American- and Middle Eastern-dominated world. Just speaking to some friends, attending a lecture, and flicking through random websites - nothing too intense. But even doing that revealed a whole other world operating outside my realm of consciousness. I mean, I know there's a lot I don't know about. But to be almost completely ignorant about a whole region? Wow. Thank god I have a whole lifetime to learn. I'm pretty excited to get to know that part of the world.

Wanna join me? Here's a map to get you started.

And here are some links!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

National Cleavage Day?

I was going through the pages of Alternet when I came across an article on something I'd never come across before: National Cleavage Day.

The blogger who was writing about this was furious. National Cleavage Day (which took place on April 3rd) was a "holiday" being promoted by Wonderbra as a form of female empowerment.

The Wonderbra website explained the campaign with the following:
WONDERBRA has won a firm victory for social upliftment. Their NCD [National Cleavage Day] Party, whose constant, non-discriminatory support policies assure that both the left and the right remain empowered and uplifted, will now be in effect immediately.It was only through this extensive campaigning for a woman´s right to be wonderful, that NATIONAL CLEAVAGE DAY, on Friday 3rd April 2009, has now been declared a PUBLIC HOLIDAY.

Now, I won't deny that Wonderbra's public relations and advertising teams are good with words. That's not my issue here. They're paid to make anything sound good.

What I don't like about this whole campaign is how it attempts to cover up purely commercial interests with flimsy claims of female empowerment. I'm all for a woman's right to choose what to wear (or not to wear), but the way Wonderbra is using women's bodies to sell their products completely contradicts what their National Cleavage Day is all about. Women's movements have long been trying to desexualize the female body in public, and all National Cleavage Day does is promote highly sexualized images of women in the public sphere.

I thought the way the author of the Alternet post presented the issue was rather telling.

I shit you not.

A quote from the sponsor's spokesperson (Wonderbra's Samantha Peterson): "It gives women a chance to be beautiful and glow in the furtive, yet appreciative, glances their cleavage evokes from men," she said.

Male gaze ruled crucial! Film at eleven!


At its core, National Cleavage Day isn't about female empowerment. It's just another campaign following the not-so-ancient adage, "sex sells."

Here are two links to other women who've blogged about this:

Saturday, March 28, 2009

What Rush Limbaugh and Al Qaeda Have in Common

Originally published on WireTap.

Many forms of extremism exist in today’s world. Islamic extremists, the group with the most airtime in the “extremist community,” are perhaps the most obvious example. Vehemently opposed by mainstream Muslims, these people use Islam to promote archaic and often outrageous ideals about society, and commit atrocious acts of violence and bigotry. But extremism doesn’t stop there. It can cloak itself in other garbs, and it isn’t limited to the world beyond America’s borders.

Within the United States, the form of extremism recently getting the most attention is the infamous Rush Limbaugh’s version of Republicanism. Earlier this month, neoconservative journalist David Frum wrote a Newsweek article slamming Limbaugh’s brand of GOP politics:
"And for the leader of the Republicans? A man who is aggressive and bombastic, cutting and sarcastic, who dismisses the concerned citizens in network news focus groups as "losers." With his private plane and his cigars, his history of drug dependency and his personal bulk, not to mention his tangled marital history, Rush is a walking stereotype of self-indulgence—exactly the image that Barack Obama most wants to affix to our philosophy and our party. And we're cooperating! Those images of crowds of CPACers cheering Rush's every rancorous word—we'll be seeing them rebroadcast for a long time."

Limbaugh’s years as the voice of American conservatism have seen him combat environmentalism, ridicule feminism, and dismiss the Abu Ghraib torture scandal as “emotional release” for soldiers. And that’s just for starters. The single-minded promotion of his ideals and aggressive attitude he holds towards people and policies not deemed “conservative” enough (including Republican ones) have colored every part of his political and ideological campaign.

Now, it’s obvious that Limbaugh’s shade of extremism doesn’t present the same threat of violence and destruction as Al Qaeda’s, for example. But what it does have in common with extremist ideologies around the world is the following: it reduces complex realities into black and white caricatures of right and wrong, good and evil. It refuses to understand, or even acknowledge, other ways of viewing the world, setting the stage for what may be unnecessary clashes of ideology.

As the world grows smaller, extremism becomes increasingly dangerous. With distances shortened by the communication revolution we’ve witnessed over the last decade, extremists have access to a wider audience than ever before. And in times of difficulty, extremism gains further appeal. The insecurity fostered by the war on terrorism and the global economic crisis drives people around the world into the arms of extremists, who offer simple solutions for problems that seem beyond our control and comprehension. These solutions, however, are based on a narrow understanding of reality that can only lead to conflict.

Extremism then, in all its forms, must be stopped. But before that can happen, it must be recognized as extremism. In the Islamic case, both Muslims and non-Muslims acknowledge that the values and actions of militants and ideologues speaking in the name of Islam are a form of extremism that cannot be accepted. Similarly, the boorish and ignorant positions promoted by the likes of Rush Limbaugh in the name of the Republican Party must be rejected as extremism, not given increased airtime and newsprint by a media culture that relishes loud slogans and easy entertainment.

In this case, Frum’s article is a step in the right direction. But how willing is America, along with its peers in the international community, to leave behind the undemanding cookie-cutter solutions offered by extremists, in favor of the more complex answers that can form the basis of lasting peace and security?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Closed Zone" - Opening a Door for Understanding

People say that Israelis and Palestinians will never come together for peace. Well, it seems that those people haven't come across initiatives like Gisha.

Meaning "access" or "approach," Gisha is an Israeli not-for-profit organization whose goal is to protect the freedom of movement of Palestinians, especially Palestinians living in Gaza. It is run by a group of Jewish and Arab activists and legal practitioners who are working against the Israeli army's legal and military efforts to turn Palestinian territories, particularly Gaza, into ghettos.

Recently, the group launched a 90 second animated video on the closure of Gaza. You can read about the animation, "Closed Zone," on the group's website here.

Sound interesting? Watch the video below. By allowing us to understand and empathize with one another, maybe groups like Gisha can show us that peace isn't completely elusive - even in the Holy Land.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Can America Learn from Iran?

Originally published on WireTap.

It’s not often that we see the words “America” and “Iran” in the same sentence – at least in a context not relating to friction or war. For the first time in years, however, we have reason to put the names of these two countries in sentences that allude to cooperation and mutual respect. Why? Because former president Mohammad Khatami, the major proponent of reform in Iran, is running for a third term in his country’s elections later this June.

For most Americans, the Iranian political experience has been nothing but a series of failures after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. To say that Americans can learn from Iran therefore seems counterintuitive. However, a closer look at Khatami’s attempts at reform in Iran provides a lesson for all of us in the United States, particularly for the Obama Administration and its supporters.

To start with, the parallels between Khatami and the current U.S. president are rather striking: both men have experience living in foreign countries and mixing with other cultures, are considered progressive reformers within their country’s political spectrum, and entered their first presidential races as the underdog. Defying all expectations, both men won their elections and went on to lead their nations. At the start of Obama’s term, hopes are extremely high, just as they were at the beginning of Khatami’s.

However, it is here that Obama and his supporters must take heed of Khatami’s story.

A gradualist like Obama, Khatami wants to promote progressive change without overthrowing the system his country is founded on. During his earlier terms in office, he advocated democracy, freedom of expression, civil society and the greater inclusion of Iranian citizens in the political decision-making process – but all without overstepping boundaries that he believed would cause a backlash in the conservative circles that controlled most of the country. If he offended too many conservatives on too many issues, he could have easily been removed from power, which would have undermined the whole reform project he had in mind for Iran.

His followers, however, wanted immediate change. What Khatami saw as calculated political moves, much of his supporting base saw as timidity and compromise on the ideals of freedom and reform. After a number of Khatami’s reforms were undermined by conservative hardliners, many of these supporters became disillusioned with him. Because of this, they did not come out to vote in the subsequent elections, allowing a conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to come into power.

What Obama and his supporters must take from this story is that change takes time. Sometimes a leader has to balance between that and stability to ensure that change does take place. Iranians learned this the hard way, and after four years of conservative leadership, they are now struggling to get the very same man they had thrown aside back into the center of power.

Can America learn from Iran instead of repeating its mistake, so that the foundation it is setting for progressive change does not fizzle out within a generation? And, if elected, will Khatami be able to strike a more effective balance between continuity and reform? If the answer is “yes,” both American and Iran can show the world that change, anywhere, is possible.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Excuses + a Philosopher

I know I've been gone for a week now, but my workload managed to somehow triple itself in the last few days. I've hardly had a chance to even glance at the news. But I'm back! The only thing is, I might be posting at a slower pace than I've been these last few months, so apologies in advance. Working on balancing out my schedule.

I want to leave you with something, though, before I log off. I'd been hearing about Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, for a while now. Yesterday, I decided to finally take a look at his most famous work, Meditations. The text is divided into 12 different sections, or "books," so I thought I'd read the first one to get an idea of what it was about.

The last thing I'd expected was to get hooked. After going through the first book, I read the second one. Then the third. Before I knew it I had read all 12 books, and the afternoon I was supposed to be studying for my midterms in was gone. But it was worth it.

I was really drawn to two of his major topics: the unity of the world and his views on human conduct. He seemed to be leaning towards some sort of pantheism, if I understood his work correctly, or at least arguing that we are all part of one single entity. And his ideas on responsibility towards society and one's self were pretty inspiring. He holds high standards for individual human beings. I'd come across similar standards in different scriptures, but seeing it so beautifully laid out by this "mere mortal" was a surprise.

Interested? Check him out for yourselves. Here's the link I read his work at:

The Meditations, translated by George Long

Till the next post!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Entering Persepolis

My "wacky history professor" (as he likes to call himself) recently gave me a copy of the graphic novel, Persepolis. Written by Marjane Satrapi, it's about Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution as seen through the eyes of the author in her early teenage years.

At first, I was a little sceptical about the novel's historical accuracy. I didn't know much about it, except that it had been turned into a film that won the Jury Award in the Cannes 2007 Film Festival. I also knew the author was from a family of dedicated Marxists, so I was weary of the book having strong ideological leanings. I wanted as unbiased a view of Iran's Islamic Revolution as possible.

Reading the novel, it's obvious what Satrapi's biases are. She pokes fun at the veils she and her classmates are suddenly forced to wear, suggests that all religious Muslims are fundamentalists, and equates Marx with God further in the book. But that's part of what makes Persepolis what it is: the novel is her story. It is Iran, Islam, the West, and society all seen through her eyes.

Regardless of whether or not readers identify with her world view, they are able to appreciate her version of history. And what is history if not the conglomeration of people's individual stories? You listen to as many of these stories as you can, then try to create a version of the story based on what makes most sense to you.

Satrapi's version of Iran's Islamic Revolution is not to be missed. It is a passionate, insightful view of the turbulent events that took place in the early years of the Revolution. Read the novel or watch the movie, and you'll have one insider's story of Iranian politics and society at the time. It's another view of the world to keep in mind while trying to figure out what happened in our recent collective history, and where that history is taking us today.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Hamas's Humiliating Blunder

The Gaza crisis of last January did something unprecedented in the Arab World: it unified almost all Arabs in support of Hamas. Prior to the crisis, opinions on Hamas were divided in the region, but since then, almost all Arabs came to see the group as a legitimate armed resistance against the Israeli army.

This last week, however, Hamas made a mistake that has seriously harmed their image in the Arab World. They seized international aid supplies that were coming into the Gaza Strip through the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). After their stores were raided at gunpoint for the second time in the last few days, UNRWA announced that it is suspending its aid to Gaza until its supplies were returned and it had assurances from Hamas that such actions would not be repeated.

Hamas's move has come under fire from various quarters, particularly in the Arab World. Al-Quds al-Arabi, for example, recently published an editorial called "Hamas made a mistake, and must rectify it." In the article it bashed the armed movement's actions, saying that they seriously undermined the lifeline of aid that trickled into Gaza. International aid agencies are sorely needed in Gaza, and pushing them out of the Strip through such selfish action did not help ordinary Palestinians living there. The newspaper stated:

وربما يفيد التذكير بان ممثلي وكالة الاونروا كانوا اكثر ايلاما لاسرائيل من صواريخ المقاومة، عندما تصدوا بشجاعة للعدوان الاسرائيلي، وفضحوا جرائمه في حق الاطفال والنساء، وتحدثوا بطرق مؤثرة عن معاناة ابناء القطاع تحت
الحصار التي هزت الرأي العام العالمي بأسره.

It may be important to remember that UNRWA's representatives were more harmful to Israel than the resistance's rockets: when they courageously confronted Israeli aggression, exposed Israel's crimes towards the rights of women and children, and spoke passionately about the suffering of Gazans under the blockade in a way that shook international public opinion to its core.
The article acknowledged that Hamas has long been aggitated by UNRWA's refusal to help a wider range of Palestinians in Gaza - the agency only distributes aid to those with the status of "refugee." Hamas rightly states that most Palestinians in the Strip are facing the same problems, whether or not they have the refugee label. al-Quds al-Arabi, however, reminded its readers that UNRWA is, by definition, an agency created to aid refugees and refugees only. Hamas can't make the agency violate its own laws according to the Palestinian group's whims.

In the face of similar public pressure, Hamas has apologized for its seizure of UNRWA supplies. Hopefully, they won't resort to such tactics again. It's only through cooperating with international institutions like UNRWA that they, or any other groups, can improve the situation of those in Gaza - or indeed, any other part of Palestine.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Turkish Tangent

Some have claimed that Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan had no right to take the position that he did in Davos earlier this week. They cite Turkey’s past relationship with Armenians, Greeks and Kurds, even going back to the Ottoman Empire to bring up evidence of blemishes on the “Turkish” record of human rights.

While the present Turkish government, or indeed the Ottoman Empire, aren’t perfect, the claims mentioned above overlook the current situation in Turkey and the recent efforts by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to address such issues. They also overlook the dynamic grassroots movements across all sectors of the country that demand the government revise its official position on issues from free speech to the Armenian genocide.

Turkey is in a stage of transformation at the moment, and it’s important to remember that change takes time in these types of situations. The AKP, and Erdogan, can’t overturn decades of official policy relating to issues like that of the Kurds overnight. Why? Because those policies are deeply rooted in the Turkish military’s “secular” and “nationalist” ideology. The military has held a dangerous amount of power since the country was established, overthrowing various governments that it did not deem “nationalistic” enough. To achieve any of the positive changes they’ve set out in their charter, Erdogan and the AKP need to stay in power. And doing that involves a risky political dance around the military’s sensitivities.

Despite that, the AKP has managed to make some strides in issues that have long been considered taboo in Turkish politics. Below are some random excerpts from two articles that discuss Turkey’s stance on the Kurdish question. Read the articles themselves, and do some more research, if you’re interested in getting a better understanding of the shift in Turkish politics regarding issues such as this one.

Turkey raises hopes of peace with Kurds - The Guardian (2007)

As well as securing a national victory on Sunday, Mr Erdogan scored a remarkable triumph in the Kurdish south-east, doubling the vote of his AKP or Justice and Development party in mainly Kurdish areas to win an absolute majority of the vote with 52%.

"The AKP beat us. The government now has complete power and legitimacy," said a Kurdish official in the regional capital of Diyarbakir.

Having received such a vote of confidence from the Kurds, Mr Erdogan is unlikely to alienate them ...

In addition to the AKP's electoral success in the Kurdish areas, the main Kurdish party in Turkey, the DTP, took 23 seats, putting it in the new parliament for the first time since 1994. The DTP is seen as the political wing of the PKK. The Turkish election system is stacked against it by setting a 10% national threshold for representation in parliament. The DTP beat the system by running candidates as independents.

"That will make a difference," said Hizsar Ozsoy, a Kurdish analyst in Diyarbakir. "There's definitely a chance for a political opening."

The Erdogan camp has been trying to open political channels to the Kurdish leadership in Iraq for months, but has been stymied by the military top brass and the outgoing hostile president of Turkey.

Behind Major Changes for Turkey's Kurds - Canada's Embassy Magazine (2009)

Many of the changes percolating within Turkish society are linked to the electoral victory of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AK) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which came to power in 2002 and was re-elected with a sweeping majority in 2007.

Despite widespread distrust of the AK Party's Islamic background, especially amongst ultra-nationalists and the military, Mr. Erdogan initiated a series of political and social reforms that permitted greater protection for basic human rights, including for minorities. (He was also receptive to Greek efforts to lessen tension between the two NATO allies over territorial disputes and Cyprus.)

... [R]ecent actions directed against Erdogan have diminished his commitment to promote further reforms in order to appease opponents, especially the military, perceived as wanting a tougher line towards Kurdish militancy and PKK insurgents based in northern Iraq's Kurdistan province.

Whereas many within the global community are convinced reforms and meaningful changes are necessary to deal with the current problems confronting various societies, in Turkey, change can be a highly divisive issue with no one sure where that country's current changes will ultimately lead.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Showdown in Davos

Earlier this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan walked out of a televised interview with Israeli Prime Minister Simon Peres. After listening to Peres justify the killing of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza, Erdogan said that he needed to reply to his Israeli counterpart's remarks. The moderator only gave him a minute or so to speak before cutting him off. Erdogan protested, saying that Peres had been allowed to speak about the Israeli point of view of the Gaza crisis for 25 minutes, while he (Erdogan) was allowed only half that time to speak earlier in the interview. When the moderator continued to interrupt him, Erdogan said that he wouldn't be returning to Davos again, got up and left the stage.

Normally, I would say that Prime Ministers should hold themselves up to a higher standard of conduct. But the fact that it was the Turkish Prime Minister who acted this way makes me think twice before saying anything of the sort. Turkey, after all, has long had a peaceful relationship with Israel - in fact, it has perhaps been the friendliest Middle Eastern neighbor to Tel Aviv.

On March 28, 1949, the Republic of Turkey became the first Middle Eastern country to recognize Israel. Since then, the two countries have cooperated militarily, politically and economically, and they became trade partners due to their geographic proximity and friendly ties. In addition to all this, Turkey has been a driving force for peace between Israel and many states in the Arab world. Most significantly, it was conducting indirect peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, two countries that have been on a collision course for decades.

The fact that this longstanding Israeli ally is outraged by Israel's operations in Gaza, and the Israeli Prime Minister's subsequent justification of his country's actions, is perhaps a reflection of the world's growing impatience with Israel's conduct in the Palestinian territories. For 60 years now, Israel has violated all forms of international law in its occupation of Palestine, from expansion through the creation of illegal settlements, to the subjugation of Palestinians to what some have called apartheid-like policies. And the loss of life witnessed under the Israeli occupation is a whole other issue in and of itself.

Last month's attack on Gaza reminded the world of the violence and death that have resulted since Israel's creation in 1948. Six decades on, it seems that people are beginning to say enough is enough. The Palestine/Israel Question must be answered, and soon. Before any more lives are lost. Justifying an attack like the one on Gaza does not get us anywhere closer to a solution, and that seems to be the message Prime Minister Erdogan hoped to send through his decision to leave Davos.

It seems like many of us across the world have listened up. Let's hope that the Turkish Prime Minister's message will be taken to heart by those who are in the position to change the course of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Only then can this period of bloodshed come to an end.

Read the transcript of the interview here, and watch the video of Erdogan's comments just before leaving the Davos interview below:

Some reactions to Erdogan's move:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Obama Engaging (and Embracing?) the Muslim World

President Obama looks like he's starting his term by keeping at least one of his campaign promises: reinventing engagement with the Muslim world.

In the first nine days of his presidency, Obama has moved to show evidence of the new attitude he hopes his new administration will take towards the Middle East and Muslims around the world. Rob Reynolds, Al Jazeera English's senior Washington consultant, notes several examples of the U.S. president's new position on the Muslim world:

Just minutes after taking office, President Obama extended a hand to the Muslim world by asking to create a relationship based on mutual respect. Later, he made his first telephone call to an international leader: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In addition, Obama has spoken about the humanitarian cost of the Gaza crisis "as a concern in and of itself, rather than a product of Hamas provocation." Finally, Obama is now calling on both Palestinians and Israelis to "return to the negotiating table" - emphasizing that both sides must be willing to make difficult compromises to achieve what has been an elusive peace.

But Reynold's analysis doesn't even cover it all. Obama recently gave his first interview as president, with none other than the Arabic news network Al Arabiya. In doing so, he sent a clear message to the citizens of the Arab and Muslim worlds - stating that the United States is ready to address them, not as pawns in some political game of Middle Eastern conquest, but as full human beings, as equals whose hopes, needs and dreams matter. He also sent Middle Eastern and Muslim governments messages of their own: their interests will be considered more fairly in the U.S.'s new foreign policy, and the time has come for a paradigm shift in American-Middle Eastern relations .

As Steve Clemons of the Washington Note said, Obama "has provided a new punctuation point in American foreign policy," and these acts of "humility" towards the Middle East can provide the basis for a completely new relationship with the region.

Not bad for the new President. But there is still a long way to go.

Israel's fresh assault on Gaza through its bombing of the Rafah tunnels - a lifeline for ordinary Gazans unable to access basic necessities like bread because of Israel's economic sanctions - will be the first practical test for Obama's policies towards the Middle East and Muslim world. How he handles this situation may indicate just how seriously the President will take the promises he has made to the people of those regions. That, in turn, will affect the extent to which the world's 1.5 or so billion Muslims will be willing to cooperate with the U.S. President on building an international community based on peace, trust and reconciliation.

Watch President Obama's Al Arabiya interview below, and read the full transcript here.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Speaking of War Crimes...

Words, as well as the meanings and connotations attached to them, will be extremely important in the coming weeks as the international community attempts to try Israeli soldiers for war crimes in Gaza.

I was reading Saree Makdisi's book this morning, Palestine Inside Out, when I came across a quote that reminded me of just how powerful words are in conflicts like that of Palestine-Israel. Makdisi is a scholar of English literature, and in the course of his studies has become fascinated by the use of language in the realm of politics and propaganda.

My scholarly interests have served me well in reading and writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which the interplay of language and politics has a special, almost unique importance. Whether the barrier that Israel is constructing in the West Bank is conveyed as a "wall" or a "fence"; whether Israeli housing units in the occupied territories are described as "neighborhoods," "settlements," or "colonies"; whether various personalities or movements are represented as "moderate" or "extremist"; whether violence directed against civilians is thought of as "terrorism" or "collateral damage": all these distinctions are both linguistic and political. Simple word choices both express and - more importantly - generate political effects. Language and politics are inseparable in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it is virtually impossible to understand what is happening without paying particular attention to the ways in which language is used.

With this in mind, institutions like Amnesty International (or any other groups demanding justice for those devastated by the Gaza crisis) must be extremely careful with the language and definitions they use as they attempt to bring Israeli soldiers to court.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has long been a battle, not just of weapons, but of words. And in an international culture based on the instant spread of information, the wrong word, in the wrong place, at the wrong time can undermine the best of ideas and intents.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The First Steps Forward

President Barack Hussein Obama.

Just his name signals a transition in American history.

Like most other people, I'm excited. But, also like many others, I'm wary of all this excitement. After months of poetic rhetoric, the time has come to actually start getting some work done. And work takes time. That's something I'm afraid will upset some of us. People seem to think that once President Obama gets settled in office, he'll wave some sort of magic wand and solve all our problems. Well, that's not happening, and we have to keep reminding ourselves that. The President himself reminded us of it again and again in his inauguration speech.

President Obama's speech felt rather symbolic of his coming term. People had such high expectations for it, but it fell kind of flat. Not that it was a bad speech - it covered all the necessary points in clear, organized prose. It also had some poetic parts, as when President Obama described "why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

But rather than the expected pomp and splash, the President gave a restrained, almost somber speech. Whether this was by design or a failure on the speech writers' part, I think it was pretty appropriate. It signaled a sense of maturity. The time of waving banners and speaking in slogans is over. Reality must settle in: there's a lot of work for us to do, and it'll be hard work.

But it'll be worth it.

Already we're seeing, on an international level, how President Obama is starting to usher in change. As an Arab-American, I've been keeping up with the Arab news, seeing how Arabs are gauging this Presidential transition. And the Arab World, while still struggling to recover from the horrors of the Gaza crisis, is generally optimistic about America's new president.

Al Quds Al Arabi, a relatively independent, secular, and aggressively Arab nationalist newspaper, just published an editorial about how the election of President Obama is restoring faith in the democratic system in the Middle East.

Speaking of America's democracy in light of President Obama's inauguration, Al Quds Al Arabi's editors said:

صحيح ان هذه الديمقراطية تعرضت للخطف من قبل عصابة المحافظين الجدد، ومن ثم جرى توظيفها لخوض حروب وارتكاب جرائم في حق الانسانية، مثلما حدث في العراق وافغانستان، ومساندة مجازر اسرائيلية في حق العرب في لبنان وفلسطين ومصر... ولكن الصحيح ايضا انها نجحت في ان تحول بلادها المكونة من مهاجرين من مختلف الاعراق والاديان الى الدولة الاعظم في التاريخ.

"It is true that this democracy was abducted by a gang of neoconservatives, and then used to engage in wars and commit crimes against humanity, like in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to back Israeli massacres against Arabs in Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt ... But it is also true that this democracy succeeded in transforming its country, made up of immigrants of different races and religions, into the most powerful nation in history."

This is just the beginning of what President Obama can do for America's foreign policy, as well as the country's image in the international community. Demonstrating the spirit and practical results of true democracy - not a paper maché democracy used to advance U.S. interests - is the first step towards building international relationships based on mutual trust and respect. And that is the only way towards any sort of peace and stability we hope to have in the future.

These next few days, weeks and months will show how President Obama will handle the challenges he now faces as the most powerful man in the world. They will also unveil the plans he has for the American people these next few years.

Until then, let us keep in mind the new President's words:
"Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."

Lead the way, Mr. President. The world is watching.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Introducing Karen Armstrong

Most of you who know me personally have some idea of my interest in philosophy and religion. Those of you who know me very well have probably experienced one of my endless questioning rants on God or mysticism or religious tradition. So it is probably no surprise to you that I'm very intrigued by Karen Armstrong, an ex-Catholic nun who left her order and went on to become one of the greatest scholars on world religions.

I'm currently reading Armstrong's Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, which is a very scholarly, balanced and insightful book. I've also read and listened to some interviews with her online, which have helped me see a new way to approach religion and myth.

At the moment, I can't find much to say about Armstrong's ideas. I'm still absorbing everything, seeing where they fit in relation to all of the other stuff I've been reading. So instead, I'll let Armstrong speak for herself.
Below, I leave you with some of Armstrong's own words.

Religion is hard work. It's an art form. It's a way of finding meaning, like art, like painting, like poetry, in a world that is violent and cruel and often seems meaningless. And art is hard work. You don't just dash off a painting. It takes years of study. I think we expect religious knowledge to be instant. But religious knowledge comes incrementally and slowly. And religion is like any other activity. It's like cooking or sex or science. You have good art, sex and science, and bad art, sex and science. It's not easy to do it well.

* * *

Sacred texts have traditionally been a bridge to the divine. They're all difficult. They're not a simple manual -- a how-to book that will tell you how to gain enlightenment by next week, like how to lose weight on the Atkins diet. This is a slow process. I think the best image for reading scripture occurs in the story of Jacob, who wrestles with a stranger all night long. And in the morning, the stranger seems to have been his God. That's when Jacob is given the name Israel -- "one who fights with God." And he goes away limping as he walks into the sunrise. Scriptures are a struggle.

* * *

[O]ur theology, I think, should be like poetry, a work like the Qur'an...
Now a poet spends a great deal of time listening to his unconscious, and slowly calling up a poem word by word, phrase by phrase, until something beautiful is brought forth, we hope, into the world that changes people's perceptions. And we respond to a poem emotionally. And I think we should take as great a care when we write our theology as we would if we were writing such a poem, instead of just trotting out an orthodox formula, or an orthodox definition of God, or a catechism answer, so that when people listen to a theological idea, they feel as touched as when they read a great poem by, say, Milton or Dante.

We should take as great care with our religious rituals as if we were putting on a great performance at a theater because ritual — and theater, indeed, was originally a religious ritual designed to lead us to transcendence instead of just mechanically going through the motions of our various rites and ceremonies, trying to make them into something absolutely beautiful and inspiring, because I do see religion as a kind of art form.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

So What Exactly Do I Call You?

History has a funny way of changing names, labels, identities and realities as time goes by. A group once considered "terrorists" can morph into "freedom fighters" and "patriots" in legends and schoolbooks if the right side wins. The British, for example, considered those fighting in the American colonies upstart terrorists, but now we hail those same people as the righteous fathers (and mothers) of the United States of America.

I wonder how history will treat Hamas further down the road. Because already, almost all Arab television networks call Hamas "the resistance." Before the Gaza crisis, there was a degree of controversy about the group - but now, in the face of Israel's merciless onslaught against Gaza, there is a general consensus in the Arab World about Hamas's role as fighters for justice and liberators from oppression.

Also interesting to see will be how history treats Israelis who speak out against Israel's policies regarding Palestinians, including what some are calling the Israeli army's genocide in Gaza.

What got me thinking about all of this was Valkyrie, the Tom Cruise movie about life at the end of the German Reich. The film is about the German resistance against Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime. It's fascinating to see how those trying to undermine Hitler were vilified at the time, whereas now they are honored.

There were fifteen German attempts on Hitler's life while he was in power. Fifteen. And we hardly know anything about them, or more importantly the people behind them, because of how thoroughly they were crushed by the Nazis. But it's at least somewhat heartening to know that history gave those resisters some recognition for their efforts a few decades down the road.

I wonder how history will treat the "terrorists" and/or "resistance fighters" we find in all parts of today's world, from China to Spain, later on.

Until we find out, I guess we can entertain ourselves by watching a bunch of Tom Cruise films. Here's the trailer for Valkyrie. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Dubai DOES Care!

Living in Dubai can be a pretty strange experience. You share just over 4,000 sq km of space with over 2 million people of hundreds of different nationalities, for one thing. That's enough for a lifetime of continuous culture shocks, mixes and clashes.

But another thing you notice in Dubai is the extreme wealth that lots of people parade around. Most of the white-collar expats who come to the emirate are here to make a few quick bucks and head back home in a few years. They're here for money, so broadly speaking, making and spending money becomes almost all they do. BMWs and Mercedes Benzes are a common sight on Dubai's roads, as are Ed Hardy hats on guys' heads and Chanel bags on women's arms.

In this (in)famously materialistic city, you sometimes feel like your very soul is being sucked out of your body. There's almost no real sense of community, almost no form of civil society.


Today, I saw another side of Dubai. Dubai Cares, a UAE charity organization, set up what they called the "Gaza Aid Package Project". They need about 150 volunteers every day for the next week to help package school kits and hygiene kits to send to the children of Gaza. They put up the event on Facebook, asking people to help in any way they could, for any amount of time they could spare.

The response was overwhelming. Today was the first day, and at least 300 people showed up. The hall we were in was packed with people unloading boxes, sorting school supplies, and stuffing bags with pencils and notebooks. Walking from one area in the hall to another took some serious maneuvering if you didn't want to run into people or get plowed down by a cart of boxes.

The participants were truly representative of Dubai: they were from all over the world. We had Spaniards, Japanese, Americans, Egyptians; Muslims, Christians, Hindus, atheists; and the list goes on and on. We had kids in their school uniforms, businesspeople coming in straight from the office, and couples with their newborn babies.

Everyone was so excited to be there. The atmosphere was electric. People were yelling greetings across the hall, chatting brightly as they packed bags at different tables, hugging friends they would randomly bump into, and cheering after every announcement the organizers made. The experience was completely different from anything I've ever seen or done in Dubai.

And because of all that excitement, we worked at top speed. The volunteers did their job so efficiently, in fact, that the organizers ended today's session an hour early. I even heard that because we worked so hard, we packed almost all of the bags that we were originally supposed to pack over the course of the whole week. I don't know how true that is, but it must be at least somewhat representative of the work we did. Anyways, the organizers are ordering in a lot more supplies so that we don't run out of work to do over the next few days.

It is so encouraging to see people in one of the richest places in the world taking an personal interest in having a positive impact on those less fortunate than them. I don't know how much effect our efforts will really have on the kids in Gaza. But seeing all those people from across the globe together in that hall today, trying to do something, was wonderful. Even if it doesn't change the situation in Gaza, it's definitely changing something inside of us. Being exposed to that sort of atmosphere can plant seeds of greater efforts for change in the future.

Dubai, I must say - I am proud, impressed and inspired.

Thanks to all of those who were out there today. And for anyone who is interested in joining us, here is the location and the timings in which you can volunteer:
  • January 14 - 20, 2009
  • Venue: Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) – Emperor Hall
  • Location: On Sheikh Zayed Road, behind Emirates Towers
  • Weekdays: 4:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.
  • Friday January 16, 2009: 2:00 -6:00 p.m.
  • Saturday January 17, 2009: 10:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.
See you there!

Monday, January 12, 2009

"Riding on Fire" - The Life of a Gaza Paramedic

An excerpt from Ewa Jasiewicz's account of life as a paramedic in Gaza over the last two weeks:
Yesterday around 1am we were called out to a strike in the Moaskar Jabaliya area. The area was pitch black, our feeble torches lighting up broken pipes streaming water, glass, chunks of concrete and twisted metal. ‘They’re down there, down there, take care’, people said. The smell of fresh severed flesh, a smell that can only come from the shedding of pints of blood and open insides, was in the air. I got called back by a medic who screamed at me to stay by his side. It turned out Id been following the Civil Defence, the front line responders who check to see if buildings are safe and put out fires, rather than the medics.

The deep ink dark makes it almost impossible to see clearly, shadows and faces lit up by swiveling red ambulance lights and arms pointing hurriedly are our guides for finding the injured. ‘Lets get out of here, lets get out’ say the guys, and we’re leaving to go, empty handed, but straining to seeing what’s ahead when a missile hits the ground in front of us. We see a lit up fountain of what could be nail darts explode in front of us. They fall in a spray like a thousand hissing critters, we cover our heads and run back to the ambulance. One of the volunteers inside, Mohammad, is shocked, ‘Did you see? Did you see? How close it was?’
Read the whole article here at Counterpunch.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Rapping the Revolution

It's amazing how people can take the worst situations, and turn them into art.

Ramallah Underground is a band that does just that. Based in Ramallah, the male trio that makes up this bank are forging a new sound that they hope can give a voice to Arab youth in Palestine and the greater Arab World. Moving past the mostly mindless pop of mainstream Arabic music, they combine the despair often felt in this part of the world with messages of hope and raw energy that urges the youth in this part of the world to fight on for a better life.

All this, combined with good, good music - what more can you want? Here is one of their songs, "Nateejeh Bala Shughul," meaning "Result Without Work."


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Reading While the Bombs Still Drop

Gaza's still happening. You can find it all over the news.

This post, though, I want to step back from the horrors of what's going on there (I'm lucky enough to be able to do that) and look at the more general issue of Palestine.

In between work and keeping an eye on the news in Gaza, I've been reading a book by Raja Shehadeh, called Palestinian Walks. The book documents seven walks that the author took in the hills of Palestine over the last few decades. Shehadeh describes the land he's spent his whole life living in, which serves as a bridge into his memory and his Palestinian identity.

It takes very little to trigger the shift in Shehadeh's thoughts. On one walk, he comes across a qasr, a traditional stone dwelling of Palestinian farmers. This takes him back to memories of his grandfather's cousin, Abu Ameen. On another, Shehadeh is looking for a tree under which he can read, and a whiff of pine tree odour gets him started on a mental conversation about the emergence of modern colonialism in Palestine.

I think what I like most about Shehadeh's book is how he tries to show us Palestine for what it is, not as some imagined place that he read or heard about. He describes this idea better than I could hope to. I leave you with excerpts of Shehadeh's Palestinian Walks (pp. xii-xiv) below:

Palestine has been one of the countries most visited by pilgrims and travellers over the ages. The accounts I have read do not describe a land familiar to me but rather a land of these travellers' imaginations. Palestine has been constantly re-invented, with devastating consequences to its original inhabitants. Whether it was the cartographers preparing maps or the travellers describing the landscape in the extensive travel literature, what mattered was not the land and its inhabitants as they actually were but the confirmation of the viewer's or reader's religious or political beliefs. I can only hope that this book does not fall within this tradition ...

I like to think of my relationship to the land, where I have always lived, as immediate and not experienced through the veil of words written about it, often replete with distortions.

And yet it is in the unavoidable context of such literature that I write my own account of the land and of the contemporary culture of 'fear and blood, crime and punishment' that blot its beauty. Perhaps many will also read this book against the background of the grim images on their television screens. They might experience a dissonant moment as they read about the beautiful countryside in which the seven walks in this book take place: could the land of such perpetual strife and bloodshed have such peaceful, precious hills? Still, I hope the reader of this book will put all this aside and approach it with an open mind. I hope to persuade the reader how glorious the land of Palestine is, despite all the destruction that has been wrought over the past quarter of a century.