Thursday, July 30, 2009

RACISM: Middle Eastern religious leader labels Obama "slave" ...

Here's something you won't find mentioned at Andrew Bolt's blog. The leader of Israel's Shas party recently described US President Barack Obama as a slave.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is regarded as the spiritual leader of Shas, a Jewish fundamentalist party which supports the building of illegal settlements on stolen Palestinian land. Yosef was speaking in opposition to pressure from the Obama administration to cease building new settlements in the West Bank.

Here's how one news outlet reports it:

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Israel's ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, has slammed U.S. President Barack Obama, describing him as "a slave" who seeks to rule the world and control Tel Aviv's affairs when it comes to construction of settlements in occupied Jerusalem, reports say.

"American insidiousness tells us to build here and not to build there, as though we were slaves working for them," he said in his weekly sermon Saturday, adding: "We live in a time when slaves are governing us and are trying to control us."

Turning down the Obama administration's request to stop illegal construction of settlements on Palestinian occupied territories, he said: "We are not employees of the Americans.. and Israel does not work for the United States."

Yosef then takes a leaf out of the book of Andrew Bolt and his blog fan club, making a racist attack on Arabs and wishing for their destruction.

The senior Rabbi then addressed the issue of Haram al Sharif (Dome of the Rock) saying: "...and where is our temple? The situation there is cause for grief. There is nothing there but evil Arabs who are occupying our lands…and I hope that the messiah will appear soon to destroy them."

The comments about Arabs were also reported by JTA which for some reason toned them down a little to read ...

Where is our temple? There are Arabs there!

Yosef isn't, of course, representative of mainstream Jewish opinion. Unlike Andrew Bolt and Tim Blair, I won't attempt to sheet home responsibility for his racist statements to Australians who happen to tick the "Judaism" box on their census forms. Nor will I demand that "moderate Jews" everywhere speak out and condemn these remarks, failing which they risk being labelled "Judeo-fascists". I know that Yosef is known for making obscene and imbecilic remarks that have even directly offended Jews.

Born in Iraq in 1920, Yosef is a former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel and a controversial figure who has in the past referred to Arabs and Palestinians as "snakes" and "vipers" who were "swarming like ants" ...

In 2000 he sparked outrage when he said that the six million Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust did "not die for nothing," but were the "reincarnation of Jews who had sinned" in previous generations.

Members of Yosef's party are being linked to a massive money laundering and illegal organ trading investigation by the FBI. Among those whose organs were removed were impoverished Israelis. The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reports ...

Politicians expect the amount of funds contributed to institutions affiliated with or close to Shas, and its spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, will feel the pinch almost immediately ... One of the major figures arrested in the suspected money laundering case is Rabbi Eliahu Ben Haim, who is considered very close to Rabbi David Yosef, one of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's sons ... Another person arrested in the affair is Rabbi Edmund Nahum, who is considered very close to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef himself. Nahum was also involved in raising funds for the Yosef family institutions.

The Israel Police and the Justice Ministry's Israel Money Laundering and Terror Financing Prohibition Authority will soon start investigating the Shas and other Sephardic institutions' yeshivas implicated in the scandal. The investigation may also include the banks suspected of transferring the allegedly tainted funds.

I guess it's hard to be a racist and a financial cleanskin at the same time no matter what your religious affiliation is.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

CRIKEY: Costello shows little faith in the possibilities of education ...

In 1980, I started grade five at Sydney’s only Anglican cathedral school. My parents wanted to send me to a school which taught their values. But my parents are not Anglican. They are South Asian Sunni Muslims. Among my closest friends at school were a Jew, a Mormon and an atheist brought up in a nominally Catholic family. Their parents may have sent them to the school for similar reasons.

But Peter Costello thinks the main reason parents send their kids to a Christian school is this:

Parents who choose to send their children to a Christian school have a reasonable expectation that the child will get a Christian education. How could the school fulfil its obligation to the parents if it is required by law to employ non-Christian or anti-Christian teachers to provide it?

Perhaps Mr Costello should consult his well-heeled constituents of Sikh, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and other non-Christian faiths to find out why they choose to send their kids to exclusive (often selective) Christian schools. Perhaps having a name like Sydney Grammar or St Andrews on one’s resume can help overcome the prejudice of employers at allegedly unpronounceable surnames.

Presently religious institutions and faith schools are exempt from the provisions of anti-discrimination legislation which forbid discrimination in employment on the basis of religion. This could change in Victoria, and Costello writes in both The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald expressing his opposition ...

... to restrict the freedom of religious schools to choose their employees on the basis of their religious faith.

I’ve acted for both Muslim and non-denominational independent schools in workplace relations matters. Muslim schools employ non-Muslim teachers, only requiring them to display respect and empathy to Muslim religious values. Female teachers aren’t required to cover their hair. School principals told me that they had to hire non-Muslim staff as there weren’t enough Muslim teachers.

This presumably means these schools would take advantage of discrimination exemptions and employ only Muslim teachers if they had half a chance. Would Costello support Muslim schools insisting Muslim kids only be taught by Muslim teachers? Perish the thought! This kind of non-integration and breach of Australian values is what Costello so often pontificated on when he was treasurer.

I’d be appalled by the idea of kids from Islamic schools not having non-Muslim teachers. Hopefully by the time there are enough Muslim teachers, the law will have changed so that neither Muslim nor any other faith schools can discriminate. Religious and cultural cocoons aren’t healthy for children or for social cohesion.

Then again, Anglican cocoons didn’t harm me. Back when I was at school, to be employed at St Andrews as a teacher, you had to show some kind of commitment to Christianity. Some teachers evidenced this by a letter from their parish priest. We’re not sure exactly how my popular Year 11 English Teacher, Mr Scott, evidenced his Christian commitment. But at the last St Andrews’ Class of ’87 reunion, one of the lads recalled Scott had a habit of wearing polka-dotted ties. I’m not sure if he still wears them to work.

First published in Crikey on 29 July 2009.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

CRIKEY: NSW Libs at loggerheads as intra-factional action heats up ...

The Sydney Morning Herald today reports on the latest intra-factional action in the dominant NSW Liberal Right faction under the appropriate headline “Holy warriors pitch for Liberal seats”.

And yes, this is indeed a political crusade. NSW Upper House member and Opus Dei supporter David Clarke with a small but powerful cabal of supporters are battling the “soft right” and threatening the preselections of Philip Ruddock and other allegedly moderate MP’s.

The Herald claims Clarke’s “soft right” opponents include his former staffer and Federal MP for Mitchell Alex Hawke. Yet Hawke himself appears to be playing a role in toppling another “soft righter”, former Howard enforcer Senator Bill Heffernan, whose Senate term doesn’t expire until 2011. In a scathing radio editorial on 21 July 2009, Alan Jones describes Hawke as being among ...

... the wet-behind-the-ears marshmallows … Young Liberals.

Jones asks whether Hawke really ...

... represents mainstream Liberal thinking.

Jones lavishes praise on Heffernan for his experience of ...

... life west of the Great Dividing Range.

Ah, the irony of Jones, a man apparently vilified for his sexuality, praising a Senator perhaps best known for his arguably homophobic comments concerning a former High Court Justice. Or as Melbourne writer John Heard wrote in The Australian on 24 October 2006 on the release of Chris Masters' critical biography Jonestown ...

ALAN Jones is a homosexual. Michael Kirby is a homosexual. Sadly, both men have
been targeted for vilification purely because they are attracted to their sex.
In Kirby's case, it was the Left who accused the Right of homophobia following
baseless allegations by Liberal senator Bill Heffernan in 2002. In Jones's case,
which has come to light in a new book by the ABC's Chris Masters, the Right must
accuse the Left.

Hawke’s alleged ally in the soft right, NSW Party President Nick Campbell, is a former Heffernan staffer. But as one Liberal source told me:

Campbell is one of those blokes who will tell every candidate in a party ballot that he supports them.

If Campbell believes he has a chance of taking Heffernan’s seat, he may back Hawke. If not, there could be a three-way tussle.

One interesting figure mentioned in the Herald story is Edin Dyga, staffer for ultra-conservative NSW State MP Greg Smith who supports Ruddock’s religious right opponent. In his 2007 maiden speech, Mr Smith described himself as

... unashamedly pro life and pro family ...

... though he went onto say that ...

... while I may exercise my right to a conscience vote on some issues I will
never seek to impose my religious views on others.

Smith’s staffer has expressed less conciliatory views on an e-mail group called “Ozlibs” which yours truly once moderated. In a post dated 9 May 2006 Dyga referred to ...

... the Holy Crusaders (Peace Be Upon Them) ...

... and says Muslims

... should be thankful the Holy Crusaders (Peace Be Upon Them) didn’t continue
down south and have fun with your metropolitan al wakf [religious trust],

Then on 12 November 2005, Dyga remarks:

The only religious system that has been in the core of Australia’s development
as a nation has been Christianity. Since settlement, Australia has become
secular — far too secular for my liking, but that’s just my opinion.

Dyga’s views may have changed since then. But if they reflect a wish by the religious right to roll back secularism, they’ll effectively make the Party unelectable. They’ll also be answering Nathan Rees’ prayers.

A version of this piece was first published in Crikey on Tuesday 28 July 2009.

POLITICS: The Dyga dialogues ...

The Sydney Morning Herald has reported on the exploits of the religious right of the NSW Liberal Party who appear to have declared an Opus Dei jihad on Phillip Ruddock and a number of other Federal MP's.

Among those named in the jihad is former Communications Director of the NSW Young Liberals and current staffer for Epping State MP Greg Smith, a certain Edwin Dyga. It's a name I'm familiar with, and I thought it might be appropriate to reproduce here some interesting observations Dyga has made over the years on a conservative e-mail list called OzLibs which I've moderated since 2001.

No doubt some will argue that I've been selective in my quotes. To them, my response is that reproduction of the full discussion only makes Mr Dyga look even more rabidly anti-secular and fanatical.

Read and enjoy.

The Crusaders were civilised compared to the more vocal members of The Religion of Peace in Sydney's suburbia circa 2006.
Monday April 17 2006

… a ghetto community's insular mentality, much like the inane "I'm an Australian too" mantra serves no purpose other than to (a) cover up that same communities stronger identification with a violent religious creed, and (b) confuse the befuddled mainstream into thinking that it's true.
Tuesday April 11 2006

… the Holy Crusaders (Peace Be Upon Them) were retaliating against your mob's raping, sacking, murdering and raping again, of Christian lands, from Spain, the French southern coast, and even Rome … You should be thankful the Holy Crusaders (Peace Be Upon Them) didn't continue down south and have fun with your metropolitan al wakf, Mecca.
Thursday 9 May 2006

John Howard, brilliant visionary. Thank God we have such a man at the helm. He will certainly go down in history as the most competent leader this country has had since Federation; he even surpasses Menzies.
21 Feb 2006

The only religious system that has been in the core of Australia's development as a nation has been Christianity. Since settlement, Australia has become secular - far too secular for my liking, but that's just my opinion.
12 Nov 2005

These are the sentiments of a senior staffer for the Shadow Attorney-General of NSW. Now doubt Greg Smith's many Muslim constituents will be impressed to learn that their local member's staffer would celebrate the destruction of their sacred sites. No doubt Smith's Jewish constituents would be impressed by the glorification of Crusaders who massacred the Jews of Jerusalem as they sought shelter in Jerusalem's synagogues. No doubt Smith's Greek Orthodox constituents would be impressed by the glorification of the Crusaders who sacked Constantineople and massacred Orthodox Christians on their way to and in Jerusalem.

I sure hope Mr Dyga has changed his views. Because if he hasn't, and if he starts saying this kind of stuff in public, Nathan Rees will feel all his prayers have been answered.

UPDATE I: Dyga's submission to the Senate Education Employment & Workplace Relations Committee Inquiry on Academic Freedom makes interesting reading.

Monday, July 27, 2009

VIDEO: A Sikh aid organisation assists internally displaced Pakistanis of all faiths ...

The conflict between the Pakistani army and Taliban insurgents has displaced hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis of all faiths. The following video shows just some of these people and their needs being partially met by United Sikhs, an international humanitarian organisation.

Friday, July 24, 2009

COMMENT: Horrific crimes against women in Bosnia ...

This month is the 14th anniversary of the massacre in Srebrenica, a city in the Republic of Bosnia Herzegovina (BiH). That massacre took place in July 2005 and saw some 8,000 men and boys massacred in cold blood in an area the United Nations had declared a "safe haven". Dutch peacekeepers were in the area "protecting" the civilians during the massacre. The massacre, deemed genocide by the International Court of Justice, is sometimes referred to as a gendercide in that Bosnian men were specifically targetted for slaughter.

Of course, women also suffered the most horrific crimes in the BiH conflict. A number of these are chronicled in Beverly Allen's 1996 book Rape Warfare: The Hidden Genocide in Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia. The book seems to focus only crimes committed against Bosnian Muuslim and Catholic women as well as Croatian women, though we know that Bosnian and Croatian Orthodox Christian woman were also victims of atrocities by Bosnian Muslim, Catholic and Croatian forces.

Allen defines "genocidal rape" as:

... a military policy of rape for the purpose of genocide [then] practiced in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia by members of the Yugoslav Army, the Bosnian Serb forces, Serb militias in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the irregular Serb forces known as Chetniks,and Serb civilians.

She identifies three kinds of genocidal rape. The first is where paramilitaries enter a village with a view to terrorising villagers into abandoning their homes. The soldiers ...

... take several women of varying ages from their homes, rape them in public view, and depart. The news of this atrocious event spreads rapidly throughout the village. Several days later, regular Bosnian Serb soldiers or Serb soldiers from the Yugoslav Army arrive and offer the now-terrified residents safe passage away from the village on the condition they never return.

The second form took place in concentration camps where women ...

... are chosen at random to be raped, often as part of torture preceding death.

The third form involved detaining women in rape centres where women would be repeatedly and systematically gang-raped (often until they were impregnated and safe abortions were not possible). Often women were kept in rape camps for weeks or months at a time. The rape facilities included:

... restaurants, hotels, hospitals, schools, factories, peacetime brothels, or other buildings; they are also animal stalls in barns, fenced-in pens, and arenas.

Allen notes that all such rapes constitute war crimes including genocide.

All forms of genocidal rape constitute the crime of genocide as described in Article II of the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

But as Amnesty International notes, thus far no one has been charged for mass-rape and other sexual crimes by the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Rape victims don't seem to matter.

The then-leader of the Bosnian, Radovan Karadzic, is currently on trial, living in relative luxury compared to hundreds of innocent Afghans who have been detained and then released without charge at Bagram Airbase. Funny that.

COMMENT: The terror inquisition ...

I've come across a recently-published book (as in published in 2008) about the history of the Spanish Inquisition. It's called The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God and is authored by Jonathan Kirsch, a lawyer and journalist. It's a book for general reading, not an academic text. And it makes scary reading.

Kirsch compares America's domestic anti-terror adventures (and, by implication, Australia's) to the Medieval Inquisition of the Catholic Church in various parts of Europe, most notably in Spain.

More than a few unsettling parallels can be drawn between the medieval Inquisition and the modern war on terror. The FBI reportedly considered a plan to secretly monitor the sales of Middle Eastern foods in grocery stores in order to detect the presence of Muslim terrorists in America; the FBI later denied the report, but the whole notion echoes the readiness of the Spanish Inquisition to arrest young men of Muslim ancestry who were seen eating couscous. Federal law enforcement officers were, in fact, “ordered to search out and interview Muslim and Arab men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-three,” an inquisitio generalis that was intended to fl ush out a vast and secret conspiracy of alien terrorists.

I never liked couscous that much. But it's even scarier when you look overseas to warzones in Afghanistan and Iraq or to prisons (known and secret) where suspected terrorists are held.

The parallels are even more striking when it comes to American military and intelligence operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere around the world. Like the war on heresy in the Middle Ages, the war on terror has been the occasion for coining new and evasive phrases: “extraordinary rendition,” for example, refers to kidnapping a suspect off the streets and sending him to a secret prison in a “third country” where he can be subjected to “harsh interrogation techniques,” a euphemism for torture. Indeed, the technique now called waterboarding is precisely the same one that the friar-inquisitors of the Middle Ages called the ordeal by water, and the same one used by the Gestapo and the NKVD ...

The prisons are the same. Even the prison dress is the same.

The inquisitorial prisons, where victims could be held for years or even decades and tortured at will, find their counterparts in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and the detention facilities at the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. The notorious photograph of a naked and shackled Iraqi prisoner taken in a cellblock at Abu Ghraib features a specific item of apparel that was a favorite of the friar-inquisitors—the Iraqi man has been crowned with a conical “dunce’s cap” that resembles the coroza worn by victims of the Spanish Inquisition at an auto-da-fé. In both cases, the point of the headgear was to degrade and humiliate the victim.

Kirsch concludes with this assessment:

All the weaponry and tactics that have been deployed in the war on terror are justified by precisely the same theological stance once invoked in the war on heresy.

But what if the inquisitorial rhetoric of "war on terror" changes? Will many of these excesses cease to exist? Or will they be packaged and sold in a more clever and convincing way?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

FILM: Pakistan's first English-language feature movie in 3 decades ...

With all this media frenzy over the Taliban and terrorism in the combined "Af-Pak" territory (as if Afghanistan and Pakistan have no right to be considered sovereign nations if it hinders Western perceptions of security!), it's important for us not to dehumanise the experiences of Pakistanis and Afghans.

The Lifting Of The Veil: Kashf is a new feature film directed by Ayesha Khan, a Pakistani film maker who grew up in Pakistan but is now based in Europe. Here's a brief synopsis of the movie:

Armaghan is born out of an oath his mother makes to a Pir priest she meets at a Sufi Shrine when she was childless. She promises the Pir who blesses her to let her first son “walk the Sufi path” when he grows up. But shortly after his birth in Pakistan, Armaghan is sent off to the US to live with relatives after his father’s death. After 25 years Armaghan returns to Pakistan a young man to discover a lost culture, a mystic religion, and a family secret.

You will find interesting interviews with Khan here and here.

Personally I have a problem with the "government-sponsored Sufism is the solution to all our security woes" analysis. I prefer the approach that Congressman Charlie Wilson called for in Afghanistan - spending money on schools and hospitals and development and creating jobs and hope. Poverty and hopelessness attract people to desperation which terrorists feed off. But I guess it isn't in some people's interest to do that.

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

CRIKEY: Obama self-flagellating in Africa?

Some Africans weren’t happy that US President Barack Obama overlooked their country and selected Ghana for his first tour of sub-Saharan Africa. You can imagine how the Kenyans must have felt by Obama’s excuse:
In my father's own country of Kenya, I'm concerned about how the political parties do not seem to be moving into a permanent reconciliation that would allow the country to move forward. And Kenya is not alone in some of the problems that we've seen of late, post-election or pre-election.

Though Obama did have some nice things to say about Kenyan civil society.

Obama told the website he deliberately chose Ghana because of its stable democratic institutions:

Ghana has now undergone a couple of successful elections in which power was transferred peacefully, even a very close election ... by travelling to Ghana, we hope to highlight the effective governance that they have in place.

There was also an emotional visit by the Obama family to the Cape Coast Castle -- a former holding area for slaves to the Americas. The castle is lined with cannons, and slaves were kept in squalid dungeons before being shipped off to captivity or death.

Obama later remarked:

I'll never forget the image of my two young daughters, the descendants of Africans and African-Americans, walking through those doors of no return but then walking back (through) those doors.

He then compared slavery to the Holocaust, a comparison that has already upset some if the comments here and here are anything to go by.

But the most hysterical response to Obama’s speech to the Ghanaian Parliament came from the neo-Conservative Hudson Institute’s Anne Bayefsky, whose anger was unleashed at Forbes and The Australian.

Bayefsky compared Obama’s Ghana speech to his recent address in Cairo. Her conclusion? That Obama loves to ...

... [s]trok[e] Muslim and Arab nations" and that this "has become the hallmark of Obama's foreign policy.

Meanwhile ...
... Christian Africa was to be treated to no such self-flagellation ... The disparity between the scolding he gave in Ghana and the love-in he held in Cairo illuminates an incoherent and dangerous agenda.

The problem with this thesis, like so many things emerging from neo-Conservative thinktanks, is that it doesn’t involve too much thought.

Sub-Saharan Africa includes Muslim-majority states such as Djibouti (94%), Senegal (95%), Guinea (92%), Gambia (90%), Sierra Leone (65%) and Burkina Faso (65%).

Among African member states of the Organisation of Islamic Conference are: Uganda, Chad, Togo, Cameroon, Cote D’Ivoire, Nigeria and Mozambique.

So African Muslims were well-represented in both the Cairo love-in and the Ghana self-flagellation. Either that, or Bayefsky might learn some high school geography.

First published in Crikey on Tuesday 14 July 2009.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

VIDEO: Media and government responses in EU to the murder of an Egyptian woman in Germany ...

The following discussion on the al Jazeera Inside Story program concerns media and government responses in Germany and wider Europe to the murder of an Egyptian woman in a courtroom in Dresden, Germany. The video along with its accompanying text is reproduced below. Notice the cautious comment made by the German Muslim representative.

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

Inside story discusses the motivation behind the killing of Marwa al-sherbini.
An Egyptian Muslim woman was killed in a German courtroom by a man convicted of insulting her religion.

The brutal killing of the pregnant Marwa Al Sherbini, 32, raised a lot of questions about the rise of right wing fanatics in Europe.

Al Sherbini was stabbed 18 times by a German man of Russian descent, formally identified only as Axel W, last week as she was about to give evidence against him as he appealled against his conviction for calling her a "terrorist" for her wearing the headscarf (hijab).

While the German authorities focus on court security, we ask, what about the underlying problem - the motivation behind the attack.

Inside Story discusses with guests: Maleiha Malik, a professor of law at King's college London, and author of "Anti Muslim prejudice: past and present"; Sulaiman Wilms, a media spokes person for European Muslim council and editor of the German language newspaper and Douglas Murray, a director of the centre for social cohesion, and author of "Neoconservatism: why we need it".

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

COMMENT: The columnist who wants to bomb Iranians accuses his opponents of not doing enough for them ...

Back in January 2007, Greg Sheridan praised former US President George W Bush for defying conventional wisdom and popular sentiment in his foreign policy adventures. His column of 11 January began with these words:

A US military strike against Iran must now be considered formally on the international agenda, following George W. Bush’s sombre, calm, but in substance extraordinarily bold address on Iraq . Bush accused Iran of providing material assistance for attacks on US troops in Iraq . It is hard to imagine a more serious accusation. What’s more, Bush promised to stop such Iranian actions. Whatever you think of Bush, he has a very high level of credibility when it comes to carrying out any threat he makes of military action.

Given Sheridan ’s near-obsessive grovelling of all things Bush, I have little doubt that Sheridan would have supported a full scale invasion of Iran . Forced regime change was good enough for the Iraqi goose, and in Sheridan ’s eyes would be just as good for the Iranian gander. Heck, what’s a few hundred thousand dead Iranian civilians?

Yet the other day Sheridan has the gall to claim that the so-called “Western human rights lobby” has been doing bugger-all to support Iranian protesters Sheridan would have been quite happy to see the Yanks and/or Israelis bomb the crap out of. Heck, just a week earlier Sheridan was happy to consider the utility of “a limited military strike” against Iran.

Now Sheridan claims that ...

[a]part from ethnic Iranians, there has hardly been a single demonstration in any Western capital in support of the Iranian democrats. Yet isn't there a class, in Australia and in the rest of the West, of people deeply concerned about human rights?

He then has a go at Louise Adler for criticising Israel and Michael Leunig for having a cartoon in an Iranian competition which he didn’t actually submit and had no idea was being submitted anyway. And what does all this prove?

[T]hat many Western human rights organisations, and many of the most self-congratulatory and morally vain posturers, are not interested in human rights at all. They are interested in advancing a soft Left sectarian agenda.

Actually, what it proves is that Sheridan doesn't know what he's talking about. He should name just one of his critics who has called upon Iran to be bombed and invaded in the manner he has. But then on Planet Sheridan, if you don’t draw a cartoon for Iranian protestors or you don’t march through the streets, you clearly don’t like Iranian democrats as much as if you’re happy to see them and their families blown up by American and/or Israeli bombs. Go figure.

OPINION: Values blur in good and evil ...

Uncle Sam stands at the top of a flight of stairs, looking more than slightly perplexed. Below him is a windowless chamber its sparse furnishings consist of a lamp, a wooden bench and a closet shaped roughly to the contours of a human body, spikes emerging from its rear wall. A man hangs from the roof, his ankles bound. Below him stand a Caucasian man dressed in a Nazi uniform, a hooded Spanish inquisitor brandishing a sword and a third man in military fatigues and an Arab head-dress.

All three are watching Uncle Sam, inviting him to join them, the third man stating:

C'mon down. Once you take the first step, it's easy.

What I've just described in words is a cartoon by Philadelphia Inquirer cartoonist Tony Auth. It's only now, with debate over the use of torture in the "war on terror", that we're discovering just how deep the Leader of the Free World had descended.

The frequent mantra recited by Western political masters was that we were in a war against terrorists who hated us because of who we are, because of our values. Terrorists despised us for being civilised. They wanted to replace notions such as democracy and the rule of law, which we stood for, with terror and lawlessness. This was a war for civilisation, a fight to defend freedom.

Yet within a mere six months of the 9/11 attacks, top officials of the CIA were happy to flout the rule of law and to breach the very values they claimed to protect. To use the words of North Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, the Bush administration saw the law as a nicety we could not afford.

This new lawlessness incorporated the use of harsh interrogation techniques (read torture) such as waterboarding. In this torture, a prisoner is bound to an inclined board, his feet raised and his head slightly below the feet; then cloth is wrapped over his face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the prisoners gag reflex is activated and he feels convinced he is drowning.

One CIA prisoner, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libbi, is said to have been subjected to waterboarding that proved so effective that he provided false evidence of a link between al-Qaeda and the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein which led to the 2003 invasion. Al-Libbi made these fabricated claims as he was terrified of further harsh treatment.

Even if we accepted claims by United States lawmakers that torture was used to protect Americans, al-Libbi's torture was clearly used for political purposes to justify a war the Bush administration was determined to fight even before the first jets hit the World Trade Center. Once evil means are adopted even for seemingly noble ends, the lines between good and evil soon become blurred.

Al-Libbi's treatment is just the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of people have been detained in various US detention facilities, both known and secret, including in Indonesia, Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Guantanamo Bay. Among them were two Australian citizens David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib.

Yet while US media seem almost fixated with the role that Republican and Democrat lawmakers and US government officials played in ordering and executing torture of detainees, few Australian journalists have considered what role (if any) the Australian government may have played or at least what knowledge it may have had of the torture of Australian citizens at Guantanamo Bay.

And yet now the US is reluctant to settle Guantanamo detainees on its own territory. Meanwhile US President Barack Obama is reluctant to release further documents and photos of torture conducted by the CIA for fear it will further inflame tensions. It is this very secrecy which provides a perfect cover for even more abuse.

Regardless of how painful the process may be, the US must take responsibility for the consequences of its inquisition. Yet all we seem to be hearing from Obama is empty rhetoric about how the US does not torture the same rhetoric used by his predecessor. Obama chose Cairo as the location to give his speech to the nominally Muslim world.

Cairo was also the place where Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib was sent by the US to have terrorism confessions extracted from him using the most brutal forms of torture. In his memoir My Story: the tale of a terrorist who wasn't, Habib outlined not just his own torture but also the suffering of other inmates also beaten and drugged.

During his Cairo address to an audience of political leaders and diplomats from Muslim-majority states, Obama admitted the US had acted contrary to its ideals by instituting torture. Yet among governments represented were those which will continue to implement the US policy of extraordinary rendition or the secret abduction and transfer of prisoners to countries that will carry out torture on behalf of the US.

The Washington Post reported on February 1, 2009, that Obama issued executive orders allowing the CIA to carry on with renditions. He further allowed the CIA to detain suspects in facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis. America will effectively now outsource Guantanamo-type operations to the generals, sheikhs, colonels, dictators and presidents-for-life who will no doubt torture not just those deemed terror suspects by the US but also domestic political opponents.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recently urged all those involved in the torture process including doctors, nurses, psychologists and lawyers to be pursued and not let off the hook. Australia and New Zealand can play a role in this process, given that both are the only two nations in the Pacific region to have ratified the Convention Against Torture. Yet given the lacklustre performance on the part of John Howard and Kevin Rudd on the treatment of former Australian citizen detainees at Guantanamo, one cannot expect too much from Australia.

Terrorists may hate us for our values, but clearly we don't seem to like our values too much either.

Irfan Yusuf's first book Once Were Radicals about young Muslims flirting with radical Islam was published by Allen & Unwin in May 2009. This article was first published in the Canberra Times on Tuesday 7 July 2009.

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

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Monday, July 06, 2009

BOOKS: Robert Baer on the Iranian superpower ...

I’ve just finished reading a ripper-of-a-book by former CIA operative Robert Baer about Iran. The book is entitled The Devil We Know: Dealing With The New Iranian Superpower and was published in 2009.

I kept detailed notes of the book for the prologue which I’d like to share if for no other reason than that I’d like to throw them out and return the book to my shelf. So here goes:

[01] Iran’s war with the United States was undeclared on Iran’s part and largely ignored on the US’s part. The US at one stage was too busy fighting the Cold War.

[02] Iran and its proxy Hezbollah found ways of fighting an unconventional war against the US with precision-guided rockets, roadside bombs and human suicide bombs.

[03] The Gulf has 55% of the world’s oil reserves which Iran is now close to controlling.

[04] The cult of martyrdom plays a central role in Iran’s political ideology. Iranians say that no army can come in the way of martyrdom.

[05] Iran believes it has enough military power to challenge US interests in the Gulf. Iran is the new superpower, with unconventional warfare methods that could easily bring a conventional army to a standstill.

[06] Iran has all but abandoned Khomeini’s revolution. It is a rational actor which coldly and methodically pursues its national interest. Scratch at the veneer of Islam and what you get is old-fashioned nationalism.

[07] Iran’s proxy Hezbollah was the irst military force to defeat Israel on the battlefield since it was founded. Hezbollah defeated Israel again in the 34 day war of 2006. Israel withdrew with heavy losses achieving not a single military objective, and indeed strengthening Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon.

[08] US interests in the Middle East were founded on the old Sunni order which has all but collapsed.

[09] This book is about defining Iran’s imperial drive.

This book is a riveting read, though at times it is prone to generalisations and a fair bit of the explanation of Sunni and Shia theology is just plain wrong. However, the basic proposition is well-argued and compelling.

You can read an excellent profile of the author by Rod McGuiness here.

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

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BLOGS/IDIOCY: Tim Blair gives yet more room to Hizbut Tahrir loopies ...

Hizbut Tahrir (or "HT" for short) are a political party that wants to re-establish the Caliphate using various means. These include handing out pamphlets at mosques after Friday prayers, sticking up posters on Matthews Street Punchbowl and holding conferences in various parts of Sydney.

I've been to one of their conferences. Not terribly interesting affairs. But I have written about them. Here's something appearing in The Age some years back:

HT teaches that active involvement in democratic politics represents a fundamental breach of the sacred law. Democracy and secularism are declared un-Islamic, voting is forbidden and membership of secular political parties regarded as virtual apostasy. HT insists Muslims work outside the system and re-invent a more "Islamic" wheel, an approach seen by the well-integrated majority of Muslims as an exercise in futility.

Although HT's goal is the re-establishment of the caliphate, they have no clear plan of action. At this stage, HT does little more than distribute pamphlets and hold conferences.

And for something less serious, here's an excerpt from a piece in NewMatilda:

... the Muhammadiyah, one of Indonesia's two main Islamic 'churches.' At last count, the youth group of Muhammadiyah consists of a handful of members around 10 million. The other group, Nahdhatul Ulama (NU) has around 20 million in its youth wing and around 40 million in its senior wing.

The Indonesian wing of HT has around 150,000 members. Excuse me while I check my blood pressure ...

... HT's clumsily expressed methodology attracts so few people, and their ideology is so fringe, that they'll be lucky to take even a first step toward achieving any caliphate. HT should be compared less to al-Qaeda and more to the galaxy of loony socialist groups on campus seeking to establish socialism.

Suffice it to say that HT can't exactly count me as one of their media buddies. And they know it. Look at what they had to say about my piece at the Muslim Village idiots' forums.

Of course, there are some places where the HT crowd know their message will be reproduced almost unadulterated. Fringe attracts fringe, and the fringe fruitloop who edits the opinion page of Sydney's Daily Teleraph has shown his willingness to print entire press releases of HT as op-eds. Tim Blair is one of the few friends on the media HT can count on.

Which made me curious as to why Blair would describe yours truly as one of HT's "media defenders". Does Blair know something that even hard-headed HT aparatchiks don't?

When it comes to hpolding narrow-minded tunnel-visioned nonsensical positions and attract mainly complete morons to their discussions, Blair and HT have plenty in common.

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

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OPINION: The fuss over the burqa is out of kilter ...

Sarkozy's focus on a tiny minority who cover up risks alienating most Muslims, writes Irfan Yusuf.

IN ABOUT six months, a cross-party French parliamentary committee of 32 MPs will prepare a report examining whether the wearing of the burqa (an outfit, usually black, that covers a woman's full body, including her face) in public represents a threat to French secularism. They'll also determine whether to ban it being worn in France.

The committee was formed after French President Nicolas Sarkozy addressed the French Parliament on June 22 and described the burqa as "a problem of liberty and women's dignity" and "not welcome in France".

Sarkozy further claimed that the burqa was not a religious symbol at all, but rather "a sign of subservience and debasement", which created "women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity".

Of course, even if Sarkozy regarded the burqa as a religious symbol, he might still ban it. In the past, he hasn't been averse to banning the open display of religious symbols in French state schools.

Sarkozy was originally behind the push to proscribe the hijab (headscarf) from state schools, only to subsequently oppose specific legislation, introduced in 2004, which saw the wearing of all religious symbols in state schools prohibited.

Many French, and indeed many Australians, find the various shades of religious head covering adopted by Muslim women somewhat troublesome. Women draped in black represent one of the most potent stereotypes of Islam in the West, one reinforced by media images. When one Sydney Muslim man called for polygamy to be legalised, the Herald Sun website carried a photo of two burqa-clad women crossing the street. The website of its Sydney equivalent regularly carries photos of burqa-clad women in any story even mildly related to Muslims. On August 8, 2007, in a story on an investigation into a refugee housing project run by a main Muslim body, The Daily Telegraph showed the image of the top half of a fully veiled woman's face.

It's unclear exactly what proportion of Muslim women wear any sort of head covering when in public, though anecdotal evidence suggests only a minority do. Among those who cover, the vast majority seem to follow the religious consensus and restrict themselves to merely covering all or part of their hair. This can take the form of a more fixed hijab (as commonly worn in the Arab world and South-East Asia) or a loose shawl draped over the head (common in Iran and South Asia).

The vast majority of Muslims in France are from North Africa where the face veil is rarely worn. This naturally raises the question: with such a tiny minority wearing such a veil, why is Sarkozy using his precious time talking about this issue?

Sarkozy's remarks are reminiscent of former prime minister John Howard's frequent references to alleged non-integration of Muslim Australians. Yet in one radio interview Howard declared 99.9 per cent of Muslims were perfectly integrated. I wondered at the time whether his repeated emphasis on the 0.01 per cent non-integrated was little more than an attempt to create an environment where the 99.9 per cent were made to feel uncomfortable.

No women in my family cover their hair. However, my maternal grandfather, who lectured at the relatively liberal Aligarh Muslim University in India, insisted the women of his household practise a form of traditional aristocratic seclusion known as purdah. Though associated with Indian Islamic culture, purdah was also practised in many upper-class north Indian Hindu and Sikh households.

It was common in those days for wealthy women to go out shopping while seated in a special palanquin (called a dholi). This was basically a large, comfortable, box-like structure with plenty of cushions for aristocratic women to laze on while their male servants (or even male relatives) would carry them. The curtains around the box had a screen through which the women could peek and decide which shop they would visit.

Women's quarters in 1950s Aligarh homes were places where women enjoyed themselves, freed of any domestic duties, their husbands or fathers employing servants to perform all cooking and other chores. Men were expected to lavish gifts on their female relatives (and in-laws) using the household income, which women were usually responsible for managing (I'm sure to their own advantage). Men were also expected to do all the shopping for food and other household needs. Women only shopped to buy clothes, jewellery and other luxury items for themselves.

Of course, the situation for the aristocratic Indian woman in purdah was a far cry from impoverished women living in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Purdah did not stop my mother from completing high school and a bachelor's degree. The idea of banning women from education or work would be anathema to most Muslims, including the one in four of South Asian heritage.

France has the largest Muslim population of any country in Western Europe.

By focusing on a tiny minority of Muslim women, Sarkozy risks alienating the majority of French Muslims, including those who agree with his basic proposition that the burqa is offensive and degrading to women.

Irfan Yusuf is author of Once Were Radicals: My Years as a Teenage Islamo-Fascist, published by Allen & Unwin. This article was first published in The Age on Monday 6 July 2009.

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

REVIEW: Ambitious cultural journey loses its way ...

A Stranger to History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands
By Aatish Taseer
Text Publishing, 323pp, $34.95

WE all inhabit the same planet, yet so often we hear phrases such as "the Muslim world" and "the Western world". Do such discrete entities indeed exist? Perhaps those best equipped to answer this question are those with one foot on either side of the divide.

Aatish Taseer, a 29-year-old freelance journalist and the son of an Indian Sikh mother and a Pakistani Muslim father, should have been such a person. That he isn't so is not entirely hisfault.

The two sides of Taseer's family share the culture and language of Punjab, a region in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent shared by India and Pakistan. Islam and Sikhism have inhabited Punjab's geographical and cultural space for centuries. Sikhism is indigenous to Punjab, while Punjabi Islam has adopted the cultural symbols of the land.

My background is a mixture of Indian and Pakistani. Having been reared in a small South Asian community in Sydney, I found it almost impossible to tell Muslims and Sikhs apart. To this day it is easy for me to confuse a mosque and gurudwara (Sikh temple) until the saffron flags of the latter become apparent.

But there is a huge difference between my upbringing and that of Taseer, whose parents' relationship was kept largely secret.

Taseer's father, Salmaan Taseer, became a senior figure in the Pakistan People's Party, at present the governing party of Pakistan. He is a businessman, media magnate and governor of Pakistan's Punjab province.

Aatish's parents met in India in 1980, where Salmaan Taseer was promoting a biography he'd written of his political mentor and former Pakistani prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Aatish's mother, respected Indian journalist Tavleen Singh, was then a young reporter.

At the time of his parents' brief affair, which lasted hardly a week, Salmaan Taseer was already married with three children.

After his parents' separation, Aatish was reared in his mother's Sikh household in Delhi, under the wing of his loving maternal grandfather. The grandfather had grown up in what is now Pakistan and still corresponded with his best friend from across the border.

Like other Sikhs, the Singhs had to flee their ancestral lands in what became Pakistan during the 1947 Partition, which still leaves some members of the family bitter and resentful towards Pakistan and Muslims in general. To his credit, the maternal grandfather wasn't affected by these sentiments.

'A human being,' my grandfather always asserted, when people asked whether I was being brought up as a Sikh or a Muslim. 'He's being brought up to be a human being.'

It wasn't until 1980, when he was 21, that the author met his father again. Taseer's interest in travelling through Muslim-majority states was sparked after he wrote a story on the July 7, 2005, London bombings for British magazine Prospect. Taseer's father wrote an angry letter ...

... accus[ing] me of prejudice, of lacking even 'superficial knowledge' of the Pakistani ethos. 'Do you really think you're doing the Taseer name a service by spreading this kind of invidious anti-Muslim propaganda?

Taseer was upset by his father's letter, an irreligious Pakistani politician who hardly embodied religious values.

Yet Taseer's language when describing his father is always restrained, consistent with the elegant and often hauntingly beautiful prose of the book, sadly spoiled by serious factual errors exhibiting not prejudice, which would have been understandable, but some elementary research.

In setting the stage for his travels, Taseer writes that the whole Islamic world ...

... stretched between my father [Lahore] and the place where I read his letter [London].

How does Taseer expect his reader to take his understanding of the Muslim world seriously when he excludes from it the world's largest Muslim majority state, Indonesia?

He claims his father's Pakistani Islam emphasises rejection of Hinduism. But this is hardly pan-Islam, as I discovered during a visit to the Javanese cultural capital of Yogyakarta in 2006.

There I saw Muslim artists perform the Hindu Ramayana ballet before Muslim audiences in one of Southeast Asia's oldest Hindu temples. Not all Muslims share the religious chauvinism of some Pakistanis.

Taseer's book covers his travels in Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia (including a visit to the pilgrimage centre of Mecca), Iran and Pakistan. In each country he provides us with tremendously detailed portraits of scenery, but when it comes to people our encounters are limited to the devout yet chauvinistic on the one hand or the irreligious and resentful on the other.

Are we to believe that only an insignificant unrepresentative minority exists between these two poles?

Most unfortunate for Taseer is that his paradigm for understanding pan-Islamic sentiment emerges largely from Hassan Butt, a young British man who for years claimed to have recruited British Muslims for al-Qa'ida.

Taseer brought Butt to prominence in the article that prompted his father's wrathful letter. Yet in December last year Butt admitted to a British court that he was a professional liar who had told journalists (including, presumably, Taseer) stories the media wanted to hear.

It's a shame such an elegant piece of writing is spoiled in a way that may make some dismiss it altogether.

Sadly for Taseer, this book, the product of months of travel and a lifetime of anguish, may vindicate at least some of his absent father's criticisms. It is not a vindication well-deserved.

Irfan Yusuf is author of Once Were Radicals: My Years as a Teenage Islamo-Fascist (Allen & Unwin). This review was first published in The Australian on 27 June 2009

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