Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

Arab News

December 17, 2012

American Muslim Group Confronts Religious Extremists

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News

17 December 2012

PASADENA, Calif. — The Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Christian church that provided the council with a venue for its conference devoted part of the event on Saturday to confront critics who alleged the church is unwittingly furthering an Islamic agenda against American values.
An invitation to MPAC by senior pastor Edwin Bacon, rector All Saints Episcopal Church, to host the conference sparked a flurry of hate mail and national attention in the United States from conservative Christian and anti-Muslim hate groups. Bacon said he saw an opportunity to confront religious bigotry. Although Bacon said, “Christians can be hateful,” the All Saints congregation was “unconditional and enthusiastic” in its support to host the MPAC event.
The conference focused on MPAC’s efforts to join Christians in developing interfaith dialogue to promote better understanding between all religions. The conference was not directly tied to King Abdullah’s interfaith dialogue programs and the interreligious center that recently opened in Vienna. However, Haris Tarin, MPAC’s Washington DC office director, said his organization shares the same goals.
“We want the world to see an example of how all faiths can come together,” Tarin told Arab News. “What we wanted to do in the church will show a good sign for what we are doing in the community.” Bacon said, “We have always been open and hospitable to Jews and Muslims, so what we are doing is not really notable for us. All Saints is deeply committed to interfaith. This is an opportunity to teach American Christians about Islam.”
As Bacon spoke to Arab News in front of the church, a handful of protesters shouted anti-Muslim epithets.
“We pray for them and hope they will be transformed from their violent rhetoric,” he said.
While the conference covered a wide range of topics that address American Muslim issues, the backlash from conservative Christian groups over MPAC’s presence at All Saints set the tone for most of the discussions throughout the day.
Salam Al-Marayati, president of MPAC, said “political extremists” see Muslims through the lens of the Middle East, specifically the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as a litmus test on how all Muslims are viewed. Often ignored, MPAC members say, is that American Muslim issues do not necessarily reflect what is occurring in the Middle East. American Muslims’ concerns generally coincide with non-Muslims, such as employment and health care.
Persistent criticism of MPAC from the Christian religious right focuses on the Muslim group’s alleged connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is attempting to push through a constitution opposed by secularists and liberals in Egypt’s fledgling democratic government.
Critics of the new constitution fear that women and non-Muslims will not gain full rights and that it will dilute efforts to attain full democracy.
Dr. Maher Hathout, a senior adviser to MPAC and often a target by American religious conservatives for his connection to the Muslim Brotherhood, told the conference of about 200 people that he was a member of the Ikhwan when he was 17 years old as part of an effort to rid Egypt of British colonialism. He said he has not been involved with the Muslim Brotherhood for 60 years and has not been part of any foreign organizations during the last 40 years.
Tarin said in an interview that he is optimistic that American political extremism is waning. He pointed to the defeats of Florida Republican Congressman Allen West and Illinois Republican representative Joe Walsh, who are both Tea Party firebrands. West once said that, “Islam is a totalitarian theocratic political ideology, it is not a religion” while Walsh advocated the deporting Muslims from the US.
“I’m optimistic that the negative perceptions will decline,” Tarin said. “(The voters said) we don’t want that kind of extreme rhetoric.” Yet the lion’s share of the work to change the perception of American Muslims will rest on the shoulders of Muslim teens and young adults, Tarin said.
Tarin pointed to himself as a young Muslim 20 years ago unburdened by an Islamic identity because few non-Muslims knew of Islam nor did they have the negative perceptions of Islam before 9/11. Today, any young person with an Islamic name carries the burden of explaining himself to non-Muslims.
“Younger (non-Muslim) people get it,” Tarin said. “Those who have personal relationships with Muslims are less likely to have negative feelings. The challenge is how to get to those people not touched by Muslims.”
He said second and third generation American Muslims are joining the political process, noting that many young adults are engaged in voter registration drives and activism on a local level. He noted that that voters in Teaneck, New Jersey, elected their first Muslim mayor, Mohammed Hameeduddin, through grassroots campaigning.
“We are slowly progressing toward tolerance,” Tarin said.

November 1, 2012

Probe launched as EP wedding blaze kills 24

ABQAIQ: ROB L. WAGNER, SAEED AL-ASMARI & ABDUL HANNAN TAGO

Saudi authorities launched an investigation yesterday into a fire tragedy at a wedding party in Abqaiq that left at least 24 people dead and 37 injured.Prince Muhammad bin Fahd, governor of the Eastern Province, ordered the investigation. He visited grieving relatives at Hijrah Jadeedah, 30 km from Abqaiq, an energy industrial center.The deadly blaze occurred late Tuesday when a live electrical cable fell on a metal door. The metal door served as the only entrance and exit to an open courtyard. The cable also set ablaze a women-only marquee. Gathered in the courtyard in a tent area were women and children to celebrate the wedding, according to Maj. Gen. Abdullah Alkoshiman, director of Civil Defense in the Eastern Province.

The cable electrified the door, and some wedding guests were electrocuted when they touched it as they attempted to flee the fire, said Alkoshiman.He said celebratory gunfire knocked the cable down. Discharging firearms at weddings was outlawed last month, although shooting firearms is common at weddings in tribal areas.The Civil Defense official said 33 injured wedding guests were treated and released from Aramco Hospital in Dhahran. Four remain hospitalized.“Most of the victims were women, though men and children also reportedly died,” said Alkoshiman.The courtyard yesterday remained as it was Tuesday night with plastic chairs overturned, debris strewn across carpets and a lone wheelchair standing amid the rubble. A pole supporting strings of light bulbs remained standing. Outside the walls was a scorched vehicle parked. The metal door, through which guests attempted to flee, remained open.One Eastern Province official said the tent area in the courtyard lacked any safety measures or multiple exits. Civil Defense officials have warned private wedding party hosts and wedding hall managers to ensure their facilities have enough exits to avoid panic and overcrowding in the event of an emergency.While visiting the injured and the relatives of victims, Prince Muhammad conveyed to them the condolences of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah; Crown Prince Salman, deputy premier and minister of defense; and Interior Minister Prince Ahmad.

October 22, 2012

OP-ED: Extension of Scholarship Program will Transform a Generation of Saudis

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News

29 October 2012

Flying under the media radar recently was a yet another decision by King Abdullah that is expected to have a far-reaching impact on Saudi Arabia’s future.
At a workshop in Dubai, Dr. Saad Nasser Aldwayan, an international cooperation consultant for the Ministry of Higher Education, said that King Abdullah’s university scholarship program will be extended to 2020, according to the Saudi online newspaper Safaraa. The king launched the program in 2005, then extended it for another two years in 2007. It was extended a third time in 2009 for another three years.
Committing the scholarship program through 2020 allows a new generation of Saudis to study at Western universities. It will bring students’ graduate and post-graduate skills home to help transform Saudi Arabia from its dependency on oil to a nonoil producer and exporter of Saudi goods.
My wife benefited from the scholarship program, arriving in the United Kingdom in 2007 to study for her Ph.D and then returning this year to Saudi Arabia to a waiting job as an assistant university professor. During her five-year program, she came across scores of Saudi men and women studying a wide range of subjects. They couldn’t wait to return to Saudi Arabia with their newfound skills and begin serving their country.
If I sound like an enthusiastic supporter of the scholarship program it’s because there is no other reform measure that will have the effect on young Saudis than a free university education.
According to Safaraa, Saudis under the age of 40 account for 79 percent of the total Saudi population. An estimated 36 percent are under the age of 15.
Those 15-year-olds will become eligible for the scholarship program in 2015 and will return home with university degrees before today’s 10-year-olds become eligible to enter the program in 2020 at the age of 18.
An estimated 1.15 million Saudi students are currently enrolled at domestic and foreign universities and colleges with women making up 60 percent of the higher education student population. The scholarship program receives about SR 9 million annually that pays for 125,000 undergraduate and post-graduate students at about 3,000 universities worldwide.
About 23,000 Saudi students are studying at universities in the United States for the 2010-2011 academic year. That’s a 43 percent increase over the previous year. About 20 percent of those students are women. Science, medicine and high-tech fields of study have attracted a large number of Saudi women.
At Saudi universities women can now earn degrees in law, petroleum engineering, political science and journalism, although the reality is that few jobs in these fields are available to women. However, this is a remarkable turnaround for a country that had seen its 5 percent literacy rate in the 1950s climb to 79 percent today. The literacy rate for Saudi females between the ages of 15 to 24 jumped from 81.7 percent in 1992 to 96.5 percent in 2009.
By 2020, at least 1 million young Saudis will have gone through the scholarship program with a majority coming home from Western universities.
Imagine the implications. In the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of Saudi men attended universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. But in most cases they returned home without using their knowledge to implement more efficient ways to do business in the private and government sectors. As one Saudi told me recently, “It takes a lot of energy to fight the culture. After a while you just want to get along.”
From my conversations with young Saudis today, the attitude is vastly different. Possessing the social awareness and technical knowledge not available to their parents and grandparents, young Saudis are impatient to be part of the global community. They desperately want to serve the interests of their country. They don’t want to gain knowledge for the sake of knowledge and a degree. They want to make a difference.
A sign of the changing attitudes among young Saudi students is their willingness to attend Catholic universities such as Catholic University in Northeast Washington and the University of Dayton in Ohio in the United States. It’s common for Saudis not only to acknowledge that Catholic universities offer curriculum that matches their career goals, but those same universities share values similar to those of Islam. Attending such universities strengthens their commitment to Islam and embraces King Abdullah’s vision of interfaith tolerance.
The cultural benefits of attending such universities reflect the global view of the new generation. While it may have been difficult for thousands of Saudi men to effect change in Saudi culture a generation ago, the same can’t be said for the new crop of university students who have a much broader view of the world due to exposure through social media.
As we have seen with this past Haj and with other programs, socially conscious Saudis have volunteered their time to aid pilgrims and the poor. Even before young people are ready to attend a university, social media and the exposure of other cultures through the Internet has primed them to look at their own world with a critical eye. Their expectations will be high when they return from abroad. And it’s up to Saudi society to accommodate those expectations.

October 22, 2012

OP-ED: The Character Assassination of Malala

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News

22 October 2012

Well, the Malala Yousufzai backlash took all of … five minutes. The outpouring of shock and outrage over the Taliban’s attempted assassination of the teenager who advocated for girls education has been replaced with a campaign of character assassination and conspiracy theories.
The momentum of public support that would help the Pakistan government crush the Taliban has passed. Clerics and politicians have largely remained silent since the Oct. 9 attack. And the public has expressed little more than indifference in the past week over Malala’s shooting.
Blinded by the rock-solid belief that even bad Muslims are incapable of committing murder — despite claims by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan that it was responsible for attack — many people excuse the TTP’s behavior by rationalizing that outside forces, and even Malala herself, had a hand in the incident.
In interviews with Pakistani human rights organizers this week, National Public Radio reported that the chatter in cafes and meetings with clerics among Pakistan’s young people is not one of support for Malala, but how US military drone attacks kill civilians. One young man remarked that Pakistani outrage should be reserved for the drone attacks and not for a single teenager agitating for change. Others invoked the case of Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani neuroscientist serving an 86-year sentence following convictions on intent to commit murder of US agents.
Clearly, the legality and morality of drone attacks that violates a nation’s sovereignty and leaves scores of dead civilians requires thorough examination. And there is little doubt that the Aafia Siddiqui case also needs another look amid claims the conviction was a gross injustice. But these attempts to deflect the horrors of religious extremism onto the United States are an exercise in intellectual dishonesty.
This corruption of faith in humanity is all too apparent on the Internet, which is awash in repeated attacks against Malala and her family. Most prominent among Malala’s critics is Samia Raheel Qazi, a top member of the women’s wing of the ultra-conservative Jamaat-e-Islami party and severe critic of women’s rights. Qazi posted on her Twitter account a 2009 photograph of Malala and her father “meeting with American military officers.” The photo and caption implied that Malala was in cahoots with the US government when in reality it was video still from a documentary about Malala who sought support for girls’ education from then-special envoy Richard Holbrooke.
Anger continues to be directed at the US. There are claims, especially on Twitter and conspiracy-minded blogging websites, that CIA agents posing as the Taliban, or Taliban members acting at the behest of the CIA, shot Malala. Photographs of Malala being rushed to the hospital are enlarged and examined with great care to spot faces of Pakistan military officers in the background and to speculate about their presence. One blogger suggested that a photograph of a partially obscured female running behind Malala’s stretcher toward an air ambulance was actually Malala. Such attention to detail would make even the most ardent Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorist appear to be a slacker in his work.
On Twitter, the heavy breathing over US misdeeds reflects a mindset that the only explanations for Muslims killing Muslim children are due to Western influences. In other words, the people of Pakistan have no need to look inward about the actions of their neighbors because external forces are responsible for the violence.
As one twitterer wrote, “#Malala is talk of the world, ‘Allegedly’ Taleban shot her.. It’s Just like ‘Alleged’ #WMD of Iraq, Let’s see what comes out of this one.” Lazy and convenient thinking will only further damage the integrity of the Pakistan government and its people.
The independent online newspaper The Lahore Times reported that the “United States of America was behind the attack,” although most of its coverage has been generally free of speculation.
I don’t excuse, nor do I see justification, in the drone attacks in northwest Pakistan. I see the bombings as crimes against humanity. Aafia Siddiqui may very well be an innocent dupe targeted by the United States to collect its pound of flesh to avenge 9/11. These are righteous causes to get behind.
Yet the attempted murder of Malala is also a crime against humanity. If she had died, it would be as if the Taliban had murdered all of humanity. It is no less a miscarriage of justice than of Aafia Siddiqui or a child dead in her home following a US bombing raid.
This moral relativism that Western misdeeds are more offensive and outrageous than the Taliban’s murderous agenda to silence children is a profound disservice to the Ummah in general and Pakistan’s people in particular. Demands for justice for the dead in drone attacks and for the falsely imprisoned is an obligation. But don’t sacrifice Malala because the reality of her shooting is too horrible to contemplate.

October 15, 2012

OP-ED: Hijacking the ‘True Face’ of Islam

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News/Al Arabiya

15 October 2012

“It’s a clear command of Shariah that any female that by any means plays (a) role in war against mujahideen (holy warriors) should be killed. Malala Yousufzai was playing a vital role in bucking up the emotions of Murtad (apostate) army and government of Pakistan, and was inviting Muslims to hate mujahideen.” — Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan

Excuse me, but how does anyone justify killing a 14-year-old girl?
Malala Yousufzai, the young Pakistani middle-school girl shot in the head last week by a TTP gunman because she wanted an education, probably didn’t think of herself as a courageous activist. The world cast her in that role and it almost killed her. Now she lies in a Pakistan hospital clinging to life.
She brought attention to Taliban military operations that left hundreds of girls’ schools in charred ruins and the terror campaigns to keep girls from getting an education.
After the shooting, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf described Malala as “true face of Pakistan.”
But what is the true face of Islam? Will Muslims allow the TTP to interpret Islam in their twisted way and present it as its “true face?”
In its statement, the TTP said, “If anyone argues about her young age, then the story of Hazrat Khidr in the Qu’ran (states that) while traveling with Prophet Musa (he) killed a child. Arguing about the reason of his killing, he said that the parents of this child were pious and in the future he (the child) would cause a bad name for them.”
The TTP rationalized Malala’s attempted assassination by offering the Sunnah about Hazrat Khidr, who in Islamic history is considered a righteous servant of God possessing immense wisdom and mystical powers.
It’s an affront to Muslims for self-appointed guardians of Islam to suggest that they possess the same wisdom and righteousness as Khidr. It’s also an insult to imply that they see the future and have direct communication with God.
Muslim organizations worldwide are seeking anti-blasphemy legislation in the West to protect all religions. Yet the TTP, Al-Qaeda and like-minded extremists are immune to the consequences of blasphemous behavior even as they employ pretzel logic to justify murder.
By generalizing and taking out of context verses from the Qur’an, extremists are no better than non-Muslims committing blasphemy. I, like most Muslims, bristle at the suggestion that I must defend Islam to non-Muslims because of the acts of individuals who apparently cannot read, write, nor have the wherewithal to find a reputable sheikh who can teach them the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Yet I am left with the nagging doubt that my refusal to stand up to gangsters has put people like Malala in danger. It stands to reason that if one is insulted over denigrating depictions of Islam by non-Muslims, one should be equally offended by the distortions of the Sunnah by Muslims to excuse their crimes.
We are witnessing courageous Muslims who have no tolerance for people hijacking Islam. Muslims worldwide condemned the 9/11 attacks in the strongest language possible, albeit those condemnations were under-reported in the American and European press. And more tangible efforts to fight intolerance can be found in Saudi Arabia, which has experienced remarkable success in its rehabilitation and deradicalization program of returning extremists to true Islam. The program has only a 10 to 15 percent recidivism rate.
More recently, thousands of Libyans crowded the streets of Benghazi to protest radicals’ killing four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, at the US Embassy. Pakistanis have held demonstrations throughout Pakistan to voice support for Malala and condemn the Taliban.
A window has opened for the government of Pakistan, which appears to have growing popular support to crush militant organizations that disgrace Islam. The Pakistan Army is eager to avenge the shooting given its claim that it chased the Taliban from the Swat Valley in 2009.
Yet Malala’s attackers stopped the bus taking the girl and her 15 classmates to school in the center of the valley’s largest town of Mingora. Since the TTP appears to operate with impunity, it’s unlikely that the army has ability to wage an effective offensive, although under the chaotic circumstances in the region, the Pakistan government is doing the best it can. The true test for Pakistan is to stabilize the Swat Valley and create a deradicalization program similar to Saudi Arabia’s project. Pakistan also must put pressure on clerics to condemn violence in the name of Islam and to recognize that using religion as a weapon to gain political power through terror is in itself blasphemous.
If Muslim countries are going to demand that the West pass blasphemy laws to rein in hate speech, films and cartoons that denigrate Islam, then those countries must apply the same standard to its own people. A government official offers a $100,000 bounty to kill a filmmaker for insulting the Prophet. However, when he fails to offer the same bounty for the killers of children, the Muslim community should ask itself why it tolerates the double standard let alone offering the despicable bounty in the first place.

October 8, 2012

OP-ED: HSBC’s Dropping of Amanah Could Impact Loyal Customers

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News

8 October 2012

HERE’S some good news: HSBC bank will focus its Islamic financing operations in Saudi Arabia. Here’s the bad news: It’s dropping its Islamic banking operations in seven other countries, including the United Kingdom, and has already divested its assets in nearly 30 other countries.
HSBC’s reasons for getting out of the Islamic banking game in some countries is because of the pitiful state UK banks have been in since the global economic meltdown of 2008 and the restructuring efforts now underway to revive the industry. But HSBC, as a conventional bank, also could not really compete against the big Islamic banks.
A case in point was HSBC’s success in becoming the first Western global bank to sell $500 million sukuk, but still falling far short to become a significant competitor against the big Islamic banks.
HSBC and similar conventional banks offering segregated Islamic services also faced criticism from scholars who complained the traditional institutions did not go far enough in serving Muslim clients. And Islamic banks often said they faced unfair competition from the large global players.
It’s unknown whether the bank’s change in direction had anything to do with the scandal earlier this year in which a US Senate subcommittee determined that the bank violated regulations that led its affiliates to move drug trafficking funds and alleged terrorist financing to the US. HSBC acknowledged its failure in following financial regulations and promised to adhere to the rules.
The bottom line is that dropping its Amanah services in the UK allows HSBC to cut costs and transfer its Amanah employees to the main operations. Ultimately, however, the move will deprive the UK’s 2.87 million Muslims of banking based on principles that ban funds speculation, and interest on checking and savings accounts. Perhaps it’s a prudent cost-saving measure for HSBC, but it certainly does little to maintain a loyal Muslim customer base.
The wider implications of HSBC eliminating its Islamic banking services in the UK is whether conventional Western banks can serve Muslim communities with a relatively small customer base and either absorb the losses or earn some measure of a profit.
There are few banks in the United States, which has a Muslim population of just 1 percent, that are inclined to open Shariah-compliant accounts. The Michigan-based University Bank’s subsidiary, University Islamic Financial, has only a regional reach. And Standard Chartered Bank has offices only in California, New York, Texas and Florida. Ask a bank manager at JPMorgan Chase Bank or Bank of America for a Shariah-compliant account and you get only a blank stare in return.
Yet even in Muslim countries conventional banks offering Islamic products and services continue to struggle. In addition to the UK, HSBC, once a pioneer among Western financial institutions in offering Islamic services, pulled out of Bahrain, Bangladesh, the United Arab Emirates, Mauritius and Singapore.
Qatar had banned conventional banks from offering Islamic products to guarantee the “purity” of Islamic funds. And HSBC had only been offering Shariah-compliant services in Bangladesh less than two years before pulling out.
Jaap Meijer, who is in charge of equity research for Arqaam Capital in Dubai, told reporters recently that HSBC’s “Islamic activities in the affected countries were sub-scale so they decided to wind them down in an effort to reduce costs. Except for maybe the UAE, it’s not likely to have a big impact on the Gulf region.”
And that’s despite the fact that HSBC Amanah will retain 83 percent of its overall Islamic business revenue.
In Malaysia, HSBC still must go head-to-head with Standard Chartered Bank, which enjoys a solid foothold there. But the British bank is competing well against Malayan Bank and CIMB Group Holdings.
HSBC, operating through holding, Saudi British Bank (SABB), is also good position in Saudi Arabia. According to Bloomberg, HSBC helped sell $6.4 million sukuk in Saudi Arabia. It also served as the underwriter for SR 15 billion in a General Authority of Civil Aviation offering to fund the new Jeddah airport.
HSBC is also well established in Oman, sharing much of the funding market with BankMuscat.
By curtailing its Islamic funding operations elsewhere, HSBC can focus on Saudi Arabia and a select few other Muslim countries. However, missing from the picture is the low- and middle-income customers in non-Muslim countries who depend on Shariah-compliant banking. At the moment, there is no other conventional bank willing to step into the void left by HSBC, and Islamic banks have yet to demonstrate an inclination to reach out to non-Muslim countries.

October 1, 2012

OP-ED: Fine Line Between Activist and Jackass

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News/Al Arabiya

1 October 2012

There is a fine line between an activist and a donkey’s hindquarters, and that line got thinner when I viewed a video clip of an American Muslim activist exercising her right of self-expression.
Frankly, there are not enough Muslims willing to stand up to the growing tide of Islamophobia, the vandalism against mosques and abuse heaped on women who wear the hijab. So, it’s refreshing to see someone take such a public stand against a group that buys advertising to vilify Muslims. But when activism become self-aggrandizement the battle against bigotry becomes a lost cause.
The case in point involves a well-known hate group that bought billboards from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City. The ad reads, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat jihad.”
It wasn’t as if the MTA went along with the billboards. The agency refused to post the ads, citing its regulations that allow it to reject advertising that “demean an individual or group of individuals on account of race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, gender, age, disability or sexual orientation.”
The haters sued in federal court, which ruled that rejecting the ads was a violation of free speech. MTA had no choice but to run the ads.
People are understandably angry to be singled out as savages. Its Orientalist implications and the simplistic and misleading interpretation of jihad without consideration to Muslims’ multiple definitions of the word is bigotry plain and simple.
It didn’t take long for commuters to plaster the billboards with “racist” and “hate” stickers. Yet that wasn’t enough for the Egyptian-born, Saudi-raised New York Muslim activist who felt the need to inject more drama.
She announced to her 164,000 Twitter followers that she’d be in the subway with a can of spray paint to deface the ads. With a video crew and New York Post reporter in tow, she began her assault on the billboard. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, a supporter of the hate group responsible for the billboards showed up. In what was the most awkward confrontation between the two people since the Kennedy-Nixon debates, a push-pull-grab-spray-paint dance ensued. It should have been a video record of a non-violent exercise of free speech countering hate, but it looked more like a 15-year-old high school girl spray painting a rival’s locker.
Thankfully, the police arrived. They ended this piece of performance art by arresting the activist, who put on a pouty face before being hauled off to the pokey on a vandalism charge.
I couldn’t decide whether this person was a fearless fighter to raise Muslim voices or someone who sought to become the Rosa Parks of the Ummah and sadly overreached.
Civil disobedience is a rich tradition in the United States. Without it, worker protection laws and ending racial segregation would have taken decades longer. Perhaps the anti-war demonstrations didn’t hasten the end of the Vietnam War, but it certainly raised the social conscience of a nation emerging from the torpid 1950s.
In the age of cynical social media, maybe it’s entirely appropriate to bring a video crew to record one’s act of civil disobedience. To me, though, the activist just got in the way of her message. Instead of raising Americans’ awareness of bigotry, the incident was all about her.
I wouldn’t begrudge her if this was single moment of YouTube/Twitter fame, but she behaved similarly in Cairo when police broke her arms and arrested her in Tahrir Square. It certainly was a horrific experience for her, but she admitted later her first thought was to post the experience with a photo of her broken arms on Twitter. What happened to the protesters she left behind in Tahrir Square after her posts is anybody’s guess.
Malcolm X was a steely revolutionary who used the camera to deliver his message, both as a black nationalist and later as he softened his views on a non-violent civil rights movement. Even when he was under constant death threats, it was never about him, but the safety of his family. Martin Luther King Jr. knew how to play the media but he never lost sight of his mission.
But once the messenger supplants the message, drawing attention to one’s self instead of the cause, the credibility of the cause suffers. Instead of focusing on the billboard and the pain people feel when they are described as “savages” we get a cringe-worthy video of a scuffle over pink spray paint and shouts of First Amendment rights. The activist left her dignity at home and gave ammunition to the haters. They paid for the ad and the law upheld their right to post it. They used the system to their advantage. The activist could have recruited like-minded Muslims to stage a protest or at least a news conference to explain what it means to be called a savage.
Within days of the subway scuffle, the MTA approved a new set of guidelines that prohibits advertisements that the agency “reasonably foresees would imminently incite or provoke violence or other immediate breach of the peace.”
It appears that spray paint incident worked in the short term, but this kind of public attention isn’t likely to work in the long haul and only lead to making Muslims fodder for parodies.

September 24, 2012

OP-ED: Toothess Hate Speech Laws Fail all Religions

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News/Al Arabiya

24 September 2012

Three years ago, French law authorities arrested and later convicted famed fashion designer John Galliano for making anti-Semitic remarks to a couple at a Paris café.
It was a casual conversation that ended ugly, but John Galliano paid the price for his intemperance and bigotry due to France’s hate speech laws. President François Hollande also stripped Galliano of his Légion d’Honneur award following his conviction for “public insults based on origin, religious affiliation, race or ethnicity.”
Ten percent of France’s population is Muslim, yet bigoted comments from print publications, media outlets and even politicians run rampant with the sole intention of abusing Muslims. Extremist American and European writers and politicians claim they are simply exercising their right to free speech. In reality they hide behind free speech protections to voice hatred.
This week the French weekly Charlie Hebdo, on the heels of the release of that anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims,” published new cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that even to an atheist is insulting. Defended by Charlie Hebdo editors as satire, the cartoons badly miss the mark and border on the repulsive. This new round of cartoons only serve to heighten tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims.
So how did it come that bigots face prosecution for directing hate speech toward Jews, but not Muslims?
France’s hate speech laws have been on the books since 1881, but the courts more often than not rule against religious organizations no matter what the affiliation.
And to be fair, Christian groups in France have lost more civil and criminal hate cases than any other religion.
The courts refused to ban “The Last Temptation of the Christ” in 1988. The courts also refused a request by Christian groups to remove a movie poster for the 1996 film “The People Vs. Larry Flynt” for its sexually suggestive imagery mixed with Christian icons. In 2005, the courts denied a request to remove a fashion clothing billboard depicting female models and a shirtless man in a scene from The Last Super.
Likewise, French courts refused to ban Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Versus” in 1989. The courts acquitted Charlie Hebdo’s editor in 2006 on charges of maligning Islam by republishing the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet. The court ruled that the cartoons were directed at fundamentalists and terrorists and not the entire Muslim community.
Yet in 2008, a court convicted France’s most beloved actress, Brigitte Bardot, for inciting racial and religious hatred against Muslims. She had complained in a letter made public that Muslims are destroying the country.
The Muslim question, if you want to call it that, is relatively new, having arisen in the past 20 years with the rising number of immigrants coinciding with the mainstreaming of the right-wing lunatic fringe into European and American politics and media. These secular and religious extremist groups demand that free speech protections be exported worldwide without respect to the sensibilities of other religious organizations, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim.
The argument from the West is that a religion targeted for satire should be strong enough to take ridicule. More important, the attacks should not be taken personally. Since many Christian branches made a pact with governments centuries ago to separate church and state, Westerners generally view religion as private and at a distance. As Stanley Fish put it in the New York Times recently, religion in secular countries is an “add-on” to personhood, much like a political party or sports team. There is no such division in Islam or Orthodox Judaism. Faith is not a part-time endeavor. The entire person-hood is faith. This is what distinguishes Muslims and Orthodox Jews from other religions. While there are a great many Muslims who may believe in secularism or are indifferent to the haters — after all, Islam is not the monolithic religion the media portray it to be — for the vast majority in the Middle East and South Asia denigration of their religion is indeed a personal insult.
If secular groups want to drag Jesus through the mud in the name of free speech, must Muslims accept this denigration? Of course not. Such depictions of Jesus, Muhammad or Abraham are unthinkable in the Muslim community.
While French hate speech laws seem toothless, success in the courts depend on how Western societies regard their minority populations. For now, the laws treat Islam pretty much the same way it does Christianity. However, organized advocacy among disparate religious groups will help the courts rethink their approach to hate speech cases.
I am not singling out France. I am holding it up as an example of how Western nations in good faith keep hate speech laws on the books but apply the law inconsistently. They have yet to reconcile such protections with the increasing prominence of hate groups that abuse that right. The line between free speech and hate is so fine that governments can’t confidently prosecute the latter because it may come at the expense of the former. The United States is an entirely different matter, where the First Amendment is so highly regarded that it’s unlikely that lobbying to legislate hate speech will gain any traction.
Regardless of the path governments take to control hate speech, those who take offense to such things can take solace that thousands of insults have been hurled against the prophets and their religions still stand tall and sturdy as ever.

September 17, 2012

OP-ED: Anti-Islam Film an Exception to Free Speech Protection

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News

17 September 2012

THE anti-Muslim film produced by Christian extremists may have sparked the violence that spread across the Middle East and South Asia this week. But the core issues in the following days of protests were unemployment, politicizing religion and the deep resentment against the United States for its wars that cost thousands of innocent lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Protest organizers just got a lucky break when Egyptian television aired and dubbed in Arabic the “Innocence of Muslims” film trailer. The movie simply got the ball rolling.
The debate in America is not whether rage against the US government’s meddling in Arab affairs is justified, but why Muslims get so riled up when the Prophet Muhammad is ridiculed. After all, other prophets get the same treatment in a secular society in which free speech rights are sacrosanct.
Muslims in the Middle East get the free speech thing, but often wonder why its advocates take such great pleasure in beating them over the head with it.
On Al Jazeera television the other day the news host brought in Arab and Western media types to talk about “Innocence of Muslims” and its impact in the Middle East. TJ Walker, a media-training consultant who works with Bloomberg TV and Fox News among other outlets, gave Al Jazeera’s mostly Arab and Muslim audience a brief lesson on the First Amendment, its importance to Americans and why all religious figures are equal opportunity targets for mockery and ridicule. Really, Walker implied, what’s the big deal about making fun of religious figures? We do it all the time. His tone and message was clear: Muslims should lighten up and accept the American standard of free speech.
Walker’s cluelessness about sensibilities of the audience he was addressing can be forgiven. His experience is how to train people to deal with the American media and not interpreting global news events. But he encapsulates many Americans’ “live and let live” approach to free speech.
Yet the extremists who made the film are not clueless, and have much darker goals in mind. It’s one thing to parody religious figures on “South Park” and quite another to deliberately produce a film filled with falsehoods with the intention to provoke violence.
Steve Klein, the Californian who provided technical assistance for the film, acknowledged in interviews that he knew the film was provocative. He announced that it was a success.
“We have reached the people that we want to reach,” Klein told the New York Times. “And I’m sure that out of the emotion that comes out of this, a small fraction of those people will come to understand …, and also for the people who didn’t know that much about Islam. If you merely say anything that’s derogatory about Islam, then they immediately go to violence, which I’ve experienced.”
Most people wouldn’t admit to falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater, but Klein seems to be proud of this accomplishment, even if it helped lead in some way to the deaths of four American citizens in Libya.
We are seeing a rise in violence prompted by hate speech. Norway mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik cited the writings of America’s leading Islamophobes as inspiration. The same Islamophobic gang and their confederates are now boasting of their success. They continue to defend their right to pursue objectives that result in violence.
The US Supreme Court had addressed the issue of false and dangerous speech in 1919. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. used the metaphor of “shouting fire in a crowded theater” when considering whether distributing anti-military draft leaflets during World War I was imminently dangerous to the nation’s security.
The court ruled there was no violation of free speech because the leaflets presented a clear and present danger to the US government’s efforts to recruit soldiers during wartime. Although subsequent decisions watered down the ruling, the issue of speech posing a “imminent lawless action” remains an exception to free speech rights.
Columbia University law professor Tim Wu told the Washington Post that, “Notice that Google (which posted the film on its website) has more power over this than either the Egyptian or the US government. Most free speech today has nothing to do with governments and everything to do with companies.”
Google, according to legal experts interviewed by the Post, “implicitly invoked the concept of ‘clear and present danger’ ” when it blocked access to the film in Egypt and Libya.
“Innocence of Muslims” is a perfect candidate as an exception to free speech rights since its creators deliberately focused on fermenting violence. But rather than leave it to corporations, the US government must take the initiative to prosecute future purveyors of violence.

September 10, 2012

OP-ED: American Religious Education’s Shortcomings

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News/Al Arabiya

10 September 2012

CALIFORNIA’S governor signed legislation this week that prevents businesses from segregating from the public employees wearing obvious symbols of their religion. The new law puts restrictions on employers who want to keep Muslim women wearing the hijab and Sikhs wearing beards and turbans out of the public’s view.
The signing of Assembly Bill 1964 by Gov. Jerry Brown is a milestone in affirming the religious rights of all Californians regardless of their religious faith.
Brown told 400 Sikhs and their supporters at a rally in Sacramento that, “wearing any type of religious clothing or hairstyle … is protected by law.”
The new law comes in the wake of the Wisconsin murders of six Sikhs at their place of worship, but it was obviously intended not only to protect Sikhs but also Muslims who are facing a rising tide of religious intolerance.
It also follows a highly publicized lawsuit filed by a young Muslim woman against Walt Disney Co. The Moroccan-born Imane Boudlal alleged that co-workers taunted her as a terrorist because she wore the hijab. Boudlal’s supervisors ignored her complaints. She asserts she lost her job because she refused to remove her hijab while working with the public or to work in a position not in public view.
The law is similar to the US Civil Rights Act of 1964. The state law mandates that employers must accommodate an employee’s religious clothing, grooming and practices unless the employer suffers “significant difficulty or expense.”
The sad fact is the need for such laws in the first place. The highly partisan political climate created by the Republican Party that insists on defining American values as Christian values has served the agendas of the Islamophobes and the myriad religious and ethnic hate groups around the country.
But how did we get here? As much as I’d like to blame the far right for its increasing hostility toward non-Christian faiths, especially the witch-hunt against Muslims holding positions in government, the problem goes deeper than scoring political points to elect conservatives and marginalize Muslims and Sikhs.
Religious intolerance, while present in varying degrees throughout America’s history and particularly against Jews and Catholics before World War II, has accelerated in the past two decades largely due to the expanding social media and the fallout from 9/11.
However, the roots of religious intolerance were firmly planted in a postwar secular society that has virtually ignored its responsibility to educate its citizens about other faiths at the primary and secondary school level.
A US Supreme Court ruling in one case has led to public schools throughout the country to minimize or eliminate religious education in public schools.
In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled in McCollum vs. Board of Education that tax-supported religious education in public schools was unconstitutional. It was an early examination of the separation of church and state issue. In a ruling four years later, the court allowed a New York school program to provide religious education as long as it did not use public funds or conduct classes on school grounds.
In the mid-1960s, the school district I belonged to when I was a child conducted religious education courses. The courses were voluntary and held off-campus once a week in the middle of the school day for about 20 minutes. An independent instructor taught the class.
But over the years the separation of church and state grew wider. The concept of religious education disappeared by the time my own children attended primary school in the 1980s.
At issue in the United States was making the distinction between teaching about religion and simply teaching religion, or as the Supreme Court put it, “teaching of religion.” The court determined that “teaching of religion” was unconstitutional, but the court encouraged “teaching about religion.” Yet parents and teachers alike blurred the distinction to the point where conducting any religious education class came under attack as forcing specific religious beliefs on children.
And in this battle over how to teach religion, children came out the big loser. Children at the primary school level can be exposed to the world’s primary religions under rigid controls and standardized curriculum developed by interfaith groups while under the supervision of local school districts. Ideally, such programs using the “teaching about religion” principle would reduce instances of intolerance and instill respect for different faiths.
It’s naïve to think that voluntary religious education courses alone will stem the flow of hate. A child’s home environment will likely have more influence than brief off-campus weekly classes. But teaching children the basics of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism and the world’s other religions may give the young pause as they become adults to engage in hateful behavior. If respect for all faiths is instilled at an early age, then perhaps as adults, individuals would find membership in hate groups less appealing. It would also make laws regulating the conduct of employers’ treatment of their workers and their religious beliefs unnecessary.

September 3, 2012

OP-Ed: Israeli Youths Assume Occupiers’ Privilege

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News/Al Arabiya

3 September 2012

ON a trip to northern England, I ran into an Israeli studying for her postgraduate degree. After a while the conversation turned to her hopes and aspirations once she received her master’s degree. She replied simply, “To leave Israel. I never want to go back.”
The student described Israel as “racist.” The hate many Israelis felt for minorities, especially Arabs, was too much for her.
Her attitude was shocking, not so much because of her attitude about her country, but because she openly acknowledged its racism to a stranger. It’s an issue that many Israelis wrestle with as the government grapples with the influx of African immigrants. One legislator described African immigrants as “a cancer in our body.”
Americans by nature are drawn to stories of triumph over evil and the victories of the underdog. Our parents and grandparents may have learned the details of the founding of the state of Israel through newspapers and news magazines, but Leon Uris’ 1958 novel, “Exodus,” about the beginnings of Israel cemented the country’s underdog status in the minds of Americans. And when the movie arrived two years later with the blue-eyed Paul Newman in the lead role, the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel blossomed.
The 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches by Palestinians only strengthened that relationship.
But the Israel of 2012 is not the Israel of 1958. Not only do we have generations of Palestinians growing up and living under occupation, but we now have generations of Israelis who view occupation as a fundamental right.
Israel has been in a state of denial for decades over its cruelty to the Palestinians, but recent incidents have awakened a handful that recognize that as occupiers they are now also considered “terrorists.” This is not a new revelation to anyone living in the Middle East irrespective of one’s religion or ethnicity, although it’s become the uncomfortable truth to conservative Americans who unblinkingly give Israel victim-hood status. Israel’s terrorism is well documented although excused under the guise that it’s under constant attack by Palestinians and hostile Arab neighbors.
Westerners now have an opportunity to reconsider Israel’s place in the international community following the arrests of three Israeli teenagers who firebombed a Palestinian taxi on Aug. 16 that left its four occupants severely burned. The attack followed an attempted lynching and beatings of Palestinians youths on the same day by an Israeli mob in Jerusalem. Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon uncharacteristically described the incidents as “terrorists attacks” that “constitute first and foremost an educational and moral failure.”
Law authorities arrested seven Israeli teens, including two 13-year-old girls, in connection with the lynching attempt. Apparently the only failure the teenagers saw was not finishing the job.
“For my part he can die, he’s an Arab,” one 15-year-old suspect told the Israeli media of one of the victims. “If it was up to me, I’d have murdered him.”
The firebombing and beating incidents have alarmed human rights organizations that report the rising tide of violence from Jewish settlers against Palestinians. Settlers have claimed responsibility for a series of attacks, described as a “price tag” campaign, on Palestinians and Israeli security forces as retaliation against Israeli policies and Palestinians living to close to Jewish settlements. The term “price tag” is the price Jewish extremists take against the Israeli military and Palestinians perceived to have threatened the existence of the settlements.
The attacks against Palestinians prompted the New York Times to report that Israelis have engaged in “soul-searching” in their attempt to understand how the country produced racist, violent children. “Soul-searching’ is a term rarely applied to Muslims or Arabs following a terrorist attack, and implies that Jewish settlers get a free pass in their hatred for Palestinians. Maybe it’s that underdog-turned-occupier status that gives them souls while Palestinians are just mindless thugs.
But consider what makes a mindless thug. Israeli gunboats attacked Palestinian fishermen at least twice last month. Soldiers told a father and son to strip naked and then swim toward the gunboat where they were handcuffed, blindfolded and their boat seized. Another Palestinian vessel was heavily damaged in an attack. In another incident gunboats chased six Palestinian fishing boats out of fishing waters by laying down gunfire. Palestinian fishermen no longer know which waters are safe and what is off limits to fish.
According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, an independent organization that monitors civil liberties issues in Israel and the Occupied Territories, Israel systemically discriminates against the Negev Bedouin tribe, which numbers about 160,000 and live in unrecognized villages in Israel. The Israeli government is attempting to pressure Bedouins to abandon their lifestyle and move urban centers.
In addition, an Israeli court last month denied Bir Hadaj’s 4,500 residents in Northern Negev the right to vote. The refusal to grant the residents permission to vote stems from a master plan that left about 60 percent of the residents outside the town limits in the Abu Basama Regional Council. The master plan received approval in 2003. However, Israel’s Interior Ministry has done nothing to implement the plan that would allow the residents to move inside the town limits and to legally build their homes. Since villagers are technically outside the town limits, they have no voting rights.
This potent mix of institutionalized government discrimination, military firepower and youths raised in a culture of occupiers’ privilege has created nation without accountability and without the will to guarantee civil liberties and preserve human dignity.

August 27, 2012

OP-ED: The Republican Assault on America’s Senses

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News

27 August 2012

AS delegates gather tomorrow at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, to come up with a final solution to the threat America’s women and Muslims pose to Western civilization, I’m reminded of what “Life in Hell” cartoonist Matt Groening once wrote in his strip.
I’m paraphrasing here, but he asked whether registered voters of the Republican Party should be held accountable for crimes against humanity. Funny 20 years ago. Not so funny now.
Since last week, Republican delegates have feverishly worked on the party’s plank for a platform that defines its position on a wide range of social issues that is an all-out assault on Americans.
The 50- to 60-page document is a manifesto that tells us — ignorant voters — how we should feel about women’s reproductive rights. The platform, following approval from the delegates, will also presumably redefine sexual assault since we recently just learned from Missouri Republican congressman Todd Akin what constitutes a “legitimate rape.”
The Republicans want more guns on the street because we also learned that more weapons will prevent murders like slayings 12 people in a Colorado movie theater and the six Sikhs shot to death in their place of worship.
And to make sure there is no doubt the Republican Party wants our freedoms protected, they seek to outlaw Shariah in American courts, because, well, because the American Muslims who make up 1 percent of the US population might take over our legal system, and impose stoning and beheadings and mandate child marriages.
What didn’t make it into the Republican plank for the platform was proposed language that would further marginalize Palestinians in the occupied territories that even the Israelis would have a hard time endorsing. Perhaps that will get approval in 2016.
The platform supporting a ban on Shariah reeks of the conspiracy theories of Muslim fifth columnists infiltrating the courts and high levels of government.
Kris Kobach, secretary of state for Kansas, pushed for the ban. He’s the guy who authored Arizona’s SB 1070 that requires law enforcement to arrest any foreigner who does not possess alien registration documents and to establish an individual’s immigration status during traffic stops. The law also imposes fines for anybody who hires, gives shelter or transports unregistered foreigners. The law is perhaps the toughest anti-immigration enforcement since the Depression when California and other states deported a half-million Mexicans by the busloads to Mexico regardless of their immigration status and without due process.
Kobach’s Arizona immigration law targets Mexicans while his battle against Shariah, disguised as preventing the application of international law in US courts, zeros in on Muslims. Kobach, and his fellow Republicans seem unconcerned that anti-Shariah legislation would upend the court system on even the most routine civil cases.
Since 2010, more than 20 states sought to impose or passed anti-Shariah legislation. Most states don’t mention Shariah, but Richard Thompson, president of the ultra-conservative Thomas More Law Center, said “Shariah law is the thing people think about” when lawmakers introduce such legislation.
When Newt Gingrich, who sought the Republican nomination for president, said, “I believe Shariah is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it” he pretty much summed up Republicans’ attitude toward Muslims without really knowing what that mortal threat is. He never bothered to explain his understanding of Shariah because he has no understanding. But his dire warnings of the imminent demise of the US legal system helped establish a path for the Republican Party to deter American Muslims from exercising their legal rights to use the courts to resolve domestic and commercial issues.
Consider the recent poll conducted for the Arab American Institute. The poll found that 47 percent of Republicans have an unfavorable view of Arabs and Muslims while only 35 percent had a favorable view. Fifty-six percent of the polled Democrats have a favorable view of Arabs and Muslims with 23 percent saying they had an unfavorable view.
Only 25 percent of the Republicans polled said they were confident a Muslim American could perform a job considered influential in US government. And 51 percent said that a Muslim American’s ethnicity would influence their decision-making.
Given these attitudes it’s likely delegates this week will approve the Republican Party platform as submitted. Some delegates see such extremist positions as unrealistic and could hurt the party. But it’s difficult to sympathize with the cooler heads of the Republican Party. They remain loyal to a group that is no longer the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan, but a party determined to subvert the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights in the name of patriotism.

OP-ED: Constitution’s beautiful words no guarantee of civil liberties

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News/Al Arabiya

20 August 2012

MANY years ago while I was a legal affairs reporter in Los Angeles, I interviewed a Superior Court of California judge about whether he had at times believed he sentenced a wrongly convicted man to jail. He paused for a moment, looked at the ceiling as if to find his answer, and then replied, “no.”
But he wasn’t quite ready to let his answer be the final word. He observed that the United States has the “best judicial system in the world” although not without flaws. If an innocent man was wrongly convicted of a crime it was the price society paid to ensure that justice for all citizens persevered. Sometimes there was collateral damage and innocent people got in the way.
I didn’t argue his interpretation of the US judicial system, but I always wondered about that guy sent off to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Apparently his role in society was to help maintain the rule of law. I’m not so sure he would have gone along with that idea.
My interview with the judge was before DNA became the vital law enforcement tool to catch criminals. Now, of course, we have come to recognize that through such organizations as Project Innocence and the use of DNA that nearly 300 defendants were wrongly convicted crimes and imprisoned.
Whenever a county district attorney’s office brags about its “97 percent” conviction rate, I shudder to think how many innocents were jailed to satisfy a prosecutor’s competitive nature of us versus them.
A recent ruling by a federal judge in Orange County, California, reminded me about that interview and the precarious nature of personal civil liberties when compared to the good of society.
US District Judge Cormac J. Carney dismissed a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The lawsuit alleged that FBI agents conducted a “dragnet” to target Muslims by planting listening devices in their homes and offices to monitor private religious conversations.
Carney ruled that he had no choice but to dismiss the complaint because “the state secrets privilege may unfortunately mean the sacrifice of individual liberties for the sake of national security.”
By allowing the lawsuit to proceed, Carney feared that sensitive government secrets would be exposed. In a secret meeting with FBI agents, Carney read confidential declarations and accepted the government’s position that “intelligence that, if disclosed, would significantly compromise national security.”
So here we are with another case of preserving the greater good of society by sacrificing individuals’ civil liberties.
This Orwellian logic paints a rather desperate portrait of a government that has lost its way in the name of national security by pursing a path of fascism. “Fascism” is a label freely used in our society as a means to smear just about anybody who disagrees with your point of view: Republicans, Democrats, Islamophobes, Tea Partiers, Occupiers.
The word, along with “Nazi,” has been so overused that its meaning has been diminished. But in the case of Carney, he is in effect sacrificing the constitutionally protected rights of individuals that enforce a fascist agenda.
He did not evaluate the evidence in open court. He did it in secret, as if telling Americans, “trust me,” the FBI is telling the truth about the Muslim threat to national security.
ACLU attorney Peter Bibring told a reporter after the ruling: “That’s terribly unfortunate that there’s a doctrine in the law that allows courts to throw out cases that allege serious constitutional violations based on secret evidence the judge reviews behind closed doors that never sees the light of day. That shouldn’t be in a democratic society.”
The question on many Americans’ minds is whether we are willing to sacrifice our civil liberties for national security. A September 2011 poll by the Associated Press-NORCO Center for Public Research at the University of Chicago found that 86 percent of Americans feel their individual freedoms have been affected since 9/11. Fifty-four percent said they want their rights and freedoms protected. And just 23 percent favor using wiretaps on US soil without a warrant.
Suppression of civil liberties is not unprecedented in the United States. President Woodrow Wilson sought to intimidate critics of the US involvement in World War I by passing the Espionage Act of 1917, followed by the Sedition Act in 1918. The government prosecuted hundreds of individuals for simply opposing the war.
American historian Alan Brinkley in a 2005 American Academy publication wrote that the concept of civil liberties as stated in the US Constitution can ring hollow when a government is preoccupied with national security.
Brinkley referred to Zechariah Chafee, a 1920s and Depression-era civil rights advocate, who wrote about perceived threats to national security. He said, “The First Amendment had no hold on people’s minds, because no live facts or concrete images were then attached to it. Consequently, like an empty box with beautiful words on it, the amendment collapsed under the impact of Prussian battalions, and terror of Bolshevik mobs.”
Civil liberties in a post-9/11 world are subject to the same challenges. If the Muslim community is perceived as a threat to America’s national security, then all the beautiful words in the Declaration of Independence like “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and the Constitution’s guarantee of “freedom of religion” are meaningless.

August 13, 2012

OP-ED: Institutionalized Islamophobia in America

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News/Al Arabiya

13 August 2012

When a white supremacist gunman shot and killed six people in a Wisconsin Sikh temple last week, some Sikh community members and the media commented the killer must have mistaken the worshipers for Muslims.
Since 9/11, the Sikh Coalition reported more than 300 attacks against Sikhs and their temples. Recorded incidents started with the Mesa, Arizona, shooting death of 49-year-old Balbir Singh Sohdi four days after the attacks at the World Trade Center. He apparently was mistaken for a Muslim.
The most recent incident before the Aug. 5 massacre at the Oak Creek, Wisconsin temple, occurred when vandals defaced a Sikh temple with graffiti, which contained references to 9/11.
To the ignorant, the men wearing long beards and turbans must be Muslim. And even if racists and bigots could make the distinction between a Sikh and a Muslim, it makes no difference. Sikhs and Muslims represent the “other” to many people in Western society.
Since Sikh men are more easily identifiable by bigots as “foreign” than perhaps many North American Muslims, it’s not difficult to conclude that Sikhs are more frequent targets of racist attacks.
In fact, up until 2010, the number of attacks against Muslims dropped since 9/11. According to the FBI there were about 500 attacks against Muslims in 2001, and then incidents fell dramatically by 2009 to just 107. However, in 2010, anti-Muslim attacks rose to 160.
The United States has been through this before with the persecution of Japanese Americans during World War II when more than 100,000 were interned in camps in California and the Northwest. For the most part, Japanese American citizens picked up the pieces of their lives after the war. While hate crimes against the Japanese generally ended with the war, they still often faced discrimination in housing and employment.
But unlike the Japanese experience, anti-Muslim violence and discrimination continue with regularity 11 years after the New York and Pennsylvania attacks.
It’s telling that Sikhs mistaken as Muslim is “understandable” and that attacks against Muslims are “expected.” It drives home the point that in American society the awfulness of being mistaken for a Muslim places the Muslim in a negative place. In other words, Islam in the minds of many Americans means terrorism. No other religious group suffers a similar stigma.
Yet 9/11 is only part of the reason for anti-Muslim violence. During the 2008 presidential campaign, many Republicans branded President Barack Obama a secret Muslim, never mind his Christian faith is well documented. This prompted the reply from former general Colin Powell, who said on the television show Meet the Press, “(Obama) is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no, that’s not America.”
The reality, however, is the negative connotation of being Muslim is now institutionalized in American society. Anti-Muslim hatred is a moneymaking business that has attracted the kind of people who once handed out leaflets on street corners and lived in the basement of their parents’ home.
People like Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, Frank Gaffney Jr., Walfa Sultan and David Horowitz and his so-called David Horowitz Freedom Center advance the cause of right-wing extremism.
Horowitz provides funding for Spencer’s Jihad Watch anti-Muslim hate blog and the equally frothy anti-Muslim FrontPage magazine. His organization over a six-year period paid for 25 trips for US Republican senators and congress representatives to Horowitz’s events. Anders Breivik, the ring-wing gunman who killed 77 people in Norway, praised Spencer’s anti-Muslim rants in his writings.
The efforts by Spencer et al has changed the dynamic how Americans view Muslims and even how some members in government treat them. Republican representative Peter King of New York has held a series of hearings on the pretense of exposing homegrown Islamic terrorists and Republican representative Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota has questioned the loyalty of Muslims in government.
Samuel G. Freedman reported in the New York Times a few days ago that Iranian-American religious scholar Reza Aslan said, “Islamophobia has become so mainstream in this country that Americans have been trained to expect violence against Muslims — not excuse it, but expect it. And that’s happened because you have an Islamophobia industry in this country devoted to making Americans think there’s an enemy within.” We have reached a point that we now expect violence against Muslims and to react with a shrug of the shoulders. Anti-Muslim rhetoric is so prevalent that America’s government leaders parrot the hate advocated by Spencer in the name of national security.
Meanwhile, Muslims rest comfortably in the knowledge that their government — with its religious freedoms firmly imbedded in America’s DNA – will protect them from abuse and discrimination.
But for how long?

August 8, 2012

OP-ED: Romney’s Snub to Palestinians Signals his Intentions

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News/Al Arabiya

6 August 2012

IF Arab leaders had any doubt about the direction Mitt Romney’s foreign policy will take if he is elected president in November, the presumptive Republican nominee’s trip to Israel last week ought to make things crystal clear.
With about as much subtly as Rush Limbaugh discussing gender politics, Romney insisted to his Israeli hosts that Israel’s economic success is due to its strong culture. His meaning, of course, is that the Palestinian economy is far behind Israel because of its inferior culture.
I am not sure what is worse. Romney’s veiled racism and his efforts to marginalize an Arab population under occupation, or the fact that cultural superiority wasn’t even his cockamamie idea, but stolen from books by a Harvard professor and a neo-conservative.
It’s not as if Romney came up with his theme of “cultural superiority” on the plane trip to the Middle East. After all, he argues the same point in his book, “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.”
Romney writes that he “wondered how such vast differences could exist between countries that were literally next door to each other. How could Americans be so rich and Mexicans so poor? How could Israelis have created a highly developed, technology-based economy while their Palestinian neighbors had not yet even begun to move to an industrial economy?”
This position comes from Harvard professor David Landes, who wrote “Wealth and Poverty of Nations” in which he asserts that “culture makes all the difference” in economic prosperity.
Romney in his book goes on to echo Landes by noting that countries that do well hold highly a strong work ethic, entrepreneurial spirit, faith in God, honor, patriotism and respect for life.
“There are cultures where life is cheap, but thankfully, ours is not one of them,” Romney argues in his book.
It is not much of a stretch that he meant the Palestinian culture specifically and the Arab culture in general.
Romney also draws from Dan Senor’s book “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle. Senor is a foreign policy adviser to Romney, a champion of Israel and a proponent of a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
In his book, Senor marvels at the technological advances made by Israel, especially the country’s military, which pours cash into research. He is also enchanted by Israelis’ “chutzpah” to overcome adversity to succeed.
That’s all well and good for a country that relies on the US as a benefactor. Not so good for Palestinians who see US military and economic aid to Israel from a very different prospective.
What Romney doesn’t say is that American foreign policy is responsible for much of the economic lethargy in the Middle East through economic and military support of Arab leaders like Hosni Mubarak or the economic sanctions against Libya and Syria. Muammar Qaddafi and Bashar Assad have certainly have inflicted harsh repressive measures against their own people, but to imply it’s cultural rather than government policy is ludicrous.
Palestine serves as an example of what government repression can do to economic growth.
Israel’s draconian security policies that include innumerable checkpoints and roadblocks — funded in part by the US — and severe restrictions on allowing people and goods to move across borders have stifled any hope of economic success.
It’s understandable that Romney feels the need to pander to Israeli elites to capture the Jewish vote in the US. It is a rite of passage for presidential candidates. It also demonstrates just how Israeli and US foreign policies are intertwined to the point that it excludes any serious discussion about the future of Palestinians.
Romney’s pilgrimage to Israel, his snubbing of Palestine, and President Obama’s failure to follow through in developing a peace accord also show just how much the US has lost interest in establishing a two-state solution. No longer are Palestinians looking to the US for answers. It doesn’t matter who is in office after November. The outcome will be the same.
However, while Obama may be guilty of neglect, Romney is on a course to resume the George W. Bush doctrine of intervention to implement US-style democracy on unwilling nations.
Senor firmly established his neo-conservative credentials by co-founding the conservative Foreign Policy think tank with Robert Kagan and William Kristol. He served under Gen. Jay Garner during the Iraq war when US troops entered Baghdad on April 20, 2003. He served as a senior adviser to Ambassador L. Paul Bremer in the disastrous early days of US occupation. Bremer disbanded the Iraq military that helped lead to brutal violence throughout the country that continues to this day.
There is no indication that Romney finds any fault with the advice of Senor and his fellow neo-cons on the foreign policy staff. But the Arab community can expect to find plenty if Romney wins in November and the likes of Senor join him.

July 31, 2012

Smoking ban aimed to reduce teen smoking

JEDDAH: ROB L. WAGNER AND IBRAHIM NAFFEE | ARAB NEWS STAFF

Tuesday 31 July 2012

The Ministry of Interior has ordered provincial governors to enforce a public smoking ban in government buildings and other public places with the aim of cutting smoking among young people and encourage Saudis and expatriates to look after their health better.
Anti-smoking groups praised Interior Minister Prince Ahmed’s directive, but restaurant owners said it would harm business.
The ban also includes shisha served in restaurants and cafes, as well as all ministries, government departments, and public establishments.
The minister said in a statement: “Since we are a Muslim country, it is our duty to serve as a model for adherence to Islamic law, which encourage people to protect their wealth, interests and general health against harmful acts.
“Therefore, it is compulsory to ensure the implementation of the smoking ban in government departments and public sector agencies.
“There should also be a total ban at enclosed public locations including coffee houses, restaurants, commercial establishments, and crowded places.
“The ban includes shisha, which is not at all less dangerous than cigarettes.”
Workers in the private sector hailed the ruling, noting many private businesses have already implemented a smoking ban in their offices.
Ahmed Al-Olyian, a civic engineer who works in a construction company in Jeddah, said: “It is a good decision. However, many companies in the private sector already banned smoking in their buildings.
“We are waiting now for the smoking ban to be applied in public places, especially the restaurants.”
Ali Moaatez, an employee at the Presidency of Meteorology and Environment, said he sees the ban as an incentive to help him quit smoking, but he expressed skepticism about its impact on smokers.
He added: “This decision may help me to give up smoking.
“I am working for a governmental body, but I think I will face difficulties adhering to the ban.”
The ban follows a recommendation in November by the National Committee on Fighting Tobacco to take stringent measures to stop selling tobacco products to people under 18.
In June, the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs banned the sale of cigarettes to under 18s.
Saudi Arabia ranks fourth in terms of global tobacco imports and consumption.
Saudis smoke annually more than 15 billion cigarettes worth $ 168 million, according to the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Prince Ahmed warned retailers not sell tobacco to people under 18 under any circumstances, adding individuals should report any violations to authorities.
Restaurants and café owners say they may face difficulties in enforcing the smoking ban.
They said their profits depend on customers who enjoy shisha.
Abo Manaf, owner of Caza Cafe in Jeddah, said: “The decision was surprising to me.”
“If it is applied soon, customer numbers will drop.
“All my profits depend on shisha and shisha customers represent around 75 percent of my clients.”
Waleed Mosa, an Eritrean employee in the private sector and regular café shisha smoker, said the transition to a smoke and shisha-free environment in cafes would be difficult.
He said: “I cannot imagine restaurants without smoking or cafés without shisha.
“If the decision is applied all cafés will lose their customers.”
Suleiman Al-Sabi, secretary-general of Naqa’a (purity), an anti-smoking charity society, said he hoped the ban would cut the number of teenage smokers by half.
He said teenagers and young adults account for 27 percent of total smokers in the Kingdom.
Municipalities fine shops that sell cigarettes to minors up to SR 500.
The Kingdom is a signatory to the Tobacco Control Treaty launched by the World Health Organization (WHO) in May 2003.
According to the treaty, signatories should ban or restrict advertising and other tobacco company marketing efforts.
In addition, health warnings should cover at least 30 percent of the surface of a pack of cigarettes.
All materials used to make tobacco products should be listed on the packaging.
The agreement also urges governments to strengthen indoor smoking laws, to place high taxes on tobacco and develop strategies to stop the sale of black market cigarettes.
Majid Al-Muneef, supervisor general of the anti-smoking department in the Ministry of Health, said the ministry and the Ministry of Education were working together to developing an effective awareness program among students in secondary schools.

July 30, 2012

OP-ED: Marginalizing Europe’s Muslims

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News/Eurasia Review

30 July 2012

Woe is the Westerner suffering through an economic crisis. And God help the Muslim who gets in his way.
In times of economic distress that leads to job losses and an uncertain future, Western Europe seeks scapegoats to vent its frustration. Enter the Muslim community.
Muslims and Islam have been the center of the cultural debate in Europe since 9/11, particularly when countries relaxed immigration requirements. The debate has intensified as Europe struggles to overcome its economic malaise. An estimated 20 million Muslims live among the European Union’s 500 million people. According to the Brookings Institution, France has the largest Muslim population at 8 percent, the Netherlands has a 6 percent Muslim population, Germany at 4 percent, and the United Kingdom’s Muslim population is estimated at 3 percent.
Right-wing political parties have gained wide acceptance among Europeans by seizing on voters’ worst fears that immigrants are responsible for stealing jobs and causing the crime rate to soar. Yet they often contradict themselves by complaining Muslims segregate themselves from society by living in crime-ridden ghettos — and perhaps forgetting few people want to live in crime-ridden ghettos — or that Muslims are forcing their culture and religion on European society. Leading the charge with such specious arguments are Dutch politician Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party, Switzerland’s Swiss People’s Party and the Federal Democratic Union, and Germany’s Christian Democratic Union.
Most Muslims clearly want to assimilate into European society. The 2005 riots in predominately Muslim neighborhoods in Paris had nothing to do with religion, as right-wing extremists would have the white middle class believe, but about wanting employment and a piece of the European economic pie. Like most bigoted arguments about ethnicity and religion, there is a kernel of truth in some Muslims refusing to assimilate into society. The language barrier faced by first-generation immigrants, refusing to live in neighborhoods where alcohol and nightclubs are abundant, and the urgent desire for protection and comfort among people who share similar values all lead to self-segregation.
To native Europeans, self-segregation gives rise to Islamic extremism and jihadists. However, as Jocelyne Cesari points out in her book “When Islam and Democracy Meet,” people need to make the distinction between what is a religious conservative and what is a jihadist.
Yet the very people who demand assimilation into European society work diligently to prevent it. France and Belgium banned the burqa in all public places. France also prohibits the hijab in public institutions. Switzerland passed legislation preventing the construction of minarets on mosques. Add to the mix private businesses refusing to allow Muslim women wearing Islamic bathing suits to enter public pools and beaches, and banks routinely refusing to serve hijab-and niqab-wearing female customers.
Given the climate European Muslims live in, it’s hardly surprising they choose to isolate themselves. And it’s precisely what Europe’s right-wing political parties want. By passing Taliban-style legislation that prevents freedom of choice in the guise of freeing Muslim women from religious oppression, governments further marginalize ethnic minorities. Few people are willing to give up their cultural traditions and religious beliefs, so they will retreat into the comfort of their own community.
Muslims, like most immigrants, want to embrace all that democracy has to offer. After all, they left behind government oppression and absence of economic opportunities to pursue life in a democratic country. But when that country passes laws not that much different from what they rejected in their homeland, the desire for assimilation dwindles.
Although second- and third-generation European Muslims continue to make great strides in entering the workplace and academia, government-influenced roadblocks prevent low-income Muslim immigrants from finding employment, which is the first step toward assimilation. Poor language skills, due largely to under-funded schools in low-income neighborhoods and lack of childcare for young mothers, exacerbate isolation from society.
Rather than focusing on cultural barriers, governments should look at integrating Muslims into European society as a socioeconomic issue. At the same time, Europeans need to reinterpret what it means to be an European. If one in 10 people in France is a Muslim, does that make France solely a Christian nation? Not so much. As Cesari points out in her book, the blame for lack of assimilation can’t be placed at the feet of Muslims. Instead, Europe must “completely rephrase” the European national identity.

July 23, 2012

OP-ED: The New McCarthyism

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News/Eurasia Review

23 July 2012

In 1953, young reserve Air Force lieutenant Milo Radulovich lost his security clearance for maintaining a“close and continuing relationship” with people who were communists or had communist sympathies.
Those people? His father and sister.
Radulovich’s crime was that his father read Serbian newspapers. One was identified as a communist publication by the US government. His sister held “liberal” views but described herself as “apolitical.” Radulovich was involved in no political causes and had an exemplary record as a US military officer.
Radulovich, who died in 2007 aged 81, was perhaps the most well known victim of McCarthyism that swept the United States in the 1950s when Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy claimed communists were infiltrating the US State Department. Victims caught up in the hysteria included rank and file government workers, teachers, academics, actors, and film producers and directors. Radulovich was ultimately vindicated but his life was irrevocably changed forever as he found it difficult to find meaningful employment for many years.
McCarthyism is a disease that Americans suffer when things don’t go well. In the 1950s it was the postwar anxieties over the arms race with the Soviet Union, unspoken demand for conformity that pushed women into the kitchen and the burgeoning civil rights movement that made many whites uncomfortable if not hostile. Today it’s a ruinous economy and the emergence of radical social conservatives who seek to control the personal lives of individuals.
Today’s disciple of Joseph McCarthy is Minnesota Republican Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann. She and her four GOP cohorts have sent letters to five US government agencies claiming there are “serious security concerns” over the Muslim Brotherhood’s “deep penetration in the halls of our United States government.”
She is also demanding an investigation into whether Huma Abedin, an American Muslim aide to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Abedin is a Michigan native, grew up in Jeddah and joined Hillary Clinton’s staff as an intern in 1996. She has been by Clinton’s side ever since. Abedin holds a Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania and made Time magazine’s list of “40 under 40” as the new generation of civic leaders.
However, Bachmann alleges that Abedin’s Indian father Syed Zainul Abedin, who died in 1993, and her Pakistani mother, Saleha Mahmood Abedin, also a holder of a Ph.D and associated with Dar Al-Hekma College, are linked to Muslim Brotherhood.
Bachmann’s evidence? Well, no one knows for sure. Bachmann says she has it, but hasn’t shown it to anybody. Of course, this is a page ripped from the McCarthy playbook when the senator made outrageous allegations of communist infiltration into the US government while holding a manila envelope he claimed held the names of subversives. Bachmann, like McCarthy, is not showing anybody her “evidence,” but it doesn’t matter. She has smeared Abedin, casting a shadow over her nearly 20-year career of public service.
I don’t know whether Abedin’s parents are associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and I certainly don’t care. Syed Abedin has been dead for 19 years and her mother is involved in one of the most liberal institutions in Saudi Arabia.
Republicans, who usually are in lockstep with one another, have taken issue with Bachmann’s dangerous attacks.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said from the Senate floor that “these attacks on Huma have no logic, no basis and no merit, and they need to stop now.”
Lack of logic is an understatement. Abedin is married to former Congressman Anthony Weiner, who is pro-Israel and Jewish. If she is a fifth columnist, then she has gone above and beyond the call of duty for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Of course, there is no evidence that she has any such connections. Yet Bachmann is not satisfied with going after just Abedin, but also Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison, another prominent American Muslim. Ellison said recently Bachmann made the allegations about the Muslim Brotherhood for political gain and demanded she back up her claims with evidence.
Bachmann responded by telling the right-wing Glenn Beck in an interview that Ellison “has a long record of being associated with (the Council on American-Islamic Relations) and with the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Ellison didn’t take the bait. “I knew when I raised the issue of her unfounded accusations of disloyalty that sooner or later she was going to get around to accusing me,” he told reporters recently. “I will say for the record that her allegations are false.”
Bachman’s allegations against Abedin and Ellison will likely fade away, but she gains ground by making any Muslim in a high-profile government job — whether it’s a judgeship appointment, aide or to an elected post — a political target and potential victim to slander. Muslims are the 21st century communists and America’s new demons served up by the radical right.

OP-ED: Saudi labor pool key to the Kingdom’s auto-building plan

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News

16 July 2012

Saudi Arabia’s slow and arduous march toward economic diversification is beginning to pay off, but the road to achieving sustained success in the nonoil private sector remains a challenge.
And the reliance on energy-related projects — petrochemicals, power generation and natural gas exploration — continue to define the Kingdom’s economic future.
It’s only natural that since Saudi Arabia is the world’s biggest oil producer, the government would spin off its energy expertise into other fields. But Saudi government officials also recognize that energy alone will not lead to sustained economic growth.
The recently passed mortgage law is expected to encourage banks to expand its loan practices in a $ 16 billion market. This will broaden business opportunities for lenders and property developers while providing middle-class Saudis the means to buy a home.
This will go a long way toward boosting the nonoil private sector, which in 2010 accounted for nearly half of Saudi Arabia’s total economic output. In contrast, the nonoil private sector in 1974 provided only about one-quarter of the Kingdom’s total economic output.
New banking laws that open the door to more foreign investment, entry in 2005 to the World Trade Organization, telecommunications and the fledgling tourism industry have provided possibilities for further economic growth not imagined just a decade ago. Add the six planned economic cities that is said to provide about 1 million jobs, and Saudi Arabia is on a solid economic footing.
Yet Saudi Arabia’s future has been, and always will be, tied to oil and energy, whether it’s petrochemicals or natural gas. That’s why it’s puzzling that Saudis have not embraced the vision of the government to manufacture auto parts by 2013 or 2014 and build cars by 2021.
King Saud University engineering students developed a prototype sport utility vehicle, the Ghazel, which is an economical SUV on par with the Kia Sorento. The Ghazel could be the answer to lessening the Kingdom’s dependence on oil exports, but many obstacles remain.
Economic analysts and automotive experts believe that manufacturing auto parts by 2014 is too optimistic given that there is no labor pool in place.
To complicate the implementation of auto parts manufacturing is the Nitaqat initiative, which requires a specific percentage of Saudis to be employed at the assembly plant as laborers. A more realistic goal is perhaps 2018 or 2019.
The test for a true domestic car is whether the private sector can successfully launch the auto parts manufacturing plants and employ Saudis to produce the parts and manage the facility. If auto parts production occurs within a year or two of the original launch date and with a Saudi labor pool, then it’s conceivable that automobile assembly can become a reality.
I recently spoke to a fellow who works in the automotive cluster in the government’s national industrial clusters development program. The program focuses on solar energy, plastics, minerals processing, home appliances and automobile manufacturing to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy. He said a Saudi automotive industry would create more than 100,000 jobs, but he acknowledged that car manufacturing is by far the biggest challenge.
But it’s not as if there is no foundation for building cars in the Kingdom. Isuzu Motors Ltd. is building trucks out of a Dammam assembly plant and is expected to deliver about 25,000 vehicles annually to Asian countries.
As for building a passenger car assembly plant, officials with the National Industrial Clusters Development Program officials are still in negotiations. However, King Saud University has already reached an agreement with Digm Automotive Technology of South Korea to develop a vehicle that would carry a price tag under $10,000.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Saudis and expats will line up at the showroom to buy Ghazels that are competitive with Japanese imports. Rather, Saudi auto manufacturers should adopt the practices of Japanese automaker Honda in the 1960s and South Korea’s Hyundai in the 1980s by efficiently producing economical bare-bones cars to build an institution of automaking, and then evolve into manufacturing mid-range and later luxury cars.
Even if Saudi Arabia establishes an auto industry, sustaining it remains daunting. For one, the Asian market is flooded with Japanese and South Korean cars and trucks.
A better strategy is to sell the car domestically and to find a niche market in Africa where exporting new cars is a relatively open market.
The new industry also must overcome the immense skepticism among the many Saudis who view automaking as a pipe dream. If delays plague the opening of an auto parts manufacturing plant, we can expect the 2021 target for auto production also to be affected.
Significant delays will only shake confidence among investors, and ultimately potential buyers of a Saudi-made car.

OP-ED: A Jittery Israel Needs to Resist Military Aggression

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News

9 July 2012

It’s absolutely mind-boggling how clueless Israel and its Western allies are about the current climate in the Middle East.
With Egypt and Syria navigating uncharted territory — Egypt in the infancy of democracy and Syria deep in a civil war — Israeli leaders have plenty on their plate. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has indicated that the 1979 peace treaty with Israel might be ripe for tweaking. If that were not enough to give Israel the shakes, recent demonstrations by young Palestinians in Ramallah have called for the elimination of the 1993 Oslo Accords, the bilateral agreement between Israel and the PLO that led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority for self-government.
The relatively small protests mark the first time in several years that Palestinians have taken to the streets to oppose the PA’s ties with Israel.
The central concerns among Egyptians are jobs and their country’s shattered economy. So it’s unlikely that Morsi would pursue an aggressive campaign to significantly tamper with the 1979 treaty. And it may be that demonstrating Palestinians are simply following Mursi’s hints to re-examine the Egypt/Israel peace treaty by challenging the Oslo Accords.
The uprisings spreading across North Africa and the Levant have isolated Israel. And an isolated Israel is a dangerous Israel with its all too familiar tendency to lash out.
If Israel does indeed take an aggressive attitude toward its neighbors, Lebanon will be the designated fall guy. Now the Israeli army is contemplating attacks in Lebanon that not only will compound unwarranted violence in the country, but also promise to relive the devastation of the 2006 war.
In an interview last week with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Israeli Army Brigadier-General Hertzi Halevy said, “The (Israeli army) is preparing seriously and professionally for another Lebanon war. The response will need to be sharper, harder, and in some ways, very violent. The next war will be with very heavy exchanges of fire on both sides, and so both need to make every effort to stop this happening.”
An unnamed senior army officer confirmed Halevy’s remarks, noting, “The next war will be different, and therefore we should stop it as quickly as possible, in order to make things easier for the home front. This means carrying out a very strong attack against Lebanon and the damage will be enormous.”
Let’s not fool ourselves that things will get better before they get worse in the region. The new democratic governments in Tunisia and Egypt are far too fragile to inspire much confidence this early in the game. And Libya is in class by itself as it struggles with a transitional parliament and elections amid tribal rivalries to establish self-rule.
The issue is how will Israel behave as these developments continue to unfold. The key to minimizing tensions is not to inflame Arab public opinion. Talk of war in Lebanon does nothing but give rise to Arab indignation.
Israel consistently demonstrates it wants no peace with Palestinians. Any talk from Israel about settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ring hollow. But the US and most of Europe demonstrate willful, if not pathological, passiveness to Israel’s urge to fight a proxy war in Lebanon instead of talking peace with the Palestinian Authority.
Israel may have the military might to gain short-term success in a confrontation, but it will always remain in a perpetual state of defensiveness.
Given the US’ continuing failure to persuade Israel to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians, expectations among Arab leaders is low. Those expectations include a muted response and little else from the US if Israel should lash out against its neighbors with military force.
If the US seeks the answer that brings stability to the region, then it should recognize the perceived threat from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Islamists’ gains in Tunisia and Libya is vastly overstated as long Israel reins in its propensity to react militarily. The focus should remain on the source of Arab outrage: Israel’s unwillingness to establish a peaceful co-existence with the Palestinians and to pave the way for Palestinian statehood.

OP-ED: US Worries over Ikhwan are Misplaced

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News

2 July 2012

Mohamed Morsi’s victory as president of Egypt poses significant challenges for President Obama, who must now balance the election of a candidate viewed less than desirable to US interests with allaying the fears of a jittery Israel.
Obama did nothing during the revolution but anger Egyptians for his waffling over whether to support Hosni Mubarak or fully endorse the Tahrir Square protesters. But he has learned from the Bush Administration’s mistakes. George Bush and then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were instrumental in pushing for democratic elections in the Palestinian territories in 2006, and then quickly shunned the victorious Hamas.

Bush’s failure to accept the elections as a successful exercise in democracy hastened the waning influence of the United States in the Middle East.
Obama has wisely rejected the notion among the more conservative Washington players who argue that electing a military-backed strongman or an Islamist is not democracy but a choice between evil and a lesser evil. US conservatives all too often conflate the Muslim Brotherhood with Al-Qaeda and the Ikhwan’s stated goals of establishing a caliphate. They conveniently ignore that the Muslim Brothers have long been advocating democratic reform in Egypt.
Rather, the president recognizes that no matter how repugnant the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory may seem to Americans, Morsi’s victory was the will of the Egyptian electorate. If US foreign policy analysts are looking for a silver lining in the Ikhwan’s success, they should keep two things in mind: First, Morsi hardly received a mandate from Egyptians. He received just 51.7 percent of the vote to the Mubarak holdover Ahmed Shafiq’s 48.3 percent. Second, Egyptians will not be shy about returning to Tahrir Square if Morsi’s policies prove to be unpopular. The attitude among Egyptians is that the Muslim Brotherhood must prove itself capable of returning Egypt to its former glory.
There’s no question that Morsi’s view of the world is at odds with the White House. Certainly, Morsi’s vow to free Omar Abdel-Rahman, the spiritual leader of extremists responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, has alarmed the US.
However, Obama has little choice but to engage the Muslim Brotherhood and accept its promises that Copts and women can serve in cabinet posts, to encourage free-market capitalism, and guarantee equality, social justice and freedom under Shariah.
The major challenge facing the US is reconciling Morsi’s previous statements calling for changes in the 1979 Egypt-Israeli peace treaty with his most recent vow to “respect all international agreements,” which implied keeping the treaty intact. Indeed, given that Egypt’s economy is in tatters, it makes little sense that Morsi would stir a hornet’s nest by scuttling the treaty and plunging the country into further chaos. Still, it’s not inconceivable that Morsi may want to alter the treaty by strengthening Egypt’s military presence in the Sinai Peninsula.
And this is what the US fears. Israel’s effort to negotiate a peace treaty with Syria since 2008 is all but dead in the water with Bashar Assad on his way out and Syria’s future a blank page. If a new Syrian government were less conciliatory to Israel, then policy changes by Egypt toward the 1979 treaty would only exacerbate tensions. The US repeatedly demonstrates a lack of wherewithal to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and to curtail Israel’s hostility toward its Arab neighbors. It’s unlikely the Obama administration — or a Republican White House for that matter — has the chops to step in and mediate a peaceful coexistence between Israel and Egypt and Syria.
However, the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power marks a defining moment for the US. The West has long perceived the Ikhwan the ideological father of extremist Islam and serving as the building blocks for Hamas, Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda. Yet the organization has consistently demonstrated over the past decade its commitment to democratic reforms by working within in the Egyptian Parliament to effect change, particularly its attempts to push the Parliament into a genuine legislature. Much like the formation of the Irish Republican Army’s political arm, Sinn Féin, in 1970, which has since risen to the second largest political party in Northern Ireland, the Ikhwan’s Freedom and Justice Party aspires for legitimacy in a new democracy. Egyptian voters have given the Muslim Brotherhood the green light, although only time will tell whether the organization is truly capable of following through on its rhetoric.
If Obama is intellectually honest about America’s foreign policy goals, then he should consider the Freedom and Justice Party a gift that represents the growing maturity of the Muslim Brotherhood. It matters little the Brotherhood’s Islamist agenda. What counts is the Egyptian people chose the organization to revive their country’s economy and return it to the international community. If the Ikhwan fails, there’s no doubt voters will kick it to the curb and replace it in the next election.

Op-Ed: OIC’s Anti-Blasphemy Efforts Mirror European Laws

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News

25 June 2012

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has come under increasing criticism the past year for its strong advocacy of blasphemy laws. It also played a central role in successfully urging the United Nations to pass nonbinding resolutions condemning defamation of religion.
Western conservatives have taken the OIC to task, claiming the group is an agent to suppress speech freedoms. Conservatives in the United States, including anti-Muslim hate groups, have expressed particular offense to any laws that may restrict their First Amendment right to denigrate any religion they see fit to attack.
Americans are wishy-washy about the US Constitution. Save for civil liberties groups, Americans don’t seem to mind so much losing their Fourth Amendment rights to protection from illegal searches and seizures of property, as long as the government tells them such actions are in the name of security. Some federal legislators are toying with the idea of repealing the 14th Amendment that gives citizenship to any child born on US soil regardless of their parents’ immigration status. But play with the Second Amendment that gives Americans the right to own firearms and the First Amendment that guarantees free speech and legislators will find themselves in hot water.
There was a time when the US media was the gatekeeper for political discourse. It seems somewhat quaint that Americans — now imbued with the power of social media — once relied on newspapers, radio and television to keep debate civil. Now, social media have led to the virtual abdication of responsibility and accountability for hate speech.
I single out Americans because many European countries and Canada have strong free speech laws, but also have hate speech legislation that demands accountability. The US has no such checks and balances in place other than slander and libel laws that place a heavy burden of proof on the offended party.
Individuals in Canada face up to five years in prison for distributing hate propaganda “that advocates or promotes genocide” or the “destruction of an identifiable group” distinguished by color, religion, race, sexual orientation or ethnic origin. In the United Kingdom, laws prohibit expressions of racial hatred or hatred against a group of persons due to color, nationality, ethnic origin or race.
Germany, France and Denmark prohibit hate speech, given Germany’s Nazi government and its occupation of France and Denmark during World War II. The memories of Nazi horrors inflicted on various ethnic groups remain fresh in the elderly population. Countries untouched by war on their soil and the hate propaganda that preceded ethnic cleansing have little appreciation for the history behind European hate speech laws.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about blasphemy laws or any restrictions of free speech, but the OIC’s campaign is not out of line with existing laws in Canada and the United Kingdom. In a recent interview with Arab News, OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu expressed concern over the growing trend of Islamophobia and xenophobia.
Ihsanoglu takes issue with highly inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric designed as deliberate acts to insult and create “divisions and mistrust among diverse religions in society.”
This does not absolve the Muslim community of its own transgressions regarding hate speech, especially among marginal religious authorities that issue fatwas, or religious decrees, condemning other religions.
But Ihsanoglu is clear on the OIC’s position on fatwas. He noted that only “highly reputed scholars from prestigious institutions and who have an extensive and in-depth knowledge of Shariah” should issue fatwas. “Dubious figures” issuing “marginal fatwas” should be ignored, he said.
Ihsanoglu pointed to a fatwa issued by the International Islamic Fiqh Academy, a subsidiary of the OIC, which states “freedom of expression is a right guaranteed in Islam within the framework of Shariah regulations.” The fatwa further states “not to offend others in a way that affects their life, honor, reputation or social standing; adhering to objectivity, truthfulness and honesty, committing to responsibility; to take into consideration the possible consequences; and that the freedom to express opinion does not contain attacks on religion or its rituals or sanctities.”
The OIC secretary-general added that fatwas do not apply to non-Muslims, who are not expected to comply since non-Muslim countries have their own laws, that is, except for the United States.
The obstacle to writing a hate speech law without infringing on the right of freedom of expression is how to define it since hate speech is so subjective.
Hate speech legislation should be a living, breathing document flexible enough for refinement over time. However, the law should also have specific definitions in place, such as regulating abusive and threatening language and using that language to stir hatred against a specific group of people.
The laws should distinguish this type of language from robust and lively debate. British law, for example, makes the distinction between stirring up racial hatred using “threatening, abusive or insulting language, but makes the distinction between public speech or publications and private conversation.
The polarization of the American political landscape has led to a loss of social responsibility. Radio and television pundits and hate websites use abusive and threatening language to marginalize individuals and ethnic groups. It generates media buzz but little in the way of consequences.
The OIC’s campaign to stem hate speech parallels current laws already on the books in many Western democratic countries. Perhaps it’s time US lawmakers joined in.

Op-Ed: Romney’s Foreign Policy Team Should Alarm Middle East Leaders

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News

18 June 2010

THE US government may have a penchant for adventures on foreign soil and blind loyalty to Israel, but the American people generally have isolationist tendencies.

The Republican Party pretty much feels the same way, offering little in a coherent foreign policy or even understanding the Arab Spring’s impact on the Middle East. Other than the Republican Party’s unwavering support for Israel and lip service for a two-state solution with Palestine, conservatives can offer no single Middle East foreign policy position of substance.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that just 1 percent of Americans considered foreign policy — including national security and terrorism — the most important issue in the 2012 presidential election. Republicans are taking advantage of this disinterest.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney tentatively stepped up to the plate and offered the obvious: Support Israel, consult with military commanders on the direction of the Afghanistan war, oppose Iran developing nuclear weapons and increase defense spending.

As the November election draws closer Romney must flesh out these vague pronouncements. Yet Middle East leaders have much to worry about if the foreign policy team Romney assembled late last year is any indication of what’s to come should he become president.

Romney attempted to demonstrate a serious effort to formulate a Middle East foreign policy that protects US interests and further the cause of spreading democracy. However, all indications point to forsaking President Obama’s pragmatic approach by returning to a neoconservative ideology. That didn’t work out so well for the Bush II administration. And the stakes are much higher with Syria in a free fall and Egypt’s elections in shambles.
Romney’s foreign policy team reads like a who’s who from the Bush administration: Eric Edelman, Bush’s Undersecretary of Defense for Policy; Michael Chertoff, former Secretary of Homeland Security; Roger Zakheim, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense; Mary Beth Long, once the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs; Meghan O’Sullivan, a Deputy National Security Adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan; and perhaps the most conservative of them all, John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the United Nations.
The only Arab on the team is Walid Phares, a Lebanese Christian. He writes for the ultra-conservative anti-Muslim online publications Frontpage Magazine and Family Security Matters and the right-wing newspaper Washington Times.

Phares’ appointment by Romney is particularly troublesome. Phares, who was involved in extremist Lebanese militia groups, has a history of claiming that jihadists are infiltrating America’s mosques and educational institutions and are simply waiting to strike. He described the right-wing militia group Guardians of Cedars, with its slogan “Kill a Palestinian and you shall enter Heaven,” as moral fighters. This is a man who has Romney’s ear. Romney can no longer claim the “moderate” Republican mantle, but is instead a potential president who feels that people like Phares have the bona fides to help shape US foreign policy in the Middle East.

Phares is only a symptom of what is wrong with the Republican Party’s approach from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the current events in Syria. Romney simply adopted the Reagan-era philosophy of “Israel first, Israel always” and “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” by refusing to engage the democratically elected Hamas.

And for a presidential candidate who questions the competence of Obama’s handling of Syria, Romney for now doesn’t stray far from the official policy of the White House. While Obama has made it clear that he opposes military intervention, the administration remains in close contact with Syrian opposition forces to pass on information to Gulf countries gauging events on the ground and the opposition’s capability against President Bashar Assad.

Romney last month offered a similar approach by suggesting the US “should work with partners to arm the opposition so they can defend themselves.” Is this the best Romney’s foreign policy advisers can do by mimicking Obama’s position? Those advisers may be playing it safe on the campaign trail, but once in the White House they may find nation building too hard to resist.

Obama learned that despite his 2008 campaign rhetoric the hard truths of realpolitik push aside ideological dreams. Bush II found out the hard way and it cost thousands of lives.

By trusting foreign policy issues to ideologues, Romney could very well return the US to Bush-era misadventures. When the November election heats up after the summer, Romney will have much explaining to do why a foreign policy team full of neoconservatives is the best way to engage Middle East leaders.

Op-Ed: Saudi Schools’ Dress Codes are Appropriate

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News

11 June 2011

The fascination among the media about what Saudi girls and women wear seems to have no expiration date. Just last week an online newspaper reported that Makkah’s general education directorate issued a warning that schoolgirls must dress appropriately with “decent uniforms.”
As if the press’ obsession with Saudi women’s clothing is not enough, we now apparently must scrutinize the clothing of girls and young teenagers. The tone of such articles is mild amusement. Yet I sympathize with Saudi education officials. Enforcing a school dress code is hardly an archaic notion. Many education institutions worldwide demand that students adhere to a dress code whether it is a school uniform or simply exercising proper decorum is an academic environment.
For Saudi students, education officials want girls to avoid clothing designed for boys and men, not wear belts, keep their blouses buttoned up and wear clothing with zippers that zip up the back and not the front. OK, so in the West that seems a little excessive, but it is not unreasonable in Saudi Arabia. It’s only right that as Muslims we follow the principles of modesty and adapt to the environment we live in.
When I was a middle schooler back in the days when Americans thought paying 35 cents for a gallon of gasoline was an outrageous price, we had a dress code. It was a period of cultural rebellion, so teens openly defied school authorities. Educators demanded with varying degrees of success that boys wear a collared shirt, tuck their shirts in their trousers and wear a belt. Our hair was not to fall below the collar. Sideburns — if we were fortunate to be able to grow them — should be above the earlobe. For girls, skirts and dresses were not to be more than 3 inches above the knee (mini-skirts and go-go boots were big then). No exposed belly buttons and no low-rise jeans.
Years later when I became a father, my 7-year-old son at his elementary school walked across a stretch of grass ignoring a “No Walking on Grass” sign. The school principal disciplined him. I thought the punishment was a bit harsh. I met with the principal, who told me the issue was not so much damaging the grass, but following the rules. He said his job was to instill respect in society’s standards.
The same philosophy applies to school dress codes. Schools help young people understand decorum and the standards of society.
Societal pressure maintains standards that vary from country to country, but as adults we can do pretty much as we please. In the workplace, many businesses outside the corporate world go casual. In the United States I’d venture to say that most offices have relaxed dress codes. But what you wear says a lot about you. T-shirts and jeans in the office? Well, here is a person that not only doesn’t take himself seriously, but neither do his clients and co-workers. First impressions are important and what one wears in the workplace, at universities and even in casual settings sends a message.
Enforcing a dress code at the primary and secondary school level establishes the building blocks for how young people enter society. As they become adults, some students may decide that jeans and T-shirts are perfectly fine with them. But at least they have an awareness of what society expects of them. A student growing up with a school dress code can tell the difference between what is proper decorum and what identifies him or her as someone who doesn’t care much about the impression.
There is a great “Seinfeld” television episode where George Costanza walks into Jerry’s apartment dressed in a T-shirt and sweat pants. Jerry looks at him and says something to the effect, “You have given up on life, haven’t you?”
Whenever one of my daughters meets me for lunch in the middle of the day or dinner in the evening wearing sweat pants, I give them the same line. They don’t do it so much anymore, at least not in front of me. But if my daughters’ middle and high schools did a better job of enforcing a dress code, they might have a better idea of what is appropriate attire for specific circumstances.

Arab Spring Democracy: A Win for Women?

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line/Arab News

7 March 2012

They get more of a voice in Tunisia, Libya, but Egypt seems to be marching backwards

Is the Arab world becoming a friendlier place for women in politics?

The turmoil that has upset the region’s politics over the past year has yet to provide a clear answer. Women can point to some preliminary gains in Tunisia and Libya.  The Islamists who have come to power across the region have proven more female-friendly than skeptics predicted. The winds of change have even reached conservative Saudi Arabia, which decided last year to let women vote and run for municipal office.

But in Egypt – the biggest and most influential country in the Arab world – the revolution has marked a setback for women.

When they try to size up a complicated and contradictory picture, Islamic and Western women’s rights activists express cautious optimism that women in patriarchal North African and Gulf countries are gaining a voice. They warn, however, that that voice is fragile at best, with little evidence yet that women will be able to achieve true power.

“Tunisia and Egypt have held elections, and the fear, particularly in Egypt, is that women have been left out,” Amber Maltbie, an American attorney who is an expert in gender and politics told The Media Line. “The Arab Spring has prompted new elections in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. It appears cosmetic because the bodies are consultative in nature.”

On the balance, the Arab Spring resulted in “mild electoral reforms” and some reforms are nothing more than “cosmetic,” says Maltbie, who was a polling station adviser at the Kosovo parliamentary elections for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

Women start from a low baseline in the Middle East and North Arica, which has lagged by Europe and North America, and even Asia, in getting their foot into the doors of parliament and the presidential palace. The Inter-Parliamentary Union figures show that women account for just 11.3% of lawmakers on average in the Arab World, compared with 22.6% in Europe and America. In Asia, they occupy 18.3% and in sub-Saharan Africa 20.8%.

Women have been the power behind the throne in countries like Tunisia, where Leila Ben Ali helped her husband to manage the affairs of state, and Qatar, where Sheika Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned is a highly public figure. Syrian women won the right to vote in 1949, Lebanese women in 1952, Egyptians in 1956 and Tunisian women in 1957.  But no woman has ever been elected to high office or, as had been the norm in the region, seized it for herself.

The Tunisian legislative elections, the first to be held in an Arab Spring country, came as a surprise to Western observers, who had expressed skepticism that the victorious Islamic Ennahda Party could deliver on its promises of promoting democracy and Islam as compatible, if not complementary, forms of governing.

“I view the Tunisian election as a gain for women,” Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations and director of the Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Initiative “They have a substantial representation, and unlike in Egypt, they didn’t lose ground. Many of the women elected are from Ennahda.”

According to the IPU, 26.7% of the Tunisian legislature is female after the transitional government passed a law in 2011 that required half of all party lists to have women.

“It will be up to them to play a strong legislative role and forge an influential role within the party. That is what will make a difference over the long term,” says Coleman.

Libya has yet to elect a parliament, but the National Transitional Council (NTC) has approved a quota for woman that will ensure a place for women in a country making its first real attempt at democratic rule after 40 years of dictatorship under Mu’amar Al-Qaddafi. But women had to fight for their rights.

The final version of the country’s election law, passed in January, had dropped a quota requirement that would give 10% of the legislative seats to women. That angered women’s groups including the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace, which mounted a campaign to reverse the decision.

Najat Al-Dau, a women’s rights activist in Libya, told The Financial Times the revised election law ignored women’s role in overthrowing Al-Qaddafi.  “I don’t think it’s fair to women,” Al-Dau told the newspaper. “They’re trying to eliminate women from politics and revolution. But they cannot deny us what we did in the revolution.”

The women prevailed, with the NTC revising its election laws to allot 40 seats to women on the 200-member Constituent Assembly.

Morocco, whose king responded to protests with a package of mild reforms, has a voluntary party quota system which resulted in 17% women in the lower house and 2.2% in the upper house in parliamentary elections last year. In 2009, Morocco established a quota requiring that 12% of all local government council seats go to women. As a result, voters elected 3,300 women to local district offices.

Less lucky are Egyptian women, who saw the parliamentary quota system from the Hosni Mubarak era abolished and female representation reduced from 64 seats to just five. For now, Egypt stands above other Arab Spring countries in implementing regressive measures that hamper women’s representation in government.

The government excluded women from the constitutional review committee appointed last year to ensure free and fair elections and create democratic safeguards. The amendments it proposed, which were approved in a referendum last March, made no reference to gender equity. When then-Prime Minister Essam Sharaf fired 20 governors, no women were named as replacements.

Although the loss of Egypt’s quota system is a significant setback for women politicians, Islamic political parties, most notably Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, have demonstrated there is room for women at the governing table. What kind of role they play is another question altogether.

“Islamic governments can prove women have a voice in decision-making, although it remains to be seen how much they will do so,” Coleman, of the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Media Line.

Human Rights Watch in January urged Western governments to give burgeoning Islamic governments a chance to succeed and to support democratic elections whatever the outcome. HRW’s Kenneth Roth wrote in a report that the West “cannot credibly maintain a commitment to democracy if they reject electoral results when an Islamic party does well.”

In the Gulf, women have made some progress toward representation even if the bodies that can run for office have little actual power.  In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a woman won one of 20 elected seats and seven others were appointed to the consultative council by the ruling emirs of the confederation.  Kuwait has no quota system, but its National Assembly is 7.7% female, according to the IPU. Kuwaiti women won the right to run for office in 2005, but it wasn’t until 2009 that four women were elected to the legislature.

Last September, King Abdullah has announced that Saudi women were given the right to vote and run in municipal elections and would also have the right to be appointed to the consultative Shura Council.

Even appointments to consulting bodies – such as in Bahrain, which has 27.5% female representation in the upper chamber of National Assembly – are an improvement, says Maltbie, the attorney. “These bodies have no binding authority, but going through this is the first step,” she says.

Coleman argues that quotas help women overcome obstacles to obtaining fair parliamentary representation, help form coalitions and provide an entrée into politics. But they are undemocratic and go against the grain of equal opportunity. And, they threaten to taint female politicians by implying they won office because of their gender and not their qualifications.

To election observer Maltbie, getting a critical mass of women in parliament is the key to wining power and there is no reason not to use quotas to create it. “Quotas are really important. Empirical data show that the threshold for policy changes in a manner that is meaningful for women is 30%,” she says.

Numbers, however, cannot tell the whole story. Coleman cautions that how much influence women legislators have remains unknown. The experience of their sisters in Iraq, where the first democratic elections for parliament took place in 2005, is instructive. In her book, Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East, Coleman found that Iraqi men routinely insult their female parliamentary colleagues and consign them to “women’s issues.”

Iraq’s legislative body is 25.2 % women, but one Iraqi female lawmaker, who is a member of the National Iraqi Alliance and spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Media Line the role of women in the Iraqi parliament is to boost the government’s image.

“How long has it been now?  Six, seven years?” the lawmaker says. “We have accomplished little because we are constantly pushed aside. We’re given meaningless duties and are expected to like it.”

©2012. The Media Line Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

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