Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

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.


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.

February 2, 2012

News Analysis: Islamic Feminism in the Middle East

By Rob L. Wagner

International Policy Digest

2 February 2012

As Islamist political groups continue to make gains in Middle East elections, women activists are evaluating their strategy to improve their roles to help form new governments and to strive for equality. The minefield facing Muslim women is whether to embrace a secular or Islamic feminist approach to achieve their goals and to gain a foothold in Arab politics.

Observing from the sidelines are women in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain hoping for answers to forge their own feminist path. But the 400-pound gorilla in the room that gives women pause is the Egyptian military’s organized campaign of sexual violence and the sexual harassment in the Saudi media of outspoken feminists.

Women in other Arab countries are experiencing varying levels of violence and harassment to crush their own rights campaigns.

The emerging role of women – and the physical and rhetorical violence that color that role – has highlighted the gulf between secular feminists who embrace the Western ideal of a liberal democracy and Islamic feminists seeking to shape their future within the context of religion. However, the secular approach to women’s rights is a luxury few Muslim women in the Middle East care to indulge in.

Secular feminism has never held much attraction for Muslim women forging a place in the Middle East’s patriarchal society. For one, the baggage of secular feminism is too great. It is perceived among Muslims as loosening morals and threatening family cohesion. Justified or not, it is also seen as encouraging women to abandon the hijab and modest dress. At a time when Muslim women activists need the support of men in powerful positions, a secular movement not only would fail, but also roll back progress.

The reemergence of the Egyptian Feminist Union following a 60-year ban is encouraging, but there are worrying signs from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Freedom Party. The Brotherhood’s Azza Al-Garf, who is among only five women elected to the new 500-member Egyptian Parliament, has taken a regressive position on women’s rights. She argues that women should marry, procreate and remain separated from men. Reforming divorce laws is not her priority. The Salafists’ Al-Nour Party has given similar indications.

Treading Carefully

It is this environment where women activists tread carefully. More palatable to Muslim women is an Islamic feminist movement that seeks to marginalize cultural and tribal influence and grant women rights guaranteed in the Qur’an. Islamic feminism is not a new or novel concept. Iranian scholars Afsaneh Najmabadeh and Ziba Mir-Hosseini pioneered Islamic feminism in the early 1990s. Saudi scholar Mai Yamani popularized the concept in her 1996 book, “Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives.”

However, Islamic feminism has stalled since 9/11. It has gained little traction in the Western media that often confuses Islam with cultural and tribal oppression of women. The Arabic press conflates Islamic feminism with the secular women’s movement. In Saudi Arabia, for example, feminism is deemed a threat to society. It doesn’t help that the influential Islamic scholar and women’s rights ally Mohammad Akram Nadwi implied in his recent book, “Al-Muhaddithat: the Women Scholars in Islam,” that secular and Islamic feminism are a single movement with a common goal to give women all that men have.

To tamp down the burgeoning movement, government-controlled Arab media and shadow military forces in some countries attempt to intimidate activists. Egypt continues to wage a brutal war against women challenging the patriarchal order.

Under Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian government waged a systemic campaign of sexual violence against women activists in 2005. The military then initiated so-called virginity tests for female protesters in 2011. Secular feminist Egyptian-American Mona Eltahawy says the tests are nothing more than rape with a foreign object.

Egyptian women responded by developing HarassMap, an initiative that helps women report sexual assaults and harassment through text messaging. The organization reports that more than 80% of the Egyptian women have been sexually harassed or sexually assaulted since the overthrow of Mubarak.

Media Harassment

Systemic sexual violence is absent in Saudi Arabia, but organized media campaigns have targeted Saudi women challenging conservative clerics, male abuse of power and draconian guardianship laws.

A judge recently demanded the government revoke Saudi journalist Nadine Albodair’s citizenship when she complained in a television interview about Saudi Arabia’s female driving ban and abuses by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The Arabic language daily newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat responded to her interview not to address her concerns, but evaluate her body and sexual appeal.

In 2009, 13 Saudi women journalists filed libel complaints with the Ministry of Interior following a report by the online newspaper Kul Al-Watan that “women journalists rely on illicit relationships with newspaper bosses to get support and fame.” Male readers almost daily write obscene comments about high-profile Muslim women in the sensationalistic online Saudi newspapers Al-Weeam and Sabq.

Attacking the morality of women and bringing shame to their families have proven a useful tool to quiet advocacy for Saudi women’s rights. Leading women activists who were vocal last June during the women driving ban demonstration have toned down their advocacy after the Saudi government implemented tougher media and speech laws and journalists waged ad hominem attacks, including doubts about their religious faith.

Greater Weapon

Yet the greater weapon to silence critics who say that Arab feminists seek to destroy the moral fabric of the Ummah is the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.

Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations described at a recent Arab women’s rights conference in New York that Islam is the “cultural touchstone” that allows women to argue for rights that address child marriage, polygamy and education. By using the Qur’an to counter patriarchal interpretations, Islamic feminists have the ability to introduce discussions about rights without the secular revolutionary rhetoric that threatens government institutions. It has also helped that the literacy rate has improved dramatically for young Saudi women, who once relied on the men in their family to interpret the Qur’an. The literacy rate for Saudi females between the ages of 15 and 24 has risen from 81.7% in 1992 to 96.5% in 2009. Coleman points out that this grassroots movement challenges conservative traditions and provides the necessary steppingstone to gain rights.

Muslim women living in conservative cultures that have marginal contact with the West recognize that the mere label of being a feminist spells trouble. Adopting secular feminist language that eschews religion and promotes a woman’s personal goals above the family is likely to leave a woman’s reputation in tatters and shaming her family, which is no small thing in Arab culture.

Although the label of Islamic feminist carries the similar dangers, Saudi women avoid the discussion of feminism and frame women’s rights as an Islamic obligation while at the same time appealing to the better nature of men.

Challenging Guardianship

Since the fall of 2011, the Saudi Ministry of Education has tightened its rules that require female university students to have a male guardian living with them while studying in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Many young Saudi women send their guardians home, and live and study independently. The enforcement of the rules has stricken these women with the fear of losing their government scholarships. It forced them to beg to have their guardians return. The issue received considerable attention in the Saudi press.

Although Islam requires women to have a guardian during travel, there are no other mandates once the woman arrives at her destination. Almost to a man, male journalists endorse the Saudi interpretation of guardianship as vital to protect Saudi society. And with few exceptions, Saudi female university students see it as simply male control.

Yet the guardianship issue opens a window for Saudi women to loosen patriarchal dominance by arguing there is no religious justification for infantilizing women. By appealing to institutions to replace patriarchal interpretations of Islam with a more gender-neutral approach, women secure a foothold that leads to greater participation in society.

March 1, 2011

News Analysis: Saudi Student’s Arrest Will Have Unplanned Repercussions in the U.S.

By Rob L. Wagner


Published March 1, 2001

Saudi student Khalid Aldawsari can rest easy if he thinks his suspected attempts to engage in terrorism in the United States have failed.

He accomplished more than he knows.

Aldawsari, 20, is accused of plotting to bomb several targets in the United States, including the Dallas residence of former President George W. Bush. According to the FBI, he apparently had childhood dreams of waging war against the U.S. for a variety of transgressions against Muslims. He never outgrew those fantasies and had planned to use his student status as cover for his alleged terrorist activities.

The FBI alleges in an affidavit filed with the Texas U.S. District Court that Aldawsari apparently acted alone. Yet he accomplished at least one goal of Al-Qaeda: He drove the wedge a little deeper between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

There are about 30,000 Saudi university students studying in the United States, nearly four times as many students in 2001. Every one of them has now become a terror suspect.

Following 9/11, the number of Saudi students applying at U.S. universities dramatically fell. The U.S. government tightened its visa requirements and Saudis were reluctant to study in the west because they feared backlash from Americans.

The U.S. consulate in Jeddah shut down its visa application center and sent Saudis to Riyadh where they often waited in long queues outside the embassy. Saudis also feared the U.S. would revoke their visas at any time, increasing the chances that they could lose credits that may not transfer to another university.

Many Saudis decided to study in the United Kingdom, where they numbered about 16,000 in 2010.

Efforts by the Bush and Obama administrations and the Saudi government turned things around. In 2008, the U.S. granted about 10,000 visas to Saudi university students. That number grew to 26,744 in 2010. The Jeddah consulate recently re-opened its office for visa applications.

Already, though, there are calls for tightened visa requirements on foreign students.

Within a day of Aldawsari’s arrest, Republican House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas said, “We shouldn’t be surprised that terrorists continue to enter the U.S. on visas when our immigration laws are so loosely enforced. The 9/11 hijackers entered the U.S. after obtaining visas. And the Christmas Day bomber was able to board a plane en route to Detroit because he too had a visa.”

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow up an Airbus 330 in Detroit in 2009 further increased scrutiny of Muslim travelers. Saudis, for example, now undergo supplemental screening for visas in which a separate form asks applicants to identify their tribe, their charitable affiliations, weapons expertise and whether they belong to any terrorist organizations.

Most Saudis gladly accept the additional scrutiny for the opportunity to study in the U.S., but Aldawsari’s arrest will prompt legislators already skittish about immigration to further tighten regulations. Smith is now arguing for strengthening the Patriot Act and immediate implementation of the 2005 REAL ID Act that establishes a national standard for issuing identification to prevent suspected terrorists from receiving driver’s licenses.

Aldawsari’s actions played into the hands of immigration foes. According to the FBI affidavit, Aldawsari earned good grades and learned English in secondary school for the sole purpose of winning a university scholarship to further his plot in the U.S. The Saudi government and private Saudi companies approved his applications for a full scholarship. But he chose a private scholarship from Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) because it offered more money to finance his alleged plot.

He studied English beginning in 2008 at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University before transferring a year later to Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. He then transferred to South Plains College in January. Aldawsari was careful to comply with immigration regulations by notifying authorities when he changed colleges. His Saudi classmates told investigators Aldawsari was antisocial.

American universities take it for granted that students by the time they reach 18 understand the cultural differences between U.S. and foreign students. Young Saudis, however, come from a closed society. Many are naïve and lack critical thinking skills. Some Saudis are unprepared for an open society. Universities can identify these students by incorporating cultural awareness and dialogue sessions in their required English language programs. By identifying young people struggling with a free society, university personnel can also get a better handle on a student’s ideology. Simply asking a young Saudi man to write an essay on the differences between U.S. and Saudi societies guarantees illuminating results on how he thinks.

For now, however, Saudis can expect further delays in their visa approvals, which will jeopardize their studies to the point that they will go elsewhere for an education.

It’s particularly troublesome for Saudi women who have seen the field of studies widened for them. University degrees in science, law and the arts allow young Saudi women to compete against men in the Kingdom’s workplace, which is a goal among human rights groups.

If the U.S. restricts foreign student immigration to the point that young people don’t want to study there, then it compromises its policy of helping Saudi women gain their rights. This, of course, accomplishes the goal of militants who want Saudis out of the U.S. and back in Saudi Arabia.

February 23, 2011

News Analysis: Why Saudi Arabia is a Step Ahead, and the Reasons it Won’t Fall

By Rob L. Wagner
February 23, 2011

Western foreign policy analysts are engaging in a bit of wishful thinking that Saudi Arabia is ripe for a revolution.

Conventional wisdom has it that the Kingdom will follow the fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian governments. With protests continuing in Bahrain and Muammar Qaddafi’s Libyan government in its death throes, Saudi Arabia future is said to be shaky.

Yet western analysts who compare Saudi Arabia to its neighbors fail to consider that not a single Arab country threatened with anti-government protests is in the same league as the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia doesn’t come close to the crimes perpetrated by Hosni Mubarak, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Qaddafi on their people.

That’s not to say that Saudi Arabia is without severe problems, not the least of which is women’s rights. Religious conservatives continue to wield a club to keep Saudis in check. The unemployment rate is at least 10 percent and perhaps as high as 20 percent. Thousands of young Saudi men and women returning with degrees from foreign universities have no job prospects. Only 10 percent of the Saudi population owns their own homes. The judicial system is mired in tribal customs and the abuses of male guardianship have put a stranglehold on women’s ability to find employment or travel.

Yet the Saudi government recognizes these critical issues. On Tuesday, the Saudi government announced a new wave of benefits for its citizens. For the first time, the government agreed to establish unemployment allowances up to one year to help Saudis find jobs. University students studying abroad at their own expense will now receive scholarships. SR 1 billion ($266.6 million) has been added to the social welfare rolls. SR 14 billion ($3.7 billion) will be available for home loans. The government also announced Tuesday that it is setting aside SR 10 million ($2.6 million) to fund literary clubs and licensed NGOs.

Saudis generally lead comfortable lives. Saudi Arabia is the most prosperous country in the Arab Gulf and North Africa. It produces 8.3 million barrels of oil a day. Its middle class is large, albeit shrinking, but government services are first class. Saudi Arabia provides free medical care and hospitals are staffed with top-notch physicians. The Kingdom is the “go-to” country for surgeries to separate conjoined twins and it ranks in the top five countries for medical tourism. Further, it hosts an estimated 2.5 million pilgrims each year and few Muslims are willing to jeopardize their ability to perform Hajj.

Male and female university students not only receive a free education, but given generous scholarships to study abroad. Studies once closed to women, such as the sciences, are now open.

Although many Saudis fear and even scorn the religious establishment, most notably the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, their strong Muslim identity encourages loyalty to what they see under King Abdullah as a benevolent government. King Abdullah is immensely popular. He implemented reforms long before the current crises in the Middle East. These reform efforts solidified that loyalty.

Unnoticed in the west is even the deeper tribal loyalty to the royal family. Saudi Arabia is a tribal society with a deep allegiance to the king. A prince, or emir, is responsible for each of the 13 provinces and tribal leaders have access to the emir. In fact, Saudis with a little wherewithal can manage a private audience with an emir to extract a promise or aid in a variety of matters ranging from settling a business dispute to marrying a spinster daughter to a foreigner. This relationship between the average Saudi and the prince creates a bond with the royal family not found in other Arab countries.

Young Saudis have emerged recently as a strident voice against government corruption, echoing similar complaints from their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt. A recent Facebook campaign organized by Saudi youths demands free elections and a constitution, among other democratic principles, approved by the country’s citizens.

While it’s unclear whether the campaign will gain traction, a bigger concern is the attitudes of Saudi Shi’ites in the Eastern Province. Interior Minister Prince Naif dismissed fears that the Shi’ite community poses a threat to Saudi security. He sees no spillover from the Shi’ite-dominated protests in Bahrain. While Saudi Shi’ites have grievances—there was a small protest in the Eastern Province last week—Saudis remember that Shi’ite leaders visited King Abdullah the day he assumed the throne in 2005 to pledge their support. Since 2005, Sunni sheikhs have met regularly with their Shi’ite counterparts. Shi’ites, who account for about 10 percent of the Saudi population, are also included in the Kingdom’s national dialogue programs. They not only remain loyal to the King but also have a much stronger allegiance to Saudi Arabia than to Iran or Bahrain.

Six months ago, no Arab could imagine that a leaderless, non-religious protest could topple the Tunisian and Egyptian governments. The Saudi government is not taking anything for granted. Arabs have learned that anything can happen in the blink of an eye. But the likelihood of the streets of Jeddah and Riyadh filled with angry Saudis demanding change is remote. Since 9/11, the Saudi government has been intent on reform, but has met resistance from the religious establishment and a patriarchal society that wants its women to remain second-class citizens.

Unlike Tunisia and Egypt in which the governments ignored the will of its people, the reverse holds true for Saudi Arabia. The government, at least under King Abdullah, seeks change. But it first must convince the conservatives to embrace that change.

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