Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Challenge to Tunisia's secularism

Every Friday, Abderraouf heads to a mosque near Al Manar University, where he and other traders sell Islamic books, alcohol-free perfume and face veils displayed on mannequins.

Under the regime of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali they risked arrest. But since Mr Ben Ali was forced from office in January, Abderraouf, a recent university graduate, and other conservative Muslims have begun openly selling their wares to help Tunisians - as he puts it - "to know and follow Islam better".

In claiming their rights, Abderraouf and other more traditional Muslims are challenging Tunisia's secular values as the country struggles to reinvent itself in the post-Ben Ali era.

A council set up by Tunisia's interim government to oversee political reform finalised a new electoral law last week that reserves 50 per cent of places in electoral lists for women - a key goal of women's rights groups seeking to safeguard secular values.

"Islam is our religion, and it's not anything I want to hide or criticise," said Khedija Arfaoui, a member of Femmes Démocrates and the Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development, two progressive women's organisations. "But I don't want anyone to impose the veil."

These contrasting views of religious practice reflect longstanding attitudes in Tunisia, said Sami Brahem, a specialist in Islamic movements at the Institut Préparatoire d'Études Littéraires et Sciences Humaines in Tunis.

During his three-decade rule, the president, Habib Bourguiba, a secularist, closed religious schools, outlawed polygamy and banned the Islamic headscarf in public places.

In 1987 an ailing Bourguiba was replaced by Mr Ben Ali, who jailed thousands of conservative Muslims after members of the moderately Islamist Nahda movement fared well in elections in 1989.

Within a decade, Salafism, an austere expression of Islam, was filtering into Tunisia from the Middle East via television stations and the internet, Mr Brahem said.

Calling for Islamic government and the strict segregation of the sexes, Salafis seek to emulate the salaf as-saalah, or "pious predecessors" - the first three generations of Muslims.

For some of Tunisia's estimated several thousand Salafis, doctrinal rigour is an antidote to what they describe as the spiritual ambiguity of modern life.

"Until I was 25 I had never read the Quran, never set foot in a mosque," said Abu Abderrahman, 34, a builder in Tunis who helps to run the mosque near Al Manar University. "Something was missing. I needed food and drink for my soul."

One day in 2002, Mr Abderrahman overcame his ambivalence and visited a mosque. Around him were men hunched in prayer. At first, he felt out of place.

"But whoever seeks and reads the Quran, the word of God plants a seed in his heart," he said. "Islam cannot be applied 70 or 80 per cent. It must be 100 per cent."

Since Mr Ben Ali's departure, conservative Muslims have taken to the streets to demand legal changes that would make it possible to live along what they consider more Islamic lines.

In February, hundreds demonstrated in Tunis's old city to call for the closure of a brothel there, prompting police to fire shots in the air to disperse crowds.

Two weeks ago, Salafis rallied and held evening prayer in Tunis's central boulevard to protest against a Ben Ali-era law banning the wearing of headscarves for identity card photos. Tunisia's interim government said the same day that it would remove the ban.

Such public activism has rattled more secular Tunisians, who often accuse Salafis of aspiring to impose a single brand of Islam.

"It's good to have people talking about Islam in public, since Ben Ali restricted it," said Adam Mars, 21, a medical student who prays every Friday at the campus mosque. "But the Salafis want to tell everyone how to live."

Others worry that if conservative religious practices are allowed to flourish, religious doctrines supporting violence will sprout alongside them.

In February authorities speculated that "terrorist fascists with extremist tendencies" had murdered a Polish Catholic priest, and secularist protesters rallied to condemn religious extremism. Police later arrested a local handyman in connection with the murder.

Meanwhile, authorities have barred the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir from legislative elections scheduled for July. In an interview with France's Jeune Afrique magazine, the prime minister, Béji Caid Essebsi, called the group's platform anti-constitutional.

While separate from the Salafi movement, Hizb ut-Tahrir similarly supports the strict application of Islamic law. Founded in 1953 in Jerusalem, the group seeks to weld Muslim countries into a single Islamic state through peaceful means.

"Tunisians want Islam," said Nabil Manai, a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir's political bureau in Tunisia. "They're fed up with the dictators and capitalism that have borne down on them for over a century."

According to Mr Manai, Hizb ut-Tahrir would impose the Islamic headscarf on women, ban non-Islamic political parties and partly collectivise the economy based on its reading of Islamic scripture.

Mr Brahem, however, said most Tunisians reject Hizb ut-Tahrir's style of political Islam, while the normal course of open public debate might actually moderate the views of Salafi activists.

"For example, Salafis are now obliged to express themselves through mixed-sex street demonstrations," he said. "Men and women have begun talking to one another."

Outside the Al Manar University mosque, the 25-year-old Abderraouf, who refused to give his surname, chatted with worshippers who passed by his stall while he struggled against the winds to keep his stock of abayas pinned to their line.

He insisted that his faith and his business were intertwined. "You can engage in trade that is either Islamically permissible or forbidden by Islam," he said. "I'm trying to sell what is permissible."

Then the adhan soared from the minaret, and he hurried towards the mosque gate.

"It's time to pray."

Source http://www.thenational.ae/news/worldwide/middle-east/challenge-to-tunisias-secularism

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Alan Gross imprisonment reveals Obama’s foreign policy ineptitude

Distracted as we are by the unprecedented domino-like toppling of a multitude of the Middle East’s oppressive regimes and dictatorships – and President Barack Obama’s waffling on issues arising from our George W. Bush era interventions (should we try terrorists at home or not?), we’ve left our small Communist neighbor, the Republic of Cuba, under much less scrutiny than usual.

Raul and Fidel Castro have rightfully seen this as a window of opportunity to deal a blow to the United States – much like their “Axis of Evil” mentors Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and North Korea under Kim Jong Il – by capturing an American civilian contractor and throwing him in jail without any guarantee of imprisonment length or trial date.

Maybe this is the first time you’re hearing of this – don’t be ashamed if you are, this story has not grabbed the public’s attention quite like the American nationals that were captured in other, more loudmouthed nations. Maybe that this captive, 61-year-old contractor Alan Gross, is neither young nor related to a celebrity. Gross, captured in December 2009 – apparently a good year for capturing Americans – has been wasting away in a high-security Cuban jail ever since, with little media or international scrutiny. Only recently, miniscule pressure from the U.S. forced the Cuban government to finally try and sentence Gross – 15 months after his detention.

The verdict delivered by the Cuban court on March 12 sentenced Gross to 15 years in jail for attempting to implement a “‘subversive’ program paid for by the United States that aimed to bring down Cuba’s communist government.”

Allegedly, Gross, a contractor for a U.S. Agency for International Development backed networking firm Development Alternatives, Inc, based in Bethesda, Md., whose mission statement is “to make a lasting difference in the world by helping developing nations become more prosperous, fairer and more just, cleaner, safer, healthier, more stable, more efficient, and better governed.”

It is not hard to see why working for this firm could arouse suspicion in anti-democratic nations throughout the world, but what actual threat could the Cuban government have received from Gross’ work to warrant such a prolonged internment and a 15-year sentence – pretty much a life sentence for a man of his age and health. Gross, a Jewish-American, was working to enable a small Cuban Jewish community access to the internet in order to communicate with other communities within Cuba as well as around the world. His work included the distribution of laptops, satellite phones and other hard/software to this tiny, peaceful and aging community – hardly a subversive revolutionary force.

Having recently awakened to the call of humanitarianism, the Obama administration has recently granted Gross’ case a small portion of their attention and sent bumbling foreign affairs flunkey, Hamas-apologist and diplomatic third-stringer ex-President Jimmy Carter to meet with Raul and Fidel Castro to secure Gross’s release. After publicly embarrassing and subverting U.S. foreign relations on the Cuban media circuit – appearing on television and radio shows to blast the U.S.’s Cuban embargo and calling for the U.S. to release five Cuban spies that are being held for delivering information to our Middle Eastern enemies – Carter hobnobbed with the Castros like the old friend he is. According to an APF report, Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez wrote, “Because he has the experience that managed the release (in 2010) of an American in North Korea, maybe he can do the same here, but the Cuban government is harder.”

Really? “Harder” than North Korea? Jimmy Carter did successfully free English teacher Aijalon Gomes, a Boston native, after Gomes had crossed over the North Korean border. Yet for what the U.S. deemed a priority – the release of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee that same year, the administration sent the significantly more prestigious former President Bill Clinton.

Not surprisingly, Carter left Cuba on March 30 without securing Gross’s release, stating that he wasn’t expecting that outcome.

Cuban President Raul Castro and his venerated brother Fidel have made a mockery of American foreign policy. They, along with the world’s other dictators, are seeing the Obama administration’s foreign policy as a joke – as was predicted by Republicans before and after the president’s election. The liberties taken by the nations that President Bush called the “Axis of Evil,” had not disappeared as expected by Obama’s supporters, but only increased, a trend demonstrated by the rise in the kidnappings of American nationals by non-terrorist states for diplomatic leverage. Meanwhile, our actions in Libya, highlight that finally, humanitarian considerations are now factoring in this administration’s logic, although quite arguably, the wrong kind of logic.

But Gross’s crime of providing internet access to a small and marginalized segment of Cuban society – him claiming that he had not realized the hardware he was given was paid for by USAID – invokes another, larger problem.

Many have pointed to how powerful the effects of free communication via the internet empowers the population of a repressed state by observing revolts in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and others. The story of the previous decade is of government infringement of such freedoms.

No doubt that the restrictions put on media, search engines and general internet use empower repressive regimes to control information to maintain their power. This is not surprising – leaders have always tried to restrict the freedom of information. What’s more appalling is that the post-President Bush U.S. has not challenged any of these present incursions when such power is being used by nations to avoid the fate of their fallen comrades. In a recent opinion column, Washington Post columnist and Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer slammed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for a statement describing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, sounding more like Hugo Chavez than an American dignitary. “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”

If suppression of free media, restrictions on internet use and violent crackdowns on protesters are Clinton’s idea of reform, then either the Democrats have allied with the Arab Socialist Ba’ath party or the Obama administration thinks Bashar’s actions could teach them to handle their Tea Party opponents. As Krauthammer and others point out, the current administration is displaying a very flawed moral logic.

While President Obama basks in the limelight of the false coalition he built against Qaddafi on shaky moral and constitutional grounds, Gross remains imprisoned and in poor health, wondering whether he will ever see his family again, especially his 88-year-old mother and 26-year-old daughter who are both suffering from cancer. The lack of outrage and sympathy being shown by the administration is vile and contemptible. Alan Gross, his family and supporters can only hope that the media will awake to better expose his case so that the American public can once again strong-arm Obama into action as it did in the previous election.

Source http://dailycollegian.com/2011/04/05/alan-gross-imprisonment-reveals-obama%E2%80%99s-foreign-policy-ineptitude/