Inter Press Service » Religion http://www.ipsnews.net Journalism and Communication for Global Change Tue, 29 Jul 2014 05:04:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.1 OPINION: The Affinity Between Iraqi Sunni Extremists and the Rulers of Saudi Arabia http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/opinion-the-affinity-between-iraqi-sunni-extremists-and-the-rulers-of-saudi-arabia/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-the-affinity-between-iraqi-sunni-extremists-and-the-rulers-of-saudi-arabia http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/opinion-the-affinity-between-iraqi-sunni-extremists-and-the-rulers-of-saudi-arabia/#comments Sun, 27 Jul 2014 11:58:06 +0000 Peter Custers http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135767 By Peter Custers
LEIDEN, Netherlands, Jul 27 2014 (IPS)

Which story line sounds the more credible – that linking the rebel movement ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) to policies pursued by Iran or that linking the Sunni extremist force to Iran’s adversary Saudi Arabia?

In June this year, fighters belonging to ISIS – a rebel movement that had previously established its foothold in the oil-rich areas of north-eastern Syria – succeeded in capturing Mosul, a city surrounded by oil fields in northern Iraq. Ever since, commentators in the world’s media have been speculating on the origins of the dreaded organisation’s military success.

It is admitted that the occupation of Mosul and vast tracts of the Sunni-dominated portion of Iraq would not have been possible except for the fact that ISIS forged a broad grassroots’ alliance expressing deep discontent by Iraq’s minority Sunnis with the policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s government. Nor would Mosul have fallen but for the dramatic desertion by top-officers of Iraq’s state army.

Peter Custers

Peter Custers

Yet various observers have meanwhile focused on the political economy behind the advance of ISIS. Some experts from U.S. think tanks have discussed the likely sources of ISIS’ finance, pinpointing private donors in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Other writers instead have connected ISIS’ reliance on black market sales of oil in Kurdish territory with Iranian exports of crude, described as “illegal”.

I propose putting the spotlight on the methods of war financing used by ISIS, but first it is necessary to highlight the movement’s complete sectarianism.

Soon after the occupation of Mosul, rebels blew up and bulldozed shrines and mosques in the city belonging to Shia Muslims. Pictures on the demolition of these buildings were circulated widely by the world’s mainstream media. Unfortunately, few Western journalists cared to draw attention to the role which destruction of shrines has played in the history of Islam.

Contrary to Catholicism, the veneration of saints at Sufi and Shia tombs and shrines basically reflects heterodox tendencies within the Islamic faith. On the other hand, Sunni orthodoxy and especially its Saudi variety, Wahhabism, either condemns intercession or, at the least, considers the worshipping of saints at tombs to be unacceptable. Islam’s minority of Shias, and its mystical current of Sufism, freely engage in such worship – and this throughout the Muslim world.“ISIS is … a ‘religiously inspired’ Sunni extremist organisation with an utterly secular objective: to control the bulk of oil resources in two Middle Eastern states in order to re-establish acaliphat, an all-Islamic state-entity guided by a central religious authority”

ISIS’ work of demolition in Iraq can in no way be equated with practices of Iran’s Shia rulers. Instead, they express the extremist movement’s affinity with policies long championed by Saudi Arabia. Ever since the founding of the Saudi state, numerous Shia and Sufi shrines have been rased to the ground at the behest of this country’s Wahhabi dynasty.

What does the political economy behind ISIS’ military advance in Syria and Iraq tell us about the organisation’s affinities? First, in one sense, the ISIS strategy might be interpreted as rather novel.

Whereas the extraction of raw materials is a war strategy pursued by numerous rebel movements in the global South – see, for example, UNITA’s extraction of diamonds in the context of Angola’s civil war, and the trade in coltan by rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo – rarely has a Southern rebel movement succeeded in turning crude oil into its chief source of revenue.

Indeed, whereas ISIS originally relied on private funders in Saudi Arabia to build up a force of trained fighters, the organisation has consciously targeted regions in Syria and Iraq harbouring major oil fields and (in the case of Iraq) oil refineries. By laying siege to the oil refinery at Baiji, responsible for processing one-third of oil consumed in Iraq, ISIS hoped to undermine the state’s control of oil resources.

Further, some 450 million dollars was stolen by ISIS fighters from a subsidiary of Iraq’s central bank after the occupation of Mosul. This reportedly was all income from oil extraction. Some observers put the cash income which ISIS derives from smuggled oil at one million dollars a day!

ISIS is thus a ‘religiously inspired’ Sunni extremist organisation with an utterly secular objective: to control the bulk of oil resources in two Middle Eastern states in order to re-establish acaliphat, an all-Islamic state-entity guided by a central religious authority.

Yet though ISIS’ methodology of reliance on oil for financing of its war campaigns is novel for a rebel movement, such use of oil is not unique in the context of the Middle East. Ever since the 1970s, most oil-rich countries of the region have squandered a major part of their income from the exports of crude by (indirectly) exchanging their main natural resource against means of destruction – weapon systems bought on the international market.

And while Iran under the Shah was equally enticed into opting for this form of trade in the 1970s, – it is the Wahhabi kingdom of Saudi Arabia which all the way through from the oil crisis of 1973 onwards and up to today has functioned as the central axe of such a trade mechanism.

Witness, for instance, the 1980s oil-for-arms (!) ‘barter deal’ between the Saudi kingdom and the United Kingdom, the so-called ‘Al Yamamah’ deal, and the 60 billion dollar, largest-ever international arms’ agreement between Saudi Arabia and the United States clinched in 2010.

Forward to 2014, and an Iraq desperately struggling to survive. A section of the world’s media has already announced its impending demise, predicting a split of the country into three portions – Sunni, Kurdish and Shia. On the other hand, some commentators have advised that the United States should now change gear and line up with Iran, in order to help the Iraqi government overcome its domestic political crisis.

Yet the United States and its European allies for long, too long, have bent over to service the Wahhabi state. Even as Western politicians loudly proclaimed their allegiance to democracy and secularism, they failed to oppose or counter Saudi Arabia’s oppression of, and utter discrimination against, Shia citizens.

For over 40 years they opted to close their eyes and supply Saudi Arabia with massive quantities of fighter planes, missiles and other weaponry, in exchange for the country’s crude. Playing the role of a wise elderly senior brother, the United States has recently advised Iraq’s prime minister al-Maliki, known for his sectarian approach, that he should be more ‘inclusive’, meaning sensitive towards Iraq’s minority Sunni population.

But has the United States’ prime Middle Eastern ally Saudi Arabia ever been chastised over its systematic discrimination of Shias? Has it ever been put to task for its cruel oppression of heterodox Muslims? And has the United States ever pondered the implications of the trading mechanism of disparate exchange it sponsored – for the future of democracy, food sovereignty and people’s welfare in the Middle East?

 

*  Peter Custers, an academic researcher on Islam and religious tolerance  with field work in South Asia, is also a theoretician on the arms’ trade and extraction of raw materials in the context of conflicts in the global South. He is the author of ‘Questioning Globalized Militarism’. 

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AIDS Conference Mourns the Dead, Debates Setbacks http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/aids-conference-mourns-the-dead-debates-setbacks/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=aids-conference-mourns-the-dead-debates-setbacks http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/aids-conference-mourns-the-dead-debates-setbacks/#comments Fri, 25 Jul 2014 15:22:41 +0000 Diana Mendoza http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135746 Messages of sympathy adorn a street in Melbourne. Credit: Diana G Mendoza/IPS

Messages of sympathy adorn a street in Melbourne. Credit: Diana G Mendoza/IPS

By Diana Mendoza
MELBOURNE, Jul 25 2014 (IPS)

The 20th International AIDS Conference concluded today as the first in its history that remembered not just the 39 million people worldwide who have died of AIDS but also those who lost their lives in the crashed MH17 flight carrying six of its delegates, one of whom was the past president of the International AIDS Society (IAS).

The double memorial, however, did not hamper 12,000 scientists, researchers, advocates, lobbyists, and activists from 200 countries, including 800 journalists, from scrutinising a few advances and disturbing setbacks in HIV and AIDS awareness and prevention, treatment to prolong and improve the quality of life of people living with HIV, and compassion and care to those infected and people close to them.

The IAS and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) said that globally, there are about 35 million people living with HIV in 2013, but 19 million of them do not know that they have the virus. Also in 2013, around 2.1 million became newly infected, and 1.5 million died of an AIDS-related illness.

"We will not stand idly by when governments, in violation of all human rights principles, are enforcing monstrous laws that only marginalise populations that are already the most vulnerable in society.” -- Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, president of the International AIDS Society (IAS)
But the good news is that HIV transmission has slowed down worldwide, according to Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS, and that millions of lives are being saved by antiretroviral drugs that suppress and slow down the replication of the virus, but do not eradicate it.

An estimated 13 million people are taking antiretroviral therapy that has resulted in a 20 percent drop in HIV-related deaths between 2009 and 2012. In 2005, there were only 1.3 million who were accessing ART.

Sidibé said at least 28 million people are medically eligible for the drugs. Currently, according to UNAIDS, spending on HIV treatment and prevention is around 19 billion dollars annually, but this needs to be scaled up to at least 22 billion dollars next year.

“We have done more in the last three years than we have done in the previous 25,” said Sidibé, who warned that these advances are disturbed by a few setbacks that are difficult to battle, such as laws against gay people in Africa and the crackdown on intravenous drug users in Russia.

In other countries, new policies have also emerged, criminalising homosexual behaviour and the use of intravenous drugs, and penalising those who engage in sex work.

Activists and experts say these policies help HIV to thrive by driving homosexuals, injecting drug users and male and female sex workers underground, where they have no access to preventative services.

Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, IAS president and chair of the conference who co-won the Nobel Prize for helping discover the virus that causes AIDS, said, “We will not stand idly by when governments, in violation of all human rights principles, are enforcing monstrous laws that only marginalise populations that are already the most vulnerable in society.”

The upsurge of anger was also obvious in the Melbourne Declaration that delegates were urged to sign early on, which demanded tolerance and acceptance of populations under homophobic and prejudiced attack.

The Melbourne Declaration called on governments to repeal repressive laws and end policies that reinforce discriminatory and stigmatising practices that increase the vulnerability to HIV, while also passing laws that actively promote equality.

Organisers believe that over 80 countries enforce unacceptable laws that criminalise people on the basis of sexual orientation and HIV status and recognise that all people are equal members of the human family.

The conference also called on health providers to stop discriminating against people living with HIV or groups at risk of HIV infection or other health threats by violating their ethical obligations to care for and treat people impartially.

Bad news for Asia-Pacific

Another setback is that while HIV infections lessened in number globally, some countries are going the other way. Sharon Lewin, an Australian infectious disease and biomedical research expert who co-chaired the conference with Barre-Sinoussi, said Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines are experiencing epidemics in their vulnerable populations with “worryingly high” proportions in 2013.

“While new infections continue to decrease globally, we are unfortunately seeing a very different pattern in Indonesia, Pakistan and the Philippines with increasing numbers of new infections in 2013,” Lewin said during the conference opening.

She cited men who have sex with men (MSM), sex workers, people who inject drugs and transgender persons as the most at-risk populations in the three countries.

Remembering the Dead

In all the speeches, activities, and cultural events that happened inside and outside the Melbourne Convention Centre, reflections were dedicated to the six delegates who died in the plane crash and did not make it to the conference: former IAS president and professor of medicine, Joep Lange; his partner and Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development public health official, Jacqueline van Tongeren; AIDS lobbyists, Pim de Kuijer and Martine de Schutter; director of support at the Female Health Company, Lucie van Mens; and World Health Organisation media coordinator, Glenn Thomas.

Red ribbons that have been globally worn to symbolise AIDS advocacy were tied to panels of remembrance around the conference site.

Flags in several buildings around Melbourne and the state of Victoria were flown at half-mast at the start of the conference. A candlelight vigil was held at the city’s Federation Square a day before the conference concluded.
Lewin said that while sub-Saharan Africa remains accountable for 24.7 million adults and children infected with HIV, Asia-Pacific has the next largest population of people living with HIV, with 4.8 million in 2013, and new infections estimated at 350,000 in 2013.

This brought the rate of daily new infections in the region to 6,000; 700 are children under 15 while 5,700 were adults. But 33 percent of them were young people aged 15-24.

Aside from Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines, she said Thailand and Cambodia are also causes for concern because of their concentrated epidemics in certain populations, while India remains a country with alarmingly high infections, accounting for 51 percent of all AIDS-related deaths in Asia. Indonesia’s new HIV infections, meanwhile, have risen 48 percent since 2005.

Meanwhile, the U.N. predicts that AIDS will no longer exist by 2030. UNAIDS’ Sidibé introduced the “90-90-90 initiative” that aims at reducing new infections by 90 percent, reducing stigma and discrimination by 90 percent, and reducing AIDS-related deaths by 90 percent.

“We aim to bring the epidemic under control so that it no longer poses a public health threat to any population or country. No one must be left behind,” Sidibé stressed.

The conference also saw a few hopeful solutions such as the portable HIV and viral load testing devices presented by pharmaceutical and laboratory companies that joined the exhibitors, and radical approaches to counselling and testing that involve better educated peer counsellors.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) issued consolidated guidelines on HIV prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care designed to assist health providers and policymakers develop HIV programmes that will increase access to HIV testing, treatment and reduce HIV infection in five key populations vulnerable to infection – men who have sex with men (MSM), people who inject drugs, sex workers, transgender people and people in prison and other closed settings – who make up 50 percent of all new infections yearly.

Part of the guidelines recommend that MSM – one of the most at-risk groups for new infections – consider pre-exposure prophylaxis or taking anti-retroviral medication even if they are HIV negative to augment HIV prevention, but they are asked to still used the prescribed prevention measures like condoms and lubricants. The prophylaxis that prevents infection can reduce HIV among MSM by 20 to 25 percent.

(END)

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Pakistani Rights Advocates Fight Losing Battle to End Child Marriages http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/pakistani-rights-advocates-fight-losing-battle-to-end-child-marriages/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=pakistani-rights-advocates-fight-losing-battle-to-end-child-marriages http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/pakistani-rights-advocates-fight-losing-battle-to-end-child-marriages/#comments Wed, 16 Jul 2014 15:53:22 +0000 Irfan Ahmed http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135594 Seven percent of all young boys are married before the legal age in Pakistan. Credit: Irfan Ahmed/IPS

Seven percent of all young boys are married before the legal age in Pakistan. Credit: Irfan Ahmed/IPS

By Irfan Ahmed
LAHORE, Jul 16 2014 (IPS)

At first glance, there is nothing very unusual about Muhammad Asif Umrani. A resident of Rojhan city located in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province, he is expectantly awaiting the birth of his first child, barely a year after his wedding day.

A few minutes of conversation, however, reveal a far more complex story: Umrani is just 14 years old, preparing for fatherhood while still a child himself. His ‘wife’, now visibly pregnant, is even younger than he, though she declined to disclose her name and real age.

The young couple sees nothing out of the ordinary about their circumstances; here in the Rajanpur district of Punjab, early marriages are the norm.

Girls in rural areas are often given in marriage in order to settle disputes, or debts. Some are even ‘promised’ to a rival before they are born, making them destined to a life of servitude for their husband’s family. -- Sher Ali, a social activist in Rojhan city
Umrani’s father, a small-scale farmer, tells IPS he is “proud” to have married his son off and “brought home a daughter-in-law to serve the family.”

Similar sentiments echo all around this country of 180 million people where, according to the latest figures released by the Pakistan Demographic Health Survey (2012-2013), 35.2 percent of currently married women between 25 and 49 years of age were wed before they were 18.

According to the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, seven percent of all boys are married before the legal age in Pakistan.

Families like Umrani’s are either blissfully unaware of, or completely indifferent towards, domestic laws governing childhood unions.

Intazar Medhi, a lawyer based in Lahore, tells IPS that the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 – which prohibits girls under the age of 16 and boys under the age of 18 from being legally wed – is one of the least invoked laws in the country.

While the Act is in force in every province, and was recently amended by the government of Sindh to increase the legal marriage age of both boys and girls to 18, it is hardly a deterrent to the deeply embedded cultural practice.

For one thing, violators are fined a maximum of 1,000 rupees (about 10 dollars), what many experts have called a “trifling sum”; and for another, the law doesn’t extend to the many thousands of ‘unofficial’ marriage ceremonies that take place around the country every day.

In a country where 97 percent of the population identifies as Muslim, few nikahs (marriage agreements under Islamic law) are registered with an official state authority.

Scores of married couples live together for years without any documentary evidence of their union, with many families preferring to avoid legal formalities.

It is thus nearly impossible for government officials to estimate just how many such ‘illegal’ unions are taking place, or to dissolve contracts that entail nothing more than the presence of a religious person and witnesses for the bride and groom.

Some advocates like Intezar believe the problem can be rectified by following the example of the Sindh province, whose amendment of the 1929 Act upped its punitive power to include a three-year non-bailable prison term and a 450-d0llar fine for offenders.

He thinks setting 16 as the official marriage age – the same age at which Pakistanis receive their Computerised National Identity Cards (CNICs) – will make it easier for law enforcement officials to take action against those responsible for marrying off young children.

The government, he says, must also take steps to ensure timely birth registrations as millions spend lifetimes without any documentary proof of their existence.

Tradition trumps law enforcement

But for Sher Ali, a social activist based in the same city as Umrani’s family, a single law will not suffice to clamp down on a centuries-old practice that serves multiple purposes within traditional Pakistani society.

For instance, he tells IPS, girls in rural areas are often given in marriage in order to settle disputes, or debts. Some are even ‘promised’ to a rival before they are born, making them destined to a life of servitude for their husband’s family.

Various tribes also have different standards for determining an appropriate marriage age. For example, Sher explained, in some regions like the Southern Punjab, a girl is deemed ready for marriage and motherhood the day she can lift a full pitcher of water and carry it on her head.

In a country where the annual per capita income hovers at close to 1,415 dollars and 63 percent of the population lives in rural areas, girls are considered a burden and cash-strapped families try to get rid of them as early as possible.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to ending child marriages is the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), an unofficial parliamentary advisor, which also wields tremendous power to influence public opinion.

When the Sindh government announced its plans to extend the marriage age, CII Chairman Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani denounced the move as an effort to “please the international community [by going] against Islamic teachings and practices.”

Comprised of prominent religious scholars, the Council has repeatedly urged the parliament to refrain from setting a “minimum marriage age”. Though parliament is not legally bound to any suggestions made by the body, many allege that the extent of its political power renders any ‘advice’ a de facto order.

Indeed, repeated assertions by religious groups that puberty sanctions marriage has led to a situation in which girls between eight and 12 years, and boys in the 12-15 age bracket, find themselves husbands and wives, while their peers are still in middle-school.

Speaking to IPS over the phone from Malaysia, Dr. Javed Ahmed Ghamidi – who is known as a moderate and had to leave the country after receiving several death threats from extremists – said that since Islam does not specify an exact marriage age, it is up to the government to draft necessary laws to protect the rights of its citizens.

He fully supports the implementation of a law that only allows legal unions between people who are old enough to run a household and bring up children.

“Such laws are not at all in conflict with the teachings of the religion,” he insisted.

Qamar Naseem, programme coordinator of Blue Veins, an organisation working to eliminate child marriages, pointed out that such a law is not only a domestic duty but also an international obligation, since the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a resolution against child, early and forced marriages in 2013.

Supported by over 100 of the world body’s 193 members, the resolution recognises child marriage as a human rights violation and vows to eliminate the practice, in line with the organisation’s post-2015 global development agenda.

Various studies have documented the impact of child marriage on Pakistani society, including young girls’ increased vulnerability to medical conditions like fistula, and a massive exodus from formal education.

Experts say Pakistan has the highest school dropout rate in the world, with 35,000 pupils leaving primary education every single year, largely as a result of early marriages.

Slowly, thanks in large part to the tireless work of activists, the tide is turning, with more people becoming aware of the dangers of early marriages.

But according to Arshad Mahmood, director of advocacy and child rights governance at Save the Children-Pakistan, much more needs to be done.

He told IPS there is an urgent need for training and education of nikah registrars, police officers, members of the judiciary and media personnel at the district level in order to discourage child marriages.

Effective laws must be coupled with the necessary budgetary allocation to allow for implementation and enforcement, he added.

“People will have to be informed that child marriages are the main reason behind high maternal and newborn mortality ratios in Pakistan,” he concluded.

(END)

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Time to “Drop the Knife” for FMG in The Gambia http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/time-to-drop-the-knife-for-fmg-in-the-gambia/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=time-to-drop-the-knife-for-fmg-in-the-gambia http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/time-to-drop-the-knife-for-fmg-in-the-gambia/#comments Sun, 13 Jul 2014 11:23:18 +0000 Saikou Jammeh http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135524 Circumcisers in the Gambia publicly declaring that they have abandoned the practice of FGM. Credit: Saikou Jammeh/IPS

Circumcisers in the Gambia publicly declaring that they have abandoned the practice of FGM. Credit: Saikou Jammeh/IPS

By Saikou Jammeh
BANJUL, Jul 13 2014 (IPS)

Women’s rights activists in the Gambia are insisting that more than 30 years of campaigning to raise awareness should be sufficient to move the government to outlaw female genital mutilation (FMG).

The practice remains widespread in this tiny West African country of 1.8 million people, but rights activists believe that their campaign has now reached the tipping point.

Two years ago, GAMCOTRAP, an apolitical non-governmental organisation (NGO) committed to the promotion and protection of women and girl children’s political, social, sexual, reproductive health and educational rights in The Gambia, and one of the groups behind the anti-FGM campaign, sponsored a draft bill which has been subjected to wide stakeholder consultations.

Several previous attempts to legislate against FGM have failed, with no fewer than three pro-women laws having had clauses on FGM removed from draft bills. But activists now appear determined to make the final push and hope that when introduced this time round, the bill will go through.“We’ve caused lots of suffering to our women ... if my grandparents had known what I know today, they would not have circumcised anyone. Ignorance was the problem” – former circumciser Babung Sidibeh

The time has now come for final action, says Amie Bensouda, legal consultant for the draft bill. “There can be no half measures. The law has to be clear. It’s proposed by the law that FGM in all its forms is prohibited. This discussion cannot go on forever. The government should do what is right.”

“The campaign has reached its climax,” Dr Isatou Touray, executive director of GAMCOTRAP, told IPS. “A lot of work has been done. I am hopeful of having a law because women are calling for it, men are calling for it. I know there are pockets of resistance but that’s always the case when it comes to women’s issues.”

“In 2010, we organised a workshop for the National Assembly,” she continued. “They made a declaration, pledging to support any bill that criminalises FGM. I am happy to report that, since 2007, more than 128 circumcisers and 900 communities have abandoned the practice. This trend will continue to grow.”

Seventy-eight percent of Gambian women undergo FGM as a ‘rite of passage’. However, after more than three decades of the anti-FGM campaign in Gambia, a wind of change is blowing, sweeping even conservative rural communities.

Sustained awareness-raising programmes have resulted in public declarations of abandonment of FGM by hundreds of circumcisers. Babung Sidibeh, custodian of the tradition in her native Janjanbureh, the provincial capital of Central River Region, 196 kilometres from Banjul, was one of them. The old woman assumed the role after the death of her parents, but she has since “dropped the knife”, as no longer practising FGM is known here.

Sidibeh did so after receiving training in reproductive health and women’s rights. “Soon after we circumcised our children in 2011,” she told IPS, “Gamcotrap invited me for training. I was exposed to the harm we’ve been doing to our fellow women. If I had known that before what I know today, I would never have circumcised anyone.”

With a tinge of remorse, she added: “We’ve caused lots of suffering to our women. That’s why I told you that if my grandparents had known what I know today, they would not have circumcised anyone. Ignorance was the problem.”

Mrs Camara-Touray, a senior public health worker at the country’s heath ministry confirmed to IPS that her ministry has since taken a more proactive role on FGM.

She explained: “The ministry has created an FGM complication register. We’ve also trained nurses on FGM. Until recently, when you asked most health workers about the complications that can arise with FMG, they would say it has no complications. That’s because they were not trained. Since 2011, we’ve changed our curriculum to include these complications. After we put the register in place, within three months, we’d go to a region and see that hundreds of complications due to FGM had been recorded.”

In March, Gamcotrap organised a regional religious dialogue that sought to de-link FGM from Islam. Touray said that the workshop was a prelude to the introduction of the proposed law in parliament.

“Islamic scholars were brought together from Mali, Guinea, Mauritania and Gambia,” she told IPS. “We had a constructive debate and it was overwhelmingly accepted that FGM is not an Islamic injunction, it’s a cultural practice. It was recommended that a specific law should be passed and a declaration was made to that effect.”

However, there is resistance in some quarters. An influential group of Islamic scholars, backed by the leadership of the Supreme Islamic Council, continue to maintain that FGM is a religious injunction.

With a large following and having the ears of the politicians, these clerics have in recent times also intensified their pro-FGM campaign.

“It will be a big mistake if they legislate against FGM,” Ebrima Jarjue, an executive member of the Supreme Islamic Council, told IPS.

“Our religion says we cut just small. We should be allowed to practise our religion. If some people are doing it and doing it bad, let them stop it. Let them go and learn how to do it. If circumcising the girl child when she’s young is causing problems, then let’s wait until she grows up. That’s what used to happen.”

Meanwhile, the Women’s Bureau, the implementing arm of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, is hesitant about legislating against FGM.

“As far FGM is concerned, the position of the Women’s Bureau is that there’s need for more sensitisation and dialogue to push the course forward,” Neneh Touray, information and communication officer of the Women’s Bureau, told IPS. She declined to comment on whether the bureau thought that the bill was premature.

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U.S. Groups Reject Anti-Gay Discrimination Bill over Religious Exemption http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/u-s-groups-reject-anti-gay-discrimination-bill-over-religious-exemption/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-groups-reject-anti-gay-discrimination-bill-over-religious-exemption http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/u-s-groups-reject-anti-gay-discrimination-bill-over-religious-exemption/#comments Wed, 09 Jul 2014 23:43:51 +0000 Julia Hotz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135463 President Barack Obama is expected to issue an executive order on employment discrimination in coming weeks. Credit: Bigstock

President Barack Obama is expected to issue an executive order on employment discrimination in coming weeks. Credit: Bigstock

By Julia Hotz
WASHINGTON, Jul 9 2014 (IPS)

Civil rights groups across the United States have withdrawn their support from a major legislative proposal that would outlaw workplace discrimination against sexual minorities, warning that recent legal developments could exempt companies on religious grounds.

Five major legal advocacy groups are arguing that the legislation, known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), does not allow for total workplace protection. Rather, it “provides religiously affiliated organizations – including hospitals, nursing homes and universities – with a blank check to engage in workplace discrimination against LGBT people,” the groups note in a joint statement released Tuesday.“[LGBT people] want to be judged in the same way any other employee is judged: Can we do the work? If we can, we should be free from discriminatory treatment that targets us because of who we are.” -- Kate Kendell

Previously, the groups, which include the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and prominent gay rights organisations, had supported ENDA. But their turnaround comes a week after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a contentious decision, known as Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which allows private companies to withhold contraceptive coverage from their employees based on religious preferences.

“What we’ve seen in last week’s Supreme Court decision is a really concerted effort on the part of LGBT opponents to broadly endorse rights to discriminate,” Ian Thompson, a Washington representative of the ACLU, told IPS.

It is “unacceptable”, he noted, to “allow taxpayer-funded discrimination under the clause of religious exemption.”

It is significant to note that this religious exemption clause has always been included within ENDA. However, while the clause has long been a controversial component of the legislation, it is the provocative nature of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling that has encouraged legal advocacy groups to reject ENDA entirely.

Lucas Rivers, a prominent LGBT activist working in the U.S government, told IPS that “strong withdrawal [from ENDA] in the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision is the right move, as the Supreme Court’s decision has opened up doors to employment discrimination, whether it be women and their rights or gays and their rights.”

Yet other organisations have been voicing opposition to ENDA for much longer.

“We have been disturbed by the exemption in ENDA for years, and that concern has been very public,” Kate Kendell of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), an advocacy group, told IPS.

Kendell also notes that “[the NCLR] has received unanimous expressions of support from [the LGBT community]. Our community is bright – they get that the provision in ENDA would provide those who oppose our equality a license to discriminate.”

Kendell is careful to note that her organisation’s dispute is not with the legitimacy of religious belief.

“Our nation respects and accommodates a wide variety of religious faiths, a quality we fully embrace. But it is not acceptable for some to use religion as a bludgeon to do harm to others,” she says.

“[LGBT people] want to be judged in the same way any other employee is judged: Can we do the work? If we can, we should be free from discriminatory treatment that targets us because of who we are.”

Kendall says she’s uncertain about the future of ENDA, but expresses confidence that a stronger bill can eventually be drawn up.

“We don’t know what we can get unless we fight for it,” she says. “If we combine forces and lobby for better language, I have no doubt we can get a better bill.”

Urgent need

Still, some prominent groups do remain committed to ENDA.

The Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBT rights group, stated on Wednesday that it will continue to support ENDA for a “very simple reason … it will guarantee millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in all 50 states explicit, reliable protections from discrimination in the workplace.”

In regards to the bill’s religious exemption clause, the group says it is urging its allies in Congress to recognise that LGBT people “do not have the luxury of waiting for these protections,” while an “urgent need” for equality persists.

Meanwhile, some U.S. legislators have been looking for ways to directly counter the recent Supreme Court ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. New legislation, announced Wednesday, would seek to expressly forbid private companies from using religious exemption to deny employee contraception “or any other vital health service required by federal law”.

Although the new bill would have no direct impact on workplace discrimination for LGBT individuals, the proposal’s sponsors see it as a significant step towards separating religious preferences from employees’ fundamental rights.

“Particularly in light of the recent Hobby Lobby decision, we must be more careful than ever to ensure that religious liberty, a cherished American value intended to shield individuals from government interference, is not wielded as a sword against employees who may not share their employers’ religious beliefs,” Jerrold Nadler, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and one of the new bill’s co-sponsors, said Wednesday.

President Barack Obama is expected to issue an executive order on employment discrimination in coming weeks. As such, a similar fight is now brewing of that mandate’s details.

On Tuesday, a group of 100 progressive religious leaders urged the president to exclude any religious exemption from the order. Instead, the groups called on the president to remain committed to the principle of equality under the Constitution.

“If contractors were allowed to selectively follow employment or other laws according to their religious beliefs, we would quickly create an untenable morass of legal disputes,” the letter states.

“Furthermore, if selective exemptions to the executive order were permitted, the people who would suffer most would be the people who always suffer most when discrimination is allowed: the individuals and communities that are already marginalized.”

Some civil rights groups have applauded the letter. The ACLU’s Thompson told IPS that the move was “incredibly important” in the context of the broader equality debate.

“It shows is that religious leaders and faith organisations do not speak with simply one voice on these issues,” he says. “Rather, it shows that there are two sides to the faith community, and it is very helpful for the community’s pro-equality voices to come forward.”

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Conservatives and Nationalists At Centre Stage in Poland http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/conservatives-and-nationalists-at-centre-stage-in-poland/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=conservatives-and-nationalists-at-centre-stage-in-poland http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/conservatives-and-nationalists-at-centre-stage-in-poland/#comments Tue, 08 Jul 2014 16:45:29 +0000 Claudia Ciobanu http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135424 Polish conservatives protesting against a reading of Golgota Picnic in Warsaw. Credit: Maciej Konieczny/Courtesy of Krytyka Polityczna

Polish conservatives protesting against a reading of Golgota Picnic in Warsaw. Credit: Maciej Konieczny/Courtesy of Krytyka Polityczna

By Claudia Ciobanu
WAESAW, Jul 8 2014 (IPS)

A mix of conservative Catholicism and nationalism has become the predominant view in Polish public debate, with some worrying effects.

These were the values around which the opposition to communism led by trade union Solidarity built itself up in the 1980s but, after the fall of communism, opinion makers in the media and politicians continued to depict them as part and parcel of being Polish.

Observers note that the Polish Catholic Church has also grown increasingly conservative since 1989, in apparent contrast to an opening up of the Church worldwide.Conservative Catholicism and nationalism were the values around which the opposition to communism led by trade union Solidarity built itself up in the 1980s but, after the fall of communism, opinion makers in the media and politicians continued to depict them as part and parcel of being Polish.

Last month, the director of a theatre festival in the city of Poznan decided to cancel showings of a play fearing he could not ensure the safety of viewers in the face of threats by conservative and far-right groups. The play – “Golgota Picnic” by Argentinian director Rodrigo Garcia – describes the life of Jesus using striking depictions of contemporary society, including some with a sexual meaning.

Among those asking for play to be cancelled were representatives of Poland’s main opposition party, Law and Justice, the main trade union Solidarity, and the far-right Ruch Narodowy (National Movement), all of which stand for traditional Catholic values. The Church also voiced its opposition to the play.

In itself, protesting against the play was unremarkable (it has also been met with opposition from Catholics in other countries, for example in France), but the Polish response was interesting: even if the festival was largely financed from public sources, the show was cancelled and there was hardly any resistance from public authorities to the decision. The public, however, made itself heard and readings of the play were organised in major Polish cities, with hundreds attending.

Meanwhile, the dynamics surrounding “Golgota Picnic” are being replicated over other issues in Polish society, among which the most striking is women’s reproductive rights. Poland is one of only three countries in the European Union where abortion is prohibited, unless the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, there is a serious threat to the mother’s health or foetal malformation has been detected.

Abortion had been legal in communist Poland but was outlawed in 1993 after pressure from the Catholic Church. Ever since, attempts to make abortion legal have failed. In 2011, the Polish parliament came close to further tightening the law on abortion by prohibiting it no matter the circumstances.

At the time, it was not only the political forces explicitly standing for Catholic values that endorsed a total ban, but also many members of the governing centre-right Civic Platform, which depicts itself as Poland’s main liberal political force.

De facto, even the current restrictive law is not being implemented. In a series of high profile cases over the years, Catholic doctors in public hospitals have refused to perform abortions even if girls were pregnant as a result of rape, had serious health conditions or malformation had been detected in foetuses.

In May, in an escalation of the situation, over 3,000 Polish doctors, nurses and medical students signed a “Declaration of Faith” in which they rejected abortion, birth control, in vitro fertilisation and euthanasia as contrary to the Catholic faith. Signatories included employees of public clinics and hospitals. One of them was the director of a Warsaw maternity hospital who said he would not allow such procedures to take place in his institution.

The “Declaration of Faith”, which has been endorsed by the Polish Catholic Church, is contrary to Polish law and Prime Minister Donald Tusk has spoken out against it.

State authorities have been carrying out check-ups at those institutions in which signatories of the Declaration work to establish whether the law is being respected, and one fine has been imposed on the Warsaw maternity hospital whose director prohibits legal abortions. Yet more determined measures are still pending.

“Lack of massive resistance [to the Declaration] is not a sign of approval on the part of the general public,” comments Agnieszka Graff, writer and feminist activist. “It is rather a question of resignation: for 20 years we have seen politicians court the Church while ignoring public opinion on matters that have to do with reproductive rights. The pattern of submission has emboldened the radical anti-choice groups.”

Political power in Poland is firmly in the hands of conservatives. Law and Justice, the party with the best chance of winning next year’s parliamentary elections, is staunchly pro-Catholic and nationalist, and has in the past allied in government with far-right politicians. The governing Civic Platform, the choice of many liberals in this country, is bitterly divided between social conservatives and liberals, meaning it cannot enforce the constitutional secularity of the Polish state.

As Graff explains, in this political context, those who oppose the Catholicism-nationalism nexus find it difficult to coalesce into a strong movement. And ultra-conservatives continue to advance.

Far-right elements breeds in this environment and, in an ethnically and racially homogeneous country, their main targets are feminists, the LGBTQ community and leftists (the same groups that the Church condemns). Their strength is most visible in Poland during the annual Independence March on November 11, when tens of thousands of far-right youth take to the streets of Warsaw and other cities wreaking havoc.

According to June polls, the third strongest political force in Poland is the New Right Congress, which has a neo-liberal far-right agenda. The party, whose leader Janusz Korwin-Mikke has declared that women have lower IQs than men and that they enjoy being raped, gathered 7.5 percent of the vote in the May elections for the European Parliament.

“There is no clear demarcation between the Polish extreme right, the populist right and the mainstream right,” notes political scientist Rafal Pankovski of anti-racist group Nigdy Wiecej (Never Again). “The notion of a cordon sanitaire against the far-right does not seem to have been accepted in Polish politics and the media.”

Over recent years, civic mobilisation by progressive forces has nevertheless grown, and political parties with a strong liberal, secular and anti-nationalist message have been forming, but they still lack consolidation. Faced with the constant accusation of being “communists”, leftist forces that might counterbalance the conservative, nationalist and far-right trend are slow to grow in Poland.

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Trouble Brewing in Kurdish-Controlled Kirkuk http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/trouble-brewing-in-kurdish-controlled-kirkuk/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=trouble-brewing-in-kurdish-controlled-kirkuk http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/trouble-brewing-in-kurdish-controlled-kirkuk/#comments Tue, 01 Jul 2014 07:01:29 +0000 Mohammed A. Salih http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135306 By Mohammed A. Salih
KIRKUK, Iraq, Jul 1 2014 (IPS)

The Kurdish flag is flying high in the wind from the rooftop of an old brick house inside Kirkuk’s millennia-old citadel, as Rashid – a stern-looking man sitting behind a machine gun – monitors the surroundings.

Rashid commands a small unit of a dozen fighters, members of the Kurdish armed forces – known as the Peshmerga – deployed to the oil-rich province since June 13.

On June 12, the Iraqi army evacuated its positions in Kirkuk province after its troops had earlier conceded control of the country’s second largest city, Mosul, in the face of advancing Sunni militant groups led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).

“Since we have been deployed here things have changed,” says Rashid, a Peshmerga for 25 years, with a sense of pride. “It’s safer now and people can go out and do their daily business.”By appearing to favour Shia armed elements, Kurds might risk alienating the local Sunni Arabs and potentially push them toward cooperation with ISIS and other militant Sunni factions.

However, although the deployment of thousands of Peshmerga troops has in fact brought relative calm to the city so far, trouble appears to be brewing.

Rich in natural resources such as oil and home to a mixed population of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Christians, Kirkuk is no stranger to conflict. It has been at the heart of decades of armed and political struggles between the Kurds and successive Iraqi governments.

Since the Kurdish takeover there, armed Shia groups have been flexing their muscles, a move that has infuriated the considerable Sunni Arab population in the province and could be a potentially destabilising factor, while insurgent activity by Sunni militants continues in some parts of the province and has left tens of casualties behind so far.

The local office of the influential Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr organised a military parade on June 21 in which hundreds of armed Shia men walked through the streets in downtown Kirkuk.

“The parade was meant to send a couple of messages. One was a message of reassurance to all Iraqis that there are soldiers to defend all segments of the people,” says Sheikh Raad al-Sakhri, the local representative of Sadr, sitting on the floor of his well-protected Khazal al-Tamimi mosque. “And the other was a message to terrorists that there is another army ready to fight for the sake of the country if the [official] military [forces] fall short of their duties.”

Al-Sakhri might claim his men will protect everyone, but the Sunni Arabs here are not convinced.

At the peak of Iraq’s sectarian strife in 2006 and 2007, Sadr’s Mahdi Army was seen as responsible for summary execution of thousands of Sunnis in the capital Baghdad and other areas.

“A question for the local government [in Kirkuk] is will it allow Sunni Arabs to carry out a similar (military) parade,” says Massoud Zangana, a former human rights activist turned businessman, who alleges he has been threatened with death by Shia armed groups.  “The number of Sunni Arabs is more than the Shia in this city.”

Zangana owns a television channel called Taghyir – Arabic for ‘Change’ – that broadcasts from Amman, Jordan, which some Iraqis refer to as the “Revolution Channel” for its steady coverage of Sunni protests two years ago and of the current fight between Sunni militants and the Iraqi army.

Local media are also buzzing with reports that the central government in Baghdad has delivered a couple of arms’ shipments via the city’s airport to Shia militiamen here.

Officials in Kirkuk or Baghdad have not confirmed those reports.

“Giving weapons to official security forces is okay but providing arms to one side to fight the others is wrong,” says Mohammed Khalil Joburi, a Sunni Arab member of the Kirkuk Provincial Council, wishing that the news of arm deliveries is not true.

The local government in Kirkuk is run by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a major Kurdish party that has close relationship with Iran. Many in the local media speculate that the PUK-controlled administration in Kirkuk had possibly agreed to the military display by Shia groups under pressure from Iraq’s powerful eastern neighbour, Iran.

Despite the appearance of relative calm, tensions are high in Kirkuk and security forces are visible throughout the city.

By appearing to favour Shia armed elements, Kurds might risk alienating the local Sunni Arabs and potentially push them toward cooperation with ISIS and other militant Sunni factions.

In Bashir, a village in southern Kirkuk populated by Shia Turkmen, local Shia militias and Kurdish Peshmerga forces have clashed with ISIS and other Sunni militant groups.

In the western part of the province around Hawija district, the Kurdish Peshmerga have repeatedly fought against ISIS and its local allies.

Kirkuk has not been spared suicide attacks, a trademark of ISIS and jihadist groups.

On June 25, a suicide attack killed at least five people and injured around two dozen others.

The challenge before Kurds who effectively rule most parts of the province is to prevent a spillover of violence and sectarian divisions in other parts of the country into Kirkuk.

Kurds view Kirkuk as part of their homeland, Kurdistan, and hope they can maintain their current military and political dominance in the city.

In the latest Iraqi parliamentary elections in April, Kurds won eight out of the 12 parliamentary seats allocated to the province.

Kirkuk’s vast oil fields have the capacity to produce around half a million barrels of oil per day and Kurds consider Kirkuk central to their aspirations to build an independent state.

Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Region, recently said that he will deploy as many forces as needed to maintain Kurdish control of the contested province. 

On June 30, Barzani asked the head of United Nations Mission to Iraq to organise a referendum in which Kirkuk’s residents can decide whether they want to be part of the Kurdistan Region.

The official territory of the Kurdistan Region includes Erbil, Sulaimaniya and Dohuk provinces.

But after the Iraqi military’s recent defeat at the hand of ISIS-led Sunni militant groups, Kurds have expanded their control over large parts of the neighbouring Kirkuk, Nineveh, Diyala and Salahaddin provinces.

Now in charge of Kirkuk, the challenge for Kurds is walking a fine line between Shia and Sunni, Arab and Turkmen populations to maintain order in the medium and long term.

In a deeply-divided city facing the threat of jihadists close by, Kirkuk’s Shia and Sunni leaders who spoke to IPS appeared to have no objection to Peshmerga’s control of Kirkuk, at least in the short term.

In the heart of the city’s historic citadel, Rashid and his young men are well aware of the difficult task lying ahead. “We are here to protect all groups … We don’t wish to fight but this area is surrounded by ISIS and all sorts of other groups,” says Rashid.

“We don’t know what their goal is, but we are on alert here.”

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Ethnic Cleansing Goes Unpunished in the ‘Land of the Pure’ http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/ethnic-cleansing-goes-unpunished-in-the-land-of-the-pure/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=ethnic-cleansing-goes-unpunished-in-the-land-of-the-pure http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/ethnic-cleansing-goes-unpunished-in-the-land-of-the-pure/#comments Mon, 30 Jun 2014 19:51:55 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135290 Protest mourning of the Hazara Shias killed in Quetta. Credit: Altaf Safdari/IPS

Protest mourning of the Hazara Shias killed in Quetta. Credit: Altaf Safdari/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Jun 30 2014 (IPS)

It has been two years since he survived an attack on his life, but 24-year-old Quwat Haider, a member of Pakistan’s minority Hazara community, still finds it hard to narrate the events that scarred him for life.

“I wouldn’t even want my worst enemies to witness what I did on that summer day of Jun. 18, 2012,” the young man, hailing from the southwest Balochistan province, tells IPS.

Like any regular day, he, his sister and their three cousins boarded a bus at 7:45 am bound for the Balochistan University of Information Technology and Management Sciences (BUITMS) in the capital, Quetta.

“There is no travel route, no shopping trip, no school run, no work commute that is safe for the Hazara." -- Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch
Just before they disembarked, a car filled with explosives rammed into the bus.

“All I remember is hitting my head hard on the floor of the bus before I passed out. When I came round, I heard screaming all around me. People were getting out of the bus, as they feared it might explode. I got out too, still numb,” Haider recalled with difficulty.

Miraculously, he sustained no serious injuries, and was able to rush his sisters and cousins to the hospital.

Others were not so lucky. Of the roughly 70 Hazara students on the bus that morning, four died on the spot, while dozens of others were seriously wounded in the blast.

It was not the first time a group of Hazaras had been attacked simply for their ethnicity, and experts fear it will not be the last.

A report released Monday by Human Rights Watch, entitled ‘We Are the Walking Dead: Killings of Shi’a Hazaras in Balochistan, Pakistan’, documents systematic attacks on the community between 2010 and early 2014.

It has recorded at least 450 killings of the Shiite minority in 2012, and 400 in 2013. In 2012 approximately one-quarter of the victims, and in 2013, nearly half of all victims, belonged to the Hazara community in Balochistan.

With their distinctive Mongolian features, Hazaras are a Persian-speaking people who originally migrated from central Afghanistan over a century ago. Today there are an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 Hazaras in the country, the vast majority of who reside in Quetta.

According to Minority Support Pakistan, a non-partisan advocacy organisation, the community comprises approximately 20 percent of the country’s 180-million strong, Sunni-majority population.

The systematic targeting of Hazaras began around 2008, and each account is increasingly chilling – pilgrims en route to Iran are dragged from buses and executed on the roadside, families perish in bomb blasts at busy marketplaces or during religious processions, others are attacked while commuting to work and school, and some are simply slaughtered while praying in mosques.

A funeral for victims of gunmen in the Hazara graveyard in Quetta, capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Credit: Altaf Safdari/IPS

A funeral for victims of gunmen in the Hazara graveyard in Quetta, capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Credit: Altaf Safdari/IPS

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a banned Sunni militant outfit that reportedly enjoys strong ties with the Al Qaeda and the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has proudly claimed responsibility for most of the attacks, declaring itself a sworn enemy of the Shi’a “infidels”.

In 2011, a letter circulated in Mariabad, a Hazara-dominated inner suburb in eastern Quetta, read: “Pakistan means land of the pure, and the Shi’as have no right to be here…Our mission [in Pakistan] is the abolition of this impure sect and people, the Shias and the Shia-Hazaras, from every city, every village, every nook and corner of Pakistan.”

In keeping with this deadly vow, the group has carried out endless bloody attacks, including two bombings in January and February last year that killed at least 180 people.

The first incident, on Jan. 10 – which consisted of two subsequent bomb blasts – wiped out 96 people at a snooker club, injuring an additional 150.

This led to countrywide sit-ins in solidarity with the families in Quetta who refused to bury the dead. Three days later the government was forced to suspend the provincial government and impose federal rule in Balochistan.

Official Indifference

Earlier this month, on Jun. 8, 30 Shias returning from a pilgrimage were killed in a coordinated suicide bombing in Taftan, a remote part of Balochistan province on the border with Iran.

Because it was “impossible to secure the 800 km-road from Quetta to Taftan,” according to Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the government imposed a blanket ban on road travel to Iran, urging pilgrims to “travel by air instead.”

HRCP’s Yusuf found the minister’s comment "insensitive", adding, “not everyone can afford air fares.”

The problem can only be solved, she said, by taking action against sectarian terrorists in Balochistan and elsewhere, "not restricting movement of those under threat."
Barely five weeks after the massacre, on Feb. 17, a car bomb went off in a crowded vegetable market in Quetta’s Hazara Town, this time killing 84 and injuring about 160 people.

Haider, who lives close to the site of the Jan. 10 attack, counts himself lucky to have survived.

“When I heard the blast, I decided to go and help the wounded, but my mother called just then asking to be picked up from somewhere, so I left home. Otherwise, I would have been dead too,” he added, referring to the scores of people who lost their lives in the second blast, while tending to the injured.

Haider later went to look for his cousins among the carnage. “I saw corpses, headless bodies, singed limbs and hands… it was horrible,” he said.

Rights advocates say that the government’s response to every killing is the same: officials make all the right statements, but fail to conduct any arrests or hold the perpetrators accountable.

Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) who participated in a fact-finding mission to Quetta in May 2012, is disappointed with the government’s lacklustre efforts.

“We…brought up the issue with the then governor and chief secretary [of the state] and both acknowledged the persecution; but they had no answers as to why action was not taken against LeJ, which in almost all cases owns up to the attacks,” she told IPS.

Meanwhile, the situation for Hazaras is getting worse.

According to Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, “There is no travel route, no shopping trip, no school run, no work commute that is safe for the Hazara. The government’s failure to put an end to these attacks is as shocking as it is unacceptable.”

The HRCP estimates that 30,000 Hazaras have fled Pakistan in the last five years, resulting in a booming trafficking market in Quetta. Thousands of desperate Hazaras have paid agents huge sums of money to facilitate passage to Australia and Europe, using dangerous sea-routes that offer no guarantee of making it to the other side alive.

Once a serene and peaceful city, Quetta is now pockmarked with army cantonments and military checkpoints. Over 1,000 soldiers from the Balochistan Frontier Corps (a paramilitary force), organised into 27 platoons, patrol the streets alongside the police.

This degree of security makes the continued persecution of the Hazara community even more “appalling”, according to Ambreeen Agha, a research assistant with New Delhi’s Institute for Conflict Management, since it is happening “right under the nose of the Pakistani army.”

For those like Haider, “home” has now become a violent and dangerous place. “No part of Pakistan is safe for me,” he said pessimistically. But unlike his brother, who left the country four years ago, he has no plans of fleeing. “It’s just me and my sister here; if I leave, who will take care of our parents?”

(END)

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U.S.: What Is the Greatest Threat of Them All? http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/u-s-what-is-the-greatest-threat-of-them-all/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-what-is-the-greatest-threat-of-them-all http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/u-s-what-is-the-greatest-threat-of-them-all/#comments Sat, 28 Jun 2014 02:02:42 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135236 By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Jun 28 2014 (IPS)

This month’s stunning campaign by Sunni insurgents led by the radical Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL) against the mainly Shi’a government of Iraqi President Nouri Al-Maliki is stoking a growing debate here about the hierarchy of threats facing the United States in the Middle East and beyond.

On one side, many foreign policy “realists” have argued that the greatest threat is precisely the kind of violent Sunni jihadism associated with Al Qaeda, whose prominence, however, now appears to have been eclipsed by the even more violent ISIL.Obama, who has vowed to keep the U.S. out of a regional Sunni-Shi’a civil war, is eager to reassure allies that he has no intention of partnering with Iran to save Maliki.

In their view, Washington should be ready, if not eager, to cooperate with Iran, which, like the U.S., has rushed military advisers, weapons, and even drone aircraft to Baghdad, in order to protect the Iraqi government and help organise a counter-offensive to regain lost territory.

Some voices in this camp even favour working with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, whose air force reportedly bombed ISIL positions inside Iraq Wednesday, to help repel the threat.

“There’s only one strategy with a decent chance of winning: forge a military and political coalition with the power to stifle the jihadis in both Iraq and Syria,” according to the former president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb.

“This means partnering with Iran, Russia, and President Assad of Syria. This would be a very tricky arrangement among unfriendly and non-trusting partners, but the overriding point is that they all have common interests,” he wrote in The Daily Beast.

On the other side, pro-Israel neo-conservatives and aggressive nationalists, who maintain their hold — if increasingly shakily — on the Republican Party, vehemently oppose any such cooperation, insisting that Tehran poses Washington’s greatest strategic threat, especially if it succeeds in what they depict as its determination to obtain nuclear weapons.

For them, talk of any cooperation with either Syria or Iran, which they accuse of having supported Al Qaeda and other Sunni jihadist groups in the past, is anathema.

“(W)e should not aid our stronger adversary power against our weaker adversary power in the struggle underway in Iraq,” according to George W. Bush’s ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, now with the American Enterprise Institute.

“U.S. strategy must rather be to prevent Tehran from re-establishing its scimitar of power stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon,” he wrote for FoxNews in an op-ed that called for renewed U.S. efforts to overthrow “the ayatollahs”.

The hawks have instead urged, among other things, Washington to deploy special operations forces and airpower to attack ISIL in both Iraq and Syria while substantially boosting military aid to “moderate” rebel factions fighting to oust Assad.

Yet a third camp argues that the current fixation on ISIL — not to say, the 13-year-old pre-occupation with the Middle East more generally — is overdrawn and misplaced and that Washington needs to engage a serious threat re-assessment and prioritise accordingly.

Noting disappointingly that Obama himself had identified “terrorism” as the greatest threat to the U.S. in a major foreign policy speech last month, political theorist Francis Fukuyama cited Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea and increased tensions over maritime claims between China and its U.S.-allied neighbours as greater causes for concern.

“He said virtually nothing about long-term responses to the two other big challenges to world order: Russia and China,” Fukuyama wrote in a Financial Times column entitled “ISIS risks distracting us from more menacing foes.”

In the face of ISIL’s advance, the administration appears to lean toward the “realist” camp, but, for a variety of reasons feels constrained in moving more decisively in its direction.

Indeed, at the outset of the crisis, both Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, made clear that they were open to at least consulting, if not cooperating with Tehran in dealing with the ISIL threat.

Kerry even sent his top deputy, William Burns, to explore those possibilities in a meeting with senior Iranian officials on the sidelines of nuclear negotiations in Vienna – the highest-level bilateral talks about regional-security issues the two governments have held in memory.

But the sudden emergence of a possible de facto U.S.-Iranian partnership propelled its many foes into action.

These included not only neo-conservatives and other anti-Iran hawks, including the powerful Israel lobby here, but also Washington’s traditional regional allies, including Israel itself, as well as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

They have long feared a return to the pre-1979 era when Washington recognised Tehran as the Gulf’s pre-eminent power and, in any case, have repeatedly ignored U.S. appeals in the past to reconcile themselves to a new Iraq in which the majority Shi’a community will no longer accept Sunni predominance.

“Some [U.S. allies] worry that the U.S. is seeking a new alliance with Iran to supplant its old alliance system in the region,” wrote Michael Singh, a former Bush Middle East aide now with the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near Policy (WINEP), on the same day of the Vienna meeting.

“As misplaced as these worries may be, an American embrace of an Iranian security role in Iraq – or even bilateral talks with Iran on regional security that exclude other stakeholders – will only exacerbate them,” he warned in the neo-conservative editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal which has published a flood of op-eds and editorials over the past two weeks opposing any cooperation with Iran on Iraq.

Faced with these pressures, Obama, who has vowed to keep the U.S. out of a regional Sunni-Shi’a civil war, is eager to reassure those allies that he has no intention of partnering with Iran to save Maliki himself (to whom the Iranians appear to remain committed, at least for now).

U.S. officials have made no secret of their preference for a less-sectarian leader who is capable of reaching out to the Sunni community in Iraq in ways that could prise it loose from ISIL’s grip or influence.

That no doubt was a major part of the message conveyed by Kerry – along with the dangers posed by ISIL, even to Saudi Arabia itself — in his meeting in Jeddah Friday with King Abdullah, who until now has clearly viewed Tehran as the greater threat.

Similarly, the White House announcement Thursday that it will ask Congress to approve a whopping 500 million dollars in military and other assistance to “moderate” rebel groups in Syria to fight both Assad and ISIL also appeared designed to reassure the Saudis and its Gulf allies that Washington remains responsive to their interests, even if the aid is unlikely to materialise before some time next year.

While that announcement may please U.S. hawks and Washington’s traditional allies in the region, it is unlikely to strengthen those in Tehran who favour cooperating with the U.S. on regional security issues. Indeed, it risks bolstering hard-liners who see the conflict in both Iraq and Syria in sectarian terms and accuse Washington of siding with their Sunni rivals in the Gulf.

That the announcement was made on the same day that Baghdad thanked Damascus for bombing ISIL positions in Iraq, however, illustrates the complexities of the tangled alliances at play and the urgent questions for U.S. policy-makers: whom is the greatest threat and whom best to work with in defeating it?

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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OP-ED: Surging Violence Against Women in Iraq http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/op-ed-surging-violence-against-women-in-iraq/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=op-ed-surging-violence-against-women-in-iraq http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/op-ed-surging-violence-against-women-in-iraq/#comments Fri, 27 Jun 2014 11:12:09 +0000 Zahra Radwan and Zoe Blumenfeld http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135216 Iraq’s latest surge in sectarian violence threatens to unleash a wave of new violence against women. Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photograph by Sgt. Jason W. Fudge

Iraq’s latest surge in sectarian violence threatens to unleash a wave of new violence against women. Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photograph by Sgt. Jason W. Fudge

By Zahra Radwan and Zoe Blumenfeld
SAN FRANCISCO, Jun 27 2014 (IPS)

Shortly after their conquest of Mosul, young men armed with assault rifles went door to door in Iraq’s second-largest city, taking “women who are not owned” for jihad al-nikah, or sex jihad.

From Jun. 9-12, women’s rights activists documented 13 cases of women who were kidnapped and raped by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or DAIISH, the Arabic shorthand for the group’s name. Of the 13 women, four of them committed suicide because they couldn’t stand the shame. One woman’s brother committed suicide because he could not bear the fact that he was unable to protect his sister.“The political process that the U.S. government put in place is a total failure and they [the United States] just left. The damage is not on them, it’s on us now.” -- Yanar Mohammad

The dispatches from Mosul are just one account of the extreme violence that has plagued Iraq since Sunni ISIS militants seized control over large portions of the country. Being awoman in Iraq was difficult before the current conflict. But the current wave of militarisation threatens to make life even worse.

“Women are being taken in broad daylight,” said Yanar Mohammad, co-founder and president of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, a Global Fund for Women grantee partner. “Men have the weapons to do whatever they want and [ISIS'] way of dealing with things is to kill.”

Now military leaders are handing guns to young, untrained, undereducated, and unemployed Shia men. These men are promised big salaries if they leave their homes to fight, according to an anonymous Global Fund ally in Baghdad.

“When we [women] commute to our office, walk in the street, or take the bus, we experience harassment,” added the Global Fund ally, who remains anonymous due to security concerns. “But now, all of the men have weapons. I think maybe he will kidnap or shoot me if I don’t do what he wants. They will shoot and do anything, and because of the fatwa [urging able-bodied Iraqis to take up arms against Sunni extremists] no one asks questions.’”

Sectarian violence slows women’s progress

With a death toll of 1,000 and rising since the beginning of June, the sectarian conflict has forced most women’s rights organisations to scale back their programmes.

The Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq was in the middle of a campaign against Article 79 of the Jaafari Personal Status Law— a law which, among other women’s rights violations, would grant custody over any child two years or older to the father in divorce cases, lower the marriage age to nine for girls and 15 for boys, and even open the door for girls younger than nine to be married with a parent’s approval. Now it takes everything the organisation has just to keep their shelters open and women safe.

“We cannot speak of women’s rights now unless we are speaking of the livelihood of those who are totally jeopardised, such as women who lost families and young girls who are vulnerable to corrupt officials or clerics,” said Yanar Mohammad. “We went from legal work and improving rights of women to working in a state of emergency and trying to find the lowest chain in society and get them to safety.”

The tangled web the U.S. wove

Such extreme sectarian violence is a relatively new phenomenon in Iraq, reflects Yanar Mohammad, who is “sick and tired” of Western pundits on TV saying there is no hope for Iraq.

“The mainstream media trashing Iraqi people is unbearable and is a total manipulation of the facts of America’s role in dividing Iraqi people,” said Yanar Mohammad. “The political process that the U.S. government put in place is a total failure and they [the United States] just left. The damage is not on them, it’s on us now.”

The damage comes in the form of, among other things, a generation that didn’t have access to education.

“This generation listens to whatever the clerics and politicians say,” said Yanar Mohammad. “They are ready to throw themselves in the fire and they do it in the name of their Imam. … Both politicians and religious heads are pushing the country into a very sectarian divide and it’s frightening.”

Refugees flee to Kurdish region

As the fighting intensifies in northern and western Iraq, over 300,000 people have already fled to the Kurdish region for safety, where the United Nations and relief organisations have set up a refugee camp in the arid region of Khazer.

“It is very hot and there is no water; we were not prepared for this influx of refugees,” says a Global Fund ally in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. “The situation is by no means sustainable. The majority has nowhere to go and is staying in parks. Entire families are left without the most basic of shelter, food, and clothes.”

While these waves of displacement to Kurdistan include Shia, Sunni, and Christian families, the pressure on Iraqi Christians has been strongest due to the infamous brutality of ISIS.

“Christian women in the areas controlled by ISIS are forced to wear hijab or face death,” said a Global Fund ally who lives in Baghdad. “They must pay a protection tax, or jizyah to ISIS to stay safe.”

If the violence is not seriously addressed, our ally in Erbil says Iraqi women know exactly what is going to happen next because they have endured it over and over again since the U.S. invasion in 2003, and during the first and second Gulf War.

“We know what has happened to women in Iraq — a lot of murders and violations — and we have already suffered to an unbearable extent,” said the Global Fund ally in Erbil. “There is nothing they haven’t done to us, which is why panic spreads among women as soon as we hear of another crisis. Women are used as a weapon for retaliation.”

Zahra Radwan is the programme officer for Middle East & North Africa at Global Fund for Women and Zoe Blumenfeld is the communications manager at Global Fund for Women. They are both guest columnists at Foreign Policy In Focus, where this article originally appeared.

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When Faith Meets Disaster Management http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/when-faith-meets-disaster-management/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=when-faith-meets-disaster-management http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/when-faith-meets-disaster-management/#comments Wed, 25 Jun 2014 14:09:15 +0000 Kalinga Seneviratne http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135176 An old woman stands in front of her house, which was destroyed by flash floods in Sri Lanka. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

An old woman stands in front of her house, which was destroyed by flash floods in Sri Lanka. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Kalinga Seneviratne
BANGKOK, Jun 25 2014 (IPS)

A consortium of faith-based organisations (FBOs) made a declaration at a side event Wednesday at the 6th Asian Ministerial Conference On Disaster Risk Reduction (AMCDRR), to let the United Nations know that they stand ready to commit themselves to building resilient communities across Asia in the aftermath of natural disasters.

Hosted this year by the Thai government, the conference is an annual collaboration with the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), with the aim of bringing regional stakeholders together to discuss the specific challenges facing Asia in an era of rapid climate change.

“I have seen the aftermath of disasters, where religious leaders and volunteers from Hindu temples, Islamic organisations and Sikh temples work together like born brothers." -- Dr. Anil Kumar Gupta, head of the division of policy planning at the National Institute of Disaster Management in India
A report prepared for the Bangkok conference by UNISDR points out that in the past three years Asia has encountered a wide range of disasters, from cyclones in the Philippines and major flooding in China, India and Thailand, to severe earthquakes in Pakistan and Japan.

In 2011 alone, global economic losses from extreme weather events touched 366 billion dollars, of which 80 percent were recorded in the Asia-Pacific region.

While the region accounts for 39 percent of the planet’s land area and hosts 60 percent of the world’s population, it only holds 29 percent of global wealth, posing major challenges for governments in terms of disaster preparedness and emergency response.

FBOs believe they can fill this gap by giving people hope during times of suffering.

“It’s not about the goods we bring or the big houses we build,” argued Jessica Dator Bercilla, a Filipina from Christian Aid, adding that the most important contribution religious organisations can make is to convince people they are not alone on the long road towards rebuilding their lives after a disaster.

The FBO consortium that drafted the statement – including Caritas Asia, Soka Gakkai International (SGI) and the ACT Alliance – held a pre-conference consultative meeting here on Jun. 22nd during which some 50 participants from various faiths discussed the many hurdles FBOs must clear in order to deliver disaster relief and assist affected populations.

The final FBO Statement on Disaster Risk Reduction drew attention to faith organisations’ unique ability to work closely with local communities to facilitate resilience and peace building.

Overcoming Hidden Agendas

One challenge to including FBOs in national DRR frameworks is the prevailing fear that religious organisations will use their position as providers of aid and development services to push their own religious agendas.

In the aftermath of the 2004 Asian tsunami, for instance, Buddhist communities in Sri Lanka and Thailand, as well as Muslim communities in Indonesia, complained that FBOs tried to impose their beliefs on the survivors.

When IPS raised this question during the pre-conference consultation, it triggered much debate among the participants.

Many feel the fear is unfounded, as FBOs are driven by the desire to give value to human life, rather than a desire to convert non-believers or followers of different faiths.

“If beliefs hinder development we must challenge those values,” asserted a participant from Myanmar who gave his name only as Munir.

Vincentia Widyasan Karina from Caritas Indonesia agreed, adding that in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, Caritas worked among Muslim communities to rebuild the northern Indonesian region of Aceh, and “supported the Islamic community’s need to have prayer centres.”

Organisations like SGI go one step further by following methods like the Lotus Sutra for the realisation of happiness in all beings simultaneously.

“This principle expounds that Buddha’s nature is inherent in every individual, and this helps lead many other people towards happiness and enlightenment,” argued Asai, adding that in countries where Buddhists are a minority they work with other stakeholders. “If we form a network it is easier to work,” he added.
Given that an estimated one in eight people in the world identify with some form of organised religion, and that faith-based organisations comprise the largest service delivery network in the world, FBOs stand out as natural partners in the field of disaster risk reduction (DRR).

A declaration enshrined in the statement also urged the United Nations to recognise FBOs as a unique stakeholder in the Post-2015 Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (HFA2) to be presented to the 3rd U.N. World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in 2015.

It also wants national and local governments to include FBOs when they organise regular consultations on DRR with relevant stakeholders, as FBOs are the ones who often sustain development programmes in the absence of international NGOs.

For example, since 2012 Caritas Indonesia has been working with a coastal community that has lost 200 metres of its coastal land in the past 22 years, in the Fata Hamlet of Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggar Province, to build community resilience to rising seawaters.

The agency helped community members form the Fata Environment Lover Group, which now uses natural building methods to allow seawater to pass through bamboo structures before reaching the coast, so that wave heights are reduced and mangroves are protected.

Collectively, the three partners to the declaration cover a lot of ground in the region.

Caritas Asia is one of seven regional offices that comprise Caritas International, a Catholic relief agency that operates in 200 countries. SGI is a Japanese lay Buddhist movement with a network of organisations in 192 countries, while ACT is a coalition of Christian churches and affiliated organistaions working in over 140 countries.

All three are renowned for their contributions to the field of development and disaster relief. Caritas International, for instance, annually allocates over a million euros (1.3 million dollars) to humanitarian coordination, capacity building and HIV/AIDS programmes around the world.

“We would like to be one of the main players in the introduction of the DRR policy,” Takeshi Komino, head of emergencies for the ACT Alliance in the Asia-Pacific region, told IPS. “We are saying we are ready to engage.”

“What our joint statement points out is that our commitment is based on faith and that is strong. We can be engaged in relief and recovery activity for a long time,” added Nobuyuki Asai, programme coordinator of peace affairs for SGI.

Experts say Asia is an excellent testing ground for the efficacy of faith-based organisations in contributing to disaster risk reduction.

According to a survey by the independent Pew Research Centre, the Asia-Pacific region is home to 99 percent of the world’s Buddhists, 99 percent of the world’s Hindus and 62 percent of the world’s Muslims.

The region has also seen a steady increase in the number of Catholics, from 14 million a century ago to 131 million in 2013.

Forming links between these communities is easier said than done, with religious and communal conflicts plaguing the region, including a wave of Buddhist extremism in countries like Sri Lanka and Myanmar, a strong anti-Christian movement across Pakistan and attacks on religious minorities in China and India.

Some experts, however, say that the threat of natural catastrophe draws communities together.

According to Dr. Anil Kumar Gupta, head of the division of policy planning at the National Institute of Disaster Management in India, “When there is a disaster people forget their differences.

“I have seen the aftermath of disasters, where religious leaders and volunteers from Hindu temples, Islamic organisations and Sikh temples work together like born brothers,” he told IPS, citing such cooperation during major floods recently in the northern Indian states of Uttarakhand and Kashmir.

Loy Rego, a Myanmar-based disaster relief consultant, told IPS that the statement released today represents a very important landmark in disaster risk reduction.

“FBOs need to be more visible as an organised constituency in the roll-out of future frameworks,” he stated.

Rego believes that the biggest contribution FBOs could make to disaster risk management is to promote peaceful living among different communities.

“Respecting other religions need not be done in a secular way,” he said. “It only happens when they work with other FBOs in an inter-faith setting.”

(END)

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Atheists, the “Ultimate Other” in Turkey http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/atheists-the-ultimate-other-in-turkey/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=atheists-the-ultimate-other-in-turkey http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/atheists-the-ultimate-other-in-turkey/#comments Tue, 24 Jun 2014 08:44:42 +0000 Nick Ashdown http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135146 Tolga Inci, one of the founders and interim chair of the Atheism Association, outside the association’s office in Istanbul. Credit: Nick Ashdown/IPS

Tolga Inci, one of the founders and interim chair of the Atheism Association, outside the association’s office in Istanbul. Credit: Nick Ashdown/IPS

By Nick Ashdown
ISTANBUL, Jun 24 2014 (IPS)

“Being an atheist isn’t something you can easily express in Turkey,” says Sinem Köroğlu, a member of the Atheism Association, the first official organisation for atheists in the country. “It’s becoming more difficult with the current government as well,” she adds.

Set up earlier this year in Istanbul, the aim of the Atheism Association is to give a voice and support to non-believers in Turkey, a country not known for its fondness of atheists.

Politicians in the religious conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been making hostile comments about atheists. Last year, a high-ranking member of the party, Mahmud Macit, used Twitter to attack “spineless psychopaths pretending to be atheists”, saying that they “should be annihilated.” Prime Minister Erdoğan himself has also insulted protesters by calling them “atheists and terrorists”.

“It’s just really degrading,” says Köroğlu, speaking from the group’s small office in Istanbul’s cosmopolitan Kadıköy neighbourhood, known as a stronghold of secularism. But she says politicians’ comments reflect the larger views of Turkish society. “This is the mentality of the majority of Turkish people, and we need to break this.”"In the public consciousness, mostly among religious conservatives, atheists are seen as immoral and dirty – all of the negative things you could imagine" – Mustafa Akyol, Turkish writer and advocate for a tolerant form of Islam

A survey carried out by Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University in 2011 found that 64 percent of respondents would not want to have an atheist for a next-door neighbour, 72 percent would not want someone who drinks alcohol, and 67 percent would not want an unmarried couple.

Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish writer and advocate for a tolerant form of Islam, says atheists are seen as the “ultimate other” in Turkey. “In the public consciousness, mostly among religious conservatives, atheists are seen as immoral and dirty – all of the negative things you could imagine.”

Such vitriol can result in serious harassment. Barbaros Şansal, a prominent fashion designer and activist, is also a well-known atheist. “I receive lots of messages with threats all the time because I’m an atheist,” he says. “They want to kill me, they want to torture me, they ask me to leave the country, and so on.”

The Atheism Association has also received threatening phone calls, which members say they had expected all along. “I didn’t take them too seriously,” says Tolga Inci, one of the founders and interim chair of the association.

Part of the reason for this, says Akyol, is the vicious way non-Muslims, especially atheists, are often treated by conservative religious media outlets. “They demonise atheists, and treat them as valueless, immoral people.”

Inci says his organisation has already been attacked in the press by religious papers such as Haber Vaktim and Milli Gazete.” They said we will attempt to spread atheism and wage a war against religion,” he answers with a laugh.

Köroğlu insists that the association is not trying to start a war or convert anyone. It just wants to spread awareness about atheism and to support Turkey’s non-believers.

“We’re not trying to take anyone’s religion away from them. We’re just trying to defend atheists,” she says. “We need to teach them that we’re human as well.”

According to Inci, religious discrimination in Turkey has increased in recent years, coinciding with the rise to power of the AKP. But he thinks that now the situation “has become worse.” Noting that “with the AKP, they talk about religion all the time.” Inci says this makes not only atheists, but many less devout people and religious minorities uncomfortable.

Turkey was established as a staunchly secular republic in 1923, but Inci thinks that it is becoming more publicly religious. “We want our secularism back,” he says.

Of Turkey’s 74 million people, 99.8 percent are Muslim, and 80-85 percent of those are Sunni. However, there are also 10-15 million Alevis, a heterodox sect of Shia Islam known for its more relaxed religious customs, and smaller numbers of Christians, Jews, and atheists.

A Eurobarometer poll in 2005 found that 95 percent of Turkish respondents believe in God, while a Pew poll of 2006 reported that 69 percent said religion is “very important” to them.

Turkey’s educational curriculum includes a mandatory religious class that focuses almost exclusively on Sunni Islam. All citizens must carry ID cards declaring their religion, and being an atheist is not an option. State-provided burial services exist for Islamic funerals only, with cremation forbidden in Islam – but many atheists do not want to be buried in Islamic cemeteries.

The colossal government department responsible for religious affairs – the Diyanet – only promotes Sunni Islam. Since the AKP came to power in 2002, its budget has more than quintupled and the number of employees has increased from 74,000 to over 141,000.

The government has passed laws that critics accuse of being religiously inspired. Last year, a bill restricting alcohol sales was passed, legislation that Erdoğan said was “something that faith orders.”

The current Law 216 on hate speech makes it illegal to insult religious values and has been used to prosecute several high profile figures such as world-renowned classical musician Fazıl Say, and linguist and writer Sevan Nişanyan. Both were prosecuted for online comments deemed to be offensive towards Islam.

“I think that law is very questionable,” Inci says. “It’s like a rubber band. You can stretch it any way you like. Maybe saying that I’m an atheist is considered putting down religious values.”

Akyol believes that Law 216 has an important value in suppressing hate speech, but that it should not be used to target people like Say and Nişanyan. “Criticism of religion should not be a crime,” he says.

Akyol, himself a devout Muslim, stresses that Islam has been historically accepting towards non-Muslims, citing the Ottoman Empire’s tolerance towards religious minorities. He notes there are still many young Muslim intellectuals who do not demonise atheists and are willing to engage in civilised dialogue.

For Akyol, the Atheism Association can play an important role in fostering such dialogue. “I support their [atheists’] right to exist. I think it’s good that they exist so Muslims can see these people and maybe converse with them.”

Meanwhile, the Atheism Association is planning to provide free legal support to anyone charged with blasphemy, organising seminars, and conducting a survey on religious beliefs in Turkey. They want religious classes in school to be optional, state-provided funeral services for non-Muslims, and crematoriums to be opened in Turkey.

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India’s ‘Temple Slaves’ Struggle to Break Free http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/indias-temple-slaves-struggle-to-break-free/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=indias-temple-slaves-struggle-to-break-free http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/indias-temple-slaves-struggle-to-break-free/#comments Sun, 22 Jun 2014 14:42:31 +0000 Stella Paul http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135118 Joginis dance outside a temple during a religious festival. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Joginis dance outside a temple during a religious festival. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Stella Paul
NIZAMABAD, India, Jun 22 2014 (IPS)

At 32, Nalluri Poshani looks like an old woman. Squatting on the floor amidst piles of tobacco and tree leaves that she expertly transforms into ‘beedis’, a local cigarette, she tells IPS, “I feel dizzy. The tobacco gives me headaches and nausea.”

At the rate of two dollars for 1,000 cigarettes, she earns about 36 dollars a month. “I wish I could do some other job,” the young woman says longingly.

But no other jobs are open to her in the village of Vellpoor, located in the Nizamabad region of the southern Indian state of Telangana, because Poshani is no ordinary woman.

She is a former jogini, which translates loosely as a ‘temple slave’, one of thousands of young Dalit girls who are dedicated at a very young age to the village deity named Yellamma, based on the belief that their presence in the local temple will ward off evil spirits and usher in prosperity for all.

Poshani says she was just five years old when she went through the dedication ritual.

First she was bathed, dressed like a bride, and taken to the temple where a priest tied a ‘thali’ (a sacred thread symbolising marriage) around her neck. She was then brought outside where crowds of villagers were gathered, held up to their scrutiny and proclaimed the new jogini.

“Women here now see the jogini system as a violation of Dalit people’s human rights." -- Kolamaddi Parijatam, a rights activist in Vellpoor.
For several years she simply lived and worked in the temple, but when she reached puberty men from the village – usually from higher castes who otherwise consider her ‘untouchable’ – would visit her in the night and have sex with her.

Poshani says she was never a sex worker in the typical sense of the word, because she was never properly paid for her ‘services’. Rather, she was bound, by the dedication ritual and the villagers’ firm belief in her supernatural powers, to the temple.

The only time of year she was considered anything more than a common prostitute was during religious festivals, when she performed ‘trance’ dances as a divine medium through which the goddess Yellamma spoke.

But the majority of her nearly three decades of servitude was marked by violence, and disrespect.

Although a strong anti-jogini campaign in Vellpoor is making strides towards outlawing the centuries old practice, women like Poshani have little to celebrate. Though she relishes being free from sexual bondage, she struggles to survive on her own with no home, no land and a debt-burden of 200,000 rupees (about 3,300 dollars), which she borrowed from a local moneylender.

Visibly undernourished, Poshani represents the condition that most mid-life joginis find themselves in: sexually exploited, trapped in poverty, sick and lonely.

A cultural tradition or a caste-based system of exploitation?

According to official records, there are an estimated 30,000 joginis – also known as devdasis or matammas – in Telangana today. An additional 20,000 live in the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh.

In both states, over 90 percent of the joginis are from Dalit communities.

Temple prostitution has been legally banned in the state of Andhra Pradesh since 1988. Under the law, known as the Jogini Abolition Act, initiating a woman into the system is punishable with two to three years, and with a fine of up to 3,000 rupees (33 dollars).

But this is too soft a law for so heinous a crime, says Grace Nirmala, a woman’s rights activist based in the state capital Hyderabad. Nirmala, who heads an organisation called Ashray (meaning ‘shelter’), has been working for over two decades to rescue and rehabilitate jogini women.

“[Joginis] live away from their families and have no rights […],” Nirmala tells IPS. “Her life is completely ruined. For that, the punishment is a couple of years of jail time or a few thousand rupees in fines. How can this be justified?”

She added that most policemen in the state are not even aware of the law, which makes it hard to abolish the practice completely.

Superstition also plays a major role in keeping the tradition alive, with many villagers believing that joginis possess divine powers.

“Sleeping with a jogini […] is a way to invoke that supernatural power and please the goddess,” Nirmala explained. “In many families, if there is a nagging problem, the wife will ask her husband to go and sleep with the village jogini so that it will go away.”

Others, however, believe that India’s deeply entrenched caste-system is responsible for perpetuating this systematic abuse of so many thousands of women.

According to Jyoti Neelaiah, a Hyderabad-based Dalit rights leader, “The jogini system is not just a violation of women’s rights but a also of human rights, because it’s always a Dalit woman who is made a jogini and those whom she serves are always from a dominant caste.”

She tells IPS the whole system is, in fact, a “power play” by which dominant social groups oppress the weaker, more marginalised members of society.

In Telangana, for instance, some of the biggest supporters of the jogini system are members of the wealthy, land-owning Reddy caste, as well as Brahmin priests.

Kolamaddi Parijatam, a social activist who has been mobilising rural women against the jogini system for the past six years, including those in the village of Vellpoor, which is home to 30 joginis, shares Neelaiah’s analysis.

She refutes the theory put forward by various organisations and even scholars that the practice of dedicating women to the local temple has deep cultural roots and should therefore be preserved.

Given that Dalits comprise nearly 17 percent of the population of the newly created state of Telangana, activists say that villages like Vellpoor are well placed to lead the movement for legal reform.

“Women here now see the jogini system as a violation of Dalit people’s human rights,” Parijatam tells IPS. “So whenever anyone says that the jogini system is a cultural tradition, they ask: ‘Then why not make a non-Dalit woman a jogini?’”

Local efforts gain steam

Enraged at the government’s inability to clamp down on the practice, local women have doubled up as vigilantes in a bid to rescue women from the dedication ceremony.

“Dedications of joginis typically occur between the months of February and May when people in our region celebrate the festival of the goddess Yellamma,” Subbiriyala Sharada, head of an all-jogini women’s group in Vellpoor, tells IPS.

“Our group strictly monitors the celebrations and if we get to know a girl has been dedicated to the goddess, we immediately call the police.”

Having been apathetic to the plight of joginis for decades, police are gradually beginning to act in accordance with the law, largely due to pressure from local activist groups. However, their progress is very slow, and activists carry the lion’s share of the burden of reporting violations of the law and ensuring the arrest of perpetrators.

But this, too, only solves part of the problem, because as soon as the dedication ritual is performed, the girl will continue to live with the stigma – remaining vulnerable to sexual slavery – until she is either properly rehabilitated, or until the end of her life.

Activists are currently lobbying the Indian government to divert resources from its ‘Special Component Plan’ – which provides social and economic support to marginalised communities in the form of vocational training, financial loans and alternative livelihood opportunities – to the rehabilitation of joginis, who have long been excluded from government assistance schemes.

Their inclusion as legitimate recipients of aid would significantly reduce the burden on most jogini women, who struggle – among other things – to raise their children in a safe environment.

According to Neelaiah, children of joginis risk verbal abuse and alienation in the community if their mother’s identity is revealed. Girl children are particularly vulnerable, as they face the double risk of being trafficked or forcible dedicated to the deity in their mother’s place.

These girl children are in special need of protection, she says.

Both Neelaiah and Nirmala are helping to send children of joginis to school, which they feel is the best way to protect them.

Fifteen-year-old Prashant, son of a former jogini named Ganga Mani, is one of the lucky ones who managed to complete the 10th grade and is now planning to enroll in a high school.

Mani, who is barely literate, is pinning all her hopes on her son for a better future. “One day he will become a big police officer. Our life will then change,” she tells IPS with a smile.

(END)

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Conflicts in Syria and Iraq Raising Fears of Contagion in Divided Lebanon http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/conflicts-in-syria-and-iraq-raising-fears-of-contagion-in-divided-lebanon/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=conflicts-in-syria-and-iraq-raising-fears-of-contagion-in-divided-lebanon http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/conflicts-in-syria-and-iraq-raising-fears-of-contagion-in-divided-lebanon/#comments Fri, 20 Jun 2014 15:46:09 +0000 Mona Alami http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135104 By Mona Alami
BEIRUT, Jun 20 2014 (IPS)

With jihadists leading a Sunni uprising against Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government, the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are beginning to reverberate across the region, raising fears of contagion in divided Lebanon where a suicide bombing took place on Friday after a period of calm.

The advance on Baghdad of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is threatening a fragile quiet in Lebanon. On Friday, an explosion rocked the mountainous Dahr al-Baydar crossing in the Bekaa region as a suicide bomber blew himself up near an Internal Security Forces checkpoint. The bombing took place shortly after the convoy of General Security Chief Abbas Ibrahim had passed.

Lebanon’s National News Agency reported that two people were killed and a number of others were wounded in the attack. “The danger resides in the dormant terrorist cells that exist across the country, we have uncovered several plots and security breaches in the last week alone,” said a Lebanese army officer speaking on condition of anonymity.“Weapons held both by Shiite Hezbollah and Palestinian factions are a source of constant threat for Lebanon, which is the scene of a permanent struggle” – Wehbe Katisha, retired Lebanese general and military expert

A document from Israel’s Mossad secret service, published by local newspaper An-Nahar on the day of explosion reported that Islamists with the Al Qaeda-affiliated Abdullah Azzam Brigades planned to assassinate a senior Lebanese security official, possibly General Ibrahim.

The kick-off early this year of a security plan has allowed the arrest of several terrorists who were responsible for a string of bombings targeting Shiite regions, where populations support the Hezbollah militant group.  The organisation is currently heavily involved in Syria where some 5,000 Hezbollah fighters are believed to be spearheading operations alongside troops of President Bachar Assad, according to a source close to the party.

The Syrian uprising has been led largely by Syrian Sunnis waging war against a government headed by the Assad clan, which belongs to the Alawite community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

While Hezbollah’s control of borders areas in Syria has disrupted supply lines which allowed for the transfer of booby-trapped cars from Syria into Lebanon has damaged the capabilities of terror groups, it has not put a complete end to it, according to experts.

There are still illegal passageways for the transfer of ammunition or explosives, both in the Bekaa and North Lebanon areas,” said Wehbe Katisha, a retired Lebanese general and military expert.

Against this background, new reports are also pointing to possible attacks on Dahieh (Beirut’s southern suburbs and a bastion for Hezbollah), added Katisha. Early this week, members of Hezbollah and the Lebanese army boosted security measures around the area after news that a terrorist group might attack two hospitals in the region.

General Wehbe Katisha stressed that the state’s institution’s weakness combined with the proliferation of Sunni jihadist networks as well as Shiite militias are factors conducive to renewed sectarian violence. “Weapons held both by Shiite Hezbollah and Palestinian factions are a source of constant threat for Lebanon, which is the scene of a permanent struggle,” he pointed out.

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have played a major role in the string of bombings that took place last year and early this year.  One of the main networks dismantled by the Lebanese armed forces was headed by Palestinian commander Naim Abbas, a member of the Abdallah Azzam Brigades, an affiliate of the Syrian radical organisation, the Nusra Front.

The organisation has claimed the twin suicide bombing targeting last November of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, staged by a Lebanese and a Palestinian national. “Reports are showing that Palestinian radical groups in refugee camps are getting restless and more active,” said the security source.  The situation in Lebanon’s main Palestinian camp Ain al-Hilweh is precarious amid reports of a growing influx of foreign extremist Sunni militants from Syria and other Lebanese areas.

This opinion is also shared by Katisha who added that Palestinian groups can be easily manipulated by foreign groups while some Syrian refugees in the Bekaa are willing to fight Hezbollah.

In an attempt to shield the country from the Iraqi violence, the Lebanese Army has carried out raids on Syrian refugee camps in Ersal, on Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria. The outskirts of Ersal are now home to a few thousands Syrian rebels who withdrew from Syrian border regions after they were reclaimed by Assad’s forces and Hezbollah. Early this month, three teens were briefly kidnapped and tortured, with local media reports linking the abduction to the Nusra Front.

“Al-Qaeda does not have an official presence in Lebanon but many individuals have adopted its discourse and are taking advantage of the rising Sunni-Shiite rivalry in Lebanon. The events in Iraq, with the surge of Sunnis against the divisive policies of (Shiite prime minister) Nouri Maliki, are finding a strong echo among the country’s marginalized Sunni. There is a feeling that in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, the struggle is the same for Sunnis who are repressed by Iranian proxy groups,” said Lebanese Salafi Sheikh Nabil Rahim.

The messages of al-Qaeda’s affiliates such as ISIS and the Nusra Front are becoming more appealing to Lebanese Sunnis who are angry at Hezbollah’s increasing military clout over Lebanon as well as its involvement in the war against the Sunni majority’s revolution in Syria.

Since 2005, and the killing of the country’s Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, a member of the Sunni community, followed by the toppling in 2011 of the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Lebanese Sunnis are increasingly at odds with Hezbollah. Five members of the militant group are currently being tried in absentia for the killing of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

“The latest development in Iraq will certainly fuel sectarian tensions in the region as well as Lebanon. It is also increasing the popularity of ISIS among Sunnis in certain areas in Lebanon, something we are trying to fight,” explained Sheikh Rahim.

Only days after the surge of ISIS in Iraq, Lebanon has once again been drawn into the circle of regional violence, the gains of ISIS hundreds of kilometres away seemingly emboldening radical groups in the ‘Land of the Cedars’.

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Anti-Muslim Violence Reaches New Heights in Sri Lanka http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/anti-muslim-violence-reaches-new-heights-in-sri-lanka/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=anti-muslim-violence-reaches-new-heights-in-sri-lanka http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/anti-muslim-violence-reaches-new-heights-in-sri-lanka/#comments Thu, 19 Jun 2014 16:16:22 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135086 Muslim women were the first to venture back to their homes following deadly riots in southwest Sri Lanka on Jun. 15, 2014. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Muslim women were the first to venture back to their homes following deadly riots in southwest Sri Lanka on Jun. 15, 2014. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO/ALUTHGAMA, Jun 19 2014 (IPS)

The signs had been clear for months; beneath the veneer of normalcy in Sri Lanka’s southwestern coastal town of Aluthgama, religious tensions were brewing, but no one was sure how or when they would erupt.

A little over a month ago the cauldron simmered over when a mob attacked a Muslim-owned shop in this town, 60 km south of the capital Colombo, after the owner’s brother was arrested for sexually molesting a minor from the majority Sinhala community.

Barely a month later, on Jun. 12, hostilities flared again when crowds of angry people surrounded the local police station following an altercation involving a Buddhist monk and some Muslim residents.

When officials in Colombo and Aluthgama heard that the hard-line group Bodu Bala Sena – loosely translated as Buddhist Force and referred to simply as the BBS – was planning a meeting on Jun. 15 in Aluthgama, they sounded the alarm.

“When you see your house burnt down, your life destroyed in flames, it is very difficult to regain the trust in those you expect to protect you." -- Iqbal Asgar, a Muslim resident of Dharga Town
Faiszer Musthapha, a deputy minister in the government of the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), urged the inspector general of police to increase security in the area for fear the rally could turn sour.

According to a letter penned by the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, the Wakf Board of Sri Lanka, the All Ceylon YMMA and the Colombo Masjid Federation, “This is a dangerous situation that could develop into a major riot.”

The warning fell on deaf ears.

On Jun. 15, the meeting went ahead as planned and shortly thereafter, trouble began in the nearby Muslim enclave of Dharga Town. Some of the participants in the BBS rally traveled through the town in a convoy and the first clashes erupted near the town’s mosque where local residents had gathered.

By dusk the police had declared a curfew, but by then the rampaging mob could not be contained. Sporadic violence continued for the next three days in Aluthgama, with smaller incidents reported in the neighbouring town of Beruwela, leaving eight dead, according to residents, though police said only two fatalities had been reported. Locals also told IPS an additional 80 people were wounded in the brawls.

With homes and business premises going up in flames before their eyes, families were forced to take shelter in school buildings, where women huddled in overcrowded classrooms with their children while the men stood guard outside, fearful that the Buddhist mobs would return at any minute.

While the tragedy in Aluthgama is not the first example of post-war communal riots in the country, it has certainly been the worst, representing the first riot-related deaths since Sri Lanka declared an end to its ethnic conflict in 2009.

Previous incidents involving the BBS include the attack on a Muslim-owned clothing store on the outskirts of Colombo on May 13 last year and the storming of a press conference held by a group of Buddhist and Muslim leaders on Apr. 11 this year.

When the BBS rose to prominence in early 2013 its leaders said their aim was to help Buddhism regain its ‘rightful place’ in Sri Lanka.

Although officially constituted on May 7, 2012, the group did not release its 10-point declaration until February 2013, spelling out such demands as an end to Halal certification for certain food items, suspension of the scheme which allows Sinhalese women to work in the Middle East, and a full ban on birth control.

Speakers at BBS rallies have repeatedly claimed that so-called ‘Muslim extremism’ is the biggest threat facing Buddhists in a country where Muslims constitute 10 percent of the population of some 20 million.

Leaders of the movement claim they enjoy close ties with the government, but the state has denied official links with the group.

Rubble replaces communal harmony

As Muslim residents nervously make their way back to the scene of the furore, rights groups and concerned citizens are raising questions about the government’s lax reaction to the violence and the tensions that precipitated it.

From the G77 summit in Bolivia, President Mahinda Rajapaksa tweeted the following message immediately after being notified about the attacks:


Back in Colombo on Jun. 18 he visited the troubled areas and promised an impartial probe into the incident.

But civil society leaders, as well as top officials in the Rajapakse government, want more assertive action from the government to stem communal violence once and for all.

According to Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem, “The law-and-order machinery completely failed.”

“For 72 hours, we begged the government to prevent this rally from taking place on Sunday for fear of riots […],” said the minister, who is also the head of Sri Lanka’s largest Muslim political party, the Muslim Congress, adding, “I am ashamed. I couldn’t protect my people.”

Under tremendous pressure, police arrested close to 50 people Monday night in connection with the violence, 30 of who have been remanded in police custody according to Police Spokesman and Superintendent Ajith Rohana.

Those who were caught in the violence told IPS that if the authorities had acted swiftly, the mayhem could have been avoided.

Eyewitnesses say that BBS members who entered Dharga Town encountered the police as they neared the mosque, but it didn’t slow them down.

“The police were either overwhelmed, or scared, but for whatever reason they did not take any action to prevent the clashes. If they had, lives would not have been lost,” Iqbal Asgar, a resident who fled the violence, asserted.

He said that most of the Muslim properties in the town had been torched, including at least one car dealership and one small factory. Residents told IPS that the losses could run into millions of rupees (thousands of dollars).

Even three days after the riots, tension was still palpable in the town, with plumes of smoke rising from the remnants of charred buildings. Anger among the victims, left helpless in the face of the carnage, hung thick in the air.

Muslim women were the first to venture back to the outskirts of Dharga to examine what was left of their properties. Those who lived closer to the town centre were too terrified to return – as were most of the men, who remained in the safety of the schools where the families initially sought shelter.

They have good reason to be afraid. Even after the army swept through the town in a bid to clear it of extremist elements, Asgar said the displaced heard rumors that the mobs were still at large, and had even attacked a vehicle carrying food aid for those affected.

In the absence of state sponsored relief immediately after the riots, religious and community groups, including Buddhist organisations, mobilised to gather and deliver dry rations, clothes and baby food to the affected population as early as Jun. 16.

Still, it will take sustained effort to repair the sacred bond of communal trust and harmony that now lies in ashes in the southwest of Sri Lanka.

“When you see your house burnt down, your life destroyed in flames, it is very difficult to regain the trust in those you expect to protect you,” Asgar told IPS.

According to Jehan Perera, who heads the advocacy body known as the National Peace Council, the government must publicly say that all minorities including Muslims are full citizens of the country, take legal action against the perpetrators of the riots and pay compensation for those who have lost loved ones and property.

“Failure to do so,” he told IPS, “would be an abdication of responsibility.”

President Rajapaksa has pledged to rebuild all damaged property with state support; it remains to be seen whether the promise will be honoured in the weeks and months to come.

(END)

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Obstetric Fistula Haunts Pakistani Women http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/obstetric-fistula-haunts-pakistani-women/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=obstetric-fistula-haunts-pakistani-women http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/obstetric-fistula-haunts-pakistani-women/#comments Tue, 17 Jun 2014 19:04:28 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135043 Naz Bibi is awaiting treatment for fistula at the Koohi Goth Women’s Hospital in Pakistan. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Naz Bibi is awaiting treatment for fistula at the Koohi Goth Women’s Hospital in Pakistan. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Jun 17 2014 (IPS)

The word on the street was that if there were one place on earth that could treat Mohammad Lalu’s wife, it would be the Koohi Goth Women’s Hospital in Pakistan’s port city of Karachi.

The 50-year-old stone crusher hailing from the remote village of Dera Bugti in the southwest Balochistan province had spent 30 years searching for a facility that would treat his wife, Naz Bibi, who suffers from obstetric fistula.

Sitting upright on a plastic sheet draped over one of the hospital beds, Bibi told IPS, “It took us two days of non-stop travel to get here and we spent 12,000 rupees (roughly 120 dollars) on the bus fare alone.”

It is a princely sum for a family of extremely modest means, in a country where the average income is less than 1,200 dollars a year. But for Lalu and his wife, the expenditure will be worth it if it can cure Bibi of her terrible affliction.

“Obstructed labour is especially common among young, physically immature women giving birth for the first time.” – United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)
While virtually unheard of in the developed world, obstetric fistula is still common in many Asian and African countries: the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that it affects nearly three million women annually.

While country-specific data is harder to find, local experts suggest that anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 women in Pakistan are suffering from fistula.

Caused by prolonged or stressful labour, the condition arises when the baby’s head puts undue pressure on the lining of the woman’s birth canal, eventually ripping through the wall of the rectum or bladder and resulting in urinary or faecal incontinence.

Medial professionals say young women, whose bodies have not yet matured enough to endure the birthing process, are most vulnerable, as well as those who lack adequate nutrition or live too far away from modern healthcare facilities.

Because fistula causes a woman to lose control over her bodily functions, there is a huge stigma around the condition. Those afflicted by it often smell bed, and are sequestered away from their communities and families, forced to suffer in silence.

This is particularly traumatic for young mothers, who end up spending the better parts of their lives having little to no contact with the outside world.

Lalu told IPS that Bibi’s trouble started soon after she delivered a stillborn baby boy when she was just a teenager during her first marriage.

“I am her second husband,” he said. “Her parents married her to me after her husband left her, but did not disclose she was suffering from this dreadful problem.”

Unlike many other husbands, Lalu did not turn away from his new wife; instead, he has gone to great lengths to find her the necessary treatment. This hasn’t been easy, since fistula can only be managed through reconstructive surgery, which is cost-prohibitive for thousands of women.

Koohi Goth is one of 12 centres set up under the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) Fistula Project that offers the service for free.

Now in its eighth year, and assisted by the Pakistan National Forum on Women’s Health (PNFWH), it has trained 38 doctors to carry out the surgery. These numbers, experts say, pale in comparison to the scale of Pakistan’s maternal health crisis.

‘100 percent preventable’

According to the country’s latest Demographic and Health Survey, 276 women out of every 100,000 die during childbirth.

“All these deaths are 100 percent preventable if we can provide quality of care and stop child marriages,” Dr. Sajjad Ahmed, head of the Fistula Project in Pakistan, told IPS.

He believes that delaying the age at which a woman experiences her first pregnancy would be a huge step forward in preventing conditions like fistula.

According to the UNFPA, “For both physiological and social reasons, mothers aged 15-19 are twice as likely to die of childbirth than those in their 20s. Obstructed labour is especially common among young, physically immature women giving birth for the first time.”

But changing the mindset that sees nothing wrong with the idea of a child bride will not be easily accomplished, especially in rural Pakistan.

Dr. Suboohi Mehdi (Surgeon at Koohi Goth Hospital, Karachi) on Fistula Cases from IPS News on Vimeo.

Thirteen-year-old Shahbano, hailing from the village of Sanghar in Pakistan’s Sindh province, occupies the bed next to Bibi. She tells IPS she was married at 11 and developed fistula three weeks ago, during prolonged labour involving her first child.

Luckily, both Shahbano and her baby son survived the ordeal, but she must now hope that her surgery goes well, so she is not afflicted by incontinence for the rest of her life.

“In our culture, when a girl first begins to menstruate, her parents are obliged to marry her off,” Shahbano’s husband, Abid Hussain, told IPS.

Neither he nor his teenage wife had any idea that the Sindh provincial assembly passed the Child Marriage Restraint Act last month, prohibiting the marriage of children under 18 years of age. Violation of the bill could earn offenders a three-year prison term or a 450-dollar fine.

In 1929, the official marriage age stood at 14 years, and in 1965 the law changed, making it illegal to marry anyone under the age of 16. Today, Sindh is the only province to have recognised 18 as the bare minimum age for marriage – a decision that has elicited vehement opposition from religious groups.

Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani, chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology, which acts as an unofficial parliamentary advisor, said in reference to the amendment: “Some people want to please the international community [by going] against Islamic teachings and practices.”

“Such proclamations act as a spanner in our fight against early marriage and early pregnancy,” Ahmed asserted.

He says if he could give girls like Shahbano one piece of advice it would be to educate their children, especially their daughters.

“It will take a generation to put things right, but education will automatically bring about a cultural change, which could delay marriages. I see that as the only way to eradicate this condition,” he stressed.

Currently, the country only has the capacity to handle 2,000 cases of fistula, but doctors end up treating just 500 to 600 women a year.

Ahmed says this is largely due to the fact that people do not know the condition is preventable or treatable, and so avoid seeking out medical assistance. Many women live in rural areas without access to televisions, radios or cell phones, making it hard to spread awareness.

To circumvent the problem, hospitals have mobilised ‘lady health workers’ – women who go door-to-door in remote areas delivering information on sexual reproductive health and rights.

“We have a huge brigade of almost 100,000 lady health workers,” Ahmed said. Although they cover just 60 percent of the country, they act as a bridge between rural populations and urban-based care providers.

Perhaps these sustained efforts will enable Pakistan to see the day when conditions like fistula are nothing but a distant memory.

(END)

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From Religious Conflict to an Interfaith Community http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/religious-conflict-interfaith-community/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=religious-conflict-interfaith-community http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/religious-conflict-interfaith-community/#comments Mon, 16 Jun 2014 17:31:19 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135021 Rohingya refugees flee violent mobs in Myanmar. Credit: Anurup Titu/IPS

Rohingya refugees flee violent mobs in Myanmar. Credit: Anurup Titu/IPS

By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 16 2014 (IPS)

Holy men and their holy books have etched a trail of tears and blood in the annals of human history. From the depths of peaceful temples, mobs have been dispatched with flaming torches; from steeples and minarets messages of hatred have floated down upon pious heads bent in prayer. For too long religion has incited violence and fueled conflict.

But a new alliance is seeking to turn that tide by bringing adherents of different faiths together, to overcome – through dialogue – the chasm between ‘Your God’ and ‘My God’ in the hopes of achieving a truly interreligious international community.

“There is no such thing as a religious conflict,” Faisal Bin Abdulrahman Bin Muaammar, secretary-general of the intergovernmental organisation KAICIID, said at a media briefing in New York last Wednesday.

“Religion rejects conflict. Violence in the name of religion is violence against religion.”

“[F]aith-based organisations collectively comprise the largest civil society enterprise in the world.” -- Hillary Wiesner, KAICIID’s director of programmes
Based in Vienna, KAICIID (the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue) is comprised of a Council of Parties made up of the governments of Austria, Spain and Saudi Arabia, with the Holy See as a founding observer.

Its board of directors includes religious leaders from five leading world religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism), who together seek to foster a bottom-up process of engaging and empowering local faith-based organisations and religious leaders in peacekeeping, conflict prevention and development.

The centre estimates that eight out of every 10 people in the world identify with some form of organised religion and most all of them are likely to classify themselves as peace-loving individuals.

Sadly, according to Bin Muaammar, politicians and extremists have ‘hijacked’ the inherently tolerant and peaceful nature of religious practice for their own – often violent and divisive – ends.

Only through sustained dialogue, he said, can people be empowered to overcome their fear of the ‘Other’, and work towards a more inclusive and tolerant world.

KAICIID’s entrance onto the global stage is highly opportune; according to a new study by the independent Pew Research Center – which covered 198 countries, accounting for 99.5 percent of the world’s population – social hostilities involving religion are on the rise in every continent except the Americas.

On Mar. 9, 2013, Muslim mobs torched the Christian neighbourhood known as Joseph Colony in Lahore. Credit: Irfan Ahmed/IPS

On Mar. 9, 2013, Muslim mobs torched the Christian neighbourhood known as Joseph Colony in Lahore. Credit: Irfan Ahmed/IPS

The report found that “the number of countries with religion-related terrorist violence has doubled over the past six years. In 2012, religion-related terrorist violence took place in one in five countries (20 percent), up from nine percent in 2007.”

Half of all countries in the Middle East and North Africa experienced sectarian violence in 2012, bringing the total global average of countries facing such hostilities to 18 percent, up from eight percent in 2007.

In a single year, between 2011 and 2012, the number of countries experiencing a very high level of religious hostilities went from 14 to 20. Six of those countries – Syria, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Thailand, Sri Lank and Burma – experienced relatively few hostilities in 2011 compared to 2012.

Things also worsened for religious minorities, according to the study, with 47 percent of the countries studied reporting incidents of targeted abuse of minorities, up from 38 percent in 2011.

“In Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka, for example, monks attacked Muslim and Christian places of worship, including reportedly attacking a mosque in the town of Dambulla in April 2012 and forcibly occupying a Seventh-day Adventist church in the town of Deniyaya and converting it into a Buddhist temple in August 2012,” the report’s authors said.

A bleak picture, but one that can easily be changed, according to KAICIID, whose secretary-general met with U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon last week to outline possible collaborations between the world body and the intergovernmental group towards the goal of stemming religious violence.

On paper, the U.N. is already committed to the issue of inter-faith understanding and peace through dialogue. Agencies like its Alliance of Civilisations (UNAOC) have as their mission statement the goal of “promoting understanding between countries or identity groups, all with a view toward preventing conflict and promoting social cohesion.”

But high-level visions cannot become a reality without focused efforts to engage the grassroots, as KAICIID’s work has highlighted. Only in its second year of operations, the organisation already boasts tangible results, including a successful interfaith dialogue on the Central African Republic, where hundreds have been killed and over 500,000 displaced since the outbreak of a conflict in 2012.

“From May 8-9 we worked with religious leaders from CAR, putting them in contact with religious leaders in other African countries, while ensuring that we were working in tandem with other organisations doing similar work,” Hillary Wiesner, KAICIID’s director of programmes, told IPS.

“We work with religious communities from the inside, not as a secular institution from the outside,” she said, adding this approach helps foster a sense of trust between the organisation and local faith leaders.

This is crucial, she stressed, since “faith-based organisations collectively comprise the largest civil society enterprise in the world.”

According to the Katherine Marshall, executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD), which attempts to bridge the gap between religion and secular development, “Between seven and 70 percent of healthcare services in sub-Saharan Africa are provided by faith inspired organisations.”

“These institutions represent the single largest service distribution system in the world,” she told IPS, adding that religious organisations are indispensable to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of poverty-reduction targets agreed upon by all 193 members of the United Nations over a decade ago.

A 2008 World Bank study found that faith-based organisations across the continent of Africa filled gaping holes left by the state. For instance, an evangelic development agency known as World Vision had a 1.25-billion-dollar aid budget for Africa in 2002.

In Malawi the Christian Service Committee of the Churches was operating with an annual budget that outstripped the government’s entire development portfolio.

And in South Africa, the Catholic Church was providing more anti-retroviral treatment for those living with HIV/AIDS in 2012 than the state.

Too often, the huge potential of religious organisations is lost in tales of the negatives, which are dominating international headlines.

“The most flagrant examples right now of the negative side of religion include issues like the anti-gay bills in Uganda and Nigeria, not to speak of religious conflicts in CAR or Mali,” Marshall said.

“This is why there needs to first be knowledgement, and then religious literacy.” She argued that too few people working in the field of development are educated on the intricacies of religious life, such as where the Conference of Catholic Bishops is being held, or the difference between a Sunni or Shi’a Muslim.

The other missing piece, she said, is the role of religious women in peacekeeping. “Women with religious links – be they nuns or Muslims – tend to be invisible […] because they don’t have formal positions but a lot of the work they do is the most important work for peace.”

As Wiesner noted, “Religion is not reducible to a subset of culture; the religious and spiritual dimensions in the lives of individuals and society are much deeper than that. We need to promote responsible ways of living out these beliefs for the betterment of all people.”

(END)

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Mosul Refugees Victims of “Victory of the Revolution” http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/mosul-refugees-victims-of-victory-of-the-revolution/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=mosul-refugees-victims-of-victory-of-the-revolution http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/mosul-refugees-victims-of-victory-of-the-revolution/#comments Sun, 15 Jun 2014 19:07:01 +0000 Jewan Abdi http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135011 Mosul refugees just arrived at the newly set up camp in Khazar. Credit: Jewan Abdi/IPS

Mosul refugees just arrived at the newly set up camp in Khazar. Credit: Jewan Abdi/IPS

By Jewan Abdi
KHAZAR, Iraq, Jun 15 2014 (IPS)

People with long beards and dressed like Afghans broke into our neighbourhood after they had bombed it. We were lucky to escape from that nightmare,” Aum Ahmad, a46-year-old woman from Mosul – 400 km northwest of Baghdad – told IPS from the recently set up Khazar refugee camp, 25 km east of the besieged city.

“The fighters spoke classic Arabic to each other so it was obvious to everyone that they were from outside Iraq,” she added, while striving to organise her belongings inside the blue tent she and her family will have to share with fellow refugees.

They are just a few among the 500,000 that, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), have left Mosul in recent days after the city was taken over by Sunni insurgents on June 10.

An estimated 300,000 of them [refugees from Mosul] are reportedly seeking shelter in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, the closest thing to a state of their own the Kurds have ever had, and which has remained almost untouched by the on-going violence in the rest of the country.An estimated 300,000 of them [refugees from Mosul] are reportedly seeking shelter in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, the closest thing to a state of their own the Kurds have ever had, and which has remained almost untouched by the on-going violence in the rest of the country.

However, only those with family members or sponsors who can provide accommodation are allowed to enter Erbil, the administrative capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, 390 km north of Baghdad.

Samia Hamoud,a 48-year-old mother of eight children, was not lucky enough to be among the latter. She says she will stay in the camp because she is worried about her children´s safety.

“My street was full of bodies but nobody could retrieve them back because of the snipers,” recalls Hamoud, who said that she lost her husband in the shelling of Nabi Yunus district, on the eastern bank of the Tigris river which bisects the city.

Many sources are giving full credit for the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a Jihadi group formerly linked to Al Qaeda that is today claiming territory in both countries.

However, Hamoud described the assailants as ”Sunni militiamen in plain civilian clothes.”

“They were well organised. On our way out, they were manning checkpoints and checking people´s passports and IDs through laptops with an internet access. I guess they were looking for men who had any relation with the Iraqi security forces,” she added.

Hamoud´s testimony does not bear out the theory that gives full credit to ISIS for the victory in Mosul.

The governor of the city, Atheel al Nujaifi, also escaped when militants attacked Mosul. Speaking from Erbil, he told IPS that there are also groups “other than ISIS” behind the attack and that a “Sunni-armed group should be set up to fight the extremists.”

“The Iraqi Sunnis were the first victims of Al Qaeda-linked groups just after the invasion in 2003,” underlined the senior official, who hopes for a decentralised Iraq.

Alongside other cities in Western Iraq, Mosul also hosted massive demonstrations from December 2012 until March 2013. Iraq´s Sunni population is variously estimated to be between 20 and 40 percent of Iraq’s population of 32 million. They have been complaining of increasing marginalisation by the predominantly Shia political leaders.

Ghanim Alabed was one of the most visible faces of the protests in Mosul. The 40-year-old accountant had moved to Erbil in April after the demonstrations dragged the west of the country into unprecedented chaos since the peak of sectarian violence between 2006 and 2008.

“The fall of Mosul is the victory of the revolution,” Alabed told IPS Saturday from his residence in Erbil. “It has been thanks to a joint operation by Islamic groups such as Ansar al-Sunna, the Mujahideen Army, but also the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order (JRTN), a group set up in 2006 after the execution of Saddam Hussein, and allegedly commanded by Izzat Ibrahim al Duri, a top military commander and a vice president in the Hussein government. In fact, Mosul was the country´s last stronghold for the Baath party of Iraq´s ousted ruler Saddam Hussein.

Alabed ensured that many of the refugees who had left Mosul are now back, and that roadside blocks across the city have been removed so that locals can move “freely and unmolested.”

“They are celebrating victory back home after getting rid of Maliki´s occupation forces,” said Alabed, adding that he is planning to go back to his native Mosul “in the forthcoming days.”

Many analysts still wonder how a city of two million could fall just in a few hours. Local Sunni insurgent groups had never shown such power since the country´s invasion. On the other hand, ISIS fighters have struggled in vain to take over much smaller Kurdish villages in northeast Syria for over two years.

Salem, a former soldier who did not want to disclose his full name, shared his own experience:

“We were betrayed by our own captains and commanders. When we realised they had all left, we changed our uniforms for plains clothes and followed suit,” the 35-year-old told IPS while he queued in Erbil for a flight ticket to Baghdad.

Salem had served in Mosul for over three years and, as most of the soldiers deployed in Iraq´s predominantly Sunni west, he is also Shiite. He said he could not figure out whether the attackers were ISIS fighters or local Sunni militants.

“Why should I bother to defend a community that hates us?” added the former soldier from Samawa – 260 km southeast of Baghdad. “In fact, I reckon many people in Mosul are very happy about all this.”

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Syria’s Twin Jihads http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/syrias-twin-jihads/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=syrias-twin-jihads http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/syrias-twin-jihads/#comments Thu, 05 Jun 2014 09:20:46 +0000 Mona Alami http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=134811 By Mona Alami
BEIRUT, Jun 5 2014 (IPS)

The war in Syria has brought back to the forefront the concept of ‘jihad’, with tens of thousands of fighters currently waging what they believe to be a religious war there.

On both sides of the religious divide, Lebanese militants have relied on similar arguments to justify what they perceive as a never-ending war of convictions, which poses great dangers in a region where self-identities are shaped by belief instead of citizenship.

On this cold morning, a cortege of vehicles headed by a car covered in coloured flower arrangements drives through the busy streets of Dahieh – a  bastion of Shiite Hezbollah – surrounded by militants carrying Kalashnikovs.

Every few minutes, a staccato of gunfire is followed by ululations, as men dressed in fatigues wave the yellow banners of the Party of God. “Labayka Ya Hussein”, says one militant, invoking Hussein whose martyrdom is a widely spread symbol among Shiites.Sunni and Shiite religious narratives used in the Syrian war are reminiscent of an enmity over 14 centuries old.

What appears like a wedding procession is in fact the funeral of a Hezbollah fighter killed in Syria.  Surprisingly, the funerals of Shiite Hezbollah fighters bear a striking resemblance to the “martyrs’ weddings” of Sunni jihadists organised in Palestinian camps in Lebanon or Jordan, during which confectionery and juices are generously distributed.

The strong similarities between funeral processions of Sunni and Shiite fighters killed in Syria and staged as celebrations underline the converging views on jihad of the two groups, at odds since the beginning of the Syria war in which Sunnis support the rebellion and Shiites fight alongside the regime of President Bachar Assad, a member of the Alawite community, a Shiite sect.

For both Shiite and Sunni jihadists, the fight in Syria was initially motivated by the desire to protect their fellow coreligionists. “We fight to defend the children and women being slaughtered by the Assad regime,” said Abu Horeira, a Lebanese jihadist from Tripoli who fought in Qussayr. In April 2013, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, relied on a similar analogy, promising to defend the Lebanese Shiite inhabitants of Al-Qusayr: “We will not abandon the Lebanese residents of Al-Qusayr.”

As the battles in Syria increased in intensity, the political discourse of jihadists in Lebanon further polarised, with religious motivations coming to the fore. “Religious arguments are often used to appeal to the masses,” says Shiite cleric Sayed Hani Fahs.

Lebanese sheikhs on both sides of the divide have relied on religious text to provide a rationale for their call for Jihad, which is mentioned over 150 times in the Quran, the sacred book of both Sunnis and Shiites.

“Jihad in Syria is an obligation for all Sunnis,” said Salafi Sheikh Omar Bakri, in a previous interview.  While Hezbollah has not officially called for jihad, fighters such as unit commander Abou Ali have reported that “everyone who goes to fight in Syria has received a taklif sharii (a religious command).”

Militants from the capital Beirut, the Bekaa and Tripoli, both Shiites and Sunnis, have answered the call to fight in Syria. “Early this year, at least 100 ( Sunni) men from North Lebanon were killed in Qalaat al Hosn, in Homs,” said a military source speaking on condition of anonymity. They belonged to Jund al Cham, an al-Qaeda style organisation.

On the other hand, security estimates point to the involvement of over 5,000 Hezbollah fighters in Syria. A source close to the militant organisation believes that at least 500 of its members have been killed in Syria.

“My place is secured in heaven if I die ( in Syria) and my family taken care of,” says Abou Ali, who has been deployed several times in Qussayr, Qalamoun and Damascus.  Abou Ali , like many other fighters from Hezbollah, argues that he is defending his community, his religious beliefs and his sect’s dignity.

Sunni and Shiite religious narratives used in the Syrian war are reminiscent of an enmity over 14 centuries old.  In several speeches, Hezbollah figures have revived fears rooted in the events that led to the Sunni/Muslim schism, invoking the protection of Shiite religious shrines, namely  that of Sayyeda Zeinab, to justify their involvement in Syria. Zeinab was the daughter of Imam Ali, who is revered by Shiites, and Fatima, who was the daughter of prophet Muhammad.

“There is no better satisfaction than dying fighting to protect the religious shrine of Sit Zeynab,” says another Hezbollah fighter on condition of anonymity. This discourse has been reinforced in many Shiite minds by scenes of beheading perpetrated by rebel groups.

In a recent interview with a Free Syria Army fighter on the Lebanese border of the Syrian Qalamoun region, the fighter , a secular man, admitted  that rebels often resorted to this tactic to make “an example of traitors”, regardless of whether they belonged to regime forces or to Hezbollah. For Shiites nonetheless, these beheadings are a stark reminder of the beheading of Hussein, Zeinab’s brother, during the Battle of Karbala.

Religious ideology has served as a magnet for both Shiite and Sunni fighters willing to give up their life for the Syrian “religious” cause.

A recent report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College in London put the number of foreign Sunni jihadists at about 10,000. The same can be said of Shiite fighters fuelling the war in Syria, which has attracted Shiites from Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.

According to Michael Knights, an expert from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a think tank that was spun off from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), there are between 800 and 2,000 Iraqi Shiites in Syria which, including Hezbollah, would put the number of Shiite fighters at no less than 6,000 militants.

Armageddon ideology used in the Syria conflict has fanned Shiite-Sunni fires in Lebanon as well as across the region. Reducing the conflict there to a battle within Islam, as portrayed by jihadists on one side and by Hezbollah on the other, could portend a greater conflict that would wreak havoc in region where the Muslim divide runs deep, and religious identities prevail over nationalism.

“There is no difference between foreign jihadists and Hezbollah militants fighting in Syria, both  are practising political terrorism,” says Sayed Fahs, who believes the only hope for both communities resides in replacing sectarianism by citizenship.

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Arrest of “Happy” Iranians Highlights Rouhani’s Domestic Battles http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/05/arrest-happy-iranians-highlights-rouhanis-domestic-battles/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=arrest-happy-iranians-highlights-rouhanis-domestic-battles http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/05/arrest-happy-iranians-highlights-rouhanis-domestic-battles/#comments Wed, 21 May 2014 23:25:51 +0000 Jasmin Ramsey http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=134479 A screen shot from the Iranian 'Happy' homemade video. The original has since been marked 'private' on YouTube.

A screen shot from the Iranian 'Happy' homemade video. The original has since been marked 'private' on YouTube.

By Jasmin Ramsey
WASHINGTON, May 21 2014 (IPS)

It was a perfect headline for the satirical online news site, ‘The Onion.’

“Young Iranians Arrested for Being Too ‘Happy in Tehran’,” reads a May 20 New York Times blog title, with similar reports produced by news media from all over the world.

But the true story began a month ago when a group of young men and women in Iran produced a homemade music video to the hit song ‘Happy’ by U.S. entertainer Pharrell Williams.

“This is a critical time for [Iranian President Hassan Rouhani] to act on the promises he made to the people who voted for him." -- Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights In Iran (ICHRI)

The fan video, featuring three men and three women happily dancing with one another in various Tehran settings, received more than 100,000 hits after being uploaded to YouTube before it was marked private, and the actors and the director arrested May 20.

The women were not wearing mandatory headscarves in the video and the opposite sexes were touching one another in public, all of which are forbidden in the Islamic Republic.

The video has since been reproduced, however, with one version receiving over 300,000 hits and counting since its May 19 posting.

YouTube is illegal in Iran and can only be accessed through private-browsing networks, but some of the fan video did make its way onto Iranian state news television.

After the six Iranians were arrested, a clip appeared on Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), featuring the participants claiming that they didn’t know the video would be made public, with blurred clips of their video appearing in the background.

A tagline at the end of the video read: “We have made this video as Pharell William’s fans in 8hrs with IPhone 5s. ‘Happy’ was an excuse to be happy. We enjoyed every second of making it. Hope it puts a smile on your face.”

While at least one of the six young Iranians, Reihane Taravati, confirmed her release on Instagram, with reports surfacing that all except the director have been freed on bail, the event has received worldwide attention.

“It is beyond sad that these kids were arrested for trying to spread happiness,” said Pharrell Williams in comments posted to his popular social media accounts yesterday.

CNN’s famous anchor Christiane Amanpour has since applauded the Iranians’ release, but had earlier tweeted an observation about the dynamics of the event.

“Tragic. Ordinary Iranians doing nothing wrong caught in a fight between hard-liners and moderates,” she said.

“If it was not for the international outcry at how ridiculous these arrests were, these youth probably would have faced the fate of other people who have been arrested for no justifiable reason and spent months or even years in prison,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights In Iran (ICHRI).

Ghaemi told IPS that he worries the director of the video will be used as a scapegoat after the other participants were pressured into putting the blame on him in their “forced confession” and could face serious jail time.

“This is a critical time for [Iranian President Hassan Rouhani] to act on the promises he made to the people who voted for him,” he said.

While no member of the Rouhani government has directly commented on the issue, Rouhani’s semi-official English Twitter account raised a few eyebrows by quoting a statement by the president from June 2013 today.

Ghaemi, an internationally recognised expert on Iranian rights issues, told IPS Rouhani hasn’t focused on remedying Iran’s heavily securitised domestic environment since his June 2013 election, despite campaigning with that promise.

“He has been very gently verbally advocating for greater freedom, but with actions he has been very timid,” he said.
Ghaemi said that the police commander featured in the state news clip proudly touting the arrest operates under Iran’s interior ministry, which is under Rouhani’s cabinet, so the president could use his executive powers to enforce some punitive action, but has not done so yet.

“Rouhani is walking a fine line,” said Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, an expert on Iranian politics.

“He needs popular support, that’s how he came to power, at the same time, he doesn’t want to upset the security apparatus in Iran,” said Tabaar, a faculty member at Texas A&M University.

“He needs to say things so that the people who voted for him don’t think he’s betraying them, but this is exactly what happened to former President Mohammad Khatami,” he added.

The early years of the former reformist president are remembered as a time of loosened restrictions on daily life in Iran.

But while Khatami came to power on a liberal campaign platform, he ultimately failed to reform Iranian society against a powerful conservative backlash.

“Under Rouhani we are still in a honeymoon phase, but this may be déjà vu,” said Tabaar.

Yet Tabaar admits that Rouhani still holds considerable sway in Iranian politics for now, and may have even pressured those controlling the arrest of the Iranians to release them.

“He probably does not approve of what has happened; he’s expressing discontent, and protesting against the arrest of those people,” said Tabaar, when asked about why Rouhani may have quoted his own words from Jun. 29, 2013, on Twitter today.

“It is possible he is doing a lot behind the scenes,” he added.

“On the other hand, he doesn’t want to say it directly because he doesn’t want to provoke the conservative establishment.”

Can Rouhani get a nuclear deal accepted by that same establishment, which continues to criticise the negotiating strategy of Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif?

Tabaar thinks it’s possible.

“Khamenei wants a limited success that he can portray as an utter failure,” he said.

“A limited success in the sense that Iran’s enrichment right will be recognised and a lot of sanctions will be removed so Iran’s economy can thrive again, but he will still portray this as a failure so Rouhani won’t become too popular.”

Back in Tehran an Iranian analyst speaking on the condition of anonymity told IPS this event foreshadows Rouhani’s coming domestic battles.

“A lot of what you are seeing now on the social scene is the result of a less securitised atmosphere after [the] June 2013 election,” said the analyst, adding, “Can you imagine a ‘Happy’ video if former conservative presidential contender Saeed Jalili had been elected?”

“Part of the battle will involve, as witnessed, efforts to torpedo Rouhani’s effort to reframe the image of Iran in international discourse,” said the analyst.

“This fight will not be totally quiet, and it won’t be clean.”

(END)

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