Thursday, June 25, 2009

Neda's martyrdom is fueled by Western media for all the wrong reasons

Neda Agha-Soltani deserves to be a martyr.

She was fatally shot on June 20 during the Tehran street demonstrations protesting the outcome of the presidential election. Her death could galvanize reformists who at the moment are quickly losing steam in their bid to have the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad thrown out.

But the Western media’s fascination with her death is troubling on several different levels. The American media has no problem replaying the brief YouTube clip of Ned’s horrific death on television or providing a link to it. Yet they would never think of airing similar graphic images of an American woman. American newspapers publish no photos and the networks air no footage of dead or dying U.S. soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan. Yet Neda is fair game.

For the complete article, please click on this link to

Monday, June 15, 2009

U.S. needs to keep distance from Iran's election mess

With the Iranian election fiasco that saw President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad win by an unlikely 63 percent, the U.S. government would do well to take a page from its own recent presidential election history.

Allegations still reverberate today that George Bush stole the 2000 election from Al Gore. And no matter how distasteful was that victory, given the events over the last eight years; it was the U.S. Supreme Court that gave Bush the presidency.

The U.S. dealt with that election through rule of law, although how that law was applied remains subject to great debate. It was an internal matter solved for better or for worse by the democratic system. Likewise, the Iranian election of Ahmadinejad, whatever its flaws, is an internal issue that should not be the object of meddling by Western governments.

For the complete article please click on this link.

Friday, June 12, 2009

One of Islam's greatest threats is Dick Cheney and those who bow to him

I finally discovered the threat to my well-being as a Muslim living in the West. His name is Dick Cheney.

At first I thought the threat was the anti-hijabers who want to pass laws banning head scarves in public buildings because they wanted to liberate the Muslimah from an oppressive patriarchal society. Or maybe it’s because modest women make men nervous. I dunno.

Then I was sure it was Fox News. They did their best to ridicule and then dissect President Obama’s speech to the Ummah. They were certain there were hidden messages to terrorists in his quotes of the Qur’an, and then wondered why he threw Israel and all Muslim women “under the bus” for reasons only they know. But then Fox newsman Shepard Smith expressed alarm over the crazies “way out there on a limb” over Obama. Suddenly, I have warm fuzzy feelings for Fox.

But, no. It’s Cheney.

For the complete article click on this link.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Saudi academic environment curbs students' growth

I had the privilege last week to be a delegate at the Saudi International Conference at the University of Surrey in Guildford, which is just south of London. The conference reinforced what I already knew: Young Saudi minds are poised to make great contributions to their country.

The conference was supervised by the Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau in London. It’s a multidisciplinary scientific conference that focuses on disciplines in the humanities, engineering, health and biomedical sciences, natural sciences and information and communication technologies.

More than 200 papers were presented from graduate students and professors from universities in Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, France, Malaysia, Australia and the United States. My humanities paper focused on the role of teachers’ language in promoting classroom interaction. But papers presented in the health and biomedical services and engineering were breathtaking in their complexity and thorough examination of those fields.

What makes this conference stand out from the run-of-the-mill white paper exchanges is to the degree that Saudi graduate students can flourish in an academic environment that promotes – no, a better term is “insist on” – the free exchange of ideas and the emphasis on growth of young people.

It also demonstrates the commitment Saudi Arabia has towards its students to obtain the necessary skills abroad and then return home and implement those skills. The Saudi government accentuated this support by having Saudi Arabian Cultural Attaché Fawzi Bokair and Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, the Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom and Ireland, attend the conference.

Prince Nawaf noted in his address to students that the pursuit of knowledge is a challenge that can’t be met successfully without a distinctive set of values. The students are part of King Abdullah’s vision of Saudi Arabia’s future, he said.

By endorsing these kinds of conferences, the government’s long-term goals will be accomplished. That goal is to reduce Saudi Arabia’s role as a consumer society in which most of our goods are imported and our only valued export is oil. If the six economic cities currently under construction are to succeed on a level in which it offers the international community valued expertise in the field of health sciences, engineering and bio-medicine, then it starts with its
graduate students abroad. Western academics and scientists will be imported to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology to help implement programs and technologies that will lead Saudi Arabia to an economy independent of oil revenue. But Saudi Arabia can’t hope to achieve long-term independent economic prosperity without its sons and daughters taking over and ultimately leading the way.

Yet little of this can be accomplished unless students are given the necessary tools to flourish. The conference at the University of Surrey is dramatically different than any conference held in Riyadh or Jeddah. First, the participants were treated as adults. There was absolutely zero time spent on supervision or ensuring that social etiquette was enforced simply because there was no need.

Saudi men and women worked together, attended sessions together and socialized. There were no partitions in conference rooms, but both men and women kept a respectful distance while in the audience to hear speakers or while working or taking a break. This is taken for granted by Westerners. And those Westerners attending the conference more than likely never thought for a second what a novel environment it is for Saudis not to be distracted by arbitrary rules of personal conduct.

The issue is not whether a single man and single woman can have lunch at the same table or stand side by side in the university courtyard to watch Saudi dancers and singers perform. The issue is that the conference, and by extension the university campus in the United Kingdom and other European countries, is conducive to a learning environment. Just the idea of getting through a two-day conference without interruptions, threats and admonishments from moral authorities can be exhilarating without one even thinking about it. In other words, a lot of work is accomplished. And it was only after it was all said and done that Saudi participants probably realized just how the conference was a unique and productive experience.

I certainly have a bias when it comes to teaching. The top-down authority of the teacher/student relationship doesn’t work as a teaching method. That’s part of my studies at the University of Newcastle. Collaboration between mentor and protégé develops skills not seen in Saudi Arabia. Couple the lack of collaboration with a strict social environment, which could result in severe consequences if the rules are broken, only suppresses the young Saudi mind.

The Saudi International Conference illustrates the need to rethink the restrictions Saudi education officials place on our academic environment in Saudi Arabia.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Obama uses the language of Arabs

If there ever was a speech by an American president that detailed the complexities of the Middle East with simple common sense it was President Obama’s historic foreign policy address Thursday in Cairo to the Muslim world.

Although the tangibles I had hoped for were missing, Obama’s speech offered something not witnessed in American foreign policy for more than a decade: balance.

There has been considerable discussion in recent days about Obama’s “tough love” attitude towards Israel regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He delivered that message to Israel today but he also gave equal measure to the Arab nations.

For the complete article, please click here.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Gulf online journalism workshop shows divide between bloggers, mainstream media

Yours truly, center, with Katharine Zaleski, senior
news editor at the Huffington Post, standing,
at the IREX workshop in Dubai.

Last week I was a panelist at a Gulf online writers and journalism workshop in Dubai that brought together the leading GCC online journalists to discuss whether bloggers and mainstream media can co-exist. In other words, can we all just get along.

The two-day workshop was sponsored by IREX-MENA and the United Arab Emirates Journalists’ Association. IREX is a non-profit journalism research and development organization committed to strengthening independent media. Attending were online journalists from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE and Qatar. Jordan, Belarus, Malaysia and the United States also were represented.

The workshop was surprise because I had failed to appreciate just how hard these guys work at a craft that pays nothing, yet they feel such passion for.

And by passion, I also mean courage. Ali Abdulemam, editor at BahrainOnline, was arrested and jailed on charges of defamation for his blogging. Charges are still pending against him.

For the complete article please click here.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Muslims seek substance from Obama, not rhetoric

President Obama’s trip to Saudi Arabia this week to meet with King Abdullah has raised the expectations of Arabs so high that Obama might set himself up for failure.

Obama’s five-day swing through Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Germany and France promises to engage the worldwide Muslim community “based upon mutual interests and mutual respect.” The White House says he wants to share common goals to fight Islamic extremism and develop a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Already Obama has gone to extraordinary lengths to assure Muslims that the United States is not its enemy. He has put his Muslim credentials on the table, noting his background and the fact his father was a Muslim. He has opened the door to Iran for meaningful dialogue. He wants to celebrate our commonality, not our differences

It’s not as if I haven’t heard these promises before. President Bush certainly considered himself a friend of Muslims when he wasn’t railing against Islamofascism. And his “road map” for peace looked pretty good on paper. I must admit, though, that expectations among Arabs and Muslims were not particularly high with Bush.

Obama, however, is going to have a tough act ahead of him. While his Cairo speech is highly anticipated in the Middle East, there is a whiff ceremonial grandstanding on his itinerary. He will visit Buchenwald to remember Holocaust victims and then on to Normandy to commemorate the 65th anniversary of D-Day. I’m sure that some Saudi ministers will persuade him to join in the traditional Saudi sword dance in Riyadh. It didn’t do much for Bush’s image, so let’s hope Obama pulls it off.

This potential glad-handing makes Arabs nervous and annoyed. It’s fine to engage in this protocol and unite the Ummah with an emotional speech. Saudis also appreciate that Obama has chosen Saudi Arabia, the land of the two holy mosques and the heart of Islam, to discuss the Arab agenda before speaking in Cairo. It’s a positive step towards reconciling with Muslims.

But Arabs expect substance right out of the gate. The primary issues of Middle East peace, as far as the U.S. is concerned, seem to be shifting away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and moving towards dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, routing the Taliban and stabilizing Iraq.

Yet these three issues simply treat the symptoms of the chaos in the Middle East and not the disease itself. For the Muslim on the street, everything starts with Israel. The saber-rattling we see between Israel and Iran is based on each country’s perception of security. Israel’s nuclear arsenal and its behavior in Gaza strike genuine fear in the region. If Obama wants to make an impression, he must focus on the core issue of Israel and Palestine. The ripple effect of Palestinian statehood and the right of return will help the U.S. deal with Iran, Iraq and the Taliban.

But now there is talk among Western diplomats that modifications might be sought in the 2002 Arab Peace Plan, which guarantees Arab recognition of Israel if it returns to its 1967 borders and gives Palestinians the right of return. The right of return seems to bother a lot of Westerners and Israel due to internal security concerns. But Arab leaders are not willing to negotiate this aspect of the plan.

Arab leaders rather see pressure applied to Israel to curb its destructive behavior. The habit has been to pressure Arab leaders to behave because the U.S. views the conflict through the lens of Hamas and Hezbollah’s conduct. To the West, Hamas lobbing rockets into Israel is not conducive to peace. No, it’s not. But neither is the Israel Defense Forces latest incursion into Gaza that left more than 1,000 civilians dead and many more homeless. If Arab leaders are to be held accountable for the actions of Hamas, then the same must be done with Israel. Arabs have given a lot of ground in the past two decades, primarily in watching Israel face international condemnation for its actions, but not held accountable in any meaningful way.

Israeli lobbyists have worked long and hard to protect Israel’s interests, as they should. But it doesn’t mean that Americans must capitulate to Israel under the threat of anti-Semitism.

If Obama is to reach Muslims, then he must risk this threat, knowing the American public will recognize that such charges are specious, and solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He should worry less about negotiating modifications in the Arab Peace Plan and more about how to get a recalcitrant Israel to move towards peace without it alleging anti-Semitism at the drop of a hat.

What Arabs are looking for in the Cairo speech and the visit to Riyadh are tangible statements from Obama that he understands the Arab point of view, willing to convey that message to Israel, and demand that Israel step up to the plate and show some movement to get the plan approved. A timeline that is enforced and doesn’t collapse after the first hiccup from Hamas or the next outrageous statement from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a vital component to Obama's road to peace.

This article was originally published on Huffington Post.