Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why let principles get in the way of a good business deal?

There’s nothing like a little money to help put aside those nagging issues of principles, honor and just doing the right thing.

No, I’m sorry, it’s not a little money, but $26.7 million (SAR100 million) that eases one’s conscience. I’m referring to the Rotana Media Group that just inked a deal that gives News Corp., which owns the Muslim-hating, Saudi-bashing Fox News, a 10 percent stake in the Saudi company. The deal apparently leaves the door open for News Corp. to purchase another 10 percent of Rotana.

The agreement looks to give Rotana, a part of the conglomerate Kingdom Holding Company, a 30 percent market share in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Rotana’s regional reach will exceed the Dubai-based and Saudi-owned MBC.

News Corp. is run by Australian Rupert Murdoch, who has allowed his Fox News to run amok on cable TV with the likes of Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, a pair of conservatives who use the word “Muslim” as an epithet.

Saudi Arabia has spent considerable energy since 9/11 attempting to correct the stereotypes and outright lies about Islam, but whatever campaigns Saudis lead takes a backseat to the Fox propaganda machine.

Shortly after the Ft. Hood attacks that left 12 US soldiers and one civilian dead at the hands of a Muslim, Fox trotted out Michelle Malkin to give her two cents about the motives behind Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan. Malkin, who wrote a book arguing that interning Japanese-Americans during World War II was just fine and mass internments should be brought back today, railed against “Muslim soldiers with an attitude” who are able to “infiltrate” the US military with “jihadi intentions.”

Another Fox News host suggested that all Muslim military personnel be treated as “potential threats.”

In 2006, Glenn Back demanded the US Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison “prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.”

For every interfaith dialogue conference sponsored by Saudi Arabia to promote tolerance, Fox is there with a sledgehammer to knock it down.

Yet, according to Rotana, Islamophobia should never get in the way of the good business deal. Rotana’s partnership with News Corp., and by extension Fox, tacitly endorses the American media’s perpetuation of Islamophobia. The Kingdom Holding Company has owned 5.7 percent of the voting shares in News Corp. since 2005.

The Saudi media giant’s relationship with News Corp. has never been a secret. After all, Rotana carries Fox in Saudi Arabia. This deal, however, gives News Corp. access to more than 2,000 Arabic movies, the largest Arabic language music library in the world, and even to Lebanese pop stars Haifa Wehbe and Elissa and Egyptian Amr Diab.

Saudis can be their own worst enemies. They have no problem boycotting Danish goods over offensive cartoons. They may stop vacationing in Switzerland because its voters want a nationwide ban on minarets on mosques. And for goodness sake let’s make sure that not only do we boycott Israeli goods, but the countries that do business with Israel.

Our true colors, however, show when the stakes are much higher the values we cherish take a back seat.

It’s a good thing that Rotana wants to strengthen its position in the Arab media market. But its influence stops there. It’s evident that the Kingdom Holding Company’s influence in News Corp. and Fox doesn’t amount to much.

The same can’t be said for News Corp., which has the true global reach. The company continues to spew its anti-Muslim rhetoric almost daily. It’s only a matter of time before their garbage is routinely aired in Arab markets.

Often it’s impossible to gauge the true motives and the politics of the people. Certainly we often are required to put aside politics to ensure that our businesses remain healthy and profitable. The politics of News Corp., however, is obvious and detrimental to Saudi interests. Rotana may profit from its relationship with Muslim haters, but I’m not sure a pact with the devil will help the country in the long run.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The OIC Secretary General is disappointed, and OIC Group in Geneva strongly condemns decision to ban construction of minarets in Switzerland

The Secretary General of the OIC, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, voiced his disappointment and concern with the result of the public referendum that took place in Switzerland on November 29, 2009 on the initiative to ban building of minarets in the mosques in Switzerland.

The Secretary General qualified the ban as an unfortunate development that would tarnish the image of Switzerland as a country upholding respect for diversity, freedom of religion and human rights and also as a recent example of growing anti-Islamic incitements in Europe by the extremist, anti-immigrant, xenophobic, racist, scare-mongering ultra-right politicians who reign over common sense, wisdom and universal values.

He recalled that the UN Committee on Human Rights had clearly pronounced its concern on the ban as a discriminatory practice that violated fundamental human rights including the freedom of religion.

Secretary General Ihsanoglu expressed his deep regret that at a time when the Muslim world and Muslim societies around the world have been engaged in a struggle to fight extremism, the western societies are being hostage to extremists who exploit Islam as a scapegoat and a springboard to develop their own political agenda which in turn contributes to polarization and fragmentation in the societies.

He stated that the development also highlighted the need for promoting genuine dialogue at the grass-roots level to alleviate all misunderstandings and misinformation that lead to intolerance and misconceptions.

In this regard, he appreciated the position of many Swiss political and religious leaders from all sides who expressed unequivocally their rejection for any attempt to undermine the rights of Muslims in Switzerland.

The issue was taken up between the OIC Secretary General and Foreign Minister of Swiss Confederation Mrs. Micheline Calmy-Rey who called the OIC Secretary General by phone following the official announcement regarding the results of the voting. The Secretary General conveyed to the Swiss Foreign Minister that with due respect to the sovereign and legitimate right of the Swiss people and democratic principles governing the Swiss Confederation in adopting any legislative measure, the decision of the Swiss people stood to be interpreted as xenophobic, prejudiced, discriminative and against the universal human rights values and it would tarnish the reputation of the Swiss people as a tolerant and progressive society. The Secretary General urged the Swiss authorities to remain vigilant in addressing any move, which may fuel extremism, misunderstanding, misperception and intolerance among communities and that he remained confident that Swiss political leaders would not spare any effort to preserve the image of their country as guardian of the international human rights instruments.

As the Muslim public opinion is following the issue with concern, the Secretary General appealed to the Muslim societies to abide by peaceful and democratic means in expressing their views on the issue. He stated that the OIC General Secretariat will continue to follow the developments very closely.

Meanwhile, the OIC Ambassadorial Group in Geneva communicated to the Swiss Government a letter in which the discriminatory decision to ban constructing minarets was strongly condemned. The letter, which was forwarded to the Swiss Government on December 3, stated, “the decision was a manifest attack on an Islamic symbol which could only serve to spread hatred and intolerance towards Muslims in general and those living in Switzerland in particular.”

The OIC Ambassadorial Group in Geneva drew the attention of Swiss Government to the fact that “Muslims in Switzerland were peaceful and law abiding citizens. The ban was, therefore, a discriminatory measure that would lead to intolerance towards this community”.

The OIC Group in Geneva welcomed the balanced and constructive statement made by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on December 1 in which she described the vote as “a discriminatory, deeply divisive and thoroughly unfortunate step” that risked putting Switzerland “on a collision course with its international human rights obligations”. She also stated that “politics based on xenophobia or intolerance was extremely disquieting, wherever they occurred” and that “they were corrosive, and – beyond a certain point – could become highly disruptive and even dangerous”. The OIC Ambassadorial Group believed that the High Commissioner was correct to point out that “if allowed to gather momentum, discrimination and intolerance not only do considerable harm to individual members of the targeted group, but they also divide and harm society in general”.

This ban also stands in sharp contradiction to Switzerland’s international human rights obligations concerning freedom of expression, conscience and religion. It adds to the danger that this trend could spread to encompass other areas and activities related to the Muslims in Switzerland. There are reports that the Swiss Peoples Party is now planning further referenda to ban the headscarf among other measures.

The OIC Group has consistently pointed towards the xenophobic and Islamophobic trends in Western societies. The Swiss ban should serve as a warning sign and a wake-up call for all Western countries where calls are being made for similar policies, as it would lead to divisive and discriminatory practices against their Muslim populations.

The OIC Group has taken note of the opposition by the Government of Switzerland to this ban but regrets that “the absence of a more pronounced and concerted campaign against the ban gave its proponents a heavy margin in the referendum. It is hoped that the Swiss Government would do all in its powers to rescind this decision through appropriate parliamentary and judicial measures.

The OIC Ambassadors further hope that sustained efforts would be made by the Swiss authorities in particular and western authorities in general including the civil society, to fight the scourge of discrimination and xenophobia.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Expat medical student calls Saudi Arabia her home but she's left abandoned in the cold

While I was in Jeddah last month I received a telephone call from a young woman. She was timid, nervous, upset and desperate. She was a stranger, but her story touched me as it should touch all women.

This young woman had been attending medical school in Saudi Arabia and was in her fourth year when her father died. As her sole benefactor her father had gone to great lengths to ensure that her tuition was paid. He saved his money from the income of his job and apparently had several other sources of income from business acquaintances that helped fund his daughter’s education. As customary, he spared her the details of the source of her tuition so she could maintain her dignity
and focus on her studies.

When the father died, the daughter was left without parents or any male family members. She no longer had the money to continue her education and the medical school suspended her studies and asked to leave campus. The Ministry of Higher Education turned down her requests for a scholarship.

My initial reaction was that this was impossible. How could an intelligent, well-spoken and committed Saudi woman be denied a medical degree in a country where there are so few Saudi physicians, let alone female doctors? The Saudi medical community recruits hundreds of foreign doctors to fill its ranks, but snubs a medical student in its own backyard. Surely, a private scholarship would be available to her.

But the crux of her problem soon revealed itself. After further questioning, I discovered this desperate woman was not a Saudi citizen. Her mother was Egyptian and her father originated from a small African country. Yet everything about her -- from her demeanor, language, tone and even manners -- shouted that she was Saudi. She was born in Saudi Arabia, and knows no other country and speaks no other language other than Saudi. She is Saudi down to the bone. But she is not afforded any of the privileges of being Saudi because her parents were born elsewhere.

It’s highly unlikely that she will succeed in obtaining financial assistance in the form of charity from an emir or sheikh. She certainly doesn’t have the support system that Saudis receive when their parents have died and they need financial help.

This young woman’s plight illustrates a growing problem in Saudi society about where these children -- born in Saudi Arabia to legal or illegal resident parents -- belong in society.

We have quickly become a country of parallel societies: Saudis and the invisible class of a new generation of young people denied an education and meaningful employment.

Let’s not talk of deportation. It’s impractical, costly and inhuman. Exactly how will the Saudi government deport children to a country they do not know or ever stepped foot on? And let’s remember that many parents of these children entered the country legally on Umrah and Haj visas and simply overstayed those visas. We can’t punish the children of overstayers by denying them the basics of an education and jobs. Ultimately, Saudi Arabia will be burdened with caring for this invisible class of people.

I think it would be a fine gesture of the Saudi government to extend citizenship to children born in the country to legal or illegal parents, but that’s rather na├»ve. Just looking at the citizenship requirements document issued by the government a few years ago reads like a recipe for failure for every expatriate who has the audacity to apply.

The difference the government can make is to extend all educational benefits to children born in Saudi Arabia to foreign parents. Give them scholarship pportunities for higher education and even send them abroad on the promise they will return and practice their profession in the Kingdom.

I dread the moment when I must contact this young medical student and tell her there is not much hope of continuing her studies. Saudi Arabia will lose a female physician at time when even losing one potential doctor should not be acceptable. We can take the easy route and continue to recruit foreign doctors. Some will stay a lifetime. Others will leave after a few years. The cycle of recruitment will continue and we will be no closer to filling the ranks of the Saudi medical community with Saudis. And yes, that includes the Egyptian medical student who calls Saudi Arabia her home, her country and now her mother and father.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Passive Muslims should take some blame for Swiss minaret ban

What does Europe want from the Muslim community?

Well, you got me.

Like a party host who complains that her country cousins aren't mingling with the guests, and then seats them at the children's table at dinnertime, Switzerland, Denmark and France can't make up their mind about the so-called "Muslim problem."

The French want to ban the burka. Danish newspapers like to poke sticks at Muslims by publishing offensive cartoons. Now, 57 percent of Switzerland's voters have passed a referendum to ban the construction of minarets on mosques. Yet some European government officials complain, "Why don't Muslims assimilate into our society?"

And I ask: "Why would I want to?"

For all the phony talk about Muslim assimilation into white European Christian society, some EU countries do their best to marginalize us. In Switzerland, about 6 percent of the population is Muslim, a great many who are war refugees from Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I agree that it's likely that these first-generation Muslims have difficulty assimilating into European society, but that's true of first-generation immigrants in any country throughout history. Their offspring, however, are a different story. In 20 years time we'll see many second-generation Eastern European Muslims fit right into Swiss society. That is as long as the government resists the temptation to pass discriminatory laws against their right to worship and practice their cultural customs and traditions like everyone else.

There are two troubling aspects of the minaret ban. There is little of the Islamic extremist ideology found in Switzerland that would prompt such discrimination. And the country's constitution essentially prohibits anti-religious laws.

Unlike France and Denmark, there has been little talk of the "Islamification" of Switzerland. There are few burka-clad, dark-skinned Asian Muslim women walking the streets of Geneva and Zurich. Aside from the occasional web rants of extremists, there are no calls for Shariah to replace Swiss laws. There are about 150 mosques in Switzerland, most of which are no more than large prayer rooms. There are no calls for prayer over loudspeakers. Only four mosques have minarets.

So where do these anti-Muslim sentiments come from? I blame the ultra-right wing Swiss People's Party, the junior version of the British National Party and the Dutch Party for Freedom. The Swiss People's Party's clever ad campaign for the referendum featured an advertisement of a scowling burka-clad woman next to sprouting black minarets atop the Swiss flag. It's a compelling image that plays on the fears of the Swiss.

But I also blame European Muslims who allow extremist websites to present a skewed image of Islam. Imams, Islamic scholars, Muslim journalists and social workers do so little to stem the tide of public opinion. European Muslims need to shed their reticence to defend themselves by countering claims of the Islamification of Europe.

A case in point is the October appearance of BNP's Nick Griffin on the BBC's Question Time. Griffin's odious anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim positions were exposed by Muslim and Christian participants on the television show. The exposure demonstrated that BNP's policies were not based on facts and logic, but on hate.

Switzerland's Muslims can remain silent and continue to be marginalized or they can involve themselves in government policy and through the media to shape their future. Frankly, I'm a little weary of the namby-pamby "let's not rock the boat" attitude of Muslims. It didn't work for Jews in the 1930s and I don't think it's going to work for Muslims today.

The other uncomfortable aspect of the referendum is that it flies in the face of Switzerland's constitution. The constitution bans discrimination against persons on the "grounds of origin, race, gender, age, language, social position, way of life, religious, ideological, or political convictions, or because of a physical, mental or psychological disability."

Swizz government leaders have indicated they have no choice but to pass the referendum into law. But I sense that the referendum can be challenged on constitutional grounds. It also should be noted that although a clear majority of Swiss voters want the referendum to be the law of the land, it doesn't mean it's a good law. There's no question that a massive mosque with minarets will look out of place in a neighborhood surrounded by 17th century architecture. But that's a zoning issue decided at the local level.

And that's precisely the reason why this is a referendum that discriminates against one specific religion. The design and construction of a mosque or any building is a decision best left to local districts. By taking the decision out of the hands of local officials and declaring that minarets - not cathedrals or synagogues - should be banned throughout the country changes the issue from one simply of architecture to one of religion.

Switzerland has enjoyed a global reputation as a nation of tolerance and a safe haven for the oppressed. That reputation was rocked in the mid-1990s when it was revealed that Switzerland's banking industry colluded with Nazi Germany to plunder accounts of depositors in occupied countries during World War II. Swiss banks also refused to release the account funds of Holocaust survivors after the war. The controversy greatly upset the Swiss who saw their reputation as a tolerant country impugned.

The Swiss are now facing a new but similar test. Do they join the ranks of Denmark and France in allowing right-wing political groups manipulate its citizens' emotions with unsubstantiated rhetoric? Or do they take the right path by embracing all religions and cultures of people who seek a fair shake when they cross into their borders?