You are browsing the archive for Middle East.

Islamophobia Trumps “Pro-Life” Ideology

2:43 pm in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Eleanor J. Bader for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Just three days into 2013, Annika Rydh, a Swedish government official from the town of Almhult, issued a shrill call to both her colleagues and neighbors. Worried about the perceived growth of the Muslim population in her homeland and beyond, she urged the European Union “to act by having some kind of restriction, like the one-child policy in China.” If Muslims don’t like the proposed rule, she continued, they can go back where they came from.

Rydh’s appeal comes on the heels of a decade-long campaign to curtail Muslim immigration into western countries and reduce the number of babies born to Muslim families. International in scope, the anti-Islam movement relies on scare tactics that, more often than not, imply that the Judeo-Christian traditions are in danger of being trampled by Sharia law.   

Joseph D’Agostino of the virulently anti-abortion Population Research Institute makes the case: “Because Christians and Jews are refusing to have children, refusing to get married, and having such low birth rates, the Muslims are going to inherit the earth.”

His boss, PRI founder Steven W. Mosher, goes even farther: “Many security experts have long believed that excessive population growth in Muslim countries is a national security threat to the west.”

And not to be outdone, Daniel Pipes’ Mideast Forum rails that “indigenous Europeans are dying out. Sustaining a population requires each woman on average to bear 2.1 children; in the European Union the overall rate is one-third short, at 1.5 a woman and falling… To keep its working population even, the EU needs 1.6 million immigrants a year. Into the void are coming Islam and Muslims. As Christianity falters, Islam is robust, assertive, and ambitious.” Pipes then goes on to posit reasons for the diminishing birthrate amongst people of traditional European backgrounds, blaming “the education of women, abortion on demand, and adults too self-absorbed to have children” for the alleged Muslim takeover.

“Islamization will happen,” Pipes writes, “for Europeans find it too strenuous to have children, stop illegal immigration, or even diversify their sources of immigrants. Instead, they prefer to settle unhappily into civilized senility.”

Lest you think Pipes can be summarily dismissed as little more than a ranting crackpot — or as someone who has himself succumbed to “civilized senility” — beware. Pipes is now a Taube Distinguished Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, has taught at the University of Chicago and Harvard, and has served as an advisor to former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former President George W. Bush. What’s more, Pipes surrounds himself with fellow travelers including noted racist Pamela Geller and bloggers at sites including muslimpopulation.com, exposingliberallies.blogspot.com, FrontPageMagazine.com, and shariaunveiled.com.

And don’t forget the burgeoning population of anti-choice bedfellows. Surprising as it seems, a host of  anti-choicers have demonstrated a clear tilt toward population control when it comes to Muslims. Indeed, it seems apparent that, for them, racism and Islamophobia trump unbridled procreation for Mohammed’s adherents.

“The Muslims have said they will destroy us from within,” Flip Benham of Operation Save America reports. “Today’s 1.5 billion Muslims make up 22 percent of the world’s population. ..Muslims will exceed 50 percent of the world’s population by the end of the century.”

Similarly, Donald Spitz’ Army of God advocates violence against abortion providers as well as against “satanic Muslims” and anti-choice candidates Randall Terry of Operation Rescue and Gary Boisclair of the Society for Truth and Justice coupled ending legal abortion with limiting Muslim immigration in their unsuccessful 2012 bids for elected office.

Ibrahim Hooper, Press Secretary of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, attributes the increasing hysteria over the purported rise of Islam to an age-old trend to demonize anything or anyone perceived as different. “Whenever a minority is targeted by bigots, they start by saying that ‘they’ are going to take over the world. It’s always the same language, and the bigots simply insert the offending group — at different times it has been Muslims, Jews, and Hispanics. In each case the opposition assigns the disliked group far more power than they actually have. The scary thing is that the folks that promulgate this irrational fear and hatred operate in a bubble of unreality that can’t be penetrated with truth, logic, or facts.”

Ah, yes, facts. According to Doug Saunders, author of The Myth of the Muslim Tide, [Vintage, 2012] “the family size of Muslim immigrant groups are converging fast with those of average westerners — faster, it seems, than either Catholic or Jewish immigrants did in their time. Muslims in France and Germany are now having only 2.2 children per family, barely above the national average. And while Pakistanis in Britain have 3.5 children each, their British-born daughters have only 2.5.”

As for the United States, Saunders writes that there are presently 2.6 million Muslims living in the 50 states, and while this number is expected to increase to 6.2 million by 2030, the overall Muslim population will still comprise just 1.7 percent of the total. In other words, 17 years from today, Muslims will account for the same proportion of the American body politic as Jews and Episcopalians.   

Read the rest of this entry →

STOKING FIRE: In Iraq, High Rates of Cancer and Birth Defects Linked to Use of Chemical Weapons in War

11:54 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Eleanor J. Bader for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Women walking in Fallujah

Women in Fallujah (Photo: James Gordon / Flickr)

It’s said that wars never end for those whose lives they touch, and it’s true. Take Iraq — a place that surely proves the maxim that war is not healthy for children or other living things.

To wit: Despite the fact that the U.S. war with Iraq came to a close on December 18, 2011, families in numerous Iraqi cities are now living with a dramatic rise in birth defects and cancer from chemical weapons that were detonated near homes, schools, and playgrounds during the nearly seven-year conflict.

The cities of Babil, Basra, Falluja, Haweeja, and Najaf are cases in point. Let’s start with Haweeja, which is 30 miles south of Kirkuk and was home to Forward Operating Base (FOB) McHenry throughout the war. Yifat Susskind is executive director of MADRE, a New York-based international women’s human rights organization. Susskind says that Haweeja’s skyrocketing health problems came to the group’s attention when members of Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) — MADRE’s partner organization in that country — began going house to house to talk about the need to establish a shelter for rape survivors.

“When they arrived, they noticed that almost every family they visited had a child under the age of 10 with stunted or paralyzed limbs, or who had been born without fingers or toes,” Susskind says. “And they found teens who had been toddlers at the time of the U.S. invasion and were now sick with cancer. The OWFI activists were shocked and wanted to know what was going on, why this was happening.”

What they uncovered points directly to U.S. culpability. Peace Alliance Winnipeg, for one, reports that beginning in 2004, the United States “tested all types of explosive devices on Iraqis — thermobaric weapons, white phosphorus, depleted uranium.”

The upshot, discussed in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, has been a monumental increase in cancer, leukemia, malignant brain tumors, and infant mortality. In Falluja alone, The Journal concludes that the rate of life-threatening illnesses and birth defects is “significantly greater than those reported for survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.”

Yes, you read that correctly — greater than the damage of an atomic bomb, a fact corroborated by a 2009 article in The Guardian newspaper. The article described a 38-fold increase in the number of cases of leukemia and a 15-fold increase in the number of newborns born with deformities during the first five years of the war, including limb malformations, neural tube defects, heart and vision anomalies, and a baby born with two heads.

Not surprisingly, the miscarriage rate  throughout the country has mushroomed, and tumor clusters have been recognized in Basra and Najaf, intense battle zones where so-called modern munitions were heavily used.

Read the rest of this entry →

The Road to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions: Syrian Refugees and “Marriages of Convenience”

8:00 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Ruth Michaelson for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

This article is the second in a two-part series commissioned by RH Reality Check. You can find the first here.

A Syrian woman with covered face

Photo: Marc Veraart / Flickr

An estimated 150,000 people have fled Syria for Jordan since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011. The Jordanian authorities have made much of how they’ve welcomed refugees, but even after they granted the United Nations permission to build 200 refugee camps along their northern border, housing up to one million people, the focus is still very much on temporary solutions to what may be a long-term problem.

Refugee services include short-term housing, inexpensive rentals, “holding centers,” and, since August 1, the first tent camp at Zaatari. Countries as dissimilar as Egypt, France, and Saudi Arabia have dispatched medical teams to the border to provide on-site care. Save the Children has launched projects at Zaatari for young people. These efforts are essential, amid what the Jordanian government has just recently begun to call a humanitarian crisis.

Women tend to bear the brunt of the more slow-burn problems surrounding conflict, and the setup in Jordan is ripe for this to continue. So-called “refugee issues” are not just those related to camps, or to short-term care. Jordanian and Syrian societies are close-knit socially, and much of the focus until very recently has been on how to integrate those fleeing across the border into Syrian society, and into homes and pre-existing structures. In this environment, “marriages of convenience,” or even forced marriages, can thrive, essentially undetected. Many question whether — under the circumstances — these marriages are even a problem at all.

Talk is Cheap

Visitors to Amman speak of a recent phenomenon: get into any taxi, chat with the driver, and he will tell you that “cheap wives” are to be found in the refugee camps near the Syrian border. “Cheap” refers to the dowry given to the brides’ families, as well as to the women’s expectations. Jordan is a comparatively poor, aid-dependent nation. Around 14.2 percent live below the poverty line, according to the Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook. Nevertheless, cultural norms dictate that most Syrian women will have lower expectations for their standard of living, having come from an even poorer country.

“There are all kinds of social conceptions of Syrian women as the most obedient, the most caring of their husbands out of all Middle Eastern women,” says Khadija, an activist from the northern Jordanian town of Irbid, close to the Syrian border.

“There are all kinds of jokes now within Jordanian society that the women should watch out, as with all these Syrian women in the country, the men will always choose a Syrian woman over a Jordanian woman.”

Add to this that Syrian women are normally paler, a valuable asset in a region in which skin-bleaching products replace tanning products. There is a growing sense that female Syrian refugees, while socially elevated, are now increasingly perceived as vulnerable, due to the conditions under which many refugees are living.

The State of Things

Until the opening of the Zaatari tent camp, refugees were being housed in so-called “transfer” facilities, usually rehabilitated private property that had formerly served as parts of the university campus, or even private gardens. The Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization (JHCO), an umbrella group tasked with the coordination of all aid and refugee services in the Kingdom, has said that all refugees currently living in transfer facilities will be transferred to Zaatari, which can house up to 120,000 people.

Until now, refugees were held in facilities that were labeled as temporary until a Jordanian citizen could act as a “guarantor,” who would care for the refugee financially and legally. But the situation has reportedly been far from temporary for many. In early May, during a visit to Jordan by this reporter for RH Reality Check, Mohammed Kilani of the JHCO estimated that the Beshabshe tower block, designed to house 700 people “is holding at least 2000.” Aid worker Hisham Dirani of Muhajeroon Ahrar reported that there was “no plumbing, no sewage, and no ventilation.” One former resident said, “I met people in there who’d been there for six months… It was like living in hell.” The expectation that, as Kilani put it, “a Jordanian family will open their homes to these people” after a short stay did not always prove true for those who did not have Jordanian relatives or a guarantor to bail them out.

Guardian Angels

Read the rest of this entry →

Report from Syria: Women Combat an Oppressive Regime Online, On the Ground, and Sometimes Armed

12:13 pm in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Ruth Michaelson for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Children with a drawing of a 'Freedom Bird'

Photo: Freedomhouse / Flickr

An image that has become synonymous with the Syrian uprising — any Syrian you speak to knows its intricate details — is of a woman in a blood-red dress (blood being a very important sartorial detail) standing outside the parliament building in Damascus, holding a sign that says: “Stop the killing. We want to build a home for all Syrians.” The woman, Rime Dali, has been detained and released several times by the Syrian government for protesting in this way, but she continues, undeterred, to broadcast her message. This image has become a symbol of the desire by many Syrians to express themselves freely, whatever the cost.

With the uprising rapidly descending into civil war and with the media transmitting images of young men with AK47s rather than placard-waving crowds, the weapons could easily supplant the woman in our collective consciousness. Syria’s media war is being waged with gory images from the ground. But preconceived notions about subservient Middle Eastern women could lead the world to assume that there have been no women active on the ground in Syria. This is simply not true: we’re just not looking hard enough.

FSA Fighters

Rodaina Eeesa Abud sits in a plush apartment in the northern Jordanian town of Irbid. She wears a long, elegant black dress with a black woven chiffon headscarf and gold jewelry. She pulls out her iPhone on which a video shows 20 women, their faces covered in beautiful patterned scarves, wielding AK47s as they stand proudly in their stilettos. These fighters are members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), from the southern town of Dara’a.

“I finished high school and I married early, at 17,” Abud says. “Before the revolution, I was just living a very average life with my husband.” Abud’s reasons for joining the FSA are clear:

“I am a mother,” she says. “When the revolution started in Dara’a, I saw how the Syrian Army treated those children, and I imagined what I would do if those were my children. My maternal feelings drove me to feel like I had to do something about the situation.”

Dara’a is seen as the cradle of the revolution. The torture of 15 young boys who’d drawn anti-regime graffiti had sparked the initial protests.

In the close-knit religious communities of southern Syria, where family bonds are strong, resistance to government suppression of protest was swift. “We saw people from the neighboring village starting to protest, too,” Abud says, “and they would pass by my house. I would stand and talk with them from my balcony about why they were protesting.”

Abud gives the impression that in such a fiercely communal society, doing anything possible to oust the regime — including women arming themselves — has become the new normal. “I saw people who were ready to die to build a new Syria,” she says. “This meant that when the opportunity came for me to get a gun, I took it.”

She goes on: “One Friday I saw a man get shot by the army during a protest. I ran down into the street to help him, as the men could not move freely due to snipers. While a group of us were gathered in a house with him as he died, someone said that we need to do something to protest his death. He said he had a gun, but no way of transporting it, so I volunteered to take it. After that it, became a regular thing, and it made me so happy, as it was a way to help the people of Dara’a.”

Abud says that her initial task of transporting weapons was made far easier because she was a woman; without being checked, she could cross the network of checkpoints and snipers that had sprung up. “There were several women doing this, but I was the best at it,” she boasts, miming how many guns and bullets she was able to stash under her dress while making polite and demure small talk with the soldiers at the checkpoints.

“The women who joined the FSA initially were all those who’d lost a male family member, a husband or a son,” Abud says. “Although at first our job was transportation, later we began to use the weapons, too. The first time I got to fire a gun, I felt like the Arab Spring was coursing through my veins. I was just overjoyed to be doing something, to be part of this.”

She is both matter-of-fact and proud: “One day a group of male fighters went to battle some regime forces in our town,” Abud relates. “When they left, we followed them. The men were pretty surprised to see us there, ready to go into battle with them. Together, we won that battle. The regime soldiers who came as backup for the ones we’d killed were so frightened that they retreated. Although this was a success, the men we were with were annoyed that we’d disobeyed them and followed them, so we started our own group instead.” Her husband has remained to fight within the FSA in Dara’a, while she cares for her injured brother in Jordan, but she is keen to return and fight.

What does Abud want for women in the post-Assad Syria? “We can’t think about what happens post-Bashar al-Assad yet, because the pre-Bashar Al-Assad is too important,” she says. “Women should be out there in the streets saying no to this regime just as much as men. No one should witness their children dying. I fight for everyone, and everyone needs to be involved in this, whether they’re male or female. What I do is for all of Syria.”

The Activists

Read the rest of this entry →

Sacrificing Women’s Rights For “Popular Rule:” Why Equality is Essential

9:34 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Marianne Møllman for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Over the past week Libya’s interim prime minister Abdel Rahim al-Keib has made numerous statements about human rights, at times announcing high priority to the protection of rights in his administration, at others hinting that some Libyan citizens (notably women) shouldn’t expect too much.

Judging from experiences in other countries women may not fare better after a dictatorship or autocratic rule than before it.  In 2009, Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a bill that made women subordinate to men, allegedly in an attempt to win votes. And earlier this year, peaceful female demonstrators in Egypt were submitted to forced virginity tests and brought before a military court a full month after Hosni Mubarak had resigned.

Setting aside for a moment the question of whether the current political set-ups in Egypt, Libya, or Afghanistan are more democratic than what came before, it is valid to ask whether women’s rights often are sacrificed for the sake of popular rule.  In last month’s Tunisian election, the Islamist party Ennahda won approximately 40 percent of the votes, making many worry that this country, with arguably the most advanced legal protections for women rights in the region, might slide backwards. Others countered that Islamism and feminism aren’t necessarily opposites but can, in fact, be linked.

The truth of the matter is, however, that without certain potentially unpopular back-stops to protect the rights of the disempowered, majority rule (or ruling party rule) does not always protect equal rights for all.  Indeed in the most extreme cases, state officials accused of wanting to annihilate entire groups of people within their own country can be democratically elected.

It is noteworthy that governments seeking to limit the human rights of a particular group often use the same justifications, regardless of geography or political set up.  The two most popular excuses are these: 1) our culture does not support that kind of thing; or 2) we just have a different way of doing it. 

When the first type of justification is used—such as for example in the case of rampant and very violent homophobia in Uganda and Nigeria—any criticism is highlighted as external interference with “our way of life” and ascribed to neo-colonialism or worse. This happens whether the criticism comes from in- or outside the country itself.

When the second type of justification is used—such as for example when Princess Loulwa Al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia said that women in her country are better off than in the west because “men have a duty to look after them”—those who push for more inclusive policies are simply seen as misguided: they just don’t understand.

To be sure, notions of equality, including gender equality, as a social good have not been static throughout history and the expression of what equality looks like varies a lot even within countries.  While I believe that equality is absolutely essential to human dignity, I therefore accept that this belief has not always been as broadly accepted as it is now.  

But perhaps the more interesting question in the juxtaposition of women’s rights (or gay rights, or ethnic minority rights) and democracy is not whether some people’s rights are sacrificed for popular rule (they are), but rather whether they should be as a matter of principle (I think not).

For me this is more than just a question of conviction.  Equality has proven to be intrinsically linked to happiness, health, and peaceful societies.  In comparative studies, those societies with more equitable distributions of wealth do better than more unequal neighbors on a number of social parameters such as infant mortality, crime rates, and individual contentment.  Moreover, we already know that where violence against women surges, general violence is likely to grow too.

So next time someone questions the support for the rights of a specific group of people, you might want to ask them if they support those same rights for themselves.  Not to show them up by highlighting their hypocrisy—though that might be an added benefit—but rather to make the point that we are all interdependent. Libya’s prime minister would do well to remember that too.