Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Iran's Jewish Community

By Frances Harrison
BBC News, Tehran

Yazd synagogue, Iran
The Jewish presence dates back nearly 3,000 years
Although Iran and Israel are bitter enemies, few know that Iran is home to the largest number of Jews anywhere in the Middle East outside Israel.

About 25,000 Jews live in Iran and most are determined to remain no matter what the pressures - as proud of their Iranian culture as of their Jewish roots.

It is dawn in the Yusufabad synagogue in Tehran and Iranian Jews bring out the Torah and read the ancient text before making their way to work.

It is not a sight you would expect in a revolutionary Islamic state, but there are synagogues dotted all over Iran where Jews discreetly practise their religion.

"Because of our long history here we are tolerated," says Jewish community leader Unees Hammami, who organised the prayers.

He says the father of Iran's revolution, Imam Khomeini, recognised Jews as a religious minority that should be protected.

As a result Jews have one representative in the Iranian parliament.

"Imam Khomeini made a distinction between Jews and Zionists and he supported us," says Mr Hammami.

'Anti-Jewish feeling'

In the Yusufabad synagogue the announcements are made in Persian - most Iranian Jews don't really speak Hebrew well.

Jews have lived in Persia for nearly 3,000 years - the descendants of slaves from Babylon saved by Cyrus the Great.

Over the centuries there have been sporadic purges, pogroms and forced conversions to Islam as well as periods of peaceful co-existence.

These days anti-Jewish feeling is periodically stirred by the media.

Whatever they say abroad is lies - we are comfortable in Iran - if you're not political and don't bother them then they won't bother you
Hersel Gabriel

Mr Hammami says state-run television confuses Zionism and Judaism so that "ordinary people may think that whatever the Israelis do is supported by all Jews".

During the fighting in Lebanon a hardline weekly newspaper, Yalesarat, published two photographs of synagogues on its front page full of people waving Israeli flags celebrating Israeli independence day.

The paper falsely said the synagogues were in Iran - even describing one as the Yusufabad synagogue in Tehran and locating another in Shiraz.

"This provoked a number of opportunists in Shiraz," explains Iran's Jewish MP, Maurice Mohtamed, "and there was an assault on two synagogues."

Mr Mohtamed says the incident was defused by the Iranian security forces, who explained to people that the news was not true.

And with the coming to power of an ultra-conservative like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there has been increased concern internationally about the fate of Iranian Jews.

'Holocaust denial'

Mr Ahmedinejad has repeatedly used rabid anti-Israeli rhetoric - slogans like "wipe Israel off the map" - and most controversially he has questioned the number killed in the Holocaust during World War II.

Mr Mohtamed has been outspoken in his condemnation of the president's views - in itself a sign that there is some space for Jews in Iran to express themselves.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
President Ahmedinejad has repeatedly used anti-Israeli rhetoric

"It's very regrettable to see a horrible tragedy so far reaching as the Holocaust being denied ... it was a very big insult to Jews all around the world," says Mr Mohtamed, who has also strongly condemned the exhibition of cartoons about the Holocaust organised by an Iranian newspaper owned by the Tehran municipality.

Despite the offence Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has caused to Jews around the world, his office recently donated money for Tehran's Jewish hospital.

It is one of only four Jewish charity hospitals worldwide and is funded with money from the Jewish diaspora - something remarkable in Iran where even local aid organisations have difficulty receiving funds from abroad for fear of being accused of being foreign agents.

Most of the patients and staff are Muslim these days, but director Ciamak Morsathegh is Jewish.

"Anti-Semitism is not an eastern phenomenon, it's not an Islamic or Iranian phenomenon - anti-Semitism is a European phenomenon," he says, arguing that Jews in Iran even in their worst days never suffered as much as they did in Europe.

Israeli family ties

But there are legal problems for Jews in Iran - if one member of a Jewish family converts to Islam he can inherit all the family's property.

Jews cannot become army officers and the headmasters of the Jewish schools in Tehran are all Muslim, though there is no law that says this should be so.

But their greatest vulnerability is their links to Israel - where many Jews have relatives.

Seven years ago a group of Jews in the southern city of Shiraz was accused of spying for Israel - eventually they were all released. But today many Iranian Jews travel to and from Iran's enemy Israel.

Iranian women look at an anti-Israel cartoon
An anti-Israeli 'Holocaust cartoon contest' was held in Tehran

In one of Tehran's six remaining kosher butcher's shops, everyone has relatives in Israel.

In between chopping up meat, butcher Hersel Gabriel tells me how he expected problems when he came back from Israel, but in fact the immigration officer didn't say anything to him.

"Whatever they say abroad is lies - we are comfortable in Iran - if you're not political and don't bother them then they won't bother you," he explains.

His customer, middle-aged housewife Giti agrees, saying she can easily talk to her two sons in Tel Aviv on the telephone and visit them.

"It's not a problem coming and going; I went to Israel once through Turkey and once through Cyprus and it was not problem at all," she says.

Gone are the early days of the Iranian revolution when Jews - and many Muslims - found it hard to get passports to travel abroad.

"In the last five years the government has allowed Iranian Jews to go to Israel freely, meet their families and when they come back they face no problems," says Mr Mohtamed.

He says there is also a way for Iranian Jews who emigrated to Israel decades ago to return to Iran and see their families.

"They can now go to the Iranian consul general in Istanbul and get Iranian identity documents and freely come to Iran," he says.

The exodus of Jews from Iran seems to have slowed down - the first wave was in the 1950s and the second was in the wake of the Iranian Revolution.

Those Jews who remain in Iran seem to have made a conscious decision to stay put.

"We are Iranian and we have been living in Iran for more than 3,000 years," says the Jewish hospital director Ciamak Morsathegh.

"I am not going to leave - I will stay in Iran under any conditions," he declares.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Never Forget The Victims of War

We often see images of aftermath of destruction - this image was flashed around the world shortly after the Coalition started their *shock and Awe* campaign against Iraq...

The story behind this - was this girl called Ibtihal Jassem, she was born both deaf and dumb - in the instant that her legs was blown off, she also lost all of her family - in the picture you see her uncle, carrying her body.

Ibtihal - is a survivor, but will live for the rest of her life, not only having severe communication issues, in a society that does not cater for her special needs - but also severely physically disabled, with mobility problems that now thanks to the war, will leave her dependent on mobility aids, which are hard to come by. For a moment reflect on what must be going on inside this girls mind...

Here is a link with more information about Ibtihal

Israel - Gaza - WB - Lebanon etc...

2,000 Israelis March in Tel Aviv to Demand End to Offensive
Around 2,000 people marched in Israel's commercial capital of Tel Aviv on Sunday to demand an end to the punishing offensive against Lebanon that has left some 150 dead, organizers said.
"Yes to a prisoner exchange," chanted the demonstrators, referring to the key demand of Hizbullah that snatched two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid Wednesday, unleashing the Israeli offensive.

"Yes to peace," "Our children want to live," cried the mixed crowd of Jewish and Arab demonstrators.

The rally, organized by half a dozen Israeli pacifist groups, lasted around two hours before being dispersed by police.(AFP) (AP photo shows Israeli policemen arresting an Israeli left wing demonstrator in Tel Aviv)


Right now I am online - searching for information about the latest conflict happening in the ME. the escalating violence - the powerlessness of the people and those who are concerned about human tragedy... On Friday I watched a UN conference - where representatives of both Lebanon and Israel communicated about the events - Lebanon called for help and a stop to the destruction and bombardment happening in it country at the hands of Israel - Israel on the other hand dealt a worrying card - saying that if anything, they are actually helping the Lebanese out of the predicament of being occupied by Terror, as in the Syrians and Hizbullah.

Personally - I believe this has been planned before the abduction of the Israeli soldiers... This is all a tactic of drudging Syrian and Iran into the ground and adding precedent in taking action against those countries or enforcing sanctions, due to the aspect that these countries are supposed to be sponsoring terrorism. Tragically, it is the Lebanese and Palestinians who are left in the firing line and the pawns of this war.

Here I have compiled some interesting links

Bush & Blair Raw & Uncut

Even though the situation is deadly serious - this transcript is both horrifying to read (as in really seeing how THICK Bush is) and funny...

Bush & Blair Raw & Uncut 17 July 2006

Bushandblair450A fascinating conversation between Tony Blair and George Bush has been caught by the microphones at the G8, when the two men didn't think they were being overheard. It tells us a lot about the relationship between the two men, about the US-UK special relationship and the two men's views on the Middle East. Here's a transcript as best as we can make out.

Bush: Yo Blair How are you doing?
Blair: I'm just...
Bush: You're leaving?
Blair: No, no, no not yet. On this trade thingy...[inaudible]
Bush: yeah I told that to the man
Blair: Are you planning to say that here or not?
Bush: If you want me to
Blair: Well, it's just that if the discussion arises...
Bush: I just want some movement.
Blair: Yeah
Bush: Yesterday we didn't see much movement
Blair: No, no, it may be that it's not, it maybe that it's impossible
Bush: I am prepared to say it
Blair: But it's just I think what we need to be an opposition
Bush: Who is introducing the trade
Blair: Angela
Bush: Tell her to call 'em
Blair: Yes
Bush: Tell her to put him on them on the spot.Thanks for [inaudbible] it's awfully thoughtful of you
Blair: It's a pleasure
Bush: I know you picked it out yourself
Blair: Oh, absoultely, in fact [inaudble]
Bush: What about Kofi [inaudible] his attitude to ceasefire and everything else ... happens
Blair: Yeah, no I think the [inaudible] is really difficult. We can't stop this unless you get this international business agreed.
Bush: Yeah
Blair: I don't know what you guys have talked about but as I say I am perfectly happy to try and see what the lie of the land is but you need that done quickly because otherwise it will spiral
Bush: I think Condi is going to go pretty soon
Blair: But that's that's that's all that matters. But if you, you see it will take some time to get that together
Bush: Yeah, yeah
Blair: But at least it gives people...
Bush: It's a process, I agree. I told her your offer to...
Blair:'s only if I mean... you know. If she's got a..., or if she needs the ground prepared as it were... Because obviously if she goes out, she's got to succeed, if it were, whereas I can go out and just talk
Bush: You see, the ... thing is what they need to do is to get Syria, to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it's over
Blair: [inaudible]
Bush: [inadubile]
Blair: Syria
Bush: Why?
Blair: Because I think this is all part of the same thing
Bush: Yeah.
Blair: What does he think? He thinks if Lebanon turns out fine, if we get a solution in Israel and Palestine, Iraq goes in the right way...
Bush: Yeah, yeah, he is sweet
Blair: He is honey. And that's what the whole thing is about. It's the same with Iraq
Bush: I felt like telling Kofi to call, to get on the phone to Bashad [Bashir Assad](9a and make something happen
Blair: Yeah
Bush: [inaudible]
Bush: We are not blaming the Lebanese government
Blair: Is this...? (at this point Blair taps the microphone in front of him and the sound is cut.)

Monday, July 10, 2006

From The Eye of The Storm

From the eye of the storm
It has been reported that 40 people died in Gaza on Friday... 7/7/06

It has also been reported that the father of the soldier who is being held hostage by Hamas, has said that Israel preplanned the incursions well before his son was captured and has requested that what is happening should not be done in under that guise... homemade rockets being fired over the border and tunnels have been happening for years - why is it now that Israel is taking such terrible actions within Gaza?

The Israeli authorities keep spewing rhetoric about carrying out a systematic operation and minimising civilian casualties - when in fact Gaza has been used as a test site for sonic booms - an experiment that could not be carried out when there were Jewish settlers in the area - since Israelis have been using sonic booming, there has been a rise in miscarriages in pregnant women - it is traumatising the children and elderly - cos such are being done at ungodly hours of early mornings and late evenings.

This last week civilian infrsatructure is being eradicated, through Israelis blowing up the power station (which will take many months to sort out) - that is making normal life even more intolerable for the people of Gaza and restricting even more aid and medication going to those who need it.. How does that help their mission to find their missing soldier - or to root out the militants..

I believe this has been the plan, even before Israelis were marching through Tel Aviv to support the withdrawal of Jewish settlers in Gaza - I have always thought that action was not taken with good intention - but to make the area safe for Jews (by shipping them out) and leaving the Palestinians in Gaza to eat each other alive in one of the most cramped locations on earth and have a civil war... before Israel would re-occupied Gaza, possibly with the hope that the Arabs would have moved on to a better life else where.
Anyhow, here is an article I was reading over the weekend.

From the eye of the storm In Gaza, an apricot tree stands in symbolic defiance of Israel's shameful retaliation Sami Abdel-Shafi in Gaza Friday July 7, 2006The GuardianAfter causing long term damage to civilian life and inflicting mass punishment on the Gaza Strip, it is perhaps the Israeli leaders who deserve sympathy, for having to live with the guilt of what they have done. Gazans will not send a mayday from the eye of the storm. Instead they will continue to survive and improvise in the intolerable conditions that they have been subjected to for so long.This crossed my mind as I paced by an apricot tree I planted about a year and a half ago, during what I thought was one of the darkest periods for Gaza, to renew my hope for better times. A shoot then, and a young tree now, the apricot tree grew in defiance of Gaza's unfriendly skies, where Israeli airforce planes have replaced the birds.The tree shakes to the low altitude sonic booms which Israeli F-16 jets blow into Gaza's skies. But its steadfastness inspires people, like me, to hold on and remain sane until the next unannounced breaking of F-16 hell, the humming of Apache helicopters and heavy artillery. It reminds me how difficult it must have been for people who had their orchards uprooted by the Israeli army in previous years in Gaza. Now it seems the army is back to uproot an entire population.But Gazans would not compromise their humanity, even with the escalating military operation. Contrary to the insinuations of Israel's media and public relations machine, the majority of Gazans truly hope that Israel's hostage soldier is treated humanely and eventually freed. Palestinians dearly miss the basic human rights that Israel's military occupation has deprived them of for so many years, and would not wish their loss on any soldier.Ariel Sharon's government conjured up every possible measure to drown Palestinians in every aspect of life. It stretched for so long that the world grew used to it. Ehud Olmert's government, which started out ostensibly dovish, responded to the disappearance of the Israeli soldier in Gaza with shameful haste. What is not understandable is why Israel chose to disable Gaza's power station and blow the major arteries of infrastructure that are necessary for life. This is Israel's response to Palestinian attacks that used homemade, less harmful, rockets. Whether Israel's action is reactionary or not, the nature of their retaliation is going far beyond any reason.It is already too late for Israel to pretend to be avoiding civilian death. Civilians were compromised by the first attack on Gaza's infrastructure. Still, Israel has the audacity to boast that it is acting on world opinion that civilians must be spared. Moreover, Israel's admittance of food and fuel to Gaza in the wake of their initial attack seems humanitarian, but the supplies are far below the minimum requirements of the 1.4 million residents.Mass destruction and punishment of Palestinians amounts to questionable morals. In future years it will embarrass the state of Israel. It probably already saddens every peace-loving Israeli.article continues

Sunday, June 18, 2006

'People think it's a mental illness'


'People think it's a mental illness'

In the Middle East, coming ut as a homosexual is often unthinkable. Brian Whitaker talks to young gay and lesbian Arabs about their secret private lives

Tuesday June 13, 2006
The Guardian

Ghaith, a Syrian, was studying fashion design in Damascus when the family crisis happened. "Of course, I had known that I was gay for a long time but I never allowed myself even to think about it," he says. In his final year at college, he developed a crush on one of his male teachers. "I felt this thing for him that I never knew I could feel," Ghaith recalls. "I used to see him and almost pass out.

"One day, I was at his place for a party and I got drunk. My teacher said he had a problem with his back and I offered him a massage. We went into the bedroom. I was massaging him and suddenly I felt so happy. I turned his face towards my face and kissed him. He was like, 'What are you doing? You're not gay.' I said, 'Yes, I am.'

"It was the first time I had actually said that I was gay. After that, I couldn't see anybody or speak for almost a week. I just went to my room and stayed there; I stopped going to school; I stopped eating. I was so upset at myself and I was going, 'No, I'm not gay, I'm not gay.'"

When he finally emerged, a friend suggested that he see a psychiatrist. To reassure him, Ghaith agreed. "I went to this psychiatrist and, before I saw him, I was stupid enough to fill in a form about who I was, with my family's phone number. [The doctor] was very rude and we almost had a fight. He said: 'You're the garbage of the country, you shouldn't be alive and if you want to live, don't live here. Just find a visa and leave Syria and don't ever come back.'

"Before I reached home, he had called my mum, and my mum freaked out. When I arrived home there were all these people in the house. My mum was crying, my sister was crying - I thought somebody had died or something. They put me in the middle and everybody was judging me. I said to them, 'You have to respect who I am; this was not something I chose,' but it was a hopeless case.

"The bad part was that my mum wanted me to leave the college. I said, 'No, I'll do whatever you want.' After that, she started taking me to therapists. I went to at least 25 and they were all really, really bad."

Ghaith was one of the luckier ones. Ali, still in his late teens, comes from a traditional Shia family in Lebanon and, as he says himself, it is obvious that he is gay. Before fleeing his family home, he suffered abuse from relatives that included being hit with a chair so hard that it broke, being imprisoned in the house for five days, being locked in the boot of a car, and being threatened with a gun when he was caught wearing his sister's clothes.

According to Ali, an older brother told him, "I'm not sure you're gay, but if I find out one day that you are gay, you're dead. It's not good for our family and our name."

The threats directed against gay Arabs for besmirching the family's name reflect an old-fashioned concept of "honour" found in the more traditionalist parts of the Middle East. Although it is generally accepted in many areas of the world that sexual orientation is neither a conscious choice nor anything that can be changed voluntarily, this idea has not yet taken hold in Arab countries - with the result that homosexuality tends to be viewed either as wilfully perverse behaviour or as a symptom of psychiatric disturbance, and dealt with accordingly.

"What people know of it, if they know anything, is that it's like some sort of mental illness," says Billy, a doctor's son in his final year at Cairo University. "This is the educated part of society - doctors, teachers, engineers, technocrats. Those from a lesser educational background deal with it differently. They think their son has been seduced or come under bad influences. Many of them get absolutely furious and kick him out until he changes his behaviour."

The stigma attached to homosexuality also makes it difficult for families to seek advice from their friends. Ignorance is the reason most often cited by young gay Arabs when relatives respond badly. The general taboo on discussing sexual matters in public results in a lack of level-headed and scientifically accurate media treatment that might help families to cope better.

In contrast to their perplexed parents, young gays from Egypt's professional class are often well-informed about their sexuality long before it turns into a family crisis. Sometimes their knowledge comes from older or more experienced gay friends but mostly it comes from the internet.

"If it wasn't for the internet, I wouldn't have come to accept my sexuality," Salim says, but he is concerned that much of the information and advice provided by gay websites is addressed to a western audience and may be unsuitable for people living in Arab societies.

Marriage is more or less obligatory in traditional Arab households, and arranged marriages are widespread. Sons and daughters who are not attracted to the opposite sex may contrive to postpone it but the range of plausible excuses for not marrying at all is severely limited. At some point, most have to make an unenviable choice between declaring their sexuality (with all the consequences) or accepting that marriage is inevitable.

Hassan, in his early 20s, comes from a prosperous Palestinian family which has lived in the US for many years but whose values seem largely unaffected by its move to a different culture. The family will expect Hassan to follow his siblings into married life, and so far Hassan has done nothing to ruffle their plans. What none of them knows, however, is that he is an active member of al-Fatiha, the organisation for gay and lesbian Muslims. Hassan has no intention of telling them, and hopes they will never find out.

"Of course, my family can see that I'm not macho like my younger brother," he says. "They know that I'm sensitive and I don't like sport. They accept all that, but I cannot tell them that I'm gay. If I did, my sisters would never be able to marry, because we would not be a respectable family any more."

Hassan knows the time will come and is already working on a compromise solution, as he calls it. When he reaches 30, he will get married - to a lesbian from a respectable Muslim family. He is not sure if they will have same-sex partners outside the marriage, but he hopes they will have children. To outward appearances, at least, they will be a "respectable family".

Lesbian daughters are less likely to prompt a crisis than gay sons, according to Laila, an Egyptian lesbian in her 20s. In a heavily male-orientated society, she says, the hopes of traditional Arab families are pinned on their male offspring; boys come under greater pressure than girls to live up to parental aspirations. The other factor is that, ironically, lesbianism removes some of a family's worries as their daughter passes through her teens and early 20s. The main concern during this period is that she should not "dishonour" the family's name by losing her virginity or getting pregnant before marriage.

Laila's experience was not shared by Sahar, a lesbian from Beirut, however. "My mother found out when I was fairly young - 16 or 17 - that I was interested in women and [she] wasn't happy about it," she says. Sahar was then bundled off to see a psychiatrist who "suggested all manner of ridiculous things - shock therapy and so on".

Sahar decided to play along with her mother's wishes, and still does. "I re-closeted myself and started going out with a guy," she says. "I'm 26 years old now and I shouldn't have to be doing this, but it's just a matter of convenience. My mum doesn't mind me having gay male friends, but she doesn't like me being with women."

Ghaith, the Syrian student, has also found a solution of sorts. "Nobody was remotely trying to understand me," he says. "I started agreeing with the psychiatrist and saying, 'Yes, you're right.' Soon he was saying, 'I think you're doing better.' He gave me some medicine that I never took. So everybody was fine with it after a while, because the doctor said I was doing OK."

As soon as he graduated, Ghaith left Syria. Six years on, he is a successful fashion designer in Lebanon. He visits his mother occasionally, but she never wants to talk about his sexuality.

"My mum is in denial," he says. "She keeps asking when I am going to get married - 'When can I hold your children?' In Syria, this is the way people think. Your only mission in life is to grow up and start a family. There are no real dreams. The only Arab dream is having more families."

There are just a few signs, though, that attitudes could be changing - especially among the educated urban young, largely as a result of increased contact with the rest of the world. In Beirut three years ago, 10 openly gay people marched through the streets waving a home-made rainbow flag as part of a protest against the war in Iraq. It was the first time anything like that had happened in an Arab country and their action was reported without hostility by the local press. Today, Lebanon has an officially recognised gay and lesbian organisation, Helem - the only such body in an Arab country - as well as Barra, the first gay magazine in Arabic.

These are small steps indeed, and cosmopolitan Beirut is by no means typical of the Middle East. But in countries where sexual diversity is tolerated and respected the prospects must have looked similarly bleak in the past. The denunciations of homosexuality heard in the Arab world today are strikingly similar to those heard elsewhere years ago - and ultimately rejected.,,1796524,00.html

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Visit Palestine

Visit Palestine

Visit Palestine is a devastating account of a Irish womans' experience of working as a international observer in Jenin. This film covers 3 years of her life. Caiomhe Butterly lived with the people of Jenin and helped protect whoever she could, from the daily effects fo the Israeli occupation - there was a time when she had received some news airtime when she was shot by the Israelis. Luckily she survived with no disability, Through this, Caiomhe was awarded the Time Magazine European Hero Award.

Caiomhi's film shows what it is like for the people to be under enforced curfews... to be bombarded by soldiers in tanks and guns - the bombing of peoples homes - the killing of men, women and children. The grief of the loved ones, such as orphans and partners who have to deal with life managing with children, loneliness and financial difficulties without their husband or wife. Including the mother of one of the few female suicide bombers. Who is now without 2 of her beloved children. 1 having died due to being shot by the Israelis - in front of his sister, who went on to avenge her brothers death, by blowing herself up and killing Israelis.

The film shows how politicised the children are from living in an unnatural and psychologically crippling environment - where they have to often run to school, ducking and diving under gun fire. when they have to deal with classmates being shot in their own classrooms and being taught how to survive under those dangerous conditions.

There were many children, men and particularly women who talked about their experiences of losing loved ones and homes. Not one of those people blamed or showed any hatred for the Jewish/Israeli people. But they had made clear where they did focus their frustration of where the daily bombardment had come from, which was Ariel Sharon, the Israeli premier.

It is so easy to disassociate oneself from such circumstances when clips are shown on the news - but this film was gritty and brought home to me, the emotional, physical and social factors of the people of Palestine.

As for the activists that go to places of conflict, like those who go to Palestine and Iraq. I have often heard people saying that such people are mad and careless - but watching this film shows that these people know they are not going to have an easy time or some sort of holiday - This film confirms that they're only purpose is utter determined humanitarianism.

I recommend this film to anyone who has an interest in Middle Eastern politics. Go on the website - and see about getting it shown at your nearest independent cinema - or buy the DVD.

I went to a local showing and we had the opportunity to ask Katie Barlow, the directer of the film questions about her work. She is doing her best to get major TV channels to show her film - which has already been shown in some places in the Middle East and free speech TV.

Morocco at 50—the Age of Responsibility And Reform

By Marvine Howe

Moroccan human rights activist Khadija Rouissi holds a picture of her brother, Abdelhak, who was missing for 40 years before his sister learned he had died in police custody (Photo Marvine Howe).

FOR more than four decades, the Rouissi family knocked on every door, tracked down every rumor to learn what had become of a young, idealistic bank employee who disappeared from his home in Casablanca on Oct. 4, 1964. Like many educated Moroccans of the 1960s, Abdelhak Rouissi was an active trade unionist with leftist ideas, but he had never taken part in subversive action, according to his sister Khadija Rouissi, a leading Moroccan human rights advocate.

Then, in early January of this year, Rouissi was informed by officials of the discovery of what almost certainly was her brother’s grave. An unmarked tomb in Casablanca’s Sbata cemetery was registered under the name Abdelhak and dated barely a month after the bank clerk had gone missing. DNA tests were expected to identify the remains as those of Abdelhak Rouissi, one of thousands of Moroccan citizens to meet a violent death while in police custody.

“Now we can properly mourn the death of my brother,” Rouissi said in an e-mail message from Casablanca, giving credit to the Commission for Equity and Reconciliation, which has investigated some 16,000 cases of human rights abuse under the repressive reign of the late King Hassan II. “This process should alleviate the suffering of victims and their families and enable the country to undertake reforms so that the past atrocities will never happen again,” said Rouissi, who heads the Association of Families of Missing Persons.

The commission’s scathing report on past human rights violations has tempered current celebrations of Morocco’s half-century of independence. A second document containing a critical examination of achievements in human development since independence has added to the feeling of malaise. These unusually frank assessments of national failings were sponsored by King Mohammed VI, who succeeded his father, King Hassan, seven years ago.

In what appears to be a calculated risk, the 42-year-old monarch clearly hopes that the public catharsis will enable the country to turn the page on past errors and abuses and move on. “Enough selfishness, enough isolation and waste of valuable opportunities, enough squandering of resources and energies in false struggles,” King Mohammed told parliament earlier this year. The latest studies on human rights and human development, along with its predecessors, would serve as “foundations for a global reform,” he declared.

While applauding the royal agencies for acknowledging past abuses committed by the state, Morocco’s independent human rights organizations stress that these crimes continue under Mohammed VI’s rule. The rights groups have formed a follow-up committee to support the recommendations for reform and constitutional changes, but caution that everything depends on implementation.

When Morocco won its freedom from France in March 1956 and from Spain one month later, the nationalist movement was united in its aim to achieve a democratic, parliamentary monarchy under the leadership of popular King Mohammed V, grandfather of the present ruler. The European powers had developed Morocco’s infrastructure for the benefit of colonial interests and a compliant local elite, but the vast majority of the 10 million Moroccans (who have now trebled) were unschooled and living at a subsistence level.

Mohammed V established the basis of a constitutional monarchy, but died prematurely in 1961, after a minor nose operation. His son and successor, Hassan I, an enlightened despot, dominated Moroccan life for 38 years. At home, Hassan reigned with an iron fist, stifling critics, crushing any opposition and only easing his rule toward the end of his life. On the international scene, he was a brilliant statesman, dependable partner of the West and peace-maker on the Arab-Israeli issue. Encouraging foreign investments, King Hassan developed the economy in favor of the ruling elite and an expanding middle class. But it was a system of nepotism, patronage and corruption, one which worsened the gap between rich and poor.

On King Hassan’s death in 1999, Moroccans, thirsting for change, rallied around his son, who assumed the throne with promises of democratic reform and social justice. Without betraying his filial loyalty, King Mohammed distanced himself from the more egregious aspects of his father’s reign. Promptly dismissing the widely detested minister of interior and controversial aide, Mohammed VI relaxed restrictions on the press, reinstated political prisoners and exiles, held relatively free elections, named technocrats to spur development, and ordered a revision of the family code giving women more rights. Like his father, however, the young king retained absolute control over the reins of power.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, King Mohammed, who also is Morocco’s spiritual ruler, ordered special prayers for the victims and sent representatives to a memorial service. Since then, Morocco has appeared as a cornerstone of Washington’s democratization project for the Greater Middle East. During the king’s spring 2002 visit to the White House, President Bush announced plans to establish a free trade area with the kingdom. Subsequently, the U.S. proclaimed Morocco a “major non-NATO ally,” and the kingdom was invited to take part in NATO exercises. Robert B. Zoellick, the American trade representative, described Morocco as “a bright light of reform and moderation in the Islamic world.” Despite strong protests from Morocco’s independent press and public against American policies in the Middle East, at the end of 2004 Morocco and the United States co-hosted the first “Forum for the Future.”

After Islamic extremists carried out suicide bombings on May 16, 2003 against Jewish and foreign targets in Casablanca, killing 45 people, Rabat stepped up cooperation with the U.S. and Europe in the war against terrorism. The king pushed through parliament a tough anti-terrorism law and gave free rein to the security services to carry out thousands of arrests. Summary trials followed with harsh prison sentences—as in King Hassan’s time—only now the victims were Islamists, not leftists.

Since his accession to the throne, King Mohammed had come under pressure from human rights groups to set up a truth and justice commission on the South African model. After two years of negotiations, the palace agreed to establish the Equity and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Driss Benzekri, who was a political prisoner for 17 years. The commission held public hearings around the country and ruled that more than 9,000 cases would be eligible for compensation.

Presented as a major accomplishment of King Mohammed’s reign, the commission, whose mandate has terminated, made its final report public at the end of January. It was a frank and troubling view of human rights violations, kidnappings, torture and summary executions, organized or condoned by the state under King Hassan. The commission went on to recommend substantive constitutional revisions, including the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, government control over the security services, parliamentary oversight, and the primacy of international law in human rights.

The human rights organizations’ new watchdog committee criticized the commission for not allowing torture victims to name their abusers, barring punishment of the criminals and giving no guarantees against future abuse. It also called for the pursuit of many unresolved cases, such as the 1965 disappearance of opposition leader Mehdi ben Barka and violations against activists from the Rif Mountains and the Sahara.

Proposed Reforms

The other ground-breaking survey, “Morocco’s Human Development during the last 50 Years and Prospects for 2025,” was drafted by a committee of experts headed by the king’s adviser, Ab­del­aziz Meziane Belfikh. Moroccans have been dismayed in recent years over their country’s low ranking (124 out of 177 nations) on the United Nations scale of Human Development. The royal panel stressed that education in Morocco is in “a state of crisis,” indicators of infant mortality and maternal health are “alarming,” and economic growth “stagnant” since 1955, with persistent poverty. The report proposed detailed reforms, including the creation of an independent agency to fight corruption, and constitutional changes to promote regional development.

In acknowledging these problems, King Mohammed has shouldered a considerable burden. The question is whether he is prepared to relinquish some authority and undertake the constitutional reforms needed to transform this absolute monarchy into a modern democratic state of law. An immediate test of royal intentions is the new autonomy plan for Western Sahara, where nationalists have been struggling for independence for more than a quarter of a century. Now time is of the essence.

Morocco at 50 is impatient, due to rising expectations and decades of unfulfilled promises. The Moroccan public, now linked to the outside world through satellite, television and cell phones, has become more demanding. Young people, who cannot find jobs, form a volatile mass, vulnerable to extremists. The country’s independent press is an important voice of opposition, and human rights organizations are increasingly vocal. The main political parties, which have participated in ineffectual governments dominated by the palace, have lost credibility. Islamists, who have remained in opposition, are expected to win national elections in 2007—if they are free and fair. This would be a blow not only to Morocco’s secular elite, particularly women, but also to Paris, Madrid and Washington, who have lauded “the Moroccan model” of a moderate Muslim ally in the war against terrorism.

Marvine Howe, a former New York Times bureau chief, is the author of Morocco: The Islamist Awakening and Other Challenges, available from the AET Book Club.

God,The US and Gays

I have just watched an interesting exchange between Shirley Phelps and a news reporter here

Kinda funny... her groups website is worth checking out

Sunday, June 11, 2006

This whole "Freedom of Speech" thing

See, I'm doing it myself. I put the term in inverted commas.

It seems that these days, freedom of expression has gone out of fashion on the left and among progressive campaigners in the UK. Instead it's been replaced by quiet acceptance of censorship, as long as it helps stop people from feeling "offended". In fact, "I find that offensive" is practically the automatic trump card in everyday arguments, before we even get to the level of the "incitement to religious hatred laws" (*cough*blasphemy laws*cough*) that the government has recently been putting through the commons.

It's a joke, really to see how a concern not to offend conservative religious lobbies has enabled the right to co-opt this debate. During the infamous "Danish cartoons" thing we were subjected on the one hand to right-wing newspaper editors smugly republishing inflammatory images that fed into a general climate of demonisation of Muslim Arab and South Asian people in Europe. At the same time, we saw arguments from clerics calling for the things to be banned on grounds of their being "offensive" (ie, blasphemous).

It's a difficult line to draw, but it seems to me that the much-maligned mainstream press in the UK took more or less the right line - ie they condemned the death threats made towards the cartoonists, insisted on a legal right to free speech, but then used their own editorial control to refuse to publish themselves. Freedom of expression is freedom of expression, but the right to publish is not the same as the obligation to do so.

And the left? Well, the left by and large... errr... kept quiet, other than to say that the cartoons themselves were racist. Which, whilst certainly true in the sense that they fed a climate of anti-Muslim racism, does little to actually intervene in the debate about whether images should be made illegal on the grounds that they are against a particular belief system.

On a different note I'm glad to see that Asia House's closure of the exhibition of MF Husain's art (which was deemed "offensive" by a group called "Hindu Human Rights") was met with strong opposition from a substantial group of progressive South Asian academics and campaigners in the UK. They show that it is very much possible to be consistently anti-racist, progressive, and in favour of free expression.

Indeed, in my view free expression is essential to a truly effective anti-racist politics. I just wonder sometimes how many on the left still believe it. It's weird for someone like me to find themselves nodding along with some of what the libertarian right have to say on social issues, whilst still radically disagreeing with them on economic ones.

Perhaps there's a case for the libertarian left to wake itself up.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Welcome VP

Dear VP

Thanks for accepting the invite of helping me out with this blog - I'm still waiting for other people to get themselves round to doing the same...

This picture is appropriate, dont yah think?