Archive for the ‘ Saudi Arabia ’ Category

Religion Journal: For Ramadan, India Goes it Alone

By Joanna Sugden for The Wall Street Journal

Muslims start the month-long daytime fast of Ramadan Friday. But not in India.

While most of the world’s Muslims look to Saudi Arabia or follow astronomical calculations to determine when the new moon of the ninth lunar month has arrived – marking the start of Ramadan – India follows the declaration of its own Central Moon Sighting Committee.

“Geographical differences mean we are a day behind Saudi Arabia in terms of lunar months, so we are expecting to start on Saturday,” says Syed Tariq Bukhari, a member of the committee and general secretary of the advisory council at Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid, one of the country’s most important mosques.

At sunset Friday, the 29th day of the eighth lunar month, 21 senior leaders from Delhi’s mosques will meet to decide whether the new moon has been sighted. In the Muslim calendar, months are either 29 or 30 days long.

“It is very difficult to spot a new moon, particularly on the 29th day of the month because it appears for a very short time and is a very thin sliver,” Mr. Bukhari said, adding that the best time to spot a new moon is half an hour before sunset.

“If naturally we are not able to see it because it’s cloudy then we coordinate with the other committees of other cities who have similar geographic circumstances,” Mr. Bukhari said.

The committee then waits for a Shahadah or Islamic witness who has seen the new moon. “The appearance of the witness should be according to Sharia law, which means having a beard and his neighbors should know him as a dependable person as far as being a witness is concerned,” Mr. Bukhari added.

If no credible Islamic witness comes forward, the committee waits until between 80 and 90 other witness statements on sightings are collected by moon sighting committees across the country. Then it declares the start of Ramadan.

If the moon isn’t sighted at all in the last days of the lunar month, the committee waits until the first day of the ninth lunar month – which this year is on Sunday – to declare that Ramadan has begun. It announces the start of the fast via the media, to the government and over loud speakers from mosques.

Zasarul Islam Khan, president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, an umbrella body for Muslim organizations, says the timing of Ramadan should always be based on local sightings of the moon.

“Outside the Subcontinent they are following Saudi Arabia, which is technically wrong. The scholars say that you should wait to see the new moon physically before starting Ramadan,” he told India Real Time.

Mosques in the southern Indian state of Kerala go by Saudi Arabian timings because they have close links with the Middle East, according to Mr. Bukhari. Those in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir go by Pakistan’s declaration as they are more geographically in line with the country, he adds.

The Fiqh Council of North America, which rules on matters of Islamic jurisprudence, says Muslims should follow precise astrological calculations to decide the start of the fast.

In sunlight hours during Ramadan, Muslims refrain from food, water, sex, smoking and oral medicine in order to bring desire under self-control and to focus on prayer and Allah.

This year, the fast coincides with the London Olympics, so Muslim athletes will have to decide whether to observe it and risk a dent in their performance or exempt themselves and carry out the fast once they finish the competition.

Maher Abu Rmeileh, a Palestinian Judo champion who is competing at the Games, told the BBC that he would not be observing Ramadan this year. “Scholars recommended me not to fast and said that I represented my nation not just myself, so once I return from the games I will have to make up for it,” he said.

Such a clash only happens once every 44 years and the International Olympic Committee has said it will look into the possibility of avoiding such a conflict in future, once London 2012 is over.

People exempt from fasting include pregnant women, children who haven’t reached puberty, menstruating women, breast-feeding women, the elderly, travelers and the chronically ill.

Mr. Khan said those who are sick or elderly are allowed to give to charity instead of fasting. If they are determined to observe Ramadan, they should consult their doctor, he added.

Joanna Sugden is freelance journalist living in Delhi. Before coming to India in 2011 she spent four-and-a-half years as a reporter at The Times of London, covering religion and education. You can follow her on Twitter @jhsugden.

Why Do They Hate Us?

By Mona Eltahawy for Foreign Policy

In “Distant View of a Minaret,” the late and much-neglected Egyptian writer Alifa Rifaat begins her short story with a woman so unmoved by sex with her husband that as he focuses solely on his pleasure, she notices a spider web she must sweep off the ceiling and has time to ruminate on her husband’s repeated refusal to prolong intercourse until she too climaxes, “as though purposely to deprive her.” Just as her husband denies her an orgasm, the call to prayer interrupts his, and the man leaves. After washing up, she loses herself in prayer — so much more satisfying that she can’t wait until the next prayer — and looks out onto the street from her balcony. She interrupts her reverie to make coffee dutifully for her husband to drink after his nap. Taking it to their bedroom to pour it in front of him as he prefers, she notices he is dead. She instructs their son to go and get a doctor. “She returned to the living room and poured out the coffee for herself. She was surprised at how calm she was,” Rifaat writes.

But let’s put aside what the United States does or doesn’t do to women. Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend. When more than 90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt — including my mother and all but one of her six sisters — have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty, then surely we must all blaspheme. When Egyptian women are subjected to humiliating “virginity tests” merely for speaking out, it’s no time for silence. When an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband “with good intentions” no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness. And what, pray tell, are “good intentions”? They are legally deemed to include any beating that is “not severe” or “directed at the face.” What all this means is that when it comes to the status of women in the Middle East, it’s not better than you think. It’s much, much worse. Even after these “revolutions,” all is more or less considered well with the world as long as women are covered up, anchored to the home, denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, forced to get permission from men to travel, and unable to marry without a male guardian’s blessing — or divorce either.

Not a single Arab country ranks in the top 100 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, putting the region as a whole solidly at the planet’s rock bottom. Poor or rich, we all hate our women. Neighbors Saudi Arabia and Yemen, for instance, might be eons apart when it comes to GDP, but only four places separate them on the index, with the kingdom at 131 and Yemen coming in at 135 out of 135 countries. Morocco, often touted for its “progressive” family law (a 2005 report by Western “experts” called it “an example for Muslim countries aiming to integrate into modern society”), ranks 129; according to Morocco’s Ministry of Justice, 41,098 girls under age 18 were married there in 2010.

It’s easy to see why the lowest-ranked country is Yemen, where 55 percent of women are illiterate, 79 percent do not participate in the labor force, and just one woman serves in the 301-person parliament. Horrific news reports about 12-year-old girls dying in childbirth do little to stem the tide of child marriage there. Instead, demonstrations in support of child marriage outstrip those against it, fueled by clerical declarations that opponents of state-sanctioned pedophilia are apostates because the Prophet Mohammed, according to them, married his second wife, Aisha, when she was a child.

In a crisp three-and-a-half pages, Rifaat lays out a trifecta of sex, death, and religion, a bulldozer that crushes denial and defensiveness to get at the pulsating heart of misogyny in the Middle East. There is no sugarcoating it. They don’t hate us because of our freedoms, as the tired, post-9/11 American cliché had it. We have no freedoms because they hate us, as this Arab woman so powerfully says.

Yes: They hate us. It must be said.

Some may ask why I’m bringing this up now, at a time when the region has risen up, fueled not by the usual hatred of America and Israel but by a common demand for freedom. After all, shouldn’t everyone get basic rights first, before women demand special treatment? And what does gender, or for that matter, sex, have to do with the Arab Spring? But I’m not talking about sex hidden away in dark corners and closed bedrooms. An entire political and economic system — one that treats half of humanity like animals — must be destroyed along with the other more obvious tyrannies choking off the region from its future. Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun.

But at least Yemeni women can drive. It surely hasn’t ended their litany of problems, but it symbolizes freedom — and nowhere does such symbolism resonate more than in Saudi Arabia, where child marriage is also practiced and women are perpetually minors regardless of their age or education. Saudi women far outnumber their male counterparts on university campuses but are reduced to watching men far less qualified control every aspect of their lives.

Yes, Saudi Arabia, the country where a gang-rape survivor was sentenced to jail for agreeing to get into a car with an unrelated male and needed a royal pardon; Saudi Arabia, where a woman who broke the ban on driving was sentenced to 10 lashes and again needed a royal pardon; Saudi Arabia, where women still can’t vote or run in elections, yet it’s considered “progress” that a royal decree promised to enfranchise them for almost completely symbolic local elections in — wait for it — 2015. So bad is it for women in Saudi Arabia that those tiny paternalistic pats on their backs are greeted with delight as the monarch behind them, King Abdullah, is hailed as a “reformer” — even by those who ought to know better, such as Newsweek, which in 2010 named the king one of the top 11 most respected world leaders. You want to know how bad it is? The “reformer’s” answer to the revolutions popping up across the region was to numb his people with still more government handouts — especially for the Salafi zealots from whom the Saudi royal family inhales legitimacy. King Abdullah is 87. Just wait until you see the next in line, Prince Nayef, a man straight out of the Middle Ages. His misogyny and zealotry make King Abdullah look like Susan B. Anthony.

So: Yes, women all over the world have problems; yes, the United States has yet to elect a female president; and yes, women continue to be objectified in many “Western” countries (I live in one of them). That’s where the conversation usually ends when you try to discuss why Arab societies hate women.

“Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said recently. “But they all seem to. It doesn’t matter what country they’re in or what religion they claim. They want to control women.” (And yet Clinton represents an administration that openly supports many of those misogynistic despots.) Attempts to control by such regimes often stem from the suspicion that without it, a woman is just a few degrees short of sexual insatiability. Observe Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the popular cleric and longtime conservative TV host on Al Jazeera who developed a stunning penchant for the Arab Spring revolutions — once they were under way, that is — undoubtedly understanding that they would eliminate the tyrants who long tormented and oppressed both him and the Muslim Brotherhood movement from which he springs.

I could find you a host of crackpots sounding off on Woman the Insatiable Temptress, but I’m staying mainstream with Qaradawi, who commands a huge audience on and off the satellite channels. Although he says female genital mutilation (which he calls “circumcision,” a common euphemism that tries to put the practice on a par with male circumcision) is not “obligatory,” you will also find this priceless observation in one of his books: “I personally support this under the current circumstances in the modern world. Anyone who thinks that circumcision is the best way to protect his daughters should do it,” he wrote, adding, “The moderate opinion is in favor of practicing circumcision to reduce temptation.” So even among “moderates,” girls’ genitals are cut to ensure their desire is nipped in the bud — pun fully intended. Qaradawi has since issued a fatwa against female genital mutilation, but it comes as no surprise that when Egypt banned the practice in 2008, some Muslim Brotherhood legislators opposed the law. And some still do — including a prominent female parliamentarian, Azza al-Garf.

Yet it’s the men who can’t control themselves on the streets, where from Morocco to Yemen, sexual harassment is endemic and it’s for the men’s sake that so many women are encouraged to cover up. Cairo has a women-only subway car to protect us from wandering hands and worse; countless Saudi malls are for families only, barring single men from entry unless they produce a requisite female to accompany them.

We often hear how the Middle East’s failing economies have left many men unable to marry, and some even use that to explain rising levels of sexual harassment on the streets. In a 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, more than 80 percent of Egyptian women said they’d experienced sexual harassment and more than 60 percent of men admitted to harassing women. Yet we never hear how a later marriage age affects women. Do women have sex drives or not? Apparently, the Arab jury is still out on the basics of human biology.

Enter that call to prayer and the sublimation through religion that Rifaat so brilliantly introduces in her story. Just as regime-appointed clerics lull the poor across the region with promises of justice — and nubile virgins — in the next world rather than a reckoning with the corruption and nepotism of the dictator in this life, so women are silenced by a deadly combination of men who hate them while also claiming to have God firmly on their side.

I turn again to Saudi Arabia, and not just because when I encountered the country at age 15 I was traumatized into feminism — there’s no other way to describe it — but because the kingdom is unabashed in its worship of a misogynistic God and never suffers any consequences for it, thanks to its double-whammy advantage of having oil and being home to Islam’s two holiest places, Mecca and Medina.

Then — the 1980s and 1990s — as now, clerics on Saudi TV were obsessed with women and their orifices, especially what came out of them. I’ll never forget hearing that if a baby boy urinated on you, you could go ahead and pray in the same clothes, yet if a baby girl peed on you, you had to change. What on Earth in the girl’s urine made you impure? I wondered.

Hatred of women.

How much does Saudi Arabia hate women? So much so that 15 girls died in a school fire in Mecca in 2002, after “morality police” barred them from fleeing the burning building — and kept firefighters from rescuing them — because the girls were not wearing headscarves and cloaks required in public. And nothing happened. No one was put on trial. Parents were silenced. The only concession to the horror was that girls’ education was quietly taken away by then-Crown Prince Abdullah from the Salafi zealots, who have nonetheless managed to retain their vise-like grip on the kingdom’s education system writ large.

This, however, is no mere Saudi phenomenon, no hateful curiosity in the rich, isolated desert. The Islamist hatred of women burns brightly across the region — now more than ever.

In Kuwait, where for years Islamists fought women’s enfranchisement, they hounded the four women who finally made it into parliament, demanding that the two who didn’t cover their hair wear hijabs. When the Kuwaiti parliament was dissolved this past December, an Islamist parliamentarian demanded the new house — devoid of a single female legislator — discuss his proposed “decent attire” law.

In Tunisia, long considered the closest thing to a beacon of tolerance in the region, women took a deep breath last fall after the Islamist Ennahda party won the largest share of votes in the country’s Constituent Assembly. Party leaders vowed to respect Tunisia’s 1956 Personal Status Code, which declared “the principle of equality between men and women” as citizens and banned polygamy. But female university professors and students have complained since then of assaults and intimidation by Islamists for not wearing hijabs, while many women’s rights activists wonder how talk of Islamic law will affect the actual law they will live under in post-revolution Tunisia.

In Libya, the first thing the head of the interim government, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, promised to do was to lift the late Libyan tyrant’s restrictions on polygamy. Lest you think of Muammar al-Qaddafi as a feminist of any kind, remember that under his rule girls and women who survived sexual assaults or were suspected of “moral crimes” were dumped into “social rehabilitation centers,” effective prisons from which they could not leave unless a man agreed to marry them or their families took them back.

Then there’s Egypt, where less than a month after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, the military junta that replaced him, ostensibly to “protect the revolution,” inadvertently reminded us of the two revolutions we women need. After it cleared Tahrir Square of protesters, the military detained dozens of male and female activists. Tyrants oppress, beat, and torture all. We know. But these officers reserved “virginity tests” for female activists: rape disguised as a medical doctor inserting his fingers into their vaginal opening in search of hymens. (The doctor was sued and eventually acquitted in March.)

What hope can there be for women in the new Egyptian parliament, dominated as it is by men stuck in the seventh century? A quarter of those parliamentary seats are now held by Salafis, who believe that mimicking the original ways of the Prophet Mohammed is an appropriate prescription for modern life. Last fall, when fielding female candidates, Egypt’s Salafi Nour Party ran a flower in place of each woman’s face. Women are not to be seen or heard — even their voices are a temptation — so there they are in the Egyptian parliament, covered from head to toe in black and never uttering a word.

And we’re in the middle of a revolution in Egypt! It’s a revolution in which women have died, been beaten, shot at, and sexually assaulted fighting alongside men to rid our country of that uppercase Patriarch — Mubarak — yet so many lowercase patriarchs still oppress us. The Muslim Brotherhood, with almost half the total seats in our new revolutionary parliament, does not believe women (or Christians for that matter) can be president. The woman who heads the “women’s committee” of the Brotherhood’s political party said recently that women should not march or protest because it’s more “dignified” to let their husbands and brothers demonstrate for them.

The hatred of women goes deep in Egyptian society. Those of us who have marched and protested have had to navigate a minefield of sexual assaults by both the regime and its lackeys, and, sadly, at times by our fellow revolutionaries. On the November day I was sexually assaulted on Mohamed Mahmoud Street near Tahrir Square, by at least four Egyptian riot police, I was first groped by a man in the square itself. While we are eager to expose assaults by the regime, when we’re violated by our fellow civilians we immediately assume they’re agents of the regime or thugs because we don’t want to taint the revolution.

SO WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

First we stop pretending. Call out the hate for what it is. Resist cultural relativism and know that even in countries undergoing revolutions and uprisings, women will remain the cheapest bargaining chips. You — the outside world — will be told that it’s our “culture” and “religion” to do X, Y, or Z to women. Understand that whoever deemed it as such was never a woman. The Arab uprisings may have been sparked by an Arab man — Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in desperation — but they will be finished by Arab women.

Amina Filali — the 16-year-old Moroccan girl who drank poison after she was forced to marry, and beaten by, her rapist — is our Bouazizi. Salwa el-Husseini, the first Egyptian woman to speak out against the “virginity tests”; Samira Ibrahim, the first one to sue; and Rasha Abdel Rahman, who testified alongside her — they are our Bouazizis. We must not wait for them to die to become so. Manal al-Sharif, who spent nine days in jail for breaking her country’s ban on women driving, is Saudi Arabia’s Bouazizi. She is a one-woman revolutionary force who pushes against an ocean of misogyny.

Our political revolutions will not succeed unless they are accompanied by revolutions of thought — social, sexual, and cultural revolutions that topple the Mubaraks in our minds as well as our bedrooms.

“Do you know why they subjected us to virginity tests?” Ibrahim asked me soon after we’d spent hours marching together to mark International Women’s Day in Cairo on March 8. “They want to silence us; they want to chase women back home. But we’re not going anywhere.”

We are more than our headscarves and our hymens. Listen to those of us fighting. Amplify the voices of the region and poke the hatred in its eye. There was a time when being an Islamist was the most vulnerable political position in Egypt and Tunisia. Understand that now it very well might be Woman. As it always has been.

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-American columnist. In November 2011, Egyptian police beat her, breaking her left arm and right hand, and sexually assaulted her. She was detained by the Interior Ministry and military intelligence for 12 hours.

Rick Santorum, Meet Hamza Kashgari

By George Packer for The New Yorker

President Kennedy’s 1960 speech on religious freedom makes Rick Santorum “throw up.” “What kind of country do we live in that says only people of nonfaith can come into the public square and make their case?” Santorum says. It’s a central part of his campaign strategy to distort such things as a Kennedy speech, or an Obama speech, to whip up outrage at the supposed war on religious people in America. Here’s what Kennedy said:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President—should he be Catholic—how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him… I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair.

Kennedy said much more, but this is the strongest passage of that famous campaign speech to a group of ministers in Houston, in which he argued that the election of a Catholic President who believed in the Constitution shouldn’t concern any American who believed in the Constitution—and, Santorum says, “That makes me throw up.” Santorum’s rhetorical eloquence is about equal to his analytical skill. Kennedy had nothing to say against believers entering public life, or believers bringing their religious conscience to bear on public policy. He spoke against any move to make religion official. The Constitution speaks against this, too—Article VI establishes an oath to the Constitution as the basis for public office, and explicitly prohibits a religious test, while the First Amendment forbids the official establishment of religion and protects its free practice. Santorum claims to be a constitutionalist, but that’s just rhetoric and opportunism. Santorum believes in a religious test—that may be all he believes in. (Mitt Romney believes in a religious test of a slimy, halfway, Romneyesque variety: in 2007, he reportedly dismissed the idea of appointing a Muslim to his Cabinet, saying, “Based on the numbers of American Muslims [as a percentage] in our population, I cannot see that a Cabinet position would be justified.” So does Newt Gingrich, who has made atheist-baiting a central part of his political business.)

Kennedy seemed to have someone like Santorum in mind when he warned, “For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been—and may someday be again—a Jew, or a Quaker, or a Unitarian, or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today, I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you—until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril.” In 1960, it would have been hard to imagine how thoroughly religious sectarianism and intolerance would infect American politics, and especially one major party. The outcry over Obama’s policy on health insurance and contraception has almost nothing to do with that part of the First Amendment about the right to free religious practice, which is under no threat in this country. It is all about a modern conservative Kulturkampf that will not accept the other part of the religion clause, which prohibits any official religion.

Santorum, like most conservatives these days, says he is a constitutionalist. Jefferson wrote, and Madison worked to pass, the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which held that “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” Jefferson included an even stronger phrase that was eventually struck out by amendment: “the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction.” Presumably, all of this originalist nonsense makes Rick Santorum heave, gag, vomit, and puke.

What makes me throw up is the story of Hamza Kashgari. It’s a shame that every American doesn’t know his name. He’s a young, slender, philosophical-minded columnist and blogger from Saudi Arabia who, earlier this month, dared to tweet phrases of an imagined conversation with the Prophet Mohammad: “I have loved things about you and I have hated things about you and there is a lot I don’t understand about you…I loved the rebel in you…I will not pray for you.” Within twenty-four hours, more than thirty thousand furious replies had been posted on Twitter. Within a few days, more than twenty thousand people had signed on to a Facebook page called “Saudi People Want Punishment for Hamza Kashgari.” (So much for Arab liberation by social media.) One commenter wrote, “The only choice is for Kashgari to be killed and crucified in order to be a lesson to other secularists.”

Kashgari backed down, apologized profusely, and continued to be attacked. He went into hiding. Clerics and government officials threatened him with execution for blasphemy. He fled to Malaysia, hoping to continue to fly to New Zealand, where he would ask for asylum. But Malaysian officials, behaving against law and decency, had him detained at the airport and sent back to Saudi Arabia, where he was promptly arrested. Since mid-February there’s been no word of Kashgari. The Saudis have said they will put him on trial. What a pity there’s no First Amendment to protect him.
If only he had more powerful friends—if only Christopher Hitchens were still alive—Hamza Kashgari would be called the Saudi Rushdie. There would be a worldwide campaign to pressure the Saudis into releasing him. The United States would offer him asylum and quietly push our friends the Saudis into letting him go. But we’ve come to expect these things from our friends the Saudis.

We’ve come to expect these things from the Muslim world. We expect Afghans to riot for days and kill Americans and each other because a few NATO soldiers were stupid enough to burn copies of the Koran along with other objects discarded from a prison outside Kabul. Yes, those soldiers were colossally, destructively insensitive. Yes, we should know by now. Yes, the reaction has a lot to do with ten years of war and occupation and civilian deaths and marines urinating on Taliban corpses. Still, can we have a little outrage at the outrage? Can we reaffirm that human lives are more sacred than books? Can we point out that every time something like this happens, there’s a manufactured and whipped-up quality to much of the hysteria, which has its own cold political calculation (not unlike the jihad against secularists by Sean Hannity and other Salafist mouthpieces)?

Saudi Arabia needs an absolute separation of religion and state so that Hamza Kashgari can say things that other people don’t like without having to flee for his life. Afghanistan needs it, too, and so does Pakistan, so that mob violence and political assassination can’t enjoy the encouragement of religious authorities and the tolerance or acquiescence of government officials. And America needs it so that our Presidents’ religious views remain their own private affairs, and Rick Santorum and his party can’t impose dominion of one narrow, sectarian, Bible-based idea of the public good over a vast, pluralist, heterodox, freedom-loving democracy.

Pakistan is a Nation at Odds With Itself, U.S.

By Stephen Magagnini for The Sacremento Bee

KARACHI, Pakistan — On a moonlit Thursday night in February, a television network executive hosted an elegant affair for journalists and diplomats at his villa above the Arabian Sea.

Karachi’s privileged dined on lamb, shrimp, chicken, mutton and fettuccine in mushroom sauce, and were surprised by a quartet of wandering minstrels, soulful Sufi poets who serenade for their supper, uncorking ballads about love.

On the south side of this city of 18 million, a group of Afghan refugees, who scrape out a living collecting cardboard and other recyclables in a slum straddling a swamp of open sewage, were mopping up gravy with roti – Pakistani bread.

About 900 Afghans live in this fetid slum, down the street from poor Pakistanis and water buffalo. They earn about $60 a month and survive on bottled water, chewing tobacco and roti.

“We’re happy in Pakistan,” said 33-year-old Shaezhad, leader of a cardboard collection station. “We get food and respect.”

At the party across town, talk-show hosts and other Pakistani elites blew cigarette smoke into the faces of U.S. journalists, criticizing U.S. foreign policy and the toll the war in Afghanistan has taken on their country.

Many Pakistanis resent American aggression in the region and want more respect from U.S. policymakers, but they don’t hold individual Americans responsible. Yet everywhere we went, we were held to answer for U.S. wars and Americans’ deep misunderstanding of Pakistan.

“You are arrogant, playing video games with our lives,” Abdul Moiz Jaferii, political analyst for CNBC Pakistan, said over lunch one day in Karachi. He was referring to U.S. drone attacks that have killed Pakistani and Afghan civilians.

“And we hate America because the U.S. has always been the biggest, closest ally of the military dictators. You have done nothing to help democracy.”

The impact of the war in Afghanistan has permeated nearly every pore of this country of 180 million. More than 2 million Afghan refugees have fled to Pakistan, and some have brought a culture of violence. Since 9/11, 35,000 Pakistanis have been killed in terrorist attacks by suicide bombers and other war-related violence, according to Pakistan’s intelligence agency. The victims include 6,000 soldiers and 29,000 civilians.

The unpredictable violence and the kidnapping of foreign workers have created a climate of fear in this country. We weren’t allowed to visit villages outside urban areas, where 40 percent of Pakistanis live. Two shotgun-wielding security guards protected our buses in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. We entered our hotels through metal detectors and were rarely allowed to interact with average citizens in public places.

Pakistan – strategically located between Afghanistan, India, China and Iran and influenced by Saudi Arabia – remains an enigma to many Americans, who aren’t sure whether it’s friend or foe, democracy or military dictatorship.

Pakistan has provided critical support to NATO troops in the Afghan war – drones are launched from here, NATO supplies are sent through this country, and Pakistani troops have helped recapture terrorist strongholds along the volatile Afghan border.

But distrust of the United States in the wake of deadly drone attacks and the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a cross-border battle in November is such that rather than calling for more U.S. aid to build needed power plants, schools and hospitals, a growing number of Pakistanis want nothing to do with the United States. The government of Punjab – Pakistan’s most powerful state with about 90 million people – has decided to reject U.S. aid.

The killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs in Abbottabad in the heart of this country embarrassed and angered the Pakistan military and made Americans question why bin Laden was allowed to live in essentially a resort town. Some U.S. politicians have called for an end to the $18 billion in financial aid pledged since 9/11.

An Islamic republic?

Some of the world’s largest, most beautiful mosques are here, and to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday on Feb. 4, 10,000 people named Muhammad gathered in prayer in Karachi.

We saw few women wearing hijabs, or head coverings, except those at Islamabad’s Faisal Mosque, which can hold 10,000 people for Juma, or Friday prayer.

Professional women drive cars, dress like their counterparts in U.S. cities and run government ministries, clinics and newsrooms. Women, who constitute 52 percent of the population, are increasingly getting advanced degrees. There’s a Pakistani proverb: “Every girl who goes to university gets a husband.”

Despite Islam’s ban on liquor, at a party in Islamabad guests of both sexes repaired to a speakeasy in the basement to drink wine or Johnny Walker Black and smoke cigars.

Though most marriages are still arranged, as many as 20 percent are “love marriages,” said Samina Parvez, director general of the government’s external publicity agency. “The divorce rate is also increasing – it’s about 10 or 15 percent,” Parvez said. “The majority of us are not practicing Muslims.”

Kamoran Sani, sales and marketing director for the Sheraton Hotel in Karachi, declared, “What you’ve heard about the Islamic Republic of Pakistan’s a big farce. There are orgies, voyeurs’ lounges, raves.”

A diverse nation

Pakistan didn’t become a nation until the British sliced India into Muslim and Hindu majority states in 1947. Pakistan – an Urdu acronym for Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Sindh province and Baluchistan (“stan” means nation) – varies wildly from region to region.

“There is no such thing as Pakistan,” Jaferii said. “First comes your family, then your clan, third your region, fourth your province – the nation comes a distant fifth.”

Much of rural Pakistan is a feudal society dating back to the 13th century. Mullahs, or religious leaders, still invoke blasphemy laws exacting punishment against those accused of insulting Islam. Last year, the governor of Punjab was killed by his bodyguard for criticizing the law as he sought a pardon for a Christian woman sentenced to death.

But Pakistan has tremendous religious and ethnic diversity. Muslims include Sunnis, Shiites, Ismaelis, Ahmadis and Sufis – each practicing their own brand of Islam. At Lahore University of Management Sciences, I chatted with Muslims, Hindus and Christians who were all friends.

From the Sufi love poems to Pashtun folk songs about social justice, music plays a key role in Pakistani identity.

In the center of Karachi there’s a Catholic church – St. Patrick’s Cathedral, built by the Jesuits in 1931. There’s a Jewish cemetery. Sikhs worship throughout Pakistan. The ancient city of Taxila was occupied by Alexander the Great and reflects Persian, Moghul, Buddhist and Christian traditions.

Pakistan’s future

Sixty percent of Pakistan’s population is under age 30; half is under age 20. Half the kids haven’t been to school, and fifth-grade students are reading at a second-grade level, said Nadeem ul-Haq, deputy chairman of the government’s planning commission.

“We have 2 million kids a year entering the labor force. What are these kids going to do?” ul-Haq said. There is no building boom to provide jobs, and foreign investments have been scared away by terrorism.

“Entrepreneurship is the key thing we need to focus on,” he said. “Overseas Pakistanis have been very entrepreneurial, sending back $13 billion a year to their poorer relatives.”

From 7-Elevens to Silicon Valley firms and venture capital funds, ex-pat Pakistanis are thriving in the United States. The 500,000 Pakistanis in the United States, including 100,000 in California, send $100 million a year to charities in Pakistan, said Ahson Rabbani, CEO of I-Care, which connects donors with 30 nonprofits.

In Northern California, Pakistanis raised more than $100,000 for Pakistani flood relief efforts spearheaded by cricket star Imran Khan, who may lead the country if his party wins the next election. Khan has gained credibility by building a cancer hospital for the poor in honor of his late mother. His party includes a women’s wing that has direct access to him.

Philanthropy is playing a growing role in Pakistan, financing schools in poor villages and slums. The Citizens Foundation is educating 100,000 students.

“I mentored six girls,” said Karachi journalist Samia Saleem. “One was 13 and said she didn’t want to get married – she wants to be a teacher.”

Ali Shah Haider, 17, wants to be a commercial pilot. “I sleep from 2 p.m. until 4:30 p.m., then go to work at the textile factory from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. to support my family – there are 12 of us. I do my homework between shifts.”

A nation’s dreams

Though life seems cheap in Pakistan, the people are upbeat survivors who often describe life as bo hat acha, which means “great!” in Urdu, their main language.

Last year 1,575 people were killed in Karachi, where 2 million weapons are in circulation, said Francisco Quinones of Arcis International Security. A doctor was killed in Karachi the day before we landed. Violence has been blamed on the Taliban, rival political gangs, Sunni and Shia militants, rogue security forces, and Afghan refugees.

Some refugees have been recruited by the Taliban. Others like Shaezhad, who collects recyclables in the slums of Karachi, are glad to be alive under the green and white crescent flag of this country.

Still, he wants to go home to Afghanistan. “We want our land back, we want to live with respect and we want employment.”

Azhar Abbas, the managing director of Geo TV news who hosted the party in Karachi, said that “democracy is taking hold” in his Pakistan despite the violence many here believe followed the U.S. war on terror.

The business editor of daily newspaper the News, Amir Zia, said the United States can still play a positive role in Pakistan. “If Americans pull out without getting the job done, the Islamic extremists will say it’s a victory and will become much more organized.”

But at the National Defense University, business and technology expert Bilal Munshi called Pakistan “a psychologically scarred nation suffering from a mass form of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).”

If the 4 million young people entering the workforce each year get jobs, “we will be a power … but if they don’t see a future they’re going to pick up the gun, and you’re going to be in real trouble.”

The U.S. can help develop Pakistani schools, Bilal said, “but don’t interfere in our internal affairs – let us do things our way.”

This is not Prophet Muhammad’s Islam

By Manzer Munir for Pakistanis for Peace

The steady stream of negative news about the twisted way Islam is being practiced around the world seems to never end. In my view, it is not how the Prophet would have wanted his followers to behave.

Just when I thought I was beginning to get used to the ridiculousness of the news coming out of Saudi Arabia, where a religious edict is trying to force women there with beautiful eyes to  completely cover up their face in order to stop the temptation of the men, along comes the grim news of Gulnaz  from Afghanistan. If you are not familiar with Gulnaz’s story, let me give you the facts.

Two years ago, in 2009, Gulnaz, a 19 year old single girl who lived with her elderly mother in Afghanistan, was brutally raped by her cousin’s husband. To describe the events, she recalls that on this day, the rapist came into her house when her mother left for a brief visit to the hospital. “He had filthy clothes on as he does metal and construction work. When my mother went out, he came into my house and he closed doors and windows. I started screaming, but he shut me up by putting his hands on my mouth,” she said.

Afterwards, she hid what had happened out of shame and fear, as shockingly there is no difference seen between women who are raped and women who commit actual adultery.  In Afghanistan and in many conservative Muslim countries, any sex outside marriage, whether the guilty party is single or married is considered adultery by the society and the justice system.

A few weeks after her rape, she began to vomit and started showing signs of pregnancy with her attacker’s child. Instead of sympathy and proof of her ordeal, she was charged and found guilty of adultery by the courts and for having sex outside marriage and was sentenced to twelve years in prison. She has already served two years and even gave birth to her rapist’s child, a little girl, in Kabul’s Badam Bagh jail where sadly, her innocent daughter is being raised in captivity alongside the unfortunate mother.

Rather than being freed from jail and given justice for her painful ordeal, the only way out of the dishonor of rape or adultery for her is incredibly only by marrying her attacker. In Afghan culture, and indeed in most Muslim communities, this is believed to be the only way to restore a woman’s honor, by marrying the man who she had sex with, damned be the fact whether it was willingly or unwillingly!

Sadly in many Muslim countries, rape remains a common form of violence against women. In addition, women are often blamed for being the victim of rape. Islam however, views rape as a violent crime against the victim, against society, and against God. The perpetrator who commits a crime is morally and legally responsible for that crime and should be held accountable. The victim, who is an unwilling partner in the sex act and so should bear neither blame nor stigma associated with the unfortunate act. To either ostracize or condemn the victim because she was compelled to engage in sexual intercourse is against the laws of Islam since the victim was an unwilling, and therefore a blameless, participant.

As common as her story and circumstances are for a woman in Afghanistan, the world has only learned of it due to a chance foreign documentary.  Gulnaz’s ordeal came to light because of a dispute between filmmakers and the European Union who hired the crew to film a documentary on the improving situation of women’s rights in Afghanistan and the assistance that the EU has been providing in the better treatment of women in the country. It was only when the documentarians came across her story and the grave injustice being done to Gulnaz and indeed by some accounts, hundreds of women across Afghanistan in similar circumstances, that the EU decided to cancel the project out of fear of harming their relations with Afghan government and institutions. Officially the EU states that it fears for the safety of the women in the film as they could be identified and face reprisals but many human rights organizations believe it is due to the fact that the film shows Afghan justice system in a poor light and the EU is concerned about the Afghan government’s sensitivities to the situation. It is despicable that the EU is more concerned with the sensitivities of the Afghan government rather than fighting for justice for Gulnaz.

Customs such as these in Afghanistan or the recent religious ruling in Saudi Arabia warning women to cover their attractive eyes, or the continued religious persecution of Christians and other minorities in Pakistan through the egregious blasphemy laws as seen in the case of Aasia Bibi, only serve to illustrate to many within and outside Islam the tremendous challenges that exist in what is right and what is logically very wrong and goes against all sense of justice and common sense, not to mention the very essence of Islam.

I am certainly not arguing for making any changes in the Quran or interpretations of religious text or any wholesale revisions whatsoever. That would not only be blasphemous but also counterproductive and unnecessary. Furthermore,  a big part of the beauty of our religion stems from the fact that it has remained unchanged as we Muslims believe that mutations and changes in both the Bible and the Torah necessitated the need for a third Abrahamic religion, Islam,  to arrive some 1400+ years ago to “set the record straight” after all the changes over the years in the two earlier Holy Books. Instead, I believe the only thing that needs to occur is the realization amongst the leaders and countries of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) that in this day and age, there are certain rights and freedoms that should be guaranteed to citizens of all countries of the world and this does not require any changes in the great religion but rather some simple changes in the current laws.

Aristotle once said that “You can judge a nation by the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens”. You could be a Hindu or a Christian in Pakistan, a woman in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia or a homosexual or transgendered person in Iran, you do not deserve to lose your life or liberty under the guise of religious laws. Allah almighty is a just and fair God in Islam, just as he is in the Christian and Jewish faiths. He most certainly would never condone the treatment of Gulnaz, Aasia Bibi and countless other poor souls who are being mistreated under the banner of Islam.

I am not a religious scholar and nor do I profess to know everything I need to know about Islam, Christianity and many other religions. Some may even question my faith and belief in calling myself Muslim simply because I am asking these tough questions, and in their version of Islam, you never question, you simply obey. Lest they forget, Islam also clearly states to seek knowledge and to be just and fair and respectful of other religions.  “Surely those who believe and those who are Jews and the Sabians and the Christians whoever believes in Allah and the last day and does good — they shall have no fear nor shall they grieve.” (Quran 5:69)

I am however certain that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) would indeed be very upset with the current state of affairs of most Muslim countries when it comes to morality, religious freedoms,  respect for other religions and the treatment of women. Sadly, I do not see the changes necessary coming into being voluntarily by these nations, I believe it is incumbent of the benefactors of these nations, such as the United Nations, United States, the European Union, China and other trading partners, to push for better treatment of women and religious minorities in many Muslim countries of the world.  It is high time that they pressure these nations into enacting basic rights and freedoms for all people, regardless of their race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. It must become a precursor to being a part of the civilized nations of the world and in being a member of the world community of nations. Freedom after all is what the Arab Spring is all about!

-Manzer Munir, a proud American of Pakistani descent, is a practicing Sufi Muslim and member of Muslims for Progressive Values, he is also the founder of Pakistanis for Peace and blogs at www.PakistanisforPeace.com as well at other websites as a freelance journalist and writer.

Saudi Women With Beautiful Eyes Should Cover Them up, Says New Sharia Proposal

Reported by Amrutha Gayathri for International Business Times

In yet another sexist and repressive act, a conservative Islamic committee in Saudi Arabia has proposed a law to stop women from revealing their “tempting” eyes to the public.

As of now, Saudi Arabian women are required to cover themselves up from head to toe, with a long black cloak called the “abaya”, except for their eyes and in most cases the eyebrows.  The laws on women covering their bodies are strictly imposed and anyone who doesn’t abide by the codes of conduct faces fines and public floggings.

However, Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) found that even women’s eyes could sometimes be too attractive for men and drafted a new proposal.

According to the Daily Mail, a report on the Bikya Masr news site suggested the proposal was made after a member of the committee was attracted by a woman’s eyes as he walked along a street, provoking a fight. The fight culminated in the woman’s husband getting stabbed twice in the hand.

A spokesperson for CPVPV, Sheikh Motlab al Nabet, said a proposal aimed at making it illegal for women to be in public without covering themselves up completely, if they happened to have attractive eyes, had been tabled.

The committee has always been under fire from human rights activists for repressive measures had carried out in the name of Islamic principles. It was widely criticized for its inhuman enforcement of the Sharia law in March 2002, when a public school in Mecca was on fire.

The religious police prevented female students from escaping by locking the doors and barring firemen and emergency services personnel from entering the building because the students had not covered their heads properly. The committee said it didn’t want to invoke the “sexual feelings” of emergency personnel by allowing them see the girls without their head-cover. The CPVPV was held responsible by human rights organizations for a death toll of 14. Though the organization denied the charges, the shocking accounts of witnesses were published by local media.

Incidents of brutal physical torture of women, by religious committees, for not abiding by Islamic laws have regularly appeared in Saudi media. Women are not allowed to drive or travel without male authorization or accompaniment in the country.

Wake up Pakistan

By Najam Sethi for The Friday Times

US- PAK relations have broken down. The United States has “ suspended” military aid and all but closed the Kerry- Lugar- Berman tap of funds for the civilians. Proud Pakistanis have puffed up their chests and vowed to eat grass, if necessary, in order to defend their country’s “sovereignty”. What’s the big deal, they aver, US aid was peanuts anyway, and our traditional friends like China and Saudi Arabia can bail us out of our problems.

To be sure, our relationship with the US has been no small disaster.

In the 1950s, we begged the US to befriend us instead of India, cheerily going along with the US into the Cold War against the USSR when it wasn’t our war at all. In consequence, the military became the dominant theme of our life and wrecked the budding impulse of democracy. Once again, in the 1980s and 2000s, we tripped over ourselves to rent out our services to the US in Afghanistan.

Today we are reaping the terrorist whirlwind of our greed and opportunism.

But a little introspection is in order to prove that we don’t need the US as an enemy because we are our own worst enemies.

More Pakistanis are eating “ grass” now than ever before. The number of Pakistanis below the poverty line has increased from 27 per cent five years ago to 33 per cent in 2011. And this has nothing to do with the US. The growth rate of the economy has fallen from 6.5 per cent five years ago to 3 per cent now. The fiscal deficit is yawning at 7.5 per cent of the GDP today compared to 4.5 per cent five years ago. And this has nothing to do with the US. The Rupee has fallen from 77 to the dollar five years ago to 90 today. General inflation is running at 15% and food inflation at 25%. And this has nothing to do with the US. The tax to GDP ratio is down to 8.7% in 2011 from 11.5% five years ago. And this has nothing to do with the US. Floods continue to devastate the lives and produce of millions of poor people across the country.

And this has nothing to do with the US. Sunni extremists are rampaging, killing Shias. Ethnic parties continue to mow down people in Karachi. And this has nothing to do with the US. Power breakdowns have made the lives of tens of millions wretched and miserable while rendering millions of others jobless.

And this has nothing to do with the US. Instead of rooting for Pakistani nationalism, we are proud to undermine it as Muslims first, or Sindhis, Muhajirs, Baloch, Pakhtun, Punjabi, Seraiki, Hazarajat, Kashmiri, Sunni, Shia, Deobandi, Barelvi. And this has nothing to do with the US. We are counted amongst the most corrupt countries of the world. We have waged four wars with India and lost each of them, in the bargain losing half of Pakistan.

And this has nothing to do with the US. As if this litany of self- induced failures isn’t enough, there is the hypocrisy of double standards to contend with too. Of course, the US has violated our sovereignty by raining drones on FATA. But so have the Afghan Taliban and Al- Qaeda who have established safe havens there too. But we are quick to blast the US and quicker still to pretend that Al- Qaeda doesn’t exist and the Taliban are innocent refugees for whom our traditional hospitality is on offer.

The story doesn’t end here.

The IMF is not welcome. How dare it demand that we tax the rich, plug the bleeding in public sector corporations, stop the theft of power, and spend according to our means. US aid is dispensable.

We don’t need to build dams and reservoirs for managing our natural resources, we don’t need schools and teachers for our children and hospitals for the poor.

Our all- weather friends are China and Saudi Arabia. Never mind that China doesn’t help us much when we are ravaged by earthquakes and floods or when we are short of cash to pay our foreign bills.

NEVER MIND that Saudi Arabia treats our migrant workers like slaves, rents our military to crack down on Shia majorities in Bahrain and exports extremist “ Islam” to our lands.

At the end of the day, who eats grass when we rise to defend our sovereignty? Not our pot- bellied traders and businessmen. Not our golf- playing generals. Not our Defence Housing Society residents.

Not our foreign- asset holding politicians whose kids go to English- medium private schools at home and abroad. Not our self righteous media Mughals who berate our slavish black- skins and white masks. Not our corrupt judges and civil servants. It’s the wretched of the earth, the poorest of the poor, who eat grass.

For too long we have made foreign scapegoats for our own failures and corruptions. It is time to wake up and set our house in order without begging or berating the US.

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