Posts Tagged ‘ Iran ’

Pakistan-Iran pipeline work ‘to begin on 11 March’

As Reported By The  BBC

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Work on a gas pipeline between Iran and Pakistan will begin on 11 March, Pakistani officials say.

The project has led US officials to warn that it may fall foul of sanctions on Iran’s nuclear programme.

The long-delayed project is seen in Pakistan as a way of combating the country’s chronic energy shortages with supplies of Iranian gas.

Officials told Pakistani media they hoped the presidents of both countries would attend a ceremony on 11 March.

President Asif Ali Zardari visited Iran earlier this week, meeting his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, and finalised the multi-billion dollar deal.

Officials say the pipeline on the Iranian side of the border has been completed, and that this month will see the start of work on the project in Pakistan.

On Wednesday, the US warned Pakistan to “avoid any sanctionable activity” in connection with the project.

“We think that we provide and are providing the Pakistani government and people a better way to meet their energy needs,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters on Wednesday.

Last year Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar insisted the pipeline was “in Pakistan’s national interest and will be pursued and completed irrespective of any extraneous considerations”.

Power shortages have become a major issue in Pakistan, with the government ordering an investigation into a nation-wide power cut on Sunday blamed on a technical fault in a plant in south-western Balochistan province.

Pakistan’s Balochistan: Minerals, Militants, and Meddling

By Mahvish Ahmad for The Christian Science Monitor

balochistan coast

Balochistan is a key province in Pakistan that is filled with natural resources as well as a volatile mix of Afghan Taliban leaders, anti-Shiite militants, and ethnic separatists.

Why is Balochistan important?
Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province in terms of size, and its smallest in terms of population. The province has always been seen as occupying a geo-strategic position. It has the country’s longest coastline, with a lucrative deep-sea port at Gwadar in the south, and a shared border with Afghanistan and Iran. Balochistan also has extensive tapped and untapped resources, including copper, gold, oil, lead, and zinc.

The province has always been seen as a strategic asset, first by the British colonial power who saw it as a buffer zone holding off Afghan and Russian forces. Today, it is a key source of gas and minerals for Pakistanis across the country, and seen as a strategic transport route.

An on-going separatist uprising and the continued presence of Islamist groups in the north has made this strategic province especially restive.

Who are Balochistan’s separatists?
A section of the province’s ethnic Baloch are calling for the outright independence of Balochistan, after the 2007 assassination of Akbar Bugti, the head of the Bugti tribe and a former Interior Minister in the provincial government. The demands of the separatist Baloch have prompted the deployment of thousands of Pakistani troops across the province, who have been accused of extra-judicial kidnappings, torture, and killings of Baloch activists. Baloch separatists have also been accused of carrying out attacks against members of Pakistan’s powerful Punjabi ethnicity as well as Baloch who take a more pro-Pakistan line.

Who are Balochistan’s Islamists?
Islamist groups hold sway in areas close to the Afghan border. The province’s capital, Quetta, was once known for the notorious Quetta Shura – a congregation of top leaders within the Afghan Taliban. Sources say that the Shura disbanded in 2010, but many suspect that members of the Taliban live among Afghan refugees close to the provincial capital. Other Sunni militant groups also operate with impunity, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an outfit that has taken public responsibility for deadly attacks against Balochistan’s Hazaras – a primarily Shiite Muslim minority group easily identifiable because of their distinct Mongolian features. Almost 1,000 Hazaras have been killed over the last five years.

What recent political developments are important to watch?
A protest held by the Hazara community in January prompted the federal government to dismiss its provincial counterpart. After two bombs killed 130 people on Jan. 10 – most of them Hazaras – thousands sat in protest for four days, refusing to bury their dead until the government guaranteed that their community would receive necessary security. According to Islamic tradition, the dead must be buried as soon as possible – the protests were a powerful message to a provincial government that had been accused of gross negligence. The imposition of a form of direct rule in the province has, however, been met with criticism from the province’s majority Baloch, who believe it is a sign of a central government once again meddling in the province’s autonomy.

What international players are involved?

The Chinese are mining in various locations throughout the province. The Arabs are known to use parts of the province for recreational hunting. Indians are accused of providing support for Baloch separatists, but there is no evidence supporting this claim. Various Western countries have provided Baloch political activists asylum, in light of the heavy hand exercised by the Pakistani security forces. This prompted US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher to introduce a bill in Congress, calling for US support for the outright independence of Balochistan. The prospect of the bill caused an uproar in Pakistan, prompting politicians to accuse the US of meddling in the country’s internal affairs, but it did not go far. And the State Department has made it clear that the US respects Pakistani sovereignty when it comes to the question of Balochistan.

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.

New Year’s gift: Obama signs bill freezing aid to Pakistan

As Reported By Reuters

President Barack Obama signed a sweeping US defense funding bill on Saturday which includes new sanctions on financial institutions dealing with Iran’s central bank, and curtailing up to $850 million in aid to Pakistan. The bill was signed despite concerns about sections that expand the US military’s authority over terrorism suspects and limit his powers in foreign affairs.

The massive defense bill Congress passed on earlier in December freezes 60 per cent of the $850 million aid, or $510 million, until the US defense secretary provides lawmakers with assurances that Pakistan is working to counter improvised explosive devices (IEDs). US lawmakers say that many Afghan bombs that kill US troops are made with fertilizer smuggled by militants across the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan.

“The fact that I support this bill as a whole does not mean I agree with everything in it,” Obama said in a statement, citing limits on transferring detainees from the US base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and requirements he notify Congress before sharing some defense missile information with Russia as problematic.

The bill, approved by Congress last week after its language was revised, aims with its Iran sanctions to reduce Tehran’s oil revenues but gives the US president powers to waive penalties as required. Senior US officials said Washington was engaging with its foreign partners to ensure the sanctions can work without harming global energy markets, and stressed the US strategy for engaging with Iran was unchanged by the bill.

The bill may also prove problematic for Pakistan in ways other than providing assurances of concrete steps to counter the manufacture of IEDs. The sanctions placed on dealing with Iran’s central banks may weigh on Pakistan’s plans for the Iran-Pakistan pipeline which aims to provide gas to Pakistan.

Pakistan needs the gas supplies from Iran to augment its own gas reserves which have been shrinking fast, leading to widespread gas shortages affecting its industry and daily life.

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.

Analysis: Pakistan’s Double-Game: Treachery or Strategy?

By John Chalmers for Reuters

Washington has just about had it withPakistan.

“Turns out they are disloyal, deceptive and a danger to the United States,” fumed Republican Representative Ted Poe last week. “We pay them to hate us. Now we pay them to bomb us. Let’s not pay them at all.”

For many in America, Islamabad has been nothing short of perfidious since joining a strategic alliance with Washington 10 years ago: selectively cooperating in the war on extremist violence and taking billions of dollars in aid to do the job, while all the time sheltering and supporting Islamist militant groups that fight NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has angrily denied the charges, but if its critics are right, what could the explanation be for such duplicity? What strategic agendas might be hidden behind this puzzling statecraft?

The answer is that Pakistan wants to guarantee for itself a stake in Afghanistan’s political future.

It knows that, as U.S. forces gradually withdraw from Afghanistan, ethnic groups will be competing for ascendancy there and other regional powers – from India to China and Iran – will be jostling for a foot in the door.

Islamabad’s support for the Taliban movement in the 1990s gives it an outsized influence among Afghanistan’s Pashtuns, who make up about 42 percent of the total population and who maintain close ties with their Pakistani fellow tribesmen.

In particular, Pakistan’s powerful military is determined there should be no vacuum in Afghanistan that could be filled by its arch-foe, India.

INDIA FOCUS

Pakistan has fought three wars with its neighbor since the bloody partition of the subcontinent that led to the creation of the country in 1947, and mutual suspicion still hobbles relations between the two nuclear-armed powers today.

“They still think India is their primary policy,” said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general and prominent political analyst. “India is always in the back of their minds.”

In an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani – unprompted – complained that Washington’s failure to deal even-handedly with New Delhi and Islamabad was a source of regional instability.

Aqil Shah, a South Asia security expert at the Harvard Society of Fellows, said Islamabad’s worst-case scenario would be an Afghanistan controlled or dominated by groups with ties to India, such as the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, which it fears would pursue activities hostile to Pakistan.

“Ideally, the military would like Afghanistan to become a relatively stable satellite dominated by Islamist Pashtuns,” Shah wrote in a Foreign Affairs article this week.

Although Pakistan, an Islamic state, officially abandoned support for the predominantly Pashtun Taliban after the 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001, elements of the military never made the doctrinal shift.

Few doubt that the shadowy intelligence directorate, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has maintained links to the Taliban that emerged from its support for the Afghan mujahideen during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Until recently, there appeared to be a grudging acceptance from Washington that this was the inevitable status quo.

That was until it emerged in May that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden – who was killed in a U.S. Navy SEALs raid – had been hiding out in a Pakistani garrison town just two hours up the road from Islamabad, by some accounts for up to five years.

Relations between Pakistan and the United States have been stormy ever since, culminating in a tirade by the outgoing U.S. joint chiefs of staff, Mike Mullen, last week.

Mullen described the Haqqani network, the most feared faction among Taliban militants in Afghanistan, as a “veritable arm” of the ISI and accused Islamabad of providing support for the group’s September 13 attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

The reaction in Islamabad has been one of stunned outrage.

Washington has not gone public with evidence to back its accusation, and Pakistani officials say that contacts with the Haqqani group do not amount to actual support.

However, Imran Khan, a Pakistani cricketer-turned-populist-politician, said this week that it was too much to expect that old friends could have become enemies overnight.

He told Reuters that, instead of demanding that Pakistan attack the Haqqanis in the mountainous border region of North Waziristan, the United States should use Islamabad’s leverage with the group to bring the Afghan Taliban into negotiations.

“Haqqani could be your ticket to getting them on the negotiating table, which at the moment they are refusing,” Khan said. “So I think that is a much saner policy than to ask Pakistan to try to take them on.”

REGIONAL GAME

The big risk for the United States in berating Islamabad is that it will exacerbate anti-American sentiment, which already runs deep in Pakistan, and perhaps embolden it further.

C. Raja Mohan, senior fellow at New Delhi’s Center for Policy Research, said Pakistan was probably gambling that the United States’ economic crisis and upcoming presidential elections would distract Washington.

“The real game is unfolding on the ground with the Americans. The Pakistan army is betting that the United States does not have too many choices and more broadly that the U.S. is on the decline, he said.

It is also becoming clear that as Pakistan’s relations with Washington deteriorate, it can fall back into the arms of its “all-weather friend,” China, the energy-hungry giant that is the biggest investor in Afghanistan’s nascent resources sector.

Pakistani officials heaped praise on Beijing this week as a Chinese minister visited Islamabad. Among them was army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, arguably the country’s most powerful man, who spoke of China’s “unwavering support.”

In addition, Pakistan has extended a cordial hand to Iran, which also shares a border with Afghanistan.

Teheran has been mostly opposed to the Taliban, which is dominated by Sunni Muslims while Iran is predominantly Shi’ite. But Iran’s anti-Americanism is more deep-seated.

“My reading is the Iranians want to see the Americans go,” said Raja Mohan, the Indian analyst. “They have a problem with the Taliban, but any American retreat will suit them. Iran in the short term is looking at the Americans being humiliated.”

ARMY CALLS THE SHOTS

The supremacy of the military in Pakistan means that Washington has little to gain little from wagging its finger about ties with the Taliban at the civilian government, which is regularly lashed for its incompetence and corruption.

“The state has become so soft and powerless it can’t make any difference,” said Masood, the Pakistani retired general. “Any change will have to come from the military.”

Daniel Markey, a senior fellow for South Asia at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, said the problem lies with a security establishment that continues to believe that arming and working – actively and passively – with militant groups serves its purposes.

“Until … soul-searching takes place within the Pakistani military and the ISI, you’re not likely to see an end to these U.S. demands, and a real shift in terms of the relationship,” Markey said in an online discussion this week. “This is the most significant shift that has to take place.”

U.S. Refrains From Declaring Haqqani Terrorist Group on Pakistan Concerns

By John Walcott and Viola Gienger for Bloomberg News

The Obama administration isn’t ready to declare the Haqqani group in Pakistan a “foreign terrorist organization” even after Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the group attacked the U.S. embassy and American troops in Afghanistan.

“We are continuing to review whether to designate” the Haqqani organization, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday.
Mullen’s declaration in Senate testimony last week that Haqqani operatives acted as a “proxy” for Pakistan’s intelligence service may have further complicated the question.

Taking the first step — adding the Haqqani group to the list of terrorist organizations — would lead to demands that Pakistan be declared a state sponsor of terrorism. That would put at risk Pakistan’s cooperation as the U.S. tries to snuff out al-Qaeda’s core and other militants in the country’s tribal areas.

For now, the U.S. has designated the Haqqani network’s founder and other leaders. It has made clear to Pakistan that clamping down on the group “is job one, that we want to do it together, and that’s the conversation that we’re having now,” Nuland said.
Designating Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism would put it in the company of only four other countries — Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria — and might trigger a nationalist backlash in Pakistan. It would require halting U.S. aid to Pakistan, force the U.S. to oppose World Bank loans to Pakistan, and end cooperation between the two countries in fighting terrorism and trying to stabilize Afghanistan.

Pariah State

Naming Pakistan a sponsor of terrorism “would turn it into a pariah state,” Robert Lamb, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in a telephone interview. “That would complicate a lot of aspects of the relationship, which is complicated enough already. It’s ugly, but it’s not unsalvageable.”

The administration is under new pressure to designate the Haqqanis a terrorist organization alongside 49 others, including al-Qaeda, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip.

After Mullen testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the Haqqani group “meets the standards for designation” as a terrorist organization. So far, said congressional officials, Clinton hasn’t responded.

Congressional Pressure

“I think there’s going to be increasing congressional pressure on them to list the Haqqani network as a foreign terrorist organization,” said Lisa Curtis, a former CIA analyst and now a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation policy group in Washington.
“If we know that the Haqqani network is behind these major attacks on U.S. interests and we fail to confront them, that is a signal of weakness and it simply invites more attacks,” she said.

Nuland and other administration and military officials signaled a reluctance to sanction Pakistan.
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said yesterday that the U.S. wants to “maintain a relationship with Pakistan that’s grounded in common interests, to include going after terrorists that threaten both countries.”
“There are differences from time to time,” Little told reporters at the Pentagon. “Those differences have been made public, and we continue to discuss those differences in private. We look forward to working with the Pakistanis to try to resolve them.”

Stretched Thin

Pakistani military officials told reporters in Islamabad on Sept. 25 that they had decided not to take action against the Haqqani group because their forces are stretched too thin.

If tensions escalated, Pakistan might again, as it did in a previous diplomatic confrontation, cut supply lines to U.S., NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan from its port city of Karachi. Alternative land or air routes are more costly and difficult.
The Pakistanis, said two U.S. intelligence officials, also might abandon secret agreements that permit unmanned U.S. drones to collect intelligence and attack targets in designated areas of Pakistan.

The U.S. already is restricted from operating over the Haqqanis’ suspected base in North Waziristan or the border city of Quetta, home to the main Afghan Taliban group. They also might expel some or all of the classified number of U.S. intelligence officers and special operations forces who are training Pakistani troops and helping target drone attacks, the officials said.

ISI Role

Designating the Haqqani network a terrorist organization would do little to stop the group, said Curtis of the Heritage Foundation. The Haqqanis, she said, probably still would be able to garner financial support from their allies in the Persian Gulf region and backing from the Pakistan spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, known as ISI.
A U.S. designation of the Haqqanis isn’t likely to change Pakistani policy either, said Christine Fair, a Pakistan expert at Georgetown University in Washington.

The ISI and the Pakistani military regard the Haqqani network and other militants as allies in their campaign to maintain Pakistani influence in Afghanistan and prevent arch- rival India from getting a toehold on Pakistan’s western border, said Fair and other specialists.
“They believe that the Haqqanis would protect Pakistan’s interest in any future setup in Afghanistan,” Curtis said.
Rejecting the charges that his government uses the Haqqanis as a proxy, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said in a Sept. 25 statement that U.S. policy on Afghanistan shows “confusion and policy disarray.”

“We may just let this ride,” said Marvin Weinbaum, a former Afghanistan and Pakistan intelligence analyst at the State Department and director of the Center for Pakistan Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “We know what direction the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is going, and now we have no idea what the bottom looks like.”

How Many Sufis Are There in Islam?

By Stephen Schwartz for The Huffington Post

Devotees of Sufism, the spiritual interpretation of Islam, face problems wherever they are found. In the West, many self-styled Sufis have never become Muslim, know little of the religious background of the Sufi way, and give Sufism a reputation as simply another flavor of New-Age, “weekend” mysticism. In Muslim lands, especially in the Arab core countries, classic Sufi authors may be praised while living Sufi teachers are derided as un-Islamic charlatans. And in some places, Sufis are imprisoned and murdered.

As a Muslim Sufi adherent, however, I am troubled especially by another expression of contempt very widely cast against Sufism by Islam-hating amateur experts in the West. That is the claim of Sufi irrelevance. Since the horror of Sept. 11, now almost a decade past, the identification of a moderate and contemplative form of Islam, which can oppose radical and fundamentalist doctrines, has seemed of considerable importance both for the moral health of Muslim believers and for the security of non-Muslims and Muslims alike. But the Sufi alternative to Islamist extremism is neglected or even disparaged, typically, by Muslim and non-Muslim commentators.

Western misperception of the importance of Sufis in Islamic life is complicated by lack of clarity as to who and what Sufis are. Sufis often enjoy great prestige with the mass of Muslims, based on Sufi examples of personal humility in fervor for God and Sufi preaching of love for humanity. But Sufis are not, mainly, other-worldly, exotic individuals or groups that spend all their time absorbed in semah (ecstatic turning on one foot and other forms of dance).

Some Sufis withdraw from the daily affairs of society, but others pursue satisfaction of the Creator by seeking social justice through improvement of popular education and services to the needy, such as housing of the homeless and free distribution of food. Rather than disappearing in a misty aura of meditation, numerous Sufis around the Muslim world contribute actively to defense of the victims of oppression.

Sufis may also take on the risky challenge of overt political engagement. This has been seen most strikingly in Turkish developments over the past two decades. Turkish Sufis were suppressed by the secularist regime established in the 1920s, but flourished in clandestinity, and have now emerged to lead Islamist parties and to assume positions in government. How the relations between Turkish Islamist politicians and Turkish and Kurdish Sufis will evolve remains to be seen.

Essential principles shared by most Muslim Sufis include emphasis on commonalities with other faiths and traditions, which has contributed to improved relations between Muslims and Jews, Christians, Buddhists and other non-Islamic believers. Commentators concerned to denigrate Islam altogether have asserted that Sufis, even if they embody moderation and mutual respect among people of religion, comprise no more than 5 percent of the world’s Muslims. Since the importance of Sufism stands, in the minds of many Westerners, on demographic measurement, let us therefore ask: How many Sufis are found in the Muslim world?

I would first observe that Sufis are present, persistently, in every Muslim population, including those where they were persecuted the longest: Saudi Arabia. Although the Saudi kingdom prohibited and punished possession of Sufi books and the practice of Sufi observances, the country always possessed a thriving Sufi underground with access to the heights of power. Before his elevation to the throne in 2005, then-Saudi Crown Prince, and now King Abdullah, who favored Sufis, gained them the right to hold zikr (remembrance of God by vocal or silent chanting, singing and bodily movements) in their homes.

In some countries Sufism is praised as an item of a proud heritage while it is repressed in daily life. The most obvious such example is that of Iran. The clerical regime established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini could not act easily against Sufis, since so many famous Sufis — such as Jalaladdin Rumi, the 13th century author believed by many to be, currently, the most widely read poet in the West — wrote in Persian, and Sufi texts became the national literature of the Iranians.

But while the Tehran clerics honor the Sufis of the past, they repress Sufis in the present. Sufis have most often functioned as an alternative to clerical authority in Islam, and widely represented Iranian Sufi bodies like the Nimatullahi-Gonabadi dervish order and the “hidden,” Kurdish-speaking Ahl-e Haqq or “people of truth” have sustained a difficult challenge to the Iranian authorities. Iranian Sufis have been arrested and disappeared into the obscurity of the prisons, with some doubtless dealt a fatal destiny.

As certain Islamic countries are ambivalent about Sufism, in other Muslim societies we see variations in the intensity of Sufi “activism.” Analyzing Islamic Sufism, I have generally divided Muslim territories between those in which Sufism has a deep but informal influence in local Islam, in contrast with those where it has a well-established institutional presence.

In the great Eurasian expanses, Islam is widely permeated by Sufi teachings and customs. From my travels, observation and participation in Muslim life, I have seen and experienced that Sufi-oriented Islam is prevalent among Slavic and Russian Turkic Muslims, dominant in Central Asia, and widely-represented in South Asia and in Southeast Asia. Across this heartland, Sufi authors are studied and throngs of pilgrims visit Sufi shrines or otherwise commemorate the lives of Sufi saints.

Elsewhere the spiritual heritage is maintained by powerful, organized orders, sometimes called “brotherhoods” although they typically include female disciples. These are prominent in North Africa, French-speaking West Africa, East Africa, the Albanian lands, plus Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Iran.

In Turkey, most Muslims are Sufi either by identification with the normative Sunnism subsidized by the state, which exalted Sufis and places the works of Rumi in all Turkish mosques, or by participation in Sufi orders as well as widespread, part-time study circles and other voluntary communities that teach an esoteric Islam. Others are involved in more singular phenomena like the Turkish-Kurdish, Shia-Sufi-shamanist Alevi movement. As a different variant in the Sufi continuum, Indonesia possesses a Sufi civic movement of national scope — the Nahdatul Ulama (NU) organization. Returning to South Asia, organized Sufism there is enacted with a backdrop of a broader, “cultural” Sufism and is under bloody attack by radicals.

Aggregating Sufi-influenced Muslims with active Muslim Sufis from Senegal to Singapore, I believe it is realistic to claim a large plurality, at least, of the world’s 1.3-plus billion Muslims. This should be a source of optimism for those who seek conciliation, rather than confrontation, between the world’s religions, affecting positively both the direction of Islam and the image of Islam among non-Muslims. For these reasons, more concentrated attention on the Sufis by social-science investigators and other experts would be welcome.

US Charges Iran with al-Qaeda Links

By Anna Fifield for The  Financial Times

The US government has accused Iran of allowing al-Qaeda operatives to funnel a “significant” amount of money through its territory to the group’s leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan, making the strongest allegation yet of a link between Tehran and the terrorist network.
The Treasury Department on Thursday imposed sanctions on six men that it says are operating through Iran as part of a “critical funding and facilitation network for al-Qaeda”.

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The designation was also a direct hit at the theocratic regime in Iran, said David Cohen, the Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

“Our sense is that this network is operating through Iranian territory with the knowledge of and at least the acquiescence of the Iranian authorities,” Mr Cohen said. “They are not operating in secret. It is pursuant to an agreement.”

The Treasury targeted Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, a senior al-Qaeda facilitator who it said has been living and operating in Iran since 2005 under an agreement between the network and the Tehran regime.

It said that the Iranian authorities were allowing Mr Khalil to move both money and recruits from across the Middle East through Iran to Pakistan. He required each operative to deliver $10,000 to al-Qaeda in Pakistan, it said.

The Treasury also designated five others who were linked to former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden or to al-Qaeda in Iraq, or who had helped deliver money or extremists to the network’s base in Pakistan.

They include Atiyah abd al-Rahman, a Libyan who is the network’s overall commander in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The US is also offering a $1m reward for information leading to his arrest.

The designations ban Americans from financial dealings with the men, and freeze any assets that they might have in the US.
The actions expose “Iranian support for international terrorism,” Mr Cohen said. It is the first time the US has identified signs of agreement between Iran and al-Qaeda.

Suggestions of links between Iran and al-Qaeda are often questioned because Iran’s theocratic regime is from the Shia sect of Islam while the terrorist network is entirely Sunni. Iran is said to have detained Bin Laden’s oldest son, Saad, for several years before releasing him in 2009.
But there have been persistent reports of co-operation between the two given that they share a mutual enemy: the US.
A report for the congressional anti-terrorism caucus in May said that Iran’s elite Al-Quds force, part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was offering support to al-Qaeda, including helping it “counter” American interests.

In taking the action, the Treasury criticised Kuwait and Qatar for being “substantial facilitators for al-Qaeda” and for having “permissive” financial environments that allowed money to flow from both Gulf countries to Iran.

“There is a substantial amount of money flowing out of Kuwait and Qatar through Iran to al-Qaeda’s or their leadership in Pakistan for all of their activities in the Afghanistan/Pakistan area,” Mr Cohen said.

The US would work with the UN’s al-Qaeda sanctions committee to push for multilateral sanctions.

Arab Spring Hardening Into Summer of Stalemates

As Reported by USA Today

Among the protest banners in Cairo’s Tahrir Square was a hand-drawn map of the Arab Spring with black target symbols covering each country hit by anti-government uprisings since the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt were ousted earlier this year.

A rebel fighter walks in a old and abandoned Catholic Church used by Gadhafi forces as a military camp near Misrata, Libya, on May 25.
But the bull’s-eyes could easily be replaced with question marks as the groundswell for change has splintered into scattered and indecisive conflicts that have left thousands dead and Western policymakers juggling roles from NATO airstrikes in Libya to worried bystanders in Syria and Yemen.
The stalemates could shift into a deeper holding pattern in August during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when the pace of daily life traditionally slows as the Islamic world observes a dawn-to-dusk fast and other customs such as temporary truces.

It’s a huge and traumatic undertaking to shove aside regimes with decades in power — and sway over nearly every decision down to who gets hired as street sweeper. Iran did it with the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and the American-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein cleaned the slate for Iraq and ushered in years of near civil war.

But no such wholesale change appears in the pipeline with the present revolts. That has raised concern that even if the leaders fall, the pillars of the regimes could survive, as happened when military rulers took temporary control after Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak stepped down.
“Half revolution doesn’t work,” a headline last week in Egypt’s Al-Ahram Al-Massai newspaper said after demonstrators returned to Tahrir Square to press for swifter political reforms and bolder legal action against officials from Mubarak’s regime who were accused of corruption and killing protesters.

But even a halfway mark appears farther along than most of the rebellions against the Mideast’s old guard. Cores of loyal security forces in Yemen and Syria keep the regimes hanging on despite relentless protests. In Libya, Moammar Gadhafi could face a moment of truth as rebels press closer to the capital Tripoli and NATO warplanes hammer military sites, yet the anti-Gadhafi militias have no clear leader to prevent possible power grabs to control the country’s oil riches if he is ousted.

The country where the Arab Spring began, Tunisia, has been shaken by unrest — including a rise in ultraconservative Islamists — ahead of planned elections in October to elect an assembly that will write a new constitution. Some political groups are urging further delays in the election to give new parties a chance to organize.

Egypt, meanwhile, is questioning when — or if — the ruling military council will surrender power. The caretaker rulers effectively announced a delay of the elections on Tuesday when they said preparations for the vote would start Sept. 30.

“Bring down the military junta,” chanted some of the 30,000 protesters Tuesday in Tahrir Square. Hours later, the military made clear its patience was wearing thin — with Maj. Gen. Mohsen el-Fangari wagging his finger and warning protesters against “harming national interests.”

Mubarak is under arrest and faces trial next month over the deaths of nearly 900 protesters in the uprising that ended his 29-year-rule in February. In a transcript of his interrogation published by two newspapers Thursday, he claimed to have had no control over security forces who attacked demonstrators.

“No one would have paid any attention to me or my orders,” he said when asked why he did not stop the violence. He claimed he gave clear orders that no force be used against the protesters, and blamed top aides for keeping him in the dark about the gravity of the protests that led to his downfall.
Only in tiny Bahrain have authorities apparently tipped the scales clearly in their favor. Security forces — aided by Saudi-led reinforcements — smothered an uprising by the kingdom’s majority Shiites seeking greater rights from the Sunni rulers. A so-called “national dialogue” began this month, but it’s unlikely that the 200-year-old ruling dynasty will give up any significant hold on power and may need a heavy hand to keep Shiite-led protests from reigniting.

“It’s not over, but we are in an ugly situation now,” said Christopher Davidson, a lecturer on Middle East and Gulf affairs at Britain’s Durham University.

That’s why the definition of the Arab Spring is increasingly being stretched. It’s both about the current showdowns and the long-term spillover. The upheavals — supercharged by the instant communications of the Web — have given the region a crash course in the clout of the streets. The view from the top is suddenly less comfortable.

Even monarchs have acted swiftly after relatively small-scale clamor. Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said promised 50,000 new civil servant posts and allocated $2.6 billion for job programs. Jordan’s King Abdullah II has set in motion plans for an elected government in coming years.
In the tightly ruled United Arab Emirates, officials have opened the vaults to fund development programs in poorer regions outside Dubai and Abu Dhabi and plan to expand voting rights in September’s balloting for a federal advisory council. It’s been trumpeted as a “great leap” for democracy in a country that jailed five activists just for posting Internet appeals to form a true parliament.

“No matter what happens, countries gripped or just touched by the Arab Spring will never go back to what they were,” said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. That leads to the bigger question: How deep can the changes go?
Syrian protesters, for example, know that even if President Bashar Assad falls, the underpinnings such as the rank-and-file military and public works staff cannot be purged as well without sending the country into a tailspin.

Omar Idilbi, a spokesman for the anti-Assad Local Coordination Committees, which track the protests in Syria, said the opposition has no plans to dissolve the army or even the ruling Baath Party if he is overthrown but will seek to weaken the powers of security agencies. “At the beginning of the uprising when we chanted, ‘the people want to bring down the regime,’ we did not mean President Assad, but the security agencies that interfere in everything from a marriage certificate to the opening of a shop,” said Idilbi, who is based in Beirut.

Yemen’s president isn’t even in the country, yet his regime fights on. A blast last month sent Ali Abdullah Saleh to Saudi Arabia for extensive medical treatment, including more than eight operations. But his son, Ahmed, kept the regime’s crucial Republican Guards forces intact.
Washington believes no credible alternative exists for the current regime as an ally to fight Yemen’s al-Qaida affiliate, which has been declared a major threat to U.S. interests. But President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, has urged Saleh to accept a proposal that would transfer power to his vice president in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

“The current crisis showed that neither side can win,” said Ahmed Obeid bin Dagher, the deputy secretary general of the ruling party. “If there is no national consensus through dialogue, then al-Qaida will be the alternative.” Jordan-based political analyst Labib Khamhawi sees such calls by regime insiders as bids for survival: Protect the system, not necessarily the leader.

“I think it will be very difficult to imagine that the Libyan, Yemeni or Syrian presidents will remain in power,” he said. “The faces will be changed, but the system might continue to exist.” Among the kings and sheiks in the Gulf, however, there’s not even room for those concessions.
The region’s anchor power, Saudi Arabia, which has not seen protests take off, is staking out a role as “sort of the Arab Spring counterrevolution,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at The Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.

“The Arab Spring revolutions may have their moments of self-doubt or seem stalled at times, but they are authentic expressions for change and, to use an overused phrase, on the right side of history,” said Hamid. “What began in Tunisia and Egypt is a long, long way from being finished.”

Iran Calls Saudi Troops in Bahrain ‘Unacceptable’

By Ethan Bronner and Michael Slackman for The New York Times

A day after Saudi Arabia’s military rolled into Bahrain, the Iranian government branded the move “unacceptable” on Tuesday, threatening to escalate a local political conflict into a regional showdown with Iran.

“The presence of foreign forces and interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs is unacceptable and will further complicate the issue,” Ramin Mehmanparast, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman told a news conference in Tehran, according to state-run media.

Even as predominantly Shiite Muslim Iran pursues a determined crackdown against dissent at home, Tehran has supported the protests led by the Shiite majority in Bahrain.

“People have some legitimate demands and they are expressing them peacefully,” Mr. Memanparast said. “It should not be responded to violently.”

“We expect their demands be fulfilled through correct means,” Mr. Mehmanparast added. Iran’s response — while anticipated — showed the depth of rivalry across the Persian Gulf in a contest that has far-reaching consequences in many parts of the Middle East.

On Monday, Iranian state-run media went so far as to call the troop movement an invasion. Saudi Arabia has been watching uneasily as Bahrain’s Shiite majority has staged weeks of protests against a Sunni monarchy, fearing that if the protesters prevailed, Iran, Saudi Arabia’s bitter regional rival, could expand its influence and inspire unrest elsewhere.

The Saudi decision to send in troops on Monday could further inflame the conflict and transform this teardrop of a nation in the Persian Gulf into the Middle East’s next proxy battlefield between regional and global powers. On Tuesday, there was no immediate indication that the Saudi forces were confronting protesters in the central Pearl Square — the emblem of the Bahrain protest much as Cairo’s Tahrir Square assumed symbolic significance in the Egyptian uprising.

Several hundred protesters camped out there on what seemed initially to be a quiet day with little traffic on the streets as the details of the deployment by Bahrain’s neighbors — and their mission — remained ill-defined.

On Monday, about 2,000 troops — 1,200 from Saudi Arabia and 800 from the United Arab Emirates — entered Bahrain as part of a force operating under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a six-nation regional coalition of Sunni rulers that has grown increasingly anxious over the sustained challenge to Bahrain’s king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. “This is the initial phase,” a Saudi official said. “Bahrain will get whatever assistance it needs. It’s open-ended.”

The decision is the first time the council has used collective military action to help suppress a popular revolt — in this case a Shiite popular revolt. It was rejected by the opposition, and by Iran, as an “occupation.” Iran has long claimed that Bahrain is historically part of Iran.

The troops entered Bahrain at an especially combustible moment in the standoff between protesters and the monarchy. In recent days protesters have begun to move from the encampment in Pearl Square, the symbolic center of the nation, to the actual seat of power and influence, the Royal Court and the financial district. As the troops moved in, protesters controlled the main highway and said they were determined not to leave.

“We don’t know what is going to happen,” Jassim Hussein Ali, a member of the opposition Wefaq party and a former member of Parliament, said in a phone interview. “Bahrain is heading toward major problems, anarchy. This is an occupation, and this is not welcome.”

Rasool Nafisi, an academic and Iran expert based in Virginia, said: “Now that the Saudis have gone in, they may spur a similar reaction from Iran, and Bahrain becomes a battleground between Saudi and Iran. This may prolong the conflict rather than put an end to it, and make it an international event rather than a local uprising.”

An adviser to the United States government, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press, agreed. “Iran’s preference was not to get engaged because the flow of events was in their direction,” he said. “If the Saudi intervention changes the calculus, they will be more aggressive.”

Though Bahrain said it had invited the force, the Saudi presence highlights the degree to which the kingdom has become concerned over Iran’s growing regional influence, and demonstrates that the Saudi monarchy has drawn the line at its back door. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia, a close ally of Washington, has traditionally preferred to operate in the shadows through checkbook diplomacy. It has long provided an economic lifeline to Bahrain.

But it now finds itself largely standing alone to face Iran since its most important ally in that fight, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, has been ousted in a popular uprising. Iran’s ally, Hezbollah, recently toppled the Saudi-backed government of Lebanon — a symbol of its regional might and Saudi Arabia’s diminishing clout.

But Bahrain is right at Saudi Arabia’s eastern border, where the kingdoms are connected by a causeway.

The Gulf Cooperation Council was clearly alarmed at the prospect of a Shiite political victory in Bahrain, fearing that it would inspire restive Shiite populations in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to protest as well. The majority of the population in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, where the oil is found, is Shiite, and there have already been small protests there.

“If the opposition in Bahrain wins, then Saudi loses,” said Mustafa el-Labbad, director of Al Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “In this regional context, the decision to move troops into Bahrain is not to help the monarchy of Bahrain, but to help Saudi Arabia itself .”

The Bahrain government said that it had invited the force in to help restore and preserve public order. The United States — which has continued to back the monarchy — said Monday that the move was not an occupation. The United States has long been allied with Bahrain’s royal family and has based the Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain for many years.

Though the United States eventually sided with the demonstrators in Egypt, in Bahrain it has instead supported the leadership while calling for restraint and democratic change. The Saudi official said the United States was informed Sunday that the Saudi troops would enter Bahrain on Monday.

Saudi and council officials said the military forces would not engage with the demonstrators, but would protect infrastructure, government offices and industries, even though the protests had largely been peaceful. The mobilization would allow Bahrain to free up its own police and military forces to deal with the demonstrators, the officials said.

The Gulf Cooperation Council “forces are not there to kill people,” said a Saudi official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press. “This is a G.C.C. decision; we do not violate international law.”

But the officials also acknowledged that it was a message to Iran. “There is no doubt Iran is involved,” said the official, though no proof has been offered that Iran has had anything to do with the political unrest.

Political analysts said that it was likely that the United States did not object to the deployment in part because it, too, saw a weakened monarchy as a net benefit to Iran at a time when the United States wants to move troops out of Iraq, where Iran has already established an influence.

The military force is one part of a Gulf Cooperation Council effort to try to contain the crisis in Bahrain that broke out Feb. 14, when young people called for a Day of Rage, fashioned after events in Egypt and Tunisia. The police and then the army killed seven demonstrators, leading Washington to press Bahrain to remove its forces from the street.

The royal family allowed thousands of demonstrators to camp at Pearl Square. It freed some political prisoners, allowed an exiled opposition leader to return and reshuffled the cabinet. And it called for a national dialogue.

But the concessions — after the killings — seemed to embolden a movement that went from calling for a true constitutional monarchy to demanding the downfall of the monarchy. The monarchy has said it will consider instituting a fairly elected Parliament, but it insisted that the first step would be opening a national dialogue — a position the opposition has rejected, though it was unclear whether the protesters were speaking with one voice.

The council moved troops in after deciding earlier to help prop up the king with a contribution of $10 billion over 10 years, and said that it might increase that figure. But if the goal was to intimidate Iran, or the protesters, that clearly was not the first response.

Bahrain’s opposition groups issued a statement: “We consider the entry of any soldier or military machinery into the Kingdom of Bahrain’s air, sea or land territories a blatant occupation.”

Bahrain: Two Seas, Two Sects

By Lauren Vriens for The Huffington Post

For the past six months, I’ve lived in a country nicknamed the Las Vegas of the Middle East, replete with neon lights, clubs and prostitutes. But I’ve also been living in a country of sandy villages, lined with black flags and small mosques. This is Bahrain. The country’s name means “two seas” in Arabic, but it might as well be a metaphor for its division between two sects.

After the first protester died on February 14, the existing tensions between the Sunnis and the Shia have heightened. Some observers say this clash has its roots in a geo-religious power struggle between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia; the more likely story is one of tension between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

The country is rife with rumors that every Shia household has either a Hezbollah flag or a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini hanging in the living room. But as hard as journalists tried to press at Pearl Roundabout, the locus of the demonstrations, protesters just shrugged when asked about Iran’s influence. “This isn’t about Iran. This is about me being able to feed my children,” one woman said.

On Monday night, there were allegedly 300,000 people protesting around the Grand Mosque in favor of the government. Only 20 minutes away, a hundred thousand, if not more (no Bahraini newspaper has provided an estimate), were protesting against the regime.

Shias will say that the pro-government rally was half comprised of wealthy Sunnis who benefit from the status quo, made clear from their accessories of Gucci sunglasses and Hummers. The rest of the rally-goers were Sunnis from Pakistan, India, Yemen, Syria and other countries, speed-tracked to citizenship by the government to increase the Sunni percentage of the population.

Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, there has been a palpable fear among Sunnis that Bahrain is one step away from becoming a mini-Iran, where women are required by law to wear black chadors and the only alcohol to be found is fermented in the neighbor’s bathtub.

An allegiance between Bahrain and religiously strident Iran is the Sunni minority’s worst fear — much of the country’s wealth is dependent on its vices. The money generated from Saudi weekend tourists looking for a good time consists of nearly 25% of the economy according to the U.S. Embassy. If democracy comes to Bahrain, the majority Shia population could, conceivably, end all the fun and harm the economy.

My co-worker, a Sunni and a former financial trader, thinks that democracy is a good thing — “Arabs need reform and modernity; in thousands of years, not even one word has been added to the Arabic dictionary” — but she just applied for papers to move to Australia. If democracy comes to Bahrain, she doesn’t want to be here for it.

The lynchpin that is keeping this country the way it is — the home of a Formula One race track, the base of the U.S.’s Fifth Naval Fleet and a favored place in the Gulf for business meetings — is the monarchy.

The royal family has two faces, however. The first is busy promoting the country as “Business-Friendly Bahrain,” as its visa stamp reads. The second is systematically and deliberately oppressing a portion of its population, largely because of fears of an Iranian coup.

In 2001, King Hamad put forward the National Action Charter, a referendum that signified political reform and his wish to distance himself from his father’s reign of terror against dissidents in the ’90s. The U.S. applauded him for his efforts in correcting his family’s legacy of human rights abuse.

Since then, the regime has painstakingly dismantled any serious political opposition through cleverly-placed veto powers, arrests, torture, and other dictatorial tricks. In late January, police blasted a 15-year-old Shia boy in the face with birdshot. Things like that happen all the time.

The main Shia demand on February 14, at the outset of the protests, was simple: an elected Prime Minister, rather than an appointed one. This was a reasonable request. But once the mercenary Sunni riot police fired rubber bullets at sleeping men, women and children in Pearl Roundabout, there have been cries for the whole regime to step down.

It is unlikely that the monarchy will fall any time soon (if it even comes close, Saudi Arabia will allegedly roll its own tanks over the causeway), but the government could assuage the situation and keep the country from civil war, or from grinding to a complete stop as the numbers in Pearl Roundabout grow daily.

The recent release of 23 Shia political activists is a step in the right direction, but the most important thing the government can do is focus on closing the income gap by boosting its human capital development and training programs, like Tamkeen. Forget about the Iran Boogeyman and bring in the opposition for genuine dialogue and debate. The more the monarchy alienates the opposition, the more radical and eastward-leaning the opposition will become.

Regardless of the tactics the monarchy takes, it needs to start soon. It cannot just keep its finger plugged in the dike, or else the sea may just well come crashing in.

World To Valentine’s Day: I Love You, I Love You Not

By Kristin Deasy for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty

The East is coy when it comes to celebrating Valentine’s Day, with some countries banning it as a Western imposition, while activists in other countries use the traditional day of love to play politics.

In Iraq, three youth groups have called for a Valentine’s Day rally in Baghdad’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square, which like many regional capitals bears the same name as the Egyptian square that made headlines recently during the country’s uprising.

Following the lead of countries like Egypt and Tunisia, where protesters took to the streets demanding political reform, these young Iraqis are using Facebook to call for an end to the political deadlock and rampant corruption in the country. The corruption watchdog Transparency International lists Iraq as the fourth-most corrupt country in the world.

“We chose February 14, Valentine’s Day, to prove to the world that we have made the Valentine’s Day of Iraq. We are here today to express our love for Iraq. Iraqi protester Nawf al-Falahi told Reuters today.

“Our demand is not a difficult one, we demand reform of the situation,” Falahi added. “There has been no tangible change since 2003 and until now, there is no development. We want [the government] to fulfill the promises they made before the election, their promises were rosy. We want them on the ground. This is the only thing we want.”

For these protesters, any thought of celebration is cut short by the condition in the country. “We are so upset. We can’t celebrate Valentine’s Day, because we have a lot of problems,” one woman tells RFE/RL’s Radio Free Iraq, “like the shortage of items on our monthly ration card, a lack of electricity, and poverty.”

Iraq’s protests come as an opposition demonstration is set for today in neighboring Iran, where the opposition Green Movement has defied a government ban to call for a march in solidarity with protesters in Egypt and Tunisia.

Supporters of the Iranian rally have been posting a “V” on their personal Facebook profile pages in a nod to the “V for victory” sign used by the opposition during the country’s 2009 antigovernment protests and, perhaps, also in recognition of the coinciding holiday.

Valentine’s Day is generally seen as a Christian holiday, but it is actually pagan in origin, arising out of the ancient Roman Lupercalia festival. Early efforts by Christian leaders to “Christianize” the pagan feast led to its observance as a feast day honoring a legendary third-century Roman priest allegedly named Valentine.

Over time, however, the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day moved from a day of Christian piety to a more all-embracing celebration of love, particularly the love between couples.

This is a point of concern for authorities in many Islamic countries, who cleave to traditional moral values not typically associated with the modern celebration of Valentine’s Day.

The Uzbek newspaper “Turkiston” wrote on February 12 that “forces with evil goals” were behind “making the ‘lovers’ day popular,” while in Kazakhstan last week a youth group symbolically destroyed Valentine’s Day cards for local media to protest the attempt to introduce a “foreign” holiday.

Over in Russia’s Belgorod region, officials banned St. Valentine’s festivities for the sake of the people’s “spiritual safety,” with one local government spokesman telling reporters that “we could just as well have introduced a Vodka Day.”

Updating The Language Of Love

Iran, meanwhile, forbids unmarried couples from socializing publicly, a policy that tends to have a chilling effect on most Valentine’s Day plans.

But the policy is difficult to enforce on the country’s swelling — and often defiant — younger generation. For example, a Tehran-based author who wishes to remain anonymous is currently at work on a book, “The Persian Dating Glossary,” which includes the explanation of various Persian slang words used to circumvent Iran’s dating restrictions, including “doostmamooli,” a word that roughly translates to “regular friend” and is used to refer to someone with whom there is absolutely no romantic involvement.

The word evolved from the more ambiguous “doost,” which literally means friend but also serves as the basis of weightier words like boyfriend, girlfriend, and best friend.

So this year, Iranian authorities issued a particularly strict warning against “producing any products related to Valentine’s Day, including posters, brochures, advertising cards, boxes with the symbols of hearts, half-hearts, or red roses.”

The Islamic authorities’ worst fear is being realized in Thailand, where 14 couples from around the world are set to compete in a marathon kissing contest to see who can keep their lips locked the longest.

The event is to challenge a German couple, who last year set the world record of the longest continuous kiss, which lasted over one full day.

“We successfully broke the world’s record with seven couples still kissing after 32 hours, 7 minutes, 14 seconds,” contest organizer Somporn Naksuetrong told Reuters. “Anyhow, the contest is still continuing, as only one couple will be named as the new record holder. We still don’t know how long the contest will last.”

A Pakistani Take

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, Valentine’s Day draws a mixed reaction. Young women browse in a shop decorated with Valentine’s Day gifts in Peshawar.
“If we look at it from the religious point of view, then it should not be celebrated because this is based on a Christian celebration,” says Ajab Khan, a young student at Peshawar’s Institute of Management Sciences. “But if you look at it from a different perspective, then I think there is no harm in it because people are happy to go out and give each other presents.

Khan points out that in the English city of Southall, commonly known as “Little India, where many South Asian festivals are held, whether its Eid, the Hindu festival of Holi, or a Christian celebration, “the whole Asian community is happy with it. So why shouldn’t we be a part of it as well in Pakistan? I don’t think it can harm anyone or will affect our religion.

“In my opinion, it’s good to celebrate it and it’s not only for couples. You can give presents to your friends, or even give a rose to your mother.”

The holiday brings back memories for Maskeen Aka, who lives in the Pakistani city of Karachi. He associates it with an ancient Pashtun custom called “rebaar,” in which a messenger would be sent — usually a child — with affectionate greetings or to share news between loved ones.

The practice has slowly disappeared in Pakistan thanks to the growing availability of telephones and Internet technology, but Aka sees a hint of it in the observance of Valentine’s Day.

“I am almost 50 years old now,” he says. “I have also done [rebaar] for some time. Rebaar means to ask about one’s health. In old times, life was very simple and there were no letters or telephones. So it was used to find information, and there would occasionally be messages sent back from the other side, and that was how it came into being.”

‘No Life Without Love’

In Central Asia, Valentine’s Day is a new holiday there because it was not observed under the former Soviet Union.

These countries tend to take a more pragmatic approach, with flower shops and candy stores upping their prices today in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

A Kyrgyz student, Ermek, explains his reasons for observing the holiday while buying flowers for his girlfriend at a Bishkek market, saying, “We need such a holiday, a day of love.”

“If people don’t love each other, how will they get married? There is no life without love,” Ermek says. “I know my girlfriend loves roses, and that’s why I’m buying them.”

It seems that regardless of what countries celebrate the controversial Valentine’s Day, love is what makes the world go ’round.

Global Sufi Fest Attracts Thousands

As Reported by the Times of India

Soulful renderings of Sufi music by wandering minstrels from different parts of the world left the listeners spellbound here at the three-day ‘Sufi Sutra’ which ended on Sunday.

Besides Indians, Sufi singers and musicians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Syria and Tajikistan presented mystic Islam through songs, dance and poetry.

Notwithstanding the current political turmoil back home, an eight-member Egyptian Mawlawyiah troupe enthralled the audience by an audio-visual of music and circular dervish dance whirling around singers in a circle.

A Bangladeshi team, led by Anusheh Anadil, sang the household songs of the famous 18th century poet-philosopher Fakir Lalon Shah, on whom based the recent Golden Peacock winning Bengali film ‘Moner Manush’.

The ‘bauls’ and ‘fakirs’ of West Bengal’s Nadia and Murshidabad districts were huge hits by their spontaneous, simple and meaningful lyrics.

Another Bengal team led by Armaan Fakir presented the little-known ‘Bangla Qawwali’. Traditionally performed at the Dargahs, the devotional songs had ‘Dhol’ and ‘Khol’ as percussions replacing Tabla.

The first Sufi ensemble also included the ‘Warsi Brothers’ from Hyderabad, Delhi’s ‘Druv Sangari’ and team, ‘Mirs’ from Bikaner and ‘Haji Md Ahmed Khan Warsi’s team from Uttar Pradesh.

“It is a peace concert in times of violence. We want to bring a convergence of ideas about truth, harmony, self-belief and peace through music. It is a celebration of the quest for the divine through love,” organiser Amitava Bhattacharya said.

Besides musical performances, the festival included workshops and exhibitions to showcase the traditional culture, beliefs and music of the Sufi mystics.

“We had more than 10,000 people at the open-air concert, while more than 700 people, including young students, learnt about Sufism at the pre-concert workshops,” Bhattacharya said.

The event would also help the poor musicians, most of whom were from the rural areas, to earn a livelihood, he said.  The festival was organised by Banglanatak.com in collaboration.

Pakistanis for Peace Editor’s Note- It’s a sad reality that singers from a  country rich in Sufi history and traditions like Pakistan, are  unable to attend this festival due to the 60+ year friction between the two brothers India and Pakistan. They are two halves of one nation.

Cultural exchanges like these, billions in cross border trade, Bollywood and Lollywood collaborations, sports matches, etc are just some of the things the two are missing out on due to their relations. We hope one day peace can finally come to this ancient and holy land that is the subcontinent.

Thou Shalt not Mock or It May Cost You Your Life!

By Manzer Munir for Pakistanis for Peace

In the wake of the murder of Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of Punjab a couple weeks back, I did a great deal of contemplation about the situation in Pakistan and the current state of affairs of Pakistan and indeed in much of the Muslim world.

The current situation, especially in Pakistan and when it concerns the rights of the non-Muslims, is apparently the worst of anywhere in the Muslim world. Indeed, the plight of Asia Bibi, (also known as Aasia, Ayesa Noreen) Islam and Islamic Blasphemy laws have come under rightful scrutiny as of late.

One question that tugs at the heart of the debate for me is why is it that Muslims seem to get so very offended to the point they want to KILL you over a remark or something that comes out of your mouth? As Americans, we wonder to ourselves, “Haven’t they ever heard of sticks and stones may break my bones, but words don’t hurt me?!

Sadly, what the fundamentalist preachers at all the podiums of their Friday sermon or khutbah, nor any of their brethren on the run and in caves like the Taliban and Al Qaeda fail to realize that we are all God’s children. And God, Allah, Yahweh, Jesus, or whatever name you assign him, he is One and the same God of all religions. He is too big to fit into just one religion, concept, version or story of him.

And we all are his creations. Not one of us is superior over the other in his eyes and he judges us all equally. To him, the children of these three religions and its offspring’s are all related to each other. Adam being the first man, then Eve, and then all the Biblical figures and names such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, yes especially Jesus. He is their Messiah too!

Jesus, in fact is mentioned some 28 times in the Muslim holy book, Qu’ran whereas their own prophet Muhammad is mentioned only 4 times. And the fact that Jesus is also considered by Muslims to be the Messiah, it is sad that his followers should get such abject treatment in Pakistan and sadly, many Muslim countries.

If only the bad guys realized the connections between Christians and Jesus only then would a Pakistani Christian woman, suffering needlessly in a cell tonight going on 2 years away from her children in solitude, and constantly fearful for her life, would see her horrific ordeal come to an end.

These people are incapable of understanding basic rights, freedoms and even the unhindered concept of free will. No, they are primitive minded in their their spiritual and daily lives. They fail to see that a Christian’s God and a Muslim’s God are the one and the same. And he never would agree to laws like Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws at all. Why? Well because the Muslim God is known first and foremost as a Gracious, Merciful, Compassionate God.

In fact, the Arabic phrase Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim is a beautifully poetic phrase which offers both deep insight and brilliant inspiration to the average Muslim who says it countless times as he or she starts each day and till they rest their head to sleep. “ It has often been said that the phrase Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim contains the true essence of the entire Qur’an, as well as the true essence of all religions. Muslims often say this phrase when embarking on any significant endeavor and the phrase is considered by some to be a major pillar of Islam. This expression is so magnificent and so concise that all except one chapter of the Qur’an begins with the words Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim.”

The common translation:”In the name of God, most Gracious, most Compassionate” essentially is saying that God is compassionate, and full of grace. So how would this God punish Asia Bibi? What would he do if he is so full of compassion and mercy? Would he even punish her? And if he is such a gracious and a compassionate God, then wouldn’t he feel that nearly a two year jail sentence in solitary is already far more than her crime not to mention being away from husband and children and being worried about mob vengeance on her or the death penalty?

That God may act in a multitude of ways and we cannot ever know till said Judgment Day. That is what Judgment Day is all about after all. In fact, this is probably one day when the man upstairs works overtime judging all of us mankind, from the beginning with Adam to the last standing comes till Tribulation and the End of Days. It is only he, the Creator who will do the judging and this is something that the men with the loudspeakers who climb to the top of the minaret five times a day to call the faithful to prayers, just do not really understand, in my opinion. They apparently constantly seem to forget and pass judgment from the pulpit and this in turn helps set the “popular” opinion amongst the ultra-religious faithful of Pakistan’s society.

My only prayer to this Creator is that may he keep Asia Bibi safe tonight and continue to give her strength. And if God should call her home and have her die a death at the hands of the real savages those that not only kill but shockingly, in your name, then please Allah grant her heaven just as you should governor Salmaan Taseer, a man who was only defending the rights of all your children, including those of other faiths. He was being compassionate and gracious towards a fellow human being God, as he was only trying to emulate his creator, You Lord. Ameen.

And while you are at it Lord, will you also please let the imam at the microphone know that “Thou shall not mock, should not cost you your life.” Afterall, “Thou shall not kill is one of your top 10 commandments, whereas mocking prophets or religious figures does not make the list!

Manzer Munir, a proud Pakistani American and peace activist, is a Sufi Muslim who is also the founder of Pakistanis for Peace and blogs at www.PakistanisforPeace.com and at other websites such as www.DigitalJournal.com, www.Allvoices.com, www.Examiner.com and www.open.salon.com as a freelance journalist and writer. He asks that you like the Official Facebook Page of Pakistanis for Peace to get the latest articles as they publish here: http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/pages/Pakistanis-for-Peace/141071882613054

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