Archive for the 'World affairs' Category

Egypt bans porn sites

Yesterday’s decision by one of Egypt’s highest courts to ban porn sites is yet another example of the government’s losing battle to control the thoughts and actions of its people. arabicporn

The Administrative Court, based in Cairo, has ordered the government to block the sites in response to a case brought by Muslim lawyer Nizar Ghorab, who filed the case under his own initiative.

He welcomed the decision today, saying: “Thank God we won. Now the government should stop these electronic dens of vice immediately.”

Arguing in court, Ghorab cited the case of a senior civil servant and his wife who were arrested last year for holding “swinger” parties after soliciting other parties over the internet.

Although the decision can be appealed to a higher court, Ghorab believes that this is unlikely as it would put the government in the uncomfortable position of being seen to protect pornography.

“Freedoms of expression and public rights should be restricted by maintaining the fundamentals of religion, morality and patriotism,” the AFP news agency quoted the court as saying in its ruling.

Freedom of speech has long been under fire in Egypt. The country has been held in a state of perpetual emergency rule since President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party came to power in 1981. An estimated 18,000 people are in prison under Egyptian law, which allows police to arrest people without charge, while media organisations are kept firmly under the yoke of state control.

This curtailment of civil freedoms on the street has led many young Egyptians to turn to the virtual highway. According to government figures from 2007, Egypt has around 12m internet users, one in nine of the country’s population, making it the largest online presence of all the Arab nations.

080729%20egyptNine per cent of this – around 800,000 people – use the social networking site Facebook, which has become a powerful voice for the country’s youthful population. Epitomised in the April 6 Youth Movement, a political group created during last year’s protests which now has more than 700,000 members, social networks are taking on a political face.

Within hours of the first bombings of Gaza by Israel in January, around 2,000 people had organised a n ad hoc demonstration using Facebook and taken to the streets, many of them voicing their anger at their own government for what they saw as collusion with Israel.

In this light, the Egyptian court’s ruling to try to censor the internet is a cynical and hollow attempt to extend its waning power to the untapped domain of the internet. Pornography may often typify the exploitation of society’s most vulnerable and expolited, yet it also represents  the power of freedom of expression in the face of moral censure from mainstream society.

Love it or loathe it, porn is a barometer to a country’s politics. And the more the Egyptian government tries to restrict the freedoms of its people in the name of “religion, morality and patriotism,” the closer it will come to its own demise.

World Press Freedom Day: a eulogy to international journalism?

Yesterday a group of students from Northwestern University joined a worldwide huger strike in support of the Roxana Saberi, an American journalist imprisoned in Iran for espionage.

roxana_saberiSaberi’s plight has brought world-wide condemnation of the Iranian government, after she was sentenced to eight years in prison in a closed trial that lasted only one hour. A reported 225 people have signed up to the “Free Roxana” campaign, after the Northwestern graduate started her own hunger strike in protest on April 21.

“The main point is to create awareness about the situation Roxana is facing and what many people are facing in Iran,” said student David Caratelli.

Saberi’s story is the latest example of how journalists around the globe are being persecuted for their profession. Fittingly, yesterday also marked World Press Freedom Day, instituted in 1997 by the United Nations General Assembly to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press as enshrined under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In the past year, 60 journalists and media workers have been killed, 29 kidnapped and more than 900 attacked around the world. “Journalists been killed while trying to lift the veil of secrecy that governments seek to wrap around their military actions”, said Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists.

Speaking at a debate at London’s Frontline Club on Friday, he argued against the motion “Governments at war are winning the battle of controlling the international media”.

“The war on terror has been accompanied by a war just civil liberties and independent journalism,” he said, citing numerous instances of journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan facing persecution. But despite the actions of repressive governments the world over, he argued that “the voices of those suffering are given life by journalists”.

Yet his point was hotly contested. Andrew Gilligan, the controversial Evening Standard columnist, argued against the motion, claiming that war correspondents today are so desperate for stories that they latch on to anything that they would normally dismiss as rumour or government spin.

He said: “The real problem for reporting on combat situations and the reason that so many stories from Iraq were wrong is simply this: wars create a sellers market in news”. Citing the practice of embedding journalists with troops in combat situations, he said that war creates a “sellers market” for news where journalists routinely succumb to a pervasive form of self-censorship.

“Even the most independent-minded journalist in the world is not disposed to write unkind things about somebody in that situation. No one needs to threaten or be threatened,” he said.

His co-speaker James Shea, Director of Policy Planning in the Private Office of the Secretary General NATO, also countered the argument that web 2.0 technology is undermining government control of information.

“These days, everybody can be a reporter on reality”

“And if the profession has been democratised, why can’t the government also therefore enter the profession as a reporter on its own activity?”

He cited new NATO TV channels and the use of articles by eminent ‘experts’ in papers as examples of how the government is bypassing the media to get its message across and winning the war of words that has grown out of the war on terror.

Yet the most compelling of all the speakers was and Alan Fisher, a London correspondent from Al Jazeera who has reported from aljazeera1war zones around the world, most recently during Georgia’s war with Russia in August of last year. 

Descrying the debate’s Western-centric view on the success of the media, he said:

“People tend to think that if a tree falls in the forest, and an American broadcast network isn’t there to record it, did it really fall?”

Discussing the coverage of the war in Gaza, which prompted the theme of the debate, he said that Al Jazeera had been the only channel able to give full coverage of the bombings because it was prepared to tap the vast resources of local journalists already living on the strip, unlike many outlets which relied almost exclusively on Israeli news reports.

He also argued that the proliferation of international news outlets meant there are “more ways of accessing the truth” that ever before, creating a more varied and exciting perspective on international events. He said:

“We challenge authority more than ever before an we continue to and that is why the government cannot win.”

To have and to hold…at least til the contract ends

Ask your average man on the street what he thinks of marriage and you’re unlikely to hear the word “pleasure” enter the conversation.

But ask your average Muslim what they think of a “Mutah” marriage – meaning a “pleasure” or “temporary” marriage – and you will get a quite different reaction.

Mutah marriages, specific to the Shia form of Islam, have always been a controversial subject. Dating from the time of the Prophet Muhammed, it allows a man to have a short-term contact with a woman in which he enjoys all the benefits of a marriage but few of the responsibilities, such as providing for her or sharing the same bed.mutah

It can last for anything from one hour to 99 years.

“It’s totally hypocritical,” says Ahmed Asfahani, a Shia journalist from Al Hayat who moved to the UK from Lebanon more than 30 years ago. He argues that while Mutah is formalised and regulated by families in Shia communities in the Middle East, in the Western world it is used as an excuse for hypocrisy.

He says: “Mutah was originally created to allow older women – widowers or spinsters – to find companionship late in their life when no one will do a Nikah [permanent] marriage with them.

“But in places like Britain and America, it is used by young men as an excuse to sleep with Western girls. They don’t care because it means nothing to them, but for the boy, it is an excuse to pretend he is not breaking his beliefs.”

This bias is clear in the difference in popularity of Mutah among men and women. A quick trawl of Mutah.com, a dating website for Muslims around the world to advertise for Mutah relationships, reveals 122 entries under the male profiles but only 3 under the female.

“I need a companion with whom I can talk to, somebody who shares some depth in life, somebody with dignity and self-respect,” reads one male testimony.

“I need a partner who can fill the void in my empty life. I don’t want to be alone anymore. I don’t wish to be a hermit.”

Writing under an alias, the young British Muslim says that he cannot wait til he can afford to be married. “There is no way that I can wait till my late 20’s, early 30’s – when most people seem to be getting permanently married. This is far too long to wait for somebody who doesn’t want to slip.”

Yet Mutah is controversial even in Muslim circles. Few Shias and even fewer Sunnis agree with the practice, which stems from Qua’ranic verse 4:24. It reads:

“As to those whom you married for a fixed time (mutah), give them their agreed dowries; and there is no sin for you in what you mutually agree together after what has been settled.”

In the time of the Prophet Muhammad, this was taken as meaning that soldiers could form temporary marriages while they were away from their wives, but it was banned by Umar, the second caliph, and later abandoned by most schools of Islamic law.

Sunnis, which form the vast majority of the 2m Muslims living in the UK, often treat the practice as impulsive sex, not far from prostitution. Although the “Twelver” Shias, who predominate in Iran and Iraq, disagree, actively promoting the practice as essential to the sexual health of a society, the stigma attached remains rife in the West.

And it is particularly pronounced among women. Although Mutah is prohibited for virgins and between Muslim girls and non-Muslim men, it is often viewed as at best a form of laxity or at worst, an excuse for adultery and prostitution.

In Iran, prostitution has increased by an estimated 635 per cent since the Islamic revolution 30 years ago.

For this reason, statistics on its prevalence are hard to come by. A recent review by four Government departments – the Treasury, the Work and Pensions Department, the Inland Revenue and the Home Office – has concluded that 1,000 men in the United Kingdom are now polygamists.

But because Mutah marriages require no formal contract and are not recognised under British law, no statistics are even collected.

Yet there are those among British Shias in the West that advocate the practice as an important way for Islam to accommodate the practicalities of love and life. Sheikh Ali Al-Hakim, of the Islamic Centre of England, editor of Islam & Feminism; Theory, modelling and applications, argues that Mutah offers an alternative to the lax morality of Western morals.

“In Mutah, it is a marriage it is a contract,” he says. “Without it, people have no responsibility to each other. If a man walks up to a woman and propositions her, what is she meant to say; ‘I have a boyfriend?’ That means nothing.

“Look at this 13-year-old boy who is having a baby [referring to boy-dad Alfie Patterson]. it is easy to exploit religion but at least this way this kind of thing cannot happen.”

Dubai: a mirror to our own failings

Dubai, once hailed as the shining star of Arab enterprise, has hit the headlines in recent weeks for all the wrong reasons.

I am currently watching a BBC Panorama investigation into the horrific conditions faced by foreign workers left destitute by the downturn in the country’s construction industry and last week Johann Hari, of the Independent, wrote an article about how the recession is revealing the corruption at the heart of “Dubai Disneyland”.20380_dubai_towers

As Dubai’s illusory wealth vanishes in the stark reality of recession, the scene is ugly. Yet in the sprit of free debate, I thought it only right to publish a reaction written by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a journalist based in Dubai.

If you think Dubai is bad, just look at your own country

I recently figured that if British journalists such as Johann Hari (Tuesday, 7 April, The Independent) who come to Dubai don’t send back something sensationalist it won’t get printed and they won’t get paid. After all, sleaze sells. I called a British journalist friend of mine and said: “I’m going to write an article about London, the same way your compatriots write about Dubai.”

By the time I was back at home I had come to my senses, it’s not fair to London, a city so dear to my heart, or Londoners to be judged by the actions of a few. It’s easy to generalise about a country when figures are manipulated to sensationalise and sell papers.

Say for example that I had written an article that states that, in wealthy first world Britain there are 380,000 homeless people, many of them mentally ill, starving and abandoned in sub-zero temperatures to live on the streets.

Say then that I wrote an article that states that Britain, the so called “jail capital of Western Europe” sentenced in 2006 alone a staggering additional 12,000 women to prison and that up to seven babies a month are born in jail where they spend their crucial first months.

I could have written an article that stated Britain, victor in the Second World War, had given refuge to 400 Nazi war criminals, with all but one of them getting away with it.

Or one stating that the number of Indians who died while serving the British Empire, to build your Tube and grow your tea, is so large it is simply unquantifiable by any historian.

Or say I write an article about the 2.5 million-strong Indian volunteer army who served Britain during the Second World War, where 87,000 of them died for their occupiers’ freedom and yet until recently those who survived continued to be discriminated against in pay and pension.

I could have written an article that stated that, in civilised Britain, one in every 23 teenage girls had an abortion and in 2006 more than 17,000 of the 194,000 abortions carried out in England and Wales involved girls below the age of 18.

torture-abuI could have written an article stating that Britain, the human rights champion, not wanting to get its hands dirty, had resorted to secretly outsourcing torture to Third World states under the guise of rendition by allowing up to 170 so called CIA torture flights to use its bases.

Or that Britain’s MI5 unlawfully shared with the CIA secret material to interrogate suspects and “facilitate interviews” including cases where the suspects were later proven to be innocent.

I could have written an article that stated that the Britain of family values is the only country in the EU that recruits child soldiers as young as 16 into its Army and ships them off battlegrounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, putting it in the same league as African dictatorships and Burma.

I could have written an article that states that Britain either recently did or has yet to sign the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict or the UN’s International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.article-0-05e80fa00000044d-109_468x3681

I could have highlighted the fact that liberal Britain is responsible for the physical and racial abuse of hundreds of failed asylum-seekers at the hands of private security guards during their forced removal from the country.

I could have written about the countless cases of slave-like working conditions of immigrant labours such as the 23 Chinese workers who lost their lives in 2004 as they harvested cockles in the dangerous rising tides in Morecambe Bay.

I could have written about how mortality rates from liver diseases due to alcohol abuse have declined in Europe in recent decades but in Britain the rate trebled in the same period reflecting deep societal failures.

I could have written about how in “Big Brother” Britain maltreatment of minors is so serious that one in 10, or an estimated one million children a year, suffer physical, sexual, emotional abuse or neglect.

Or that according to Oxfam 13.2 million people in the UK live in poverty – a staggering 20 per cent of the population in the sixth richest nation in the world.

I could have written all that, but out of respect for Britain, I decided not to. Because when you stitch together a collection of unconnected facts taken out of context, you end up with a distorted and inaccurate picture: something that Britain’s Dubai-bashers would do well to learn.

‘Making money out of murder’

Islington Council has been accused of profiting from “murder” after an investigation by Islington Now revealed that the authority has nearly £5m invested in companies dealing in the arms trade.

The deadly weaponry on this tank was made by a subsidiary of BAE Systems

Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that at the end of last year the council’s pension fund held £4.9m of shares with seven key players in the defence industry.

More than a third of the investments (£1.92m) is in BAE Systems, Europe’s largest defence firm. The company has been at the centre of controversy in recent weeks for producing parts of the F-16 fighter planes used to bomb the Gaza strip and cluster bombs recently outlawed under the International Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Campaign groups branded the figures “shocking”. Michael Johnson, who works with Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), said: “It’s not just that these companies make weapons. They make money out of murder – and so does the council.

“There’s been a major outcry against the bombings in Gaza. BAE trades with Israel and Gaza, they have offices there. Where is the action that says: ‘We’re not going to profit from the murder of Palestinians?’”

Local politician Jon Notts, a former Green Party parliamentary candidate for Islington North, insisted it was unacceptable for public bodies to invest in an industry that supported unethical powers abroad.

He said: “The Green Party is fundamentally opposed to the arms trade and the sale of weapons to oppressive regimes. We are against central or local government investing in this sector in any capacity.”

The council’s pension fund, which represents more than 5,000 members of staff and former employees, states that it aims “to promote corporate and social responsibility” in its investment strategy.

An F-16 fighter similar to those used in Israel's bombardment of Gaza and designed by BAE

But the local authority has claimed that its greatest responsibility is to its investors. 

A council spokesman said: “Islington’s pension fund is regulated by law. The council, acting as a trustee of the pension fund, is legally bound to get the best return on investments and reduce the burden on council tax payers. This is the case for all local government pension schemes across the country. 

“We continually review our policies on socially-responsible investment.”

But campaigners argue that ethical investment funds have matched the FTSE 100 over recent years and can actually outperform other investments over long periods. 

The revelation comes in the wake of a growing trend in public bodies towards more ethical investment policies. In 2006, a report by the CAAT found that 45 universities held more than £15m in companies involved in the arms trade.

Since then, many of them have bowed to pressure from students and campaign groups to withdraw their investments, including SOAS, Goldsmiths, the University of Manchester, University of Wales, Bangor and St Andrews, as well as the previous biggest investor, University College London.

The total value of the council’s pensions fund at the end of last year was around £560m, meaning that arms investments amount to less than one per cent of the total. CAAT argues that this is all the more reason to withdraw them.

Mr Johnson, 29, said: “It’s such a tiny proportion of the overall investment that selling the shares isn’t actually going to prejudice the overall fund’s value. It’s going to make more difference to BAE in terms of their reputation and how other funds view holding their investment than it’s going to make to Islington.”

But Unite, the largest trade union in Islington which represents many of those with investments in Islington’s pension fund, refused to condemn the council. A spokesman said: “We don’t have a position on the matter.”

For more information visit: www.islingtonnow.co.uk

Iraq looks to a brighter future

Violence and insecurity are no longer the most pressing concerns for most Iraqis since the invasion in 2003, a poll released yesterday has found. _45570317_brit_pres_pie_2262

Figures from a  survey conducted in February for the BBC and others show a marked increase in the optimism of many people and a change to more conventional preoccupations, such as unemployment and the economy.

Perceptions of national security have shown a marked improvement, with 85 per cent of all respondents agreeing that the current situation was very good or quite good, up 23 per cent on a year ago. More than half say that security has improved in the last year, up 16 per cent on figures from March 2008 and nearly three in five say they feel safe in their neighbourhoods, up 22 per cent.

There was a 14 per cent increase, to 60 per cent, of those who think things will be better in Iraq as a whole in a year from now.

Speaking at a press conference at the Foreign Press Association, Haider al Abbadi, a member of the Iraqi Parliament and Chair of its Economic and Reconstruction Committee, confirmed this feeling of optimism.

In measured tones, he quoted the statistic that the number of violent and terrorist incidents had fallen by 90 per cent in the last year. He said: “There has been a marked development in the security field and, in my opinion, the improvement in security has passed the no return line.”

However, he argued that improving the economy and creating jobs were vital if security gains were to be maintained. Unemployment in Iraq is currently at 15 per cent, a figure which al Abbadi argues could provide fodder for dissident groups. He said:

“Of course there is unemployment in every country. But in Iraq, unemployment is more difficult and more complex because there are many criminal and terrorist organisations that try to recruit unemployed people.

“It is in the interest of the country to create jobs.”

271_cartoon_iraq_under_construction_large1The Iraqi government have long been voicing their committment to diversifying the country’s oil-dependent economy into agriculture and trade. More than 1,000 of the dispossessed “intellectuals” that left the country in the wake of the 2003 invasion have reportedly returned to the country over the last year and officials claim that there has been much interest in construction contracts from China, Jordan and Iran.

However, the planned reconstruction works face severe pressure from the financial squeeze. Despite several loans from Asian countries, including Japan and China, the proposed budget of $56bn has still not been ratified by the Iraqi parliament due to the decline in profits from oil exports, which are currently priced at under $40 per barrel after a high of $150 last summer.

This stagnancy in economic development could potentially destroy the fragile peace that has settled over Iraq. Earlier this month, Army Lt. Frank Helmick, commander of Multinational Security Transition Command, said that Iraq’s shrinking budget may force the parliament to choose between the economy and security.

“They are many, many hard decisions that they are going to have to make”, he said.

Comment is free but outrage is easy

The problem with blogging – and it is a trap I fall into myself – is that it encourages extremes of opinion.

For all the blurb about social networks and the global community, posting in the blogosphere can sometimes feel like shouting into a void and listening for an echo, which in the end only makes you shout louder.

Even so-called professionals can be guilty of this sin. Yesterday, on the Guardian’s  Comment is Free section, I read a post by one of their NY-based freelancers, Shahnaz Habib, on the lack of ethics in multinationals.loreal2

Habib is outraged that L’Oreal, the world’s biggest manufacturer of beauty products, sells lightening cream in India. A company that devotes several pages in its corporate responsibility handbook to “skin and hair diversity” and which has run ad-campaigns around their ranges of makeup for people of different ethnicities, she argues, ought to know better.

She writes:

“When international cosmetics companies enter the fairness creams market, peddling in India products that they would not dare stock in the aisles of the politically correct west, there is a layer of hypocrisy that is dangerous to ignore”

Although she admits that “all beauty advertising caters to culturally relative neuroses of what is beautiful”, Habib still believes selling whitening cream is tantamount to promoting racism.

“Even the most naive marketing chiefs at L’Oreal must have had a glimmering of doubt – ‘Wait a minute, is it racist to promote whitening? Would we put these words in a billboard on Times Square?’”

This, she tells us, proves the moral corruption of multinationals that claim to “think globally and act locally” but in fact are merely exploiting the vulnerable people of a developing country for profits.

And so it might seem at first glance. When I first saw lightening creams lining the shelves of supermarkets in India last summer, my first reaction was exactly the same – outrage. But then I started to think about it.

If lightening cream caters exclusively to Asian markets and is deplored by the west, how can it be said that it is imposed upon them? Multinationals may have the GDP of small countries and wield more power than many of them, but they cannot change social and cultural norms.

You can argue that, in India specifically, they are perpetuating the legacy of racism left by the British. But the caste system, India’s very own home-grown brand of prejudice, existed long before the British East India Company had even set sail.

Surely trying to impose western standards of political correctness on the Indian market shows a far more colonial attitude than catering to their “culturally relative neuroses of what is beautiful”. Is selling fake tan or promoting sunbeds perceived as racist in the UK?

This, I believe, is the danger of blogging: it encourages posts that spring directly from gut reaction. Habib is clearly not stupid or arrogant or morally imperious. She was seduced by the medium into writing something that, though researched and articulated with care, ended up as a self-defeating tirade.

But at least it’s a consolation to know that when comment is free, comments there will be – 88 and counting underneath Habib’s article.


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