Taking a leaf from Gaddafi's notebook, the following video purports to show what I assume are supposed to be hallucinogenic pills destined for distribution to protesters in Syria and intercepted by the regime's ever-alert security services.
Now who would do such a thing?
Ta da! The pills are packed in bags bearing the logo of: Al Jazeera! Who else! And you hear the intelligence guys saying, "Let the Syrian people see... This is Al Jazeera? Are these ethics? Is this the freedom they want?"
I've worked at Al Jazeera for the past 15 years, heck I helped launch it in 1996, but it never entered my mind that the real reason for Al Jazeera's success is that we're drug dealers!
Whoever said that the phrase "intelligence service" is a contradiction in terms was right!
The Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas, bitter rivals for the past 4 years since Hamas overthrew the PA in Gaza, will sign a reconciliation agreement in Cairo next week.
The news was met with Israeli displeasure voiced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said the Palestinian Authority must choose between peace with Israel and rapprochement with Hamas.
There is no doubt that the agreement between the largest of the Palestinian factions is closely related to recent developments in the Arab world.
The toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak removed, from Hamas' viewpoint, an impediment to Palestinian reconciliation. Gaza'a gateway to the Arab world, and indeed the world, is Egypt, and for the past four years Cairo has maintained strict control of the main crossing points between its Territory and Gaza and helped enforce the embargo placed on the strip by the Israelis and the major world powers.
Hamas' political leadership resides in Damascus and the situation in Syria does not bode well for the future of Hamas there which only recently criticized the opponents of the regime in Damascus. The regime there has played its part in the past, reining in Palestinian agreement as part of the regional power play. It may now consider a positive change of tack something that may earn it a few favors as it battles for its life. The interim goal of any resistance/liberation movement is survival and Hamas seems to have judged which way the wind is blowing and deemed it judicious to widen its field of play. That Syria may have also given its blessing to the reconciliation may also be a factor.
Hence the previously unannounced and secret visit last week by a Hamas delegation to Jordan last week. Hamas politburo members Muhammad Nazzal and Muhammad Nasr met in Amman with the Director of General Intelligence Muhammad al-Raqqad. This was the first such meeting between Hamas and Jordan since 2006. We could very well be looking at Hamas relocating its Syrian HQ
Not coincidentally, he Secretary General of the Damascus-based Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine Nayef Hawatmeh, also in Jordan last week, has jumped ship and moved back to his native Jordan after spending the better part of the last 15 years in Syria.
This all comes at the heels of the recent thaw in relations between Qatar and Jordan. Doha has been a strong backer of Hamas, and the recent attacks in Syrian media against Qatar, Sheikh Yusuf Qaradwai's harsh criticism of the regime in Damascus and Al Jazeera's coverage of the uprising in Syria will have given Hamas food for thought.
Vis-a-vis the current uprising in Syria, Hamas, which is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), is now in the uncomfortable and embarrassing position of being at odds with Qaradawi who is considered one of the most senior and influential, albeit unofficial MB figures, as well as the Jordanian and Syrian Muslim Brothers. Meshal took the unprecedented step of lambasting Qaradawi for his attacks on Syria.
The Palestinians by now will have become cognizant of the fact that the cause of Palestine has been put on the back-burner and no longer elicits much interest or passion of the Arab street. Not even the publication of the Palestine Papers managed to rouse the Arab people and inflame their passions for Jerusalem. Not a single demonstration took place in the Arab world against the PA's alleged betrayal of Palestinian rights: the Arabs are busy with their own dreams, desires and battles for freedom and a break with the past. And perhaps they did not buy the Palestine Papers.
Obviously the Israelis and Americans will have been informed ahead of time of the reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Netanyahu feigning anger at the deal is political posturing.
The choice is not, as Netanyahu termed it, peace with Israel or rapprochement with Hamas. I would have expected a wise Israeli statesman to say something along the lines of, "We will watch closely these developments. Considering Hamas' stated position of not recognizing Israel and working towards its destruction we will hold the Palestinian Authority to its international obligations and we will also hold it responsible for any future attacks on Israel."
That the PA recognizes Israel will not have escaped the attention of either Netanyahu, or for that matter Hamas. So we are potentially looking at an important development in the position of Hamas. It's premature to comment further on this point at the moment with the text of the agreement as yet unavailable.
If this agreement is signed next week then it may herald a rejuvenation of Palestinian aspirations for statehood. Hamas represent a significant proportion of the Palestinian people, as does Fatah, the PA's backbone. If they do manage to reach a unified position, backed by their Arab patrons, then they may be really ready to govern themselves in an independent sovereign state.
Finally, a word of advice to Netanyahu re his "peace with Israel" statement: Israel, the occupier of the Palestinians, should also consider making peace with them. It's not a one way-street, Mr Prime Minister, and it could very well hasten the release of Gilad Shalit.
The Turkish Sabah daily reports that CIA Director Leon Panetta secretly visited Ankara for 5 days at the end of March to discuss regional developments. The newspaper reports that discussions between the American and Turkish intelligence services assessed the situation in Libya as a "crisis", while Syria was described as being at a "critical threshold".
The visit, which preceded the beginning of the protests in Syria, predicted that any uprising would be "Sunni" and that if President Assad (whose Alawi background factors prominently in his decision-making according to the report) failed to "take an immediate step towards reforms, then the nation could be drawn into serious internal strife."
Interestingly, the Turks seem to have drawn up plans to offer refuge for President Assad and his family should the regime collapse.
To commemorate the Syrian army's assault on Deraa "In response to the calls for help from the citizens of Daraa and their appeal to the Armed Forces as to intervene and put an end to the operations of killings, vandalism, and horrifying by extremist terrorist groups... to restore tranquility, security and normal life to the citizens..." as reported by the official Syrian News Agency, here are a couple of videos of military action from the Golan Heights and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The first shows Syrian infantry advancing under heavy fire behind the cover of armor on the Golan Heights :
Actually the video was shot on April 23 in Syria with military units taking up "positions" to "secure" the country. You can tell it's quite a dangerous deployment with armed terrorists and salafi gangs - clearly visible - (01:08) looking on, preparing to slaughter the soldiers.
And the second video comes from the West Bank, Israeli forces, business as usual, doing the usual job of putting down the uprising by Palestinians calling for freedom. Note the sniper having a field day? Notice how no one is shooting back at him?
But wait... The uniforms don't look right. Oh! These are actually Syrian troops firing on their own citizens in Deraa on April 25! You have to admit this scene would not look out of place in the West Bank.
Oddly enough, on Monday as the Deraa story was developing I heard a news anchor interview an eyewitness in Deraa who said he was coming under fire from a Syrian army sniper:
Eyewitness: The sniper is shooting at me now
Anchor (sounding dubious): How come we can't hear the gunshots?
Maybe it has something to do with snipers being able to fire from distances up to 1500-2000 meters/yards or so away! Genius.
The murderous response of Syria's security services on Friday to the protests engulfing the country has struck the death knell for the regime in Damascus.
This short-sighted decision to crush the civilian protests will come to be viewed as a momentous day in the history of the modern Middle East. Syria is now headed on a cataclysmic path that threatens the very fabric of the country and may very well bring into play the dangerous forces of an ethnic and sectarian conflict. That the country did not even exist a century ago is a portent for how the situation might unravel in the medium- to long-term run of history if wise minds do not take hold, quickly, of the situation.
By making the decision to offer concessions President Bashar al-Assad accelerated the inevitable demise of a regime that was founded on the principle of being immovable in the face of popular dissent. The horrific number of civilian deaths on Friday has set the President on a blood-stained path and stripped him of much of whatever public goodwill he had remaining. His actions have vindicated his critics. I have always tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, genuinely hoping he could herald something truly positive for Syria. But the more I think about him, and the more that I recall his speeches, the more convinced I become that his performances were just that. And not very good ones. His lecturing on issues of patriotism, resistance and defiance always rang hollow to me. Which brings to mind his calling other Arab leaders in 2006 little men, “half men” for their criticism of Hizbullah's instigation of the disastrous war with Israel that year. This coming from the leader of a regime that Israel, his declared foe and enemy, deems a guarantor of stability in the region.
It would be a terrible miscalculation to presume that the Assad regime will ultimately prevail, no matter how violent the tools of repression it yields and unleashes. A Syrian expat today said Bashar al-Assad is paying the price of his alliance with Iran. But the price Assad is really paying is that of marginalizing and ignoring his own country's and citizens' dire needs and overwhelming desires for a dignified existence and bright future. It is an insult to the hundreds of Syrians killed, wounded, tortured and humiliated by Bashar al-Assad's thugs over the past month to put this in the context of a regional vendetta. His so-called economic reforms and openness have benefited those closest to him, not ordinary Syrians. He has fostered a culture of corruption that exceeds anything in existence during the long-reign of his father.
The calculation in several world capitals is that the fall of the regime will bring into play forces of extremism and sectarianism, and therefore it is more judicious to await the outcome of the transition currently in process, and hope Assad survives, than to get involved. The idea is that he may pull off another Hama. But while Hama in 1982 was isolated and butchered, this is an altogether different situation in 2011. The traditional, hypocritical chant of the masses, birrooh, biddam, nafdeeka ya ____, we sacrfice our souls and blood for you ____ (fill in the blank with name of your favorite autocrat), this time the call was birrooh, biddam, nafdeeki ya Deraa. People across Syria rallied to the aid of Deraa. That is the turning point that no one has latched onto.
Unfortunately it is the Assad clan itself that has already unleashed the specter of sectarianism. By scaremongering and playing that card and pitting the Alawi-led security forces against a mostly Sunni popular opposition the regime has pointed the gun towards its own head. The nervous finger on the trigger is set to tremble even more as the earth quakes underneath its wobbly legs.
This is a regime that for decades has inflicted much cruelty and death on its people: “Former prisoners, detainees, and reputable local human rights groups reported that methods of torture and abuse included electrical shocks; pulling out fingernails; burning genitalia; forcing objects into the rectum; beatings while the victim is suspended from the ceiling and on the soles of the feet; alternately dousing victims with freezing water and beating them in extremely cold rooms; hyperextending the spine; bending the body into the frame of a wheel and whipping exposed body parts; using a backward-bending chair to asphyxiate the victim or fracture the spine; and stripping prisoners naked for public view. “ On this particular issue the Arab League needs to backtrack and quickly rescind its decision to support Syria's shameless bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.
It is hardly surprising then that the regime's statement of intent is clear: we will not go down without a fight. Unhappily, this is going to be a very bloody but one-sided fight, both ways. The regime has all the weapons but the people have all the might. Make no mistake, sickening scenes like the child's skull split apart, the stare of the eyes forced wide open in the horrible shock of death, the bits of shattered brain blown out of the little head are too terrible for me to provide a link to. But it is that unforgettable stare which now locks onto the pinnacle of the Assad clan's throne.
Notwithstanding Turkey's alarmed silence, Iran's muted rage, Israel's nervous worry, Saudi Arabia's classic reluctance to acknowledge change and Barrack Obama's long-overdue condemnation, uttered because it was unreasonable to have no comment, and the Arab League's rediscovering the blessing of its deaf and mute attitude, the wheels are turning, the people are agitating and they will no longer be silenced. The evil shadow of extremism will only take hold of the new Middle East if forces conspire to thwart the people. The Islamic face of terror witnessed by the world over the past 2 decades is not the face of Islam; it is the by-product of repressive regimes and international, read Western, tolerance, and even aiding and abetting, of them. More of the same will produce more of the same. And what of the flames that the rulers in Damascus may try to start in the neighborhood as the regime begins to topple?
By turning the pall bearers and mourners of Friday's victims into victims themselves the regime in Damascus is wagering on all-out repression to save it from itself. It is taking the world's silence and reading the various analyses which proclaim that the fall of the regime is not in the interest of a perceived regional status quo as a green light to reimpose state authority. By acting in that manner it has publicly declared its political bankruptcy, denuded itself of nationalistic legitimacy and exposed itself as a regime that has for decades put the narrow interests of a ruling clique ahead of building a united, prosperous state.
The Deraa child's death-stare from his shattered skull bores into the hollow colossus of the hereditary dictatorship in Damascus. There is no longer a way out. It is now just a question of time.
"The people marched peacefully and they were shot in their scores.
It is a massacre, a Good Friday Massacre, and a war crime.”
Syrian activist quoted in the Daily Telegraph, Friday 22 April 2011. Today's death toll among protestors is quoted at 60-70 dead.
This surreal scene was broadcast live on Libyan TV today. Royal wedding or no royal wedding in England, this unfortunate bride, like Kate Middleton but for completely different reasons, will never ever forget her wedding day.
Assuming this is real and not completely staged, forcing this poor woman to sit there in front of Gaddafi's bombed out home bearing his likeness in her hands is way over the top.
The Arabic caption reads, The masses hold their weddings at Glory Square in front of the Steadfast Home.
The protests in Syria are now entering their second month with no let-up in sight. On Friday which passed relatively peacefully I was of the view that the regime seemed to have recognized that the iron fist policy of the past few weeks had backfired which is why Friday's protests seem to have passed with no reported fatalities.
Unfortunately, there have been more deaths over the past 48 hours (Sunday/Monday) with Homs turning into the latest flashpoint.
Significantly, on Friday thousands of protesters attempted to make their way to the Abbaseen (Abbasids) Square in central Damascus. They were thwarted with baton charges, tear gas and water cannon. The last thing President Bashar al-Assad needs right now is a repeat of the mass sit-in at Tahreer Square that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
The regime in Damascus is at a loss as to how to handle these protests. When the first protests broke out in Deraa, faced with several tough choices President Assad took the easy way out, the tried and trusted tactic of repression.
That backfired spectacularly and other villages and towns rallied to the aid of the people of Deraa.
Faced with mounting popular dissent, Presidential Spokesperson Bothaina Shaaban announced that the nation's 48-year-old State of Emergency would be lifted soon, while Deraa's own, Vice-President Farouq al-Sharaa, told the nation to expect some good news.
The president then headed to the notional seat of people power and delivered his now much-maligned speech in parliament. There he was told by one deputy in no uncertain terms that he was too good to rule in the Arab world and should lord over the whole world. Expending what political capital he had left President Assad blamed a conspiracy, said Syria would not be pressured into hurried reforms and left matters there, with not a word about the hated State of Emergency. The people did not think much of the speech or of their supposed representatives and went back on the street to press their demands for liberty, reform and dignity.
Doubtless stung by the reaction to his speech Assad made two announcements that were expected to be recognized as concessions, to a repressed minority and to the devout: he issued a decree naturalizing Kurds and an announcement was made that female teachers barred from their jobs for wearing the niqab would be reinstated. And the government suspended the license for the country's only casino. He then spent the ensuing couple of weeks meeting delegations of Syrians from Deraa and elsewhere, announced the release of all those detained during the protests except those charged with crimes against “the homeland and citizens”, and waited to unveil his new government.
That did not placate disaffected Syrians and the protests spread, reaching Latakia, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Suweida and finally Damascus. Always a step behind, the President appeared on television on Saturday giving his “directives” to the new council of ministers.
In another of his long-winded oral deliveries, Assad addressed the compliant ministers arrayed in front of him. He told them he realized from meeting the people's delegations that there was a gap between the people and government, instructed the ministers on the need for transparency and humility, announced that attending conferences abroad was to be curtailed for the time being, stated that corruption in government circles must be stamped out, ministers should delegate authority to their subordinates... The list of points and instructions raised by Assad goes on and on, the full text of his speech can be found here.
The problem the President needs to concede is that the lid on the pressure cooker that has been Syria for the past 3 or 4 decades has exploded and cannot be replaced.
While there are those who found Assad's speech in front of his ministers positive, I do not concur. What bothered me most was that this was the cabinet's first meeting and the President lectured his ministers. I find it troubling that they sat there for a substantial portion of the President's directive taking notes like diligent school kids. I would have imagined that they were selected for their posts because of their perceived competence. Every single minister had a microphone in front of her/him, yet the only microphones in use were the President's, and therein lies the problem. While he spoke of dialogue as a means of getting Syria out of its current crisis there was no dialogue between the President and his most senior chosen officials.
To fight corruption Assad suggested that public officials submit a “statement of their property” but avoided what every Syrian I've ever met whispers about; that the worst corruption is right at the top, in the circles surrounding, or related by blood, to the President himself.
It is no surprise then that protests started up again almost immediately, if they had stopped at all, after Assad's speech.
The gap between government and people that the President spoke of is nothing new. In the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War a Syrian officer hitched a ride with me in Beirut. He climbed in at the Syrian army checkpoint in Ouzai. As I drove he started talking about the build-up of US forces in the Gulf and how much of a slight it was to Arab honor, how he supported Iraq, and so on. Syria, of course, had been at loggerheads with Iraq's Saddam Hussein for almost a decade with Damascus even supporting Iran in its war with Baghdad. I was non-committal despite the officer's enthusiasm. He then produced from inside his uniform a carefully folded sheet of paper and proudly pronounced, “This is a poem I have written about Iraq.” I glanced towards it as he started to read aloud and sure enough in blue ballpoint there was row upon neat row of Arabic script detailing Saddam's heroism, Arab pride and Iraq's coming victory over the foreign invaders. This while Syrian forces were being readied to join the US-led coalition to eject Iraqi troops from Kuwait! A gap, indeed.
It is claimed that Bashar al-Assad has had to contend with obstacles to reform put in his path by the old guard. That is a fallacy that needs to be laid to rest. The so-called old guard, the men who faithfully stood by his Father Hafez al-Assad and formed the backbone of his regime, have all been methodically cast aside by Bashar al-Assad. In their place President Bashar has ensconced his brother Maher, brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, cousin Rami Makhlouf, and the heads of the various state security agencies who swear allegiance to him. What does survive and thrive is the old mentality.
Some analysts have expressed the opinion that the President's wife, Asmaa, may have a calming effect on him. I think if a female member of the Assad clan can exert any influence on both Bashar and Maher al-Assad then it is their eldest sibling, their sister, Bushra who also happens to be the wife of Assef Shawkat, deputy chief-of-staff of the Syrian armed forces. In 1984 during the attempted coup by her uncle, Rifaat, she was incensed to see posters of him plastered on the walls near the Presidential Palace and proceeded to rip them off. Some of Rifaat's Defense Companies saw her and according to one of their accounts they escorted her to the Presidential Palace.
The regime in Damascus will latch on to the latest batch of Wikileaks' releases which claim that the US State Department has been financing Syrian opposition. Of course the Syrian opposition groups in exile have to be getting their money from somewhere so it doesn't surprise me that some of it may be coming from Washington. In my view this does not in any way taint the grassroots opposition movement in the country which was born out of genuine popular anger and frustration and not hatched in some foreign capital. It could very well come to haunt those accused of receiving Washington's money and the Syrian people will be the judge of that.
The regime has made much of a plot to destabilize the country. It has cried wolf several times now; “armed gangs”, “criminal elements”, agents provocateurs, a Lebanese deputy, Saad Hariri's March 14 Movement and finally a weapons shipment from Iraq, they are all to blame for the crisis in Syria. The iron fist with which it has controlled the country for decades seems to be slipping. The Syrian regime has been crying wolf since the outset of this popular uprising. Perhaps if a real wolf does eventually come along the audience will have been so tired of the cries that it does nothing.
Bashar al-Assad had the unenviable task of filling the vast space vacated by Hafez al-Assad. He has attempted to emulate his late father's stance as an opponent of American and Israeli hegemony of the region and carved for himself the mantle of leading a Syria that is a state of mumana'a and muqawma, objection (to foreign diktats) and a hotbed of resistance (supporting Hamas, Hezbollah and Iraqi insurgents). Indeed Assad in Arabic means lion and Syria has been called Areen al-Assad, the lion's den.
However, Hafez al-Assad waged his most critical battles with the Israelis and Americans supported by the unwavering backing of an ailing but still powerful Soviet Union. Assad senior's battling performance in the early to mid-1980s in the “Showdown in Lebanon” is now the stuff of legend. Indeed, Assad's special forces clashed with Ariel Sharon's armored columns in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley in 1982 and halted the Israeli advance. But it must be recalled that Hafez al-Assad also kept his lines of communication open with the Americans, met with several US presidents, joined the American-led coalition to eject Saddam from Kuwait in 1990/91 and directly engaged the Israelis in US-sponsored peace negotiations.
Unfortunately the younger Assad seems to have decided that he too could put all his eggs in the foreign policy basket, exert regional influence through Hezbollah and Hamas and simultaneously retain strict control of a cash-strapped Syria suffering from poverty, unemployment and a population explosion. I find it difficult to comprehend that he did not realize that the world has changed a great deal since the 1980s. Gone are the days of lethally suppressing an entire city for weeks with hardly a peep from the international press (Hama). The USSR is no more and in its place we now have near-instantaneous communication in the form of the internet, as well as mobile phone cameras that surreptitiously record every incriminating and embarrassing detail. From what I hear President Assad used to spend a considerable amount of time on the web, so I'm surprised he did not grasp early on the significance of what was going on in the region.
There have been views expressed that the Syrians are playing for a repeat of the stifled Iranian protests of 2009. They fail to understand that in Iran the world witnessed an uprising that did not attract much grassroots support. It was fueled mainly by university students and therefore was somewhat elitist in that sense.
But in Syria the explosion of anger began amidst the poverty of Deraa and continues to be carried by run-of-the-mill people.
President Assad could have, and should have, done what Mubarak, Ben Ali and Ali Saleh did not: instead of waiting for the people's delegations to come to him he should have gone to them. Opportunity lost.
Images like the ones in this video showing the abuse of protesters labeled as “traitors” by Assad's security forces will be indelibly ingrained into people's memories. Regime apologists like Dr Issam al-Takrouri doubting its authenticity and claiming the gunmen are Kurdish peshmerga only add insult to injury.
As I write reports now confirm that at least 8 Syrians have been killed over the past 48 hours, other sources put the number at 17.
Notwithstanding the Wikileaks cables, and notwithstanding the Syrian regime's charges of foreign plots, conspiracies and outside involvement, the fact of the matter is that the protesters out in the streets are thousands of miles away from Washington and London, they are frustrated and angry and they are clamoring for dignity. Perhaps there are dirty hands stoking the fire and shooting at the army and protesters. This in no way diminishes the state's responsibility for the safety and well-being of its citizens. Especially a state that for decades prided itself on the ruthless efficiency of its security agencies and “unity” of people and government.
This has yet to turn into a mass popular uprising. But demonstrators are getting more numerous and bolder. Discontent among the population is rising. The chants for reform, liberty and dignity are now being transformed into ones calling for the fall of the regime. The dead are not “traitors” but flag-bearing Syrians whose demands embody what a truly strong and thriving Syria should be and offer its people.
There are fears and warnings of a sectarian bloodbath, ie the majority Sunni population exacting retribution against the minority Alawites who have held the reigns of power since the mid-1960s. But the Alawites as a sect are also ruled by the regime and are in no way unanimous in their support of the regime. Nor are they complicit in anything going on. Saturday's convening of the new cabinet and the President's speech were meant to be a new beginning. The renewed bloodshed signal another chance squandered. One person holds the key. He can be remembered as the leader who ushered in a new dawn for his country or the president who oversaw the demise of his dynasty. I still hold on to my sincere hope that Syria's social fabric will not be ripped to shreds, that it can avoid the senseless violence of civil strife. Hope is one thing, naivete another and realism yet another.
The wall of fear has been broken. It seems to me that the Syrian regime is in this for the long haul. I believe we are in for more bloodshed until this uprising reaches its denouement.
The ban in France of the niqab, the full face covering worn by some Muslim women, has raised much debate over the past week.
Opponents of France's move say it transgresses on personal and religious freedoms. There is no shortage of commentary in media condemning the French move. Perhaps an alien creature arriving from space and witnessing the current debate would think that France has banned the hijab, the code of dress most Islamic religious scholars concur is compulsory for Muslim women. I say most because not all do. For example, Gamal al-Banna, brother of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hasan al-Banna, contends that the hijab requirement for women has been misinterpreted and has been unjustly imposed upon Muslim women. That is a debate I leave to the men of religion.
And yet, I think it's only fair to view the issue of France's ban of the niqab from another perspective, from the opposite angle. But before that it should be important to note that the niqab predates Islam and is not an exclusively Islamic practice. Indeed, the four main (Sunni) Islamic schools; Hanbali, Hanafi, Shafi'i and Maliki, all concur that a woman's face and hands need not be covered.
The question I wish like to pose is: would the Islamic world be willing to preserve and enforce the right to personal and cultural freedoms at home? And since the interpretation of religious edicts is in itself open to interpretation, why can sovereign states like Saudi Arabia and Iran, that enforce a dress code on women, resort to religion to force the veil upon women who do not wish to be veiled while another sovereign state, France, cannot enforce its own dress code? I'll tell you why. Because what has been left unsaid is that France as a democratic country is seen as acting in contravention to the principles of the state. So are Muslims, in this case, willing to concede that Iran and Saudi Arabia are undemocratic?
Ultimately, it is important to note that France's niqab-banning law is the result of a democratic process which was passed in parliament and not an edict announced by the President or stipulated by a religious authority.
Does the niqab ban signal an assault on religious freedoms and a gradual erosion of liberties? It is for today's French society to determine the safeguards of its revolutionary origins; liberty, equality, fraternity.
The niqab is only worn by a very small minority of Muslim women who choose to be, or are expected to be, veiled. It is highly debatable whether the niqab is even an Islamic requirement or not, hence the very small number of women who wear it.
While some Muslims find the ban distasteful and impinging on their religious freedoms, it should in no way be interpreted as an affront to Islam or impinging upon it. Islam is too grand of a religion to be hurt by something like that. Just like Christianity is too grand of a religion to be affected by the ban on churches or crucifixes in Gulf states.
To twist the debate and turn into an anti-Islamic issue will be playing into the hands of extremists like bin Laden, misguided hardliners of the ilk of Terry Jones and despots such as the erratic Muammar al-Gaddafi.
It would be prudent to recall the Swiss referendum that led to the ban on building any new minarets in the country. The ban's critics included the Swiss Bishops Conference which expressed the opinion that it should be rejected “based on our Christian values and the democratic principles of our country”.
Contrast this with the dishonest and intentionally misleading pronouncement of Gaddafi who claimed that Switzerland was an “infidel, obscene country that is destroying mosques”.
The reason behind Gaddafi's rage was not his worry about the well-being of Islam in Switzerland. Rather, it was his unforgiving fury at the Swiss for arresting in 2008 his errant son Hannibal. It transpires that Hannibal beat up two of his staff at a hotel in Geneva. The elder Gaddafi promptly withdrew over $5 billion from Swiss bank accounts, cut oil supplies to Switzerland and detained on trumped up charges two Swiss businessmen working in Libya. That Hannibal had a history of run-ins with law enforcement in Europe did not seem to bother the Brother Leader. Beating up helpless, even pregnant, women didn't worry Muammar al-Gaddafi nor did it seem un-Islamic to him. The Swiss finally succumbed and pathetically apologized for arresting Gaddafi's law-breaking son. Unfortunately there was not a single critical voice from the Islamic world voicing displeasure over Gaddafi's duplicity. I point this out because inevitably the guise of a religious issue is used to divert attention from the matter at hand.
Muslims continue to thrive in France and the West. They are among the fastest growing minorities. Their religious rights are respected and enshrined in laws and constitutions, constitutions drawn up not through religious processes but the efforts and intellect of wise men who intentionally separated Church from state and sought to create more just societies.
Contrast that with the fatwas in Saudi Arabia banning demonstrations as against Islam and its teachings, that same religions that extolls honesty. And then consider the case of Mr Arifinto of Indonesia's Islamic Prosperous Justice Party. His party spearheaded Indonesia's anti-pornography legislation, only for Arifinto to be photographed watching porn, in parliament!
It is a real shame when women's issues in Islamic societies and beyond are judged according to a dress code; when a woman's worth is based on her perceived modesty or lack of instead of the value of her contribution to society.
So as various commentaries continue to scream abuse at the niqab ban in France, I hope people in the Arab and Islamic worlds remember, and remind the West while they're at it, that Islam's great empires, at their apex, in general embraced minorities and were a refuge for the oppressed and persecuted, at a time when Western cultures had scant regard or respect for their own minorities. This should be a model for today's Muslims who must include minorities (ethnic and religious) and non-immigrants (laborers and housemaids in the midst of Islamic societies - , - in their quest for justice.
Western legacies left a host of problems in this region and among its peoples. But playing the victim, engendering sympathy and hurling accusations of conspiracy, persecution and discrimination will only get a cause so far. Adopting a positive, constructive approach with a benevolent face and heart, on the other hand, is much more advisable.
A man on a long journey through a perpetual desert.
The opinions expressed in this blog are mine and mine alone. They do not represent the views of any of my employers, past, present or future.