Friday, June 30, 2006


BY William Fisher

Last March, Congress passed legislation requiring Justice Department officials to give them reports by certain dates on how the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is using the USA Patriot Act to search homes and secretly seize papers.

But when President George W. Bush signed the measure into law, he added a "signing statement." The statement said the president can order Justice Department officials to withhold any information from Congress if he decides it could impair national security or executive branch operations.

Late last year, Congress approved legislation declaring that U.S. interrogators cannot torture prisoners or otherwise subject them to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

But President Bush's signing statement said the president, as commander in chief, can waive the torture ban if he decides that harsh interrogation techniques will assist in preventing terrorist attacks.

These are but two examples of more than 100 signing statements containing over 500 constitutional challenges President Bush has added to new laws passed by the Congress - many times more than any of his predecessors.

While he has never vetoed a law, many Constitutional scholars say the President is, in effect, exercising a "line item veto" by giving himself authority to waive parts of laws he doesn't like.

The practice has infuriated members of Congress in both parties because it threatens to diminish their power. They consider it an assault on the notion that the Constitution establishes America's three branches of government - legislative, judicial, and executive - as co-equal.

Further fuelling Congressional anger is Bush's defense of his National Security Agency (NSA) "domestic eavesdropping" program, in which the president claimed he could ignore a 1978 law prohibiting wiretaps of U.S. citizens without "probable cause" and a warrant issued by a court.

The NSA program was revealed by the New York Times in (date). Since then, newspapers have disclosed other secret programs, including amassing millions of domestic phone call records and examining perhaps thousands of financial transactions in an effort to track and interrupt possible terrorist activity.

A member of Bush's own party, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, opened hearings on the subject this week. He said, "The real issue here is whether the president can cherry-pick what he likes."

And the senior Democrat on the committee, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said, "The president hasn't vetoed any bills, but basically he has done a personal veto. He has said which laws he will not follow and ... put himself above the law, even the same law he has signed."

The hearing is part of a continuing effort by many in Congress to reclaim authority that they say the president has usurped as he has expanded the power of the executive branch.

Bush claims that the Constitution gives the executive branch of government "inherent power" to do "whatever it takes" to protect the people of the United States.

Testifying at the Judiciary Committee hearing on behalf of the Bush Administration, Michelle Boardman, deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel at the US Department of Justice, said that signing statements serve a "legitimate and important function" and are not an abuse of power.

"Congress should not fear signing statements, but welcome the openness they provide," she said. "The president must execute the law faithfully, but the Constitution is the highest law of the land. If the Constitution and the law conflict, the president must choose," she said.

But many Constitutional scholars disagree.

Among them is Barbara Olshansky, Director Counsel of the Global Justice Initiative at the Center for Constitutional Rights, a prominent advocacy group. She told IPS, "I think it is hard evidence of (Bush's) continued aggressive arrogation of power. It is a blatant attempt to expand power by pulling the rug out from under Congress each time it passes a bill that he dislikes."

She added, "Many of the laws that Bush has decided to bypass or overwrite by this method involve the military, where he once again invokes the idea that as Commander in Chief he can ignore any law that seeks to regulate the military.

Another opposition view came from Prof. Edward Herman of the University of Pennsylvania, who told IPS, "The brazenness of Bush's use of this practice is remarkable. But even more remarkable is the fact that this de facto further nullification of congressional authority fails to elicit sustained criticism and outrage. It is part of a step-by-step abrogation of constitutional government, and it is swallowed by the flag-wavers and normalized. We are in deep trouble!"

Signing statements are not new - their use started with the fifth U.S. President, James Monroe (1817-1825), and from that time they were used sparingly and mostly for rhetorical purposes. Until Ronald Reagan became President in 1980, only 75 statements had been issued. Reagan and his successors, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, made 247 signing statements between them.

But President Bush has taken the practice to a new level, attracting criticism both for the number of statements he has issued as well as for his apparent attempts to nullify any legal restrictions on his actions

Democratic members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate are viewing President Bush's signing statements as a dangerous over-reach of presidential power - and a campaign issue for the congressional elections in November.

Last week House Democrats introduced a resolution requiring the president to notify Congress if the president "makes a determination to ignore a duly enacted provision of law."

And Senator Edward M. Kennedy, known as the "lion" of the Senate, declared, "For far too long, Congress has stood by and watched while President Bush has slowly expanded the unilateral powers of the presidency at the expense of the rest of the government and the people," said Senator Kennedy at this week's hearing.

The U.S. legal community is also concerned. Earlier this month, the American Bar Association's Board of Directors formed a Task Force on Presidential Signing Statements and the Separation of Powers Doctrine to review the use of signing statements and whether or not this use is consistent with the U.S. Constitution.

Bush's signing statements have covered a wide variety of subjects, ranging from the ability of military lawyers to give independent legal advice to their commanders to timely transmission of government-funded scientific information to Congress to rules for firing a government employee whistle-blower who tells Congress about possible wrongdoing.

But until President Bush's signing statement on the anti-torture legislation, the subject went virtually unreported by the U.S. press. According to Phillip Cooper, a Portland State University public administration professor who is an authority signing statements, "I think one of the important things here is for reporters to apply their journalistic instincts to this story."

Cooper concludes that the Bush White House "has very effectively expanded the scope and character of the signing statement not only to address specific provisions of legislation that the White House wishes to nullify, but also in an effort to significantly reposition and strengthen the powers of the presidency relative to the Congress."

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

What Is It Like to Be a Saudi Woman?

Khaled Batarfi is a senior editor at Al Madina, an Arabic-language newspaper in Jedda, and who also writes a weekly column for Arab News, an English-language paper in the city. He earned a doctoral degree at the University of Oregon. His article is reprinted with permission.

By Dr. Khaled Batarfi

Lila is the daughter of a brand-name family. This is important in the marriage market, but she has other important qualifications too. She is beautiful, smart, cute and moderately religious. In the beauty section, she is golden dark, tall with thick, long, flowing hair. In school, she had always been top of her class. Her friends and family love her for her good nature, optimism and sense of humor. She never misses a prayer or a religious duty, and lives a modern life with sophisticated attitude. In short, she is a poster-wife.

Her first shocking lesson came at an early age. The family promised to send her to medical school if she achieved A+ grade in high school. She did, but they changed their mind. That was her life’s dream and it was brutally shattered. Instead of becoming a heart surgeon, as she hoped, she is now a high school teacher. Why? Because this is a job where she doesn’t have to mix with men!

Later, there were more shocking lessons. Her suitors were turned away, one after another. Reasons varied, but mostly it was about their social and economic class. Since she inherited a fortune from her father and has a good salary, her brothers suspected that any man with lesser fortunes was after her money.

By the time the “right” suitor arrived, they had already soaked most of her savings. With promises of profitable investment and wiser management they divided her inheritance as well as that of their mother and sisters among themselves. If persuasion didn’t work, they applied social pressure. A woman who refuses to accommodate her own sons and brothers is called names and denied peace of mind.
Finally, they agreed to a suitor. She wasn’t given enough time to check him out, let alone love him. He turned out to have no merits except coming from a brand-name family. He has a shallow, childish personality, who lets his mother run all his affairs and make all his decisions. She couldn’t communicate or meet at any intellectual or emotional level with him from day one.

No one understood her reasons to demand divorce. Her family, tribe, the court and the whole community were against her. As long as he provides for her, and doesn’t mistreat her physically, there were no acceptable legal, logical or social grounds for divorce. She was lucky, because her husband gave up on her, and his mother agreed. They demanded compensations and got them. Gladly, she paid them back the dowry, gifts, jewelry, and whatever cost them for the wedding party and other events.
After divorce, she was socially punished for her rebellion. Her male guardians still wouldn’t accept suitors of lesser class. Suitable ones wouldn’t marry a divorced woman with rebellious attitude. And she wouldn’t accept silly, shallow, old and expired men just because they happen to come from the right tribe.

Now in her mid-thirties, her chances and choices are increasingly limited. The few suitors who trickle now are mostly in their fifties and sixties with wives and kids. In this range they are usually too traditional for her taste. Some are looking for self-financing, salary-earning wives. Others want to escape busy wives and noisy kids to spend some time every now and then with a young, light and lonely woman. Who needs that?

Lila is still waiting. There are many like her — some in a worse situation than hers. At least, Lila can work — a good investment of energy and time. She can go on the net and communicate with people like me. But others I know are not permitted even to leave home, unless really necessary. More decided to accept the hell they know, rather than try the terrible life of the divorced. Then, there is the problem of kids. Mothers have to stay the course with unpleasant husbands and continue to lead unhappy lives so their children won’t be taken away from them.

A lot has to be reviewed, changed and improved: Laws, rules and customs. Islam gave women their due rights and traditions took them away. Since we claim to be Muslims, we should abide by Islamic rules and follow the noble example set by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

Monday, June 26, 2006


By William Fisher

If you’re into black humor, you might find it amusing that two of the countries with some of the world’s worst human rights records are making international propaganda hay out of America’s performance in prisoner abuse and civil liberties.

For example, Saudi Arabia’s Arab News, the largest English language newspaper in the Middle East, weighed in on the arrest of the seven Miami men accused of conspiring to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago.

In an editorial, the newspaper uses the arrests to observe that, post 9/11, “Many Americans may overlook the increasingly draconian security measures being applied in their own backyard as part of the war against terrorism.”

The paper asks: “Will history record that Osama Bin Laden succeeded after all against his real enemies — liberty and freedom?”

The editorial laments the “ugly and uncompromising authoritarian tendencies” unleashed by the shock of 9/11, noting that in “normal times” these tendencies would be fiercely resisted by many in “The Land of the Free.”

It adds, “Among 70 new measures just announced by the White House is a new domestic spy service within the FBI. Why should such an organization be necessary in addition to the FBI itself, the communications work of the NSA, the Secret Service, the Justice Department and peripherally, the work of the CIA? It has also emerged that throughout the US, financial dealings are being monitored extensively in the hope of tracking the movement of terrorist funds. It is also thought that e-mail and telephone calls are now being widely tapped.”

It then asks two questions: “Who can be sure (these actions) will be discarded when Bin Laden is dead and the scourge of Al-Qaeda finally destroyed?” and whether the Bush administration “can be trusted with such sweeping powers?”

These questions don’t sound at all unfamiliar. I’ve asked them of our government countless times. But look at which pot is calling the kettle black.

Saudi Arabia, now a member of the UN’s new Human Rights Council, has one of the most repressive regimes on earth. Its jails are filled with dissidents. Evidence of death and torture in detention is widespread – the U.S. military is reluctant to repatriate Guantanamo’s Saudi prisoners for fear that they’ll be tortured. The desert kingdom is used as a stop on the itinerary of the CIA’s rendition excursions. Saudi women are treated as third-class citizens or worse. Saudi school textbooks are filled with anti-West and anti-Semitic hate. Hundreds of websites are blocked by massive use of some of IT’s most sophisticated technology. There is no freedom of religion, press, assembly, or much of anything else.

It is worth noting that the Desert Kingdom is also the country that supplies about 15 per cent of our imported energy and one that is routinely hailed by the Bush Administration as our stalwart partner in the “Global War on Terrorism.”

The Arab News editorial obviously wasn’t meant for a domestic Saudi audience. Rather, it was written for the English-speaking expats who live in the Middle East and at the West’s mainstream press, which often quotes editorials from foreign papers.

The second piece of hypocrisy is even arguably even more bizarre. It comes from another bastion of liberty, Iran, a theocracy where the people elect a president but where the mullahs call all the shots worth calling.

As in Saudi Arabia, sounding off against the government can be harmful to your health. Very harmful. Iranian jails are filled with dissidents ranging from renowned scholars and intellectuals to bloggers. Human rights organizations have repeatedly produced evidence of torture in these jails. Iran executes children and women accused of adultery. Its God Squad – the religious police – are hated and feared. Iran even removed Nobel prizewinner Sherin Ebadi from the bench because it said women were not fit to serve as judges.

So it has to be with a tad of skepticism that we assess Iran’s outrage at America’s “shameful human rights violations at Guantanamo Bay.”

According to the official Iranian news service, the IRNA, “the so-called advocate of human rights, the U.S. administration, violated human rights of several hundred individuals suspected of involvement in terrorism since its occupation of Afghanistan in 2002 when it built Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.

Quoting reports from Amnesty International and other human rights groups – bodies that can’t get access to Iranian jails – the IRNA writes that “The situation in the detention camp and the arbitrary detention of the suspects have led to international criticism. ..And the question is whether the U.S. administration which introduces itself as advocate of human rights and democracy honors its commitments to those principles?”

Well, lots of Americans and real democrats from many other countries are asking the same questions. And getting the same non-answers and disinformation from the Bush Administration.

So why not Saudi Arabia and Iran?

Because they’re not democrats. Not even close. They haven’t earned their bones speaking truth to power. They haven’t earned the right to criticize the U.S.

They’re faux democrats crying crocodile tears.


By William Fisher

The arrests of The Miami Seven - accused of conspiring to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago - revealed yet again the love affair cable news anchors have with bumper stickers.

Following the announcements of the indictments and arrests in a three-city press conference extravaganza led by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the phase "home-grown terrorists" was repeated hundreds of times in the next 24-hour cable news cycle.

It was a convenient phrase, because five of the seven suspects are U.S. citizens, one is a legal U.S. resident, and one is an illegal immigrant. And the phrase was familiar to viewers because it's the same one used to describe the London and Madrid bombers.

But one of the downsides of having such a quick and easy bumper-sticker description is that it can rob the story of context. The only context cable news seemed able to provide were a few references to "home-grown terrorist" Timothy McVeigh, executed for the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and a few passing references to the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, now serving a life sentence for mailing pipe bombs to some folks he had beefs with.

But this hardly qualifies as context. And news without context is stenography.

So what is the context for this story? There are a few.

One of them is that America has a long and ugly history of "home-grown" terrorism - a fact that seemed to elude cable television and most mainstream print media. Between 1882 and 1968, at least 4,743 American citizens were lynched. Many of these acts were carried out the Ku Klux Klan -- "home-grown" terrorists wrapping themselves in Christianity in the same way today's terrorists purport to represent Islam. Today's Muslim terrorists are described as "Islamists"; maybe we should have called the KKK "Christianists."

The "Christianists" had quite a following. At their peak in the 1920s, their Klan had millions of members -- about 15% of the entire population of the nation. People attended hangings in broad daylight in town squares as entertainment, and took photographs as souvenirs. World War One's black soldiers still in uniform were among the victims.

After years of "home-grown terror," President Ulysses S. Grant and Congress passed the Anti-KKK Act of 1871. That allowed authorities to declare martial law in some counties in South Carolina, where the Klan was the strongest.

While the KKK's popularity eventually waned, it was born again in the early 20th century, and later experienced its "button-down" renaissance led by more respectable-sounding people like David Duke.

The Klan was pretty much driven underground by the efforts of courageous people like lawyer Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center and by the lawyers of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965, vigorously enforced by the Justice Department, administered the coup de grace.

But it would be fanciful to think "home-grown terror" has gone away. And that's the second piece of missing context.

This kind of "home-grown terror" is still very much alive and well, with active white supremacist "armies" committing little-reported "hate crimes" against the persons and property of African-Americans, Jews, gays and lesbians, and now Muslims. The Justice Department says hate crimes are increasing and are a major category of their criminal prosecutions.

In their Miami press briefing, government officials didn't quite call the suspects "Muslims," but the Attorney General said the men were "inspired by a violent jihadist message." Using an Arabic word to describe The Seven conveyed the impression they were Muslims.

But the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest advocacy group for Muslims in the U.S., lost no time in urging the government to stop confusing the public by using Arabic terminology in referring to the case.

"Given that the reported beliefs of this bizarre group have nothing to do with Islam, we ask members of the media to refrain from calling them 'Muslims,'" said CAIR spokesperson Ahmed Bedier.

The New York Times reported that "at least some of the men were in a religious group called the Seas of David that appeared to mix Christian and Muslim beliefs. The group wore uniforms bearing a Star of David and met for Bible study, prayer and martial arts."

Nonetheless, some of the early TV news accounts of the story described the accused as "Islamists."

At its own news conference in Miami, CAIR called on police departments nationwide to protect mosques and other Islamic institutions from any possible backlash prompted by the mistaken linkage of this case to the American Muslim community. That's backlash from "home-grown terrorists."

So if cable news anchors can't call The Miami Seven "Islamists," whatever are they to do?

My guess is they'll just go on talking about "home-grown terrorists." But it might be helpful if viewers understood that this phenomenon didn't start with The Miami Seven.

There's a final piece of context missing from most of the reporting on The Miami Seven. It's the broader issue of what exactly they are guilty of. At the DOJ's well-publicized news conference, an FBI official said the activities of The Seven were "more aspirational than operational," by which I think he was trying to explain that The Seven conspired to do bad things, but never actually got around to doing them.

So, as this story unfolds, it might be a good idea to remember that since 9/11 the Justice Department has developed this habit of summoning every reporter on the planet to hear and report dire charges that somehow never quite find their way to court.

Jose Padilla is, of course, the poster-boy for this kind of legal sleight of hand. When his arrest was announced - at another well-attended press conference - the DOJ told us this American citizen planned to blow up buildings and bridges with a "dirty bomb." But when he was finally charged - after three years in largely incommunicado military detention - the "dirty bomb" charge was nowhere to be found.

Padilla is not alone; this kind of pre-trial hype has become something of a pattern at the Justice Department. So we'll just have to wait and see what these people are finally charged with and whether the government can prove their guilt.

Meanwhile, cultivate your own home-grown value: patience.

And watch this space.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

oh leaders who speak for me

I resent your audacity
to represent my America
with your empire building
fear mongering
and arrogant

you speak the language
of bombs
your words divide
make hate
raise fear
wage war

you ask us to sacrifice
our children
and the children
of our “enemies”
in pursuit of a
barrel of oil

you close your ears to the wind
turn your face from the sun
and pillage our
precious world

I am sad for the loss of my America

I am sad for my children’s children
who will reap the seeds
that have been sown in their name
and are left behind

I am sad for the loss
of friends around the world
who used to admire our vision

I am sad for my America lost
that I have loved

The poem above was written by an old friend, Gwen Gould, who is a well-known organist and conductor.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


By William Fisher

Esther, my late mother-in-law, was an immigrant from Poland. When she arrived at Ellis Island as a teen-ager just before the First World War, she spoke Polish but could not read that or any other language.

The reason was that, when she was eight years old, she was sent off to a far-away village to work in a bakery so she could send money home to help support her family.

She knew how to sew, so she got a job in a New York sweatshop making garments. She worked about ten hours a day and got paid on a piecework basis.

Not unusual, so far. Millions of immigrants had similar experiences in their new Land of Opportunity.

After a few years in America, Esther had heard enough English to speak the language, albeit with a thick Eastern European accent and a very limited vocabulary. She could count to ten, but couldn't read a word. She got to work by counting the subway stops.

Still not so unusual.

But then came World War Two, and Esther decided she had to become an American. Not just a resident, but a full-fledged American citizen.

But she'd have to pass the citizenship exam, which meant she would need to know about how our country came to be, about our Founding Fathers, about our Constitution, about our government.

And that meant learning to read.

So over the next couple of years, Esther's two young daughters spent endless hours teaching their Mom to read - and write - English. Together they read elementary school textbook on civics and American history, memorized the Bill of Rights, and learned about the three branches of our government. They gave their Mom homework assignments to write - in English. They took her to night school civics classes. They even bought her one of those Berlitz taped language courses, put it under her pillow and left it on all night so the knowledge would osmose while Esther slept.

So, when the long-anticipated day came, a very nervous Esther answered all the judge's questions correctly. Then she stood before him in the courtroom in Brooklyn with a group of other immigrants, raised her right hand, and took the oath of citizenship.

So maybe she didn't exactly have the encyclopedic Constitutional knowledge of a Senator Robert Byrd, but she was a citizen!

It was, she told me years later, the proudest moment of her life.

So why am I telling you all this?

Because, as you will know unless you've been in a long sleep, there's a huge immigration debate going on our country now. It's mostly about how to protect our borders, what to do with the 10-12 million immigrants already living among us, and how to handle the millions more who come to our country to work. Congress is considering - some would say stonewalling -- legislation that's supposed to address all these issues.

One of the features of that legislation is a requirement that immigrants learn to read, write and speak English, learn about our Founding Fathers, our Constitution, our history, our branches of government. But they'll have learn all this not to become citizens, but simply to pass the test allowing them to remain in the U.S.

Maybe this is such a good idea that we ought to extend it to those lucky folks who were born American citizens.

But passing the "stay in America" test is likely to be a huge problem for our citizens. It is unlikely to win any votes for candidates for public office.

Consider the following results from recent tests:

Just 22% of high school seniors had a "proficient" understanding of how the American government works. And only one in 25 scored at the "advanced" level.

Just one in four seniors could think of just two ways the U.S. system of government prevents the exercise of "absolute arbitrary power." (Among the 14 possible answers were such basics as the Bill of Rights, an independent judiciary, civilian control of the military -- and the right to vote.)

A third of high school seniors didn't know the Bill of Rights was written to limit the power of the federal government.

Not one in ten seniors could identify two ways a democracy benefits from the active participation of its citizens.

Just over a third knew that the Supreme Court pointed to the Constitution's 14th Amendment when it began to overturn segregation laws.

Nearly three of every four students don't not think about the First Amendment or say they take its rights for granted.

Seventy-five percent of students said they thought flag burning was illegal, nearly 50 percent believed the government could censor the Internet, and many students didn't think newspapers should publish freely.

In other tests, an obscene proportion of high school seniors couldn't find Iraq on a map, and only a slightly smaller group couldn't locate Mexico.

College seniors -- from such schools as Yale, Northwestern, Smith, and Bowdoin -- don't fare any better.

For example, only 23 percent of this college group was able to correctly identify James Madison as the "Father of the Constitution," while 98 percent knew that Snoop Doggy Dog is a rapper and the same percentage correctly identified Beavis and Butthead!

The moral of this story is that if Americans had to pass the same test as the one being proposed for immigrants, most of us would find ourselves getting deported.

But the solution is not eliminating the test for immigrants - my late
mother-in-law would have applauded this idea. The solution is educating Americans.

In virtually every international comparative test of Americans' knowledge of critical subjects, the US scores behind most industrialized countries in most subjects.

Today, the public focus of our deficits leans toward science and technology. Bill Gates and many others have pointed out that more than half the engineers working in America today came here from somewhere else. And that the number of foreign graduate students at American universities has dropped like a stone since 9/11.

Of course science and technology are important.

But how effective are these tekkies - whether immigrant or native-born -- likely to be as citizens if they are clueless about what America is, what it stands for, how it got to where it is, and how to participate in fixing it.

Think about it: When was the last time you heard about an American school at any level starting a class in civics?

Civics - the word itself has practically become a dinosaur in our lexicon - has gone the way of teaching art and music in our public schools.

But civics teaches us to be good citizens.

Like Esther, the immigrant.

Saturday, June 17, 2006


By William Fisher

This week, four American Muslims will begin an eight-day, three-country tour of Europe. Three more teams of Arab- and Muslim-Americans will travel in the coming months to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and the South Pacific

These “civilian ambassadors” have been recruited by Karen Hughes’s Public Diplomacy shop at the State Department to carry the message that “the United States welcomes all religions and rewards immigrants who embrace its democratic values with opportunities and freedom beyond their dreams.”

They will attempt to refute the widespread view abroad that the Muslim-American community is under attack from the United States.

Nothing could be less true, according to one of the new ambassadors, a Syrian-American who immigrated to the United States in 1972. And Arsalan Iftikhar of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest U.S. group representing Muslim- Americans, says the American-Muslim diaspora is the most economically and politically empowered Muslim minority in the Western world and that information needs to get out so people will stop thinking that the United States is anti-Islam.

No doubt these Muslim-American ambassadors have done well in the U.S. Nor is there much doubt that Muslims are better integrated into American society than are their counterparts in Europe.

Still, this is going to be one hell of a hard sell.

Think about it. The U.S. is waging two wars on countries that have overwhelmingly Muslim majorities. And it has launched a “global war on terror” (GWOT) that largely targets Muslims.

The targets of the GWOT became apparent in the weeks immediately following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when some 1,000 men – mostly Muslims -- were hysterically rounded up by our Bible-thumping, hymn-singing Attorney-General, John Ashcroft. They were imprisoned, often in solitary confinement and without charges and, in most cases, without access to lawyers, and, according to the Justice Department’s Inspector General, subjected to harsh and abusive treatment. Four thousand more were rounded up and jailed subsequently. Some were deported for visa violations, but not a single one was ever criminally charged and tried.

According to Constitutional law scholar David Cole of Georgetown University law school, “Many of those arrested admitted that they had violated their visas and agreed to leave the country, but they were kept locked up for months so that the FBI could investigate them. They were not allowed to go until they were "cleared" of any connection to terrorism. In a complete reversal of the American system of
justice, they were treated as guilty until proved innocent.”

Cole represented those rounded up in a class action suit against the Department of Justice -- Turkmen vs. Ashcroft, in which the detainees argued that the government denied them equal protection of the law when it rounded them up on the basis of their race and religion, and violated their due-process rights when it kept them after their immigration cases were resolved.

In dismissing the case, U.S. District Judge John Gleeson ruled that it is constitutionally permissible to round up foreign nationals on immigration charges based solely on their race, religion or country of origin. He said foreign nationals could be detained indefinitely, even after they have agreed to be removed to their home countries.

Cole wrote, “In essence, he authorized a repeat of the Japanese internment — as long as the internment is limited to foreign nationals charged with visa violations (a group that at last count numbered about 11 million people).”

In another part of the GWOT, U.S.-based charities that raise money to help people in needy Muslim areas have become targets in the government’s war on terror financing.

According to OMB Watch, “drastic sanctions in anti-terrorist financing laws are being used to shut down entire organizations, resulting in the loss of badly needed humanitarian assistance around the world and creating a climate of fear in the nonprofit sector. Despite sweeping post-9/11 investigative powers, authorities have failed to produce significant evidence of terror financing by U.S.-based charities. Questionable evidence has been used to shut down the largest U.S.- based Muslim charities.”

So far, there has been only one criminal indictment, and that case has yet to come anywhere near a trial

There’s more. The FBI has reportedly bugged mosques and planted spies in Muslim communities. In the trial of a Pakistani immigrant convicted of plotting to blow up the Herald Square subway station, Muslims in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, learned that two police agents had been planted in the neighborhood and were instrumental to the case. They learned that an Egyptian-born police informer had recorded the license plate numbers of worshipers at a mosque. And they heard that an undercover detective, originally from Bangladesh, had been sent to Bay Ridge as a "walking camera."

Many Muslim-Americans say the police tactics unveiled in that case proved that the authorities — both in New York and around the nation — have been aggressive, even underhanded in their approach to Muslims.

Moreover, many U.S. human rights groups have produced credible evidence that, while the Homeland Security and Justice Departments claim they aggressively trying to reach out to Muslim-Americans -- police officers now introduce themselves at Ramadan dinners and town hall meetings and Federal agents sit on committees with Muslim activists and hold workshops with imams -- units like the Joint Terrorism Task Forces are just as aggressively practicing racial and ethnic profiling.

I’m sure that Karen Hughes’s new ambassadors have suffered from none of these miscarriages. I’m sure that, as one of them put it, they have lived out the American dream. I’m also sure they sincerely believe President Bush when he says the U.S. is not making war on Islam.

But I suspect it’s going to take a lot more than “changing the messengers” to persuade the world to take the president at his word.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


By William Fisher

President Bush’s 180-degree turn on direct negotiations with Iran clearly represents a defeat for the super-hawks who have been urging military action – and arguably an act of desperation for an administration that has run out of good options.

But, if Iran should decide to come to the table, the US will find itself negotiating over Iran’s nuclear program at the same time it is stepping up its “soft power” efforts to “democratize” the country through broadcasting, cultural exchanges, and support for dissident political parties, labor unions and human rights organizations.

Such pro-democracy efforts, however, are seen by many experts as nothing more than euphemisms for regime change, and question whether such programs are likely to help or hinder the nuclear negotiations.

But equally important are questions about the content and effectiveness of such programs as well as how committed the Administration is to a pro-democracy agenda.

As to credibility and commitment, the potential of soft-power initiatives must be measured against the backdrop of what many in Iran (and elsewhere) see as the hypocrisies and contradictions of US foreign policy. America’s credibility as the world's champion of human rights has been diminished by such issues as the invasion of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, renditions, excessive secrecy, and what appears through Middle East eyes to be a U.S. policy blindly tilted in favor of Israel. And, as evidenced by its dealings with countries like Egypt, Libya, and Saudi Arabia, the Bush Administration has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to abandon its democracy agenda in favor of recruiting partners for the "Global War on Terror" and cultivating cozy relationships with energy-rich countries, even if they are ruled by dictators.

As to the effectiveness of the “soft power” initiatives currently being implemented or discussed, the situation is even murkier and more complex.

After the 1978 Islamic Revolution in Iran – the hostage-taking and the end of US-Iran diplomatic relations -- the US effectively ignored that country. Iran did not again become a priority for the US Government until 2003, when some of our officials awakened to the reality that Iran was next door to Iraq, and thus positioned to do good or mischief. It was mooted that there would be discussions between the Iranian Government and US Ambassador to Iraq, but as far as we know, this never happened.

What did happen was that President Bush – at the urging of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice – decided that using the Europeans as surrogate negotiators simply wasn’t working, and that the US needed to participate in direct negotiations over the nuclear issue.

In the months during which Bush’s major policy change was being battled out within the Administration, the State Department was already tooling up for a renaissance of “public diplomacy” directed toward Iran. This planning started from a baseline of almost zero.

Before the nuclear issue exploded onto the world stage, there was limited support for aid to émigré groups by conservative Republican lawmakers such as Sen. Rick Santorum, and anti-Iran organizations such as the American-Israel Public Affairs Council (AIPAC). Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, a Christian Right ally of the neo-conservatives, introduced the "Iran Democracy Act" that sets as US policy the goal of "an internationally monitored referendum to allow the Iranian people to peacefully change their system of government."

But their efforts only succeeded in extracting a paltry $3 million from Congress, $1 million of which was granted to a single US-based NGO known as the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. Its mission was to document human rights violations committed in Iran since the 1979 revolution.

At the same time, the large Iranian émigré community in Los Angeles continued to press for government support of private US-based broadcasting services and for pro-democracy groups inside Iran. Some in the administration, however, were gun-shy about supporting émigré groups, recalling that that's how we got Mr. Chalabi and his pal, Curveball.

But well before the current nuclear issue became a daily page-one story, a growing sense of urgency about Iran had landed at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees all US foreign broadcasting efforts. The BBG’s current budget for Persian broadcasting through the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe is approximately $14.7 million.

So, back in 2003, the BBG's controversial Republican chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson, called Washington from a board meeting in Prague to urgently order the Voice of America's main Persian-language television show to go daily from once a week. In the fall of 2004, Tomlinson persuaded then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to push for funding that would allow VOA to boost its Persian-language television programming from just nine original hours per week to 28 per week.

But today, the State Department’s vision for the immediate future is far more ambitious. Dr. Rice has asked Congress for another $75 million to implement an ambitious three-pronged strategy involving:

Expanding independent radio and television, with some $50 million allocated to establishing round-the-clock, Farsi-language television in tandem with current foreign nonstop radio broadcasts;

Funding pro-democracy groups, an initiative that would require lifting the current ban on US financing of Iran-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), trade unions, human rights groups, and opposition candidates. Most of the money was to go to organizations based outside of Iran but with direct ties to eligible groups and people inside the country to protect their identity;

Boosting cultural and education fellowships and exchanges to help pay Iranian students and scholars to enroll in US universities. During the 1970s, there were 200,000 Iranian students in the United States, Rice told Congress; today that figure has plummeted to around 2,000.

These funds have been approved by congressional appropriators, but the issue has not come up for a floor vote yet. Meanwhile, the State Department has already begun to implement this more robust Iran strategy. For example, it has created an Iran desk. Last year, only two people in the department worked full time on Iran; now there will be 10. The department is also launching more training in the Farsi language and is planning an Iranian career track, which will be difficult without an embassy in Tehran. And the Office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) is seeking proposals for grant applications that support democratic governance and reform in Iran.

But, realistically, there are major components of this Iran strategy that the US Government simply cannot implement.

Current law would have to be changed to allow direct support for labor unions, opposition political parties, and dissident NGOs within Iran. More important, the US Government cannot “empower civil society” – without landing the recipients in jail.

It can work to increase the number of Iranian students enrolled in US colleges and universities – a number that has fallen from 200,000 in the 1970s to 2,000 since the attacks of September 11th 2001. But this will not be easy. US visa restrictions represent one obstacle. Another is the absence of a US Embassy in Tehran, which means prospective students have to travel to locations outside Iran in order to apply for US visas. And while increasing the number of visiting students is a time-tested and successful effort, it is a very long-term proposition.

So, if many of the more ambitious visions of what the State Department can do are off the table, what’s left is broadcasting, which is why two-thirds of the $75 million request will be spent to increase Farsi-language television and radio broadcasting into Iran.

This involves expanding existing Persian-language television and radio programs directly financed by American taxpayers, such as shows produced by the Persian desk of Voice of America in Washington. VOA would share roughly $30 million of the emergency funding with Radio Farda, a joint effort of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America.

Radio Farda produces fresh news and information at least twice an hour, with longer news programming in the morning and the evening. It also broadcasts a combination of popular Persian and Western music, operating 24 hours a day on medium wave digital audio satellite and on the Internet, as well as 21 hours a day on shortwave. It claims to receive 100 emails daily from its Internet service.

VOA also broadcasts daily half-hour satellite TV news programs. Although it is illegal to own a satellite dish in Iran, an estimated 15 million Iranians are believed to have access to satellite TV. But because of the difficulty of surveying the Iranian public, US officials do not know how many actually tune in.

This month, VOA’S popular Persian-language Mizegerdi ba Shoma (Roundtable With You) program will expand to a new daily schedule, broadcasting 60 minutes a day. The radio-TV simulcast has been broadcast weekly for 90 minutes for nearly a decade.

How effective have US-funded broadcasts been in Iran?

The impact has been mixed, experts say. While less than five percent of Iranians who listen to foreign broadcasts tune into VOA, Radio Farda appears to have had more success. The 24-hour news and music station is the third-most important conduit of information in Iran after local television and radio (excluding print media), according to an April-May 2005 survey commissioned by the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Another survey – carried out by telephoning Iranian phone numbers and asking the person on the other end whether he/she listens to Radio Farda -- put the number of adult listeners per week at 13.6 percent of the adult population. But sponsors of the survey acknowledge that it is not clear “how many Iranians will speak honestly with a complete stranger who has telephoned them out of the blue?”

Is the new effort worth $75 million in taxpayer funds?

John Brown, a former Foreign Service Officer and now a professor of public diplomacy at Georgetown University, supports the new public-diplomacy effort but says it may be too little, too late. “We should have started ages ago,” he says. “Now we’re playing catch-up."

Brown adds, “I think that public diplomacy efforts in Iran are bound to fail unless our policies drastically change. After all, Persians weren't exactly ‘born yesterday’ and pop songs or even ‘serious’ discussions about values on the air are not going to change people's mindsets.”

Lionel Beehner of the Council on Foreign Relations also takes a skeptical view of the potential impact of US plans. “I'm generally skeptical of the good soft diplomacy can have in Iran. The surveys I see show that most Iranians, particularly youth, who make up a bulk of the country, are pretty pro-America already (not pro-US foreign policy, however). A growing number have access to satellite TV. This is not Poland circa 1980,” he says.

And William Rugh, former US Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and a specialist in Middle East public diplomacy, says, “The package of new public diplomacy initiatives directed at Iran contains some positive elements and some well meaning but doubtful ones. The positive elements of the new Iran package are those that involve broadcasting, both radio and television. These are the soft power instruments that are highly appropriate in current circumstances with respect to Iran.”

Rugh says, “Other parts of the package are impractical. There is no way we can work with NGOs or dissidents or reformers inside Iran effectively, and working with exiles has limited value. For such programs, we must wait for an improvement in the overall atmosphere,” adding, “We should engage Tehran instead of confronting Tehran.“

Overall, he says, “Public diplomacy is a positive step but it’s very difficult to do without our being there.”

Will Iranians be influenced by US-funded media?

The outcome is unclear, experts say. According to Alvin Snyder, a VOA veteran now associated with the Center for Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California, “The VOA’s Persian-language TV programs must be compelling to successfully compete for viewers in Iran, where a variety of indigenous program fare is readily available, from sports to movies, and from news to family shows and entertainment. The VOA needs to speak out quickly and boldly, to stake out its turf within Iran’s media landscape, to excite viewers and attract immediate attention.”

The CFR’s Beehner says he is “not convinced that most Iranians are diehard pro-nuclear. For most, it's an issue of national pride; it's not about energy, or flouting NPT rules, or striking Israel. They see others with nuclear programs and think, why not us?”

One additional critical issue needs to be factored into this equation: Resistance to US pro-democracy offers from within Iran. Human rights advocate Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman and first Iranian to win the Nobel Peace Prize, expressed this view in a recent PBS Newshour interview.

Asked if the Bush administration’s $75 million program would be “useful to you and your colleagues who are engaged in this fight from the inside?”, Ebadi replied, “No, I don't think that it benefits me or people like me, because whoever speaks about democracy in Iran will be accused of having been paid by the United States.”

Ebadi is not alone. Her views echo those of many other Iranian civil society activists who worry that the proposed US initiative will simply be used by the Islamic Republic as a pretense for intensifying its repressive approach toward civil society organizations.

Lionel Beehner agrees. In funding pro-democracy groups abroad or in Iran, “you endanger those you're trying to help.”

Beyond that, however, the reality of public diplomacy – whether through broadcasting, cultural exchanges, or support for dissident groups – is that it
cannot be turned on and off. It was never intended to be a quick fix. Even in a best-case scenario, it depends on a consistent effort over an extended period.

The US has failed to mount that kind of effort, and that failure does not bode well for the prospect of “winning hearts and minds” in Iran any time soon.


Monday, June 12, 2006


By William Fisher

I recently sat down online with a remarkable young woman, Samar Dahmash-Jarrah, a Kuwait-born Palestinian-American speaker, journalist, and Political Science instructor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Her book, "Arab Voices Speak to American Hearts," is an attempt to create a bridge of communication between the Arab world and the Western world. It consists of a series of different Arabs answering in their own little chapter/interview, questions posed by Americans that concern religion, politics, society, and common misconceptions. It is a fascinating array of Arabs who range from a business executive in Cairo to a hair stylist in Amman, a student, an engineer, a preacher, professor, and an attorney. While it is a mix of Christians and Muslims answering different questions posed to them, the views are quite different. Most of these differences revolve around Islam and religion in general. Some see it as a social entity, others see it as an individual belief or practice. Some of those interviewed are practicing Muslims, others are not.

After the World Trade Center tragedy of September 11th, 2001, Dahmash-Jarrah was asked by many community organizations, churches, temples, and peace groups to speak about the Arab world. These events and the Iraq War served as the inspiration for her book.

Here's our online conversation.

Q. The activities, problems, challenges, aspirations, etc. of Arab-Americans are rarely reported by the mainstream US press. Is this because of lack of resources, perceived lack of reader/listener/viewer interest, media concentration and bottom-line orientation, uninformed journalists -- or what?

A. It is a combination of all of the above. It also has to do with how Hollywood managed to turn the villain from the Jew to the Native American to the black and for the past 25 years or so to the Arab. I am some one who grew up in Kuwait watching cowboy and Indian movies and mini series. I remember how at the age of nine, my sister and I would have a hamburger (British and was called wimpy) in one hand, ketchup coming out of the sides of our mouths, and the other hand cheering the cowboy to shoot the Indian. All we knew then was that a bunch of bad dark skinned people left India and came to America to kill the white people! With no educational background on the issue, no other TV source of information to explain to us the historical context and the bias of what we used to watch on a weekly basis, made me a biased if not a racist person who harbored negative feelings about red Indians all my adult hood till I came to live in the USA! Same analogy can be used to explain the image of Arabs (and now Muslims) in American media, psychic, movies, and most of all educational system. One could argue that acts of terrorism committed by Arabs is the cause of this image, but when was the last time an Arab gassed a people because they didn’t like their religion? Or when was the last time an Arab used napalms against a whole village? Or when was the last time an Arab dropped an atomic bomb on civilians?

Q. What are the main things the US public is NOT getting from the media about Arabs?

A. I doubt very much that Arabs are getting any type of half decent coverage of them, their culture, customs, history, or faith. Not even Christian Arabs get any coverage as if Christianity emerged some where in the West, in Philadelphia or in Rome. This is a historical crime committed against Christianity. The only time American media covers Bethlehem news is in the context of Palestinian violence
and never in the context of an illegal military occupation. I used to quiz my college students and ask them where Jesus was born. 45 out of 50 students would say that they have no clue one or two would say Rome, and one told me Bethlehem, Pennsylvania! This is why Arab Muslims and Christians in the Arab world were totally shocked and flabbergasted when I told them that one of the questions Americans want to ask you is: have you ever heard of Jesus Christ? Are you kidding me, an Arab would answer me back! No way, this cannot be true, can Americans be this ignorant? I was on a live popular TV show just a few hours before I caught my plane in April to come back to Florida and the announcer almost died from shock when I told him that Americans wanted me to ask that question to Arabs. He told me: this means we need to start from scratch when it comes to informing Americans about Arabs. My Christian friend who was born in Ramallah was asked once by a nurse doing an MRI on her when she saw her big golden cross: when did you convert? When you came to America? What on earth do Americans learn in schools? What do people learn in bible study in the churches? If this is the level of knowledge about Christ and Christianity in a Christian nation, then can you imagine the level of ignorance about Arabs in general and about Islam? Had there been a fair and balanced media in America, I do not think Iraq war could have happened, or Afghanistan or the total disengagement of this administration in the Peace Process.

Q. What can Arab-Americans can do about media attention?

A. Arabs are to blame too and this was my major message to the Arab world during my latest trip to Cairo and Amman. I strongly suggested that Arabs in the Arab world need to create English-speaking media to address the west from their own perspectives. It is interesting to see how people reacted to such a request: America will not let us! This is what most people told me and they gave me
the example of how Al-Jazeera is being targeted by the US government! It was very easy for me to answer them: well, I still watch Al-Jazeera from my couch in Florida! As for American Arabs, they are to blame too because they should have encouraged their young kids to go into the Arts and into media. Most American Arabs and American Muslim want their children to be physicians and study subjects that can get them good jobs. More of our young need to be in the Arts and in media.


By William Fisher

As human rights organizations expressed skepticism that detainees recently transferred from Guantanamo Bay to Saudi Arabian custody could receive fair trials and escape torture - and a new study charged that the country's textbooks continue to promote intolerance of other religions - the oil-rich Kingdom put the finishing touches on its new Human Rights Commission.

The new commission - which the government characterizes as an independent rights watchdog -- came into existence last October, but the King has just gotten around to naming its board members so it can begin its work. The body's chairman, Turki Ibn Khaled Al-Sudairi, who previously worked as a state minister and Cabinet member, said there will be no women on the commission's board.

In a related development, Human Rights Watch said that the 15 Saudi detainees transferred from Guantanamo Bay to Saudi custody on May 18 "are unlikely to receive a fair trial and are at risk of torture."

"After being deprived of access to justice for years in U.S. military detention, they may face continued incarceration with no legal process in Saudi Arabia," the organization charged.

The 16 will be jailed upon their return to Saudi Arabia. Some may eventually go on trial if there is evidence against them, or they could be released after a judicial review.

An estimated 100 Saudis are still being held at Guantanamo, some of them for more than four years.

Saudi Arabia recently freed three former Guantanamo Bay detainees after they completed their jail sentences, according to the state news agency, SPA.

The three had been handed over by the US last year. At least five other Guantanamo detainees were freed by Saudi Arabia last year after completing jail sentences.

Meanwhile, the Center for Religious Freedom, part of Freedom House, a nonprofit group in Washington that seeks to encourage democracy, released a new study claiming that intolerance continues to pervade religious education in Saudi public schools.

"It is not hate speech here and there, it is an ideology that runs throughout," according to Nina Shea, the center's director and principal author of the report.

Among examples cited in the study: A first-grade student is taught that "Every religion other than Islam is false"; teachers are instructed to "Give examples of false religions, like Judaism, Christianity, paganism, etc."; fifth graders learn "It is forbidden for a Muslim to be a loyal friend to someone who does not believe in God and his prophet, or someone who fights the religion of Islam."

The study is based on translations of 12 history and religion textbooks obtained from parents of Saudi schoolchildren. The textbooks were used last year in Saudi schools and Saudi-run schools in Washington, London, Paris, and several other cities, the report said.

The results, it concludes, reveal systematic "hatred toward 'unbelievers,' " mainly Christians, Jews, Hindus and atheists, but also Shiites and other Muslims who do not believe in the country's orthodox interpretation of Islam.

Saudi authorities say they have been working on revisions to their textbooks for some years. The country's ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, said in a statement, "There are hundreds of books that are being revised to comply with the new requirements, and the process remains ongoing."

The new Saudi human rights body is one of many similar groups organized by Middle East governments in the past few years. Egypt, Jordan and Morocco are among the countries that operate such groups. In Libya, an 'informal' human rights group has been organized by the son of the country's ruler, Mu'ammar Gadhafi.

The new Saudi commission operates under the supervision of the king, and is mandated to "protect human rights and create awareness about them ... in keeping with the provisions of Islamic law." The commission's board includes at least 18 full-time members and six part-time members. The king names the board members.

The commission's chairman reported that his group has so far received 400 petitions from the public on various alleged rights violations. Like most of its counterparts in the Middle East, the commission serves in an advisory role and cannot initiate independent investigations of abuses on its own.

The most recent Human Rights report on Saudi Arabia from the US State Department found that " The government's human rights record remained poor overall with continuing serious problems, despite some progress."

It reported human rights violations including "no right to change the government, infliction of severe pain by judicially sanctioned corporal punishments, beatings and other abuses, arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, denial of fair public trials, exemption from the rule of law for some individuals and lack of judicial independence, political prisoners, infringement of privacy rights, significant restriction of civil liberties -- freedoms of speech and press, assembly, association, and movement, no religious freedom, widespread perception of corruption, lack of government transparency, legal and societal discrimination against women, religious and other minorities, and strict limitations on worker rights. "

In Jordan, according to Amnesty International, "Scores of people were arrested for political reasons, including on suspicion of terrorism. Many were brought to trial before the State Security Court (SSC)... and alleged that they had been tortured to confess."

"There were continuing restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly. Women were still subject to legal and other discrimination and inadequately protected against violence within the family. At least 11 people were sentenced to death and 11 were executed. Bomb attacks, apparently carried out to protest against Jordanian government policy on Iraq, targeted civilians," Amnesty said.

Jordan's government-funded National Centre for Human Rights (NCHR) recently reported it had received 250 reports of torture between June 2003 and December 2004. It also pointed to the difficulties faced by defendants in proving torture allegations. However, in one case, 10 police officers were sentenced to prison terms of up to 30 months after they were convicted of involvement in the death of a prisoner, the NCHR reported.

Egypt's National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR), which is chaired by former United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, has been operating since 2003. It has been widely criticized by Egyptian and international human rights organizations for remaining largely silent in the face of the country's widespread and well documented human rights abuses, including torture and death in detention.

Neil Hicks, Director of International Programs for Human Rights First, told us he is "not surprised" that the NCHR has not been more visible. "They will choose their ground carefully when it comes to confronting the authorities. I am hopeful that when the NCHR reports on the events since the presidential election they will be supportive of the judges, and critical of the government's approach to suppressing protests in Cairo in recent weeks. I also hope they will criticize the renewal of the Emergency Law."

He added that government-sponsored human rights bodies in the Middle East and North Africa "are harmless, and can be beneficial. The Moroccan commission seems to have done some real good. It did very little for years, but eventually had a role in pushing the government towards some important human rights reforms."

The existence of government-sponsored human rights bodies may have helped focus more attention on the subject. But in most countries in the Middle East and North Africa, there appears to be little correlation between the existence of such agencies and the incidence of human rights abuses. The evidence suggests that private non-governmental organizations are largely responsible for human rights abuses being reported and corrected.



By William Fisher

For those gentle readers who've been frittering their time away worrying about gas prices or Iraq or government snooping or the levees in New Orleans, I have good news: It's OK to stop worrying about these minor issues and focus their attention on the transformational event of our century -- The Federal Marriage Amendment.

A reminder for those who have been preoccupied with trivial issues: The Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) mandates that marriage "shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman."

We're not talking about a plain vanilla amendment to some pork-barrel spending bill. The FMA is an amendment to our Constitution. And it happens to be the first amendment ever that takes a freedom away from us.

So this is no community theater performance or second-tier Summer Stock. This is Broadway!

So there's a big incentive to pay attention to this passion play. Aside from its profound importance to the future of our democracy, the FMA has all the elements of great political theater. So you can take a break from your hand-wringing and have some fun while battling the sinister forces of evil.

For one thing, the main players are directly out of Central Casting.

Center stage you'll find Senator Bill Frist, Dr. Frist to you. He's the Republican leader in the Senate, and you'll remember him as the heart transplant guy who diagnosed Terry Schiavo's neurological symptoms by long-distance and expressed his doubts that she was brain-dead. I should remind you he's running for president in 2008, so really needs the support of all those wonderful religious fundamentalists who brought us the Cirque Schiavo last year.

Then there's the author of the amendment, Senator Wayne Allard, who tries his best to look and sound like that guy you'd like to have a beer with. This stalwart champion of Federalism is worried that our Constitution is being amended to reflect a new definition of marriage - not by democratically elected members of Congress, but by unaccountable and unelected judges. He's concerned that "If we in Congress fail to define marriage, the courts ultimately will not hesitate to define it for us." He'd rather see these kinds of decisions made by each state, where legislatures are far more easily manipulated and where there are elected judges, because if they engage in "judicial activism", the voters in their infinite wisdom (and tons of money from the religious right) can get them un-elected.

Then there's the chorus, led by groups like the Religious Coalition for marriage which believes that "the world's great monotheistic religious traditions" and "impeccable social science research" agree that when marriage is "radically redefined" or is "no longer the boundary of sexual activity," the result is damage to individuals, family life and social justice. Well, it's good to know they're putting impeccable social science research to good use. Research probably done by a Federal grant to Bob Jones University.

The chorus in this extravaganza is really big and well trained to sing in perfect unison. It includes such Athenian democrats as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Gary Bauer, James Dobson, and spear-carriers like the leaders of Reform Judaism, Roman Catholic cardinals, leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations.

This is the same cast that forced the president to throw Harriett Myers overboard after he nominated her as "best qualified" to sit on our Supreme Court. The chorus felt she would somehow morph into some kind of flame-throwing liberal and force us all to marry gays and lesbians.

On Saturday, the FMA gala had a little preview in the President's weekly radio address, where he told us, "Ages of experience have taught us that the commitment of a husband and a wife to love and to serve one another promotes the welfare of children and the stability of society. This performance by The Great Sociologist was so totally boffo he got held over for another gig in the White House Rose Garden on Monday.

The FMA will get a vote on the Senate floor sometime this week, and while there are at the moment only 28 senators who support it, Senator Allard says he intends to introduce it every year until he can get the majority he needs to get it passed and send it to the States for ratification. So if you miss this year's performance, you can buy the DVD now or wait until next year.

I suppose there are two ways of looking at this theater of the absurd. One way says Congress is so ineffectual, clueless and wasteful that every minute it spends on trivia is a net gain for the nation.

The other way wonders how, at a time when our country faces so many existential challenges, we could possibly be spending time debating who should marry whom.

Mr. Smith, where the hell are you when we need you?