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?