News in Brief: The Muslim guardian of Israel's daily bread
- The Muslim guardian of Israel's daily bread
For more than a decade, an Arab hotel manager has helped Orthodox Jews to observe the Passover – by buying up forbidden foods. Ben Lynfield reports
Monday, 6 April 2009
When Jaaber Hussein signs an agreement with Israel's Chief Rabbis tomorrow, he will be inking the only Arab-Jewish accord sure to be meticulously observed by both sides. The deal will make him the owner for one week of all bread, pasta and beer in Israel – well a huge amount of it anyway. The contract, signed for the past 12 years by the Muslim hotel food manager, is part of the traditional celebrations ahead of the Jewish holiday of Passover.
Jews are forbidden by biblical injunction to possess leavened bread, or chametz, during Passover and ironically an Arab is needed to properly observe the holiday. The agreement with Mr Hussein offers a way of complying with religious edicts without having to wastefully destroy massive quantities of food.
Through legal acrobatics, the forbidden goods belonging to the Israeli state are simply sold to Mr Hussein for the duration of Passover and then revert back to the state once the holiday is over. Like the government's adherence to the Sabbath and to dietary laws, the ceremony sets Israel apart as a Jewish state that upholds religious traditions.
Mr Hussein, a resident of the Israeli Arab town of Abu Ghosh near Jerusalem, sees nothing odd in the arrangement, believing there are affinities between his Islamic faith and Judaism. He relishes the role the Jewish state has assigned him, one that puts his picture on the front pages of Israeli newspapers year after year.
"I see this as a way to help people with whom I work and live," he said.
Mr Hussein was a natural choice for the ritual because he works in a hotel that stringently observes Jewish dietary laws. He even keeps some of the strictures at home.
"There are many things that are close in the two religions. If not for politics, the religions would get along very well," he explains. One example he cites is the halal slaughtering of meat, which he likens to kosher slaughtering.
Passover, which celebrates the biblical exodus from slavery in Egypt, starts on Wednesday night and lasts for seven days, eight outside Israel.
The reason for the prohibition of leavened bread is, according to the Bible, that the Israelites departed Egypt in such haste that their bread did not have a chance to rise and so they ate the cracker-like unleavened bread known as matza.
Many of their descendants in modern Israel defer to this dictum every spring to the extent that a kind of fermented dough fixation suffuses the country. Housewives become the new slaves, scrubbing and vacuum cleaning to remove every trace of chametz. Religious men scald pots in the streets, making them kosher for the holiday.
For the Orthodox, there can be no half-measures. A single crumb that evades detection could spoil everything for Passover.
Those families who do not want the extra workload simply check in to kosher hotels and escape the ardour. Even secular Israelis stock up on pita bread and put it in their freezers so that they too have enough supplies to survive the week.
Tomorrow, Mr Hussein will put down a cash deposit of $4,800 (some 20,000 shekels or £3,245) for the $150m worth of leavened products he acquires from state companies, the prison service and the national stock of emergency supplies. The deposit will be returned at the end of the holiday, unless he decides to come up with the full value of the products. In that case he could, in theory, keep them all.
At the close of the holiday, the foodstuffs purchased by Mr Hussein revert back to their original owners, who have given the Chief Rabbis the power of attorney over their leavened products. "It's a firm, strong agreement done in the best way," Mr Hussein said.
But Israelis are divided on whether the state should be enforcing Passover. A law introduced by religious parties in 1986 bans the display of bread in public areas, except in those where there is a non-Jewish majority. But a court decision last year said it was legal for restaurants to sell leavened products during Passover on the grounds that they are not public spaces. The move sparked anger among the ultra-Orthodox Jews.
This year, ultra-Orthodox activists in Jerusalem sent warning letters to stores, telling them not to sell bread or pizza because this could bring divine punishment on the city. And the chief rabbinate called for supermarkets to install a computer program that would enable cash registers to detect unleavened products by their bar codes so sales could be stopped. Supermarkets cover over their chametz with papers, but the rabbis are concerned that some customers lift the covers and buy proscribed foods.
Variations of the contract between the Israeli state and Mr Hussein are being signed all over the world between selected non-Jews and rabbis, including those in the UK. The ceremony, like the absence of civil marriages in the country, reflects "some elements of theocracy" in the Israeli state, says Menachem Friedman, a sociologist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "Israel is a unique state – very modern on the one hand but with very strong religious traditional elements on the other. Every government keeps this ritual."
In one final Passover twist, the restaurants of Mr Hussein's town, Abu Ghosh, are gearing up for what is always their busiest week of the year, catering to secular Jews who want to get away from the holiday's dietary strictures.
"It is also nice that you have people who don't keep Passover, who eat leavened bread," Mr Hussein said. "It is good that we are also able to help the people who are not religious."
Despite his goodwill, the chief rabbinate staffers do not seem overly attached to Israel's Arab of Passover. "It is true he is enabling people to celebrate the holiday, but if he didn't do it, there are plenty of other people who would," said Avi Blumenthal, an aide to Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger.
Iraq 'vows to protect' Palestinians
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, has received guarantees that Iraqi leaders will protect Palestinians living in Iraq.
The assurance was given on Sunday during his first visit to the country since the US-led invasion in 2003, which toppled Saddam Hussein from power.
Abbas said that the Iraqi officials he met consider Palestinians living in Iraq to be "part of the Iraqi people, so we believe that they are in safe hands".
He praised Iraq's pledge to support Palestinians, but did not publicly mention reports of human-rights abuses against Palestinians living in Iraq.
"We would like to thank the Iraqi government for its concern about
Palestinians living in Iraq," Abbas said after a meeting with Jalal Talabani, his Iraqi counterpart.
Abbas also met Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, in a trip that marked a major step in improved ties between the Baghdad government and the Palestinian leadership.
Reversal of fortunes
Under Saddam, the more than 34,000 Palestinians living in Iraq enjoyed a privileged status.
Some families of suicide bombers in the occupied Palestinian territories were paid millions of dollars in compensation. But since Saddam's government fell, Palestinians have been attacked, especially by Iraq's armed Shia groups.
Hundreds of Palestinian Sunnis are believed to have been killed in the ensuing sectarian violence.
S aeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the fate of thousands still stranded at refugee camps along the Iraqi-Syrian border, was the main objective of Abbas's visit.
The UN estimates that more than 2,000 Palestinians remain stranded in desperate conditions, unable to return to Iraq or cross into neighbouring countries.
Since the war, the number of Palestinians living in Iraq has dropped by nearly 50 per cent, according to the UN.
"Palestinians in Iraq have been forcibly evicted, arbitrarily arrested, abusively detained, publicly slandered, kidnapped and killed," a UN report on refugees in Iraq in April 2008 said.
Gulf crisis forces Indian construction workers home from Dubai
Fishermen who gambled on building boom join masses on move due to downturn
Maseeh Rahman in Sakthikulangara The Guardian, Monday 6 April 2009
Sakthikulangara means "the coast of strength" in the local language. But the hundreds of migrant workers in this fishing village in India's southern state of Kerala who have been forced to return home from the Gulf in recent months due to the global economic crisis have never felt more vulnerable.
Everyday they gather in an open ground behind the unusually grand village church, modelled on St Peter's Basilica, for a game of rummy. None can afford to wager money; but the card game provides an opportunity to meet others, exchange news from the Gulf, and keep spirits from flagging.
All the villagers had taken a big gamble in the past when they sold their fishing boats, borrowed money at usurious rates, and went off to work on construction projects in the Gulf.
But the building boom stalled last year - according to Morgan Stanley, real estate projects worth as much as £263bn have been delayed or scrapped in the United Arab Emirates. The knock-on effects are being felt across south Asia, which has provided formidable legions of labour to the emirates.
"Around 1,500 to 2,000 fishermen from Sakthikulangara were employed in prestigious sea reclamation projects in the UAE, such as Palm Island or the World," said John Cyril, a local businessman assisting the Gulf returnees. "Due to the recession, almost 90% are back."
The return of labourers from Dubai to India is just one manifestation of a mass movement of people who have lost work because of the global recession and have to return home. China is seeing vast numbers leave industrial cities for the countryside as factory closures sweep through urban centres. Several other southeast Asian countries are experiencing similar movements, as well as witnessing the return of some of their now-unemployed expatriates.
The concern is not just that mass unemployment will lead to unrest, but that local economies will suffer as remittances from expatriates dry up.
About two million people from Kerala work abroad, almost 90% of whom are in the Gulf and in Saudi Arabia. Many are poor, semi-skilled labourers who have taken loans of up to £2,000, often from moneylenders, to pay recruitment agents for overseas jobs. They work 12-hour days, live without their families in harsh conditions, earn between £500-£1,000 a month, and send most of the money home.
Every year migrant workers remit some £5.5bn to Kerala, money that has helped transform the state, and metamorphose places like Sakthikulangara. The first time the coastal village saw a rise in its fortunes was in the 1950s, when a Norwegian aid project helped modernise traditional fishing. But as the seafood business dried up due to overfishing in the 1990s, the Gulf provided a much bigger bonanza. Testimony to this are the brightly painted concrete houses that have replaced the traditional thatched dwellings in the village.
"We can always find some work here, but to improve our lives, to build a nice house, we have to go to the Gulf," said Peter Benziger, who was forced to return last month after working for four years as a construction worker.
The communist-led state government in Kerala is deeply concerned at the sudden influx of its own, and has announced a £15m rehab package for returning workers. "We could end up with half-a-million coming back in the months to come," finance minister Thomas Isaac told India Today weekly.
Some experts are discounting a massive exodus of Indian workers from the Gulf, but are warning that the replacement rate for workers will fall. "There's been a 50% drop in passenger traffic to the Gulf since December," said KV Muralidharan, president of the Kerala Association of Travel Agents. "Newspaper ads by recruitment agents have also dropped by half."
The World Bank predicts a 5% fall in remittances worldwide this year. In 2008, it ranked India as the top recipient with $45bn in remittances.
"The retrenchment is really bad only in the construction industry," said KV Shamsudheen, who runs a workers' welfare trust in the Gulf. "But the UAE, especially Dubai, has a habit of converting a crisis into opportunity, and I feel they'll do it again."
The fishermen of Sakthikulangara haven't given up hope, either. "I'm going back after Easter, as my Gulf visa is still valid," said Lenin Aloysius, his name testifying to the village's mixed Catholic-communist heritage. "If I don't get a good Gulf job then I can't give a good education to my two sons, which is my first priority," he said.
Aloysius worked for two years as a dredging helper in Dubai until he was asked to go home in November. Ever since, like the other returnees, he has worked on a fishing boat earning £3 a day. But like the others, he expects an economic revival in the Gulf soon.
Benziger said: "Everybody standing here believes this recession will end soon, at the most in six months' time."
Patrick Cockburn: Can Obama turn rhetoric into the reality of peace with the Muslim world?
The start of the Iraq war in 2003 marked a crucial break between the US and almost all the states of the region. "None of Iraq's neighbours, absolutely none, were pleased by the American occupation of Iraq," says the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari. Long-term US allies like Turkey astonished the White House by refusing to allow US troops to use its territory to invade Iraq.
Barack Obama, who made his first official visit to the country yesterday, is now trying to disengage from Iraq without appearing to scuttle or leave anarchy behind.
He is trying to win back old allies, and, as he made clear in a speech in Ankara on Monday, to end the confrontation between the US and Islam which was president Bush's legacy.
It is not easy for Mr Obama to reverse the tide of anti-Americanism or bring to an end the wars which Mr Bush began. For all the Iraqi government's claim that life is returning to normal in Baghdad the last few days have seen a crescendo of violence. The day before the President, arrived six bombs exploded in different parts of Baghdad, killing 37 people.
And as muchas Mr Obama would like to treat the Iraq war as ancient history, the US is still struggling to extricate itself. The very fact that the Democratic President had to arrive in Iraq by surprise, as George Bush and Tony Blair invariably did, for security reasons, shows that the conflict is refusing to go away.
The Iraqi Prime Minister and President remain holed up in the Green Zone most of the time. The American President could not fly into the Green Zone by helicopter because of bad weather but the airport road is still unsafe and Baghdad remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world. The Iraqi political landscape too was permanently altered by the US invasion and it will be difficult to create a stable Iraqi state which does not depend on the US. Opinion polls in Iraq show that most Iraqis believe that it is the US and not their own government which is in control of their country.
One change which is to Mr Obama's advantage is that the American media has largely stopped reporting the conflict because they no longer have the money to do so and a majority of Americans think the war was won. But the danger for the President is that if there is a fresh explosion in Iraq, he may be blamed for throwing away a victory that was won by his predecessor.
The rhetoric with which the US conducts its diplomacy is easier to change than facts on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan. Mr Obama's speech to the Turkish parliament in Ankara was a carefully judged bid to reassure the Muslim world that the US is not at war with Islam.
Everything he said was in sharp contrast to George Bush's bellicose threats post 9/11 about launching a "crusade" and to the rhetoric of neo-conservatives attacking "Islamo-fascism" or claiming that there was a "clash of civilisations."
The leaders of states with Muslim majorities appreciate the different tone of US pronouncements, but privately wonder how far Mr Obama will be able to introduce real change.
Turkish students at a meeting with Mr Obama in Istanbul yesterday voiced scepticism that American actions in future would be much different from what they were under Mr Bush. Reasonably enough, Mr Obama replied that he should be given time and "moving the ship of state is a slow process." But he also cited the US withdrawal from Iraq as a sign that he would match actions to words.
Istanbul, on the boundaries of Europe and Asia, is a good place for the US leader to declare a more conciliatory attitude towards Islam. The city is filled with grandiose monuments to Christianity and Islam, though religious tolerance was more in evidence under the Ottoman empire than since the foundation of the modern Turkish state in 1923. Mr Obama paid visits to the great Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia and was shown the splendours of the Blue Mosque by turbaned clerics.
But the women students wearing short skirts and without headscarves asking Mr Obama questions in fluent English yesterday give a misleading impression of the balance between the secular and the religious in modern-day Turkey.
The reality is that secularism is dying away in Turkey's rural hinterland and is on the retreat even in Istanbul itself. Butchers selling pork are few compared to 20 years ago. Obtaining alcohol is quietly being made more difficult, except for foreign tourists, by high taxes on wine and expensive liquor licenses for restaurants.
The old middle class, particularly in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir may be resolute in their defence of the secular state. But the so-called "Anatolian Tigers", the new companies which have led Turkey's spectacular economic growth, are generally owned and run by more conservative families where the women wear headscarves.
"Socially Turkey is becoming far more Islamic," said one expert on Turkey yesterday, "although the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is moving cautiously."
Mr Obama's effort to make a U-turn in American policy towards the Islamic world will ultimately depend on how far he changes US policy towards Israel and the Palestinians, the occupation of Iraq, the confrontation with Iran and Syria and the war in Afghanistan.
The Iranians, for instance, note that despite Mr Obama's friendlier approach to them the US official in Washington in charge of implementing sanctions against them is a hold-over from the Bush administration.
The American confrontation with Islam post 9/11 always had more to do with opposition to foreign intervention and occupation than it did with cultural differences; the most ideologically religious Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia supported the US and it is doubtful how far al-Qa'ida fighters were motivated primarily by religious fanaticism.
The chief US interrogator in Iraq, Major Mathew Alexander, who is credited with finding out the location of the al-Qa'ida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, says that during 1,300 interrogations he supervised, he came across only one true ideologue. He is quoted as saying that "I listened time and time again to foreign fighters, and Sunni Iraqis, state that the No 1 reason they had decided to pick up arms and join al-Qa'ida was the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the authorised torture and abuse at Guantanamo Bay."
This diagnosis by Major Alexander is confirmed by the history of Islamic fundamentalism across the Muslim world over the past 30 years.
It was the success of the Iranian revolution against the Shah in 1978/79 which began an era when political Islam was seen as a threat by the West, but Ayatollah Khomeini's appeal to Iranians always had a strong strain of nationalism and his exiling by the Shah in 1964 was because of his vocal opposition to extra-territorial rights for US military personnel in Iran.
The success of political Islam over secular nationalism in the Arab world has largely been because of the former's ability to resist the enemies of the community or the state. In Egypt the nationalism of Nasser was discredited by humiliating defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. In Iraq, for all his military bravado, Saddam Hussein was a notably disastrous military leader. All the military regimes espousing nationalism and secularism in the Arab world began or ended up turning into corrupt and brutal autocracies. In contrast, political Islam has been able to go some way towards delivering its promises of defending the community.
In Lebanon, Hizbollah guerrillas were able to successfully harass Israeli forces in the 1990s where Yasser Arafat's commanders had abandoned their men and fled.
In Gaza this year, Hamas was able to portray themselves as the one Palestinian movement committed to resisting Israel.
In Iraq, al-Qa'ida got nowhere until it could present itself as the opposition to the US occupation and as an ally, though a supremely bigoted and murderous one, of Iraqi nationalism.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban has the advantage of fighting against foreign occupation.
Secularism in the Arab world and in Afghanistan, on the other hand, has the problem that it is seen as being at the service of foreign intervention. It is why secularism and nationalism is ultimately stronger in Turkey than it is in almost all other Islamic countries.
Kemal Ataturk and the Turkish nationalists were successfully defended the Turkish heartlands from foreign attack between 1915 and 1922. This gave secularism and nationalism a credibility and a popularity in Turkey which they never had in Iraq, Egypt or Syria.
Mr Obama's aim of ending the confrontation between the US and the Muslim world is both easier and more difficult than it looks. It is easier because the confrontation is not primarily over religion or clashing cultures. But the confrontation is over real issues such as the fate of the Palestinians, the future of Iraq and the control of Afghanistan. And even if Mr Obama wanted to change the US political relationship with Israel, it is not clear that he has any more political strength at home than George Bush had to do so.
If these concrete issues are not resolved then America's confrontation with the Muslim world may remain as confrontational and difficult as it was under Mr Bush.
Indonesians vote for new parliament
Indonesians have begun voting for a new parliament in elections that will also decide who qualifies to run in the country's presidential race in July.
Despite tight security as polls opened at 7am on Thursday (22:00 GMT Wednesday) in the eastern province of Papua, violence left at least six people dead, Indonesian police said.
Thursday's parliamentary election is only the third democratic vote since Suharto was pushed from power in 1998 amid student protests.
More than 13,000 candidates are competing for 132 seats in the upper house of parliament and 560 seats in the lower house.
Amid boycott calls as tensions over a separatist movement in Papua have increased in recent weeks, about 80 suspected separatists attacked a police post in the provincial capital, Jayapura, with arrows, machetes and spears early on Thursday morning, said Major-General Bagus Ekodanto, the local police chief.
Attackers also stabbed several motorcycle taxi drivers and burned an oil depot and property at a state university, he added.
But by midmorning the situation appeared calm, with voters forming long lines to cast ballots.
The other potential trouble spot is Aceh province in the country's western-most island of Sumatra, where a three-decade separatist war ended in 2005.
Algeria's Bouteflika re-elected
Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria's president, has won his third five-year term in a presidential election marred by allegations of fraud and attacks at polling stations.
Bouteflika, 72, who ran against five candidates without much political clout, won the election with more than 90 per cent of the vote.
His nearest rival, Louisa Hannoune, a Trotskyist candidate, only won 4.22 per cent of the votes.
Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni, Algeria's interior minister, said that more than 74 per cent of Algerians cast ballots, including 65 per cent in the capital, Algiers, despite boycotts by opposition parties.
"The elections took place despite some incidents and attempts to disrupt them. This is a victory for the Algerian nation as it builds democracy," he said.
The large turnout suggests that most of Algeria's 34 million citizens did not follow calls from the opposition, led by two left-leaning secular parties, to boycott the election.
However, in Kabylie province, east of Algiers, very few people turned out to vote, the Reuters news agency said.
Bouteflika was only able to run for office again because legislators recently abolished term limits, a move that could allow him to serve for life.
The Front of Socialist Forces, one of the opposition parties that boycotted the vote, has accused the authorities of inflating the turnout figure.
"(There was) a real tsunami of massive fraud which reached an industrial scale," the party said in a statement.
Bouteflika, who is directly in control of the country's large military and security forces, has demonstrated his domination of Algeria's political world.
Supporters highlight his success in bringing Algeria back to stability after the civil war in the 1990s which killed about 150,000 people.
"I was a little surprised by the high turnout in provinces that used to boycott (elections)," Mohamed Lagab, professor of political science at Algiers University, said.
"The high turnout means that the supporters of the boycott have neither political nor social influence."
But a London-based writer on North African issues told Al Jazeera that Bouteflika may have wanted to show the other opposition parties that he is the only one who can sort out Algeria's problems.
"I can't remember when any dictator won that percentage in votes," Mohammad Bin Madani, editor of The Maghreb Review, said.
"Everyone knew he would win because he has the state machine behind him - money, the state organisation, which none of the other parties have."
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi: If you think Dubai is bad, just look at your own country
I recently figured that if British journalists such as Johann Hari (Tuesday, 7 April) who come to Dubai don't send back something sensationalist it won't get printed and they won't get paid. After all, sleaze sells.
I called a British journalist friend of mine and said: "I'm going to write an article about London, the same way your compatriots write about Dubai." By the time I was back at home I had come to my senses, it's not fair to London, a city so dear to my heart, or Londoners to be judged by the actions of a few. It's easy to generalise about a country when figures are manipulated to sensationalise and sell papers.
Say for example that I had written an article that states that, in wealthy first world Britain there are 380,000 homeless people, many of them mentally ill, starving and abandoned in sub-zero temperatures to live on the streets.
Say then that I wrote an article that states that Britain, the so called "jail capital of Western Europe" sentenced in 2006 alone a staggering additional 12,000 women to prison and that up to seven babies a month are born in jail where they spend their crucial first months.
I could have written an article that stated Britain, victor in the Second World War, had given refuge to 400 Nazi war criminals, with all but one of them getting away with it. Or one stating that the number of Indians who died while serving the British Empire, to build your Tube and grow your tea, is so large it is simply unquantifiable by any historian.
Or say I write an article about the 2.5 million-strong Indian volunteer army who served Britain during the Second World War, where 87,000 of them died for their occupiers' freedom and yet until recently those who survived continued to be discriminated against in pay and pension.
I could have written an article that stated that, in civilised Britain, one in every 23 teenage girls had an abortion and in 2006 more than 17,000 of the 194,000 abortions carried out in England and Wales involved girls below the age of 18.
I could have written an article stating that Britain, the human rights champion, not wanting to get its hands dirty, had resorted to secretly outsourcing torture to Third World states under the guise of rendition by allowing up to 170 so called CIA torture flights to use its bases. Or that Britain's MI5 unlawfully shared with the CIA secret material to interrogate suspects and "facilitate interviews" including cases where the suspects were later proven to be innocent.
I could have written an article that stated that the Britain of family values is the only country in the EU that recruits child soldiers as young as 16 into its Army and ships them off battlegrounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, putting it in the same league as African dictatorships and Burma.
I could have written an article that states that Britain either recently did or has yet to sign the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict or the UN's International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families .
I could have highlighted the fact that liberal Britain is responsible for the physical and racial abuse of hundreds of failed asylum-seekers at the hands of private security guards during their forced removal from the country .
I could have written about the countless cases of slave-like working conditions of immigrant labours such as the 23 Chinese workers who lost their lives in 2004 as they harvested cockles in the dangerous rising tides in Morecambe Bay.
I could have written about how mortality rates from liver diseases due to alcohol abuse have declined in Europe in recent decades but in Britain the rate trebled in the same period reflecting deep societal failures.
I could have written about how in "Big Brother" Britain maltreatment of minors is so serious that one in 10, or an estimated one million children a year, suffer physical, sexual, emotional abuse or neglect.
Or that according to Oxfam 13.2 million people in the UK live in poverty – a staggering 20 per cent of the population in the sixth richest nation in the world.
I could have written all that, but out of respect for Britain, I decided not to. Because when you stitch together a collection of unconnected facts taken out of context, you end up with a distorted and inaccurate picture: something that Britain's Dubai-bashers would do well to learn.
The writer is a journalist based in Dubai
Black Imam Shows Islamic Equality
CAIRO — With a deep baritone voice while reciting the Qur'an, Sheikh Adil Kalbani, the black imam of the Grand Mosque in Makkah, Islam's holiest shrine, gives an example of equality in the Islamic faith.
"Any qualified individual, no matter what his color, no matter where from, will have a chance to be a leader, for his good and his country's good," Kalbani told The New York Times on Saturday, April 11.
Credited for his angelic recitation of the Noble Quran, Kalbani, 49, was chosen by Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz to lead millions of Muslim worshippers in the Grand Mosque.
"The king is trying to tell everybody that he wants to rule this land as one nation, with no racism and no segregation."
Born in Riyadh in 1940, Kabani is the son of a poor immigrant from the United Arab Emirates.
After finishing his high school, he took a job with Saudi Arabian Airlines while attending night classes at King Saud University on religion and memorization of the Qur'an.
In 1984, he passed the government exam to become an imam, and worked briefly at the mosque in the Riyadh airport.
Four years later, he won a more prominent position as the imam of the famous King Khalid mosque in Riyadh.
It was only last September when he woke up to a phone call from the Grand Mosque administrator to apprise off the King's selection to him.
Since then, the black Muslim imam has been half-jokingly dubbed the "Saudi Obama."
Kalbani said that Islam treats all people on equal footing, regardless of their color or race.
"Our Islamic history has so many famous black people," he said.
The Muslim imam said that Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) had many black companions.
"It is not like the West."
Islam preaches equality among all people and teaches followers that every member of human race has been accorded honor and dignity by Allah Almighty.
In practice, Prophet Muhammad had among his closest Companions Salman the Persian, Suhaib the Roman, and Bilal the Ethiopian.
Two of the three Companions, Salman and Bilal, were ex-slaves who were liberated after embracing Islam.
Bilal was chosen by the Prophet as the first muezzin to prayer, a position coveted by many.
Kalbani is also credited for his open-minded views, reflecting the general evolution of Saudi thinking over the last two decades.
"Some people in this country want everyone to be a carbon copy," he said.
"This is not my way of thinking. You can learn from the person who is willing to criticize, to give a different point of view."
Recalling the moment he was introduced to lead millions of Muslim worshipers at the Grand Mosque last Ramadan, Kalbani remembers the great burden put on his shoulder.
"To recite before thousands of people, this is no problem for me," he said.
"But the place, its holiness, is so different from praying anywhere else.
"In that shrine, there are kings, presidents and ordinary people, all being led in prayer by you as imam.
"It gives you a feeling of honor, and a fear of almighty God."
Obama Mulls Somalia Strikes
CAIRO — Seeing it as a potential threat, the Barack Obama administration is considering options in dealing with a hardline Somali group, including strikes on its training camps on Somali territories.
"There is increasing concern about what terrorists operating in Somalia might do," a US counterterrorism official told the Washington Post on Saturday, April 11.
Officials said administration officials are mulling several options on how to deal with Al-Shabab group, including mounting financial and diplomatic pressures.
Washington has not shied away from the missile strikes on the group's training camps, according to the officials.
Senior administration officials say hundreds of fighters, including foreigners, have been trained in Shebab's camps.
FBI and intelligence officials have said that at least 20 young Somali American men have left the US for Somalia to train with Shabab.
"We do not have a credible body of reporting right now to lead us to believe that these American recruits are being trained and instructed to come back to the United States for terrorist acts," Philip Mudd, the No. 2 official at the FBI's National Security Branch, has told the Congress.
"Yet, obviously, we remain concerned about that and watchful for it."
Shabab has emerged during its fighting against the western-backed interim government and its Ethiopian allies who invaded Somalia late in 2006 to topple the Islamic Courts.
The group, who carried out an Iraq-style guerrilla war against Ethiopian troops, was later blacklisted by the former Bush administration as a terrorist group.
Shebab has rejected the election of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed as Somalia's president, describing his government as an illegitimate "puppet" administration put together by foreign powers.
However, the Obama administration is dragging foot on taking a swift move to undertake sensitive operations in countries where the US is not at war.
"[They are] walking slowly," one senior military official said.
"And for the players with continuity, the frustration continues to grow."
US officials recognize that most of Shabab fighters have been recruited for nationalistic reasons rather than an interest in global terror.
Mudd said al-Shabab is similar to other nationalists movements in places such as Chechnya and Bosnia that have drawn fighters from abroad.
"They're accepting non-Somali fighters. . . . I think it adds to their credibility. It's a public relations bonanza for them," he said.
Somalis traditionally view Ethiopia, a Christian military giant across the border, as a rival.
Ethiopia sent troops into Somalia several times between 1992 and 1998 to attack Islamic movements.