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News in Brief: Burkini Stirs Row in Egypt

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  • Zafar Khan
    Burkini Stirs Row in Egypt http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?c=Article_C&cid=1251021333418&pagename=Zone-English-News/NWELayout The impression
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 5, 2009
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      Burkini Stirs Row in Egypt


      The impression Omayma Mansour got from her last visit to Egypt was that Islam could also be unwelcome even in one of its lands.
      The Egyptian-American mother of two was staying at the Moevenpick in El Gouna resort in Hurghada when she received a shock that might take her months to recover or understand.

      Seeing her youngest son, 2, struggling in the swimming pool, she went into the pool with her burkini, a waterproof swimsuit that covers most of the body, to help her kid.

      Mansour was immediately asked by a swimming pool attendant to exit the pool.

      The man told her she was not allowed to use the swimming pool with her burkini, an outfit consisting of a headscarf, a tunic and trousers.

      "The policy to ban veiled women from the pool is discriminatory to all practicing Muslim women," Mansour told IslamOnline.net.

      "This is definitely a violation of our religious freedom as Muslim women."

      Having endured this humiliation, Mansour headed straight to the office of the hotel manager but got nothing back expect what she calls "nonsensical excuses".

      "I think people at these hotels view it [the Islamic dress] as perhaps low-class," she said.

      "So they don't want that image portrayed in their five-star resorts."

      The burkini, derived from the words burqa (a head-to-ankle dress) and bikini, resembles a wetsuit with built-in hood.

      The three-piece covers the whole body except for the feet, hands and face.

      The full-length lycra suit is not too figure hugging to embarrass, but is tight enough to allow its wearer to swim freely.

      Around 90 percent of Egypt's 80-million population are Muslim.


      Mansour, the American-Egyptian woman, is not the only one to have endured such inconvenience because of her Islamic dress..

      Some hotel workers told her that some of their colleagues lost their jobs because they allowed burkini-wearing women into the swimming pool.

      This led many to suspect an organized campaign against Islamic dress codes, particularly at hotels and resorts frequented by foreigners.

      Nadia El-Awadi, an Egyptian journalist, had a similar experience when she went to Ain Sukhna, a famous resort about 200 kilometers east of the capital Cairo.

      As she entered one of the hotels, she was given papers to sign. But she noticed that one of the papers stated that Islamic swimsuits were not allowed in the swimming pool.

      “I couldn't understand what was happening," El-Awadi, 40, told IOL.

      "I felt so sad about it. Nobody should tell anybody what to wear. What to wear and what not to wear is everybody's personal freedom."

      El-Awadi had to take her luggage and her two children out of the hotel again to seek another place where she could enjoy swimming while being covered.

      She discovered that was a really hard catch.

      It took the tour operator who organized her journey a long time to find a place that allows covered Muslims into its swimming pools.

      "How can this happen in Egypt?" she asked.

      Some suspect an organized campaign against Islamic dress codes, particularly at hotels and resorts frequented by foreigners, is in full swing.

      "Listen, we don't have any problem with Islamic swimsuits, but the problem is that some of these suits contain materials not good for the skin of their users," the Egyptian manager of a five-star hotel told IOL, requesting anonymity.

      "These materials aren't hygienic."

      But the argument is refuted by those who wear the burkini.

      “This whole notion that long swimsuits are ‘not hygienic’ is quite offensive and absolutely absurd,” insists Mansour, the American-Egyptian woman.

      “The Islamic swimsuit I wore was composed of a lycra, waterproof, polyester material just as any other swimsuit is.”


      Manal Youssef, a researcher in Islamic laws, believes such incidents best reflect the clash between secularism and religiosity in Egypt, home to al-Azhar, the highest seat of religious learning in the Sunni world.

      "What happens in this regard shows the clash between secular and religious Egypt at its strongest," Youssef told IOL.

      "The government doesn't tell people what to wear and what not to wear, but at the same time it leaves the owners of hotels and private places to do whatever they want with their clients."

      Egypt has not officially acted against the burkini, the hijab or the niqab.

      But some officials, including those linked to the state-run religious establishment, have spoken against them.

      Some say hotel and resort owners in Egypt, a country that boasts beautiful beaches on both the Mediterranean and the Red seas, shun the Islamic dress to satisfy foreigners who come in their millions every year.

      "Hotel officials do this to please the non-Muslims who come to their hotels,” contends El-Awadi.

      “But at the same time, they allow these people to go topless to the swimming pools without getting angry."

      Last year, Egypt received more than 11 million tourists.

      Tourism earned the country $10.5 billion in the fiscal year through June, according to the Central Bank figures.

      The strange thing though is that while Muslim Egypt does this, many Western countries allow Muslim women to use swimming pools while wearing the burkini.

      Earlier this week, authorities in the Norwegian city of Oslo allowed Muslim women to use municipal swimming pools with their burkinis.

      The Muslim swimming dress is also allowed in Australia, Britain and the United States.

      “Equality Taxi” for India Muslim Women


      Shanno Begum, a 32-year-old Muslim widow, is impatiently looking to carve out a living by breaking into the male preserve of New Delhi taxi drivers.
      "My husband died three years ago. I had three children and my parents-in-law to support,” Shanno told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Friday, September 4.

      Shanno signed up last year for a program to launch New Delhi’s first radio taxi-service run by women.

      “As a private nurse, I used to earn 4,500 rupees (90 dollars) a month for a 24/7 job,” she said.

      "Now, I will earn the same amount working eight hours and can devote more time to my children."

      The program, the brainchild of Meenu Vadera of the Azad Foundation, a voluntary group, aims to help disadvantaged women to be financially independent.

      "The goal is to establish a company with the women as stakeholders,” Vadera said.

      “This way it does not look like a charity but a business run collectively."

      The female cabbies service is planned to start operation ahead of the October 2010 Commonwealth Games.

      "We have trained one batch of nine women and the training of another batch of 11 is underway," said Vadera, who aims to have five taxis on the road by February and a fleet of 20 by the time the Games begin.

      New Delhi ranks the worst among Indian cities in terms of violence against women.

      More than 4,300 cases of violence against women were registered in 2007-08, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

      To ensure their safety, the woman drivers have received some basic self-defense instruction as part of their training.

      Supplementing these are classes in grooming, etiquette and spoken English.

      "I was looking at a program that would combine a livelihood for the girls with the idea of having women cab-drivers who will provide safe transport to working women in Delhi," said Vadera.


      Many Indian women see the ambitious program a way out of their social and economic dead end.

      "I jumped at the idea," said Rita, 24, who fled her family house after suffering seven years of abuse at the hands of her parents-in-law.

      "It would give me independence and the ability to support myself."

      For Ekta, a 28-year-old mother of four, the taxi project opened doors that she had thought closed to her as an illiterate woman in a conservative family.

      "Persuading my husband to let me work was very difficult," she said.

      "Now I feel empowered as if I have my own identity other than a wife and mother."

      The project, however, has not been without its problems.

      For instance, the commercial licence necessary to drive a taxi-cab requires a year-long wait.

      "I underestimated the gender bias," Vadera said, citing repeated questions from potential employers as to whether women could be trusted to drive safely and turn up to work on time.

      "Despite my assurances, they decide against women drivers. This is despite the fact that records show women are more careful than male drivers -- they obey traffic rules, don't drink and drive, don't get into brawls on the road."

      Heena Khan, 22, is discouraged by the delays in issuing her driving licenses.

      "It is disheartening that after all this hard work, we still can't get jobs because we are women,” said Khan, who has 10-member dependent family.

      “I am the sole breadwinner and no work means no food."

      Libya: Middle class are all smiles as retail therapy entices Gaddafi's people


      Rift with Karzai worsens as 95 perish in Nato air strike


      Western forces were engulfed in bitter controversy yesterday after Nato air strikes on two oil tankers hijacked by the Taliban in northern Afghanistan led to carnage with a fireball killing 95 people, dozens of them civilians.

      Most of those who perished were burned to death. Nato initially insisted that all the dead were Taliban insurgents but later, after angry protests from residents and officials, they acknowledged there had been civilian deaths.

      The attack at the village of Haji Aman, around seven miles from Kunduz, could not have come at a more volatile time in Afghanistan, with intense anger over civilian casualties and an intensifying clash between President Hamid Karzai and Washington over the disputed national election. The incumbent President has repeatedly complained about civilian deaths from Nato air strikes.

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      Tensions high after Urumqi protest


      From Windmills to Minarets


      I usually don't do this. That is, I usually don't take this much time to tell anyone how I converted to Islam,or should I say, how I came back to Islam.

      See, when people find out you've become a Muslim, you always get the same questions over and over again. How did your parents react to it? Were you in love with a Muslim woman? Are you accepted within the Islamic community as a convert?

      But most of all, people ask me: Why did you convert to Islam?

      I found it shocking that even Muslims ask me why I converted to Islam. "Well, this is the one true religion, remember?" is my usual reply. I did not crash my car into a tree and almost die, I did not have a moment when I saw the light. I don't even know exactly when I became a Muslim.

      Some people are surprised, but I wasn't even looking for God. I wasn't looking for a reason in life. I wasn't looking for a purpose.

      Actually, I was just looking for a book. I walked into a bookstore not knowing what I would buy. This must have been somewhere in the year 2003 or 2004. I like to read, with a special interest in the books sold in the store somewhere between "recent history", "philosophy" and "sociology".

      That's where a green book caught my eye.. It was called "Islam; Values, Principles and Reality". I held it in my hand, looked at it, and realized I knew quite a few Muslims but had no idea at all what they believed in.

      Meanwhile, Islam is all over the news and seems to influence both internal and foreign affairs. I decided to buy the book and see what this religion is all about. I walked to the counter and bought the book, totally unaware of the four and a half year journey I had just embarked on, which would lead straight up to my Shahadah.

      Before I started to read about Islam, I already had some negative associations related to this religion in mind. For example, I was wondering how a practicing Muslim could ever think he is a good pious person while at the same time he's oppressing his own wife.

      Or, for instance, I would wonder why Muslims would worship a cubic stone in Makkah while statues or buildings have no power and cannot help anyone.

      I could not understand why Muslims were so intolerant against other religions instead of simply saying that everybody believes in the same God. With this in mind, I started reading.

      After the first book came a second one. After the second came a third, and so on. After a few years, I had read quite some books on Islam and was very surprised. I found out that almost everything that I thought was a part of Islam and which I opposed to, was actually opposed by Islam.

      It turned out that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)had said that one can see how good a believer is by the way he treats his wife. I found out that Muslims don't worship the Kabah, they rather oppose worshipping statues or the like.

      I found that the Islamic civilization in all of its history — except maybe the most recent ages — was the best example of religious tolerance on the face of the planet.

      I did not have to be convinced of most of the things Islam tells us to do or how to behave, since I found a lot of basic rules I already agreed upon before learning about Islam. I read my own opinion on a lot of subjects, but the books kept on saying "this is Islam".

      Not much dawah was done in my surroundings back then. Well, not proactive anyway. The help I got was what I asked for when talking to people around me. This doesn't say everything about how dawah is organized in the Netherlands, I just didn't have the people around me who were very much into this.

      So when Ramadan came and I decided to give it a try — no book can tell you how it truly feels — I went to my Muslim co-workers and told them I would fast with them. I bought a Quran and found the 30-day schedule on the Internet.

      When I told the others about reading the full Quran and fasting in Shawwal [the lunar month after Ramadan], some of them had never heard of this or done it themselves. I brought milk and dates to work and explained to them how this was a sunnah to follow.

      I told them that if they didn't read their daily 1/30th part of the Quran, I didn’t have anyone to ask my questions from. So we went along as a group. Their mothers or wives cooked meals we ate at work, so I experienced some new food as well.

      I learned a lot that Ramadan, and so did the others. And we had a lot of fun. My first Eid turned out to be a funeral, but for the rest it was a great month.

      After the month of Ramadan, I went to the mosque to pay my zakah. I figured that giving money to a good cause is a correct thing to do, so not being a Muslim was no reason for me not to pay.

      This is where I first met the treasurer of the mosque in my hometown. He asked me if I was a Muslim. "No sir, I am not a Muslim," was my reply, "but I did fast the month of Ramadan."

      With white women converting, OKC area now houses five mosques


      As Oklahoma’s Muslim community observes the fast of Ramadan this month, they are also taking time to reflect on the growth of their community statewide.

      There are currently five mosques in the Oklahoma City metro area, including one in Norman and one in Edmond. Some of the growth has come from immigrants from south and central Asia as well as the Middle East, but there has been a surprising surge in converts from two other demographics: white females and Hispanic families.

      US Muslims Unite Against Malaria


      America’s most prominent imams and Muslim leaders are uniting in an extraordinary one-day gathering to raise awareness and funds in support of Islamic Relief’s “Bite the Bug” campaign to combat and eradicate malaria in Western Africa.
      “We need to put this on the radar of the community,” Tariq Subhani, event chairperson and president of United for Change, a new Muslim umbrella organization, told IslamOnline.net.

      Billed as a “historical event” and a “turning point in Islamic work in the US,” the one-day conference will be held on Saturday, September 5, just outside of Washington, D.C.

      It is the brainchild of Imam Zaid Shakir, of the Zaytuna Institute in California, who took an eight-day trip with Islamic Relief to see their work to eradicate malaria in Mali last March.

      “Seeing the work of Islamic Relief, how they’re filling the gaps and empowering the Muslims in sub-Sahara Africa to take charge of their health and their selves, to see how they’re building a healthcare infrastructure--it was truly inspiring,” Imam Shakir told IOL.

      He came back from Africa convinced that an issue like malaria couldn’t be tackled by one group or individual.

      He immediately approached all 11 major Muslim organizations in the US, including Islamic Society of Northern America (ISNA), Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Islamic Relief and the Zaytuna Institute, to come together in a unified effort for this cause.

      “I knew it was possible to bring these different groups together for a higher cause – to rally around malaria,” asserted Imam Shakir.

      “We pray that Allah helps us to raise the consciousness of Muslims about the devastating effects of malaria.”

      Prominent religious leaders like Hamza Yusuf, Imam Siraj Wahaj, Imam Mohammad Masjid, Dr. Fatima Jackson and many others will be speaking about the need for unity and the battle Muslims must wage against malaria.

      In the evening after the conference ends, there will be a special iftaar dinner and taraweeh prayers with all the speakers.

      With a capacity for nearly 3,000, tickets for the event are selling briskly, Subhani said, expecting a rush of sales on the day before and event.

      He hopes the Ramadan spirit of giving and the drive to help fellow Muslims will make people more receptive to the message.

      “We can gain a multitude of benefits by attending and supporting this cause,” he said. “The blessings are countless.”

      Funds raised from the event will go in part to Islamic Relief for their work to eradicate malaria in Africa.

      Xinjiang in Security Lockdown


      Chinese authorities on Thursday, September 3, ordered residents of the northwestern Xinjiang province to stay indoors, amid reports of fresh unrest in the Muslim-majority region.
      "The Han have staged a march so the police imposed controls and ordered us to stay indoors," Halisha, a Uighur eye doctor, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) by phone.

      A shop-owner located near the central Nanmen area said many people were still protesting in the late afternoon.

      "I have shut my shop. I am afraid to go out. Many people are marching outside," the woman said.

      Xinjiang was plunged into turmoil in July after thousands of minority Uighur Muslims went to the streets to protest discrimination and religious and cultural controls in their region.

      Chinese security forces launched a deadly crackdown on the protestors, leaving nearly 200 people dead and 1,700 wounded.

      Xinjiang and its Uighur Muslims, a Turkish-speaking minority of more than eight million, continue to be the subject of massive security crackdowns.

      Muslims accuses the government of settling millions of ethnic Han in their territory with the ultimate goal of obliterating its identity and culture.

      Beijing views the vast region as an invaluable asset because of its crucial strategic location near Central Asia and its large oil and gas reserves.

      New mass protests and violence break out in Urumqi, witnesses claim


      Mass protests have broken out in China's north-western city of Urumqi, less than two months after inter-ethnic violence left 197 people dead and injured a further 1,700, state media and witnesses reported.

      Thousands of Han Chinese took to the streets, with demonstrators demanding the resignation of the top regional official, a rare public challenge to the Communist party by members of the country's ethnic majority. Many called for "security guarantees" after reports of people attacking others with syringes in the regional capital.

      Protesters called for the resignation of hardline Communist party chief Wang Lequan as he addressed the crowd, Reuters reported, with some calling for his execution. Others chanted slogans including: "The government is useless."

      The outburst highlights the difficulty authorities face in controlling the capital of the restive north-western region of Xinjiang, despite flooding it with a 20,000-strong security force following July's violence, and the extraordinary tensions still pervading the city.

      It also comes as authorities mount an all-out campaign to ensure stability ahead of the 60th anniversary of Communist party rule on 1 October.

      Some witnesses reported assaults by Han on ethnic Uighurs. One told Reuters he had seen protesters beating up a Uighur suspected of carrying out syringe attacks. The man was rescued by police.

      "Han Chinese are complaining about the worsening social order," one hotel worker told the agency.. "They resent the Uighurs for the stabbing thing."

      The state news agency Xinhua reported more than 1,000 people began to gather in a residential area late in the morning. "Big crowds" demanding better public security also assembled at two other sites.

      Earlier Xinhua said police had arrested 15 people for stabbing members of the public with hypodermic needles and that four would soon face trial. It cited a senior local official who said members of nine ethnic groups, including both Han and Uighurs, had reported incidents. A health official said no one had been infected or poisoned.

      False rumours of Aids patients attacking people with hypodermic needles have swept China in the past. Those behind the alleged attacks have not been identified and there is no evidence of an ethnic dimension, although Han protesters seem convinced Uighurs are to blame.

      Death toll rises in Indonesia quake


      At least 46 people have died and thousands of people have been forced into emergency shelters after a powerful earthquake struck off the coast of Indonesia's Java island, rescue officials say.

      The magnitude 7 quake, which hit on Wednesday afternoon local time, caused widespread damage.

      With rescue and recovery efforts under way on Thursday, officials said the death toll was likely to rise further. Some coastal areas remained out of contact.

      In one of the worst-hit areas in west Java, near the epicentre of the quake, villagers and soldiers dug through rock and debris in search of women and children buried in a landslide.

      UN reports sharp fall in Afghan opium production


      Afghanistan's opium production fell 10 percent last year and prices are at their lowest in a decade, meaning "the bottom is starting to fall out" of the world's largest opium market, the U.N. said today.

      A key finding of the 2009 Afghan Opium Survey, released today, was that cultivation in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold where U.S. and British troops have launched major operations this summer, dropped by about a third from 2007 to 2008. Helmand produces almost 70 percent of Afghanistan's opium.

      "At a time of pessimism about the situation in Afghanistan, these results are a welcome piece of good news and demonstrate that progress is possible," Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N.'s office on drugs and crime, said in a statement.

      Soldiers killed in Kashmir attack


      Opposition fighters have shot and killed at least two paramilitary soldiers in Indian-administered Kashmir.

      Fighters fired and threw a hand grenade at government forces in crowded areas on Monday, injuring another 25 people, police said.

      The two soldiers, from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), were on patrol in the Lal Chowk area of the city of Srinagar when suspected rebels shot them.

      "Suspected militants shot dead two of our soldiers from point-blank range in Lal Chowk area," Prabakar Triphati, a spokesperson for the CRPF in Srinagar, said.

      Tripathi said the troops were taken to hospital but died from head injuries.

      UN says Afghan opium harvest down


      Opium farming in Afghanistan has declined by 22 per cent this year as prices for the drug tumbled, causing farmers to switch to other crops, the UN has said.

      About 800,000 fewer Afghans are involved in the illegal drugs trade compared to last year, according to an annual report from the world body, released on Wednesday.

      The West, which has made wiping out the crop part of its eight-year battle against the Taliban in the country, is likely to welcome the findings.

      But the decline, the second in the last two years, seems to be a result of simple economics, rather than law enforcement efforts.

      Only four per cent of the crop was eradicated and two per cent of the harvested product was seized.

      The West has long said that money from the drugs trade funds the Taliban and fuels corruption and crime in Afghanistan, weakening the state it is attempting to support.

      Drugs trade

      Afghanistan has long been the producer of about 90 per cent of the world's opium, a thick paste from poppy that is processed to make heroin.

      In 2007, it broke all records, but cultivation has since started to decline.

      Opium farming
      Despite the decrease, Afghanistan is still the world's leading producer of opium

      This year's crop still accounts for around 90 per cent of the world's supply

      Afghan opium farming in 2009 produced 6,900 tonnes of opium, down from 7,700 tonnes in 2008

      That 800 tonne decline is roughly double the amount produced in the "Golden Triangle", the major opium-producing region of Southeast Asia

      The number of poppy free provinces across Afghanistan - those that cultivate less than 100 hectares - rose from 18 in 2008 to 20 provinces this year, out of a total 34 provinces

      "The bottom is starting to fall out of the Afghan opium market. These results are a welcome piece of good news and demonstrate that progress is possible," said Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

      This year, 123,000 hectares were used to grow opium poppy, compared to 157,000 hectares in 2008, UNDOC said.

      Helmand province, the main focus of US and British war efforts, saw the greatest reduction.

      Cultivation there fell by a third to 69,833 hectares, from 103,590 hectares in 2008.

      Despite the decline in cultivation, the amount of opium produced fell by only 10 per cent - farmers produced 6,900 tonnes of opium were produced in 2009, compared to 7,700 tonnes in 2008.

      That is far more than the 5,000 tonnes the world's users consume, leading to a glut that has depressed prices to lows unseen since the 1990s.

      "All of that has created stocks, an excess supply, and on the whole has driven conditions such that it has become less and less attractive for farmers to cultivate opium," Costa said.


      The fall in price drove the total value of Afghanistan's opium crop down 40 per cent to $438m.

      Costa cautioned it was "too early to tell whether the decrease in cultivation and production over the past two years is a market correction that could be reversed, or a downward trend".

      With Afghanistan still producing more opium than the world can consume, there is a risk that massive stockpiles of the drug could fund instability for years to come.

      "They don't know where that [stockpiled] supply is," James Bays, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Kabul, reported.

      "They believe it is in a number of stashes, possibly buried underground, either in Afghanistan or a number of neighbouring countries."

      Opium now makes up just four per cent of Afghan GDP, compared to 7 per cent in 2008 and a record 27 per cent in 2002, a year after the Taliban were ousted.

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      Muslims Want More People To Read The Quran

      Listen to the story here:

      Teen Convert Stirs Muslim-Evangelical Row


      A custody battle is raging between Christian evangelicals in the US and a Muslim family over a runaway teenage girl who converted to Christianity.
      "We feel frustrated because this is a family problem of a certain family,” Imam Tariq Rasheed,6 director of the Islamic Centre of Orlando, told the Orlando Sentinel on Monday, August 31.

      "The way it has been portrayed is defaming Islam and giving a negative picture of our religion."

      Rifqa Mohamed Bary, a 17-year-old of Sri Lankan origin, left her Muslim family in Ohio in July and went to Orlando, where she converted to Christianity.

      The teen, who now lives with a pastor and his family, says she fears returning to her family because of her conversion.

      Her father says that his daughter can practice Christianity and insists he only wants her to return home.

      The case is being championed by evangelical Christians, who view it as a test of religious liberty.

      Christian activists are lobbying to allow the girl to remain in Florida.

      A Florida judge says the teen will remain in foster care until a Septemper 3 hearing.


      Muslim leaders refuted claims by Christian activists that the Qur’an exhorts the killing of converted followers.

      "There is not a single verse in the holy Qur’an that stops a person from exercising the freedom of choosing his or her religion,” contends Imam Rasheed.

      "There is nothing about a punishment if you change your religion."

      Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, assistant professor of religion at the University of Florida, said non-Muslims often confuse “honour killings” with Qur’anic verses on leaving the religion.

      He stressed that that law is applied by a court, not by individuals or family members.

      "They assume the law and the Qur’an are synonymous, and they are not."

      Simmon believes that the teenage girl may be herself confused about the difference between punishment under Islamic law and honour killings.

      "This plays into an irrational sense of fear among people who aren't familiar with the tenets of the faith," he said.

      "What is shameful in this entire ordeal is the way in which those who should know better, and who profess quite different values otherwise, are willing to repeat stereotypes and fuel fires of ignorance and violence."

      'The real issue is the Middle East'


      There are a number of protesters out to greet Binyamin Netanyahu as he kicks off his four-day European visit with a meeting in Downing Street. It's an eclectic bunch with pro-Palestinian groups and ultra-Orthodox Jews opposed to the "Zionist state". And it's a reminder the world watches the Middle East.

      I've been coming to Downing Street for years, but for the first time I've been ushered in through the front door to attend "brief remarks" by both Gordon Brown, the prime minister, and his Israeli counterpart.

      This, we were told, was not a news conference. There were to be two questions from the UK media and two from the Israeli side. It stops a ramp up, when journalists sniff trouble and wade in with the same question trying to get an answer. And the British media wants to hear what Brown finally has to say about the decision to free the Lockerbie bomber.

      I don't know what to call it if it's not a news conference, but it starts with the predictable expressions of support. Both agree peace in the Middle East would be a good thing. The destination's clear - it's the route that's the problem.

      And then it comes. The question Brown knew was coming, first up and in four parts. Essentially, the journalist (pre-selected by Downing Street) wants to know what Brown thinks of the decision to free Abdel Basset al-Megrahi.

      What we got was a non-answer.. The prime minister was furious at the reception al-Megrahi got when he arrived in Libya. He had discussed the case when he met Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi, the Libyan leader, in the summer, and told him there was nothing he could do - it was a quasi-judicial decision - but he would continue to fight terrorism.

      And that was it. We moved on to an Israeli journalist who didn't care about Lockerbie or the frenzy in the British media and the desire among the country's opposition political parties to find out what Gordon thinks. It was an answer which moved the inevitable questions to follow to another day.
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