Friday, August 24, 2012

Breivik Sentenced to 21 Years in Prison

Anders Behring Breivik, who has spent the last 10 weeks in court defending his massacre of 77 teenagers and government workers last year, is mentally fit to serve a prison sentence, according to a ruling by the Oslo District Court.

Breivik, who smiled as Judge Wenche Arntzen read out the verdict, was sentenced to a 21-year jail term and must serve a minimum of 10 years.

All five judges, two professional and three lay, agreed on the verdict.

Last year’s July 22 attacks, in which Breivik first detonated a bomb outside Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s office, killing eight, before sailing to the island of Utoeya to gun down 69 members of the ruling Labor Party’s youth faction, have thrust Norway into its biggest post-war criminal trial.

Self-confessed mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik arrives in court. Photo: AFP
The ease with which Breivik executed his attacks may in part lie in the vulnerability created by Norway’s prosperity and openness, said Nina Witoszek, an Oslo University professor who moved to Norway in the 1980s and has written books on Norwegian identity including ‘‘The Origins of the Regime of Goodness - Remapping the Cultural History of Norway.’’

‘‘The conviction that we live in the best society in the world makes us certain of our own welfare and immune to concern,’’ she said in an interview.

The authorities’ response to the attacks ‘‘was a combination of stupidity, nonchalance, optimism and decadence,’’ she said.

How to deal with the aftermath of Breivik ‘‘will divide the country,’’ she said.

This article was published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Blasphemy Law and Its Abuse in Pakistan

Arshi Saleem Hashmi
 By Arshi Saleem Hashmi

 Human rights organizations have urged Pakistan to reform its blasphemy laws and protect a young Christian girl who was arrested for allegedly burning pages from the Holy Quran.

10 year old Rimsha, who is reported to have Down’s syndrome, was taken into custody in a suburb of Islamabad last Thursday after angry Muslims protesters demanded she be punished. 

Pakistan’s strict anti-blasphemy law has rendered desecrating the Holy Quran illegal and potentially punishable by death.


Arshi Saleem Hashmi, SAVE’s Chapter Leader in Pakistan, comments on this recent case:

Respect for our holy book and beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and all the Prophets before him does not need endorsement through violent extremism. On the contrary, love for our Prophet must be expressed by love for all human beings and all living things.

This is sadly not the case in today’s Pakistan. To appease the growing religious political groups during the 1980s, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq issued an ordinance according to which any person accused of doing or saying any derogatory thing against the Prophet (PBUH) and the holy book would be punished. Now who in his or her senses would do anything to disrespect the holy book or the Prophet, no Muslim and certainly no non-Muslim in a country where Muslims are not only the majority but religious conservatives are very much empowered and politically protected!

Still, we have few exploiters of our peaceful religion who think that they are the real guardians of our faith. In this case, a local cleric from the mosque found a good opportunity to “justify” his position as a religious leader and tried to exploit the people by saying that if they didn’t oppose the Christian girl who was accused of burning the holy Quran, their prayers would be wasted.

Using God’s name to harm God’s creatures has become these so-called religious leaders’ business, and unfortunately, they find supporters who blindly follow the half-baked truth preached by Mullahs who are not even properly educated on Islam.

More than anything it is the state that is supposed to take action instead of tolerating such irrational behavior. Sadly, the Christians in Islamabad’s slums are mainly sweepers and house maids. The girl accused of blasphemy was most probably sorting out the trash and might have found the burned pages which are a common scene in local “Muslim” localities where people disregard loose pages or very old copies of the holy book.

In this particular case, the accused was holding a “Noorani Qaida” which is a basic copy of the easy introductory book for children to learn the Arabic words and their pronunciation. Usually, even Muslim children read the book and sell it to dealers or paper collectors from different areas when they are finished reading it. But of course, all this is ignored when it happens in Muslim localities.

Respect can only be achieved through tolerance; it cannot be forced through punishment and most importantly, it must not be selective against vulnerable minorities. The present blasphemy law has become an instrument in the hands of extremist groups and religious orthodox leaders to settle scores with others. Respect for our holy book and the Prophet (PBUH) is indeed in our heart and that should continue to be there, but a review of man-made laws that do not respect basic human rights is the need of the hour.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Has the Arab Spring Truly Benefited Women Thus Far?

By Evita Mouawad

Women show the flags of Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and Libya painted on their palms
in the southern city of Taiz, December 2011.Credit: Reuters/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

Of all the revolutions witnessed during the Arab Spring, the Tunisian transition was considered to be by far the most promising. Compared to Egypt, which endured harsh military rule for 18 months after the fall of Mubarak, Tunisia’s political change came relatively swiftly, and in October 2011, a new Constituent Assembly was elected and charged with rewriting the constitution. Women also gained an estimated 23 percent of seats in the new assembly, surpassing a great number of neighboring countries in the region.

Tunisia was often described as one of the Arab world’s most liberal countries, but it also has a long history of friction over the role of religion in society. Secular voters were especially alarmed when Ennahda, a formerly-banned Islamic party, won 41% of the total vote in the first free elections in some 25 years since Ben Ali took power by military coup.

Wary of the world’s skepticism towards Islamists at the time, the party presented itself as a modern and democratic Muslim party and looked toward the Turkish political system as a possible model to follow. Even though Ennahda has expressed support for women's rights and gender equality, the party only appointed two women in top positions. Their most famous female member, Souad Abdel Rahim, often portrayed by the media as a modern Muslim woman, has repeatedly stated that Ennahda will never suppress women’s rights by legalizing polygamy or rendering the headscarf mandatory.

Nonetheless, recent developments in Tunisia have sparked angry demonstrations. Thousands of women took to the streets of Tunis last week to protest an article from the draft of the new constitution. The proposed legislation describes women as complementary to men in the family and associates to men in the development of the country. Activists fear this new wording could lead to a decline in women’s rights in the future, some of them are even demanding that the language from the 1956 constitution be used instead, as it holds men and women equal.

Tunisian women demonstrating against gender inequality article
from draft of new constitution, August 2012

As for the other emerging Arab Spring democracies, Libya and Egypt are also facing challenges when it comes to women’s rights and their integration in the new political systems. Last month in Libya, women gained an estimated 33 seats out of 80 party seats. This awarded them with approximately 17 percent of the National Assembly, which is far more promising than the mere 2 percent of seats that women are currently holding in Egypt’s new parliament. Nonetheless, the Libyan women’s victory was largely due to quotas that were set during the elections. Some analysts have even argued that women would have never gotten this much representation if election regulations favoring them were not introduced.

It remains to be seen whether the women who have stepped foot into these transitional governments will truly have decision-making power, especially when it comes to advancing women’s status in their countries. However, the most important result of the Arab revolutions remains that the women who led them have realized the influence they can have on their governments and societies, and are henceforth prepared to make their strident voices heard when their rights are at risk.

Israeli Teenagers Held in Attack on Palestinian Youths

Two fifteen year old girls were arrested on Monday in Jerusalem, bringing to seven the number of Jewish teenagers arrested in connection with the brutal hate attack on young Palestinians last week, which left one of them critically injured.

"Two 15-year-old girls were arrested today, in addition to the five youngsters already arrested… One of the girls incited the teenagers to attack the young Arabs by saying that she had been attacked by Arabs in the past" police spokeswoman Luba Samri told AFP.

The Israeli government has expressed condemnation of the attack, which took place in Jerusalem's crowded Zion Square. According to witnesses, there were hundreds of onlookers who failed to intervene and stop the violence.

The assault on several Palestinian youths raises concerns that
the poisoned political divide is affecting some Israeli youths.

Interaction between Israelis and Palestinians sharply declined since the second intifada and the erection of the wall along and within the West Bank. Ten years ago, many Israelis spoke Arabic while Palestinians also learned Hebrew, but today this is no longer the case as the two communities are growing increasingly isolated from one another.

According to Robi Damelin, SAVE’s Chapter Leader in Israel, many Palestinian youths have never made an Israeli friend in their lives, and a great number of Israeli youngsters have never even met a Palestinian outside of army service: “We speak to more than 25,000 students every year, these kids have never met a Palestinian in their lives. They have no idea who is on the other side and this is one of the biggest problems that we have as two nations." According to Robi, this isolation often leads to the development of stereotypes that hinder acceptance and tolerance among the young generations on each side of the conflict.

Robi, who lost her son while he was serving in the Israeli Army, joined efforts with Siham Abu Awwad, SAVE’s Chapter leader in Palestine who also lost a brother during the first intifada. Together, both mothers advocate for a human solution to the ongoing conflict.

SAVE strongly condemns the attacks in Jerusalem; it is truly troubling and saddening to see youngsters carrying so much hate when they are meant to be the future peacemakers of our world. SAVE encourages women and mothers in particular to follow in the footsteps of Robi and Siham and surround their families and communities with the crucial values of tolerance and non-violence.

For more information on the attacks read Isabel Kershner's article in the NYT.

Listen to Siham Abu Awwad and Robi Damelin’s message of peace and forgiveness:

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The UAE's first Women's Museum

In the patriarchal societies of the Arab world, quite a few women are getting noticed for flouting conventional gender norms. There's Saudi Arabia's Manal al-Sharif, who lost her job and came under great pressure for driving a car and putting a video of it on YouTube; Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani, a powerful art patron in Qatar; and Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, a globe-trotting minister of foreign trade for the United Arab Emirates (UAE). And later this year the region will see its first museum dedicated to the accomplishments of women.

The Women's Museum of the United Arab Emirates is the creation of Rafia Obaid Ghubash, an academic, psychiatrist and former president of the Arabian Gulf University, who campaigns for women's education. Her aim is to educate visitors—locals, expats and tourists—that Emirati women have enjoyed more power and influence than is recognised. She also wants to re-connect the fast-moving modern Emirates with its history and tradition. The three-storey museum is determinedly contemporary: traditional jewellery hangs suspended in minimalist cases; material wraps a stylised mannequin; worn housework tools are displayed alongside artwork by modern female Emirati artists.

For Dr Ghubash the appreciation of history and tradition in rapidly developed societies like the UAE isn't just good cross-generational manners, but mentally healthy. “Those who keep their tradition in dealing with modernity will be healthier than those who take out their tradition," she explains. "Globalisation is an umbrella to use in part of your life but not all of your life.” When talking of Dubai's near-famine years during the second world war and the six months of every year the men spent away pearl fishing, she asks, “Who was running society? Just recently you can see us but we were behind the door all the time.”

She accepts that there is a dual attitude to Arab women. “Part of the tradition is kind to women. But part is very negative. Those who are not educated just utilise the negative part.” Now female UAE graduates outnumber males two to one. Dr Ghubash wants to reach those young women, and help them appreciate the achievements of earlier female generations. "They are educated, they become powerful, you see them everywhere but there is something missing." She also wants to close the distance between non-Arabs and locals. “Foreigners are the majority here. They know nothing about our society. You live with us and you don't know us.”

Dr Ghubash hopes locals will feel a sense of pride, and visitors will have a richer understanding of the Emirates as a place where women have played important roles in politics, business and education. The message of the museum, she says, is that "everything from your past is important to you.”

This article was published in the Economist.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Response to Recent Shootings at the Wisconsin Sikh Temple

By Evita Mouawad

Most Sikhs living in the United States were not surprised by Sunday’s attack on their temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where a gunman opened fire killing seven people and injuring three others. The FBI is treating the attack as a domestic terrorist incident, while recent media reports have described the shooter as a US Army veteran and a lead guitarist in a racist hardcore rock band.

Since the events of 9/11, the Sikh community has been feeling particularly vulnerable in the country. Rajwant Singh, chairman of the Washington-based Sikh Council on Religion and Education, released a statement to the Associated Press saying: "This is something we have been fearing since 9/11, that this kind of incident will take place… It was a matter of time because there's so much ignorance and people confuse us [as] being members of Taliban or belonging to [Osama] bin Laden."

Family members of the victims gather at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin - Photo by Reuters

Sisters Against Violent Extremism strongly condemns the attack on the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. Violent incidents such as this one --and the many others we have witnessed this year, from Toulouse in France to Kandahar in Afghanistan-- reveal a growing sense of intolerance towards other cultures, religions and ethnicities in a world that is constantly under threat. This feeling of insecurity, coupled with misinformation and a lack of trust in others, will inevitably lead to an increase of violent extremism and must be tackled on the community and educational levels.

Amardeep Kaleka, son of the president of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, center, comforts members of the temple, Monday, Aug. 6, 2012, in Oak Creek, Wis. Satwant Kaleka, 65, founder and president of the temple, died in the shooting. He was among four priests who died. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Police officers described the attacker as a bald, white man, dressed in a white T-shirt, black pants and with a 9/11 tattoo on one arm. This particular tattoo was the first piece of evidence to hint out that the shooting was in fact a hate crime. It must be said that most of us in Europe, America and the world tend to forget that the victims of 9/11 hailed from many different religious and ethnic backgrounds, even Islam. In fact, several dozen Muslims perished in the attacks on the World Trade Centers, some were employees in offices, hotels and restaurants; others were NYPD cadets and firefighters who lost their lives rescuing victims.

Whether Sikhs, Muslims, Christians or Jews, the reality is that we are ALL affected by violent extremism in today’s globalized world. We must set violence and intolerance aside, and focus on the values that unite us as global citizens who share the common goal of building a more peaceful world for future generations.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Youth from Around the World Unite Against Violent Extremism: Reflections on Project Common Bond

Arshi Saleem Hashmi
SAVE Chapter Leader in Pakistan

By Arshi Saleem Hashmi with input from Nafeesa Rahman & Husna Ihsan

Project Common Bond is an initiative by Tuesday’s Children, a partner organization of SAVE/Sister against Violent Extremism that provides support for individuals affected by the tragic events of 9/11. Launched in 2008, Project Common Bond brings together teenagers from around the world who share a 'common bond'--the loss of a family member due to an act of violence or terrorism.


Every year, teens gather for an eight-day healing and peace-building symposium where they engage in dialogue and community-building activities that acknowledge and respect their differences while promoting friendship and understanding.

Arshi Saleem Hashmi, SAVE’s Chapter Leader in Pakistan, attended this year’s event with two outstanding young women from Swat, a region that was taken hostage by Taliban fighters for many years. Nafeesa Rahman and Husna Ihsan lost their uncle to a terrorist attack and were relocated to IDP camps after their families’ were forced to leave their homes. When they returned to their village, everything was destroyed, but the girls were determined to go back to school and take on an active role in the rebuilding of their community.

Photo by Project Common Bond

It was an outstanding initiative on part of Tuesday’s Children to invite 75 young girls and boys from 15 countries to share a common bond of humanity with each other. From Pakistan, Nafeesa Rahman and Husna Ihsan took part in Project Common Bond (PCB) 2012 that was held in Boston from July 12-20. The eight-day conference was a great opportunity to meet young people from around the world and learn to better understand different cultures.

The participants were victims of war, conflict, violence and terrorism; and PCB was an opportunity not only to share their pain and grief with one another, but also moments of joy and healing. They all shared the common goal of working towards building a peaceful and secure world through participation in various activities and training sessions on conflict resolution and peace.

Young participants learned to work together in a number of ways: they conducted needs assessments, proposed ideas for projects, thought of creative ways to fundraise and designed their very own program. Some of the main themes discussed were social awareness, responsiveness, flexibility, empathy, caring, communication, humor and having a sense of purpose for the future, including having healthy expectations, goals, and orientation towards success. The participants also stressed on the crucial importance of young people’s involvement in the development of programs that shape policies affecting their future.

Sharing the common goal of rejecting violence and violent extremism encourages young people to stand united against forces that induce chaos, distrust and hostility to safeguard their vested interest. Most of the violence that occurs around us is due to misunderstanding and lack of trust, but this can change if we take the time to get to know other cultures, and hold on to the common goal of building a more peaceful world for future generations.

Click here for more information on Tuesday’s Children and Project Common Bond.

Flash Points: Edit Schlaffer presents SAVE on CBS