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Human Rights

Syria’s Kurds, hopes and fears: The civil war in Syria has put great strains on the country’s Kurdish population. The Syrian Kurds’ most powerful politician, Saleh Muslim Mohammad, talks to Vicken Cheterian about their position and future

Syria’s Kurds, hopes and fears: The civil war in Syria has put great strains on the country’s Kurdish population. The Syrian Kurds’ most powerful politician, Saleh Muslim Mohammad, talks to Vicken Cheterian about their position and future

by Vicken Cheterian*
Saleh Muslim Mohammad is the head of the Partiya Yekitiya Demokrat (Democratic Union Party / PYD) and the most powerful politician among the Syrian Kurds. The party – founded in 2003, and closely linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a longstanding armed campaign in the Kurdish-majority regions of eastern Turkey – itself has a well-disciplined fighting force of several thousands among the Kurds of northern Syria. During a recent visit to Geneva to meet international organisations, I ask him for his assessment of the Kurds’ situation in light of Syria’s evolving war.

Saleh Muslim Mohammad’s attitude is confident: that of a leader who at last was on the winning side after decades of being repressed by dictatorship and buffeted by the unpredictable tides hitting the middle east. He was also concerned to uphold his own group’s standpoint: “Very often, the international bodies receive information from rival Syrian-Kurdish groups which tries to present us in a negative light. We came here to present our point of view and the facts on the ground.” His fighters, he says, are constantly clashing with jihadi formations in the northern regions of Syria.
Mohammad was born in Kobani, or Ayn al-Arab, in 1951. “You know that Kobane was founded by Armenians?” he tells me to my surprise. “The name Kobani is German (from Ko-Bahn, or railway company). The town was a simple railway station built by Germans in 1912, as part of the Berlin-Baghdad route. Then, in 1915, it became a town when Armenian refugees escaping the massacres in Anatolia settled there. The Kurds came later from neighbouring villages. I remember when I grew up there were three Armenian churches in town, but in the 1960s they abandoned us and migrated to Armenia.”
He attended primary school in Damascus and secondary school in Aleppo, then moved to Istanbul to study chemical engineering at Istanbul Technical University before moving to work in Saudi Arabia. He belongs to a Kurdish political generation that was inspired first by the Barzanis’ struggle against the Iraqi Ba’ath regime, then attracted to the PKK’s militant nationalism. He has been president of the PYD since 2010.
The ideological matrix
His comment on the clashes with jihadists prompts me to ask: is the PYD in a war situation, and if yes against whom? “We have been at war since our foundation in 2003″, he replies. “First against the [Syrian] regime – remember at that time it was on good terms with Turkey. We paid a heavy toll. Ahmad Hussein (Abu Judy) was killed by the military intelligence under torture in 2004; in the same year Shilan Kobani and his friends were assassinated in Mosul by the mukhabarat; in 2008, Othman Suleiman was also killed under torture. There are many other such examples. I was myself arrested and tortured. We also had to struggle against other Syrian Kurdish formations who considered us troublemakers, but we are revolutionaries and we did not give in.”
I am about to ask about accusations that the PYD cooperates with the Syrian authorities, when he says: “We are the only Kurdish formation that fought against the regime in Ashrafiye and Sheikh Maqsoud” (two neighbourhoods of Aleppo inhabited mostly by Kurds).
“On 19 July 2012 we managed to take control of the Kurdish regions and instal self-rule. The regime forces withdrew. But then ee fell into another problem, that is fighting with salafi-jihadi formations. Now we are fighting both regime forces and Jabhat al-Nusra, and we fear that massive crimes can happen against civilians of Ashrafiye and Sheikh Maqsoud. These neighbourhoods are constantly shelled by the regular troops, and under siege by jihadis. We call the international community to intervene to stop the danger of massacres.”
But, I intervene, wasn’t the withdrawal of regime troops in July 2012 coordinated with the PYD? He answers: “That’s a false allegation. We put pressure on the regime forces, and they did not have the means to open a new front against us. They still remembered how the Kurds all rose up as one in the Qamishli intifada of 2004. In Ras al-Ayn where the population is half-Kurdish and half-Arab, we entered only Kurdish neighbourhoods. The Arabs there supported the regime. Then the jihadi groups entered and started killing people, and when they started attacking Kurdish neighbourhoods we fought back and eventually expelled them from the town.”
I change tack. At the time the Syrian National Congress was formed, relations between it and other parts of the opposition YPG were difficult. How have they evolved since then? “Let me start from the beginning. When the Syrian revolution started, we were searching for a strategic alliance. We set up the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change with four other groups – the Communist Party, Communist Action Party, Communist Party – Political Bureau, and the Socialist Union. They were the ones with long experience of anti-regime struggle and representation within the society. Our project was to overthrow the regime through peaceful democratic means, rejecting violence. Then a fake opposition was set-up in Istanbul with United States-Turkish backing and Qatari funding. The reality became an internal opposition which has no representation, and an exiled opposition which has no presence on the ground.”
He adds: “It was the regime that wanted the militarisation of the revolution, because it had the military advantage. It released some 1,000 salafi-jihadis from Sednaya prison [a notorious jail near Damascus]. And they succeeded. Who talks about democracy now? Even the most moderate fighting brigade [of the opposition] is demanding the caliphate now!”
In a one-hour discussion, Saleh Muslim Mohammad refers twice to the “philosophy of Abdullah Ocalan” as the PYD’s reference-point. This ideological source can best be described as a Leninist one as adapted to the needs of a national-liberation struggle. In this, the PKK itself was heavily influenced by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) factions of the 1970s. This ideological set-up has little in common with most Syrian opposition fighting groups, which have gravitated towards the salafi-jihadi political culture.
“The Syrian National Council was in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood and controlled by Turkey. When the coalition was founded and moved to Cairo, we thought it would form an independent structure. But in the end it evolved into an amorphous body lacking cohesion and eventually returned to Istanbul.”
The regional complex
I ask whether he understands the fears of the Syrian opposition that the PYD is preparing conditions for separation from Syria. “There is no basis for such fears. There is no single Kurdish party in Syria calling for separatism. Demanding our rights is not separatism.”  But in your literature, I persist, you do not talk about northern Syria, but about west Kurdistan. Isn’t this a political sign? He says that west Kurdistan is “not a political term, but a geographic one. There were people who wanted that we forget our Kurdish identity.”
This brings me to the nub of the matter: is the PYD a Syrian or a Kurdish party? A laugh, then: “It is Kurdish, Syrian, middle eastern. We had Arabs, Assyrians, and Turcomans in our party. We follow the philosophy of Ocalan, and whoever is convinced by it can join us.”
The PYD’s analysis largely turns around who is with, and who opposes, the Turkish state. Yet Saleh Muslim himself made two visits to Turkey in summer 2013. Is that a sign of changing times? “We have no animosity towards the Turkish people. We share with Turkey a border of 900 kilometress where there are Kurdish populations on both sides. We expressed our concerns that Turkey is providing logistic support to jihadi groups like Al-Nusra, which they refuted. But we have continuous proof of that. Even now, fighting rages between us and jihadi groups in villages east of Ras Al-Ayn. We also talked about easing humanitarian convoys to our regions.”
Did the start of negotiations between the PKK leadership and Ankara prepare the environment for his visit? “For us, nothing has changed. But [the talks] helped to soften Turkish attitudes toward us. When they themselves negotiate with their own Kurds it is untenable to ask the Syrian coalition not to negotiate with Syrian Kurds.”
When I ask who was his negotiating partner on the Turkish side, he remains vague, saying   only it was on the level of advisor to the foreign minister, without giving names. But he says a third visit is not excluded.
Many Syrian opposition activists view the PYD through the prism of its anti-regime struggle. Similarly, the PYD regards the Syrian opposition from the angle of its own antagonism towards Ankara. To understand the PYD, it’s necessary to look at the Syrian conflict against a broader canvas: namely, the emergence of the Kurdish political factor throughout the middle east, the establishment of the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, and especially the role of the PKK in awakening Kurdish national identity within Turkey. In the event of an agreement between the PKK and Ankara, there could be a rapprochement between the  PYD and the Syrian opposition – though the opposite is also true.
When I ask about the role of the United Nations in the Syrian conflict, he laughs again and says: “You know, in the mid-90s the UN was going to shut down when the US refused to pay its dues. Did I answer you?”
So how can the conflict in Syria end? “Very difficult! I feel there are sides who want the destruction not only of Syria, but of the whole region by igniting a Sunni-Shi’a conflict…”
Here, I interrupt, saying that I do not like blaming outsiders; such conspiracy theories are also fashionable in my country of origin, Lebanon, as if we are not actors but simple objects. Saleh Muslim Mohammad agrees, adding: “The problem is that our mentality did not develop enough to ensure the independence of our thought and action.”
*Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and political analyst. He works for the non-profit governance organisation CIMERA, based in Geneva; teaches at Webster Geneva’s faculty of media communications; and is a research associate at SOAS’s department of development studies. His books include From Perestroika to Rainbow Revolutions: Reform and Revolution after Communism (C Hurst, 2013) and War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia’s Troubled Frontier (C Hurst, 2009; Columbia University Press, 2009)

Harsh Qatari Labor Conditions Move Center Stage As FIFA Debates World Cup

Harsh Qatari Labor Conditions Move Center Stage As FIFA Debates World Cup

By James M. Dorsey*
Controversy over conditions for unskilled and semi-skilled workers in Qatar involved in the construction of World Cup-related infrastructure as well as for flight attendants of Qatar Airways, the 2022 tournament’s likely official carrier, has moved center stage as world soccer body FIFA prepares to debate next week the Gulf state’s hosting of the 2022 soccer tournament.

FIFA’s focus is on whether to move the tournament from summer to winter because of Qatar’s harsh summer temperatures that can exceed 40 degrees Celsius. FIFA however will find it difficult to maintain a narrow concern for the welfare of players with no regard to the army of workers involved in constructing billions of dollars in World Cup-related infrastructure. Beyond reputational damage, the debate over workers’ rights and conditions increases the risk of FIFA being pushed to entertain depriving Qatar of its hosting rights, a move that would be perceived by much of the Muslim world as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim.
International trade unions have for the past three years threatened a boycott of the World Cup if Qatar failed to improve labor conditions and accept workers’ rights to form independent trade unions and collectively bargain. The issue has taken on added urgency with a report in The Guardian that asserts that 44 workers had died in work-related incidents between June 4 and August 8 and that workers had not been paid, had their passports confiscated by employers, been denied access to free drinking water in the desert heat, and that 30 Nepalese had sought refuge at their embassy in Doha to escape the brutal labor conditions.
Adding to Qatar’s problems, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITWF) lambasted this week Qatar Airways, the country’s national carrier, as well as United Arab Emirates carriers Emirates and Ettihad for prohibiting employees from organizing and demanding better working conditions. ITWF said it would lobby the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which is meeting in Canada to take action against the Gulf carriers. The union objects to stipulations in Qatar Airways contracts that oblige employees to obtain company permission before changing their marital status and entitle it to fire women employees as soon as they become aware of a pregnancy.
Union objections on the grounds that Qatar bans independent labor organizations forced the Gulf state earlier this year to withdraw its proposal to move ICAO headquarters from Montreal to Doha. Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker was quoted by Arabian Business as saying at the time: “If you did not have unions you wouldn’t have this jobless problem in the western world… It is caused by unions making companies and institutions uncompetitive and bringing them to a position of not being efficient. If you go and ask the politicians in most of the countries in the western world they would love to have the system we have: where the workers have rights through the law but they do not have rights through striking and undermining successful institutions that provide jobs to their knees.”
Qatar Airways was last year the target of an online call for a boycott by hundreds of Qataris who objected to its employment policies as well as the fact that it operates a shop in Doha that sells alcohol and pork to foreigners.
Qatar has responded to international criticism of its labor conditions by seeking to improve working and living conditions, including stricter enforcement of timely payment of wages, limiting the number of workers permitted to live in one room, planning a city for foreign workers who account for 94 percent of the Qatari workforce and enhancing leisure opportunities, including the creation of a soccer league for foreign workers.
The Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee that is responsible for organizing the World Cup issued a Workers’ Charter earlier this year that pledged to meet international standards with the exception of the right to independent trade unions and collective bargaining. Qatar Foundation, the institution that funds educational and social projects, is working on a similar charter. It is also looking at streamlining recruitment to cut out middlemen and agents that charge onerous rates and are responsible for workers’ huge debt burden.
In a response to The Guardian story, the 2022 committee said: “Like everyone viewing the video and images, and reading the accompanying texts, we are appalled by the findings presented in The Guardian’s report. There is no excuse for any worker in Qatar, or anywhere else, to be treated in this manner. The health, safety, well-being and dignity of every worker that contributes to staging the 2022 FIFA World Cup is of the utmost importance to our committee and we are committed to ensuring that the event serves as a catalyst toward creating sustainable improvements to the lives of all workers in Qatar.”
Qatari executives note that one offset of the awarding of the World Cup is the fact that workers’ rights and working conditions are on the table and that steps are being taken to address the situation. “While construction on work relating directly to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar has not yet commenced, we have always believed that hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar could be the catalyst for positive change, particularly for accelerating human and social development in Qatar,” the 2022 committee said. The committee said the government was investigating companies identified in The Guardian report.
Qatar has so far however refrained from steps to abolish the onerous Kafala or sponsorship system that makes employees virtually beholden to their employers a step that could convince trade unions and human rights activists that it is serious about reform. The Guardian report signals that on many of the issues such as timely payment, return of passports after completion of immigration procedures and access to water, Qatar is lagging in enforcement rather than in legislation and regulation.
The unanswered question is why Qatar has failed to tackle the Kafala system head on and allowed it to fester. Writing in Open Democracy, Michael Stephens, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Qatar, noted that a majority of Qataris acknowledge that their country’s labor system is in desperate need of reform. Kafala, moreover, is disliked not only by employees but also by many employers because it makes them liable for whatever the worker does during and outside of working hours. Mr. Stephens argues that authorities understand the need for change but are not giving it the priority required to stop further damage to Qatar’s reputation.
Yet, at the same time, he concedes that conservative forces and at least some business circles oppose abolishing kafala. “Business interests are often the hindrance, and the young Emir, like his father will need to work hard to combat those companies, including many western entities that accept and propagate the system that stands against the interests of a majority of the country, local and foreign alike,” Mr. Stephens wrote referring to 33-year old Sheikh Tamim bin Khalifa Al Thani who became emir in June after his father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, abdicated.
A recent study by researchers of Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar concluded that the cost of maintaining the labor system went beyond reputational damage. The researchers concluded that Qatar would be near the top of the United Nation’s Human Development Index (HDI) if adjustments were made for the country’s large population of migrant workers. With other words, the system undercuts Qatar’s soft power effort designed to project the Gulf state as a cutting edge, 21st century knowledge-based society.
* James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

Doha debate reveals gulf between locals, its elite and expatriates

Doha debate reveals gulf between locals, its elite and expatriates

by Sarah El-Richani*
Recent commentaries by Qatari citizens and journalists both in the local and social media reveal a polity eager to engage critically and openly on the manner in which its ruling elite are managing the country’s immense oil and gas revenues. Concerns voiced reveal a divide between the largely conservative population and the local elite’s ambitious plans for the emirate of Qatar.

In addition to the ongoing call to boycott Qatar Airways for serving alcohol and monopolising the local market, other campaigns have recently taken on other state-owned institutions. Last month, Qatari columnist Faisal al-Marzoqi wrote a fiery piece accusing the largely expatriate management of the Qatar Museums’ Authority (QMA) of corruption, nepotism and mismanagement.
The QMA responded by threatening to sue for defamation. The Chairwoman of the QMA and sister of the ruling Emir, Sheikha Mayassa bint Hamad al Thani, who was dubbed by the Economist “the art world’s most powerful woman”, later announced the restructuring of the QMA into a “private entity for public good” thereby freeing it of obligations expected of government-entities.
Ensuing discussions on Twitter (in Arabic) have also scrutinised Qatar’s usually unannounced art acquisitions, which are purported to have cost at least $1 billion. It is unclear if purchases including Mark Rothko’s White Center and Paul Cezanne’s The Card Players, are part of a private collection, will be exhibited in local museums, or are regarded as investments adding value to the ambitious cultural goals Qatar has set for itself, in part to decrease the state’s reliance on oil and gas revenues.
Nearly a fortnight after the kerfuffle concerning the QMA, Qatar University (QU) was targeted last week by a petition condemning its library catalogue for listing books deemed offensive. The university was quick to respond, promising to filter out books which are considered to have breached “clear criteria”.
Although some of the publications mentioned in the petition do not appear to be academic (an outdated book on wine and beer making), others, albeit on controversial topics, are anthropological and of a scholarly nature  (academic edited work by sociologists Samir Khalaf and John Gagnon on “Sexuality in the Arab World”). It remains to be seen what criteria the QU library will implement amid a call by a QU student to resist censorship.
In addition to alleged accusations of corruption, both fiscal and moral, expatriates which greatly outnumber what is effectively a Qatari minority in Qatar have also been attacked for their lucrative salaries and for assuming higher positions than the Qatari ‘citizen aristocracy’. This is a common refrain that overlooks the limited number of Qataris – a mere 250,000. 
The inevitable cultural angst and other concerns expressed, which are at times xenophobic and classist, also reveal a deep gulf between the local population and the expatriates – both the highly-skilled white- and the poorly-treated blue-collar workers.
While more and more Qataris seem to be expressing their disapproval or disquiet not only in the Majalis but also in the wider public sphere, it would be naive to speak of further liberalisation of the liberalised autocracy. Despite having held four municipal elections in the past, the promised national elections for the Advisory Council were postponed yet again a day before Emir Hamad abdicated in favor of his son Emir Tamim in June of this year. Meanwhile poet Mohammed al-Ajami, who had his life-sentence cut down to 15 years, continues to languish in jail for his poem Jasmine.
* Sarah El-Richani is a doctoral student from Lebanon researching the Lebanese media system from a comparative perspective.

Mass slaughter of civilian Kurds in Syria ignites heavy clashes and mass exodus

Mass slaughter of civilian Kurds in Syria ignites heavy clashes and mass exodus

by Rozh Ahmad*

Kurdish civilians escaping for their lives in Syria

The al-Qaeda linked “Jabhat al-Nusra” (al-Nusra Front) in Syria, has been held responsible for having instigated a sectarian racist war against civilian Kurds in Syria’s northern Kurdish region, the outcomes of which recently led to the massacre of hundreds of Kurdish women and children, “some of whom were raped and beheaded by jihadists”, says Syrian opposition officials, witnesses and victims.
Human rights activists in Syria’s Kurdish region have confirmed that 450 Kurdish civilians, “mostly women and children, were slaughtered indiscriminately inside their homes at the hands of jihadists of the al-Nusra Front in Tal Abyad, Tal Hassil and Tal A’ran areas of Syrian Kurdistan from July 28 – August 2, 2013.”

They say the attacks are continuous against civilian Kurds, adding that several Kurdish women have also requested urgent help claiming al-Qaeda linked jihadists had gang-raped them soon after their husband and brothers were shot dead in cold blood in front of them.

Naze Alyama, a Syrian-Armenian human rights activist working for the “Heyva Sor a Kurdistane”(Kurdistan Red Moon) charity in Syria’s Kurdish region, whose mission is now stationed on the Syrian-Iraqi Kurdish border, says, “We have helped several women to cross the border into Iraqi Kurdistan who were victims, raped by jihadists of the al-Nusra Front, some of whom had witnessed their husbands shot dead in front of them before they were gang raped by jihadist gunmen.”
“Jihadists slammed into the house, shot several bullets, then they came for me and made me sign papers at gunpoint,” says one of the victims, who a few days ago fled for Iraqi Kurdistan region with the help of human rights activists on the border.  
She says human rights activists, like Alyama, had later on explained the paper she was forced to sign,  “Apparently this was a religious document that permitted my ‘Marriage for jihad’ with all those gunmen who were in front of me, who raped me, one after the other, until I was unconscious. ”
She declined to have her name mentioned in this report, “I am not only afraid of the jihadists.’  She says, “it would lead to stigma in society too, because when people find out you were raped, things would not be normal any more, well, things are no longer normal for me and my situation is really bad.”
Kurdish human rights activists had found her among the refugees in the Syrian Kurdish border village of Taws, in north east Syria. She is one among the estimated 25,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees, who a few days ago, poured in desperation into the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region.
The Kurdish tragedy inside war-torn Syria has finally reached international media outlets, after Iran’s state media confirmed the news of the massacres and broadcast videos showing mass slaughter of Kurdish civilians. These films documented how jihadists blew up Kurdish homes afterwards, in the Tal Abyad area. 
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has criticised the UN Security Council for being “reluctant to condemn terrorist attacks” against the Kurds in Syria. The UN and US State Department recently joined the call condemning the massacres of civilian Kurds by groups affiliated with al-Qaeda in Syria. 
“In the last six months al-Nusra fighters have burned Kurdish homes, killed civilians indiscriminately and the group continues to kidnap many Kurds on a daily basis throughout Syria’s Kurdish region, all with Turkish military aid and medical support on the ground,” says Khalid Issa, Europe’s representative of the ruling Syrian Kurdish “Democratic Union Party” (PYD) and vice president of the wider Syrian opposition coalition, “National Coordination Committee for the Forces of Democratic Change in Syria’ (NCC).
“Al-Nusra fighters kill everybody, including women and children,” says Issa, confirming that Kurdish women have also been raped during attacks on Kurdish areas, “just like al-Nusra fighters have done in the rest of Syria.  They believe that it is religiously allowed to rape women of any area, ethnicity and religious group they think is ‘unholy’. They now target Kurdish civilians because some extremist mullahs and Islamic muftis have recently classed Kurds in Syria as infidels and unholy people.”
Cemil Xero, a Kurdish resident of the town of Tal Abyad in Syria’s Kurdish region, where one of the recent massacres of civilian Kurds occurred, said in a telephone interview, “When al-Nusra fighters attack Kurds in areas like Tal Abyad for instance, Arab Imams then call on the local people through speakers of the mosques, to do whatever they can to help the jihadists attack Kurdish residents.”
“Many of the Arab residents would then do what the Imams had just asked them to against the Kurds,” Xero added, “The people attacked us Kurds just like that in Tal Abyad, because Arab Imams had announced fatwas declaring it is religiously ‘Halal (permissible)’ to kill Kurdish men, then take their property, women and children as slaves. It is really scary to hear it when the mosque is next door to your house in a small town like here, Tal Abyad.”
Syrian Kurdish officials blame Turkey for much of what is happening, claiming that Turkey is concerned that any Kurdish advance in Syria could later impact on Turkey’s repressed Kurds.
Issa of PYD and NCC says that they have considerable “evidence suggesting Turkish military aid on the ground for these extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda.”
He adds, according to PYD figures, “More than 1,200 Kurdish civilians have been abducted in the last two weeks alone across ‘Rojava’ (Syrian Kurdistan), the number of which may be higher even, we don’t know, because the kidnapping and killing of Kurdish civilians have become a daily routine for these extremist groups entering Syria from Turkey.”
The attacks on civilian Kurds have emerged amid intense months-long violent clashes between al-Qaeda linked groups and the predominantly Kurdish popular militia in Syria, “Peoples Defense Units’ (YPG).”
The YPG militia, majority members of which are female fighters, is now seen as the only capable military force that can confront al-Qaeda linked groups on one front, on the other, the Syrian army, across the Kurdish region.
It is estimated that YPG fighters number an estimated 50,000. Its female and male co-leaders claim that they are running, “a democratically elected popular militia comprising all the people of Syrian Kurdistan, including Assyrians, Armenian and Arabs to defend themselves from the catastrophes of the Syrian Civil War.”
They also claim that they are involved in heavy clashes with both the Assad army and al-Qaeda groups like the al-Nusra Front in places like Aleppo, where YPG fighters defend the Kurdish neighbouthoods of Sheikh Maqsood and al-Ashrafia.
In the latest developments, the YPG has even organized a “Battalion of Arab brothers and sisters”, which is attracting hundreds of Arab residents of Syria’s Kurdish areas, including Arabs from Aleppo.
Kurds have now become prime targets for jihadist groups in Syria. Kurdish officials, who’ve gone to exchange prisoners of the al-Nusra Front for Kurdish civilians in the last weeks, have been reportedly beheaded.  A car bomb assassinated earlier this month, Isa Huso, a renowned PYD official in the Syrian Kurdish capital of Qamishlou and leading member of the cross-party Supreme Kurdish Council. In the eastern border town of Derk, a suicide bomber on Saturday killed 7 YPG fighters at a checkpoint; meanwhile the town of Serekaniye  (Ras al-Ain) scored heavy clashes between al-Nusra Front and YPG fighters.
How long can the pro-Kurdish PYD and YPG forces sustain this confrontation with al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups in Syria? This is unanswerable, since the intensity of the upheaval of the war within Syria on the northeastern front is escalating on an unprecedented level.
There is little doubt, however, that this Battle for Syria’s Kurdish region, will soon confirm whether a locally–organised popular militia comprising local young men and women, like that of the pro-Kurdish YPG, can eventually stand the ground against al-Qaeda linked groups in Syria and else where in the Middle East.   
*Rozh Ahmad is a freelance journalist, in the last three years he has reported from Europe, Iraq, Turkey and Syria for different Kurdish and English publications.

On the need to balance endowments and academic integrity

On the need to balance endowments and academic integrity

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*
The article in The Atlantic, The Emir of NYU (MAR 13, 2013), touched on a very important issue: academic integrity. It came on the heels of the no-confidence vote NYU’s faculty in the College of Arts and Science delivered against the president, John Sexton. Sexton is renowned for creating satellite research and teaching centers around the world through a strategy he called The Global Network University. Specifically, the article pointed to the full degree-granting campus in Abu Dhabi and to faculty’s concerns “about academic freedom, diluting NYU’s brand, human rights violations in Abu Dhabi, and discrimination against gay and Israeli students.”

The article did not address the critically important issue of striking a balance between the need for funding higher education and preserving academic and scientific integrity. This problem is not new. Research scholars and institutions in some STEM (exact/hard) sciences faced similar ethical and legal issues since they first took money from pharmaceuticals, agricultural companies involved in GMOs, defense industries, and government security and intelligence agencies.

The current economic conditions are forcing universities to cut programs and/or raise money. These trends are likely to have an immediate and disproportionate impact on liberal arts and humanities programs–hence the vote from NYU’s College of Arts and Science faculty. Moreover, creating liberal arts and social sciences programs in places like the Persian Gulf States requires more scrutiny. The limitations on freedoms, the lack of transparency and shared governance, and the treatment of minorities in those countries are addressed through disciplines within liberal arts and social sciences. For this reason alone, establishing campuses or taking money from governments and private individuals from that region ought to be done with extreme prudence.

GCC countries do not operate according to the same rules enjoyed in American institutions (See the statement about banning a scholar from entering UAE). For instance, early this year, the editor of prominent magazine from one of the GCC States asked if I could write a short essay predicting that the Arab Spring will reach the GCCcountries. Presumably, another scholar was asked to argue the other point of view. Aware of the restrictions on freedom of expression in that country, I insisted that my article not be edited. With that understanding in place, I wrote what was, in my opinion, a restrained 250-word piece (see article below). A day later, the editor wrote back saying, “thanks very much for your honest and well-written article. However, because of legal constraints […], we can’t publish anything that criticizes the ruling royal family.”

If a government is threatened by a staged prediction written by a professor more than 6,000 miles away, can this same regime (and the regimes like it) allow a center of critical scholarship to thrive within its territory and in contact with its population? I doubt it. The same concern might apply to endowed chairs in many American universities. Can a researcher, whose position is funded by a prince from Saudi Arabia or the government of Bahrain, for example, provide critical and unbiased research about social and religious issues in one or all those countries or relating to Islam in general? I doubt that, too. 

Some of the most apologetic works about Wahhabism came out from institutions and by researchers who received considerable money from donors from GCC countries. Even if one were to assume that the holders of endowed chairs funded by princes from GCC countries have the integrity to tell scientific truths, their email signature and titles will always function as an implicit endorsement that polishes the names of the donors. Every time they introduce themselves to an audience they become engaged in gratuitous character rehabilitation and/or public relations endeavor on behalf of regimes and individual donors.

Islamic studies endowments created by ostensibly Muslim individuals and governments are even more suspect from the point of view of Islamic law and cultures. According to Islamic ethical practices, charity and gifts, including endowments, are supposed to be given discretely to the extent that when “it is given by the right hand, the left hand would not notice.” In Islamic cultures, advertising the name of donors nullifies its rewards. 

Endowments are given with a purpose and some time that purpose conflicts with the stated aims and mission of educational institutions. During the past decade alone, enough dubious endowments have been discovered to give administrators and faculty members pause. For instance, after the fall of the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, a formal inquiry uncovered that the London School of Economics had accepted at least £1.5m donation from Saif al-Islam. If receiving money from the son of a dictator was not marring enough, the origin of such money should be: the investigation uncovered that the donations “may have been money paid to the dictator’s son as bribes.”

Harvard, the institution that produces the ruling elite in the United States, unashamedly collected money from individuals and governments from GCC States, too. In 2004, the Boston Globe reported that Harvard returned $2.5 million from the ruler of the United Arab Emirates. The university returned the money because the donor had ties to “an Arab League think tank with alleged anti-American” views. Apparently, Harvard, which shared with Georgetown University more than $40 million donation from a Saudi Prince in the last decade alone, refused money from a person who might have connections to an organization that might criticize U.S. foreign policies. But Harvard leaders see no harm in taking money from members of the ruling families of some of the GCC states, who are known for their wanton abuse of foreign workers, minorities, and women. 

Another Ivy League school needed to address its ties to donors who were on the wrong side of history, Brown. The University is now attempting to polish its own image after it had become known that it had ties to slave traders. It was revealed recently that “some of the University’s early benefactors were involved in the slave trade.” Specifically, a reportproduced by a commission established by the University confirmed that “slave labor was used to construct the oldest building on campus and said many of the university’s early benefactors were slave owners.”

The conflict between supporting education and polishing donors’ image is not new. However, now, the need for a new paradigm that could encourage people to give to education without risking academic integrity is paramount. For long, private universities have enjoyed limited restrictions on their efforts to raise money from private donors. Many state universities are now forced to adapt and administrators are aggressively seeking alternative sources of funding. Research grants and private endowments are two attractive streams of revenues. However, endowments do come with strings attached–some strings are obvious and others are subtle. Balancing the need to raise money and preserve academic integrity is a difficult challenge but it can be overcome if administrators and faculty members work together on drawing up sound policies.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.
Are the Gulf countries in danger of facing an Arab Spring?

Will the GCC countries face an Arab Spring? The answer is simple: Yes. In fact, the Spring has already bloomed in the Gulf region. When powerful Emirs are threatened by poets, multi-billion dollar military is mobilized to crush peaceful protesters, and official muftis find it necessary to issue fatwas prohibiting protest at home while their governments are involved in arming opposition groups elsewhere, I would say the Spring is already in the Gulf.
In the past, the Gulf States’ rulers shielded themselves from change by seeking shelter behind world superpowers, and by amassing sophisticated weaponry. At that time, they feared the specter of foreigners invading their lands.
Today, they face a threat that cannot be defeated by international alliances, exclusion walls, arbitrary borders, and Patriot missiles. Some groups of their people are already calling upon them from within to end clan privilege, cruel sectarian and ethnic supremacism, boorish double standards, demeaning gender discrimination, and flagrant disregard to common decency, because these attitudes are an affront to dignity.
The first and second rounds of protest in Tunisia and Egypt tell us—in no uncertain terms—that the Arab Spring is not about economics, democracy, or ideology. It is about reclaiming human dignity and ending fear. It is not about who governs; it is about how they govern. These continued struggles tell us that no context can excuse the abuse of human dignity. Therefore, I am as sure that the people will rise up for dignity in the Gulf region as I am sure that the sun will rise from the east tomorrow.

Women’s plight in Afghanistan

Women’s plight in Afghanistan

by Rooh-ul-Amin*
The killing of women’s affairs director in eastern Laghman province on Monday is a reminder to us all, that, how violence against women is making deep inroads in our society and how much numb we have become to respond to such oft-repeated cruel incidents. It is not the first ever incident of this nature where a woman has been killed rather it is the latest in the series of such heinous acts. 
Where the wars of the past three or more decades have brought economic challenges and illiteracy to this dilapidated part of the world, they have also brought some cultural and social evils upon us. Intolerance towards women has become widespread. If women step outside their houses they are considered to be immoral. If they do job in offices they are considered not worth marriage. And if a woman loses her husband and being left as widowed and eventually a beggar, she is considered to be a prostitute. 

This nasty mindset is occupying our collective thinking towards our sisters, mothers and daughters. What has come to this nation and what would be the fate of women if there are no serious efforts to keep this rotten society back on a right track where women are held in respect, and having equal rights to men. Though hundreds of women have been killed, hundreds raped, hundreds locked into forced marriages, and hundred swapped but Najia’s killing should be the last one that could put a full stop to the ever growing violence against women. Though Najia seems to be killed for a blood vendetta but despite that killing a woman in enmity has never ever been Afghan culture. 
It is worth mentioning here that Najia’s predecessor who was also woman was killed in bomb attack in July, which clearly shows the women’s plight in Afghanistan. And those who are intolerant towards women have had a sanguinary nature, which has not yet changed, and their thirst for bloodshed has not yet quenched. From the eastern part of the country to the western side of the land and from the northern highland regions to the southern countryside, there is just carnage and carnage. 
The nation, its mothers, sisters and daughters need a messiah, such a messiah that can give them their rights, honor and respect back. This messiah should be from among us as whoever comes from abroad to put this house in order is bogged down easily with propaganda from mullahs. Moreover, the women lot in Afghanistan indeed is in a great trouble. Women need protection of their rights and honor. 
However, all this is the byproduct of the wars, cultural and social backwardness, while linking it to religion or foreign culture is not justifiable. But the problem is who cares because the trade of the high-heeled, well-fed and the militants is going on and their children, brothers and sisters are living abroad in safe towns with all facilities of life at their door steps so who will raise substantial voices for women’s rights. 
In our society there are three types of people. Some are busy in plundering the natural resources and national wealth of the nation while the others are those who are involved in killing brothers, sisters and children of this nation. The third type of the people is those who is bleeding because they belong to the downtrodden segment of the society, and whenever someone from this segment is killed, raped, or swapped, it doesn’t bring dooms day or revolution. 
If there is any solution to these ravaging social and economic evils, the commoners are waiting to hear from mullahs, economists, bankers, security officials, rulers and the militants. Is there anyone who can give feedback to the stranded Afghan civilians as when God is not coming down to this planet in person then who will bring peace and will put this house in order? They call for an answer.
* The writer is a Kabul-based journalist and editor at Afghanistan Times, an English newspaper.

Leaders of the Islamic world are finally talking about minority rights and healthy dissent, kinda!

Leaders of the Islamic world are finally talking about minority rights and healthy dissent, kinda!

 by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

Representatives of 57 states, members of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC), convened for their regular summit in Cairo this week. Among the notable attendees is the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The latter received a red-carpet welcome as Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi, greeted him on the tarmac at Cairo International Airport. The event is historical since this is the first visit by an Iranian president to Egypt since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The visit is also full of symbolism and irony for both sides. President Ahmadinejad met with Sheik Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of al-Azhar, the highest institute of Sunni Islamic learning in Egypt, which was originally founded by the Fatimid Shiites. Sheik al-Tayeb might have had the Shiite connection in mind when he met President Ahmadinejad. He deliberately avoided meeting him at the entrance of the institution, which is the custom. Al-Tayeb also sent his deputy to accompany Ahmadinejad to the news conference. Apparently, he wanted to emphasize his new independence from political leaders, another byproduct of the Egyptian revolution, and his role as a leader of Sunni Muslims. In a press conference that followed the meeting, the adviser to al-Tayeb went further slamming Iran for its support of Syria’s regime and its support to protesters in Bahrain. He also criticized Iran for its treatment of Sunni Muslims inside Iran. Generally, the leaders of al-Azhar called on the Iranian leadership to allow more freedom for Sunnis to practice their brand of Islam.

Talk on religious freedom sounds reasonable and progressive. Indeed, Iran and all other countries in the region should honor the inherent rights of ethnic and religious minorities. But taken in the broader context, Egyptian leaders’ rhetoric on rights is one-sided and not representative of the facts.

Shiite Muslims are a majority in only three Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain. In Iraq, Shiites, despite their numerical advantage, have been ruled by the minority Sunnis and they were subjected to all kinds of discrimination and oppression. It was only after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the subsequent elections that Iraqi Shiites became politically empowered.

The same can be said about the status of the Shiites in Bahrain. Although nearly 75% of the people of Bahrain are Shiite Arabs, the Sunni ruling clan has exerted a virtual monopoly on all institutions of economic and political power. The ongoing uprising in Bahrain is about remedying this situation. Yet, the Sunni Arabs ignore the plight of the people of Bahrain simply because they are not Sunni. Another leader of Sunni Islam, Yousef al-Qaradawi, shamelessly argued that he would support the uprising in Bahrain only when/if Sunnis join in.

In Iran where the Shiite majority is in control, the constitution does privilege Shiites over all other religious sects. Undoubtedly, that ought to be changed. Citizenship and political rights should not be dependent on ethnic and religious affiliation. Indeed Iran should be asked to practice the Islamic ideals it preaches: there should be no discrimination on the basis of skin color, ethnicity, or religious denomination.

Victims of a Sunni suicide bombing in Afghanistan 
With that said, the Arab Sunnis should also look in their own backyards. Shiite Muslims are minorities in many other Muslim and Arab countries and they are oppressed in all these countries. In Saudi Arabia, the marginalization and persecution of Shiites in eastern Arabia is well documented. Zaydi Shiites in Yemen have been pushed to the economic and political margins and they have been fighting for their rights for decades. Shiite Muslims in Pakistan have been targeted by Sunni suicide bombers since 1995; thousands lost their lives in mosques, markets, and places of religious rituals. In Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and other Sunni majority countries, special measures are being proposed to stymie what they call the “Shiite infiltration.” Some groups are proposing new laws that will criminalize conversion to Shiite sects.

In the end, the goodwill capital in Egypt, courtesy of the dignity revolution, should not be besmirched by sectarian patronage. A dignity revolution is about the dignity of all. The leaders of the Arab Spring countries should be mindful of this and they should speak with equal force about the rights of all. If the Arab rulers want more rights given to Arab minorities in Iran, they should be prepared to grant Berber, Kurdish, Touareg, and other ethnic minorities the same rights in Arab countries. If Sunni Muslims want the rights of Sunnis in Iran to be respected, they must be prepared to respect the rights of Shiites, Jews, Christians, and other sectarian and religious minorities in their midst. To ask for more rights for Sunnis while proposing laws and producing media propaganda that limit the same rights for Shiites is tantamount to repugnant supremacism.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. He is the author of a number of books and articles. Opinion herein are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

Free Syrian Army may have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity

Free Syrian Army may have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

Armed opposition groups operating inside Syria may have violated international humanitarian law by committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. Arguably, some members of the Syrian troops may also have committed similar violations. However, the self-incriminating evidence released by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups is simply overwhelming. The evidence used in this research note is gathered from documents, images, and videos released by both parties (the FSA and the Syrian government) and not independently collected from the field.

The materials examined show deliberate acts that contravene the Geneva Conventions, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and other treaties and customary laws (including classical Islamic law). The evidence is based on 12 months of monitoring websites and social media used by the Syrian warring parties. Thousands of video clips and hundreds of articles and images were examined leading to these disturbing and alarming conclusions.

Some groups affiliated with the FSA have conducted frequent raids on security forces check points and military outposts and captured soldiers and then executed them. In a number of videos, unarmed soldiers are shown with their hands tied behind their backs, gagged, and blindfolded, then shot dead execution style. Other videos show corpses of soldiers piled in trash dumps. A video released on October 3rd by the FSA group called Jabhat al-nusrah (communiqué 95) shows the bodies of 20 soldiers on the side of the road. The group identified them as “20 infidels from the troops of Assad captured and killed in Aleppo.”

Other videos depict armed opposition groups interrogating civilians (who bear signs of torture on their faces and bodies), accusing them of being members of the shabbihah (government supporters), and then executing them in public. These are serious violations, and are war crimes (under the Geneva Conventions, and the ICC Treaty) since they endanger protected persons (prisoners of war and the wounded and sick).

While Article 17 of the Fourth Geneva Convention provides that the “parties to the conflict shall endeavor to conclude local agreements for the removal [of noncombatants] from besieged or encircled areas,” overwhelming evidence emerged showing that armed groups placed civilians in harm’s way. Numerous documents show that armed groups, many of whom are from outside the city (and from other countries), have occupied residential neighborhoods in Aleppo and are endangering the lives of civilians. Some of the FSA groups laid siege to towns and bombarded them simply because in the majority of residents belonged to Shiite sects or were of Kurdish ethnicity. Armed groups occupied residential homes, and snipers used them to attack security forces. All these acts are known to cause harm to civilians and their property and can be classified as “deliberately endangering noncombatants,” which is also an egregious violation of the laws of war.

Some of the armed groups affiliated with the FSA use language that express contempt for other religious and ethnic groups, and express intent to “cleanse” Syria of non-Sunni Muslims. This basis for war violates international norms for the protection of minorities and the prohibitions on genocide.


It may be the case that the FSA leadership does not support such acts, but there was no evidence whatsoever that the FSA leadership or their foreign supporters intervened to stop these practices. In fact, as the New York Times reported, most of the financial and military support provided by foreign countries ends up making its way to the kind of groups that are suspected of committing these violations.

Given recent developments in the body of humanitarian laws, countries involved in support of groups involved in such activities could be liable for these crimes. The ICC Treaty for instance, holds the perpetrators as well as the enablers responsible for the same crime. Reportedly, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have provided financial and military aid to the FSA. If these reports are true, these states are complicit in the crimes committed by the FSA.

It is in the interest of peace and in the interest of the Syrian civilians that these unconscionable and abhorrent criminal acts stop and that the perpetrators are brought to justice. It cannot be the Syrian people’s wish or aspiration to replace a brutal authoritarian regime with a criminal, genocidal one.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

Burdening the victims: impact of US sanctions on human rights at home and abroad

Burdening the victims: impact of US sanctions on human rights at home and abroad

The case for peoples’ diplomacy

On the occasion of the start of the Persian New Year (Nowrūz), President Obama delivered a recorded video message to the Iranian people. In it, he highlighted the many ways the Iranian government denies its citizens access to information, including censoring media outlets and filtering the Internet. He declared that his administration is committed to communicating with the Iranian people despite the objections of their government “by making it easier for Iranian citizens to get the software and services they need to connect with the rest of the world through modern communications methods.”

As a candidate, Obama insisted—despite harsh criticism from other presidential candidates— that he would reach out to the Iranian leaders and talk to them in order to end the 30 year cold war. During his first year in office, President Obama offered to start a conversation with the Iranian leadership based on mutual respect. He then sent a letter, whose content was not disclosed, to the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei. As his first term in office ends, having failed to start any significant dialogue with the Iranian regime, the President outlined a new strategy designed to bypass the Iranian government and religious leaders and talk to the Iranian people directly. Will this strategy succeed? Unlikely; and here are several compelling reasons.

Besides the fact that the video message is representative of the predictable paternalistic attitude towards people of the third world, it also underscores the casual approach to solving one of the most critical international relations problems of the century; a problem that has far reaching economic, military, and political ramifications on the entire world.

First, it is neither diplomatic nor constructive to tell citizens of another sovereign nation who their leaders ought to be. If that was the norm as a matter of foreign policy, the Obama administration ought to develop a consistent standard by which it decides how to judge foreign governments. In that case, the U.S. administration would also tell the Saudis, the Kuwaitis, and the Bahrainis and many other U.S. allies that their governments are beneath the U.S. standards.

Second, although people-to-people (or people’s diplomacy) interactions build stronger and more lasting friendships between countries, the Obama administration is instead employing a government-to-people interaction, which is a flawed and problematic approach. For peoples’ diplomacy to succeed, the administration should enable and facilitate American citizens, especially Iranian-Americans and Muslim-Americans, to engage their counterparts in Iran. This and the previous administration have failed to rely on Muslim-Americans and call on them to serve their country. Instead, the administrations’ inability to integrate Muslims alienated many of them, and diminished the U.S.’s credibility abroad.

 A recent federal case against an American charitable organization, (United States of America v. Mehrdad Yasrebi and Child Foundation, 05-CR-413 KI (Oregon)), reveals the unfortunate state of Muslim-Americans,  the potential of peoples’ diplomacy, and the legal and practical problems with economic sanctions.

Zahra, one of thousands 
sponsored by the Child Foundation.

In the mid-1990s, Dr. Yasrebi, a passionate philanthropist, read a profile of an Afghan refugee in Iran, Zahra, a girl who lost her father at a young age. Her young mother abandoned her to make a new life for herself. Zahra, then 7 years old, was living with her grandparents. Her grandmother was disabled, and her old grandfather could not find a job. He would hang around construction sites every day collecting nails, which he would straighten and resell for enough money to feed his wife and granddaughter. The three lived in a cardboard box the size of a minivan. This and similar real life stories moved Dr. Yasrebi to act.

He founded the Child Foundation (CF), a U.S.-based charitable organization dedicated to helping needy children in Iran (his ancestral home), Afghanistan, and other countries where he had reliable, trustworthy contacts. He and his wife initially ran the organization from his residence. He built the organization from nothing. First, he asked friends to donate $20 a month, all of which he promised would go to providing food, shelter, clothes, books, and healthcare to needy children. He and his wife covered the overhead cost of the organization out of their own pockets. He also placed small donation boxes in retail stores. He asked long-distance phone companies to donate a percentage of the bill for international calls placed by individuals who purchased a calling plan with the companies. He reached out to the Iranian-American community and asked them to support his cause. After a decade of hard work, the CF became a large and reputable U.S. charity providing critical services to thousands of extremely needy but talented children from Iran and several other countries. Dr. Yasrebi still recalls the joy he felt after receiving letters from the many children he helped who are now lawyers, professors, teachers, doctors, and successful laborers enjoying a dignified life.

Since he insisted that the CF remain independent, unaffiliated with any political faction or religious denomination, the CF faced difficulties operating in Iran and even collecting donations from Shiite Muslims. Dr. Yasrebi spent considerable time writing letters explaining the nature of the charity’s work and asking religious leaders to issue fatwas allowing their followers to donate part of their alms to the CF. Because it is an American organization, the Iranian government, too, subjected the CF to additional scrutiny and limitations. But none of these obstacles measure up to what the CF, some donors, and Dr. Yasrebi have faced here in the United States.

Because of the U.S. sanctions against Iran that date back to the 1980s, the CF had great difficulty transferring funding and services to children in Iran. The scrutiny intensified after 9-11, and the CF and Dr. Yasrebi were subjected to secret monitoring, wiretapping, and FBI-led profiling. Then in 2008, federal agents conducted a synchronized raid at 6:00am on Dr. Yasrebi’s residence, his workplace, the office of the CF, and the residences of several other major contributors to the organization. The harsh raid traumatized Dr. Yasrebi’s children and the negative media coverage stigmatized his family.

After nearly seven years of intense investigation, the government offered Dr. Yasrebi two options: a trial in federal court, where he—and his wife—could face 20 to 25 years in prison for a myriad of charges including “cooperating with a terrorist organization,” or a plea under which Dr. Yasrebi would admit to minor violations and no charges would be brought against his wife. On the advice of his attorney, Dr. Yasrebi, fearing for his liberty and the well-being of his family, opted to take the plea. The government’s sentencing recommendation was a 30-month prison term and a fine of $50,000.

During sentencing, the defense attorneys argued that, even after a decade-long investigation, the government had failed to prove any of the charges against the CF and Dr Yasrebi. They added that the minor infractions to which Dr Yasrebi had admitted did not warrant such a harsh punishment for a well-respected member of the community. They explained that the U.S. administrations have repeatedly stated that the sanctions were not intended to punish the Iranian people, and therefore food and medicine were exempted. The attorneys asked the judge to reject the prosecutor’s sentencing recommendation and only impose a fine of $10,000.

Responding to the defense memo, the government insisted Dr. Yasrebi be imprisoned and heavily fined. The prosecutors advanced shockingly troubling arguments to justify their sentencing guidelines. They contended that while food and other necessary goods are exempted from the sanctions, providers must not buy them inside Iran. They also contended that the Child Foundation should not operate in Iran at all because by providing for needy Iranian children, the CF is making it possible for the Iranian government to spend money on more sinister projects.

Their insistence that charities must purchase food and clothes from outside Iran and then send them to beneficiaries inside Iran rest on the idea that Iranian merchants and businesses are linked to the government (perhaps because they are paying taxes?). This line of reasoning is both fallacious and cruel. These specious arguments and flawed logic put the lives and welfare of Americans at risk and give credence to arguments used by extremists and authoritarians to justify their indiscriminate acts of violence.

On March 6, 2012, Judge Garr King found all of the government’s claims that Dr. Yasrebi’s work was a risk to national security unfounded. Reportedly, Judge King concluded that “the government hadn’t produced evidence that Yasrebi or the charity were involved in funding terrorism.” He refused to approve the prison penalty recommendation proposed by the prosecutors. While the judge’s ruling more or less vindicates Dr. Yasrebi legally, the personal, mental, and financial damage he, his family, and the community have suffered is immeasurable. The case increased Muslim-Americans’ fears, anxiety, and alienation. It also exposes the ugly impact of economic sanctions on ordinary individuals abroad and at home.

First, Dr. Yasrebi’s employer, Precision Castparts, for whom he has worked for nearly two decades, fired him. When he called a headhunter to look for another job, he was told that they cannot help him because he is an admitted felon. After waiting 14 years to make a decision regarding Dr. Yasrebi’s application for citizenship, he was told that his application will be denied because of the case against him. They failed, however, to explain the 14-year delay, which has placed Dr. Yasrebi in a precarious position. Had Dr. Yasrebi been convicted of actual crimes, he could have been deported and his American-born U.S. citizen children would have been separated either from their father or their homeland.

Second, the U.S. v. Child Foundation case perpetuates a tormenting sense of fear and alienation among Muslim-Americans. It cuts familial bonds between Americans and their relatives living in their ancestral homelands. It creates classes of citizenship, allowing naturalized U.S. citizens to be treated as second-class. It punishes Muslim-Americans for the sins of the regimes they left behind.

Third, this case proves once again that economic sanctions rarely harm regimes, but rather destroy the fabric of society by imposing more hardships on the poor, the needy, and the vulnerable. Importantly, this case has exposed the negative impact of sanctions on U.S. citizens, legal residents, and organizations.

The prosecution of Dr. Yasrebi has had chilling effects on U.S. residents and naturalized citizens, especially those with contacts in other countries. A naturalized U.S. citizen will be fearful of sending money to an ailing mother in a country that is or may in the future be under U.S sanctions. Academicians will hesitate to collaborate with colleagues in places like Iran and Cuba. Activists will be reluctant to assist political prisoners and human rights advocates in countries under sanctions. NGOs will be unwilling to engage their counterparts in places where their work on behalf of the poor and the voiceless is most needed.

The United States v. Mehrdad Yasrebi and CF case ought to be considered in light of the case of American NGO workers arrested and charged in Egypt after the revolution there. If the American government continues to prosecute its own citizens and legal residents for providing aid to needy children in a Muslim country, what claim (and credibility) could the administration have now or in the future in helping Americans targeted by less democratic regimes in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Pakistan, and other Muslim countries?

In fact, the prosecution of Dr. Yasrebi on charges of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran by providing charitable work in that country pales compared to the possibility of his facing charges in Iran for being an agent of the West. After all, Dr. Yasrebi worked for nearly 20 years for a company that had significant business deals with the U.S. military. Naturally, given the U.S.’s continuing military threats, the Iranian government could argue that Dr. Yasrebi is directly providing the U.S. armed forces with the technology and the tools that will be used to attack Iran. That is a far easier case to make than the one leveled against Dr. Yasrebi by the U.S. government.

This case exemplifies the risks and pain of unintended consequences and puts human faces on the victims of the sanctions that were supposed to punish a rogue government, not its people or the people of this country. The so-called targeted sanctions presume that the other side will not adapt. The reality is different and far more complex. A bank that is not under sanctions today could be tomorrow, and that complicates their business relations. A bank under sanctions today may simply change its name to escape them. Sanctions hardly work to change governments’ behavior. Peoples’ diplomacy is the alternative to sanctions and military threats. It is effective, humane, powerful, empowering, and constructive.

President Obama’s declaration that he will use American resources to provide Iranians with access to the Internet while the U.S. government is prosecuting Iranian-Americans for providing food, clothes, medicine, clothing and educational materials to needy children flies in the face of logic and common sense. His recent overture towards the Iranian people should start here in the U.S. by empowering Iranian-Americans to speak on behalf of the people of their adopted country, to highlight its virtues, and to build bridges between peoples.

If President Obama wants Muslim-Americans to continue to speak out against brutal regimes in their ancestral homes, condemn extremist expressions in Muslim societies, and promote civil society and citizen-centered governance in the Islamic world, then he must start by making sure that Muslim-Americans are not second-class citizens, that their citizenship is not a bargaining chip, and that their loyalty will not be questioned. President Obama can begin by ordering a review of this and similar cases to make sure that the government did not break any laws or violate any civil rights while investigating and prosecuting such cases. Furthermore, the delay in Dr. Yasrebi’s application for citizenship, and the subsequent denial of that application, should be investigated to ensure that the same standard applies to all applicants, and to establish that his application was not denied because of his ethnicity, religion, or charitable work.

Unlike other indictments where terrorism charges were leveled, this particular case did not receive national media attention—possibly due to the extremely weak evidence the government presented. But the government’s treatment of the defendants, the nature of the charges, and the language used by the prosecutors in the case documents examined for this article underscore the interconnectedness of domestic and foreign policy and the impact of this connection on U.S. citizens and the country’s standing in the Islamic world. It exposes an undercurrent of mistrust and prejudice towards Iranian Muslims. It depicts instances of willful ignorance of Islamic cultures. It illustrates a stunning disregard of the civil and constitutional rights of Muslim-Americans.

* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

Libyan and European rulers’ treatment of Blacks and immigrant workers: Apathy in the face of Cruelty

Libyan and European rulers’ treatment of Blacks and immigrant workers: Apathy in the face of Cruelty

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

Since the start of the Libyan uprising, mainstream news outlets have reported that African and even Eastern European mercenaries were fighting with Qaddafi’s forces. The Libyan rebels, eager to minimize any support for Qaddafi among the Libyan population, have fed western media horror stories of mass murder carried out by Black Africans. Consequently, many immigrant workers were caught between the ire of a regime that did not care much for them and a new wave of prejudice and discrimination fueled by the media and rebel propaganda. The fact that some foreigners fought for the regime does not tell the full story. Most African immigrants were unwilling participants in a war that no one had anticipated.

In order to understand the presence of so many Africans and non-Africans in Libya, one must understand the role played by the former dictator.

Using Libya’s large oil revenues as if they constituted his personal fortune, Qaddafi engaged in meddling in the affairs of his neighbors, supporting nationalist movements, and conspiring to overthrow regimes he did not like. He also used immigrant workers to blackmail his neighbors. In the 1980s and 1990s Qaddafi gave hundreds of thousands of Tunisian workers hours, not days, to leave the country empty-handed. The sudden “dumping” of workers without their earnings was meant to create economic and social crisis for neighboring governments. That was his way of punishing the Tunisian authoritarians Bourguiba and Ben Ali. He used the same tactic with the Egyptians. But Qaddafi’s most bizarre achievement was coaxing some European leaders to use him as a gatekeeper, in charge of preventing Africans from reaching the shores of Europe.
Speaking at a ceremony in Rome on August 31, 2010 and standing next to (then) Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Qaddafi declared:

Tomorrow Europe might no longer be European, and even black, as there are millions who want to come in. We don’t know what will happen, what will be the reaction of the white and Christian Europeans faced with this influx of starving and ignorant Black Africans. We don’t know if Europe will remain an advanced and united continent or if it will be destroyed, as happened with the barbarian invasions.

European leaders did not object to these words, despite their abhorrently racist nature. In fact, even after the Libyan people began their revolution in early 2011, Berlusconi claimed that his personal friendship with Qaddafi prevented him from taking an active role in NATO’s mission in Libya.
What was never asked is the obvious question: why would Africans demeaned, insulted, and belittled by the dictator risk their lives for him? Why would “ignorant Black Africans” pay with their blood and sweat for a dictator who called them so?
According to reports, Qaddafi asked the EU to pay him about $6.3 billion a year to stop illegal African immigration. It is evident that since the Italy-Libya friendship agreement, Qaddafi became very effective in stopping the flow of African immigrants to Europe through Italy. According to European Commission figures, the number of people caught trying to enter Italy illegally fell from 32,052 in 2008 to 7,300 in 2009. These figures do not include the number of young men who perished at sea trying to find different escape routes. They drowned when their makeshift rafts fell apart. Those who reached the EU shores were immediately returned to the brutal regimes of North Africa. On numerous occasions, Italy intercepted immigrants and handed them over to Libyan authorities without screening and without the due process required by human rights treaties.
Unemployed Africans, like unemployed Latin Americans, go north to make a living and to feed their families, not to fight ideological wars. Immigrants cannot choose their line of work. In the case of Libya, Qaddafi used European money to hire some of these immigrants, and to deport others. Given his distrust of his own people, he hired many of these immigrants in the security sector before the uprising began.
Like in the U.S., the rights of immigrant workers are not part of the national conversation until there are national economic implications. In the U.S., a national need for seasonal migrant workers meant that the government eased border controls to allow up to 12 million people to cross. When the unemployment rate went up and the economy slowed down, all political parties developed slogans to deal with immigration issues. In Libya, Qaddafi used immigrant workers as bargaining chip to blackmail other states.
In Europe, former colonial powers wanted to limit migration from Africa. They relied on the southern rim countries to keep sub-Saharan Africans from reaching Africa’s northern shores. Then, in 2008, the French president and several other European leaders pushed for the creation of the Union for the Mediterranean, consisting of over 40 nations with the actual (but unstated) aims of offering Turkey an alternative to the EU and creating a buffer zone in North Africa. Naturally, these efforts failed given the dissonance between its stated goals and intended aims.
The former Libyan dictator’s words and European attitudes towards the people from the south is more than economic and social policies. They stem from latent racism and cruel indifference to the plight of millions of people who have been disadvantaged by unfair economic trade, political corruption, and natural disasters. While the latter cannot be blamed on anyone, the former two causes of unemployment and poverty in the south can easily be traced to Western complicity. Western leaders’ support of corrupt dictators and unfair trade practices contributed to the harsh conditions these people want to escape. Both sides– African and European–would be better served by an honest commitment to respecting human dignity irrespective of national origin and citizenship status. The powerful North ought to adopt an international relations system founded on shared humanity, not on artificial borders.

* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. He is the author of the book, Contesting Justice. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.
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