Friday, July 8, 2011

Gender Equality in Sharia Courts?

by Deborah Weiss

The treatment of women under Islamic Sharia law is inherently discriminatory against women. Alarmed by the suffering of Muslim women at the hands of Sharia Courts in Britain, Baroness Cox recently introduced legislation into parliament which would ensure gender equality in Britain’s Sharia Courts.

Pursuant to the Arbitration Act of 1996, litigating parties are permitted to forgo the British court system and have their cases heard in an arbitral tribunal if both parties agree on the tribunal, are willing to relinquish their rights to a judge and jury, and voluntarily consent to the arbitration. Sharia Courts have operated informally in Britain for quite some time. However, in 2007 Sheik Faiz-ul-Aqtab Siddiqi discovered a clause in the Arbitration Act which rightly made him realize Sharia Courts could be classified as arbitration tribunals. Subsequently, he began heading up the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal to oversee the Sharia Courts. Once classified as arbitration tribunals, the British government began enforcing Sharia judgments with the full force of law.

According to a report by the Civitas think tank in England, as of two years ago there were approximately 85 Sharia Courts operating in Britain. The Arbitration Act of 1996 permits tribunals to rule on financial and property issues. However, the report asserted that many of the Sharia Courts exceeded permissible jurisdictional boundaries by advising on matters of marriage, divorce, child custody and domestic violence. By law, family and criminal matters are not arbitrable. This illegal expansion of jurisdiction has been dubbed “jurisdiction creep.”

The arbitral rulings and advisory opinions issued by Sharia Courts mandate the disparate treatment of women. Under Sharia law, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s, she is awarded half the inheritance of her male counterparts, custody laws grossly shortshrift women, and property laws provide unequal rights based on gender.

In terms of mediation efforts, Sharia Courts often merely hand the parties pre-determined outcomes that comport with the laws of Sharia and request both parties to sign consent forms. Then, the forms are submitted to the Family Court on the false premise that the terms were truly negotiated by the parties involved.

To make matters worse, many Muslim marriages take place solely under religious ceremonies and are not registered with the state as required by the Marriage Act of 1949. Thus, these “marriages” are not civilly recognized and the “wives” are not afforded any legal protections. Interestingly, the problem of non-registration appears only in the Muslim community. Jews and Christians always register their marriages civilly even when the wedding ceremony is religious in nature.

Unfortunately, there are Muslim women who fled their homelands to escape the oppression of Sharia law, only to find they are facing a similar situation in the UK. Because many Muslim immigrants are illiterate, the women are unaware of their rights under British law. It is legal to consent to arbitration if the acquiescence is voluntary. However, often in Muslim communities women are threatened, intimidated or otherwise coerced into submitting to Sharia Courts. Thus, it is not truly voluntary.

Baroness Cox finds the injustice to Muslim women and the discriminatory judgments being handed down by Sharia Courts to be disconcerting. In addition, many British judges have begun questioning whether Sharia rulings comply with the UK’s obligations to ensure gender equality under the Human Rights Act.

Accordingly, Baroness Cox’s bill, titled “The Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill,” if passed into law, makes it clear that sex discrimination laws apply to arbitration tribunals as well as civil courts. It would prohibit unequal treatment of testimony, uneven-handedness of property, inheritance distribution, and financial rulings. It would also make it a crime punishable by up to five years in jail to falsely assert jurisdiction over family and criminal matters. Finally, the bill mandates that in unregistered marriages, public authorities must inform the parties that they are required to register their marriages in order to secure legal rights.

In other words, the bill requires Sharia Courts to acknowledge the priority of British law over Sharia law when the two conflict, and to preserve the British values of human rights and equality for women.

The bill does not mention Islam or Sharia by name. However, both the Baroness’ comments, as well as the Explanatory Note attached to the bill, make it clear that the legislation was prompted by concerns of the inequality executed in Sharia Courts and the fact that Sharia Courts have regularly, gradually, and illegally expanded their jurisdiction.

Various secular, Christian and Iranian-Kurdish women’s rights groups support the Baroness’ bill.

It comes on the foot-heels of the Home Secretary’s admission that Britain’s anti-terrorism program failed to recognize the extent of radical Islamist ideology and its influence in Britain, and an acknowledgment of Britain’s continuing problems of lack of integration and assimilation by the Islamic community. It is therefore no surprise that some Muslims are complaining about this legislation.

Turning a blind eye to the lack of consent, their ignorance of the law, the cries of suffering women, and the failure of Sharia Courts to inform Muslim women of their rights, Khurshid Drabu, constitutional adviser to the Muslim Council of Britain argued, “[B]ills of this kind don’t help anybody.” He accused lawmakers of failing to understand the “freedom” that Britain ensures whereby Muslim women should be permitted to submit to Sharia rulings.

Deborah Weiss


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

Israel 1, Flotilla 0

by P. David Hornik

On Thursday a possibly last, straggling member of the abortive flotilla, a French yacht called the Dignity, set sail—against all odds—for Gaza. Its dignity was soon compromised when, trying to refuel in Crete, the Greek coast guard detained it. The yacht had all of eight passengers on board.

For Israelis the flotilla’s failure has been an encouraging spectacle. On the diplomatic front, Israel successfully got the points across that: there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza; anyone who wants to provide supplies to it can do so through Israeli and Egyptian land routes; and the “second flotilla” was simply a malign provocation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it “neither necessary or useful”; Britain, France, and the Netherlands issued travel advisories against it; Greece, Cyprus, and even Turkey worked to restrain it.

Regarding Israel’s naval arms embargo of Gaza, the Middle East Quartet—consisting of the U.S., the EU, the UN, and Russia and by no means necessarily understanding of Israel’s challenges—went so far as to cite Israel’s “legitimate security concerns that must continue to be safeguarded.” The Quartet also called for an end to the “deplorable five-year detention of Gilad Shalit,” whose terrible plight is not exactly high on the list of the purportedly humanitarian flotillistas.

And on the legal front, Israel’s independent Shurat Hadin legal center waged a valiant and successful campaign, deterring insurance companies from underwriting what was clearly a leftist-jihadist, Hamas-supporting venture.

Lest there be any doubt, pertinacious bloggers have exposed the flotillistas’ real aims “straight from the horse’s mouth,” as one of the bloggers, the British author and columnist Melanie Phillips, put it. In a June 29 post she revealed that “Adam Shapiro, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement and a board member of the Free Gaza Movement (which is behind the flotilla)” had spilled the beans in a meeting last November at Rutgers University, stating (the blog post includes the video) that:

Free Gaza is but one tactic of a larger strategy, to transform this conflict from one between Israel and the Palestinians, or Israel and the Arab world…to one between the rest of the world and Israel…. [applause]

Free Gaza is a tactic…all of it is part of a strategy now to transform the conflict and internationalize it and really undermine Israel where it gets its most support….

Free Gaza’s chairman for the Netherlands, Rob Groenhuizen, was even more forthright. As reported by Yochanan Visser, “the Dutch blog KeesjeMaduraatje…revealed that…Groenhuizen…was a convicted communist extremist who used to be a member of Dutch groups affiliated with the German terrorist [Red Army Faction].” Fittingly enough, Groenhuizen wrote in an email about the second flotilla:

This game about humanitarian aid is part of a tremendous plot—something that Israel tries to postpone as long as possible—but with every uprising in the Arab world and each mistake Israel makes, the end is coming nearer.… Everybody knows Israel is not sustainable.

The “plot” is set to continue on Friday with a mass “fly-in” of pro-Palestinian, pro-terror, kill-Israel activists to Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport. Their movement—the only one in the world dedicated to destroying a country—appears still to be coasting on the “success” of last year’s flotilla, which indeed ignited world condemnation of Israel when some of its soldiers fought back against a brutal mob on the Mavi Marmara.

This despite the fact that the more recent staged spectacles have been less successful. The May 15 Nakba Day march to Israel’s borders generated some bad publicity for Israel; the June 4 Naksa Day march, for which Israel was much better prepared, considerably less. Israel’s head of military intelligence revealed this week that Iran was active in planning both events—and disappointed with the results. As for the second flotilla, it can already be dubbed a flop.

The lesson for Israel is that some of the same governments and world bodies that rushed to lambast it over the Mavi Marmara a year ago can take more reasonable positions if Israel works hard in advance to impress on them the truth. That approach is also working, to some extent, regarding the Palestinians’ planned statehood declaration in September. The Netanyahu government—slurred by many in the world and by the left in Israel as “extremist” and “hard-line”—deserves much credit.

P. David Hornik


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Rival Hegemons in Syria

by Caroline Glick

Last Saturday, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah gave Hezbollah-backed Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati the political equivalent of a public thrashing. Last Thursday, Mikati gave a speech in which he tried to project an image of a leader of a government that has not abandoned the Western world completely. Mikati gave the impression that his Hezbollah-controlled government is not averse to cooperating with the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon. The Special Tribunal just indicted four Hezbollah operatives for their role in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

But on Saturday night, Nasrallah gave a speech in which he made clear that he has no intention whatsoever of cooperating with the Special Tribunal and that since he runs the show in Lebanon, Lebanon will not cooperate in any way with the UN judicial body. As an editorial at the NOW Lebanon website run by the anti- Hezbollah March 14 movement wrote, last Saturday night Nasrallah "demolished Mikati's authority and the office from whence it comes, and used it as a rag to mop up what is left of Lebanese dignity."

The March 14 movement has tried to make the Special Tribunal the litmus test for Mikati's legitimacy, demanding that his government either cooperate with the UN Special Tribunal, or resign. But the fact is that the March 14 movement is no match for Hezbollah. Its protests are not capable of dislodging the Iranian-controlled jihadist movement from power.

Just as it always has, the fate of Lebanon today lies in the hands of outside powers. Hezbollah rules the roost in Lebanon because it is backed by Syria and Iran. Unlike the US and France, Iran and Syria are willing to fight for their proxy's control over Lebanon. And so their proxy controls Lebanon. It follows then that assuming the US and France will continue to betray their allies in the March 14 democracy movement, Hezbollah will be removed from power in Lebanon only if its outside sponsors are unseated.

And it is this prospect, more than the UN Special Tribunal, that is keeping Nasrallah up at nights.

Last month, France's Le Figaro reported that Hezbollah has moved hundreds of long-range Iranian-built Zilzal and Fajr 3 and Fajr 4 missiles from its missile depots in Syria to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. The missile transfer was due to Hezbollah's fear that Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime is on the verge of being toppled.

And there is good reason for Hezbollah's concern. The breadth and depth of the anti-regime protests in Syria far overshadow the anti-regime protests in Egypt and Tunisia. As Victor Kotsev noted this week in the Asia Times, something like half a million people participated in the anti-regime demonstrations in Hama last Friday. Since, according to Syria's 2009 census, Hama has just over 700,000 residents, the rate of public participation in the anti-regime protests dwarfs anything seen in any other Arab state since the anti-regime protests began last December.

According to Tariq Alhomayed, the editor in chief of Asharq Al-Awsat in English, Assad fired his provincial governor of Hama following last Friday's demonstration for not shooting the demonstrators.

Assad's move is yet another clear sign that he has no intention of compromising with his opponents. He will sooner destroy his country then let anyone else rule it.

And this makes sense. A son of the Alawite sect that makes up just 12 percent of Syria's population, Assad has no serious support base in Syrian society outside his family-controlled military. He has repressed every group in his society including much of his own Alawite sect. As Syria expert Gary Gambill noted in Foreign Policy on Thursday, Assad has no post-regime prospects.

And so he can entertain no notion of compromise with his people.

Like Hezbollah, Assad's ability to survive is also going to be determined elsewhere. To date, the US has backed Assad against the Syrian people and Europe has gone along.

For their part, the Iranians and their Hezbollah proxies are actively working to ensure their favored outcome in Syria. In testimony before the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday, IDF Intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi repeated his claim that Iran and Hezbollah are actively assisting Assad's forces in killing and repressing the Syrian people.

Kochavi explained, "The great motivation Iran and Hezbollah have to assist [Assad] comes from their deep worry regarding the implications these events might have, particularly losing control of their cooperation with the Syrians and having such events slide onto their own territories."

From Iran's perspective, the prospect of a renewal of the Green Movement anti-regime protests is the gravest threat facing the regime today as it reaches the nuclear threshold. As Iran expert Michael Ledeen wrote this week at Pajamas Media, the Iranian regime itself is plagued by internal fissures due to escalating estrangement and rivalry between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and supreme dictator Ali Khamenei.

Their infighting can be compared to pirates arguing over the division of their stolen loot as their ship sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Iran's economy is failing. Its inflation rate is around 50%. Its people hate the regime. Lacking the ability to win the public over through politics, since the Green Movement protests in 2009 the regime has simply terrorized the Iranian people into submission.

Their fear of their people has only grown since the anti-regime protests in the Arab world began last December. And in line with this heightened fear, the regime has tripled its rate of public executions since the start of the year.

The Iranian regime understands that if Syria falls, it is liable to lose its ability keep its people down. The Alawite-dominated Syrian military is far more loyal to the Assad regime than the Iranian army is to the Iranian regime. And there have already been defections from the Syrian army among the junior officer corps.

Fearing insubordination in the ranks of its military and Revolutionary Guards, in 2009 the regime reportedly brought Hezbollah operatives to Iran to kill anti-regime demonstrators.

If Assad falls, Hezbollah will lose its logistical supply line from Iran. Moreover, Hezbollah will be so busy fending off challenges from no-longer-daunted Lebanese Sunnis empowered by their Syrian brethren, that its operatives will be less available to kill Iranian protesters.

With the US compliant with Assad and maintaining its policy of appeasing the Iranian regime, the only outside government currently making an attempt to influence events in Syria is Turkey. Although it is being careful to couch its anti-Assad policy in the rhetoric of compromise, given Assad's inability to make any deal with his opponents, simply by calling for him to compromise, the Turkish government is making it clear that it seeks Assad's overthrow. Turkey's talk of sending troops into Syria to protect civilians and its willingness to set up refugee camps for the Syrians from border towns fleeing the Assad regime's goons, make clear that Ankara is vying to expand its sphere of influence to Damascus in a post-Assad Syria.

Ankara's plans are all the more apparent when seen in the context of Turkish Prime Minister Recip Erdogan's moves to reinstate Turkey as a regional hegemon along the lines of the Ottoman Empire. To this end, according to a report this week in The Hindu, since Erdogan's Islamist AK Party formed its first government in 2003, it has been actively cultivating ties with Muslim Brotherhood movements throughout the region. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has deep ties to the Turkish government and the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood branch Hamas has been publicly supported by Erdogan's government since 2006.

In the event that Turkey plays a significant role in a post-Assad Syria, it can be expected that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood would fairly rapidly take control of the country.

Many commentators have argued that Turkey's anti-Assad stance indicates that the recent warming of ties between Tehran and Ankara, (which among other things saw Erdogan siding with Iran against the US at the UN Security Council), is over.

But things in the Middle East are never cut and dried. While it is true that Turkey and Iran are rival hegemons, it is also true that they're also allied hegemons. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Syria and Gaza have close ties to Hezbollah and Iran as well as to Turkey. Al-Qaida in Lebanon has close ties to Syria and working relationships with Hezbollah.

Then again, if Assad is overthrown, and his overthrow reinvigorates the Iranian Green revolution, given the pro-Western orientation of much of Iranian society, it is likely that at a minimum, Iran would drastically scale back its sponsorship of Hezbollah and other terror groups.

For Israel, Assad's overthrow will be clear strategic gain in the short-and medium-term, even if a post-Assad Syrian government exchanges Syria's Iranian overlords with Turkish overlords. Syria's main threats to Israel stem from Assad's support for Palestinian terrorists and Hezbollah, and from his ballistic missile and nuclear programs. While Turkey would perhaps maintain support for Palestinian terrorists and perhaps for Lebanese terrorists, it does not share Syria's attraction to missiles and nuclear weapons as Iran does. Moreover, Ankara would not have a strong commitment to Hezbollah and so the major threat to Israel in Lebanon would be severely weakened.

Moreover, if Assad's potential overthrow leads to increased revolutionary activities in Iran, the regime will have less time to devote to its nuclear program, and its nuclear installations will become more vulnerable to penetration and sabotage. A successor regime in Iran, seeking close ties with the West and be willing to pay for those ties by setting aside Iran's nuclear program.

In the long-term, the reestablishment of a Turkish sphere of influence in the Arab world in Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt through the Muslim Brotherhood will be extremely dangerous for Israel. With its jihadist ideology, its powerful conventional military forces, its strong economy and its strategic ties to the US and Europe, Turkey's rise as a regional hegemon would present Israel with a difficult challenge.

Despite the massive dimensions of the anti-regime protests, it is still impossible to know how the situation in Syria will pan out. This uncertainty is heightened by the US's passivity in the face of the uprising against its worst foe in the Arab world.

Given the strategic opportunities and dangers the situation in Syria presents to it, Israel cannot be a bystander in the drama unfolding to its north. True, Israel does not have the power the US has to dictate the outcome. But to the extent it is able to influence events, Israel should actively assist the non-Islamist regime opponents in Syria. This includes first and foremost the Syrian Kurds, but also the non-Islamist Sunni business class, the Druse and the Christians who are all participating the anti-regime protests. Israel should also oppose Turkish military intervention in Syria and openly advocate the establishment of a democratic, federal government in Syria to replace Assad's dictatorship.

It might not work. But if it does, the payoff will be extraordinary.

Caroline Glick
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

Where Is Promised Arab Funding for the Palestinians?

by Khaled Abu Toameh

The Palestinian Authority has announced that it is facing a severe financial crisis, largely due to the failure of Arab countries to fulfill their promises to help the Palestinians.

Because of the failure of the Arab countries to provide financial aid to the Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority is almost entirely dependent on US and EU contributions.

The financial crisis in the Palestinian Authority raises doubts as to whether the Palestinians are indeed ready for statehood. If the Palestinian Authority has to ask Americans and Europeans to pay salaries to its civil servants, how can it demand an independent and sovereign state from the United Nations in September?

What other country in the world depends on foreign aid to support its civil servants and employees?

In addition, the Palestinian Authority should launch a real and serious investigation to find out what happened to hundreds of millions of dollars that went missing under Yasser Arafat. Many Palestinians believe that the stolen money could resolve the current crisis and improve their living conditions.

The Palestinian Authority should at least show the US and the EU countries that it is making an effort to restore the money and punish those responsible for embezzlement. Future aid to the Palestinians should be contingent on the Palestinian Authority leaders' proving that they have done their utmost to get the money back.

If the Palestinian leadership does not comply and continues to ignore the issue, as it has done for the past few years, then the US and the EU should reconsider their policy of funding the Palestinian Authority without holding it accountable.

The US and the EU also have every right to demand that the Palestinian Authority stop inciting against Israel and the West: this incitement has only radicalized many Palestinians. There is no reason why Western donors should be funding the same propaganda machine that is calling for their death.

So far, however, the Palestinian Authority does not seem to be serious about tracing the missing funds or softening its tone. Even worse, some of the Palestinian officials who were involved in financial corruption are continuing to serve in the Palestinian Authority as if nothing has happened.

And they are at the same time continuing to incite their people against Israel, the US and other Western countries.

The Palestinian Authority will not meet any of these demands unless it comes under pressure from the US and the EU.

Prime Minister Salam Fayyad announced that, because of the crisis, his government would pay only half-salaries to employees and civil servants. His aides say they do not know when the crisis will end.

Palestinian officials in Ramallah point out that with the exception of three countries – the United Arab Emirates, Algiers and Qatar – the rest of the Arab world has failed to meet its financial obligations to the Palestinian Authority.

"We have received less than 10% of what the Arab world has promised us over the past 15 years," the officials say.

The Arab world's attitude toward the Palestinian Authority in particular, and the Palestinians in general. should not surprise anyone who has been following Palestinian-Arab relations.

Most of the Arab countries, especially the oil-rich Gulf states, stopped giving the Palestinians money after the PLO supported Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in the early 1990s.

Until then, the Arabs, including Kuwait, used to give the PLO billions of dollars a year. The Palestinians have since been paying the price of the mistake the PLO made when it embraced Saddam Hussein and congratulated him on the "liberation" of Kuwait.

After the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, many Arab countries promised to resume financial aid to the Palestinians at the request of the Americans and Europeans.

Almost every Arab summit that has been held since then has approved hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians. But the Arabs have since failed to fulfill their promises, leaving the Palestinians entirely dependent on American and European donations.

If the Egyptians were able to lay their hands on huge sums that were deposited in Western banks by Hosni Mubarak and his sons and top aides, there is no reason why the Palestinian Authority should not follow suit and try to retrieve the missing funds.

And the US and EU should exert pressure on the Arab countries to help their Palestinian brothers: there is no reason why wealthy Arab countries should not be helping the Palestinians as they pledged to do.

Khaled Abu Toameh


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Prince Goes from 'Darling Nikki' to 'Darling Niqab'

by David J. Rusin

Prince, the purple-clad rocker, caused many a jaw to drop last month over his laughably sanguine view of life in the Muslim world:

It's fun being in Islamic countries, to know there's only one religion. There's order. You wear a burqa. There's no choice. People are happy with that.

As a piece in the Guardian notes, "The singer who once sang of '23 positions in a one-night stand' praises Islamic countries for offering 'no choice.'" Indeed, this writer of "Darling Nikki," a song celebrating a rendezvous with a "sex fiend" who likes to "grind," appears to have switched loyalties to the "darling niqab," symbol of a freedom-crushing system that persecutes women for doing far less than "Nikki" would.

Though the words of an eccentric musician might seem irrelevant, they highlight a trend of prominent Americans whitewashing the plight of women under Shari'a:

  • Dalia Mogahed, Obama appointee and Gallup Center for Muslim Studies executive director, declared in a 2009 TV interview: "We found that the majority of women around the world associate gender justice, or justice for women, with Shari'a compliance, whereas only a small fraction associated oppression of women with compliance with the Shari'a." According to Cinnamon Stillwell, Mogahed works to "portray Shari'a law as what Muslim women want."

  • Naomi Wolf, a leftist author, penned a valentine to Islamic garments in 2008, characterizing them as the regalia of female liberation. After walking through a Moroccan bazaar in some concealing attire, she gushed over "the curve of my breasts covered, the shape of my legs obscured, my long hair not flying about me — I felt a novel sense of calm and serenity." Phyllis Chesler savaged Wolf, reminding her that in many Islamic nations, uncovered women risk being "beaten, threatened with death, arrested, caned or lashed, jailed, or honor murdered."

  • Miriam Cooke, a professor at Duke and reputed expert on Middle Eastern women, has argued that Islamic "polygamy can be liberating and empowering." As the linked 2003 article explains, Cooke holds that "some women … are relieved when their husbands take a new wife: they won't have to service him so often," perhaps even freeing them to find a lover. Asked if this is likely given the punishments for adultery, Cooke claimed not to know. "I'm interested in discourse," she added.

Whether ideology or ignorance drives high-profile Westerners to becloud the hardships of women in Shari'a-heavy nations, their words promote blindness just the same. Only by recognizing the realities that female Muslims face from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan can we effectively support women's rights there, while countering emergent Islamist threats — including polygamy, honor crime, and Shari'a tribunals — to women's rights here.

David J. Rusin


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The Hard Man of Damascus

by Gary Gambill

With Syrian troops encircling the city of Hama, Barack Obama's administration and its European counterparts continue to hold out hope that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can be coaxed into accepting a peaceful transition to democracy. Instead of joining the protesters in demanding Assad's resignation, the U.S. envoy to Damascus, Robert Ford, is encouraging prominent dissidents to hold a dialogue with the regime.

Unfortunately, there are no plausible circumstances under which a democratic transition would constitute a rational choice for the embattled dictator, and it appears exceedingly unlikely that the Syrian people will peacefully accept anything less. The Syrian people's fight for freedom promises to be long, uncertain, and violent.

The crux of the problem is Syria's unique minority-dominated power structure, which is most closely comparable to Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Alawites, a heterodox Islamic sect comprising roughly 12 percent of Syria's population, may not be the privileged minority suggested by some Western media reports, but they provide both the brains and the muscle for a secular authoritarian political order that would otherwise be untenable.

Alawite solidarity renders the loyalty of the internal military-security apparatus nearly inviolable, enabling Assad to mete out a level of repression far beyond the capacity of most autocrats. The bloodiest government reprisal during Poland's long struggle for democracy -- the killing of nine Solidarity strikers in December 1981 -- would make for a very placid Friday afternoon in today's Syria, where over 1,400 have been gunned down in less than four months. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's police quickly disintegrated under comparable strains, while his army engineered his downfall in less than three weeks.

The powerful stigma associated with Alawite hegemony over a majority Sunni population both necessitates and enables this police state. While the sectarian identity of Assad and his chief lieutenants is not the primary grievance of most Syrians, a substantial minority -- perhaps 10 to 20 percent, mostly religious Sunnis -- loathe the regime so deeply that they cannot be co-opted and will exploit any respite from repression to mobilize against it. This feeds into the existential insecurities felt by most Alawites and makes it nearly impossible for the regime to safely liberalize.

A straight-up transition to democracy under these circumstances is difficult to fathom. A freely elected Syrian government would surely be dominated by Sunnis, responsive to their demands, and therefore strongly disposed to mete out harsh justice for the preceding decades of brutal tyranny. Assad could never rationally accept such a transition unless his regime was on the verge of collapse, by which time a peaceful transfer of power would be exceedingly unlikely.

Other countries have solved this conundrum by negotiating an agreement whereby an autocratic regime consents to free and fair elections, in exchange for the opposition's acceptance of limitations on the new government's authority to punish or dispossess existing stakeholders. By drawing into the process those who have the power to disrupt a peaceful transition, extrication pacts have propelled robust democratic breakthroughs in such thorny political climates as apartheid South Africa and Gen. Augusto Pinochet's Chile.

A "pacted" transition requires that a critical mass of the ruling elite come to prefer "democracy with guarantees" over the costs of continuing to forcibly monopolize power. Elite beneficiaries of authoritarian rule range from soft-liners, who have the fungible assets and limited criminal liability to make it in the "real" world of democracy, to hard-liners, who don't. When there is a decline in the regime's ability to forcibly ensure continued public quiescence, soft-liners have growing incentives to hedge their bets by seeking a political accommodation with the opposition.

Unfortunately, Assad is a hard-liner. Under the present circumstances, he can count on solid Alawite backing, strong support from other religious minorities, and the acquiescence of many Sunnis who are prosperous, staunchly secular, or militantly anti-Zionist. These allegiances, however, would quickly evaporate in a democratic Syria. Absent the looming threat of catastrophic domestic upheaval, a regime-less Assad family may not even command majority support among Alawites.

In contrast, the livelihoods of most Syrian civil servants, businessmen, military officers, and others who benefit inordinately from the current order -- a broadly multi-confessional elite -- would not necessarily be threatened by a negotiated transition to more representative government. In contrast with Mubarak's Egypt, however, soft-liners have not been allowed to gain autonomous power within the state -- their ability to comfortably inhabit a post-authoritarian Syria puts them squarely outside the Assad family's circle of trust.

The president's extraordinarily thin base of popular support and uncertain relations with soft-liners militate against a pacted transition. Whatever formal guarantees of immunity and institutional prerogatives Assad might eke out of the process, his acute political vulnerability will make it very risky for him to linger very long in a free Syria. Even Pinochet, whose sympathizers captured 40 to 50 percent of the national vote for many years after his departure, found that democratic republics eventually tire of honoring their prenatal promises to powerless ex-tyrants.

Even if Assad were amenable to a deal, a pacted transition also requires that the regime and the opposition be capable of making credible commitments to each other. Outgoing autocrats must have faith that their erstwhile adversaries will hold up their end of the bargain after the tables have turned, while opposition leaders must have reason to trust that the regime will not renege on its commitments once the threat of mass popular mobilization has receded.

Neither condition exists in Syria. Years of state repression have left the country with no organized opposition of sufficient stature to credibly promise anything to the regime, while Assad's failure to honor past reform pledges makes most Syrians very skeptical that he can take bold action.

There is no easy fix to this impasse. Transition experts ordinarily prescribe an extended period of negotiated liberalization to cultivate credible opposition interlocutors and restore a measure of public trust in the government. For Assad, however, such an opening would not be sustainable unless radical opponents of the regime refrain from exploiting it to mobilize in pursuit of revolutionary change. So long as the regime is shooting people, no one in the opposition has enough clout to clear the streets.

Although the credibility gap between Assad and his adversaries can be narrowed by negotiating under the auspices of an outside arbiter (Turkey is now angling for the role), the Syrian president would still have to take radical and irreversible steps to signal his commitment to change. At a minimum, this would include negotiating under international auspices, releasing all political prisoners, and expelling notorious human rights offenders from government -- starting with his brother, Maher, the feared commander of the Republican Guards and the Syrian Army's 4th Division.

Attempting such a break with members of his family, clan, and sect would be an act of political hara-kiri for Assad, leading at best to a dignified exile (and considerably worse if his plan should go awry). Thus far, he has displayed little predilection for self-sacrifice. Assad's recent efforts to organize a "national dialogue" underscore that he isn't seeking credible commitments from his opponents. The select group of dissidents allowed to attend a conference in Damascus last week conspicuously excluded figures with significant influence over the protesters. The Syrian president isn't trying to negotiate with his opponents -- he's trying to divide and defeat them.

Gary Gambill is a political analyst who has published widely on Syrian and Lebanese affairs and is general editor of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum.


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The Iraqi Government: Iranian Satrap or American Puppet?

by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

When it comes to internal Iraqi politics, there is an alluring tendency to analyze events in terms of foreign forces at work in the country. For example, the Independent's Beirut-based columnist Robert Fisk disparages the Iraqi government as a "satrap of Iran," while on the other side, Daniel Pipes refers to officials like Jalal Talabani and Hoshyar Zebari as "America's kept politicians." Is either of these views correct? It can be tempting -- and in some ways useful -- to explain political turmoil within Iraq in terms of interference by neighboring countries and other foreign powers, and I admit to having done just that in "Iraq and the Middle Eastern Cold War," which examined how Iran and Saudi Arabia have been increasingly jostling for influence in Iraq since the beginning of the drawdown of U.S. troops in August of last year.

The hypotheses of both Fisk and Pipes, however, present problems. The Supreme Islamic Council – probably Iran's staunchest ally in Iraq -- only won 20 seats out of 325 in Iraq's parliament during the elections of March 2010. This result represents a significant drop in power and influence since the 2005 elections, when it emerged as the largest single political bloc. A key factor behind this development has been a perception among the Iraqi people -- including substantial parts of the Shi'a community -- that it is an agent working for Tehran, an allegation exploited by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the 2008 provincial elections. Back then, al-Maliki urged Iraqis to vote only for candidates "who are loyal to Iraq" (al-Zaman, January 25, 2009). Such a tactic worked successfully in securing far more votes for his State of Law bloc than for the Supreme Islamic Council.

More recently, Iraqi security forces have commenced a military offensive with 2000 soldiers and police officers to launch a crackdown -- primarily in the southern province of Maysan -- on Iranian-backed Shi'i militias such as the "Hezbollah Brigades," which have been responsible for an ongoing surge in attacks on U.S. troops. With fourteen American soldiers killed in June, the U.S. armed forces have witnessed their bloodiest month in Iraq in three years. It would appear that the Iranian-backed militias are trying to claim credit for an impending pullout of U.S. troops as the Iraqi government continues to debate whether it should extend the 31 December 2011 withdrawal deadline stipulated by the Status of Forces Agreement.

Besides the offensive in Maysan -- soon to be extended to Basra -- the Iraqi security forces have increased their efforts to arrest militants and carry out patrols to prevent rocket and mortar attacks on American bases. This initiative has helped allay fears that al-Maliki would not act against the pro-Iranian militants, as some have ties with the Sadrists who run certain government ministries. The Sadrist governor of Maysan, Hakim al-Zamili, has criticized the administration in Baghdad for the offensive in Baghdad, arguing that the focus should be on Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn (al-Qa'ida in Iraq). If the Iraqi government were really a satrap of Iran, it would surely be trying to devise excuses for not acting against the Hezbollah Brigades, and urging the Americans to hasten their withdrawal of troops from the country.

Some prefer to point to the actions of the Iraqi security forces against the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK—an Iranian exile group opposed to the Islamic Republic and based at Camp Ashraf, which is around 120 km west of the Iranian border) as evidence for strong Iranian influence on the Iraqi government, but in reality, the picture is much more complex. Undoubtedly, Iran desires a crackdown on the MEK, yet if Iran's grip were as powerful as Fisk claims, the MEK would have been completely removed from Camp Ashraf years ago. Yet the MEK still has its base there: Iraq's politicians are divided as to what should be the Iraqi government's stance towards the MEK. Although many Shi'a and Kurdish politicians want to remove the MEK, their reason for doing so is not to placate Iran. Rather, the desire to get rid of the MEK is rooted in the fact that the group is strongly disliked by many Iraqis for its alleged role in the Baathist suppression of the Shi'i and Kurdish uprisings during and after the First Gulf War. Other Iraqi political elites are either apathetic or prefer to leave the MEK alone. Figures in Ayad Allawi's opposition bloc, for instance, have asked the UN Security Council to protect the Iranian exiles in Camp Ashraf.

Also, trying to understand Iraq's internal dynamics in terms of the division between the "resistance" bloc led by Iran and Turkey and the "status-quo" bloc led by Saudi Arabia ultimately does not work. In particular, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Syria have always backed Ayad Allawi for the position of Prime Minister, whereas Iran and the United States supported al-Maliki in his eventually successful efforts to run for a second term as PM. Turkey's main concern has been to assert its own interests in Iraq, rather than accomplish shared objectives with Iran. Most notably, Turkey has constructed many dams along the Euphrates, reducing the river's water level in Iraq, thereby causing great problems for Iraqis dwelling near this vital water source. By building these dams, Turkey unfortunately has the potential to create future "oil-for-water" trade schemes with Iraq.

In a similar vein, while it is true that some Iraqi political figures such as Jalal Talabani have welcomed the pointlessly gargantuan U.S. embassy complex in Baghdad, there is no good evidence to support the accusation that Iraq's politicians are on Washington's payroll. Although the American embassy creates an unnecessary impression of a raw assertion of U.S. power, how does one explain why there has not yet been an agreement to extend the U.S. troop-presence as senior American military officials would like to see, assuming that Iraq's government consists of kept politicians? Further, it should be noted how the present Iraqi government has been formed. It has not been forged on Washington's terms. Instead, the compromise was settled by Massoud Barazani, who convened a meeting in Arbil last December of the factions that had hitherto been unable to reach an agreement since the March elections. Above all, the compromise has stressed notions of "national partnership" or "power sharing," such that political positions have been awarded on a strictly personal basis: Jalal Talabani is to remain president of Iraq for a second term; Nouri al-Maliki secured a place as prime minister, also for a second term. In the meantime, ministerial portfolios were given to respective partners of the two men -- but an office known as the "Supreme Council for Strategic Policies" was created, designed to placate Ayad Allawi and the al-Iraqiya bloc.

Make no mistake: the emphasis is on the personal level, as analysts such as Joel Wing of the blog Musings on Iraq* have pointed out. Political developments need to be understood in light of the personal power struggles and rivalries -- some of which go back decades -- within the ruling elite. This tendency explains why problems such as corruption and poor provision of public services have become so deeply entrenched within Iraqi society. Preoccupied with their own desires for political power, government officials have been reluctant to tackle the broader socio-economic challenges facing the nation. This indifference has, in turn, sparked off the protests that began at the very end of January and have generally received a lack of coverage in the Western media.

The Iraqi government is, therefore, neither a satrap of Iran nor a puppet for the United States, despite significant diplomatic and economic ties to Tehran and Washington. In short, it is evident that Baghdad is now doing whatever it wants, and we should not expect foreign pressures to change this course anytime soon.

* For the record, Joel Wing is one of the most informed commentators on developments in Iraq. His indefatigable ability to gather reports and news sources on the latest happenings -- as well as his willingness to answer queries -- has been of great value in pieces I have written here and here. Check out his blog.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

"War on Islam" Fuels Plots on Military Recruiting Center

by IPT News

Newly unsealed court documents reveal new details about a plot to attack a military recruiting center in Seattle. Items seized by federal investigators from the home of accused lead conspirator Abu Khalid Abdul-Latif include plans to attack a U.S. military facility and motivational materials related to alleged atrocities committed by American soldiers overseas.

The attack on the Seattle military installation is yet another example of a terrorist plot in which American military personnel in the United States have been targeted by Islamist radicals opposed to U.S. military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. In each case, the perceived oppression of Muslims by U.S. forces overseas and the belief that Islam is under attack from the West has been the primary motivation behind the plots.

Among the recent cases is the 2009 Fort Hood massacre carried out by Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan, the killing of an Army recruiter in Little Rock, Ark earlier that year by a convert to Islam who described his actions as "a jihadi attack on infidel forces," and a Maryland man who hoped to attack a recruiting office.

Last month, Abdul-Latif (a.k.a. Joseph Anthony Davis) of Seattle and coconspirator Walli Mujahidh (a.k.a. Fredrick Domigue Jr.) of Los Angeles were arrested and charged with planning to use grenades and machine guns in an assault on the Seattle Military Entrance Processing Center (MEPS). The center recruits prospective candidates to the U.S. military, some of whom are subsequently deployed overseas.

Another person recruited by Abdul-Latif to join the conspiracy reported the plot to the FBI and became a paid informant. The informant promised to help obtain weapons for the attack. What he supplied had been rendered inert by federal investigators.

In secretly-recorded conversations, Abdul-Latif said that their attack would "deter" individuals from joining the military and inspire other Muslims to carry out similar attacks.

"Imagine how many young Muslims, if we're successful, will try to hit these kinds of centers. Imagine how fearful America will be and they'll know they can't push Muslims around," Abdul-Latif said.

The conspirators were upset about American military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen. Abdul-Latif criticized the U.S. military for "invading our lands…stealing our resources…locking up our brothers and sisters, you're raping our sisters in Guantanamo Bay…you're in Islamic countries and even when you're asked to leave, you won't leave…"

Abdul-Latif also confided in the government informant that he wanted to die a martyr in the attack. If that happened, his son would be proud he died fighting the "non-believers." He said he admired Osama bin Laden and argued that jihad in America should not just be a "media jihad" but also a "physical jihad."

The initial target for the attack was the Joint Base Lewis-McChord ("Fort Lewis") in Tacoma, Wash. Abdul-Latif talked to the informant about ongoing military proceedings for suspected crimes in Afghanistan by soldiers posted at Fort Lewis. He said he did not trust the legal system with providing justice for the alleged crimes.

Prosecutors say the defendants wanted to drive a "truck that looks like the Titanic" through the base's "front gate." The truck was described as a 'battering ram' that would "guard" the plotters while they carried out their "duties" (a reference to the attack). Abdul-Latif declared the "objective" of the attack was to "take out anybody wearing green or a badge."

But then the group switched plans, forgoing attacking Fort Lewis and targeting the MEPS facility in Seattle, the complaint says. Abdul-Latif served briefly with the U.S. Navy in the mid-1990s and explained to the government informant the strategic advantages of attacking MEPS: "It's a confined space, not a lot of people carrying weapons and we'd have an advantage." He also said soldiers were deployed from the MEPS facility to Iraq or Afghanistan.

The inspiration for the planned attack came from the November 2009 Fort Hood shootings by Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan that left 13 people dead. Abdul-Latif reasoned that if a single gunman could kill 13 people, the complaint says, then three attackers could kill many more.

Like Abdul-Latif, Hasan viewed the U.S.-led war against terror as being a war against Islam. "It is getting harder and harder for Muslims in the service to morally justify being in a military that seems constantly engaged against fellow Muslims," Hasan said at a June 2007 presentation at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Following the Fort Hood massacre, al-Qaida ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki hailed Hasan as "a hero."

"The US is leading the war against terrorism which in reality is a war against Islam," Awlaki said in an online posting. "Its army is directly invading two Muslim countries and indirectly occupying the rest through its stooges." Hasan has been alleged to have been radicalized by Awlaki's teachings.

Last December, 21-year-old Antonio Martinez (a.k.a Muhammad Hussain) was arrested and charged with scheming to attack a military recruiting station in Catonsville, Md., and kill as many Americans as possible.

Martinez, a U.S. national from Nicaragua and convert to Islam, was inspired by extremist Internet postings of Awlaki and radical Muslim Brotherhood cleric Omar Bakri Muhammad that justified violence against the United States in retaliation for its presence in Muslim lands.

"When American bombs Sudan, Somalia, and Iraq, and sows destruction, the Muslims have the right to retaliate." Muhammad said.

Martinez posted a statement on his Facebook account calling for violence to end the oppression of Muslims. He also publicly posted a message expressing his dislike for anyone who opposed Allah and his prophet.

Lacking the funds to travel overseas to fight jihad, Martinez confided to an FBI informant that he would "make a mujahideen here, Insha' Allah, and we gonna fight against them…until they stop the oppression…fight the disbelievers until there is no more oppression and the religion is only for Allah…"

In April 2009, four men were sentenced to life in prison and one man to 33 years for plotting to use assault rifles to kill American soldiers at the Fort Dix Army base in New Jersey. Evidence presented at the trial included secretly recorded videotapes of the defendants undergoing small-arms training at a shooting range in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania.

As part of their training, the defendants also watched videos of American soldiers being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and listened to Islamic radicals calling for jihad against the United States.

Abdul Hakim Mujahid Muhammad (a.k.a. Carlos Bledsoe), an American Muslim convert, was charged with shooting two soldiers outside a military recruiting center at Little Rock, Ark., killing one and wounding another.

In a letter to the judge, Muhammad justified the shooting as a "Jihadi attack on infidel forces."

He also declared he was affiliated with Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and claimed that Islamic law justifies fighting "those who wage war on Islam and Muslims."

Muhammad subsequently pleaded not guilty but has not yet been tried.

Seven individuals led by Daniel Patrick Boyd were accused of plotting an attack on a Marine Corps Base located in Quantico, Va., among other charges. Boyd also claimed to have fought in the war in Afghanistan. The indictment alleged the defendants were "prepared to become 'mujahideen' and die 'shahid'—that is, as martyrs in furtherance of violent jihad."

Other cases have seen Americans leave the country in hopes of fighting American troops in Afghanistan. Five young men from suburban Washington, D.C. are serving 10 years in prison after Pakistani authorities arrested them as they tried to join the jihad.

Law enforcement officials consider the portrayal of the war on terror as an attack on Islam to be one of the most effective messages in radicalizing young Muslims. These cases reinforce that theory, although it is not a phenomenon restricted to Islamist radicals plotting violent attacks on American military bases as retaliation for U.S. counterterrorism policies. American Islamist organizations led by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) that claim to be mainstream civil rights groups have routinely described the U.S. as being engaged in a war with Islam. For other examples, see here and here.

IPT News


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

Britain Debates Muslim Forced Marriage

by Soeren Kern

After years of kowtowing to multicultural sensitivities, Britain is now debating whether or not to make the act of forcing someone into a marriage a specific criminal offense.

Supporters of the anti-forced marriage legislation, which may be unveiled by the British government within the next few weeks, say it would be an important first step in combating a cycle of Islamic honor-related kidnappings, sexual assaults, beatings and murder that is spiralling out of control in Britain.

Recent studies show that honor-based violence (which differs from more common forms of domestic violence because it can also be carried out by a victim's children, siblings, in-laws and extended family) is far more prevalent in Britain than originally thought.

According to the London-based Association of Chief Police Officers, up to 17,000 women in Britain are victims of honor-based violence -- forced marriages, honor killings, kidnappings, sexual assaults, beatings, female genital mutilation and other forms of abuse -- every year. This figure is 35 times higher than official figures suggest and British detectives say it is "merely the tip of the iceberg" of this phenomenon.

Research commissioned by Britain's Department of Education shows that an estimated 8,000 young women in Britain are the victims of forced marriages each year. Some women's groups say the actual number is far higher because many victims are afraid to come forward.

In 2010, 1,735 victims of forced marriages sought help from the Forced Marriage Unit, a special agency established by the British government. Some of those cases involved girls as young as 13, and there were 70 instances involving women with learning or physical disabilities. Around 85 percent of the cases involved females; 15 percent involved boys or men.

Another study titled "A Statistical Study to Estimate the Prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation in England and Wales" says that more than 65,000 women in Britain have undergone female genital mutilation, and at least 15,000 girls under the age of 15 are at high risk of the procedure. The report, which was funded by Britain's Department of Health, says girls and adult women often are forced to undergo female genital mutilation as a condition of marriage. Although the practice is prohibited in the United Kingdom under the Female Genital Mutilation Act of 2003, to date not a single person has been prosecuted for the offense.

At least a dozen women are believed to victims of honor killings in Britain every year, but the exact number is not known -- partly because there is no clear definition of what constitutes an honor-killing -- and many believe the true figure could be higher. Often honor-killings cannot be resolved due to the unwillingness of family, relatives and communities to testify. For example, one in ten young British Asians believes honor-killings can be justified, according to a BBC poll.

The research literature shows that honor-based violence in Britain is most prevalent among Muslim immigrants from South Asia, the Middle East and North and West Africa. According to the Domestic Violence Intervention Project in West London, for example, up to 60 percent of Arab families suffer from honor-related violence. According to the Lantern Project in Birmingham, honor-based violence is equally common wealthy families as among unemployed or unskilled immigrants.

Honor-related violence in Britain is not limited to older, first-generation immigrants. According to a 174-page report titled "Crimes of the Community: Honor-Based Violence in the UK," honor-based violence is "not a one-time problem of first-generation immigrants bringing practices from 'back home' to the UK. Instead honor violence is now, to all intents and purposes, an indigenous and self-perpetuating phenomenon which is carried out by third and fourth generation immigrants who have been raised and educated in the UK."

British Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to "outlaw the practice of forced marriage." In a campaign speech in Bradford in February 2008, Cameron said thousands of young Britons were being forced to marry someone against their will every year, with some cases involving assaults and kidnaps. "It seems utterly bizarre, and frankly unacceptable, that this goes on in Britain but it does," Cameron said.

He also said existing legislation to tackle forced marriages needs to be strengthened to make the practice a specific criminal offense: "At the moment, the Forced Marriages Act, which we supported, only makes it possible to pursue civil prosecutions. The argument runs that it is unlikely that victims will come forward if it means pressing criminal charges against their parents. But we shouldn't close this door and if the current legislation doesn't work in ending forced marriages, the Conservative Party would consider making them a criminal offence."

In April 2011, Cameron in a major speech on immigration, stated: "There are forced marriages taking place in our country, and overseas, as a means of gaining entry to the UK. This is the practice where some young British girls are bullied and threatened into marrying someone they don't want to. I've got no time for those who say this is a culturally relative issue -- frankly it is wrong, full stop, and we've got to stamp it out."

In February, Cameron declared Britain's long-standing policy of multiculturalism to be a failure. "Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values." Cameron cited "the horror of forced marriage" as one of the specific negative consequences of multiculturalism.

In May, the Home Affairs Select Committee, a cross-party group of British MPs, published a new report recommending that forced marriage be turned into a criminal offense to send a stronger message that it will not be tolerated. The committee, which took soundings from a variety of different groups working to counter forced marriage, said it was "not at all clear" that current legislation was protecting those at risk.

"We believe that it would send out a very clear and positive message to communities within the UK and internationally if it becomes a criminal act to force -- or to participate in forcing -- an individual to enter into marriage against their will. The lack of a criminal sanction also sends a message, and currently that is a weaker message than we believe is needed. We urge the Government to take an early opportunity to legislate on this matter," the committee said.

In June, a new bill was introduced in the House of Lords that would force Islamic courts to acknowledge the primacy of English law. The Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill would make it an offense punishable by five years in jail for anyone to falsely claim or imply that Sharia courts or councils have legal jurisdiction over family or criminal law.

The bill, proposed by Lady Caroline Cox-Johnson, and backed by women's rights groups, was drawn up because of "deep concerns" that Muslim women are suffering discrimination within closed Sharia law councils. Cox said she had found "considerable evidence" of women, some of whom are brought to Britain speaking little English and kept ignorant of their legal rights, suffering domestic violence or unequal access to divorce, due to discriminatory decisions made. "We cannot continue to condone this situation. Many women say: 'We came to this country to escape these practices only to find the situation is worse here.'"

Britain is not the only European country coming to grips with the problem of forced marriage. Belgium outlawed the practice in 2007, and those convicted of forcing someone into marriage by violence or coercion face a prison sentence of up to two years and a fine of up to €2,500 ($3,500). Norway amended its Penal Code in 2003. It is now a crime punishable by up to six years in prison to force a person into marriage; it is also a punishable offense to enter into marriage with a person under the age of 16.

Germany became the latest European country to outlaw forced marriages. In March 2011 the German government made the practice a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. French law forbids forced marriages and allows prosecution of anyone who mutilates the genitals of a girl with French citizenship or resident status, even if the operation is conducted in another country. But the practices continue to thrive in secret.

Soeren Kern


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

The View from Syria and Lebanon

by Hilal Khashan

Demands for democracy are unlikely to make headway in fragmented societies such as Syria and Lebanon. While Egypt and Tunisia are historically and geographically well-defined entities with fairly homogeneous populations and national attributes, Syria is dominated by a small minority sect whose fate hinges on the survival of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, which will not flinch from crushing pro-reform demonstrations, even if these do not demand a systemic change. Nor is political reform conceivable in Lebanon—a country suffering from a serious sovereignty deficit resulting from deep-seated sectarian divisions.

Democracy and Its Critics

Having publicly precluded the spread of the Tunisian and Egyptian upheavals to Syria, President Bashar Assad (left, with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) has been loath to acknowledge the true nature of the rapidly spreading discontent in his own country, repeatedly attributing it to foreign attempts to subvert Syria.

Lebanese analysts and politicians have unabashedly claimed credit for the Arab uprisings, which, in their view, are bound to culminate in the establishment of democratic political systems throughout the region. Speaking on the sixth anniversary of the Cedar Revolution last March, its politically battered leader Saad Hariri asserted that the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya were all inspired by those Lebanese who in 2005 converged in downtown Beirut to demand the departure of Syria's occupying army from the country.[1] This process, according to a London-based Lebanese publication, amounted to nothing short of "the beginning of the collapse of the Arab equivalent of the Berlin Wall … a new Arab order in which political authority is transferred periodically and peacefully."[2]

At the same time, this rhetorical hype has been marred by apologetics and blatant misrepresentation. Thus, for example, columnist Hassan Sabra entreated Arab youths "to take revenge for their grandparents who unsuccessfully rebelled against despotism and their fathers who regrettably appeased it and bequeathed them shame and sorrow." This, however, did not prevent him from empathizing with Egypt's Husni Mubarak, "who served his country in peace and war and seemed ready to step down,"[3] or from commending Saudi King Abdullah for "launching his own revolution several years ago for the sake of transforming his society long before the spring of reform has crept up many Arab publics' list of priorities."[4]

For their part, Assad's supporters in Syria and Lebanon dismissed Hariri's claim to parenthood of the Arab uprisings (ridiculing the Cedar Revolution as the Gucci Revolution due to the presence of many high-heeled young women in the daily sit-ins following the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri),[5] equating the public demand for freedom not with a yearning for democratic participation but with standing up to the alleged machinations of the United States and Israel. "The Arab publics admire the Syrian policy line because it arrested Arab collapse and is currently well-positioned to take the initiative to win back usurped Arab rights," argued the prominent anti-Hariri journalist Nizar as-Sahli[6] while Subhi Ghandour, a Lebanese analyst and director of the Arab Dialog Center in Washington, reduced the Egyptian uprising to "an endeavor to restore for Egypt its leading role in advocating the just causes of the Arab nation."[7]

Trouble in Assad's Satrapy

On March 12, 2011, the Arab League urged the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to protect the civilian population from strikes by Mu'ammar al-Qaddafi's air force. The move was opposed by Yemen, Algeria, and Syria—probably the league's most fragmented countries: Yemen is divided along tribal, sectarian, and regional lines; Algeria's political fault line pits Arabs against Berbers and Islamists against secularists; and in Syria, the divide is most pronounced in that it places the ruling Alawite minority, no more than 12 percent of the population, against the rest of the country's ethnic-religious mosaic. Small wonder, therefore, that the regime's supporters condemned the no-fly zone in harsh Baathist rhetoric, reminiscent of the pan-Arab discourse of the 1950s and 1960s: "This weird decision appeared as if it was issued by the U.S. Congress or Israeli Knesset."[8]

Assad's resentment of the international protection of Libyans from their heavy-handed ruler is not difficult to understand. Evidently equating democracy with regime change, the Syrian dictator has been loath to loosen his grip on his long suffering subjects lest even the most modest political reform might lead to his undoing.[9] The Damascus regime may digress from David Ignatius's assertion that "if the experience of other countries over the past two months shows anything, it's that delaying reform too long in a one-party state like Syria is potentially a fatal mistake,"[10] yet it has missed no opportunity to underscore Assad's personal commitment to reform despite the foreign conspiracies confronting him: "Mr. President Bashar Assad perseveres in his reform mission and cannot possibly be sidetracked by those who bear malice against Syria and wish to destabilize it."[11]

To be sure, the road to reform is rarely easy or smooth, and even the most thorough reforms hit the occasional snag. As an editorial in the official mouthpiece of the regime put it: "There is no doubt that the march of reform, begun several years ago, has made progress at different levels, but at the same time, it has not been unblemished or corruption-free."[12] Yet this does not mean that the authorities will put up with "a foreign conspiracy" masquerading as public protests and "aimed at destabilizing Syria and the rest of the region," to use the words of Buthaina Sha'ban, Assad's advisor for political and media affairs.[13]

It is doubtful whether the official clich├ęs about Assad's unwavering commitment to reform have struck a responsive chord with ordinary Syrians. Even some of the regime's supporters have become increasingly disillusioned with its neglect of the real issues pertaining to reform. One such critic is veteran Lebanese analyst and former Arab League official Clovis Maksud. Noting that, as early as April 2005, Assad requested the executive director of the U.N. development programs to propose reform policies for presentation before the Tenth Baath Party Congress, which convened two months later, Maksud expressed his astonishment at the failure to act on these reforms "that were adopted by the congress and the Syrian cabinet."[14] Nor could he hide his disapproval of the regime's derision of the demonstrators as "lackeys of foreign agents."[15]

The fact of the matter is that despite his inner insecurity, Assad seems to have concluded that the Western intervention in Libya is not repeatable in the Syrian context, apparently drawing some comfort from Hillary Clinton's assurance after the killing of dozens of protesters in the northern port city of Latakia that "the USA will not interfere in Syria in the way it has in Libya."[16] Moreover, judging by his defiant speech of March 30, in which he laid the blame for the protests on "saboteurs [who] tried to undermine and divide Syria and push an Israeli agenda," Assad seems to believe that he has received a new lease to rule Syria as he sees fit whereby "reforms are not a wave that we ride, and we will not proceed hastily."[17]

Ribal al-Assad, director of the London-based Organization for Democracy and Freedom in Syria, dismissed his cousin's declared intention to reform the Syrian political system as "a big, deceptive campaign in the name of democratic reform."[18] Therefore, "it seems inevitable that protest may soon crack the regime's brittle political immobility … the birth of freedom … is not easily forgotten—or trumped by state handouts and vacuous statements by a distant, self-isolated leadership."[19]

What may be working in Bashar al-Assad's favor is that the protest movement, while spreading from the southern border city of Dar'a to other parts of Syria, including Damascus, still appears too weak to seriously challenge his regime, owing to the heterogeneity of Syrian society, which discourages cohesion among the opposition.[20]

Official statements and press editorials leave no doubt regarding the regime's readiness for an all-out showdown: "We are in the midst of a confrontation and not on a picnic. The country is facing a real battle with foreign forces spending tens of millions of dollars, whose aim is to destabilize Syria."[21] This decision came only three days after the authorities had promised to exercise maximum restraint in dealing with public protests: "There are orders from the highest echelons to all security agencies to refrain from opening fire on demonstrators, even if they deliberately wound or kill politically disinterested countrymen."[22]

It is highly unlikely that these contradictory statements demonstrate a shift of course in dealing with the protests since the government's vacillation has had little impact on the scale and intensity of regime repression. Confronted with the gravest domestic challenge to the Assad dynasty since 1982, when Bashar's father, Hafez, killed tens of thousands of civilians in the northern city of Hama in an attempt to suppress the ongoing, nationwide Islamist revolt, the regime decided to invoke terrorism as a dominant factor overshadowing the demands for reform.

Accordingly, the government has repeatedly claimed that armed gangs keep opening fire on protesters, army troops, and security forces. Oddly enough, these armed gangs have conspicuously failed to open fire on demonstrators and security personnel when regime-organized, pro-Assad rallies caused traffic congestion in major Syrian cities. As Anis Karam, the Lebanese chairperson of the American-Middle Eastern Congregation for Freedom and Democracy, put it, the regime has been "labeling demonstrators as outlaws to justify its mass killings."[23] Indeed, the authorities have clearly indicated that they have no intention of desisting from their excessive force in quelling the disturbances. Assad even fired Samira al-Masalima, editor in chief of the state-run Tishrin daily, after she told al-Jazeera television that opening fire on demonstrators in Dar'a was "a security breach because it violates the explicit orders of President Assad."[24]

The Syrian protests may intensify, but they are unlikely to create a wholly new political reality. Though winning some seemingly major concessions, notably the lifting (on April 19) of Syria's 48-year-old state of emergency,[25] the balance of power overwhelmingly favors the regime for now.

Lebanon: No Door to Knock on

Some Lebanese writers expect the Arab uprisings to reach Lebanon. Nasser al-As'ad, a member of Hariri's party and a former activist in the defunct Communist Action Movement, believes that "the ultimate goal of the Arab risings is the installation of modern democracies and the emergence of a pluralist Arab order." Since Lebanon is a mirror image of the state of affairs in the region, he reasoned, any positive developments there were bound to have a similar impact on Lebanese politics.[26] Lebanese intellectual Karim Pakraduni has been similarly upbeat, arguing that Lebanese youths are no less capable of effecting change than their Arab counterparts elsewhere and prophesying the "eventual demise of Lebanon's confessional political system and the inauguration of a civil polity on its ruins."[27] Likewise, the communist-minded Lebanese Youths Movement called for a mass demonstration to spark the process of bringing down the country's confessional system: "Why do we accept to be ruled by a confessional system that has lasted longer than the combined regimes of Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Qaddafi?"[28]

Very few people showed up for the demonstration and repeated calls failed to attract a significant number of participants. This did not surprise prominent columnist Talal Salman, who lamented the Lebanese exception in the age of Arab revolutions: "The nature of the country's political system prevents the Lebanese from ridding themselves of the shackles of quiescence and attaining their natural right of becoming citizens, and not just subjects or hapless followers of confessional leaders."[29]

For his part, political analyst Ahmad Ayyash sees no chance for the Lebanese people to follow the Egyptian example "since the country does not have a solid and cohesive regime to rebel against. The Lebanese political system amounts to nothing more than a small bourgeoisie and sectarian interests patronized by conflicting regional and international powers."[30] Likewise, Lebanese commentator Michael Young finds the Arab upheavals unworkable in the context of the country's sectarian divide, making a case for shielding Lebanon against its vagaries in fear that the destabilization of the Arab world lead to a "Sunni-Shiite conflict in the country [that] would be devastating for all."[31]

As much as the Lebanese are focused on developments in the Arab countries, very few of them are eager to start an uprising of their own. Attributing their country's travails to foreign meddling, they content themselves with considering the regional changes as a positive development without expecting them to affect their own country.

The Future of Arab Democracy

Until very recently, most political scientists and commentators considered the Arab world impervious to change. They were wrong. Arab publics have been gathering enormous pent-up frustration for at least two generations, and all that was needed for its release was an appropriate spark. This was provided by the self-immolation of an ordinary Tunisian, which served as a devastating, political indictment of the magnitude of ordinary people's suffering at the hands of self-aggrandizing ruling elites and set in train the momentous chain of events sweeping the Middle East.

Yet it is one thing for the Arab uprisings to get started; it is quite another for them to reach the ultimate goal of empowering the people and introducing true democracy. These uprisings are making the Arab world as unstable as ever. Heightened instability is likely to persist for years to come.

[1] An-Nahar (Beirut), Mar. 14, 2011.
[2] Al-Hawadith (London), Feb. 11, 2011.
[3] Ash-Shiraa (Beirut), Feb. 7, 2011.
[4] Ibid., Mar. 28, 2011.
[5] Al-Akhbar (Beirut), Mar. 14, 2011.
[6] Ath-Thabat (Beirut), Jan. 21, 2011.
[7] Nabd Suria (Beirut), Feb. 10, 2011.
[8] Ath-Thabat, Mar. 18, 2011.
[9] Ash-Shiraa, Apr. 4, 2011.
[10] The Daily Star (Beirut), Feb. 28, 2011.
[11] As-Siyasa (Kuwait), Apr. 10, 2011.
[12] Tishrin (Damascus), Mar. 20, 2011.
[13] BBC Arabic, Mar. 26, 2011.
[14] An-Nahar, Apr. 13, 2011.
[15] Ibid., Apr. 3, 2011.
[16] The Guardian (London), Mar. 27, 2011.
[17] As-Safir (Beirut), Mar. 31, 2011.
[18] BBC Monitoring, Feb. 5, 2011.
[19] The Daily Star, Mar. 3, 2011.
[20] Ibid., Mar. 19, 2011.
[21] Al-Watan (Damascus), Mar. 24, 2011.
[22] Ibid., Mar. 21, 2011.
[23] Al-Muharrir al-Arabi (London), Apr. 2, 2011.
[24] As-Siyasa, Apr. 10, 2011.
[25] BBC News, Apr. 20, 2011.
[26] Now Lebanon (Beirut), Mar. 5, 2011.
[27] Al-Hawadith, Mar. 25, 2011.
[28] Al-Jadeed TV (Beirut), Mar. 3, 2011.
[29] As-Safir, Mar. 7, 2011.
[30] Ash-Shiraa, Mar. 7, 2011.
[31] The Daily Star, Mar. 24, 2011.

Hilal Khashan is a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.