News Round Up (8 Oct. 2008)

A woman walks in front of the Mozart Hotel where two allegedly missing Americans stayed in the commercial Hamra district, in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2008. The U.S. Embassy in Lebanon says two American nationals are missing in Lebanon and is appealing for information on their possible whereabouts. A statement issued by the embassy Wednesday says Holli Chmela, 27, and Taylor Luck, 23, have not been heard from since Oct. 1 when they reportedly left Beirut en route to the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli.

A woman walks in front of the Mozart Hotel where two allegedly missing Americans stayed in the commercial Hamra district, in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2008. The U.S. Embassy in Lebanon says two American nationals are missing in Lebanon and is appealing for information on their possible whereabouts. A statement issued by the embassy Wednesday says Holli Chmela, 27, and Taylor Luck, 23, have not been heard from since Oct. 1 when they reportedly left Beirut en route to the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli.

World War II, The French Revolution, and “A historical vision of ‘Arab companionship’ with the western world”: Goetz Nordbruch explores the intellectual challenge of Nazism in the Levant Mediterranean Historical Review, Vol. 21, No. 2, December 2006, pp. 219–238

“In April 1942, on the eve of the decisive battles of World War II in El Alamein and Stalingrad, the Lebanese intellectual and political activist Raif Khoury (1913–67) contemplated the ongoing war and its consequences for the future of society. Writing in an editorial for the cultural magazine al-Tariq, Khoury did not limit his reflections to the immediate repercussions of the war on the territorial order in the Middle East; for him, the war of the Allies against German Nazism and Italian Fascism was not only a struggle for territories, but for the survival of society and culture as such…”

Syria, Lebanon abuzz over report about militant’s arrest
By Borzou Daragahi
The Los Angeles Times, 6 October 2008

An intriguing item about the mysterious leader of a ferocious militant group floated around the Lebanese and Syrian media over the weekend.

According to a report in the Arab-language Syrian newspaper Al Liwaa, the leader of the Al Qaeda-linked militant group Fatah al Islam was captured two months ago in Syria.

The report says that Shaker Abbsi, a former Libyan air force pilot turned Islamist, was caught in the poor Meliha district of south Damascus and hauled off to prison.

Abbsi, 53, who is of Palestinian descent, has led a storied life. He piloted MIGs for the Libyan air force in a war against Chad and on a trip to Latin America in the early 1980s, he helped Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinistas.

But as the years went by, he drifted toward Islamist groups and beliefs. Jordanian officials accused him of playing a role in the 2002 assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman, Jordan. Syria imprisoned him the same year, accusing him of plotting against the Damascus government, but released him in 2005.

He popped up in Lebanon as leader of Fatah al Islam, a group of well-armed Islamic insurgents who fought the Lebanese army for months last year in a battle around the seaside Nahr el Bared refugee camp that left more than 400 civilians, soldiers and militants dead.

Abbsi vanished after the battle. He issued statements this year vowing to take revenge against the Lebanese army, which has been the apparent target of two bombing attacks in the last two months.

But according to Al Liwaa’s report Saturday, Abbsi was captured when Syrian intelligence operatives carried out a “major house raid” two months ago in Damascus, the capital. The item was quickly picked up by media and websites in Lebanon and Syria.

The report says Abbsi’s loyalists were planning to carry out a suicide bombing at a Damascus soccer stadium during a game a month ago to avenge him, but were thwarted by Syrian security.

The website of the Lebanese newspaper An Nahar reported last month that Syrian authorities had told French President Nicolas Sarkozy that they had arrested Abbsi.

Moscow makes no promises on arms sales to Syria, Iran
By Yossi Melman, 8 October 2008

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday he received assurances that Russia would not allow Israel’s security to be threatened, but offered no indication he won the concrete promises he sought on Russian arms sales or sanctions on Iran.

After meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Olmert also said Israel was not prepared to tolerate a situation in which Iran possesses nuclear weapons, but will not take the lead in preventing it from gaining nuclear capability.

Olmert did not receive a clear commitment that Russia would refrain from supplying Syria with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles or sell advanced weapons to Iran. However, he said he succeeded in getting Medvedev to understand his fears that Russian-made missiles and other technology could fall into the hands of anti-Israeli militants in the region.

“My feeling is the Russian government understands well the Israeli position and is aware of the possible influence such supplying could have on stability in the region,” Olmert told reporters traveling with him…

David Schenker argues that if there is a formalized arrangement b/t Hizballah and the LAF, or if there is a March 8 Government come the spring, the US will revise its policy toward the LAF to deny it attach helicopters and other equipment. PolicyWatch #1407: The Future of U.S. Military Aid to Lebanon

Russia-Syria cooperation no threat to Mideast stability – Lavrov
RIA Novosti, 29 September 2008

The military and technical ties between Russia and Syria do not pose a threat to the balance of power in the Middle East, Russia’s foreign minister said Monday.

Sergei Lavrov said the cooperation between the countries was “in line with the international law” and “in the interests of strengthening stability and maintaining security” in regions close to Russia’s borders.

“We are not doing anything that could upset the balance of power in this or that region,” Lavrov told reporters.

During last month’s talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Moscow, Lavrov confirmed that Russia was ready to supply Syria with defensive weapons. Media reports said earlier Moscow and Damascus had agreed on deliveries of the latest Russian MiG-29SMT fighter.

Syria, a major importer of Russian weapons, also bought 36 Pantsir S1E air-defense systems from Russia, and hopes to receive Strelets short-range air defense systems, Iskander tactical missile systems, Yak-130 aircraft and two Amur-1650 submarines.

Media has also reported Russian plans to rebuild the Soviet-era Navy maintenance site in the northern Syrian port of Tartus, the only Russian foothold in the Mediterranean, and turn it into a permanent naval base.

The reports say about 10 Russian warships and three floating piers are deployed there while Russia expands the port and builds a dock in nearby El-Latakia. There has been no official confirmation of the reports.

Israel and the United States are sensitive about Russian-Syrian military and technical cooperation, fearing not only a reinforcement of Syria’s armed forces, but also the possibility that modern weapons could fall into the hands of Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon or be passed on to Iran, in violation of the existing international embargo.

Why Syria matters to Israel
By Osama Al Sharif
Arab News, 8 October 2008

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has returned from his Washington meeting with President George W. Bush empty-handed and frustrated. His already shaky peace negotiations with Israel have hit a brick wall and, as more often than not, Washington was siding with his opposite side. Meanwhile, his Hamas rivals in Gaza Strip have failed to find takers of their offer of a lengthy truce with Israel. On the eve of the 60th anniversary of Al-Nakbah and the creation of Israel, Palestinian losses appear to have been compounded on all fronts.

But the peace game continues elsewhere. All eyes are suddenly glued on Syria, whose president revealed that Turkey was mediating to revive abandoned negotiations with Israel. The Israelis confirmed the existence of a Turkish initiative and announced that Washington had not objected to a resumption of talks with Damascus.

But then there was the surprise accusation by the Bush administration that North Korea was helping Syria build a nuclear facility in the eastern desert, which President Bashar Assad said was a nonnuclear military site. The timing of the release of intelligence material on the alleged reactor, nearly seven months after Israel is believed to have destroyed it in an airstrike last September, has baffled Republicans and Democrats in Washington…

Quite a Few Nations Interested in Russia’s Iskander-E Missiles
Kommersant, 7 Octbober 2008

Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and other states are interested in buying Russia’s Iskander-E tactical missile systems, Rosoboronexport Director at Large Nikolay Dimidyuk said, Interfax reported.
“The demand has been noted in Syria. The Emirates takes much interest in it. Malaysia, India are interested in it very much,” Dimidyuk told reporters Wednesday. Other states are eyeing it as well, but off-the-record, the official added.

Iskander-E has great export potential, Dimidyuk said. “This is truly a high-precision weapon. Missile defense systems can’t hit the Iskander missile,” the official specified, explaining that the missiles have a perplexed flying trajectory and are able to make anti-missile maneuvers, which prevents their hitting.

Iskander can fire horizontally, which doesn’t unmask it, and has a number of other vital combat characteristics, Dimidyuk pointed out.

Iskander is produced in two variants – Iskander-M for Russia’s Armed Forces and Iskander-E for the export to other countries. The export variant slightly differs from the systems made by order of the RF Defense Ministry.

Iskander-E can hit targets at the range of up to 280km, striking two different targets at a minute interval. Its trajectory isn’t of ballistic nature and forecasting it would be very difficult for an enemy, the more so that the missile is controlled during all flight.

Israel will strike before Iran gets bomb – French FM
RIA Novosti, 5 October 2008

Israel is preparing a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities and will act before Tehran creates a nuclear bomb, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told an Israeli newspaper.

In an interview with Haaretz published on Sunday, Kouchner, who is on a visit to Israel, said he agreed with expert estimates that Iran needed from two to four years to create a nuclear bomb.

“I think that you are well informed, and so are the Americans and so are we. It has always been the case between two and four years. But to make what? One bomb,” Haaretz quoted Kouchner as saying.

Kouchner said that even one bomb would not make Iran immune to attack.

“I honestly don’t believe that it will give any immunity to Iran. First, because you will eat them before. And this is the danger. Because Israel has always said that it will not wait for the bomb to be ready,” he said.

Kouchner also urged to give international diplomacy more time to solve the Iranian nuclear issue.

“Iran with an atomic bomb is unacceptable at all…But how can it be prevented? Talking, talking, talking, and offering dialogue, sanctions, sanctions, sanctions,” he said.

The UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution on September 27, reiterating demands for Iran to halt uranium enrichment. The resolution did not however impose any new sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

Iran says its nuclear program is aimed purely at electricity production, and has pledged to continue uranium enrichment regardless of international sanctions.

‘Syria Banking on Obama Victory, Invites Advisors’
by Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu
Israel National News, 7 October 2008

Syria is banking on an Obama victory and is trying to reach out to his advisors, according to a Forbes article by the editor-in-chief of the Damascus-based All4Syria website.

Ayman Abdel Nour also revealed in the widely respected financial publication that Syria covered up a terrorist attack on its intelligence agency last week.

He said that Syria wants Senator Obama to win the presidential election to help Syrian President Bashar Assad bring back prosperity to Syria, which is under American sanctions. “The government wants desperately for things to look under control” in the wake of growing dissent, according to Nour. Syria wants Sen. Obama to win the presidential election to help Syrian President Bashar Assad bring back prosperity to Syria.

He said that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime “will bank on Barack Obama becoming president of the United States” and is trying to reach out to his advisors. Nour named Robert Malley, from whom Obama quickly himself disassociated earlier this year after it was revealed that he had direct contact with Hamas and Syrian leaders. Malley “has no formal role in the campaign and will not play one in the future,” the Obama camp has stated…

Olmert unlikely to persuade Russia not to arm Iran, Syria
By Yossi Melman, 7 October 2008

Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will seek Tuesday to persuade Russian President Dmitry Medvedev not to sell weapons to Iran and Syria, but with little chance of success, diplomatic sources said.

Jerusalem is particularly concerned that sales of Russia’s S-300 anti-aircraft missile system could threaten Israel’s air superiority over both states. And if Iran received these missiles, it would be able to protect its nuclear sites more effectively, making an aerial strike on these sites more difficult.

However, Russia’s arms export monopoly denied that it plans to deliver the S-300 missiles to either Iran or Syria, the Interfax news agency reported Monday.

“We have no information of this kind,” a spokesman for Rosoboronexport said when asked about potential sales of the sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons to Tehran or Damascus…

Olmert and Medvedev will also discuss the situation in Georgia following its war with Russia in August. However, Israeli sources said, Russia commended Israel for having stopped its arms sales to Georgia completely even before the war and restricted its sales to defensive systems before then. Consequently, this issue is no longer a strain on bilateral relations, the sources said.

Olmert reiterated that Israel would have to give up most of the West Bank and agree to territorial exchanges in any peace agreement with the Palestinians. Asked whether his statement reflected the views of prime minister-designate Tzipi Livni, he said: “My statement reflected my opinion, but this is what the negotiations were based on. She [Livni] was a party to everything, but she does not necessarily agree with every one of my positions.”

Asked whether his statements would not bind Livni and the next government, Olmert replied: “I’m not holding Livni to everything I’ve said, but I believe what I said reflects the negotiations and they will continue in this spirit.”

‘Russia committed to preventing Iran from attaining nuclear arms’
The Jerusalem Post, 6 October 2008

Russia is committed to stopping Iranian nuclearization for military purposes, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Moscow on Monday night.

Lavrov also told Olmert that Russia would continue to act to secure the release of captured IDF soldier Gilad Schalit and that Moscow was committed to steering clear of having contacts with Hamas so long as the group failed to abide by the Quartet conditions.

During his meeting with Lavrov, Olmert also urged Russia to support Israeli-Syrian peace talks and “prevent weapons from Syria from reaching extremist elements in Lebanon, such as Hizbullah,” an official from Olmert’s office said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting’s content was not officially made public…

Is Damascus planning a return to Lebanon?
By Michael Bluhm
The Daily Star, 7 October 2008

While Lebanon probably need not fear an impending incursion by the almost 10,000 Syrian troops on Lebanon’s northern border, the recent Syrian deployment has nothing to do with the stated aim of deterring smuggling and instead puts the international community on notice that Syria considers restive North Lebanon a threat to Syrian security, a number of analysts told The Daily Star on Monday.

While the troop movement about two weeks ago could represent the first step toward renewing the presence of Syrian soldiers on Lebanese territory, Damascus’ immediate priority was to protect itself from the unceasing unrest in North Lebanon, said Oussama Safa, executive director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. “The nature of the deployment is not offensive,” he said. “The way they are deployed does not indicate an invasion is imminent.”

“The Syrians are there because Tripoli is fast becoming a proxy land for regional and international score-settling. Tripoli has become a regional mailbox to exchange messages. The nature of the deployment is to make sure you are sealing yourself off from what is becoming a volatile border…”

For now, the unchallenged deployment underscores the interregnum in the region as the US waits for its presidential election on November 4 and Israel could face early elections if Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni cannot cobble together a new cabinet, Hanna said. “This is the vacuum in the international system today,” Hanna added.

“The Syrians are trying to create and shape a certain environment favorable to impose [a return to Lebanon] on the new administrations” in the US and Israel, Hanna said, adding that these designs stood behind Assad’s recent statement that the deployment fell in line with UN Resolution 1701, which ended the summer 2006 war with Israel.

Syria’s decision to move its soldiers to Lebanon’s frontier also symbolizes the failure of US policies in the region to weaken Assad or his partners, Hanna said. The deployment builds on the successes of Syria’s Lebanese allies in the Hizbullah-led March 8 alliance, who gained a blocking minority in a new national unity Cabinet in Doha following street violence in early May, Hanna added.

The Syrians “have got the momentum,” he said. “They are recovering Lebanon as a seat of influence. They have leverage in Lebanon.”

Although Syria will probably not take definitive action with its troops for several months, Assad’s desire to return his soldiers to Lebanon and restore Syria’s regional clout appears clear, Khashan said.

“The Syrians want to market themselves by re-entering Lebanon as a regional power,” he said. “Syria wants to reclaim its regional status.”

“The Syrians will not re-enter Lebanon now,” he added. “The Syrians are patient. They never lose sight of their objective. The Syrians are simply positioning themselves, but they will not re-enter Lebanon until there is a new administration in the US.”

“This is just a message telling the world, ‘There is a problem coming from North Lebanon, and we want the world to know about it until further developments occur.'”

Comments (3)

norman said:

Thursday, October 9, 2008
SALHANI: What’s afoot in Syria?
Claude Salhani

Syria has long claimed it is tied to Lebanon in more ways than one. Over the last two weeks this statement has proven to be far more on the money than Syria would have ever imagined – or hoped for – as the wave of terrorist attacks that reared its ugly head in Lebanon has now exported itself to Syria.

Terrorist acts in Syria have been rare, but over the last two weeks a number of bombs have exploded in and around the Syrian capital. The government in Damascus remains tight-lipped, as always, when it relates to security matters; however, statements by President Bashar Assad allude to the origin of those attacks as Salafi groups based around the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli.

Needless to say, Mr. Assad’s statements have set off warning bells in Beirut as the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora looks with great trepidation at the statements from Damascus as well as the recent deployment of about 10,000 Syrian troops backed by armor and rotary-wing aircraft along the Lebanese border, even if the official government line is to tone down those fears.

Speaking to this reporter, a Lebanese government spokesman repeated what the Syrians have been saying, that Syrian troops have deployed to the border area to fight smugglers. Asked if there was reason to worry, the spokesman told this reporter that the “Syrians are free to deploy their forces on their side of the border.” He added, however, that the government in Beirut has asked the Lebanese army to establish liaison with the Syrian military.

Lebanon has good reason to worry. Syria has long eyed Lebanon as a rebellious province rather than as an independent country. Damascus has yet to open an embassy in Beirut, despite promises by Mr. Assad to French President Nicolas Sarkozy last July when the Syrian president was brought out of years of isolation and invited by Mr. Sarkozy to attend the Bastille Day military parade in Paris. Yet, instead of one ambassador arriving in a shinning limousine, there are fears in Beirut that Damascus instead may dispatch several thousand envoys armed with AK-47s and traveling aboard T64 Soviet-era tanks.

How did the security situation deteriorate in Lebanon to this point? Things started going bad for Lebanon on two fronts. First is the growing strength of the Salafi movement in the country, but primarily in the north around the port city of Tripoli. This new development has Syria, which long has battled the Islamists, very worried.

Second is the growing power and influence of Hezbollah and absence of the Lebanese state’s authority in the country’s south. This has Israel very worried.

Washington is taking those fears seriously. The Pentagon is preparing to install X band radars in Israel’s Negev Desert early next year. The X band radar, once fully installed, would give Israel 2 or even 3 times the range in which it could track inbound Iranian and Hezbollah missiles. It also would give Israel the possibility of attacking Iran and Hezbollah without too much worry about retaliation.

And if Syria and Israel can agree on any one thing, it most likely would be that the weakness of the Lebanese state and its inability to control its own internal security are detrimental to the security of both Syria and Israel.

Speaking at a conference in Geneva last month organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, a former director of Israel’s National Security Council, told delegates that he advised that the Israeli Cabinet need not view negatively the re-entry of Syrian troops in Lebanon. His reasoning was that, with Syria in charge of security in Lebanon, Israel would have a return address to any terrorist activity coming its way across the Lebanese border. Damascus would be liable to retaliation and therefore would ensure that Hezbollah followed the new guidelines. A case in point is the calm that has existed on the Golan Heights since Syria and Israel signed a truce in 1973. Whereas with Hezbollah on its own in south Lebanon, retaliation, as demonstrated during the Second Lebanon War two summers ago, remains futile.

Having said that, Israel appears to be rearming its air force with new weapons designed to fight this new type of nonconventional war. Israel is acquiring 25 F-35 fighter jets made by Lockheed Martin. The plane comes in three versions: the conventional type, a carrier type and the VTOL – vertical take-off and landing. This advanced technology would allow Israel to deploy its aircraft relatively closer to the Lebanese border, to protect conventional airfields – a difficult task, given that conventional airstrips would be prone to Hezbollah rocket attack.

While a renewed Syrian incursion into Lebanon would be a setback in terms of establishing democracy in the Middle East, it would address one of Syria’s and Israel’s major problems. Of course, Syria might not act on its urge to cross that international frontier into Lebanon without at least a tacit green light from Washington. And just how likely is Washington to turn the other way, given that Mr. Siniora’s government is considered pro-American?

Suffice it to remember one of Winston Churchill’s famous lines: “We have no lasting friends, no lasting enemies, only lasting interests.”

The Lebanese have been unable to consider themselves a unified nation, behaving instead as feuding clans. They have allowed outside political influences to give credence to another saying, from the Latin: “Divide et impera,” or divide and rule.

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.

October 9th, 2008, 2:40 am


Qifa Nabki said:

Great writing by Mohja Kahf, a Muslim American woman of Syrian origin. Her father went into exile in the early 70’s because he was a member of the MB, and her husband is apparently involved in Syrian exile politics (according to the NY Times). This is a great piece.

Spare Me the Sermon On Muslim Women

By Mohja Kahf
Sunday, October 5, 2008; B01

Crimson chiffon, silver lamé or green silk: Which scarf to wear today? My veil collection is 64 scarves and growing. The scarves hang four or five to a row on a rack in my closet, and elation fills me when I open the door to this beautiful array. Last week, I chose a particularly nice scarf to slip on for the Eid al-Fitr festivities marking the end of the month of Ramadan.

It irks me that I even have to say this: Being a Muslim woman is a joyful thing.

My first neighbor in Arkansas borrowed my Quran and returned it, saying, “I’m glad I’m not a Muslim woman.” Excuse me, but a woman with Saint Paul in her religious heritage has no place feeling superior to a Muslim woman, as far as woman-affirming principles are concerned. Maybe no worse, if I listen to Christian feminists, but certainly no better.

Blessings abound for me as a Muslim woman: The freshness of ablution is mine, and the daily meditation zone of five prayers that involve graceful, yoga-like movements, performed in prayer attire. Prayer scarves are a chapter in themselves, cool and comforting as bedsheets. They lie folded in the velveteen prayer rug when not in use: two lightweight muslin pieces, the long drapey headcover and the roomy gathered skirt. I fling open the top piece, and it billows like summer laundry, a lace-edged meadow. I slip into the bottom piece to cover my legs for prayer time because I am wearing shorts around the house today.

These create a tent of tranquility. The serene spirit sent from God is called by a feminine name, “sakinah,” in the Quran, and I understand why some Muslim women like to wear their prayer clothes for more than prayer, to take that sakinah into the world with them. I, too, wear a (smaller) version of the veil when I go out. What a loss it would be for me not to have in my life this alternating structure, of covering outdoors and uncovering indoors. I take pleasure in preparing a clean, folded set for a houseguest, the way home-decor mavens lay elegant plump towels around a bathroom to give it a relaxing feel.

Tassled turquoise cotton and flowered peach crepe flutter as I pull out a black-and-ivory striped headscarf for the day. When I was 22 and balked at buying a $30 paisley scarf, my best friend told me, “I never scrimp on scarves. If people are going to make a big deal of it, it may as well look good.”

I embraced that principle, too, even when I was a scratch-poor graduate student. Today I sort my scarves, always looking to replace the frayed ones and to find missing colors, my collection shrinking and expanding, dynamic, bright: The blue-and-yellow daisy print is good with jeans, the incandescent purple voile for a night on the town, the gray houndstooth solidly professional, the white chambray anytime.

As beautiful as veils are, they are not the best part of being a Muslim woman — and many Muslim women in Islamic countries don’t veil. The central blessing of Islam to women is that it affirms their spiritual equality with men, a principle stated over and over in the Quran, on a plane believers hold to be untouched by the social or legalistic “women in Islam” concerns raised by other parts of the Scripture, in verses parsed endlessly by patriarchal interpreters as well as Muslim feminists and used by Islamophobes to “prove” Islam’s sexism. This is how most believing Muslim women experience God: as the Friend who is beyond gender, not as the Father, not as the Son, not inhabiting a male form, or any form.

And the reasons for being a joyful Muslim woman go beyond the spiritual. Marriage is a contract in Islam, not a sacrament. The prenup is not some new invention; it’s the standard Muslim format. I can put whatever I want in it, but Muslims never get credit for that. Or for having mahr, the bridegift that goes from the man to the woman — not to her family, but to her, for her own private use. A mahr has to have significant value — a year’s salary, say. And if patriarchal customs have overridden Islam and whittled away this blessing in many Muslim locales, it’s still there, available, in the law. Hey, I got mine (cash, partly deferred because my husband was broke when we married; like a loan to him, owed to me whenever I want to claim it) — and I was married in Saudi Arabia, a country whose personal-status laws are drawn from the most conservative end of the Muslim spectrum.

I had to sign my name indicating my consent, or the marriage contract would not have been valid under Saudi Islamic law. And, of course, I chose whom to marry. Every Muslim girl in the conservative circle of my youth chose her husband. We just did it our way, a conservative Muslim way, and we did it without this nonsensical Western custom of teenage dating. My friends Salma and Magda chose at 16 and 17: Salma to marry boy-next-door Muhammad, with whom she grew up, and Magda to marry a doctor 10 years her senior who came courting from half a world away. Both sisters have careers, one as a counselor, one as a school principal, and both are still vibrantly married and vibrantly Muslim, their kids now in college.

I held out until I was 18, making my parents beat back suitors at the door until I was good and ready. And here I am, still married to the guy I finally let in the door, 22 years (some of them not even dysfunctional) later. My cousin, on the other hand, broke off a marriage she contracted (but did not consummate) at 16 and chose another man. Another childhood friend, Zeynab, chose four times and is looking for Mr. Fifth. Her serial monogamy is nothing new or radical; she didn’t pick up the idea from reading Cosmo or from the “liberating” influence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. It’s simply what a lot of women in early Muslim history did, in 7th- and 8th-century Arabia.

And would you guess that we’ve also been freer to divorce and remarry than Christian women have been for most of history? In medieval times, when Christian authorities were against divorce and remarriage, this was seen as another Islamic abomination. Now that divorce and remarriage are popular in the West, Muslims don’t get credit for having had that flexibility all along. We just can’t win with the Muslim-haters.

Here’s another one: Medieval Christianity excoriated Islam for being orgiastic, which seems to mean that Muslims didn’t lay a guilt trip on hot sex (at least within what were deemed licit relationships). Now that hot sex is all the rage in the post-sexual revolution West, you’d think Muslims would get some credit for the pro-sex attitude of Islam — but no. The older stereotype has been turned on its head, and in the new one, we’re the prudes. Listen, we’re the only monotheistic faith I know with an actual legal rule that the wife has a right to orgasm.

Of course, I’m still putting in my time struggling for a more woman-affirming interpretation of Islam and in criticizing Muslim misogyny (which at times is almost as bad as American misogyny), but let me take a moment to celebrate some of the good stuff. Under Islamic law, custody of minor children always goes first to the mother. The Quran doesn’t blame Eve. Literacy for women is highly encouraged by the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. Breast-feeding is a woman’s choice and a means for her to create family ties independent of male lineage, as nursing creates legally recognized family relationships under Islamic law. Rapists are punishable by death in Islamic law (and yes, an atavistic part of me applauds that death penalty), which they certainly are not in any Western legal code. Birth control allowed in Islamic law? Check. Masturbation? Let’s just say former surgeon general Joycelyn Elders’s permissive stance on that practice is not unknown among classical and modern Muslim jurists. Abortion? Again, allowances exist — even Muslims seem not to remember that.

It’s easy to forget that Muslims are not inherently more sexist than folks in other religions. Muslim societies may lag behind on some issues that women in certain economically advanced, non-Muslim societies have resolved after much effort, but on other issues, Muslim women’s options run about the same as those of women all over the world. And in some areas of life, Muslim women are better equipped by their faith tradition for autonomy and dignity.

There are “givens” that I take for granted as a Muslim woman that women of other faiths had to struggle to gain. For example, it took European and American women centuries to catch up to Islamic law on a woman’s fully equal right to own property. And it’s not an airy abstraction; it’s a right Muslim women have practiced, even in Saudi Arabia, where women own businesses, donate land for schools and endow trusts, just as they did in 14th-century Egypt, 9th-century Iraq and anywhere else Islamic law has been in effect.

Khadija was the boss of her husband, our beloved Prophet Muhammad, hiring him during her fourth widowhood to run caravans for her successful business; he caught her eye, and she proposed marriage to him. Fatima is the revered mother figure of Shiite Islam, our lady of compassion, possessed of a rich emotional trove for us. Her daughter Zainab is the classic figure of high moral protest, the Muslim Antigone, shaking her fist at the corrupt caliph who killed her brother, her tomb a shrine of comfort for millions of the pious. Saints, queens, poets, scribes and scholars adorn the history of Muslim womanhood.

In modern times, Muslim women have been heads of state five times in Muslim-majority countries, elected democratically by popular vote (in Bangladesh twice and also in Turkey, Indonesia and Pakistan). And I’m not saying that a woman president is necessarily a women’s president, but how many times has a woman been president of the United States?

Yet even all that gorgeous history pales when I open my closet door for the evening’s pick: teal georgette, pink-and-beige plaid, creamy fringed wool or ice-blue organza? God, why would anyone assume I would want to give up such beauty? I love being a Muslim woman. And I’m always looking for my next great polka-dot scarf.

Mohja Kahf is the author of the novel “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf.”

October 9th, 2008, 10:07 am


norman said:

Reports: Missing Americans held in Syria
Arab media says journalists detained for entering country without visas
updated 7:37 a.m. ET, Thurs., Oct. 9, 2008
BEIRUT, Lebanon – Two Americans reported missing by the U.S. embassy in Lebanon are being held in Syria for entering the neighboring country without visas, Arab media reported Thursday.

Doha-based Al Jazeera television said Holli Chmela, 27, and Taylor Luck, 23, were in good health. Lebanese station LBC carried a similar report. Officials at the U.S. embassies in Damascus and Beirut said they could not immediately confirm the reports.

The U.S. Embassy had said in a statement that the pair — who work for the Amman-based Jordan Times newspaper — had not been heard from since Oct. 1, when they left Beirut for the northern city of Tripoli. They were then to cross by land to Syria before returning to Jordan.

Lebanese media have speculated that they may have fallen victim to kidnappers in the north, where Syria has warned of growing Islamist militancy and the Lebanese army has been the target of two bomb attacks in the last two months.

The U.S. Embassy last week warned citizens of a security threat in Lebanon in the first half of October, linking the heightened risk to the end of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

Copyright 2008 Reuters. Click for restrictions.


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October 9th, 2008, 12:13 pm


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