April 2nd, 2010
07:53 PM ET

'What kind of justice is this?'

Octavia Nasr | BIO
AC360° Contributor
CNN Senior Editor, Mideast Affairs

That’s the question on many people's minds from India to Iran in reaction to a sentencing of execution by beheading for a Lebanese man in the conservative Muslim kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Ali Sibat, A TV Psychic in his native Lebanon, was accused of practicing witchcraft while on pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. According to a strict interpretation of Islamic Law, a judge decided that this is a crime punishable by death.

Lebanon’s Justice Minister, Ibrahim Najjar, says that witchcraft or sorcery does not even amount to a crime in Lebanon. It counts as a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of two months.

Minister Najjar told me this week that he asked Saudi Arabia to halt Sibat's execution and release him. He called the sentence "disproportionate" and "counter-productive."


Filed under: Arab Affairs • Middle East • Octavia Nasr
March 5th, 2010
10:52 PM ET

Iraq's big test could reshape Middle East

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/meast/01/27/iraq.elections/art.square.jpg caption="Election posters, like these in central Baghdad, are plentiful as the voting nears." width=300 height=169]

Fareed Zakaria | BIO
CNN Anchor, “Fareed Zakaria – GPS”

This weekend's Iraqi election is testing the strength of the nation's young democracy and could be a turning point in the history of the Middle East, says analyst Fareed Zakaria.

In the March 7 election, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's coalition in the Iraqi parliament is seeking to win enough votes to keep him in office for another term. On Thursday, a series of insurgent attacks led to the deaths of 29 people in the city of Baquba.

Zakaria said the election could have a lasting impact: "It might be the turning point in the rise of Iraq in the Middle East. Iraq is one of the largest, most important countries in the Arab world. It has the third or fourth largest petroleum reserves in the world. Even now it has $40 billion in oil revenues every year; it has a well-trained army thanks to the Americans.

"It is perhaps the beginning of a return to prominence in the Middle East. It is possible that 10 years from now we'll look back and say, while everyone was obsessing about the rise of Iran, the real story in the Middle East in these years was the rise of Iraq."

Keep reading...

Filed under: Arab Affairs • Fareed Zakaria • Iraq
January 14th, 2010
05:13 PM ET

Where are the Arabs in Haiti’s tragedy?

Octavia Nasr | BIO
AC360° Contributor
CNN Senior Editor, Mideast Affairs

Arabs worried, wept, prayed and even had a moment of silence in honor of Haiti’s tragedy and its victims. My measurement came from Twitter as Arab media left much to be desired in that department.

In 140-character messages many Arabs on Twitter and other social media expressed their sadness over the tragedy and offered advice on donations and activism. Some were worried about friends who were in Port-au-Prince on business; they expressed their anguish to an audience that listened and tried to help. Later, a select few came back to express relief that they found their missing while others dipped in a larger pool of sadness.

This one in particular caught my attention. Someone with a distinctly Lebanese name asking another person inside Haiti about his relatives:

@ziadsaliby @RAMhaiti Hello sorry 4 disturbing u do u know annything about Fouad Abd or his family? he has a SM called emile abd market

When my colleague Jack Gray suggested that he should check with the Lebanese Foreign Ministry, Saliby didn’t need 140 characters to express his desperation and loneliness in this daunting process.

@ziadsaliby but lebanon doesn't provide any information... that's why were trying to find info sololy.

Sana Tawileh is a Lebanese mother and professional who is active on Twitter. After posting messages of concern, she came back with this message:

@SanaTawileh We finally got news, so glad that my friends in Haiti are safe!!! It's a real disaster there...Prayers for everyone in Haiti...

Tawileh organically took on the role of moderator on things “Haiti” for a small community of Tweeps that follows her updates. Among other things, she encouraged them to be active, make a difference and warned them of scams if they decide to donate money.

Tawileh is now in Muscat, Oman, where she wrote me, “Haiti is mentioned in the newspapers on the cover page; but no buzz on the subject.”

Tawileh, who describes herself as a “humanitarian” says that a group of her fellow Lebanese are interested in helping Haiti and she will try to assist them through her contacts in Haiti and in the United Nations. Her answer to why she volunteered her voice for Haiti she said, “I always shout out for humanity, for Lebanon, Palestine or Haiti. It’s not political, it's just Human.”

A young Sudanese peace activist reached out to me to tell me what his group is doing to help people in Haiti.

Mohab El Shorbagi (@Mohabkady) serves as Peace mediator and the Secretary-General of the U.N. Youth Club. He is now in Raffah to assist in a “relief mission to Gaza and to promote the Arabic Text of poems by Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire.” He says he’s coordinating with other members of his group around the world to head to Haiti within the next few days to focus on children.

With his other group,  the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, he will be organizing a blood drive around the Middle East especially for Haiti. The absence of an official response to the devastation in Haiti does not stop him from being appreciative of the west. “I should like to think that such a genuine and well-founded reverence for life corresponds to the Western people intrinsic nature” he said in his message to me. He does not hide his disappointment with Arab countries that “lack strategy and unification” he says. So, he takes it upon himself to take action and he feels that his role at the UN affords him that luxury.

As far as the official actions on the ground, here is what we could gather today:

Jordan loaded a military plane with canned foods and bid farewell to a medical team heading to Haiti. Prince Rashid Bin Al Hassan, head of Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization said the following, "We, in Jordan and under His Majesty's directives, join the international community in expressing our sympathy to the people of Haiti. And we, as the Hashemite Charitable Organization of the Jordanian Armed Forces, will take our part in the international effort to bring aid to the people of Haiti, as we have done all over the world whenever we have been asked to do so."

We learned from a local news agency that Qatar sent a plane loaded with 50 tons of humanitarian aid.

According to a news item in local media, the United Arab Emirates head of state, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan has ordered that his country’s Red Crescent start a humanitarian aid bridge to assist the Republic of Haiti and “lend a helping hand to the victims.” The report also said that Sheikh Khalifa has directed the Red Crescent to work with the various charities in the country to determine the kind of aid they will be contributing.

Right now, more than 48 hours after the devastating earthquake struck the Island of Haiti, the only official Arab reaction came from Lebanon where Prime Minister Saad Hariri expressed his nation’s “solidarity with quake-stricken Haiti” and pledged to “contribute to international aid.” In a statement Hariri said, "This human tragedy pushes us to comfort Haiti’s people and participate in international efforts to remove the traces of the disaster."

With the exception of Lebanon’s print media which for the most part highlighted Haiti on front pages, Arab media made modest mentions of the devastation and human tragedy. On larger channels such as the Doha-based Al-Jazeera and the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya, the earthquake and its aftermath were dealt with as a news item alongside regional and international developments. In Jordanian newspapers, the death of three Jordanian Peacekeepers was the headline introducing the Haitian tragedy. A similar case in Tunisia which lost one national who worked for the UN in Port-au-Prince.

As for Arabs on Twitter and other social media, they continue to try to help as they move on in their daily routines.

On the discrepancy in Lebanon’s reaction versus the rest of the Arab world, Sana Tawileh believes a sense of “Freedom” is leading Haiti’s official and public expression of support in Lebanon. While Mohab El Shorbagy is not counting on any officials to act let alone tell him what to do. He’s just confident that he’s heading to Haiti to help first hand. In our exchange, he quoted Nobel Peace Laureate Albert Schweitzer to express how he really feels:

@Mohabkady: "whenever a man turns he can find someone who needs his service & Arab leaders turn to staying in power 4 a long time.”

Filed under: Arab Affairs • Haiti Earthquake • Octavia Nasr • Technology
December 14th, 2009
12:48 PM ET

Holy Jihad, Batman! Al-Qaeda Offers Condolences?

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/asiapcf/12/12/afghanistan.alqaeda/story.adam.gadahn.afp.gi.jpg caption="Image released by al Qaeda-linked group on January 6, 2008 purportedly shows Adam Gadahn." width=300 height=169]

Arsalan Iftikhar
AC360° Contributor
Founder, TheMuslimGuy.com

Holy jihad, Batman!

Did Al-Qaeda just officially offer condolences to innocent civilians murdered by their stupid acts of terrorism?

Well, sort of…

According to CNN, Adam Gadahn- also known as ‘Azzam the American’- appeared in a 17-minute video released on Islamist online forums late Friday, offering condolences to the families of innocent people killed in Al-Qaeda attacks.

“We express our condolences to the families of the Muslim men, women and children killed in these criminal acts…” he says in the video.

Wait a minute. Did a member of Al-Qaeda just admit that their acts of terrorism are ‘criminal acts’?


Filed under: al Qaeda • Arab Affairs • Arsalan Iftikhar • Terrorism
November 9th, 2009
01:22 PM ET

Mr. President, take Mideast heat or get out of the kitchen

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/europe/10/09/nobel.peace.prize/art.obama.mideast.gi.jpg caption="Obama with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas two months ago."]

Aaron David Miller
Special to CNN

When Barack Obama receives his Nobel Peace Prize next month in Oslo, Norway, one thing seems clear: It won't be in recognition of his skill in advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace.

For much of the past year, the administration has wandered around the not-so-Holy Land without clear direction, an accurate understanding of Israelis and Palestinians, or an effective strategy.

But all is not lost. The past 10 months could be, to use the president's words, a teachable moment, and with the right lessons learned, maybe, just maybe, the president could get back on track.

The lessons:

Keep your enthusiasm under control: In January, President Obama came out harder, faster and louder on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking than any of his predecessors. The speech in Cairo, Egypt, and his ultimatum to the Israelis on freezing settlements seemed to suggest that this president was going to be tough and fair. No more business as usual.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the political laws of gravity that make getting anything done on Arab-Israeli diplomacy very hard kicked in, dragging down the president's hopes and words.

Keep Reading...

Filed under: Arab Affairs • Israel • Palestine • President Barack Obama
October 27th, 2009
08:03 PM ET

Lashes or pardon? That is the question

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/meast/02/15/saudi.female.minister/art.king.jpg caption="Saudi King Abdullah used his power Monday to overturn a criminal court sentence of 60 lashes and a two-year travel ban imposed on female journalist Rosanna Yami."]

Octavia Nasr
AC360° Contributor
CNN Senior Editor Mideast Affairs

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has been called "The King of Hearts" by many of his countrymen and women. This is a reflection of what many Saudis believe are his compassionate attempts to reform his ultra-conservative kingdom and bring it up-to-date with the rest of the world.

He used his power Monday to pardon Saudi female journalist Rosanna Yami. By doing so, he saved her from 60 lashes - a sentence handed down by a Saudi criminal court – and a two-year travel ban from the kingdom.

While this is an unusual move for the King, it certainly is not unprecedented. In 2007, he pardoned a woman who was gang-raped but was still sentenced to hundreds of lashes for being in the presence of the unrelated males who raped her.

The journalist’s case started with a controversial Lebanese TV show that explores taboos of the Middle East. When 'A Thick Red Line' featured a Saudi man - Mazen Abdul Jawad - bragging about his alleged sexual escapades, the station's Saudi offices were closed and Abdul Jawad was sentenced to five years in jail and 1,000 lashes.


Filed under: 360° Radar • Arab Affairs • Octavia Nasr
October 13th, 2009
09:02 AM ET

The Great Silencing: Intolerance and censorship in the Arab world

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/POLITICS/06/04/egypt.obama.speech/art.obama.cnn.jpg caption="In June, President Obama urged a new chapter in ties between the U.S. and Muslims in a speech in Cairo, Egypt."]

Cynthia P. Schneider and Nadia Oweidat
RAND Corporation

“Where are the moderate voices from the Arab world?”

This common lament often leads to nostalgic evocations of the Golden Age of Islam, which stretched from the 7th to the 16th century. President Obama recently harked back to this period of Islamic enlightenment, innovation and tolerance in his Cairo speech, in which he attempted to redefine the relationship between Muslims and the United States.

Actually, there is no need to reach back 1,000 years to find Muslim advocates for tolerance and moderation. There is a need, however, to stop silencing the moderates alive today.

The Arab world is rich in literature - including a surge of new novels and non-fiction - that examines all aspects of Arab life and advocates a vision of a multi-cultural society that respects human rights. These works draw on the traditions of the medieval Golden Age, and of the Arab Renaissance of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when Cairo was to the Arab world what Paris was to the West.

Eight decades ago, the seminal scholar Rifa’i Al-Tahtawi, once head of Al Azhar (Obama’s host in Cairo and the equivalent of the Vatican for Sunni Muslims), advocated tolerance towards non-Muslims and engaged in vibrant debates with contemporary European intellectuals. In his 1830 book An Imam in Paris, he argued for an open, moderate version of Islam. At a time when Egypt offered only religious education, he also urged the state to make modern, secular education accessible to all citizens.


Filed under: Arab Affairs • Global 360° • Islam • Middle East
September 22nd, 2009
01:05 PM ET

Social networks: A niche for the voiceless

Octavia Nasr | BIO
AC360° Contributor
CNN Senior Editor, Mideast Affairs

A Muslim call to prayer can now be accessed any time and anywhere thanks to social media networks such as Facebook and You Tube.

Across the world, Muslims are creating online communities to discuss and promote their religion. At the same time, this open discussion is exposing and highlighting issues and concerns considered taboo within Islam and the cultures in which they live.

Syrian blogger Ammar Abdel Hamid sees Facebook as a niche for the otherwise voiceless. “The internet came and gave an opportunity for activists for new voices for young people, for democracy promoters, for human rights activists' he says.

In the Arab world, gays and lesbians are taking to the internet to mingle with like-minded people and promote tolerance and understanding. This is especially significant because in their culture they are mainly rejected and still referred to in derogatory terms.


Filed under: 360° Radar • Arab Affairs • Octavia Nasr • Technology
July 20th, 2009
11:23 AM ET

Arab Americans chafe over census form

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/POLITICS/02/11/gerrymandering/art.house.interior.gi.jpg caption="Hanania argues that the U.S. government pretends American Arabs don’t exist when counting the U.S. Census, which determines the boundaries of Congressional districts."]
Ray Hanania
New America Media

The first question I always get from “Americans” is, “Why do you keep calling yourself ‘Arab-American?’ You are American!”

It represents the rock and the hard place where American Arabs have been pushed by the lack of education among most Americans.

It’s aggravated by what I also call the U.S. government’s split personality when it comes to American Arabs. On the one hand, they want to know us. On the other, they don’t. Here’s what I mean.

The only time the United States government wants to know about American Arabs is when they are “profiling” us at airport and border security to “protect” the country from “the terrorist threat.”

But when it comes to counting people in the U.S. Census (so they can participate and share in government programs like grant funding awards, defining the borders of election districts for Congress, state legislatures or municipal councils), the U.S. government pretends American Arabs don’t exist.


Filed under: 360° Radar • Arab Affairs
May 29th, 2009
03:49 PM ET

Middle East eagerly awaits Obama with curiosity and cautious optimism

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/05/29/art.arab.cartoon.abbas.obama.jpg caption="A political cartoon published in the Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds."]

Octavia Nasr
AC360° Contributor
CNN Senior Editor Mideast Affairs

President Barack Obama will deliver a message to the Muslim world on Thursday. He chose Cairo, Egypt, as his podium. Not surprising, when you consider Egypt’s size and stature in the Muslim world. Population of about 60 million, and home to Al-Azhar Mosque, the authority on Islam and the launching point of thousands of Islamic clerics and scholars spread all over the world from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Add to that the role secular Egypt plays in the region especially on the Palestinian-Israeli front and the media access where everyone, including Israeli journalists, is welcomed and provided the forum to beam the speech quickly and widely across the world.

Professor Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institute just led an opinion poll tracking sentiments between media and identity in the Arab Middle East. He says poll results show President Obama right now enjoying a clear popularity in the region in comparison to his predecessor President George W. Bush.

The poll conducted in six moderate Arab countries in April and May shows President Obama as someone “Arabs admire and want to love,” says Telhami. “Their negative views of him are very low… however, they’re still skeptical of the U.S. administration and its foreign policy.”


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