April 22nd, 2010
12:55 PM ET

'South Park' Mohammed issue sparks debate among Muslims

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2010/04/22/arts/southparkAB.jpg width=416 height=234]

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

It took seven minutes of a "South Park" episode to change a devout Muslim’s features from an entertained smile to complete disapproval. He told his colleague, Lebanese blogger Bilal el-Houri, as he walked away from the screening, “This is disgusting.”

What the young man (he prefers to remain anonymous) found disgusting was the depiction of Islam’s revered Prophet Mohammed as a bear mascot in "South Park’s" 200th episode. The depiction was the show authors’ sarcastic attempt to highlight media’s uneasy dealing with the father of Islam as not to offend Muslims who consider any depiction of their prophet as blasphemous.

Since his followers insist on him not being shown in any form, producers have always struggled with ways to include Mohammed in story lines without showing him. The most famous of those depictions is the classic Hollywood movie ‘The Message’ by Mustafa al-Akkad about the life of Prophet Mohammed. Being Muslim himself, al-Akkad directed his entire film with extreme sensitivity building the character of the prophet around the wind or the light so it’s a presence that is felt or experienced but not seen.

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Filed under: Islam • Octavia Nasr
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
February 6th, 2010
11:29 PM ET

Iran's Islamic Revolution faces off with the Green Movement

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/TECH/08/20/annoying.facebook.updaters/art.facebook.user.gi.jpg caption="Social media sites are abuzz with pictures, cartoons and slogans calling for massive anti-government demonstrations."]

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

Social media sites are abuzz with pictures, cartoons and slogans, calling for massive anti-government demonstrations on Thursday, Feb. 11. The day is also commonly known as "22 of Bahman" in the Iranian calendar.

The choice of avatars on Twitter is not a coincidence. The color green represents what has become known as the Green Movement, a symbol of Iran's opposition. The people who make up the movement took to the streets last year in protest of election results. They have staged many demonstrations since.

For Iranians around the world, this time of year is a commemoration of historic events etched in their memories.


Filed under: Iran • Middle East • Octavia Nasr
January 28th, 2010
08:45 PM ET

Equal in doom

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/01/28/art.ethiopian.prayer.final.jpg caption="A picture dedicated to all victims of the crash entitled, 'Ethiopian Prayer,' by Joumana Medlej, an illustrator, comic author and photographer."]

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

“I told him ‘God be with you’ and I went back to sleep.”

Zeinab Seklawi didn’t know this was the last time she would talk to her son Yasser. She didn’t know the 24-year-old was boarding a plane that would take him and 89 others to their doom a few short minutes after takeoff.

The first headline out of Lebanon early Monday morning read, “Ethiopian Airlines plane with 85 passengers crashes into sea after takeoff from Beirut.”

In my head I pictured in a plane laden with Ethiopian migrant workers returning home to their families after a round of duty. Lebanon, like the rest of the Middle East, employs thousands of migrants especially from Southeast Asia and parts of Africa as domestic helpers. These workers, fleeing poverty in their home countries and looking for better livelihoods, end up working long, hard hours often under abusive circumstances.


Filed under: 360º Follow • Global 360° • Octavia Nasr
January 22nd, 2010
02:49 PM ET

Arabs and Haiti ... aid trickles in

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/WORLD/americas/01/22/haiti.earthquake/smlvid.haiti.port.gi.jpg width=300 height=169]

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

Determining how much Arab countries have contributed or pledged in aid to Haiti is a challenging feat. This is not unusual for someone who works the Middle East beat. The great majority of Arab governments and leaders are slow to react to events – natural disasters included. Most Arabs react quietly, some might say inefficiently, and others would argue it’s out of modesty that they don’t “brag” about their giving.

More than nine days after the devastating quake, it is fair to conclude that with the exception of a few Arab nations, there is not much to be proud of in terms of official Arab outreach to help the victims of the catastrophic earthquake.

Here is what we know about some Arab donations or pledges to Haiti:

Morocco, Kuwait and Bahrain pledged $1 million US Dollars each in aid to be delivered in various ways through each country’s Red Crescent organization.

Jordan, which lost 3 peacekeepers in the quake, has sent two planes of aid and a medical team to set up a medical field facility in Port-au-Prince.

Qatar and Bahrain sent in planes each loaded with tons of food and medical aid.


Filed under: Haiti Earthquake • Octavia Nasr
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
January 6th, 2010
02:56 PM ET

Al Qaeda's fresh recruits

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/01/06/art.terrorist.group.alshabaab0.jpg caption="A photograph of Al-Shabaab circulating online."]

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

They call themselves Al-Shabaab which means 'the Youth' in Arabic.

On several occasions, they pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and his terror network al Qaeda. They use the internet to propagate al Qaeda's ideology.

In July 2009, an Al-Shabaab propaganda video featured a man speaking English with a clearly identifiable U.S. accent.

He was introduced as Abu Mansoor al-Amriki (the American) claiming that he left the U.S. for Somalia to pursue al Qaeda’s brand of Jihad.

In the video, a bearded al-Amriki says with a smile, "The only reason we’re staying here, away from our families, away from the cities, away from, you know, ice, candy bars, all these other things, is because we’re waiting to meet with the enemy.”

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/01/06/art.terrorist.group.alshabaab.jpg]


Filed under: al Qaeda • Middle East • Octavia Nasr • Terrorism
December 2nd, 2009
01:49 PM ET

New Afghanistan strategy: Good, but…

(Al-Mustaqbal – Lebanon)

Octavia Nasr
AC360° Contributor
CNN Senior Editor, Mideast Affairs

When President Barack Obama spoke in front of cadets, staff and guests at West Point to lay out his administration’s new strategy for Afghanistan, “an entire Middle East region was paying attention and analyzing his words carefully,” says Asharq Al-Awsat columnist Abdel Rahman al-Rashed.

According to al-Rashed, the biggest threat facing the Middle East today is terrorism. He says Arab governments and ordinary citizens have been waiting for a sign from President Obama since he took office to gauge his level of commitment in fighting terrorism. “Last night we all got our answer and it’s a positive one” said al-Rashed. “We heard a serious U.S. commitment to fight al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” That, he says, is a comforting stance from the U.S. that “will encourage local governments to do their part and fight terrorism in their backyards.”

The Middle East region is very complex, and it is going through much turmoil and instability at the moment. Beyond the headlines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Iraq’s ongoing struggle to establish itself as a sovereign nation capable of securing its citizens and borders, serious problems are brewing elsewhere. In addition to a growing number of al Qaeda-linked terror attacks in North Africa and an alarming Shiite-Sunni tension in countries such as Morocco and Bahrain, fierce clashes are raging on the Saudi-Yemen border. The rugged mountainous region is witnessing daily battles as troops from both countries try to crush a rebellion by a group known as Al-Houthis, that al-Rashed believes has direct ties to al Qaeda. “Everything is connected” he says. “If the U.S. defeats al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Arab governments continue to isolate al Qaeda in the region, all their cells will fall apart.”


November 13th, 2009
11:51 PM ET

A childhood memory, discovered 40 years later

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/11/12/art.octavia.newspaper.jpg caption="The main page of Annahar in 1969."]

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

From my childhood I carry a memory. It has no specific date nor factual details, but it has strong emotions. It is a memory of a yearning and undeniable desire to go to the moon.

Over the years, my mom must have told the story about a hundred times and I probably told it about a dozen times. My sisters heard it over and over and delighted at making fun of my excitement and my deep belief in what was to most a sure improbability.

‘“Sign me up to go to the moon” were your exact words,’ my mom says.

I remember her trying to reason with me that maybe I should finish school first and then go to the moon. I insisted on signing up. I was convinced there was a “list” somewhere and that my name had to be added to it before it was too late. When my incessant demand was coupled with tears, we agreed that she’d get me a toy rocket so I could practice riding to the moon.

I remember that my mom took me to the only toy shop in our town, but it was closed for the weekend. I looked and looked through the window and saw nothing that resembled a rocket and was very concerned. Luckily, when we went back during the week, they had one. I don’t remember the inscription on it but I do remember there was a USA flag painted on the side. My mom bought it (thank you mom) and I played with that rocket for a long time and built many dreams upon it.

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/11/12/art.vert.octavia.child.jpg caption="Octavia Nasr, center, circa 1967." width=292 height=320]

Many memories jam my head right now, mostly war-related. I link them back to which school grade I was in, which teacher I had, who was my best friend, who hurt me and who saved me. So many memories from a busy life loaded with events and images that I shared with my generation but events to which no child should be exposed.


Filed under: Octavia Nasr • Space
November 9th, 2009
06:21 PM ET

Praise and condemnation for Hasan

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/11/09/art.octavia.nidal.cartoon.jpg caption="A political cartoon from Jordan's Al-Ghad newspaper claimed that Hasan committed atrocities as a result of American influence."]

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

On TV and among ordinary Arabs and Muslims, condemnation of the Fort Hood attack was front and center. But radical Islamist groups were quick to hail Nidal Hasan as a "hero." On several radical sites, they described the shooting rampage at Fort Hood as "the blessed jihadist attack."

A fundamentalist group even produced a video clip showing images from the shooting aftermath while they played jihadi songs glorifying the act. At the end of the video they displayed this chilling caption in English:

"Our attacks will never stop till you take out your army from our lands."

Photos of Major Nidal Hasan, the suspect in Thursday's shooting spree, were flashed on TV screens across the globe. That included Arab and Muslim regions.


Filed under: 360° Radar • Fort Hood Shooting • Octavia Nasr
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