Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide: Another Notch on the Belt of FBI's Suspect Activity?

The FBI is currently under investigation by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General for reported cheating on tests administered for agents regarding the guidelines for limits on surveillance.

The agents underwent 16 hours of training to understand the guidelines—named, the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide—which the FBI says is a “guide [that] equips agents with lawful and appropriate tools so the agency can transform itself into an intelligence-driven organization that investigates genuine criminal and national security threats.” The alleged cheating is in the form of some agents finishing the test suspiciously early, while others worked together as a group to take the test. FBI Director Robert Mueller claimed that these incidents are to be blamed on miscommunication and misunderstanding among FBI offices as to the procedure of how the test was to be administered. While the need for investigation is concerning on its own, the actual guidelines are also considered an invasive manual for investigation.

The operations manual gives agents the authority to “create maps of ethnic-oriented businesses, behaviors, lifestyle characteristics and cultural traditions in communities with concentrated ethnic populations.” The guidelines essentially allow investigation not based on hard evidence of criminal activity, but instead on what the FBI considers “proper purpose”—a term that masks what is most likely reasons based on suspicion and alarm. It is also believed that the guidelines permit intrusive investigation of mosques, churches, and synagogues—once again without evidence of criminal activity. The system of data collection as outlined by the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide is problematic in that it may lend itself to an unconstitutional system of racial profiling by law enforcement.

Concerns for the conspicuous nature of the FBI’s operations guidelines are voiced by many special interest groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, and Muslim legal groups, such as Muslim Advocates. Farhana Khera, the director of Muslim Advocates, has stated that “Law-abiding American Muslims have experienced increasing levels of discriminatory, invasive and abusive conduct by federal agents.” The guidelines do not target Muslims specifically and the ACLU is filing Freedom of Information Act requests in 29 states and Washington—in order to find out how the FBI is acquiring information and what information about race and ethnicity is used for.

The issues created by this operations manual are not just pertaining to an invasion of privacy in the lives of many ethnic-community members, but problems arise in regards to the relationship between law enforcement and the community at large. Michael German, ACLU lawyer and former FBI agent, believes that the implementation of this sort of information collection simply drives an even larger wedge between law enforcement and the people that they are supposed to serve. He also states that “the FBI should be focusing its efforts on people it has a factual basis for suspecting of wrongdoing, not targeting communities with race-based investigations.” By applying a method of investigation that is invasive in nature, the FBI may be instilling even further distrust in the hearts of community members that feel that they have to constantly be on the defense for obtrusive violations of their privacy. Instead, it would probably be more useful to expand on meaningful, collaborative relationships with not only the Muslim community, but various ethnic and religious groups.

This operations manual seems to be further perpetuating the problem with how the United States, and its varied agencies and organizations, is handling anti/counter-terrorism. Using anti-terrorism techniques, like the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, to invade the privacy of many is not the proper way to go about preventing further national security risks. This guide joins the ranks of the No-Fly List and the protesting of the “Ground Zero Mosque” as methods that are proved—or will be proved—as ineffective for the prevention of any further terrorism. While these tactics appear to be America’s only choice for moving closer to complete security, they are doing the opposite of what is intended.

These methods simply demonize certain ethnicities and religions, rather than working together with the communities to create a bond that would foster open communication and provide incentive for exchanging useful information.

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Ground Zero Mosque: A 13-Story Symbol of Tolerance

Just about everyone who’s anyone in the American political scene has spoken out on the proposed Islamic cultural center called the Córdoba House (or “Park51”), to be constructed about two blocks from the former World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan. Former Wasilla, AK Mayor Sarah Palin, former Speaker of the House Newt Gringrich, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh are just some of the big names offering their two-cents on the issue.

As some have smartly pointed out, however, this is an issue that reveals much about America’s moral, political, and religious response to 9/11, nearly a decade later.

I was in sixth grade when America was attacked nearly nine years ago; it took me quite a while to wrap my head around what had happened and how the world had changed. But one thing I distinctly remember hearing for days, weeks, and months after the tragedy was that America is rarely as united and patriotic as it was in the immediate aftermath. Every citizen of this country seemed to stand united -- united at first in utter disbelief, then united in their sadness and anger, and finally united in a resolute commitment to mourn, rebuild, and move on as strong as ever.

At the time, it was only natural to sing the praises of the country we had grown to love even more in its time of need. Talk of America’s greatness flowed from the mouths of politicians, celebrities, and citizens alike. When President George W. Bush addressed the nation on the night of September 11, he said that “a great people has been moved to defend a great nation.” Now, more than 3,500 days later, this “great nation” has in front of it an issue which will allow it to prove that these praises were warranted.

The name of the proposed Islamic community center and mosque, Córdoba House, is an allusion to the atmosphere in Córdoba, Spain during the tenth century when the city was the center of the Islamic caliphate, where the world’s greatest Christian, Muslim, and Jewish minds collaborated and coexisted in a peaceful Eden. That is the vision for this community center as well. It has been misreported in the media that the center will be exclusively for Muslim use – this is false, all will be welcome to enjoy its benefits. The vision behind this proposed center belongs to Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf, a spiritual leader of great repute in New York who is often praised for his outreach to those of different faiths and cooperation with non-Muslims. Those who brand the proposed Córdoba House as a symbol of Muslim intervention or invasion onto American soil apparently did not bother to do their research on the aims and goals of the center or its visionary.

Sarah Palin’s now-infamous tweet, “Peace-seeking Muslims, pls [sic] understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts,” brings up a new issue: that the proposed mosque is simply in a bad location – it is simply too near to the symbol of an attack on America, the scale of which this country had never seen before. My opinion, however, is exactly the opposite: that this debate is a perfect opportunity for Americans to embrace a spirit of dialogue and understanding and promote an image of this great nation as the cooperative and tolerant place its founders had in mind centuries ago. What better way to show that we are resilient and value all creeds than to erect a Muslim cultural center in lower Manhattan – proving to all that Americans understand that it was not a religion that attacked the United States that September day, but rather nineteen extremely violent men who did not subscribe to the brand of Islam that this mosque will celebrate.

The National Republic Trust Political Action Committee, a well-organized and well-funded lobbyist group, recently attempted to air a commercial (warning: graphic images) speaking out against the proposal for the center on CBS and NBC networks. Interspersed with extremely graphic images of the September 11 attacks are calls to prayer from minarets around the world. The ad attempts to link the faith of Islam with vicious terrorism through its symbolic imagery. Both TV networks refused to air it, citing its ambiguous usage of the term “they,” which viewers could take to mean Islamic extremists or all Muslims collectively. Attempts to slander the Muslim faith like this are a grievous attack on traditional American values, most importantly the First Amendment rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speech. This is not what a united America stands for: uninformed, politically-motivated assaults on faith.

Others, including former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich have stated that “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.” Mr. Gingrich's rhetoric here is quite dangerous. He is implying that the staunchly secular nation of the United States should be held to the same standards of religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue as the fervently Islamic state of Saudi Arabia. The former Speaker is promoting that either Saudi Arabia – an independent, foreign nation (and a critically-important US ally) – become more secular and forsake its inherent right to religious uniformity, or that the United States should overturn the Supreme Court’s long-held precedent of separation of church and state and convert this nation into a Judeo-Christian theocracy.

Both of these ideas are highly offensive to those who have spent their lives defending the rights of all to practice their faiths freely in Cleveland, Seattle, Riyadh, and Tel Aviv. While it is understandable that there is a healthy debate about the subject of a “Ground Zero Mosque,” as the media has branded Córdoba House, I believe that if we let our minds direct the discussion, the rational conclusion is that the construction of the Córdoba House in New York City is the perfect symbol of American tolerance, resilience, and freedom.

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

It's all semantics...

Political science as a study has always been riddled with very serious arguments and debates of rhetoric and semantics. What differentiates a nation from a state from a regime may seem like trivial delineations to some, but in the world of political science the differences are staggering. In the study of international relations, moreover, the differences are not just astounding but can often times be highly offensive and downright hazardous. The 2010 National Security Strategy released by the Obama administration makes apparent efforts to discuss important security issues without using terms such as “Islamic terrorist” or “jihadist,” and acts as an example of an awareness for the impact of semantics in the discussion on terror.

While this shift in linguistics is supported by the regime, opposition can be found in reports released by organizations such as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which stress a concern for separating religious motives from acts of terrorism. Recently, the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog posed the question: “What to call terrorists?and 19 bloggers responded to the question with their varying opinions on the issue. This panel of bloggers and their respective points of views on the matter stirred a curiosity in me; how do you discuss the most recent terrorist activity without mentioning any associated religious ties and motives? How do you define acts of political dissent separate from the religious movements that fuel them?

Using terms like “Muslim terrorist” and “jihadist” is problematic, not only for the incorrect usage of the words Muslim and jihad, but because that would require we call Timothy McVeigh a “Catholic terrorist” or Crusaders from the middle ages “Christian terrorists.” This thought lends itself to consideration of whether or not including religious ties is necessary at all. As blog panelist Herb Silverman titled his blog response “A terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist,” conceivably it could be the case that religious motives are not important but instead focus should be placed on effective prevention. Silverman makes the case that once a terrorist has acted out; it’s already too late to understand his or her motives. Apart from the argument that using religious adjectives to describe terrorists is unnecessary, another argument is based on the fact that by using “Islamic terrorist” it can create a perception that this sort of violence is normative for the religion.

Perhaps a complete disregard for religious terms when defining terrorist acts is not the best method. Perhaps, instead, it is necessary to understand the difference between Islam as a religion and Islam as a political ideology—commonly referred to as Islamism, a term rejected by some scholars and replaced with labels such as “activist Islam” or “political Islam.” Nonetheless, a clearer understanding of a definition for terrorism can be reached with a more comprehensive understanding of the differences between the faith itself and the political movements based on teachings of the faith. A terrorist that happens to be a Muslim should not be referred to as a “Muslim terrorist” but a terrorist that follows the political ideologies of Islamism to fortify his terrorist acts can justifiably be defined as an “Islamist terrorist.” This usage of the term “Islamist” should not infuriate Muslims worldwide, it is a valid use of the term and although it is unfortunate that a few Muslims have tarnished the name of Islam with their acts, the fact is that many of these same people act on the behalf of political aims rooted in their distorted form of Islam.

However, the fact of the matter is that not everyone—including myself—fully comprehends the difference between Islam as a religion and the use of Islam as a political ideology and using religious language attached with ‘terrorist’ would be precarious, especially in official reports. So although a complete disregard for religious terms may be replaced with a more nuanced and precise set of terms as a prescription for this problem, it is safer to simply impose a blanket eradication of religious terms.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tea Party "Refudiates" Claims of Racism

Last week the NAACP publicly condemned the National Tea Party for racist elements within the party. Tea Party supporters repudiated the claim by suggesting that although racist individuals may exist within the party, they do not represent the party's platform in any way. However the NAACP argues that the party does not do enough to ostracize those who are motivated by and publicly display their racism.

We've all seen the signs with pictures of President Obama donning a Hitler-esque mustache alongside Hitler and Stalin. And we've also seen the signs accusing Obama of being a Muslim, and have heard the racial slurs being hurled at immigrant Mexicans and African Americans alike. All of this mixed in with Confederate flags and threats of violence (signs that read "We came unarmed... THIS TIME) makes for a very unsettling scene. These images and video clips don't help the Tea Party's cause, whatever that may be.

So then why haven't Tea Party leaders come out in strong condemnation of the racist trends within their movement? Why haven't the racists in the movement been kicked out, or at least shoved out of the camera's eye?

Well, according to a study conducted by the University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race, and Sexuality... it's seems that if they did, their party would cease to exist.

The study found that members of the movement are more likely than the general population to feel racial resentment, have negative opinions of immigrants, and believe that President Obama favors black people over white people. When asked sensitive questions such as "if blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites" Tea Party respondents overwhelmingly agreed with the statement, 73% to be exact, whereas only 33% the general public agreed with the statement. The study also found that Tea Partiers are whiter, older, wealthier, and more educated than most.

Another issue with leadership condemning racist elements within the party is that the Leadership is just as racist as the Tea Party masses, albeit not always quite so overtly. In fact, the leaders are usually the ones fueling the fire of hatred.

Take for example Tom Tancredo’s opening speech at the Tea Party’s national convention earlier this year when he said that President “Barack Hussein Obama” was elected president because “we do not have a civics, literacy test before people can vote in this country.” Tancredo apparently thinks we should go back to operating things pre-Voting Rights Act of 1965, back to the Jim Crowe south.

But we don’t have to go that far back to find examples of racism in the movement’s leadership. Just a couple of months ago Mark Williams officially outed himself as a certified Islamophobe when he spoke out against the proposed “ground zero mosque” on the grounds that it would become a shrine to the worship of the terrorists’ monkey God; where Muslims would propagandize for the extermination of all things not approved by their cult."

And of course just this week Sarah Palin jumped on the bigoted bandwagon calling upon “peaceful Muslims” to “refudiate” the Cordoba Initiative. As if to imply that Muslims can only be broken down into two groups, peaceful or violent, and that those who support the mosque are antagonistic and probably not the peaceful kind. She also mentioned that the Islamic Center is a stab in the heart to people across the heartland. I have to bring this up again… don’t you think all of this racism and hatred stabs the hearts of the Muslim 9-11 survivors and families of the Muslims killed in the Twin Towers on 9-11?

I guess there was some merit to the NAACP’s claims after all. The Tea Party Federation ousted Mark Williams and the Tea Party Express finally on Monday for his racist blog response to the NAACP condemnation. After getting the boot, Williams argued that there is no such thing as a Tea Party leader, and that all members of the movement are leaders.

The Tea Party more or less admitted their racism with Williams’ forced exit; Williams revealed that the movement really isn’t much more than a gathering of bigots with no organizational structure or platform with his response.

It’s not just liberals who are attacking the movement; conservatives too sense that something isn’t right. Bob Inglis, a six term Republican Congressman who's on his way out in a recent interview with the AP expressed fear that his party may be taken over by extremists, referring to the Tea Party. He said “significant portions of the Republican coalition believe that it is a desirable strategy to talk of armed revolution, embrace libertarian purity and alienate Hispanic voters. With a major Republican victory in November, those who hold these views may well be elevated in profile and influence. And this could create durable, destructive perceptions of the Republican Party that would take decades to change.”

I guess there is still the possibility that the Tea Party just gets bad press. Maybe they’re not racist. But more importantly we should be asking, what does this movement inspire? If it’s not about racism, what is it about? The Democratic Party inspires people to fight for justice, equality, and civil rights. The Republican Party inspires family values, and a hard work ethic. What does the Tea Party truly inspire other than hollow talking points and clever slogans?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Religious Freedom for All?

In a post-Colonial world it appears that, initially at the very least, America has been far more welcoming to people of various religious backgrounds than its European allies. The ban of the face-covering veils in France and the constitutional ban on the building of minarets in Switzerland both serve as examples that signal a start of possible stigmatization of Muslims in the respective countries specifically, and Europe generally.

The United States, contrastingly, has been a country built upon a belief in tolerance of a racially, religiously, and ethnically diverse population. The freedom of religion, as outlined by the First Amendment, is a right proudly exercised in America and has been protected since its creation. However, this right, as a result of the apparent decrease of tolerance for other peoples, is becoming jeopardized.

The newest manifestation of this endangered right is evident in the case of hostile opposition towards the building or expansion of mosques. According to USA Today, the building of new mosques has been hard since 2001 and “over the past three years, at least 18 mosque projects — from Mississippi to Wisconsin — have run into fierce opposition. Mosque foes cite traffic concerns and fear of terrorism.” This infringement on the freedom to build places of worship coincides with a larger infringement on the right to religious freedom. As expressed by Yasser Salet Arafat, who is involved in the building of new mosque in Antioch, "You are betraying America by standing against our basic values, by saying you cannot have a mosque, you cannot be a Muslim in the United States."

Due to this difficulty and opposition to the creation of new mosques, most Muslims have been dealing with this by using converted office buildings, unable to expand them once again due to this resistance. Because of these barriers, mosques of this kind only operate for the purpose of prayer. Mosque builders, such as Arafat, would like to create spaces that are multipurpose and have room for various activities—religious and non-religious— and are therefore more attractive to the Muslim youth. In this way, these new spaces may also serve as outreach to “cultural Muslims” that do not regularly attend mosque.

Mosque opponents grounded on practical reasons, such as traffic concerns, are more irritating than harmful. However, opposition based on the belief that mosques are breeding grounds for Islamist ideology and terrorism are far more worrisome and appear to be outrightly founded on religious prejudice. Political satirist Jon Stewart cleverly mocks opponents by likening the purpose of mosques and Islam to that of the purpose of Christianity. He counters the arguments that the building of mosques is a demonstration of the Islamic cornerstone of spreading the religion by quoting the Bible to show that Christianity also has this cornerstone. He then quotes various politicians that claim that the Constitution is built upon Christian beliefs. Through this satire, Stewart is able to highlight the hypocrisy of these opponents and the harmlessness of the creation of new mosques. Mosques, and more specifically the purposes of mosques, are no different from the purposes of churches, synagogues, and temples. Therefore by deciding which religions are allowed to build places of worship, practice their beliefs, and spread their word, these opponents are unapologetically impugning religious freedom and making it okay to implement religious discrimination.

This unfortunate manifestation of bigotry is endangering American ideals and acts as a reminder that this country—especially in these post-9/11 times—is no longer the freedom for all, tolerable, progressive country it once claimed to be. Like our European partners, Americans that feel this way are showing concern that the American identity is being threatened and is no longer in their control.

However, these concerns are unnecessary—America is comprised of different people coming from different religious, racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds and has been a melting pot of identities since its foundation. The increase in building new mosques is not a demonstration of a Muslim takeover, but instead it shows that like always, America is growing and with that growth comes an increase in its various populations—in this case the Muslim population—and should not be threatened by this expansion.

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Burqa Ban in France: A Sign of Things to Come?

France’s National Assembly – the lower house of Parliament – voted on Tuesday 336-1 in favor of a ban on burqas worn in public. The vote will now proceed to the Senate, where it is expected to pass easily in September. President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is a major supporter of the bill, said in June of last year that burqas and similar dress are “not welcome” in his country, and that women must not be “prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.”

The vote comes in the midst of a heated debate in France and across Europe regarding social identity and the competition between secularism and religion. In 2009, France launched a nationwide initiative to define “what it means to be French,” according to the AP. The country has a long history of secular pride, and critics of the burqa contend that public dress that connotes a specific religious affiliation is an attack on French values.

Muslim advocates both within France and abroad have expressed strong disapproval of the movement to ban burqas and other face-covering veils. While such veils are not required by the Qur’an or by traditional Islamic jurisprudence, French Muslim advocacy groups fear that the ban will serve to stigmatize the Islamic community further. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, and while fewer than half of one percent of Muslim women in France are believed to wear veils that are made illegal by this law, prosecuting Muslims (or any religious group) in secular courts for their religious dress is treading a slippery slope, according to many watchdog groups.

The bill does not make any specific reference to Islam or to burqas, but some French lawmakers worry that passing the bill will serve to revive tensions between native French and the masses immigrating to France from Muslim-majority countries. There have also been fears that terrorist groups will begin targeting France because of the decision on the burqas. Algerian-based terrorist organization al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb issued a statement warning that it will “seek vengeance against France” in response to Sarkozy’s support for the bill.

France is not the only country which is considering such a ban; both Belgium and Spain have expressed interest in similar votes within their parliaments. The issue at the root of the headscarf controversy seems to stem from an influx of Muslim immigrants into the heart of Europe. Some experts contend that by the year 2100, a full one in four Europeans will be Muslim. The enormous growth rate of Islam in Europe has created cultural and religious tensions which are being manifest by riots and civil unrest in places such as Paris, London, and Dresden, Germany.

Peter Osborne, a leading scholar on Islam-European relations from the University of Exeter in Great Britain, says that the media and certain politicians in Europe have given rise to an “atmosphere where hate crimes, ranging from casual abuse to arson to even murder, are bound to occur and are even in a sense encouraged by mainstream media.” Given the overwhelming public support for the anti-headscarf law just passed in France, it seems likely that this atmosphere of public indifference toward Islamic values will continue, and possibly be made worse by the influx of more Muslim immigrants in the coming years.

The Muslim community in France and across Europe will undoubtedly face many hardships as attempts at reconciliation and cross-cultural acceptance continue in the next few decades. The law passed Tuesday in France’s National Assembly, while not entirely inflammatory or outrageous, is not a good sign of what is to come as far as Euro-Islamic relations are concerned. Combined with the ban on mosque-building recently passed in Switzerland, this law and others which are likely to be passed in Belgium and Spain, there seems to be growing anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe. (Although, to be fair, this sentiment might better be characterized as anti-Muslim symbolism or perhaps pro-secularism movements). However you characterize it, the movements resisting Muslim “encroachment” on traditional Christian, western European values are not likely to cease anytime soon.

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NASA Outreach: The New Tool for Diplomatic Relations

NASA—the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—has seemed to divert their telescopes elsewhere. Rather than focusing on issues pertaining to space and the exploration of it, as one would naturally expect a space administration to do, NASA chief Charles Bolden announced that they would focus on outreach to the Muslim world as NASA’s “foremost” priority—which Bolden explains as a direct request of President Obama’s administration. This shift in focus is odd at best, and how it will affect the Muslim world is hard to determine, but the reaction of the American public and political analysts is already apparent.

Bolden expanded on the program as a way to promote science and math education: “…he [President Obama] charged me with three things. One was he wanted me to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math, he wanted me to expand our international relationships, and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science ... and math and engineering.” The initiative seems to have nothing to do with space exploration and Bolden even goes as far as calling it “an Earth improvement agency.”

The use of NASA as a tool for diplomatic relations by the Obama administration does not sit well with some, as evident by various political bloggers and news programs. Concerns include the fact that it seems as though NASA is disregarding space travel and exploration as their primary goal and that NASA is a taxpayer-funded agency—so the use of NASA for earthly goals comes across to the critics as redirecting money away from NASA’s original purpose towards the administration’s policy-related priorities. The other concern may be that this announcement was made via an interview with Al-Jazeera, rather than a source from the American media. But their reactions are almost as irrelevant as the outreach program itself—a point mockingly expressed by political satirist Jon Stewart. Stewart likens the use of NASA to Ronald Reagan’s use of technology for peace-keeping means during the Cold War. Stewart calls the use of NASA “innocuous” and disregards all concerns involving the issue. But the fact of the matter is this program altogether seems unnecessary, the White House does comment that what they mean by this program is the international cooperation towards space exploration and that this involves the collaboration of scientists from all over—including the Muslim world. Charles Bolden’s comments however focus on the Muslim world as the foremost region of concern and are therefore a bit troublesome.

What exactly could this outreaching towards the Muslim world mean for Muslims and politics alike? There is some unease that this may encourage “Muslim-identity politics” and discourage the involvement of countries that don’t consider themselves Muslim-majority. However, the sole purpose of this outreach is to ultimately advance science and the collaboration of the global community. Stewart’s comments, make a point of important pitfalls with the concerns of NASA’s new “mission;” the use of technology for peace has been used before and the involvement of the Muslim world is simply a means to involve all regions of the international community. The acknowledgment of the Muslim world’s historical contribution to science is accurate and is not an issue. Ultimately, it seems as though the outreach program is a way to continue the advancement of science, all the while dealing with the economic problems that may prevent NASA from continuing expensive missions of space exploration.

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Friday, July 09, 2010

The Rise of the Drone

“Predator strikes are the worst kept covert secret in the history of U.S. foreign policy.”
–Micah Zenko, Fellow for Conflict Prevention, Council on Foreign Relations

Although General Stanley McChrystal recently made headlines over his anti-Washington comments in Rolling Stone magazine, he made a similar uproar last Fall when he publically criticized and dismissed Vice President Biden’s suggestion that the U.S. should rely more heavily on electronic surveillance and drone attacks in Afghanistan as opposed to increasing troop numbers. While those comments only led to a mid-air reprimand by President Obama on Air Force One, McChrystal’s comments helped to stir the debate about the best way to move forward in Afghanistan. And while counterinsurgency has been the goal in this almost decade long war, there have been an ever increasing number of drone attacks both in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.

As of June 10, 2010, there have been 91 drone strikes in Pakistan under Obama’s watch compared to just 45 in Pakistan under the Bush Administration between 2004-2008. Additionally, the number of strikes in Afghanistan increased from 58 in the time period between July and December 2008, to 83 during the same period in 2009. Clearly, President Obama favors the increased use of drones to eliminate his enemies; however, the rules surrounding the use of drones along with the true number of civilian casualties resulting from the strikes remains a mystery.

Those who support the use of drones claim that they have “inflicted severe blows to militant groups” because they allow the U.S. to “get at dangerous terrorists operating in areas otherwise inaccessible to the central government or to conventional military units.” They also argue that drones are “effective, exact and essential" and that precautions are always taken to avoid and lower civilian casualties. Despite this claim, which is difficult to assess, critics argue that it is almost impossible to know the exact number of civilians killed by drone strikes given that Muslim religious doctrine calls Muslims to bury their dead as soon as possible after death. U.S. officials claim that fewer than 50 civilians have died as a result of drone strikes since 2008, but without personnel or contacts on the ground, the U.S. cannot get DNA samples or properly identify the exact number of dead and injured. Without this information, it is difficult to truly understand the full impact of a drone strike. Strikes, depending on their size and location, can affect a great number of people and raze large areas of a village or town.

While there are tighter standards dictating drone usage under President Obama than there were under President Bush, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) still has authority to strike anyone deemed to be a threat to the United States “even when the U.S. does not know their names or has only fragmentary information about their intentions.” In addition, government records show that the “list of approved drone targets has been expanded from terrorists to drug lords.” Critics accuse the U.S. of also targeting terrorist financiers and propagandists, who should have the right to a trial by jury as opposed to an extrajudicial execution by a drone strike. Given this perceived freedom to target almost anyone deemed dangerous anywhere in the world, it is vital that the United States along with the United Nations begin to set clear and transparent guidelines on the use of drone strikes, especially in places, like Pakistan, that are outside of declared warzones, yet receive an average of more than two strikes per week.

Currently, at least 40 countries around the world have drones, and while many of these are surveillance drones, there are quite a few with armed capabilities. In the absence of clear international standards on the use of drones for targeted killings, there is nothing to stop nations from using drones on anyone they declare an enemy. In many places, including China and Russia, state enemies often include journalists, ethnic minorities, or human rights activists among others. Drones, like other previous weapons of war, are once again changing the face of war. It is better to set standards on them now than risk serous problems and abuse in the future.

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Thursday, July 01, 2010

Recognizing Muslim Holidays in Public Schools

My experience in High School as a Muslim was overall a pretty positive one, albeit at the time I didn't wear hijab. Most teachers and administrators were as accommodating to my needs as a Muslim as they could be.

During my four years in high school there were at most seven or eight observant Muslims at any one time, and at least a couple dozen Bosnian and Albanian Muslims who chose to blend into the masses. For the group of us 7 or 8, which included two white American converts, we were made to feel quite comfortable. We were given a space to pray at school in a dressing room backstage of the auditorium. We were also given special hall passes so that we could make our prayers at the appropriate time of day. At lunchtime, the lunch ladies always heeded my request for a clean change of gloves and a fresh package of turkey yet to be contaminated by the nearby ham before assembling my sandwich. The no headwear rule was waived for those girls who did choose to cover their hair, and gym uniforms were allowed to be modified so that we could be as modest as we felt comfortable. There was always a healthy curiosity amongst the teachers and many students which reassured us kids that we were right where we belonged. Yes, all of this was after 9-11. I was in the graduating class of 2006.

The only time I ever really perceived a problem was when our holidays, Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr rolled around. It wasn't really a huge problem, but more of an inconvenience. We were allowed to leave school with an excused absence so long as we provided a written note from our Imam with the coming of each holiday. What this meant was we didn't receive any penalty for missing school, but we still had to take the risk of missing out on important lectures, tests, and on at least two unfortunate occasions, final exams. I wasn't exactly the most serious student in high school, and skipped classes with reckless abandon whenever possible. My other Muslim friends weren't like me though. With each Eid they had to weigh their options to decide whether or not they could afford missing classes, excused or not. Often times, skipping Eid celebrations was academically the smart decision, so that's what they did.

I always just thought "well, that's the way it is." Of course my friends and I joked around about how cool it would be if everyone could just take Eid off like Christmas or Easter, but we never considered this in any sort of serious way.

That's why I was shocked to read the headline "NYC Muslims Push For School Holidays" in my newsfeed on Facebook. I had no idea that there was a real, organized movement trying to get Muslim holidays onto school calendars. I thought this stuff only existed in teenage imaginations.

As I read further into the article I was even more shocked when I found that about a year ago the city council voted almost unanimously in favor of including the Eids on the New York City Public School calendar. It's not just a handful of Muslim students and parents, but the real decision-makers; people with some amount of authority are backing this movement to provide Muslim students with the same privileges as their Christian and Jewish counterparts. In NYC, Yom Kippur is a recognized holiday in which students take off school.

I suppose this was all so shocking for me because I'm from a school district with only a handful of Muslims; from a place where it honestly wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to recognize Muslim holidays. At my high school, we didn't have any Jewish holidays off either.

But in a place where 1 in 8 students is Muslim, like in NYC, it does make sense that the Eids be recognized holidays. It seems nonsensical, in fact, for 12% of the students to have to weigh out whether or not to miss class. And if the majority do decide to skip school in order to celebrate Eid, that would certainly be a whole lot of tests that teachers would have to reschedule.

The only thing keeping this dream from becoming a reality for NYC Muslims is Mayor Bloomberg who opposes the idea on the basis of "if you close the schools for every single holiday, there won't be any school." I get the point that he's trying to make. Back in 2006 when similar decisions had to be made in Skokie, Illinois, then school board president James McGowan said "we can't be in the business of deciding which religions are important enough to be acknowledged and which are not."

The point I'm making is, maybe in Machesney Park where I went to school, in a city without any sizable Muslim or Jewish populations, recognizing Muslim or Jewish holidays wouldn't be worth the efforts at this juncture in time. But in places like Skokie where over 10% of the students are Jewish, or in NYC where 12% of the students are Muslim, the decision kind of makes itself. If that many students in NYC are Muslim, it's probably fair to assume that a similar percentage of the teachers are Muslim as well. Recognizing Muslim holidays in NYC public schools, and in other school districts with large populations of Muslims seems like the right thing to do, and the smartest thing to do. For those Muslim kids from smaller towns, they'll have to just keep dreaming, and taunting their friends about having an extra day off that everyone else doesn't get.

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