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The Hostility of the Middle East to Freedom of Expression

The Hostility of the Middle East to Freedom of Expression

Here’s a riddle: if you heard the following, which country of region or the world would immediately jump up at you?

A female artist and activist serving a 12-year prison sentence is facing additional charges, including “indecent conduct,” after shaking her male lawyer’s hand.

South America?
China?
Belarus?
Georgia?
USA?

No. I bet the region that popped up in your mind was the Middle East. As to the specific country, it most probably was either Saudi Arabia or Iran. Okay, I’ll throw in Afghanistan in there too.

Atena Farghadani

The correct answer, of course in this case, is Iran.

Why is this region so afflicted with this disease of needing to control everyone and mould them into unthinking and unfeeling automatons beyond their own officially sanctified propriety? Aren’t the perpetually descending freedom indices enough to jolt the region’s officials to a state of utter alarm coupled with a clear realisation that the people of this region have had enough Big Brotherly oversight and repression and they’re rebelling against the chains? Don’t they realise that peoples’ aspirations have now changed beyond their recognition and broke out of their moulds? That what people now want is the plentiful bounty of choice that is available to their fellow human beings elsewhere? And that the continued application of unfair and unjust laws that curtail personal freedoms will achieve nothing but an all out ugly rebellion that might well lead to civil wars?

The Middle East is by almost any reckoning the world’s worst region for freedom of expression. Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom lobby, puts war-torn Syria 177th out of 180 countries on its latest annual ranking, in 2014. Iran is 173rd, Sudan 172nd, Yemen 167th, Saudi Arabia 164th. The highest any of the region’s countries make it is 91st, with Kuwait, which has a democracy of sorts. According to the Pew Research Centre, a think-tank, as of 2012, 14 of 20 Middle Eastern countries criminalise blasphemy and 12 of 20 make apostasy—leaving Islam—an offence. [Unholy Silence – The Economist]

Almost every country in the Middle East imprisons political activists, artists, journalists, writers, bloggers, and anyone else who dares to oppose official views or simply criticises any official body using draconian and malleable laws that will ensure their silencing and also make them examples to deter others from treading their paths.

The ludicrous story of the Iranian artist Atena Farghadani embodies all that ails this region of the world. She expressed her opinion of the political situation in her country by drawing Iranian parliamentarians as animals. That opinion got her more than twelve years behind bars in the country’s top security prison. When she shook the hand of her male lawyer, they slapped an additional prison sentence for public indecency and they both can receive over 70 lashes for their courtesy on top of the prison sentence.

“The laws on the books in Iran are a kind of arsenal or tool kit always available for use by the authorities in their efforts to suppress any form of expression they don’t approve of,” Elise Auerbach, Iran country specialist at Amnesty International, told The Huffington Post.

How are these laws allowed to be legislated in the first place? How can parliamentarians continue to have any respect for themselves after allowing such legislation to pass? Don’t their conscience and honour question their actions or lack thereof?

Of course, the practical effects of this suppression are manifold; chief amongst them is the killing of innovation and creativity. People cannot be creative and innovative if they’re continuously looking over their shoulders and censoring themselves. This creates such a corrosive and unproductive environment which enforces subservience to foreign products, workforce and talent. This situation will ultimately unbalance the very foundations of a sustainable society and put whole countries at the mercy of the external powers they are beholden to. The local disenfranchised population will of course lose hope, lose their kinship with their own country of birth and might well stand on the sidelines while its resources continue to be plundered because they would be unsure whether they are empowered to act to protect the resources. Under these conditions, there is no doubt that governments will ultimately lose the support of their own people and chaos will ensue.

The great Mark Twain once said that “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it”.  Judging by the acceleration in arbitrary arrests, the fashioning of even more opaque laws whose sole purpose is for their use against any form of opposition or dissent, the further choking of freedoms of expression and penalising almost any form of criticism, that governmental support across the Middle East is declining to a level that open rebellion – small as it may currently be – is begining to be witnessed on a daily basis.

There is a way out of this, of course. Paradoxically, Bahrain once provided the guiding light for how things can be reversed and corrected. Just look at what its RSF Press Freedom Index was in 2002 and compare it to every year since. What did Bahrain do in 2001 that warranted that huge increase in its press freedom ranking and all other freedom of expression indices?

Here’s a brief, courtesy of 2002 report from Freedom House:

Bahrain’s political rights rating improved from 7 to 6, and its civil liberties rating improved from 6 to 5, because of political reforms that set the stage for the establishment of an elected legislature, abolished emergency laws and courts, released political prisoners and allowed exiles to return, granted nationality to bidoon (stateless peoples), and improved political debate and freedom of association.

Sheikh Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifa ended almost a decade of civil unrest in February 2001, when he presented Bahrainis with the opportunity to vote in a referendum on a new national charter. The charter, which calls for the establishment of a partially elected legislature, an independent judiciary, political rights for women, equality for all citizens, and a body to investigate public complaints, addresses the key grievances of Shiite-led opposition groups. Ninety percent of Bahrainis turned out to vote in the referendum, and 98 percent of them approved the new charter.

Although the 2002 Freedom House index for Bahrain rates it as “Not Free”, it does recognise that some solid steps have taken place that warranted that upward change in ranking. In fact, the effect of those changes were clearly seen from 2003 – 2009 when the country’s status changed to “Partly Free”, which is a big achievement.

From a practical level, I remember the heady days of 2001 when people stood up straighter, looked each other in the eye, had fruitful debates without resorting to hushed tones and continuously looking over their shoulders and political lectures and workshops were aplenty. We actually started to understand what “debate” actually was rather than resort to the usual accusations of treason, or lobbying choice epithets at people we disagree with. The whole country was abuzz and business was booming. Everyone had an air of accomplishment and a sense of worth and pride.

That feeling is a universal requirement for a healthy and effective Middle East. Unfortunately it has disappeared, or at least, it got lost in the interim. For our own survival and our much needed growth as effective nations, we need to get that sense of self-worth back.

How the people of this region might go about this will not be easy. The road will require sacrifices to re-establish trust between all parties. Shared goals need to be set that have national interest fully in sight and which transcend personal aggrandisement and selfish benefit. I personally believe that this can and must be achieved. I can’t give up on more than 400 million people and neither can the world for that matter.

We all individually have a part to play, no matter how small, to achieve that much required correction to rejoin a world, without terrorism, wars or strife. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to try.

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Moral Bankruptcy of the Arab World

Moral Bankruptcy of the Arab World

After a recent visit, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Maurer, declared: “Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years.” – BBC

What started as hope for change for the better, hope for a better future, hope for democracy and human rights, soon descended into calculated chaos. None of the countries afflicted by that spark have faired well. None. Heavy handedness in dealing with popular demands, deep mistrust between the ruled and the ruling elite, the view of the demand for change as an existential threat and prioritising myopic tribal or familial aspirations mandated the crushing of that hope.

What’s happened and continues happening in the Middle East will be rich text-book case studies for a plethora of topics. Sociologists and other scientists will have ample fodder for their consideration in the not too distant future. They will most probably look back and reflect on the central issue of how the rejection of dialogue and compromise disintegrated nations and directly contributed to their demise.

Back to the present, I cannot help but feel completely helpless as an individual when I witness various conflicts, civil wars, and an almost complete absence of democracy and human rights in this dystopian Middle East. What irks me more, actually, is the complete disregard of the plight of our fellow human beings affected directly by these situations.

Let’s take just two places where fighting is at its peak; Syria, with over 220,000 fellow human beings killed and over 11 million people displaced; 4 million fled the country and 7.6 million have been internally displaced. Over 12 million including 5.4 million children currently require humanitarian aid. With a population of 22 million, those should be very sobering numbers. [BBC / Wikipedia]

syria-suffering

Yemen has an even scarier tally as far as the displaced is concerned. Out of a population of 26.7 million, 21 million require immediate humanitarian assistance, 20 million are without access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and 12.9 million have an insecure food supply. In a country were 90% of food is imported, the naval and air blockade has devastated human beings, let alone the country. [BBC]

malnourished-yemeni-child

I say all this from a humanitarian perspective, not a military or political one, and I fully realise that both Yemen and Syria – even before the conflicts – were failed states suffering from bad governance, instability, absence of the rule of law, cronyism and widespread poverty. War has amplified those ills by several factors.

Reading up on both the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts, it’s hard to decipher who’s fighting who. The gullible will side with one sectarian faction or another depending on their own confessionalism or political affiliation. The reality of the situations is much more complex. I don’t believe these are simple proxy wars in which regional powers are just duking it out. That’s partly the case to be sure, but you would be remiss if you didn’t factor in the dissatisfaction of the people with the current rule and social injustice. These alone have given the necessary fodder for ISIS, Alqaeda and various other non-state actors who readily promise the creation of a better, more just society where Sharia rules supreme to establish a just society. In theory this is all good, and this is one of the main reasons why these groups receive the sympathy and support they need from a desperate populace to propagate and sustain their rule. However, in practice we’ve seen that it doesn’t work. That cloak of religiosity simply hides and also justifies their avarice, throne grabbing and terrorism they revel in.

How are these conflicts going to be resolved? History has taught us that political differences cannot be resolved through the use of force. In fact, the use of force should be expedient to get those who can influence change to the table; however, here, it seems to be used in vengeance, purely and simply. Decision makers conveniently forget that the only victory they will realise ultimately is a Pyrrhic one.

How these conflicts must be resolved is through dialogue and incremental victories for all sides. War is not and never has been the answer. It just doesn’t work. At best, war distracts governments from the real challenges that if not addressed immediately will ensure that the whole Middle East will not be habitable in just 25 years. Wars will just accelerate that eventuality. The challenges we face include the acute dearth of water, despicably bad education, unemployment, over population, an undiversified income and bad investments, the finite availability of oil, cronyism, and of course political and human rights ills. With these critical shortcomings, why add war into the mix? Isn’t it just another energy depleting factor sidetracking us from what we actually need to take care of? Aren’t the challenges we face not existential enough? Is war really necessary in the first place?

Let me add one more thing to that despicable list. We are morally bankrupt.

How can our countries see all the suffering of the people of Syria and Yemen and not open their doors wide to receive the refugees and the destitute to lessen their suffering, even if temporarily?

Why are our governments appear to be sitting idle while our Arab brothers and sisters put themselves in peril crossing seas and walking vast distances to seek safety, just to be rejected at borders?

Isn’t it our moral obligation to receive them and ease their suffering? Why are we leaving it to European countries to offer them succour and help in the name of human rights and we shun them completely as if they don’t exist? Didn’t we play a role in their destitution in the first place? While the conflicts didn’t just start because of terrorist parasites, they definitely greatly contribute to the conflicts now. Where did those fighters in Iraq, Syria and Yemen come from in the first place? Did they descend from space? No, they were bred and raised in our own countries only to now wreak havoc all over the world. Yes, we need to defeat them. But we also need to accept those who need our help and open our borders to them while we mount operations to crush the terrorists. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Our countries are a mess, but solutions are staring us in the face!

How about starting with respecting human rights and apply fair and universally accepted laws across the board without favouritism? How about introducing real democracy in order for the rights of everyone be protected and establish a more just society in which the individual regardless of affiliation is respected and protected? It can’t be that difficult. All that is required is political will to allow these changes to be adopted over time.

Remember though, we just have 35 or so years to real peril. Now that a timeline has been set in stone, we need to work toward those sustainable goals. Goals of peace and democracy.

We really have to give peace and democracy a chance. For our children’s sake.

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Khobiz!

What unites a country? What unites people? What unites a family? Food, probably, is one of the most uniting factors known to man!

So in celebration of Bahrain and its people, in an attempt to show that we are all really one with the same passions, needs and aspirations. In an attempt to show that what unites us, are actually an awful lot more than what could ever drive us apart, this is a small offering from all of us at Gulf Broadcast, to the great people of Bahrain…

Please come with us on a journey of discovery of the most dextrous and loved of Bahrain cuisine. Follow the story of the simple (or not so simple!) Khobiz from its raw material to the mouth-watering varieties on offer.

Now go and buy a couple of khobiz and share it with a friend, an acquaintance or even a stranger.

Go ahead. Be bold!

Be Bahraini!

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What a surprise. The emperor is indeed naked.

Dubai, which until last week loomed tall – literally – as an enterprising, cosmopolitan, glitzy and happy antithesis to the Middle East’s economic stagnation, has now emerged as a sad monument to all that is ill about the pan-Arab economy, which includes more than a quarter-billion people but is smaller than Spain’s.

Read the full article here. But don’t expect much to really change without a real democracy answerable to the people being just a pipe dream. For now anyway.

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One reason that too many Arabs are poor is rotten education

Laggards trying to catch up

4209MA7A recent issue of Science, the weekly journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was devoted to research into “Ardi” or Ardipithecus ramidus, a 4.4m-year-old hominid species whose discovery deepens the understanding of human evolution. These latest studies suggest, among other things, that rather than descending from a closely related species such as the chimpanzee, the hominid branch parted earlier than previously thought from the common ancestral tree.

In much of the Arab world, coverage of the research took a different spin. “American Scientists Debunk Darwin”, exclaimed the headline in al-Masry al-Youm, Egypt’s leading independent daily. “Ardi Refutes Darwin’s Theory”, chimed the website of al-Jazeera, the region’s most-watched television channel. Scores of comments from readers celebrated this news as a blow to Western materialism and a triumph for Islam. Two or three lonely readers wrote in to complain that the report had inaccurately presented the findings of the research.

The response to Ardi’s unearthing was not surprising. According to surveys, barely a third of Egyptian adults have ever heard of Charles Darwin and just 8% think there is any evidence to back his famous theory. Teachers, who might be expected to know better, seem equally sceptical. In a survey of nine Egyptian state schools, where Darwin’s ideas do form part of the curriculum for 15-year-olds, not one of more than 30 science teachers interviewed believed them to be true. At a private university in the United Arab Emirates, only 15% of the faculty thought there was good evidence to support evolution.

The strength of religious belief among Arabs partly explains their reluctance to accept the facts of evolution. Until recent reforms, state primary schools in Saudi Arabia devoted 31% of classroom time to religion, compared with just 20% for mathematics and science. A quarter of the kingdom’s university students devote the main part of their degree course to Islamic studies, more than in engineering, medicine and science put together. And despite changes to Saudi curriculums, religious study remains obligatory every year from primary school through to university.

Such choices carry a cost that goes beyond ignorance of Darwin. Arab countries now spend as much or more on education, as a share of GDP, than the world average. They have made great strides in eradicating illiteracy, boosting university enrolment and reducing gaps in education between the sexes.

But the gap in the quality of education between Arabs and other people at a similar level of development is still frightening. It is one reason why Arab countries suffer unusually high rates of youth unemployment. According to a recent study by a team of Egyptian economists, the lack of skills in the workforce largely explains why a decade of fast economic growth has failed to lift more people out of poverty.

The most rigorous comparative study of education systems, a survey called Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) that comes out every four years, revealed in its latest report, in 2007, that out of 48 countries tested, all 12 participating Arab countries fell below the average. More disturbingly, less than 1% of students aged 12-13 in ten Arab countries reached an advanced benchmark in science, compared with 32% in Singapore and 10% in the United States. Only one Arab country, Jordan, scored above the international average, with 5% of its 13-year-olds reaching the advanced category.

Other comparative measures are equally alarming. A listing of the world’s top 500 universities, compiled annually by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, includes three South African and six Israeli universities, but not a single Arab one. The Swiss-based World Economic Forum ranks Egypt a modest 70th out of 133 countries in competitiveness, but in terms of the quality of its primary education system and its mathematics-and-science teaching, it slumps to 124th. Libya, despite an income of $16,000 a head, ranks an even more dismal 128th in the quality of its higher education, lower than dirt-poor Burkina Faso, with an average income of $577.

Well aware that their school systems are doing badly, Arab governments have been scrambling to improve. In an attempt to leapfrog the slow process of curriculum reform and teacher training, many have taken the easy route of encouraging private schools. In Qatar, for instance, the share of students in private education leapt from 30% to more than 60% between 1999 and 2006, according to the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Syria has licensed some 20 private universities since 2001; 14 are up and running. Yet their total enrolment is dwarfed by the 200,000 at state-run Damascus University alone. Oil-rich monarchies in the Gulf have spent lavishly to lure Western academies to their shores, but these branch universities are struggling to find qualified students to fill their splendidly equipped classrooms.

Not to be outdone, Saudi Arabia has launched King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a city-sized institution with an endowment of $20 billion. Intended as an oasis of academic excellence, it enjoys an independent board and is the kingdom’s only co-educational institution. This augurs well for the Saudi elite, but one fancy new university will do little to lift the overall standard of Saudi education. And it has been attacked by religious conservatives. A senior cleric who decried the mixing of sexes at KAUST, declaring that its textbooks should be reviewed by religious scholars, was forced to resign from government office.

Source: The Economist Print Edition

I don’t think I need to comment on this, other than to point you to what I have previously written about our education, or lack thereof.

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Bahraini Harry Potter Campaign!

Niqab dress

I think that cinemas using their 34 screens to show Harry Potter’s latest movie in Bahrain should strive to involve the community considering the considerable takings they will reap from that film.

So in keeping with Harry Potter’s world-wide tradition, why not let people in appropriate costume watch the movie for free? And what better reward that the niqab costume wearers can hope for? They are perfectly represented in the movie. If the cinemas deem that as not their policy, at least make a special section in their halls especially reserved for those people.

So come on, let’s start a petition: Bahrain Cinema Company must allow niqabettes to watch the new Harry Potter movie for free!

Who’s with me?

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«Do Not Disturb»

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We have a saying in Bahrain which says something like “once the festivities have ended, the old hag arrived” which roughly equates to “missing the boat” or maybe even to some extent not to bother with anything because one has no say in any proceedings and cannot influence any outcome.

I think these sayings should be trademarked and used exclusively to describe the Arab League, as it is very appropriate to their “role” as far as Lebanon and the Arab street are concerned.

So, at last they have awoken to attend an Arab Foreign Ministerial conference in Beirut next Monday to:

It will be a high level congregation that will demonstrate to the world Arab solidarity with Lebanon and outright rejection of the Israeli aggression against it. Moreover it will repudiate the UN security council’s ineptness in effectuating a decisive ceasefire in Lebanon

Oooh, they will REPUDIATE the UN for its ineptness! That brings another idiom to mind: the pot calling the kettle black!

Well, while the venerable Arab states have been sleeping – and they shouldn’t be disturbed from that slumber, and most certainly they should not be repudiated for doing so in the midst of an annihilating war in which more than 1,000 people lost their lives, over one million became homeless and more than 3,000 injured – millions of people across the world have staged demonstrations against the Israeli aggression in Lebanon, and immense pressure has been exerted on “real” countries around the world to put a stop to hostilities…

We are told now that the powers that be have agreed to put a stop to the hostilities, although that resolution is not final and not binding at the moment because some elements within that coalition will intentionally prevaricate in order to give the requested time needed by Israel to eradicate the resistance in Lebanon.

Well, whenever that happens, can the world please observe the “do not disturb” sign still hung on the 22 Arab countries and the Arab league, and for goodness’ sake, make sure that sign continues to be observed until at least Monday next, which by then, they hope, that others would have been paid to take care of this rubbish.

At least the Casinos in Beirut haven’t been hit… they can all adjourn to those regular haunts for their deliberations.

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