March 11, 2015
In the summer before I started 8th grade, there was a conflict in the Middle East. Tension was rising as people in the Gaza Strip were trying to save themselves from Israeli rocket attacks. They were aimed at Hamas, a Palestinian organization that had been firing missiles at Israel. I had heard a lot about the issue from my parents and from the news, and it troubled me that so many innocent lives were being lost and the two sides couldn’t resolve their differences with peace.
One day, I was forced to accompany my mother on a trip to a department store. My mom was visibly frustrated when I refused to step out of the car, so she and my sister left me to wait. A few minutes later, my mom came back and convinced me to accompany her since she was going to take a while, as usual.
I absolutely resented that store, but I had no choice. In the store, I walked around aimlessly. After requesting my mother about 10 times to leave, I had finally given up. Suddenly, I heard something familiar. Was it really my favorite band as background music in this store? Suppressing my inner fangirl, I continued to roam around the store, now slightly at ease.
After a few minutes, I walked up to my mom, hoping we could finally leave. Around the same time, I saw two guys approaching us. They were young, probably in their early 20’s. One of them was pointing his phone at us, probably making a video. As his companion laughed mockingly in the background, the guy with the cell phone started yelling out a string of curses at us in a very thick accent:
“Kill Palestine! Go to hell! F*** you! You deserve to die!”
Is that really what he was saying? I froze in place, silently watching them and noticed the piercings in their ears. What was wrong with these guys? They probably just wanted a reaction from us. They wanted us to lash out at them, so they could post it everywhere and there would be more “proof” that Muslims are vicious terrorists. We just stood there quietly, watching them. If I wasn’t so shocked, and I had the courage, I might have started yelling back at him. My mom called over a store worker and said that he was harassing us, and the guys walked away.
I was dryly laughing at this point, but my younger sister started crying. Annoyed with her helplessness, I told her to toughen up. The store lady said she couldn’t really do anything except kick the guys out of the store. She went up to them and started talking to them. All I learned was that these two men were very persistent. The guy took out his phone again and started making another video. He started screaming the same curses that he had before. He was not a very creative guy, I guess. I found the situation hilarious, so I started laughing again. At this point, the manager of the store came over and tried to get the idiots out of the store. After screaming a few more profanities at us, they finally left the store.
Later, I told my mom that she should have called the police, but she told me that this was nothing compared to what was happening on the other side of the world. This was the first time I had been directly ‘targeted’ because of my religion. The guys were ignorant for thinking that since my mom was wearing a hijab we were from Palestine. I had been laughing before, but it actually saddened me that those men really wanted people to die. I knew that people could be a bit cruel, but I had not actually experienced it with my own eyes, a cruelty directed toward me, until that moment.
A few days after the incident, I had an unusual dream. I was in a school of some sort, which I could tell by the chalkboards on the wall. The walls were cracked and the floors needed a really good cleaning. The weirdest part, however, was the fact that there were people screaming. The ground was shaking and pieces of the ceiling were falling down on us. The only people I saw were women and children. Most of them (not including babies and children) had scarves on their heads. All I saw was chaos. I noticed a woman in the corner and her head bowed down, reading a book and rocking back and forth on the floor. I went closer to see what she was reading, and saw that it was the Holy Qur’an, or the Holy Book of Islam. That was all I saw before I woke up.
I feel this dream was a sign that I needed to do something. And I wanted to. I felt an urge to help the innocent people being slain in the Middle East and anywhere else in the world where there was discord. But I’m just a kid. What on earth could I do that could possibly help? So I did the only thing I could do that I thought could help, if only a little: I prayed. I may never know if my prayers were ever heard, but I keep good faith and tell myself they were.
In early February 2015, three young Muslims from Chapel Hill, North Carolina were shot and killed by a 46-year-old man. The victims were two sisters, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, age 21, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, age 19, and the husband of Yusor, Deah Shaddy Barakat, age 23. I was not shocked at all. I was hurt, of course, but not surprised. I guess I had become numb to the whole aspect of “Islamophobia”. I had already seen so much hate for Islam and so much hate from so-called Muslims that I was just in a sort of daze. I had become a part of daily life, unfortunately. Of course, I was angry. I was furious, but what could I do? Nothing.
Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha once said on a StoryCorps podcast, “Growing up in America has been such a blessing. Although in some ways I do stand out, such as the hijab I wear on my head, the head covering, there’s still so many ways I feel so embedded in the fabric that is our culture.” Hearing the delight in her voice, the pride and gratitude she had towards her country, made my heart ache. The irony. I feel just like she did, however. America is the only country where everyone can be free to practice what they want. However, nothing can be perfect, right? There will always be people that love to hate.
Religion has always been a huge aspect of my life. Through it, I find a sort of peace that I cannot find elsewhere. Reading the Holy Qur’an helps me understand life in a whole different way. I can search for answers and find them there.
Of course, when I hear news about extremist groups, such as ISIS, everywhere, it almost embarrasses me. Those terrorists’ actions make me feel like I have to apologize for them, even though I know that they truly have nothing to do with the true message of Islam, which is peace and love. Islam has become so terribly misrepresented and misinterpreted, which is a shame. If only its name hadn’t been used in such horrific ways, by suicide bombers and terrorists, then the world would know what the actual meaning of Islam is.
I have a four-year-old brother named Muhammad. He was named after the Holy Prophet of Islam himself. Of course, my brother doesn’t know who that is yet. But when he is older, I hope he feels lucky to have such a meaningful name. He should feel pride for his religion and his identity, and not be ashamed of who he is. My brother attends preschool at a Jewish temple, which seems pretty unusual, but I think it is a good experience for him to learn about other religions, even at such a young age. Every Friday, he comes home singing Shabbat songs. During the holiday season, he brought a drawing of blue, glittery menorah home, along with a dreidel and chocolate coins. This exposure could make Muhammad more accepting of other people when he gets older, even if he doesn’t have clear memories when he grows up.
Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore once said, “Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark.” This quote reminds me of the first line of the United States national anthem, which goes, “Oh, say! Can you see by the dawn's early light.”
In a way, faith is hope; a hope that light will come before you see it yourself. A country always has hope. The United States started out as 13 little colonies being ruled by some Brits, but they rose up and defeated them. That took a lot of hope and trust, just like in our national anthem. Just like the patriots during the civil war, and any other person who has some sort of faith in them, religious or not, the bird knows that the dawn is there, and that it is coming with light.
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Ferguson, Missouri is over 6,000 miles from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet increasingly people are seeing similarities between the two. For example, shortly after the grand jury decision was announced Monday that the police officer who killed Michael Brown would not be indicted, the NFL’s Reggie Bush posted a photo on Instagram of a Palestinian man holding up a sign that read: “The Palestinian people know what mean to be shot while unarmed because of your ethnicity #Ferguson #justice.”
Next to the photo, Bush added: “No matter who are you are, what color skin you have, where you live, we are in this together. This isn’t a Ferguson Problem, it’s a Global Problem... #JusticeforMike Brown.
In addition, one of the visible fixtures in the Ferguson protests has been Palestinian-American Bassem Masri who has been continuously live streaming the protests. That is until he was arrested a few days ago in connection with the protests. (He was released Saturday on bail.)
Social media has also been filled with Palestinians expressing solidarity for the Ferguson protesters and echoing their calls for justice. Some Palestinians even offered the Ferguson protesters tips on how to deal with the tear gas being shot at them based on their own experiences with the Israeli security forces.
Even on the Israeli side the similarities have been noted by some. For example, a “Times of Israel” op-ed penned by Robert Wilkes, a self described leader of the pro-Israel community in the United States, set forth what he viewed as “nine parallels between Palestine and Ferguson.” However, he saw the overlap of interests as being horribly negative.
For example, he wrote that US blacks and Palestinians “both wish to undermine the state’s moral authority by provoking violent reactions, then portraying themselves as victims of oppression.” He also opined, “both have perfectly wretched leaders. Black leaders in America are con artists and a disgrace,” going as far as calling them “race hustlers.”
Blacks being killed by the police in disproportionately high numbers is tragically nothing new. As Pro Publica recently noted, blacks age 15 to 19 have a 21 times greater change of being killed by the police than white teens. In fact the police have killed six African American teens since Michael Brown and that doesn’t even include Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy killed last week by the Cleveland police.
And more broadly, blacks of all ages are between three and four times more likely to be killed when they encounter the police than whites. Adding to the frustration is that it's rare that the police will be charged with a crime when they kill unarmed people. For example, between 2004 and 2008, Oakland police officers shot and killed 37 people, all black. And despite the fact that 40 percent of those killed were unarmed, not one police officer was charged with a crime.
In Israel, we see an unsettling similarity. As Sarit Michaeli, a spokesperson for the Israeli human rights group B’tselem recently told a reporter for McClatchy, it’s “extremely rare” for charges to be brought against Israeli border police or soldiers for killing Palestinians.
Two recent cases in Israel have caused even greater outrage than usual because they were caught on video. The most recent incident occurred in early November in the Israeli town of Kfar Kani, which is home to mostly Arabs. Khair al-din Hamdan, a 22 year old “Israeli Arab” was seen in a surveillance video carrying what has been described as a knife, which he used to bang on the window of a parked Israeli police car.
After a few moments, the four Israeli officers exited the vehicle, causing Hamdan to turn and walk away quickly. As can be seen in the video, one Israeli police officer then shot Hamdan several times in the back. After the shooting, the police can be seen dragging Hamdan’s limp body in the street to the police vehicle. Hamdan died a short time later. An investigation into the shooting is under way but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have publicly defended the killing of Hamdan.
And in May, two Palestinian teenagers were killed during protests when live bullets were shot at the protesters. Initially Israeli authorities denied that its forces had shot the bullets at issue. But a surveillance video was made public soon thereafter showing that one of the two teens was indeed shot by an Israeli border patrol officer.
Surprisingly, last week that border patrol officer was indicted for the killing of the one teen seen in the video. (But no charges were filled in the case of the other teen killed who was not depicted in the surveillance footage.) No doubt the video was the key.
Will the officer be convicted? Unlikely since per the Israeli paper Haaretz, in the past two years, 18 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank by Israeli security forces and only one was convicted. In that case the Israeli officer was sentenced to just seven months of jail after being found guilty of killing an unarmed Palestinian.
And as the Israeli NGO Yesh Din has documented, that penalty is actually on the high end. Among the 18 members of the Israeli security forces convicted of wrongdoing in the killings of Palestinians since 2000, most received a few months in jail or even simply a suspended sentence. (The exception being an eight year prison sentence handed out to one Israeli but that was in connection with the wrongful killing of a British citizen, not a Palestinian.)
I truly wish I could say that in the future we will see less black and Palestinian teenagers die at the hands of the police in their respective countries. But I can’t with any certainty. Tragically these stories will continue until a fundamental change in police tactics is implemented. The question is how many innocent people have to die before that happens?
Dean Obeidallah is the editor of The Dean's Report. He is also is a former lawyer, turned political comedian/writer and a columnist for The Daily Beast. He co-directed the recently released comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" You can follow Dean on Twitter
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The United Arab Emirates (UAE) made headlines recently by listing The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), Islamic Relief and the Muslim American Society (MAS) as ‘terrorist’ groups. All of these groups share several things in common: They all unequivocally and officially condemn terrorism, they provide humanitarian aid, charity or advocacy to parts of the Muslim world and they maintain pro-Palestinian positions. The UAE’s recent designation of these groups has literally put it at odds with every major pro-Palestinian advocacy or civil rights group in the western world. Theories have been offered for why this happened, but we will see that the UAE’s motive to realign itself in the region means distancing itself from the Palestinian cause.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s Strategic Concerns
Many analysts argue that the motivating force behind the UAE’s ‘terrorist designation list’ is contempt for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB); in the United States, CAIR, MAS and others have often been associated with the MB, if for no other reason, their promotion of Islamic causes. Contempt for the MB does not however explain the willingness of the UAE to be so severe and frivolous as to denounce American Muslim civil rights groups as terrorist groups. It must be noted the United States does not list CAIR or MAS as such and in fact, seeks their assistance in combatting terrorism as well as improving relations with the Muslim world. A deeper explanation can be found in the regional re-configuration of alliances that directly affect both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. With US overtures to Iran increasingly common, the Gulf is anticipating a new. Such reconciliation is perceived as being inherently inimical to Saudi and UAE interests, because of the Gulf’s large Shi’i population and Iran’s tremendous influence over Shi’is.
The Rise of Iran
Since the 2003 American led invasion of Iraq, relations between the Arab Gulf States and the United States have increasingly strained. It was inevitable that removing Saddam Hussein would strengthen Iran in the region. Generally speaking, Iran is a predominantly Shi’i country and of great influence in the Muslim world. The east coast of the Arabian Peninsula and the west coast of Iran along the Persian Gulf create a horseshoe of potential political turmoil – illustrated by Bahrain, with the long time Shi’i protests there. The Gulf States were thus adamant in their opposition to the invasion, warning the US of the rise of Iran.
The invasion of Iraq initiates major political shifts in the region, however the sectarian consequences are the most widespread. I was born in Iraq, to a Sunni father and Shi’i mother – Iraq was a very secular and cosmopolitan society and at least one third of Iraqi marriages were between Sunnis and Shi’is. This all changed after 2003. American policies in post-invasion Iraq paved the way for extensive Iranian influence over not only Iraqi politics, but also society.
Several things contributed to this: Paul Bremer’s decision to disband the Iraqi army and police force, created a security vacuum filled by Iranian backed militias. Secondly, the most prominent political figures to accompany the American invasion were exiles that spent decades in Iran, cultivating ties with its regime. Today Iran exercises unprecedented influence in Iraq which has turned the latter – a once avid secular and influential state in the region – into an Iranian satellite with similar theocratic tendencies. This influence affects the whole Gulf region.
Iraq’s once strident secularism is now a shadow of its former self. Iranian influence underlies the ‘sectarianization’ of Iraq’s educational institutions. And Iraqi Sunnis are now a sidelined and persecuted minority in a mixed country, amidst predominately Sunni Arab countries. Arabs blame Iran for this persecution. In Syria, the Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad has been slaughtering Syrians en masse for three years, again, with the support of Iran. And finally, in Israel/Palestine, Iran has withdrawn support from HAMAS for the latter’s support of the Syrian revolution, turning Iran’s ‘resistance’ to Israeli occupation into a fig leaf covering for different Iranian ambitions in Iraq and Syria. All of Iran’s gains in power over the last ten years have amounted to it losing a great deal of credibility in the Arab Street. Iran’s once popular image has been reduced to one of a realist state, maintaining strategic influence in Iraq and Syria through supporting violent militias and dictatorial regimes. This willingness on the part of Iran to show its cards has led to what some analysts refer to as the Iran-Iraq-Syria axis.
The Arab Spring
If 2003 is a pivotal year in Arab politics, 2011 is as well if not more so. 2011 is of course the year of the Arab Spring and during that period, traditional concerns over Israel or Iran were sidelined by a new threat – Arab Democracy. When in 2012, Egypt’s first free and unfettered election brought a member of the Muslim Brotherhood to power, Saudi Arabia and the UAE acted swiftly to curb MB power and interjected themselves into Egyptian affairs.
Turkey and Qatar on the other hand openly supported the democratic process in Arab spring countries, giving rise to the Turkey-Qatar axis, which is characterized by moderation and maintaining strategic ties with the United States, while still pursuing policies that are very appealing to the Arab Street – such as supporting Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s Strategic Horizon
Turkey and Qatars’ open support for the democratic process made them de facto sponsors of the MB in Egypt, causing a fallout between Turkey/Qatar and the other Gulf states. But this only suggests that the alliance is strained, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have no interest in a protracted enmity between themselves and fellow Sunni neighbors, evidenced by recent events that have reconciled these regional powers. The real problem that Saudi and Emirati strategists are trying to get their heads around is the increasing cooperation between the US and Iran.
It must be remembered that the US and Iran have cooperated in Iraq, Afghanistan, and on the so-called ‘War on Terror.’ Analysts are advancing greater cooperation between the two. The UAE and Saudi Arabia seem more and more like outsiders looking in and should US-Iranian ties strengthen, they both fear American protection will wane, making them more susceptible to Iranian interference. Thus, these two rich states are now looking in the direction of Israel – with whom they share an ostensible mutual interest in combatting Iran’s rise.
The Saudi-UAE-Israel (and Egypt) axis is becoming increasingly obvious in the last few years. Both countries saw the rise of the MB as problematic. For Israel, the MB represented a stalwart ally to the Palestinian cause, a group that, although moderate, would never have been as compliant in assisting Israel in its illegal siege of the Gaza Strip, as deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak did. Yet this was the greatest fear of the Saudis and Emirates as well; these countries relationship with the United States is predicated on maintaining the status quo in the region and in world petrol markets.
The events of the last ten years or so have thrown traditional alliances into the mixer, with the US leading the way. The United States has reached out to Iran in an unprecedented way, including President Obama’s recent letter to Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamenei that stresses mutual interests in the region; this stress on mutual interests alienates Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Iran and the US have an expressed cause in fighting ISIS, but they are also in lockstep in supporting the avowedly Shi’i government of a mixed Iraq, the US has pulled back on its desire to see Iranian ally al-Assad go and the US is fighting al-Qaeda in Yemen, which assists the Iranian back Houthi rebels.
And these interests extend beyond the Arab world, into central Asia and the Caucuses – Saudi Arabia and the UAEs’ value to the US lay in the ability to stabilize the global oil market in barrel cost and shipping. Iran on the other hand possesses similar oil and gas wealth yet out reaches these Arab Gulf states in many other valuable ways, leaving the latter to look for new ways to maintain their strategic significance to the US or others. The answer to this problem is in Israel. And the Saudis and Emirates are increasingly speaking the “same language” as the Israelis.
As the US seemingly replaces the Saudis (and by implication the Emirates) as a long-term regional all these two Gulf states are situating themselves within a more pro-Israel axis, as we see emerging more and more out of Egypt and the pre-requisite to any future alliance with Israel means vociferously condemning pro-Palestinian advocates in the US and Europe, where demands for justice for the Palestinians is gaining ground. This is the major reason why the UAE took such drastic measures in condemning American and European civil rights and charity groups, to demonstrate definitively that they are leaning in a new direction. The Saudi’s may not have the same list of ‘designated terrorists,’ but they do lead the way in this new policy shift.
Of course, in the long run, the turn towards Israel will fail for three major reasons: First, demanding justice for Palestine is a fundamental part of the Arab worldview, in which Israel’s presence is a reminder of the colonial legacy – unless Israeli behavior and policy toward their Arab residents change, this will continue to be the case. Secondly, Israel is not as anti-Iran as perception might lead many to believe; the Israelis have shared interests with Iran over the last three decades
Lastly, whereas Iran’s place in the region can never be doubted, Israel’s inability to bring the Palestinian issue to resolution can only mean one thing – Israel’s future in the region is tenuous when we consider the fact that Israel faces several demographic challenges that it will eventually not withstand. (. In short, with time, Israel will become a moot point. In the meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the UAEs’ pursuit of a short term solution for the long term problem of facing Iran will continue to pinch the Palestinians and their advocates, between the fingers of geo-politics. And we should all expect that more anti-Palestinian posturing will emanate from these countries in the same way as it has, at times, in the US.
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