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Posts Tagged ‘Muslim’

Anti-Gay Violence in Senegal and Throughout Africa

April 12th, 2010 2 comments

There I was, listening to Kiki Dee on iTunes, when I came across this horrific story, posted by the AP this morning. Here’s how it starts:

(Thies, Senegal) Even death cannot stop the violence against gays in this corner of the world any more.

Madieye Diallo’s body had only been in the ground for a few hours when the mob descended on the weedy cemetery with shovels. They yanked out the corpse, spit on its torso, dragged it away and dumped it in front of the home of his elderly parents.

And from there the story spirals outward to describe a culture of fear and violence against the gay community, fueled by religious nuts tapping into economic uncertainty, and carried out by fearful and ignorant citizens of many African countries.

The story paints with a broad brush, and it would be helpful to know, from a population perspective, just how widespread the problem truly is. The story quotes only Brit activist Peter Tatchell’s statement that anti-gay violence is up over the past year, and I’m more than willing to believe that’s true. But I couldn’t find any evidence on Tatchell’s website (which is kind of a mess, really; if anyone can find anything useful on this point there, let me know), and it would be good to have some hard numbers.

But whether the situation is getting worse or not, it’s plenty bad enough. The lead story is about a man whose family wouldn’t tell hospital personnel that he had AIDS, and therefore hastened his death by depriving him of appropriate medical care. Read the entire story and be appalled.

Although it would be irresponsible to compare what’s going on in much of Africa with events here in the U.S., we’re no strangers to scape-goating and incitements to violence — whether it be against abortion providers; politicians who voted for health care reform; or “transgressing” people like the LGBT community. Yet accounts like this make my blood run cold:

In March 2008, Senegal hosted an international summit of Muslim nations, which prompted a nationwide crackdown on behaviors deemed un-Islamic, including homosexuality.

The crackdown also coincided with spiraling food prices. Niang says political and religious leaders saw an easy way to reach constituents through the inflammatory topic of homosexuality.

“They found a way to explain the difficulties people are facing as a deviation from religious life,” says Niang. “So if people are poor – it’s because there are prostitutes in the street. If they don’t have enough to eat, it’s because there are homosexuals.”

Imams began using Friday sermons to preach against homosexuality.

“During the time of the Prophet, anytime two men were found together, they were taken to the top of a mountain and thrown off,” says Massamba Diop, the imam of a mosque in Pikine and the head of Jamra, an Islamic lobby linked to a political party in Senegal’s parliament.

“If they didn’t die when they hit the ground, then rocks would be thrown on them until they were killed,” says Diop, whose mosque is so packed during Friday prayer that people bring their own carpets and line up outside on the asphalt.

My neighbors were Peace Corps workers in Senegal several years ago, and were unpleasantly surprised by hearing about the new intolerance there. But there will always be someone to blame, and these days “the homosexuals” are the ones with the bull’s-eye on their backs in parts of Africa.

A great deal might be said about what to do about this: Withhold aid from any nation whose government doesn’t act aggressively enough to crack down on the violence? Inhumane, given the burden of poverty and disease in many of these places. But it should be possible for the global community to strong-arm the leadership into dealing with the violence, using a “carrot” rather than a “stick” approach. I’m in favor of incentives here, although how they’d work and what would need to be shown in order to qualify would be tricky. But we can’t stand by and let this happen. The world community is much better at exerting pressure (to some effect, if still maddeningly limited) to protect women and children. Why not our LGBT brothers and sisters?

Back to the Burka

February 6th, 2010 2 comments

In an earlier post, I criticized the French government for its plan to ban the public wearing of the burka. It won’t liberate women, it will drive the issue underground, it sacrifices religious freedom to nothing more than public sensibility, and so on.

But what about the government’s recent decision to deny citizenship to a Muslim man whose wife is veiled? Is that equally indefensible? I don’t think so. The guy’s comments about his power over his wife amounted to an almost cartoonishly chauvinistic litany. According to the official with responsibility for the decision, the less-than-enlightened hubby said: “My wife will never be able to go out without the full veil; I don’t believe in gender equality; women have inferior status; I will not respect the principles of the secular society.”

If that’s really what he said, the government made the right choice. This is quite a different situation from the one presented by banning the burka in public. Here, the government has to decide whether to accept, as a French citizen, someone who openly rejects gender equality, one of the principal pillars of modern, secular society (at least rhetorically, anyway). The burka that his wife wears is but one tangible expression of his repressive behavior, and the government should no more approve his application than one filed by a domestic abuser. To gain membership in a secular democracy, there are certain principles by which one agrees to abide.

So what’s different about the “no burkas in public” rule? It’s all a matter of degree, of course, but I think the cases are quite different. Although the burka is certainly a marker of women’s inequality under religious law, it’s more than that; for some women, at least, it might be a deeply felt expression of their own religious belief, uncoerced at least in any obvious way by their husbands. A society should be open enough to accommodate the kind of conversation that the burka invites, even if it makes many (including me) uncomfortable. But a potential citizen who openly sneers at the very foundations of gender equality, in 2010, should be rejected — both on the merits and as a symbol of France’s willingness to take a stand in favor of women, and against those who would oppress them.

The Limits of Religious Liberty

August 26th, 2009 No comments

It’s vital for a trial judge, and for a jury, to be able to assess the credibility of witnesses. As we all know, credibility is a complex determination that relies on all kinds of conscious and unconscious verbal, physical, and facial cues. But what happens when religion interferes with one of those cues?

In this story, a Muslim claimant was effectively driven out of small claims court when she refused, for religious reasons, to comply with the judge’s order that she remove her face-covering niqab. The woman had proposed putting on the case before a female judge (where she’d be able to remove the headdress, consistent with her religious tenets), but had been told that none was available.

The woman’s suit against the judge is wending its way through the courts; meanwhile, the Michigan Supreme Court yesterday issued an order that, beginning next month, will protect judges in such cases. It will permit them to control the appearance of witnesses to “ensure that the demeanor of such persons may be observed and assessed by the fact-finder.” The ACLU proposed adding a clause that would have exempted those with sincere religious beliefs from the effects of the rule, but of course that would leave unsolved the problem that prompted the rule in the first place.

The ACLU’s position ignores that there are (at least) two litigants, both of whom have rights. If the garment covering all but the eyes can disguise cues of dishonesty, then fairness to the other side calls for sacrificing the religious freedom to the demands of public litigation. Some will see in my position a distrust of those who choose to wear camouflaging clothing, but I think the point stands from an adversarial perspective.

These situations can often be handled in a better way, though. It would make sense to accommodate the religious belief where possible; as women in almost-total covering become more common, fair accommodation and practicality require developing ways of anticipating and addressing these situations. Thus, in a court that has at least one female judge, hearings with women who can’t remove their  niqabs in front of men could be reassigned. Such accommodations have their limits (this wouldn’t work for jury trials, for example), but should be sought wherever possible. While there will be situations where the conflict can’t be managed, it should be where it can be.

Zeitoun — One Katrina Family’s Story

July 21st, 2009 2 comments

In the compelling Zeitoun, Dave Eggers (best known for “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”) has created a piece of advocacy journalism that deserves to be read and discussed. I plowed straight through the first 200+ pages on Sunday night, stopping only when I simply couldn’t stay awake. Then I finished it last night, after impatiently putting the kids to bed. Positive reviews and summaries are starting to come in, and there’s a nice interview with Eggers over at Salon.

This non-fiction work chronicles the lives of Abdulrahman and Kathy (nee Delphine) Zeitoun, a Muslim couple living in New Orleans in 2005, when the city was brought down by Hurricane Katrina.

Eggers masterfully sketches out the successful but somewhat plain lives of the couple in sympathetic detail, using the lead-up to Katrina for descriptions of and digressions into:  their successful contracting business; Abdulrahman’s ancestry and childhood in Syria (including a lavish description of his aquaphobic father and his late brother, who became arguably the greatest ocean swimmer in the world); Kathy’s Christian upbringing and her conversion to Islam; and, most significantly, the couple’s loving relationship and their warm family (including Kathy’s son from a brief, early marriage and the couple’s three daughters).

Like any good documentary work, Zeitoun ties the joys, stress, travails and humiliations of the Zeitoun family to the larger issues of our collective national failure during and after Katrina. (The story doesn’t dwell on the failures that allowed Katrina to devastate the city; for that, see this and this.)  As was typical when severe hurricane warnings were posted, Kathy and the kids evacuated the city while Abdul remained behind to protect their home and the many rental properties the Zeitouns owned and managed. The book effectively cross-cuts between Kathy’s odyssey (involving nasty relatives, interminable traffic, and — finally — escape to her best friend’s home in Phoenix) and Abdulrahman’s heroism and subsequent incarceration.

After the flood, Zeitoun (as he’s mostly called) used his canoe — which he’d bought for no real reason some time ago, but now saw as providential — to rescue people who might otherwise have drowned, and to feed dogs who would otherwise have starved. Eggers effectively reflects Zeitoun’s own sense that he was meant by God to stay, and that his actions were heroic (although Zeitoun would never have used that word himself). Yet from the start, Zeitoun and other residents are treated as annoyances by the very government rescuers who were supposed to be helping them.  At one point, two government speed boats zoom past the canoe, almost capsizing it and ignoring his plea to stop. In another inexplicable incident, Zeitoun is unable convince government workers to do anything to rescue an elderly couple that will surely otherwise drown. (Zeitoun and a friend are forced to return and improvise a risky strategy of their own.) Yet for the first two-thirds of the book, the reader is somehow buoyed (sorry!) by the can-doism of Zeitoun and his fellow residents (especially Todd Gambino, who might have rescued as many as 200 people).

Then the book turns dark. Kathy can no longer contact her husband, and, assuming him dead, falls apart by degree (It can’t get worse than this, she thinks.). But Zeitoun isn’t dead; he’s been imprisoned. Zeitoun and others (including Gambino) captured in a house that Zeitoun owned were arrested, placed in a makeshift prison at the New Orleans Greyhound station, and then transferred to a maximum security prison. For almost three weeks, Zeitoun was given no reason for the arrest (there were unofficial statements that he and one of his fellow prisoners “were al Qaeda”), not arraigned, and not even allowed to make a phone call to his wife. The conditions in the prisons made sleep or comfort almost impossible. Despite severe and disabling pain, he was never granted access to a doctor. He was given food (pork) that he couldn’t eat. This is the man Kathy found after those three weeks:

“He looked like a different man, a smaller man, with longer hair, almost all of it white….He’s so small, she thought….She could feel his shoulder blades, his ribs. His neck seemd so thin and fragile, his arms skeletal. She pulled back, and his eyes were the same — but they were tired, defeated. She had never seen this in him. He had been broken.”

Why, though?

The reasons for the treatment of Zeitoun and thousands of others (Gambino spent five months in prison, and after charges were dropped, never recovered over $2,000 that had been taken from him) are complex, but a few realities emerge:

Once FEMA was made subordinate to Homeland Security, the focus — even in a situation that was clearly a natural disaster and not a terrorist strike — changed from public health and emergency management to law enforcement. Homeland Security had thought through how terrorists might exploit the aftermath of a natural calamity and then, doubtless fueled by hysterical media reports about looting, rape and murder, worried less about rescue and provision of basic services than crime prevention. Consider the construction of the emergency prison and the vast amount of time and money that went into it; this isn’t what one does in regard to a public health catastrophe. (See pages 236-237 for a vivid account of this issue.) As Professors Wendy Mariner, George Annas and Wendy Parmet state in a recent article: “Since September 11, 2001, emergency preparedness policies have shifted their focus from public health to national security….[T]his shift is both contradictory and ineffective.” Zeitoun makes this point graphically.

Further, once the issue moves away from emergency management and public health to law enforcement, the potential for abuse soars. Law enforcement will avail itself of all available tools, and, given the opportunity, will come to reflect the worst prejudices of the society. Thus, it’s never entirely clear what impact Zeitoun’s Middle Eastern appearance had on his treatment (was it really all about looting? but then why no chance to explain, no chance to make a phone call?), but it is plain that his African-American cellmates were there at least in part because of their skin color and racial profiling.  This story is the worst:

“One man said he was a sanitation worker from Houston. His company had been contracted shortly after the storm to come in and begin the cleanup. One morning he was walking from the hotel to his truck when a National Guard truck pulled up. He was arrested on the spot, handcuffed, and brought to Camp Greyhound….He was in uniform, and had identification, the keys to his truck, everything. But nothing worked. He was charged with looting and put in the cages….” (pp. 258-59)

Don’t even get me started on the FEMA trailer debacle that forms a kind of slapstick sideshow to this extraordinary work. (It’s detailed on pages 308-310. Preview: a trailer is pretty much useless if you can’t get into it.)

The book concludes with a chapter about the Zeitouns’ life now. Abdulrahman is more of a workaholic than ever, seemingly trying to forget by rebuilding. And “Kathy has lost her memory. It’s shredded, unreliable.” Because of what happened to her husband, she’s become a fretting mother, afraid to allow her kids the freedom they need to develop.

The Zeitouns (especially Abdulrahman) emerge as particularly resilient, emblematic of the American optimism and capacity for reinvention that may have led this Syrian national here. Not even the Department of Homeland Security was able to crush that spirit.

By all means, buy this book. Eggers is getting none of the royalties, having committed them to various relief organizations that are spelled out at the end of the work. And it will keep you up late.