Thursday, August 30, 2007

Poverty Is Also an Issue for Muslims

By Ibrahim Abdil-Mu'id Ramey
MAS Freedom Civil and Human Rights Director

WASHINGTON, D.C. (MASNET) Aug. 30, 2007 - There were two bits of interesting economic news that surfaced this week. In one story, the late hotel magnate, Leona Helmsley, willed the sum of $12 million from her vast estate for the care of her beloved dog, named Trouble, while leaving absolutely nothing at all for two of her grandchildren.

The second, and much more relevant story, was a report that the poverty rate in America had declined, for the first time in the years of the Bush presidency, to a little more than 12 percent of the population. This means that, statistically, a little over 36 million people in America are classified as "poor"- that is, having less than $20,000 in income for a family of four persons.

In the Washington, D.C. area, the statistics were less than encouraging. The capital of our nation has a higher statistical poverty rate (21% of our residents) than all but one state in the union (Mississippi), and the reported racial income and wealth gaps that separate black and white D.C. residents were startling. White Washingtonians earn, on average, 150 percent more than their African-American counterparts.

Poverty is not an economic issue that most people in America - except the poor themselves - pay much attention to. With the exception of former Senator John Edwards, none of the Democratic or Republican candidates have mentioned poor people in their campaign speeches. We are, for the most part, much more likely to watch the gyrations of the stock market, or the rising price of milk, or worry about the interest we pay on our mortgages, than to think about the 36 million Americans living in poverty, or the 35 million more who are classified as "working poor" - barely surviving from paycheck to paycheck.

Poverty has not gone away in America. It is pervasive, and destructive – and an it an issue that Muslims must engage. But how?

I have two suggestions. First, and most radical, is that we share with others the Islamic concept of prohibition of Riba, or interest, as a cornerstone of our interpretation of economic justice. Our religion teaches that people must not be oppressed by usury, and that economic fairness requires us to seek alternative ways to engage in financial transactions. In an Islamic economic system, for instance, predatory payday loans, with annual interest rates sometimes exceeding 300 percent, would not exist - and society would seek to eradicate the financial exploitation of poor and working people by encouraging fair and livable wages, instead of "minimum" wages that only allow for a "sub-minimum" standard of living.

Secondly, a more immediate Muslim response is simply that we vote, as individuals and members of a value-centered community, and that we cast our votes for policies that address the terrible reality of poverty in America.

All too often, we seem to forget that poverty is not just about personal issues, or purely economic factors. It is also dependent upon a large set of factors determined by political empowerment. When we vote on issues related to, for instance, funding for public schools, or health care, or child care for working moms, or public employment creation, we are voting for policies that impact on the economic lives of tens of millions of poor people. Similarly, when we support (or hopefully challenge) the enormous allocation of public funds for the war system, we are sending a direct message to the leaders of America regarding whether we should wage a war in Iraq, or a serious war against poverty here in the most affluent nation on earth.

In a nation where dead billionaires leave millions of dollars for their pets, and the shopping mall is a virtual temple of worship, some might say that the goal of totally eradicating poverty in America is hopelessly utopian. But I believe that ending poverty is a struggle that can be won in a generation, and one that Muslims can positively impact. It will require moral character and courage, but the task is far from impossible.

I truly believe that the plight of poor people is one than we must lift up, not only by sharing the positive Islamic vision of economic justice and fairness for all human beings, but by also taking our "souls to the polls" in 2008 and voting for public policies that will move us all toward the end of eradicating, once and for all, poverty in America.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Goodbye, Mr. Gonzalez

By Ibrahim Abdil-Mu'id Ramey
MAS Freedom Civil and Human Rights Director

WASHINGTON, D.C. (MASNET) August 29, 2007 - Alberto Gonzalez, to the surprise of virtually no one, has stepped down in shame from his position as Attorney General of the United States. Abandoned by core Republican supporters suffering from relentless attacks by congressional Democrats - including the real possibility of perjury charges in the wake of the questionable firings of numerous U.S. attorneys, Gonzales was perceived as another large albatross around the neck of a badly wounded, and largely discredited, Bush administration.

The most memorable failure of Mr. Gonzalez may well be the most recent one involving highly politicized terminations of good, respectable lawyers who did not apparently toe the administration's ideological line. But the more egregious forms of the attorney general's misconduct may have inflicted even deeper wounds on the body politic.

You will recall that, in the early days of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Mr. Gonzalez was the most vehement supporter of the permissibility of physical abuse - otherwise known as torture - torture against both Iraqi prisoners and Guantanamo detainees. This put the government on the side that opposed both international law and common decency.

Then, there are the matters of both national security letters and the expansion of the role of the National Security Agency as a domestic center of espionage, directed against thousands of law-abiding citizens and U.S. residents. Under the watch of Mr. Gonzalez, the power of U.S. security agencies to monitor phone calls and internet messages was vastly expanded - and largely unchecked - all in the name of prosecuting the "war against terror".

Ironically, on the home front of protecting civil rights, Mr. Gonzalez was a colossal failure. The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department was dismantled to the point on virtual nonexistence, with experienced civil rights attorneys removed in favor of corporate lawyers, in the Bush loyalist mode, who had neither the experience nor the inclination to prosecute civil rights violations, or even to make the defense of civil rights a major priority of the one government agency charged with that responsibility. The result of all of this has been a well-publicized state of utter demoralization within the civil rights division.

Muslims, of course, certainly feel this shift away from the promotion and protection of equal justice under the law. We have, thanks to Gonzalez and company, experienced an unprecedented attack against Muslim charities, institutions, and vocal critics of war and injustice, all wrapped in the banner of anti-terrorism. Countless innocent people, and their families, suffer because of Mr. Gonzales and his warped sense of values.

But he has resigned. So the question remaining for Muslims, and progressive Americans is: what's next for us?

The simple answer is that the people of this nation must demand the appointment, and Senate ratification of a new Attorney General who demonstrates a respect for law and civil rights that have been woefully absent, so far, from the Bush administration. The attorney general must be the chief proponent of respect for law and equal protection under it. This value is completely at odds with the cronyism and good-ole-boy-business-as-usual operating style that placed Alberto Gonzalez in his position.

The United States Senate must be thorough and rigorous in its examination of the next nominee for Attorney General, who will serve during the critical period of the 2008 presidential election.

But more than this, we must insist that Alberto Gonzales is not let off the hook quite as easily as his resignation might suggest.

There is the matter of possible perjury in his testimony before the Senate concerning his previous conversations with then Attorney General John Ashcroft, on expansion of domestic surveillance activities on the part of the government.

Few people believe that Gonzalez told the truth about his true role in the U.S. attorney firings, which is only likely emerge when he is subpoenaed to testify, under oath, about this possible grave ethical violation.

The commitment of true justice under the law has suffered tremendously under President Bush and the individuals he has entrusted to lead the federal government. Donald Rumsfeld, Karl Rove, and Alberto Gonzalez may be gone, but the enormous damage of their respective legacies is very much alive.

We continue to believe that a nation must be governed by law, and not the arbitrary abuse of power in pursuit of a narrow political agenda, and the chief protector of the law should be committed to this principle, too.

For the sake of the countless victims of government torture, illegal spying, and a host of other violations, and for the sake of a real respect for law and justice under it, we must demand that the next Attorney General be a vastly different person than the one that will be heading back to Texas in dishonor and disgrace.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Arabic Language Education is NOT a Crime

By Ibrahim Abdil-Mu'id Ramey
MAS Freedom Civil and Human Rights Director

WASHINGTON, DC (MASNET) Aug. 14, 2007 − A few days ago, I was invited to be a guest on one of the more notoriously anti-Muslim and anti-progressive programs on the FOX cable television news network. The scheduled September opening of the Khalil Gibran Academy in Brooklyn, New York was the topic of the five-minute segment. The academy is a dual Arabic-English language facility for some 60 elementary school children in a community with a substantial Arabic-speaking population.

The academy was established to facilitate the learning of both the Arabic language and Middle Eastern culture, the school, however, is not intended to be a facility for religious training or indoctrination, and it will be fully certified by, and accountable to, the New York City Board of Education.

Of course, I support multi-cultural education (I worked for the New York City Board of Education in the 1980's), and as a person who is bilingual in both English and Spanish, I believe that when children learn about other cultures and languages, they grow both intellectually and as future global citizens. That said, I found it of interest to learn that the Gibran Academy is under ferocious attack by some elements of the New York City community who consider Arabic language and educating students regarding Middle Eastern culture to be an open invitation for Islamic "extremism" and the indoctrination of children.

As the program segment commenced, the first question thrown at me was not about the Gibran school or its proposed curriculum; it was whether I, as an individual, support the Palestinian Intifada. After I responded in the affirmative, the program host then inferred that supporting the Palestinian people meant that I also approved of the killing of "innocent Jews". (Interestingly, the television program host didn't ask me my opinion about the overwhelming number of innocent Palestinians who have been, and are being, killed by Israel occupation forces.)

So what does the Israel-Palestine conflict have to do with Arabic language instruction in an American elementary school?

On the surface, perhaps nothing. But this type interviewing on a televised program is typical of the way mainstream media combines global politics, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Middle East, and the fear of Islam, to fuel opposition to the legitimate rights of Muslims and Arabic-speaking citizens in the United States.

The designated principal of the academy, Debbie Almontaser, is a respected, veteran New York City school teacher with a history of community leadership and deep involvement in interfaith dialogue. The proposed conflict resolution program for the Khalil Gibran Academy will be created by the Tannenbaum Center, one of America's most highly regarded interfaith institutions.

But none of this matters for the haters of the Muslim/Arabic community who equate the Arabic language and Islam with terrorism.

Since the plans were announced to open the school, there has been a relentless campaign to close it. Numerous letters have been sent to the New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and public school Chancellor Joel Klein, demanding that the academy not be allowed to open. Ms. Almontaser and other Muslim organizations and leaders associated with her, have been excoriated and slandered as being associated with violence and terrorism - all without any particle of evidence that these assertions are true.

It is not necessary for the Academy's opponents to bring any credible arguments against the school in their resolve to see that it does not open. It is only necessary for them to trade in a climate of fear and hatred towards Muslims in order to have any chance of success.

Sadly, the naysayers are one step closer in their campaign to stop the Academy from opening. Last Friday, Debbie Almontaser resigned as the Academy's principal-designate.

I'm sure Ms. Almontaser - an honorable woman whom I have personally met and spoken with - left her position only because she did not want unwarranted personal attacks to be a distraction from the struggle to open the school and serve the kids in her community.

Speaking the Arabic language in America is not a crime. And receiving school instruction in this language, or exploring the rich and diverse cultures associated with it, are not acts of subversion.

I am sure that the Khalil Gibran Academy will indeed open this Fall. It will be one of the most highly scrutinized elementary schools in America, but then again, it has nothing to hide.

I believe that it will become a beacon of learning for the children of Brooklyn.

But the school will remain open only if we are prepared to organize for the defense of rights of our children, our communities, and the integrity and value of cultural and religious diversity in the institutions of a nation that is, indeed, our nation, too.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

For U.S. Muslims, More Surveillance Could Mean More Intimidation

By Ibrahim Abdil-Mu'id Ramey
MAS Freedom Civil and Human Rights Director

WASHINGTON, DC (MASNET) Aug. 7, 2007 − The next time you have a telephone conversation with your brother Hassan in Cairo, be aware. Be very aware.

It doesn't matter if you're a law abiding U.S. citizen, or if Hassan is a medical student who plans to open a clinic one day to serve needy patients in the Washington, D.C. area. And frankly, it doesn't matter if both you and Ali have deep convictions about the immorality of terror attacks on civilians.

What does matter, at least for the intelligence services of the United States, is that both you and Hassan are Muslims, and that your call from the United States to him in Cairo is being electronically routed through telecommunications equipment in the U.S. Under the expanded provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) signed by President Bush this week, your call can be secretly monitored by the U.S. government without an order from a U.S. court.

In a fair and functional democracy, of course, you should have nothing to fear, because neither you, nor your brother, harbor any malicious or criminal intent to violate American law or cause harm to people in this nation. After all, you are a registered voter, a law-abiding citizen, and this country is your home, too.

There are people in the Muslim world who have taken and harmed innocent American lives, and who are conjuring up plots to create even more acts of brazen, illegitimate violence. These Muslims do not represent your understanding of the Qur'an or the traditions of our Prophet (Peace be Unto Him). You want these people to be stopped by any and all legitimate means of law enforcement, including the inevitable part of law enforcement that requires gathering intelligence from human and electronic sources.

Fair enough. But who polices the intelligence gatherers? And who guarantees that completely innocent people, like you and Hassan, won't be falsely accused of involvement in some sinister plot against the U.S. government or its people? The answer is: no one.

Already, there is clear evidence that the prosecutorial power of the U.S. court system is willing and able to stretch, and even distort, the law when it comes to Muslims.

Professor Sami Al-Arian languishes in a prison, suffering from diabetes and severe deprivation and cruelty, without being convicted of any crime.

Our young and courageous brother Sabri Benkhala, was convicted last month of perjury before a grand jury and is now serving ten years in prison, simply because the government prosecutor believed that he knew more than he was willing to tell the court about alleged terrorist recruitment.

And let's not forget the attack on the Holy land Trust, and the vast list of "un-indicted co-conspirators" that includes practically every Muslim imaginable except for you and Muhammad Ali. For some, it is (and has been) time for a legal hunt directed against the wider Muslim community, with, all too often no real regard for the innocence of most of the victims of this aggression.

Each one of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, wants to enjoy a sense of safety from violence. But those of us who are Muslim have reason for justifiable suspicion of this unprecedented expansion of the power of the state when it comes to the invasion of our private telephone conversations, our personal associations, our choices for charitable giving, and even our places of worship. This wide net of espionage against Muslims is framed by hidden, and not so hidden, attitudes of fear, and even animosity, directed by a political establishment that all too often projects Islam and Muslims as adversaries.

FISA is simply the most recent manifestation of the expansion of the net.

MAS Freedom will continue to struggle for the civil liberties that are rightfully ours because we know that dissent from injustice is not a crime, and that our community must be protected from those forces that have little regard for real justice or the hallowed concept of equal protection-for all-under the law.

But in the mean time, when you speak again with your brother in Cairo, be very aware that the two of you may not be the only people listening to the conversation.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Darfur Peacekeepers: A Positive Sign for Sudan's Future

By Ibrahim Abdil-Mu'id Ramey
MAS Freedom Civil and Human Rights Director

WASHINGTON, DC (MASNET) Aug. 3, 2007 − The long and terribly complex road to genuine peace in Darfur took an optimistic turn this week when Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir agreed − after long negotiations and serious international pressure − to the deployment in Darfur of a joint African Union/United Nations peacekeeping force of some 27,000 troops. These soldiers, who will likely form a Pan-African protective contingent, will most likely come from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Egypt, and South Africa, and they will mark the first ever peacekeeping collaboration between the UN and the African Union.

A substantial on-the-ground protective force in Darfur is necessary, of course, for the safekeeping of the victims of the internal war and violence, who now number perhaps 200,000 killed, and more than twice that number suffering from internal displacement. The current African Union force in Darfur, numbering about 7,000 beleaguered troops, is badly under-manned and under-equipped for the protection of human life in a land area the size of France. This larger contingent is scheduled for deployment at the earliest possible time.

Later this week, about a dozen Darfur rebel factions will meet at a conference in Arusha, Tanzania to attempt, once again, to hammer out a collective agreement for starting another round of peace negotiations with the government of Sudan. These negotiations, which have failed since the original round of talks began in Nigeria (2005), will take place without the approval of at least one major rebel faction.

But Sudan faces other challenges as well.

A recent report from the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Sudan, indicates that security forces within the country still have the power to arrest individuals without formal charges, and to hold them in detention for as long as six months. A number of such persons, including former military commanders, police officials, security agents, and the leaders of two major political opposition parties in northern Sudan, have recently been detained under this national security provision for alleged plots against the current national government.

There is also the ongoing question of whether Sudan will agree to the extradition of suspected war criminals to the International Criminal Court, which Khartoum has adamantly refused to do since earlier this year. And the equitable sharing of resources throughout the country, coupled with the internal displacement of some 4 million people in southern Sudan and the massive poverty of the region (where some 90 percent of southern Sudanese people subsist on less than $1 U.S. a day), present equally formidable problems for the leadership and the people of Sudan.

Sudan may well have accepted the peacekeeping troop deployment as the only way to avoid international sanctions, but this agreement is nonetheless a necessary one, not only for the sake of the people of Darfur but equally for the sake of the integrity of the nation-state as well. We applaud the government of Sudan for finally agreeing to the deployment of this force.

Finally, there is real hope that the end to the violence in Darfur is in sight. And when the killing is stopped, the possibility for national reconciliation, reconstruction, and the building of real democracy in Sudan can truly begin.