Faruq Faisel

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Shame: India and its Dalits

A blog post by Rahul Pandita

Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange cannot sing. His wife or daughter were not models, walking over the ramps in fashion shows. In fact, nobody from the Bhotmanges, a Dalit family living in Khairlanji village of Maharashtra’s Bhandara District, could speak his mind on Umrao Jaan in front of titillating television mikes.

Probably, that is why what happened to the family never made headlines. But what 50-year-old Bhaiyyalal witnessed on September 29 is something that will continue to haunt him for the rest of his life. It was towards the evening when a mob of upper-caste landlords descended upon the Bhotmange household. In their ramshackle hut, Bhaiyyalal’s wife, 44-year-old Surekha was preparing evening meals while her bright 18-year-old daughter Priyanka studied in one corner. Surekha’s sons, Roshan, 23, and Sudhir, 21, sat nearby.

As the landlords dragged the mother, her daughter and two sons outside, Bhaiyyalal was about to reach his home. But when he heard the cries of his family, he halted and hid behind a hut.

Surekha and Priyanka were stripped naked and taken to the village chaupal, 500 meters away. For almost next two hours, they were beaten up, bitten and raped by the mob. One of them was even strapped to a bullock cart. After more than an hour of rape and plunder of their bodies, Surekha and Priyanka died. Eye-witnesses have told the Police that sticks were pushed into their private parts, and even after they died, some people continued to rape their bodies.

Roshan, who was blind, and his brother were beaten up and stabbed to death. Their bodies were thrown at various spots in the villages. The next afternoon the Police fished Priyanka’s body out from a canal nearby.

“ I was too scared; I was almost paralysed,” says Bhaiyyalal, who has now fled to another village, fearing that the upper-caste landlords may even kill him, too. “Nobody, except a single woman from the village, tried to stop the mob. The lone woman was silenced by the men with a slap,” recalls Bhaiyyalal.

For almost a decade, the Bhotmanges had tried to lodge a Police complaint. A portion of their 5-acre land had been grabbed by the upper-caste landlords of the village. Even after that, they would not let the Bhotmange family live in peace with the remaining land. So for years, the Bhotmanges had to tolerate incidents of tractors mowing down the standing crops in their fields.

The Police chose not to pay any attention to their grievances. The upper-caste landlords even tried to prove that Bhaiyyalal’s wife, 44-year-old Surekha had an affair with a Police Patil (honorary Policeman) in neighbouring Dhusala village, Siddharth Gajbhiye, who was actually her cousin. On September 3, the landlords beat up Siddharth so badly that he had to be admitted in a hospital. Fearing for his life, Siddharth’s younger brother got him admitted in a hospital which is 100 kilometres away. The hospital, realizing that it was a medico-legal case, informed the local Police, who in turn informed their counterparts in Khairlanji. This time, the Police was forced to lodge a case and 14 arrests were made. Despite repeated threats, Surekha identified the culprits in the identification parade. All of them were released on bail on September 29.

The same evening, they decided to take revenge. Siddharth Gajbhiye called up the local Police station, six kilometers away, at 6.15 pm. One head constable visited the spot at 8.30 pm, but did not register a report. The next day, Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange went to the Police station to file a report, but he was not taken seriously by the SHO. It was much later that an FIR was lodged. Both policemen have been suspended for not responding, and a case has been registered against the head constable. The postmortem report, intriguingly, said that the two women were not raped.

“Doctors were managed and the police bribed.” This is what Surekha’s nephew has alleged, in a report submitted to a social organization. “Everyone in Kherlanji knows what happened with my aunt and cousins, everyone was a witness to the heinous crime,” he has said in his statement. After pressure from social activists, the bodies were exhumed, and another autopsy was conducted. But that too has not been able to establish rape. Some of the perpetrators of crime are believed to be politically well-connected. Social activists are now demanding the arrest of the doctor who conducted the first postmortem.

“It was a gory dance of death, the height of brutality,” says the district Superintendent of Police, Suresh Sagar. He agrees that the Police did not act well in time. He also clarifies that Surekha did not have any illicit relationship with Siddharth Gajbhiye.

The Police have arrested 44 people so far, including 2 women. Police sources now say that some of them have confessed to the crime.

Priyanka was a bright student and was preparing for her HSC. She was also a NCC cadet and wanted to join the armed forces. “Had it been a case of rape or murder of a model like Jessica Lal, the media would have gone overboard. But in this case, not even the National Commission for Women has reacted so far,” says Dr. Rupa Kulkarni, a Nagpur-based social activist. “This is because Dalits are considered worthless in this country,” she adds. After the protests against the incident turned violent, the State government has finally woken up from its deep slumber. Maharashtra's Chief Minister visited the village and offered a government job to Bhaiyyalal. But Bhaiyyalal declined the offer, saying that all he wants is the guilty to get severe punishment. The question is: Will justice be delivered?

(Rahul covered this incident during his recent visit to Nagpur. This article has appeared in the recent issue of The Sunday Indian)

Khairlanji and the English press

Why this silence over such savagery? Surekha and Priyanka Bhotmange’s face and name should have become as much part of our consciousness as Jessica Lal’s and Priyadarshini Mattoo’s.

Jyoti Punwani

On December 5, a Mumbai paper carried on Page 1, pictures of two residents who live near Mumbai’s Shivaji Park ready to leave home with bags packed. They were moving out to avoid the influx of Dalits to Shivaji Park on December 6, Dr Ambedkar’s death anniversary.

Dalits converge on Shivaji Park every December 6, and except for a stock picture of rustic poor women buying Ambedkar mementos at makeshift stalls, the event passes off unnoticed by the English press. This time, though, a larger show of strength was expected, given the backdrop of Dalit violence all over Maharashtra following the Khairlanji incident. The Police Commissioner had recommended a holiday be declared to minimise the impact of thousands of Dalits running riot. Large graphics showing which roads to avoid were published; "don’t step anywhere near Dadar’’ was the advice Mumbaikars gave each other.

In the backdrop of all this, the front-page story made sense. Why then did it leave a bad taste, the feeling that the sane were fleeing before the advent of the barbarians? Hadn’t Shiv Sainiks been vandalising the surroundings of Shivaji Park for the last 40 years every Dussehra Day, charged up by Bal Thackeray’s speech? Did these residents panic then? Had the Dalits who converged every December 6 ever created a nuisance?

The report did answer the last question. Apart from the park and roads being full ("I can’t take my evening stroll, nor can I walk my dog, no one can reach my restaurant/clinic’’), the main problem seemed to be the sight of people bathing in the open. Ironically, it was a 21-year-old medical student who found this sight "upsetting’’. Well known critic and Dadar resident Shanta Gokhale’s dissenting voice was quoted at length - the annual congregation created no noise, no stink; instead, she admired the excellent arrangements and the rich confluence of languages there.

Yet, the pictures on Page 1 set the tone of the piece.

Is this an over-reaction? Given the English press’ coverage of Khairlanji, it doesn’t seem so. Few readers of the English press in Mumbai, capital of the State in which the incident took place, know the gory details: the public stripping of mother and daughter, the directive to the brothers to have sex with the sister, the mutilation of the genitals of the brothers (one of them blind) when they refused, the rape of mother and daughter and the insertion of objects inside the daughter’s vagina, then the dumping of the body in the pond…

The girl was a Std XII merit list ranker. These details are available on the Net, so it’s not as if nobody could access them.

Why this silence over such savagery? The mother-daughter’s face and name - Surekha and Priyanka Bhotmange - should have become as much part of our consciousness as Jessica Lal’s and Priyadarshini Mattoo’s. The sole survivor, the father --- Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange, should have been on Page 1 for days. The relatives, the other Dalits in the village, the scene of the crime, the opinions of Dalit intellectuals, the local police’s views - all this should have been written about to the extent that we could picture this crime the way we can Tamarind Court. Khairlanji after all, is just 150 km from Nagpur.

Instead, only one story in the Mumbai edition of the Times and the Express carried the incident in its outline -- that too, more than a month after it took place. The Times’ report itself made mocking references to the press ignoring the story, but didn’t forget to mention more than once, the `allegation’ put forward by the aggressors - that the mother was having an affair with her cousin, the Police Patil, which had angered the rest of the village. The entire sequence of events- the dispute over land, the attack on the Police Patil, the fact that the Bhotmanges had given statements against the attackers, the latter’s public declaration that they would teach the former a lesson --- all this came to light much later, when the IG’s investigation into the incident was reported. That was front-paged by the Express; it was after all, a hand-out from the police, just as most of the coverage on Khairlanji was in the English press.

Speculations by the Home Minister and the police on the hidden hand behind the Dalit protests made more headlines than the incident itself. The photographs echoed this perspective: a brilliant Page 1 pic of a golden statue of Buddha looking on at the flames of the violence remains in mind. Shouldn’t the pictures of the Bhotmanges’ bodies been on Page 1?

Even while the protests were on, there was no detailed interview with Dalit intellectuals, protestors or leaders, except to get their response to the allegations by policemen.

* * *
If Khairlanji was one instance of the English press toeing the Establishment line, the reportage of the investigation into the July 11 train bomb blasts in Mumbai is another. The English press in Mumbai has acted almost as a mouthpiece of the Mumbai police, most newspapers even dispensing with the word `alleged’ when printing the police’s accusations against those they’ve picked up on mere suspicion. ``He made the bombs’’ screamed one headline, with the face of the alleged culprit circled. Another headline spoke about the unusually high number of Unani doctors picked up.

It is noteworthy that most of these stories were published even before the alleged culprits were formally charged. The reports were not more than information given by policemen about suspects. Every claim of the ATS (Anti-Terrorist Squad) was published; hence every suspect picked up was a ``mastermind’’ and a ``key catch’’. Even after the courts discharged three of these masterminds, because the ATS submitted that there was nothing to link them to the crime, the newspapers continued to publish whatever the police told them. Pakistan’s hand in the blasts was announced again and again, yet, when it came to the crunch, ie, presenting evidence of that to Pakistan, the ATS backed out. Again, that didn’t affect the ATS’ credibility as far as the press was concerned.

On the other hand, if at all the suspects’ families were interviewed, standard devices denoting disbelief such as the use of the word ``claim’’, and inverted commas, were freely used.
Whenever a suspect was picked up, his family’s claims of innocence were also published. However, afterwards, there was total silence about the treatment of the accused in custody, broken only by the Indian Express front-paging the contents of affidavits filed by some relatives of the accused, alleging torture. However, allegations of torture made after that by the accused in court, were put in the inside pages, again with liberal use of words such as ``allege’’.

This reporter has had two stories turned down by leading newspapers: one, an interview with the family of the main accused, who were willing to go on record about their torture by the police; another, an interview with a man picked up on suspicion and let off the next day.

The reasons given were, for the former, the denial of the allegations by the ATS chief. The report carried his denial. Was he expected to admit that his men had tortured innocents? The condition placed for the latter interview was that ``everyone must come on record’’. But the interviewee, having had a traumatic first brush with the police, was unwilling to give his name. Would this have been the first time that false names would have been used in a report?

It is understandable that on such sensitive issues, journalists should not be used by terrorists to make false allegations against the police. But what about applying the same standards to the police? Given the abject and gruesome record of the Mumbai police in handling terrorist cases - the Khwaja Yunus case is still making news - why does the English press suspend disbelief every time a police officer opens his mouth?

The outcome of printing whatever the police say has created a neat divide in Mumbai. By and large, Muslims believe what the Urdu press says - that not one of those picked up is guilty; non-Muslims believe the English press. ``Finally, if those arrested are acquitted, the headline won’t be `Innocents walk free’,’’ said a youth who too had been picked up only because his brother, a SIMI member, was absconding. ``The headline would be: ‘Blast accused acquitted.’’’

The sister of two of the accused, Faisal and Muzammil Shaikh, asked me, ``Isn’t the press supposed to expose the truth? Then why hasn’t any of the reporters written what we told them?’’ Little did she know that this reporter too would fall in that category.

The role of the English press becomes even more questionable because of its silence on those arrested for the Nanded blasts. Most of them are RSS members, but unlike the Mumbai blast suspects, nobody knows anything about them: their professions, their habits…Given that they belong to the same outfit to which our former PM and Home Minister, also the current leader of the Opposition belong, isn’t it important to investigate their links, to get these worthies to comment? But how could that happen? The police have chosen not to go public with their investigation into that blasts, so of course, the English press keeps quiet too.

There have been a few pieces showing up the gaps in the police investigation of the Mumbai blasts, just as there have been very few pieces exposing the government’s cynical response to Khairlanji. But their small number, their placement in inside/oped pages, leaves little impact. For finally, it’s not the edit and oped pages which for the lay reader, define the paper’s policy, but the headlines and reports on the news page.

Contrast the press’ servility to the Establishment on the Khairlanji and Mumbai blasts issue to its open opposition to the Centre and support for the agitators on the reservation issue. What conclusion do we draw from this about the English press’ biases?

Condoms now in market oversized for Indian men Madhavi Rajadhyaksha

MUMBAI: The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) study has correlated penis size with socio-economic status, geographical location and the overall dimensions of the male.

The ICMR, which has been coordinating the study, is likely to publish its findings in early 2007. The researchers have surveyed 1,400 men visiting family planning centres in seven hospitals, including KEM in Parel, AIIMS in Delhi and PGI, Chandigarh.

The length and width of each erect penis was measured twice and a digital photograph taken. In KEM Hospital, it was the departments of urology and preventive and social medicine which monitored participants. The group was an equal mix of urban and rural folk in the 18-50 age group. ICMR had requested the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi to devise ways to measure an erect penis.

"We had devised an automated system in which an image of the penis would be taken and the computer would interpret different dimensions," said professor of biomedical engineering, IIT Kharagpur Sujoy Guha, who headed the project.

However, this was later discarded for a simple paper-tape that was found to be more practical. While ICMR scientists refused to comment on the findings "as the data is still being analysed", sources admitted that a smaller exploratory study had conclusively showed that the condoms presently available in the market were indeed oversized for Indian men.

The inter-city study drew much interest at the recently-concluded Asia-Pacific Conference of the Society of Sexual Medicine in Mumbai (even as the Germans are about to launch spray-on, fit-for-all-sizes condoms). An international delegate at the conference pointed out that if the study made geographical distinctions in sizes, it may cause discomfort among men in different regions.

Stop the War

Dear Friends,

This week US President George Bush became almost the last man on earth to support a failed Middle East strategy. The conservative-leaning “Iraq Study Group” - including top figures from Bush's own Republican Party - has just released its long awaited recommendations and condemned virtually every aspect of America’s current approach to the Middle East.

The report is not perfect, but it echoes almost every call to action the Ceasefire Campaign has made since we began in August: it calls for Bush and other leaders to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, to talk to Iran, and switch to a diplomatic strategy for stabilizing Iraq that includes the withdrawal of US troops.

The global pressure on Bush to change course is now intense, but he is still holding out. Click below to add your voice to the chorus calling for Bush to adopt the report's key recommendations for change:

Our last petition on Iraq, signed by almost 80,000 Ceasefire Campaigners, was covered by US media in key outlets, and our ad was published in papers in London and Washington. A major response from people around the world at this critical moment is likely to get press attention in the US, and up the pressure on President Bush.

With the release of Iraq Study Group report, every sensible voice from across the political spectrum is now pleading with Bush to change course. Please add your voice here:


There are enormous dangers and challenges in Middle East, but there is also great opportunity. A strong diplomatic effort can reverse the cycle of conflict, and Bush is the last man on earth left to convince.

With hope,
Ricken, Galit, Rachel, Tom, Amparo and the rest of the Ceasefire Campaign Team.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Nobel Peace Prize winner itching for a fight
Muhammad Yunus heads to Oslo prepared to fight a company he believes is sucking profits from the poor of Bangladesh, Fortune reports.

By Sheridan Prasso, Fortune
December 5 2006

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- When Muhammad Yunus travels to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize Dec. 10, he will come prepared to fight for management control over a company he believes is sucking profits from the poor of Bangladesh.

While in Oslo, Yunus says he intends to point out the irony that the country that is awarding him the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work on microcredit is also home to a state-controlled company, Telenor, which he says refuses to honor an agreement to allow Yunus's nonprofit Grameen Bank to take majority control of their joint mobile-phone venture.
Muhammad Yunus will receive the Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10.

"There's tension between us and Telenor," Yunus told Fortune in an interview in Dhaka ahead of his departure. "There's a philosophical difference. They're oriented toward profit maximization. We're oriented toward social objectives."

At issue is Grameen Phone, Bangladesh's largest mobile-phone provider, with 10 million customers - among them 260,000 "phone ladies" who provide village phone service for the poor all over the country. As the first mobile-phone company to set up in Bangladesh, Grameen Phone has gained a startling 63 percent market share in the country's rapidly growing mobile market and has become Bangladesh's largest taxpayer. Its 2005 revenues of $433 million, up 50 percent over the previous year, are forecast to increase again to $580 million this year.
Grameen Phone was created in 1996 as a joint venture between Telenor, Grameen Bank and two minor partners, which have since been bought out. Telenor now holds a 62 percent share of the company, with Grameen Telecom, a unit of Grameen Bank, holding the remaining 38 percent.

That means Telenor takes 62 percent of Grameen Phone's net earnings, which amounted to $93.6 million last year. That's a lot of money in a poor country like Bangladesh, and Yunus doesn't want it going to Norway.

Yunus insists that Telenor "agreed to give us majority ownership within six years. Our intent was to convert to a social business enterprise [where profits are reinvested in the company rather than taken out], but Telenor does not accept."

Back in 1996, when the venture was established, Telenor was a state-run company. Although the Norwegian government still holds the majority of shares, Telenor partially privatized in 2000, with the largest IPO in Norwegian history, and issued shares on Nasdaq. It was after that, Yunus says, that Telenor reneged on its agreement. "It's a very simple reason," Yunus says. "It's a cash cow."

Telenor denies that the company is either a cash cow or that it ever agreed to relinquish majority control to Grameen. The revenues of Grameen Phone constitute only 3 percent to 5 percent of Telenor's revenues from mobile activities, says Jon Fredrik Baksaas, who became Telenor's president and CEO in 2002 - the year Yunus says Telenor was to have ceded management control. (Baksaas was CFO in 1996, when the joint venture was created under his predecessor Tormod Hermansen.)

Telenor shares are up 69 percent so far this year, after the company reported that third-quarter revenues increased 35 percent to $3.7 billion over the previous year. Telenor group revenues from its operations in 12 countries were close to $11 billion in 2005.
"Different opinions are part of daily business life," Baksaas said last week by telephone from Bangkok, where he was inaugurating Telenor's new Asia regional headquarters. "We have never committed to reducing our share in the company." Telenor also says it has not yet recouped its investment.

Without Telenor's ability to negotiate volume discounts with telecom suppliers, Baksaas insisted, Grameen Phone would not be anywhere near as profitable as it is today. "We're talking about joint efforts that have really produced one of the most fantastic win-win solutions in telecom history over many years," he said.

Yunus says he asked for a meeting with Telenor's board while in Norway in order to appeal to them directly to honor the previous CEO's promise. But Baksaas said that no meeting had been scheduled - only that as part of the ceremonies Yunus would visit Telenor's offices in order to celebrate his achievement of being the founder of microcredit, not to discuss management control.

"The corporate governance of a group like Telenor does not entertain the mechanics that a board meeting can be established in such a way," Baksaas said. "We believe that on the questions of the future ownership of Grameen Phone, there should be other occasions for those topics to be discussed." He added that Yunus had been invited to discuss such topics at a future, unspecified date. "We are at all times willing to discuss future ownership structures," Baksaas said.

The Telenor CEO denied that ceding majority ownership to Grameen has ever been on the negotiating table. The last time a change in ownership structure was discussed, Baksaas said, was in 2004, when the minority partners exited the consortium. That year, Telenor bought out a third partner and most of a fourth one, increasing its stake from 51 percent to 62 percent; cash-strapped Grameen Bank, which had net earnings of only $5 million from its village lending program the year before, was able to buy only 3 percent of the available shares, increasing Grameen Telecom's stake to 38 percent. "I think we had a very reasonable process going on when shares have been available," Baksaas said.

But according to Muhammad Khalid Shams, managing director of Grameen Telecom and for many years chairman of Grameen Phone, Grameen has been insisting for years that Telenor renegotiate the management structure and honor the pledge made by the previous CEO, who Grameen officials say was asked from the very beginning to enter into a nonprofit venture with Grameen. (Hermansen, the former CEO, could not be reached for comment.)

"We have been talking with them, negotiating with them, reminding them that we intend to make our members the owners of the largest telecom company in Bangladesh, and that they would not have had the license without Professor Yunus's support," Shams says. "They have gone back on that. They say it's only an intention, not legally binding. They seem to have defied the will and intention of their own people. They think they owe it to their shareholders to hang on to Grameen Phone."

Grameen even hired an arbitration lawyer in a third country, Sweden, to seek redress. "He charged us an enormous amount of money and told us there's no guarantee," Shams says, "so we don't want to risk it."

Even though Yunus's desire to meet with Telenor's board while in Norway will not be realized, just about every notable person in Norway attends the Nobel Prize ceremony, giving Yunus a chance to campaign, perhaps with the board members themselves, one ear at a time. Baksaas said he had no plans for a scheduled meeting with Yunus but conceded that "there will be occasions that we will meet and celebrate his achievements."

From one of the two main global political leaders who can't look forward:

9 December 2006
By Oonagh Blackman, Political Editor
Mirror, UK

IMMIGRANTS and Muslims who have settled in the UK should adopt British values or go elsewhere, an uncompromising Tony Blair said yesterday.

The Prime Minister held up a multi-cultural Britain as something to be celebrated, but added bluntly: "Conform to it or don't come here. We don't want the hate-mongers, whatever their race, religion or creed."

Speaking at a lecture at No10 after flying in from Washington yesterday morning, he said people who wanted to live here had a duty to integrate - reigniting the row over whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear veils.

Mr Blair said: "If you come here lawfully, we welcome you. If you are permitted to stay here permanently, you become an equal member of our community and one of us."
Labour MPs have warned him of rising resentment in communities over the strain on public services like housing, schools and health. His tough stance reflects the rising anger over those seen to be abusing the "tolerance" of British people.

And in a reference to the teacher sacked for refusing to remove her full-face niqab, he said: "It really is a matter of plain common sense that when it is an essential part of someone's work to communicate directly with people, being able to see their face is important."

In a stern tone, he went on: "The right to be different. The duty to integrate. That is what being British means. And neither racists nor extremists should be allowed to destroy it."
His next move was to scrap funding for radical religious and racial groups, after admitting the Government had been naive in the past. He then slapped down calls for the the introduction of Islamic Sharia law in the UK, and also said preachers should be able to speak English before coming here.

Mr Blair went on: "There is an unease, an anxiety, even at points a resentment, that our very openness, our willingness to welcome difference, our pride in being home to many cultures, is being used against us' abused, indeed, in order to harm us.

"I always thought after 7/7 our first reaction would be very British: we stick together' but that our second reaction, in time, would also be very British: we're not going to be taken for a ride."
His words are a clear sign Labour fears it is alienating working class voters who feel ethnic minorities are a higher priority.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, welcomed the PM's support for multi-culturalism.

But said: "It was worrying to see the PM using such emotive language. That can only help reinforce a 'them and us' attitude. The reality is that there are a tiny group of people - from various different backgrounds - that commit criminal acts and should be dealt with firmly using due legal process."

But the Tories called Mr Blair's speech a "remarkable turnaround".

Community spokesman Dominic Grieve said: "Many of the problems are at least in part the consequence of a philosophy of divisive multi-culturalism and political correctness that has been actively promoted by Labour over many years."

Friday, December 08, 2006

Sitcom’s Precarious Premise: Being Muslim Over Here

New York Times
December 7, 2006

TORONTO — The handsome, clean-cut young man of evidently Pakistani or Indian origin is standing in an airport line, gesticulating emphatically as he says into his cellphone, “If Dad thinks that’s suicide, so be it,” adding after a pause, “This is Allah’s plan for me.”

As might be expected, a cop materializes almost instantly and drags the man off, telling him that his appointment in paradise will have to wait, even though the suicide he is referring to is of the career kind; he’s giving up the law to pursue a more spiritual occupation.

The scene unrolls early in the pilot of a new Canadian comedy series called “Little Mosque on the Prairie.”

Yet that fictional moment is an all-too-possible occurrence, as witnessed when six imams were hauled off a US Airways plane in Minnesota in November after apparently spooking at least one fellow passenger by murmuring prayers that included the word Allah.

“Little Mosque on the Prairie” ventures into new and perhaps treacherous terrain: trying to explore the funny side of being a Muslim and adapting to life in post 9/11 North America. Its creators admit to uneasiness as to whether Canadians and Americans can laugh about the daily travails of those who many consider a looming menace.

“It’s a question we ask ourselves all the time,” said Mary Darling, one of the show’s three executive producers and an American who has lived in Canada for the last decade. “If 9/11 is still too raw, it might not work,” she said.

There is the other side of that coin too — what will Muslims think? — which the show’s creators usually summarize in one long sentence that mentions the uproar prompted by Salman Rushdie as well as the Danish cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad.

This concern stems from the almost automatic presumption that “to look at Muslims in an entertaining way is going to be controversial because they will riot in the streets,” said Al Rae, one of the show’s writers, who noted that he does research by bouncing potential scenarios off cab drivers here. Or as Amaar, the young man detained in the opening airport scene, puts it sardonically, “Muslims all over the world are known for their sense of humor.”

The strongest insurance against outrage from the faithful is that “Little Mosque” is the brainchild of Zarqa Nawaz, a Canadian Muslim of Pakistani origin whose own assimilation, particularly after she left Toronto for Regina, Saskatchewan, 10 years ago, provides much of the comic fodder.

“It rests on my shoulders to get the balance right between entertainment and representing the community in a reasonable way,” Ms. Nawaz, a 39-year-old mother of four, said in an interview here. “You have to push the boundaries so you can grow and evolve as a community.”

During one recent episode being filmed at a neighborhood swimming pool, two Muslim characters who are normally veiled leave the changing room to discover that a man has replaced their usual female instructor. The horrified women lunge for bath towels to use as temporary hijabs, or veils, to cover their hair.

Ms. Nawaz, veiled since she was in ninth grade, coached both actresses to be less relaxed. “I didn’t feel that they were panicked enough,” she said. “It’s a big deal for a hijab-wearing woman to be seen without one.”

Ultimately the solution is found when, as the script describes, “Fatima comes out dressed in the Haz-Mat Islamic swimsuit.” The costume designer unearthed a swimsuit on the Internet from Jordan that covers her from scalp to ankle and had it shipped to Canada.

The struggle over what constitutes modest dress is central to the show. When a Muslim girl flounces into her immigrant father’s presence with her navel showing, he recoils in horror, saying, “You look like a Protestant.”
She counters, “Dad, you mean a prostitute?”
He responds, “No, I meant a Protestant.”

Ms. Nawaz’s humor also emerges in the pool episode. Johnny, the male water aerobics instructor, is gay, and he pointedly says that the sight of the women’s hair would not be the least bit arousing.
“I always try to start these debates in my community like: Does gay count? Do you have to cover your hair in front of a gay man?” Ms. Nawaz said with a chuckle. (It is not the kind of question that arises in Muslim countries, where being openly gay is virtually out of the question; such behavior is punishable by a death sentence in some places.)

Fellow Muslims often dismiss her thoughts and questions as too outrageous, she admitted. “But now I have a whole series to express them.”

Amaar, for example, is abandoning a law career to become the new imam, or prayer leader, in the small town of Mercy. His predecessor as imam preaches sermons like, “First there was ‘American Idol,’ and now there is ‘Canadian Idol.’ All idols must be smashed.”

Ms. Nawaz wanted the show to look at how a native-born imam, exceedingly rare at the moment, might deal with issues differently from the standard imported imams. The actor who plays the young imam, Zaib Shaikh, is the only Muslim in the cast, although the creators said they had hoped more would audition.

Another episode focuses on the anguished debate among strict Muslim families about allowing their children to dress up and collect candy on Halloween, a Christian affair built atop a pagan festival. Most North American Muslims eventually compromise because the day has been drained of religion. “Little Mosque on the Prairie” turns it into “Halal-oween,” halal being the Arabic word for anything religiously permissible.

The sitcom grew out of the battle in Ms. Nawaz’s mosque in Regina over whether women had to pray behind a partition, a heated controversy across the United States and Canada. She vehemently opposed the idea, ultimately making a documentary released this year called “Me and the Mosque” about the tug-of-war with her own imam as well as similar segregation battles in Chicago and West Virginia.
The documentary sparked her idea that all manner of tension between moderate and conservative Muslims — one episode focuses on the partition issue — would make both Muslims and non-Muslims laugh.

There were 600,000 Muslims in Canada in the 2001 census, with the number now estimated around 800,000. Estimates for the American population are around six million.

In an earnest manner not atypical of Canadians, one goal of the show is to explain Muslim behavior, or at least make Muslims seem less peculiar, much as humor about Jews, Italians or gays helped those groups assimilate.

“On the news all you ever hear are voices from the extreme end of the spectrum,” Ms. Darling said. “This gives voice to ordinary people who look just like other ordinary people.”

With its small-town setting and affable cast of characters — even a talk radio host who labels Muslims as terrorists comes across as rather lighthearted — the show unrolls a bit like “Mary Tyler Moore” or some other 1970s sitcom. It is scheduled to start on CBC on Jan. 9, with eight episodes. More are under negotiation. Pitches will be made to networks in the United States in December; so at first only Americans in border ttates will be likely to have access to it.

Test audiences have been somewhat divided, the producers said. Younger viewers, especially Muslims, tend to laugh openly with recognition. Others, particularly the older generation — whether Muslim or not — hesitate.

“Nobody has done a comedy about Muslims before, so they are not sure how to take it,” Ms. Nawaz said. “Some non-Muslims wonder, ‘Are we allowed to laugh?’ ”

Monday, December 04, 2006

Bangladesh on the Conflict Risks Alerts

International Crisis Watch puts Bangladesh on their Conflict Risk Alerts, released on December 1, 2006.

According to the bulletin, November overtook July 2006 as the worst month for conflict prevention since CrisisWatch began publication 40 months ago. Fourteen situations deteriorated in November, with seven conflict risk alerts (in anticipation of new or significantly escalated conflict). Improvements were noted during November in only three situations, and no new conflict resolution opportunities were identified for the coming month.

Sectarian killings in Iraq rose to their worst levels since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Violence in eastern Chad increased dramatically, with over 60 villages attacked and hundreds killed. Major fighting erupted in south Sudan between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and the Sudanese Armed Forces in the first major violation of the 2005 north-south peace agreement. In Somalia, a draft UN Security Council Resolution recommending a regional intervention force and a partial lifting of the arms embargo threatened to generate a full-scale war. Political killing and Shiite resignations in Lebanon increased polarisation and brought the government close to collapse. Côte d’Ivoire became potentially explosive as relations soured further between the prime minister and president, and security forces allied to the latter took to the streets of Abidjan. The situation also deteriorated in Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Burundi, Central African Republic, Colombia, Fiji, India (non-Kashmir) and Tonga.

Three conflict situations showed improvement in November 2006. In Nepal, rebel Maoists and the interim government signed a historic peace deal, ending a 10-year war. Senegalese President Wade met with Casamance leaders in an effort to consolidate peace, announcing several measures for reconstruction and reconciliation. A newly adopted constitution in Kyrgyzstan establishing parliamentary checks on presidential power was ratified, thus easing tensions after mass opposition protests.

For December 2006, CrisisWatch identifies Bangladesh, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Fiji, Lebanon and Somalia as Conflict Risk Alerts, or situations at particular risk of new or significantly escalated conflict in the coming month.

Please see Crisis Watch Report on Bangladesh at:

Please see European Resolution on Bangladesh at:

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Beach volleyball bikinis shake up Asian Games in Qatar

DOHA, Qatar (AP) -- When Salim Al-Nabit and his friends went to see beach volleyball for the first time, they left their wives home.

Al-Nabit said he would watch the bikini-clad women, but he certainly wouldn't want his wife to do so. He was there, he added, because it was a matter of national honor.

"We don't see this a lot in Qatar," Al-Nabit said. "I think most people think it is outrageous. But we accept it because it is important for our country. We want others to see us as a generous and hospitable people, willing to accept their ways, even if we don't agree."

Beach volleyball's penchant for bikinis has touched off a bit of a cultural clash in this conservative Muslim city, which by hosting the Asian Games, a regional sports extravaganza, is trying to bolster its bid to bring the 2016 Summer Olympics to the Middle East.

The city has transformed itself in an effort to woo the Olympics. It has spent billions on infrastructure and sparkling new sports facilities, including the 50,000-seat "Aspire" stadium.

Doha organizers brought in 80 truckloads of sand from dunes in the desert outside the city to create the proper beach setting for the volleyball competition. They then even had the sand tested by a Canadian contractor to make sure it was just right.

But some things are just too much to ask

Though 16 Muslim nations are represented at the Asian Games, only one, Iraq, is competing in women's beach volleyball. And its team, sisters Lisa and Lida Agasi, are Christians.

Do they feel uncomfortable?

"No, not at all," Lida said after her first game on Saturday. But their coach noted they seemed a bit overwhelmed because "all eyes were upon them."

Even so, the Iraqis wore considerably more conservative outfits than their opponents, the Japanese. While the Agasis were clad in yellow, two-piece tights that went down to mid thigh and covered most of their shoulders, the Japanese pair's uniforms were so small that the country name had to be abbreviated on their bikini bottoms.

The Qatari women are sitting out the event, though Qatar has teams for everything from archery to skeet shooting.

"It's not good," said Parvana Khoory, who watched from the almost-empty stands around the 1,500-seat center court dressed in black from head to toe. "We want a woman to cover all of her body. I think this discourages Muslim women from playing this sport."

Some of the players agree that the outfits don't need to be as brief.

"I felt kind of funny about it at first," said Japan's Satoko Urata. "But what can you do? It doesn't bother me now. They have uniforms like this in swimming and track, too."

That has been a sticking point with Muslim athletes as well. Few Muslim teams at the Asian Games include female swimmers. Of those that do, some, like Pakistan, prefer its women wear full-body swimsuits.

Beach volleyball has strict rules dictating what constitutes proper attire. Women can wear one- or two-piece uniforms, and that usually means they play in bikinis and sunglasses.

Competition manager Ramon Suzara, an official with the Asian Beach Volleyball Association, said that allowances have been made for Muslims.

"They can wear what they want, so long as it is appropriate," he said.

Suzara added, however, that he hopes Muslims will come to accept the same kind of outfits that the athletes of other nations wear.

"This is sport in the 21st century," he said. "I think this will be an eye-opener for Doha."

It was for Al-Nabit, who confessed that, in the end, he enjoyed watching the competition.
"But I felt very shy about it," he said.