World

Free Speech, Lost in Translation

Why the West can't yet expect to see its democratic reflection in the Middle East

(Flickr/rogiro)
On Saturday, Ghulam Ahmad Bilour, Pakistan’s railways minister, held a press conference and declared that he would pay $100,000 of his own money to anyone who could capture the maker of a now-infamous YouTube movie trailer that depicts the Prophet Muhammad killing innocent men and juggling underage girls in his desert tent. The clip has careened around the Internet, inspiring violent protests and attacks in some Muslim-majority countries and cities. But it has also inspired bewilderment in the West—how could a trailer so farcically bad be construed by millions of Muslims as representative of the feelings of the majority of Americans toward Islam? Don’t they understand that the video doesn’t speak for the U.S. government? Can’t they lighten up? Don’t they understand freedom of speech? The short answer is, no, not in the same way that we in the West do. North American democracy is built upon the ideas of Enlightenment Europe; the sanctity of secularism in government and the free flow of...

MEK Still Isn't OK

The group is set to be taken off the foreign terrorist organization list, but it remains an unwelcome bedfellow on the Iran issue.

(AP Images)
This past Friday, the State Department announced that it will remove the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK)—a fringe Iranian dissident group that has been criticized for its cultish practices—from its list of terrorist groups. The State Department may have satisfied a court-imposed deadline and could help the group’s members escape their current stateless limbo, but the decision will enable the MEK to put more effort into pushing the United States toward war with Iran in its campaign to become the new government in Tehran. The court’s deadline comes from a lawsuit brought by the MEK arguing that its designation as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO)—which it has held since 1997—is no longer appropriate because it claims to have abandoned violence in 2002; in 2003, when its members in Iraq were disarmed by the U.S. military, the group signed documents promising to use only peaceful means of protest to advocate for its goals. In June, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit gave...

What Makes An Activist?

F aced with being despised and threatened, the normal human instinct is to hide. You keep your head down. You pass, if you can. If you can’t, you try not to draw attention to whatever it is about you that your government and your neighbors believe is evil. Throughout history, those who’ve tried to pass have had mixed success. Think about the maranos and conversos, the Portuguese and Spanish Jews who, facing the Inquisition, publicly converted to Christianity but privately still observed Jewish law. Or the light-skinned African-Americans who, during the long horror that was Jim Crow, left behind their darker relatives and became white . Or those East Germans or Czechs or Russians who hated the Soviet system but kept their heads down and their mouths shut, and tried to get by. But there’s always a troublemaker who can’t keep her mouth shut. Faced with hatred, she defies the government by agitating on behalf of the despised identity, working to change not herself but society. That’s the...

The Freedom Tour

Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at Amnesty International on her first visit to the United States after 19 years of house arrest.

(AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
The hour before Aung San Suu Kyi’s arrival at a human rights town hall hosted by Amnesty International Thursday wasn’t quiet. The audience chanted (“What do we want? Human rights!”). A biographic video was played. Magazines with Suu Kyi’s face on the cover were distributed. Like pre-match hype, the build up was big. Myanmar's pro-democracy leader is not—the slight 65 year-old, with pink flowers pinned in her hair, finally appeared shortly before noon. At times, it was a strain to hear her speak, and the microphone twice switched off. But Aung San Suu Kyi is the giant of the Burmese struggle for human rights. She’s in the United States, her first visit since being released from 19 years of house arrest in 2010, for a 17-day tour. The goal of the event was to help inspire the “next generation” of human rights activists. Suu Kyi’s message was loud and clear, even if her voice was not. She urged the audience to turn its attention to the plights of political prisoners internationally who,...

Is That a Boy or a Girl?

Photo courtesy of Andy Kopsa
Is that a boy or a girl? I’ve never felt comfortable with laws against hate crimes or with designations of particular groups as “hate groups,” which seem to me to come way too close to banning thoughts. After all, any assault is a hate crime. If a man beats someone nearly to death, what does it matter if he did it because she’s his girlfriend and he’s enraged that she spoke to another man, or because he spotted some stranger on the street kissing another girl? Whether he yells, “you cheating bitch” or “you fucking dyke,” aren’t his rage and his fists equally dangerous? And I believe so profoundly in individual liberty to believe and say anything, no matter how disgusting or repulsive someone else might believe it to be, that designating a group a “hate group” has troubled me profoundly. Call those groups liars, sure. Educate with the facts. But I’ve been queasy about the harsh categorization. But as I’ve learned about Mich’s beating in Kampala, which I wrote about here yesterday, I’ve...

What We Talk About When We Talk About Abortion

A British case is wrongly roped in the reproductive rights debate

(AP Photo/Adrian Dennis)
M onday, a court in England sentenced 35-year-old Sarah Catt to eight years in prison after she pleaded guilty to administering a poison with intent to procure a miscarriage. She was 39 weeks pregnant—a point, by anyone’s measure, at which healthy fetuses are viable—when she induced labor and disposed of what she claims was a stillborn. She has yet to reveal the location of the body, which throws suspicion on her statement that the baby was born dead. Either way, the story is another example of the sad but thankfully rare occurrence of a woman giving birth in private and committing infanticide, abandoning a baby, or improperly disposing of a stillborn—though it does happen. In 1997, a New Jersey teenager gave birth at her prom and tried to cover it up by killing the baby, and in 2011 a 25-year-old woman smothered her two newborns rather than let her parents know she had given birth. The problem is that what Catt did doesn’t have much relationship to the cluster of medical procedures...

Mitt Versus the Middle East

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
(AP Photo/Bernat Armangue) A Palestinian woman walks past a section of Israel's separation barrier to cross a checkpoint on their way to pray for the holy fasting month of Ramadan at the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Friday, Sept. 19, 2008. T ake a breath and think carefully. Was Mitt Romney's candid-camera comment on how he'd handle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict really as awful as it sounds at first? Actually, yes. In fact, it's even worse, especially if you are listening to it in Israel, or the Palestinian territories, or anywhere else in the Middle East. The man who would be president of the United States has said that he would throw the entire region under the bus. "The pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish," Romney says in the now-famous video of his May 17 campaign event, uncovered by Mother Jones . Put aside the candidate's struggle with English diction, and forget the ignorance of geography that allows him to...

One Day in Uganda

(Photo Courtesy of Andy Kopsa)
Two weeks ago, I heard from Andy Kopsa, an American reporter in Uganda whom I know glancingly as a colleague. While in Kampala reporting for The Washington Monthly on U.S. funding for faith-based organizations there, Kopsa found herself helping “a trans woman [who] was beaten to a pulp”—and who, Kopsa told me, had difficulty getting appropriate medical or police attention, again because she was trans. The beating was brutal, as you’ll read below. One man started it, and bystanders joined in. The police wouldn’t help. Doctors wouldn’t help. All these things are shocking to Americans. But as you will read later in this series, the only thing that stands out about this incident is that the transwoman, Mich, was willing to seek help. Uganda may not have passed a death penalty for homosexuality , but if LGBT people can be beaten ferociously and refused medical care, a kind of death sentence is in place nevertheless. Information for this week's three-part series comes from on-the-ground...

Is America Feared Enough in the Middle East?

Supporting Islamist democracies might actually be the best way to win friends in the region.

(Sipa via AP Images)
(Sipa via AP Images) Protesters on the road leading to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo's Tahrir square The past decade should have permanently cured Americans of the idea that we can dictate events in the Middle East. So it’s hard to take seriously some of the conservative claims and criticisms regarding the continuing anti-American demonstrations in the region. Senator John McCain has insisted that the Obama administration’s policy of “disengagement” led to the attacks on U.S. embassy outposts last week. "We're leaving Iraq. We're leaving Afghanistan. We're leaving the area,” McCain said on Face the Nation . “The people in the area are having to adjust and they believe the United States is weak, and they are taking appropriate action." McCain characterized the protests as part of “a fight, a struggle in the Arab world between the Islamists and the forces of moderation. And they want America disengaged.” Liz Cheney believes the problem is that no one is scared of us anymore. “In too many...

Why Istanbul Matters

Ankara may be the capital, but as its diplomatic power grows, Turkey's first city remains the jewel of the Bosporus.

AP Images
While foreign policy was once thought to have taken a backseat in this election cycle, the reactions in the Muslim world to an incendiary film about the Prophet Mohammed have refocused attention on the nettlesome politics of the Middle East. Whoever occupies the White House come January will be faced with an altogether new dynamic—and not just in the obvious cases of a bloody Syrian civil war and a tottering post-Mubarak Egypt, but also with the political awakening of Muslims around the globe. Turkey, with its dual European and Asian heritage, is emerging as a key pivot in the region between the long-dominant influences of the West and an increasingly self-actualized East--just this week, it played host to negotiations hoping to slow Iran's uranium enrichment projects. The country, ruled by the Islamist-leaning Freedom and Justice Party (AKP) since 2002 has become an anchor of democratic stability and a harbinger of what is to come in a 21st century that’s beginning to take on the...

Going Dutch

Cooler heads prevail during recent elections in the Netherlands.

AP Images
The much-maligned and long-drawn-out project to save the euro faced two crucial tests on Wednesday. The first bit of good news for those who do not want to see the euro area break up came in the morning, when Germany’s constitutional court gave the green light for the operation of the European Stability Mechanism, the Eurozone’s permanent rescue fund. Then, at night, there was further cause for rejoicing: In parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, it emerged that Dutch voters had returned an unexpectedly clear pro-European verdict, rejecting the far right’s anti-bailout populism and the hard left’s more moderate skepticism of the euro. With 99 percent of the votes counted on Thursday, Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right Liberals (VVD) were set to win a narrow victory over the center-left Labor Party (PvdA), led by nuclear scientist and former Greenpeace activist Diederik Samsom. The Liberals were polling at 26.6 percent, which translates to 41 seats in the 150-seat parliament...

Following in Chris Stevens's Footsteps

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)
(AP Photo/John Minchillo) Supporters of slain U.S. ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens hold a candlelight vigil outside the Libyan Embassy, Thursday, September 13, 2012, in New York. Stevens was killed by an angry mob during an assault on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi that stemmed from the widespread anger generated by an American-made anti-Muslim film. T he Middle East has a propensity for producing both the tragic and the absurd, two qualities that converged in appallingly consummate fashion with the attacks this week that killed U.S. diplomats in Libya and threatened American embassies across the region. The deaths of Christopher Stevens, U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three of his colleagues at the American consulate in Benghazi on Tuesday represent a profound tragedy on many levels. First and foremost is the loss of such brave and dedicated individuals, who served their country in a place wracked by chaos, uncertainty, and violence. Stevens had a well-deserved reputation as a...

Long Lives the Arab Spring

Many commenters are ready to declare that democratic movements through the Middle East are over. They are wrong.

(Rex Features via AP Images)
(Rex Features via AP Images) Jubilant Libyans who support the revolution in the town of Ajdabiyah after Libyan government forces retreated on March 26, 2011 Before a day had passed after the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya—in which four Americans were killed, including J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and as many as ten Libyans trying to protect them—some commenters declared an end to the Arab Spring. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney tried to use the Libya attack and attempted attack on the U.S. embassy in Egypt, both reportedly sparked by an American-made anti-Muslim video, to score political points. His statement darkly warned that the protests could represent the end of a trajectory away from authoritarianism and instead a turn toward an "Arab winter." Even those who weren’t as ready as Romney to declare the Arab Spring over were worried. Foreign Policy ’s Marc Lynch suggested that the fate of democracy hangs in the balance in the...

Libyan Americans Hold a Vigil

After the Benghazi attacks, expatriates worry about the future of their fragile democracy. 

(AP Photo/Ibrahim Alaguri)
(AP Photo/Ibrahim Alaguri) A Libyan man holds a placard in English during a demonstration against the attack on the U.S. consulate that killed four Americans, including the ambassador, in Benghazi, Libya. The wide cement walkway that separates Lafayette Park from the front lawn of the White House is the unofficial no man’s land of Washington, D.C. Just north of it lies the rarified sphere of the West Wing; to the south of it, the banalities of life in a sedate city. The Wednesday evening after the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, a flag waved at half-staff in remembrance of the four Americans left dead, among them Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens—the first American ambassador to be killed in the line of duty since 1979. A Secret Service agent did a sweep of the front lawn with his dog a little before 7 p.m. as haggard West Wing staffers made private phone calls and tourists noodled back and forth happily on Segways. Greetings of “ kaifik ?”—how are you?—and “...

The Hungarian Solution

If the current wave of Republican criticism of Mitt Romney—due to his ideological uncertainty and the general incompetence of his campaign—keeps up, here’s a suggestion for a replacement candidate: Viktor Orban. The longtime leader of Hungary’s right-wing Fidesz Party and Hungary’s prime minister since 2010, Orban seems more committed to carrying out a Tea Party-esque agenda than Romney does. In his two years in office (he also served as prime minister a decade ago, but with a smaller majority and a less radical platform), Orban has slashed unemployment benefits, restricted collective bargaining, and reduced the nation’s retirement benefits. More than that, though, he’s gotten into trouble with the European Union (which at least nominally tries to hold member states to agreed-upon democratic norms) for his move to make the nation’s judiciary answerable to his office, and his purge of TV programs and newscasters who didn’t take the Fidesz line. Independent voices have largely vanished...

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