Sunday, June 24, 2007

Weekend News Roundup - Belated

Apologies to all. I'm running about 24 hours behind.

Quote of the week

Judge Criticizes Wiretap Program

WASHINGTON, June 23 (AP) — A federal judge who used to authorize wiretaps in terrorist and espionage cases on Saturday criticized President Bush’s decision to order warrantless surveillance after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The judge, Royce C. Lamberth of federal district court in Washington, said it was proper for executive branch agencies to conduct such surveillances. “But what we have found in the history of our country is that you can’t trust the executive,” he said at a convention of the American Library Association.

Scholars Race to Recover a Lost Kingdom on the Nile

On the periphery of history in antiquity, there was a land known as Kush. Overshadowed by Egypt, to the north, it was a place of uncharted breadth and depth far up the Nile, a mystery verging on myth. One thing the Egyptians did know and recorded — Kush had gold.

In recent reports and interviews, archaeologists said they had found widespread evidence that the kingdom of Kush, in its ascendancy from 2000 B.C. to 1500 B.C., exerted control or at least influence over a 750-mile stretch of the Nile Valley. This region extended from the first cataract in the Nile, as attested by an Egyptian monument, all the way upstream to beyond the fourth cataract. The area covered part of the larger geographic region of indeterminate borders known in antiquity as Nubia.

Some archaeologists theorize that the discoveries show that the rulers of Kush were the first in sub-Saharan Africa to hold sway over so vast a territory.

“This makes Kush a more major player in political and military dynamics of the time than we knew before,” said Geoff Emberling, co-leader of a University of Chicago expedition. “Studying Kush helps scholars have a better idea of what statehood meant in an ancient context outside such established power centers of Egypt and Mesopotamia.”

In Sudan, the Merowe Dam, built by Chinese engineers with French and German subcontractors, stands at the downstream end of the fourth cataract, a narrow passage of rapids and islands. The rising Nile waters will create a lake 2 miles wide and 100 miles long, displacing more than 50,000 people of the Manasir, Rubatab and Shaigiyya tribes. Most archaeologists expect this to be their last year for exploring Kush sites nearest the former riverbanks.

By this time next year, the dammed waters may be lapping at the old gold works, and archaeologists will be looking elsewhere for clues to the mystery of how remote Kush developed the statecraft to oversee a vast realm in antiquity.

Muslims in U.S. report more bias

Most complaints involve workplace
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, which issued the report last week, received 2,467 complaints nationwide last year. The council, which is the country's largest Islamic civil liberties group, began documenting anti-Muslim incidents after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Locally, workplace discrimination issues are the No. 1 complaint among Muslims. Nationally, the biggest issue is immigration, including residency and citizenship delays, said Karen Dabdoub, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Cincinnati Chapter, which held a press conference Tuesday to discuss the report.

Those complaints include employers who won't allow Muslim women to cover their heads or allow Muslims five-minute breaks for prayer. Dabdoub said she helped resolve a case last December of a Muslim woman who worked at a downtown hotel that wouldn't allow prayer breaks.

"She ended up praying in a utility closet in a restroom," she said.

Dabdoub wrote the hotel a letter, informing it of the law, and the matter was resolved the next day.

"Once employers are informed of the law, most of them will comply," she said.

New U.S. Passport Rules Postponed for at Least Six Months, due to the fact that the State Department and Homeland Security are totally inept.

The State Department two weeks ago acknowledged fumbling the first phase of the passport requirement, which began last January for air travelers. Noting that wait times for passports had climbed from three weeks to three months because of a backlog of 3 million applications, officials waived the rule until Sept. 30 for travelers who can show proof they had already applied.

Cast of Villains
'Reel Bad Arabs' Takes on Hollywood Stereotyping

LOS ANGELES -- A full house has turned out at the Directors Guild of America for the L.A. premiere of the new documentary "Reel Bad Arabs," which makes the case that Hollywood is obsessed with "the three Bs" -- belly dancers, billionaire sheiks and bombers -- in a largely unchallenged vilification of Middle Easterners here and abroad.

"In every movie they make, every time an Arab utters the word Allah? Something blows up," says Eyad Zahra, a young filmmaker who organized the screening this week with the support of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

The documentary highlights the admittedly obsessive lifework of Jack Shaheen, a retired professor from Southern Illinois University, the son of Lebanese Christian immigrants and the author of "TV Arabs," "Reel Bad Arabs" and the upcoming "Guilty? Hollywood's Verdict on Arabs after 9/11."

In the documentary, Shaheen shows dozens of film clips to illustrate his point. Arab women? Hip-swiveling eye candy of the oasis or "bundles in black." If Arab men are not presented as buffoons, or smarmy carpet-dealers, or decadent sheiks (and oh, how the oily sultans are smitten with the blond Western womens!), then they are basically your bug-eyed hijacker-bomber.

"And not only are the Arabs dangerous, they're inept," says Shaheen, pointing to the head villain, called Salim Abu Aziz, in James Cameron's "True Lies," whom Arnold Schwarzenegger's character kills -- by launching him to his maker on the back of a missile.

The 50-minute documentary, for which Shaheen is looking for a distributor, is making the rounds at film festivals, and Shaheen says he would like to see it aired on public television. A DVD can be purchased through the Media Education Foundation.

Arabs in Film - Photo Essay

Nap Time and Playtime And Time to Learn Farsi

At 2 years old, Lanah Boissy has perfected the art of linguistic one-upmanship. Perched in a highchair at dinnertime in Sterling, she will say something in Farsi, wait for a look of bafflement from her Senegal-born parents and dissolve into giggles when they are forced to ask if she would please translate into English or their native French.

In Ashburn, Cenna Cripe, 21 months, will pucker up on cue, but only if her English-speaking mother, Christie, says "hati bossa" -- an Arabic request for a kiss. And in Annandale, Sasha Geisinger, 2, disappointed her mother somewhat when one of the first words out of her mouth was "dudu." Then Narra Geisinger learned that Sasha was using the Urdu word for milk.

Children such as these in the polyglot Washington region often surprise their parents with language feats learned in day care. The large number of foreign-born care providers in the area enables many parents to kick-start their children's knowledge of a second or even a third language from among a growing babel that includes Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Pashto, Hindi and Amharic, in addition to French and Spanish.

Even if Ella doesn't pursue Arabic in school, exposure to the ways of an Islamic household is a plus, Harris said. Eltayeh, a Muslim, likes to explain to parents why she wears a head scarf and stops for prayer five times a day. To children, she offers more subtle cultural lessons: Her emphasis on manners draws directly from her family and her religious values, Eltayeh said.

Beatriz Otero, president of CentroNia, a District-based family support group that offers early childhood education, said running a day-care business is an excellent steppingstone for immigrant women. "It gives you a certification in a way that few other entry-level jobs do," she said. In the past five years, she added, the group has helped train 800 women, most of them foreign-born, to meet national voluntary accreditation standards, involving hundreds of hours of study and apprenticeship, for early childhood instruction.

Many providers said they have a natural penchant for the job.

"In my country, we know how to take care of children," said Riffat Jabeen, a Falls Church provider from Pakistan. Her English is choppy, so parents such as Geisinger have encouraged her to speak Urdu with their children.

Google seeks government help to fight censorship

Google sees the dramatic increase in government Internet censorship, particularly in Asia and the Middle East, as a potential threat to its advertising-driven business model, and wants government officials to consider the issue in economic, rather than just political, terms.

Censorship online has risen dramatically the past five years, belying the hype of the late 1990s, which portrayed the Internet as largely impervious to government interference.

A study released last month by the OpenNet Initiative found that 25 of 41 countries surveyed engage in Internet censorship. That's a dramatic increase from the two or three countries guilty of the practice in 2002, says John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, who helped prepare the report.

China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, India, Singapore and Thailand, among others, are increasingly blocking or filtering web pages, Palfrey says.

One likely source for Google's censorship idea is a paper written two years ago by Timothy Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, who argues that downloading a web page hosted in another country effectively imports a service.

Columbia's Wu said the trade pact approach is likely to be more effective when governments are guilty of blocking entire web sites or applications, such as Internet phone-calling, than when they filter specific content.

Under World Trade Organization rules, countries can limit trade for national security or public moral reasons, Wu said, exceptions that authoritarian governments would likely cite when filtering politically sensitive material.

The company's trade initiative reflects Google's increasing acceptance of the value of federal lobbying. The company didn't hire a lobbyist until 2003, according to public filings, but paid the high-powered Washington-based Podesta Group US$160,000 last year to work on Internet free-speech, tax and other issues.

Flickr censorship stirring the controversy pot?

The recent implementation of usage restriction on certain elements of the hugely popular photo-sharing Web site Flickr has caused somewhat of an uprising in its member ranks, with users in Singapore, Germany, Hong Kong and Korea all suddenly unable to specify a particular personal preference in their account settings that’s related to site-wide search parameters.

However, the ‘safe search’ restriction has predictably thrown up fervent cries of "censorship" from Flickr’s user base, with many posting protest images to the service, such as a doormat that carries the title: "I don’t want to be treated like a…" and various versions of the "Flickr Loves You" site logo doctored to read "Censr Thinks For You." Perhaps worryingly for Flickr is that these doctored images are actually of physical stickers posted in public places for all to see. Interestingly, searching for ‘censorship’ on Flickr returns a massive 16,352 related images.

owever, it is worth noting that Flickr, no longer a localised creation but part of a huge international business like Yahoo, must legally bow to the laws and restrictions imposed upon it in any and all regions where Yahoo chooses to trade. Sadly, that may mean that Flickr’s service in certain territories is in some ways restricted, but should perhaps not be viewed as a poor reflection on Flickr itself.

Censorship's New Ally: The Digital Razor

Mind you, we can easily dismiss this as a quirk of the movie industry. And we’d be wrong to do so. There’s a great moment in Thank you For Your Smoking, in which William H. Macy’s overzealous anti-tobacco crusader wants to comb through old films where Hollywood stars like Bette Davis smoked, and digitally remove their cigarettes. When asked if this was rewriting history, Macy’s character vigorously says, “No, no! We’re improving history!”

Censorship has long been a crippling pox against freedom and free expression, but today’s Digital Era makes it noiseless, secret, insidious. Like the painted commandments in George Orwell’s Animal Farm growing shorter and shorter… redone at night when the animals were sleeping.

Before history is erased, we can reflect on the burning of the Great Library by fundamentalists, the destruction of political tomes in ancient China, the book burnings in Berlin under Hitler.

The problem we face is far worse. Yesterday’s burnings required at least 451 degrees. Tomorrow’s censorship will be done not with torches, but with a search-and-replace command.

Iran Cracks Down on Dissent, Parading Examples in Streets

Iran is in the throes of one of its most ferocious crackdowns on dissent in years, with the government focusing on labor leaders, universities, the press, women’s rights advocates, a former nuclear negotiator and Iranian-Americans, three of whom have been in prison for more than six weeks.

The shift is occurring against the backdrop of an economy so stressed that although Iran is the world’s second-largest oil exporter, it is on the verge of rationing gasoline. At the same time, the nuclear standoff with the West threatens to bring new sanctions.

The hard-line administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, analysts say, faces rising pressure for failing to deliver on promises of greater prosperity from soaring oil revenue. It has been using American support for a change in government as well as a possible military attack as a pretext to hound his opposition and its sympathizers.

Some analysts describe it as a “cultural revolution,” an attempt to roll back the clock to the time of the 1979 revolution, when the newly formed Islamic Republic combined religious zeal and anti-imperialist rhetoric to try to assert itself as a regional leader.

Young men wearing T-shirts deemed too tight or haircuts seen as too Western have been paraded bleeding through Tehran’s streets by uniformed police officers who force them to suck on plastic jerrycans, a toilet item Iranians use to wash their bottoms. In case anyone misses the point, it is the official news agency Fars distributing the pictures of what it calls “riffraff.” Far bloodier photographs are circulating on blogs and on the Internet.

The country’s police chief boasted that 150,000 people — a number far larger than usual — were detained in the annual spring sweep against any clothing considered not Islamic. More than 30 women’s rights advocates were arrested in one day in March, according to Human Rights Watch, five of whom have since been sentenced to prison terms of up to four years. They were charged with endangering national security for organizing an Internet campaign to collect more than a million signatures supporting the removal of all laws that discriminate against women.

The National Security Council sent a stern three-page warning to all the country’s newspaper editors detailing banned topics, including the rise in gasoline prices or other economic woes like possible new international sanctions, negotiations with the United States over the future of Iraq, civil society movements and the Iranian-American arrests.

The three Iranian-Americans are being held in the notorious Section 209 of Evin Prison, the wing controlled by the Intelligence Ministry, and have been denied visits by their lawyers or relatives. Iran recognizes only their Iranian nationality and has dismissed any diplomatic efforts to intervene. A rally to demand their release is set for Wednesday outside the United Nations.

The three are Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Kian Tajbakhsh, an urban planning consultant with the Open Society Institute; and Ali Shakeri, of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California, Irvine. A fourth, Parnaz Azima, a journalist who works for Radio Farda, an American-financed station based in Europe, has been barred from leaving the country.

To the political crackdown, Mr. Ahmadinejad adds a messianic fervor, Mr. Milani noted, telling students in Qom this month that the Muslim savior would soon return.

Blogger detention unnerves blogging community

CAIRO: Egyptian blogger Amr Sharqawi was jailed and treated brutally for taking pictures of the Shoura election board, during the alleged vote-rigging.

The harsh treatment has sent a chill through the already edgy Egyptian blogging community.

Amr Sharqawi is a thin, gentle man with spectacles and a soft voice, hardly the picture of a fiery dissident.

"I was taking pictures of the Board of Elections and a policeman hit me and broke my camera,” Sharqawi told The Daily Star Egypt. "They took me to Talkha Station where they beat me some more the first day I was there. They threatened to arrest my whole family.

Bloggers feel that the harassment has been getting worse, not better. Youssef said, "Now people read the blogs and they are much more influential so the government cares about them more. Before they were not so important so we were less afraid."

Helmy echoed this sentiment saying that bloggers are being arrested and their blogs blocked.

Youssef noted that it seemed as if Islamist bloggers in particular were targeted because, "they are the only ones who actually do anything. The liberals just want to talk and talk, which the government doesn't care about. Because Islamic bloggers want real change, they come for us."

While the bloggers are worried about themselves, they exude a deep sense of pride in what they are doing. When asked whether he would continue writing, Sharqawi laughed, saying, "Of course! As long as I am alive!"

Mido, who writes the blog "Horytna" added, "It is only fear. They can imprison us, kill us, but so what? We will never stop."

An Unprecedented Uproar Over Saudi Religious Police

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- Three members of Saudi Arabia's religious police will stand trial this week for their involvement in the death of a man in their custody, an unprecedented action against the powerful enforcers of the country's strict moral code.

The death, the second in the custody of the religious police in the past month, has triggered calls for a reevaluation of the force's role and responsibilities, and generated a media uproar -- a first in a country where criticism of the religious establishment had until recently been off-limits.

The commission is the enforcement arm of Saudi Arabia's official religious establishment, which imposes the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, named after its 18th-century founder, Muhammad bin Abdul-Wahhab. The commission's mandate is based on the Koranic verse, "And from among you there should be a party who invite to good and enjoin what is right and forbid the wrong, and these it is that shall be successful."

The commission has about 500 offices across the kingdom and employs about 10,000 people. Members who work in the field wear badges but no special uniforms. As signs of piety, they sport scraggly beards and red-and-white checkered head scarves without black cords to hold them down. Their traditional white robes fall slightly above their ankles.

They patrol the streets to make sure shops are closed during prayer times, unrelated men and women do not mingle, and women are properly covered. Their mandate also includes enforcing a ban on prostitution, pornography and the consumption or sale of alcohol.

"People hesitate to criticize the commission because they're afraid they'll be viewed as criticizing religion," said Sabria Jawhar, the Jiddah bureau chief of the English-language Saudi Gazette. "Having a commission is part of our religion."

Saad al-Sowayan, a professor of folklore and anthropology at King Saud University in Riyadh, said Saudis have lived in fear of the commission for decades but have finally started to speak out against it.

"The signs are that the heyday of the Control Squad is perhaps over," Sowayan wrote in a recent article on the London-based Web site "Slowly but increasingly, irate Saudis are literally fighting back. Local newspapers have reported that within the last two years, physical attacks by the public against the Squad have been on the rise."

"People are dying in commission custody now because the commission has been brutally abusing prisoners for years but never held accountable before," Lahem said.

In Painting the Town, Russian Folk Artist Hits a Wall

In Painting the Town, Russian Folk Artist Hits a Wall

As Work Grew Political, Angered Authorities Turned to Whitewash

BOROVSK, Russia -- Not much was happening in Borovsk, population 12,000, a place of cottages slouching on grassy slopes. Then, five years ago, amateur folk artist Vladimir Ovchinnikov was possessed by a vision that the town should become one giant artist canvas.

"I had an idea that all the local painters would enlarge their works on the town's walls," said Ovchinnikov, 69, a retired construction engineer. "After all the other artists refused -- they were too sick, or too old, or they said there would be no money in it -- I approached the former mayor with this idea of painting the walls myself."

The mayor thought it was a splendid idea. So the tireless pensioner splashed images of churches, historical figures and still lifes on public buildings, private homes and walls, 100 works in all. Curious day-trippers flocked to Borovsk, just 63 miles south of Moscow, to take in the outdoor exhibition, giving the town a welcome financial boost.

It was all very captivating until the muralist recast himself as a political and satirical commentator, the self-styled Diego Rivera of Borovsk. His painting of a religious martyr proved controversial, as did a wall-size political cartoon. The official reaction quickly changed; some of his work was whitewashed.

He was born in 1938 in the Soviet republic of Tajikistan, where his father had been exiled. Rehabilitated after the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, the family bought a house in Borovsk. That was as close as to the capital that certain former "enemies of the people" were allowed to live during Soviet times.

In the early, heady days, he was given 1,000 rubles, about $26, for supplies; more recently he was fined 1,000 rubles for defacing a public building. In his typically combative way, he refused to pay and filed a complaint.

Now, he says, he has begun to paint the walls of other towns, including Sevastopol and Obninsk. He has given up his vision of painting all of Borovsk.

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