Foreign Radicals Threaten Interfaith Peace in Azerbaijan
Dr. Richard Benkin writes from USA
One of the many unlikely battlefields in the war on terror is the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan where Jews and Muslims have been living side-by-side for more than 1,000 years. Surrounded by Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Iran, and the Caspian Sea, today’s Azerbaijan has had relations with Israel almost since its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Its own Jewish population, estimated between 15,000 and 40,000, has lived peacefully in this predominantly Shi’ite Muslim country of 8,000,000 for some time—that is, until recently.
Some believe that the first Jews came to Azerbaijan’s Jews from Persia at the time of the First Jewish Exile from Israel in the sixth century BCE (Before the Common Era). Others trace their descent to the eighth century Khazers. The Khazars were an agglomeration of Turkic tribes in the Caucasus that gained prominence in the 7th century. Khazar King Bulan decided that to be a truly great empire, his people had to shed their polytheistic religions and adopt a monotheistic faith. So, he invited Jewish, Christian, and Muslim representatives to a disputation. According to tradition, he opted for Judaism because neither of the other two religions could overcome counter the king’s conviction that Judaism was the basis for all three religions; and he thought it best to go with the original. Whether or not there is any truth to that, geopolitical considerations were likely the primary motivation. By choosing Judaism, Bulan took a bold course independent of both the Byzantine Christians and the Muslims of the Caliphate. Unfortunately for Bulan’s descendants, they were unable to maintain his independence. They fell into factionalism and were easily convinced to ally with one or the other powerful neighbor. The Jewish Khazers disappeared into the region and perhaps beyond; perhaps into what is now Azerbaijan, as well.
Israel has had an embassy in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku since 1993, and every Azerbaijani leader has had maintained excellent—sometimes expanding—relations with Israel; this despite pressure from Islamist Iran on its border and an overwhelmingly Shi’ite population. In February 2005, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev told a visiting delegation of Jewish officials that his country wanted to upgrade its relations with Israel, and a just completed oil pipeline bypasses both Russia and Iran and is capable of and likely to transport oil to Israel.
The head of the Ashkenazic Jewish community in Azerbaijan, Gennady Zelmanovich, recently told visiting Jewish officials that “there have never been any problems whatsoever for Jews.” Even under the Soviets’ anti-Jewish regime, they were spared “restrictions Jews in other republics had.”
But all of that is in danger from a steady influx of foreign jihadists who threaten to change Azerbaijan’s “safe haven” status. While Zelmanovich was assuring visiting Jews, Muslims rallied in the streets to protest cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. Although police stopped Baku’s first Islamist demonstration before it reached its intended target (the French embassy), Azerbaijani Jews said that they can “feel the anti-Jewish hostility” growing in their homeland. A popular television celebrity recently accused the Jews of being behind the offending cartoons. He even repeated it. But the remarks themselves did not have nearly the chilling impact on the Jewish community as did the lack of any negative reaction by their neighbors.
One Jewish woman told Israel’s Ha-aretz, “There are many new people…in Baku. They look at us and say ‘Why should the Jews live in fancy houses when we have nowhere to live?’”
Though Azerbaijan is small and never in the headlines, its experience is a microcosm for the entire war on terror. The Azeris are Muslim people with a long history of making their nation a safe haven for Jews. Since its founding, its state has been secular—Muslim but secular. Azerbaijan has courageously taken the lead among Muslim nations in having relations with Israel, and its people have benefited from it. For 1,000 years, the area’s Muslim and Jewish population have lived together in interfaith harmonty.
But the forces of evil—forces of radicalism and intolerance—are afraid that the Azerbaijani example might provide a model for others. And so they are invading the nation, bent on destroying its thousand year peace. And so its government’s private assurances of a desire to strengthen ties with Israel, to promote Muslim-Jewish friendship, must remain private. For they fear that doing so publicly will bring down the wrath of these radical, foreign elements. Thus, even now there still is no Azerbaijani embassy in Israel. This disconnect is not uncommon among Muslim nations and reflects the growing power of Islamists. Leaders recognize that their people would be better off if they were aligned with the United States and Israel, but they are afraid of being deposed—or worse—by a radicals who do not hesitate to use terror.
Only if we empower truly moderate Muslims to resist those radicals and re-take Muslim social institutions that are socializing new generations to hate; will we win the war on terror. Only if we can distinguish between those who really want peace and equality from those who only mouth such things; will we win that war. Only if we acknowledge our true friends and our real enemies—for we have ample amounts of both—will we win that war on terror. The responsibility falls to each of us to stand up against hatred and the myth that there is only one true path to G-d.
Inter-faith dialogue in Copenhagen
Fazal Hakeem writes from Pakistan
At last the Government of Denmark realised the fall out of obnoxious act of publication of blasphemous cartoons of Holy Prophet (PBUH)”, launched in the name of freedom of expression. The caricature of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) was/is a glaring example of losing balance between sanity and expression. Such actions if not nipped in the bud, logically ends in a catastrophic clash. Denmark has invited a panel of Islamic-Christian scholars and clerics on 10th March for conference on religious dialogue to overcome prejudice between Islam and Christian West. Weeks long violent protests against the blasphemous publications of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) tattered Denmark’s reputation. So far dozens have been killed in the religious demonstrations. The Royal Kingdom of Denmark was compelled to close its missions in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Pakistan. Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller who once regaled EU reporters by comparing Muslim fundamentalists to Communists, stated “ Although we may disagree on some issue, including the significance of inherent values in European Societies, there are undoubtedly, more issues that bind us together than separate us”.
USA has expressed solidarity with the Muslims and condemned the publications. The situation was viewed by US policy makers a golden opportunity to revenge upon the Europe for the latter opposition (France/Germany in particular) to former whimsical military action against Iraq on flimsy reasons. It was President Bush to use the word “crusade” while declaring the so-called anti-terror war. Publication of blasphemous cartoons of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) is not for the first time. The self-proclaimed civilized Christian world has taken such puritan steps in the past in the name of freedom of expression. Islampobia has intentionally been allowed to nurture. Spread of its tentacles have consequently poison the minds of Westerners. It’s a fait accompli that absolute freedom of expression is a recipe of destruction and destabilization. In the post-9/11 era, Muslims beards and turbans are seen as symbols of mockery and terrorism. Even their holy symbols including the Prophet (PBUH) and the Book are not spared in Baghdad and Guantanamo Bay jails. In 1989 after publication of “The satanic Versus” by Salman Rushdie, the Muslim world decried but the British Government came to the rescue of that evil. Muslims are being projected as extremists and precursors of violence. The so-called civilized world where sodomy and lesbianism have no taboos. Where gay can occupy the religious posts. Where respect to humanity and family relations have to bow to materialistic considerations. The ideological confrontation religious intolerance and cultural domination have become the hallmarks of modern age. European mouthpiece high-tech media instead of defusing tension has/is playing inflammatory role. There are reports that extremists/far right wing parties have termed protests in Islamic countries as proof of their claims that Muslims are fanatical and violent people and unable to use legal means of protest..
On 9th February UN/OIC Secretary Generals and Senior Policy Representative of of EU have suggested fresh efforts for an inter-faith dialogue to defuse tensions. Though majority of Muslims do not believe in the “Theory of Clash of Civilizations”. Printing of blasphemous cartoons were an attempt to make this clash inevitable.
The action is a manifestation of Muslims helplessness and West’s arrogance and insensitivity towards the Muslim feelings and beliefs. The publication is clarion call for the Muslims to be united, get economic and technological self-reliance to counter the challenge honorably/effectively in accordance with the injunctions of Islam. Muslims are confronted the host of problems like unbelievable disunity, poverty, intellectual backwardness/stagnation, economic underdevelopment and lack of education. Muslims possess 70% energy resources and 40% raw material but their share in the world trade is mere 6/7 %. In addition, absence of democracy economic equity, social justice and foreign powers machinations have greatly contributed to the Muslims vows. Deeply soaked in superiority complex, the European law makers on 16th February, have flatly rejected any limit on media freedom. The EU Assembly in a resolution states ”Freedom of expression and the independence of Press as universal rights cannot be undermined by any individual or group that feels offended by what is being said or written”. If this is the firm belief of 25 nations-EU stand. Why British far-right historian David Irving arrested in November last year will languish in jail for three years, simply for his speech in 1989 denying the World War-II holocaust. As a sequel to blasphemous cartoons and standing about absolute freedom of expression, Iranian paper “Hamshahri” has launched contest for cartoons of the holocaust till 5th May. First entry was made by Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig. In a statement Mr Michael stated “ as a show of solidarity with the Muslim world, and an exercise in free speech, I would like to submit a cartoon to you on the theme of the “holocaust”.
In this world nothing can be absolute. There should be and there are rooms for flexibility, accommodation and limitations. Freedom of expression is tethered by the laws like International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to maintain public order health and morals. Former Foreign Minister Agha Shahi on 12th February stated “ The cartoons are patently an expression of hate against their Holy Prophet(PBUH) and universal and religion Islam. As such they violate the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) which outlaws dissemination of ideas of racial superiority, hate, speech, and incitement to racial hatred”. Pakistan as an Islamic State has condemned this irresponsible act that violated Muslims religious rights. Pakistan has always stressed on inter-faith harmony and discouraging acts that pose threat to world peace and stability. It has taken up the issue internationally and is working in close coordination with the UN, OIC to prevent recurrence of blasphemous acts.
On 14,15 and 19 February big demonstrations in Peshawar, Lahore and Islamabad were carried out. Perhaps there is any major city left where people have not expressed their resentments over the publications. Maulana Yusuf Qureshi while announcing a bounty of Rs.500,000 of a person who made the anti-Islam sketch stated” If the West can place a bounty on Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri we can also announce reward for killing the man who has caused this sacrilege of the Holy Prophet (PBUH)” Denmark and Norway have condemned the murder award with a warning that it can be exploited by Al-Qaeda. Denmark has blamed extremists for violent protests. One is justified to say that the protests or the murder decree is also a freedom of expression. It is strange that Denmark was/is suppose to accept the responsibility for anti-religious publications rather put the blame on the aggrieved Muslims. The publication tantamount to attack on dignity of Islam and values of the Muslims has put the credibility of Europe at stake. OIC Secretary General Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanolog on 21st February has emphatically asserted that if European law doest not allow difference of opinion on WW-II holocaust which happened 60 years ago, how can this law not allowed to protect the Prophet of Islam (PBUH), the Prophet of a fifth of the humankind.
Without doubt, the crisis prompted existence of a challenge to relations between the West and Islam. Europeans must pay attention to the view of more than 20 million Muslims who have and are actively contributing to its economy and development. Strong relationship can be forged with the Muslims if result-oriented interfaith dialogue is encouraged. There is also a need for an international law wherein any such actions is declared cognizable offence and the initiators of anti-religious acts in particular are dealt with an iron hand.
Pathways out of terrorism
With the 9/11 terrorist
attacks on WTC United States, there can be no doubt that a new
'post-bipolar age' is emerging which has dominant factors like
uncertainty, violence, terror, abuse of power and oppression, regional
conflicts and new forms of conflict itself. All these realities represent
a worrying new challenge and demand a positive reshaping of civil and
political society. Of these, terrorism continues to be the most important
area of concern. It may be marked as a turning point on the undisputed
political-military and economic-financial superiority of the
Saudi Arabia violates pledge
Despite a promise made to Washington last November to drop its economic boycott of Israel, Saudi Arabia plans to host a major international conference next week aimed at promoting a continued trade embargo on the Jewish state, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
The Post also found that the kingdom continues to prohibit entry to products made in Israel or to foreign-made goods containing Israeli components, in violation of pledges made by senior Saudi officials to the Bush administration last year.
"Next week, we will hold the ninth annual meeting for the boycott of Israel here in Jidda," Ambassador Salem el-Honi, high commissioner of the Organization for the Islamic Conference's (OIC) Islamic Office for the Boycott of Israel, said in a telephone interview.
"All 57 OIC member states will attend, and we will discuss coordination among the various offices to strengthen the boycott," he said, noting that the meeting is held every March.
The OIC, consisting of 57 Muslim countries, is based in Jidda, as is its boycott office.
Honi, a former Saudi diplomat, has headed the boycott office for the past four years.
The scheduled gathering is listed on the OIC's official Web site in a section entitled "Provisional Calendar of Meetings."
Hamed Salah a-Din, of the OIC General Secretariat, confirmed in a telephone interview that the conference would take place from March 13 to 15, describing it as "our regular annual meeting about the boycott."
The Saudi decision to host the parley appears to run counter to assurances that Riyadh gave the Bush administration when Saudi Arabia was seeking entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO).
On November 11, the WTO's ruling general council voted to grant Saudi Arabia entry into the prestigious group, which aims to promote international free trade, after it agreed to scrap restrictions on doing business with Israel.
Christin Baker, the assistant US trade representative for public and media affairs, told the Post via e-mail that the US had "ensured that Saudi Arabia in its recent accession to the WTO has taken on all rights and obligations with respect to all WTO members, including Israel."
"Saudi Arabia," she said, "did not invoke the non-application provisions of the WTO agreement with respect to any member," meaning that it must treat all members equally, "including Israel."
Likewise, in hearings last month before the US Senate Finance Committee, US trade representative Rob Portman insisted that the Saudis "have a responsibility to treat Israel as any other member of the WTO."
"We've received assurances from Saudi Arabia," Portman said in
separate testimony before the US House of Representatives' Ways and Means
Committee. "They will abide by their WTO commitments."
"Absolutely not - if it is from Israel it is not allowed," Hamad Abdul Aziz of the Saudi Customs Department at Jidda's Islamic seaport said by phone. "I checked with my manager, and he said it is completely forbidden."
Similarly, a Saudi customs official at King Abdul Aziz Airport outside Jidda also said that Israeli goods were not allowed into the kingdom. "It is prohibited," he said. "It is not allowed to bring any goods made in Israel, whether the whole item or only part of it was made there. That is the rule."
In December, just weeks after being allowed into the WTO, Saudi officials were quoted in the Arab press as insisting that the boycott of Israel would continue. This has raised concerns in Washington that the Saudis are not planning to live up to their commitment.
Baker revealed to the Post that "a team of anti-boycott experts from the US departments of Commerce and State has been visiting the region to discuss efforts to eliminate the boycott."
She added that later this month, "a senior USTR official plans to visit Saudi Arabia and will again seek assurances that Saudi Arabia understands and remains committed to its WTO obligations."
Uncertainty of certainty
Ujudud Shariff writes from Abuja
we titled this essay uncertainty of certainty or certainty of uncertainty,
the bottom line remains, we are in the season of uncertainties
characterized by several certainties. When the story started filtering in
that a third term agenda plot is being hatched, many people dismissed it
as impossible. Many thought that Nigeria couldn’t be a banana republic
where its constitution could be amended to suit the interest of just one
individual. But going by what we saw and heard from the six venues of the
public hearings to review the constitution, one can say that it is only
divine intervention that can stop the third term locomotive.
Oscars: Fashion hits and misses
Keira Knightley proved to be fashion royalty at the Academy Awards. She wore a wine-colored, one-shoulder gown by Vera Wang to the Sunday night ceremony that hit the right balance between youthful funkiness and movie-star glamour.
The 20-year-old wore her strawberry blond hair in a loose ponytail, and she had on a one-of-a-kind necklace with emeralds, rubies and diamonds from the 1960s she chose from the Bulgari archives.
Michelle Williams modeled herself after classic screen sirens, wearing a yellow chiffon gown with tulle pleats surrounding the V neck by Vera Wang. It allowed her to show off a 19th-century diamond fringe necklace from Fred Leighton. Her hair was swept up in a 1930s style, and on her arm was Heath Ledger in a classic bow-tie tuxedo, down to the white pocketsquare.
Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillipe looked like a superstar couple — she wore a gown with rows of silver beads and he was dressed in a three-piece suit with a black tie.
Huffman wore a supersexy black gown by Zac Posen with a plunging V neck,
keyhole back, sheer panels on the side and pleated bodice and hem.
For Rachel Weisz, who is seven months pregnant, comfort was important in picking her long, slinky black gown with cap sleeves — which also showed off significant cleavage. “My friend Narciso Rodriguez made me three dresses and I chose one this morning,” she said. Her Chopard emerald-cut diamond demi-drop earrings had round white diamond studs.
Carmen Marc Valvo custom-designed Queen Latifah’s black strapless gown with tiers of soft, diagonal ruffles.
Jessica Alba, who was caught by the cameras touching up her Dior lipgloss, chose a tight gold Versace halter gown with floral beading that she said “fit like a glove,” and Jane Seymour was in a champagne satin halter gown with jeweled accents on the bodice by Pamella Roland.
Sandra Bullock and Amy Adams both picked gowns with pockets. Bullock’s navy gown was by Angel Sanchez and Adams’ chocolate brown gown with ribbon applique was by Carolina Herrera. Adams even borrowed Herrera’s own aquamarine dangling earrings.
Charlize Theron’s forest-green, handpainted gown with a bow on one shoulder was designed by John Galliano for Christian Dior. She said the leather silk satin fabric was “insane” — but some might have said that about the too-big bow.
Jennifer Lopez was in a lighter green gown with a fitted bodice that laced up in the back like a corset.
Ziyi Zhang picked a Giorgio Armani gown fresh off the runway: a black scalloped seashell-shaped lace bustier with jet beading worn with a gray Swarovski crystal encrusted full crinoline skirt. Hilary Swank was in a sweetheart-style black strapless gown by Versace.
Jennifer Aniston was in a black tank gown by Rochas with a long train and a vintage platinum-and-diamond Bulgari necklace from the 1930s. Makeup artist Angela Levin, calling Aniston “a sun-kissed angel,” emphasized her eyelashes with a not-yet-available Chanel mascara.
Nicole Kidman was in a cream-colored strapless gown with beautiful delicate embroidery, and Naomi Watts wore a nude-colored, one-shoulder gown with frayed fabric on the top by Givenchy. As the model in jeweler David Yurman’s new ads, Watts’ rose quartz-and-diamond earrings and a rose quartz ring were made especially for her.
Jennifer Garner wore a halter-style, hand-embroidered Michael Kors gown in nude-colored tulle featuring Swarovski crystals and sterling silver flowers.
Jada Pinkett Smith was in a bright blue strapless column gown by Roberto Cavalli. “I just wanted to be a little vibrant and a little sexy on the carpet,” she said. Husband Will Smith chimed in, “That’s my wife in the dress. It becomes difficult to notice the dress itself.”
Salma Hayek had on a slate blue gown, and her hair was long and loose.
One of the biggest misses of the night was Helena Bonham Carter. Her off-the-shoulder, tea-length blue satin gown was fine but her bed-head hair and clunky white shoes were not.
Oscar.com fashion analyst Tom Julian was a fan of Meryl Streep’s plum V-neck gown with long sleeves that she wore with dangling earrings. Julian also noted that the shape of the Oscar gowns shifted to full skirts from the more formfitting styles at the award shows earlier in the season.
As for the men, George Clooney was trying to be sarcastic when he told E!’s Isaac Mizrahi “I’m very stylish,” but he indeed was in his Armani two-button peak lapel tuxedo.
And the directors of “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” Nick Park and Steve Box, wore oversized striped bow ties, which somehow seemed a perfect fit.
The Oscars were presented at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles.
A Muslim Voice of Reason
In his national radio commentary, American Jewish Committee Executive Director David A. Harris shares the views of a brave Arab-American psychologist who went on Al-Jazeera to challenge radical Islamists.
“Why is it only within the Muslim world, she asks, that beliefs are defended ‘by burning down churches, killing people and destroying embassies’,” says Harris.
Harris’s commentaries on current topics of concern air on the Osgood File on more than 400 CBS stations across the country. All commentaries are available at www.ajc.org. Click here to listen to this week's message.
The following is the full text of this week’s commentary:
An Arab-American psychologist recently appeared on the Al-Jazeera TV station.
Thanks to the monitoring group MEMRI, the segment was translated from Arabic into English.
Here’s an excerpt of what she said:
The clash we’re witnessing around the world is not a clash of religions or civilizations. It’s a clash between two opposites.
It’s a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the twenty-first century.
It’s a clash between freedom and oppression, between democracy and dictatorship.
It’s a clash between human rights on the one hand, and the violation of these rights on the other hand.
It’s a clash between those who treat women like beasts, and those who treat them like human beings.
She goes on to ask why it’s only within the Muslim world, and not, for instance, in the Buddhist or Jewish communities, that beliefs are defended “by burning down churches, killing people and destroying embassies.” This is a path, she insists, that “will not yield any results.”