Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Niqab and Integration--The Doha Debates Chez Chiara

Image accompanying Gulf News article on the refusal of French citizenship to a man who forced his French wife to wear the niqab

This Doha Debate was originally held on February 19, 2007, and primarily refers to the situation of Muslims in the UK, but also in Continental Europe in general, and with applicability to current trends in Quebec, Belgium, France, and Spain against the niqab. These place have all proposed bans on the niqab, or in the case of Spain refused school entrance to a girl wearing a hijab. The previous post on Quebec's proposed ban elicited a number of comments, as did the one preceding it on the niqab and the two solitudes of Quebec/Canada. It seems to me that this Doha Debate, focused specifically on the issue of the niqab as an impediment or not to integration, fits very well with some of the issues raised by thr proposed ban which emphasizes "Quebec values" and the themes of the discussion we had on that post. Remember, too, that different countries have different models of integration: the melting pot (US), mosaic (Canada), multi-generational (France), etc.

Another aspect, the politics of banning the niqab, is one I will address soon in a new post, so I hope the discussion will focus here on the issue of integration. 

For more information on The Doha Debates generally, which follow Oxford Union debating rules, see the website of  The Doha Debates, for more information on The Doha Debates and The Doha Debates Chez Chiara see the introductory post, and the blog Category Doha Debates (DohaDebates) on the sidebar. The following includes excerpts from the panelists' biographies, the debate transcript, and the final result. A summary statement precedes each of the dialogues with a particular audience member whose photo is included. Full information for this debate is here. The full transcript may be read here. The full debate may be viewed here, and the podcast link is available on the main site for this debate.


The Motion
This House believes the face veil is a barrier to integration in the West


TIM SEBASTIAN
Ladies and Gentlemen, a very good evening to you and welcome to the latest in our series of Doha Debates sponsored by the Qatar Foundation. A piece of black cloth known as the niqab or face veil is now being seen by some as a symptom of the failure of Muslim minorities to integrate into Western society. Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair called it a mark of separation. His Italian counterpart Romano Prodi told a news agency 'you can't cover your face; you must be seen. It is important for our society'. So, is it simply a question of the freedom to wear what you want, or do mainstream Western societies have legitimate concerns about the niqab? Tonight's debate seeks to answer those questions. Our motion is that 'This House believes the face veil is a barrier to integration in the West', and it's a topic our speakers know well.

Speaking for the motion


Lord Ahmed of Rotherham was the first Muslim to be created a Life Peer in the United Kingdom and is an adviser to the British Home Office on Muslim affairs.

Nazir Ahmed entered the House of Lords in 1998 as Baron Ahmed of Rotherham in the county of South Yorkshire. He is President and founder of the All-Party Parliamentary Inter-Faith Group. He is also Vice President and founder of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Entrepreneurship. He led calls for the law against religious discrimination.

Before entering the House of Lords, he was a local councillor during the 1990s as well as serving as a Justice of the Peace on the magistrates' bench. He chaired the South Yorkshire Labour Party for four years and founded the British Muslim Councillors' Forum in 1992.

As well as being involved in politics, Lord Ahmed is also an entrepreneur. He ran a chain of fish and chip shops and mini-markets when he first came to the UK and then became involved in mining marble in Kashmir. He is also involved with numerous charities including the British Heart Foundation and the Yemeni Development Foundation, UK. He is Patron of the Kashmiri and Pakistani Professional Ass ociation; British Hajji Association and the Young Pakistani Doctors' Association among others. He also supports a large number of charities including Muslim Aid, Islamic Relief, International Disability Network, Human Appeal International, Sahara Foundation, Save the Children Fund and the Eve Appeal.

Born in Pakistan in 1957, Lord Ahmed moved to the UK at the age of seven. He gained a B.A. in public administration from Sheffield Hallam University. Proud of his British-ness, Lord Ahmed also keeps close contact with his Pakistani heritage. Following the earthquake in Kashmir he visited the area several times, donating from his own funds as well as raising money for rebuilding work and helping organise several millions in donations of resources.

LORD AHMED
I support the motion because I believe that the niqab is seen as a mark of separation, because Muslims who wear the niqab cannot take part, cannot participate or integrate into European or Western society, whether it comes to working in the courts, immigration service, customs or banks or shops or as receptionists. I believe that Muslims are part of the British society and they need to be in every sphere, in every arena within the British system. I don't want the state to ban the veil like in Holland and in France and in Germany. I want a sensible debate, a sensitive debate. I don't want the veil to become a symbol of Muslims or Islam like Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri, the fanatics who became the voice of Muslims. I want the Muslims to be part of the European society. When I went to the United Kingdom long before them, during the Second World War, Muslims fought for Britain, they fought against the Fascists. They contributed in British society, in rebuilding the countries, France, Britain, in the steel industries, in the textile mills, in the infrastructure. Britain is the fourth richest country in the world today and I'm proud that Muslims have made that contribution. So I don't want no-go areas for Muslims in the United Kingdom. When I went to Britain, my identity was, I was a Pakistani Kashmiri. Then I became British Pakistani, British Kashmiri. Then I became a British Muslim. I am a British citizen, a European citizen, who has a faith of Islam. When I went to the United Kingdom, our national dish was fish, chips and mushy peas. Today Alhamdu Lillah (praise be to God) it's chicken Tikka Masala, and that's how Britain has evolved. Britain has 300 languages, for instance. We have 13 major religions, 1400 mosques. I want these mosques to continue to grow, and also I want Muslims to participate. I want Muslims to build bridges. Islam is about peace, it's a religion of peace, it's a religion of moderation and not extremism. Islam encourages engagement and not segregation. 9/11 and 7/7 have changed our world. It has put fears and suspicion and intolerance in many Europeans and Western people, but you know, we also have a problem with Muslims who have identity crises, radicalisation and extremism. This does not help in integration and that's why I believe that a veil, on the question of veil, we need to use wisdom, as the Prophet Mohammed salla Allahu alaihi wa-sallam (peace be upon him) taught us, that we need to have wisdom and that's the way we will integrate in the Western European societies. Thank you.


Reem Maghribi is founder of Sharq, the premier English language British-Arab culture and lifestyle magazine.

With a background in IT and graphic design, Ms. Maghribi founded Sharq in 2004. As the magazine's Editor-in-Chief, she saw Sharq's transition through from a UK-based print publication to an International online magazine, at SharqMagazine.com, in 2007.

Ms. Maghribi calls herself a nationalist who is devoted to promoting pride and progress among Arabs both in the Arab world and outside it. She is a Trustee of both British Muslims for Secular Democracy, a foundation set up by British Muslims who support a clear separation between religion and state, and New Generation Network, an organisation seeking a new approach to tackle discrimination and prejudice in Britain by encouraging the under-represented to speak out against misinformation and scaremongering.

Born and raised in Britain, Ms. Maghribi is the second of three daughters to a former Libyan diplomat, who grew up with his family in Palestine before 1948, and a Syrian mother.

REEM MAGHRIBI
I am for the motion. I do believe that the veil is a barrier to integration. We certainly have the right to practise our religion. However, like most rights, that is not absolute. There are five fundamentals of Islam, and the British government has ensured that we have the ability to practise those beliefs and those rights. In fact they have undertaken many initiatives to promote integration through legislative and cultural activities. The veil is not in the Koran, it is not a requirement of Islam. It was practised centuries later and is more of a custom. With regards to human rights, there was a case recently of a teacher who wanted to wear the veil. She taught five-year-olds. She wanted to wear the veil in front of her male colleagues while teaching. Well, what about the rights of those toddlers? Do they not precede the rights of the teacher? Do they not have the right to communicate openly with that teacher, to not have to worry about concerns of sexuality? They're too young to understand that, as is the 12-year-old now fighting for the right to wear a veil in an all-girls' school. We should ask what are her motivations for wanting to cover up in front of the male teacher and that's what the British welfare system is there for. They are concerned with her interests as a pupil and the pupils in her school. We also have to understand that Britons fear the unknown. After 9/11 and 7/7, they do not have an understanding of Muslims, and we have become 'the other'. So it was a few unrepresentative people who carried out those attacks, but if we as Muslims are to represent ourselves and our religion as the pragmatic and peaceful religion that it is, then certainly fighting for a right that is not required by Islam, that instils fear in others, that hinders communication, and under the banner of Islamic rights, then ultimately we're hindering integration, and this in fact is mentioned in the Islamic doctrine, The Abuse of Rights.

Speaking against the motion


Ayshah Ismail is a British teacher who wears the face veil (niqab).

Ms. Ismail teaches science at a Muslim girls' secondary school. She had been wearing the headscarf (hijab) for the past eight years and started wearing the niqab a year ago.

Ms. Ismail is a community activist who works with several organisations to break down barriers between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities. She is an active supporter of the Stop the War Coalition and has spoken at a number of their rallies. She says she became an anti-war campaigner after seeing what she describes as a rise of Islamaphobia in the aftermath of the London bombings of 7/7.

Ms. Ismail is aiming to set up a charity which specialises in providing relief for children around the world, affected by war, poverty and natural disasters.

Born in the northern English city of Preston, she graduated from Liverpool University with a Bachelor of Science in Pharmaceutics.

AYSHAH ISMAIL
Assalaam alaikum (Peace be upon you). First of all, thank you. I mean, it's an absolute delight to be here. First of all, let me just ask and I might be reiterating Tim's point there, what is integration? Let me define what integration is. It's the behaviour towards an individual that is actually in harmony with society. Now, the question is, how does someone decide when you or myself are in harmony with society? Are there particular check boxes that we have to have in order that we are in harmony with society? Let me make this personal. I am sat here and as you can see I'm a veiled Muslim woman. I took it up a year ago voluntarily, and I reiterate that, of my own choice. It wasn't done because I was asked to do it. I believe that in my understanding of Islam that I have to cover and that's why I've done it. Since then, I have found no change in my lifestyle. I am Alhamdulillah (Praise to God) by profession a teacher. I work, I drive to school. I shop at the local supermarket. I go to the gym, although not too recently I haven't been. My lifestyle is just as similar to my non-Muslim colleagues and friends as a veiled Muslim. Now, can anyone say to me that I'm not integrating into my British citizenship? I am a proud British citizen and I do everything that I can do within my power to integrate into that society, and I don't allow this simple piece of cloth to stop me from doing it. What I find with regards to the motion is the face veil a barrier to integration, no. Is it an excuse for those who want to use it as a barrier to integration? Yes, it is. The only barrier I can see with the face veil is not a particular piece of cloth, it is the lack of understanding, it's ignorance on the part of those who don't understand what the veil is for. Now, I don't want to go down to a debate as to what the veil represents or why we wear it, but if people understood, if non-Muslims or other Muslims as well, if they understood why we cover, I think they wouldn't find it as hard to communicate with me or to actually be direct with me, and I think I have to underline that point, in fact. It's not the veil that is the barrier, it's ignorance surrounding the actual veil. As a veiled niqabi in Western society, I live my daily life, like I said, living a normal life. However, the way I choose to display my personal relationship with my Allah, I don't impose on anyone else. Walking down the street, I'm minding my own business, I'm not harming anyone else, and surely is that not a matter of my choice? For me to wear the veil as a badge of my belief, should that not be within my realm, if I believe that I am fully integrating into society? So I ask you, and I just want to finish off, just the fact that I am sat here, the fact that I have flown over from the UK, is that not proof in itself that I am integrated into society?


Ahmed Ahmed Younis is the former National Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in the US and will shortly take up the post of advisor to senior US government officials.

He is the author of 'American Muslims: Voir Dire' (Speak the Truth), a post-September 11 look at the reality of debate surrounding American Muslims and their country, which has also been translated into Arabic.

Mr. Younis served as National Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) from 2004 to January 2007. During his tenure he lectured in Barcelona, Brussels, Kuala Lumpur, Madrid and Rome at academic and non-governmental institutions.

He is a member of the US Muslim World Advisory Committee of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). He is also a regular speaker at government conferences, briefings and events covering topics such as terrorist financing, public diplomacy, identity/integration and issues affecting the Muslim American community.

Recently, he joined Ambassador Dennis Ross at the Search for Common Ground event to launch a bipartisan "US-Muslim World Initiative." In 2006 he was invited by the State Department to tour Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan where he met with government, community and religious leaders and visited madrassas across the region.

Mr. Younis is a frequent guest on numerous television and radio shows and his work has also been featured in several leading newspapers, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Associated Press and Los Angeles Times, as well as newspapers in 14 countries.

Before joining MPAC, he worked as an intern at the Office of the Legal Counsel of the Office of Legal Affairs of the United Nations. He was assigned to the Office of the Special Advisor to the Secretary General on Iraq.

Mr. Younis has studied and lived in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and is fluent in Arabic. He is a graduate of Washington & Lee School of Law.

AHMED YOUNIS
Well, I'm exercising my Muslim values in clapping for the other side. And dear brothers and sisters, it seems to me that the most reasonable thing to do here is to turn down this motion. It seems that symbols alone cannot be a block of integration but concepts themselves can. For example if a Muslim believes that voting in a Western society is haram (forbidden), that seems to me to be a fundamental block in his or her ability to integrate into a society. But for a person to go to their congressman or senator, to go to their Member of Parliament and say, 'You represent me, I have problems in my district, I need you to come and talk to the community, we need to find solutions together,' you're telling me that this is someone that is not integrated? You're telling me that this is someone who is not part and parcel of a society that is built upon comity amongst a group of people. To be quite frank with you, I think that much of this debate is not about the identity crisis of Muslims. It is about the identity crisis of the United Kingdom and many European societies. What is British identity? I can surely tell you what American identity is. It is founded upon a specific set of principles that the founders came to put to fruition, and that many communities, be they at the hands of oppression or be they the people that had the power, have found a way to bring those values to their daily life and to their lives on a regular basis. And finally I would say this analysis, it enables a clash of civilisations. It supports and legitimises those that say there is a fundamental disjunct, there is a fundamental friction between the world of Muslims and Islam and the world of the West. And I would humbly pose it for all you that this will simply increase the violence and the extremism, it certainly will not decrease it at all. And at the end I would just like to say, many a right has been taken away without a law that says that you do not have that right, and I surely worry when we are expected to believe in the good faith of governments to allow us to exercise our rights. Thank you, sir.


Audience Input


Freedom of choice for punks, hippies, freaks, why not the niqab wearers
AUDIENCE Q (F)
Good evening, Mr. Sebastian. You're as provocative as ever tonight, so I recognise you immediately. I must say that the four of them have really discussed their points very well, but I think that freedom of choice is freedom of choice. We have to bear up with punks, we have to bear up with hippies, we have to bear up with a lot of, you know, freaks in the society. So I think that the person herself or himself will eventually decide when to give it up. I personally, when I teach, it puts me a bit ill-at-ease to find some of my students with a niqab.
TIM SEBASTIAN
So it's a barrier?
AUDIENCE Q (F)
No, it's not a barrier.
TIM SEBASTIAN
If you're ill-at-ease, it doesn't assist then, does it.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
They put me ill-at-ease because, well, I think that their eyes have much more mischief than their hair.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Lord Ahmed.
LORD AHMED
in a society where a veil is probably seen as alien, as I said earlier on, where people fear, there's nothing wrong with those in a free society, if you're a punk or if you're wearing a short skirt or a niqab, there's nothing wrong with that, but can all of those people participate fully in a society, can they get a job? People with punk hair, can they get a job as a receptionist, in the banks, in the police service? Well, I'm afraid they don't. Actually in reality, what you're actually doing, you're restricting. We're not talking about religion, if it's a religious symbol like the hijab, this (niqab) is not a religious symbol. This is a sign of defiance and some of it has happened because of the American policies, the great values that Mr. Ahmed has been talking about. The Asian young people who have been doing it, their mothers wear the burqa, they don't wear a niqab and they've do ne it now just to ...
TIM SEBASTIAN
All right, let Ahmed Younis reply to that.
AHMED YOUNIS
What's so problematic here Nazir is that you are defining integration as being able to sit comfortably in every nook and cranny of Western society. I promise you I am fully integrated into America, I am not interested in walking into bars, I am not interested in supporting any kind of prostitution, I am not interested in supporting any injustice, but I am fully a part of Western society. There are many women that do not wear a veil that are not interested in becoming pirates or not interested in becoming police officers, so this zero sum game, all or nothing, you either fit everywhere or you fit nowhere, this is a double standard. It's not a standard that you make for any white Westerner.


GCC countries supporting  conservatism and petro-chemical spying/subversion vs moderates
AUDIENCE Q (M)
My question is that GCC countries (Gulf Cooperation Council - a grouping of six Gulf states) are involved in supporting those radicals who are promoting the veil. People like me who are moderate are not welcome to go to conferences, seminars etc. So in regards to security, how do I know that a niqab wearer is not a man wearing a veil going make some trouble somewhere in our petro-chemical industry?
TIM SEBASTIAN
I'm not sure that any of our panel particularly can respond to your question.
AHMED YOUNIS
Allow me to just pick up on one point, and that's the word 'moderate'. In the West, we are forced as Muslims to define moderate as a point on the spectrum between Conservative and Liberal. But of course for us as Muslims, we know one can be religiously conservative and a moderate, and one can be religiously liberal and a moderate, because the litmus test for moderation exists in the Koran, they do not have to do with one's political ideologies. A moderate is not someone who goes to the West and tells those governments what they want to hear, because then Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi were moderates. A moderate is someone who follows the sunna (traditional social and legal custom and practice that constitutes proper observance of Islam) of the prophets of the law in the Koran.
REEM MAGHRIBI
The question of the veil is not in the Koran, and it was only practised centuries later, the face veil was only practised centuries later, after Islam's birth. It's not a requirement of Islam.
AHMED YOUNIS
And we are in full agreement on that. And this is not a religious discourse. I am not arguing that the veil is a part of Islamic law.
REEM MAGHRIBI
But when we present it, we present it as an Islamic right. People now think ...
AHMED YOUNIS
It's not an Islamic right.
REEM MAGHRIBI
But that is how it's presented. I am a Muslim and I practise the five fundamentals, and I believe I am a Muslim, but I do not belong to the image that Muslims in Britain have given themselves by fighting for something frankly so irrelevant compared to what's happening in Iraq and Afghanistan.


How can democracy be celebrated when denying the personal freedom to wear a niqab
AUDIENCE Q (M)
My question is to Lord Ahmed. Sir, you have reported that 57% of the British community believe that Muslims and their society are not doing enough to show a sign of good faith, and you say by removing the niqab that's a step in that direction. But I say we celebrate diversity and freedom but how can you celebrate democracy when you are forbidding an individual's choice and a person's right? That's my question.
LORD AHMED
Thank you. Integration is a two-way process. I think you're absolutely right that British society also needs to reach out and make sure that Muslims feel part of British society, and that's why I'm saying that we need to also enjoy the wealth of our nation. We need to be participating. These are some of the faults that we have. You see, with all due respect, Ayshah, when she talked about her role in integration in a school, she teaches in an Islamic school, she goes to a supermarket probably run by a Muslim and in the community ...
AYSHAH ISMAIL
Lord Sainsbury. (former chairman of the British supermarket chain Sainsbury's)
LORD AHMED
The point is, we have parallel communities in Britain today, and that's not helping the society.
TIM SEBASTIAN
All right, Ayshah Ismail, you want to come back on this.
AYSHAH ISMAIL
It's fair to say, Lord Sainsbury is not a Muslim, he's a Jew.
AHMED YOUNIS
And the getto-isation of Muslims...
LORD AHMED
But the school that you teach is that a Jewish school as well?
AYSHAH ISMAIL
No, no, no, I'll come to that. I have chosen to work in a Muslim school and that was actually before I took up the niqab. Yes, it is easier for me to teach without my niqab.
LORD AHMED
Would you have gotten a job in a mainstream school?
AYSHAH ISMAIL
No. Personally speaking, from a teaching perspective, I don't feel I could teach with a niqab. However, for me that's not ...
LORD AHMED
I rest my case.
AYSHAH ISMAIL
No, no, let's not rest my case. For me, I don't see that as taking a step backwards. What I actually see is, yes, I have taken a step sideways. There are particular niches in the community that I will fit in a lot easier. That does not necessarily mean, like Ahmed said, I don't have to put a tick in every box that I should be viable for everything. There are particular things that I will fulfil a lot better and I can do at the same time being at ease with my deen (religion).
TIM SEBASTIAN
But you pay a price, don't you, for wearing the niqab?
AYSHAH ISMAIL
Yes, I do. But does that mean that I'm not a fully contributing member of my society?
REEM MAGHRIBI
I think it's wonderful that you work in a Muslim school and you want to represent and help your community, but unfortunately you've put yourself, you've given yourself a barrier that when British people want to hear you, automatically they see you as 'the other', so however wonderful, whatever your words are going to be, they've already downgraded you. It's an awful feeling, and we have so many big issues to talk about that it's in our own benefit not veil ourselves, not to put a barrier between ourselves and those in whose society, whose country we now belong.
AYSHAH ISMAIL
I'm an active member of the Stop the War Coalition.
REEM MAGHRIBI
That's preaching to the converted, they already believe, they already are fighting for the same cause.
AYSHAH ISMAIL
I'm just talking about getting my words across, and I've got a rally to speak to on Wednesday night. I have no problem whatsoever in conveying my message about my anti-war stance, that yes, the war in Iraq was wrong, and I don't want to go down that road by the way, but ...
LORD AHMED
But would you stand for local elections and stand as a candidate?
AYSHAH ISMAIL
And the non-Muslims in the audience and the Muslims have no problem in listening to my words, and I have a good effect on them. I don't want to stand for local elections.
LORD AHMED
But how can you represent your people if you were no t in a place where you have power? The Stop the War Coalition is good, but it is only a campaigning organisation. You have to be working as a councillor, as a Member of Parliament. You need to be in power, in places of power where you can help people.
TIM SEBASTIAN
All right, let her answer.
AYSHAH ISMAIL
But Lord Ahmed, we're not talking about representing people. Reem made a point that I will find it difficult getting my words across. No, I don't.
REEM MAGHRIBI
You're preaching to the converted in the Stop the War Coalition. They do fabulous work, but you actually have become a representation of me, and that's not fair, because I want to be heard, and when people hear that I'm Muslim, they automatically assume, 'Oh, radical, they want to wear a veil.' This is an image that has been put on and it doesn't represent me.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Ahmed Younis, you want to come in.
AHMED YOUNIS
You want to super-impose your perspective upon her perspective.
AYSHAH ISMAIL
Should I as a Muslim be represented by someone who's not veiled?
REEM MAGHRIBI
I think as Muslims it's in our interest, if we want to be heard by the West and we all agree they misunderstand us completely, we have big issues to fight, and they refuse to listen to us because they see us as backward because we sexualise women by making them cover their face. I am not a sexual object. I want to be involved in politics, I want to be heard.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Okay, very briefly, let me just ask Ahmed Younis to make a point very briefly and then we're going to move on.
AHMED YOUNIS
I must humbly ask Nazir, did the chicken come before the egg? Was it not a parallel society? Were Muslims in Europe not living in a parallel ghetto-ised society before the face veil ever came around? Are we not blaming ourselves for the oppression that has been brought upon us because of the lack of an ability to be part and parcel of society? I mean, you are a member of the House of Lords. It seems to me that you would take responsibility initially for this parallel life, this ghetto-ised existence before you are to ask a Muslim sister to take away something that defines her identity.
TIM SEBASTIAN
All right. Briefly. We have a lot of questions out there.
LORD AHMED
You have to understand, Muslims have been making progress in British society. There are no no-go areas. There are 10 members in the House of Commons and in the House of Lords, and I have to say, the first one has just entered in the (US) Congress and I welcome that. You need a lot of work to catch up with the British society, the way British has embraced Muslims and Islam in the United Kingdom.


Why make a big deal of the niqab as opposed to other religious/cultural markers
AUDIENCE Q (F)
Just listening to the debate, I was just wondering how come the niqab is such a big deal. I mean, there are other religious groups who have identifications. It could be a dress or a ring or any of those kinds. Why do we always sit and debate about this and not about any of the other kinds of coverings.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Well, actually this in fairness to the Doha Debates, this is the first time we've debated this issue. Lord Ahmed.
LORD AHMED
Well, in Britain people wear the hijab, people wear the salwar kameez (a traditional dress worn by both women and men in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan), they wear all sorts of dresses. We don't have a problem with that. People can wear whatever they like. We have a society that allows that. We have as I said 13 major religions, 300 languages that are spoken in London, we have no problem with people wearing turbans, the hijab or even their religious dress. The niqab, for all the points that have been made earlier on, is a sign of separation because there's a fear of the unknown, because it's a new phenomenon within the young radical people within Britain, because people think that those who become radical will become extremist, they may lead them into even further extremism like those who were involved with 7/7, God forbid, or anything else. My worry is that a person wearing the niqab will become a symbol of Muslims and Islam, and will exclude me and many others from representing my point of view.
AYSHAH ISMAIL
Lord Ahmed, can I just say one thing. When we're talking about niqab wearers, we're talking about a minority within a minority. The Muslims are already a minority so we're talking about the hundred, the hundreds, of women actually covering. But can you please tell me, of the niqabi-clad women, how many have committed any crimes? How many have actually been a threat to society? We're the most if anything peaceful, law-abiding citizens of the country.
TIM SEBASTIAN
I don't think that was the issue actually, was it?
REEM MAGHRIBI
I want to remind people what this debate is about. It's not about whether we have the right to wear the veil, it's about whether the veil hinders integration, and it does, and it's been proven to do that in Britain at the very least because they see us as 'the other', and they don't only see people wearing a veil as the other, because people wanting to wear a veil have fought under the right of Islamic rights, and therefore they've hindered integration for all Muslims.
AHMED YOUNIS
Let's say that we could clearly articulate that the veil, the niqab, is not a barrier to integration in other Western societies such as the United States and Canada, would you still support this position which is that the niqab is a barrier to integration in the West? I am telling you this conversation is irrelevant in the United States, and that leads me to believe your position is born out of your context.
LORD AHMED
In America, Muslims are second-class citizens anyway, my friend, since 9/11 and the way they've been treated, Abu Ghraib and ...
TIM SEBASTIAN
I think before this breaks down completely, we'll move on [...]


Niqab or not, depending on personal choice that day; Muslims are never accepted anyway
AUDIENCE Q (F)
I don't always wear the niqab. I sometimes I wear niqab. I'm a British-born professional and I do feel that your point of view Lord Nazir, you're just playing your political cards right. I don't feel you're fairly representing the community. As I said, I don't always wear niqab, but I would defend the right of the people that do want to wear the niqab. I would also question you and Reem, you say that if we want to integrate, we have to be like the society. Believe me, I've lived for 35 years in the UK. You will never be fully accepted, as long as you want to call yourself a Muslim, you can integrate but don't assimilate.
REEM MAGHRIBI
But why add to it? If you already feel that you're treated differently, why add to it by also covering your face? You already feel that you're separated or the British society have separated you. Instead of trying to meet them in the middle and encourage them to have a dialogue with you, you're covering your face. I mean, what does that say to them? 'I don't care actually. I don't want this dialogue.'
AUDIENCE Q (F)
There is a very basic point of the people that do wear niqab that I do have to defend, and they do believe it is Islamic, so they're not doing it for me or you, they're doing it for their love of their deen (religion) and for the love of Allah, so you have to respect that.
REEM MAGHRIBI
Islam is a thinking man's religion and it's a progressive one. Abuse of rights, it's very important in Islam, and the abuse of rights doctrine of Islam says that no right exists absolutely if it actually affects the progress and the message of Islam, and if we by wearing the veil are showing that we are not willing to communicate, then we are actually abusing Islam.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
I put on a hijab at British university. That was my own choice through my own education.
REEM MAGHRIBI
I have no problem with the hijab.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
Yes, so why not?
REEM MAGHRIBI
Some people do have a problem with hijab, mainstream British society.
Audience questionAUDIENCE Q (F)
Of course they don't recognise hijab.
REEM MAGHRIBI
We're talking about the niqab. You're worried about the hijab so you add to it by wearing the niqab.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
Why is the hijab all right then? Of course I know when I wear a hijab in British mainstream society, I am looked at as different, so for my sisters who want to wear a niqab, why refuse them that right? It is their basic right.
REEM MAGHRIBI
People feel unsafe.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Let me just ask you a question. Why do you alternate between wearing the niqab and not wearing the niqab? What is the niqab to you?
AUDIENCE Q (F)
The basic reason is a positive barrier, it is as a protection. The whole idea of covering and the hijab is for protection, modesty and most importantly obeying the laws, the Koran and the sunna (traditional social and legal custom and practice that constitutes proper observance of Islam). So it's just the religion, it's just something religious. Now, for some people I know, they really believe wearing the niqab is a religious obligation.
TIM SEBASTIAN
But sometimes you want that protection and sometimes you don't.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
Yes, absolutely. Sometimes when I go down to the souq (market) here in Doha and I'm at the fish market and it's full of men, I enjoy wearing my niqab because I don't want to be stared at by all those men. It depends exactly where I am and at what time. Some people like my sister in the UK, would never take her niqab off. I respect her right. She's not going to be a fully integrated member possibly of society, but she has the right to at least wear the niqab.


Does the responsibility for any of the problem with integration and the niqab lie with the Westerners
AUDIENCE Q (F)
We're hearing a lot about how the veil isn't integration, you're seen as the outsider. I'd just like to ask the question, does any of the fault lie on the other side? Does any of the fault lie on the side of those who are seeing a barrier, those who do not look beyond a simple piece of cloth, to try to get to know what's behind that. Are we valuing an image? I remember personally the first time I saw someone in a niqab. I did not grow up a Muslim, I am a convert, but I thought that they were very different, but then when I saw them without it, I was frankly, I was ashamed at how much I had let a simple piece of cloth be a barrier, so my question is, to all panellists, does some of the blame lie with the other side?

REEM MAGHRIBI
Yes, very much so. However, they have the upper hand, they are stronger. If we are in, we're talking about Western society, we, even if it was three or four generations ago, moved to their country and we want to be integrated, we're putting the barrier up. It is certainly partly their ignorance, but if we want them to listen to us, it's our responsibility then to make the change, to have them listen to us, and your example shows that people, I mean, we live on public image, that's life, that's politics, and that's what happened. If we want to change, if we want to be stronger, then we have to do it, we can't expect them to do it for us. So it's not about the right to wear it, it's about look at our situation, our circumstance now, do we want them to listen to us? Yes. Should we put a barrier, a literal barrier up for them not to listen to us, to have an extra excuse not to listen to us? I don't think so.
TIM SEBASTIAN
What do you think of that? Do you accept that argument?
AUDIENCE Q (F)
I think again you're kind of putting the blame on the other side.
REEM MAGHRIBI
The responsibility, not the blame.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
Responsibility, but is there no responsibility for the other side. We're saying we want to be...
REEM MAGHRIBI
They're stronger, they don't need to.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
We're saying we want to be a multi-cultural society. What is multi-cultural? Multi- cultural is just a hijab and not a niqab?
REEM MAGHRIBI
Let's be realistic.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
Who decides that?
REEM MAGHRIBI
Let's be realistic.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
You and I decide it because we are comfortable seeing someone's face but how about we learn to be comfortable seeing someone's eyes.
REEM MAGHRIBI
How are you going to teach them, how are you going to teach them?
AUDIENCE Q (F)
You tell me. You tell me. We've got brains, we're smart people. Let's share.
REEM MAGHRIBI
Yes, but compromise. The very step, getting somebody, this works in life, business, politics, the very first step to getting somebody to hear you, to listen to you is to move closer to them.
AHMED YOUNIS
So do you feel like in the West when Jewish Americans were oppressed and the Holocaust was happening and people were taking off their yarmulkes and they were changing their names and they stopped eating kosher food, would you support that, you support someone leaving who they are in a society that is supposed to be built on pluralism, in order that they yield to the oppressive majority, so that they can make the oppressive majority feel comfortable? Do I as a person ...
TIM SEBASTIAN
Let her answer that.
REEM MAGHRIBI
Is the Jewish community, based on your argument, you know the US better, is the Jewish community strong in the US? Yes. Did they have to sacrifice to get there? Yes.
AHMED YOUNIS
No, no, no, no.
REEM MAGHRIBI
Do they have a strong cultural identity now? Yes.
AHMED YOUNIS
No, no. It just so happens that that's the example that I used. Let's use a race based example, so let's use a race based example. So does a black American have to act like a white man in order to get a job in a white man's firm?
REEM MAGHRIBI
What does acting like white man mean? What have they given up?
LORD AHMED
What happened in New Orleans during the ...
TIM SEBASTIAN
Can we have just one person speaking at a time, otherwise nobody will be able to understand you.
AHMED YOUNIS
This idea that the person who is suffering oppression has the primary responsibility to alleviate the discomfort of the oppressor is an unjust concept.
REEM MAGHRIBI
We're talking about the real world. We're not talking about what's just, we're talking about the real world. You want justice, you move closer to them. You endear yourself to them, then you bring them to your side, to your side. We're talking about real life, politics, life, religion. What are we going to do, just sit there and say take it or leave it? You know what they'll do, they'll leave it and we'll stay behind.
AHMED YOUNIS
We're not saying take it or leave it. We're saying make a space in the public square for each individual or community that wants to realise their identity in a specific way.
REEM MAGHRIBI
But they're not doing it.


If diversity of dress by Muslim women is tolerated in Qatar, why not in the UK
AUDIENCE Q (M)
I study in UK and I see many women wearing the niqab in the streets and it's OK with them, even with the British citizens, it's okay. I don't see anything that's wrong with that and I don't know what the problem is, people can do what they want. It's freedom of choice. In Qatar we have some Muslim people who wear short skirts and wear bikinis in the swimming pools, and it's okay with us, so why it's not okay with them.
REEM MAGHRIBI
If this was a theological debate, nobody would win, but the argument, the debate today is, does it hinder integration, and it does and we are the ones suffering, because we're not being heard.
AUDIENCE Q (M)
I don't believe so. If we do this, we will lose our dignity and our values and our beliefs, that's what I believe.
REEM MAGHRIBI
Wearing the veil?


Educated Westerners can handle a piece of cloth, accept the niqab
AUDIENCE Q (F)
Thank you. Good evening. Isn't turning a flimsy piece of material into a physical and psychological barrier further stigmatising women who follow Islam, and I'm saying this as a non-Muslim Westerner. I come from France and I believe that as an educated person, I can accept someone who wears a niqab, and that it doesn't make a difference to me.
REEM MAGHRIBI
Though it's not directly relevant to the argument of whether it hinders integration, I do agree. I think it's unfortunate that we have sexualised women in such a way and that we have been so negative towards men that we seem to say that all they can see women as is sexual objects. We do work both in this community and in the West, we work together, men and women, we have equal rights, and this is a fact, there have been surveys, we now that covering our face is creating a barrier that Western people, particularly British people. In the case that I know, they do not feel that they can relate to us, but we're fighting for that right, even though if they do relate to us, we could fight for bigger rights like the importance of not attacking the next Muslim country.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Let me just ask Ahmed Younis to come in.
AHMED YOUNIS
I'm just going to say, Reem, that it's very problematic to me. I am someone who has no family members that wear the niqab or the hijab, and it is my Western identity that has me sitting on this side of the table, and much of what you're saying sounds quasi socialist or communist, that the individual must give up their own identity, their own freedoms for the benefit of the whole of the community around them. Just leave aside that I'm Muslim, as a Westerner I feel that's not how I run my life. I don't sacrifice an individual's ability to become a part of society for 'the good of the general community.'
REEM MAGHRIBI
But the way it's worked, that's how it is, because they have labelled all Muslims, they have given media time to the more radical or what they call extremists. That's the way it will work. It's intentional because politically they need to suppress us, so they make us look at a whole, they pick the examples that make us look the most fundamental and extreme and so the whole point, concept of Islam is to move us forward.

The Result

The vote is 56.7% for the motion, 43.3 against.
The motion has been carried.


What is your impression of the relationship between the niqab and integration?
What parts of the debate strike you the most?
What questions would you have asked the panelists?
Who is responsible for integration of immigrant groups? the immigrants? the majority community? both?
What happens when the group itself evolves, whether from new waves of immigration (different social, religious, or ethnic strata from the same home country), or new developments within the community (eg greater conservatism, or greater wealth, changed age demographic)? Are the people more or less integrated as a group? as individuals?
If you have worn or do wear a niqab what has been your experience of wearing it?
Does this change depending on what country you are in?
Do you wear the niqab in some countries or regions but not others? Why?
If you are a man, would you prefer that your wife, mother, sister, daughter wear the niqab or not?
Is your preference the same no matter the country?
Have you had problems because a woman you were with was/was not wearing the niqab?
If you don't wear the niqab do you have a different impression of the women wearing it depending on what country you are in?
A man told me this morning that for him unless he can see the person's face they don't exist--do you agree?
How would you have voted, for or against the motion?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Autism in Saudi Arabia


This is a post I have been planning to do for some time, so I thought I would do it before April, Autism Awareness Month, closes out. The reasons for wanting to do this post are multiple. As a professional I have been trained in autism while doing a child psychiatry rotation, examined on it generally, and have treated the mother of an autistic child (moderate to severely affected), at the same time as I was treating a mother who seemed to wish that her daughter were an Asperger's type of autistic child, despite the reassurances of multiple specialized pediatricians.

Simultaneous to treating these 2 (in back to back sessions sometimes), my friends' youngest daughter then aged 2 was diagnosed as autistic (mild to moderate severity), after they had her assessed for delayed speech. I have lived with and supported both parents through all the phases of shock, disbelief, denial, acceptance, hope, disappointment, frustration with the resources available or not, including her recent introduction to a normal Grade 1 class, which was both challenging and heartbreaking. A family member who is a specialist in early primary education has been helpful to all of us in the Autism vs ADD features of Autism vs the spectrum of normal 6 year old, Grade 1 behaviour.

Over the course of the time I have been commenting on Saudi blogs, the topic of autism has come up a number of times in a number of places. Sometimes it is interjected into a discussion of Down's Syndrome (Trisomy 21) or other types of disabilities. Often the discussion turns to a lack of resources in Saudi, a lack of understanding and a lack of compassion for the disabled. I appreciate that all this may well be true, but I do believe based on experience and research that there are some resources and progress being made in these areas in Saudi (and other MENA countries) which is what I would like to focus on here. So I will briefly review what autism is, then discuss autism in Saudi Arabia, and include some elements from the April campaign internationally to increase awareness of and support for autism. Some of the photos are from the April 2, Light it up blue: Shine a light on autism campaign, and the Flickr photo set created from it.

Kingdom Holding Tower, Riyadh

Autism is a neurologically induced pervasive developmental delay in a child's growth and acquisition of milestones, most noticeably in speech acquisition and social relatedness. However, other functions and developmental milestones are compromised, and there are characteristic movement disorders (repetitive hand flapping, twirling, self harm) and play patterns (isolated, repetitious, unimaginative, using toys as objects eg to line up rather than as instruments of play), and rigidity about routines, including object placement, with a general resistance to change and new skill acquisition or environments. Disturbance in rituals, or exposure to phobias can result in "meltdowns" and tantrums that are uncharacteristic of a normal child of the same age. The psychiatric DSM IV TR criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder are here. Asperger's Syndrome, a specific type of Autism characterized by high verbal functioning and high IQ but very poor interrelatedness and social skills, is defined there as well. More detailed descriptions and information on both are available on the National Institute of Mental Health website, here.

Note that Autism is on a spectrum, and a given child may have higher or lower functioning in one or many areas. The expansion of the diagnosis of Autism to that of a broader spectrum of pervasive developmental delays  is the single biggest reason for the seemingly great increase in numbers of children being diagnosed with Autism. Increased training of family physicians, pediatricians and child psychiatrists has improved detection and diagnostic capacity for Autism.

Sadly, it seems that some parents and teachers are overzealous in their "diagnosis" of a child as having Asperger's. As with my patient, one gets the sense that the desire for children with a high IQ overrides the challenges and the undesirability of having a disorder that goes along with it.

CN Tower, Toronto, Canada

There are a number of controversies about the causes of autism and its treatment. One is the role of vaccination as a causative factor in autism. This stems unfortunately from a scientific study done in England which like many such studies came to tentative rather than definitive conclusions and which were subsequently disproved. In the mean time, the media, and certain advocates like Jenny McCarthy have held strongly to this belief, despite subsequent research evidence to the contrary, with the result that especially in England parents are withholding vaccinations, so the incidence of autism has not fallen but the incidences of measles, mumps, and rubella have risen in alarming numbers.

Another theory of causation is a genetic abnormality, or predisposition, which seems to be the case for a very small (epidemiologically speaking) minority, even though as yet the exact gene, genes, or genetic combinations have not been discovered, only explored. There is an increased risk of a second autistic child where there is already one in the family, and an increased risk for boys over girls. For most cases of autism, it simply still isn't known what causes the disorder. Thankfully, theories and research are now focused on neurological abnormalities rather than the older mother-blaming psychoanalytic theories.

Nicosia Town Hall, Nicosia, Cypress

Applied Behavioural Analysis, a very intensive form of early intervention behavioural therapy with autistic children is currently the treatment of choice for the autistic behaviours, and is combined with speech therapy for linguistic and social development. Diagnosis is often made age 2-3 when it is clear there is a speech and social delay, and intervention at this time for 15-20 hours per week has proven effective in maximizing abilities and improving functioning--not in curing the disorder, though. Usually the final prognosis is based on verbal capacity that the child has achieved at the age of 6. 6 is also the age at which insurance programs, including government ones, cut off funding for treatment, since the gains after that age are thought to be less significant.

Clinical management also includes treatment for concomitant problems, like attention deficit disorder, or any other psychiatric or neurological disorder. I know of one child who had both cerebral palsy and autism, and yet, due to funding issues, was denied a teacher's aid in the classroom--until the teacher and principal spent 4 months documenting and lobbying for one. The poor child was humiliating himself (by disrobing to go to the washroom then being unable to re-dress himself), was frustrated, yet was blessed with a good disposition, and a wonderful mother living close by, and who made herself readily available (teachers are not legally allowed to touch the child in the ways necessary to re-dress him).

Many children with autism seem to suffer gastric disorders which leads some to wonder about a causative connection, or at least the benefits of dietary changes. Again, diet can help with gastric symptoms, and to a certain extent with toileting issues.

Niagara Falls, lit blue by the Niagara Falls Parks Commission

As much as parents in the West complain about a lack of resources, cost, challenges with schooling, stigma, and a general lack of answers, cures, and solutions, those in non-Western countries do seem to face more challenges with resources generally, and, as with other mental disorders, greater stigma. On the other hand, family members are often more protected, less likely to be institutionalized, and larger families with closer extended family ties can provide a broader support system. As I learned with a Moroccan niece who suffered a never diagnosed neuro-degenerative disorder that left her blind, deaf, unable to adequately feed, and with no mobility, health care professionals, family, friends and neighbours in any culture can be wonderfully supportive and resourceful. It depends to some extent on the family, and on the location. Certainly, as anywhere, major centres are more likely to have both the expertise and the numbers of cases to warrant the creation of clinical and educational services.

A year ago, on World Autism Day 2009, Arab News published an article, Autistic society sounds SOS for special children, which describes well the challenges for autistic children and their parents in Saudi. These include a lack of autistic centres in major cities like Makkah and Madinah, few places available in the centres which do exist, in Jeddah and Riyadh, lack of government sponsored centres, and insufficient stipends for autistic children. Care and schooling are expensive, and often must be sought in other GCC countries or further abroad, or through private individual care, all at considerable expense to the parents.


Yet, in November of 2009, Ghadah Baaqui (MA, psychology, specialized in Autism) won the People’s Choice Award, part of the Youth Business International’s Entrepreneur of the Year competition, under the patronage of the Prince of Wales for the "Ghadah Madinah Autism Center" which she established in Madinah with the help of the Governor's wife, and the Saudi-based Centennial Fund inaugurated by King Abdullah in 2005.

As mentioned above, there is a Saudi Autistic Society in Jeddah, and supports through the Family Protection Society and King Abdulaziz University (KAU). The Jeddah Institute for Speech and Hearing does applied behavioral analysis (ABA). Also in Jeddah, at Effat College, educators from Oxford have helped to create programs on autism for psychology majors on the professional aspects,  and for mothers on parenting skills for autistic children: Effat College Aims to Enhance Autism Programs. In Riyadh, King Khaled University Hospital of King Saud University (KSU) opened the first combined research and treatment centre in the Middle East, in late March 2010.


In Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Autistic Society is a main resource for those speaking Arabic, but seems to have little to offer non-Arabic speakers. This raises issues of access to care in any setting where one doesn't master the dominant language, and particularly access to teaching and support programs rather than strict medical care. This is a recurrent problem not only with expats but with new immigrants or foreign students who don't yet master the dominant language in any country. It can be a particular problem for those in a country on a relatively short contract, or for an unknown time period. Still, the site notably has information on ABA, and resources for parents like how to toilet training autistic children (a major issue for many); and, for professionals, a Journal of Autism Spectrum Disorders.

As described in this report from Applied Behavioral Analysis International, a major effort was made in October of 2003 to introduce ABA into the Middle East and particularly the GCC. The Psychiatric Division of the Dhahran Health Centre in Saudi Aramco was a major stop for training the personnel in autism and in ABA, although efforts there had already begun in 2002. Other main centres for training personnel were Doha, Qatar, and Manama, Bahrain. That training was in addition to the main focus, the Middle East Applied Behaviour Analysis Conference, held in Bahrain. It "was attended by approximately 100 doctors, teachers, professionals, and parents from Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates".


While it is extremely important that local research and treatment facilities, as well as school programs, be developed in Saudi and in neighbouring GCC countries, the advantages of the internet include resources like those linked already, the one above on blogs on Autism, and those like the Autism Society of America.

I hope this brief introduction sheds some light on the challenges of autism which affects 6 in 1000 Saudi births, and some hope about research, treatment, education, and the supports available locally, nearby, and on the internet.


What experiences, if any have you had with autism?
What type of services are you aware of in your area?
What is your impression of the level of stigmatism against autistic children where you are, where you have travelled or lived?
What do you think are the greatest misconceptions about autism?
Were you aware before now that April is Autism Awareness month?
Was any building near you lit up blue during this month?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?

Friday, April 23, 2010

South Park: First Canada, Now Islam--OY GEVALT!


South Park  is an award winning television animated comedy, aimed at adults, that uses the premise of  4 friends, now aged 9 and in Grade 4, and the town they live in, South Park, Colorado, with all its inhabitants and their imaginations, to teach moral lessons through social satire. Most episodes contain large doses of  vulgarity, satire, parody, fantasy, dark humour, and the carnivalesque to comment on recent events or hot topics  in American culture. The originators and writers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are friends and serve as the models for 2 of the main characters, Stan Marsh and Kyle Broflovski, respectively.Stan Marsh is the Everyman of the series, while Kyle Broflovski is the lone ethnic Jew. 2 other friends, Eric Cartman, the antagonist,  and Kenny McCormick, the poor boy,  complete the group.

Along with its many awards and accolades, the series, now in its 14th season on Comedy Central, has also drawn criticism and controversy. Notably, the politically incorrect, bigoted, anti-semitic, overweight bully (with a soft core) Cartman has offended many. Also, among the offended are the celebrities, ethnic, interest and activist groups who have been ridiculed, as part of an "equal opportunity offensive" policy. However, I am not so sure how equal it all is, as I shall elaborate below.

South Park, of which I have seen 1 episode in the interest of writing this post, came to my attention first because of the success of the song "Blame Canada", from the highly successful film, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, AKA, South Park: The Movie (1999).

"Blame Canada", from the film South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut

Robin Williams at the Academy Awards singing the "cut" version of the Oscar nominated 
"Blame Canada" (the "go forth and multiply" word was not sung)

 The song, with its mockery of all things Canadian, was taken in good fun by all Canadians named in it, and by the then Canadian Ambassador to the US, and former Prime Minister, Kim Campbell. Partly it was because the satire focussed on well known and relatively harmless stereotypes, and partly it was because the final couplet makes it clear that the ones really being spoofed are the Americans who will not take responsibility for themselves:
We must blame them and cause a fuss
Before somebody thinks of blaming us!

As most readers here will know, South Park has recently been in the news to celebrate its 200th episode, which first aired April 14, and more so because of the content of that episode, and the response to it. That is the episode I watched online, in preparation for this post. It can be seen uncensored by Canadians on Comedy Central's Canadian site, here, and hopefully by Americans on South Park Studios' own site, here.

 Although Trey Parker and Matt Stone usually write and produce the episodes on a weekly basis to stay topical and fresh, this anniversary episode was planned well ahead to incorporate old themes, running gags, characters, and topics in a new plot line. They achieved this goal admirably by the device of having all the celebrities they had satirized in the past reappear as a group launching a class action suit against the town of South Park. Along with the celebrities, religious figures were included. In particular, Tom Cruise as the leader of the celebrity suit offers to spare South Park if they are willing to hand over the Prophet Mohamed, so that Tom can get some of  his "goo"--the protection that the Prophet and Islam have from criticism and lampooning.

 From Episode 200, the 200 celebrities suing South Park

As part of the episode,  the characters Stan and Kyle convince the other religious leaders, all of whom along with the Prophet Mohamed are part of the "Super Best Friends", to let them take the Prophet Mohamed to their town as long as they keep him unseen in a windowless U-Haul; but to hand him over to Tom Cruise in his limosine, the Prophet, who mustn't be seen, is disguised with a mascot costume in the form of a teddy bear. However their plans to hand him over to the celebrities is thwarted when the Ginger Separatist Movement (made up of digruntled red-heads) threatens to bomb the town unless the Prophet is handed to them, so that they too may benefit from the "goo" that protects him from ridicule. The episode ends on a cliffhanger about the paternal identity of Cartman, the bully.

After the 200th episode aired,  Abu Talhah al Amrikee, writing on the site of Revolution Muslim, a small Islamist group in New York, based in the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, issued a warning to Trey Parker and Matt Stone about the offensiveness of the episode, which some have taken as a threat. Al-Amrikee suggested they risked the same fate as Theo van Gogh, the slain Dutch filmmaker who with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, created Submission, a film about the abuse of women in the name of Islam, and with verses of the Quran written on a woman's body. Al-Amrikee provided addresses for the New York offices of Comedy Central, the studio address in Los Angeles, and a home address in Colorado. He also prayed via Twitter that Allah kill the creators of the episode.

From Episode 201, Cartman, and his hand puppet ruse to find his real father

Indeed the perception of a threat was great enough that the follow-up episode, which included the creators' response, the 201st episode, was censored by Comedy Central, and is not available online. This was beyond the self-censorship which the writers had included, by beeping out the name of the Prophet Mohamed, and representing him only as a sign saying "Censored". Comedy Central itself beeped out the final speeches of the regular characters, the moral of the story, which was a defense of freedom of speech and an argument against intimidation and fear. Comedy Central also retrospective removed an episode done in 2001, The Super Best Friends, which was a send up of all major religious leaders, including the Prophet Mohamed. In 2006 Comedy Central had already forbidden showing the Prophet in the 2 part episode of South Park which addressed  "The Cartoon Wars", the Danish cartoons and the responses to them.

Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and South Park Studios have noted, with an announcement on the website, that Comedy Central censored their episode after they thought it was finalized; and, that they will not show a censored version of their work:


 This episode opens with the resumption of the story of the character Cartman's paternity, but soon resumes the plot about Tom Cruise's demand for the Prophet Mohamed and the Ginger Separtist Movement's plan to steal the Prophet's "goo". These 2 main subplots eventually join when there is a fight among the Super Best Friends, the Ginger Separatists, and the celebrities fighting for the Prophet Mohamed's "goo". The episode ends with a moral summation by Kyle that there is no "goo", no one is immune from satire, ridicule, and lampooning. Due to the censorship by Comedy Central this is basically heard as one long beep, as are the supportive comments by Jesus and Santa (Santa was used to further camouflage the Prophet Mohamed, earlier in the episode) that all should be ridiculed in the name of freedom of speech.

Of course, I have emphasized here the subplot over the 2 episodes which focuses on the Prophet Mohamed. There are many others and there are a number of other targets of  mockery: Tom Cruise primarily, other celebrities, homosexuality, reverse racism (using black face to induce white guilt and get one's way), stigma against red-heads, and the Oedipal myth, to mention some.

Kyle Broflovski

Why did I say above that I am not so sure that South Park is "equal opportunity offensive"? I say that for a number of reasons. First, usually equality is not perfect, or as George Orwell famously wrote in his allegorical novel Animal Farm, "Some are more equal than others".  Second, after reading in a number of sources about the various controversies of South Park episodes, summarized here,  it strikes me that the one group who is best defended, within the series itself, are the Jews, as they themselves agree, even while deploring some of the anti-semitic speeches in episodes. Although the bully character Cartman is anti-semitic, his anti-semitism is a way of showing the plight of the lone Jew, Kyle, growing up or living in American society.

Third, Kyle is Matt Stone's reincarnation in cartoon form, one of the characters he voices, and allows the creator to redress the wrongs of his own childhood. Moreover, in a number of otherwise offensive, or anti-semitic episodes, Kyle often delivers the moral of the episode, and is ultimately, despite the vulgarity he shares with the other characters, the voice of compassion, reason, and the socially conservative messaging of the program.  He has his own featured episode,  The Passion of the Jew, one heralded by the Jewish community, and the Anti-Defamation League as being a definitive rebuttal to the perceived anti-semitism of  Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ.

Kyle terrified by watching The Passion of the Christ

For those 3 reasons then, I think that within the otherwise equal opportunity offensiveness of South Park some are more equal than others, or some, like Jews, and social conservatives, are more protected by the creators themselves, than are others.

Matt Stone, South Park creator, and inspiration for Kyle

What is your impression of the South Park controversy over its depiction of the Prophet Mohamed?
To the best of your knowledge is any one group particularly reviled or spared by South Park's creators?
What is the best response to this type of coarse satire, especially given that any response is given a response in a more flagrant episode?
Was Comedy Central right to censor the program as they did?
Should they have censored the other episodes featuring the Prophet Mohamed long ago?
Should all groups be better protected within the episodes themselves?
How true is it to say, as the creators do, that the characters are normal children, their language typical, and their views standard for American children?
Does satire often get misinterpreted as "reality"?
What are the dangers of satire?
How free should freedom of speech be?
Is ridicule the best way to bring a group into the cultural fold?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day 2010--Why We Shouldn't Mess With Mother Nature; and, Saudi's Mangroves


This year's Earth Day (April 22, 2010) is the 40th Anniversary of the day for global awareness and campaigning on behalf of the environment. The Telegraph (UK) has a nice summary of the history, Earth Day 2010: a history of four decades of environmental campaigning, while CNN focuses on the change in Earth Day over time Earth Day at 40: Environmental movement has undergone significant change. Forbes has an opinion piece, A Greener Earth Day: Science and technology must play vital roles in environmental protection, which opposes traditional tree-hugger environmental activists, and the humanitarian benefits of biotechnology, using the examples of genetically modified foods, and genetically modified cotton as a boon to India's economy and people. "Reuse, recycle, and reduce" has become a phrase of the popular culture, and one that is enacted more now that Earth Day is 40 than it was in its infancy.

This morning, when I woke to the news that is was Earth Day, I was more struck by recent events that have, in that age old conflict of Man vs Nature, proven the humbling power of nature. Although we are adept at turning our knowledge of the natural sciences, into applied ones to defy nature (fortunately so, for modern medicine, for example), Mother Nature can still remind us of our limitations.

Most recently She did this:





We still are mindful of Her January Haitian display:




Earth Day, like the earth, is Green (for the vegetation),





Blue (for the water that occupies most of the earth's surface),




and Brown (earth it self).



These themes and colour schemes are part of Saudi Arabia's logo for Earth Day, 2010. Saudi Arabia's official celebration of Earth Day is under the patronage of H.R.Prince Turki Bin Nasser Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, chaired by Mohamed Ridha Ben Mansour Bin Hassan Nasrallah.

The Saudi country theme is "Mangroves and Coastal Precious Resources". One major activity was a conference held on April 21 at Le Meridien Al Khobar, where the keynote speaker was Dr. Jameel Mohammad Ibraheem Alkhairy (PhD Botany/Biotechnology, University of Arkansas, 1991), on faculty at King Faisal University, and a member of the Shura Council (2009). The main schedule shows the varied environmental, scientific, and economic aspects of  mangroves and related coastal fisheries, and the diversity of specialists, affiliations, and interests in the topic, including for other GCC countries like the UAE, Bahrain, Yemen, and Oman.

Mangroves are species of trees and shrubs that grow in saline conditions along subtropical and tropical estuaries and seacoasts. Depending on the formation they may constitute a mangrove swamp or a mangrove woodland, mangrove forest, or may be generally called a mangal. They are dependent on specific saline, nutrient, and silt conditions created by major tidal activity in subtropical and tropic climates only. Major mangrove eco-regions include much of  Latin America from Mexico southward, of Indo-Malaysia, subSaharan Africa, and Australasia (Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand).

Mangroves of Farasan Island, Saudi Arabia

In the Middle East, Iran and Oman have well-known mangroves but so does much of the Arabian/Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. An issue of Arabian Wildlife gives some indication of  "Mangroves: Arabian Sea Forests". KAUST and the Smithsonian have teamed to restore the damaged mangroves of the Red Sea, as described in Shorelines, a Smithsonian publication, in an article entitled: Beyond the desert: Exploring Saudi Arabia’s mangroves. The slide show that is a feature within the article contains stunning photos done by the scientists themselves.


Indeed, in building KAUST, preliminary research showed the vulnerability of the Red Sea coral reefs and mangroves at the development site, so the design and building were done with environmental protection in mind and in collaboration with Saudi's National Commission on Wildlife Conservation and Development.

Red Sea coral reef and
Avicennia marina var. resinifera fruit, one of 2 mangrove species in Saudi Arabia

Mangroves are protective against soil erosion, and against flooding during storm surges, or as a buffer against tsunamis. They create a unique ecosystem with subsystems, and so are a particular conservation challenge, as well as requiring protection from development (city, port activities, oil extraction). Their submerged root systems host algae, barnacles, sponges, and marine bryozoa (invertebrate animals which appear flower like).  As the natural home to bottom feeders and filter feeders, mangroves have also been cultivated as commercial plantations for oysters, shrimp, crab, and lobster as well as fish.

Rhizophora mucronata, one of the 2 species of mangrove in Saudi Arabia, propagating
From: Halophytes of Saudi Arabia
Two species of mangroves are found in Saudi Arabia, namely Avicennia marina and Rhizophora mucronata. The highest concentrations of mangroves are seen in the southwestern Red Sea coast and in a significant number of Red Sea islands. The density of the mangroves, particularly Avicennia marina towards the northwestern seacoast is less and is often found in small patches. A significant number of sea grasses can also be seen in association with such mangal swamp vegetation, such as Halodule uninervis, Cymodecea rotundata, Thalassia hemprichii, Halophila stipulacea, etc. Avicennia marina is also found in the Arabian Gulf coast from areas around Qatif southwards. However, due to unsustainable utilization and habitat destruction, the population of Avicennia marina is in a highly deteriorated state.

Has Mother Nature ever messed with you? How?
In what ways is it best to defy Her, not defy Her?
What did you do for Earth Day?
What environmental or ecological problem is your greatest concern?
What do you think of the phrase "Reuse, recycle, reduce"?
Do you practice it? How?
If you have traveled in or lived in different countries or regions, what differences have you noticed in attitude towards and care of the environment, and environmental practices?
What are the attitudes and practices where you live?
Is "Saudi wetlands" a contradiction in terms for you?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?

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