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Wide Angle Blog
October 15th, 2008

Iraqi Christians are lining up at checkpoints as thousands flee their neighborhoods for safety, following a series of attacks targeted at Christians in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

On Sunday, Farques Batool, a Christian who owned a music store, was gunned down and killed in his shop. His teenage nephew was also wounded. A pharmacist was killed Friday by a man who pretended to be an undercover police officer, asked for the pharmacist’s identification card, then shot him. Religion is listed on government-issued ID cards in Iraq.

At least 11, and perhaps 14 Christians have died in targeted attacks in Mosul since the end of August, including seven last week alone. Fearing for their lives, many Christians are seeking asylum in churches or with relatives in nearby villages; some are traveling to safer Kurdish-controlled areas.

Louis Sako, the archbishop of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Kirkuk, called the recent killings an example of “a campaign of cleansing, killing and threatening” that Christians are facing in Iraq.

Though it is unclear who is behind the attacks, some people have their suspicions.

“I don’t want to accuse anyone, but I am saying that (those carrying out attacks) are wearing police uniforms,” said Yunadim Kanna, a Christian lawmaker.

Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, an Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman, revealed on Tuesday that the ministry has valuable information on the perpetrators, and has eliminated the possibility that al Qaeda has had a role in the attacks. Khalaf said that the information will not be made public for the time being.

The Iraqi government has begun to crackdown on the violence. More than 1,000 police personnel have already been sent to Mosul, and the government has pledged to send a cabinet delegation to investigate.
“The cabinet stressed the need to move quickly to support the security effort with intensive military operations to restore security and order in Mosul and to reassure citizens,” Ali al-Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman said.

Muslim scholars have also spoken out against the attacks on Christians.

“As we have consistently demanded that the rights of Muslim minorities be respected all over the world, we do emphasize the need to respect the rights of all minorities across the Islamic world out of our firm position at the OIC inspired by the teachings of Islam,” said Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Though Islamic extremists have targeted Christians and other religious minorities in the years since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, this recent surge in attacks coincides with a dispute in parliament over a provision put forth by Christian leaders to restore a quota system that would reserve seats on provincial councils for religious minorities.

About a third of Iraq’s estimated 800,000 Christians are believed to have fled the country since the 2003 U.S. invasion.

WIDE ANGLE’s film Iraqi Exodus reports from the frontlines of the staggering refugee crisis that is unfolding in the Middle East as Iraqis flee their war-torn country.

October 9th, 2008

Lucy Kennedy

Ireland surprised fellow EU member states last week by announcing that it would guarantee all bank deposits and inter-bank loans for the six domestic Irish banks, in order to regain confidence in the Irish banking system. The potential risk for the Irish taxpayer is €400 billion ($575 billion). Or to put it another way, it’s over 200 percent of Ireland’s GDP.

The scheme was devised in less than twelve hours after worried executives from major Irish banks sought an emergency meeting with the Minister for Finance at 9:30 p.m. on September 30. By 6:45 a.m. on the following morning, the Department of Finance announced the guarantee.

European leaders protested at Ireland’s unilateral decision because they feared, not unreasonably, that depositors in their own countries would shift funds to the Irish Banks. In fact an Irish Nationwide executive, Michael Fingleton, Jr. in London (who also happens to be the son of its CEO, Michael Fingleton) sent an email soliciting deposits, saying that Ireland “represented the safest place to deposit money in Europe.” Another criticism of the measure was that it was anti-competitive, because it only included protection for domestic banks and no provisions for foreign banks operating in Ireland. Following these protests, the Irish Government announced today that it would extend the guarantee to four foreign banks with “significant” operations in Ireland.

An initial critic of Ireland’s plan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel subsequently followed Ireland’s lead, announcing that Germany would guarantee all deposits, and on Monday European finance ministers agreed that across the EU there should be a minimum guarantee of €50,000 ($68,000) on all deposits.

As the British government came forward with its rescue plan on Wednesday, Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Brian Cowen announced that Ireland would need more time to finalize the details of their plan to take into account “the breaking situation in the United Kingdom.” Details on the Irish plan are expected to be released next Wednesday or Thursday.

As it stands, the Irish plan provides the government with little control over the behavior of the banks, leaving taxpayers liable for the risk. On Morning Ireland yesterday, Charlie Goodhart of the London School of Economics described the situation as follows: “At the moment they’ve accepted all of the risk and left all of the upside with the bank if they take on more risk. And that’s a position that no government can allow itself to be left in.”

This week Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute released a report saying that in 2009, Ireland would have a net migratory outflow of 30,000 people. This would be the first time since 1995 that the number of people leaving Ireland will exceed the number of people emigrating there, representing a grim throwback to Ireland’s history of mass emigration. Whatever the final package the Irish Government comes up with, it seems that the Celtic Tiger may be with O’Leary in the grave.

WIDE ANGLE’s film Mixed Blessings looks at Ireland’s dramatic transformation from a poor nation of rolling green fields, farmers’ pubs, and devout Catholics to an urbanized, secularized and giddily flush society.

October 8th, 2008

Photo Credit: Cameron Hickey

Senator Barack Obama may have won last night’s President debate in the U.S., but in Brazil, another Barack Obama just lost the election.  That’s Claudio Henrique-Barack Obama, a candidate for municipal council in the city of Belford Roxo, in the state of Rio di Janerio. Claudio Henrique “Barack Obama” dos Anjos was one of six candidates in this week’s elections in Brazil to register his candidacy under some form of the name “Barack Obama.” None of the Obamas won.

Politicians in Brazil often adopt attention-grabbing names during the election season — this year, about 200 candidates named themselves after the popular president Lula da Silva; others chose Bin Laden, Zinedine Zidane or Father Christmas.

Sen. Obama’s historic run for the U.S. presidency has been enthusiastically embraced by a country where almost half the population is of some African descent. This entire blog is dedicated to the Brazilian perspective on the U.S. presidential race.

In Brazil in Black and White, WIDE ANGLE reports on racial disparity in Brazil, following five college hopefuls from diverse backgrounds as they compete for a spots at the elite University of Brasilia.

October 8th, 2008

Last month a religious leader in Morocco, Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdul Rahman al-Maghraoui, received a question on his website about whether a woman can get married before reaching puberty.  He responded by issuing a fatwa, or religious ruling, saying it was lawful for a Muslim man to marry girls as young as nine years old.  “The marriage of nine-year-old girls is not forbidden because according to the Hadith (the Prophet Mohammed’s sayings), Mohammed married Aisha when she was only six years old and he consummated his union when she was nine,” wrote the Sheikh.  “I am a confirmed theologian and I have not made this up. It is the Prophet who said it before me.”

Morocco prides itself on a relatively moderate brand of Islam, and has been battling a rise in radical Islamist tendencies with some of the most sweeping political and social reforms of this decade in the Arab world.  Moroccan women, in particular, have achieved some important victories, playing an increasingly active role in politics and successfully lobbying for a new family law which now grants them equal rights in marriage, divorce, and the ownership of property.  Since 2004, Moroccan law stipulates a minimum age of eighteen for women to marry.

Public outrage over the controversial fatwa prompted Moroccan authorities to act decisively.  Morocco’s highest religious authority, the Council of Islamic Scholars, issued a statement condemning the marriage of underage girls and denouncing al-Maghraoui as an “agitator.”  A court inquiry has been launched against him and on September 25th, the government closed 60 Koranic schools run by the Sheik’s organization, as well as his headquarters in Marrakesh.

The organization reportedly receives its funding from Saudi Arabia, which promotes a particularly rigid strain of Islam known as Wahhabism.  The organization’s website is also slated to be shutdown, but is currently still accessible and a cryptic disclaimer on its homepage suggests the organization may be regrouping elsewhere on the web: “For the sake of the advancement of the site, we would like to advise our brothers and sisters that a new membership site will open very soon.  Hence we are asking all registered members of this organization to consult their email messages where we will send the password to check into the new site.”

In this YouTube video of a Moroccan television report about the controversy, al-Maghraoui defends himself saying his fatwa was wrongly interpreted: “When this question came up, I cited certain criteria: the girl has to be physically strong, has to have a mature personality, and other capacities that are rare for a nine-year-old.”

WIDE ANGLE’s Class of 2006 profiled the first group of Moroccan women to be officially trained as religious leaders, against the backdrop of heated debate about Islam and women’s rights.

October 8th, 2008

Ras Al Khaimah has become the latest emirate in the United Arab Emirates to ban smoking in public places.

The regulation, which went into effect on Sunday, applies to hotels, restaurants, cafes, shopping malls, sports halls, men and women’s salons and other enclosed public places. Designated smoking rooms will be set aside in hotels and shopping malls.

Individuals who violate the smoking ban will be fined $1,300 or more, said Mubarak Ali Al Shamsi, chairman of Ras Al Khaimah Municipality.

A 2002 World Health Organization (WHO) study found the Middle East more tolerant of smoking than most other regions, and UAE Ministry of Health figures indicate that 48 percent of people in the emirates smoke.

The neighboring emirates of Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi have already successfully enforced a ban on smoking — normal cigarettes, cigars and hookahs — in public places.

October 7th, 2008

Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan is the latest celebrity to enter the United Arab Emirates’ booming real-estate market.

On Sunday, he launched Shah Rukh Khan Boulevard, a $2 million beachfront residential development on the man-made Dana Island off the coast of Ras Al Khaimah, one of the seven emirates. The little-known emirate aims to emulate Dubai, whose thriving property market has attracted endorsements from celebrities including Brad Pitt and Boris Becker.

Scheduled for completion in 2012, The Boulevard will comprise modern townhouses and 10 residential towers, and will spread across an area of 600,000 square feet. The project will also feature a diverse range of lifestyle amenities such as an underwater disco and lounge.

Though master planning by an international team of designers and architects is set to begin soon, Khan has already offered design ideas for the project.

“I lost my father at 15 and mother at 25 — lived like a homeless for a long time,” Khan said. “I have a strange fetish for homes — it’s close to my heart. Bit by bit, I have built my home where the future of my children lies. While I have done so much for my home, why I can’t I extend this to others?”

To mark his appreciation for Khan’s interest in the emirate’s growing real-estate sector, H.H. Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, Crown Prince and Deputy Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, hosted a luncheon in honor of the actor.

Projects like Shah Rukh Khan Boulevard will definitely add more value and variety to the lifestyle offerings available here”,  Sheikh Saud said.

Khan said he was excited about his real estate venture in Ras al Khaimah.

“I am very glad for having had an opportunity to meet H.H. Shiekh Saud and to know more about the wonderful vision he has for the development of the emirate,” Khan said.

The Arab world is Hindi film industry’s strongest foreign market. Shah Rukh Khan Boulevard is my  tribute to the love and affection shown by the people of the UAE to Indian cinema.”

In The Sand Castle, WIDE ANGLE travels to the royal headquarters of the United Arab Emirate of Ras al-Khaimah as HH Sheikh Saud solicits top European architects to carry out his grandiose dream of a new capital city in the middle of his desert kingdom.

October 6th, 2008

Rawan Jabaji

Jabaji and her mother in abayas, in Saudi Arabia.

The clothing police are cracking down on streaks of vibrant color, bands of glittering crystal and sexy leopard skin prints popping up on the runway—or rather, in this case, in Saudi Arabia’s marketplaces.

Women in Saudi Arabia are required to wear abayas, or shapeless robes, in public places at all times. The mutawa’a, or religious police, require that black abayas be worn loosely to the ground with a head covering. But now, women in Saudi Arabia are taking their black abayas to an entirely new level. Stores all over the kingdom have begun stocking their shops with new abayas embellished with splashes of beads, hints of color, and new fitted cuts.

As an Arab-American, the culture, customs and language of Saudi Arabia are by no means foreign to me. Having spent my early childhood years in Riyadh, I was accustomed to seeing my mother wrap herself in the abaya and venture to the market. But that was before the Gulf War—before the religious police tightened the grips on the kingdom. When I returned to Riyadh in the late 90s (due to my father’s work) I too sported one of these formless tent-like overcoats whenever I traveled in public. My mandatory black abaya was made of a bland chiffon material and conveniently zipped up in the front like a house robe. The scorching heat made my clothing choice under the abaya very simple: pool shorts and a tank top. I rarely ever did my hair or put any thought into my clothes, as I often do at home in New York, because I was restricted to dress within the rigid clothing code that left me feeling nameless. At that time, designer abayas were just starting to pop up. I’d see women wearing fitted abayas made with material from international fashion houses such as Fendi and Versace. But only a few women were togged up in these high-fashion abayas, the rest of us just wore abayas that looked like Hefty bags. I recall being reprimanded in a shopping mall by the religious police because my hairstyle—a simple bun—could be deciphered from under my veil. Another time I was stopped in the marketplace for having red pedicured toes.

But now the plain, shapeless abaya is something of the past. Feeling pressured to meet their clientele’s demands, shopkeepers and designers are putting their livelihoods at risk, facing fines or imprisonment for selling the stylized abayas. In the past, the religious police in Saudi Arabia have raided stores throughout Saudi Arabia, confiscating what they deem to be illicit abayas not in line with the kingdom’s rigid interpretation of Islamic teachings. As recently as last month, shopkeepers in Riyadh were ordered to stop selling adorned abayas.

In Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest site in Islam, these new stylized abayas aren’t solely a shift in style and taste, but rather an outright sign of relaxing social norms in the conservative kingdom.

The salesmen and designers in Saudi Arabia say that women are snapping up the new abayas. “We in Jiddah are fashion conscious,” said abaya designer Ghada al-Sairafi. “I try to come up with a new model every week because of the demand.”

Hanan al-Madani, another Jiddah designer, said abayas are “no longer just abayas.”
“Today, they reflect a woman’s taste and personality,” said al-Madani, whose custom-made abayas sell between $402 and $2,145.

Samar Falan, a Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist, is concerned that the crackdown on the trendy abayas will mark another setback for women in the kingdom.

They [the mutawa’a] want women to be faceless, nameless and shrouded in blackness,’’ said Falan. “We kept quiet when we should have confronted the radicals. I believe Muslim women should dress modestly and cover their hair, but they do not have to look gruesome.”

In Turkey’s Tigers, WIDE ANGLE closely followed Mustafa Karaduman, the CEO of a Turkey’s largest Islamic-style clothing chain, Tekbir. Karaduman’s goal behind his multimillion dollar clothing empire is to encourage women to dress in Islamic style, adding splashes of style and flair to create more appeal. But this is in Turkey, a secular democracy with a predominantly Muslim population now negotiating membership in the European Union.

October 2nd, 2008

Earlier this week, California passed two pieces of legislation to protect victims of human trafficking — individuals who are bought, sold, transported, and used as forced laborers or prostitutes — “modern-day slavery,” as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger described it.

One of the new bills creates a counseling and treatment program for trafficked and sexually exploited minors. The other bill, recognizing that a majority of people trafficked into the United States are non-citizens without valid immigration documents, requires thorough investigation of trafficking cases regardless of citizenship status and allows victims to keep their names out of public record.

A report published last year by the California Alliance to Combat Trafficking and Slavery Task Force asserts that “California is a top destination for human trafficking. The state’s extensive international border, its major harbors and airports, its powerful economy and accelerating population, its large immigrant population and its industries make it a prime target for traffickers.”

According to the State Department, approximately 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year. Of those, an estimated 14,500 to 17,500 are trafficked into the United States annually, lured by deceptive promises of good jobs and better lives, and then deprived of their freedom and forced to work under brutal and inhuman conditions. Though specific data doesn’t exist for the number of people trafficked into the state of California, it is believed that thousands a year are smuggled in from Mexico, China, and other foreign countries, and coerced to work with minimal or no pay in sweatshops, agricultural labor, construction labor, hotel and restaurant services, illegal transport, organized theft rings, pornography, prostitution, and domestic services. 80% of victims of trafficking are women and girls; 50% are minors.

Gov. Schwarzenegger enacted California’s first anti-trafficking law in September 2005, establishing human trafficking as a crime and making it a felony punishable by up to eight years in state prison. Since human trafficking was first recognized by the U.S. government as a federal crime in 2000, about 30 states have enacted criminal provisions against it.

WIDE ANGLE’s 2003 documentary Dying to Leave explored the global problem of human trafficking from the point of view of several victims, including the story of a Mexican worker who was smuggled into California and forced into slave labor.

September 30th, 2008

2008 has not been kind to China: deadly winter storms in February, riots in Tibet in March, protests of the Olympic torch relay in April, and a massive earthquake in Sichuan province in May. Within weeks of its triumphant hosting of the Summer Olympic Games, China is again mired in scandal. This time, it’s news of baby formula and other dairy products contaminated with melamine, a chemical used to make plastics and fertilizers (and which was also at the heart of the pet food scandal last year).

Since Xinhua News Service, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, began reporting about the milk scandal on September 12, an estimated 53,000 babies have been found suffering from kidney stones and four have died.  There are widespread suspicions that China’s authorities were warned about the problem as early as spring 2008, but chose to cover it up until after the Olympics.

Chinese consumers have been expressing their outrage at the lack of corporate and government accountability through unofficial channels such as internet chat rooms and text messaging. But the government response to this outrage has been a bit different than in previous incidents, such as the recent Sichuan earthquake, when victims and their relatives were bribed or intimidated into silence.  Censorship has been minimal, and lawyers have been authorized to assist the victims’ families.

“In the past, when facing a public incident, people tended to wait for the government to respond. But now they are learning to act to protect themselves,” said Li Fangping, a prominent human rights lawyer who is leading a loose coalition of 120 lawyers who are offering pro-bono assistance to the victims’ families.

In recent years, these lawyers have boldly capitalized upon public scandals to advocate for citizen rights.  This time they are contemplating the possibility of a class-action lawsuit against the dairy manufacturers. More than 1,000 parents have already complained to Li and his colleagues, saying that hospitals are not providing free treatment for affected babies as was promised by the Ministry of Health.

But taking on controversial cases to seek redress from the state or state-linked companies is still a risky proposition in the context of China’s authoritarian political system and newly created legal system.  Li and his colleagues are facing growing pressure to abandon their efforts -– including intimidation tactics on the part of officials nervous about the social repercussions of such a sensitive case.

Experts predict the Chinese government will resolve the scandal through compensation settlements rather than permit the families and lawyers access to the courts.

WIDE ANGLE’s 2007 film about the reform of China’s legal system, The People’s Court, profiled a human rights lawyer and revealed the lengths to which Chinese people must go to obtain justice.

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