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Morality Tales-What Are the Limits of Public Behavior in USA?

August 13, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

 

          Many Americans who think their country is unquestionably the greatest have been chagrined by recent events that brought them to a new low point. The treatment of families seeking asylum at our southern border with forced separation of children from parents, some shipped to distant parts of the country, is shocking, embarrassing and reprehensible. Overwhelmingly, whatever their political leanings, people want that policy reversed. Some blame the Trump administration, others runaway ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement https://www.ice.gov/) procedures, others inept management.

            Do those gross measures mark the end of what was known as The American Dream? Most Americans are unwilling to see the morality of the policy, but a conservative British weekly views this immigration fiasco though a moral lens, referring to an “ill-fated moral debasement of American values”. The article attributes that state of disgrace specifically to the current US administration, pointing to the nation’s “moral shortcomings…. under Trump… Though America has experienced many moral corrections, from abolitionism to the civil rights movement, they have never come (to this) emetic moment…”, the feeling of revulsion, it charges. Notwithstanding many Americans’ disgust over the caging and separation of children, The Economist’s invocation of moral standards is largely unvoiced within the USA. Even though morality underlies many of our current woes.

            Why is it impolite to speak about moral markers in our society? Maybe morality is simply redundant today. Yet, without a moral compass, we may be becoming lost. Consensus is impossible; so too, any dignified leadership. Anything seems acceptable, evidenced by the ongoing gun violence and unattended massacres, uncontrolled police shootings of Black men and ugly online dialogue.

            We’re not talking about sin with its theological connotations. Morals can operate in the secular sphere too, within culture. Ask any parent, journalist or teacher.

            Right and wrong is a hard business for anyone to address nowadays, especially in so-called liberal circles. The perceived immorality of the US leader is answered by Robert DeNiro shouting “F..k You Donald Trump”, on stage at the Tony Awards. Is DeNiro exhibiting moral strength by this declaration? Did he reflect on his action beforehand? There were cheers from his audience; but then what? Did the Hollywood star suffer any retaliation? Would DeNiro have made the same declaration against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein or fellow actor Morgan Freeman when their crimes and misdemeanors were exposed? Has DeNiro now become an activist? And is this all his declaration signifies?

            And what about Roseanne Barr’s ugly tweet, her racist statement about former White House advisor Valerie Jarrett? Oh that’s different. Is it? Yes, to many of ‘us’, such utterances are offensive. Yet we are told Barr was already known for her indiscretions and personal attacks. With that tweet, she crossed a line and her show was cancelled. Yet Barr is still sought after by TV hosts and to many she remains a hero.

            Everyone seems to be pushing the envelop—to test today’s moral limits. How much can we offend? How wild can we look? How much dare we share of our phone snaps? How much violence can be created and tolerated as entertainment, or art? How much verbal abuse in the name of free speech; how much sexual or racial abuse to get or to keep a job?

The current occupant of the White house is a moralistic man. Yes. Calling others boorish names and winning accolades for his rudeness is nasty and insulting, but at the same time moralistic—to some. Your and my disgust is matched it seems, by others’ applause. Strange times.

           All this has me wondering: What is activism? And what’s the relation of political activism to cultural morality? I’m trying to understand this as a student of culture as well as a citizen of a country known for its openness. Can a healthy culture have no moral limits, whether it’s the behavior of its immigration officials, soldiers or celebrities?

            We speak about social behaviors as unethical or corrupt, decent or distasteful, respectable or dishonorable, progressive or illiberal (whatever illiberal means). Morality itself seems to be absent from our vocabulary, although it surely underlies all these attributes. Is there just too much borderline conduct flowing through our fluid, censor-free culture, that no mooring can contain it?

            Perusal of the Moral Monday campaign of Rev. William Barber started my reflections on morals. Moral Monday evolved into The Poor People’s Campaign (PPC): A National Call for Moral Revival led by Barber. Bruce Dixon writes critically of Barber, faulting him for blaming everything on immoral persons and policies, on lack of moral commitment. Barber calls for a cleansing of America with a “massive moral rest”, a “moral resistance”.

            “The problem”, Dixon maintains, “is that labeling your political opponents, their leaders, their misguided values and their persons as “immoral” is never a persuasive political tactic. It might make those already on your side feel nice and comfy to know they’re all moral and the other guys are not”. Dixon makes a worthy point. Especially today, when Americans are more aware than ever of increasingly economic, social and ideological polarization. So-called liberals have become sacrosanct about their own access to ‘truth’ while so-called conservatives, angry at how they are regarded and maligned, aggressively promote their own truth.

            Let’s not forget how yesterday’s immoral activists are later sanctified. Behavior (e.g. homosexuality) once attacked as sick and immoral eventually becomes codified into law. Our most esteemed American (moral) leader Martin Luther King Jr. was for many years vilified; then, when King moved beyond domestic injustices and called the American war in Vietnam immoral:-- well, that was unpatriotic which in some circles is treasonous. That charge was leveled at another memorialized leader, Malcolm X. He crossed a moral line when he defined Black Americans’ struggle for justice as not their civil right, but their ‘human right’. In that declaration Malik Shabazz (X) challenged American moral standards.

            During that same era when cultural standards were in flux, as they are today, and when military conscription was in force, boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the US military to fight against Vietnamese: “Shoot them for what? They never called me Ni..er; they never lynched me…never set dogs against me…”, he argued. Ali’s stand so challenged American morals that he was stripped of his boxing titles and banned from boxing-- punishment hard to fathom today.

            Or is it? Ali’s now forgotten moral stance is in my view comparable to football star Colin Kaepernick’s decision to place a knee on the ground instead of a hand on his heart as others do for the US national anthem. The moral principle on which he acted – injustice, specifically police brutalization of Black and Latino citizens--was eclipsed in the ensuing controversy. (In time, it will become enshrined in US history.)

            Try to put yourself in Kaepernick’s position leading up to his declaration. He felt compelled to speak, somehow. Did he consult others--his religious guide, his family, fellow players? Did he ask others to join him? Did he consider the repercussions? What a supreme moral act! It made Kaepernick a hero for many (including this non-football fan); he was Amnesty International’s 2018 Ambassador of Conscience. Meanwhile he was fired from his job, and, I would argue, in its moralist retort, the National Football League banned players from ‘taking a knee’ in public. Although we don’t hear any charge of immorality against Kaepernick, some call his action unpatriotic-- a grave allegation in the USA. Kaepernick himself, accepting the AI award, invokes moral issues behind his action, just as Ali did in his defense after his banishment from boxing in 1966.

            That the names of music, sports and film celebrities come into our discussion of activism and morality may not be accidental. Favorable or not, celebrity is where morality today is defined and disseminated. Author Peter King has 4.8 million followers; actor Anne Hathaway has 12+ million instagram fans; Sean Hannity’s FB friends may exceed those numbers. Then there’s The Donald. Look what his celebrity led too. END

 

[ Morality Tales-What Are the Limits of Public Behavior in USA? ]

Nepal Migrant Labor: A Central Pillar of Nepal’s Grim Economy

July 30, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

            They appear a hapless collection of desperate village lads lured by false promises, making their way to a hostile place fraught with peril. A small but significant number perish while working abroad, shipped home in a stark wooden box. Yet millions of Nepal’s youth take imponderable risks involved. They remain away four or more years, subjected to severe climate conditions, often misled about their assignments and salaries, dismissed for minor infractions. Their numbers swell year-after-year, with remittances back to their families mounting correspondingly.

            After almost two decades of accelerating numbers feeding this global labor market and the growing dependence on cash remittances home, up to 44% of Nepal’s GDP derives from young citizens’ flight abroad.

            Is this trend inevitable? And who really benefits? 

            Inevitable, if a) merchants in Nepal’s cities continue to reap benefits by renting lodgings and supplying goods and food for a lopsided consumer economy generated and sustained by migrants’ remittances, and b) the home government continues to disregard chronic joblessness, avoiding a genuine commitment to develop industries and enhance agriculture. That’s what’s needed for real growth and jobs at home.

            Given the poor economic prospects for the vast majority of Nepalis and their disenchantment with a new democracy where parties dish out generous grants to friends, one needs to ask if Nepal’s government itself may be exploiting foreign labor demand to keep citizens’ energies directed elsewhere.

            The lure of jobs overseas is irresistible for Nepal’s able young men and women. They leave wives, parents and children; many with jobs at home relinquish them; students abandon schooling and take on debt -- all to become one of the daily 1,200+ migrants who board a plane for the Arab Gulf or Malayasia. (A 2015 Nepali Times report notes 2,500 arrive or leave daily)

            Ganesh is one of them. He set off on his Dasain holiday to the village four years ago, but never returned-- not to his part time job in Kathmandu, not to continue his schooling, not to free lodging at his cousin-auntie’s house. “He’d stayed with us since class two; he was a good student with only a year left to complete class 10. Had there been a family crisis”, she recalled, “I’d have known.”

            Her suspicion that Ganesh had gone to the Arab Gulf was confirmed after six months. His sister Didi visited Auntie-Ma’m to collect Ganesh’s bedding. She herself had left their village for Kathmandu with her baby and Ganesh’s mother. “They rent a room here in the city; she says life is easier now; there was no one to work their fields and anyway they can live in Kathmandu on what her husband and Ganesh send them.”

            Didi’s husband was in Qatar too. “Every Nepali family has someone in The Emirates, Qatar, Saudi, Malaysia” sighs Aunti Ma’m. “Here in Nepal, we can’t find carpenters to repair our building; no helpers in the kitchen; no boys to serve in the local cafes; a shortage of motor mechanics. 

            Ganesh is one of more than 4.5 million --some estimate 7 million, if migrants to India are included -- Nepali youths working in the inhospitable atmosphere of Arab Gulf states. They choose hazards abroad over farming their terraced hillsides, over whatever a middle class family may pay them as gardeners, cleaners or drivers, over the ten dollars a day they can earn (in season) as a porter hauling trekkers’ supplies through the mountains.

            This exodus of healthy young men and women from Nepal increased sharply twenty years ago when Malaysia and Arab Gulf states were recruiting unskilled laborers. At home, the situation looked unpromising, with Nepal entering a period of instability; the Maoist revolution was spreading through the countryside; development projects produced insufficient jobs and anti-monarchy protests were widening. 

            Overseas work for low wages seems to be the best option for millions of workers in a country with no industrial development and where farmers produce barely enough to meet household needs. In the 1980s, young people left villages to work in an expanding Tibetan carpet industry in Kathmandu Valley. Factory managers were unconcerned if workers were as young as 12, if they had no education and if they slept on the floor near their looms. Eventually, exploitative conditions and heavy use of child labor in the industry drew international ire. A human rights campaign on behalf of underage workers essentially shut down the carpet factories; tens of thousands became jobless. Labor brokers supplying workers for the expanding Arab Gulf market tapped that void and, year-by-year, the number of Nepalis working there rose.  

            Seeking work outside is not new to Nepal. A 2005 overview notes how, more than a century ago, Nepalis migrated to India to work in tea plantations. Starting in the 19th Century village men were recruited into British Gurkha military regiments, their numbers increasing through the two world wars. (Today, Gurkhas serve in the Indian army and with British regiments posted in Afghanistan as well.)

            Returned workers with substantial capital from their overseas work happily share evidence of improvements to their lives, changes otherwise impossible. Take Ram, for example; he set up a small factory in Nepal with his earnings. Gyelmi Lama boasts: “As a driver in Qatar, I earned 150,000 Nepali rupees ($1,500) monthly; nowadays I’m with my family in Kathmandu, and I support my parents in our village in Hetara.” He’s one of countless taxi drivers in Kathmandu Valley returned from overseas, now owning their own vehicles. Chetri was returning to Dubai where he runs a shop, mainly serving Nepali clients. KP, another outgoing passenger, manages a Nepali restaurant in Abu Dhabi catering to migrant workers, and tells me of his plans for a travel agency specializing in tours for Europeans living in the Emirates; “It’s barely four hours away; they can visit Kathmandu for a weekend!”

            Remittances sent monthly sustain workers’ families back home. (One survey indicates that by 2009, average annual income of Nepali households from remittances reached the equivalent of $1,400 and $2,100.) This allows villagers to hire a poorer relative to mind a few animals in their village, rent lodging for themselves in the city, and send children to a private school. (Government schools are so bad that even inexpensive private schools are preferred, and these too are flourishing because of remittances.) Purna who worked in Saudi Arabia spent 8,000 rupees ($80.) monthly for his daughter’s school fees. Since she’s heading to college, he has new plans for himself; “I keep my two taxis, but I stop driving; too much construction going on now; I make partner in a new business in Kavre near my village. We buy a bulldozer and make contracts to build roads.” Yes,” he asserts, “lots of business opportunity now.”

            What percentage of returned migrant workers can duplicate Purna’s, Gyelmi’s and Chetri’s endeavors is hard to calculate.

           

            Human rights investigations and early reports of migrants’ conditions in the Nepali press highlighted the human toll—extortion, fraud and abuse were widespread. (Anti-Muslim feeling in Nepal has been fueled by early reports of workers’ mistreatment by Arab employers.) Investigative journalist Devendra Bhattarai writing for Kantipur, and filmmaker Kesang Tseten drew attention to migrants’ troubles in 2010. And while improved conditions curbed severe exploitation, many migrants still suffer. Laborers’ hardships are compounded by the inability or refusal of Nepali embassies abroad to intervene on behalf of distressed citizens, or to assist them. (When one ambassador called Qatar an open jail, she was recalled.)

            Only recently has the Nepali press been willing to more closely examine the context of labor migration. The result is a sobering account of exploitation by labor brokers, mainly Indian and Nepali, beginning before workers reach their destination. (Nepali Times, 2015) Some bilateral agreements to protect workers have been negotiated and a $50. million fund in Nepal (hardly used to date) was set up for needy cases.

            Notwithstanding all the obstacles and difficulties, at the apex of those responsible sits the Nepali government. This is addressed, finally, in an excellent 2018 Nepali Times series that points to the administration’s policy failures, and exposes how officials enrich themselves off fees and bribes from would-be migrants. It asserts what others have avoided saying:-- the government is evading the need to rectify unemployment at home. “…Successive elected rulers since 1990 have masked their failure to create jobs within the country by taking the easy way out-- to export labour.”   

 

 

Aziz is a veteran anthropologist and radio journalist, also author of Heir to A Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal, published by Tribhuvan University, Nepal, and available through Barnes and Noble in USA and Canada.

 

 

           

[ Nepal Migrant Labor: A Central Pillar of Nepal’s Grim Economy ]

Nepal's Economy: Can Contented Tourists Match Desperate Migrant Laborers?

July 20, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

            A busy air route between Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan Airport and overseas is via the communications hub of The Arab Emirates. Several direct flights between Abu Dhabi or Doha and Nepal depart and arrive daily. Appearing unremarkable (on any day or year over the last decade), any assemblage of passengers, outbound or inbound, itself informs the character of Nepal’s impoverished (sic) economy:--workers remittances--the major sector-- foreign aid, and tourism.

            Making my way into and from Nepal through Arab Gulf airports on a regular basis over many years, I noted a consistent composition of the 200 or so people on these flights. Inbound and outbound, they offer as genuine a portrait of the country’s economy as any generously funded study by a team of economists.

            Travelers on these flights fall into three distinct groups—1) Nepali youths employed overseas; 2) tourist-trekkers; 3) economic development personnel.

            Those occupying the majority of seats, 75% or more, are young Nepalese-- mostly men, most under 30. They dress similarly—a simple shirt and trousers, maybe a thin jacket. They check into their flight with a light knapsack or carry-on suitcase. If outbound from Nepal they sport fresh haircuts; around the necks of some hang silken kathak-- good luck scarves offered by well-wishers.

            In the departure lounge at Tribhuvan Airport, these men appear shy. Once boarded and secure in their seats, their emotion blooms as if, until then, they’d remained uncertain if they might leave the ground. Now Nepali phrases sweep around the rows of seats throughout the four-hour flight, a relaxed animated dialogue that suggests these men are old friends. In fact most, until now, were strangers.

            These Nepalis’ demeanor contrasts with the minority passengers, ‘westerners’ --European, American, Australian or New Zealander-- varying in age from 20 to 70, sometimes older and generally traveling in couples. They too carry little more than a single backpack, but double or triple the size of the Nepali youths’ gear, each branded with a recognizable sports logo. Whatever the weather, these vacationers clutch water bottles and wear sturdy climbing boots. 

            If a Business Class is designated on these short flights, you’ll find there a handful of sedate travelers, a mixed but mainly white group. Dressed casually--no sign of backpacks or climbing boosts here—they’ll tote only a computer bag. These subdued women and men are ‘development’ experts-- in Nepal to assist (with anything)-- Red Cross, UNICEF, Medicine Sans Frontiers, Norwegian hydroelectric engineers, Microsoft educational consultants, democracy monitors, Australian gender analysts, pollution appraisers and endless other NGO project staff. From the moment they’re seated, they flip through graph-laden reports, phone in hand -- all destined for yet another conference. (At the time of Nepal’s 2015 earthquake, journalists’ crowded these flights alongside NGO emergency personnel, temporarily replacing tourist travelers. Although most seats were taken by Nepali sons rushing home out of concern for loved ones.)

            There you have it: the Nepal economy in a single flight.

            The young Nepali men on the flight are all migrant laborers drawn from every corner of the nation, from a range of ethnic group. They are drivers and masons, carpenters and farmers-- lads with a few years of schooling, all new to international travel, all hopeful. Some are urban born, others villagers who’ve taken on debt to pay the fees necessary to secure overseas work. A fraction of these youths head to Malaysia; most are destined for The Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Together they constitute a force estimated to be as high as seven million Nepali laborers (officially reported as close to 4 million) employed abroad in estates, stadiums and museums, restaurants and malls, offices, houses and farms. (A handful of drivers or cooks are recruited by American security agencies in Iraq. A few migrants, mainly women, become domestics in the Arab Gulf, but most travel to Lebanon and Israel to work for families there.)    

            The white passengers in economy class are tourists. They’re working people who’ve saved for a year or more to manage their enchanted Himalayan holiday. They are a happy lot, the tourists—people infinitely patient over delayed flights and uncomplaining about days bedridden with an intestinal disease. Once airborne, they speak in whispers, while engaged writing blogs. 

            Tourists in Nepal number nearly a million annually. Their contribution to the economy (contrary to claims in Wikipedia ) however amounts to barely five percent because the business is highly centralized, visitors’ stays are short, and cheap lodgings are plentiful. (Following the earthquake, Nepal’s sophisticated tourist industry bulletins sounded an alarm of the quake’s impact on tourism. Although exaggerated, this helped mobilize funding for immediate restoration of notable temples and trekking routes. Tourist needs seemed to take priority in contrast to thousands of damaged village dwellings and public schools-- a responsibility of the Nepali government—still awaiting repair.)

            As for the non-governmental organizations, their economic impact derives less through assistance to the needy, than from their bureaucratic structures centered in the capital. Charitable fees for visiting consultants may come from headquarters. No, it’s in the sprawling local agencies where we find a significant impact on Nepal’s economy. Here, tens of thousands of salaried staff dispense (foreign aid) money into the market to sustain themselves and their offices. Together with civil servants whose salaries are supplemented by payoffs from agencies and businesses, this community now constitutes the core of Kathmandu’s sizable middle class. House owners rent to NGOs, restaurants and shops offer an atmosphere and cuisine worthy of internationals, along with staff (gardeners, drivers, cleaners, etc.) who manage their homes and offices. Many tens of thousands live off aid flowing into Nepal. They in turn need vehicles, electrical generators and washing machines; they build gated homes and hire local agencies to arrange their travel and chauffeurs to drive their children to exclusive private schools. They gather at the glass malls and shop at brand-named stores and restaurants along Durbar Marg.

            This conspicuously wealthy population of Kathmandu has emerged out of the 20,000 or more NGOs based here that offer Nepal everything-- from city sanitation services to a surfeit of agencies sheltering women and researching hydro-power--whether or not the nation really needs them. Although a substantial element in the city’s economy, the NGO financial input does not register in any official assessment of Nepal’s economy.

            In any case, the mainstay of the nation’s economy lies elsewhere. It derives from the accumulated impact of cash remittances to their families from those anxious lads who boarded planes for jobs abroad—feckless workers often characterized as exploited labor.

            Some mistreatment is undeniable, just as contract freelance workers catering to the needs of New Yorkers and Londoners are exploited. But these millions of migrants laboring where they can never become citizens transfer billions of dollars in earnings home. That is having a profound impact on Nepal’s economy. And even though that economic stimulus may be misplaced—because it drives consumerism rather than labor-intense local industries, it still transforms the life of these youths and their families that economic development plans could not.

(This dynamic, we will explore in the next of our series on Nepal.)  END

Aziz is the author of Heir to A Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal, published by Tribhuvan University in Nepal, and available through Barnes and Noble.

[ Nepal's Economy: Can Contented Tourists Match Desperate Migrant Laborers? ]

Becoming a Democracy—The Example of Nepal

June 28, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

            Hardly noticed on the world landscape of emerging democracies lies Nepal. This new republic now has its first government, newly formed this past February, under a secular constitution. It’s a route scattered with the detritus of its becoming a republic, though still a relatively nonviolent path.

            Why is the international press not following Nepal’s embryonic struggle?

            Perhaps it’s the stunning northern horizon that distracts observers from realities across the populated hills and plains. Perhaps it’s the pollution in Kathmandu Valley, a choking haze that matches the gaseous airs of Delhi in India and Beijing in China. Or, it may be because this democracy has been largely brought about and led by Nepal’s Maoists and Communists. 

            Last autumn, many among the Himalayan nation’s 28 million people were themselves surprised when two veteran, leftist leaders KP Sharma Oli (UML-United Marxist Leninist) and Pushpa Kamal Dahal (CPN-Communist Party of Nepal) agreed to form a coalition. That step was taken not after, but before, the nationwide election. Agreeing not to compete with one another and selecting candidates from their combined ranks, they prevailed in the polls. Together they won a majority of seats at national and local levels, and in rural as well as urban regions. (The prime-minister’s post as head of the new government was also chosen by mutual consent.) This coalition furthermore drove the once dominant Congress Party to the margins of power across the country.

            Last month, these former contenders went a step further, announcing that this victorious joint force is no longer CPN/UML but a new entity, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP). With 174 seats in the 275-member parliament, the NCP leads the most powerful government modern Nepal has seen. A highly unexpected development, this could finally convince a skeptical public that the inter-left competition that had caused years of instability and fed corruption is over… for the present. (The legal term limit of each administration is five years. But given Nepal’s history of unstable coalitions, this could change.)

            Both Oli and Dahal had each previously held the post of Prime Minister, interrupted by short periods when the office was held by a Congress Party leader. Gently ousted after a few months of infighting, none was able to lead effectively. Constant changes of leadership cultivated an atmosphere for corruption and also thwarted implementation of any sustained policy. (E.g. opposition parties would promise to support a weak leadership in exchange for appointments for their members and funding for various personal ‘projects’. With the result that, for example, the prime minister found himself with a cabinet of some 30 members, and an office full of deputy prime-ministers almost as dense.)

            Nepal’s federal election last autumn was particularly significant. It was the first poll undertaken under the new constitution that defined the republic created in 2008, following the 2006 peace accord with the Maoist insurgents, and the (bloodless) 2007-2008 abolition of the ancient and despotic monarchy. (See Nepal’s political timeline from 1768 to 2017)

            The nationwide citizens’ vote was delayed for years; endless disputes and disagreements had undermined the work of the Constituent Assembly. Without laws defining the shape of the republic--administrative districts and provinces, powers of office, quotas for Nepal’s many ethnic groups and women—(finally agreed upon in 2015) an election could not go ahead.

            The public did not know what to expect once the vote was scheduled (in November, 2017). After the two leftist party leaders announced their coalition, few observers in Kathmandu believed it would work out. When the unified plan actually succeeded in winning a comfortable majority, citizens still remained cautious. Interviewing women and men in the capital recently, in the early months of the new government, I found less enthusiasm than I’d expected. The election did not yet assure them real stability, it seemed. In Nepal’s non-affiliated press, I read neither expressions of satisfaction nor pride. News reports were not as celebratory as expected.

            “Let’s see”, cautioned several individuals who I questioned. “It’s too early to say; other factors will be operating”, one journalist hinted. (Whatever the nature of Nepal’s governance, India is a major player, and she was referring to India’s expected claims on the new leadership.)

            Doubts about the durability of the new alliance are not unreasonable. Nepal’s leftists have been squabbling and undermining each other for so long that an enduring union seemed unlikely. Then there was the threat from the large bloc of Madhesi parties. They had earlier disrupted the efforts of the Constitutional Assembly with their regional/ethnic demands. (The strip of Nepal bordering India is known as Madhes or Terai. Nepal’s Madhesi maintain close economic and cultural ties to its southern neighbor and there had been fears that, if not mollified, the Madhesi parties might try to secede to India.) In the recent election, the majority of Madhesi voters unexpectedly backed the joint MLN-CPN.

            After the election, citizens next waited to see how the coalition would handle the single office of Prime Minister. Again skeptics were surprised by an easy resolution. The partners agreed without rancor that the job go to KP Sharma Oli. (Today, after holding office for four months, Oli remains the unquestioned leader.) He has just returned from a visit to China, following an initial obligatory meeting with his Indian counterpart, Mr. Modi.

            Nepal relies on major assistance from both its northern and southern neighbors. Increasingly, with the economic ascendancy of China, Beijing’s role in Nepal is expanding. One sees an enhanced Chinese presence in the tourism industry-- on the streets of Kathmandu, in yoga centers and along trekking routes-- as well as in major infrastructure and health projects.

Note: Barbara Nimri Aziz is an anthropologist, journalist and producer at Pacifica-WBAI Radio in New York. Author of numerous academic articles on Nepal and Tibet, Aziz’ book Heir to a Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal, was published by Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu and is available through Barnes and Noble in USA.  

[ Becoming a Democracy—The Example of Nepal ]

Why is Tariq Ramadan Imprisoned?

June 22, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Harvey Weinstein isn’t in jail; neither is actor Kevin Spacey, chef Mario Batali, TV host Matt Lauer, nor New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman. Although some might like to see them behind bars. Even convicted felon Bill Cosby is free until he’s sentenced in September.

     (Being out of jail does not of course imply any of those accused are innocent. Their temporary respite could be related to the degree of their misconduct, the status of investigations underway, or the efforts of highly paid attorneys.)

     As the extent of widespread abuse of women came to light, I too could not help but recoil with anger. Then, sobering and remembering an unvoiced childhood experience, I signed #MeToo.

     When Tariq Ramadan’s name was added to the growing list of “MeToo” culprits, my response was distress similar to sorrow I felt learning about other ‘outed’ misogynists whose work I had admired.

     There’s a further worrying dimension to Ramadan’s alleged sexual misconduct, namely, his disrepute would be a blow to Muslims’ already uphill struggle to articulate the meanings and experiences of Islam to the public, a universal community needing to hear an eminently qualified and soft-intellectual voice in the debate, such as Ramadan’s was. (Never enthusiastic about Ramadan, I viewed him as an apologist at times. I also found his critiques of institutional Islamophobia and biased media too mild—maybe that’s the academic in him. So Ramadan may have been imperfect at many levels. But his calm style and his erudition are as needed as that of the regrettably few articulate Muslim leaders we have, including the irrepressible and savvy activist Linda Sarsour.

     The urgency with which Ramadan’s case be reexamined came to my attention four months ago in Alain Gabon’s lengthy account of the charges against Ramadan and the history of assaults on him by French leaders. I learned that Ramadan was in preventative detention in a Paris prison, held in solitary, denied medical treatment and contact with his wife (a French citizen; Ramadan himself is Swiss, of Egyptian-Arab origin).    

     Ramadan, without legal indictment or trial, was summarily jailed soon after the allegations surfaced. According to reports, he voluntarily traveled to Paris to answer the charges, only to find himself immediately detained, placed in solitary confinement without medication for a serious neurological illness. He remains imprisoned, subjected to unusually harsh conditions during these past six months.

     Tariq Ramadan is not only an Oxford University professor and highly respected author. He is a regular media commentator on Islam and Muslim affairs. Most who know his work were shocked learning he was accused by two French women of a serious sexual offence—rape. He’s one of a three Muslim leaders who faced accusations of sexual misconduct; of the other two—both Americans, and both exposed before 2017—one was eventually convicted, the second banished by the community, according to a US publication which then uses these cases to explore ‘personality worship’ in Islam! What about personality worship in America?)

      The American press ceased following Ramadan’s case after accusations surfaced. And the American Muslim community has been shamefully absent on the issue. Shameful because there is reason to believe Ramadan’s treatment is unjust (if not illegal), and because those organizations claim a human rights agenda. Although Ramadan was a featured guest at Islamic and other religion-related conferences, and his books are popular, the American Muslim community of mosques and Islamic organizations have remained silent since his arrest.

     Details of the case are well known, as documented in several lengthy articles, including that cited above. They report that there’s clear evidence that one enamored accuser had harassed and stalked him for years. Of the other’s charge, he maintains he was not in the city of the alleged assault. This accuser is said to be an associate of a well known French feminist with a long record of anti-Islamic behavior.

     These arguments do not posit that Tariq Ramadan is innocent. What concerns people familiar with Ramadan’s work in France are: first, a long history of attacks against him as a Muslim spokesperson by (mainly Socialist) political headers who include former President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Valls. Ramadan’s current case seems further prejudiced by its transfer to the office of Paris prosecutor Francois Molins who is concerned with cases of Islamic terrorism. Second, defenders question why Ramadan has been singled out for imprisonment when French film director Luc Besson and state ministers Darmanin and Hulot, all included in the list of accused rapists in the wake of #MeToo, have not been jailed. Thirdly, there’s outrage over the severe conditions of Ramadan’s detention.

     When more is learned about Ramadan’s prison conditions, and the credibility of his accusers is challenged, arguments in his defense are garnering attention, mainly in Europe; and a campaign on his behalf is now underway. Besides the worldwide appeal, and more than 151,000 signatories (to date) on the www.change.org petition, hundreds of scholars have recently signed a due process plea.

     This month, New Trend, the online newsletter, published by Jamaat Al-Muslimeen (06/10/18, #1762) called for inquires into Ramadan’s status. There, The Muslim Association of Britain publicly expressed its shock “to see that even the most basic rules of justice being flagrantly ignored by the French authorities”.

     For the present, a French court agreed that Tariq Ramadan’s wife may now visit him. Let’s see what further appeals produce.

[ Why is Tariq Ramadan Imprisoned? ]
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