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February 26 2014

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February 14 2014

Despite Bans, Central Asians Observe Valentine's Day

Central Asian countries have a special relationship with Valentine's Day. While some nations in the region embrace the holiday that has become popular in recent years, other countries ban or try to replace it with more “authentic” local celebrations.

Global Voices has reported about social media debates related to Valentine's Day in Tajikistan, where one third of people celebrate the holiday according to a recent survey. Below is a brief overview of how Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan have observed February 14 this year.

Kazakhstan

The authorities in Kazakhstan are generally much more tolerant towards new holidays and traditions than their neighbors in the region. Kazakhs are free to celebrate Valentine's Day as they wish. As in many other countries, however, social media users argue about whether the holiday should be celebrated. Responding to frequent portrayals of Valentine's Day as a holiday that contradicts Islam, blogger Ainura Rai asserts [ru] that the holiday has a “secular character” and, therefore, does not run against any religious conviction. Another blogger, Kuanushbek Zhakparov, agrees that “the day of love” is a secular holiday but contends [ru] that Valentine's Day is an “evil” capitalist phenomenon promoted by companies that make money by selling cards, flowers, and other love-themed products. Other bloggers discuss [ru] inexpensive gifts that people could give their loved ones on February 14.

Meanwhile, in the northern Kazakh city of Kostanai, traffic police has used the holiday as an opportunity to improve its image among drivers:

In Kostanai, police officers presented drivers with Valentine's Day Cards.

An unusual group of police officers was on duty at the Abay Avenue, near TSUM, today. Drivers did not expect such a surprise from police officers.

On the Day of Love, [police officers] gave drivers Valentine's Day Cards and gifts from insurance companies.

Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan has joined the list of “enemies of Valentine's Day” this year. Tursunbai Bakir uulu, a member of Kyrgyz parliament (who has been calling for a ban on Valentine's Day for several years now) recently called February 14 a “holiday from the devil”. The authorities in the southern city of Osh have banned the observance of Valentine's Day in schools, arguing that the “holiday of love is a bad influence on children’s morality.” Education officials have suggested that schoolchildren should instead observe the Family Day on February 15.

This has not stopped young Kyrgyzstanis from celebrating, however. Blogger Bektour Iskender reports [ru] that students in several school in Osh did organize Valentine's Day events. Similar events were held in many schools and universities across the country. On kloop.kg, blogger Darya Solovyova shares [ru] gift ideas for Valentine's Day.

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan has been more aggressive than its neighbors in trying to root out celebrations of Valentine's Day. For several years now, the country's authorities have been trying to convince people to celebrate February 14 as the birthday of Mohammed Zahiriddin Babur, the Uzbek people's “great ancestor”. 

The birthday of Zahiriddin Muhammad Babur is celebrated today.

This year, the authorities have stepped up their campaign against Valentine's Day. Officials at a number of universities in the country have forced students to sign contracts affirming that they will not observe “the day of love”. A traditional February 14 concert by a popular Uzbek pop singer has been cancelled. In many mosques throughout Uzbekistan, mullahs have denounced Valentine's Day during Friday sermons as a “harmful holiday that contradicts both Islam and local traditions”.

Despite these restrictions, however, some people in Uzbekistan have celebrated Valentine's Day. On Facebook and Odnoklassniki, many Uzbekistani users congratulated their followers or shared love-themed images and electronic cards. 

Online Campaign to Restore Lebanon's Second Largest Library a Success

Screenshot of the Zoomaal petition site

When unknown assailants torched his library on January 3, Father Ibrahim Sarrouj responded by forgiving them. The assailants, supposedly Muslim fundamentalists, accused Father Sarrouj of attacking Islam by publishing a pamphlet claiming that Abu Bakr, Islam's first caliph, once beat Muhammad's wife Aisha with a newspaper.

The library in question is Tripoli's famed Al-Saeh Library, Lebanon's second largest and home to over 80,000 books of all kind. Despite security forces being notified that Father Ibrahim Sarrouj had been threatened by religious extremists, the library was still badly damaged. No one knows exactly how many books were destroyed, but it is estimated that the number may be as high as two thirds.

The irony is that not only did Father Sarrouj never write such a pamphlet – his library contained and still contains numerous priceless Islamic books – but the supposed event couldn't have taken place as it predates the invention of the printing press by 800 years. The supposed ‘accusation’ could not have therefore been made by someone who knows anything about history. But then again, historical accuracy isn't a usual feature of religious fundamentalism.

This crime didn't seem to be about anything. Father Ibrahim Sarrouj is known for his humanist principles in calling for Tripoli's unity. Muslims and Christians alike view him as one of them. He greeted everyone with As-salamu ‘aleikum (Peace be upon you). There was simply no ‘reason’ whatsoever, not even by fundamentalist standards, to attack the library.

How should we interpret this ridiculous and heinous crime? Should we read it as yet another victim of Lebanon's sectarian reality? Or should we just dismiss it as the product of a few marginalized individuals who don't have much to do other than attack knowledge?

The latter seems to be how the Lebanese decided to respond. Indeed, Lebanon as a whole condemned the burning. All major sectarian representatives issued condemnations and called for the criminals to face justice. Lebanon's netizens, Muslims and Christians, Druze and Atheists, sent their support to Father Ibrahim Sarrouj by the thousands. Everyone said “No.” But “No” wasn't enough. Something had to be done to restore the library. Enter “Kafana Samtan”.

Kafana Samtan, or “Enough Silence”, was launched on Zoomaal, an online Arab crowd-funding platform, just a few days after the attack. It was immediately backed with overwhelming support from both companies and average citizens. In just a month, it succeeded in getting US $35,000, thanks to 298 donors. How will the money be used? New bookshelves, a new front door, new wall painting, as well as buying back rare books and installing security equipment.

But that's not the end of the story. The Al-Saeh library distinguished itself in succeeding in getting Lebanese of all stripes together. Irrespective of religion or sect, the campaign gathered everyone in coming together for an obviously non-sectarian cause. This wasn't a Christian vs Muslim vs other Christian vs other Muslim scenario specifically because Father Sarrouj isn't one.

Having given up on trying to change things politically due to excessive nation-wide sectarian corruption, Lebanon's independent minds have taken to social media to gather funds, sign petitions, exchange ideas and influence their surroundings.

Will the “Kafana Samta” success story contribute to Lebanon's growing activist scene? One thing's certain, it has certainly allowed many to soften their negative perceptions and to essentially give hope in a country where hope isn't easy to maintain.

“Celebrating Valentine's Day Is a Direct Way to Hell” in Tajikistan

According to a recent survey [tj], one out of three residents of Tajikistan are celebrating Valentine's Day today. Although these findings seem a little bit exaggerated for the country as a whole, they do appear to be accurate for the country's main cities. Over the last two decades, many young Tajikistanis have embraced the tradition of giving their loved ones cards, red roses, and other love-themed presents.

However, similarly to some other holidays such as Halloween or New Year's Eve, Valentine's Day struggles to gain broader acceptance in Tajikistan. During the week before February 14, social media users in the country argued about whether or not “the day of love” should be celebrated.

Many Facebooka nd Odnoklassniki users in Tajikistan have shared this image today. The text reads:

Many Facebook and Odnoklassniki users in Tajikistan have shared this image today. The text reads: “Comprade! Don't give in to the bourgeois crap! February 14 is an ordinary day!”. The image originates in Russian-language social media.

Some netizens contend that the holiday has no place in a Muslim society. For instance, on blogiston.tj, Vatandust writes [tj]:

Бародарону хоҳарони тоҷик. Нодониста намонед ки ҷашн гирифтани валентин роҳи рост ба ҷаҳаннам. Боре дар бораи кӯдакотон фикр кунед. Имруз шумо валентин ҷашн мегиред – фардо онҳо бо хайвонот алоқаи ҷинсӣ мегиран.

Tajik brothers and sisters, you should know that celebrating Valentine's Day is a direct way to hell. Think about your children. Today you celebrate Valentine's Day – and tomorrow they will have sex with animals.

Siyovush adds [tj]:

Иди занону валентину ва гайра хамаш як сафсата каме нест!!! Чаро лубой иди гарбиву русиро чашн мегиред??? Идхои точики исломи дорем бас нест??? Агар форадатон брен ба Москва ё Амрико ва унчо чашн гирен чизе ки хохен. Диндорои точик бояд ба мардум фахмонан таърихи валентин чиву маънош чи. Хукумат бошад бояд фуруши валентинкахову хар як бозичахои дилдорро манъ кунад.

Women's Day, Valentine's Day – these are all nothing but nonsense!!! Why do you have to celebrate every western or Russian holiday??? We have Tajik and Islamic holidays. Aren't they enough? If you want, go to Moscow or [United States] and celebrate whatever you like there. Tajik religious leaders should explain the history and meaning of Valentine's Day to people. The government should ban the selling of love-themed cards and toys.

Under an article on ozodi.org, Muhammadi claims [tj]:

Вокеъан, агар ҷавонони тоҷик ки будани Валентинро медонистанд, аз тачлили ин рӯз даст мекашиданд.

Indeed, if Tajik young people only knew who [Saint] Valentine was, they would not mark this day.

While Sham asks [tj]:

Магар хамон кавми Валентину Иванову балову бадтар идхои моро чашн мегиранд, ки шумо ба онхо пайрави мекунед??? Боре дидаед,ки онхо иди рамазону курбон чашн гиранд???

Why do you imitate Valentine and Ivanov [common Russian surname] folks when they don't celebrate our holidays??? Have you ever seen them celebrating Idi Ramazon [Eid al-Fitr] or Idi Qurbon [Eid al-Adha]???

On Twitter, @onlytajikistan mentions some stereotypes associated with the holiday:

However, many people in Tajikistan do not see a problem in celebrating Valentine's Day. Khusrav sees [tj] the holiday as part of a global culture:

Мо хохем ё нахохем дар ин дунёи глобали одату маданияти гарб ба расму одатхои мо таъсири худро мерасонанд. Хозир давраи озодии фикру рафтор шудааст ва на мулло ва на вазири фархангу маърифат пеши ин корхо шуда наметавонад.

Whether we want it or not, western culture and traditions have an impact on our cultural practices in this globalized world. We live in the time of freedom of thought and freedom of behavior, and neither mullahs nor Minister of Culture can prevent this.

Mila writes [tj]:

Charo ki in ruzro jash nagirem? Kase oshiqu mashuq hast marhamat metawonand jakdigarro dar in ruzi oshiqon khursand namoyand, wa mekhostam dinro ba in mawzu omekhta nakuned!

Why shouldn't we celebrate this holiday? Those who are in love can make each other happy on this day. I would also like to [ask everyone] not to link this topic to religion.

Meanwhile, on blogiston.tj, netizens put together [ru] lists of best romantic movies to watch on Valentine's Day and discuss [ru] different ways of celebrating the day. Tomiris congratulates the readers of her blog, writing [ru]:

Всех с этим замечательным праздником! Любите и будьте любимыми! Любовь делает этот мир прекраснее!

I would like to congratulate everyone on this wonderful day! Love and be loved! Love makes this world a better place!

Tajikistan is not the only country where debates about the appropriateness of celebrating Valentine's Day have occurred. Some countries have banned the holiday. In the neighboring country of Uzbekistan, the authorities force students to sign contracts affirming that they will not celebrate the holiday. In Kyrgyzstan, officials in the southern city of Osh have banned the celebration of the holiday in schools. A Kyrgyz MP has even called [ru] Valentine's Day a “Devil's Holiday”.

A Love Story With No Kissing? That's Cinema in Iran

A Separation

Leila Hatami and Peyman Moadi in “A Separation.” Credit: Habib Madjidi/Sony Pictures Classics

This article and a radio report by Shirin Jaafari for The World originally appeared on PRI.org on February 13, 2014 and is republished as part of a content sharing agreement.

For any film to be shown in Iran, directors have to follow the strict Islamic laws.


Male and female characters can't touch. Women have to cover their hair at all times.

“Can you imagine how many stories you’re unable to tell as a filmmaker if you cannot show the slightest physical touch between members of the opposite sex?” asks Jamsheed Akrami, an Iranian director based in the US.

Akrami spent five years interviewing a dozen Iranian filmmakers, actors and actresses. The result is his latest documentary: “Cinema of discontent.”

They all lament the hardship they face in telling a story in film when they have to follow all the Islamic codes they have to follow.

“I’m not only alluding to the romantic subjects, you know, we’re talking about situations where you can’t even show parental affection or a male physician for example, cannot be shown examining a female patient,” he adds.

One of the directors Akrami interviews in his documentary is Bahman Farmanara. He explains how he got around one challenging scene in his movie “A Little Kiss.”

“There is a sequence in ‘A Little Kiss’ where the father, after 38 years of being in Switzerland, has returned suddenly because his son has committed suicide and he comes to visit his daughter,” he says. “Well, obviously according to the laws that we have to obey, a man and a woman cannot embrace each other. Even though in this particular instance they are father and daughter.”

Here’s how director Farmanara got around it.

“So what I did … when the daughter takes a few steps towards him, he takes his hat off,” Farmanara says. “So, he makes a move to stop her from coming close…”

Farmanara added that Iran is a “nation that in our films we don’t kiss, we don’t touch, we don’t hug but somehow miraculously from 37 million we’ve gone to 70 million.”

There are so many similar cases in Iranian films that if you watch enough of them, you would actually be surprised if the characters do touch or dance for example.

Yet filmmakers and actors constantly challenge the red lines.

In one film called “Gilaneh,” a mother who is taking care of her paralyzed son bathes him, moves him around and even at one point starts dancing to cheer him up.

In Akrami's documentary, the director, Rakhshan Bani Etemad says that she worried about the sensors, but felt the story had to be told to break the taboo.

Akrami says as an Iranian filmmaker “your most prized skill is the ability to work around the censorship codes. The artistic gift is actually a secondary requirement when it comes to making films in Iran.”

But with all the restrictions, Iranian films have been part of festivals around the world. And they have received recognition.

In 2012, for example, Asghar Farhadi made history when he won an Oscar for his film “A Separation.”

Many others film have won international awards.

Meanwhile Mahdi Kouhian, a documentary filmmaker in Iran, says since the election of Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, there is a more positive atmosphere.

For example, he said he attended the Fajr Film Festival for the first time in four years.

The festival is held every year to mark the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.

But filmmaker Akrami isn't as optimistic. That's because he says he doesn't see any fundamental changes.

“The election of Mr. Rouhani, to me, is just a cosmetic change. It's like putting make up on a monster, which basically wouldn’t change the nature of that monster. You still have a monster,” he says.

For him, the saddest part about Iranian cinema is that its best movies never got to be made.

February 09 2014

Iran: Five Soldiers Abducted near Iran-Pakistan Border

Five Iranian soldiers were kidnapped on Friday, near Iran-Pakistan border by Sunni extremists. Iranians launched a tweet campaign to support abducted soldiers.Amin Sabeti tweeted

Reposted byiranelection iranelection

February 07 2014

A Riot Within Pussy Riot?

boohoo

Since their release from jail late last year Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, members of the feminist punk collective Pussy Riot, have gone on a worldwide publicity tour, visiting countries in Asia and Europe. At the time of their release they had announced that their new goal is the fight for human rights, specifically the rights of Russian prisoners — political or otherwise. Last night, Feb 5, as part of this tour they appeared at an Amnesty International-organized concert in New York.

According to [ru] journalist Anton Krasovsky (who himself was at once point persecuted for his sexual orientation) the concert wouldn't have been possible without the help of Russian billionaire and erstwhile presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov and his sister Irina. During their segment the Pussy Riot girls spoke about human rights abuses in Russia, and educated the audience about the Bolotnaya Square case, which many view as political in nature:

We are in New York, and there are 15,000 more people who know about the #BolotnoeCase. Starting today. And yes, we believe in caring

While in New York they also met US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, who called them “brave troublemakers” in a tweet, and appeared on the Colbert Report. (The founder of the nationalist online publication Sputnik & Pogrom pointed out [ru] that they were probably the first guest Colbert interviewed through an interpreter.)

Unfortunately, all of this publicity may have ruffled a few feathers back home. The day after the concert, other, anonymous members of Pussy Riot (the reader will remember that although 3 persons were arrested, at least 5 women were involved in the punk performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior) made a statement on their LiveJournal page, pussy-riot.livejournal.com [ru]. In this statement [ru] they proclaimed that Tolokonnikova and Alekhina are no longer members of Pussy Riot, because their human-rights activism is necessarily in opposition to the violent disruption at the heart of of the Pussy Riot method:

Мы очень рады освобождению Маши и Нади. [...] К сожалению для нас, они настолько увлеклись проблемами в российских тюрьмах, что начисто забыли о стремлениях и идеалах нашей группы: феминизм, сепаратистское сопротивление, борьба против авторитаризма и культа личности [...] Правозащитная деятельность не может позволить себе критику норм и правил, лежащих в основе устройства современного патриархального общества, потому что она является институциональной частью этого общества [...]

We are very happy Masha and Nadya were released. [...] Unfortunately for us, they are so concentrated on the problem of Russian prisons, that they forgot about the goals and ideals of our group: feminism, separatist insurgence, struggle against authoritarianism and the cult of personality [...] Human rights activism can't criticize norms and rules that are at the base of the modern patriarchal society, because it is an institutionalized part of this society [...]

They also criticized the Amnesty International concert, which billed Tolokonnikova and Alekhina's involvement as the first legal performance of Pussy Riot. “Pussy Riot doesn't do legal performances” — say the anonymous members. In fact, the whole idea is inimical to the concept of punk protest. They also stressed anonymity as an integral part of the Pussy Riot image, so it is unclear if Ekaterina Samutsevich, who previously had a falling out with Tolokonnikova and Alekhina when she took a plea bargain [Global Voices report] for early release, is still part of the collective.

Is this an attempt to hijack a worldwide, popular brand? Or, perhaps, Pussy Riot is indeed larger than its two most famous members. In any case, the group behind the statement is unequivocal:

Раз уж теперь мы оказались с Надей и Машей по разные стороны баррикад, разъедините нас. Запомните, мы больше не Надя и Маша, они – больше не Pussy Riot.

Since we are now on opposite sides of the barricades with Nadya and Masha, separate us. Remember, we are no longer Nadya and Masha, they are no longer Pussy Riot.

February 06 2014

A Call for More Religious Tolerance in Mauritania

Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed, a 28 year old blacksmith in Nouadhibou (a town 465 km north of Nouakchott, Mauritania), was charged with  apostasy by the penal court for questionning on online forum some of the decisions of the Prophet Muhammad regarding Djihad. Following the charges, Professor Mustapha Ely, author of a dozen books and an international consultant, came to the defense of the blacksmith on the blog kassataya [fr]:

Jusqu’où ira-t-on pour brandir l’Islam en toute occasion et détruire des vies. Sommes-nous devenus moins clément que le prophète Mohamed lui-même ? Pourquoi cet acharnement contre un individu qui veut dénoncer sa vile condition sociale ?
Une société qui entretient des castes et considère une partie de ses enfants comme des sous-hommes, a-t-elle d’ailleurs le droit de s’en offusquer ? Et si cela était ne devrait-elle pas prendre exemple sur son Prophète pour pardonner et conseiller pour remettre celui qui faute dans le droit chemin ?

How far do are we willing to go to wield Islam on any occasions and hence destroy lives of the common men. Have we become less tolerant than Prophet Muhammad himself? Why all this rage against an individual who just wants to denounce his harsh social condition ?
Can a society that maintains the cast system and considers some of its children as sub-human even take offense at such words? And if this society were indeed rightful offended, should it not follow the example of the Prophet and forgive the man, and guide him in order to not stray anymore ?

February 05 2014

Pakistani Journalists on Taliban Hit-List

Journalists of Hyderabad held a protest against the killing of 3 Media organization workers in Karachi. The Tehrik Taliban accepted responsibility for the killings. Image by Rajput Yasir. Copyright Demotix (18/1/2014)

Journalists of Hyderabad held a protest against the killing of 3 Media organization workers in Karachi. The Tehrik Taliban accepted responsibility for the killings. Image by Rajput Yasir. Copyright Demotix (18/1/2014)

Violent militant organization Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has officially declared the country’s media as fair game in their war against the Pakistani state. The TTP issued a religious decree or fatwa against some Pakistani media houses and prepared a hit list with names of two dozen journalists and publishers.

This comes as the Pakistani government has decided to pursue ‘peace talks’ instead of a ‘military operation’ against the banned outfit.

The 29-page fatwa accuses the media of continuously lying about the TTP and their objectives and attributing terrorist attacks to them that they had nothing to do with. Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan explained to Pakistani daily Dawn:

For a long time, we have been asking the media to be impartial. We are not forcing it to change beliefs. We are simply asking the media to be fair in coverage …Despite the tall claims of truth and nothing but the truth, the media has been acting as propagandists.

Three people associated with the TV channel Express News were killed when their company car came under attack in Karachi on January 17, 2014. Following the attack, Ehsanullah Ehsan claimed that the TTP was responsible:

The reason of the attack is that in the war of ideologies all media channels… are acting as propagandist and as rival party.. We will attack all the media houses that are involved in carrying out propaganda against us.

Media caught in the line of fire

Dawn columnist Cyril Almeida shared the views of a popular Urdu language current affairs show host Mushtaq Minhas in this piece:

“If the focus was on news before, now it’s on views,” Mushtaq Minhas, co-anchor of Bolta Pakistan on Aaj News, said. “(The Taliban) want to dilute the growing state and society narrative against them and want to impose their own narrative.”Minhas claimed that the growing sophistication of the Taliban’s media operations – both in terms of putting out their own message and closely monitoring the electronic and print media in Urdu, English and regional languages – has meant that the Taliban are alert to growing public and media criticism of the TTP and the possibility of an impending military response by the state against the TTP. 

Malik Siraj Akbar, Washington DC-based editor of the banned news site The Baloch Hal, which reports on Pakistan's restive Balochistan region, worried that such attacks can lead to paralysis of the media. He wrote in Huffington Post:

The Taliban do not only justify their attacks but they also demand equal air time for propagation of their extremist ideology in the news media. This is a bizarre expectation but completely snubbing their demand is likely to endanger the lives of several other journalists in the future. If one media group concedes to the Taliban wishes out of fear of being attacked, the free media will ultimately end up compromising its integrity and reliability among the masses.

Ayesha Siddiqa, author of ‘Military Inc: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy', explained the divided state of the country after attacks of this nature in an opinion piece for Al Jazeera:

Such statements, followed by attacks, tend to divide the country and society into two camps. While there are those who are frustrated by the government's inaction against the Taliban, others have a similar feeling but for a different reason. A number of young men and women I spoke with in urban centers of South Punjab sympathise with the TTP rather than their own soldiers. Their reason, as one young woman stated: “What's wrong with the Taliban asking for implementation of Sharia? If fighting is the only way they force the government to do what people want, then so be it.”

According to the official Twitter account of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), (@PTIofficial), a political party in Pakistan that advocates peace talks with the Taliban: 

Ever since media liberalization legislation passed in 2002, the Pakistani media, especially the broadcast industry, has become a powerful and independent institution. According to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, the number of private television channels has grown to 89, dozens of which are news channels. 

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