America's Dark Days of Intolerance and the Lessons of Religious Judgment

I was shocked, confused, bewildered as I entered Heaven’s door,
Not by the beauty of it all, nor the lights or its decor.

But it was the folks in Heaven who made me sputter and gasp–
The thieves, the liars, the sinners, the alcoholics and the trash.

There stood the kid from seventh grade who swiped my lunch money twice.
Next to him was my old neighbor who never said anything nice.

Herb, who I always thought was rotting away in hell,
Was sitting pretty on cloud nine, looking incredibly well.

I nudged Jesus, ‘What’s the deal? I would love to hear your take.
How’d all these sinners get up here? God must’ve made a mistake.

‘And why’s everyone so quiet, so somber – give me a clue.’
‘Child,’ He said, ‘they’re all in shock. They never thought they’d be seeing you!’

This story was told by Joel Osteen though the source is unknown.

Editor-in-Chief: @ayannanahmias
LinkedIn: Ayanna Nahmias

Live Like You Were Dying | Tim McGraw

Tim McGraw's song 'Live Like You Were Dying,' serves as yet another reminder that each of us is allotted a certain amount of time here on earth. None of us knows the date or hour that we will be called home, which is why we should live as if we were dying.

We often pity people with terminal illnesses, but in truth we all have a terminal illness because living is a terminal illness. We all are born and will die, it is just that some are more acutely aware of their impending demise. How would you live if you knew you would die soon?

Wouldn't you take the time to touch other people's lives in a more positive manner? Would you hold back from cursing out a driver who cut you off? Perhaps they just received a report from their doctor that so preoccupied them that they didn't even notice.

Would you care so much about office politics, celebrity gossip, jealousy, or despair over worldly or other ephemeral concerns? This was a wake-up call for me, and a remembrance to not judge others nor ourselves, but to start from where we are to live and to love!

Editor-in-Chief: @AyannaNahmias
LinkedIn: Ayanna Nahmias

Afghanistan Female Delegation Negotiates Face-to-Face with Taliban in Historic Oslo Meeting

OSLO, Norway - Earlier this week, it was widely reported that the first all-female delegation of Afghan women led by Parliamentarians Shukria Barakzai and Fawzia Koofi, met with Taliban representatives in Oslo, Norway to discuss women's rights, with a particular focus on the need for reform in how women are treated within Taliban controlled areas of Afghanistan. The desired outcome of these negotiations was the protection of the gains women’s rights activists had achieved.

"Afghan women defended their rights with courage," Barakzai said. Their demands at this initial meeting were about "safeguarding the democratic values achieved in the last decade."

Given the historically hardline position that the Taliban has exerted over women in Afghanistan in terms of their rights to self-determination, education, and freedom of expression; these talks were a momentous milestone in a road that is still fraught with peril and has many miles to be travelled toward achieving any future power-sharing agreement.

These groundbreaking talks happened in the midst of a country trying to reassert its identity after decades of external and internal military and religious turmoil. An environment which help to foment a level of religious conservatism which promulgated the harshest and most appalling acts of human rights abuses. With the encroachment of ISIS and its extremist’s tactics, most of which make the Taliban seem rational by contrast; ideas and dogma previously held sacrosanct are being reevaluated.

It is within this context of the Arab proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” that new alliances are emerging as Kabul and the Taliban begin to explore a peaceful end to the ongoing conflict. These current talks can be seen as an extension of negotiations hosted by Qatar a month earlier between militants and an unofficial Afghan delegation. Although, Afghan women have been members of parliament for a number of years, these progressive talks provided them with a seat at the table whereupon negotiations affecting all of the citizens of Afghanistan were being discussed.

It was reported that about a dozen women attended the negotiations, although most chose to hide their identities for fear of reprisal. Last year Barakzai was targeted by militants and narrowly escaped a suicide bomb attack with minor injuries. Despite this, she continues to push for women’s rights and praised the relative ease of these talks in part due to the election of President Ashraf Ghani, a prominent supporter of employment and education rights for all Afghan citizens, regardless of gender.

It's too early to tell how much of an impact the unofficial meetings will have, but ideally these historic negotiations will be a turning point in Taliban/women relations and will pave the way for many more similar exchanges.

Contributing Journalist: @SJJakubowski
Facebook: Sarah Joanne Jakubowski

Qatar: Conciliators, Regional Superpower, or Simply Another Wealthy Arab Nation?

sheikh tamim bin hamad al-thani amir of qatar e-u. high representative for foreign and security policy and Vice president of the european commission catherine ashton in doha, qatar

sheikh tamim bin hamad al-thani amir of qatar e-u. high representative for foreign and security policy and Vice president of the european commission catherine ashton in doha, qatar

DOHA, Qatar - An internationally renowned nation which was once known only for its pearl-fishing has become a major global player. Pumping out nearly 2.3 millions of barrels of natural gas a day which gets shipped around the globe as LNG, it is in the top 25 producers of oil and gas. (Source: Forbes) 

Unfortunately, it is also currently at the center of the FIFA scandal that is reverberating around the world, yet this is not the topic of discussion here.

In the 1940s the nascent country’s oil and gas industry was developed by Western nations as they continued to implement colonization strategies that included primary control of natural resources. This all changed in the 1990s when Qatar exercised greater control of the profits from its oil and gas industry thus transforming it into one of richest countries in the Emirates.

The government recognizes that shifting from a major global supplier of oil and gas will be a long and somewhat protracted process. But, the proactive open-market policies being instituted by the government is helping Qatar to become both a major financial hub in additional to a luxury tourist destination. At the start of 2015, Qatar’s economy was ranked a score of 70.8 according to the data tracked, which means that it is the 32nd most investor friendly economies in the world. With this type of recognition comes the ability to not only exert influence, but also encourages criticism as in the case of allegations of impropriety with the award to host the 2022 World Cup soccer games to Qatar.

Owing to economic diversification, investors from different parts of the world have taken a keen interest in doing business with the country as well as establishing corporate headquarters. The ramping up of foreign investments in infrastructure, finance and banking, products and services, etc. being delivered by these foreign corporations prognosticates some excellent job opportunities in Qatar, and is one of the main reasons that it was chosen as a host country for the games.

Qatar is often regarded as a study in contradictions and is known to be significantly more liberal than many of its neighbors. Apart from Saudi Arabia, the state of Qatar is the only Middle Eastern nation to adopt Wahhabism as its official state religion. The religious demographics in Qatar seem to support both the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and the militant Hamas movement, and the internecine conflict between the two is quite complex and sometimes terrifying. At the moment the ‘tug of war’ raging inside the Muslim world consists of two sides. The Salafi jihadis―or hardcore Wahhabis, who are financed and supported by Saudi Arabia versus the Muslim Brotherhood who are supported by Qatar on the other.

For years Qatar has been supporting and propagating the Muslim Brotherhood's agenda in different parts of the Middle East and North Africa through its Al Jazeera television network. Though this may seem partisan at first glance, history reveals a more nuanced story, one in which Qatar has maintained a very diplomatic approach towards an increasingly global religious dilemma. Qatar's ability to act as arbiter and play the role of conciliator was demonstrated in its role in achieving the 2008 ceasefire in Lebanon according to the online news site Asharq Al-Awsat.

Unfortunately, the world’s eyes are trained upon Syria and the tragedies that are occurring within its borders, and though Qataris are working behind the political scene to help support Syrians to establish a post-Bashar Hafez al-Assad governance, these efforts toward stabilization are not obviously visible. As with much that occurs in negotiations, what is seen in the public eye is rarely what occurs behind the scenes, and in this context Qatar always positions itself to ensure that its interests are preserved. One of the main motives and interest in facilitating peace in Syria is the hope that a more moderate form of Islam will prevail in a new Syria, and if successful, may help to garner a bigger seat at the table of powerful Arab nations.

The initiatives taken thus far reflect Qatar’s desire to continue in its role as conciliator in the global economic and religious amphitheater. Qatar hopes that by making greater strides with this goal through an open job market, flexibility in accepting the customs of foreigners within limits of decorum, and negotiating for an air of tolerance, balance, and acceptance will ultimately serve to change external perceptions. From the highest levels of government to the ordinary Qataris, there exists a desire to be counted amongst the most developed and advanced countries in the world, and thus the nation hopes to break the stigma of mistrust and judgment that plagues almost every Muslim nation today.

Middle East Correspondent:  @Vinita Tiwari

U.S. Supreme Court Rules Against Retailer, Supports Woman Wearing Hijab

stranger 209 nada, photo by peter grifoni

stranger 209 nada, photo by peter grifoni

WASHINGTON, D.C. – On Monday, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia ruled in favor of Samantha Elauf in a suit against an Abercombie & Fitch store in Oklahoma over the discrimination she experienced in 2008. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought the suit on behalf of Elauf who had sought employment with the popular retail chain as a sales person. According to reports she interviewed well, but wasn’t hired because managers viewed her head scarf “hijab” as contrary to the company’s image.

In its defense, the company said it had a standard “look policy” for its sales staff that did not include wearing a head scarf. It also said Elauf had never informed it of her religion nor of her need for accommodation based on her faith. This specious argument was as dubious as those practiced by employers pre-Civil Rights America during which African-American candidates were denied jobs by stating that they “didn’t fit in” or that “the customers may feel unsafe.”

In fact, Scalia described the case of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission vs. Abercrombie as “easy” because the store managers knew or “at least suspected” Elauf wore the head scarf for religious reasons. Her hijab was as obvious as the color of an African-American’s skin. In an age with ubiquitous and easy access to information through the internet, one would have to live under a rock to claim no knowledge of the religious significance of this type of head covering for Muslim women.

Justice Scalia stated that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 puts the legal burden on employers not to discriminate. It gives “favored treatment” to religion, and “religious practice is one of the protected characteristics … that must be accommodated.” The majority ruled that it did not matter whether Elauf informed the company of her need for religious accommodation as long as the desire to avoid making such an accommodation was part of the company’s action. (Source: L.A. Times)

This favorable ruling is a win for not only observant Muslim women, but also Orthodox Jewish women who are also required to cover their heads while in public. This ruling is also significant in that it can provision additional freedoms for observant religious people like Muslims and Jews who abstain from work on holy days of the year, many of which conflict with employer work schedules.

“This case dramatically changes the standards that apply to employers because it removes the requirement that an employee or applicant request a religious accommodation, if the employer’s motive is later deemed a violation of Title VII” of the Civil Rights Act, said Michael Droke, a Seattle lawyer.

This ruling sets the U.S. apart from the European Union. Many countries in the E.U. have enacted increasingly discriminatory laws aimed at Muslims, and because of increased secularism it has also given rise to new levels of anti-Semitism. Notably, France, which has sought to keep religion out of public spaces and schools, in 2010 law banned the wearing of full-faced veils in public, and last year a French appeals court upheld the dismissal of a Muslim day-care employee for refusing to remove her head scarf at work.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ruled that employers may not “refuse to hire” or otherwise discriminate against someone because of their “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” And the law says religion “includes all aspects of religious observance or practice as well as belief.”

A federal judge ruled Elauf was a victim of illegal discrimination, and a jury awarded her $20,000 in compensation.

Editor-in-Chief: @AyannaNahmias
LinkedIn: Ayanna Nahmias

Chapel Hill Atheist, Craig Hicks, Executes Muslim Family Over Parking Spot

atheist stamp, photo by mark hassed

atheist stamp, photo by mark hassed

CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina – Three young people were murdered execution style on Wednesday, February 11th. The community and subsequently people from around the world were shocked by the news that these young Muslims had each been shot in the head.

They were newlyweds Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, a University of North Carolina dental student, and his wife Yusor Mohammad, 21, and Yusor's sister, Razan Mohammad.

Barakat who was an American of Syrian descent according to Reuters "wrote in his last Facebook post about providing free dental supplies and food to homeless people in downtown Durham. He was also raising funds for a trip to Turkey with 10 other dentists to provide free fillings, root canals and oral hygiene instruction to Syrian refugee children." (Source: Reuters)

There is a push to have this heinous crime classified as a 'hate crime' because the victims were Muslim and they were murdered by a White American man. The Hate Crime Law was enacted to charge people with crimes against individuals because of their race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or disability.

The KKK and other White Supremacists who murdered African-Americans during the Civil Rights era, were brought to justice decades later under this statute. It would seem that Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, fits the profile of a racist, and though this may have been a contributing factor, it doesn't seem to be the only motivation.

According to residents of the complex where Barakat lived, Craig had a volatile disposition and had engaged in numerous hostile altercations with neighbors over limited parking. He was vitriolic and abusive in words and deeds when he perceived that someone had gotten a spot that he deserved. His behavior was frightening and he was definitely out of control even with other non-Muslim residents as described by those who had interacted with him on previous occasions.

However, in every other case Craig did not then act upon his grievance by going to get a gun and shoot the individual who was the object of his contempt. In the case of Barakat, Craig with malice aforethought, went to get a gun, pushed into Barakat's condominium where it is presumed he wantonly executed the three young, bright, high-achievers.

Although Craig's wife has tried to defend his actions by saying that he is not a racist, other news reports claim that he often made fun of the Barakat and his wife Yusor because of their dress. Why he chose to kill Barakat, Yusor, and Razan and not others is at the crux of the matter. Perhaps racism was the a factor in the murders, but it may have been his anti-religious stance that was the subtext.

Last month, Hicks posted a photograph that said, “Praying is pointless, useless, narcissistic, arrogant, and lazy; just like the imaginary god you pray to.” It is also reported that he is also an Anti-theists, which is an even more radical sect of atheists who are particularly outspoken and confrontational about their disbelief, researchers at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga said in a recent study.

"Anti-theists view religion as ignorance and see any individual or institution associated with it as backward and socially detrimental," the researchers wrote. "The anti-theist has a clear and -- in their view, superior -- understanding of the limitations and danger of religions." (Source: CNN)

For someone who took umbrage with God, and who was already predisposed to dislike Muslims, it is quite likely that by eradicating these young people, who were devout and publicly Muslim, he was able to kill two birds with one stone. Meaning, he was able to demonstrate his disdain of religion and its adherents, particularly those who followed the Abrahamic faiths - Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, especially the latter for which he had a virulent dislike; plus kill Barakat, his new wife, and her sister.

We may never know the answer, and in fact, no answer will assuage the pain of the parents of these three young victims. However, whether or not these murders are classified as a 'hate crime,' the killings shed light on the increasing levels of Islamophobia both in America and Europe, as well as a trend towards Secularism and Atheism in our society.

When a man does not believe in a higher power or accountability, he will do whatever is right in his own eyes, and is capable of doing whatever it takes to get what he wants. In this case, Craig the atheist wanted a parking space.

Editor-in-Chief: @AyannaNahmias
LinkedIn: Ayanna Nahmias

ISIS, Al Qaeda, Houthi Rebels Compete in Yemen

Local Fighters Team with al-Qeada, Abyan Province, Yemen, Photo by Joe Sheffer

Local Fighters Team with al-Qeada, Abyan Province, Yemen, Photo by Joe Sheffer

YEMEN - ISIS has infiltrated Yemen, a country already flooded with terrorist groups. The Syria-based terror group, known for its extreme brutality and shockingly successful recruitment of outsiders, has gained a tentative foothold alongside the Al Qaeda forces already present.

Al Qaeda remains the dominant presence, but the competition for recruits and support may sway in favor of the more financially-appealing ISIS. This friction between the two groups can spell increased trouble for civilians in Yemen and elsewhere. In-country fighting and instability has escalated, as is evidenced by a gun battle between the two groups last month and White House analysts fear the competition will become a race to see who can hit US soil first and hardest. (Source: CNN)

Another key player in the Yemeni crisis is the Houthis, a rebel group demanding greater control of what they claim is a western-controlled government and protesting unequal distribution of resources. They belong to the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam, also known as Fivers, a sect of Islam almost exclusively present in Yemen. They are from the Shi'ite minority similar to the Twelvers found mainly in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran and are known for being most similar to Sunni Muslims in matters of religious law and rulings. They do however, believe in the concept of an Imamate as being essential to their religion, which makes them distinct from Sunnis. (Global Security.org, "Zaydi Islam”, by John Pike)

Pressure from Houthi fighters resulted in the resignation of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. His departure triggered thousands of Yemeni citizens to counter-protest the Houthi actions. (Source: BBC)

Yemen, although among the world's poorest countries, has strategic political and geographical importance. The terror activity poses a danger to the U.S., who is often the target for attacks. In addition, it is a gateway for foreign fighters to go to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, providing ample recruiting opportunities for ISIS and other terror groups. The U.S. government had found allies in Yemen officials and was working with their government to develop counter-terrorism methods. Now that the shaky government has been obliterated by rebels and terrorist groups compete for dominance and destruction, the future of Yemen is unclear.