Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Advocating Teamwork

(Attribution Unknown)

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. 

~ Margaret Mead

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Palate Cleanser #95

The Blind Watchmaker by pyxelated

(a Richard Dawkins reference...)

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010


Readers of this blog are not strangers to the idea that the Iranian politico-religious machine has stifled freedom of expression (remember Neda) and gone out of its way to falsify charges to justify the means of its agenda, no matter how despicable and inhumane (think of Sakineh). Given the Iranian government's tactics against its citizens, it should be no surprise that persecution infiltrates other corners of the Iranian world, especially those occupied by minorities. Readers will, for instance, no doubt remember Kurdish dissident Zeynab Jalalian, sentenced to death for moharebeh, or "enmity against God". But even the religious minorities in Iran are targeted if they fail to follow the right religious faith.

 Bahá'í Ringstone

The symbol above hardly looks like a ticket to being accused of apostasy or espionage. But the Bahá'í ringstone is, apparently, just that. Practitioners of the Bahá'í faith are illegally persecuted at present in Iran.

You may ask about what I mean about illegal persecution. Well, under Article 3 of the Iranian Constitution of 1979, the Iranian State follows the following goals: (please safeguard your computer's screen and keyboard before reading...)
  • Support good moral values based on faith
  • Fight all forms of vice and corruption
  • Raise public awareness through the proper use of the mass media and press
  • Free education
  • Free physical training
  • Strengthening advanced scientific research
  • The elimination of imperialism and foreign influence
  • The elimination of despotism, autocracy and monopoly
  • Ensure social and political freedoms within the law
  • The end to all forms of undesirable discrimination
     These goals were designed to emphasize positive liberty.
Considering some of the stratagems that I'm aware of being required for some of my Iranian readers, I'm thinking that line item #3 was repealed or their definition of proper in Iran is very different from mine. Item #8 also appears to be under interesting interpretation by the current Iranian administration. But mostly, I'm thinking that the Bahá'i community in Iran would have a whole lot to say about Items 9 and 10.

Even the United Nations thinks things in Iran are questionable with respect to the regime's treatment of minorities. Yesterday, August 30, CERD, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on Iran to tackle its racism and discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities in Iran. The specific language of the report (see link within the Reuters article above) reads:

The Committee expresses concern at the low level of participation of persons from, Arab, Azeri, Balochi, Kurdish, Baha’i, and certain other communities in public life. This is reflected in, for example, the scant information provided about them in the national report, in the national census and in public policies. (Art. 5)
- UN CERD Report, unedited version August 27, titled Concluding observations 
of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
                        in the Islamic Republic of Iran

I'm really hoping that the UN pays attention to the matter, though based on their interest in Congolese women, I'm not very hopeful.

I can tell you that after a couple of days of research and asking around among various friends, that being Bahá'i in Iran is a seriously risky business. How risky? Imagine an American journalist who mentioned being Bahá'i once in college publication being told it wasn't safe to go to Iran  for an assignment. You'd be imagining the Iran faced by Maryam Ishani. Ishani's column at HuffPost is a potent reminder of the extent of Bahá'i repression in Iran today. She directs readers to June 28, 2010, for instance, when Iranian authorities were actively destroying 50 homes of Bahá'i citizens in one village alone, for no reason other than their apparent faith.  

Losing your home because of your faith is terrible. But the grimmest circumstances are faced by brave leaders of Iranian minorities.

Roxana Saberi, journalist, author, and a former guest of the Iranian regime, had a column Sunday in the Washington Post in which she described meeting two brave and ill-fated souls in Evin Prison in Tehran. Two female Bahá'i leaders, Mahvash Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi, who languished in Evin Prison for over a year before being convicted, and sentenced to 20 years at Rajai Shahr (Gohardasht)  prison about 20 km outside Tehran. They are not alone, as five men who were also Bahá'i leaders were convicted.

What were they convicted of? Espionage for Israel, propaganda against the Iranian Republic and Islam, establishment of an illegal administrative body, insulting Islamic religious sanctity, among other things.

What is the Bahá'i faith you might ask? Is it a bellicose faith? Is it geared toward usurping authority? Does it claim the Shi'a  practice of Islam is wrong or insult it? Is it aligned with Judaism or Christianity or something objectionably Western? Quite to the contrary. In fact, the Bahá'i faith, which grew out of Shi'a Islam, advocates for things like world peace, unity of humankind, equality of men and women, universal compulsory education and independent investigation of Truth.

(Ah, you say, one can easily, therefore, see why the Iranian politico-religious regime wants to root out its very last practitioner. That last part is especially sticky, isn't it?)

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have decried the incarceration and conviction of the Bahá'i Seven, whose only transgression has been to practice a faith that advocates tolerance, world peace, equality and that damning investigation of Truth.

The seven Baha'i prisoners, photographed several months before their arrest, are, front row, Behrouz Tavakkoli and Saeid Rezaie, and, standing, Fariba Kamalabadi, Vahid Tizfahm, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, and Mahvash Sabet.
© 2010 Bahá’í World Centre

Saberi's moving account of the inspiring support that Fariba and Mahvash gave her while incarcerated is colored by fear for their fates in Rajai Shahr (Gohardasht), one of the most infamous (think about that, folks) prisons in Iran. Gohardasht has poor hygiene conditions of course, but is best known for the number of prisoners who have suffered, and horribly so, within its walls.

You can read more about the seven Bahá'i leaders here

I encourage readers to join the e-mail/letter writing campaign for the Bahá'i prisoners. Twenty years in prison just because you read a different book from the Qur'an is inconceivable. But in these prisons... one shudders to imagine.

Rajai Shahr Gohardasht Prison, Karaj, Iran
(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Oh, and Dennis... keep your paws off this post. Please? I'll put up a nice little picture of a Dawkins book or something for you, okay?

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Monday, August 30, 2010

Palate Cleanser #94

(Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Some Sunday Happy

Courtesy of the ever delightful Tianning (and it's not really ten minutes, it's half that!):

Stand By Me | Playing For Change | Song Around The World from Concord Music Group on Vimeo.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Buh Bye Bill

Florida Attorney General and former Gubernatorial Candidate Bill McCollum
(Sun Sentinel)

Tuesday the 24th was my birthday and it was date of the Primary Elections in Florida. Bill McCollum, who currently serves as Florida's Attorney General, was running in the Republican Primary for the gubernatorial candidacy. Readers of the blog will remember that Bill McCollum's office has squandered hundreds of thousands of Florida taxpayer dollars on hiring one George Rekers to give "expert" (boy was that a stretch) witness testimony against the case of Martin Gil, who had adopted his two sons as a result of a landmark ruling by Judge Cindy Lederman. The Florida Department of Children and Families has sought to overturn Lederman's ruling ordering the adoption finalization because of the despicable and discriminatory law that bans gays from adopting in Florida.

Well, I got a great birthday present.

Bill McCollum lost. And he lost, astonishingly, to one Rick Scott, former CEO of Columbia/HCA, a company that paid a $1.7B USD fine (largest in US history) for Medicare fraud to the federal government in 2000. That was some two and a half years after Scott was ousted by Columbia's board of directors after a federal investigation showed Columbia/HCA had committed extensive billing and tax fraud while Scott was at the helm of the organization. 

While I can be glad that it will be easy for a liberal candidate to defeat Scott when more Floridians learn of his history, the main reason I'm glad to see McCollum gone is because of his mindset and rhetoric. Witness comments from his interview earlier this month with Florida Baptist Witness:

Do you support civil rights protections on the basis of sexual preference?
There’s a law in Florida that says that we have, and [as attorney general] I have a Civil Rights Division, that we have a hate crimes issue. And that’s really where that comes in for me. Whether or not somebody is discriminated against on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation or whatever that they should not be. And if somebody commits a crime on that basis, solely on that basis, then they’ve committed a crime. Now we’ve had no reason to enforce a law on the basis of sexual orientation.
I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman. I believe that a family should consist of one man and one woman. I don’t believe in gay adoption. I don’t believe in involving the government in enforcing or encouraging the lifestyle of gays and homosexuals. I just don’t believe that.
You’ve already mentioned that you support the ban on homosexuals to adopt, you’ve defended it in court as attorney general.
I have.
There’s been a scandal in that defense in that one of the expert witnesses has come to have some question about his own personal life – George Rekkers (sic). Do you think the urging by your office to include him in that case has ultimately undermined the ability to defend the law?
No, actually not. I believe that the law is very clear and I think we have a good chance to prevail on it in court. The courts of Florida previously upheld this law. But we’re going through that appellate process right now.
I would never have chosen Rekkers (sic) had I know what we now know today, but the reality is my appellate lawyers – where this is ultimately going, to the state Supreme Court, because that’s what the Department of Children and Families wants, they want to seek a determination of the constitutionality of that law and we’re defending its constitutionality – my appellate lawyers tell me we needed a witness then, and I believed them to be correct, who could introduce materials, studies. Rekkers (sic) was not an authority on this issue. He was an authority in the sense that he was a scholar. He did research into papers that other people wrote. So he was able to be used to get into evidence these matters that we needed. And it’s unfortunate that all this publicity has come up over it, but the lawsuit, I think, is on sound ground and we’re carrying it forward.
Florida permits homosexuals to serve as foster parents. That has been used as an argument to undermine the ban on adoptions. Should homosexuals be permitted to serve as foster parents in Florida?
Well, I personally don’t think so, but that is the law.
Should the law be changed?
I think that it would be advisable. I really do not think that we should have homosexuals guiding our children. I think that it’s a lifestyle that I don’t agree with. I realize a lot of people do. It’s my personal faith, religious faith, that I don’t believe that the people who do this should be raising our children. It’s not a natural thing. You need a mother and a father. You need a man and a woman. That’s what God intended.

Anyone who reads this blog knows how I feel about gay adoption. But leaving aside that issue, does it seem to anyone else that McCollum is slamming single parents as well there? Because it sure looks and reads that way to me. 

But let's take time analyzing the rest of that portion of the interview, shall we?

● Apparent lack of understanding that Civil Rights legislation enforcement deals with more than just Hate Crimes?- check

● Blame-shifting for the waste of hundreds of thousands of Florida taxpayer dollars? - check

● Conflicting statements on Mr. Rekers (Authority, Not an Authority?) - check

● Assumptions that he knows what his God's intentions are? - check

● Bias publicly declared against gays when you're still the acting Attorney General of our state? - checkity, checkity, check.

Mr. McCollum I really can't say buh bye fast enough....

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Palate Cleanser #93

Lotus, Angkor Wat
(Image Credit: Oversnap @ istockphoto.com)

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Saturday, August 28, 2010

I Had A Dream

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Enough of that... Palate Cleanser #92

New growth at Angkor Wat
(Image: Marc Walker @ istockphoto.com)

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Gravitas. Or Not. Will UN Peacekeeping Forces Intervene to Protect Women from Mass Rape?

Image drawn from the United Nations' own unread reports?

In 2009 the United Nations Security Council ratified a resolution that mandated UN Peacekeeping Mission forces protect women in vulnerable areas of the world from rape. On August 6th the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström held a nice press conference on progress. And so you can ask yourself, if you think like me, how it is that in one of the most dangerous areas of the world to be female, 179 women have been confirmed to have been raped between July 30th and August 3rd, 2010 in Northern Kivu, Congo. A UN Peacekeeping Misson station is 30 kilometers (19 miles) away from the center of strife and reportedly the Mission knew that rebel forces had amassed in the area. Madnoje Mounoubai, spokesperson for the UN mission claimed that they were alerted to the crisis by NGO humanitarian aid workers on August 12th. However Margaret Aguirre, spokeswomen for International Medical Corps, which operates in Eastern Congo, told CNN that IMC had reported the mass rapes to the UN Peacekeeping force on August 6th, the day following their having visited the villages and treating victims there. Not only is there no explanation for the almost weeklong delay in response, the UN Mission states "We had regular patrols in this area during that period," Mounoubai told CNN by phone from Kinshasa Wednesday. "Unfortunately, the villagers and the local authorities never brought this issue to our knowledge. If we are not informed, it will be difficult for us to know," he added. (emphasis mine)

Furthermore, again quoting CNN:

Roger Meece, a representative for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said the United Nations was alerted to rebel activity in the area but was not notified of the mass rapes. "There was no particular question of an attack, much less the kind of events like mass rape," Meece said Wednesday.

The UN forces claimed they did not know that the villages women were at risk of being systematically terrorized and raped? Oh, really? Large groups of Congolese rebels have had no history of attacking, terrorizing, raping and murdering women? Really?

I direct my readers to African Renewal. The 2007 issue linked here specifically talks about Rape in Congo. Headline:

Congolese women confront legacy of rape

War and sexual violence leave survivors in desperate need

Clearly Congolese women are still needy.

The UN does many things right. But the lack of timely intervention is just scandalous. There are simply no excuses that suffice for at least 179 women and girls being gang raped for four solid days in front of their families. In fact, Al-Jazeera has reported that the UN forces may have waited until the rebels left the area to act. There is every indication that the local UN forces knew on July 31st what was going on and that they could have intervened but did not. See here, after minute 9:00, for instance. (Complete deflection of the issue that it was known on July 31st.)

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has condemned the use of rape in war in a statement issued yesterday. Ban Ki-Moon said he was "outraged" by the rapes. All fine words. Too bad, so sad.

Enough with the rhetoric, the statements that it's just so awful. I just want to know when they are going to DO SOMETHING to stop the rape sprees. The Sexual Violence in Conflict program is largely vested in Congo and the UN Peacekeeping force in Congo has a budget of over a billion USD a year. Clearly neither history or money are enough to keep the women of Congo safe. IN 2009 Al Jazeera reports that over 5,400 women in neighboring Southern Kivu province alone were raped.

What is the UN doing to change things? And what, asks Inner City Press, is the UN going to do to make it possible for women in these villages to contact the Peacekeeping forces when they are being attacked? Satellite phones, flares?

Or how about just paying attention to the fact that masses of rebel men menacing villages have always turned out badly for women in those villages?
How about looking at local history and giving a damn? 
If Peacekeepers are afraid to stop war crimes, then what is their purpose? 
Can even the UN Mission in Congo be so inured to rape in war that it's not important enough to try to stop it?
Answer me that Mr. Mounoubai. Answer me that.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Stigma and Moral Responsibility

Nadja Benaissa and her defense attorney Oliver Wallasch  in Darmstadt, Germany
(Image credit: CNN)

German singer Nadja Benaissa has been convicted of knowingly having sex, for more than a decade after finding out she was HIV positive, without informing her partners that she was HIV positive. One man testified he believes that he acquired HIV from her. She has been convicted of causing grievous bodily harm and attempted grievous bodily harm in a German court in Darmstadt and given a two year suspended sentence and ordered to complete 300 hours of community service in the HIV services sector.

This case has aroused much discussion in Germany because many thought that her arrest, trial and the subsequent media coverage were excessive, that her privacy had been violated and that prosecuting her was wrong.

About the only voice in the fray that I've heard that seems to look at the broad view is that of former tennis star Michael Stich, who is an HIV/AIDS activist:

"It makes me sad that the media are only now reporting on such an important, serious topic, only because now it's affecting a celebrity," Stich said.
He added that it is the general culture of silence about HIV/AIDS in Germany that has even made such a case possible. However, he said that if the allegations about the singer's conduct are correct, he would deem that "morally wrong."
"I can't put it any other way," he told the Berliner Morgenpost. "If someone knows that they are infected with HIV and accept the risk of infecting someone else, then that's just morally wrong."
However, he said he doesn't want to see Benaissa treated unfairly. "No matter how you look at it, Nadja is a victim," Stich said. "Whether she's also a perpetrator remains to be seen."

I had an interest in the story because a friend of mine, now deceased, was infected by a partner who knew he was HIV positive. I wonder about the state of denial that allows someone to risk infecting others. But as Stich points out, the person infected is also a victim. I just remember my friend, who came from a family with a Nobel Laureate and who had been shamed horribly by them for his homosexuality, worrying endlessly about who he might have infected before he himself was diagnosed. He contacted every single partner. In two cases he even paid for them to be tested. I'm sure he was the unusual HIV sufferer, and he had a lot more living under his belt, at 42, than Nadja Benaissa had.

Benaissa, a member of Germany's most popular girl band, No Angels, was 17 and three months pregnant when first diagnosed with HIV in 1999. Her band's success really took off in 2000 and she assiduously hid her HIV status over the decade that followed. The group disbanded in 2007 and she had embarked on a solo career.

I try to envision her life, and the lie she was living, or at least the illusion she was perpetuating. To live ten years (she was arrested and charged in 2009) in seeming success, all the while knowing that your life had taken a left turn before it was even really started. To think that she had a child to worry about, on top of it.

But still she did it. She did to others what had been done to her, and did it knowingly.

Her ultimate punishment will be that everyone knows her face not for her music but for her HIV status.

No matter what her punishment, there's no taking back her infecting the man she likely did. 

Still, I can't imagine the lies one has to tell oneself to get by after all the media coverage... 

I'm sad for her, for the infected man, and for a world in which a serious health condition is still the source of such shame and stigma that she reportedly felt she could never reveal her status to anyone.

Stich's appraisal seems spot on. An immoral victim.

It makes it no better to be able to label it, though, does it?

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Palate Cleanser #91

Comet or Madagascan Moon Moth

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Letters to Sakineh Astiani

Today's hearing in Iran was postponed for the third time. Clearly, the world is still paying too much attention to Sakineh Ashtiani. It still thinks she shouldn't be stoned, or hung, even after all the efforts put toward trying to implicate her in a murder, not just the questionable ones that convicted her of adultery after days of torture. 

The world still cares. Especially in France, the longtime supporter and haven for Iranian liberals. RFI offers regular updates, as do a number of French newspapers.

The French philosopher and journalist Bernard-Henri Lévy, author of the intriguing Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism and documentarian of the Iranian election demonstrations (see below for a refresher from 2009), is organizing a series of letters in advance of the International Stop Stoning Day (August 28, 2010). He has also been maintaining a petition to the Iranian Republic at his site, BHL, with signatures from authors including Wole Soyinka, Milan Kudera, Marjane Satrapi, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, politicians including former French Presidents Valéry Giscard-D'Estaing and Jacques Chirac, among many, many others. As of this writing, the list numbers 26,104 signatures. You can see it here.

I reproduce the first four letters here for my Persian readers. These English translations were published on Lévy's Huffington Post op-ed blog. Since the Wibiya translator has been acting up, I give you the links to BHL's La Règle de Jeu (Rules of the Game) posts of the letters in the original French. (If you cannot access the French versions, I'll post them in French. Just contact me.)

Dear Sakineh,
Condemned to be buried alive, and then stoned to death! Your beautiful face, reduced to a pulp! Your eyes full of sorrow and dignity, your forehead, your mind, your soul, transformed into a target for the stone throwers, exploded, pulverized, in shreds! Horror and consternation! This revoltingly nightmarish image, this vision that terrifies us and seems to come from a long ago age, this unbelievable torture that is on the very verge of becoming reality. For obscure reasons, in cold rage, people who are like you and me have decided so, Sakineh. People who claim the right to the power of life and death over those who refuse to obey them. 

Having learned of the sentence pronounced against you, how can one possibly remain silent? What is at real risk of happening to you will profoundly harm all women, all children, all those who are moved by human feeling. And even worse, you would not be the only one who risks being subject to this dreadful execution. I cannot see any good that may come of this macabre ceremony, whatever the legal justifications supplied.

To spill your blood, to deprive your children of their mother--but why? Because you have lived, because you have loved, because you are a woman, an Iranian? 

Everything within me refuses to accept this. The Iranian people are among the most ancient and remarkable nations of the planet. I do not understand how the heirs of a great civilization built upon tolerance and refinement can be unfaithful to this millennial heritage. 

Your judges must know, Sakineh, your name has become a symbol the world over. Let us hope they may understand that, no matter what the time or the place, they shall never be able to wash their hands of such a crime.

I am proud to live in a country that has abolished the death penalty. For a long while, it was an element of our law, and I can tell you that this abolition was a democratic victory, one that was very important for all of our people. What if this victory became yours as well? What if the Iranian nation turned its back on this barbarian practice?
I pray that your country's justice may find the way to prove clement in your case and in the cases of all the other victims who risk undergoing the same torture. In France, school children learn that mercy is the greatest virtue of those who govern. 

In the depths of your cell, know that my husband will plead your cause unfailingly and that France will not abandon you. 

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy   
Lisez en français

In principle, I refrain from intervening in judicial procedures taking place in foreign countries. But in this case, the fate awaiting Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani does not seem to me compatible with the principles and customs of the modern world. From its very origins, humanity has worked to free itself of cruel and primitive behavior. In every culture, civilization seeks to reject practices that are detrimental to the dignity of human beings. Stoning is one such practice. The penalty one proposes to inflict upon Sakineh throws us back into the dark ages of humanity. I believe that the great Persian culture that contributed to building human civilization deserves much better than this. Let us hope the Iranian authorities will realize this while there is still time.

Valéry Giscard d'Estaing    
Lisez en français

Dear Sakineh,
I am thinking very hard about you, and about your children, Fasride and Sajjad, and my blood runs cold. Take courage and hope, more and more voices are being raised for you all over the world, and they will succeed in being heard and in tearing down the walls of your prison. In helping you, we are helping ourselves. We need your liberation so that our ideal of liberty and fraternity may advance and gain ground. There where the dignity of women is bruised, crushed, annihilated, Humanity in its entirety recedes. Where woman is used as an expiatory victim, enslaved for the sole crime of having been born a woman, all those who know that this obscurantism leads to even greater disaster must rise. Sakineh, we will not abandon you. Hang on for us, hang on for us.

Ségolène Royal    Lisez en français

Sakineh, your name beats in my heart, and my heart beats, writing to you. Your name is on all lips and will be murmured to burst the eardrums of the judges who remain deaf to the moans of the women among whom you are the invincible figure of liberty. You are the real woman, cruelly rich with unrealized possibilities, the one who gives flesh and blood to a sense of justice that makes the entire world shiver in disgust, the one that would rip its skin off were we not capable of conquering the deliberate obscurantism of men who are enraged by the power of your very existence.
The woman writing you is only a French actress whose artistic vocation leads her to take on, as humanly as possible, the faults and the torments of often tragic heroines. She is only the minute extension of the "fragment of our destiny as women" which you represent and of your refusal of this "savoir mourir" forced upon you by those who are obsessed, in the name of criminal ignorance, with the desire to liquidate the magnificence of your dignity. They are crazed with rage at the simple idea of love--yes, love--your liberty represents. I leave you, dear Sakineh, you who remain with us constantly. 

Isabelle Adjani     Lisez en français

Neither Sakineh, nor her fellow death sentenced prisoners, are forgotten. Please remember to  commemorate the fight against stoning deaths on August 28th on Facebook and on Twitter.

Header and footer text commentary © Bright Nepenthe, 2010