Mosaic Blog

The Second Coming, Cartoon Bombs, and Angry New York Mobs: Mosaic's UNGA Roundup

 Press TV / United Nations

 

The UN General Assembly's yearly get-together is a time for high-flying international diplomacy between world leaders. The General Debate, in particular, allows all world leaders who participate in the United Nations to deliver a public address to the General Assembly. As such, it has been used as a highly-visible platform by many countries' representatives to push their views.

This year's debate theme was "Adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations by peaceful means," which seems a little tongue-in-cheek given the current situation in parts of the Middle East and Africa.

As BBC Arabic reported that Somali and African forces were closing in on the final al-Shabab stronghold of Kismayo, Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Ali gave his remarks at the Assembly, saying that there was no place in Somalia for the "few ideological extremists" in the Islamist group's ranks.

Barack Obama's appearance at the UN was brief, which some say was to avoid tough discussions with other world leaders on Iran and Syria. He honored Libyan Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was killed in an attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi, and condemned the American-made film that criticized Islam's Prophet Muhammad and sparked anti-US riots across the Muslim world. Meanwhile, Libya's new president, Mohamed Yousek al-Magariaf, apologized for the attacks, and apologized to the world on behalf of Libya for Muammar Gaddafi's decades-long rule.

With regard to Syria, world leaders condemned the violence across the board, but their approaches to end the conflict varied greatly. According to IBA News, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Jordan's King Abdullah II both called for Bashar al-Assad to step down, saying that the Syrian president's ouster is vital to the success of peace efforts.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad supported the Syrian regime, and criticized the efforts by the Western world to interfere in what he sees as an internal conflict. Ahmadinejad, in his last speech to the Assembly as a world leader, also spoke of his belief in the imminent arrival of Jesus Christ and the twelfth imam, Imam al-Mahdi, whom Shiites believe will come at the end times with the prophet Jesus to help humanity. The United States and Israel were both absent from the General Assembly Hall when he gave his remarks.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also addressed the United Nations with a long-anticipated bid to join the UN General Assembly as an observer. The Palestinian Authority previously asked the UN for full member status last year, but had been rejected by the Security Council, which has the Israel ally, the United States, as a permanent member with veto power. Press TV reports that Abbas also lambasted Israel for its "ethnic cleansing" of Palestinians, as well as the ongoing occupation of Palestinian land. A UN report that came at the beginning of the week and before the General Assembly meeting echoed similar statements-- that Israel must do more to halt the abuse of Palestinian rights.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stole the show by using a prop, which has not been done in the General Assembly since the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi pulled out a copy of the UN Charter and threw it in the air in 2009. Netanyahu used a picture of a cartoon bomb and drew a red line through it to illustrate how far Iran has come in enriching uranium, and how the United Nations must draw a red line for the country before it acquires enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb. Press TV analysts expressed concern over Netanyahu's mental health following this incident.

Outside of the Assembly Hall, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Rahmin Mehmanparast captured the attention of the American channel Fox News after he was attacked by a group of "about 100" Iranian dissident protestors on a New York City sidewalk. He managed to flag down an NYPD police car, but according to Dubai TV, the cops appeared "uninterested."

 

Image: Benjamin Netanyahu draws a red line on a bomb illustration at the UN General Assembly, September 27, 2012. Press TV / United Nations

 
 

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The Not-So-Innocent Film that Sparked Rage Across the Muslim World, and More

American film offensive to Islam sparks anti-US protests across Muslim world

REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Adding to the death of the American ambassador to Libya and members of his staff in Benghazi on September 11, demonstrations condemning a film that insulted the Prophet Muhammad have spread to Egypt, Yemen, Iran, Lebanon, Gaza, Tunisia, Sudan, Morocco, and Mauritania, leading to four deaths in Yemen. Other Western embassies have also been attacked in Sudan.

IBA reported that the film that was released on the Internet and sparked the protests is called "Innocence of Muslims," and was produced by a California-based Jewish writer and producer. Most of Mosaic's broadcasters have reported that he is an Israeli American, leading to further anti-US and anti-Israel sentiment among Muslims.

 

Israel quickly denounced the film, with New TV reporting on Wednesday that the Israeli Foreign Ministry called it "unbearable extremism." Press TV noted that US President Barack Obama condemned the killings, but stopped short of condemning the film.

 

In addition to depicting the prophet Muhammad, which is strictly taboo in many interpretations of Islam, the film struck a nerve in the Muslim and Arab worlds for being American-made. Al Jazeera English discusses the nature of the protests, touching on the deep-seated anger of some citizens in the region regarding US foreign policy, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Syrians come out for another round of Friday protests after a week of heavy shelling

As the new UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi visits Damascus for the first time since his appointment, cities and villages across Syria have continued to endure heavy army shelling, especially in and around Aleppo and Damascus. Algerie TV reported that the most recent statistics from the UNHCR indicate the number of Syrian refugees has surpassed 250,000, with 85,000 currently in Jordan.

Despite the daily attacks, BBC Arabic reported that on Friday, anti-regime demonstrations took place across Daraa, Idlib, the countryside of Damascus-- which the Syrian government says still harbors "terrorists" that they are trying to pursue-- and al-Hasaka Province, which has a Kurdish majority.

Newly-elected Somali president escapes assassination attempt

Hassan Sheikh Mahmud, who hails from the same tribe as departing president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, is the first Somali president to be elected within the country in more than two decades. However, BBC Arabic reported that just days after his election, he escaped two bombings that targeted the Mogadishu hotel in which he was residing. He was was meeting with Kenyan Foreign Minister Samson Ongeri at the time of the attack, which came as a surprise given the number of Somali and African Union forces protecting his hotel and convoy.

 

Image: Tunisian protesters burn the U.S. flag during a demonstration outside the U.S. embassy in Tunis September 12, 2012. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

 
 

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The Battle of Karbala's Significance Today: Shia Islam in the News

 REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

 

Last week, BBC Arabic reported on a conference held in Istanbul on Muslim-Christian relations entitled, "The Arab Awakening and Peace in the New Middle East." During the conference, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan commented, "What happened nearly 1,300 years ago in Karbala is the same thing happening today in Syria."

Erdogan was referring to the Battle of Karbala, a pivotal event in Islam during which Hussein bin Ali, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, was killed. Hussein and his supporters were traveling to Kufa to confront Syrian Caliph (Khalifa) Yazid I on his legitimacy as a successor to Muhammad, but were grossly outnumbered by the caliph's forces.

By comparing the current conflict in Syria to the Battle of Karbala, Erdogan may have also implied a reference to similarities between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Yazid I. Yazid inherited power from his father Muawiyah I, a detested figure amongst Shiites and some Sunnis for seizing the caliphate from Muhammad's two grandsons, Hassan and Hussein, who Shiites believe are the prophet's true successors.

The Imams of the largest branches of Shia Islam claim to have descended from the prophet Muhammad through Hussein. The Sunni kings of Morocco and Jordan (and previously the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, and Iraq) claim to have descended from the elder of the two, Hassan.


The date of Hussein bin Ali's martyrdom, or the Day of Ashura, is a holy day in Shia Islam. On Ashura, Shiites make a pilgrimage to Hussein's grave in the Iraqi city of Karbala, and the term Husseiniyat refers to the congregation halls in which Shiites mourn him.

In Iraq, Al-Iraqiya reported on Thursday that three Husseiniyat in Kirkuk were attacked using car bombs, claiming multiple lives. This was followed by a wave of bombings over the weekend that killed dozens of people, including a number of Shiites in the southern city of Basra. These are the latest in a series of attacks on Iraqi Shiites this summer. Most have been blamed on the Islamic State of Iraq, a Sunni umbrella organization affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, Al-Alam reported that a large demonstration was held in the eastern city of al-Qatif to demand the release of Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a Shia scholar. Al-Nimr was originally arrested in July following a sermon in which he criticized the royal al-Saud family and called for rejoicing in Crown Prince Nayef's death.

Shiites make up about 15 percent of Saudi Arabians. They reside primarily in Eastern Province, sharing a sea border and cultural ties with Bahrain. Most of the country, including the royal family, follows a conservative branch of Sunni Islam and considers Shiites to be apostates. As such, Shiites have been historically marginalized in the country, and unlike Iraq and Lebanon, Saudi Arabia has never had a sizable Shiite elite. Members of this long-disenfranchised group have been the primary participants in Saudi Arabia's Arab Spring demonstrations.

 

Image: A Shi'ite pilgrim walks to the holy city of Kerbala to mark Arbain in Baghdad's Doura District January 9, 2012. Arbain falls 40 days after the Shi'ite holy day of Ashura. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

 
 

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If Bashar Falls, What Will Happen to Syria's Alawites and Kurds?

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is facing immense pressure to step down from power to end the conflict in his country. Unfortunately, ending the Syrian conflict is not that easy. Syria, like most countries in the Middle East, has kept a precarious balance of power between religious and ethnic groups for centuries. Assad stepping down may be the drastic change that the Syrian people need, but it could also have disastrous consequences for some of these groups.

 

Let us examine two of the largest minority groups in Syria-- Alawites and Kurds-- and see how they fit into the scene of this ongoing conflict.

Alawites

 

Map showing the presence of Alawites in the three countries where they are found: Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon. NordNordWest and Supreme Deliciousness / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-1.0

 

The ruling al-Assad family is part of the Alawite community, which is a minority religious group in Syria and constitutes about 12 percent of Syria's population (2.1 million people). The term Alawite or Alawi comes from the name "Ali," referring to the fact that they are followers of Imam Ali bin Abi Taleb, a cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad.

While Alawites are classified as a distant branch of Shia Islam, many Muslims consider Alawite practices, such as drinking wine and believing in reincarnation, to be heresy. As such, Alawites have long suffered persecution, and have taken to keeping their beliefs behind a veil of secrecy.

Alawites have held a disproportionate amount of Syria's political and economic power since Bashar's father Hafez seized power in the 1970s. Sunnis, who comprise about three-quarters of the population and ruled the area for centuries, have resented this imbalance. However, the mostly-Alawite Assad government has been largely tolerant of other ethnic and religious minorities. The government has also enjoyed the support of neighboring Shiite political groups, such as Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Aside from Damascus, the Alawites of Syria are concentrated in the country's northwest, along the Mediterranean coast, in the provinces of Latakia and Tartus. They are joined by significant Alawite minorities in Turkey's southern Antakya Province (formerly Antioch) to their immediate north, and Lebanon's northernmost district of Akkar to their immediate south.

South of Akkar, the Jabal al-Mohsen neighborhood in Tripoli (Tarabulus) is also mostly Alawite in a bastion of conservative Sunnis, and has experienced clashes with the anti-Assad Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood for decades. The fighting in Tripoli has only increased with the escalation of the war in Syria.

Many Alawites in the country fear a backlash against their community if Bashar al-Assad were to step down from power. Even if they are not pro-Assad, they fear being "massacred" by Sunnis once they are no longer under the protection of the Syrian army.

Kurds

 

Kurdish-inhabited area, by CIA (1992)


Most of Hasaka Governorate, which is in the northeastern tip of Syria, forms a small part of the geocultural region of Kurdistan. This historically Kurdish region includes the majority of southeastern Turkey, the northern border of Iraq, most of the western border of Iran, and a small portion of Armenia. There are some 30 million Kurds living in this region, making them the largest ethnic group in the world without their own country.

Kurds are also one of the largest ethnic minorities in Syria, consisting of about 10 percent of the Syrian population (2 million people). They have been regularly discriminated against by the Syrian government, and were considered stateless for decades until earlier last year, when Bashar al-Assad granted them Syrian citizenship in a bid to prevent them from joining the growing opposition against his regime. This bid was largely unsuccessful, and many Kurds have joined the uprising with the hope of securing their autonomy as a separate Kurdish state within Syria, if not establishing Kurdistan as a nation, to the dismay of neighboring countries.

When the fighting between regime forces and the Free Syrian Army intensified in western Syria this July, Syrian forces withdrew from the Kurdish northeast to strengthen their fronts against the FSA in western urban areas such as Aleppo and Damascus. The withdrawal left Syrian Kurds almost completely in control of their own region for the first time, much to Turkey's chagrin, which fears that the Kurdish region in Syria could become a haven for the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

At the moment, the region is one of the safest and most secure in the country, due in part to Kurds preventing both the Syrian army and the FSA from entering. However, many are worried that once the greater conflict is resolved, either the Syrian regime or the opposition will try to take back the Kurdish region, something that the newly-autonomous Kurds will not take kindly to.

Possible consequences of regime change

Neighboring countries fear that the fall of the Assad regime will lead to the fracturing of Syria along ethnic and religious lines, which would almost inevitably create complications in the greater region. King Abdullah of Jordan has said that the creation of an Alawite state along the predominantly-Alawite Syrian coast may be Bashar al-Assad's "Plan B." The creation of an independent Kurdish state in Syria's east may lead to more calls for Kurdish autonomy, even for a unified Kurdistan, in the surrounding Kurd-populated areas. Additionally, the influx of Syrian refugees will change the demographic makeup of the countries surrounding Syria, which could upset other precarious balances of power and lead to new conflicts years down the line.

 

Images:

1. Map showing the presence of Alawites in the three countries where they are found: Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon. NordNordWest and Supreme Deliciousness / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-1.0

2. Kurdish-inhabited area, by CIA (1992)

 
 

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This Week in Syria: New Aleppo Violence as Free Syrian Army Falls Under Scrutiny

 REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

 

In Aleppo, the Free Syrian Army made a "tactical withdrawal" from the strategic neighborhood of Salaheddine last week, citing a shortage of ammunition. According to BBC Arabic, they have returned and opened new fronts in the city, including a push to control Aleppo International Airport, as well as the military airfield adjacent to it.

However, Aleppo City and some of the governorate proper is coming under heavy fire from the Syrian Army. On Thursday, Dubai TV reported that at least 80 were killed in an air strike on the town of Azaz, which is about 50 kilometers from Aleppo. There were also air raids on several Aleppo neighborhoods on Friday.

The Free Syrian Army, known in Arabic as al-Jaish al-Suri al-Hurr, also came under scrutiny this week after videos surfaced showing alleged FSA members participating in a morally questionable execution in Aleppo and kidnapping a Lebanese national, the latter of which the FSA denied. New TV showed the footage of a what appears to be a "shabeha" getting his throat slit by an FSA member, alongside footage of the FSA with a captured Syrian Army pilot. According to Dubai TV, however, the FSA claimed that both the kidnapping of Hassan al-Miqdad of the powerful al-Miqdad family, as well as the group involved in the abduction, were fabricated by the Syrian regime in an attempt to fuel strife between Syrians and Lebanese.

In the south of the country, Damascus also experienced heavy fighting this week. Al Jazeera reported on Wednesday that the Free Syrian Army detonated a bomb under a fuel truck near Umayyad Square. The FSA said that the bomb had targeted a meeting of the Syrian Air Force, but the explosion was also very close to the UN observers' hotel. The bombing was followed by clashes in the neighborhood of Kafr Susa, which is near the prime minister's office.

Meanwhile, at the Organization for Islamic Cooperation's latest summit in Mecca, Algerie TV reported that Syria was suspended from the OIC, and the leaders agreed to continue pursuing the political solution and a peaceful solution to the crisis that would guarantee the country's unity and sovereignty during the violence. The meeting ended by confirming support for oppressed Muslim people, and with calls to combat strife between Islamic teachings, as well as countering terrorism and extremism.

 

Image: A man cries in front of houses destroyed during a recent Syrian Air Force air strike in Azaz, some 47 km (29 miles) north of Aleppo, August 15, 2012. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

 
 

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