The bloodstained trail of the Abu Sayyaf

MANILA – The Abu Sayyaf, who released two German hostages Friday after six months in captivity, is an Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic militant group blamed for the deadliest terror attacks in the Philippines.

The following timeline traces the bloodstained trail of the group in its bid to impose a strict brand of Islam to the mainly Catholic Philippines:

– Early 1990s: Libya-trained Islamic preacher Abdurajak Janjalani forms the Abu Sayyaf (Bearer of the Sword) with young Muslims disaffected by an older generation of Muslim guerrillas, backed by seed money from a local charity run by Mohammad Jamal Khalifa, a brother-in-law of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

– April 4, 1995: Hundreds of Abu Sayyaf gunmen sack the southern town of Ipil leaving more than 50 people dead.

– December 18, 1998: Janjalani is killed in a clash with security forces on the island of Basilan and is replaced by younger brother, Khadaffy Janjalani.

– April 23, 2000: Abu Sayyaf gunmen cross the sea border to snatch 10 Western tourists and 11 Asian resort workers from the Malaysian island resort of Sipadan.

The Western hostages were freed in August 2001 and flown to Tripoli aboard a special jet sent by Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, who is said to have paid millions of dollars in ransom. The Asians were also freed.

– May 27, 2001: The Abu Sayyaf raids a western Philippine island resort and takes 20 hostages, including an American Christian missionary couple and American tourist Guillermo Sobero, who the gunmen later said they beheaded on June 11, 2001.

The Philippine military recovered Sobero’s remains from a shallow grave on October 6, 2001, and US forensics experts later confirmed his death.

Missionary Martin Burnham was killed in a military operation that rescued his wife Gracia Burnham on June 7, 2002.

– October 2, 2002: A US military adviser helping train Filipino counter-terrorism troops is killed along with two Filipinos in an Abu Sayyaf bombing near a military camp on the outskirts of the southern port of Zamboanga.

– February 27, 2004: The Abu Sayyaf firebombs a ferry on Manila Bay, killing 116 people in an attack described by Filipino authorities as the country’s worst terror incident.

– March 15, 2005: Philippine police crush a violent overnight riot at a Manila prison holding detained Abu Sayyaf members, killing 17 militants including four senior leaders standing trial for the Sipadan kidnappings and the ferry bombing.

– September 4, 2006: Leader Khadaffy Janjalani is killed in a clash with troops. DNA tests later confirm his death.

– June 27, 2007: The Philippine military says the Abu Sayyaf has elected Yasser Igasan as its new leader.

– July 10, 2007: The Abu Sayyaf and fighters from the mainstream guerrilla group Moro Islamic Liberation Front kill 14 Marines on the island of Basilan, beheading 10 of them.

– September 30, 2009: Two American military advisers and a Filipino Marine are killed in an Abu Sayyaf bombing on Jolo island.

– December 5, 2011: The Abu Sayyaf abducts Australian Warren Rodwell, a former soldier, at his southern Philippines home. He is freed unharmed on March 23, 2013 after a reported ransom of nearly $100,000 is paid.

– February 1, 2012: Two European bird watchers are abducted in the Tawi-Tawi island group and later turned over to the Abu Sayyaf on Jolo.

– April 25, 2014: Abu Sayyaf gunmen abduct German couple Stefan Okonek and Henrike Dielen aboard a yacht sailing off the western Philippine island of Palawan.

– July 2014: Senior Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, who carries a $5 million bounty on his head by the US government, appears in YouTube video with armed followers to pledge allegiance to Islamic State jihadists fighting in Iraq and Syria.

– September 23, 2014: The Abu Sayyaf announces it is holding the two Germans. It threatens to behead one of the two hostages unless $5.6 million ransom is paid and Germany end its support to the US-led campaign against jihadists in Iraq and Syria.

Both the Philippines and Germany reject the demands.

– October 2, 2014: The Abu Sayyaf warns it will kill one of its German hostages on October 17 unless its demands are met.

– October 17, 2014: The German couple are released and escorted by civilians to a Jolo military camp hours after the deadline runs out.

The military dismisses as “propaganda” the kidnappers’ claim they had collected the entire amount they had sought in ransom.

© 1994-2014 Agence France-Presse

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Turkish prosecutors drop corruption probe

Posted: Saturday, October 18, 2014 3:59 am

Updated: 6:00 am, Sat Oct 18, 2014.

Turkish prosecutors drop corruption probe

Associated Press |


ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s state-run agency says prosecutors have dropped a corruption investigation that forced three ministers to resign and rocked the Turkish government earlier in the year.

The Anadolu Agency said late Friday prosecutors in Istanbul ruled there were no grounds for legal action against 53 suspects, including two former ministers’ sons. Prosecutors also dismissed a separate corruption case in September.

The government had rejected the corruption allegations, insisting the probe was orchestrated by followers of an influential U.S.-based Muslim cleric that it claims aimed to topple the government.

Prosecutors and police investigating the probe were replaced and dozens of police officers have since been detained across Turkey on suspicion of illegal wiretaps.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time, won elections in August to become president.

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Saturday, October 18, 2014 3:59 am.

Updated: 6:00 am.

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We need to know more, but the "experts" aren’t helping

With the US currently engaged in an air-war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and with voices now calling for deeper engagement in both conflict zones, the American public is being bombarded with commentary and analysis about ISIS, Syria and Iraq, and Muslims. Unfortunately, too much of it is shallow–mostly a stringing together of clichés. More disturbing still, is the extent to which this crisis has provoked another round of uninformed conversation about Arabs and Islam fueling fear and hatred of Arab and Muslim Americans.

While a few knowledgeable individuals have been invited for rare media appearances, all too often the networks have let laziness win out dragging out a cast of “regulars”–former military officers, current or former elected officials, and paid “talking heads”. They may know a few choice Arabic words (Sunni, Shia, Jihadi, etc.) and can use a few of them in a sentence. But experts, they are not. I’m sorry to sound elitist, but some guy who made a fortune in real estate and happened to be elected to Congress is not, in my book, qualified to speak about countries he’s never visited or cultures he’s never studied.

To hear these “experts” pontificating about Islam or Arab culture is more than annoying. It’s downright dangerous. Instead of elevating the discourse, they dumb it down. And instead of making us aware of the enormous complexities involved in these conflict zones, they reduce them to simple and easy clichés.

America has been down this road before in the Middle East–with tragic results. I fear we may be heading there once again. During the past four decades we’ve been deeply involved across this region, but because we’ve known so little about its peoples, cultures, and history–all too often our involvement has spelled disaster.

Studies have shown that the US educational system doesn’t prepare us to understand the Middle East. Popular culture has distorted perceptions of the region and its peoples reducing them to crude one-dimensional negative stereotypes. And the political culture has, all too often, exploited these stereotypes–elevating them to political truths.

After 9/11, there was a flurry of commentary about Islam and the Arab World. Questions were asked “why do they hate us?” and “what’s wrong with the Arab World?” We knew we had a problem and we wanted to understand its source and how to resolve it. I found it especially tragic that, in that moment, when so many were open to knowledge, major media outlets and political leadership failed miserably. Instead of informing, they fell back on the conventional wisdom of the stereotypes. The airwaves were dominated by commentators who were either purveyors of the same old myths or those who had an axe to grind against Arabs and Islam.

The answers they provided to the above questions were ahistorical, tautological, or just plain uninformed. To the first they responded -”they hate us because they hate our values and are envious of our success” or “they hate us because they have been taught to hate us”. And to the second -”they have failed because their religion is fundamentally backward” or “they have failed because their culture is inherently flawed”. Instead of helping to create understanding, they reinforced stereotypes. And instead of shattering myths enabling us to see our way forward to bridging the chasm that separated the West from the Arab and Muslim peoples, they accented our fears and contributed to deepening the divide. Fear and sensationalism might have been a convenient way to boost ratings or an easy way to scare up votes–but real damage was done.

Our political leadership, with most media outlets cheering them on, committed hundreds of thousands of our young men and women to fight and lose their lives in two failed wars. The Bush Administration invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq without any real understanding of their history or people–stumbling as one would upon entering a dark room–not knowing where we were going, what we would find, what we were bumping into, and what the consequences of our blunders would be.

Almost ten years after 9/11 and seven years after the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Zogby International conducted a poll of American public opinion. What we found was frightening: 37% of Americans still couldn’t find Iraq on a map; less than a quarter knew that Syria bordered Iraq; and two-thirds thought Iran was an Arab country. Almost half of all Americans believed that “most Muslims are religious fanatics”, and almost three-quarters were convinced that “Arabs hated our values”.

As someone who has spent his entire adult life attempting to understand the Arab World and to build bridges between East and West and who has worked with my brother, John, to measure Arab and American public opinion, all this was so terribly frustrating. Our polling in the Arab World shows that the overwhelming majority of Arabs love American values and culture, people and products, and the advances Americans have made in science and technology. What they don’t like about us are our policies which so negatively affect their lives. Far from being fanatics, Arabs tell us that what they value most are their families and their work. They watch TV to be entertained. And their mosque attendance rates are roughly the same as church attendance rates in the US. But that’s not what comes through over our airwaves or in our political discourse.

When President Obama traveled to Egypt in 2009 to speak to the Arab and Muslim Worlds, he was making an effort to change and elevate the discussion – there and here. He began,

“We meet at a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world–tensions rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate…tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations”.

He continued appealing to both sides not to let our relationships be defined by differences, to reject negative stereotypes, and to end “the cycle of suspicion and discord”.

I believe that the President’s Cairo speech is as relevant today as it was then. What is unfolding in Syria and Iraq is clearly a danger that we must address. But before we go half-cocked into another Middle East war based on half-baked notions about the people we will be fighting, we need to know a great deal more about the challenges involved. We need to understand the nature of ISIS. What is its appeal; what are the social and political characteristics of its base; how is it seen by those whom it counts as supporters; and what accounts for its rapid spread? What will it take to defeat them and what exactly would victory look like? How are we perceived by allies and enemies, alike? And will that impact our ability to operate in the region?

This may be a war worth waging. But before we do more, we need to know more. Given the level of understanding on display from too many political commentators, that’s something they still don’t get.

Follow @AAIUSA for more.

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Md. public school teacher denies he told students all Muslims are terrorists

Prince George’s County school administrators are investigating allegations that an English teacher told students at Parkdale High School that all Muslims are terrorists who “will kill you.”

The teacher — Anthony Fonebi, who has been with the school system since 2003 — denied that he said anything derogatory, saying in an interview Friday that the situation was a misunderstanding and a classroom discussion was “blown out of proportion.”

The discussion came at the end of an 11th-grade class on Sept. 18, and students later reported it to school officials and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the country’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization. CAIR on Friday asked the school system to take disciplinary action against the teacher, to protect the students who spoke up from retaliation and to provide sensitivity and diversity training to the school’s faculty and student body.

“Our focus is making sure it doesn’t occur again,” said Jenifer Wicks, an attorney at CAIR.

Max Pugh, a spokesman for the school system, said the school system became aware of the alleged incident Thursday and immediately began looking into it.

See CAIR’s letter

CAIR letter

CAIR alleges that a Prince George’s County teacher made derogatory remarks about Muslims in an 11th-grade class. See the letter.

“Prince George’s County Public Schools has a large international student population, and we value and embrace cultural diversity,” Pugh said in a statement. “All accounts of what happened in the classroom at Parkdale High School are being examined as part of the investigation, which will be completed soon.”

Parkdale High School has a growing Muslim population, and it has recently changed its policies to be more accommodating to those students. Former principal Cheryl Logan recently changed school rules to allow Muslim students who have parental permission and high grades a pass out of class every day to pray.

A Parkdale student who was in Fonebi’s class and heard the comments about Muslims said the situation began when two students were talking to each other about a boy who liked a Muslim girl. The student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fears of retaliation, said Fonebi interrupted the students. After a Muslim student told the boy jokingly that he could become a Muslim and marry the girl, Fonebi allegedly said the boy should never “be Muslim” and that “Muslims are dangerous. They are terrorists and they will kill you.”

The teacher allegedly continued: “You guys did 9/11.”

Students who were in the class later told the principal and their counselors about the confrontation, the student said. They were allowed to transfer to another teacher’s class.

Fonebi, reached by telephone Friday, said he never said anything negative about anyone. He said he reacted to the conversation between the two students, during which he said he heard a Muslim girl tell a Hispanic boy that he couldn’t date a Muslim girl that he liked.

Fonebi said the Muslim girl told the student:“ ‘I am dangerous,’ that ‘Muslims are dangerous.’ ”

“I told the boy if she says she’s dangerous, you should take her seriously,” Fonebi said, adding that he then tried to use the conversation as a teachable moment. “I said we have to learn not to generalize. I said Muslims are portrayed as terrorists and I said that is not true.”

He said he explained the situation to the principal at the time and that he was surprised to learn the incident had resurfaced as a CAIR complaint.

CAIR sent a letter Thursday to Parkdale Principal Tanya Washington, Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Lillian M. Lowery, Prince George’s County Schools Chief Executive Officer Kevin M. Maxwell and to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

The organization wrote that it believes the teacher’s “discriminatory statements were intended to provoke hatred and arouse suspicion and fear of Muslim students present in his class, as well as all Muslims in general, based on their Islamic faith. We are hopeful that you will agree that such invidious statements have no place in an academic environment.”

The incident is the second this year in Prince George’s County involving outrage over comments or materials used in class that could be seen as offensive.

Earlier this year, an elementary school in Prince George’s County canceled a skit about immigration reform after a parent complained that the script, titled “The Uninvited Guest,” was offensive to immigrants.

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Former ISIS hostage condemns immoral beheading of ”innocent” and …

A former hostage held by Islamic State militants has paid tribute to two British cell mates murdered by masked executioner Jihadi John.

French journalist Nicholas Henin was released in April after being held prisoner with Britons David Haines and Alan Henning.

The Frenchman also shared a cell with American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff – both of whom were also beheaded in gruesome videos posted on the internet by the extremist gang.

Friends: Henin, who came to know Haines (top) and Henning well, says his “mind is still in Syria”

Mr Henin said: “I was very close to both Alan Henning and especially David Haines. Alan Henning was someone who was a total innocent.

“He didn’t go to make any money. Alan was a kind of teddy bear. Always willing to help the others.

“Giving his life. He decided one day to just give it, to dedicate to the others and these others were a bunch of Muslim friends who wanted, who started this action in Syria and he told us, ‘I was the only non-Muslim among these people but they were all my friends.

“[David] quitted (sic) the army because he was fed up with the army and he dedicated himself to humanitarian action.

“These people…I find it really immoral to have killed them.”

Ordeal: Barbara Henning at a remembrance service for husband Alan

Speaking to ITV News, Mr Henin told how he hoped IS fanatics holding British journalist John Cantlie would release him after forcing him to appear in a series of propaganda videos released on YouTube.

He said: “Regarding John Cantlie, I’m optimistic that the lectures the captors asked him to deliver will be a way for him to pay for his life.

“I hope his captors will understand what a good guy he is.”

Mr Henin added that he is still struggling to cope with what happened to him.

“Normally when you are held hostage, the moment of your release you are free. I am not,” he said in an emotional interview.

“My mind is still somewhere in a cell in Syria and I can very much wake up to the news that one of my former cellmates having been killed and this brings me back months before. It is very brutal.”

He added: “Families always suffer even more than the hostages themselves. The worst thing is not to know anything, and not to be able to do anything.

“Families deserve a lot of respect and compassion… to see [their relatives] taken off the cell to be killed must be extremely hard for them.”

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Rebooted Comic Heroine Is An Elegant, Believable ‘Marvel’

Ms. Marvel 1

Consider the ways you could misstep in updating a classic comic-book superhero. Now imagine that your protagonist is A) female, B) 16, C) a Pakistani-American and, oh yeah, D) Muslim.

Could there be a tougher assignment? If you avoid gross errors in depicting halal meat or headscarves, you might lurch in the other direction and fail to endow the heroine with any meaningful cultural signifiers at all. And then there’s the matter of her struggle to define herself as she approaches adulthood. How can the timeworn superhero format possibly express the complexity of a modern teenage girl’s experience — all without objectifying her bod?

You can put it in the hands of G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona, that’s how. Faced with one of the trickiest problems a creator could imagine — rebooting Marvel Comics’ decades-old heroine Ms. Marvel — Wilson and Alphona rise to it and burst through.

Several different characters have used the Ms. Marvel name over the years, but Wilson and Alphona’s re-imagining is the most dramatic yet. Their Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, is an utterly believable teenager, and the art is pure grown-up. Everything from Kamala’s postmodern mindset (she’s a superheroine who reads superhero fan fiction) to Alphona’s elegant line work make this a comic for the discerning reader. Wilson, herself a Muslim, distills the enormity of culture shock into a few potent incidents. “Your headscarf is so pretty, Kiki,” a blonde princess tells Kamala’s best friend. “But, I mean … nobody pressured you to start wearing it, right? … I’m just concerned.”

Alphona triumphs too, giving Kamala an expressive face and a normal girl’s physique. Kamala has no use for the typical heroine outfit either, finding that the original Ms. Marvel costume gives her “an epic wedgie.”

Actually, though, even the key perpetrators of superheroine objectification have been catering to women lately. Marvel now has nine solo titles with female leads to DC Comics’ eight, according to Comics Alliance. A new rendering of Batgirl gives her a leather motocross jacket and bright yellow Doc Martin boots. And, of course, who could forget the 2010 fracas when DC ventured to update Wonder Woman’s outfit … by adding pants? (Die-hard fans were outraged by the new look, but Project Runway‘s Tim Gunn loved it.)

Ms. Marvel has a particularly volatile heritage. Introduced in 1967, she was a feminist who edited a magazine called simply WOMAN. But then she was kidnapped by evil Colonel Yon-Rogg and caught in the explosion of a Kree Psyche-Magnitron device …

Yeah, that’s the kind of thing only superhero fans find interesting.

It’s good, then, that Wilson has plenty to offer other readers. She cleverly folds Kamala’s Muslim heritage and teen angst into her emerging hero identity. When three Marvel heroes confer her powers upon her, they address her in mellifluous Urdu (which Wilson translates):

“The yellow mustard is blooming in every field, the yellow mustard is blooming, mango buds click open, other flowers too; the koyal twitters from branch to branch and the maiden tries on her adornments.”

Kamala crafts her “adornments” out of a conservative Muslim swimming outfit called a burkini. First, though, she has to get control of her powers, which tend to morph her without her volition into a blond clone of the original character. Kamala has to embrace her true self to banish blondness — and that’s no easy task. “Everybody’s expecting Ms. Marvel. A real superhero,” she says. “With perfect hair and big boots. Not Kamala Khan from Jersey City.”

She handles the challenge beautifully, though, thanks in part to the lovely artwork by Alphona and color artist Ian Herring. With its delicate color washes and wildly varying realism, the art bears far more resemblance to “alternative” comics than to typical superhero books. To say Alphona has a gift for natural physicality might downplay the hilarity of Kamala’s highly unnatural transformations; his depictions of Kamala with superlong legs or one huge, wrecking-ball-sized fist are all that could be desired.

This collection is largely dedicated to establishing Kamala, sketching out her life and family and documenting her transformation. Aside from a few intimations, the “Big Bad” doesn’t make an appearance until the very end. This individual, dubbed The Inventor, is suitably horrid. That said, most readers won’t find Kamala’s struggles with his minions to be particularly scary or exciting. Her personal struggles — with her parents, her friends and her own body — are simply more compelling than the archenemy.

That might not sit well with mainstream superhero fans. Wilson and Alphona have written a comic for people who appreciate superheroes as icons, but don’t necessarily feel an ongoing emotional investment in their battles with the forces of evil. As such, the authors risk alienating the traditional fan base to zero in on a narrower demographic. Is it inevitable that an innovative female hero will have to draw her fans from this razor-thin cohort? To find out, stay tuned for our next installment.

Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and

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Threats mar Butler County’s 52nd House District candidacy

Threatening phone calls have marred an otherwise compelling and interesting race in Butler County’s 52nd House District.

The race has a couple of pioneering candidates. One of them is Republican Margaret Conditt, the first woman from Butler County to serve in the Ohio House. The other is Democrat Cathina Hourani, the first Muslim candidate in the entire state.

It is Hourani’s first political race and she said the reaction to this historic candidacy has generally been positive.

“Some of those conversations have been difficult,” said Hourani. “But, we were able to find a common ground and work from that.”

Watch this story

What she didn’t expect was a threatening phone call that was followed by two more.

They happened mid-week after a local paper ran a story about her candidacy.

“It’s OK if people don’t agree politically,” said Hourani. “But, to have threats to my life … I’m not going to lie to you and say I’m not scared because it is very concerning to me.”

Hourani vowed to not let the threats interrupt her campaign or change her approach.

When informed about the anonymous threats, Hourani’s opponent had a swift and serious reaction.

“Just totally unacceptable behavior in a civil society,” said Conditt. “There is no room for that in any campaign.”

The local Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a statement about it, asking that it be investigated as a hate crime.

“Threats targeting a candidate for public office based on the candidate’s faith are very disturbing and should be of concern to all Americans,” said CAIR-Cincinnati executive director Karen Dabdoub. “We believe the rising level of bigotry targeting Muslims in our nation is a direct result of the Islamophobia industry pumping out this type of hatred on a daily basis.”

Political officials said both women have intriguing back stories and perspectives.

Hourani is the daughter of a U.S. Army veteran and firefighter. She is a married mother of six and an active Democratic activist during the past few years.

She put her historic candidacy in context by saying, “I don’t see myself as this wonderful, brave person. I just see myself as an American citizen that is concerned in the direction that we’re going.”

Conditt and her husband have two grown children and a granddaughter.

She is a former Liberty Township trustee and spent 22 years as a Procter Gamble manager.

“I do look at bills with the eyes of a business person,” said Conditt. “I want to make sure that our regulations aren’t going to hurt business.”

The Liberty Township, West Chester and Fairfield Township areas are booming.

Both expressed commitment and caring about that growth and the district itself, which is why Hourani was taken aback by the threatening calls.

She described one as saying ISIS is not wanted in Cincinnati and if you value your life and that of your family, you’ll stop running.

“I cannot let someone, No. 1, define who I am and No. 2, scare me,” Hourani said.

She has been part of the 52nd District for eight years and knows she’ll have to siphon off many Republican voters in order to pull an upset.

Conditt was appointed to the seat three-and-a-half years ago and says the experience as a representative for her district has been “amazing” and rewarding.
She applies a business perspective to her office.

“I think the goal should be to reduce taxes, to let people keep more of their own money in their pocket, to make it business-friendly so we can attract new businesses and keep businesses from leaving the state,” Conditt said.

Hourani believes in small business investment and speaks about the struggles of working families.

“We need sustainable jobs, we need to raise the minimum wage and we need somebody that’s going to go up to Columbus that’s willing to work with both parties,” Hourani said.

Both women view themselves as non-traditional candidates, saying they are more in tune with being a public servant than a politician.

Both seem genuinely grateful for the opportunity to run for office.

Conditt, with her local government perspective, and Hourani, with her optimism about human nature even in the face of hate-filled threats.

“If I could have a conversation with them,” Hourani said in reference to the unknown callers. “I’m not your enemy, I’m a concerned citizen just like you.”

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Ben Affleck Explains Islam

The ongoing debate over the nature of Islam and whether the radicals who’ve dubbed themselves the Islamic State represent authentic Muslim teaching got loud recently when a shouting match erupted on Bill Maher’s HBO talk show, “Real Time”.

Movie star Ben Affleck went barb-for-barb with writer Sam Harris over the latter’s contention that Islam is inherently oppressive. Harris, author of the newly published book, Waking Up, charged that people in the West shrink from criticizing even the most fanatical interpretations of Islam because they fear being labeled as bigots.

“The crucial point of confusion is we have been sold this meme of Islamaphobia,” Harris said, “where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam is conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people. Which is intellectually ridiculous.”

To which Affleck responded…

“You are saying that Islamaphobia is not a real thing? It’s gross, it’s racist. It’s like saying ‘that shifty Jew’….

“How about the more than a billion people who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punish women, who just want to go to school, have some sandwiches, and don’t do any of the things you say all Muslims do?”

Sandwich preferences in the Muslim world aside, Harris was having none of this. He maintained that people like Affleck, who cluster at the left end of the political/social spectrum, simply cannot understand the all-encompassing religious vision that colors the views of Muslims, even those who don’t advocate Islamist radicalism…

“Liberals have failed on the topic of [Islamic] theocracy. They’ll criticize white theocracy, they’ll criticize Christianity. They still get agitated over the abortion clinic bombing that happened in 1984.”

Harris received some support from host Bill Maher, prompting Affleck to retort “The people who actually believe that you should murder someone if you dishonor the Islamic faith is not with the majority of Muslims at all.”

While I readily agree with Affleck that most Muslims don’t share the violent obsessions of the Islamic State, I do share Harris’ opinion that there’s a certain perception deficiency on the Left, as regards the subject of comparative religion…

“The Islamic State kidnaps innocent people, then beheads its hostages, and distributes videos of these hideous acts online.”

“Yeah, well, what about the Spanish Inquisition?”

“The Islamic State executes captured resistance fighters by the hundred, mutilating their bodies, and burying them in mass graves.”

“Yeah… yeah… but what about the Crusades?”

“The Islamic State uses Sharia Law to justify enslaving non-Muslim women and children. It preaches that rape is a legitimate tactic of war.”

“Yeah… well… the Catholic Church won’t let women be priests — what about that, huh?”

Fr. Dwight Longenecker, pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and one of the most closely followed Catholic commentators, puts his finger on the essential condition here. Writing for the religious blog portal, Patheos, he observes that liberals are

“…far too optimistic about human nature. They don’t really believe in sin. Oh, they believe that people are sometimes unkind and selfish, but they don’t believe in the reality of evil because they don’t believe in the reality of God. They want to believe that everyone is really good at heart and all anybody needs is just a little bit of help and things will be alright.

“They are driving on the fumes of Christianity — holding to a kindly, do-gooder kind of ideology thinking that they can make the world a better place with just a few more social workers, more magic cures by big government and more tolerance.

“The same is true when faced with the murderous barbarians of ISIS.”

Fr. Longenecker goes on to insist

“The Left will never be able to deal with [ISIS’] decapitating insane violence because the Left cannot understand the religious motivation of the barbarians. Not having any real religious conviction themselves, they cannot understand how a young man will give up everything and become a suicide bomber or a jihadist in the desert for his religion. Because they don’t ‘get religion’ they will never be able to deal with the religious fanatics of Islam.”

I know nothing of Ben Affleck’s religious convictions. But I think we can assume he is among a legion of good-hearted Lefties who want to believe Islamist extremism can be ascribed entirely to poverty or political oppression or exploitation by the former colonial powers or the high-handed dealings of international oil conglomerates. These are concepts people on the Left understand — assumptions in which they have long been steeped.

Undoubtedly, such factors have helped to build sympathy for radicalism. But listen to what the radicals themselves are telling us. Their focus isn’t on overturning Western economic hegemony. It’s on establishing a global caliphate, on bringing the world into submission to Islam.

Challenging as it may be to the Western, post-Christian mindset, we must recognize and address the unavoidable reality that religion is one of the most compelling forces in life. It pervades all aspects of culture. Its power simply cannot be dismissed.

Bill Kassel is a writer, communications consultant, and media producer. His essays and random rants can be found online at:

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Kobani key to US strategy against Islamic State

WASHINGTON — Dusty and remote, the Syrian city of Kobani has become an unlikely spoil in the war against Islamic State militants — and far more of a strategic prize than the United States wants to admit.

Perched on Turkey’s border, the city of about 60,000 has been besieged for weeks by IS fighters. Kobani is now a ghost town: the U.N. estimates that fewer than 700 of its residents remain as its people flee to safety in Turkey.

The Obama administration has declared Kobani a humanitarian disaster, but not a factor in the overall strategy to defeat the Islamic State group.

“Kobani does not define the strategy of the coalition with respect to Daesh,” Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Cairo earlier this week, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. “Kobani is one community, and it’s a tragedy what is happening there, and we don’t diminish that.” But, Kerry said, the primary U.S. military focus is in neighboring Iraq.

But this week, the U.S. dramatically upped its air power strikes against IS in and around Kobani, including 53 strikes over the last three days alone. Several hundred IS fighters were killed, the Pentagon said.

Now, the U.S. cannot afford to lose Kobani, said Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria. That means the city’s fate is tied, in part at least, to the success of the U.S.-led strategy against the Islamic State.

“The most important thing about Kobani now is that if it falls to the Islamic State, it would be seen as a defeat for the Americans, and thus would touch on the credibility of the American policy to contain and degrade the Islamic State,” said Ford, now at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “We have made a real effort to help the defenders in Kobani by targeting various Islamic State assets. And if it falls nonetheless, then it makes it looks like the U.S. military couldn’t contain that, and that’s how it would be seen in the region.”

Said Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s spokesman on Thursday: “We never said Kobani didn’t matter.”

Here is a look at why Kobani matters:

A Kurdish appeal

Despite the barrage of airstrikes, the U.S. so far has been unable to help Kurdish defenders break the siege. The U.S. and its allies have said that airstrikes alone will not be enough to beat back the extremists. That requires ground troops, both in Syria and Iraq.

Since President Barack Obama is adamant that American troops will not join the fight on the ground, the U.S. has been working to help arm, equip and revamp training programs for national and Kurdish Peshmerga security forces in Iraq and moderate rebel fighters in Syria. The Peshmerga and other Kurdish forces have been key in containing — if not defeating — IS across much of northern Iraq. Making sure they keep up that front is a top priority for the U.S.

Irbil, the Kurdish capital in Iraq, asked the Obama administration to increase airstrikes in Kobani, said Mahma Khalil, a Kurdish lawmaker from northern Iraq. While there’s no formal link between the government in Irbil and the Kurdish population in Syria, both dream of an independent nation for ethnic Kurds.

In this Oct. 16, 2014, photo, made with an extreme telephoto lens from a hilltop in Mursitpinar on the outskirts of Suruc at the Turkey-Syria border, Kurdish fighters, bottom, enter their positions in a house in Kobani, Syria, during fighting between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group. AP/Lefteris Pitarakis

“The current level of airstrikes are not enough to stop the terrorists from seizing Kobani,” Khalil said this week. “The U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Kobani and Iraq should be accelerated more and more” to avoid the extremists from reclaiming areas they were pushed from earlier this summer, he said.

A U.S. military official confirmed Khalil’s account and noted that maintaining good relations with Irbil is an important part of Washington’s strategy against the Islamic militants. The official was not authorized to discuss the diplomatic issue by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Publicly, the Pentagon and State Department say the reasons for the increased airstrikes at Kobani are twofold: The city has become an easier target in recent days due to an influx of Islamic State fighters who have gathered there. And the strikes serve as a humanitarian relief mission to protect the city while Kurdish fighters reorganize their front.

Where’s Turkey?

Kobani also has become a symbol of Turkey’s reluctance to fight the Islamic State — even in a city right across its border.

If Kobani falls, the Islamic extremists will have a border way-station for militants to slip in and out of Turkey. Already, Turkey is grappling with how to tighten its borders against thousands of foreign fighters, mostly from Western and Eastern European nations, who have traveled through Turkey to join the insurgency.

The U.S. has tried for months to coax Turkey into providing more assistance, including border security, to the global coalition against the Islamic State group. So far, Turkey has provided sanctuary to an estimated 200,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees, and recently agreed to train and equip moderate Syrian rebel fighters trying to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad from power.

In this Friday, Oct. 10, 2014 file photo, a Turkish Kurd, standing in Mursitpinar,Turkey, on the Turkey-Syria border, uses binoculars to watch intensified fighting over the border in Kobani, Syria, between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group, as Turkish Kurds offer their Muslim Friday prayers. . AP/Lefteris Pitarakis

But Turkey is not expected to send troops or aid to the Kurdish fighters who are defending Kobani due to a decades-long dispute it has waged against a Kurdish guerrilla group linked to the city’s defenders. The fighters in Kobani are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which both Turkey and the U.S. consider a terrorist organization.

Turkey has openly said it is blocking Turkish Kurds from joining the fight in Kobani. And neither Turkey nor the Syrian Kurds are enthusiastic about joining ranks if Turkey sends army troops to Kobani.

Further complicating the issue, the U.S. said it has begun talking directly to the Kurdish fighters’ political wing in Kobani — a diplomatic move that is likely to anger Turkey.

Obama administration officials concede that Kobani is a messy intersection of U.S. military and diplomatic interests. But retired Marine Gen. John Allen, the U.S. envoy coordinating the global front against IS, said Turkey is “focused with laser-like quality on the issue.”

“They’re very concerned about ISIL for a whole variety of reasons,” Allen said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

The propaganda battle for Kobani

The U.S. isn’t sure why IS is fighting so hard for control of Kobani, a city with few resources and far removed from any capital. But like the U.S. with Kobani, a loss to a ragtag group of Kurdish fighters would be a propaganda loss for IS.

Much of the daily fighting in Kobani is caught on camera, where TV crews and photographers on the Turkish side of the border have captivated the world’s attention with searing pictures of refugees, black plumes of smoke from explosions, and the sounds of firefights on the city’s streets. In video after video, refugees just across the border can be seen and heard cheering as U.S. airstrikes pound the extremists.

Last week, in pictures and Tweets, the militants’ supporters declared Kobani as theirs, and changed the city’s name to Ayn al-Islam, or Spring of Islam. The online jeering has quieted considerably after the airstrikes of the last several days.

In this Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014 file photo, Syrian Kurdish refugees get ready to board a truck near Suruc, Turkey, after their arrival from Kobani, Syria, as fighting intensified between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group. AP/Lefteris Pitarakis

The Islamic State relies on its global online propaganda machine, run largely by supporters far from the battle, to entice fighters, funding and other aid to the front. If the militants’ victories begin to ebb in such a public forum, U.S. officials believe, so too will their lines of support. That alone makes the battle for Kobani a must-win fight for the U.S. strategy.

And that is not lost on Washington. “What makes Kobani significant is the fact that ISIL wants it,” Kirby said.


Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Desmond Butler in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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