A new mayor and a new commissioner of police have led to changes in which the New York Police Department operates. The controversial “Demographics Unit”–or “Zone Assessment Unit” as it had been renamed–of the NYPD is being disbanded as an inefficient means of detecting terrorist activity, Associated Press reports in an article carried by Saudi Gazette. The move has been welcomed by American Muslim groups who believed they were being ethnically profiled purely on the basis of their religion. The program, set up in 2003 with assistance of the CIA, has been the subject of several suits, some still ongoing, that claim violation of constitutional rights to privacy, assembly, and freedom of speech and religion.

End of NYPD Muslim spying program welcomed

NEW YORK — Muslim groups and civil liberties advocates applauded the decision by New York Police Department officials to disband a controversial unit that tracked the daily lives of Muslims as part of efforts to detect terror threats, but said there were concerns about whether other problematic practices remained in place.

The Demographics Unit, conceived with the help of a CIA agent working with the NYPD, assembled databases on where Muslims lived, shopped, worked and prayed. Plainclothes officers infiltrated Muslim student groups, put informants in mosques, monitored sermons and catalogued Muslims in New York who adopted new, Americanized surnames. NYPD spokesman Stephen Davis confirmed Tuesday that detectives assigned to the unit had been transferred to other duties within the department’s Intelligence Division.

Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, said she was among a group of advocates at a private meeting last week with police at which the department’s new intelligence chief, John Miller, first indicated the unit — renamed the Zone Assessment Unit — wasn’t viable. She applauded the decision but said there’s still concern about the police use of informants to infiltrate mosques without specific evidence of crime.

April:17:2014 - 09:52 | Comments & Trackbacks (0) | Permalink

The Washington Post reports that Abdulrahman Alharbi, a Saudi student who was injured in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, is suing American conservative commentator Glenn Beck for defamation. Beck, a little crazy, somewhat bigoted, a rather conspiratorial in his thinking, claimed that Alharbi played a role in the bombing and was an “Al-Qaeda coordinator” behind it, the “money man”. The FBI thought differently, however, and saw Alharbi as an unlucky, but innocent victim of the bombs.

Glenn Beck sued for defamation after calling victim
of Boston Marathon bombings the ‘money man’ behind attack
Terrence McCoy

On a mid-April day last year, Glenn Beck was in a full lather. Less than one week had passed since a pair of bombs had exploded at the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring hundreds more. The FBI had just identified the Tsarnaev brothers as primary suspects behind the attack. But to Beck, cloaked in a gray button-down and a sheen of indignation, this wasn’t enough.

In attendance at the marathon had been a 20-year-old Saudi Arabian student named Abdulrahman Alharbi. He was on a full ride to study at the nearby New England School of English. He’d been injured at the marathon, later questioned by police and ultimately cleared of wrongdoing.

Beck, however, had suspicions. The radio host urged the U.S. government to release information on Alharbi or Beck would “expose” him. “Let me send this message very clear,” said Beck, who left Fox News in 2011. ”We know who this Saudi national is…. We know who this man is and, listen to me carefully, we know he is a very bad, bad, bad man.”

April:03:2014 - 07:50 | Comments Off | Permalink

The Washington Post runs a piece from the Associated Press about how artists are nudging the redlines in Saudi Arabia. Often working with quiet support from the ruling family, they comment on society and religion in ways that speak to people, even if their art ends up being banned in the Kingdom. Whether it’s the debate about preservation or modernity, the limits put upon women by social strictures, or even about how religion can be used as a trap, the artists are speaking up and out.

Saudi artists cautiously push against redlines

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — When Ahmed Mater visited Mecca in 2010 something felt off. Dozens of cranes were eating away at the mosque to make way for a larger complex surrounding the Kaaba, the cube-shaped structure to which observant Muslims pray toward five times a day that also draws millions of pilgrims annually from around the world.

The changes were irrevocably transforming the city’s landscape. So Mater, a practicing physician and modern artist, took pictures. He titled his project “Desert of Pharan” in a nod to Mecca’s ancient name.

The kingdom’s modern art scene has become a platform for Saudi artists to voice their frustration about the country’s most sensitive issues without coming into friction with the country’s rulers, reaching the public in new ways and allowing individual points of view in a country where dominant ultraconservative norms have long prevailed.

April:03:2014 - 07:40 | Comments Off | Permalink

Reports and analyses of President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia and meeting with King Abdullah are now coming in. Not much seems to have resulted from the visit beyond a repair of the relationship.

According to a piece from Al Arabiya TV, expectations were too high that something substantive would have (could have) resulted from the visit. There was no new announcement of a joint policy concerning Syria, for example, nor was there any new tocsin concerning Iran. Human rights was not an issue of discussion, to the regret of some, though Obama did present an award to Maha al-Muneef for her work — within a government-sponsored NGO — against domestic violence.

Expectations were too high for Obama’s Saudi visit
Abdullah Hamidaddin

While the content of the two-hour meeting between Saudi King Abdullah and U.S. President Obama was in many regards quite ordinary, some critics were disappointed by the outcome of the meeting. Ultimately, there was an expectation that crucial decisions regarding Syria would be determined during Obama’s diplomatic visit to the kingdom.

The Saudis and the U.S. have taken different courses when it came to dealing with Syrian revolutionaries, and, according to some analysts, that difference had been one of the reasons of the apparent downfall of their close relationship.

The Americans had claimed that the way the Saudis are supporting the Syrians is counterproductive and empowers the more militant and radical forces. The Saudis claim that the Americans had a soft policy on Assad and were not doing enough to support his overthrow. The facts of course are more complicated.

The White House offered its own debrief of the meeting between the president and the king. This emphasized that the point of the meeting was to reassure the Saudis that they and they US were in the same chapter, if not on the same page when it comes to international affairs.

White House Briefing on Obama’s Meeting with Saudi Arabia’s King

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: My colleague will go ahead and give a readout of the meeting, and then we’ll take your questions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President had an excellent, more than two-hour meeting with King Abdullah. And it was really an opportunity for the President to sit down face-to-face with the King and, more than anything, do two things: One is underscore the importance of the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia, and the other was to talk about some of the key regional issues that affect both of our interests so profoundly.

The President underscored how much he values the strategic relationship. The United States has had an important relationship with Saudi Arabia for decades on security, energy, economics, and regional security issues. And the President wanted to make clear that he believes that continues to be the case.

There’s sometimes a perception out there of differences between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and the two leaders spoke frankly about a number of issues and what might be or might have been tactical differences or differences in approaching some of these issues, but they stressed, and President Obama made very clear that he believes that our strategic interests remain very much aligned.

Arab News focused on the mutual alignment of the two countries:

KSA, US ‘strategically aligned’

Saudi Gazette turned its view toward the award to Maha Al-Muneef:

Obama in the Kingdom

March:30:2014 - 07:01 | Comments & Trackbacks (4) | Permalink

President Obama is undertaking his second visit to Riyadh during his two terms of office. Reporting on the substance of the visit will come out later today or tomorrow. At the moment, it’s all pre-visit chatter about expectation and setting the parameters of discussions with Saudis. I don’t expect anything earth shattering to come from the talks.

Al Arabiya TV had a brief pre-visit interview:

Obama defends not using military force in Syria

The White House held an informal press conference (“gaggle”) en route to Riyadh:

Press Gaggle:Press Secretary Jay Carney and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes en route Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

The White House also provided a fact sheet on US-Saudi relations:

White House Facts on U.S.-Saudi Relationship

Reporting on Pres. Obama’s meeting with King Abdullah, Al Arabiya TV casts the visit as ‘fence-mending’:

Obama on Saudi visit meets with King Abdullah

March:29:2014 - 05:12 | Comments Off | Permalink

Gulf News from Dubai carries a story that explains how YouTube has become an alternative — and preferred — source of information for young Saudis. It reports that Google, which own YouTube, complies with government requests to shut down videos for which there is a valid legal reason, but that the Saudi government has been sparing in that regard. It notes, too, that YouTube has been offering support for new video channels produced in the region. Some of those channels are earning millions of dollars for their creators and producers. A new medium indeed.

Why Saudis are world’s biggest YouTube fans
People in Saudi Arabia watch more hours of YouTube content per capita
than anywhere else in the world

Simeon Kerr

Dubai: Google has launched a campaign to develop online videos in the fast-growing market of Saudi Arabia, where residents watch more hours of YouTube content per capita than anywhere else in the world.

Over the past year, time spent on YouTube in the conservative kingdom has increased fivefold, persuading Google to hold a seminar in the oil-rich kingdom to foster closer relationships with producers of Arabic-language web videos.

About 60 per cent of the 350 million people in the Arab world are younger than 25, with internet penetration in the region at about 70 million users — over 300 per cent growth in the last five years, according to numbers from UAE-based entrepreneurship research portal Sindibad Business. Internet penetration is expected to reach 150 million users by 2015.

Traditional media in Saudi Arabia, where more than half the population is younger than 35, is failing to engage youngsters who are turning to the internet for relevant drama, comedy, sports and news.

The same trend is sweeping the broader region, where 310m video views a day make the Middle East and north Africa the world’s second-highest online viewership after the US.

That has generated concern among some of the region’s states about the rise in political expression.

March:21:2014 - 08:31 | Comments Off | Permalink

Christian Science Monitor runs an Associated Press report alleging that daughters of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia are claiming to be held captive in palaces in Jeddah. The claim, submitted by email sent to the UN and The Times of London. The UN says it’s looking into it, but it’s not a high priority.

Saudi princesses: Did Saudi king lock daughters away?
John Heilprin, Associated Press

Geneva, Switzerland

The United Nations has received pleas to help free several Saudi Arabian princesses allegedly being held against their will in a royal compound, officials confirmed Wednesday.

Allegations submitted to the U.N. human rights office claim that several daughters of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia have been held for the past 13 years in the royal compound in Jeddah.

In a rare disclosure about allegations received by not yet investigated, the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights confirmed receipt of the emailed complaints but said it could be several months at least before anything is officially published about the case.

The office did not say whether it considered the complaints substantial enough to warrant a follow-up investigation. Xabier Celaya of the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights told The Associated Press that U.N. officials are “not in a position to confirm if any action has been taken on this case.”

March:15:2014 - 08:45 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

Although the HBO program ‘Game of Thrones’ cannot be (legally) seen directly in the Middle East — likely due to the rampant nudity in the series — it has a big following, Al Arabiya TV reports. Not only do viewers find it compelling drama, the article says, but they find that the power politics of Westeros is reminiscent of the power politics of the Middle East.

I doubt that George R.R. Martin had this in mind when he created the book series, but I do wonder what he’d think of this analysis.

Arab fans abuzz over new Game of Thrones trailer

A fervor was sparked among Arab fans of the Game of Throne TV series following the release of a third teaser trailer for the upcoming fourth season.

HBO, the creator of the three-year-old popular fantasy-drama series, released a third trailer for the new season titled “Secrets,” set to premiere on April 6, reported Time news website.

Despite not officially showing in the Middle East, the series has gained a large popularity among Arab viewers who are also anticipating the return of the dramatic show. Following the trailer release, Arabs took to social media to express their excitement for season four.

“The epic Game of Thrones is coming,” user @SaadMS30 tweeted in Arabic. Fans have also been suggesting more people watch the series, describing it as better than other popular American TV shows such as Lost and Prison Break.

March:12:2014 - 09:39 | Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Permalink

Strict Islamic states ban the projection of films that portray the Biblical prophets. Thus, the film “Noah”, scheduled to be released in the US later this month, is already being banned in Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE. Bans are expected to follow in Jordan, Kuwait, and likely Egypt. In Saudi Arabia, where nearly all public film presentations are banned, the question won’t even arise.

The Al Arabiya TV article noting the bans reports that this is nothing new and nothing in particular against the latest film. Films portraying prophets just aren’t going to make it past the censors. It reports that the similar “Son of God”, which has been released in the US already, will face the same challenge as did the earlier “Passion of Christ” as Jesus is also considered a prophet in Islam.

Hollywood blockbuster ‘Noah’ banned in Qatar, Bahrain, UAE

Upcoming Hollywood movie “Noah” has been banned in Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates on religious grounds, a representative of Paramount Pictures told Reuters on Saturday.

Sending shockwaves across the Arab world, the $125 million film – starring Oscar-winners Russell Crowe and Anthony Hopkins – was officially banned by censors in the three Gulf countries this week.

Meanwhile over in Malaysia, Ultraman is facing his own ban…

Malaysia bans Ultraman for comparison to God

March:09:2014 - 07:38 | Comments Off | Permalink

The injunction issued by the 9th Circuit Court requiring YouTube to take down the offensive “Innocence of Muslims” video based on copyright law is being challenged. Google — which own YouTube — has filed an emergency motion to stay the enforcement. Eugene Volokh has more…

Google/YouTube files motion to stay enforcement of Ninth Circuit’s
“Innocence of Muslims” copyright decision

February:28:2014 - 12:33 | Comments Off | Permalink

While you probably weren’t looking, the obnoxious film “Innocence of Muslims”, the film that caused rioting and discord across wide stretches of the Islamic world, has been removed from YouTube.

The removal was not because people complained about it in general, nor because it was insulting. And, sadly, there’s no way simply stupid stuff can be taken down from the Internet.

Its removal resulted from a very particular complaint, made by an actress in the film, who has succeeded in convincing the 9th Circuit of the US Court of Appeal that the presence of the film on YouTube violated her personal copyright in her performance.

Eugene Volokh, writing at his Volokh Conspiracy law-blog, explains…

Copyright meets “Innocence of Muslims”:
Ninth Circuit orders removal of movie from YouTube, on copyright grounds

From today’s Ninth Circuit decision in Garcia v. Google, Inc. (9th Cir. Feb. 26, 2014):

[A] writer and producer, Mark Basseley Youssef — who also goes by the names Nakoula Basseley Nakoula and Sam Bacile — cast [Cindy] Garcia in a minor role. Garcia was given the four pages of the script in which her character appeared and paid approximately $500 for three and a half days of filming. “Desert Warrior” [the title of the film as Youssef described it to Garcia] never materialized. Instead, Garcia’s scene was used in an anti-Islamic film titled “Innocence of Muslims.” Garcia first saw “Innocence of Muslims” after it was uploaded to YouTube.com and she discovered that her brief performance had been partially dubbed over so that she appeared to be asking, “Is your Mohammed a child molester?”

These, of course, are fighting words to many faithful Muslims and, after the film aired on Egyptian television, there were protests that generated worldwide news coverage. An Egyptian cleric issued a fatwa, calling for the killing of everyone involved with the film, and Garcia soon began receiving death threats. She responded by taking a number of security precautions and asking that Google remove the video from YouTube.

Garcia’s theory is that (1) she owns the copyright to her own performance, (2) Youssef never properly acquired the rights to that performance — for instance, because there was no express assignment of rights — and therefore (3) a court should order Google to take down the video that infringes Garcia’s copyright. The Ninth Circuit held for Garcia, by a 2-1 vote. Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote the majority opinion, and was joined by Judge Ronald Gould. Judge N.R. “Randy” Smith dissented.

Note, though, that the court’s action is only an injunction. It can be appealed. As Prof. Volokh notes in his article, a Fair Use argument could be made in any suit on the matter. And would likely succeed. That would allow YouTube (or a user) to re-post the video.

UPDATE: Prof. Volokh has a follow-on post noting something unusual about the court order…

(Temporarily) secret order for removal of “Innocence of Muslims” videos

February:26:2014 - 17:25 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

“The New Yorker” magazine’s online site runs an article about the consequences a Saudi woman is facing after writing about the meaning of beards in the Kingdom (“silly,” in her terms). The critique could have been applied to Pakistan as well, but the article focuses on Saudi Arabia.

It’s very clear that there are subtle and not-to-subtle messages being sent by beards — shape, length, color, as well as lack of a beard. The signalling is primarily used in a religious context to identify people who share the same beliefs. As the “New Yorker” writer notes, the beards of members of the Muslim Brotherhood differ from those of Salafis and the Al-Saud, including King Abdullah, wear them differently as well.

Messing around with religious signals can be risky because it’s seen as a challenge to one’s piety. And if there’s one thing the religiously conservatives hate — and fear — is that their piety be challenged. Sometimes, as here, the result is threats to one’s life and that of one’s family.

A Saudi Woman Is Threatened After Tweeting About Beards
Katherine Zoepf

The controversy began—as virtually all political and religious debate in Saudi Arabia does these days—with a provocative tweet. On January 18th, Souad al-Shammary, a liberal activist with more than a hundred thousand Twitter followers, tweeted her thoughts about the idea, popular among devout Saudis, that Muslim men should grow long beards in order to differentiate themselves from unbelievers. The notion was “silly,” Shammary wrote, pointing out that “Jews, priests, Communists and Marxists” have also been known to wear beards.

Shammary is the co-founder of a group that calls itself the Saudi Liberal Network, in a country where liberaliyeen—Saudis use the English word, giving it an Arabic plural—are so widely reviled that even prominent feminists and human-rights advocates shy away from the label. She has never been popular among Saudi conservatives. But her remarks about beards were met with an unusually violent reaction. Sheikh Adel al-Kalbani, a former imam at the Grand Mosque in Mecca (in 2008, when he became the first black man appointed to the post, some in the Kingdom dubbed him “the Saudi Obama”), announced that Shammary should be tried for insulting the Prophet, adding that he prayed for her to become blind and to lose the use of a hand.

In the past month, via Twitter, thousands of conservatives have echoed Kalbani’s remarks, attacking Shammary and calling for her to be put on trial. Some have gone a step further, accusing Shammary of apostasy, an offense that carries the death penalty under Sharia law. Last week, Shammary told an interviewer for the BBC World Service that she and her family had received so many threats that she had gone into hiding.

February:21:2014 - 09:53 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink
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