27 September 2007

Nine people killed in Myanmar clashes

Nine people, all of them civilians, were killed today during clashes between the army and anti-military protesters in Yangon. They included eight Burmese protesters and a Japanese video journalist working for AFP. This was the tenth-day of Buddhist-monk-led anti-government protests in Myanmar.

Last night, the army raided several monasteries in Yangon, beat up sleeping monks and arrested hundreds of them. Therefore, there were fewer monks on the streets today than was the case before during the protests, but tens of thousands of people still participated. Clashes between the army and the civilian protesters lasted six hours, having started after some protesters apparently tried to disarm the soldiers.

ASEAN has expressed its "revulsion" at the deaths in Yangon, while the UN is planning to send a special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, to deal with the crisis (BBC).

Hopefully this is the beginning of the end of the Burmese military regime. However, it has shown a lot of resilience in the past, and so the civilians clashing with it are either very brave, or desperate. In either case, this would be a good time for the generals to try to cut a deal and leave power, but, unfortunately, I don't think they'd be interested in that option.

22 September 2007

Former Nazi camp guard next door to Holocaust survivor

Polish-born Nathan Gasch, who survived the Sachsenhausen and Auschwitz camps during the Holocaust, found himself living next door to a former Sachsenhausen camp guard in a retirement home in Mesa, Arizona recently. Gasch realised that his neighbour, the Romanian-born Martin Hartmann, had a troubled past when he saw a picture of Hartmann in an SS uniform. Gasch chose not to reveal his finding to anyone. As he puts it, "I figured we were living in a community here. I just let it go."

However, after an investigation that took two years to complete, Hartmann was discovered by Office of Special Investigations of the US Department of Justice. It turned out that Hartmann had been a member of the SS Death's Head Guard Batallion, composed of volunteers, during the Second World War. He came to the US in 1955, and later became a US citizen under false pretences. Last month, Hartmann, who is now 88 years old, was stripped of his US citizenship and deported to Germany (BBC).

I think Hartmann ought to stand trial in Germany, but somehow I doubt that's going to happen.

15 September 2007

Visitor profile, 15 August to 14 September 2007

Welcome to the sixth installment of Notes on Religion visitor profiles!

This month (15 August to 14 September 2007):

This month, Notes on Religion received 79 visits, that is, 67% less than the previous month. The average number of visitors during this period was three a day.

Visitors came to Notes on Religion from every inhabited continent except Africa. The largest number of visitors (46%) came from Canada, and the United States came second with 30%. The United Kingdom came a distant third with 9%.

Within Canada, an overwhelming 89% of the visits this month came from Quebec.

The largest number of visitors this month (29%) was referred to the blog by Blogger. As for those who were referred by Google, their most common search term was "din dalit".

The most popular browser this month was Internet Explorer (52%). 86% of the visitors were Windows users.

Since the founding of the blog (15 March to 14 September 2007):

The total number of visitors during these six months was 866. The average number of visitors was five per day.

The largest number of visitors (35%) came from Canada. The second-highest number (32%) came from the United States. The United Kingdom came third with 6%.

Quebec accounted for 79% of visitors from Canada.

The biggest proportion of visitors (50%) was referred to the blog by Blogger. The most common search term entered by visitors who were referred to Notes on Religion by Google was 'ishaq nizami'.

The most popular browser was Internet Explorer (53%). 92% of the visitors were Windows users.

Indian culture minister offers to quit

Ambika Soni, India's Minister of Culture, has offered to resign in a dispute over whether the Hindu gods are mythological figures or not.

The trouble started when the Indian government decided to build a shipping channel called the Sethusamudram Ship Canal to link the Palk Strait with the Gulf of Mannar. This would give ships a way to circumnavigate the Indian peninsula without going around Sri Lanka. The channel, however, would cut through a sand-and-stone formation known as Adam's Bridge in English and Ram Setu (or "Ram's Bridge") in Hindi.

Some Hindu groups see any attempt to cut through the natural formation as blasphemy, because they believe it to have been constructed in ancient times by the Hindu god Ram with the help of monkeys. On 12 September, the Archaeological Survey of India submitted documents to the Supreme Court saying that the fact that Ram is mentioned in Hindu holy texts does not prove his existence in real life.

In response, Hindu groups held demonstrations in Delhi, Bhopal and other areas. The Archaeological Survey has now withdrawn its report from the Supreme Court, and the two Archaeological Survey directors responsible for the report have been suspended.

Ms Soni has now left the decision over whether or not she will continue in her job to PM Manmohan Singh (BBC).

The question is why the culture minister would take the fall over a construction project that is about commerce and shipping, rather than culture. Even if the Archaeological Survey falls within her portfolio, the government should either take or refuse the blame collectively, rather than letting a relative junior member accept the blame for arousing public anger among Hindus.

The Sethusamudram Ship Canal is expected to cost US $560 million (Canadian $576 million). Obviously there are bigger fish involved here.

13 September 2007

Ramadan mubarak!

I would like to wish the readers of Notes on Religion a blessed Ramadan.

If you're wondering how Muslims go about fasting all day during this month, I'd recommend this BBC article on the subject.

You can read a variety of other Ramadan-related news stories on Google News.

11 September 2007

Dubai sheikh marries Belarusian waitress

Sheikh Saeed bin Maktoum al-Maktoum, 30, a member of the ruling family of Dubai, has married Natasha Aliyeva, a 19-year-old Belarusian trainee waitress he met at Hotel Minsk. Their simple Islamic wedding was preceded by a courtship that lasted less than a month.

The couple met after Sheikh Saeed arrived in Belarus to take part in a shooting championship and moved into the presidential suite of Hotel Minsk. He asked for a glass of orange juice to be sent up to him, and the juice was brought by Aliyeva. The sheikh was immediately smitten, and asked her out. Prior to the wedding, Aliyeva converted from Christianity to Islam, the religion not just of her new husband, but also her Azerbaijani-born father, Muslim Aliyev.

According to Nina Shakhnut, one of Aliyeva's high-school teachers, "Natasha has really aristocratic looks and such charm. I can see what the prince sees in her."

Aliyeva's mother, Liliya, was at first reluctant to let her daughter marry Sheikh Saeed: marriage to him would mean adapting to "a faraway country, strange people, polygamy." Indeed, Sheikh Saeed already had a wife and five children; Aliyeva was to become his second wife. Eventually, Aliyeva's mother relented, and the wedding went ahead.

According to the sheikh's new mother-in-law, he is "an honest, intelligent and tactful man with an excellent education. His fortune doesn't interest me. I'm not a woman to exchange my daughter for money. I don't believe Natasha cares for his fortune either."

That fortune is quite substantial: Sheikh Saeed reportedly has assets worth ₤8 billion (Canadian $16.9 billion / US $16.3 billion).

The newly-married couple have now departed for Cyprus, where Sheikh Saeed is taking part in another shooting competition. Natasha's sister Galina is moving to Dubai with them, to act as interpreter for the newlyweds.

Sheikh Saeed's late father, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid al-Maktoum, was the emir of Dubai between 1990 and 2006. Asked by Belarusian journalists whether he would one day himself become the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Saeed answered, "Is it important? Money and power come and go. Belief is the only thing that remains for ever" (Daily Mail).

07 September 2007

Two women beheaded in Pakistani tribal area

The bodies of two beheaded women have been discovered near the city of Bannu in Pakistan's North Waziristan Agency. A note found nearby accused the women of "acts of obscenity", a reference to prostitution. The district police suspect Islamist militants of having carried out the attack (BBC).

Once again, this sort of brazen act highlights the need for the Pakistani government to take charge in areas like North Waziristan. At present, the government seems incapable of protecting its own citizens; what is needed is not a bloodbath like at the Red Mosque, but a step-by-step strategy to integrate the so-called Federally Administered Tribal Areas into the rest of the country, in a way that preserves the quasi-autonomy of the region while making it hard for militants to operate there with impunity.

06 September 2007

Israelis kill ten Palestinian militants

Israeli forces have killed six Palestinian militants belonging to Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades as they were approaching the Israeli border in two cars.

Earlier, the Israelis killed four Palestinian militants in a fight near Khan Younis. The militants were responding to an incursion into the Gaza Strip by Israeli tanks and bulldozers (BBC).

So the low-intensity strike and counter-strike continue. As long as this continues, there is a pretext for some (including Hamas and Edud Olmert) to refuse to accept peace with their neighbours. They cling to power, while their foot soldiers (and, often, innocent bystanders) suffer the consequences.

Hamas in negotiations over Shalit

The Palestinian militant group Hamas is negotiating separately with the International Committee of the Red Cross and several European countries over access to, and the possible release of, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured in a joint operation by Hamas and other Palestinian groups in June 2006.

The Director-General of the ICRC, Angelo Gnaedinger, has held talks with former Palestinian PM Ismail Haniya, a Hamas leader, asking for the ICRC to be given access to Shalit. Haniya said he was aiming to reach an "honourable prisoner-swap deal" involving Shalit and Palestinian prisoners being held by Israel (BBC).

Myanmar monks release govt. officials

Buddhist monks in Pakokku, Myanmar have released the twenty government officials whom they had held for five to six hours.

The dispute started on 5 September, when about 400 people took part in a monk-led demonstration in Pakokku to protest against the rise of natural gas prices in Myanmar. Security personnel fired into the air to disperse the demonstrators, injuring three monks in the process.

Today, 20 government officials arrived at a monastery in Pakokku to apologise for the incident. However, instead of accepting their apology, a group of monks set fire to the officials' cars, and detained them for several hours, releasing them after the intervention if an abbot.

Hundreds of the monks' lay supporters gathered outside the monastery to cheer them on while the officials were being held (BBC).

So it seems that the Buddhist establishment is the only social force that can get away with protests in today's Myanmar. I wonder if this temporary capture of the 20 officials will lead to sustained opposition on the part of the monks, akin to Pope John Paul II's campaign against Communism in Poland.

Tutu appointed barbecue man

Desmond Tutu, the former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, has been appointed patron of Braai (Barbecue) Day celebrations in South Africa. The next Braai Day is schuduled for 24 September.

According to Tutu, "ordinary activities like eating can unite people of different races, religions, sexes..." (BBC).

German police pursues ten terror suspects

After arresting three Muslim men accused of plotting terrorist attacks on several targets in Germany, the German authorities are looking for ten more people suspected of helping the three with their planning.

According to Monika Harms, a German federal prosecutor, the three men, who include two Germans and a Turk, had trained in Pakistan, and obtained 700 kg of explosives. They were allegedly planning to attack locations used by Americans, including the Frankfurt Airport (BBC).

As it is, many Germans don't have a very high opinion of Muslims. And now this. What were those three thinking (if indeed the accusations have some merit to them)? It is precisely this sort of thing that gives ammunition to those who would restrict the civil liberties of minorities, so these three people, as well as the other ten, if they are guilty, were endangering innocent people in more ways than one.

Suicide bombing in Algeria

An unknown group has carried out a suicide bombing in the Algerian city of Batna, killing at least 15 people. The attack seemed to be aimed at crowds waiting for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Although there has been no claim of responsibility for the attack, Bouteflika blamed Islamist militants, adding that "terrorist acts have absolutely nothing in common with the noble values of Islam" (BBC).

02 September 2007

Lebanon takes Nahr al-Bared camp

After over three months of clashes, the Lebanese army has taken the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, located near Tripoli. The rebel group Fatah al-Islam, which had been holed up in the camp, seems to be in disarray. Its leader, Shaker al-Abssi, has reportedly been killed, while its surviving members have fled the camp. In all, 37 rebels and five Lebanese soldiers were killed in a battle on 1 September.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has declared victory "over the terrorists, those who sought chaos, destruction and tragedies for Lebanon." The army has planted Lebanese flags over the camp, and Siniora has promised to reopen the camp, saying, however, that in future the camp would be run exclusively under Lebanese authority (BBC).

I hope the Lebanese army's success is permanent, and a clone of Fatah al-Islam does not appear in the camp in a few weeks' time. The best thing to do, of course, would be to give the refugees Lebanese citizenship, and integrate them into the local population. That is not, however, something that any Arab state other than Jordan has been willing to contemplate.

Something Even More Magical

In other news...