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Heavy metal, Middle Eastern band of brothers!

Who knew heavy metal could promote peace?  But that’s just what’s happening as the Israeli band, Orphaned Land, and the Palestinian band, Khalas, have toured Britain.  They come from different countries.  They even write different kinds of lyrics. But they have shown how art has an ability to transcend lines that politics often can’t.

Who knew heavy metal could promote peace? But that’s just what’s happening as the Israeli band, Orphaned Land, and the Palestinian band, Khalas, have toured Britain. They come from different countries. They even write different kinds of lyrics. But they have shown how art has an ability to transcend lines that politics often can’t.

We’re constantly bombarded by implicit and explicit images of the relationship that Jews and Muslims supposedly have in today’s world. We are bombarded with the cliched reminder that we “used to get along” but recently have become enemies.

We’ve almost become used to it, accepted it as some sort of reality.

And, ironically, all these “interfaith” events can often cause us to feel even more disconnected. They just don’t seem as genuine as a true connection. It would seem the only people you would need to show such “unity” with is people you don’t get along with.

Which is why we need to look deeper. We need to look wider. We need to see that “unity” doesn’t mean press. It doesn’t mean “shows of support”. It means genuine connection and giving.

And the truth is that the world is scattered with that. The truth is that the press likes to say just one side of the story, likes to focus on conflict. But there is unity. There is connection.

All we need to do is look!

Listen as the tour leaders speak of their unity and message:

Sources: Sky News, PopChassid, metalinjection.net, The Guardian, alarabiya.net, cnn.com

March 26, 2015 Posted by | Arab lifestyle, Geography, Human Rights, Interfaith, Peace, Religious Reconciliation, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Myanmar and the Rohingya genocide

More than 2 million Rohingya men, women and children have fled the ethnic cleansing of the Myanmar military government. Few know or care about this modern-day holocaust.

More than 2 million Rohingya men, women and children have fled the ethnic cleansing of the Myanmar military government. Few know or care about this modern-day holocaust.

My interest and travel to Myanmar

Sam Shropshire discussed Rohingya persecution with Myanmar Buddhist leaders.

Samuel Shropshire recently discussed Rohingya persecution with Buddhist leaders inside Myanmar. (Click photos to enlarge.)

It was through my close friend Shafik Zubir, the mu’adhin (“caller to prayer”) at Taqwa Mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, that I gained a strong interest in the fate of the millions of Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar (formerly Burma).

Shafik’s parents immigrated from Myanmar to Saudi Arabia in 1985. Shafik and his family have shared with me the plight of Myanmar’s Muslims. Now I find myself travelling to Myanmar to personally investigate the horrific genocide that has been committed against these noble people during the past century.

Approximately 1.5 millions Rohingya men, women and children remain in Myanmar. More than 2 million Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia, on foot or by boat, and from there have sought refuge in other nations. The death toll of those fleeing this modern-day holocaust is unknown, but it is, no doubt, in the hundreds of thousands.

Greater than 300 thousand Rohingyas now reside in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It has been my privilege to meet and speak with many of them.

A history of totalitarianism

Myanmar was ruled with an iron fist long before the current regime came to power. From the early 19th century until World War II, the insatiable machine that was the British Empire held sway over Burma. Before the British, there were the kings of old, who rose to power by eliminating rivals with claims to the throne.

Tracing the conflicts back to the 9th century, we find the Himalayan Bamar people, who comprise two-thirds of the population, at war with the Tibetan Plateau’s Mon people. The fight went on for so long that by the time the Bamar came out on top, the two cultures had effectively merged.

The 11th-century Bamar king Anawrahta converted the land to Theravada Buddhism, and inaugurated what many consider to be its golden age. He used his war spoils to build the first temples at Bagan (Pagan). Stupa after stupa sprouted under successive kings, but the vast money and effort poured into their construction weakened the kingdom. Kublai Khan and his Mongol hordes swept through Bagan in 1287, hastening Myanmar’s decline into the dark ages.

British colonialism

The British governor, left , and Burma's first president, Sao Shwe Thaik, stand at attention as the new nation's flag is raised on January 4, 1948.

The British governor, left, and Burma’s first president, Sao Shwe Thaik, stand at attention as the new nation’s flag is raised on January 4, 1948.

There’s not much known about the centuries that followed. History picks up again with the arrival of the Europeans – first the Portuguese, in the 16th century, and then the British, who had already colonised India and were looking for more territory in the East. In three moves (1824, 1852 and 1885), the British took over all of Myanmar. The Burmese king and queen were exiled to India and their grand palace at Mandalay was looted and used as a barracks to quarter British and Indian troops.

The colonial era wrought great changes in Myanmar’s demographics and infrastructure. Large numbers of Indians were brought in to work as civil servants, and Chinese were encouraged to immigrate and stimulate trade. The British built railways and ports, and many British companies grew wealthy trading in teak and rice.

Many Burmese were unhappy with the colonial status quo. A nationalist movement developed, and there were demonstrations, often led, in true Burmese fashion, by Buddhist monks. Two famous nationalist monks, U Ottama and U Wizaya, died in a British prison and are revered to this day.

World War II and early independence

During World War II, the Japanese, linked with the Burmese Independence Army (BIA), drove the British out of Myanmar and declared it an independent country. But the Japanese were able to maintain Burmese political support for only a short time before their harsh and arrogant conduct alienated the Burmese people. Towards the end of the war, the Burmese switched sides and fought with the Allies to drive out the Japanese.

Bogyoke Aung San emerged from the haze of war as the country’s natural leader. An early activist for nationalism, then defence minister in the Burma National Army, Aung San was the man to hold the country together through the transition to independence. When elections were held in 1947, Aung San’s party won an overwhelming majority. But before he could take office, he was assassinated by a rival, along with most of his cabinet. Independence followed in 1948, with Aung San’s protégé U Nu at the helm. Ethnic conflicts raged and chaos ensued.

Ne Win’s coup d’etat

On 2 March 1962, Ne Win again seized power in a coup d'état. He became head of state as Chairman of the Union Revolutionary Council and also Prime Minister. The coup was characterized as "bloodless" by the world's media. Declaring that "parliamentary democracy was not suitable for Burma," the new regime suspended the constitution and dissolved the legislature.

Since 1962, when the Ne Win government seized power in a military coup, Myanmar has been under the vice like grip of successive regimes that have ruled the country through oppression and fear.

In 1962 General Ne Win led a left-wing army takeover and set the country on the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’. He nationalised everything, including retail shops, and quickly crippled the country’s economy. By 1987 it had reached a virtual standstill, and the long-suffering Burmese people decided they’d had enough of their incompetent government.

By 1987 it had reached a virtual standstill, and the long-suffering Burmese people decided they’d had enough of their incompetent government. In early 1988, they packed the streets and there were massive confrontations between pro-democracy demonstrators and the military that resulted in an estimated 3000 deaths over a six-week period.

Once again, monks were at the helm. They turned their alms bowls upside down (the Buddhist symbol of condemnation) and insisted that Ne Win had to go. He finally did, in July 1988, but he retained a vestige of his old dictatorial power from behind the scenes.

The 1989 election

The shaken government quickly formed the Orwellian-sounding SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council), declared martial law and promised to hold democratic elections in May 1989. The opposition, led by Bogyoke Aung San’s charismatic daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, organised an opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Around the same time, Slorc changed the country’s official name from the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar, claiming ‘Burma’ was a vestige of European colonialism.

While the Burmese population rallied around the NLD, the SLORC grew increasingly nervous. It placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and postponed the election. In spite of this and other dirty tactics, the NLD won more than 85% of the vote. Sore losers, Slorc refused to allow the NLD to assume its parliamentary seats and arrested most of the party leadership.

Aung San Suu Kyi: house arrest, release and election

Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi addresses her supporters from her house compound after her release from house arrest.

Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi addresses her supporters from her house compound after her release from house arrest.

Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and was finally released from house arrest in July 1995. She was arrested again in 2000 and held in her home until the UN brokered her unconditional release in May 2002.

She was rearrested in May 2003 and released in November 2010 by the military authorities. During her arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi continually refused offers of freedom in exchange for exile from the country and, despite an ongoing debate in the pro-democracy movement over future strategy, her stature throughout Myanmar remained strong.

In moves symbolic of the positive momentum in the country, in 2011 Suu Kyi left Yangon for the first time in eight years, and in May 2012 Suu Kyi entered the lower house of the Burmese parliament as an MP. Much more remains to be done, but the hope is that decades of isolation may be coming to an end.

Ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in the Arakan state

However after nearly 50 years of military rule, the apparatus of the state is entrenched in the fabric of Burmese society and as the pogrom continues in Arakan state, the back story provides unnerving evidence that systematic official behavior has lead to the current crisis.

Charred remains of Rohingya men, women and children    in the Penindasan village.

Charred remains of Rohingya men, women and children in the Penindasan village.

What has occurred in western Burma has been described as a sectarian conflict between two communities who simply hate each other. This prognosis is demonstrably false, and a look at the situation in Arakan provides ample evidence that there is a systematic pattern, which in most cases would amount to crimes against humanity.

One element of this picture is the improbability of a “sectarian conflict.” Arakan (Rakhine) state has a population of almost 4 million, making the Muslim or Rohingya population less than quarter of the inhabitants, thus making a two-sided conflict highly illogical.

Further, the minority population has been controlled by the state to the extent that they are unable to travel between towns, renovate a mosque or even have a child or marry without a permit from the military.

The control of this population has long been perpetuated not just by uniformed military or Nasaka (border guard) personnel but also by quasi-civilian militias, as has been the case in much of the country. Indeed in Burma the ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) grew out of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA).

A Rohingya mother holds her child close as she flees persecution by boat.

A Rohingya mother holds her child close as she flees persecution by boat.

This organisation had perhaps its most notorious hour in 2003, when it attacked Aung San Suu Kyi’s convoy in central Burma. The authorities naturally tried to portray it as a clash between two rival political groups. However, only one side, the National League for Democracy (NLD), suffered 70 deaths and only one side’s supporters were arrested – also the NLD.

In the wake of the Depayin massacre, the US embassy dispatched a cable back to Washington entitled: “MOSQUE RAZED, PARAMILITARIES TRAINED.”

In the cable, one of the militia’s discussed was, “the USDP-affiliated ‘Power Ranger’ militia” that was receiving “rudimentary riot-control and military training.” One of its other jobs was to hold up the Americans in case of an invasion, while the government was “training a paramilitary ‘Peoples Militia’ in Arakan state to assist in putting down any general uprising.”

“Rohingya Muslims specifically, suffer from an aggravated, systematic, institutionalised form of persecution”

According to the cable, “Local officials on July 22 (2003) reportedly tore down a mosque in Sittwe, 70 miles SE of the Bangladeshi border, and arrested seven Muslims, one of whom subsequently died in custody.”

The dispatch goes on to explain that the mosque was demolished because the worshippers “made unauthorized improvements to the structure, resulting in the decision by local authorities to tear down the whole building.”

The embassy concludes that, “We frequently hear stories of pro-SPDC ‘fake monks’ allegedly inciting violence against Muslims to deflect anti-regime ire.”

Muslims around the world decry the genocide being committed against the Rohingya peoples.

Muslims and human rights organizations around the world decry the genocide being committed against the Rohingya peoples.

Dr Kyaw Yin Hlaing, who is now on the commission to investigate June’s violence in Arakan state, also notes this type of tactic being used. In 2008, he wrote in a US legal journal that:

“Before former intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt was dismissed and his intelligence agency disbanded, the junta could almost always uncover opposition groups that were planning to organise protests. In 1997, for instance, the junta became aware of monks’ plans to protest a regional commander’s improper renovation of a famous Buddha statue in Mandalay. Before the monks could launch the protest, a rumour emerged that a Buddhist woman had been raped by a Muslim businessman. The government diverted their attention from the regional commander to the Muslim businessman, eventually causing an anti-Muslim riot.”

He concludes that: “intelligence agents have often instigated anti-Muslim riots in order to prevent angry monks from engaging in anti-government activities.”

Given the uncanny resemblance of this case and the details surrounding late May’s ‘spark incident’, one must ask questions about the current government and the legitimacy of the reform process.

Khin Nyunt was not only adept at preventing anti-government actions, he was also good at neutralising ethnic insurgent groups and casually referred to the entire nation of India as “kalars” – a pejorative term used in Burma to describe Muslims and individuals of South Asian descent.

Government policy then was described as “pervasive and sometimes aggressive religious discrimination that favours Burma’s Buddhist majority.”

The world watches practically in silence

Obama called Myanmar to end discrimination against Rohingya people, urging in his strongest comments on the persecuted Muslim minority that the government grant them equal rights.

In November 2014 US President Barack Obama called on Myanmar to end discrimination against Rohingya people, urging in his strongest comments on the persecuted Muslim minority that the government grant them equal rights.

While the US embassy noted in a cable in 2005 that the UNHCR head at the time Jean-François Durieux described “the situation in northern Arakan as ‘shocking,’ with the GOB [government of Burma] in constant denial of the true situation. Although Muslims have some religious freedom in Rangoon, the GOB has a policy of ‘complete repression’ of Rohingyas in northern Arakan. He noted that Buddhist temples are ‘springing up everywhere,’ although he estimates the Buddhist population as only one percent of the population [in northern Arakan].”

If there is any doubt that there is systematic repression against the population, the US embassy noted that, “The military has effectively sealed the Rohingyas off from the world and keeps them at the bare subsistence level – it is an internment camp.” They further correctly forecasted that, “We should not assume that any future democratic government will accord these people their basic human rights.”

Needless to say, however, despite this and the accumulated evidence, the US government has lifted punitive measures against the Myanmar government.

The lack of civil rights is overshadowed, moreover, by the basic human indicators that have been thrust on the population by the government, as the US embassy noted: “Infant mortality is four times the national average (71 per 1000 births); 64% of children under five are chronically malnourished, and stunted growth is common.” Infant mortality then is roughly equivalent to that of Ethiopia, which is chronically affected by drought, and 80% of the population is illiterate with one teacher for every 79 students.

If this were not systematic, the discrepancies with other regions of the country would not be so severe. The government has been more than able to prevent freedom of movement for the roughly 850,000 Rohingya still in existence in the area, it would then seem that with one of the largest armed forces in Asia controlling the movement of mobs would be easy.

According to jurist Guy Horton writing in 2005, “the Rohingya Muslims specifically, suffer from an aggravated, systematic, institutionalised form of persecution designed to destroy them through exclusion, rather than assimilation.”

According to the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide: “…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Given that Thein Sein has attempted to off load the entire population onto the UNHCR, it is evident that he too is in favour of removing the population. With the well-documented government abuses against the population, there is not much of a case to suggest that what is occurring now in Arakan state is anything less than genocide.

Take a few minutes to watch this Press TV documentary account of the genocide being committed against the Rohingya peoples:

Sources: Joseph Alchin on DVB, Associated Press, VOA, wikipedia.org, BBC, presstv.com, New York Times, Al Jazeera News, Time Magazine, A History of Asia

March 19, 2015 Posted by | Geography, Human Rights, Islam, Terrorism, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Bangladesh responds to the Rohingya refugee crisis

Bangladesh--my first impression: so many people on so little land. It is like crowding half the US populations into a land mass the size of New York state.

Bangladesh–my first impression: So many people on so little land! It is like crowding half the US populations into a land mass the size of New York state.

I recently traveled to Bangladesh on an assignment to meet with Rohingya refugees who, for the past 30 years, have been fleeing persecution in their home country Myanmar. I learned a lot about the history of Bangladesh as well. The following is what I found…

Banglandesh history

Alexander the Great's weakened forces were no match for the Subcontinents war elephants!

Alexander the Great’s weakened forces were no match for the subcontinent’s war elephants! (Click on photos to enlarge!)

The early history of the Bengal region featured a succession of vast Indian empires, often accompanied by internal strife, and a struggle between Hinduism and Buddhism for dominance. Islam later made its appearance during the 8th century when Sufi missionaries arrived on the scene. Later, Muslim rulers paved the way for millions of new converts by building mosques, schools and social centers.

The first European power to arrive in India was the Macedonian army of Alexander the Great in 327–326 BC. Alexander appointed regional leaders in the northwest of India to govern in his absence, but his influence quickly crumbled after his armies were ousted from the Subcontinent. Later, trade between the various Indian states was established between the Roman Empire  and India by Roman sailors who had reached India via the Red Sea and Arabian Sea, but the Romans never established permanent trading settlements.

The spice trade between India and Europe was one of the main avenues of trade in the world economy and was the main catalyst for the period of European exploration. Indeed, the search for a shorter, quicker access to India led to the accidental “discovery” of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492.

British East India Company ships at dock in Calcutta, India.

British East India Company ships at dock in Calcutta, India. The ships carried spices, silk to Europe and Christian missionaries and missionaries to Asia.

Only a few years later, near the end of the 15th century, Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama became the first European to re-establish direct trade links with India since those of Roman times by being the first to arrive by circumnavigating Africa (1497–1499). Having arrived in Calicut, which by then was one of the major trading ports of the eastern world, he obtained permission to trade in the city from Saamoothiri Rajah.

Trading rivalries among the seafaring European powers brought other European powers to India. The Dutch, England, France, and Denmark all established trading posts in India in the early 17th century. As the Mughal Empire disintegrated in the early 18th century, and then as the Maratha Empire became weakened after the third battle of Panipat, many relatively weak and unstable Indian states which emerged were increasingly open to manipulation by the Europeans, through dependent Indian rulers.

In the later 18th century Great Britain and France struggled for dominance, partly through proxy Indian rulers but also by direct military intervention. The defeat of the redoubtable Indian ruler Tipu Sultan in 1799 marginalized the French influence. This was followed by a rapid expansion of British power through the greater part of the Indian subcontinent in the early 19th century. By the middle of the century the British had already gained direct or indirect control over almost all of India. British India, consisting of the directly-ruled British presidencies and provinces, contained the most populous and valuable parts of the British Empire and thus became known as “the jewel in the British crown”.

Sir Winston Churchill was a British prime minister and statesman who led the country to victory against Nazi Germany and the Axis powers in World War Two.

Sir Winston Churchill was a British prime minister and statesman who led the country to victory against Nazi Germany and the Axis powers in World War Two.

British colonialism and the Bengal famines

A series of deadly famines were to hit the Bengal region of India–the last and most devastating was in 1941. It struck hard, killing more than 10 million men, women and children.

True, Britain was preoccupied with its own national survival during World War II, but Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s callous response to the suffering of the Bengali peoples was shocking.

British imperialism had long justified itself with the pretense that the colonization of India was conducted for the benefit of the governed. However in his recently published book The Ugly Britain, Shashi Tharoor disagrees. He documents disparaging remarks that seemed to be foundational to the thinking of British economists and politicians throughout the colonial period.

In doing so, Tharoor dampens our western idolatry of the late Winston Churchill. He says Churchill’s conduct in the summer and fall of 1943, during the peak of the last great Bengal famine, revealed the man’s true character.

He quotes Churchill as saying in a war-cabinet meeting to the British Secretary of State for India, Leopold Amery, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” Churchill went on to dismiss the horrors of the famine, blaming the famine, not on British policies, but rather on the Indians for “breeding like rabbits.”

Pedicabs still serve as a main means of transportation in the capital city Dhaka.

Pedicabs have replaced the man-drawn rickshaws during the past century. Pedicabs serve as a main means of transportation for most of the 15 million inhabitants in the sprawling capital city Dhaka.

Modern Bangladesh

The borders of the modern People’s Republic of Bangladesh were established with the partition of Bengal and India in August 1947, when the region became East Pakistan as a part of the newly formed State of Pakistan. However, it was separated from West Pakistan by 1,600 km (994 mi) of Indian territory.

Due to political exclusion, ethnic and linguistic discrimination, as well as economic neglect by the politically dominant West Pakistan, popular agitation and civil disobedience eventually led to the war of independence in 1971 and the founding of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.

After gaining independence, the new state would continue to endure food shortages and widespread poverty, as well as political turmoil and military coups.

The restoration of democracy in 1991 has been followed by relative political calm and slow economic progress; however, a third of this poor country annually floods during the monsoon rainy season, hampering economic development.

The population of Bangladesh is 142 million. That’s almost half the US population crowded into a land mass about the size of New York state.

Dr Rashid Malik (center) with his brothers and sisters.

Dr Rashid Malik (center) with his brothers and sister.

Dr. Rashid Malik and family

I am welcomed to Bangladesh by my Bangladeshi friend Dr. Rashid Malik and his wife Yasmin Malik, founders of Malik College in Atlanta, Georgia. This was my first visit to Bangladesh, so it was reassuring to be met by someone who was very familiar with this relatively new nation and its political goings on.

Rashid’s older brother Malik Abdullah Al-Amin (“Sadi”) is a judge in the Bangladesh Judicial Service. Sadi, his parents and the rest of Rashid’s family have played an important role in the formation of this relatively new nation.

Rashid’s father, Advocate Abdul Wadood Malik, was a lawyer for the Supreme Court of Pakistan and continued in that position in the Bangladesh Supreme Court after Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan . His mother Momtaz Begum Malik is the former principal of a prestigious college in Bangladesh. Today members of Malik family can be found in various parts of the world: the US, Sweden, India, Kuwait, and the United Kingdom.

Rashid is very proud now to be an American citizen. He tells me, “I am now the president of Malik College in Atlanta. This is my family’s way of giving back to the USA for what America has done for us. In short, the USA has given much to us in many ways, to me, to Yasmin and to my children.”

Sadi and Sam prepare to board flight to far-south Bangladesh.

Judge Sadi Malik and Sam prepare to board a flight to far-south Bangladesh.

Travel to the far-south

Knowing of my interest in learning more about the history and persecution of Rohingya Muslims within the neighboring state Myanmar (formerly Burma), Judge Malik arranged flight tickets for Rashid, himself and me to travel south to Cox’s Bazar, on the Gulf of Bengal. In Cox’s Basar we were met by a private car and driver and taken south.

From Cox’s Bazar south are huge populations of Rohingya refugees who have fled persecution in neighboring Myanmar. A history of the Rohingya peoples and the cause of the appalling persecution will be discussed in detail in my next blog post about my travels to Myanmar and Thailand. Here we will address the issue of Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh.

UN Rohingya refugee camps

In many countries, when you reach the age of 21 you become an adult and must start to fend for yourself. But in the United Nations Dr. Rashid Malik, Sam and Kutupalong camp director Mohammed Ishmail. But 21 years after the Rohingya first started

Dr. Rashid Malik, Sam and UNHCR Kutupalong camp director Mohammed Ishmael.

Dr. Rashid Malik, Sam and UNHCR Kutupalong camp director Mohammed Ishmael.

arriving as refugees in Bangladesh, these desperately poor people are more dependent on aid than ever.

While these may sound like luxuries to an estimated 240,000 other unregistered Rohingyas living outside the camps and in the hills and local villagers in this poverty-stricken region, camp residents often lament the fact that their entire lives appear to be doomed to be living out as unsettled refugees.

There are mixed reactions to the official refugee camps.

Visiting the Kutupalong camp

“This is not life,” said Shaufiq Alam, a 30-year-old refugee in the Kutupalong camp. “I came 20 years ago. If I had been in the village I could have received a higher education by now. The camp situation is depriving us of our lives.”

The UN refugee agency is working to change that sense of powerlessness, but within tight operational constraints. It works closely with refugee-elected camp management committees, empowering them to mediate disputes and organizing women’s training and peace education workshops.

Rohingya men and women retrieve water

Rohingya men and women retrieve water from a Kutupalong camp well.

Refugees are also encouraged to participate in the day-to-day running of the camps. Bibi Begum, 30, helps to distribute food rations in Kutupalong every two weeks. Today she is in charge of sugar, stirring a sack sugar with her hand to loosen the grains before spooning precise portions into waiting plastic bags.

A widow with three children, she is one of seven incentive workers at the food distribution center who are given employment.

“I get 1,820 taka (US$22.50) per month. It helps with the children’s school supplies, and I can buy extra things,” she said. “Usually I make fishing nets for a living, but it is not profitable. I only made 1,000 taka after three months of work.”

The UNHCR vocational training is another important empowerment tool. While the refugees are not permitted to work or to sell things they produce, UNHCR seeks to keep them occupied while teaching them skills like carpentry, soap making and tailoring that they can hopefully use in the future.

At Nayapara camp, Hamida Khatun, a 40-year-old widow with five children, is busy making soap. “I wanted to earn some money so I approached UNHCR to put my name on the list,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for a month, learning how to mix chemicals and use the mould.”

am is greeted by children of the Kutupalong refugee camp.

Sam is greeted by children of the Kutupalong refugee camp.

Her job today is to cut individual bars of soap to make sure they weigh a consistent 150 grams each. “I am proud of my soaps,” she said. “I get 1,036 taka per month for six months. But it’s not enough. There are 14 people in my family – six are registered and get food rations, the rest are not registered and get nothing. The money helps to buy some extra rice, but it is not enough for extra blankets.”

When completed, Hamida’s soaps are taken to the Bangladeshi Red Crescent Society to be distributed in the camp’s Women’s Centre along with some underwear, clothing and other personal items.

The clothing items are made at the Nayapara Women’s Centre by refugees attending the tailoring class. “They are usually aged 15 to 25, and rotate every six months,” said one of the women in charge. “We teach them skills and keep them busy so hopefully they don’t get married off at a young age.

Economic disadvantages

A young Rohingya girl mingles along with tourists on a beach looking for ways to make money.

Looking for ways to make money, a lone Rohingya girl, 11, mingles with tourists on a beach.

Unfortunately, there are few prospects after the six-month training as most refugees cannot afford to buy their own equipment. Even those who manage to buy a sewing machine find it hard to get raw materials and to market their products. Without regular practice, their skills fade quickly.

In comparison, the more than 240,000 unregistered Rohingyas living outside the camps appear to have developed their own coping mechanisms over the years.

I am shocked at the sight of thousands of young children, 8 to 10 years old, wandering the roads or working in the markets, many without parents. The roadside markets are busy and these children have found informal ways to survive without government or UNHCR support. I am told that many have resorted to “sordid ways” of subsistence. I inquire further. It is said some of these Rohingya children are falling prey to human trafficking and heroin trade. Many of these Rohingya children have little or no knowledge of the Islamic faith that once guided them morally.

These problem lead one to believe that we need rethink how best to help these stranded refugees.

“The UNHCR is good at emergency response, setting up camps quickly in the hope that refugees can return in one to two years,” said Dirk Hebecker, head of the agency’s sub-office in Cox’s Bazar. “But when the situation gets protracted, we need to be able to adjust our strategies.”

He added that the international community should work with the Bangladeshi government to shift from focusing on just the two camps—which currently cares for only 10 to 15 per cent of the refugee population. He says the whole refugee population, including those outside the camps, must be immediately assisted if practical solutions are to be found to this long-running catastrophe.

Young children 9 to 15 years of age are seen wandering the streets. We learn that many of their mothers and fathers were killed in Myanmar or have died from disease and starvation during their exodus en route to Bangladesh.

In the following 5-minute video you will hear testimonies about the nearly 300,000 Rohingya refugees now living in Bangladesh.

Sources: Time magazine, wikipedia.com, British History Museum, A History of the Subcontinent, People’s Republic of Bangladesh, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, The Ugly Britain, theeastindiacompany.com, Rohingya News, The New York Times, BBC, The Guardian

February 12, 2015 Posted by | Human Rights, Islam, Travel, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My life-changing visit to Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum and Park

Hiroshima, Japan, days after the devastating blast of the the A-bomb.

One single bomb named “Little Boy” leveled the big city of Hiroshima. Today’s nuclear weapons are each thousands of times more powerful. By 2013 there were more than 4,100 active nuclear warheads in the world’s arsenal–enough to destroy all of mankind. Another 17,300 nuclear warheads are on standby.

The flight ground crew with Enola Gay pilot Col. Paul Tibbets. The plane would deliver the first atomic bomb to ever be used in war.

The flight ground crew with Enola Gay pilot Col. Paul Tibbets (center). The plane would deliver the first atomic bomb to ever be used in war. (Click photos to enlarge.)

Last updated 3 November 2014, 4:02 AM…

Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombed

On August 6, 1945, 8:15 AM, after 44 months of increasingly brutal fighting in the Pacific, the Enola Gay, an American B-29 bomber loaded with a devastating new weapon, appeared in the sky over Hiroshima, Japan. Minutes later, that new weapon—a bomb that released its enormous destructive energy by splitting uranium atoms to create a chain reaction—detonated in the sky, killing some 70,000 Japanese civilians instantly and leveling the city.

Three days later, the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb over the city of Nagasaki, with similarly devastating results. The following week, Japan’s emperor addressed his country over the radio to announce the decision to surrender. World War II had finally come to its dramatic conclusion.

My personal interest in the atomic bombings

In 1997 my Project Friendship Russian exchange student Timur Chirikov was a senior at Severn School in Severna Park, Maryland. Timur brought home a homework assignment. He had been asked to write a term paper on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like most Americans, I had never really given much thought to the subject. I agreed to help Timur with this project. We began to pour through all kinds of information we found on the internet or in print at our local library. Timur had to first decide a “pro” or “con” position regarding the US use of atomic weapons to end the war with Japan. After looking through hundreds of pages of information, he decided he would write against the use of the atomic weapons. The clincher in that decision seemed to be the Oppenheimer Target Committee report that had been declassified by the US Department of Defense.

The Enola Gay crew photographed the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. The photos on the right show the city of Hiroshima before and after the blast.

The Enola Gay crew photographed the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. The photos on the right show the city of Hiroshima before and after the blast.

Several Japanese cities had been listed by the Target Committee as potential bomb sites. Perhaps it was the wording of the committee’s suggestion that Kyoto would make a good target. Although Kyoto, an urban industrial city of one million inhabitants, was never bombed, it had been classified by the committee as an “AA Target.” Committee members reasoned, “From the psychological point of view there is the advantage that Kyoto is an intellectual center for Japan and the people there are more apt to appreciate the significance of such a weapon as the gadget.” (“Gadget” was the code word for the atomic bomb.)

Timur and I read those words in disbelief. What? More educated, intelligent people can better appreciate being incinerated by an atomic bomb? Hiroshima was the last major Japanese city left untouched. It was the political and economic heart of the Chugoku Region and possessed  vital military base. The population at the time was in excess of 350,000. Hiroshima would be “number one” on the Target Committee’s report.

The ongoing controversy

The decision to employ atomic weapons against Japan remains a contentious chapter in American history. Even before President Harry S. Truman finalized his decision to use the bombs, members of Truman’s inner circle grappled with the specifics of the decision to drop the new weapon. Their concerns revolved around a cluster of related issues: whether the use of the technology was necessary to defeat an already crippled Japan; whether a similar outcome could be effected without using the bomb against civilian targets; whether the detonation of a second bomb days after the first, before Japan had time to formulate its response, was justified; and what effect the demonstration of the bomb’s devastating power would have on postwar diplomacy, particularly on America’s uneasy wartime alliance with the Soviet Union.

The ongoing struggle to present the history of the atomic bombings in a balanced and accurate manner is an interesting story in its own right, and one that has occasionally generated an enormous amount of public debate. In 1995, anticipating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum planned a display around the fuselage of the Enola Gay, the aircraft that dropped the first bomb, for its museum on the National Mall. That exhibit would place the invention of atomic weapons and the decision to use them against civilian targets in the context of World War II and the Cold War, provoking broader questions about the morality of strategic bombing and nuclear arms in general.

The atomic bombings of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan were conducted by the United States during the final stages of World War II in August 1945. The two bombings were the first and remain the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare.

The atomic bombings of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan were conducted by the United States during the final stages of World War II in August 1945. The two bombings were the first and remain the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare.

The design for the exhibit quickly triggered an avalanche of controversy. Critics charged that it offered a too-sympathetic portrayal of the Japanese enemy, and that its focus on the children and elderly victims of the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki encouraged visitors to question the necessity and morality of the weapons. As originally written, those critics alleged, the exhibit forwarded an anti-American interpretation of events surrounding the atomic weapons’ use.

That such a message was to appear in a national museum amplified the frustrations of critics (especially veterans’ groups), who believed that the exhibit should not lead museum goers to question the decision to drop the bomb or to portray the Pacific war in morally neutral terms.

In place of the original exhibit, veterans’ organizations offered a replacement exhibit with a very different message. Their proposed exhibit portrayed the development of the atomic weapons as a triumph of American technical ingenuity, and the use of both bombs as an act that saved lives—the lives of American soldiers who would otherwise have had to invade the Japanese home islands, and the lives of thousands of Japanese who would, it was assumed, have fought and died with fanatic determination opposing such an invasion.

‘The revised exhibit removed the questioning tone of the original, replacing it with more certainty: the use of the bombs, it argued, was both necessary and justified.

Varying accounts of US history books

Because the use of the atomic weapons evokes such passionate responses from Americans—from those who believe that the use of the bombs was wholly justified to those who believe that their use was criminal, and the many people who fall somewhere in between—it is a particularly difficult topic for textbooks to discuss. In order to avoid a potentially treacherous debate, textbooks have often adopted a set of compromises that describe the end of the war but avoid or omit some of the most difficult parts of the conversation. A 1947 history textbook, produced just two years after the bombings did just this, sidestepping the controversy by presenting the story at a distance and refraining from interpretation or discussion of civilian casualties: “The United States unveiled its newest weapon, demonstrating twice—first at Hiroshima and then at Nagasaki—that a good-sized city could almost be erased from the map in one blinding flash. Confronted by this combination of forces, Japan surrendered August 14.”

The skeletal remains of the

The skeletal remains of what has become known as the “A-bomb Dome.” It is the sole remaining structure damaged by the blast. It was formerly the Hiroshima Prefectural Products Exhibition Hall. All other bomb ruins were demolished.

“If the war dragged on and Americans had to invade Japan, it might cost a million lives…life for life, the odds were that [the atomic bomb] would cost less.” Later textbooks made other compromises. The 2005 textbook A History of the United States adopts a familiar tone, arguing that President Truman based his decision to drop the bomb mainly on a complex calculus of the cost in human lives if the war were to continue: “Should the United States use the atomic bomb? No one knew how long Japan would hold out.” That uncertainty forced American planners to assume the worst: “If the war dragged on and Americans had to invade Japan, it might cost a million lives.

The atomic bomb, President Truman knew, might kill many thousands of innocent Japanese. But life for life, the odds were that it would cost less.” A 2006 textbook, The Americans, suggests that the decision to drop the bomb occurred largely outside moral concerns: “Should the Allies use the bomb to bring an end to the war? Truman did not hesitate. On July 25, 1945, he ordered the military to make final plans for dropping two atomic bombs on Japan.”

The paragraph on the decision concludes with a compelling quote from the President himself: “Let there be no mistake about it. I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt it should be used.” Other recent textbooks have labored to present this often-contentious topic in a more nuanced manner. The 2007 textbook American Anthem describes the decision-making process as an involved one, observing “Truman formed a group to advise him about using the bomb. This group debated where the bomb should be used and whether the Japanese should be warned. After carefully considering all the options, Truman decided to drop the bomb on a Japanese city. There would be no warning.”

The carefully written passage does not suggest that the question of whether to use the bomb against civilian targets was part of the debate; it describes the inquiry as focused on where to drop the bomb and whether a warning would precede its use. More recent textbooks often offer viewpoints from other perspectives—including Japanese civilians, who suffered the legacy of atomic fallout for decades after the original explosion—from a morally neutral stance, inviting (or directly asking) readers to make their own judgments.

Besides offering a description of Truman’s decision-making process, the American Anthem textbook includes a passage of equivalent length that describes the destruction on the ground, anchored by a quote from a survivor of the Hiroshima bomb. It also features a “Counterpoints” section that contrasts a quote from Secretary of War Henry Stimson supporting the bomb’s use with one from Leo Szilard, an atomic physicist, characterizing the use of the bombs against Japan as “one of the greatest blunders of history.”

The mother tree (1st Generation) is now planted in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.

This knarled tree was transplanted to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. It was one of few plants to survive the atom bomb blast. Hundreds of severely injured Japanese men and women have found solace at the foot of this scarred “Peace Tree,” thinking, “If this tree can survive the effects of that bomb, then so can I.”

What the documents reveal

Over the years, particularly during the 1990s, much information related the atomic bombing of the two Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been declassified, but still a discussion that focuses primarily on the need to employ the bomb in order to save lives—the lives of Japanese civilians as well as those of American soldiers—is incomplete. In fact, as the documentary record shows, there was a good deal of debate over the use of atomic weapons during the summer of 1945.

Much of the debate, however, focused on other complex issues–not the lives that would be saved or lost by bringing the war to an immediate end. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe and one of the architects of the successful campaign against Germany, was one of the dissenters. After the war, Eisenhower recalled his position in 1945, asserting that “Japan was defeated and… dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary.”

Eisenhower’s objection was, in part, a moral one; as he noted, “I thought our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face.'”

Eisenhower recalled that his objection was not at all well received by Secretary of War Henry Stimson. In Eisenhower’s own words, Stimson was “deeply perturbed by my attitude, almost angrily refuting the reasons I gave for my quick conclusions.” (In a separate document, Stimson himself concurred with Eisenhower’s conclusion that there was little active American attempt to respond to Japan’s peace feelers to prevent the use of the atomic weapons: “No effort was made, and none was seriously considered, to achieve surrender merely in order not to have to use the bomb.”)

The year after the Japanese surrender, the U.S. government released its own Strategic Bombing Survey (SBS), an effort to assess the effectiveness of dropping bombs on civilian populations, including the fire bombs used in Europe and the Pacific, and the atomic weapons detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Its findings suggested that the bombs had been largely unneeded, and that Japan’s surrender was all but guaranteed even without the threat of invasion. “Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts,” the SBS concluded, “and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that . . . Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”

Sam is privileged to rink the Peace Bell in Hiroshima's Peace Park.

Sam is privileged to ring the Peace Bell in Hiroshima’s Peace Park. “I rang it with the Middle East in mind,” he said.

Though firm in its assertions, the SBS received widespread criticism from many quarters for drawing conclusions considered “far beyond the available evidence.” But, the Strategic Bombing Survey’s conclusions highlight another important factor in the decision to employ the bombs against Japan: the message such a display would send to Josef Stalin.

Uneasy allies in the war against Germany, Russian forces had joined the war in Japan in August 1945. Contemporary observers noted that the demonstration of the deadly new weapon’s considerable might had the additional effect of warning Stalin that the U.S. would exercise considerable power in the postwar period. Furthermore, dropping two bombs only days apart had the added benefit of convincing the Russians that the U.S. possessed a formidable supply of the new weapons; when in fact, the U.S. nuclear arsenal was entirely depleted after the two attacks on Japan.

A survey of primary sources from the summer of 1945 and the months afterward reveals a variety of opinions, arguments, and justifications regarding the use of atomic weapons. Embracing the variety of opinions while also presenting a narrative that depicts the decision and its effects from multiple perspectives is a near-impossible task. Given how controversial the story of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has proved to be, the compromises 21st-century textbooks have undergone appear understandable if not entirely necessary.

The death toll

The real mortality of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan will never be known. The destruction and overwhelming chaos that followed made orderly counting impossible. It is likely that the estimates of men, women and children who died in Hiroshima (140,000) and Nagasaki (75,000) are far too conservative. On August 6, 1945, at 8:15 AM, in Hiroshima an estimated 70,000 people were killed instantly. The heat from the bomb was so intense that some people were simply vaporized in the explosion. Some who survived the initial blast threw themselves in the Ota River seeking relief from their burns. There thousands drowned. Within the next four months another 70,000 would die from the effects of radiation and sustained blast injuries. Still, thousands more suffered from the long-term effects of prolonged radiation sickness.

Masayuki, a first-year student at the Hiroshima Junior High School. Masayuki Ueda was one of more than 6,000 students who died.

Masayuki, Ueda, a first-year student at the Hiroshima Municipal Junior High School., was one of more than 6,000 students who died from the blast.

Hiroshima today

Little remains of the effects of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima except for artifacts in the city’s Peace Memorial Museum and Park and the skeletal remains of the  Atomic Bomb Dome. The city has been rebuilt. Nearly 70 years has passed since the atomic bombings and the end of war with Japan. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Park now seeks to preserve survivor experiences and has as its major objective the ending of all war and promoting world peace. My hotel was but a block away, so I was able to visit the Peace Museum often during my stay.

One of the exhibits that was very moving was that about three junior high school students whose lives were ended by the blast. More than 8,400 Japanese first and second-year students from the Hiroshima Municpal Junior High School had been assigned to demolishing old buildings as a means of  creating firebreaks should the city face saturation bombing from Allied planes.

More than 6,000 of these children died when atomic blast took place in the sky above them. The exhibit showed clothing from three of the students who died. There was the cap belonging to first-year student Eiichi Tsuda. There was the uniform belonging to second-year student Hajime Fukuoka, and there were gaiters (a covering worn over the shoes and lower pants legs) belonging to first-year student Masayuki Ueda.

The museum exhibits powerfully communicate the need for world peace and an end to war.

Outside the museum I found myself surrounded by many smiling Japanese junior high school students. Their ages and faces appeared the same as the young students I had seen featured in the exhibit. Easily recognizing me as an American, they began to encircle me. Not knowing what to say, I asked if they spoke English. They excitedly reached out to shake my hand, saying almost in unison, “Hello, mister. How are you?” I shook their hands and greeted them.

After speaking briefly with these children, I met a very dear lady, Akemi Yagi, a peace volunteer guide who would spend several hours walking with me through the Peace Park. Akemi was born in Hiroshima in 1948, three years after the a-bomb was dropped. Her parents were “A-bomb survivors.” “I don’t have vivid memories, but I can still hear my mother saying that everyone is so poor. She would say often that the people of Hiroshima lost everything: houses, clothes, food.”

Akemi tells me she has dedicated her life to ending war and nuclear proliferation. She was truly inspiring.

I suggested to Akemi that no warning had been given to the people of Hiroshima before the atomic bomb was dropped. Her response was very gracious. “Neither did we Japanese give any warning to the Americans before attacking Pearl Harbor,” she says. “War is evil. We must stop war. We must forgive the past. We must work for a better future for our children and grandchildren.”

Akemi points out that today’s nuclear weapons are thousands of times more powerful than that single atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  “And there are thousands of them,” she says. “That’s why nuclear disarmament is so important. The world must eliminate these weapons.” Akemi is right. A history of nuclear arms race is portrayed in a timeline prepared by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) indicates today’s wide proliferation of these destructive weapons of war could destroy the world a thousand times over within just a few minutes. Even a relatively small regional nuclear war could trigger an international “nuclear winter.” It would cause droughts for more than a decade, researchers say.

Eisenhower right–Akemi too!

Eisenhower

Although President Eisenhower, a former World War II general, spoke against increased military spending, the Cold War deepened during his administration and political pressures for increased military spending mounted. By the time he left office in 1961, he felt it necessary to warn the American people about the “military industrial complex.”

I am convinced Akemi has it right, and so did General Eisenhower. What the Japanese did at Pearl Harbor was evil and wrong. But I am also persuaded from my research, that I now fully agree with Eisenhower–that what America did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki was also wrong.

It was in Eisenhower’s words “unnecessary.” And as he predicted, America had also become known as the only nation to have ever used nuclear weapons in time of war.

Eisenhower would later serve two terms as president of the United States. At the end of his eight years as president, three days before he left office, Eisenhower addressed the American people in a televised appeal–a warning that would  become known as “Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation.” In that message President Eisenhower cautioned American citizens about the evil of an uncontrolled military industrial complex and the potentially strong influence of their lobbyists in the halls of the US Congress:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

I asked Akemi about the lingering effects of radiation from the a-bomb. I was surprised to learn that just about all of the radiation from the Hiroshima bombing disappeared within a couple of months. She says the Japanese government certified anyone who was within two kilometers of the hypocenter during the two weeks following the bombing as an “A-bomb survivor.”

“The A-bomb exploded not on the ground but in the air,” she explained. Most of the radiation from the explosion had been dispersed and decayed in the mushroom cloud that went far into the atmosphere. Akemi also points out that a very powerful typhoon named Makurazaki hit Hiroshima, just six weeks after the blast, causing major flooding in the city. “It washed just about all of the remaining traces of radiation out to sea.”

Now Akemi tells me something I never knew. In addition to the more than 140,000 Japanese who died immediately or during the following four months, there were at least 12 American POWs who died on that fateful day. We stare into a computer screen in the research library. She points to the names of the 12 Americans that are listed there. I quickly write down the names: Raymond Porter, Ralph Neal, Joseph Dubisnky, Durden Looper, Buford Ellison, Charles Baumgartner,John Hantschel, James Ryan, Hugh Atkinson, Norman Brisette, John Long and Julius Molnar. I learn that the death of these American POWs was not acknowledged by the United States until the late 1970s. The Japanese have now added the names of the twelve soldiers to their official tally of those killed in the bombing, and the photos of these POWs are now mounted in the Peace Memorial Museum photo gallery.

During a war memorial ceremony, some of the thousands of
During a 1947 memorial ceremony, some of the thousands of “A-bomb orphans” on Ninoshima Island gathered to honor their parents and friends who had died.

Hiroshima’s A-bomb orphans

Speaking with great conviction, Akemi shares the story of Hiroshima’s “A-bomb orphans.”

“There were thousands of them,” she says. These were children 8 to 11 years old who had been evacuated to the countryside for wartime safety.  Though their parents had met a horrific death, they had been spared, but at what cost? Their lives had been horribly changed by the tragedy of war!

Children are always the most innocent victims of war. In the 21st century, millions every year are traumatized by the events of war. “After the war these orphaned children of Hiroshima were sheltered on Ninoshima Island, some were pushed onto the streets for various reasons,” Akemi says. “Anyway, they had to live on their own by shining shoes on the street or taking any other jobs available.” Teary-eyed, Akemi admits, “Some of the orphans starved to death. Others joined street gangs or prostituted themselves to survive.”

Shouzou’s story

Akemi mentions one particular orphan. She explains that a young boy named Shouzou Kawamoto had lost six members of his family. He was working in a field with other evacuated children outside Hiroshima when he saw that flash of light from the bomb and then the mushroom cloud rising high in the sky. Akemi says he found out the next day that both his parents, two of his sisters and a brother were dead. At the age of 11 Shouzou had become an a-bomb orphan. Just a half year later his lone-surviving sister died of radiation-related acute leukemia. It was shortly after the death of this sister that Shouzou found work in a soy sauce factory.  Akemi says, “Shouzou tried so hard.” “When he became 23 years old, he fell in love with a girl. He proposed to her, but her parents were against their marriage, because they worried about the effects of radiation.”

Akemi Yagi and Shouzou Kawamoto share their stories with visitors in the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park. Both have dedicated their lives to promoting world peace and nuclear disarmament.

Akemi Yagi and Shouzou Kawamoto (center) share their stories with visitors in the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park. Both have dedicated their lives to promoting world peace and nuclear disarmament.

“A-bomb survivors faced a lot of discrimination,” Akemi adds, “especially when they tried job hunting or getting married.” Shouzou felt hopeless to escape the difficulties of life in Hiroshima.

Wanting to leave those horrible memories of the war behind, Shouzou resolved to leave the city. Having only 640 yen in his pocket, he took the train as far as he could to nearby Okayama. There, Shouzou, heard his mother’s voice saying to him, “Never give up! Never give up, Shouzou!”

He saw a help-wanted ad on the door of a neighborhood noodle shop. He walked inside and was hired.” Many years later, when Shouzou was 50 years old, he started a very successful business making lunch boxes. Akemi tells me he never married.

Decades had passed with little contact with his former acquaintances in Hiroshima. One day he received an unexpected phone call. He was invited to join other classmates at a school reunion. After years of healing from the traumatic scars of war, Shouzou now felt a great longing to be reunited with his classmates. He found understanding, sympathy and hope from those who had also experienced the atomic bombing. Ten years later, now 70 years old, Shouzou would close his lunch box business in Okayama and return to live Hiroshima.

Today, like Akemi, Shouzou is a peace volunteer guide, sharing his story with the many visitors who come to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Park. They are proof that one need not be controlled by the horrid events of the past, but one can use those experiences to help others to build a better future for all mankind. Shouzou says, “No one else should ever suffer as we did.”

Sam with paper cranes mailed by school children from around the world in remembrance of Sadako and to promote world peace.

Sam with some of the origami paper cranes mailed by school children from around the world in remembrance of Hiroshima’s war children and to promote world peace.

Sadako and the paper cranes

While continuing our walk through the Peace Memioral Park I notice brightly colored paper cranes hanging nearby. Akemi begins to tell me the story of a young girl named Sadako Sasaki who made origami cranes.

Sadako was two years old when she was exposed to the radiation of the A-bomb. She had no apparent injuries at the time. She grew into a strong, healthy, beautiful girl. However, nine years later, in the fall of 1954, shortly after entering the sixth grade of Nabori Cho Elementary School, Sadako suddenly developed signs of an illness.

By February of the following year she was diagnosed with leukemia and was admitted to the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital. Believing that folding paper cranes would help her recover, Sadako kept folding and folding, but on October 25, 1955, after an eight-month struggle with the disease, she passed away.

Sadako’s death triggered a campaign to build a monument where people could pray for world peace. It also offers the world’s children a peaceful response to remember the children killed by the atomic bomb. The Children’s Peace Monument in the middle of the park was built with funds donated from all over Japan. Later, this Sadako’s story spread around the world, and now, approximately 10 million cranes are presented each year to the Children’s Peace Monument.

Sending paper cranes

Anyone may bring paper cranes to the Children’s Peace Monument near the center of the Peace Memorial Park. However, if you are unable to come to the park, the City of Hiroshima will be happy to present your cranes to the Children’s Peace Monument on your behalf. In addition, the name of your school or your children’s names and messages for peace will be entered into the Paper Crane Database. In this way, your desire for peace will be recorded for posterity. For this purpose, please complete the registration form and return it to the Children’s Peace Memorial along with your paper cranes to:

Peace Promotion Division The City of Hiroshima 1-5 Nakajima-cho Naka-ku, Hiroshima 730-0811 Japan

A video that changed my life

Following our visit to the Children’s Peace Memorial, Akemi takes me into the Ground Zero Museum and Research Library. There we enter a theater. She says what I am about to see is very important. As the documentary film Children of Hiroshima begins to play I am immediately moved to tears as child after child describes life during and after the atom bomb fell.

I now ask you, for the cause of world peace and ending war, for the sake of future generations, please, please watch this short 15-minute film which I have posted below.

Children of Hiroshima is based on the eyewitness accounts of Japanese children who were present when the atomic blast occurred. Share this video with your family and friends, and get involved, like Akemi and Shouzou, in campaigning for world peace. Children of Hiroshima film

Robert Oppenheimer in his own words:

Sources: US Strategic Bombing Survey, UPI, Hiroshima Memorial Peace Museum, The Nation, US Department of Defense, wikipedia.org, atomicbombmuseum.org, National Geographic Magazine, youtube.com, Children of Hiroshima, teachinghistory.com, A History of the United States, The Americans, Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, United States Archives, Stars & Stripes, livescience.com, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

October 13, 2014 Posted by | Peace | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A very close look at Korea’s Demilitarized Zone

Scores of South Koreans wait their turn to get a glimpse of the Demilitarize Zone and North Korea.

Scores of South Koreans wait their turn to get a glimpse of the Demilitarized Zone and North Korea. The two nations have been in a state of war since 1951. Hope remains that one day the two nations will be reunited.

(Click on photos to enlarge.)

A map showing the Deimilitarized Zone separating North Korea from South Korea. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Brief Korean War history

The Korean War (1950 to 1953) was a war between North and South Korea, in which a United Nations force led by the United States was fighting alongside the South, and China, assisted by the Soviet Union, was fighting alongside the North. The war arose from the division of Korea at the end of World War II and from the global tensions of the Cold War that developed immediately afterwards.

The Korean Armistice Agreement is the treaty which ended hostilities between North Korea and South Korea. It was signed by U.S. Army Lieutenant General William Harrison, Jr. representing the United Nations Command (UNC), North Korean General Nam Il representing the North Korean People’s Army, and the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army.  The armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, and was designed to “insure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.”  So far, no “final peaceful settlement” has been achieved.

During the three years of war, South Korea had suffered 217,000 military casualties and more than 1 million citizens had died. North Korea had suffered 406,000 military casualties and an estimated 600,000 of its citizens had been killed. According to the US Department of Defense, more than 30,000 US troops died and another 103,284 were wounded. Thousands of troops are still classified as POWs or MIAs.

If we could push a button and end war on planet Earth we would no doubt do it. Such statistics as mentioned above are grim reminders that war is never a good response to disagreements and conflicts.  We must find far better ways to negotiate a just and lasting peace.

Visiting the Demilitarized Zone

Sam with Dr. Sadig Malki and Bernard van Maele at the DMZ.

Sam with his friends Dr. Sadig Malki and Bernard van Maele at the DMZ.

At the end of the World Peace Summit in Seoul, my colleagues, Dr. Sadig Malki from Saudi Arabia, and Bernard van Maele from Belgium, and I grabbed a taxi from in front of the Seoul Renaissance Hotel and took off for the Korean Dimilitarized Zone (DMZ) some 50 kilometers to the north. It is 250 kilometres (160 miles) long, approximately 4 km (2.5 mi) wide.

The name “Demilitarized Zone” is actually an oxymoron. It is in reality one of the most heavily militarized strips of land in the world. Occasional skirmishes and shelling still take place.

The DMZ cuts the Korean Peninsula roughly in half, crossing the 38th parallel on an angle, with the west end of the DMZ lying south of the parallel and the east end lying north of it. It was created as part of the Korean Armistice Agreement between North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, and the United Nations Command forces in 1953.

Our taxi attempted to drive directly to the Dora Observatory, but UN forces waved us away. We were told we had to go to a nearby location and transfer to a tour bus. The Dora Observatory is a large outpost overlooking the DMZ and North Korea. From the observatory, visitors can get an excellent view of the DMZ and North Korean towns and the mountains that lay beyond. This observation post was first opened to the public in January 1987.

Hundreds of South Koreans crowded around telescopes as they sought to get a glimpse of life in North Korea. Looking through a telescope, I didn’t see any sign of movement or life. I didn’t see any people walking around or any traffic on the streets.

It reminded me of my first visit to Berlin, Germany, in 1967. I was just 18 years old. I had walked along the Berlin Wall. On one side of the wall I saw the bustling businesses and tall skyscrapers of West Berlin. On the East Berlin communist side there was little evidence of economic growth or activity. It was as though I was peering into a time warp. Many buildings still lay in ruins from World War II.

Sam and friend take the tram through one of the access tunnels.

Sam and Korean friend Lee take the tram through one of the access channels to Tunnel Two.

DMZ invasion tunnels

At our first stop, Bernard, Sadig and I walked through a DMZ museum where we learned about the possibility of visiting a network of tunnels that had been dug by the North Korean military. We were told they are “invasion tunnels” that were meant to send infiltrating forces into South Korea.

According to one declassified intelligence report I read, it is believed that North Korea began digging the tunnels after then president Kim Il-sung issued the September 25, 1971, Combat Readiness Order.  In that directive, Kim stressed the need to dig tunnels under the Demilitarized Zone, saying that “one tunnel would be more effective than 10 atomic bombs” and would thus be the best means of overwhelming the heavily fortified South Korean army.

Tunnel One was discovered in November 1974 in the Western Sector of the DMZ near Gorang-po.  At an estimated length of 3.5 kilometers, it extends one kilometer south of the Military Demarcation Line that divides the DMZ. The walls and ceiling of the tunnel, 1.2 meters high and nearly a meter wide, are reinforced with concrete slabs.  It has the capacity to move an entire regiment through it. The tunnel was lit with lamps connected to 220-volt power lines.  Equipped with a narrow-gauge railway, rail cars and drainage devices were also found inside. This tunnel is located only 65 kilometers north of South Korea’s capital Seoul.

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Tunnel Two winds through several kilometers of granite rock beneath the surface of the DMZ.

Twice as wide as Tunnel One, Tunnel Two was discovered in March 1975 in the Central Sector of the DMZ, about 13 kilometers north of the town of Cheorwon.  Measuring two meters high and just over 2 meters wide, the arch-shaped tunnel is large enough to move heavy weapons like tanks, field artillery, and armored personnel carriers.  More than 30,000 troops per hour could be moved through the tunnel into the South.  It was bored through 3.5 kilometers of bedrock at a depth of 50-160 meters below ground. A spacious troop assembly area was carved out inside the tunnel. There were three exits from the assembly area leading to the surface.

Tunnel Four, which is located along one of the most strategic routes in the Eastern Sector, was discovered in March 1990 only 26 kilometers northeast of Yanggu.  This tunnel is buried at an average depth of 145 meters below ground and measures two meters high and two meters wide.

Almost identical with Tunnel Two and Tunnel Three in size and structure, Tunnel Four goes just over 1 kilometer south of the Military Demarcation Line and is designed to infiltrate massive forces into the Sohwa-Wontong corridor, the major access route to the Yeongdong Expressway.

Down, down we go

Donning hard hats to prevent head injuries from hanging rocks, we boarded a small passenger tram, travelling some two kilometers and far beneath the surface into Tunnel 2. The tram had been built by South Korea to provide its citizens with a vivid account of the invasion tunnels that threatened the South.

The South Korean Defense Ministry still officially looks for tunnels as it believes there may be as many as 20 of these military corridors, but we are told the budget is small and tunnel hunters believe it is merely a token effort. As we move deeper beneath the DMZ a speaker system explains that North Korea has said the tunnels were not for invasion, but part of its “mining industry.”

North Korea officially declared Tunnel Two to be a coal mine. Comically black “coal” was painted on the walls by retreating North Korean soldiers to help prove this. There is no geological likelihood of coal being in the area, we’re told. “The walls are noticeably granite,” we’re told. “It is highly unlikely that coal would ever be found in such geological conditions.”

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An access channel built by the South Koreans as a conduit to North Korea’s Tunnel Four. This is the two-kilometer upgrade Sam faced when returning to the bus.

My great adventure—Tunnel Four!

We eventually surfaced from that tunnel, and I thought I was following Sadig and Bernard into an access channel leading to the much longer Tunnel Four.

Wondering how they had gotten so far ahead of me, I kept moving down the steep grade. There was no tram to ride in Tunnel Four. I kept on moving down, down the steep incline into the ground, walking about 2 kilometers. All the time I’m thinking, “Good grief! I’ll never make it back up this tunnel!”

Towards the end, I realized Bernard and Sadig were not ahead of me, and I was alone in this man-made cavern. I also realized there was no easy way out–not tram or elevator could be found. There I was some 120 meters beneath the middle of the DMZ! I eventually found myself peering through a hole in a door. There was a sign “Restricted Area!” That door, I was told later, led directly into North Korea!

I began walking back in the opposite direction, and after about 30 minutes I finally found my way back to that steep passage way leading to the exit. As I began moving slowly back up the steep two-kilometer incline, I heard a message blaring over the PA system: “Meester Sam. If you in tunnel back to bus! Go fast please! Bus leaving!”

I began running up that corridor, huffing and puffing and stopping now and then to lean on the rail to catch my breath. What a tremendous workout! I was wondering how many older men like me had died of heart-attacks alone down there!

When I finally made it out I was soaking wet from sweat. I practically crawled into the bus. Bernard and Sadig were relieved to see me while another 30 Korean tourists seemed a bit annoyed with an American who was holding up the bus. I apologized to all, bowing profusely. They in turn smiled kindly as Koreans do. And I thought to myself, “What an incredible adventure!”

DMZ–a wildlife refuge

Despite the posturing and the insults hurled across this narrow strip of land, the DMZ has become a haven for wildlife and plants in the region. “It’s kind of the irony of war,” said Hall Healy, chairman of the board of the International Crane Foundation, which has worked with researchers and locals near the DMZ on red-crowned crane conservation.

Species that have dwindled or disappeared in some parts of Asia have found refuge in the DMZ. Sightings of rare birds, such as red-crowned cranes and white-naped cranes, are not unusual. Black bears, musk deer, and Amur gorals—a goat relative that lives in the mountains—also inhabit this heavily fortified area.

No videoing of the invasion tunnels is permitted, and in places no photos are permitted. I did find the following short video of one of the invasion tunnels on YouTube. It accurately portrays what we saw:

Sources: History Magazine, wikipedia.org, Republic of South Korea Ministry of Tourism, US Department of Defense, historylearningsite.co.uk, korea.net

October 11, 2014 Posted by | Geography, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

World Peace Summit held in Seoul, South Korea

More than 60,000 men and women from around the world gathered in the Seoul Olympic Stadium for the World Religions for Peace Summit. Among those attending were political and religious leaders and heads of NGOs from 150 nations.

More than 60,000 men and women from around the world gathered in the Seoul Olympic Stadium for the World Alliance of Religions for Peace summit. Among those attending were political and religious leaders and heads of NGOs from an estimated 172 nations. Thousands of cards are assembled in the background to image Roman Catholic Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales, of the Philippines, as he addresses the gathering.

Sam flashes peace sign at the opening ceremony of the World Peace Summit in Seoul.

Sam flashes peace sign at the opening ceremony of the World Peace Summit in Seoul.

A plea for world peace and an end to war

The three-day World Alliance of Religions for Peace (WARP) peace summit was held in Seoul, South Korea, 17 – 19 September. I was privileged to join several participants from Saudi Arabia. Our main goal in being present for this huge conclave was to network with other faith leaders from around the world. And that we did!

More than 60,000 people from 172 countries took part in the spectacular opening ceremony at Seoul’s Jamsil Olympic Stadium. (Be certain to watch the short video at the end of this article!) Just about all the world’s religions were represented, including the major Abrahamic faiths–Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

From the time we arrived in South Korea until the day we left, event staff were among the most hospitable I had ever met. Every detail regarding meetings, lodging, meals and transportation were meticulously well organized. These workers did their very best  at all times to make us feel comfortable and kept informed.

During the opening ceremony, event chairman Man Hee Lee urged global leaders to double down on their efforts to become “peace promoters and peace advocates.”

A congratulatory video message from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the spiritual leader of South Africa and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, attracted much attention. In his message, he said, “I would like to congratulate both Chairman Man Hee Lee and the members of HWPL for hosting the World Alliance of Religions’ Peace Summit. Thank you for delivering the message of peace and the cessation of wars to the whole world.”

Alexander Rutskoy, former vice president of Russia, said, “As a part of the world, a citizen of Russia and as a friend of the Korean people, I want to support this work, offering my experience and knowledge, declaring our common ways to build peace and uniting nations and traditions.”

Present was a diverse line-up of attendees that included former and current heads of state, prominent religious leaders, academics, government legislators, Nobel Prize laureates, as well as community, youth, and women’s leaders from every continent.

Sam with Omani religious leaders.

Sam with Muslim leaders from Oman.

Middle East well represented

There were numerous delegations from the Middle East. Egyptian Grand Mufti Shawqi Abdel Karim Allam was among the list of high profile speakers set to deliver an opening address, but he was unable to attend at the last minute and was replaced by Doha (Qatar) International Centre for Interfaith Dialogue chairman Dr. Ibrahim Saleh Al Naimi.

The Qatari official stressed the importance of dialogue in his speech, describing it as the only way to address conflict among communities.

Bahrain sent a 20-strong delegation from the Bahrain Association for Religious Co-existence and Tolerance (BARCT).

BARCT chairman Yousif Buzaboon told the GDN that his group is now considering the idea of hosting a similar event in Bahrain. “We would certainly like to see such an important summit that promotes peace being held in Bahrain,” he said. “Bahrain is sending a strong message by having such a large delegation at this summit. We are showcasing the achievements of our country and welcome activities that promote peace and empower youth.”

Yemini Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman championed the cause of peace and women's rights.

Yemini Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman championed the cause of peace and women’s rights.

Seminars and focus groups

Throughout the three-day event there were various leadership seminars and focus groups discussing regional issues and various methods of conflict resolution.

In recent years, peacebuilding initiatives have been on the forefront of leading a country’s economic, social and political strength, laying the foundation for development and conflict management. Sustainable peace can, however, present its own challenges as it calls for a nation to gather its utmost efforts across a wide range of activities.

Among important efforts are establishing security on a nation’s borders, providing assistance to refugees, organizing elections of new governments and financing programs towards the protection of human rights. Preventive measures and integrated strategies are greatly needed to assist in the development of best practices , especially in postwar recovery and reconciliation.

Tawakkol Karman from Sana, Yemen, a journalist and the first Arab woman and youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize winner, declared that the Arab Spring has seen a wave of liberation for women throughout the Arab world.  “Women are no longer victims,” she said. “They have become leaders. They are at the forefront of the demonstrations. We will share a role in all aspects of life, side by side with men.”

More than 100 thousands participated in the peace parade ending at the Peace Monument at the Seoul Olympic park.

The closing of the Peace Summit saw more than 100 thousand people rally in the peace parade which culminated at the Peace Monument in the Seoul Olympic Park.

The closing ceremony included an hours-long Olympic-style show replete with fireworks, marching bands and celebrants. Korean theatrics created an emotional display of pomp and pageantry. At the end, many of us joined the Koreans on the field for photos and well wishes.

World peace parade

On the last day of the WARP Summit, a total of 200,000 people including summit participants, members of international NGOs and local citizens, participated in the “Walk for World Peace” near Seoul Olympic Park. This event, hosted by the International Peace Youth Group (IPYG), commemorated the final day of a successful “World Alliance of Religions Peace Summit.”

There were speeches by various youth leaders from many countries and all of them spoke of sufferings in their respective countries and the need for world peace to end the wars in their regions.

Chairman Lee said that world peace is attainable if all the leaders of various religions aggressively continue their efforts to attain world peace. He emphasized the role of religious leaders to encourage their communities to work closely together and also asked the media to promote peace messages around the globe.

Man Hee Lee welcomes participants to the Peace Summit.

Man Hee Lee welcomes participants to the Peace Summit.

Reservations and concerns

While I applaud the efforts of the World Alliance of Religions for Peace to have conducted this international Peace Summit, these efforts have seemingly been based on the leadership of one single man–Chairman Man Hee Lee.

In her statement lauding Man Hee Lee at the opening of the summit, Nam Hee Kim, chairwoman of the collaborative International Women’s Peace Group referred to Lee as “the Peace Advocate, heaven-sent for all humanity.”

In an “Action Plan” released to summit delegates it was said, “Leaders of religions around the world must join hands with the chairman of HWPL for the alliance of religions and frequently meet to achieve the unity of religions.”

Midway through the summit, Lee distributed a statement defending himself from accusations made by the conservative Christian Council of Korea (CCK). The CCK says Lee’s Shincheonji Church of Jesus and his organization Heavenly Culture World Peace Restoration of Light are “cultic.”

Lee himself denied that he had once claimed to have fulfilled the Second Coming of Jesus; however, several comments made by Lee at the summit were disturbing to me, especially his insistance that all delegates sign a statement that called for merging all religions into one single world religion. It read, in part, “Therefore, all religions must unite under God as one…. We pledge in the sight of God, all people of the world, and the Peace Advocate to become one under God through the unity of religion.… We hereby pledge with all reasonable endeavor, to take on this duty to establish peace and end all wars on this earth, and, as a united religion, to leave a world at peace….”

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Faith leaders from all major faiths and 170 nations met for discussions on war and peacemaking.

Faith dialogue very important

World peace is certainly a noble goal. And, without a doubt, dialogue among the world’s major religions and faiths is needed. Many of the conflicts and wars taking place today are caused by religious extremists who have hi-jacked faith for their own political purposes. Such is the case of ISIS (IS or ISIL) and other militant groups now committing horrible atrocities in the name of Islam.

During the past millennium we have seen such circumstances time and time again as even Christians annihilated Muslims, leading their warring military charges under the cross of Jesus in their Crusades to capture the Holy Land. War was conducted on numerous occasions by Catholics who sought to blot out the “heresy of Protestantism” or as World War II Nazis sought to destroy Judaism.

Such evil is also seen today as Israeli Zionists continue a 60-year war of ethnic cleansing, seeking to remove millions of Palestinian Christians and Muslims from the Holy Land or as normally peaceful Buddhists continue a slaughter of the Muslim minority in Myanmar.

The need for dialogue among peoples of faith is of utmost importance, but the it appeared that the predominant view of those attending the Seoul peace summit is that this should not entail eliminating any one faith group or merging all faiths into one.

There is a beauty in the diversity of faith and tradition. And as we met and discussed our beliefs with many faith leaders from around the world, one thing is certain: no faith on earth, based on its holy books, can justly call for the annihilation of innocent men, women and children who believe differently than they. Therefore, we must all do our part to stop the vicious conflicts and carnage being unjustly perpetrated today in the name of any religion or faith group.

Take a few minutes to watch the spectacular opening ceremony of the WARP Peace Summit in Seoul:

 

October 9, 2014 Posted by | Human Rights, Interfaith, Religious Reconciliation | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

My recent visit to the Slovak Republic

Spisska Sabota

The historic village of Spišská Sabota, Slovakia, located at the near the High Tatra Mountains National Park in northern Slovakia.

Family

Sam with Jana and Janulik in Spišská Sabota. (Click photos to enlarge.)

Time with my family

Jana, Janulik and I enjoyed a couple of weeks together in Spišská Sobota, Slovakia, near the High Tatras National Park which borders southern Poland.

It was a welcomed relief for me from the hot humidity of the Red Sea city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Our time together was wonderful, as we had not seen each other in more than a year. We enjoyed outings in the national park and visiting with family members in Košice and Poprad.

“Kenny” (our Schnauzer), Janulik and I enjoyed throwing the frisbee in the backyard of the bed-and-breakfast lodging. Kenny is absolutely wild about chasing a frisbee. He never got tired of chasing his flying disc. Just mention the word, and he goes into a frenzy. He was constantly begging for his red frisbee, which he wore out while I was in Slovakia. He would sit beneath the rack holding the frisbee, whimpering and begging for it.

I have read that chasing and catching frisbees is an exciting and physically demanding activity that “tests a dog’s intelligence, fitness and endurance.” It is apparently a natural extension of a dog’s “prey drive,” and many hunting and working dogs, like Schnauzers, pick up the sport with very little effort. “Kenny” is one of them.

In additiona, “Kenny” is a great companion for Janulik. He faithfully walks Janulik four times everyday!

A lot of changes!

Spišská Sobota and the nearby city of Poprad have changed so much since I was first here as a teenager in 1968. The dark days of totalitarian communism have given way to bustling commercial centers of shopping malls, restaurants and hype-supermarkets. The old, gray, cold hotels and buildings are now painted vibrant, cheerful colors. Historic villages and castles are now busy with tourists wandering about. By night the streets are brightly lit with flashing LED signage.

Janulik and "Kenny" play frisbee!

Janulik and “Kenny” in their daily frisbee routine. It is a challenging workout for both of them!

Some changes here have been rather shocking–like the price of gasoline. It costs over 100 euros (US $126) to say “Fill ‘er up!” Cars are driven as infrequently as possible. While the rise in salaries here in Slovakia has slowly increased, the overall cost of living has mushroomed. But there is one bargain still available to tourists, if you have the right connections. We found a modern, well-equipped bed-and-breakfast for just $10.00 a night!

Our favorite time everyday, was to walk through this historic village where the bed-and-breakfast was located–Spišská Sobota. Especially, around dinner time!

There are a lot of not-too-expensive, excellent cafes and restaurants. You can have a nice meal in one place, and easily walk across the street to a bakery or coffee shop for a great dessert.

My favorite dessert, as my family knows, is makovnik. It’s a large rolled pastry filled with a sweet poppy seed mixture. My father-in-law, Miloslav, presented me with two very large makovniks while I was there!

The Slovak King of Madagascar

As we were walking down the main street of the ancient town of Spišská Sobota I noticed a historic marker on one of the old houses. It read “Home of Zuzana Benyovska, wife of Count Maurice Benyovsky.” The dates pointed to the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that then included Slovakia.

Loving history, I began to wonder, who was this married couple? As I began to ask questions, it didn’t take long to get my answer, as my Slovak family and friends were very proud to tell the story.

Count Maurice Benyovsky, the King of Madagascar!

Count Maurice Benyovsky, the King of Madagascar!

Count Maurice Benyovsky was considered a great representative of the period known as the Age of Enlightenment. He was a leading figure during the development of transportation and world trade.  He was an explorer of unknown regions, and a “Slovak-French colonel.” He would be known as the “King of Madagascar” and the first Slovak author of a best-selling travelogue, having been involved in the history of various nations.

After being captured while fighting for the independence of Poland, Benyovsky was deported by the Russians to the Siberian region of Kamchatka. There he organized his escape, commandeering a Russian sailing vessel. His voyage would take him to Macao. His was the first known voyage from the northeast to the southeast shores of Asia.

The King of France would eventually entrust him with an expedition to Madagascar, where he made friendships with the various warlords, uniting a major part of the island. Benyovsky, beloved by the local tribes, was conferred affectionately with the title of “king.”

Upon his return to France, he attempted to build a fleet of ships for overseas trade, but business was not his gift. Having failed at commerce, this man of adventure and travel never gave up.

While in France he had developed a close friendship with the US Ambassador Benjamin Franklin who in turn introduced Benyovsky to US General George Washington. Benyovsky became a general himself in the American revolutionary army. He fought in major sea battles during the American war for independence. In 1796 he would be killed in battle alongside the French. His travel memoirs were published in London in 1790.

Benovsky’s wife Zuzana later, with the assistance of Benjamin Franklin, returned to her home in Spišská Sobota.

Jana excited displays the tag from Sam's new suit  marked "Samuel."

Jana excitedly displays the tag from Sam’s new suit marked “Samuel.”

Slovak cuisine and the “miracle suit”

Slovakia is known for its excellent cuisine. Svíečková with potato dumplings (knedliky) is a one of my favorite Slovak dishes and one of the most popular Slovak meals. It is sirloin beef prepared with vegetables, spiced with black pepper, allspice, bay leaf and thyme and boiled with thick double cream. Pour that over the knedlíky, and you have a scrumptious meal fit for a king!

Being in Slovakia for just a couple of weeks, and knowing time was of the essence, I tended to eat as much as I could! But then, all of this delicious food presented a big problem. My business suit “shrank”!

Seeing I was having difficulty buttoning my suit, my wonderful Jana insisted on helping me find a new suit. We looked all over the nearby city of Poprad, going from one shopping mall to another, in and out of men’s apparel shops. Nothing fit me properly. Top too small. Pants too long. And there was no time for alterations. I told Jana, “It’s impossible to find a nice suit in Slovakia. Just forget it.”

But Jana never gave up. I got a phone call from her one morning. She was so excited. “You have to come try on this suit! It has your name on it! And it’s 50% off!”

She picked me up, and we were off to the Prior department store. That suit did, indeed, have my name on it! It bore the factory tag marked “Samuel.” Apparently this Slovak clothing factory assigns a name to every suit they make.

And, of course, when I tried it on that suit was a perfect fit!

Sad goodbyes

Goodbyes are always difficult. Jana and Janulik work and live in Slovakia. I am working in Saudi Arabia. It isn’t the best arrangement, but I hope to return to Slovakia in just 4 months. We spend time together, almost daily, on Skype and via the internet, sharing the latest news and asking questions. I hope to never be away so long from Slovakia again.

Jana, Janulik and “Kenny”!
The memories of you
Are engraved within my heart.
Nothing in this world
Can ever tear us apart! ~ Daddy

Here’s a great, short video showing the beauty and splendor of the Slovak Republic–a little nation of great faith, history and castles, high mountains, culture and very hospitable people. Take a few minutes to watch it!

Sources: BBC History Magazine, wikipedia.org, historyorb.com, slovakiopedia.com, youtube.com, discdogg.com

September 30, 2014 Posted by | Geography, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Visiting the King Abdullah Interfaith Center

KA Interfaith Center Vienna

Saudi Prince Saud Al-Faisal and faith leaders from around the world at the opening ceremony of KAICIID, November 2012.

The King Abdullah Interfaith Center, Vienna, Austria

Sam Shropshire with Fahad Abualnasr, chief of staff of KAICIID, Vienna, Austria.

Sam Shropshire with Fahad Abualnasr, chief of staff of KAICIID, Vienna, Austria.

It was my privilege to meet the first of September with Fahad Abualnasr, chief of staff, of the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) in Vienna, Austria.

KAICIID was founded to enable, empower and encourage dialogue among followers of different faiths and cultures around the world. The Centre is an independent, autonomous, international organization, free of political or economic influence.

The Founding States are the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Republic of Austria and Kingdom of Spain. They constitute the “Council of Parties” responsible for overseeing the work of the Centre; the Roman Catholic Holy See has been admitted as a Founding Observer to the Centre.

The Board of Directors comprises high-level representatives of the major world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism) and cultures. The Centre is headed by a Secretary General. An Advisory Forum of up to 100 members of other religions, cultural institutions and international organizations provide a further resource of interreligious and intercultural perspective.

Our discussion at the KAICIID Vienna offices

KAICIID’s mission, to facilitate interreligious and intercultural understanding, and enhance respect for diversity, justice and peace is reflected in the diversity of its staff from 19 countries, four continents, and a wide range of cultural and religious affiliations. Respect for diversity is a cornerstone of KAICIID’s recruitment policy.

The Foreign Minister of Austria, Sebastian Kurz, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Spain, Gonzalo de Benito Secades, and Reverend Father Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot of the the Founding Observer, the Holy See, signed the declaration during a Ministerial Meeting of the Council of Parties to the KAICIID Dialogue Centre in New York on 25 September 2014.

The Foreign Minister of Austria, Sebastian Kurz, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Spain, Gonzalo de Benito Secades, and Reverend Father Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot of the the Founding Observer, the Holy See, signed the declaration during a Ministerial Meeting of the Council of Parties to the KAICIID Dialogue Centre in New York on 25 September 2014.

My discussion with Fahad Abualnasr centered on current religious extremism among all faiths its resulting conflicts. We spoke of my work with Muslim Voice for Peace & Reconciliation and about the need for Islam itself to be known as a more vigorous partner in initiatives promoting world peace, human rights and environmental concerns, recalling that the founding document of KAICIID cites principles enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, especially, “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”–with emphasis on “human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.”

I was, indeed, blessed and encouraged to have learned more about the work of KAICIID and by meeting Fahad Abualnasr and members of his staff.

KAICIID statement condemns religious extremism

On 25 September, meeting at the KAICIID offices in New York, the foreign ministers of the Republic of Austria, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Kingdom of Spain signed a declaration affirming dialogue as a path to lasting peace and social cohesion. This was in response to the current deplorable violence and humanitarian crisis in Northern Iraq and in Syria, as well as in other parts of the world. KIACIID hopes, with the combined support of all faith, to develop international solidarity n ending sectarian violence in various parts of the world.

The released statement said, “We condemn violent conflict in the world, more so violence committed in the name of religion, and call for an end to violent hostility. We deplore loss of life and commend those who seek to alleviate suffering, as well as those who strive to promote well-being, harmony and peace.”

The statement, as well, opposed the instrumentalization of religion to make war and strongly condemned “terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, committed by whomever, wherever and for whatever purposes.

Hate speech and extremism that incite violence and fuel prejudice were also singled out.

Enjoy this sand-art performance during the opening ceremony of KAICIID on 26 November 2012:

Sources: Ecumenical Review, Time Magazine, KAICIID.org

September 29, 2014 Posted by | Human Rights, Interfaith, Islam | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sam takes on the ice bucket challenge!

Andrew and his service dog "Alaya."

Andrew Stevens with his service dog “Alaya.”

Challenge accepted

I accepted the ice bucket challenge on behalf of my 14-year-old friend Andrew Stevens who lives with his parents Angelo and Nancy Stevens in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The event was staged in the historic Al Balad district of downtown Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

It was more than 100 degrees and humid in Jeddah at the time, so the ice and cold water were actually a welcomed relief!

Lennox-Gastaut syndrome

Andrew lives with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS), a severe form of epilepsy. LGS, also known as Lennox syndrome, is a difficult-to-treat form of childhood-onset epilepsy that most often appears between the second and sixth year of life, and is characterized by frequent seizures and different seizure types. LGS is often accompanied by developmental delay and psychological and behavioral problems.

Andrew made history in 2011 when he was finally allowed entrance to his Northern Virginia school accompanied by his service dog “Alaya.” While the Epilepsy Foundation of Virginia applauded the school board for allowing Andrew into school, it released a statement saying, “We continue to urge the school system to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.” Apparently many schools do not.

Andrew’s story has been featured at avarious times on NBC News, the TODAY Show and in the Washington Post.

Contributions to assist families living with LGS and other forms of epilepsy can be made online to the Epilepsy Foundation of Virginia. Your generous help will be greatly appreciated.

God bless you, Andrew! We love you and pray for you! Thank you for all the good work you do for men, women and children living with epilepsy!

August 29, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Considering Islam, terrorism and war

ISIS fighters rally in Iraq as they advance towards Baghdad.

ISIS fighters rally in Iraq as they advance towards Baghdad. This extremist Sunni group has announced plans to rule the territory it has carved out of Iraq and Syria in recent months.

Sam Dammam

During the past two years Sam has traveled to remote areas of Saudi Arabia, speaking with desert  Bedouins, city dwellers and government leaders. He has gained a remarkable understanding of Islam and the Saudi culture. (Click photos to enlarge.)

(Article last updated 7 February 2015, 11:01 pm)

Recently I received several questions from American friends. They are questions that have also troubled me since moving to Saudi Arabia two-and-a-half years ago. The questions: “When will Sunni and Shia Muslims stop fighting each other?” and “How can Muslims commit such horrible atrocities?” and “Doesn’t the evil of terrorism discredit Islam?”

A view from the heart of Islam

I have lived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for two-and-a-half years now. I’ve asked just about every difficult question that could possibly be asked, and I have actually been on the lookout for “extremists” to try to get a better understanding of what makes them think the way the do. So far I have found possibly one.

The Muslim brothers and sisters I have here are, for the most part, rational men and women who dislike bigotry, hatred and war. They simply want a nation that has a sound economy. They want good educations and prosperous futures for their children and grandchildren. However, they are quite concerned about how others outside the Kingdom view their Muslim faith.

As I answer the above questions, I do not intend in any way to excuse some of the obvious hatred and bigotry among peoples and groups who refer to themselves as Muslims. But in living here in the Mecca Region, the very heart of Islam, I have gained what I believe to be a valid perspective, having completed the grueling difficulties of Hajj with friends from our local neighborhood mosque, and having visited Mecca on many occasions and Medina once.

Also, millions of Muslim pilgrims from all over the world travel in and out of Jeddah every year on their way to Mecca, just 35 miles down the road. I mingle with them as they come and go. I have also developed friendships with some of the migrant workers resident in Saudi Arabia—most who are Muslim.

Lest we forget our own Western “Christian” wars

The American Civil War found brother against brother and Christian against Christian to end slavery.

The American Civil War found brother fighting against brother and Christian fighting against Christian in a war to end slavery.

While we are astounded at what we see every night on television, I can imagine that many Muslims of the 19th and 20th century must have asked these same questions when observing wars in the West.

One might consider the American Civil War, that pit Southern Christians who supported slavery against northern Christians who, for the most part, opposed slavery. More than 620,000 American combatants died, and there were more than 450,000 casualties among American civilian men, women and children.

In reference to that War Between the States, President Abraham Lincoln stated in his second inaugural address: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered.”

During the First World War and the Second World War “Christian nations” battled “Christian nations” for supremacy. It was a time when oligarchies made alliances with religious groups and political parties (fascism) for one political objective or another. Allied armies responded in force.

Even more recently we have had the Irish Republican Army (IRA) battling it out with the Presbyterian Orange Order of Northern Ireland. Countless kidnappings, murders, and bombings were carried out during the 1960s and 1970s. Homes were torched and innocent men, women and children were caught in the crossfire.

Today in South Sudan we find Christian militia battling Christian militia for power and control, and in the Central African Republic Chrisitan militias have taken up arms against Muslims. A UN report indicates the militias are guilty of ethnic cleansing.

Islam–divisions and factions

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ISIS and similar extremist groups are un-Islamic. They do not represent Islam any more than the KKK represents Christianity.

One cannot think simply of Islam as a united faith where all believers are in agreement. Islam has many divisions and factions.

Greater than eighty percent of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are said to be Sunni. Among Sunnis are thousands of offshoots.

In recent years, some self-proclaimed Sunni leaders, like those of ISIS (also known as IS, ISIL or Daesh), have managed to organize radical militias, enlisting soldiers while amassing funding by pillaging towns, cities, businesses and homes as they pass through.

ISIS has a radical agenda of organizing a caliphate (an Islamic state) from parts of Syria and Iraq. Their leaders have ordered Iraqi Christians living within their proposed state to convert to Islam, pay taxes or die.

To say that these fanatical Muslims who lob grenades at each other shouting “Allah akbar!” (“God is great!”) are representative of all Islam would be like saying the IRA is a bona fide movement of the Catholic Church.

I don’t know a lot about ISIS, but I can honestly say that some Islamic hate groups are to Islam what the National Socialist White People’s Party (NWSPP) and Ku Klux Klan (KKK) are to Christianity. Fortunately, most Americans are keenly aware that the NWSPP and KKK are certainly not “Christian” in the traditional sense, but both racist groups do claim to represent “white, Christian America.”

Islam and illiteracy

It is unfortunate that millions of Muslims today, especially those living in poorer nations, cannot read or write.

While education of both girls and boys is promoted throughout the Muslim world, some Muslim populations have fallen under the influence of radical Islamists who have political objectives that are extra-quranic. They forbid the education of girls and endorse only principled Islamic texts for educational purposes.

While many of those who are illiterate are able to recite long passages of the Qur’an, I was surprised to find that some have no idea what they are reciting. While the Arabic of the Qur’an is beautiful, flowing wonderfully with sounds and syllables, it is an ancient language that many who recite it don’t understand. It would be like a Catholic quoting from the Latin Vulgate Bible–not knowing the meaning or nuances of the Latin sentences and words.

It has been pointed out to me by men in my mosque that there are many who are born into Islam and refer to themselves as “Muslim,” but they actually have no idea what it means to truly be Muslim. They have little knowledge of who Mohammad was and the principles for which he stood.

War is hell, and horrible atrocities happen in all wars–even at the hands of western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, when radical Muslims who are politically motivated present themselves to be acting on behalf of God, the consequences can be disastrous. One man commanding a group of disenfranchised, uneducated, illiterate  followers can wreak havoc on a nation (eg Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Shabaab in Somalia, ISIS in Iraq and Syria, etc.).

The Sunni – Shia differences

Sunnis (about 80 per cent of Muslims) and Shiites (15- 20 per cent) have waged deadly sectarian wars.

Sunnis (about 80 per cent of Muslims) and Shiites (11 – 15 per cent) have waged deadly sectarian wars.

Now we come to the historic Sunni—Shia divide.

I do not pretend to know all there is to know about what caused the evolution of Shia Islam and the succeeding Sunni resentment that followed. I have met a few Shia Muslims and have spoken with my Sunni Muslim friends about the matter. It appears that the battle is over something that happened nearly 1400 years ago; a deviation from the original faith observed by the Prophet Mohammad.

The Sunni branch of Islam believes that the first four caliphs (Mohammed’s successors) rightfully took his place as the leaders of Islam. They recognize the heirs of the first four caliphs as legitimate religious leaders. These heirs ruled continuously in the Arab world until the break-up of the Ottoman Empire following the end of the First World War.

Shia Islam, in contrast, teaches that only the heirs of the fourth caliph, Ali, are the legitimate successors of Mohammed. Shiites seem to be more mystical in nature—some paying homage and praying to Ali and his descendants.

In some Shia homes in Iran, one will find “icons” honoring Ali. Shiites make pilgrimages to what is believed to be Ali’s gravesite in Iraq. Some speak of the miracles Ali has performed on their behalf.

Sunnis compare such behavior to idolatry, and they believe that any form of idolatry is anathema and worthy of “hell fire.” Indeed, the Qur’an says that no one should worship idols or pay homage to humans or other created entities. Even pictures of the Prophet Mohammed are forbidden.

I have visited Mohammed’s tomb at the Nabawī Mosque (also known as the Prophet’s Mosque) in Medina. There are guards posted at Mohammad’s sepulcher to prevent Muslims from praying or paying homagevenerating the Prophet.

Protestant Reformation–wars and conflicts 

I find the Sunni-Shia divide to bear somewhat similarities to the great debate that took place between Protestants and Catholics during the great Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. Protestants separated from Roman Catholics, debating similar issues. Reformation leaders like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli and others sought to eliminate many of the corruptions and accesses that were then present within Roman Catholicism.

Luther ignited the Reformation by posting his “Ninety-five Theses” on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. That church held one of Europe’s largest collections of holy relics. These religious relics had been gathered by Frederick III of Saxony. At that time, pious veneration of relics were said by Rome to give relief from temporal punishment for sins in “purgatory.” By 1520, Frederick had over 19,000 relics, purportedly “including vials of the milk from the Virgin Mary, straws from the manger of Jesus’ birth and the body of one of the innocents massacred by King Herod.”

ISIS is now destroying Shia, Sunni and Sufi mosques around Mosul. In this photo posted on a militant website that frequently carries official statements from the Islamic State extremist group, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, Shiite's Jawad Husseiniya mosque explodes in Tal Afar, Iraq.

ISIS is now destroying Shia, Sunni and Sufi shrines and mosques around Mosul. Iraq. In this photo posted on a militant website that frequently carries official ISIS statements, Shia’s Jawad Husseiniya mosque is demolished in Tal Afar.

As reformers allied themselves with kings and rulers vicious wars ensued between Catholics and Protestants. Horrible atrocities were committed. Many of the reformers were imprisoned, burned at the stake, beheaded, hanged or dismembered.

Conflicts between some Shia and Sunni Muslims continue today. ISIS is further advancing its radical religious agenda by destroying Shiite mosques and Islamic shrines around the ancient Iraqi city of Mosul, which they captured last month. Al Arabiya reported that the damage extends to at least four shrines to Sunni or Sufi figures, and six Shiite mosques in the northern province of Nineveh.

Pictures surfacing on social media showed the destruction, ISIS troops accomplished with explosives and bulldozers. They appeared on a militant website that was verified by the Associated Press as being an outlet  for official ISIS statements. The photos were posted under the headline, “Demolishing shrines and idols in the state of Nineveh.”

The vast majority of Shias and Sunnis live in friendship together side by side. They say it is security and stable economies their families need, not misguided extremists stirring up trouble.

I pray that peace and reconciliation between these two contending bodies of believers might be possible in the same way that eventual dialogue, appeasement and understanding have taken place between Protestants and Catholics during the past century. After all, Islam means to “voluntarily surrender” to the God of Abraham. It also implies “peace” and “safety.”

Current situation in Syria and Iraq

Millions of Syrian refugees have fled the civil war in search of safety, medical treatment, food and temporary housing.

Millions of Syrian refugees have fled the civil war in their homeland in search of safety, medical treatment, food and temporary housing.

I liken the present situation in Syria and Iraq to that of the former Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia had come into existence as a result of treaties at the end of the First World War. Serbia (which then included the present-day Republic of Macedonia), Montenegro, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia were forcibly joined, and after the Second World War these Balkan states were brought under Josip Tito’s communist dictatorship as the Iron Curtain of atheistic socialism descended over Central Europe.

After Tito’s death in 1980 and the subsequent fall of communism in 1989, the nation of Yugoslavia descended into anarchy and civil war. Today, the former Yugoslavia has self-divided along religious beliefs and ethnicity.

Now there are predominantly Catholic Christian states, Orthodox Christian states and Muslim states. All are now living peaceably and have expanding economies.

Many of the Islamic states of the Middle East were also formed after the downfall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. Their borders were drawn up by colonial powers (England and France). The secretive Sykes–Picot Agreement, officially known as the Asia Minor Agreement, defined their proposed spheres of influence and control in the Middle East. Dictators were essentially appointed and supported by various foreign powers, including the United States.

What is now happening in Syria and Iraq is, I fear, inevitable. People yearn for freedom and stable economies–better futures. Today we are witnessing the breakup of these “forced” states along religious and ethnic lines. In the case of Syria and Iraq, Sunni, Shia and Kurds are vying to have dominant influence hoping to form their own independent states.

The challenge for Arab states

KSA Hotspots MapHow will these conflicts that currently surround the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman affect the stability of these nations?

As I write this article, CNN is broadcasting that that Al Qaeda and another group new to me is planning attacks on Arabian Peninsula airports and shopping malls.

There is growing concern about Islamic extremism here and elsewhere. As well-publicized bouts of violence, from civil war to suicide bombings, plague the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, concern about Islamic extremism is high among countries with substantial Muslim populations, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center.

Lebanese, Tunisians, Egyptians, Jordanians and Turks are all more worried about the extremist threat than they were a year ago. Men and women living in Muslim states hold very negative opinions of well-known extremist groups, such as al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah.

Last evening, Prince Turki al Faisal, former Saudi ambassador to the US and former Saudi intelligence chief, was interviewed by CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour. (See posted interview at the end of this article.)

Prince Turki believes ISIS is a threat to world peace. He argued that the the major powers must come together to confront ISIS.

“Look how many American young people, French, English and other misguided western youth are joining the ranks of ISIS,” he said. Prince Turki says this is a critical matter that needs to be dealt with by western governments as well as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council states.

Prince Turki says the Muslim world basically wants to live in peace. He believes the kind of terrorist tactics being espoused by ISIS is foreign to the faith of Islam. He concluded his remarks on CNN about ISIS, “It’s a terrorist organization that has specialized in brutal killings, so it is a danger to the whole area and I think to the rest of the world.”

On August 7, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, said extremists are attempting to hi-jack Islam for their own evil use. He condemned Islamist extremists who he said have besmirched Islam by committing atrocities in the name of religion. The King’s comments were read August 7 on Saudi television, “It is shameful and disgraceful that these terrorists are doing this in the name of religion, killing people whose killing Allah has forbidden, and mutilating their bodies and feeling proud in publishing this.”

The ISIS call for a Sunni Islamic caliphate has little support outside the ranks of the organization. Muslim scholars and movements from across the Sunni Islamic spectrum have rejected the caliphate declared by the group, with the fighters receiving scathing criticism from mainstream Muslim leaders. Most recently the chief imam of Turkey has pronounced the ISIS caliphate as illegitimate.

Murder and wanton slaughter of the innocent prohibited

The Qur'an is clear on matters of war and condemns terrorism as worthy of hell.

The Qur’an is clear on matters of war and condemns suicide bombers as worthy of hell fire. The Qur’an provides rules for faith and practice for all Muslims.

All the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) agree that acts of aggressive behavior, especially when it involves murder and massacres of innocent men, women and children, are evil. There is no place within any of these faiths for suicide bombers and acts of aggression.

Abrahamic believers today are of one of two opinions. Some seek to avoid conflict and war all together, declaring themselves pacifists or conscientious objectors. They refuse to fight under any circumstances.

The overwhelming majority consider “just war” appropriate when confronting an agressive enemy that is invading, killing their fellow citizens, and destroying their cities, businesses, farmlands and homes.

In Islam, the Qur’an makes the  following clear:

Suicide is forbidden.  “O ye who believe!… [do not] kill yourselves, for truly God has been to you Most Merciful.  If any do that in rancour and injustice, soon shall We cast him into the Fire…” (Qur’an 4:29-30).

The taking of life is allowed only by way of justice (i.e. the death penalty for murder), but even then, forgiveness is encouraged.  “Nor take life – which God has made sacred – except for just cause…” (Qur’an 17:33).

In pre-Islamic Arabia, retaliation and mass murder was commonplace.  If someone was killed, the victim’s tribe would retaliate against the murderer’s entire tribe.  This practice was directly forbidden in the Qur’an (2:178-179). Following this statement of law, the Qur’an says, “After this, whoever exceeds the limits shall be in grave chastisement” (Qur’an 2:178).

No matter what wrong we perceive as being done against us, we may not lash out against an entire population of people. The Qur’an admonishes those who oppress others and transgress beyond the bounds of what is right and just.  “The blame is only against those who oppress men with wrongdoing and insolently transgress beyond bounds through the land, defying right and justice.  For such there will be a chastisement grievous (in the Hereafter)” (Qur’an 42:42).

Harming innocent bystanders, even in times of war, was forbidden by the Prophet Muhammad.  This includes women, children, noncombatant bystanders–even animals, trees and crops.  Nothing is to be harmed unless the aggressor is actively engaged in an assault against Muslims.

Listen to this interview conducted from Jeddah last evening by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour with Saudi Prince Turki al Faisal.

Sources: CNN, CBS News, Arab News, wikipedia.org, Saudi Gazette, New York Times, The Huffington Post, Aljazeera Internatioanl News, National Post (Jordan), islamicity.com, answering-islam.org, Al Arabiya News

July 2, 2014 Posted by | Human Rights, Islam, Religious Reconciliation, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

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