Tag Archives: islam

Milwaukee Rep’s ‘Invisible Hand’ questions the morality of capitalism

Last year, the Milwaukee Rep announced a singular partnership with playwright Ayad Akhtar, a Milwaukee native who’d since made it big both on stage and in other written media. The four-year collaboration will see the Rep producing three of Akhtar’s plays, including his Pulitzer Prize-winner Disgraced, followed by a world premiere commission in the final year.

If the first of these plays, The Invisible Hand, is any indication, it’s going to be a great four years for Rep patrons. Akhtar’s thriller about an American banker kidnapped by militants in Pakistan is a gripping work in and of itself, but its true success comes from the way it challenges the assumed benevolence of capitalism using the language of the marketplace itself.

Technically, no economics primer is necessary before walking into this production — Akhtar places just the right amount of exposition in the mouth of captured American Nick Bright (Tom Coiner) to get even the most financially illiterate viewer through the show.

But it certainly can’t hurt to know in advance that the play’s title references the core belief that guides Nick and every mainstream Western economist and financier. The “invisible hand,” a term coined by 18th-century Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, is the moral justification for having a free market, capitalist system, like that of the United States and other Western nations. It argues that a free market tends toward benevolence because individuals will act in their own self-interest and counter others’ attempts to unfairly profit.

The problem, as the play quickly makes apparent, is that those who know how to play the game have an advantage over those who don’t. The militants who have captured Nick — Imam Saleem (Tony Mirrcandani), his lieutenant Bashir (Shalin Agarwai) and grunt Dar (Owais Ahmed) — are all dedicated to fighting the corrupt Western imperialists, but they’re outgunned on both a military and financial level.

Nick changes that. When the U.S. government formally declares Imam Saleem a terrorist — making it impossible for them or Nick’s family to negotiate a ransom for his release — the only option remaining is for Saleem to trade Nick to the fundamentalist group responsible for the death of Americans including Daniel Pearl, who will kill him as propaganda. Nick offers an alternative: With his knowledge of the global and local markets, Nick will teach Bashir how to make millions buying and selling financial securities.

Nick (Tom Coiner, left) and Bashir (Shalin Agarwal) share a complicated prisoner-captor/teacher-mentor relationship in "The Invisible Hand." Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Nick (Tom Coiner, left) and Bashir (Shalin Agarwal) share a complicated prisoner-captor/teacher-student relationship in “The Invisible Hand.” Photo by Michael Brosilow.

This sounds dry, but never becomes so on stage — largely due to the high-speed, high-stakes nature of the game Nick and Bashir are playing. At one point, the teacher describes the method to his trainee as gambling on the marketplace, betting that a company’s fortunes will rise, or fall, and buying and selling accordingly. As we watch the two of them place their bets, the tension does begin to resemble a Vegas casino as much as a claustrophobic Pakistani prison cell — albeit one where failure will result in the loss of millions of dollars and Nick’s life.

Coiner and Agarwai carry the bulk of the production, their characters a curious and volatile mix of friends, rivals and mortal enemies. At first, this is a sustainable equilibrium — Nick has all the knowledge and Bashir all the power. But the more Bashir learns, the more dangerous and unstable he becomes, with his religious beliefs warring with his new capitalist understandings. It’s a dissonance Agarwai wears well. Every moment he’s on stage, he commands attention, and it’s never clear what he’s going to do next.

Interestingly, The Invisible Hand doesn’t show Nick adopting a similar uncertainty. True to form, from the moment the play starts, every action he takes is in his own self-interest: he agrees to play the markets to save his life, chips away at the bricks and mortar of his cell to try and make his own escape, remains silent and focused on self-preservation when his captors begin to grow suspicious of each other. But this time, Nick doesn’t have the Western luxury of being removed by class and distance from the consequences of those actions — ones that will eventually be countered, as his theory of the invisible hand promises, but lead to violent instability in the interim.

The Invisible Hand is almost a parable in this way, explaining the moral ambiguity of capitalism and the free market through the use of a vivid, captivating narrative. But it’s a parable that haunts long after you leave the theater — because if the only way to defeat a morally bankrupt society is to use its own weapons against it, that may not be a victory at all.

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of The Invisible Hand runs through April 3 in the Stiemke Studio, 108 E. Wells St. Tickets start at $20 and can be ordered at 414-224-9490 or milwaukeerep.com.

UPDATE: Saudi voters elect 20 women to office

UPDATE: Saudi voters elected 20 women for local government seats, according to results released to The Associated Press a day after women voted and ran in elections for the first time in the country’s history.

The women who won hail from vastly different parts of the country, ranging from Saudi Arabia’s largest city to a small village near Islam’s holiest site.

The 20 female candidates represent just one percent of the roughly 2,100 municipal council seats up for grabs, but even limited gains are seen as a step forward for women who had previously been completely shut out of elections. Women are still not allowed to drive and are governed by guardianship laws that give men final say over aspects of their lives like marriage, travel and higher education.

Though there are no quotas for female council members, an additional 1,050 seats are appointed with approval by the king who could use his powers to ensure more women are represented.

Around 7,000 candidates, among them 979 women, competed in the election for a seat on the municipal councils, which are the only government body elected by Saudi citizens. The two previous rounds of voting for the councils, in 2005 and 2011, were open to men only.

The conservative capital of Riyadh saw the most women candidates win, with four elected. The Eastern Province, where minority Shiites are concentrated, saw two women elected, said Hamad Al-Omar, who heads the General Election Commission’s media council.

Saudi Arabia’s second largest and most cosmopolitan city, Jiddah, also elected two women, as did one of the most conservative regions, Qassim.

The mayor of the city of Mecca, Osama al-Bar, told the AP that a woman won in a village called Madrakah, about 93 miles (150 kilometers) north of the city which houses the cube-shaped Kaaba to which Muslims around the world pray.

Another woman won in Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad’s first mosque was built.

Other women hailing from the kingdom’s northernmost areas won, with two elected in Tabuk, one in al-Jawf and another in Hail. Additionally, a woman won in Saudi Arabia’s southern border area of Jizan, another in Asir and two won in al-Ahsa. 

Many women candidates ran on platforms that promised more nurseries to offer longer daycare hours for working mothers, the creation of youth community centers with sports and cultural activities, improved roads, better garbage collection and overall greener cities. 

In October, the Saudi Gazette reported that harsh road conditions and long distances to the nearest hospital had forced some women in the village of Madrakah, where one female candidate was elected, to give birth in cars. The local newspaper reported that the closest hospital and the nearest university were in Mecca, prompting some students to forgo attending classes. The article said residents were also frustrated with the lack of parks in the village.

It is precisely these kinds of community issues that female candidates hope to address once elected to the municipal councils. The councils do not have legislative powers, but advise authorities and help oversee local budgets.

Most ran their campaigns online, using social media to get the word out, due to strict gender segregation rules that ban men and women from mixing in public. This meant candidates could not directly address voters of the opposite sex.

In an effort to create a more level playing field for women who wear the traditional full-face veil, the General Election Committee banned both male and female candidates from showing their faces in promotional flyers, billboards or online. They were also not allowed to appear on television. 

Still, al-Omar said the historic election drew a staggering 106,000 female voters out of some 130,000 who’d registered. Out of 1.35 million men registered, almost 600,000 cast ballots. In total, some 47 percent of registered voters took part in Saturday’s election.

In Jiddah, three generations of women from the same family voted for the first time. The oldest woman in the family was 94-year-old Naela Mohammad Nasief. Her daughter, Sahar Hassan Nasief, said the experience marked “the beginning” of greater rights for women in Saudi Arabia. 

“I walked in and said ‘I’ve have never seen this before. Only in the movies’,” the daughter said, referring to the ballot box. “It was a thrilling experience.”

Refugee crisis recalls that of Jews in WWII

Sol Messinger was just 7 when he stood with his father at the rail of the ocean liner St. Louis and stared into the gathering darkness. But nearly eight decades later, Messinger still recalls the lights of Miami glittering off the bow, so near to him and more than 900 fellow Jewish refugees aboard, yet beyond their reach.

“I look out into the ocean and I get this queasy feeling,” says Messinger, whose family escaped Europe for the United States three years after American officials turned away the vessel in 1939. Now 83, he is a pathologist in Buffalo, New York. “The Jews did not pose any threat to the U.S. It’s really unforgivable.”

Now, fresh angst about whether to admit refugees or turn them away has put the spotlight back on the shunning of the St. Louis and other decisions, now widely regretted, by U.S. officials before and during World War II.

In the wake of Islamic State terrorists killing 130 people in Paris, a backlash against the United States admitting Syrian refugees — many of them Muslims — has fueled a bitter debate, with politicians, pundits and others drawing lines between present and past.

Similarities between the rhetoric of today and the attitudes of the U.S. public and officials during World War II make that history worth recalling, scholars say, as the country confronts new fears of terrorism.

“No historical parallel is perfect, obviously,” says Allan Lichtman, co-author of FDR and the Jews and a professor of history at American University.

But U.S. limits on refugees during World War II, influenced by anti-Semitism, were fed by fears the Nazis “would plant agents, spies and saboteurs among the Jewish refugees and that they would pressure the Jews, particularly those whose families were still in Germany, to act as agents on behalf of the Third Reich,” Lichtman said. “Those arguments are chillingly similar to the arguments being made against the admission of the Syrian refugees.”

The 1930s saw widespread disdain for Jewish people from Europe. Opposition to admitting refugees was heightened by the economic worries left by the Great Depression. Those public attitudes were reinforced by the U.S. State Department and other agencies, which worked to limit an influx of Jewish people whom FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover labeled as potential infiltrators, he said.

When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pondered relaxation of refugee quotas, Vice President John Nance Garner counseled that if Congress were allowed to vote in private, the lawmakers would ban immigration altogether, Lichtman said.

Lichtman isn’t alone in making the comparison. Recently, Ohio professor Peter Shulman of Case Western Reserve University used Twitter to post results from a 1938 public opinion poll showing Americans overwhelmingly rejected admission of Jewish people from Germany in the years leading up to the outbreak of war.

The reaction “was instantaneous and totally overwhelming. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before,” said Shulman.

New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, criticizing a number of Republican governors — including Scott Walker of Wisconsin — for opposing admission of Syrian refugees, cited the 1938 poll, which said 67.4 percent of Americans said the U.S. should try to keep German and Austrian refugees out of the country and 61 percent opposed allowing 10,000 German Jewish children to enter.

“We are not going to make that mistake in our time and voices of intolerance and voices of division are not going to cause us to do something that is against our values,” DeBlasio said.

“When we sent Jews back to Germany and when we sent Japanese to internment camps, we regretted it and we will regret this as well,” U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said before 47 House Democrats and 242 Republicans voted for a bill to put new security limits on a plan by President Barack Obama to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year.

Responding to the vote, Karin Johanson, director of the American Civil Liberty Union’s D.C. legislative office, said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., “and this un-American bill’s supporters falsely claim it will simply pause U.S. resettlement of refugees. In fact, it will bring resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to a grinding halt by adding layers of bureaucracy to an already rigorous process. It also discriminates against refugees based on their national origin, nationality and religion. Supporters of this bill want us to turn our backs on refugees who are seeking safe harbor from the very terrorism we all abhor. This is not leadership.”

There is a long pattern in U.S. politics of labeling refugees as a threat, whether those fleeing the Nazis, refugees of the Hungarian Revolution or boat people uprooted by the Vietnam War, said Kelly Greenhill, author of Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion and Foreign Policy.

“Every time this country is confronted with .… a visible influx of people, the issue becomes politicized,” said Greenhill, a professor of political science at Tufts University and a research fellow at Harvard University’s school of government. “This is a movie we’ve seen before and it’s sort of unfortunate, but it has a curious sameness across time, which doesn’t make it better.”

In the years since World War II, the U.S. has become the world’s largest recipient of international refugees. 

But of the 784,000 refugees resettled in the U.S. since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, just three have been arrested for planning terrorist activities, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank. Only one of those, an Uzbeki immigrant, spoke of targeting the United States but had no specific plans, the institute said.

While taking in 10,000 Syrian refugees would be a significant increase from the roughly 2,000 admitted since the country’s civil war began in 2011, it is a fraction of those going to other countries. Up to 800,000 people are expected to seek asylum in Germany by the end of this year, according to MPI.

Muslim-bashing GOP candidates score big with Republican voters

Some leading Republican presidential candidates seem to view Muslims as fair game for increasingly harsh words they might use with more caution against any other group for fear of the political cost. So far, that strategy is winning support from conservatives influential in picking the nominee.

Many Republicans are heartened by strong rhetoric addressing what they view as a threat to national security by Islam itself, analysts say. Because Muslims are a small voting bloc, the candidates see limited fallout from what they are saying in the campaign.

“I think this issue exists on its own island,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican political consultant who ran Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “It’s highly unlikely to cause a political penalty, and there is no evidence that it has.”

Since the attacks that killed 130 people in Paris, GOP front-runner Donald Trump has said he wants to register all Muslims in the U.S. and surveil American mosques. He has repeated unsubstantiated claims that Muslim-Americans in New Jersey celebrated by the “thousands” when the World Trade Center was destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001.

“Donald Trump is already very well-known for being brash and outspoken and is appealing to a group of people — a minority of American voters, but a large minority — who seem to like that kind of tough talk,” said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

Rival Ben Carson said allowing Syrian refugees into the U.S. would be akin to exposing a neighborhood to a “rabid dog.” Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said, “I’d like for Barack Obama to resign if he’s not going to protect America and instead protect the image of Islam.”

Such statements appeal to Republicans who think Obama and Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state, have not done enough to fight jihadis, Green said. The sentiment also plays well for evangelicals concerned about violence directed at Christians in the Middle East and angered about restrictions their missionaries face in predominantly Muslim countries.

“There’s a religious undercurrent here, aside from foreign policy issues,” Green said.

Other inflammatory rhetoric from the Trump and Carson campaigns has generated far different reactions.

When Trump announced his campaign, he said Mexican immigrants are “bringing crime. They’re rapists.” He was widely denounced. Polls find Latinos strongly disapprove of his candidacy and his remarks alienated other immigrant groups.

The potency of comments criticizing Muslims was apparent even before recent attacks by extremists in France, Lebanon and Egypt.

Carson’s campaign reported strong fundraising and more than 100,000 new Facebook friends in the 24 hours after he told NBC’s Meet the Press in September, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.”

Campaign manager Barry Bennett told The Associated Press, “While the left wing is huffing and puffing over it, Republican primary voters are with us at least 80–20.”

“People in Iowa particularly, are like, ‘Yeah! We’re not going to vote for a Muslim either,” Bennett said at the time. “I don’t mind the hubbub. It’s not hurting us, that’s for sure.”

According to a 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center, Republicans view Muslims more negatively than they do any other religious group, and significantly worse than do Democrats. A different Pew poll last year found that 82 percent of Republicans were “very concerned” about the rise of Islamic extremism, compared with 51 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of independents.

Today, 84 percent of Republicans disapprove of taking in Syrian refugees, most of whom are Muslims, compared with 40 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of independents, according to a Gallup poll released just before Thanksgiving.

In recent years, Americans’ attitudes toward Islam and Muslims have been relatively stable following terrorist attacks. But opposition jumped in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and around major elections. To Dalia Mogahed, research director for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and former executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, those are signs that “the public was being manipulated” by politicians with agendas.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, when President George W. Bush visited a Washington mosque and said “Islam is peace,” public opinion of the faith actually improved, she said. But the absence of such a leader has created a clear path for candidates who oppose Islam.

“They’ve now latched onto Muslims as an easy target with no consequences,” Mogahed said. “We’ve really moved the threshold of what is socially acceptable.”

Singling out Muslims is not new.

Before the 2012 presidential election, Republican candidate Newt Gingrich called for a federal ban on Islamic law and said Muslims could hold public office in the U.S. if “the person would commit in public to give up Shariah.” Huckabee, then considering a presidential run, called Islam “the antithesis of the gospel of Christ.”

But candidates at the top of the field stayed away from such rhetoric.

“The kind of things that Donald Trump and Ben Carson are saying today are things that Mitt Romney would have never said,” said Farid Senzai, a political scientist at Santa Clara University. Romney was the Republican nominee in 2012.

Criticism of Muslims is hardly limited to presidential campaigns. In recent years, there have been ads by anti-Muslim groups and well-organized campaigns against the building of mosques, along with pressure on state legislatures to ban Shariah law.

“All of these things — built up over more than a decade by a few very vocal people — have created a climate in which it is not just acceptable for politicians to play to our basest instincts, but perhaps politically expedient,” Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said in an email.

The intensity of the rhetoric is partly a symptom of the large field of GOP candidates, all trying to stake out ground to prove themselves as the most patriotic and toughest on national security, said Charles Dunn, former dean of the school of government at Regent University, which was founded by Pat Robertson, an evangelist and one-time GOP presidential candidate.

“The tone is much more strident now, much less forgiving,” Dunn said.

American Muslims make up just under 1 percent of the U.S. population, Pew estimates. They come from many different backgrounds and are widely dispersed, limiting their political influence, Green said.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council, a policy and advocacy group based in Los Angeles, sent letters in October to all the presidential candidates asking them to attend the organization’s public policy forum. The candidates either did not respond or declined, council spokeswoman Rabiah Ahmed said.

“Over the last 10 years, the political and civic organizations for U.S. Muslims have become much better organized, but I think their voice is still fairly muted,” Green said.

Even so, some observers say the verbal attacks risk alienating larger segments of voters, particularly other immigrants worried they could be next.

Suhail Khan, who worked in a number of posts in George W. Bush’s administration and has decried criticism by Republican politicians of fellow Muslims, said: “There’s no doubt that when specific candidates, in this case Dr. Carson and Mr. Trump, think that they can narrowly attack one specific group, other Americans of various faiths and backgrounds are paying attention.”

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Genital searches interfere with client, attorney meetings at Guantánamo

Two men detained at Guantánamo failed to meet with their attorneys because the U.S. prison has reinstated genital searches.

Human rights advocates expressed concern that the searches are deliberate attempts to stop detainees from meeting with their lawyers. 

Staff at Guantánamo told Cori Crider, an attorney with the UK-based Reprieve human rights group, detainee Samir Moqbel refused their meeting because he didn’t want to submit to the genital search. Briton Shaker Aamer also canceled an attorney meeting.

In 2013, during the height of a mass hunger strike at Guantánamo, the genital searches were the subject of litigation in U.S. court and were eventually discontinued by camp authorities. A judge who ordered the searches should be stopped wrote, “The choice between submitting to a search procedure that is religiously and culturally abhorrent or forgoing counsel effectively presents no choice for devout Muslims like petitioners.” 

Guantánamo staff have said the searchers involve “placing the guard’s hand as a wedge between the (detainee’s) scrotum and thigh … and using (a) flat hand to press against the groin to detect anything foreign attached to the body,” after which a guard “uses a flat hand to frisk the detainee’s buttocks to ensure no contraband is hidden there.”

Scott Walker flip-flops for third time in a week on birthright citizenship

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to include Scott Walker’s third flip flop on the issue this morning on a Sunday TV news program.]

This morning on ABC’s This Week, Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker changed his position on birthright citizenship for the third time since Donald Trump raised it as a campaign issue. “Birthright citizenship” refers to automatic citizenship for children who are born on U.S. soil, as guaranteed under the 14th Amerndment, even if the children’s parents are immigrants illegally in the U.S.

But this morning, after trying to dodge a question about his stance on the issue, he finally told This Week host George Stephanopoulos that he would not seek to overturn the 14th amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship, as Trump would. 

This morning’s stance comes after a television interview Friday on CNBC during which he insisted that he was not taking a position “one way or the other” on the constitutional guarantee of birthright citizenship.

Later on Friday, Walker issued a statement on Twitter saying, “Truly secure border & enforce laws. Nothing else matters on immigration issue if you don’t do this first. That’s my point.”

His Friday statement came after he gave mixed answers on the issue earlier last week, including saying that the U.S. should “absolutely” end birthright citizenship.

And, with that announcement, he  reversed his previous position on allowing a chance for legal status for those in the country illegally.

Also onFriday, at a campaign event in Derby, New Hampshire, Walker responded to a question about fighting terrorism by saying he believes there are only a “handful” of moderate followers of Islam who don’t have radical beliefs.

“If you’re fighting a war, you’ve gotta identify who the enemy is loud and clear,” Walker said. “We’ve said it repeatedly, it’s radical Islamic terrorism, it is a war not against only America and Israel, it’s a war against Christians, it’s a war against Jews, it’s a war against even the handful of reasonable, moderate followers of Islam who don’t share the radical beliefs that these radical Islamic terrorists have.”

Walker’s campaign spokeswoman AshLee Strong said later that Walker knows that most Muslims want to live in peace.

“The governor knows that the majority of ISIS’s victims are Muslims,” Strong said in a statement. “Muslims who want to live in peace — the majority of Muslims — are the first target of radical Islamic terrorists. Under the Obama-Clinton foreign policy doctrine, we’ve been abandoning our traditional Muslim allies in the Middle East and allowing ISIS, al Qaeda, and Iran to fill the void.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization, released a statement calling on Walker to apologize.

“These types of inaccurate statements reflect a lack of understanding of Islam and Muslims that is, frankly, not presidential,” said the council’s government affairs manager Robert McCaw. “If Mr. Walker believes only a ‘handful’ of Muslims are moderate or reasonable, then he is ignoring the very clear reality that violent extremists murder more Muslims than they do people of any other faith.”

Walker has faced criticism before for his comments about foreign policy. Back in February, Walker said his experience taking on thousands of protesters in Wisconsin helped prepare him to take on terrorists across the world.

A date-pistachio treat perfect for breaking a Ramadan fast

I still remember the anticipation of watching the sun sink closer and closer to the horizon. It was Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. My childhood hometown of Dubai held its breath as the fiery ball dipped lower, lower and then finally into oblivion.

“Boom!” went the cannon, announcing that the day of fasting was over. Across the city, Muslims broke their fast as the Prophet Muhammad did, with a single date and a glass of water. The evening feast, known as “iftar,” would only happen after prayers.

There is little resembling those days in my new hometown of Los Angeles except for the palm trees and boxes of impossibly sweet dates at the supermarket. Without thinking, I still reach for them, a shortcut to home.

Dates are revered in the Middle East. References to dates line the Koran, and a date tree even sits on the Saudi seal. Nomadic Bedouins depended on its high sugar and fiber to sustain them during their travels. In fact, dates traveled with the Arab empire as far away as Spain, where they are wrapped in bacon and shallow-fried (an incarnation you’re not likely to find on a Muslim table, given the prohibition of pork from their diet!).

Walk into most Arab homes and you’ll be greeted by a plate of dates and a demitasse of strong, black Arabic coffee. You’ll find all kinds of delicious desserts made with dates, but they’re also used in savory preparations, such as pilafs, meat dishes and tagines.

Here’s my addition to the compendium: date-pistachio balls that are dipped in dark chocolate. They are best eaten cold, right out of the refrigerator — if your tastes are anything like mine!

CHOCOLATE-COVERED DATE-PISTACHIO TRUFFLES

Start to finish: 30 minutes

Makes 24 truffles

Ingredients:

1 cup shelled unsalted raw pistachios

2 cups moist, pitted dates (about 24)

1/2 teaspoon tangerine or orange zest

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

12-ounce bag semi-sweet chocolate chips

Himalayan pink salt (or fleur de sel or kosher salt), to garnish

Directions:

In a food processor, pulse the pistachios until very finely minced, but not powdered. Add the dates, tangerine zest and cardamom, then process until a cohesive ball forms. Transfer to a large bowl.

Line a baking sheet with kitchen parchment. Remove about 1 tablespoon of date mixture and roll between your palms until you form a smooth ball. Place on the baking sheet, then repeat with remaining mixture. Very slightly wet hands help alleviate stickiness.

Fill a medium saucepan halfway with water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low to maintain a low, steady simmer. Place a medium stainless steel or other heat-safe bowl on top of the saucepan. Pour the chocolate into the bowl and allow to melt, stirring occasionally until smooth.

Using 2 small spoons, drop a date ball into the melted chocolate and turn gently to coat. Use a spoon to scoop up the ball, then pass it back and forth between the 2 spoons, letting any excess chocolate drip off. Gently return the coated date ball to the baking sheet, letting any extra chocolate on the spoon drip on top of it. Sprinkle with a little pink salt. Repeat with remaining balls.

Place baking sheet in the refrigerator and chill until the chocolate hardens, about 1 hour, though overnight is best.

Muslim movement accepts once-taboo causes

Omar Akersim prays regularly and observes the dawn-to-dusk Ramadan fast. He is also openly gay.

Akersim, 26, is part of a small but growing number of American Muslims challenging the long-standing interpretations of Islam that defined their parents’ world. They believe that one can be gay and Muslim; that the sexes can pray shoulder-to-shoulder; that females can preach and that Muslim women can marry outside the faith — and they point to Quran passages to back them up.

The shift comes as young American Muslims work to reshape the faith they grew up with so it fits better with their complex, dual identity, with one foot in the world of their parents’ immigrant beliefs and one foot in the ever-shifting cultural landscape of America. The result has been a growing internal dialogue about what it means to be Muslim, as well as a scholarly effort to re-examine the Quran for new interpretations that challenge rules that had seemed set in stone.

“Islam in America is being forced to kind of change and to reevaluate its positions on things like homosexuality because of how we’re moving forward culturally as a nation. It’s striving to make itself seen and known in the cultural fabric and to do that, it does have to evolve,” said Akersim, who leads a Los Angeles-based support group for gay Muslims. “Ten or 15 years ago, this would have been impossible.”

The shift doesn’t end with breaking obvious taboos, either. Young American Muslims are making forays into fashion, music (Islamic punk rock, anyone?) and stirring things up with unorthodox takes on staples of American pop culture. A recent controversial YouTube video, for example, shows Muslim hipsters — or “Mipsterz” — skateboarding in head scarves and skinny jeans as Jay-Z’s “Somewhere in America” blasts in the background.

Nearly 40 percent of the estimated 2.75 million Muslims in the U.S. are American-born and the number is growing, with the Muslim population skewing younger than the U.S. population at large, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center survey.

Advocates for a more tolerant Islam say the constraints on interfaith marriage and homosexuality aren’t in the Quran, but are based on conservative interpretations of Islamic law that have no place in the U.S. Historically, in many Muslim countries, there are instances of unsegregated prayers and interfaith marriage.

“I think it’s fair to say the traditional Islam that we experienced excluded a lot of Muslims that were on the margins. I always felt not very welcomed by the type of Islam my parents practiced,” said Tanzila Ahmed, 35, who published an anthology of love stories by Muslim American women in 2012 called “Love Inshallah.”

Many second-generation American Muslims still practice their faith in traditional ways, but others are starting to see the Islam of their parents as more of a cultural identity, said Dr. Yvonne Haddad, a Georgetown University professor who has written extensively about Islam’s integration into U.S. society.

As a result, there’s a new emphasis on meeting for prayer and socializing in neutral spaces, such as community centers, instead of mosques, and on universal inclusion.

“Some of them still want a mosque, they still want to belong and to pray and others are shifting and they are very comfortable being non-religious,” Haddad said. “These people feel that they can get rid of the hang-ups of what the culture has defined as Muslim and maintain the beliefs and values, the spiritual values, and feel very comfortable by shedding all the other restrictions that society has put on them.”

In Los Angeles, a religious group called Muslims for Progressive Values has been pushing the boundaries with a female imam who performs same-sex and interfaith marriages, support groups for gay Muslims and a worship style that includes women giving sermons and men and women praying together. The group has chapters in half a dozen major U.S. cities and at least six foreign countries and last year was recognized by the United Nations as an official non-governmental organization.

Founder Ani Zonneveld, a Muslim singer and songwriter of Malaysian descent, started the group in 2007 after she recorded some Islamic pop music that generated a backlash because it featured a Muslim woman singing.

“For us, the interpretation of Islam is egalitarian values – and by egalitarian it’s not just words that we speak. It’s practice,” she said. “It’s freedom of religion and from religion, too.”

Akersim, the gay Muslim, knows first-hand how hard this shift will be.

Last year, he fled his parents’ home in the middle of the night after they called him at work and demanded to know when he was going to get married. He stays in touch with his mother, but hasn’t spoken to his father in a year and a half.

Now, he avoids mosques but prays privately. He has no regrets about coming out, he said.

“All these struggles that I’ve had to endure have only brought me closer to God,” Akersim said. “Within that storm, I feel like I’ve been able to persevere because of my faith, because of this strength from God.”

Israel hosts Mideast’s only Pride parades

Shirtless Israeli men, colorfully dressed drag queens and others partied June 13 through central Tel Aviv as tens of thousands of people took part in the city’s annual gay Pride parade, the largest event of its kind in the Middle East.

Tel Aviv is one of the few places in the Middle East where gays feel free to walk hand-in-hand and kiss in public. The city has emerged as one of the world’s most gay-friendly travel destinations in recent years, in sharp contrast to the rest of the region.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said more than 100,000 people took part. Loud music blasted along the parade’s route, thick with people dancing to the beats and waving rainbow flags. Drag queens wearing heavy makeup, dresses with sequins and high heels bounced along to the music alongside scantily clad men and women.

Tel Aviv’s openness to gays stands in contrast to conservative Jerusalem, just a short drive away, home to some of the holiest sites to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Still, Jerusalem has a small gay scene and an annual Pride parade, albeit on a much more modest scale.

Gays serve openly in Israel’s military and parliament and many popular artists and entertainers are gay. However, leaders of the gay community say Israel still has far to go in promoting equality.

Officially, there is no same-sex marriage in Israel, primarily because there is no civil marriage of any kind. All Jewish weddings must be conducted through the Jewish rabbinate, which considers homosexuality a sin and a violation of Jewish law. But the state recognizes same-sex couples who marry abroad.

Across the rest of the Middle East, gay and lesbian relationships are taboo. The pervasiveness of religion in everyday life, along with strict cultural norms, plays a major factor in that. Same-sex relations are punishable by death in Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen.

Among most Palestinians, gays tend to be secretive about their social lives. In the West Bank, a 1951 Jordanian law banning homosexual acts remains in effect, as does a ban in Gaza passed by British authorities in 1936.

Suspected Boston bomber held right-wing interests

The BBC is reporting one of the brothers suspected in the bombings at the Boston Marathon earlier this year had interests in right-wing U.S. politics and white supremacy beliefs.

BBC Panorama reports that 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev subscribed to publications espousing white supremacy and government conspiracy theories.

He also was reading about mass killings.

The BBC report said Tsarnaev, who was killed in a gun battle with police, possessed material about “the rape of our gun rights, literature that said Adolf “Hitler had a point.”

Until now, reports have pointed out that the brothers had been reading militant Islamic websites. And Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Tamerlan’s younger brother who is charged with the bombings, wrote a note before his capture that read, “We Muslims are one body. You hurt one you hurt us all.”

On the Web…

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-23571419