Tag Archives: Middle East

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.”

Tunisian pro-democracy group accepts Nobel Peace Prize

A Tunisian pro-democracy group accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10 and set the fight against terrorism and helping Palestinians to achieve self-determination as global priorities.

The National Dialogue Quartet, which won the Peace Prize for helping build democracy in the birthplace of the Arab Spring, accepted the award at a ceremony in Oslo held under tight security following the armed attacks in Paris on Nov. 13.

“Today we are most in need of making the fight against terrorism an absolute priority, which means perseverance on coordination and cooperation between all nations to drain its resources,” Hussein Abassi, head of the Tunisian General Labour Union, one of the quartet honored, said in a speech.

“We need to accelerate the elimination of hot spots all over the world, particularly the resolution of the Palestinian issue and enable the Palestinian people the right to self-determination on their land and build their independent state,” he said.

Security precautions loomed large over the banquets and concerts for hundreds of political, intellectual and business leaders attending the lavish Nobel awards ceremonies held jointly in Oslo and Stockholm.

“Security is higher than it would otherwise have been because of the situation in Europe,” Johan Fredriksen, chief of staff for Oslo police told Reuters, referring to the Paris attacks in which 130 people were killed.

Last year, a demonstrator carrying a Mexican flag disrupted the ceremony at Oslo City Hall when Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai and Indian activist Kailash Satyarthi received their Nobel Peace Prizes. He was not a guest but managed to get through the security checkpoints.

The quartet of the Tunisian General Labour Union, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers was formed in the summer of 2013. It won the award for the role it played in the peaceful transition of power in Tunisia in a region struggling with violence and upheaval.

With a new constitution, free elections and a compromise arrangement between Islamist and secular leaders, Tunisia has been held up as a model of how to make the transition to a democracy from dictatorship, said Kaci Kullman Five, head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

Last year Tunisia held successful legislative and presidential elections but the country has been hit by violence this year. In March, Islamist gunmen killed 21 tourists in an attack at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and 38 foreigners were killed in an assault on a Sousse beach hotel in June.

“In this time of terror, the threats against Tunisia and the Tunisian people are indistinguishable from the threats against other countries,” she said in her speech. “I came here to share this extraordinary moment with the whole of Tunisia. I am so proud,” said Haddad Fayssal, a 39-year-old Tunisian engineer from Paris, draped with the red-and-white flag of the North African nation over his shoulders.

“This prize is a powerful message against all types of extremism and terrorism. It is a message that we can all live together,” he told Reuters outside Oslo City Hall, the peace award ceremony’s venue.

In neighboring Sweden, the Nobel Prize winners in literature, chemistry, physics, medicine and economics gathered in Stockholm to receive their prizes from the King of Sweden later in the day.

Belarussian author Svetlana Alexievich won the literature prize for her portrayal of the harshness of life in the Soviet Union

In Stockholm, the winners will collect their medals at a concert hall before attending a banquet at the city hall, which will include VIPs like European Central Bank President Mario Draghi.

Security around the festivities — which has hundreds of royals and prominent politicians as guests — has also been heightened this year after Sweden raised its terror threat level to the highest ever after the Paris attacks. Each of the prizes is worth 8 million Swedish crowns ($949,440).

Next Act’s ‘Back of the Throat’ finds absurdity in fear

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Arab-American writer Khaled receives a visit from two government agents. Their friendly demeanor turns aggressively suspicious as the pair attempts to connect Khaled to the worst terrorist act ever to take place on U.S. soil.

Such is the stuff of disturbing absursity in the hands of Yussef El Guindi, an Arab-American playwright whose 2004 play Back of the Throat launches the 2015–16 season for Milwaukee’s Next Act Theatre. 

Described by American Theatre Magazine as “the Patriot Act as dramatized by David Mamet and Franz Kafka,” El Guindi’s play ratchets the fear and paranoia following the attacks to an absurd level, in which even everyday objects littering Khaled’s messy apartment become part of his supposed involvement in the terrorist plot. The proceedings also offer a unique view of the event from the other side of the 9/11 equation, according to director Edward Morgan.

“It’s a mix of comedy and theatricality,” Morgan says of the Next Act production, a Milwaukee premiere. “It’s funny, but then it’s scary, too. Given what’s still going on in the world, it’s also incredibly topical.”

An absurdist approach in the face of such overwhelming tragedy and its oppressive government aftermath is not without theatrical precedent, Morgan explains. For example, during the Soviet occupation of the former Czechoslovakia, writer and dissident Václav Havel (later president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic) criticized the ruling powers via his absurdist plays, one of the only outlets available.

In Back of the Throat, whose protagonist is more American than Arab, the scenario charts a course of inquiry that becomes ridiculous to the point of humorous while never losing its deadly potential, Morgan says.

“The point of the humor is to show the absurdity of how paranoia distorts our pursuit for the truth,” Morgan says. “It distorts it so much that it is entertaining while driving home the point. But the balance in the play has to be maintained between what’s funny and what’s serious, and that’s our job.”

Even the play’s title embraces the absurdity of the events. Back of the Throat refers to the difficulty one of the agents has in pronouncing the “K” in Khaled’s name. It also stands, however briefly, as a metaphor for the agent’s inability to understand the protagonist’s nature or his thoughts.

“The great thing about the play is that it’s not at all like a political essay,” Morgan says. “It’s a close-up on one guy in his apartment and his interaction with agents who are both scary and buffoons. In the end it’s about the people, as all good plays are.”

The experiences of the play’s author are similar to those of its protagonist, if only in the social context in which both operate. 

Born in Egypt, El Guindi grew up in London, eventually pursuing a graduate degree in playwriting at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He later served as playwright-in-residence at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, for seven years before settling down in Seattle, where he worked as a poet, actor and filmmaker before deciding to write plays full time.

The act of becoming a U.S. citizen in 1996 concentrated his focus on issues of Arab-American identity, El Guindi told Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater in 2010. Wrestling with such issues gave him a more focused approach and an enduring context for his plays, which include Language Rooms and Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes. Those plays, too, trade on humor to support more serious social themes surrounding the Arab-American experience.

“I think my laughter stems from the fact that most of my writing revolves around matters of fitting in, identity, how one is perceived, how one perceives others,” El Guindi said. “The fact that I’m dealing with matters that are perceived to be fraught and political doesn’t take away from the fact that, essentially, my concerns are no different from a high school student wondering which table he should sit at during lunch.”

The social undercurrent carries through to Back of the Throat, which Morgan says gives the play both an accessibility and importance that should sit well with Milwaukee audiences.

“Intellectually, the message is an inside look at how fear distorts from the perspective of the person being feared.” Morgan adds. “You know how people laugh and are scared on a roller-coaster ride? The effect of the play is something like that.”

ON STAGE 

Next Act Theatre’s production of Yussef El Guindi’s Back of the Throat runs Oct. 1–25 at the 255 S. Water St., Milwaukee. For more information and tickets, dial 414-278-0765 or visit nextact.org.

Next Act’s New Season

Back of the Throat kicks off Next Act Theatre’s 2015-16 season with a scintillating look at an Arab-American caught in the absurd context that followed the 9/11 attacks. Other productions this season follow their own unique paths in examining the human experience.

Next Act enters the holiday season with John Kishline’s unSilent Night, a Next Act world premiere about a Christmas Eve 1954 confrontation between a disk jockey and an intruder at a small Milwaukee radio station during which each discovers what it’s like to be alone. The holiday production runs Nov. 12 to Dec. 6.

A diverse, interactive kaleidoscope of personal testimony and social tension drive Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, a powerful retelling of the riots and unrest that rocked Los Angeles after the police officers charged in the Rodney King beating were found not guilty. The play, which dramatizes dozens of author Anna Deavere Smith’s interviews with participants and witnesses, strikes at the heart of racism in America. It runs Jan. 28 to Feb. 21.

Tears and laughter are promised for the Milwaukee premiere of Motherhood Out Loud, a project conceived by Susan R. Rose and Joan Stein with contributions from 14 American playwrights. The play, which runs April 7 to May 1, offers some telling and insightful riffs on what it means to be a mother in ways that span and unite generations of mothers and their children.

— M.M.

Another war is not the answer

Last March, while surfing The New York Times web site, I came across a headline that hit me like a physical blow.

In large, bold font it read: “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.”

It was written by John R. Bolton, a hawk in the George W. Bush administration who was one of the biggest cheerleaders for our invasion of Iraq. In his short stint as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (2005–06), Bolton spent his time saber rattling and making new enemies. He now calls for war with Iran from his position as a “scholar” with the American Enterprise Institute, the nest of neoconservatives and war profiteers who whipped up war hysteria and goaded the Bush administration to attack Iraq.

In his op-ed, Bolton declared that “President Obama’s approach on Iran has brought a bad situation to the brink of catastrophe.” He foresees a world in which Iran’s development of nuclear arms will ignite a nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey acquiring the technology from Iran or Pakistan.

(He gives Israel a free pass because everyone understands “that Israel’s nukes were intended as a deterrent, not as an offensive measure.” Somehow, I suspect Israel’s enemies might see the situation differently.)

Bolton’s solution? Heavy bombing of nuclear installations throughout Iran combined with “vigorous American support” for regime change in Tehran. He urges this route even though it would only set back Iran’s nuclear weapons program by three to five years.

What happens after that? More bombing? Invasion? Nuke them into submission?

War-mongering has escalated since the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany completed an accord with Iran in July. The deal calls for a reduction of international sanctions in exchange for Iran slowing the development of its nuclear capacity by cutting its stockpile of enriched uranium by 98 percent and reducing the number of its centrifuges by two-thirds. 

The Israelis see Iran as an existential threat. Through their effective lobbying operations, they are pushing Congress to reject the treaty. They want the United States to help destroy Iran, not to make accords with it. I think if the Israelis feel they need to act against Iran they should do so on their own as they have in the past. 

Most Americans are ignorant of Persian history and know Iran only from the American hostage-taking in 1979 or the chants of “Death to America!” by angry crowds. Few of us know that the American CIA deposed a reformist prime minister in 1953 and imposed Shah Reza Pahlavi, a dictator who terrorized the country until he was overthrown in the 1979 revolution. The U.S. and Britain squelched democracy in Iran for decades to maintain control of its oil. Western energy companies and states are still enraged over losing the profits from Iran’s oil fields. 

It is past time we put these imperialist grudges behind us. America’s recent wars have only created more geopolitical chaos. After years of sanctions, the Iranian government and people want to rebuild their economy. European, Chinese and Russian businesses are anxious to restore trade with the nation. We should be as well. The best course to the future is economic and cultural engagement, not war.

Congress will vote on the Iranian accord in September. Contact your congressional representative and U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson. Please urge them to vote “Yes.”

‘Crossroads of Civilization’: Ancient artifacts get a modern presentation at Milwaukee Public Museum

There is no doubt that the Middle East is a pivotal, mutable place. We hear about current events in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and other countries in the region daily. 

This combination of contemporary importance and rich history makes the new permanent exhibition at the Milwaukee Public Museum all the more significant. The first MPM-produced, permanent exhibition in over ten years, “Crossroads of Civilization” is designed to give insights on politics, economics, religion, and daily life in the ancient Mediterranean through integration of old and new museum technology. 

Carter Lupton, curator of ancient history, is a pivotal figure behind this exhibition, along with the numerous designers and artists involved in its creation. He says the alliterative themes of construction, communion, community, communication, commerce, and conflict provide a framework that draws together artifacts like vases, oil lamps, and sculptures, plus interactive elements like maps and diagrams. 

The use of technology was especially important as a way to connect with contemporary audiences. The museum includes familiar pieces, such as the diorama of the Temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu. The constructed model of a pylon temple shows workers on scaffolding adding decoration to a courtyard of monumental pillars and sculptures, while additional figures on the ground scurry in the course of construction. The model places us outside the temple while an accompanying digital display brings us inside to witness the wonder of ancient architecture in the most 21st century of ways. 

One of the most impressive displays is a touchscreen timeline, stretched long upon an entry wall like an art history textbook come to life. Chronological developments in the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome are highlighted with pictures and information. 

While “Crossroads of Civilization” is permanent, its information is not, due to recent archeological tragedies that have prompted changes. Lupton says ISIS’ recent destruction of pre-Islamic sites throughout Iraq has prompted changes to the Assyrian section of the timeline, recognizing that certain temples and monasteries have been lost in March 2015. 

What’s especially interesting about the museum’s timeline is it’s only the latest use of innovative design in its history. One early and significant example comes from a late-19th-century taxidermist named Carl Akeley. Lupton says Akeley would later become famous among museum aficionados for his work in New York and Chicago, but he got his start in Milwaukee, back when the museum opened in the 1880s.

Akeley’s breakout installation came in 1890, when he placed a taxidermied muskrat in a three-dimensional display with a painted background, bringing the scenario to life. It’s a practice Lupton says the museum has continued ever since.

“We’ve always done more to make the environments immersive, whether they’re dioramas or walk-through environments like the Streets of Old Milwaukee or the European Village or the Rainforest,” Lupton says. 

Padi-Heru and Djed-Hor, two mummies who rank among the most ancient of the museum’s holdings, have also found new life in this exhibition. They were acquired in 1887 and have been the subject of special study by Lupton. New sculptural reconstructions give an idea of what these men looked like, in addition to information gleaned from hieroglyphics and artifacts. 

Padi-Heru lived around 250 BCE and was part of the temple system in his profession as a priest. His job entailed caring for a cult statue by ensuring fresh food offerings and garments were supplied daily. “They were sort of the valets for the upkeep of these statues,” Lupton explains.

Djed-Hor’s background is a little less certain. He may have been involved with the process of mummification as a profession, but while many details of his life are unclear, his medical profile yielded some astonishing information. A CAT scan in 2011 revealed a gaping circular hole in his cranium. “This is something we did not know when we first CAT scanned him in 1986 because the quality of scans then was not three-dimensional; you could not recreate three-dimensional images from those, they were just individual slices,” says Lupton. “I think what we did is that we got one slice that was below that opening and one that was above it. So we pieced it all together.”

Another focal point from “Crossroads of Civilization” that similarly makes use of archaeological research and modern craft is the life-size representation of Egyptian king Tutankhamun in a chariot drawn by two white Arabian horses. Museum artist Craig Yanek took on the task of producing a figure that, based on latest research, shows the likeness of the famous pharaoh in a chariot replicating examples found in his tomb. 

The museum’s detailed attention to the connections that cross civilizations and time becomes a way to understand our own commonalities with our ancestors, Lupton says. “The objects are things people made, and we learn from them what interested people, what was important to people, what they were good at. But you have to go beyond the object to the people who worked with that object, who made that object, conceived of it and created it. 

“To me that is what archaeology is really about. It’s about people, it’s not about things.” 

“Crossroads of Civilization” is an ongoing exhibition free with regular admission at the Milwaukee Public Museum, 800 W. Wells St. Visit mpm.edu for more information.

Publisher pulls atlas that omits Israel

A leading publisher has pulled an atlas tailored for students in the Middle East that omitted any references to Israel.

Facing international criticism, HarperCollins UK issued a statement this week apologizing for the book, published by the subsidiary Collins Bartholomew.

On Facebook, the publisher stated, “HarperCollins regrets the omission of the name Israel from their Collins Middle East Atlas. This product has now been removed from sale in all territories and all remaining stock will be pulped. HarperCollins sincerely apologises for this omission and for any offence caused.”

The Anti-Defamation League said in a statement that it “welcomed HarperCollins’ swift apology.”

ADL national director Abraham H. Foxman said, “We welcome Harper Collins’ swift apology and pledge to remove the offensive atlas from sale. The initial explanation offered by Collins Bartholomew rationalizing Israel’s omission was unacceptable and highly offensive.” 

The Tablet, a London-based Catholic weekly, had reported that Collins Bartholomew was citing “local preferences” for leaving out Israel from the “Collins Primary Geography Atlas For The Middle East.”

The book, which came out in June, was designed for English-speaking schools in the region.

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.

News Guide: What Benghazi means in US politics

To congressional Republicans, “Benghazi” is shorthand for incompetence and cover-up. Democrats hear it as the hollow sound of pointless investigations.

It is, in fact, a Mediterranean port city in Libya that was the site of an attack on an American diplomatic compound on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. That’s nearly all that U.S. politicians can agree on about Benghazi.

It’s been a political rallying cry since just weeks before President Barack Obama’s re-election in November 2012. With the launch of a new House investigation, Benghazi is shaping up as a byword of this fall’s midterm election and the presidential race in 2016, especially if former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is on the ballot.

A guide to the controversy:

SETTING THE SCENE

The 2011 revolt that deposed and killed Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, with the help of NATO warships and planes, began in Benghazi. A year later, the city of 1 million remained chaotic, in the grip of heavily armed militias and Islamist militants, some with links to al-Qaida.

The temporary U.S. diplomatic mission, created to build ties and encourage stability and democracy, was struck by homemade bombs twice in the spring of 2012. British diplomats, the Red Cross and other Westerners were targeted that spring and summer.

Stevens, based in the capital city of Tripoli, chose to visit Benghazi on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when U.S. embassies around the world were on alert for terrorism.

In Egypt that day, a different sort of trouble struck, trouble that would spread to other Mideast cities over several days: Protesters angry about an anti-Muslim video made in America stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, clambering over the walls and setting flags on fire.

Hours later, the assault in Benghazi began.

A FIERY ASSAULT AND FOUR DEATHS

The Benghazi attack came in three waves, spread over eight hours at two locations.

According to accounts from congressional investigators and the State Department’s Accountability Review Board:

Around 9:40 p.m., a few attackers scaled the wall of the diplomatic post and opened the front gate, allowing dozens of armed men in. Local Libyan security guards fled. A U.S. security officer shepherded Stevens and Sean Smith, a State Department communications specialist, into a fortified “safe room” in the main building.

Attackers set the building and its furniture afire with diesel fuel. Stevens and Smith were overcome by blinding, choking smoke that prevented security officers from reaching them. Libyan civilians found Stevens in the wreckage hours later and took him to a hospital, where he, like Smith, died of smoke inhalation.

Stevens was the first U.S. ambassador to be killed in the line of duty in more than 30 years.

A security team from the CIA annex about a mile away arrived to help about 25 minutes into the attack, armed only with rifles and handguns. The U.S. personnel fled with Smith’s body back to the annex in armored vehicles.

Hours after the first attack ended, the annex was twice targeted by early morning mortar fire. The second round killed Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, two CIA security contractors who were defending the annex from the rooftop.

A team of six security officials summoned from Tripoli and a Libyan military unit helped evacuate the remaining U.S. personnel on the site to the airport and out of Benghazi.

THE FALLOUT BACK HOME

Word hit Washington in the final weeks of the presidential race. Over the next several days, the Benghazi news blended with images of angry anti-American demonstrations and flag-burnings spreading across the Middle East over the offensive video.

Political reaction to the Benghazi attack quickly formed along partisan lines that hold fast to this day.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and others said Obama had emboldened Islamic extremists by being weak against terrorism. But the public still credited Obama with the successful strike against al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden a few months earlier in Pakistan.

The accusation that took hold was a Republican charge that the White House intentionally misled voters by portraying the Benghazi assault as one of the many protests over the video, instead of a calculated terrorist attack under his watch.

Obama accused the Republicans of politicizing a national tragedy. He insists that the narrative about the video protests was the best information available at the time.

After 13 public hearings, the release of 25,000 pages of documents and 50 separate briefings over the past year and a half, the arguments are the same.

WHO IS TO BLAME FOR LEAVING THE DIPLOMATIC POST SO VULNERABLE?

Republican and Democratic lawmakers agreed: The State Department under Clinton kept open the Benghazi mission, which employed a few State employees and more than two dozen CIA workers, with little protection in the midst of well-known dangers.

The attack probably could have been prevented if the department had heeded intelligence warnings about the deteriorating situation in eastern Libya, a bipartisan report by the Senate Intelligence Committee said.

Britain closed its Benghazi mission in June 2012, after an attack on the British ambassador’s convoy injured two security guards.

Stevens’ requests for more security, made clear in cables to State Department headquarters that July and August, went unheeded, according to the Senate report, as did those made by his predecessor earlier that year.

But Stevens also twice declined the U.S. military’s offer of a special operations team to bolster security and otherwise help his staff.

The month after the fatal assault, Clinton declared that she had been responsible for the safety of those serving in Benghazi, without acknowledging any specific mistakes on her part. Obama said the blame ultimately rested on his shoulders as president.

The administration continued to distance both of them, however, saying neither Clinton nor Obama was aware of the requests for better protection because security decisions were handled at lower levels.

Four senior State Department officials were put on paid leave after the independent accountability board said that security at the Benghazi mission that night was “grossly inadequate.” After a review, the department reassigned three officials to positions of lesser responsibility; one resigned.

Some Republicans complained that no one was fired. Critics also questioned why the board didn’t interview Clinton during its investigation.

Democrats tried to shift some blame to GOP lawmakers, complaining that they had cut the administration’s budget request for diplomatic security in 2012.

WHY DIDN’T THE MILITARY COME TO THE RESCUE?

No military resources were in position to counter the surprise attack, the bipartisan Senate review found.

The military sent surveillance drones that relayed information to the security officers on the ground. It began moving Marines and special forces toward Libya, but the surviving American personnel were evacuated before they could arrive. Two Defense Department personnel arrived from Tripoli to help transport the Americans to the Benghazi airport.

The Senate panel rejected claims that the military had been ordered to “stand down” as the tragedy unfolded.

That persistent allegation has divided Republican lawmakers.

Some continue to pursue the theory that an order from on high blocked possible military action, such as rushing more personnel from Tripoli or scrambling fighter jets from Italy. Other Republicans, including members of the House Armed Services Committee, have accepted assurances from the Pentagon that nothing more could be done in time.

The bipartisan committee did fault the military, however, for failing to anticipate the possibility of such an emergency in Benghazi and not having a response plan ready.

DID OBAMA INTENTIONALLY MISLEAD AMERICANS?

Obama’s opponents are focused on the “talking points,” a memo prepared for lawmakers and for then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to help her get ready for appearances on the Sunday news shows to discuss the attack less than a week after it occurred.

That memo is offered as evidence of a possible White House cover-up. It offers something that’s golden to investigators _ a paper trail.

Last year, the administration reluctantly released 100 pages of emails documenting the administration’s editing of the talking points, first composed by the CIA. The final version omitted references to possible al-Qaida influences in the attack and retained the theory that it grew out of a street protest.

On television, Rice described the attack as a “horrific incident where some mob was hijacked, ultimately, by a handful of extremists.” Since then, numerous investigations have concluded there were no protesters outside the Benghazi compound before the armed assault.

Republicans argue that the administration already knew that. The White House says Rice was giving the best information available from intelligence agencies at that time.

Two months after her TV appearances, the controversy ended Rice’s chance to follow Clinton as secretary of state. Obama instead named her his national security adviser.

Just this April, another email showing the White House’s efforts at political damage control surfaced among documents released under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

Republicans charged that the administration had violated an earlier congressional subpoena by holding back that email by deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. White House press secretary Jay Carney contended that the email, outlining how Rice should answer questions in her TV appearances, focused on the overall Mideast protests, not Benghazi.

The email says one of Rice’s goals is “to underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy” and also includes the assertion that the Benghazi assault apparently grew out of a street demonstration.

“WHAT DIFFERENCE, AT THIS POINT, DOES IT MAKE?”

As the presumed front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, Clinton is the prime political target of the Benghazi probes.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chosen to lead a new House select committee on Benghazi, acknowledges that its work may continue into the presidential campaign season. Gowdy says he wants the investigation to be exhaustive and fair. The House Democrats’ leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, called the committee “a political stunt” but said Democrats would participate to bring balance.

If it achieves nothing else, the Benghazi investigation will cloud Clinton’s record and force her to watch every word. Critics already have latched onto her what-difference-does-it-make moment at a Senate hearing to portray her as indifferent to the truth.

Here’s what she said, under questioning from Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., about why the State Department didn’t quickly call the evacuees and ask whether there had been protesters outside the compound before repeating that story on the Sunday talk shows:

“With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans,” Clinton said with evident exasperation. “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided that they’d they go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and prevent it from ever happening again, senator.”

In a chapter of her coming memoir obtained by Politico, Clinton writes that the meaning of her words has been twisted by those waging “a political slugfest.”

House Speaker John Boehner says Republicans aren’t playing politics. “The American people have not been told the truth about Benghazi,” he said, “and we’re committed to getting it.”

AN UNFINISHED STORY

No one has been arrested for the Benghazi attack.

The administration has named two militant groups that officials believe were among the attackers. One is led by a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, Sufian bin Qumu, who was released from the U.S. military prison in Cuba in 2007. He was described by officials there as “a probable member of al-Qaida.”

The suspected groups are considered ideological cousins of the terrorists behind the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. But State Department officials say they don’t think core al-Qaida leaders orchestrated the Benghazi attack.

The administration says it won’t give up on bringing the assailants to justice.

Since the Benghazi mission was burned, the rebel brigades that once fought Gadhafi’s forces have hardened into increasingly powerful militias, many made up of Islamic extremists. Libya’s central government is weak, security forces can’t maintain control, and bombings and shootings continue.

The State Department maintains the U.S Embassy in Tripoli but hasn’t returned to Benghazi.

Anti-LGBT laws, attitudes still hold sway in many regions

While gay-rights activists celebrate gains in much of the world, their setbacks have been equally far-flung, and often sweeping in scope.

In Russia, a law against “gay propaganda” has left gays and lesbians unsure of what public actions they can take without risking arrest. In India, gay-rights supporters were stunned by a recent high court ruling re-criminalizing gay sex. A newly signed law in Nigeria sets 10-year prison terms for joining or promoting any gay organization, while a pending bill in Uganda would impose life sentences for some types of gay sex.

In such countries, repression of gays is depicted by political leaders as a defense of traditional values. The measures often have broad support from religious leaders and the public, limiting the impact of criticism from outsiders. The upshot: A world likely to be bitterly divided over gay rights for years to come.

Globally, the contrasts are striking. Sixteen countries have legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, including Canada, South Africa, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and New Zealand as well as 10 European nations, and gay marriage is legal in parts of the United States and Mexico. Yet at least 76 countries retain laws criminalizing gay sex, including five where it’s punishable by death.

Here’s a look at major regions where the gay-rights movement remains embattled or marginalized:

AFRICA:

According to human rights groups, more than two-thirds of African countries outlaw consensual same-sex acts, and discrimination and violence against gays, lesbians and transgender people is commonplace. While many of the laws date to the colonial era, opposition to homosexuality has gained increasing traction as a political tactic over the past two decades.

In 1995, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe – who’s still in office – denounced gays and lesbians as “worse than pigs and dogs.” He has since been joined by political and religious leaders continent-wide calling for punishments ranging from arrest to decapitation.

Africans promoting anti-gay legislation have expressed alarm about gains made by sexual minorities in the United States and Europe. They say laws such as the one newly signed in Nigeria can serve as a bulwark against Western pressure to enshrine gay rights.

In Liberia, for example, a religious group called the New Citizen Movement has spent the past year collecting signatures urging President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to sign a law banning same-sex marriage – even though, as in Nigeria, there has been no local movement to legalize it.

Rev. Cleopatra Watson, the group’s executive director, said Nigeria’s law was “a prayer answered” that could lead to the passage of similar legislation in other African countries.

From afar, Nigeria’s new law has drawn harsh criticism from human rights groups, Western governments, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. However, support for anti-gay legislation presents few domestic political risks for African leaders, with polls suggesting most citizens believe sexual minorities are not entitled to basic civil rights.

In Cameroon, gay men are routinely sentenced to prison for gay sex, and in July a prominent gay activist, Eric Ohena Lembembe, was tortured and killed in an attack.

Gay-rights supporters nonetheless hold out hope for long-term change, suggesting that recent anti-gay rhetoric and laws were a response to an emergence of sustained gay-rights activism.

“If there weren’t an increasingly effective movement, there would not be such a virulent backlash,” said Neela Ghoshal, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

ASIA:

The world’s largest continent, Asia is a mixed bag when it comes to gay issues, due to vast differences in culture, religion and history. Though no Asian nation yet allows gay marriage, Thailand has a government-sponsored campaign to attract gay tourists, while China, Vietnam and Taiwan, among others, are increasingly accepting of gays and lesbians.

However, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Pakistan outlaw gay sex and, for the moment, so does India, following the recent decision of its high court to revive a ban on gay sex that had been quashed by a lower court in 2009. The high court said it’s up to lawmakers, not judges, to change the law.

Amid the legal wrangling, gays and lesbians have gained a degree of acceptance in parts of India, especially in big cities where gay-pride parades are now a fixture. Many bars have gay nights, and some high-profile Bollywood films have dealt with gay issues.

In most of the country, however, being gay is seen as shameful, and many gays remain closeted.

Gautam Bhan, an Indian gay activist, said he was heartened by the vocal outcry against the high court ruling.

“There may be a backlash and reversals, but the long-term trend is toward openness, freedom and diversity,” he said. “Eventually we will get past this law.”

In majority-Muslim Malaysia, the government has shown no interest in promoting gay rights. Sodomy is punishable by 20 years in prison and whipping with a rattan cane, and censorship rules forbid the production and screening of films that might be considered supportive of gay rights.

Earlier this month, the Home Ministry declared a coalition of activist groups illegal, partly because they were deemed to have championed gay rights.

“Malaysia is at the worst end of the scale,” said Grace Poore, a Malaysian who is Asia program coordinator for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. “They are targeting LGBT people because they are convenient scapegoats.”

In heavily Muslim Indonesia, gay sex is not criminalized, and many young, urban Indonesians are relatively tolerant of homosexuality, but most citizens consider it unacceptable.

“Gay people are still living in fear,” said King Oey, chairman of the country’s main gay-rights group.

CARIBBEAN/LATIN AMERICA:

While the gay-rights movement has achieved major victories in some South American countries, gays remain targets of violence and harassment in parts of Central America and the Caribbean.

In Honduras, activists report a serious problem of violence against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 90 members of the LGBT community were killed between 2009 and 2012.

Several countries in the English-speaking Caribbean still have colonial-era laws criminalizing sex between men, including Jamaica, Barbados, Grenada, St. Lucia and Dominica. Gays in Jamaica say they suffer frequent discrimination and abuse, and have little recourse because of widespread anti-gay stigma.

“Homophobia is expected, celebrated, culturally ingrained,” said Dane Lewis, leader of the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All Sexuals and Gays.

Anti-gay sentiment is fueled by some church leaders who accuse gays of flaunting their behavior to “recruit” youngsters, and some stars of Jamaican dancehall music use gay-bashing lyrics to rouse concertgoers.

For gay tourists, the Caribbean is generally safe, but not always. Masked gunmen broke into a vacation cottage in St. Lucia in 2011 and beat three gay Americans while making anti-gay slurs. In 2006, two gay men from New York were assaulted outside a bar in Dutch St. Maarten; one of the victims sustained brain damage.

In Cuba, homosexuality was frowned on in the early decades after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. Gays were commonly harassed by police, sent to work camps or dismissed from government jobs. Some fled into exile.

More recently, Castro apologized for the persecution. His niece, Mariela Castro, the daughter of current President Raul Castro, is a leading activist for LGBT rights on the island and has lobbied, so far unsuccessfully, for same-sex marriage.

EASTERN EUROPE:

Russia’s law banning “gay propaganda” has drawn extensive criticism abroad, but seems to be widely accepted at home – perhaps not surprising in a country where a popular news anchorman recently said gays’ hearts should be buried or burned.

The law was signed in June by President Vladimir Putin after sailing through Parliament. It levies heavy fines on anyone convicted of propagandizing “nontraditional sexual relations” among minors.

Putin, in his third term, has been catering to an increasingly conservative constituency, repeating catch-phrases about Russia’s traditional values and condemning the West for trends that threaten to destroy them, including homosexuality.

That language has struck a chord in much of Russia, where the rising influence of the Orthodox Church and widespread ignorance about gays has contributed to acceptance of the propaganda law. Polls indicate that the vast majority of Russians don’t have a single gay acquaintance and oppose expansion of gay rights.

As a result, a growing cadre of public figures shows no hesitation to demonize gays.

State television anchor Dmitry Kiselyov told audiences that gays should be banned from donating blood or organs, saying that they should be burned or buried instead. Kiselyov later was appointed by Putin to head Russia’s largest news agency.

Ivan Okhlobystin, a popular actor and former priest, told his fans that he would gladly “burn them (gays) alive,” calling them “a real danger to my children.”

Gays face various problems in many other parts of Eastern Europe, including the Balkans, a traditionally conservative region where anti-gay violence has been on the rise. Assaults and harassment have coincided with the strengthening of right-wing groups amid persistent economic problems.

Conservative groups in Croatia, backed by the Roman Catholic Church, forced a referendum in December to define marriage as a union of a man and a woman only. Voters overwhelmingly supported the measure, dealing a blow to the liberal government and triggering criticism from the European Union, which had just admitted Croatia.

In Serbia, a gay pride march in 2010 resulted in daylong violence, with more than 100 people injured. Planned marches in subsequent years were canceled because of extremist threats.

Montenegro held its first pride event last year in the coastal town of Budva. Hundreds of police officers fought right-wing extremists who sought to disrupt the gathering, and participants were eventually evacuated in boats.

MIDDLE EAST:

Across most of the Middle East, homosexual relations are taboo, though not all nations choose to prosecute gays and punishments vary.

The pervasiveness of religion in everyday life, along with strict cultural norms, plays a major factor in how Middle Eastern societies view homosexuality. The common Arabic word used to refer to gays is derogatory and its actual meaning translates as “abnormal” or “queer.”

Same-sex relations are punishable by death in the Muslim-majority nations of Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen.

In Yemen, more than 30 people suspected of being of gay were killed by unidentified assailants in the past two years, many in southern provinces where al-Qaida is active. Iraq also has experienced a surge of killings of gays.

In Egypt, consensual same-sex relations are not explicitly prohibited, but other laws – those prohibiting “debauchery” or “shameless public acts” – have been used to imprison gay men.

Public acceptance of gays in Israel and Lebanon is higher than the rest of the region, according to a Pew Research Center study released last year. Lebanon and Israel promote gay tourism, and publisher Nabil Mroueh says his company in Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, has translated nearly a dozen English books about homosexuality into Arabic.

Among most Palestinians, homosexuality is generally disdained, and 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.

In Israel, by contrast, gays serve openly in the military and in parliament, and many popular artists and entertainers are gay.

Assessing the region as a whole, activists take heart from modest changes – even it’s simply the inclusion of gay rights in broader discussions about human rights in the Middle East.

“The situation doesn’t look good,” said Hossein Alizadeh, a Middle East specialist with the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. “But that doesn’t mean we stop working.”

Liberians rally against gay marriage

A few hundred Liberians representing the Christian and Muslim faiths and civil society organizations gathered Nov. 10 to launch a campaign to press the government to ban same-sex marriage.

The campaign is seeking 1 million signatures supporting a resolution to ban gay and lesbian activities here.

More than 25,000 signatures have already been gathered, the head of the citizens’ movement spearheading the campaign, Jim Tornonlah, told The Associated Press.

The Liberian senate recently passed a bill strengthening the law against homosexuality. It must be approved by the House of Representatives before it is sent to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to sign into law.

Earlier this year Johnson Sirleaf expressed her opposition to same-sex marriage saying that if a law supporting it was brought before her she would not sign it.

However, after the U.S. State Department took exception to her stance on gay rights, she softened her position and said that her government would “guarantee people’s civil liberties.”

At the anti-gay marriage rally, an outspoken clergy, representing the Liberia Council of Churches, Rudolph Marsh, lashed out at the influence of foreign powers.

“There are good things in America that we can copy,” he said, “we don’t have to copy the bad ones; let’s leave the bad ones with Americans.”

Marsh called on Liberian Christians and Muslims to remain united “and stand together and tell the world that Liberia is a place of civilized people and will not allow same-sex marriage.”

Muslim leader Sheikh Omaru Kamara, representing his faith at the ceremony, hailed the unity of purpose that both Christians and Muslims were showing against homosexuality.

Liberia’s only known gay and lesbian rights campaigner, Archie Ponpon, insisted Nov. 10 that Liberians should be allowed to practice what they want.

Ponpon was mobbed at least twice after he announced the formation of his group, the Movement for the Defense of Gays and Lesbians in Liberia in April.

“It is also their right to do what they are doing today,” Ponpon told The Associated Press of the campaign to ban same-sex marriage in Liberia. But he said the campaigners are wrong to make “verbal attacks on me and trying to kill my advocacy.”

Ponpon, whose mother’s residence was set alight and razed to the ground earlier this year when he announced the formation of his gay-rights body, said he’s still coming under attack for his beliefs.

Ponpon said over the phone that he “is trying to liberalize the minds of people about the rights of others to do what they want to do.”