Friday, October 10, 2014

Kailash Satyarthi, Nobel Prize Winner, 2014

Image by Red Hill Productions from the
Oregon Public Radio link below. 
This year's Nobel Peace Prize is shared between Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi.  She is world famous but he is less well-known, despite having spent most of his life dedicated to his work against child labor and slavery.  I didn't know the name Kailash Satyarthi until this morning, but I'm pleased to learn why he is being honored. Child exploitation is a global issue that needs more public awareness.

Part of my informal education was learning about hand-made carpets in 1965. Even now I recall an exhibition of imported rugs at an excellent local museum where I hung out a lot. The Dildarian Rug Company from New York shipped in an impressive collection of rugs displayed in the largest gallery. A lecture and slide presentation explained the techniques used to make these incredible rugs -- how the frames were strung and each knot tied individually with one of two or three forms, then the most delicate part, the sheering of the knots to set the final depth. The number of knots per square inch is the metric of fineness, starting at forty to sixty (the most coarse) to sometimes hundreds per square inch! There was a Chinese silk rug on display that had over four hundred knots per inch. It shimmered in the light like pearls or finished wood.

But I'm getting carried away with the memory. I became enamored with hand-made carpets (and still am) and can't resist examining the corners every time I see one to count the number of knots. But some years later I learned that many, perhaps most of these rugs were produced by women and children. Because they are small and have little fingers, they are perfectly equipped to sit side by side in front of the loom, each working on a section of each row as the design slowly emerges. The pattern is sometimes from memory but often on a template behind the frame where the design and color scheme can be used to keep track of progress. I cannot imagine, but it must be the most tedious and boring work imaginable, taking days or weeks to produce a single rug.

My appreciation of these rugs was mixed with guilt when I learned some time later about child slavery and exploitation. In my mind those little fingers were like the farm hands that supported the hard but honorable life of American farmers. The reason we still don't have year-round schooling is part of our agricultural heritage. Children were needed during the growing season to work on farms, so in an agricultural economy going to school was secondary to earning a living. In my mind those children were like those who even today help their parents harvesting crops (which they still do among migrant workers in the US, though no one talks about it much).

But where there is a market there will often be unprincipled people making whatever that market is buying -- even if it means exploiting children. So these carpets, romantic as they seem, are too often the products of child labor -- not all that different from sex trafficking. It's part of the backstory of Slumdog Millionaire. So I'm pleased to know that this man, Kailash Satyarthi, is being recognized. Hopefully this will increase awareness of a global issue that receives too little attention.

Something tells me that the Nobel committee made a deliberate gesture dividing this prize between honorees from both India and Pakistan. That significance will not be lost on anyone familiar with that long-standing conflict. That conflict has been in the news lately with latest outbreak of the perennial issue of Kashmir's governance. A more civil reference even appeared in a Facebook comments thread with remarks from both countries. 

Mr. Google found a good link from 2005, Oregon Public Radio, about Kailish Satyarthi...

The New Heroes -- Kailash Satyarthi

Projects: Global March Against Child Labor, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude (SACCS), Rugmark
[This acronym gets lost in a search. Following this morning's announcement I expect it will be easier to find, as well as better links for Mr. Satyarthi. This new link is a good place to start.]

Locations: New Delhi, India (headquarters), partners in Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka

Kailash Satyarthi has saved tens of thousands of lives. At the age of 26 he gave up a promising career as an electrical engineer and dedicated his life to helping the millions of children in India who are forced into slavery by powerful and corrupt business- and land-owners. His original idea was daring and dangerous. He decided to mount raids on factories — factories frequently manned by armed guards — where children and often entire families were held captive as bonded workers.

After successfully freeing and rehabilitating thousands of children, he went on to build up a global movement against child labor. Today Kailash heads up the Global March Against Child Labor, a conglomeration of 2000 social-purpose organizations and trade unions in 140 countries.

Yet even as he has become a globally recognized figure, Kailash continues the gritty work of leading raids to free slaves. Kailash believes that he must focus on a range of activities -- from the most grassroots to the most visionary -- in order to win the fight.

What Does SACCS Do? 
Since its inception in 1989, SACCS and its partners have liberated nearly 40,000 bonded laborers, many of them bonded, working in various industries, including rug manufacturing. But to free such children without offering new opportunities would, in Kailash's view, be meaningless.

Bal Ashram in Rajasthan, India is a transition center where newly-freed slaves are taught basic skills. Kailash describes the arrival of a girl recently freed from a stone quarry: "It's a joyous experience to watch the changing emotions flit across this beautiful girl's face. She's like an open book, and her varying expressions tell us a story: the story of transition from slavery to a new life of freedom. When her face lights up, it is clear she is taking her first steps toward freedom and belief in others."

Since the Ashram can only serve 100 children at a time, Kailash has begun a program called "Bal Mitra Gram" to encourage Indian villages to abolish child labor. In order to be a part of the program, an entire community must agree that no child will be put to work and every child will be sent to school.

While changing India village by village is a worthwhile pursuit, such a strategy could take centuries to achieve Kailash's goal, and he is not prepared to wait that long. So he has begun attacking the problem by harnessing the immense power of market forces.

Many rugs from South Asia are manufactured using child labor. Kailash believes that if consumers around the world knew how their expensive and colorful Indian rugs were made, they would no longer think they were so beautiful. He started "Rugmark," a program in which rugs are labeled and certified to be child-labor-free by factories who that agree to be regularly inspected. Kailash plans to extend the labeling program to other products such as soccer balls, another popular product that is commonly made by children.

Kailash says "If not now, then when? If not you, then who? If we are able to answer these fundamental questions, then perhaps we can wipe away the blot of human slavery."

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Yemen Snapshot -- Part 5

Does the Houthi Takeover of Yemen’s Sanaa Endanger World Trade?
Juan Cole summarizes Yemeni politics as of October 9, 2014.

The fall of the Yemeni government to radical Zaidi tribesmen from Saadah in the north has gone relatively unremarked in the US mass media.

Yemen is admittedly a relatively small country of 24 million, a little less populous than Texas. It is the second poorest in the Arab League after Somalia. It is nevertheless a country with enormous global strategic importance:

It commands the Bab al-Mandab, the opening to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal from the Arabian Sea (and beyond it the Indian Ocean). Some 8-10 percent of world trade goes through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.  Some 2.5 percent of world petroleum flows are among that total. (Petroleum markets are tight, so the loss of 2.5 percent would put prices way up, and even having to ship it around Africa would increase costs substantially. Liquefied Natural Gas is also shipped in large quantities through the Bab al-Mandab straits, with Qatari exports providing half of Britain’s natural gas and 90 percent of Belgium’s.

Yemen is also important to the Arabian Sea, with its substantial ship traffic.

It neighbors Oman and Saudi Arabia, crucial hydrocarbon players. A mass exodus of panicked Yemenis could affect the security of these countries. So too could a radicalization of Yemenis.

So because of where it is, Yemen has for centuries been a strategic country. The Portuguese eyed it in the 1500s, but the Ottomans forestalled them. In the 19th century, the British took Aden and made it a Crown port, using it as a refueling station for ships going back and forth from India to Egypt (after the Suez Canal opened in 1869 Aden became even more important.)

North Yemen was dominated by the Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam, which unlike the Twelver Shiism of Iraq and Iran, has no ayatollahs or religious hierarchy, and generally gets along with Sunnis, not cursing their orthodox Caliphs or feeling antipathy to them. In the 1960s, a nationalist revolt broke out against the Zaidi leader or Imam who acted as its king and spiritual guide (at least for Zaidis). The nationalist officers overthrew him, with the support of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, a theorist of Arab nationalism. South Yemen went Communist in 1967 but the north was Arab nationalist and mildly socialist.

With the fall of the East Bloc in 1989, South Yemen and North Yemen unified in 1990. It has been an uneasy union, and substantial southern sentiment for secession still exists (efforts in that direction in 1994 were crushed by the Yemeni army).

Although many of the nationalist officers in the capital of Sanaa were of Zaidi Shiite extraction, including dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, they were leftist nationalists and distrusted the rural Zaidis. In the 1990s, Saudi Arabia began trying to spread Wahhabism and Salafism in the Zaidi Shiite north, paying for pricey mosques and community centers. Saleh’s secular nationalists allowed this move, since they thought quietist Salafi Sunnis would be more loyal to the central government than Zaidis, with their traditions of rule via the theocratic Imamate. You had a sort of secular-nationalist alliance with Saudi fundamentalism against rural Zaidism. In the 1990s when Saleh allowed parliamentary elections, the Sunni fundamentalist Islah Party emerged as the most important civil party, again demoting the rural Zaidis.

Husain al-Houthi reacted against this conservative Sunni proselytizing in Zaidi Saadah and other northern population centers. He wrote refutations of Wahhabism (the Saudi religious establishment) and Salafism (Sunnism tinged with Wahhabi emphases). He organized Zaidis. He also began adopting into his Zaidi beliefs and rituals a few ideas and practices more commonly associated with Iran than with Yemen. This adoption of stronger Shiite principles underlined the difference of Zaidis from Sunnis (otherwise the two had often been very close in Yemen and there were even Salafi Zaidis, kind of the way there are some evangelical Catholics in the US). But there is no strong evidence of Iranian involvement with the Houthis or that their successes can be laid at the feet of Iran. And, even Houthi Zaidis are not very much like the Iranian, Twelver Shiites, with their ayatollahs and folk cursing of the Sunni Caliphs.

Ultimately the Houthis went into rebellion against Sanaa, accusing the government of betraying them by allying with Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and of neglecting the development of their regions because of antipathy to Zaidi traditionalists. They denounced the United States as a grasping imperial power. They not only fought central government troops (many of them Zaidis), but also fought Salafis that had declared allegiance to al-Qaeda. Ultimately the Houthis and tribal partisans of the Sunni fundamentalist Islah Party were to fight violently. In mid-September, the Zaidis defeated Islah in Sanaa and environs.

After the 2011-2012 revolution, when Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to step down, his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, became president in a referendum. He, however, faced opposition from the officer corps, where Saleh’s relatives had high positions, and the bureaucracy. Saleh remained the head of the ruling party, to which Mansour Hadi belonged, which was, well, awkward, and gave Saleh the opportunity to intervene in politics. But Mansour Hadi gradually moved against loyalist officers. In June, he accused Saleh of plotting a coup and much weakened him and his military clients.

When the Houthis unexpectedly flooded into Sanaa and took it over in September, the military appears to have stood down and thrown Mansour Hadi to them. It is murky, but perhaps Saleh loyalists or officers hurt by Mansour Hadi’s policies were so resentful they decided to punish him by making themselves scarce at a crucial moment.

The Houthis just rejected Mansour Hadi’s pick for a new prime minister and seem to be taking over policing in the capital. They are also apparently dictating fiscal policy to the Ministry of Finance.

It is hard to imagine that the largely Sunni south will accept a government dominated by hard line Houthi Zaidis. These developments could cause another north-south split in Yemen. The central government troops had pushed back against al-Qaeda affiliates taking over Zinjibar and other town in the southern Abyan province, but now the central government seems in disarray. Will al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula take advantage of the chaos, a la ISIL, to make a play for territory again?

And, if Yemen falls into political chaos and balkanization, what will happen to security in the Bab al-Mandab and the Red Sea?

Will the turmoil hurt the world economy? Will it scuttle Egypt’s plans to expand the Suez Canal and cut transit times from 11 hours to 3 hours? (Egypt hopes to charge much more per container if there are new ports, facilities and faster transit; it now makes $5 bn a year from Suez tolls, but could much expand that figure; and it desperately needs new income streams). Could Egypt be drawn back into Yemen to protect its Suez investment, a la the 1960s?


When I was living in Asmara, now in Eritrea, in 1967-68 I remember people coming over fleeing chaos in Yemen. Are we back to 1967?

Stay tuned. But, apparently, not to American network and cable television news. Only Aljazeera America even seems to be covering the story in a systematic way in the US. The rest don’t appear to know about the Bab al-Mandab or the Suez Canal.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Yemen Snapshot -- Part 4

These two links appear in a comment appended to the previous post (Snapshot Part 3) but I can't get them to share space with that embedded Facebook post. There are many moving parts to the Yemen puzzle. 

I have been watching Yemen for three years, and the more I read the more complicated it gets. Here are two additional links for anyone interested. This is not quick and easy reading. There are many moving parts. Anyone claiming to understand fully what's going on is either full of baloney or driving an agenda.

=> http://www.middleeasteye.net/.../divided-south-yemen...

=> http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/.../yemen-crisis...

Yemen Snapshot -- Part 3


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Islam Notes

This Twitter message has a couple of informative links.

Khaled Diab has solid credentials. His name is not a household word in America but his is a well-known and respected voice in the Middle East. 
Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who grew up in Egypt and the UK and has spent around half his life in Europe and the other half in the Middle East, including nearly two years in Jerusalem. He currently moves backwards and forwards between Geneva, Switzerland, and Ghent, Belgium.
al-Baqra 256 refers to a verse in the Qu'ran indicating that this conviction and execution do not conform to the teachings of Islam.

The Newspaper link has details, including these paragraphs mentioning dervishes, a word I have only come across in the context of history. References to whirling dervishes have been part of the shallow, condescending Western caricature of one of the three principal Abrahamic faiths, in contrast to the origins of the term . 

Iranian authorities are sensitive towards those practising Islam in ways not conforming to the official line. In recent years, several members of Iran’s Gonabadi dervishes religious minority have been arrested and are currently serving lengthy prison terms.

Amnesty said last week that a group of nine Gonabadi dervishes were on hunger strike in protest at their treatment in prison. They were Mostafa Abdi, Reza Entesari, Hamidreza Moradi and Kasra Nouri, as well as the five lawyers representing them who have also been jailed: Amir Eslami, Farshid Yadollahi, Mostafa Daneshjoo, Afshin Karampour and Omid Behrouzi. 
“The men were mostly detained in September 2011, during a wave of arrests of Gonabadi dervishes. They were all held in prolonged solitary confinement, without access to their lawyers and families, and were sentenced, after two years and following grossly unfair trials, to jail on various trumped-up charges,” Amnesty said. “The men are prisoners of conscience, imprisoned solely for practising their faith and defending the human rights of dervishes through their legitimate activities as journalists and lawyers.” 
In Iran, Gonabadi dervishes face persecution, discrimination, harassment, arbitrary arrests and attacks on their prayer houses, Amnesty said.