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yazidiThe last few pieces drawn from the reporting I did  in the Middle East late last year are now out.

For the Spring issue of the World Policy Journal, I wrote about how Syrian women in Jordan are adjusting to life without men.

Studies show that at least a third of Syrian refugee households in Jordan are headed by women – meaning that, as in Sara’s case, there is no male provider. This is not unusual in war-time, given that men tend to enlist or be drafted. The number of female-headed households was thought to be even higher among displaced Iraqis during the first Gulf War . . .

Many of these women, hailing from traditional societies where men are the primary household earners, must work for the first time, even as they care for their children. As they deal with tough economic realities, many are also navigating bereavement, trauma, and loss.

The piece is no longer available for free online, but can be accessed here, and the first few pages of the clipping are below.

In the Spring issue of the New Humanist, I wrote a piece about the persecution of minorities in Iraq, and how their cause is being taken up by the far right in the west.

Dalu’s anger stems, in part, from a feeling that people overseas are not paying attention to the suffering of his community. But the persecution of religious minorities in Iraq has been exploited by international actors for many years, in ways that often exacerbate the problem. This raises serious ethical questions not just about assisting marginalised groups, but about the way these issues are discussed. In an era of increasing divisions and a worldwide narrative of a “clash of civilisations”, the situation of minorities in Iraq has been used to feed a dangerous discourse that does no favours to people like Dalu. How can outsiders support these groups without worsening the situation?

You can read the rest over at the New Humanist website.

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Dama school, Bekaa Valley (photo: my own)

I recently travelled to Lebanon, one of the countries where the Syrian refugee crisis is felt most acutely. There are well over 1 million Syrians currently residing in Lebanon, a country of only 4 million people. Around half of these Syrians are children, meaning a huge scale educational crisis as Lebanon’s already struggling public school sector.

In response to this crisis, Lebanon introduced a “second shift” for refugee students. This offered a lifeline to many families, but it also entrenches segregation. In a piece for IRIN, the humanitarian news service, I wrote about some of the complex challenges posed by the education crisis, and the importance of integration within the classroom.

Although the second shift system has obvious benefits, it comes with its own set of problems. By the afternoon shift, teachers are exhausted and learning time is compressed. “Human resources are stretched very thinly,” explained Oscar Wood, co-director of Seenaryo. “There are not always new teachers in the second shift, and core staff like heads and senior leadership have to stay all day.”

You can read the rest of the piece over at IRIN.

ensafFive years ago, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes. His crime was starting a website that discussed liberal ideas. In June, I interviewed his wife, Ensaf Haidar, who now lives in Canada with their three children. She has been campaigning tirelessly for his release.

The think tank Freedom House has characterised the media environment in Saudi Arabia as one of the “most repressive in the world”; Badawi is one among dozens of prisoners of conscience. But, despite the risks associated with talking freely about politics and religion in her home country, Haidar is defiant. “I always thought Raif had the right to express his opinions and engage in whatever public debate he wanted to. My opinion hasn’t changed. I would do nothing differently if I could go back. This is the 21st century. It was his right.”

You can read the full interview over at The Pool.

As well as being a freelance writer, I am deputy editor of the New Humanist magazine and often cover issues related to free speech and secularism. (I’ve also written before about Raif Badawi’s case.)

I wrote a column in the latest issue of the New Humanist about the tragic death of another free-thinker, self-described humanist Mashal Khan who was murdered at his university halls in Mardan, Pakistan.

For all the public outpouring of grief and anger, there has been little attention paid to the law itself. Introduced by the British during colonial rule, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are among the world’s most repressive. Attempts at reform were halted entirely after the assassination of two politicians advocating the cause in 2011 – Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti.

The rest of the piece is here. I’ve been writing about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws for many years now – starting with this 2011 piece for the New Statesman. I’ve also written about violent attacks on atheists in Bangladesh. You can find more examples of my coverage on these issues elsewhere on the website.

20144513358199734_20Last week, Downing Street announced that it would hold an investigation into the operations of the Muslim Brotherhood in London. The inquiry aims to establish whether the Brotherhood is a threat to British national security. Given that the organisation is the biggest political force in the Middle East; that it was, until recently, in power in Egypt; and that its affiliates remain in power in many different countries in the region, the suggestion that it is involved with violent extremism in the UK has been controversial. I wrote a piece for Al Jazeera, unpicking the possible reasons for the inquiry.

When it comes to any hint of violence, the UK is taking no chances. “The British don’t want to make the same mistakes they did in the 1990s, when Britain was accused of becoming a theatre for militant Islamists,” says Gerges. “The British government is not, as it has said, up-to-date on the Brotherhood in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings. They want to understand.”

A UK government spokesperson said it was “possible, but unlikely” that Britain would follow its allies in Saudi Arabia and the UAE in classifying the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation.

Yet many analysts have balked at the inquiry’s suggestion that the group poses a threat to British national security. “This is a communitarian, religious, conservative movement that focuses on politics and social mobilisation as the basic tools of its actions,” says Gerges. “Even if some individual members of the Brotherhood have engaged in violent activities, I don’t think this reflects the strategy or worldview of the organisation.”

The full piece is over at Al Jazeera’s website.

AR-140329164 (1)My feature for the National (UAE) was published recently. It goes behind the headlines about young men from the west signing up to fight in Syria, asking how big the numbers actually are, and what this means for the conflict, other countries in the region, and for Europe.

The war in Syria is first and foremost a civil conflict involving Syrian fighters. However, the presence of foreign fighters from Europe and elsewhere in the region has the power to influence the dynamics of the battlefield. “Even if the foreign fighters are still a quite small minority of the overall rebellion, as well as a minority of Assad’s forces, they often serve in particular areas and have local influence,” explains Aron Lund, the editor of the Carnegie Endowment’s website Syria in Crisis. “On the rebel side, the foreign fighters have very disproportionately joined the most extreme jihadist groups.

That has empowered these groups and contributed to the growth of Sunni Islamist radicalism in northern Syria in particular.

“Suicide attacks are very important to rebels in Syria,” he says. “They’re a weapon the regime has found it difficult to protect against, despite its vast technological advantage.”

You can read the full piece over at the National’s website, and the clipping is below.

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