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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: South Asia

MUSLIM WORLD: Malaysian reality-show contestants compete to be 'next top imam'

Malaysia's new hit reality show, "Imam Muda," or "Young Imam," is a lot like Tyra Banks' "America's Next Top Model," except that instead of, say, posing naked with tarantulas, contestants must wash and prepare a body for burial according to Islamic tradition.

"Imam Muda" pits contestants against each other in a series of challenges to determine who will make the best spiritual leader, or imam. In the featured clip, competitors try their hand at divorce counseling in order to prove they have what it takes to serve their congregation.

The winner, to be announced in the finale on July 30, will be sent to Saudi Arabia to pursue his religious studies, Upon his return, he will be given a car, a laptop and a position as imam in one of Kuala Lumpur's main mosques.

The show has proved especially popular among young people, according to NPR, which aired an interview with the BBC's Jennifer Pak about "Imam Muda's" appeal.

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LEBANON: 'Clear pattern' of migrant-worker deaths alarms rights advocates

On Oct. 21, 26-year-old Zeditu Kebede Matente of Ethiopia was found dead, hanging from an olive tree in the southern Lebanese town of Haris.

Just two days later, her compatriot, 30-year-old Saneet Mariam, died after falling from the balcony of her employer’s house in Mastita, just north of Beirut.

It's been a deadly month for women working as domestic laborers in Lebanon. At least six have died under mysterious circumstances, constituting a "clear pattern that cannot be ignored," Human Rights Watch researcher Nadim Houry told the Daily Star recently.

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IRAN: Germans in talks with Tehran for Afghanistan support, says report

Iran's official news agency is reporting that German contractors are in talks with Iranians to use the Islamic Republic's territory to ship supplies to North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops in Afghanistan.  

“The German sides negotiating with Iran are representatives of private firms that provide foodstuff and fuel for the German forces serving at NATO units in Afghanistan," said an unnamed German military official quoted by the Islamic Republic News Agency's Berlin bureau. “These companies are after finding alternative routes from Pakistan to forward those goods to Afghanistan.”

The sourcing is sketchy, but there have been mutterings about such talks in the German media  for days. Perhaps more important, the report by IRNA suggests Iran wants, or at least is eager to give the impression that it wants, to be helpful to the American-led war in Afghanistan. 
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KUWAIT: Migrant workers take to the streets


An extraordinary uprising by hundreds of expatriate workers has erupted in Kuwait over the last three days. The workers, many of them from South Asia, are rebelling against their poor living conditions, staging demonstrations at various locations to demand better salaries.

In Kuwait, as in other Persian Gulf countries, laborers often remain in the shadows, silently tolerating grueling work conditions and low wages. They rarely reap the benefits of the huge profit from soaring oil prices, and they are condemned to suffer the subsequent rise in prices even as their salaries remain largely unchanged.

SOUTH ASIA: Al Qaeda gets deadlier

Al Qaeda used a haven in Pakistan's tribal areas to double the number of attacks in that country and kill four times as many people there in 2007, says a State Department report to Congress released Wednesday.

At a news briefing, Ambassador Dell L. Dailey, the State Department's top counter-terrorism official, stopped short of blaming Pakistan for the increase and said the terrorist network was "weaker now than it was at the 9/11 time frame."

The annual terrorism report itself, however, says that a primary reason for the terrorist network's resurgence is a much-criticized cease-fire last year between the Pakistani federal government and tribal leaders beyond its authority near the border with Afghanistan.

The agreement enabled Al Qaeda to more freely travel, train and plan attacks around the world, the report says. Overall, there were nearly the same number of terrorist attacks worldwide in 2007 as the year before -- about 14,500. But many more people were killed, especially as the number of suicide bombers rose, says the 312-page report, which is required by Congress and compiled using statistics from the National Counterterrorism Center.

Suicide bombings worldwide were up about 50%. Attackers have shifted their tactics, more often traveling on foot and using explosives-laden backpacks to strike in crowded areas rather than relying on vehicles that could be deterred by heightened security.

Click here to read more.

—Josh Meyer in Washington

MIDDLE EAST: Danish cartoon controversy continues to ripple

Danishcartoon The anger unleashed in the Muslim world by the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad more than two years ago is apparently far from simmering down.

In the latest of the drawings' consequences, the Danish government decided to close its embassies in Algeria and Afghanistan after threats of terrorist attacks against their premises in these two countries. According to a report in a Danish newspaper, the Danes have evacuated their staff from embassies in Kabul and Algiers to an unidentified "safe location," where they continue to work.

The newspaper said that the Danish intelligence linked the threats to the reprinting of the cartoons in February by international newspapers.

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MIDDLE EAST: Al Qaeda as petty, pencil-pushing penny pinchers


A spate of articles in the Los Angeles Times chronicled the recent activities of the Al Qaeda network, which continues to be an unsettling force in the region.

A report in today's paper by Sebastian Rotella takes a look at Al Qaeda's lighter side. Recently declassified documents reveal inner workings of the group.

Turns out Al Qaeda operates a lot more like the dysfunctional firm in the television show "The Office" than the slick bands of bad guys in a James Bond movie.

Here's the text from one memo sent by an Al Qaeda manager to a disobedient subordinate:

I was very upset by what you did. I obtained 75,000 rupees for you and your family's trip to Egypt. I learned that you did not submit the voucher to the accountant, and that you made reservations for 40,000 rupees and kept the remainder claiming you have a right to do so. . . . Also with respect to the air-conditioning unit, . . . furniture used by brothers in Al Qaeda is not considered private property. . . . I would like to remind you and myself of the punishment for any violation.

Click here to the read the whole story.

—Times staff writer

Photo: Mohammed Atef, left, sits with Osama bin Laden, right, and Bin Laden's son Mohammed in early 2001. Documents show Al Qaeda's obsession with paperwork. Credit: AFP

IRAN: Rebel forces fighting proxy wars in Iraq


A series of conflicts with insurgent groups along Iran's borders may be impelling Tehran to back its own allies in Iraq in what it regards as a proxy war with the U.S., according to security experts and officials in the U.S., Iran and Iraq.

Dozens of Iranian officials, members of the security forces and insurgents belonging to Kurdish, Arab Iranian and Baluch groups have died in the fighting in recent years. It now appears to be heating up once again after an unusually cold and snowy winter.

Click here to read the rest of the story.

Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photo: A Kurdish rebel from Pejak inspects a crater left behind by an alleged Iranian artillery attack near a mountain encampment in Qandil in northern Iraq on April 13. The group threatened to launch bomb attacks inside Iran. Credit: SHWAN MOHAMMED / AFP

MIDDLE EAST: Listening to Al Qaeda


With the world mostly focused on the ongoing violence in Iraq and the threat of confrontation between Iran and the United States, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda — which sparked the confrontation between the West and the Islamic world — have almost slipped into the background.

But several stories in this week's Los Angeles Times zeroed in on Al Qaeda's operations, funding and history. What emerges is a picture of an organization, hiding in the hinterlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan, struggling mightily to stay relevant and robust.

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JORDAN: Guns galore at Middle East weapons fair


The specter of conflicts in the Middle East intensifying and widening worries many countries in the region. But some Arab nations are showing a growing interest in acquiring or selling sophisticated weapons as suggested by the wide participation in an international exhibition for military hardware, held in Jordan over the last few days.

The event, Special Operations Forces Exhibition and Conference (SOFEX) 2008 was a muscular display of tanks, armored vehicles, high-tech surveillance equipment, gunboats, machine guns, etc.

Check out the first minute or two of the promotional video for the event and you'll get the idea.

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MIDDLE EAST: Cheney makes Iran bomb allegation


Certainly high oil prices, the state of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Arab-Israeli conflict were high on the agenda of Vice President Dick Cheney's recent tour of the Middle East. But the subject of Iran was never far from the surface of the trip, which is now wrapping up.

CheneyCheney alleged in an interview Monday that Iran was trying to develop weapons-grade uranium, even though international inspectors have never found such evidence.

According to a White House transcript of an interview with ABC's Martha Raddatz, Cheney said:

Obviously, they're also heavily involved in trying to develop nuclear weapons enrichment, the enrichment of uranium to weapons grade levels.

Iran is currently enriching uranium at its plant in Natanz in central Iran. Weapons-grade uranium is enriched or concentrated at 80% or 90%. According to the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report, Iran currently enriches uranium at concentrations of less than 3.8%, which is the amount necessary for creating fuel for a reactor. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful energy production, but the U.S. and other Western countries have cast suspicion.

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PERSIAN GULF: Bhutto's death shakes the region

BhuttoBenazir Bhutto’s assassination in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on Thursday reverberated powerfully in the oil-rich Persian Gulf kingdoms, where many Pakistani and other South Asian expatriates live and work.

Impoverished workers from that region constitute the main labor force driving the Gulf’s booming construction works. The Gulf, emerging as the Middle East's services and financial hub, also attracts skilled and educated engineers, managers and scholars from the South Asian subcontinent.

The Gulf News, a United Arab Emirates English-language daily, said the killing stunned local expatriates. "Pakistanis in the UAE have reacted with shock and grief to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and described her demise as a national tragedy," the paper reported.

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