Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Preacher alarms many in Egypt with calls for Islamist vice police

Many Egyptian viewers were horrified when preacher Hisham el-Ashry recently popped up on primetime television to say women must cover up for their own protection and advocated the introduction of religious police. That an obscure preacher could get publicity for such views was seen as another example of the confused political scene in Egypt since the revolt that toppled Hosni Mubarak gave birth to a cacophony of feuding voices. "I was once asked: If I came to power, would I let Christian women remain unveiled? And I said: If they want to get raped on the streets, then they can," Ashry told Nahar TV last week. Introducing a Saudi-style anti-vice police force to enforce Islamic law was "not a bad thing", he said, and added: "In order for Egypt to become fully Islamic, alcohol must be banned and all women must be covered." Few take Ashry, who admits he flew to the United States dreaming of a Western lifestyle and romance but instead found truth in preaching, seriously. But his views have stirred emotions. With the economic downturn and rising food prices putting pressure on the government, moderate Muslims, Christians and others worry their new-found political freedom is at risk of being exploited by hard-line Islamists bent on imposing their values on a society that has been traditionally moderate. Watching a recent television interview in which Ashry expounded his ideas on women and sharia law, members of one family jumped to their feet in outrage. "Look at this crazy man! Where do you think we live! In a jungle? Or are all men like you, animals, unable to control their instincts?" Mona Ahmed, 65, shouted at the television screen in her living room. "If I see him annoying any unveiled woman on the street I would punch him in the face. Wake up, man, this is Egypt, not Saudi Arabia," she yelled as her children tried to console her. Ahmed, like many women in Egypt, has chosen on her own to cover her hair with the Islamic headscarf. Egypt's top Islamic institutions, such as al-Azhar, the highest authority in Sunni Islam, and Dar al Ifta, the central authority for issuing religious rulings, have long said religious practices should not be imposed on people. "IDIOTIC THINKING" Egypt's Grand Mufti, the country's most senior Islamic legal official, has dismissed the self-styled preacher's views. "This sort of idiotic thinking is one that seeks to further destabilize what is already a tense situation," Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa said in a statement to Reuters. "Egypt's religious scholars have long guided the people to act in ways that conform to their religious commitments, but have never thought this required any type of invasive policing." The Muslim Brotherhood of President Mohamed Mursi, who was brought to power in an election last year, has also distanced itself, if somewhat cryptically. "The case of promotion of virtue and prevention of vice is within the jurisdiction of the authorities and not individuals or groups," said Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan. "It is not anyone's right to intervene." Mursi has pledged not to impose Islamic codes of behavior and to protect adherents of all religions equally. But he has also enacted a new constitution that has more Islamic references than its predecessor and that critics say fails to protect freedoms and the rights of Christians and other minorities. Activists say although Mursi's camp is not keen on religious austerity, stronger condemnation is required at this sensitive time. "As long as such actions are not seriously condemned by the officials in public speeches, it leaves room for radicals to freely act and impose things on people," said human rights activist Gamal Eid. The image of Egypt's bearded leadership flanked by their fully veiled wives sends a powerful psychological message that may belie their official words, they say. "Islamist officials need to take a clearer stand on their views about rights and freedoms and act strictly if those rights and freedoms were threatened." CONVERTING CHRISTIANS Ashry left Egypt for New York in the 1990s, when the country was still firmly under Mubarak's rule, in search of a better life. "I went there with a dream to get a blonde girl and a big car," he said in one of his televised interviews. "(But) I was advised on the plane to cherish my religion and not get taken by the USA or risk being spoiled and losing my faith." His religious convictions grew stronger over the next 15 years in the United States, he said. "I had, thanks to God, guided many Christians to Islam. I can't tell how many as I stopped counting when their number exceeded 100," he said. It was when he was working at a men's clothing factory in New York that he became convinced that Egypt needed a Saudi-style anti-vice force. "(My goal was) to make all Egyptians love it," he said. A few find him inspiring. "He advocates what I believe is right," said Ahmed Mahmoud, 18, in Cairo. "It is about time to enforce God's law in order to be rescued from all the corruption we live in." Ashry is just one conservative influence among many. In the six months since Mursi came to power, preachers and vigilante groups have been flexing their muscles on the streets. In July, a young man holding hands with his fiancé was stabbed to death in Suez, and in October, a face-veiled teacher cut the hair of two 12-year-old girls who were not wearing scarves. Just last month, an Islamist group in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula threatened to launch a campaign against cigarette smoking and drug use in the lawless desert region.

Freed Iranian hostages arrive at hotel in Damascus

Forty eight Iranians released by Syrian rebels in exchange for the release of more than 2,000 civilian prisoners held by the Syrian government arrived at the Sheraton hotel in central Damascus on Wednesday, a Reuters witness said. The men were accompanied by the Iranian ambassador to Syria and arrived in six small buses, looking tired but in good health.

Lance Armstrong to Speak to Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey will interview cyclist Lance Armstrong for "Oprah's Next Chapter" on Jan. 17, her network said Tuesday. The 90-minute interview at his home in Austin, Texas, will be his first since officials stripped him of his world cycling titles in response to doping allegations. "Oprah Winfrey will speak exclusively with Lance Armstrong in his first no-holds-barred interview," a news release reads. "Armstrong will address the alleged doping scandal, years of accusations of cheating, and charges of lying about the use of performance-enhancing drugs throughout his storied cycling career." "Oprah's Next Chapter" at 9 p.m. is the primetime series on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network. The tell-all interview will also be simultaneously streamed live on Armstrong, 41, was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned from the sport for life by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in October 2012, after allegations that he benefited from years of systematic doping, using banned substances and receiving illicit blood transfusions. "Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling and he deserves to be forgotten in cycling," Pat McQuaid, the president of the International Cycling Union, said at a news conference in Switzerland announcing the decision. "This is a landmark day for cycling." The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency issued a 200-page report Oct. 10 after a wide-scale investigation into Armstrong's alleged use of performance-enhancing substances. Armstrong won the Tour de France from 1999 to 2005. According to a report by "60 Minutes Sports" on Showtime, the head of the doping agency said a representative of Armstrong's once offered to make a donation estimated around $250,000 to the agency. Lance Armstrong's attorney Tim Herman denied it. "No truth to that story," Herman said. "First Lance heard of it was today. He never made any such contribution or suggestion." Armstrong, who himself recovered from testicular cancer, created the Lance Armstrong Foundation (now known as the LIVESTRONG Foundation) to help people with cancer cope, as well as foster a community for cancer awareness. Armstrong resigned late last year as chairman of the LIVESTRONG Foundation, which raised millions of dollars in the fight against cancer. The New York Times reported Jan. 4 that Armstrong told associates he is considering admitting that he used banned performance-enhancing drugs and blood transfusions during his cycling career. The Times' unnamed sources said he would admit the information in order to restore his eligibility in athletic events such as triathlons and running events. Herman denied the claims were true. Herman told The Associated Press he had no knowledge of Armstrong considering a confession and said: "When, and if, Lance has something to say, there won't be any secret about it." Armstrong, who has spent so much energy bitterly fighting accusers and whistleblowers, has left many questioning whether Winfrey's televised absolution will be able to help his cause.

US may leave no troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014

The Obama administration says it might leave no troops in Afghanistan after December 2014, an option that defies the Pentagon's view that thousands of troops may be needed to contain al-Qaida and to strengthen Afghan forces. "We wouldn't rule out any option," including zero troops, Ben Rhodes, a White House deputy national security adviser, said Tuesday. "The U.S. does not have an inherent objective of 'X' number of troops in Afghanistan," Rhodes said. "We have an objective of making sure there is no safe haven for al-Qaida in Afghanistan and making sure that the Afghan government has a security force that is sufficient to ensure the stability of the Afghan government." The U.S. now has 66,000 troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of about 100,000 as recently as 2010. The U.S. and its NATO allies agreed in November 2010 that they would withdraw all their combat troops by the end of 2014, but they have yet to decide what future missions will be necessary and how many troops they would require. Those issues are central to talks this week as Afghan President Hamid Karzai meets with President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. At stake is the risk of Afghanistan's collapse and a return to the chaos of the 1990s that enabled the Taliban to seize power and provide a haven for Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. Fewer than 100 al-Qaida fighters are believed to remain in Afghanistan, although a larger number are just across the border in Pakistani sanctuaries. Panetta has said he foresees a need for a U.S. counterterrorism force in Afghanistan beyond 2014, plus a contingent to train Afghan forces. He is believed to favor an option that would keep about 9,000 troops in the country. Administration officials in recent days have said they are considering a range of options for a residual U.S. troop presence of as few as 3,000 and as many as 15,000, with the number linked to a specific set of military-related missions like hunting down terrorists. Asked in a conference call with reporters whether zero was now an option, Rhodes said, "That would be an option we would consider." His statement could be interpreted as part of an administration negotiating strategy. On Friday Karzai is scheduled to meet Obama at the White House to discuss ways of framing an enduring partnership beyond 2014. The two are at odds on numerous issues, including a U.S. demand that any American troops who would remain in Afghanistan after the combat mission ends be granted immunity from prosecution under Afghan law. Karzai has resisted, while emphasizing his need for large-scale U.S. support to maintain an effective security force after 2014. In announcing last month in Kabul that he had accepted Obama's invitation to visit this week, Karzai made plain his objectives. "Give us a good army, a good air force and a capability to project Afghan interests in the region," Karzai said, and he would gladly reciprocate by easing the path to legal immunity for U.S. troops. Karzai is scheduled to meet Thursday with Panetta at the Pentagon and with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the State Department. Without explicitly mentioning immunity for U.S. troops, Obama's top White House military adviser on Afghanistan, Doug Lute, told reporters Tuesday that the Afghans will have to give the U.S. certain "authorities" if it wants U.S. troops to remain. "As we know from our Iraq experience, if there are no authorities granted by the sovereign state, then there's not room for a follow-on U.S. military mission," Lute said. He was referring to 2011 negotiations with Iraq that ended with no agreement to grant legal immunity to U.S. troops who would have stayed to help train Iraqi forces. As a result, no U.S. troops remain in Iraq. David Barno, a retired Army three-star general and former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, wrote earlier this week that vigorous debate has been under way inside the administration on a "minimalist approach" for post-2014 Afghanistan. In an opinion piece for on Monday, Barno said the "zero option" was less than optimal but "not necessarily an untenable one." Without what he called the stabilizing influence of U.S. troops, Barno cautioned that Afghanistan could "slip back into chaos." Barno said the Afghan-Pakistan border area where numbers of Islamic extremists are in hiding could become the scene of a prolonged "intelligence war" after 2014, with the U.S. and its Afghan and Pakistan partners sharing intelligence. "Given its vital importance, this undertaking will endure — regardless of the size of the residual U.S. military presence," he wrote. Rhodes said Obama is focused on two main outcomes in Afghanistan: ensuring that the country does not revert to being the al-Qaida haven it was prior to Sept. 11, 2001, and getting the government to the point where it can defend itself. "That's what guides us, and that's what causes us to look for different potential troop numbers — or not having potential troops in the country," Rhodes said. He predicted that Obama and Karzai would come to no concrete conclusions on international military missions in Afghanistan beyond 2014, and he said it likely would be months before Obama decides how many U.S. troops — if any — he wants to keep there.

Biden to meet with gun-safety, victims groups

Seeking to spur fresh action on gun legislation, Vice President Joe Biden is meeting at the White House with victims groups and gun-safety organizations. Wednesday's meeting is to be part of a series of gatherings Biden is conducting this week at the White House, aimed at building consensus around proposals to curb gun violence following the horrific elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn. The vice president will meet Thursday with the National Rifle Association and other gun-owner groups. Meetings with representatives from the video-game and entertainment industries are also planned. President Barack Obama wants Biden to report back to him with policy proposals by the end of the month. Obama has vowed to move swiftly on the recommendations, a package expected to include both legislative proposals and executive action. "He is mindful of the need to act," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday. But as the shock and sorrow over the Newtown, Conn., shooting fade, the tough fight facing the White House and gun-control backers is growing clearer. Gun-rights advocates, including the powerful NRA, are digging in against tighter gun restrictions, conservative groups are launching pro-gun initiatives, and the Senate's top Republican has warned it could be spring before Congress begins considering any gun legislation. "The biggest problem we have at the moment is spending and debt," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said Sunday. "That's going to dominate the Congress between now and the end of March. None of these issues will have the kind of priority as spending and debt over the next two or three months." The killing of 6- and 7-year-olds at Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14 appeared to stir a deep reaction from the White House and Capitol Hill. Obama pushed gun control to the top of his domestic agenda for the first time and pledged to put the full weight of his presidency behind the issue. And some Republican and conservative lawmakers with strong gun-rights records also took the extraordinary step of calling for a discussion on new measures. But other gun-rights advocates have shown less flexibility. The NRA has rejected stricter gun legislation and suggested instead that the government put armed guards in every school in America as a way to curb violence. A coalition of conservative groups is also organizing a "Gun Appreciation Day" later this month, to coincide with Obama's inauguration. The president hopes to announce his administration's next steps to tackle gun violence shortly after he is sworn in for a second term on Jan. 21. Obama wants Congress to reinstate a ban on military-style assault weapons, close loopholes that allow gun buyers to skirt background checks and restrict high-capacity magazines. Other recommendations to the Biden group include making gun-trafficking a felony, getting the Justice Department to prosecute people caught lying on gun background-check forms and ordering federal agencies to send data to the National Gun Background Check Database. Some of those steps could be taken through executive action, without the approval of Congress. White House officials say Obama will not finalize any actions until receiving Biden's recommendations. Gun-rights lawmakers and outside groups have insisted that any policy response to the Newtown shooting also include an examination of mental health policies and the impact of violent movies and video games. To those people, the White House has pledged a comprehensive response. "It is not a problem that can be solved by any specific action or single action that the government might take," Carney said. "It's a problem that encompasses issues of mental health, of education, as well as access to guns." In addition to Biden's meetings this week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan will meet with parent and teacher groups, while Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will meet with mental health and disability advocates.