The Hajj In Time Of Pandemic


Credit…Saudi Ministry Of Media, via Reuters

I have always been drawn to better understand the hajj.  Over my lifetime of watching the event occur, talking with people who have undertaken the mission and spoken about the completeness they feel as a result leaves me awed.  I find the history of Islam intriguing, and especially how it impacts the Middle East and nearby regions politically.  The more I learn has deepened my respect for the faith as it is practiced by the majority.

This year there are changes for the pilgrims due to the pandemic.

In any other year, Muslims undertaking the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca that observant Muslims are obligated to perform at least once, would drink from a holy well. They would kiss the Kaaba’s sacred black stone as they thronged the Grand Mosque. Before they left Mecca, they would collect pebbles to ritually stone the devil.

During the virus edition of the hajj that begins on Wednesday, the black stone is off limits. Authorities in Saudi Arabia are issuing bottled water from the Zamzam well instead of letting pilgrims drink from cups at the source. Also in the pilgrim packages: sterilized pebbles to hurl at the devil, personal prayer rugs and other items intended to prevent an outbreak from marring the hajj.

But the chief public health measure the Saudi government has taken is to limit attendance, shrinking one of the world’s most famous crowds to a select few. About 2.5 million Muslims from around the world performed the hajj last year; this year, Saudi Arabia said it would allow just 1,000 pilgrims, all of them from within the kingdom, though it has not released the final number.

Across the Middle East, celebrations for Eid al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice that marks the end of the hajj this weekend, will likewise be paler this year.

In Oman and Bahrain, where the unchecked spread of the virus among low-paid foreign laborers living in crowded conditions has contributed to two of the world’s worst outbreaks, officials have urged residents to forgo the large celebrations that usually mark Eid, and Oman has reinstituted a domestic travel ban and curfew. In Egypt, new cases have fallen as the country resumes normal life, but a live broadcast will replace communal Eid prayers.

In the United Arab Emirates, where it is common for residents to buy sheep or other livestock to sacrifice and donate during Eid, the authorities were encouraging people to use apps to reduce crowding at slaughterhouses and markets.

‘Roadmap’ In Middle East Is Another Stunning Injustice For Palestinians

It was a most bizarre scene which played out in Washington on Tuesday.  And given what we have witnessed in Washington over the past weeks that is saying a lot.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is under indictment, was beaming alongside Donald Trump, who is undergoing an impeachment trial, as they both gleefully threw Palestinians under the bus in the Middle East.  The two legal outcasts were so proud of an idea that would allow for Jerusalem to be the undivided capital of Israel while relegating the Palestinian capital to a suburb.  It is nothing short of obscene.

I fully grasp the mouth-breathers in the Trump base have no scintilla of background about the scope of the issue at hand.  For the rest, we are aware that what has been proposed upends 60 years of bipartisan support for a negotiated process between Israelis and Palestinians, in which both make concessions and land swaps that would define the lines of a new map.  To sweep in a plan based on Jewish zeal, being pushed by Netanyahu to an under-educated and unstable person sitting in the Oval Office, is perhaps the most sickening blow towards the Palestinians since the creation of Isreal.  Before that the Balfour Agreement.

The plan is simply repulsive.  For instance, gerrymandering is at play in a way that makes what happens in the drawing of political lines in the U.S. seem like children’s play.  (Redistricting is a topic this blog has long been concerned about.)  The plan devised by the two felons-to-be would require the construction of a giant tunnel across Israel to connect two areas of Palestinian control.   Simply a most unforgivable proposal.

Neither of the international jokes who stood side-by-side Tuesday seemed at all aware that permanently legitimizing the illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank is in clear violation of international law.  Since they both have evaded laws of many kinds in both their countries what does international ones mean?

Israel has stolen land again and again.  Their ruthless policy is the reason they face so much scorn on the world stage.  The fact that too many Jews have moved to Israel that land is scarce must not be the reason for stealing yet more land.   The creation of Israel was a decision made after emotional baggage from World War II needed to be dealt with.  I get that part of it, and understand it.  But the actual creation of this state in the Middle East, while undercutting Palestinians, was always going to be the seed of hatred and tensions.  Getting deeper into the bed with the Israeli governments over the many years has not made it any better.

I must say, as one who can trace his genealogy back to Cherokee Chief John Ross at the time of the Trail of Tears, that this whole sad episode is reminiscent of the treaties in this nation from the 19th century.  Power brokers who steal land, and push others aside.  Just as the removal of Native Americans was a mistake, so was the creation of Isreal.

We see that truth with each passing decade.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Corruption Catches Up With Him

I am exceedingly pleased with the news that has been flying under the radar for many years.

Israel’s attorney general announced his plans to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.  First, and foremost, this was a legal matter that needed to be addressed.  I am always upbeat when justice prevails.   Or is on track to prevailing.

But the second reason this is warming to my heart is due to Netanyahu’s political future.  We are just 40 days away from him standing for re-election.  With the news today this places him in a most precarious position. That limbo, and possible fall, is precisely what would be in the best interest of the regional needs in the Middle East.   For far too long news operations from the BBC to The Economist have reported on his shady business dealings with wealthy businessmen, including a Hollywood movie producer, Israeli newspaper publishers, and the head of the country’s largest telecommunications conglomerate.

The process that is about to unfold is perfect political theater, but also perfect comeuppance to a truly underhanded leader.  Netanyahu, who is running for his fourth consecutive term as prime minister, is now entitled to a hearing to challenge the charges.  If the case proceeds, (and it will) he would be the first sitting prime minister to be indicted.

As an American I hope he is expelled from office like an olive pit.  His actions over the years have severely damaged a policy for a two-state solution.  Last week I read news reports where he encouraged Jewish Pride, the racist party of Rabbi Meir Kahane which encourages hatred of Arabs, to enter his coalition.

Then there is the Genesis Prize, an embarrassing $1 million annual scheme that Netanyahu concocted to dole out to wealthy American Jews whom he perceives as ‘valuable’. This year’s winner is, none other than Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots.  He’s just been criminally charged for paying a trafficked slave in Palm Beach to perform sex acts on him.  (Wow.)

Netanyahu will, no doubt, accuse his political adversaries of a witch-hunt.  But with justice leading the way he will be saying those words as he also spits into the wind.

Readers who have been following this blog for a long time know I find the political leadership of Israel to be most frustrating.  I would never urge our nation to follow their lead on anything.  Until now.  This is an instance I hope our nation follows Israel’s lead and indicts our corrupt, fraudulent head of state.

Jamal Khashoggi’s Final Column

Jamal Khashoggi’s final column is a must read today.

This column was received by the Washington Post around the time of his disappearance more than two weeks ago, but held by the opinion editor in hopes she and he would be able to edit it together. It is about freedom of the press in the Arab world, and the Post printed it today.

Powerful.  Adds to the continued conversation about why modernity in the Arab world is a must.

Arab governments have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate. There was a time when journalists believed the Internet would liberate information from the censorship and control associated with print media. But these governments, whose very existence relies on the control of information, have aggressively blocked the Internet. They have also arrested local reporters and pressured advertisers to harm the revenue of specific publications.

As a result, Arabs living in these countries are either uninformed or misinformed. They are unable to adequately address, much less publicly discuss, matters that affect the region and their day-to-day lives. A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche, and while many do not believe it, a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative. Sadly, this situation is unlikely to change.

The Arab world was ripe with hope during the spring of 2011. Journalists, academics and the general population were brimming with expectations of a bright and free Arab society within their respective countries. They expected to be emancipated from the hegemony of their governments and the consistent interventions and censorship of information. These expectations were quickly shattered; these societies either fell back to the old status quo or faced even harsher conditions than before.

The Arab world needs a modern version of the old transnational media so citizens can be informed about global events. More important, we need to provide a platform for Arab voices. We suffer from poverty, mismanagement and poor education. Through the creation of an independent international forum, isolated from the influence of nationalist governments….

‘Anything Obama Bad’ Syndrome Leading Nation To War With Iran

It is not as if this was unexpected.  Still, it is a most dreadful and backward move.

The Trump administration has moved to reimpose the first round of Iranian trade sanctions that had been suspended under the 2015 nuclear agreement, distancing itself from every other country that signed the agreement and putting the accord’s future in jeopardy.   The sanctions that have been waived for the past two and a half years will be snapped back officially on Tuesday morning at one minute past midnight.

That is a massive wrong turn on policy with Iran.  As an internationalist, I expect and desire my nation–the leader of the free world–to not only broker deals but to keep faith with the ones this nation has secured.

What is ironic over the news that has played out concerning Iran for months, and now this news today, is that if Trump could get an agreement with North Korea, with the exact same guidelines and restrictions as the Iran nuclear deal, he would sign immediately and declare total victory against Kim Jung-Un.

Trump, in his actions over Iran, has taken the side of Saudi Arabia and the Sunnis–and in so doing is no better than tribal warriors who have not been able to rise above their age-old alliances.   In that respect we are truly moving backward.

It comes as no news to readers of this blog that I believe Trump knows he needs to have a military engagement somewhere in the world.  It would show him to be ‘strong’–though we know war is a sign of weakness,  Real strength always takes place in diplomacy.  Military might is also a tool he could use for partisan gain.

The steps towards a military madness against Iran is moving forward.  The cancelling of the nuclear agreement was the first step.  This news of trade sanctions is the second.  Look for more international rancor coming soon.  Trump’s politically dead unless he can put us on a war-time footing giving him much more control over the conservative-minded population which he has proven able to brainwash.

What is unfortunate is that Iran got caught up with the ‘anything Obama bad’ syndrome.  Had President Bush, while in office, been able to complete the deal with Iran, none of this would now be happening.  But the deranged nature of Trump’s thinking has him attempting to undermine every policy President Obama worked on, or cared about, in his two terms in office.

This all sits well with the right-wing Christian voters as they have always carried a grudge against Muslim countries.  With the news today they can sit in church and pray about Israel and Christianity while the rationale for a war policy with Iran is devised under the most sinful of reasons.  Bigotry against an African-American president, and Muslims in general.

And to think that this all could have been avoided if Iran had just invited Trump to Tehran and threw a military parade in his honor.  After all, when a person can be so easily swayed that is all it takes to shape policy in this administration.

Trump and his merry band of sycophants are proving with this action to be the biggest group of arrogant, willfully stupid, destructive cretins ever to occupy the top levels of American government.  And American boys will pay the ultimate price in the Middle East.

Pope Francis Fears About State Of World

While I was on Holiday break from this blog many events took place which at any other time would have made for a comment or quick opinion posting.   While most are left in the bin of  ‘old news’ I did wish to post about one story which really registered with me.

Pope Francis used his Christmas Day address to call for “peace for Jerusalem” and for a two-state solution to put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  I mention this as the Middle East has long been a lifetime interest of mine.  As a child I wished to travel there and anyone who sits around our dinner table knows of my desire for the Bedouin experience via camel in the desert.  My very first post on this blog in 2006 was about the Middle East.  My love of history often takes me there through the pages of books.

So when Francis acknowledged “growing tensions” between the two sides and urged a “negotiated solution … that would allow the peaceful co-existence of two states” it again underscored what has been the rational sentiment about this complex region.

It was not a too-subtle message to President Trump who on December 6 very stupidly and without any understanding announced his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, instead of Tel Aviv.  There is common knowledge that Trump does not read, has no interest in history or policy, and has only the most surface of background in which to make his moves as president.  It is not as though he has no one to provide the needed information, but he refuses to avail himself to the briefing books.

It’s the second time Francis has spoken publicly on this subject. And for that I much applaud this pope.  On the day of Trump’s wrong-headed announcement the pope made a plea to respect the city’s “status quo” to avoid “needless conflict.”   When Francis spoke at Christmas it followed the only action the UN could take–128 countries backing a non-binding U.N. resolution that said any decisions regarding the status of Jerusalem were “null and void” and must be cancelled.

Popes are a barometer at times–minus Hilter’s Pope.  Francis made his concerns about the “winds of war” which “are blowing in our world and an outdated model of development continues to produce human, societal and environmental decline”.

Folks like me hear those words, and they make an impact.  But when there is nothing to guide the moral side, stir intellectual curiosity, or play to the pages of history (as with Trump) then it is just noise.

And so it goes.

Sunday School Makes My Response To Trump’s Muslim Immigrant Ban

I am utterly dismayed over the news of Donald Trump’s ban on Muslim immigrants coming to this nation.  What is most devastating about this action is that it undercuts what makes America special.  It erodes the foundations of who we are as a people. It strips away a part of the inner mission that has been our national narrative.

I lay in bed last night listening to the BBC (with a headphone).  I could not sleep.  The main story being analyzed was this awful and heartless story.  While listening my mind went back to my childhood and Sunday School when my Aunt Alena (mom’s sister) taught classes. It was those times and lessons that never have left me. As 2 AM approached I got up and turned on the computer.  I knew what needed to be found.

Here then is my response to Trump and his attack on the men, women, and children who seek a safe home and a gentle smile.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

What Unites Us

Somewhere near Kirkut, Iraq a Muslim mother is praying for my better half, James.  That may sound like an odd statement in which to begin another year of blogging, but it was this news that has lifted my spirits after weeks of processing and pondering about the currant predicament our nation (and the world) now finds itself.

Last fall, James as a college professor, came to know a 30 year-old man who for the very first time in his life sat down to learn in an actual classroom.   Growing up in Iraq and becoming sad and stressed over the idea that even children would be encouraged to be martyrs he made his way to Turkey.   Sleeping under overpasses and scrounging to exist he learned to speak Arabic.  When a slot opened in the ‘lottery’ for a chance to come to the United States his future changed in ways that mere words probably can never convey.

It probably comes as no surprise this man has a very able and keen mind.  On his own he started to learn English and today speaks so he could fit into most dinner conversations. Apart from issues with a few idioms he has a better grasp of the language than some folks raised in this nation.

James continues to prove to be a teacher in the full sense of the word.  When he discovered the man was very tired of eating bland chicken and rice it was not long before a plan was set in motion to create changes in the kitchen.  First up was the purchase of a Middle Eastern cookbook along with a trip to Hy-Vee with the struggling cook to buy spices, measuring spoons, and a few basics to make meals tasty and healthy.

When some more foundational work was needed with math skills some workbooks were found and now in his free time when waiting for passengers as an Uber driver he works to become more proficient with numbers.

With the money he makes a portion is sent back to his family in Iraq.  Which brings us back to this young man’s mother.

The funny story is told that when cash was arriving his mom called and was quite concerned that he was involved in something unseemly.  “No, Mother, I am a taxi driver.”  She responded. “Well, I have seen movies and worry about you.”

He told her about James and his help and guidance with lessons and cooking skills.  She was so happy to hear that and told her son “I will pray for him”.

And therein lies what has allowed me to get past the insanity of 2016.

All over the world the same threads of life connect us.  There are men and women across the globe in search of a better life and more importantly safety.  There are untold numbers of young people like this man we have come to know who work hard in a new land and then send some of their earnings back to help support loved ones.   There are eager minds who learn new languages, adapt to different climates and cultures all in the pursuit of happiness and a new beginning.

And there are moms in every land who worry about their children and are touched when a stranger reaches out to lend a hand.  The threads that unite us are just so clear to see.

Therefore, it deeply anguishes me when whole faiths are maligned for political purposes, or brown skinned people with different sounding names get treated with less respect or outright bigotry.   What will develop this year as a new administration takes over in Washington will test us as a nation and as a people.

This holiday period the young man sat at our table drinking tea and eating angel cookies that were made from my mom’s recipe.  He was soon off to his job, math book in hand, while James stuck a candy bar in his coat pocket as he left our home.   I watched him walk to his vehicle and drive away.   I had a genuine smile on my face.

In the midst of the political storms that will burst wide open in the months to come regarding those from other lands I offer the lesson from my days of childhood in a small church in Hancock.

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Let our nation find that as our path forward, too.