Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution

As revolution swept through the Arab world in spring of 2011, much of the writing that reached the West came via analysts and academics, experts and expats. We heard about Facebook posts and tweeted calls to action, but what was missing was testimony from on-the-ground participants—which is precisely what Layla Al-Zubaidi, Matthew Cassel and Nemonie Craven have brought together in Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution. These essays and profoundly moving, often harrowing, firsthand accounts span the region from Tunisia to Syria and include contributors ranging from student activists to seasoned journalists—half of whom are women. This unique collection explores just how deeply politics can be held within the personal and highlights the power of writing in a time of revolution.

“Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution” reviewed in the NYT.

Buy the book online.

March in Istanbul to mourn Kobane fighter


There have been many reports about the thousands of foreigners joining the ranks of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as it continues to make gains in Syria and Iraq, but less about those foreigners joining the fight against them.

Suphi Nejat Agirnasli was one of them. And on October 5, while fighting alongside besieged Kurds in the town of Kobane of northern Syria, he was killed in battle.

Agirnasli, a 30-year-old Turkish-German, was a member of Turkey’s banned Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP). He was not ethnically Kurdish, but in August he left his home in Istanbul to join the People’s Protection Units (YPG), an armed Syrian-Kurdish group that in recent months has defended Kurdish areas from ISIL’s offensive. In September, after taking a number of Kurdish town in northern Syria, ISIL laid s siege to Kobane in a battle that is still raging. While in Syria, Agirnasli used the nom de guerre Paramaz Kizilbas, an Armenian leftist who was executed in Istanbul in 1915.

On Sunday, October 19, hundreds of mourners commemorated Agirnasli’s death with a march through Istanbul’s Kadikoy district.

Read Al Jazeera America’s report on Agirnasli.

Being watched in Britain

The UK government says it wants to put an end to extremism by engaging the Muslim community. It recently began the “Prevent” program, which seeks to stop the extremism before it happens. However, many British Muslims are skeptical of the program, which they feel is another attempt to unfairly scrutinize their entire community.

I went to Birmingham, UK, to speak with Muslims and government officials about this subject. This is my report, video and written, on that investigation.


UK uses health workers in counter-terror plan
(original link on Al Jazeera English)

Medical workers, most would agree, have one important job to do: look after the well-being of their patients. However, in the UK, employees of the National Health Service are now being assigned another task: identifying potential terrorists.

This new directive comes from the Prevent programme, part of the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy created in the wake of the July 2005 London bombings.

As part of this mission, since last year Prevent has been providing mandatory training to employees of the National Health Service (NHS) on how to identify potential terrorists among patients, visitors and other medical staff, and report them to the authorities.

Documents given by Prevent to medical workers, copies of which were obtained by Al Jazeera, say the following: “The NHS has been identified as a key player in supporting the Prevent strategy as healthcare staff are considered to be well placed to help to identify concerns and protect people from radicalisation.”

‘Government informants’

Al Jazeera spoke to a nurse working for the NHS on condition of anonymity because she was not permitted to talk to the media. (Al Jazeera also learned of similar Prevent training being offered to educators, firefighters and others in the public sector; however, none agreed to discuss the training on record.)

“The healthcare worker’s job is to ultimately treat your patient,” the nurse said. “It doesn’t matter what they walk in the door with – you, as a healthcare professional within whatever specialty you work, you’ve been trained to support them.”

The nurse was concerned by the vague characteristics presented as indicators of possible radicalisation. One of the Prevent documents listed factors such as “identity crisis”, “personal crisis” and “unemployment” that could make someone vulnerable to radicalisation.

The document also listed political views that NHS staff should look out for, such as a “rejection of UK foreign policy”, “mistrust of Western media”, and “perceptions that UK government policy is discriminatory [eg counter-terrorist legislation]”.

The nurse said trainers were careful to avoid mentioning Muslims. However, medical staff were told that the main terrorist threat to the UK comes from Islamist groups, and the violent acts mentioned were mostly incidents perpetrated by Muslims.

She added that identifying potential terrorists was not part of her job as a health worker. “It’s actually something that the police should be doing,” she said. “Offering this training, it’s almost as if we’re becoming government informants.”

Outreach

Sir Peter Fahy, chief constable of Greater Manchester and national lead for Prevent’s police programme, confirmed to Al Jazeera that medical workers and other civil servants were being given counter-terrorism training.

“If there are health professionals who have serious concerns that the person they’re dealing with is getting involved in extremist activity and that is harming their well-being and harming their community, then yes, absolutely, it’s about them being able to raise those concerns,” Sir Fahy said. “Clearly, there is a significant terrorist threat to this country. We can understand that people can feel very strongly about international issues and other political issues, and it’s trying to identify people who may be at risk of taking that concern to a level of violence.”

On its website, Prevent says it seeks to tackle terrorist threats wherever they occur. However, it also says that the “most serious is from al-Qaeda, its affiliates and like-minded organisations”. With the overwhelming majority of Prevent’s efforts focused on British Muslims, many in the minority community believe they are being unfairly targeted.

Sir Fahy acknowledged the grievance, and said he hopes to address complaints by making Prevent’s efforts more transparent to the public. “It’s really about how we… confront the threat of terrorism, but at the same time maintaining the confidence of the Muslim community as we go along.”

Lost confidence

But that confidence may already be lost. Jahan Mahmood, a historian and former adviser to the government’s counter-terrorism unit, said that while Prevent mentions possible extremism from a range of groups, “there is a disproportionate focus on Muslims, there is no doubt about that. And that’s also one of the reasons it’s failed to gain traction with the Muslim population”.

In Birmingham’s predominantly Muslim Sparkbrook neighbourhood, Mahmood pointed above his head to lampposts where in 2010, the government installed hundreds of surveillance cameras – ostensibly for monitoring crime in the area.

But it was soon exposed that the counter-terrorism unit installed the cameras to monitor residents. After an outcry from the Muslim community, bags were placed on top of the cameras and they were eventually removed, with authorities assuring that they had never been turned on.

Mahmood said the incident led to a serious breakdown of trust between Muslims and the police. Al Jazeera spoke to a number of British Muslims in cities like Birmingham and Manchester, who said they believe Prevent and other counter-terrorism efforts are less about preventing violence than about monitoring every aspect of Muslim life. This has left many in the community feeling alienated from the rest of British society.

But Mahmood warned that it’s not only British Muslims who should be concerned over the government’s counter-terrorism laws and programmes like Prevent.

In recent years, Mahmood said: “We’ve seen draconian legislation introduced – and that means we are surrendering our civil liberties. Where will this end? The rest of Britain needs to wake up to the fact that we are sleep-walking ourselves into very serious times.”

“Identity and Exile”

UPDATE April 13, 2014: Good news, “Identity and Exile” is now available in the US on Youtube. You can watch it at the following links:

Pt1: http://aje.me/identityexile1
Pt2 http://aje.me/identityexile2

665003303001_2877154530001_20131124121740258734-20I spent most of 2013 working on a film for Al Jazeera English’s “Correspondent” series, which follows an AJE journalist as they embark on a personal journey to explore an issue important to them. For my film I chose to look at how support for Israel has come to define Jewish-American identity. I was raised Jewish in Chicago, and as a supporter of the Palestinian struggle this is an issue  I’ve struggled with for many years.

Unfortunately, the film is currently unavailable in the US because of restrictions on Al Jazeera English content by US cable providers since the launch of Al Jazeera America. However, anyone lucky enough to be outside the US can watch the two parts on on Al Jazeera’s website here: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/aljazeeracorrespondent/2013/11/identity-exile-20131124121757352111.html

Here is the film’s synopsis from Al Jazeera’s website:

In the 19th and 20th centuries, millions of Jews migrated from Europe, Eastern Europe and Russia to the US, settling across the country’s big cities including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago where they found opportunity and established strong communities. Those communities continued to grow in the subsequent decades as more Jews fled anti-Semitism across Europe.

A growing number of Jews also migrated to Palestine at the turn of the century, part of a nascent Zionist movement. Migration to Palestine increased after World War I. At the end of World War II, following the horrors of the holocaust, the state of Israel was created in what had previously been British-controlled Palestine. In the process, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee their homes, exiled into neighbouring countries and refugee camps.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the land continues to this day. How does this contentious issue affect Judaism in the US? Why is there such strong support for Israel in the US irrespective of the issue or cost?

Al Jazeera’s Matthew Cassel travels back to his native Chicago where he was raised Jewish. He talks to local rabbis, friends and family about why so many in the Jewish-American community believe it is important to maintain support for Israel … no matter what.

And he travels back to Palestine to retrace his steps as a young man. At that time, during the second Intifada, he was shocked to discover the impact Israeli policies were having on Palestinians.

He tries to understand how Jewish religious beliefs have turned into a political cause that he does not agree with – but that the US actively accepts and supports.

White House propaganda

instagram.com/syrianpresidency
instagram.com/syrianpresidency

When Bashar al-Assad joined Instagram last week, US media waged an intifada lambasting the embattled Syrian president for his “propaganda” effort.

“Instagram becomes latest propaganda tool for Syria’s embattled president,” read the headline in the Washington Post.

“This Is What It Looks Like When A Brutal Dictator Starts Using Instagram,” said BuzzFeed.

“Syrian President Assad’s Desperate Instagram Feed,” wrote the Daily Beast.

“Syrian president recruits Instagram in ongoing propaganda war,” said The Verge.

“Bashar Assad’s Instagram Is Every Bit The Propaganda You’d Expect From The Syrian President’s Social Media Minions,” said the always elaborate Huffington Post.

instagram.com/petesouza
instagram.com/petesouza

Around that same time White House photographer Pete Souza, a former photojournalist with Chicago newspapers hired by the president in 2009, also joined Instagram.

Here’s how some of those headlines read:

“White House photographer debuts Instagram account,” said the Washington Post.

“White House Photographer Joins Instagram And It’s Amazing,” said BuzzFeed.

“Turning Politics to Art: WH Photog Launches Instagram Account,” said Time magazine, which was lucky to land an interview with Souza soon after.

But Time didn’t ask the former news photographer how he feels now that he’s surrendered all independence and is getting paid to disseminate images of the president that the US government wants us to see. Instead Souza was asked about Bo, the White House dog.

“The Instagrams of Bo are excellent – how is he as a subject?”

Followed by this hard-hitting question:

“Are you going to do any selfies?”

There’s a very simple explanation for why we’re not going to see Obama signing his secret weekly kill lists or operating drones over civilian areas in Pakistan, just as we’re not going to see images of Assad  shelling homes in Aleppo or the underground detention centers where opposition activists are held. Both men (and their respective staffs) control what is allowed to be published on these social media platforms.

I don’t disagree that Assad’s Instagram account is propaganda, it clearly is. But let’s not kid ourselves that Obama’s account is anything different. So why aren’t US media calling it that?

“Justice for Trayvon” in NYC


“Justice for Trayvon” in NYC – Images by Matthew Cassel

Several thousand people marched from Union Square in New York one day after George Zimmerman, a local member of the Neighborhood Watch in Florida, was found not guilty for the death of black teenager Trayvon Martin.

Protesters on Sunday chanted slogans such as “Trayvon’s dead, Zimmerman’s free, that’s what they call democracy,” and carried signs saying the verdict exposed racism within the US judicial system. Some protesters also carried bags of Skittles candy and wore hooded sweatshirts mocking Zimmerman who has said he felt threatened by 17-year-old Martin.

Many onlookers cheered the demonstration, which was much larger by the time it reached Manhattan’s Times Square at nightfall.

Morsi’s supporters running out of options


Egypt’s coup in pictures — mobile viewers click here

Originally published on Al Jazeera English, 5 July 2013

Cairo, Egypt – “May peace and God’s mercy be upon you,” the worshippers said as they looked to the right, and then to the left, before rising to their feet and starting their protest.

“Down, down with the military government,” they roared as they spilled into the streets from mosques across Cairo, calling for the return of Mohamed Morsi to Egypt’s presidency.

They had been saying all week that they were willing to defend Morsi’s presidency with their blood, and today they did.

At least three people were killed when protesters confronted soldiers at a presidential guard barracks in the country’s capital.

Friday was not unlike the beginning of demonstrations on January 28, 2011, when worshippers finished the Friday prayer and joined together in their thousands to march and conquer Tahrir Square – where they stayed until Hosni Mubarak was forced from office.

But today their mission was different. Instead of removing someone from power, they wanted to return someone to it.

“We’re worried about our President Mohamed Morsi,” said Nadia Mustafa, after finishing prayers at al-Istiqama mosque in Giza. She, like many other Morsi supporters, denounced the “military coup” that ousted him on Wednesday, and said she would only accept his return to office.

Abdel Moneim Sharif, another protester, shared that sentiment: “We’re not going to [stop protesting] until Morsi is restored to president and democracy is restored to Egypt.”

But millions of Egyptians opposed to Morsi say his ousting was an act of democracy – as it was the military acting on the will of the people. Their nationwide protests, which began on Sunday to mark one year since Morsi took office, left the army with little choice but to intervene.

“This is the happiest day of my life,” said Salmana Abdel Shafi, as he walked through Tahrir on the morning after Morsi’s ousting. “Stability has been restored, and now we can get back to work and life.”

‘Guardian of legitimacy’

On Wednesday night, Morsi’s handpicked leader of the army, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, read a statement in a televised address:

“As the armed forces cannot just turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the movement and call of the Egyptian people, they have invoked their patriotic, and not political, role.”

Morsi “had failed to meet demands of the people”, and was therefore no longer president of the Arab world’s most populous nation”, said Sisi.

But it is that definition of “the people” over which both sides continue to disagree.

Morsi’s supporters echo their leader’s defiant eve-of-ousting speech, in which he referred to himself as the “guardian of legitimacy”, since he had won the country’s first free presidential elections in June 2012.

But opposition figures have said the numbers of protesters in the street is proof that Morsi had lost that legitimacy during his brief one year stint in office.

Gehad Haddad, a spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood that first put Morsi forth as its candidate, told Al Jazeera he was unsure if it was a majority of the country that opposed Morsi or not.

However, he said many of the country’s problems since Morsi took office were the fault of opposition politicians who refused to take part in the political process.

“You don’t denounce a president midterm because you don’t like what he’s doing,” Haddad said of the opposition.

“You have to man up to your responsibility to build new parties and show up for policy discussions instead of whining about it on TV.

“And they have the audacity to stand next to a military general as he’s doing his coup and say: ‘I’m backing the voice of the people.’

“I don’t think it was a majority represented in the street. I think it was a group of different segments that managed to agree on not wanting the president – rather than on wanting anything else.

“Imagine how they will split once they have the responsibility of [governing] and choices to make.”

Violence

Since Morsi’s ousting, the military has cracked down on his supporters, arresting hundreds, including some in the group’s top leadership. Morsi himself is detained, yet no-one outside the military seems to know where.

While many of Morsi’s supporters have spoken repeatedly about “the blood” they’re willing to put on the line to defend him, most Morsi supporters and military authorities alike have said that violence was something they would rather avoid.

On the road leading to Rabaa al-Adawiya, the military that has been present since Sisi’s announcement on Wednesday, pulled off to a side street to avoid standing in the way of the angry masses.

As protesters on Friday passed military and police installations around the city, some chanted slogans against them, and others threw projectiles, but the majority here shouted down acts of violence, while others formed human chains to prevent the sides from clashing.

It wasn’t until a breakaway march left Rabaa al-Adawiya and headed just a few kilometres away, to an outpost of the presidential guard, when the violence erupted.

Witnesses told Al Jazeera that one man had approached the building’s barbed wire fencing, holding a poster of Mohamed Morsi, when he was shot in the head by a soldier on the other side of the fence. He died moments later.

“He’s not even a Brotherhood member,” one man in tears shouted. “I know him, he’s only a good Muslim and they killed him.”

The army continued firing tear gas and birdshot, as military helicopter gunships circled above.

Other men approached the fence, one man carrying a flower, but it was clear they wouldn’t be able to challenge the well-trained officers on the other side.

Around Cairo, the Brotherhood’s critics have said the group remains well armed and could wage attacks against the state. They pointed to the border with Libya in the west, and to the Gaza Strip in the east as possible sources of more weaponry.

“Those Brotherhood members, they’re all armed,” one man in a cafe told others, as a pro-Morsi march passed nearby.

But many Morsi supporters told Al Jazeera they were firmly opposed to the idea of taking up weapons as a means to win back their power.

‘Back to the grassroots’

Outside the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, the main site of ongoing pro-Morsi protests, men can be seem performing military-like drills, wearing construction hats and padded vests.

Haddad, the Brotherhood spokesperson, laughed when asked if they were meant to be threatening, and dismissed the notion that it was a sign of the group becoming militarised.

“It’s not even going to do anything against bullets, but at least it might deter thugs,” Haddad said.

The Muslim Brotherhood will only use peaceful means to challenge the military, he added.

“We’re going back to the grassroots and the source of real power – the people themselves,” Haddad said. “We’ll see where that takes us.”

But in Tahrir Square and elsewhere across the country, the anti-Morsi crowd has moved on.

They’re not concerned with a return of the Brotherhood. They know that the army, which produced more than six decades of Egypt’s leaders – each of whom waged their own crackdown on the group – is behind them.

Almost all of the journalists covering Friday’s pro-Morsi protests were reporting for foreign media.

One of the army’s first moves after taking power was to close Brotherhood-media outlets and other TV channels that were said to be pro-Morsi in their coverage.

So unless they followed the international press, social media, or attended the events themselves, most Egyptians will have little idea of the protests that took place today.

And with the military keeping tight control, it’s hard to see how the Brotherhood will be able to climb its way back into power any time soon.

‘Protect our children’


US: Chicago school protest 27 March 2013

It’s hard to imagine the mayor of a major US city moving to close dozens of schools located in some of the most violent areas of the entire country. It’s even harder to imagine that mayor having his office announce the mass closings — the biggest ever in US history — while he was away on a ski holiday with his family. But Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel is a special kind of mayor.

Last Thursday Emanuel’s office announced that the city plans to shut 54 schools, nearly all of which are located in poor Black and Latino neighborhoods, in order to cover a $1bn deficit. Karen Lewis, the outspoken leader of the Chicago Teacher’s Union, blasted the move as “racist” and “classist,” and so did many other teachers, parents, school faculty, and others on Wednesday during a protest against the closings (images above).

Read a full report of the protest by The Guardian’s Gary Younge.

Repairing a heart

The above images document the before and after of my father’s recent open-heart surgery.

TWO WEEKS AGO doctors cut open my father’s sternum, stopped his heart, and temporarily installed a cardiopulmonary bypass pump as they spent more almost eight hours replacing a damaged mitral valve. It was his third such open-heart operation in just two years. Before that his most recent operation was last November, one that I also returned home for from the Middle East where I live in order to be with him.

Caring for ailing loved ones is something most of us have done or will do at some point in our lives. And as we all know it’s not easy, especially when other factors interfere. One of the things that drove me into activism and later journalism was growing up and seeing my father battle one health issue after another.

At different times during the last two decades my father, like tens of millions of Americans, was without health insurance. That meant he was solely responsible for the exorbitant medical bills incurred from his illnesses. And for years I watched as he struggled to overcome not only his physical problems but the resulting financial problems as well.

“Hello, I’m looking for…” the voice would come on the phone asking for my father. “He’s not in,” I’d say, as he slept just feet away on the couch in his small one-bedroom apartment. Or, I would respond in a less diplomatic fashion and tell them to go to the hospital themselves and ask him for money as he underwent further costly treatment that he couldn’t expect to pay for either. The phone never stopped ringing, and most times I would just ignore it.

For an impressionable kid in his late teens, it made me furious. I had trouble understanding how treatment for the sick and unwell was a political issue and not a basic right. There is no excuse for a country that spends billions on killing people abroad to not invest in healthcare and take care of its own people at home.

In recent years my family has been more fortunate as my father has worked at a job, albeit one he’s overqualified for, that provides him with health insurance. And that insurance has allowed him some of the best medical care available, especially for his last two heart operations when he was transferred to the University of Chicago hospital on the city’s South Side.

I have to say that I am eternally grateful to the staff at the U of C hospital. They do an incredible job at treating people like my father in need of specialized treatment for an organ as complicated as the human heart. The doctors and nurses were both friendly and extremely professional, which was reassuring for us at such a worrying time.

But while the staff has stayed the same, the hospital has changed dramatically. My father’s second heart operation in November was conducted at the old hospital, which seemed perfectly fine in my non-medical opinion. However, it paled in appearance to the brand new $700,000,000 medical facility that opened in February just across the street. As I recently sat gazing out from what’s become one of the tallest buildings on Chicago’s sprawling South Side, I couldn’t ignore the blaring contradictions staring right back at me.

Driving south on Cottage Grove Avenue the hospital emerges behind the trees and low-lying homes like a massive alien spacecraft that landed smack in the middle of the South Side. In an area where some of the only neighborhood shops you’ll find are liquor stores, and empty lots and boarded up homes are visible on every street, the hospital is one of the only signs of development on the South Side.

But that surrounding community is clearly not who the hospital is intended to serve.

In recent months, activists on the South Side have protested at the U of C demanding it open a trauma center to treat gunshot victims. The U of C sits in the middle of one of one of the areas with the highest rates of gun violence in the entire country. However, the hospital isn’t equipped with a trauma center to treat gunshot victims, even when they’re shot almost literally in its shadow. Instead, they’re forced to travel to the nearest trauma center, a journey that has proven to be fatal for some. In 2010 18-year-old Damian Turner was shot less than a quarter mile from the U of C hospital. Turner died en route to the nearest Level 1 trauma center more than ten miles away in the city’s downtown.

Chicago’s South Side is a microcosm of the growing inequality in the US where the bottom 90 percent control less than a quarter of the country’s wealth while the top one percent control more than one-third. And it’s clear that to the authorities the lives of working people simply aren’t worth as much. Since President Obama first took office in 2009, nearly 2,000 people were killed in Chicago before he paid a visit to a single victim’s family. Many of the killings happened within blocks of Obama’s Chicago home. Last year when mass shootings occurred in wealthier areas in Colorado and Connecticut, killing 12 and 26 respectively, Obama was on the scene within days offering condolences to grieving families.

Chicago is hurting, and the status quo can’t sustain itself for much longer. And while the logical solution for many would be for the local government to invest in the struggling communities, Chicago’s mayor has taken the reverse approach and is waging new attacks on working people. Last Thursday, while Rahm Emanuel was on a ski holiday, his office announced the biggest mass public school closing in US history — nearly all of the 54 schools located in predominantly poor Black and Latino communities. It’s no coincidence that those same neglected communities are also experiencing the highest rates of violence.

Being home and knowing my father’s heart is fixed and he’s on the road to recovery couldn’t make me happier. But this city full of many hard-working people just like my father is in bad shape, and if something doesn’t change soon, well, no hospital around is going to be able to repair the damage no matter how shiny its exterior.

A cold day in Chicago


The high was 30 degrees (-1 C) in Chicago today, but the brisk wind made it feel much cooler. Office smokers put on their heavy coats to go outside for the 3-4 minutes it took to get their nicotine fix. Even pigeons looked miserable as they huddled behind bus stops and other wind-blocking barriers on sidewalks knowing it was too cold for any children to chase after them. A perfect day, I thought, to test out my new Fuji X-pro1 camera. Unlike my other Canon DSLRs, the Fuji and its lenses are small and discreet. It’s easy to travel with and doesn’t make me feel like I’m some overcompensating Harley-rider in need of a massive camera around my neck just to take a few pics. Earlier as I strolled around the Loop, Chicago’s downtown, I didn’t feel like I drew much attention to myself, which I like when doing street photography. The results are above.