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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Sikhs in France plan new school to combat turban ban

The French ban on turbans for Sikh boys at school has brought extraordinary problems for parents and extraordinary solutions.

When Sikh boys play on the streets of Paris, their parents can worry in more ways than one.

Because they never know when it could become all play and no work - they run the risk of being stopped from going to school.

President Sarkozy introduced a law as home minister in 2004 banning essentially the headscarf for Muslim girls going to school; but the law also roped in the Sikh children.

“The first day I went, they asked me to take the turban off, now I cover my head with a handkerchief and go,” says a Sikh boy.

As the French see it, they are defending the principle of secular separation of religion from state. But for the minorities, it is a denial of religious rights.

Sundri Kaur a resident of Paris says, "In France I think a lot of people want to try to understand but we need time to understand and I think it is very important for Sikh people to be present, be involved, in action, political, social and cultural, and time after time I think French people can understand."

Teaching the French a lesson or two is Gurdial Singh, who is starting a school where children of all religions can practice their faith openly. The classrooms are ready for the students who can in a sense circumvent the French system.

Singh says, “I want every religion children to come here and respect the children and college also but if anybody respects their religion and comes here, I respect them."

Sikhs are preparing to beat the French ban on the turban by opening school especially for Sikhs and for others to practice their faith as freely and as visibly as they like. [Link]

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Much ado about not much

Multiculturalism debated in Quebec

QUEBEC and the defence of cultural traditions have long, and not always happily, been linked in the minds of Canada's English-speaking majority. Now Quebeckers are themselves seeing things from a majority point of view, bridling, in this context, at the claims of immigrants in their French-speaking province. An official commission, however, thinks the complaints are overdone.

Back in 2006 several unrelated incidents led some Quebeckers to think that too much was being asked of them in welcoming immigrants, and too little of the newcomers themselves. A Sikh boy went to court and won the right to wear a ceremonial dagger to school. A gym bowed to a request from Hasidic Jews to frost over windows so the Lycra-clad bodies of women working out wouldn't be visible to their nearby congregation. A man was asked to leave a pool so that a group of Muslim women could swim in private.

These cases were seized upon by a declining Montreal tabloid and by Mario Dumont, the popular young leader of an upstart conservative party. To defuse the issue, Jean Charest, Quebec's Liberal premier, set up the commission and asked two prominent intellectuals—Gérard Bouchard, a pro-independence sociologist, and Charles Taylor, a federalist philosopher—to chair it. This worked politically: Mr Charest scraped back for a second term, though Mr Dumont's party catapulted from four to 41 seats in the provincial parliament, becoming the main opposition.

After a year in which it held endless town meetings and received 900 written submissions, some inflammatory, the commission reported this month. Its conclusions were nuanced and moderate. The crisis was one of “perception”, in which the media had grossly distorted the controversial incidents, the chairmen said. To soothe both sides they made a long list of recommendations. They urge speedier recognition of foreign qualifications to make it easier for immigrants to get jobs (of more interest than cultural accommodation to most). They want the government to coax more of the 45,000-odd immigrants who come to the province each year to settle outside Montreal, in the rural regions where misgivings about migration are highest. And more should be done to ensure that migrants quickly learn French—and more Quebeckers learn English.

The report pleased immigrant organisations but not the original grumblers. They want more stress on making immigrants integrate and conform. “Does it mean that in our daycares, our primary schools and in all milieus we will have to hide our Christmas trees and Easter bunnies in the closet?” asked one of Mr Dumont's aides of a proposal that the Quebec government produce an annual calendar showing holidays of all faiths. No, is the answer. Mr Charest is enjoying a rare spell of popularity, and seems to have no intention of jeopardising it. Even before the report was released, he rejected its symbolic proposal to reinforce Quebec's secular image by removing the crucifix over the speaker's chair in the provincial legislature. [Link]

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The Islamic headscarf in Denmark

A far-right party takes on the Islamic headscarf

PIA KJAERSGAARD'S Danish People's Party has a genius for attracting attention. Over the past month its campaign to ban public employees from wearing Islamic headscarves has dominated the headlines and also triggered squabbles within most of the country's other political parties.

The campaign began with a poster of a burka-clad woman wielding a judge's gavel. The implicit message was that Danes risk having their courts invaded by Muslim hordes and sharia law. Birthe Ronn Hornbech, the immigration minister, denounced the DPP as “fanatically anti-Muslim” and said the judiciary was capable of policing its own impartiality and dress code. Stig Glent-Madsen, a high-court judge, confirmed that the judiciary had always managed this itself.

Yet the government, which relies on the DPP's support to stay in power, has decided that a new law is needed to ban the wearing of all religious symbols by judges—from Christian crosses to Jewish skullcaps and even Sikh turbans. The hapless Ms Ronn Hornbech will have to frame the law. And the DPP is now calling for even broader bans. Muslim headscarves, says Ms Kjaersgaard, are a “symbol of political Islam and the discrimination against women”. She wants them “out of schools, off the streets and outside the doors of parliament”.

Many Danes share Ms Kjaersgaard's sentiments. A poll by Megafon for TV2 found 48% in favour of a ban on public employees wearing “religious garb”, and only 39% against. The international fallout could be large. Denmark is still struggling with the aftermath of the 2006 Muhammad cartoons affair, which led to protests, deaths and burnt-out embassies across the Muslim world.

One response has come from Danish-born Muslims. A poll by Politiken, a daily, of 315 young Muslim students, found that two-thirds of them were considering emigrating after graduation. Most gave as their reason “the tone of the Danish debate about Muslims”. Jakob Lange, head of studies at Copenhagen University, says that children of immigrants deliberately choose portable qualifications. “They want an education they can use abroad, where the tone of the debate is different. Which is why they often choose medicine, engineering or business-related disciplines.” [Link]

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Al Qaeda Warrior Uses Internet to Rally Women

On the street, Malika El Aroud is anonymous in an Islamic black veil covering all but her eyes.

In her living room, Ms. El Aroud, a 48-year-old Belgian, wears the ordinary look of middle age: a plain black T-shirt and pants and curly brown hair. The only adornment is a pair of powder-blue slippers monogrammed in gold with the letters SEXY.

But it is on the Internet where Ms. El Aroud has distinguished herself. Writing in French under the name “Oum Obeyda,” she has transformed herself into one of the most prominent Internet jihadists in Europe.

She calls herself a female holy warrior for Al Qaeda. She insists that she does not disseminate instructions on bomb-making and has no intention of taking up arms herself. Rather, she bullies Muslim men to go and fight and rallies women to join the cause.

“It’s not my role to set off bombs — that’s ridiculous,” she said in a rare interview. “I have a weapon. It’s to write. It’s to speak out. That’s my jihad. You can do many things with words. Writing is also a bomb.”

Ms. El Aroud has not only made a name for herself among devotees of radical forums where she broadcasts her message of hatred toward the West. She also is well known to intelligence officials throughout Europe as simply “Malika” — an Islamist who is at the forefront of the movement by women to take a larger role in the male-dominated global jihad.

The authorities have noted an increase in suicide bombings carried out by women — the American military reports that 18 women have conducted suicide missions in Iraq so far this year, compared with 8 all of last year — but they say there is also a less violent yet potentially more insidious army of women organizers, proselytizers, teachers, translators and fund-raisers, who either join their husbands in the fight or step into the breach as men are jailed or killed.

“Women are coming of age in jihad and are entering a world once reserved for men,” said Claude Moniquet, president of the Brussels-based European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center. “Malika is a role model, an icon who is bold enough to identify herself. She plays a very important strategic role as a source of inspiration. She’s very clever — and extremely dangerous.”

Ms. El Aroud began her rise to prominence because of a man in her life. Two days before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, her husband carried out a bombing in Afghanistan that killed the anti-Taliban resistance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud at the behest of Osama bin Laden. Her husband was killed, and she took to the Internet as the widow of a martyr.

She remarried, and in 2007 she and her new husband were convicted in Switzerland for operating pro-Qaeda Web sites. Now, according to the Belgium authorities, she is a suspect in what the authorities say they believe is a plot to carry out attacks in Belgium.

“Vietnam is nothing compared to what awaits you on our lands,” she wrote to a supposed Western audience in March about wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Ask your mothers, your wives to order your coffins.” To her followers she added: “Victory is appearing on the horizon, my brothers and sisters. Let’s intensify our prayers.”

Her prolific writing and presence in chat rooms, coupled with her background, makes her a magnet for praise and sympathy. “Sister Oum Obeyda is virtuous among the virtuous; her life is dedicated to the good on this earth,” a man named Juba wrote late last year. [Link]

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Teachers say no hate crime

The teachers who lead three culturally based clubs at Hightstown High School are convinced that the burning of a Sikh student’s turban earlier this month was not a hate crime.

Wilson Hernandez, faculty advisor for the Adelante Club and Jewish Student Union, and Marilyn Jose, faculty advisor for the South Asian American Club, said Wednesday that the consensus throughout the school is the victim was not targeted for his religious beliefs.

On May 5, Garrett Green, 18, a senior at the high school, was charged by borough police with arson and criminal mischief for allegedly lighting a 16-year-old’s turban on fire with a cigarette lighter during a fire drill. On May 14, just before Mr. Green’s arraignment in Municipal Court, police added charges of bias intimidation and aggravated assault.

”When this student was flicking his cigarette lighter all over the place it was nothing more than a lack of impulse control,” Ms. Jose, who did not witness the incident, said. “None of us believe it was a hate crime, especially the kids.” [Link]

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Author discusses hate crime documentary



Divided We Fall, a documentary about the hate crimes committed against Muslims, Sikh Indians and others mistaken as Muslim, makes its statewide premier 7 tonight at Ohio University’s Baker Center Theatre. Valarie Kaur, a third-generation Sikh American who wrote and co-produced the film after a turbaned man was murdered in her town, will answer questions after the screening. She spoke with The Post’s Ashley Luthern about making Divided We Fall, and exploring race, religion and identity in times of national crisis.

The Post: What was the basis for your film’s title, Divided We Fall?

Valarie Kaur: In the aftermath of 9/11, I saw so many bumper stickers that said United We Stand, and it seemed to me that we forgot the second part of the saying, “divided we fall.”… In order to become fully united, we had to face the ways in which we’ve been divided.

Post: You are proud of your Sikh heritage and identify as an American. When you were filming, how did you feel and react when you experienced hate first hand?

Kaur: Well, it’s quite a way to come of age. It was the first time that I had seen myself as a foreign un-American. I realized I had to fight to be seen and understood. It was painful, emotionally traumatizing and I’d have nightmares. But what was happening wasn’t happening to just my community, but to Southeast Asians and Latinos, anyone who had brown skin or a beard. It had happened to Japanese Americans in WWII, and the Chinese Americans who were mistaken for Japanese. Every singe community in the U.S. at some time has been seen as outsiders….

Post: Are the people you interviewed in the film, and others around the nation, still experiencing the effects of the mentality of a post-9/11 national consciousness?

Kaur: Absolutely. The immediate numbers of hate crimes decreased in the months after 9/11, but what’s happened is a cultural shift into subtle, every-day prejudices against Muslims and those who look Muslim. For example, teachers don’t stop kids from calling other kids “terrorist,” but to us, it’s like our n-word. The task now is to decrease the number of those subtle acts of discrimination that never get reported as hate crimes.

Post: How has making this film turned into your quest for self-identity?

Kaur: Before making the film, during my childhood and teenage years, I hated the in-between space. I wanted to be fully accepted as white and Christian, or fully accepted as Indian. I wanted to belong like every kid. Through this journey, I’ve come to discover that this in-between space is one of tremendous strength, and if I owned the space I could speak truth. I realize the storytellers in our communities are the ones who are in-between. It’s given me tremendous courage to live own moral compass. [Link]

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Queens Leader Helps Growing Sikh Community

It's not uncommon to see Harpreet Singh Toor in the middle of community discussions in Richmond Hill. He's one of the visible leaders in the Sikh community and when there's a problem, many people turn to him.

"It could be their kids getting in trouble in school, or parent teacher meeting where the parents cannot communicate they need me to talk to the teacher," said Toor....

Then, after the September 11th terrorist attacks, Toor was able to help many in his community when a number of Sikhs were assaulted after being mistaken for Muslims.

"He helped us go to precinct, go to hospital," said local resident Bhupinder Singh Atwal.

After going to the authorities, Toor then used the media attention to make New Yorkers aware of the Sikh religion.

"Harpreet is very famous and he's an intelligent organizer of our community," said resident Gurmit Singh Sandal.

The organizer says as the community continues to grow, so will his efforts. [Link]

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Independent Lens: A Dream in Doubt

“In America, there’s a lot of opportunity.” Seeking just that, in 1985, the five Sodhi brothers began emigrating from India, each establishing his own life, career, and family. On September 11, their lives, like so many in their adopted country, changed forever. But even as the Sodhis were, like other Americans, feeling afraid and anxious after the attacks, they were also feeling targeted—and not by Muslim terrorists.

The first few moments of A Dream in Doubt show why, in menacing graffiti ("Kill Muslims 9/11") and TV reports that underlined the “difference” embodied by the bearded and turbaned Osama bin Laden. Though Rana Sodhi and his brothers are Sikh, and had in fact left Punjab in order to escape persecution, they were now affiliated in unknowing, fearful minds with the “terrorists.” A series of photos reveals the effects on men wearing turbans, their faces smashed and broken, now become evidence in crimes that may or may not be solved. On 15 September 2001, Rana’s oldest brother Balbir was shot and killed in Mesa, Arizona. Rana’s nine-year-old son Satpreet describes what happened: “My uncle was talking to some people at his gas station, some man came up and shot him.”

While Satpreet expresses a child’s grief and wonder at what’s happened, the adults around him, primarily Rana, struggle what it means to live in America. Though the family came to the States in search of the usual celebrated freedoms—of religion, mobility, ambition, and community—here they were confronting violent persecution premised on fear, ignorance, and racism. The disappointment is almost unspeakable, though Rana’s brother Harjit makes this effort, in fractured yet utterly coherent English: “Our second heaven was here in America, It’s so neat and clean, a place people respect human, they love each other.”

Airing on PBS’ Independent Lens at 10pm on 20 May, A Dream in Doubt observes this struggle as it becomes increasingly complicated. It turns out that the suspect in Balbir’s murder, Frank Roque, proceeded after that shooting to shoot at two other targets, a gas station owned by Lebanese Americans and a home owned by Afghan Americans. Though he did not kill anyone else, the shell casings and descriptions of his car help detectives identify him.

Difficulties ensue. First, another one of the Sodhi brothers, this one a cab driver in San Francisco, is shot and dies in a horrific car wreck. Though investigators there doubt that Sukhpal was a hate crime victim (instead, they decide, he was caught in the way of a “regular” gang fight), the Sodhis must still figure what to make of the concept of “American justice.” They never complain, but the film lays out by understated observation (including local news reports and courtroom footage) the difficulties of the legal case against Roque. Though his shooting spree was preceded by declarations of his intent to “shoot some towelheads,” the case is prolonged as he pleads insanity. Coworkers describe him as a “ticking time bomb” and his own attorney notes that for years Roque’s “mental illness… was just bubbling beneath the surface of his being,” while he ought to “treat it with a daily six pack of beer.” But even as Roque suggests that his attack was a function of too much TV (specifically, too much coverage of the Towers falling on September 11), the Sodhi family and other Sikhs face a daunting lack of coverage and communication. Though the police encourage them to call whenever they feel threatened, one especially long night of repeated phone calls reveals that dialing 911 doesn’t always produce desired results.

Sikh community members hold meetings and join with the Anti Defamation League to march in unity. “Racism, bigotry,” says Phoenix regional ADL director Bill Strauss, “It’s a disease that is always looking for an opening, it’s a virus that’s always looking for a host.” The demonstration, Rana says, walking in matching t-shirts with his son, will “give the people the real picture of America, when we all togethers, in unity. Different religions, different people when we all get together, the people who are ignorant, they will see what’s America, what’s American people.”

This assessment runs up against images of Roque, his wife (during a police interrogation), his devastated daughter on the stand, and an interview with William Courtney, the bouncer at a bar where Roque and others gathered to declare outrage over 9/11. Courtney’s own appraisal is dismally telling. He recalls that Roque and others in the bar were fired up, that “anybody with a turban on their head was a target, and you find out where the guy’s from and that’d be a little different situation if he’s from the country that got together and did it, that’d be a little different story.” Here the bouncer inserts how he’d handle such a misinterpretation. “I wouldn’t go out there and shoot ‘em,” he says, “I’d go beat the hell out of ‘em, something. But not shoot ‘em and kill ‘em, cause what you gonna do then? You gonna be up the creek without a paddle.”

A Dream in Doubt grants the bouncer his say without overt commentary. But as he appears after Roque’s wife (who remembers her husband being angry at “the Iranians, the ones that wear what you call ‘em, the turbans") and before a sequence showing a 9/11 anniversary on TV. As Rana shakes his head in dismay, President Bush reads, “We remember lives lost, we remember the compassion, the decency of our fellow citizens on that terrible day.” But we do not remember, apparently, the deleterious effects of patriotism, rage, and willful ignorance, the ways that calls for vengeance can incite more aggression, cruelty, and condemnation. The cycle feeds doubts about the dream that the Sodhis so earnestly pursue. [Link]


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Monday, May 19, 2008

Muslim head scarf no threat to Quebec values, report says

The Muslim head scarf is no real threat to Quebec values and most women in the province wear it by choice, not out of coercion. That's what a commission on the integration of immigrants concluded after a year of study costing $5 million.

In the final draft of their report - which was submitted to the provincial government Monday and is expected to be made public at a news conference Thursday - scholars Gerard Bouchard and Charles Taylor say Quebec society will have a lot to lose if it restricts the wearing of the Muslim head scarf strictly to the home and outdoors. [Link]

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Film Revisits Killing Of Ariz.Sikh

When filmmaker Tami Yeager set out to make a documentary about a surge in hate crimes following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she envisioned a movie that would reflect her shock and shame.

That was before the director met Rana Singh Sodhi, whose brother was fatally shot on Sept. 15, 2001, by a man who thought Balbir Singh Sodhi -- a Sikh who wore a turban as part of his faith -- was of Middle Eastern origin.

"I thought I'd make a film primarily focused on hate crimes," Yeager said. "It wasn't my agenda to go out and make a film really emphasizing the American dream. But of the things I learned from Rana, for the first time in my life, I really understood what it meant to be American."

Rana Sodhi's utterly upbeat, patriotic attitude is at the heart of Yeager's film, "A Dream in Doubt," which will air nationwide May 20 as part of the PBS series "Independent Lens."

The film cuts between interviews and footage of Rana Sodhi and his family and news headlines and audio of 911 calls that recall the racially charged atmosphere in the months after Sept. 11. The result is a portrait of a hardworking family man attempting to live his own American dream amid extraordinary chaos.

At the time, Balbir Sodhi's shooting in the parking lot of his Mesa gas station sparked sympathy and outrage worldwide. In his native India, the prime minister put in a call to President Bush. Nearly 3,000 people of all different backgrounds mourned him at a public service in Phoenix. Some called Sodhi the final victim of Sept. 11.

The film also shows the stress brought on by the 2003 trial of the gunman, Frank Roque, as well as the death of another Sodhi brother who was randomly shot in 2002 while driving a cab in San Francisco.

Yeager spent more than three years filming the family off and on, interviewing authorities and poring over evidence from Roque's trial. She essentially became another member of the household. In the five years she's known Sodhi, the director-producer said she's still struck by how unwavering Sodhi is in his faith in American culture.

"I think I take my rights for granted," Yeager said. "Of course, I also understood how many inequities there are in this country, but what I learned from Rana, when putting it in perspective elsewhere, is this country is still heaven on Earth. Really, the answer (to why he feels that way) is because he got justice."

Sodhi said he was extremely touched by how public officials denounced his brother's killing and prosecuted Roque -- now serving a life sentence.

"That gave us so much comfort. You are in good hands and you are protected where you are," Sodhi said. "The government and law enforcement, they will punish those people."

The Sodhi family's ordeal came to Yeager's attention through the film's co-producer, Preetmohan Singh, who is also Sikh. In 2002, Singh was tracking hate crimes for the Sikh American Legal Defense & Education Fund in Washington, D.C. Already friends, he and Yeager had previously worked together on an educational DVD on the Sikh community.

Preetmohan Singh believes many hate crimes fell off the radar in the wake of other Sept. 11 news stories.

"Nobody connected the dots to say 'Wow, these communities feel like they're under siege in their own country.' That's the story we feel really hasn't been told," Singh said. "Now six, seven years after 9/11, there's a little more distance. Viewers are able to appreciate what happened because it's not so raw anymore."

Yeager said she was surprised at how quickly Rana Sodhi took to the idea. For Sodhi, who runs his own Indian restaurant in Mesa, the opportunity to give viewers a glimpse into the Sikh community was too important to pass up.

"Most Americans don't know about Sikhs. They always think turban people belong to terrorist organizations. That's the only thing they know," Sodhi said. "I'm really surprised the lack of education (about Sikhs) is very poor here."

Much of the film's funding came from Independent Television Service, which produces many "Independent Lens" programs. The company had been wanting to make a piece about hate crimes, said Lois Vossen, an "Independent Lens" series producer. They encouraged Yeager to follow her instincts and make Sodhi the central character.

"To find someone like Rana who's so incredibly positive and forward-thinking about renewal as opposed to bitterness, especially juxtaposed with this incredible footage with the man who murdered his brother with such vitriol and hatred ... it's just mind-blowing," Vossen said. "That's clearly the story we wanted to share."

Since the documentary has been screened in several major cities, Sodhi has been an ambassador of sorts for the Sikh community. He and Yeager have spoken at several screenings, including one at Slamdance in Park City, Utah.

About 300 people attended a screening in April at Scottsdale Community College. It was put on by the Anti-Defamation League and the Phoenix chapter of Make A Difference, a national community service nonprofit.

Rhonda Oliver, CEO and president of Make A Difference, Phoenix, praised the film as a way to initiate a dialogue. She said it was also moving to see Sodhi reaching out to others.

"He was very demure. He strikes an interesting balance between somebody who doesn't like being the center of attention but feels it's important," Oliver said.

Ironically, Sodhi and Balbir had been planning to call media the weekend after Sept. 11 to discuss Sikhism in the hopes of educating the public. But then Balbir was shot.

Sodhi is positive his brother would have loved the movie and what it is trying to promote. "'I think that it's a wonderful idea.' He would say that," Sodhi said.

Yeager hopes the film's portrayal of Sodhi will demonstrate how reactions to hate crimes are as important as preventing them. [Link]

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DNSI Welcomes its 2008 Summer Fellows

We are very pleased to announce that Sarah Mazzochi and Randa Zakhour will be joining us this summer as fellows. Their biographies are as follows:

Sarah Mazzochi
Sarah Mazzochi graduated from Brown University with a degree in History in 2006. She currently attends Roger Williams University School of Law and will graduate in May, 2010. As an undergrad, she was a Transfer Student Counselor and Orientation Leader as well as Vice President of her sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta.

While in law school, Sarah serves as the current President of Law Students for Reproductive Justice, Vice President of the American Civil Liberties Union and is a board member for the American Constitution Society. During the Spring semester alone, the ACLU has started work on a prisoner’s rights handbook, brought a debate on the Second Amendment to campus, sponsored a “movie night” with the law school deans on civil liberty issues, brought a state representative to address probation reform in Rhode Island and had an immigration law attorney speak to the student body. She also recently competed in the school wide 1L Moot Court Competition where she was a semifinalist. While taking a year off between undergrad and law school, Sarah was a Reference Librarian in south Florida.

Randa Zakhour
Randa Zakhour is currently a law student at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia. Randa graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2007, where she received her bachelor degree in Advertising with a minor in Business Administration. In college, she was involved with the Student Advertising Federation, where she served as secretary and trip coordinator, and the Golden Key International Honor Society, where she was public relations chair person. Randa also was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society.

Randa receives her love for learning from her parents, who are both educators. The daughter of an Italian-American mother and a Syrian father, Randa has been able to experience diversity within her own family. Randa thrives on diversity and enjoys learning about other people’s view points on matters.

In law school Randa is involved in the International Law Society, Alternative Dispute Resolution Board, and the Student Intellectual Property Law Association. She is currently the events co-chair of the Student Intellectual Property Law Association. She also plans to pursue a career in Intellectual Property upon graduation.

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Hasan Elahi

After being accused of terrorist activities, Hasan Elahi decided to create a website documenting his daily activities.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Intel agencies seek help recruiting new immigrants

The U.S. is its own worst enemy when it comes to the desperately important task of recruiting immigrants as spies, analysts and translators in the war on terror, new Americans are telling intelligence officials....

The government's policies raise suspicions and fear in the immigrants' home countries and disturb potential recruits here who might otherwise want to help. Some U.S. policies after the 9/11 terrorist attacks made things worse, said Kareem Shora, of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

"The policy missteps and mistakes tended to alienate the very community they are now trying to approach and work with," Shora said. "The NSA wiretapping, rendition, waterboarding, linking the war in Iraq with the issue of radicalization and the terrorism threat. ... What I ask is that at some point that these conversations address these hard issues."

Even the Japanese-American experience of World War II haunts this conference. Larry Shinagawa, of the University of Maryland's Asian American studies program, said immigrant groups have reason to be suspicious of the government's sudden interest. The government admitted in 2000 after years of denials that census records were used to track down Japanese-Americans by name and address for imprisonment in internment camps during the war.

One major need now is for people who can speak the languages most needed in the anti-terror fight. The children of immigrants, even if they don't grow up speaking their parents' language, can learn it to the required level of proficiency in 16 weeks. It takes people without that cultural heritage about 63 weeks, according to Jean AbiNader, a government cultural trainer with IdeaCom. Inc.

And then there are cultural matters as well. Immigrants and their children don't need to learn these things; they can teach them.

The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI are collaborating on a summer internship program to begin to tap that expertise. Twenty college students are coming to Washington, D.C. for 10 weeks. They will get free Arabic classes in the morning at George Washington University and spend the afternoons working in the agencies' intelligence offices.

"We need these people, their expertise, their understanding of culture, of language. We don't have it today and it is a great deficiency," said Charles Allen, a long time CIA officer who is now the Homeland Security Department's intelligence chief. "This will be an enormous augmentation."

U.S. policies have until recently forbidden recruitment of first-generation Americans who have direct family ties abroad, a practice that began after World War II, despite the fact that many code breakers in that conflict were not born in America, said National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell.

New rules drop that obstacle, he said. Still, the security clearance process can take 12 to 18 months for a citizen without close ties abroad. It can go on for years for children of recent immigrants. McConnell wants to shorten that to 60 days. [Link]

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The federal government has settled its lawsuit against Norwegian Cruise Line on behalf of six men working aboard a cruise ship in Hawaii who were fired apparently because their ethnicity gave rise to suspicions that they were terrorists.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said Thursday that the lawsuit, filed in August 2006, was settled for $485,000, with the money being divided among a total of seven employees who previously worked on board NCL's "Pride of Aloha" cruise ship.

The six men, who are Muslim, were fired from their jobs in July 2004 when the cruise ship was docked at Maui. A seventh crew member quit the next day for fear of also being fired.

"We are very pleased with this outcome and NCL America should be applauded for its commitment to prevent discrimination by agreeing to the comprehensive injunctive relief in this case," said Anna Y. Park, regional attorney for the EEOC's Los Angeles District Office, which includes Hawaii, in a prepared statement.

As part of the two-year consent decree resolving the case, the Miami-based NCL America agrees to pay the crew members a total of $485,000 but denies that it acted improperly against them. NCL also agrees to revise its policies to ensure a workplace that promotes equal employment opportunity, to hire an equal employment consultant and to provide training to its managers and employees on the company's equal employment policy and complaint procedure.

The lawsuit is the first case in Hawaii of what is sometimes known as "9/11 backlash," where employees with Middle Eastern ethnic backgrounds are discriminated against as a result of suspicion and paranoia among employers. The EEOC said the men were fired en masse with no reason given and NCL violated their civil rights.

The incident that triggered the firings occurred when one of the Muslim men asked another crew member about the location of the ship's security office, engine room and bridge. The crew member notified ship's security and NCL contacted federal authorities to investigate whether the man, as well as six other crew members who were Muslims, posed a threat. [Link]

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Man stopped from boarding plane with knife

A man with a knife while trying to board a Boston-bound airliner at Syracuse Hancock International Airport was detained before the knife was taken and he was allowed to go, Syracuse police said.

Gurnam S. Virk, 55, of Merrimack, NH., had a four-inch lock-blade knife under his shirt, police said. Virk told police he is a member of the Sikh religion and he carries the knife as part of his religion, police said. He had forgotten he had the knife on him, he told police.

Virk . . . was not charged and was given a receipt for the knife when police confirmed his story. [Link]

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Editorial: Sikh group has point about SFO screening

A NATIONAL CIVIL rights organization named the Sikh Coalition has a big problem with security screeners at San Francisco International Airport. The group recently released a report that says SFO is a "worst-case scenario" for turbaned Sikh travelers, claiming this group of passengers is subjected unfairly to second screening as an act of profiling that has little to do with preventing terrorism.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a one-sided view of how federal security screeners — and not airport employees — are conducting themselves. But there are some disturbing facts emerging that lead us to believe there is something amiss here.

The coalition says that it found 80 of 113 airport screening complaints involved additional searches, and 28 of those 80 took place at SFO.

The Transportation Security Administration altered its approach toward travelers wearing turbans. There was a time when Sikh passengers were forced to remove their turbans; the headgear is an article of faith only to be removed in the home and in private. To Sikhs, that's similar to strip searching.

The TSA backed off and travelers wearing turbans were searched only if they failed to clear metal detectors or other preliminary checks.

Since October, the TSA gave screeners discretion on when to further search travelers wearing bulky headgear, taking into consideration things such as action suspicious and travel itinerary. The coalition claims SFO security staff viewed the new guidelines as a mandate, meaning anyone with a turban that looks funny is subject to more screening.

TSA spokesman Nico Melendez claims the high number of complaints at SFO reflect the fact more passengers arrive from India to SFO than any other domestic airport. But later he claims that metal detectors and wands cannot filter out all weapons, such as plastic explosives. He said it's critical to "keep a step ahead" of terrorists.

This kind of mentality is disturbing. With that approach, why don't we second-screen everyone if metal detectors aren't picking up everything?

There's a good chance that once again civil rights are being threatened by paranoid airport security screeners who see a terrorist under every turban.

The truth is that it is impossible, given current technology, to filter out everyone. If there is probable cause for additional searching, that's one thing, but to arbitrarily pull people over for what they wear or what they look like is unacceptable.

We suggest the TSA and Federal Aviation Administration investigate how SFO screeners are conducting themselves, perhaps even an independent probe, and if there's unnecessary screening, it must be eliminated.

Look at other major airports and how they screen without complaints, perhaps there are some good models across the country that SFO can pattern itself after.

We understand this is one coalition's complaint, but it appears to have merit. We hear enough alarms to know an investigation is warranted and a change of policy is needed. [Link]

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Borough teen faces bias charge

A Hightstown High School senior accused of lighting a fellow student’s turban on fire was charged with a hate crime during his arraignment in municipal court Wednesday evening.

The accused, Garrett Green of Hightstown, is the 18-year-old adopted son of Peddie Head of School John Green, who declined comment Thursday.

Judge Gregory Williams entered not-guilty pleas on Garrett Green’s behalf for charges of bias intimidation and aggravated assault in addition to earlier charges of arson and criminal mischief, which were reported in last week’s edition of the Herald.

All charges against the 18-year-old, who was released on his own recognizance, will now be presented by the Mercer County prosecutor’s office to a grand jury to determine if he will be indicted.

Hightstown Police Chief James Eufemia explained that the two charges were added Wednesday after the department completed its investigation that day into the May 5 incident in which Mr. Green allegedly used a cigarette lighter to set the victim’s headpiece ablaze.
”The aggravated assault charge was added because the student was set afire and that there was intent to cause serious bodily injury,” he said Thursday. “The bias intimidation was added because a patka, which is a Sikh religious symbol, was set afire.”

The victim, whom police said was not injured in the incident, lives with his uncle, Harjot Pannu, in East Windsor. Mr. Pannu attended Wednesday’s arraignment and said that while he feels Mr. Green is guilty, it’s up to authorities to make that decision.

”If you endanger someone’s life and try to hurt them, then you’re guilty in my mind,” Mr. Pannu said outside the courtroom. “This incident has left a big impression on us.”

When asked how his 16-year-old nephew is coping with the assault, Mr. Pannu added the boy is “angry.”

”It can be mentally damaging. He’s shocked about what happened,” he said.

East Windsor Regional School District Superintendent Ron Bolandi said this week that the victim returned to school immediately after the incident took place and that students and staff are “embracing” him.

”He had to go back to school. He has exams,” Mr. Pannu said. “He’s got no other option.”

Mr. Green attended the arraignment with his mother and his West Trenton based attorney, Scott Krasny.

None of the three would comment after the arraignment.

Mr. Bolandi said the district’s investigation did not indicate a hate crime had been committed (see related story on 1A) but the district dismissed him permanently from school.

A source close to the situation told the Herald that Garrett Green is a special education student with emotional issues.

On Tuesday, Mr. Bolandi said he felt law enforcement officials were being pressured to file such a charge. And later that day Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande, R-12, notified the media that she had made a request to the Mercer County prosecutor’s office that a bias crime charge be filed. A spokeswoman for the prosecutor said later that day that her office eventually would review the case, but that had not taken place before the arraignment.

Thursday morning, Chief Eufemia said, “This department was not under pressure by anyone. We investigate every incident, then charge the appropriate offenses, if applicable.”

Mr. Bolandi said Thursday that he was surprised at the hate crime charge.

”The police must have a different threshold than we do,” he said.
”It’s an unfortunate incident,” he continued. “We did the best that we could.”

Mr. Bolandi also said he wished “people understood the entire situation, rather than reacting to it, and lived it and understood Hightstown High School.”

In a reference to people that he said did not include police, he added, “These are outsiders trying to give Hightstown High School a black eye.” [Link]

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Two ferry riders sought by FBI last summer were just tourists

They were software consultants in town for a weeklong business conference — not terrorists planning an attack to cripple the country's largest ferry system.

Last summer, the FBI launched an international search for two men after crew members and riders on a Washington State Ferry reported their unusual behavior — namely that they were taking pictures below deck, in areas that don't hold much interest for most tourists.

A ferry captain snapped their photo, which was passed along to the FBI.

Turns out the men, both citizens of a European Union nation, were captivated by the car-carrying capacity of local ferries.

"Where these gentlemen live, they don't have vehicle ferries. They were fascinated that a ferry could hold that many cars and wanted to show folks back home," FBI Special Agent Robbie Burroughs said Monday.

The FBI's decision to release the photograph to the media last summer was controversial because the men — who were described as Middle Eastern-looking — were not suspected of committing a crime. While law-enforcement officials say they focus on behavior, not ethnicity, local activists say members of the Arab-American community often complain of racial profiling and many are afraid to ride ferries or board planes because of it. [Link]

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SFO targets Sikhs, group says

Prabhjot Singh has flow out of San Francisco International Airport nine times since December. Nine times he was pulled aside for secondary screening of the turban required by his Sikh religion.

"I'm generally the only one subjected to secondary screening," said Singh, a marketing executive for a software company who travels for work. "People are staring, like asking, 'What did this guy do?'"

A civil rights group says targeting passengers like Singh continues at the San Francisco airport, which the group said was the worst in dealing with Sikh passengers. The alleged racial profiling went on despite the Sikh Coalition's work with the Transportation Security Administration and a positive change in the federal guidelines — at least on paper, said Neha Singh, the coalition's advocacy director.

"The issue now is implementation, making sure the policy we worked hard on is being implemented on the ground," said Neha Singh, who is not related to Prabhjot Singh.

Of the 113 voluntary reports by Sikh travelers sent to the advocacy organization between Dec. 1, 2007, and March 31, 2008, 80 were regarding additional screening.

Of those, 28 were at the San Francisco airport, the coalition said.

Sikh Coalition representatives believe that TSA screeners at the San Francisco airport were misinterpreting new rules giving them the discretion to check turbans as mandates to check them every time.

The TSA issued guidelines in August subjecting flyers wearing head coverings — such as cowboy hats, berets and turbans — to secondary screenings at airport checkpoints.

Protests from the Sikh community, which felt unfairly targeted, led to a collaboration between the Sikh Coalition and the TSA and a revision of the rule in October. The new federal guidelines give screeners more discretion, allowing flyers to opt for a pat-down of their headgear and options less intrusive than the removal of a turban — something Sikhs only do in private.

TSA spokesman Nico Melendez said his agency has received less than two dozen complaints relating to secondary screening of Sikh passengers at SFO since October, adding that the standards in San Francisco are the same as in other airports. A spokesman at San Francisco International Airport spokesman referred calls to Melendez.

"A private screening is offered to passengers, but it's about providing security," Melendez said. "We see enough items coming through the checkpoint to know what's common and what's uncommon."

The Sikh Coalition also identified airports whose screeners were praised for their cultural sensitivity — in Los Angeles, Portsmouth, N.H., and St. Augustine, Fla. [Link]

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N.J. student banned in torching of kid's turban

Officials in New Jersey are banning a high school senior from campus after he was charged with setting fire to a fellow student's turban.

Authorities say Garrett Green torched a 16-year-old junior's turban with a cigarette lighter during a fire drill last week. The Sikh student had patches of his hair singed but was not seriously hurt.

Sikhism calls for men to wear their hair long. Many wear turbans. The victim's uncle says he was wearing a smaller version of a turban called a patka.

Green is due in court Wednesday on charges of arson and criminal mischief.

He's banned from Hightstown High School's campus and won't be allowed to attend prom or graduation at the school just east of Trenton. The district will give the 18-year-old home schooling instead. [Link]

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Sikh Student's Turban Set on Fire at School

New Jersey's Sikh community is outraged after a fellow student set fire to the turban worn by the Sikh teenager in an unprovoked attack at school.

The victim, who is a minor and would like to remain anonymous, is one of only two turban-wearing Sikhs attending Hightstown High School in New Jersey. On Monday, May 5, 2008, the school held a fire drill and all students were instructed to gather on the school playground. The Sikh student was chatting to his friends when a student he did not know came up behind him and set fire to his patka using a lighter.

The Sikh student "felt something hot" on his head and immediately patted his patka to put out the flames. Disaster was averted, but a great deal of emotional damage had already been done.

"No mother should have to worry that her child could be hurt at school because of the way he looks," said Sukhjot Kaur, the teenager's mother. [Sikh Coalition Press Release]

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Man charged with making threats to Muslim Woman

The threatening letters arrived throughout 2006 and 2007 at two of Beacon Hill's most popular restaurants. They came with photos of gun-toting men and taunting messages for the owner of both eateries, a successful businesswoman who was born in Iran, came to the United States decades ago, and is an American citizen.
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A photograph of an Israeli soldier brandishing a machine gun was tucked inside one letter, while another contained an image of actor Dustin Hoffman, lifted from the 1976 movie thriller "Marathon Man," pointing a gun directly at the viewer.

"See you at the Taj!" the writer taunted in a letter sent last June, two days before the owner was to present food from her two eateries at Taste of Beacon Hill, a local restaurant fair hosted by the Taj Boston Hotel.

After months of investigation, the FBI announced yesterday that agents had arrested 65-year-old real estate broker Earl F. McBride Jr., who lives in a Bowdoin Street boarding house just a few blocks from the restaurants.

He's charged in a one-count federal indictment with mailing a series of threatening communications to the restaurant owner, beginning in November 2006.

"The reason the FBI takes this case so seriously is we do look on it as a potential hate crime," said Warren T. Bamford, special agent in charge of the FBI's Boston office, adding that investigators believe McBride targeted the restaurant owner because she is a Muslim.

"We're still trying to determine what [McBride's] motive and thought process was," Bamford said.

The restaurant owner, who is identified in the indictment only by her initials, does not know McBride, according to the FBI. She declined to comment about the case yesterday and asked the Globe not to name her.

"She's a hard-working, loyal American citizen who has been threatened for no reason other than her ethnic background," said Assistant US Attorney Brian T. Kelly, following a bail hearing for McBride yesterday in US District Court.

Initially, McBride was given a federal defender, who is paid by the government to represent defendants who cannot afford to hire their own lawyers.

But that quickly changed when Kelly told the court that when McBride was arrested yesterday morning he had a bank receipt in his pocket that indicated he had $90,000 in an account.

"I know based on this bank account he's not eligible for court-appointed counsel," said US Magistrate Judge Timothy S. Hillman, who instructed McBride to hire his own lawyer. An arraignment was sceheduled for May 22.

The magistrate released McBride on a $20,000 unsecured bond and ordered him to stay away from the two restaurants, all of their employees, and potential victims or witnesses in the case.

Dressed all in black - turtleneck sweater, dress slacks, and boots - McBride declined to comment as he left the courthouse after signing bond papers, saying he had been advised by his lawyer not to discuss the case.

The first threatening letter arrived at one of the woman's restaurants in November 2006, shortly after it opened. Then, according to the indictment, more letters soon arrived at the owner's other restaurant.

"It's an indication that this can happen anywhere, in suburbs and in affluent sections," Bamford said.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, there was a spike in hate crimes against American Muslims for several years, according to Bamford.

While the number of such crimes has since dwindled, Bamford said they still happen, prompting the FBI to constantly do outreach in the American Muslim community so victims will come forward and report attacks or harassment. "We still continue to look at hate crimes as extremely serious cases," he said. [Link]

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TSA to Allow for Flexibility in Traveler Identity

[T]he Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) [have announced a new program] designed to ensure that innocent airline passengers are not mistaken for individuals on government watch lists due to similar names.

A number of travelers have been falsely identified to be on a watch list and required to check-in at the ticket counter, facing increased delays and questioning before being permitted to continue the check-in process. As a result of intense lobbying by national organizations including SALDEF, DHS implemented the Travelers Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP) to allow passengers an avenue to clear their name from these lists. Unfortunately, these lists are often not feeding information to the airline’s airport self check-in kiosks. [SALDEF Press Release]

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The Discrimination & National Security Initiative (DNSI) is a research entity that examines the mistreatment of minority communities during times of military action or national crisis.

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