Brazil arrests: Is Daesh spreading its tentacles?

Some of the suspected terrorists arrested across Brazil.

Some of the suspected terrorists arrested across Brazil.

This column was printed in Arab News on July 24, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The 10 Brazilian supporters of the terror group Daesh, who were arrested on Thursday across Brazil, didn’t seem to be prepared to launch attacks in the country. According to intercepted WhatsApp and Telegram messages sent to each other, the members were planning to take martial arts and shooting classes. One of them inquired online about buying an AK-47 rifle from a shop in Paraguay.

All those arrested appear to be Muslim converts, ranging in age from 20 to 50 years. A few of them knew each other personally, but most of them knew each other only through the Internet. A few of them ran their own blogs online where they praised Daesh and the various terrorist attacks the group claimed responsibility for such as the Orlando and Nice massacres. One of them, Ahmed Andrade Santos Junior, 34, from Joao Pessoa in the state of Paraiba, learned about Islam online and radicalized himself by regularly visiting extremist forums online.

O Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper characterized him as a former Christian who was not at all religious and who used to box. His expounding of extremists ideas got him banned from a local mussala by the imam. He visited Egypt and was photographed there posing next to the flag of Daesh. When he returned to Brazil he openly defended Daesh and its dastardly acts.

Another suspect that was arrested was Vitor Barbosa Magalhaes, 23, of Guarulhos in greater Sao Paulo. He taught himself Arabic online and then got a scholarship to learn Arabic in Cairo for six months in 2009. It is there that he learned more about Islam and converted. His wife said in an interview that she believes him to be innocent and that he is non-violent.

Brazilian authorities are on full security alert ahead of the Rio Olympic Games, which open on Aug. 5. Already 6,000 National Force military troops have been deployed in Rio de Janeiro to ensure the safety of the expected 500,000 athletes and visitors. But many Brazilian commentators have noted that visitors to Rio have more to fear from being robbed or killed by local criminals, rather than be caught in a terror attack.

Brazilian Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes gave several interviews to the press on Thursday stressing the amateurism of the 10 suspects that were arrested, noting that two more suspects were still at large. He added that the deportation last week of the Franco-Algerian physicist Adlene Hicheur, who had been teaching at a university in Rio, but had been previously been sentenced to three years in prison in France in 2009 for allegedly planning terror attacks in France with Al-Qaeda operatives, was part of Brazil’s actions against possible terror threats before the Rio Olympics. The Brazilian Defense Minister Raul Jungmann also downplayed the threat of the arrested suspects, saying that they were “bat-crazy.”

President Michel Temer was reportedly unhappy with the comments of his two ministers. It is clear that Brazil, which has never endured terror attacks before, is being pressured by the United States and France to beef up its security for the Olympics, and to show it is doing something by rounding up Muslim suspects that support Daesh.

“Brazil is being pressured greatly by countries that are really targets and are demanding security guarantees. Brazil does not have expertise, but it’s making an effort. It has done an important monitoring of online chatter on social media,” said Paulo Velasco, a professor and researcher at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in an interview with Estado de Sao Paulo.

But some in the Muslim community here feel that the government is overreacting to please foreign governments and adding fuel to the fire of Islamophobia in Brazil, a largely Catholic nation. “The Muslim community supports the actions of the federal police as long as they are done with transparency and proof,” said Jihad Hammadeh, the president of the National Union of Islamic Entities in Sao Paulo.

“There is a growing Islamophobia, principally on the part of entities that should bring security to society,” warned Hammadeh, who is also an imam. “The National Union of Islamic Entities manifests its profound preoccupation with the recent events and reports that Brazilian citizens are associated with terrorism in Brazil. At the same time, we vehemently support the actions of the federal police for the investigation of these facts, but with concrete evidence and much transparency so that no injustice and persecution occurs against any citizen or group,” he stressed in a statement.

Hammadeh warned that the sensational fashion in which the arrests of the 10 suspects was being reported by some media outlets in Brazil is bringing terror to the population at large and discrimination to Muslims. Unfortunately this is true. Even the big media here treats the whole issue in a sensational way.

The 10 suspects are being held initially for a 30-day period. If authorities are unable to prove any of the more serious terror charges against them, they will be released and could be made to wear electronic bracelets to monitor their movements and banned from approaching certain public sites such as sensitive government buildings, military installations and stadiums.

I understand the worry of the Brazilian government to nip any potential terror threat in the bud before any attacks take place. Despite the comments of the two ministers stressing how amateurish the 10 suspects had been, one can never be too safe, as we have seen from the Orlando and Nice attacks that were undertaken by lone wolves that had slid below the radar.

The problem is that the Brazilian population at large still does not know enough about the real Islam, and therefore ends up believing that all Muslims are bloodthirsty terrorists. This is some of the real damage that Daesh is doing to the image and reputation of Muslims worldwide — damage that will take a long time to repair.

http://www.arabnews.com/node/958671/columns

Nice attack: Not in our name

NICE, FRANCE - JULY 15: Forensic police investigate a truck at the scene of a terror attack on the Promenade des Anglais on July 15, 2016 in Nice, France. A French-Tunisian attacker killed 84 people as he drove a truck through crowds, gathered to watch a firework display during Bastille Day celebrations. The attacker then opened fire on people in the crowd before being shot dead by police. (Photo by Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images)

Forensic police examine on July 15, 2016, the truck used by a terrorist to kill people on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France.

This column appeared in Arab News on July 17, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The horrific attack in Nice, France, on Friday in which more than 80 people were killed, and more than 200 injured, after a terrorist drove a truck through Bastille Day crowds, sweeping right and left to hit more victims, has left the whole world in shock.

The driver of the truck has been identified as 31-year-old Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhel, a deliveryman of Tunisian origin and a Nice resident. He was married, had children, and had moved to France in the 2000s and eventually received French nationality. His Arab and Muslim roots have already triggered rabid right-wing extremists across the globe, who are calling for an all-out war on what they call “Islamic extremism.”

In the US, former speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich declared that all Muslims living in America who believe in Shariah should be thrown out. In France, far-right politician Marine La Pen called for a declaration of war against “radical Islam.”

The Kingdom condemned the attack and Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman; Crown Prince Mohammad bin Naif and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent a cable of condolence to French President Francois Hollande. The Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Iyad Madani, said the “perpetrator and those behind him are an affront to humanity and all moral and human values.”

In especially poignant words, the General Secretariat of the Council of Senior Scholars said, “Islam magnifies the sanctity of human blood and criminalizes terrorism that kills and terrorizes innocent people in their homes, markets and facilities teeming with men, women and children, and that all humanity rejects and condemns it.”

We have to realize that the terrorist groups Daesh and Al-Qaeda are both nihilistic movements, virtual cults, where young men are brainwashed into believing that in attacking innocent civilians they are somehow defending and even ennobling Islam. But how can that be? Since when is killing defenseless people a noble act, either in Islam or any other religion? This killing can never be justified or accepted.

Unfortunately, our enemies use the actions of a few extremists that call themselves Muslims, and paint our whole religion and culture as being one of death, backwardness, violence and barbarity.

France has the largest Muslim population in Europe — roughly nine percent of its population is Muslim. Most of these Muslims are immigrants from its former colonies in Africa, or the descendants of the first wave of immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s that came to France to fill the need for low-cost labor. Unfortunately, unlike the United Kingdom and North America, where Muslim immigrants have been better integrated into local society, French Muslims have largely been marginalized and never fully integrated into French society.

This is providing fertile recruiting grounds for groups like Daesh. Already France has suffered two major terrorist attacks since January 2015, first on the Charlie-Hebdo offices in Paris and then in November 2015 on multiple targets across the French capital and now this third attack in Nice.

No wonder the right-wing Front Nationale must be looking more and more attractive to some French citizens who are terrified and worried that more attacks are coming. Being a democracy, France obviously faces the need of tightening security without running roughshod over its citizens’ civil liberties, whether they be Muslim or not. Security had already been extra tight for the Euro Cup finals in Paris last week, but there is a limit to what any government can do to prevent terror attacks short of putting all potential suspects into concentration camps. The Nice attacker was not known to be particularly religious, but did have a criminal record for petty crimes such as robbery and violence. Security experts and government officials admit that it is impossible to track every single suspect 24-hours a day. Countries have to decide how to intelligently deploy their security resources, and sadly many times they are unable to stop bloody attacks.

The sad fact remains that the majority of the victims of Daesh and Al-Qaeda are Muslims themselves. But we should be very alarmed at their attacks in the West because this is stoking anti-Muslim sentiments across the globe. And these sentiments breed hatred of Arabs, Islam and of people and cultures that are different from western, Christian ones. We have already experienced the extremely bloody Crusades between the 11th and 15th centuries. We don’t ever have to experience that again, and we certainly do not want a Crusade in reverse, by attacking soft targets in Europe.

If these radicalized Muslim immigrants in Europe are so disgusted and upset at living there they should immigrate back to Muslim-majority countries. Killing innocent civilians, especially children, is not the answer today and never shall be, to the grievances that the twisted minds of these terrorists may think they have.

http://www.arabnews.com/node/954941/columns

Absurd criticism of Islam

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

This column was printed in Arab News on Dec. 27, 2015:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

With the recent bloody attacks in Paris and San Bernardino by terrorists claiming to be doing these in the name of Islam, discrimination against Muslims has grown worldwide.
They are targeted by these new critics, many of them American, well-educated and from the middle of the political spectrum — who reacting with horror to the violence — will say the most absurd things. “Islam is a violent religion” and “Islam needs reform to become more liberal,” are two of the most frequent accusations thrown at our religion.

And we also have the demagogue Donald Trump, the American billionaire entrepreneur and Republican presidential candidate in next year’s elections. He has a long history of saying absurd and xenophobic things from calling all the illegal immigrants from Mexico criminals and rapists, to saying in a recent speech that President Barack Obama should bar the entry of Muslims into the United States until the government finds a way deal with the threat of terrorism.

This preposterous statement brought back memories of the detention camps during the World War II into which Americans of Japanese origin were forcibly sent, even if they were born in the United States.

That Trump had the courage to say what he did, and most disturbing, that he was not forced to retract his words and apologize, shows that the American public is so afraid of more terrorist attacks happening that they are willing to sacrifice some of their constitutional rights. Not that the American president would have to get permission from Congress to begin such discrimination. The US executive branch has broad jurisdiction over immigration issues, which in theory would leave Obama with the power to stop the entry of foreign Muslims simply by invoking national security. But that would be bad for the freedom of religion and expression enshrined in the US Constitution, and certainly would lead to legal challenges in US courts.

One of the exponents of the concept that Islam is a violent religion is the American writer Sam Harris, who is the darling of late-night talk shows on US television where he spreads his poison. An avowed atheist, Harris is the perfect example of a supposed public intellectual that many liberal and well-educated Americans love to cite as if he were phenomenally wise. He does not speak the truth, so I refuse to listen to anyone who is so hateful of Islam. Unfortunately, a Brazilian friend of mine who I’ve known since we were both 11-years-old, asked me this week what I thought of Harris. He confessed to me that was enjoying more and more of Harris’ online speeches about the alleged “Islamic evil.” I said that Harris was wrong and tarnishing the reputation of Islam.

“But I thought all Islamists were terrorists,” he told me. I was shocked and saddened that this word has been associated only with terrorism by people in the West.

“Of course not! There are moderate Islamists and even democratic ones as those in Tunisia and Egypt,” I replied. But he did not seem convinced.

Another misunderstanding of Islam is that the religion needs a reformation such as the one Christianity underwent in Europe. Islam is an ancient religion, which is over 1,400 years old. In Islam, there are several strands of thought within the two largest branches of Sunni and Shiite followers. Just within the Sunni branch there are five schools of interpretation. Not to mention the Sufis, mystics who use poetry, music and dance to get closer to God.

As the British journalist Mehdi Hassan wrote in The Guardian in May this year, Islam has no clergy, nor a pope, as in Catholicism, for the supposed reformists to rebel against. And he says that Islam does not need to go through the bloody wars that Europe went through for 30 years in the 16th century, in which thousands of people died, only to reach a supposed “reform.” For him, Muslim extremists have to rediscover their heritage of pluralism, tolerance and mutual respect that have always been in Islam, embodied in the letter that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) sent to the monks of the Saint Catherine monastery, and the peaceful coexistence of Catholics, Jews and Muslims in medieval Spain.

The Turkish writer, Mustafa Akyol, recently reminded us of the concept of “Irja” or “postponement” in Islam, which means that we do not have to judge whether people are good Muslims or not, but that we have to leave it up to God to decide in the next life, as He alone can judge us. This is a too liberal concept for the fanatics of Daesh, who want to judge and execute all “unqualified” Muslims here and now.

“The scholars who put forward this concept became known as the “murjia,” or defenders of the trial postponement,” Akyol wrote in his column in the New York Times. He noted that in spite of this school of thought having been dismissed as a heretical sect, hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world still practice the concept. Even in the Gulf and other Arab countries the concept is used and applied regularly.

Islam is a dense, rich and complex religion. It is also full of love, peace, compassion and forgiveness. It is the beautiful side of this religion that is missing in the West’s imagination.

http://www.arabnews.com/news/856271

Repercussions of Paris attacks

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By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The terrorist attacks in Paris are having a backlash on Muslims around the world and a lot of questions have been raised about ways to fight this perversion of a religion that does not endorse attack on defenseless civilians.
The attackers, all of Arab and Muslim descent, were very young, ranging from 20 to 26 years old. All were born in Europe, either France or Belgium. And all were well known to indulge in things like drinking alcohol, going to bars and clubs, selling drugs and involvement in petty crimes. Photos of the terrorist showed them looking like any other young European, wearing jeans, T-shirts, and none of the women covered their hair. A photo released of one of the terrorists, the cousin of the mentor of the attacks Abdelhamid Abaaoud, Hasna Ait Boulahcen, showed her bathing. She was killed when police raided her apartment where she was hiding Abaaoud, who was also killed in the operation.
The question that keeps repeating itself in my mind, is how did all of these young people make the transition from being non-religious to becoming extremists who want to blow up everything in the name of their religion and as revenge for what they see as attacks on Islam and the Arab world, especially the daily bombardment of Syria by France and Russia. Daesh in whose name the attackers in Paris said to have undertaken the attacks, has a very long and powerful reach, recruiting young Muslims in Europe through the Internet. After attracting them, Daesh brings these young people to Syria to be trained and turns them into killing machines.
The question is how to detect and stop this recruitment? Several of those involved in the attacks in Paris had criminal records and were on the radar of the French authorities. Even though they had been questioned returning from training in Syria, the French authorities did not have enough evidence to stop them.
But back to the attacks in Paris, the impact in terms of Islamophobia worldwide has been terrible. US Republicans in Congress managed to pass a new law restricting the number of Syrian refugees that the country could accept. President Barack Obama already said he would veto the law. In Brazil, a new survey has shown that attacks on Muslims in Rio de Janeiro’s streets grew 1,016 percent in one year. Most were verbal attacks on Muslim women wearing the veil. There were 67 cases reported by these women just from January to August this year, with most being called “suicide bomber.” Of course, this aggression against Muslims has been happening for many years, especially after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
It is unfortunate that a group of extremists, like those of Daesh, can cause so much damage against innocent civilians and against Muslims around the world. We need to stop this madness of Daesh, which is not in the least representative of moderate Muslims. The Muslim world should use its vast reserves of moderation to preach the peace in Islam. Western countries in turn cannot fall into the trap of wanting to be suspicious of every Muslim to the point of putting them in detention camps like the Americans did with their citizens of Japanese descent during WWII. I think we have evolved enough to distinguish the good from the bad in any population and religion. Terrorists want the West to mistreat and kill Muslims in acts of revenge for the attacks in Paris. We cannot succumb to it, and we should not give this pleasure to irrational terrorists.

http://www.arabnews.com/news/842656

Gulf calls for film’s ban

Egyptian protesters tear down the US flag at the US Embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11, 2012. (Photo courtesy AFP)

This story appeared in the 20-26 September, 2012 issue of Al-Ahram Weekly

Gulf citizens upset at the US-made film mocking Islam have called for worldwide bans on attacks on Islam and PR campaigns to explain the religion better, reports Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The trailer for the US-made film mocking the Prophet Mohamed, The Innocence of Muslims, has upset Muslims across the Gulf, who have condemned the movie but have also called for a calm and united front in the face of such slanderous attacks and for a worldwide ban on attacks on Islam.

The Saudi grand mufti, Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Ibn Abdallah Al-Sheikh, denounced the attacks on American diplomats and diplomatic missions across the region that have taken place in the wake of the film’s release, saying these were un-Islamic.

“It is forbidden to punish the innocent for the crimes of the guilty, or to attack those who have been granted protection of their lives and property, or to expose public buildings to fire or destruction,” he said in a statement in a clear reference to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which was set ablaze on 11 September leading to the deaths of US ambassador Chris Stevens and three other US staff.

Both the Saudi and the United Arab Emirates governments have condemned the attacks, but they have also criticised the film. ‘Saudi Arabia has expressed its condolences to the United States for the victims of the violent actions in Libya that targeted the American consulate in Benghazi,” reported the Saudi Press Agency. “The kingdom also denounces the irresponsible group that produced the film.”

“I was extremely angered, or rather disgusted, by excerpts from the film. I didn’t think that insolence could push anyone on the face of this earth to be so abusive of God’s messenger and my beloved Prophet Mohamed (PBUH),” wrote Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Al-Hayat daily.

“Nevertheless, I won’t join or support calls for any uncontrolled protests, let alone an attack on an American embassy. On the contrary, because of my fervent commitment to the beloved messenger of Allah and his teachings, I urge all assailants of the foreign embassies and those behind them to be severely punished. We Muslims must have the courage to condemn our people’s crimes before condemning the crimes of our enemies.”

Professor Abdallah Al-Shayji, chair of the political science department at Kuwait University, called for a global ban on attacks on all religions. “The US would do itself, the Muslims and the relationship between the West and Islam a big favour if it addressed the real causes for discontent and grievances among Arabs and Muslims, in order to avoid a real clash of civilisations. The US should be as vocal, resolute and vehement about criminalising those who defame and denigrate faiths and religions, as it is about anti-Semitic expressions,” he wrote in Gulf News.

But many of those interviewed admitted that a ban on blasphemous attacks would be, if not impossible, then very hard to implement and probably not effective.

“A call for a global ban on attacks on Islam is unnecessary,” said Hasnaa Al-Mokhtar, a Saudi journalist. “There is nothing new here. The man who carried the burden of the message was fought, attacked, ridiculed, tortured and went through severe hardships 1,433 years ago. Islamic history is rich with incidents that highlight one major fact: no matter how oppressive or offensive any given situation is, Islam always stands for tolerance and peace.”

“This is an old call made by the mufti and the king four years ago,” said Khashoggi in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. “The king called for a ban on all blasphemous attacks against all religions and not just Islam. But it is very difficult to pass such laws in Europe. It is a philosophical question. Most Muslims did not grow up in democracies and don’t know how to interpret freedom of expression.”

He added that he had searched online for videos criticising Jesus Christ and had found plenty of material.

Saudi commentator Abeer Mishkhas agreed, saying “it’s not possible. You can’t stop everyone from criticising religion. The people in the Gulf region have to accept and understand that the rest of the world is going to criticise us. Protesting is fine as long as it is peaceful. You shouldn’t set buildings on fire, killing diplomats, and then wonder why they call us terrorists.”

Khashoggi believes that Muslim leaders must come out and calm down their populations. “The Tunisian leader came out and explained that the US could not ban the film. President Mursi and our other leaders should come out and say the same thing, even at the risk of being criticised by more extremist elements of being puppets of the US government.”

In his Al-Hayat column, Khashoggi went further and accused Arab leaders of cosying up to extremist elements in the hope of gaining their votes or avoiding their wrath.

Both Mishkhas and Mokhtar believe that the best way to counteract such anti-Islamic films is to launch films and public-relation campaigns that explain and defend Islam and its believers.

“Just try to have a PR campaign,” said Mishkhas. “Israel hired a PR company after the Gaza invasion of 2008-2009, and it got much good publicity out of it. This is what we should be doing.”

“Muslims need to strive to become better human beings morally, ethically, socially, culturally and politically, and fight their egos,” said Mokhtar.

“They need to lead by example. Chaos doesn’t bring about change. A united, productive and intelligent Muslim nation can definitely spread a more positive image of Islam in the world. In this time of social and digital media we need to educate people and raise awareness about the true essence of Islam.”

“One online campaign called ‘Inspired by Mohamed’ (www.inspiredbymuhammad.com) is a brilliant example of a fun website designed to improve the public’s understanding of Islam and Muslims.”

Saudi Arabia bans images of pigs and musical instruments!

I REALLY wasn’t that surprised when I read that the Saudi Ministry of Education had ordered all private schools in the kingdom to erase all images of pigs and musical instruments, but I was saddened. Yet one more news story to further stir anti-Saudi sentiment around the world, I thought to myself.

After living in Saudi Arabia for 20 years and having to work around censorship when I worked as a reporter and editor at Arab News, I was used to having to change JERUSALEM in a dateline to OCCUPIED JERUSALEM and censoring pictures of female celebrities that showed too much skin. We eventually stopped using OCCUPIED JERUSALEM a few years ago and reverted back to just plain JERUSALEM. As for censoring pictures, we went through a period of about four years when our editor in chief was the late Islamist Dr Abdul Qader Tash, who didn’t like to shake the hands of female staff members and insisted we obliterate any hint of cleavage or too much leg of Hollywood stars. That later changed after he left Arab News, with the comeback editor Khaled Al-Maeena telling us if we couldn’t use a risque picture without Photoshopping it to dump it and find another one.
I hardly think that children seeing pictures of pigs will suddenly produce hunger pangs for bacon and sausages. And what is this Wahabi obsession against musical instruments?! You would think they were the Devil incarnate. The truth though is that many, many Saudis love all types of music, and there are many underground (or semi-underground) Saudi bands that play everything from pop-rock to heavy metal.
It is unfortunate that news like this gives the distorted perception that all Saudis are long-bearded religious fanatics, foaming at the mouth at the mere mention of pigs and guitars. Of course, the reality is very different, and Saudi society is much richer and varied than the fanatics would ever want you to believe.

Sayyed Ali al-Amin: No political role for religious leaders

Sheikh Ali al-Amin

The former Shiite Mufti of Tyre (Lebanon) Sayyed Ali al-Amin gave a lecture last night at the Ramadan majlis of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

The theme of his talk, unsurprisingly, was about the need for religious leaders to stay out of positions of political power in Muslim countries. Sheikh Amin has been pressing home this point for many years now, so it is not surprising that he continues to do so, especially with what many Lebanese (of all religious creed) see as the hijacking of Lebanese politics by the Shiite group Hizbullah and its charismatic leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrullah.

No mention of Hizbullah or Nasrullah by name was made by Sheikh Amin, but it was clear to everyone in the audience who he was referring to. “There is no permission for a religious leader to get involved in politics,” said the sheikh.

“We cannot have an imam as a politician,” continued Amin. “None of the prophets took charge of politics.”

Amin also quoted Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin of Prophet Mohammed, as having said: “People need a leader not a scholar. So there is no need for the divine in leadership.”

“I remember from my Najaf school days that Sheikh Ansari was one of the pillars who defended the notion of scholars not having political ambitions whatsoever,” concluded the Shiite leader.

He also spoke about the Welayat al-Fakeeh notion, or a nation ruled by religious scholars, an obvious reference to Iran after the 1979 revolution, and how he was opposed to this.

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