Refugee resettlement – a pressing issue : Policy brief

After a long break – taken for various reasons- as we were restructuring our board, organizing our team, internally; we are back.

This time, with a clearer vision and set of offerings.

Here is our first (of many) policy briefs, addressing a pressing issue of our times.  MENASA – Policy Brief (Refugee Resettlement) February 2016

We welcome your feedback and inputs! Stay tuned.



PARIS–AND THEN? – Guest post by Johan Galtung

What happened–known all over the world–is totally unacceptable and inexcusable. As inexcusable as 9/11, the coming Western attack and the Islamist retaliation, wherever. As inexcusable as the Western coups and mega-violence on Muslim lands since Iran 1953, massacring people as endowed with personality and identity as French cartoonists. But to the West they are not even statistics; “military secrets”.

However, the unacceptable is not unexplainable.

In this tragic saga of West-Islam violence, spiraling downwards, the way out is to identify the conflict, what is this violence about, and search for solutions. I wonder how many now pontificating on Paris–a city so deep in our hearts–have taken the trouble to sit down with someone identified with Al Qaeda, simply asking, “what does the world look like where you would like to live?” I always get the same answer: “a world where Islam is not

trampled upon but respected.”galtung

“Trampled upon” sounds physically violent. But there are two types of direct violence intended to harm, hurt: physical violence with arm-arms-army; and verbal violence, with words, symbols. For instance with cartoons, with a touch of art giving them some impunity; for some. A human being–body, mind, spirit–can be hit somatically, mentally, spiritually. Maybe symbolic violence even hits more deeply?

The naivete in blaming the secret police for not having uncovered the brothers in time is crying to the heavens. What happened to Charlie Hebdo was as predictable as the reaction to the cartoon in Jyllandsposten, whose cultural editor should save Danish media from the self-censorship he had found in Soviet journalists. But one thing is political criticism of and in the former USSR, quite another is existential stabbing right in the heart of the basis of existence. The French wisely invented the expression raison d’être, the reason for existing, deeply embedded in French culture like satire: listen.

Undermine the spiritual existence of others–like Charlie Hebdo did all over the spiritual world–but there may be reactions to that verbal violence. Some of the others deeply hurt by Charlie Hebdo and its cultural autism, sitting in some office sending poisoned arrows anywhere, may celebrate the atrocity; inside themselves, not publicly.

The West has one presumably killing argument in favor of verbal violence for spiritual killing: freedom of expression. A wonderful freedom, deeply appreciated by those who have something to express. And very easily undermined, not by censorship by self or some Other, but by freedom of non-impression, the freedom not to be impressed: let expression happen, let them talk and write but do not listen and read, make them non-persons. Nonetheless, nevertheless a major achievement, of, by and for the West more than elsewhere.

How simple life would be if that freedom were the only norm governing expression! Say or write anything about others as if they were stones, inanimate objects, unimpressed by oral and written expression. But human beings are not. Of course the targets of verbal violence can opt for the freedom of non-impression, shutting themselves off from the perpetrators, neither rad, nor listen. Do we really want that, a society now polarized by cartoons–in those who laugh and enjoy, and those who are hurt, suffering deeply?

We do not, and that is why there is another value, norm, in the land of expression: consideration. Decency. Respect for life. We have libel laws asking not only “is it true?” but “is it relevant?” to cut down nastiness in for instance political “debate”. We rule out hate speech, propaganda for torture, genocide, war, child pornography.  Some people enjoy public sex talk, others do not, that is why we have limitations. Some people unable to argue about issues insult persons instead; that is why they are often–perhaps not often enough–called to order: stick to the issue, where is the beef, the question!

Many, unable to understand or argue with converts to Islam in France overstep norms of decency instead. The easy way out. Should I add “for the feeble-minded”? No, but I do say for the inconsiderate.

Islam retaliated, and in Paris overstepped its own rule about doing so mercifully. No Muslim can retaliate with spiritual killing of Judaism-Christianity since they believe in both as the “incomplete message”. They killed bodies in return for spiritual killing instead.

Incidentally, there is somebody else doing the same: the USA, very attentive to critical words as indicative not only of somebody being anti-American, but even a threat to America, to be eliminated. Could the “freedom of expression” also be a tool to lure, smoke them out in the open, making them available for killing by snipers?

How should the islamic side have handled the issue? The way they tried, and to some extent managed, in Denmark: through dialogue. They should have invited the charlies to private and public dialogues, explaining their side of the cartoon issue, appealing to a common core of humanity in us all. There is no argument against humor and satire as such, but against verbal violence hitting, hurting, harming others.

The islamic side should also control its own recourse to self-defense by violence better: only legitimate if declared by appropriate Muslim authority. That the West fails to do so–just look at the enormities of violence unleashed upon Islam since 1953–is no excuse for Islam to sink down to Western governmental levels; using democracy as a blanket check for war.

The two sides have millions, maybe billions of common people who can easily agree that the key problem is violence by extremist governments and others. The task is to let such voices come forward with concrete ideas. Like the next Charlie on line hiring a Muslim consultant to draw a border between freedom and inconsideration? It could have saved many lives, in Paris and where the West retaliates.

“We Are All…. – Fill in the Blank” – Guest post by Dr. Noam Chomsky

The world reacted with horror to the murderous attack on the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo. In the New York Times, veteran Europe correspondent Steven Erlanger graphically described the immediate aftermath, what many call France’s 9/11, as “a day of sirens, helicopters in the air, frantic news bulletins; of police cordons and anxious crowds; of young children led away from schools to safety. It was a day, like the previous two, of blood and horror in and around Paris.” The enormous outcry worldwide was accompanied by reflection about the deeper roots of the atrocity. “Many Perceive a Clash of Civilizations,” a New York Times headline read.

Photo credit :

Photo credit :

The reaction of horror and revulsion about the crime is justified, as is the search for deeper roots, as long as we keep some principles firmly in mind. The reaction should be completely independent of what one thinks about this journal and what it produces. The passionate and ubiquitous chants “I am Charlie,” and the like, should not be meant to indicate, even hint at, any association with the journal, at least in the context of defense of freedom of speech. Rather, they should express defense of the right of free expression whatever one thinks of the contents, even if they are regarded as hateful and depraved.

And the chants should also express condemnation for violence and terror. The head of Israel’s Labor Party and the main challenger for the upcoming elections in Israel, Isaac Herzog, is quite right when he says that “Terrorism is terrorism. There’s no two ways about it.” He is also right to say that “All the nations that seek peace and freedom [face] an enormous challenge” from murderous terrorism – putting aside his predictably selective interpretation of the challenge.

Erlanger vividly describes the scene of horror. He quotes one surviving journalist as saying that “Everything crashed. There was no way out. There was smoke everywhere. It was terrible. People were screaming. It was like a nightmare.” Another surviving journalist reported a “huge detonation, and everything went completely dark.” The scene, Erlanger reported, “was an increasingly familiar one of smashed glass, broken walls, twisted timbers, scorched paint and emotional devastation.” At least 10 people were reported at once to have died in the explosion, with 20 missing, “presumably buried in the rubble.”

These quotes, as the indefatigable David Peterson reminds us, are not, however, from January 2015. Rather, they are from a story of Erlanger’s on April 24 1999, which made it only to page 6 of the New York Times, not reaching the significance of the Charlie Hebdo attack. Erlanger was reporting on the NATO (meaning US) “missile attack on Serbian state television headquarters” that “knocked Radio Television Serbia off the air.”

There was an official justification. “NATO and American officials defended the attack,” Erlanger reports, “as an effort to undermine the regime of President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia.” Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon told a briefing in Washington that “Serb TV is as much a part of Milosevic’s murder machine as his military is,” hence a legitimate target of attack.

The Yugoslavian government said that “The entire nation is with our President, Slobodan Milosevic,” Erlanger reports, adding that “How the Government knows that with such precision was not clear.”

No such sardonic comments are in order when we read that France mourns the dead and the world is outraged by the atrocity. There need also be no inquiry into the deeper roots, no profound questions about who stands for civilization, and who for barbarism.

Isaac Herzog, then, is mistaken when he says that “Terrorism is terrorism. There’s no two ways about it.” There are quite definitely two ways about it: terrorism is not terrorism when a much more severe terrorist attack is carried out by those who are Righteous by virtue of their power. Similarly, there is no assault against freedom of speech when the Righteous destroy a TV channel supportive of a government that they are attacking.

By the same token, we can readily comprehend the comment in the New York Times of civil rights lawyer Floyd Abrams, noted for his forceful defense of freedom of expression, that the Charlie Hebdo attack is “the most threatening assault on journalism in living memory.” He is quite correct about “living memory,” which carefully assigns assaults on journalism and acts of terror to their proper categories: Theirs, which are horrendous; and Ours, which are virtuous and easily dismissed from living memory.

We might recall as well that this is only one of many assaults by the Righteous on free expression. To mention only one example that is easily erased from “living memory,” the assault on Falluja by US forces in November 2004, one of the worst crimes of the invasion of Iraq, opened with occupation of Falluja General Hospital. Military occupation of a hospital is, of course, a serious war crime in itself, even apart from the manner in which it was carried out, blandly reported in a front-page story in the New York Times, accompanied with a photograph depicting the crime. The story reported that “Patients and hospital employees were rushed out of rooms by armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops tied their hands behind their backs.” The crimes were reported as highly meritorious, and justified: “The offensive also shut down what officers said was a propaganda weapon for the militants: Falluja General Hospital, with its stream of reports of civilian casualties.”

Evidently such a propaganda agency cannot be permitted to spew forth its vulgar obscenities.

Meet the Palestinian Gandhi – Dr.Mubarak Awad

He has been called the ‘Palestinian Gandhi’. Dr.Mubarak Awad stood for nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation since he was very young. Dr.Mubarak Awad is the founder of the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence in Jerusalem and is currently teaching at the American University in Washington D.C. In an exclusive interview, he spoke with Sabith Khan recently about the meaning and purpose of nonviolence and its function in Israeli as well as American societies. A few excerpts follow:mubarak1

SK: Dr. Awad, pleasure to be speaking with you. Tell us a bit about your life and key influences that have shaped it. What are the key ideas you live by?

Awad: Thank you. My views of nonviolence and resistance to injustice were shaped very early on. When I was five years old, my father was killed. Ever since, my mother taught us – her children – not to hate and to forgive. So, my mother has been the biggest influence in my life and of course I have had tremendously influential teachers and mentors, who have shaped me too. The idea of nonviolence is for all, not just Palestinians. We as humans should not kill each other. I don’t care if you are a soldier, government or anyone, you should not kill. We must learn how to communicate and dialogue with each other, rather than escalate into violence. From a young age, people should be taught these skills, to resolve conflict. This is the essence of nonviolence. It is difficult in a society that is strongly for revenge to see that forgiveness and reconciliation is part of somebody’s life. To have a better society, we really have to see that we don’t have the concept of revenge in our lives.

SK: How do you deal with a violent person?

Awad: Resistance to others without the use of force is a means of nonviolence. There are several ways of dealing with a violence person. One way is to talk to the person who has wronged you and to tell them that they have wronged you. If he/she doesn’t listen, there are other ways. One could sit in front of the other person’s home, with a sign saying that you’d like to speak with them. You could also bring other friends with you to resolve this issue and to support your cause. This power makes that person shameful and forces him to come to you. You are not hurting them, but brings something out of you that gets them to respond to you. You must believe that everyone has a good spirit. You have to get the essence of goodness in all. Even if they don’t see that themselves, you must be able to see it.

Nonviolence could also be practiced on an individual basis. If you have your own child, you don’t hit them. You talk to them and teach them. This is the right way to deal with people.

You can stop paying taxes and not cooperate in the regime that enforces unjust laws. This is another way, that Gandhi showed us.

SK: Does nonviolence require courage?

Awad: We learn from Gandhi that you should not angry. The person who gets you angry controls you. If the person torturing you knows this, he does it more. Gandhi also taught us to accept the suffering that goes with adopting a nonviolent stance. Yes, this calls for courage of the highest order.

SK: Is a two state or one state solution the way forward for Palestinians?

Awad: Palestinians have a lot of choices before them. Israeli state is a very strong one, in regards to Arms and weaponry. It is very weak when it comes to humanitarian perspectives. That shows that they didn’t know how to deal with me, when I used nonviolence. It is easier for Israelis to deal with someone who uses a bomb, but they don’t know how to deal with a nonviolent Palestinian. It is time for us to use nonviolence and it takes a while for people to accept this challenge. It is a big challenge and it is a revolutionary society, and they think guns are part of this revolution. Things are changing slowly and I see some hope. Many groups are now using nonviolence. Even the president of Palestine is turning towards nonviolence. He has said very clearly, that if the Israelis stop the settlements and withdraw till 1967 borders, we will go to the UN and if that doesn’t work, we will go to High Courts and have our problems addressed there.

The Palestinian President could just resign and walk away and let the Israelis run the territories. This would be a huge mess for Israel and I am not sure they would want that situation.

SK: Will Hamas give up violence?

Awad: It looks like Hamas will join the unity government and accept Abu Mazen’s decisions and there have been movements in the recent past towards this. The most extremist groups don’t see politics this way. They are interested in violence, not peace. Gandhi said that it is better to do something rather than nothing. You have to resist. There are people who cannot be reached, and they are not aware of nonviolence. It is a long way but there is hope.

SK: Is it a problem of education or political realities?

Awad: Yes, that is what we need. There is not a single place in the Arab world where they teach nonviolence. In Palestine, there is hardly a mention of Gandhi. We romanticize the past and the wars we won. This is just not right

SK: Do you see a role for India in the Palestine struggle?

Awad: India can play a moral role in this struggle. India is the land of Gandhi and we need people from India to go to Palestine and talk to people. They have to go to Gaza, Nigeria, Iraq. We need groups of Indians to go, not just individually. Indians defeated the British through moral force. I think it will help.

SK: Can you please give us examples of exemplars in nonviolence?

Awad: The king of Sweden put a Keffieh when the Israelis were bombing Gaza. The Swedes recognize Palestine, so is Canada. There are groups called Mennonites and Quakers who are committed to peace. They come over there and have programs in peace studies. There are many groups and individuals who are committed. Syrians, Iraqis are engaged in nonviolence. A lot of people from Holland are doing a great job. They are teaching us about communications and teaching nonviolence.

SK: What is your vision for Palestinians?

Awad: I don’t have a problem with one or two states. I want Palestinians to be treated equally, living with the same rights as the Israelis. I would like them to set aside this anger and frustration. Israelis shouldn’t say that this is a Jewish state, that won’t work, or impose Hebrew as the only language. These actions don’t promote peace or reconciliation. The Israelis have been writing about what they did to the Palestinians. It was awful. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, but justice should prevail. Look at the Black and White race relations in the U.S., they are working it out; despite difficulties. The same in Ireland. The EU is a reality today, all these have happened without wars. People must remove wars from their minds. We must look at who gains when there are wars – it is the Arms industry that gains. Governments have to be smart about this. I think the time will come when people do this.

SK: What about vested interests?

Awad : I think involvement of youth is key. They have to be very aggressive, saying we don’t want to join the Army or we don’t want war. They should say they won’t vote for anyone who promotes war. This is the key. People have to learn that whatever we do, as humans, we don’t do it for ourselves; but for others. Nonviolence is not to promote one’s self, but others.

SK: Do you think religion has a play in promoting nonviolence?

Awad: I think religion can play a good role. People should accept the whole concept of religion, that they are believers. They should use religion to reach a higher plane. But if they are using religion to promote war, it won’t work.

Ten Books to Read to Make Sense of the Middle East

Confused about the Middle East and North Africa and what is going on? Here are ten books that will help you clarify who the players are, where their interests lie and the forces shaping their destiny. There are certainly dozens of other books that are equally good, if not better. This list will get you started on the journey. This is a collection of both academic and non-academic books and offer you the best of both worlds.the-great-war-for-civilisation

  1. The Great War for Civilization – Robert Fisk – This is a must read if you are to get a good, fast-pacing perspective of what is going on in the region, as a whole. From Afghanistan to Baghdad, this book brings out the best by Fisk, a veteran of the Middle East. Couldn’t get through War and Peace? This will be equally challenging, with its length; but with patience, you will be rewarded.
  2. Night Draws Near – Anthony Shadid- This is a tour de force by the (late) Anthony Shadid, a brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, who died in Syria last year. This book offers a piercing perspective of the American occupation of Iraq and the aftermath. This is not for the faint of heart, as it is filled with violence, trauma and the agony of a country at war with another.
  3. The Invention of the Land of Israel – Shlomo Sand- This book, similar to his earlier one titled The Invention of Jewish People will challenge almost everything you know about Israel. Sand argues in his book that the creation of Israel as an entity was nothing but a national myth, carefully constructed and built by the Zionist establishment.
  4. The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy – Walt and Mearsheimer – This classic is controversial because it called a spade a spade. This book is a must read if you are to get a sense of lobbying in general in Washington D.C and the Israeli lobby in particular. They argue that essentially, the Israeli lobby has been pushing Washington D.C. to make decisions that are not in favor of the U.S. and goes into some details of how this has been accomplished.
  5. Cutting the Fuse – Pape and Feldman – This is an authoritative book on Suicide terrorism and the causes behind it. The one conclusion that you can walk away, after reading this book: occupation is the primary cause of suicide terrorism – from Baghdad to Kabul to Colombo. This book is based on the world’s largest dataset on terrorist attacks and is worth a read, even if you are not a security studies wonk.
  6. The Islam Quintet – Tariq Ali – A series of five novels, all based in the Islamic world –this series will blow your mind! From Sultan in Palermo to Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, Ali offers us a front row seat into the lives and loves of people of 12th century in Granada, Andalusia and Baghdad and 21st century Pakistan. My favorite is A Sultan in Palermo followed by Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, both dealing with the fall of Granada and Andalusia and the Inquisition that followed.
  7. The Crisis of Zionism – Peter Beinart – Beinart is a brilliant Liberal Zionist writer in the U.S. As a professor at an academic institution, his approach is scholarly, but his writing style is very user-friendly. His key argument in the book is that Zionism is failing to live up to the ideals that it espouses. With increased occupation and formation of new settlements in Israel, the dream of a democratic Jewish state may die.
  8. Cairo Modern – Naguib Mahfouz – The novel, based in 1930s chronicles the challenges before Egypt as it entered modernity, under the influence of Europeans. The story of Maghub and Ihsan, the two central characters is used to showcase larger issues of poverty, deprivation and the Faustian bargains that this can sometimes force upon people. Poverty, sexual passion, modernity, Islam – all come together in this complex novel.
  9. In an Antique Land– Amitav Ghosh – Ghosh chronicles his ethnographic work in Egypt, in a very autobiographical work. As an Indian living in a small village in Egypt, the exchanges between Ghosh and the others are quite fascinating. Hilarious at times and vexing at others, this book offers a rare view into rural Egypt. Ghosh also ties in the story of an Indian slave, who was sold to Egypt in the 12th century, based on historical records – offering us a window into the exchanges that took place between the two countries. This is part fiction and part non-fiction. A fascinating read.
  10. Before European Hegemony – Janet AbuLughod – This is one of the most interesting books on early modern history that I have read. A fascinating account of an early Eurasian ‘world system’ that existed before the European world system, as proposed by Immanuel Wallerstein. She challenges Wallerstein’s notion that the earliest world system was Euro-centric and offers a counter-argument that is both powerful and well documented.

Birth in the Age of AIDS – Interview with Dr.Cecilia Van Hollen

Birth in the Age of AIDS (Stanford Uni Press, 2013) by Dr. Cecilia Van Hollen, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the Maxwell School for Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University is a vivid and poignant portrayal of the experiences of HIV-positive women in India during pregnancy, birth, and motherhood at the beginning of the 21st century. The government of India, together with global health organizations, established an important public health initiative to prevent HIV transmission from mother to child. While this program, which targets poor women attending public maternity hospitals, has improved health outcomes for infants, it has resulted in

Photo credit : Dr. Cecilia Van Hollen

Photo credit : Dr. Cecilia Van Hollen

sometimes devastatingly negative consequences for poor, young mothers because these women were being tested for HIV in far greater numbers than their male spouses and were often blamed for bringing this highly stigmatized disease into the family.

Based on ethnographic research conducted by the author in India between 2003 and 2008, this book chronicles the experiences of women from the point of their decisions about whether to accept HIV testing, through their decisions about whether or not to continue with the birth if they test HIV-positive, their birthing experiences in hospitals, decisions and practices surrounding breast-feeding vs. bottle-feeding, and their hopes and fears for the future of their children.

In this short interview, she talks to us about the research, some concerns that came up during her work and offers insights into how women with AIDS cope with their condition.

birth in the age of aids

1. Saraswati’s story in the prologue is very moving. What percentage of women do you think find themselves in such situations? Are there women who find in-laws, husbands who are understanding of their situation?

Cecilia : Yes, of course I met women whose husbands and in-laws were much more sympathetic than was the case for “Saraswati” (all the names are pseudonyms) and I write about many such cases in the book. But I also met women who faced even more stigma and discrimination than Saraswati. I used Saraswati’s case in the prologue because the story of how she came to know of her HIV+ status during pregnancy, how family members and medical practitioners reacted, and how her engagement with one of the positive peoples’ “networks” helped her turn a corner to re-affirm her life, resonated generally with the experiences of the 70 HIV+ women I interviewed.

2. Why did you choose Tamilnadu for the study? (Is it because of the history of AIDS in India) or are there other reasons?

Cecilia : Tamil Nadu has played a unique role in the HIV/AIDS epidemic in India. The first case of AIDS was detected in that state in 1986 and in the early days it had one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the country. But it was also a pioneer state in terms of governmental and civil society responses to the disease. While much of the rest of the country was in denial that AIDS could become a problem in India, the Tamil Nadu state government and community organizations there began to develop programs for HIV/AIDS prevention and care that later became models for the rest of the country. Tamil Nadu also has one of the highest rates of hospitalized births in the country so it was a key state for the implementation of the government program to prevent HIV transmission from mother-to-child which is the focus of my book. Also, I have spent my entire career doing research on healthcare issues in Tamil Nadu and I speak Tamil so I was familiar with the social, cultural, political, and medical context of the region and could conduct my interviews in Tamil.

3. Based on your work, do you think the acceptance of HIV+ patients is better among middle-class people? You mention that AIDS is related to poverty, in many ways. Can you talk about this dimension a bit?

Cecilia : When you look at the global situation, it is apparent that AIDS has become a disease associated with poverty and India is no exception to this rule. That is why my study focused on low-income communities and on publicly funded government health programs. The middle class in India is certainly not exempt from this disease or from the stigma that surrounds it in the Indian context but that was not something I explored.


4. You speak of serendipity in research. What is the most important finding that you found by accident?

Cecilia : I had originally planned to conduct all of my research in public maternity hospitals which were involved in the government’s Prevention of Parent to Child Transmission (PPTCT) program. Although I was granted permission to work in some such hospitals that were engaged in HIV counseling and testing, the permission to work in the hospitals that were conducting births for HIV+ women took much longer than I had hoped. So, in order to be able to meet HIV+ mothers and learn about their experiences during pregnancy, birth, and the post-partum period, I had to change my plans and began to work more with the community-based networks run by and for HIV+ people, such as the Positive Women’s Network. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because the interviews conducted with women outside of the hospital walls were always much more relaxed as I was able to meet women in their homes or at their support group meetings several times over the course of my study and this allowed for a kind of rapport and open conversation that was not possible in the hospital setting. In the end, it was the accounts from these interviews that are at the heart of my book.


5. How do INGOs’ impact the discourse around AIDS in India? Is there some ‘cultural hegemony’ that you allude to? To what extent are priorities set by these NGOs’ in tune with the needs of these women?

Cecilia : I would say that the international discourse of “rights” which has been at the core of global AIDS activism has been central to the INGO presence in the field of HIV/AIDS prevention and care in India. Since my work was focused on women, this was articulated by the framework of women’s rights and gender discrimination. This kind of rights-based discourse prevailed in the Positive Women’s Network in part due to the group’s link with UNIFEM. What I observed was that women who were members of this organization found some aspects of this framework to be in sync with their interests and needs and other aspects less so. For example, women were willing to sit through a full-day presentation on the importance of the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) which they felt was of little direct use to them, because following that, they were provided with free group and individual legal counseling regarding such issues as widows’ inheritance rights which were of paramount concern to them, given the fact that although the average age of the women I met was twenty-eight, 47% were already widows whose husbands had died from AIDS.


6. Do you think the battle against AIDS would shift if people’s attitudes towards the disease shift? Or is it largely an economic issue? Or this is a combination of both?

Cecilia : It is a combination of both. During the time of my research, one of the main battles of the positive people’s networks was to demand that the government provide better access to antiretroviral therapies (ART) rather than only focusing on prevention. They argued correctly that access to treatment was essential for decreasing stigma and increasing prevention because without any guarantee of treatment, there was a disincentive to undergo HIV-testing which was considered important to the prevention programs. During my research, towards the end of 2004, the government did begin to roll-out an ART program and that has continued to the present. The availability of treatment has indeed gone a long way towards reducing (though by no means eliminating) the stigma of the disease over time in India.


7. Did you notice any difference between the patients acceptance, lack thereof based on their religious affiliation (You mention that there were some non-Hindu women) were they treated differently by their families/social networks?

 Cecilia : A very large majority of the HIV+ women in my study were Hindus. Only two were Muslims so it is not possible to make any kind of generalizations about those cases. Seventeen of the women interviewed were Christian but sixteen of those women had converted to Christianity from Hinduism as a result of having been put in touch with Christian-based NGOs (especially World Vision) because of their HIV+ diagnosis. Interestingly most of these women were converting independent of their husbands or other family members who remained Hindu. In the book I discuss some of the troubling ways in which these recently converted HIV+ Christian women condemned Hindus for their lack of caring and used their new Christian identity to claim higher moral ground vis-à-vis Hindus in terms of attitudes towards abortion in their decision-making about whether to continue with their pregnancies after their HIV+ diagnosis.

8. What about faith-based NGOs’ and the women’s own religious institutions? How do they treat these women? (World Vision is an international NGO, but I am interested in more local, Indian NGOs’ and church, or temple groups, if any)

Cecilia : Apart from the very visible role of World Vision among the women interviewed, it was remarkable that when I asked women whether and how they found religion and religious organizations helpful to cope with this disease, most of the women said religion had not been a particularly helpful resource to them in this circumstance although they did pray for better health, particularly for the health and well-being of their children. Some even said that having the disease had led to a loss of faith in god. I would not say that this necessarily reflects a lack of support from local religious-based organizations today but it was the general response of the women in my study.

9. In terms of gender norms etc. are there any specific policy recommendations that you would put forward? (both for India and INGOs’)

Cecilia : One of the reasons that policy makers in the Indian government called this program the Prevention of Parent to Child Transmission as opposed to the global appellation of the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission was that they foresaw the possibility that with this program, which was aimed at HIV counseling and testing for women attending government maternity hospitals, there was the risk that if women were found to be HIV-positive before their husbands, this could lead to gender-based discrimination against these women within their husbands’ families. The use of the term “parent” was intended to draw attention to the important role of fathers and the recommendations were that husband and wife should be counseled and tested at the same time. Unfortunately, at the time of my research, the program was not generally being carried out in that manner and all too predictably, women who tested positive through the program prior to their husbands’ testing, were often blamed for being sexually promiscuous and bringing the disease into the husbands’ families, facing discrimination within the family, including the denial of inheritance rights on the grounds of their promiscuity. So my study suggests that there needs to be greater vigilance in the effort to ensure couples’ counseling and testing. This needs to be done in tandem with a move away from what I call a “target-like” approach to HIV-testing in this program in which counselors felt tremendous pressure to get women to give “consent” to HIV-testing even if the husbands were not present because numerical statistics of “acceptors” for HIV-testing were used to determine counselors’ promotions and, according to some, were also used in decisions regarding continued international funding for these counseling programs.  This culture of statistical targets that drives global health programs needs to be addressed at all levels, from the international global health arena of policy and funding, to the central government, to state governments and hospital administrations. These are just two of the many policy recommendations I make in the book. 

(The book is available at

Interview with Peter Sabonis, Director of the Work With Dignity Program


Q: How long have you been with NESRI and what is your role? How did you come to do the work that you are doing?

Peter:  I’ve been at NESRI for two years, first as Director of the Human Right to Housing program and now as the Director of the Work With Dignity Program.  I came to this work after doing roughly 25 years of attorney work on behalf of low- and no-income people in the U.S., particularly those who are homeless.


Photo courtesy: Peter Sabonis

Photo courtesy: Peter Sabonis

Q: What are the three biggest focus area for the work you do at NESRI?

Peter : The fulfillment, protection, and respect for the human rights of workers.    To date, this has involved holding corporations accountable in this supply chains through innovative programs such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers Fair Food Program, and governments accountable under the United Workers Fair Development Campaign.


Q: What is your perspective on the Affordable Care Act?

Peter: The Act fails in terms of the universality, equity, transparency, participation, and accountability that is required under human rights.


Q: How does NESRI organize for the Affordable Care Act? What is your overall strategy ? NESRI does no organizing—we support grassroots partners who organize around economic human rights.

Peter:  We provided a great deal of support for the Vermont Workers Center, Health Care is a Human Right campaign, which led to the adoption of a “single-payer” health system in Vermont.   This system is structured on human rights principles, and, once up and running, should be the model for other states and the nation as a whole.


Q: Any stories or anecdotes you can share about this?

Peter:   For years single payer advocates have tried to organizing and mobilize supporters in the U.S. To influence policy makers.  In Vermont, this also occurred in the past, to no avail.  The shift to a human rights frame in Vermont transformed the issue from one of economics to one of morality.  People who were confused and glassy-eyed when terms like “single-payer” health care were raised, were energized when health care was presented as a human right.


Q: Isn’t the idea of global human rights problematic? How has your organization dealt with cultural, national differences in understandings? Can you give us some examples.

Peter:  In the U.S., we have a long history of shunning economic human rights for various reasons—racial tensions, the cold war, ideology.   What we at NESRI have done is try to reduce human rights to value-based principles that are simple to understand and organize around.  The principles of universality, equity, participation, transparency, and accountability have served us well in all arenas of economic human rights.  Two examples come to mind:  the framework for the Vermont Health Care is a Human Right Campaign, and this simple video on Budgeting using human rights principles.


Q: How do you prioritize which policies to recommend (for eg. Dignity in Schools campaign)? Do you have a research team that does this leg-work? Also, how do you ensure that you are not inclined towards one political line (given you are a 501 c 3)?

Peter: We prioritize what our partners prioritize.  We believe social change comes from the ground up and is led by those most impacted.  The Dignity in Schools Campaign focuses on school push-out because our partners determined this was their most pressing issue.  The Vermont Workers Center saw health care and its financing as a priority.  The United Workers determined that public subsidies to economic developers with no strings attached was hurting Baltimore’s workers, communities, and public services.  We avoid traditional political lines and think that our human rights principles provide an effective critique of existing policies and political party lines, and simultaneously provide a vision for new policies and, perhaps, new parties.

Q: What is your vision for human rights activism in the U.S? Given the increasing governmentality on citizens, how do you fight for greater freedoms?

Peter:  Our vision for activism is one that prioritizes impacted people in leadership roles, and amplifies and links these efforts together through networks that will disseminate a human rights framework that eventually will be embraced by citizens, academics, clergy, media and public policy makers.   We in the US seem to prioritize freedom over justice—that’s our culture.  The increased “govern mentality” on citizens is not ObamaCare or business regulation, but the surveillance of those subjectively determined to be threats to US interests and security, and the restriction of the rights of public assembly (like “Occupy” style events) and speech.  We fight for these the same way we fight for economic rights—through organizing, and through the support and strategic mobilization of resources and organizations that support such.


Q: What is the role of the private sector in your model of social reform?

Peter: The private social sector is the key to social change, as I’ve indicated.  The private business sector must respect the human rights of workers and communities, and must assist in the protection and fulfillment of human rights.  Profits never trump human needs or human rights.


Q: Finally, what is the role of philanthropy (and foundations) in these areas of work? Giving USA points out that in 2012, over $ 300 billion were given away by individuals, this is a staggering amount of money. What is your experience working with foundations and wealthy individuals in solving social problems?

Peter: We exist because of foundations and wealthy individuals who share a transformative vision for the US.  We are thankful for that, but note the difficulty of getting philanthropists to support grassroots organizing and leadership development among those whose human rights are abused.  We also recognize that since the mid-1970s, inequality has grown in this country to the extent that philanthropy can mirror and further an ideology that makes the realization of human rights quite difficult.

Book Review : Building Walls and Dissolving Borders- The Challenges of Alterity, Community and Securitizing Space by Max O.Stephenson Jr. and Laura Zanotti

Book Review : Building Walls and Dissolving Borders- The Challenges of Alterity, Community and Securitizing Space by Max O.Stephenson Jr. and Laura Zanotti

Ashgate Publishers, Surrey, England. 2013


Covering quite literally the entire world, Building Walls and Dissolving Borders- The Challenges of Alterity, Community and Securitizing Space, edited by Max O.Stephenson Jr. and Laura Zanotti is a collection of essays, that brings together scholars to illuminate the role of walls as “heterotopias,” or powerful sites around which ways of living together are both contested and transformed. They point out that the notion of security is evolving and can no longer be understood purely from a nation-state paradigm, given that proximity, flow of populations and resources has complicated our world. The book is divided into three parts: the first consists of essays that discuss the role of walls in identity formation, while the second outlines the role of walls in securitizing and demarcating boundaries. The third part deals with the hybridization of memory through walls. I will briefly critique a few essays here, to give an overview of the book and its key themes.

Speaking of the role of walls in securitization, the editors’ point out: “Walls become points of application of sophisticated techniques of power and scrutiny as well as of creative forms of resistance, instruments of waging war as well as sites for forming and transforming community identities and for imagining processes of peace and displaying alternative imaginaries.” Their observation rings true, as we witness, almost daily, the debates surrounding security and the flow of people. One cannot disagree with them, when they point out that walls have become much more than mere barriers and appear to have multiple social, political, economic and cultural roles, serving either as surveillance points, instruments of bio-political security strategy or even as identity and community markers, shielding them from real or imagined “others,” who may pose a threat to them.

Several walls are treated here: US-Mexico border wall, Berlin Wall, the West Bank, Walls in communities in Northern Ireland, Haiti and Cyprus. Their argument is that the artifact wall put in place (physical or virtual, material or administrative) becomes the subject of constant human attention, manipulations and transformations. A Foucaldian analysis of walls also forms part of the treatment of walls in this volume.(pg.4). The notion of the wall as a “boundary object,” that connote social imaginaries which shape identities is explored in-depth (pg.5), building on the work of Castroriadis (1987), Taylor (2004).

In the essay “Bordering Violence? Natality and Alterity in Hannah Arendt’s Thought,” Alexander D. Barder and Francois Debrix ask whether in a pluralistic society, demarcations and borders can be part of the theorization. They point this out by saying that:” We argue that the central concept of natality, considered by many Arendtian thinkers to be a safeguard against the return of violence in the political and a protection against the ever present threat of totalitarian force, is illustrative of the tension between the possibility of plurality and one of bounding of the political community.” (pg.18). They further argue that borders and walls arise from certain philosophical and theoretical imaginaries, that can never be thought to be foreign to the democratic, pluralistic, and open visions that sought to prevent mankind from alienation(pg.31).

Closer home in New York, Setha Low, Gregory T.Donovan and Jen Jack Giesenking point out in “Gates not Walls as s Securitization Strategy: Gated Communities and Marekt-rate-Cooperatives in New York,” the links between borders and boundaries and the process of securitization through non-barrier based approaches, one based on selective admissions. They look at how Co-ops securitize populations through creating procedures to create homogenous communities.

Scott Tate explores the meaning of the walls in Belfast in “Tinkering with Space,” and argues that they have become sites of heterotopia. He points out that they may become sites of creating  alternative imaginaries surrounding identity. They are also at the center of the economy, in many contradictory ways as the city’s walls feed Belfast’s “twin-speed economy,” enabling the dual processes of urban city center regeneration and neighborhood decline to occur simultaneously.”(pg.87). At the same time, efforts by Youth groups such as “Draw Down the Walls” are helping shape the discourse and also imaginary around the walls by tinkering with the physical space itself. He further contends that ‘tinkering’ with walls can sow the seeds of perception shift, destabilizing structures and the broader fields of accepted social imaginaries for change. (pg.88). He places this tension in the imaginary between the “brand Belfast,” that is vibrant and is promoted for tourism against the darker side of a more violent North Belfast, which is volatile and conflict prone. “Residents of interface areas have experienced increased social inequality, including poverty and illness, since the Good Friday agreement.” ( pg.78)

In “Design as Defense: Broker Barriers and the Security Spectacle at the US-Mexico Border,” Timothy W.Luke delves into the US-Mexico border to argue that a bio political project of human security surveillance is a policy concern for the nation-states and local governments along borders and boundaries. The design and construction of fence and surveillance systems between the two countries has gone up substantially since the 1960s and represents at the same time the failure to curb the illegal drug and human trafficking that it was supposed to prevent. Luke argues that the many boundary-making devices, processes and settings constitute exercises in what Van Der Ryn and Cowan (1996) have labeled “dumb design.” (pg.124). He argues further that rather than closing the border, the fence structures have created multiple portals, passages and places that have opened the boundary to more policing, greater surveillance and further regulation. (pg.128). These may be seen as creating more spectacles for the government to create a sense of order and stability, where there is none.

Given the crisis mindset that most nation-states are operating under, post 9/11, and their felt need to make their citizens “safe,” through building artificial and real barriers to movement of people; this book contributes significant insights into the social imagination that this process calls for. The authors have done a commendable job of treating the various political and social dynamics and configurations of walls.


Youth Perceptions of the Arab Spring: Opinion poll explores views of young Egyptians, Libyans, Tunisians and Yemenis on identity and future – By Breanna Beaumont

At the dawn of the Arab Spring over three years ago, many people questioned what this change would mean for the Arab world. Many doubted the prospects of the revolution, while others remained steadfastly optimistic of a new MENA region. The youth remain the largest demographic group in the Arab world and were the driving force of the Arab Spring that shook the region. Now, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, how do young people feel about the revolution, their identity and their future?

Photo courtesy : Al

Photo courtesy : Al

A new study by Al Jazeera Centre for Studies in collaboration with the Sigma Conseil research company conducted a widespread survey of 8,045 young men and women between the ages of 17 and 31 from Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen between April 15 and May 25, 2013. The opinion poll sought to answer such questions on youth perceptions of the revolution, identity and the biggest threats facing their countries.

Although all Arab youth cited similar motivators leading to the revolution, Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans and Yemenis showed different priorities in taking to the streets. Poor economic conditions are characteristic to the MENA region, which holds the highest unemployment rate in the world according to the International Monetary Fund. Reasons for such high rates include high population growth, market rigidity and large public sectors, making job creation and private sector growth difficult.

Improving economic conditions and fighting corruption proved to be the two highest factors motivating the revolution. Yemen seemed the most dissatisfied with the economic conditions of their country, with 70% of youth citing improving economic conditions to be the main reason for the revolution. Young Egyptians felt most passionately that fighting corruption was an important factor, with 72% of those surveyed agreeing.

Increasing social justice and dignity also proved to be an instigating factor of the revolution, although less influential than corruption and job creation. Tunisian youth felt that dignity had a strong place in what led to the Arab Spring, with 56% of young Tunisians citing this factor. This is in light of the self-immolation of the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010 that sparked the Arab Spring.

When asked if the revolution led to change in their countries, the youth displayed a wide range of opinions. Youth from Yemen and Tunisia remained equally divided on the issue, with a slight majority agreeing that the revolution did in fact lead to change. Egyptian and Libyan youth, however, landed on opposite ends of the spectrum. The majority of Libyan youth (69%) reported that the revolution did contribute to change in Libya. Egyptian youth, on the other hand, appeared overwhelmingly dissatisfied with 74% of youth claiming the revolution did not lead to change.

Likewise, 36% of Egyptian youth labeled the revolution as a failure with only 17% of those surveyed saying that the revolution was a success. An additional 44% remained uncertain, choosing to label the revolution as neither a success nor a failure. Libyan youth were shown to be the most satisfied with the revolution with 64% of youth labeling the revolution as a success and only 10% claiming the revolution was a failure in Libya.

Although Tunisians and Yemenis seemed equally divided on the question of change, different statistics were found when questioned on the success of the revolution. Yemeni youth appeared relatively satisfied with the outcome of the revolution with only 17% of those surveyed labeling the revolution as a failure. The opposite is true for Tunisian youth, with only 14% confident that the revolution was a success. It seems more likely that a large portion of youth is uncertain as to the lasting impact of the revolution, with 31% of Tunisians and 38% of Yemenis declining to label the revolution as a success or a failure as of now.

Many Arab youth are thinking about the future of their countries in the wake of the Arab Spring. Although found to be satisfied with the revolution, 58% of Libyans and 44% of Yemenis reported that the revolution needs more time. This may be a sign that although the revolution is leading countries in the right direction, improvements may not be happening as fast as the youth would like.

Tunisian and Egyptian youth are more in favor of a change in leadership, with 41% of Tunisian and 34% of Egyptian respondents supportive of a revision of the current political management. An additional 30% of those surveyed from both countries claim a second revolution is needed to meet the demands of the people.

Unemployment remains the biggest challenge facing the MENA region post-Arab Spring. According to the World Bank in a June 2013 report, unemployment rates among youth in Yemen can be as high as 40%. Similarly, the IMF found 30% of Tunisian youth unemployed in 2012. The survey found 83% of Yemeni youth reported unemployment as the biggest risk to Yemen followed by Tunisia at 68%.

Identity can play a significant role in revolutions, and the Arab Spring is no exception. The survey asked Tunisian, Libyan, Egyptian and Yemeni youth to choose which identity they most strongly identified with: Arab, Muslim or Nationalist. Religious affiliation proved to be the most identifiable for countries such as Libya, with 73% of youth identifying themselves as Muslim first and foremost. Egyptian youth were found to be most strongly nationalistic, with 62% of youth calling themselves Egyptian before anything else.

These self-identifiable labels were found to be correlated with the structuring of political institutions following the revolution. Nearly all Libyan youth agreed that sharia (Islamic law) should be used as the main source of legislation, with 93% of respondents supportive. While 57% of Egyptian youth agreed that sharia should be the main source of legislation, 63% of Egyptian respondents cited a difference between religion and politics. Egyptian youth also demonstrated the highest concern for the rights of non-Muslims, with 96% of Egyptian youth supportive of rights for non-Muslims.

Given the continued uncertainty in the MENA region post-Arab Spring, this survey sheds light on the current political transitions occurring in the Arab world. Being able to hear the concerns of the youth as individuals may help us to contemplate what is needed to bring stability and growth to the region. As we head into the fourth year of the revolution this winter, we can only hope that the youth of the Arab world will be able to bring about lasting change to their society.


Film Review – ‘’The Other Son’’ or ‘’Le fils de l’autre, by Elana Temple

I remember seeing ‘’The Other Son’’ or ‘’Le fils de l’autre,’’ at a local theatre in New York, back in November, 2012. The foreign film was directed by Lorraine Levy and originally written by Noam Fitoussi. The premise of the film: ‘’ two young men –one Palestinian and the other Israeli—discover they were accidentally switched at birth.

 Both boys, Joseph Silberg (brought up by Israeli/Jewish parents) and Yacine Al Bezaaz (brought up by Palestinian parents) were born at the same hospital, on the same night. Yet, when a bombing attack takes place, both boys are taken to shelters for safety and switched incidentally. And after this discovery, the boys’ and their families’ struggle to accept this painful truth, as they deal with new emotions and challenges, while facing personal prejudices about life on the ‘other’ side.



The film took me to a place beyond on-screen performances and movie scripts. I began to imagine myself in a place where war, persecution, politics and the fight for land had separated people of such similar cultures and languages, for over six decades. And although no similar films come to mind, I began to imagine other similar stories and situations—either fictitious or true—in states of turmoil.

It was possible that a Bosnian man and an Serbian woman fell in love, or a young man from Kosovo befriended a young Croatian soldier before the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, only to be separated by violence and discrimination? Perhaps, a young Pakistani girl and an Indian girl became close friends in primary school, only to be pulled apart after the states’ disintegration.

Perhaps, the situation would teach the Bosnian man and Serbian woman to love those different from them with more passion, or it might persuade them to hate others with more vengeance.  The friendship between the Kosovo man and Croatian soldier could encourage them to treat their Balkan neighbors with more humanity, or it could fuel them to rally against. And if the Pakistani girl were to meet another Indian student in the future, would she befriend her in hopes of filling in a sad void, or will she and others gang up on her in order to feel superior?

Were there other cases where young children were switched at birth, only to discover that they belonged to a Jewish family in Haifa or a Muslim or Christian family in Ramallah? And in the case of the film, how would the Israeli and Palestinian families deal in learning that their own children or parents were not of their own blood and ethnicity, but from a place they have been forced to hate or discrimate against?

As the film develops under the umbrella of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we see that the fathers are more reluctant to accept the situation, while the mothers find themselves more inclined to compassion, understanding and curiosity—eager to get close to their real children.

In one scene, Yacine walks over to the Israeli side, curious to speak with his ‘real’ mother. When she arrives home and finds him sitting on her house steps, she nervously stumbles over her bike and approaches the boy with caution. After a suspenseful build-up she bends down to view the boy, reaches an affectionate hand out, and they embrace warmly, both relieved to be in the arms of the other.

In another scene, we see Joseph visit with his ‘real’ Palestinian family. During dinner with the family, Joseph unpredictably breaks out in a traditional Arab prayer/hymn, taking the father, mother and brother by surprise and emotion.

And as the boys take an interest in their ‘other lives’ and ‘other families,’ they also develop a closer friendship with one another, discovering parallels within their lives and thoughts: Throughout the film Joseph and Yacine confide in one another in French, their mutual language. We also find that the boys spend more time  together–seeking recourse with each other– as tension and emotions rise within their homes and neighborhoods. In a later scene, we witness Yacine racing to Joseph’s defence and aid after a violent anti-semitic attack against him.

As the boys become friends, their families—parents and siblings—have to re-evaluate their beliefs and resistance to community culture and prejudice, in order to connect with their childrens’ real identities.

Within the film however, there existed a moral dilemma: a family/son’s inherent and unconditional love for the child/parents they have raised/been raised by, yet the curiousity and affection felt for a child/parents that is biologically theirs. With this dilemma, I asked the question: Will each family develop an appreciation and respect for their counterpart, as the situation inevitably brings the two forces together, or it will create a bigger rift between the the two families and the their cultures? All of these conflicting elements are beautifully juxtaposted in the film.