Inside Islam: May 12, 2010 Episode, ‘Why The Prophet Muhammad Matters’

Omid Safi,  Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, author of Memories of Muhammad discusses with Jean Feraca about the importance of the Prophet Mohammed. How do contemporary Muslims revere the Prophet, as a “mystic, a revolutionary or a military leader?”

Safi’s interview is the latest in the Inside Islam series produced here on the UW-Madison campus. To listen, click here or visit the Inside Islam blog at

News: New York Times- ‘U.S. Is Said to Expand Secret Actions in Mideast’

By Mark Manzetti, published on May  24, 2010

WASHINGTON — The top American commander in the Middle East has ordered a broad expansion of clandestine military activity in an effort to disrupt militant groups or counter threats in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and other countries in the region, according to defense officials and military documents.

The secret directive, signed in September by Gen. David H. Petraeus, authorizes the sending of American Special Operations troops to both friendly and hostile nations in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa to gather intelligence and build ties with local forces. Officials said the order also permits reconnaissance that could pave the way for possible military strikes in Iran if tensions over its nuclear ambitions escalate.

While the Bush administration had approved some clandestine military activities far from designated war zones, the new order is intended to make such efforts more systematic and long term, officials said. Its goals are to build networks that could “penetrate, disrupt, defeat or destroy” Al Qaeda and other militant groups, as well as to “prepare the environment” for future attacks by American or local military forces, the document said. The order, however, does not appear to authorize offensive strikes in any specific countries.

In broadening its secret activities, the United States military has also sought in recent years to break its dependence on the Central Intelligence Agency and other spy agencies for information in countries without a significant American troop presence.

General Petraeus’s order is meant for small teams of American troops to fill intelligence gaps about terror organizations and other threats in the Middle East and beyond, especially emerging groups plotting attacks against the United States.

But some Pentagon officials worry that the expanded role carries risks. The authorized activities could strain relationships with friendly governments like Saudi Arabia or Yemen — which might allow the operations but be loath to acknowledge their cooperation — or incite the anger of hostile nations like Iran and Syria. Many in the military are also concerned that as American troops assume roles far from traditional combat, they would be at risk of being treated as spies if captured and denied the Geneva Convention protections afforded military detainees.

The precise operations that the directive authorizes are unclear, and what the military has done to follow through on the order is uncertain. The document, a copy of which was viewed by The New York Times, provides few details about continuing missions or intelligence-gathering operations.

Several government officials who described the impetus for the order would speak only on condition of anonymity because the document is classified. Spokesmen for the White House and the Pentagon declined to comment for this article. The Times, responding to concerns about troop safety raised by an official at United States Central Command, the military headquarters run by General Petraeus, withheld some details about how troops could be deployed in certain countries.

The seven-page directive appears to authorize specific operations in Iran, most likely to gather intelligence about the country’s nuclear program or identify dissident groups that might be useful for a future military offensive. The Obama administration insists that for the moment, it is committed to penalizing Iran for its nuclear activities only with diplomatic and economic sanctions. Nevertheless, the Pentagon has to draw up detailed war plans to be prepared in advance, in the event that President Obama ever authorizes a strike.

“The Defense Department can’t be caught flat-footed,” said one Pentagon official with knowledge of General Petraeus’s order.

The directive, the Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order, signed Sept. 30, may also have helped lay a foundation for the surge of American military activity in Yemen that began three months later.

Special Operations troops began working with Yemen’s military to try to dismantle Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an affiliate of Osama bin Laden’s terror network based in Yemen. The Pentagon has also carried out missile strikes from Navy ships into suspected militant hideouts and plans to spend more than $155 million equipping Yemeni troops with armored vehicles, helicopters and small arms.

Officials said that many top commanders, General Petraeus among them, have advocated an expansive interpretation of the military’s role around the world, arguing that troops need to operate beyond Iraq and Afghanistan to better fight militant groups.

The order, which an official said was drafted in close coordination with Adm. Eric T. Olson, the officer in charge of the United States Special Operations Command, calls for clandestine activities that “cannot or will not be accomplished” by conventional military operations or “interagency activities,” a reference to American spy agencies.

While the C.I.A. and the Pentagon have often been at odds over expansion of clandestine military activity, most recently over intelligence gathering by Pentagon contractors in Pakistan and Afghanistan, there does not appear to have been a significant dispute over the September order.

A spokesman for the C.I.A. declined to confirm the existence of General Petraeus’s order, but said that the spy agency and the Pentagon had a “close relationship” and generally coordinate operations in the field.

“There’s more than enough work to go around,” said the spokesman, Paul Gimigliano. “The real key is coordination. That typically works well, and if problems arise, they get settled.”

During the Bush administration, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld endorsed clandestine military operations, arguing that Special Operations troops could be as effective as traditional spies, if not more so.

Unlike covert actions undertaken by the C.I.A., such clandestine activity does not require the president’s approval or regular reports to Congress, although Pentagon officials have said that any significant ventures are cleared through the National Security Council. Special Operations troops have already been sent into a number of countries to carry out reconnaissance missions, including operations to gather intelligence about airstrips and bridges.

Some of Mr. Rumsfeld’s initiatives were controversial, and met with resistance by some at the State Department and C.I.A. who saw the troops as a backdoor attempt by the Pentagon to assert influence outside of war zones. In 2004, one of the first groups sent overseas was pulled out of Paraguay after killing a pistol-waving robber who had attacked them as they stepped out of a taxi.

A Pentagon order that year gave the military authority for offensive strikes in more than a dozen countries, and Special Operations troops carried them out in Syria, Pakistan and Somalia.

In contrast, General Petraeus’s September order is focused on intelligence gathering — by American troops, foreign businesspeople, academics or others — to identify militants and provide “persistent situational awareness,” while forging ties to local indigenous groups.

Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

For the original story, visit the New York Times Online Edition here.

Video: VICE Media Presents- ‘Inside Iranian Film’

Between their Nuclear programs and president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disdain for diplomacy, Iran posses a legitimate threat to the rest of the world. Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, Iranian filmmakers are among most prolific and influential in the world today. Their government’s influence over the film industry is unlike any other. In 1978, cinemas were burned to the ground after images of American decadence were shown on screen. The medium itself was outlawed until the Ayatollah Khamenei saw a film he liked, the cinemas were reopened, and the industry grew again.

Today, this revitalized passion for film has Iran making a major impact on the world. The country’s cultural, national, and individual diversity is on view, in celluloid. In this episode, watch host Shane Smith travel to Iran for the 3rd Annual Urban Film Festival in Tehran. We take you to film sets and sound stages where we meet Iran’s top directors, actors, and clerics.

Part One (7:60 mins) | Part Two (9:30 mins ) | Part Three (5.29 mins)

Video: Al-Jazeera Special: The Blue Line Dispute

South Lebanon is one of the most volatile frontlines of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is a place where international borders are poorly-defined and disputed.

The Shebaa Farms – a sliver of land between Lebanon and Syria – has come to symbolise the potential of such ambiguous demarcations to spark hostilities.

The area was captured by Israel in 1967, along with the Golan Heights from Syria.

To this day, the Israelis remain there.

Lebanon says it owns the Shebaa Farms and Syria agrees.

But the United Nations has ruled that the area belongs to Syria.

When Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000 and the UN drew the Blue Line to verify their withdrawal, it placed the Shebaa Farms outside of Lebanon and within the Syrian Golan Heights, which are currently occupied by Israel.

Now Israel says it will only withdraw from the area via negotiations with Syria.

The Blue Line Dispute travels to the disputed region to see how the disagreement over the Shebaa Farms region is impacting those living there and whether the tensions along the border could ignite further hostilities.

The Blue Line Dispute aired from Sunday, May 23, 2010.

News: Ha’aretz- ‘Turkey to Israel: Lift blockade of Gaza’

Israel warns it would block a fleet of nine ships carrying some 700 international pro-Palestinian activists and humanitarian supplies from reaching Gaza.

By Reuters and DPA

Turkey urged Israel on Tuesday to lift its blockade of Gaza and allow a Turkish-led convoy of ships carrying humanitarian aid to enter the Hamas-controlled enclave.

Israel and Egypt closed Gaza’s borders after Hamas took control of the territory in 2007 and refused to forswear violence against the Jewish state. Gaza’s 1.5 million people face shortages of water and medicine.

An international flotilla carrying some 10,000 tons of medical equipment, housing material and other supplies is expected to reach Israeli waters by Friday, according to a Turkey-based humanitarian aid group leading the effort.

Speaking to reporters at a news conference during a UN meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his government had been in touch with Israel about the aid convoy.

“Acting calmly is necessary rather than raising already heightened tensions,” he said. “The blockade on Gaza should be lifted.”

He added: “We don’t want new tensions … We believe Israel will use common sense towards this civilian initiative.”

The Israeli government is under international pressure to relax its blockade, which the United Nations says punishes people in Gaza over the policy of Islamist Hamas, which is pledged to Israel’s destruction.

Israel warned Tuesday that it would block the fleet of nine ships carrying some 700 international pro-Palestinian activists.

A similar, but smaller, aid flotilla was prevented by Israeli authorities a year ago. Five others have made it to Gaza in recent years.

Israel argues the blockade is necessary to keep violent elements in the Gaza Strip from rearming themselves with the tools to shoot rockets into Israel.

Israeli media reported authorities saying the ships would be boarded before they could reach Gaza. Any activists on board would be arrested.

Israeli authorities have urged the convoy’s organizers to bring their goods to Gaza via a pre-approved border crossing. Organizers have said no such offer has been made.

“Ships that make their own way to Gaza don’t do anything to help the people there,” said Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Palmor said Free Gaza is “less interested in bringing help, than with advancing their radical agenda, which plays into the hands of Hamas.”

Turkey, the only Muslim member of NATO, is one of Israel’s closest allies in the Middle East but relations have soured, in part due to Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s frequent criticism of the Jewish state’s Palestinian policies.

Robert Serry, the UN’s special co-ordinator for the Middle East peace process, said the blockade could only embolden militants.

“I am particularly concerned that the current closure creates unacceptable suffering, hurts forces of moderation and empowers extremists. I call for the closure policy to end,” said Serry, who also serves as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s representative to the Palestinian Territories.

The convoy, organized by the Istanbul-based Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), includes vessels from Britain, Greece, Algeria, Kuwait, Malaysia and Ireland.

It is carrying some 20 million euros worth of supplies, making it the largest ever to the Palestinian Territories, Salih Bilici, spokesman for the pro-Palestinian IHH, told Reuters.

“Part of this mission is to draw attention to the suffering of the people of Gaza,” Bilici said. “We are not concerned that our safety is at risk, because we are a humanitarian group without political aims.”

The group is determined to deliver the aid directly to Gaza, rather than leaving it with Israeli authorities, Bilici said.

Courtesty of Ha’aretz

Opportunity: American Friends Service Committee and Interfaith Peacebuilders delegation to Israel/Palestine July 24-August 6 2010

Apply today to join American Friends Service Committee and Interfaith Peacebuilders delegation to Israel/Palestine!

Tomorrow’s Leaders: Youth Realities and Peacebuilding Initiatives
July 24 – August 6, 2010

Join Interfaith Peace-Builders and the American Friends Service Committee (Great Lakes Region) for a unique opportunity to learn about the current situation in Israel/Palestine through the eyes of youth and activists.  The on-the-ground experience will enrich your understanding of the conflict as you meet courageous Israelis and Palestinians working for peace and justice, and witness the current realities of life in Israel and occupied Palestine.

Two thirds of the Palestinian population and one third of the Israeli population are under the age of 25. More than just numbers, youth in Israel/Palestine play important roles in community development, lead nonviolent struggles for justice, and work together across national lines towards reconciliation.  They are also among the conflict’s most tragic victims.  This delegation will explore issues relevant to young people in Palestine/Israel, including efforts to educate and empower future generations working towards a just resolution to the conflict.  Our itinerary will feature meetings with Palestinian and Israeli youth and youth workers as well as leaders of civil society groups, grassroots organizers, religious leaders and more.

For more information, go to

JACOB PACE is Communications and Grants Coordinator at IFPB, and staffs the San Francisco office. Jake has worked with Partners for Peace and the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation in the US; and with the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, respectively. Jake was a delegate on an IFPB delegation in 2003 trip and co-led a 2008 trip.

MIRYAM RASHID is the Director of the Middle East Program for the American Friends Service Committee in Chicago.  Miryam lived in the occupied West Bank for five years and was involved with Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations from 1998 to 2000.   She holds an MA in Middle East Studies and has co-led AFSC-IFPB delegations to Palestine and Israel in 2006 and 2008.

COST: $2,100 includes accommodations, breakfasts, dinners, guides, support upon your return, and more.  Cost does not include airfare. Apply early to lock in low fares!

Cost, including international airfare, is approximately $3,500.

For more information, contact Miryam Rashid at or 312-427-2533 x18

Upcoming Event: UW/Michigan State Conference on Middle East Studies

When: Saturday, May 8th

Where: Pyle Center (702 Langdon Street)

Sponsored by the UW-Madison Middle East Studies Program and Michigan State’s Middle East & Mediterranean Studies Program. The first annual Middle East Studies Conference will run from 8:45 am to 4:30 pm at the Pyle Center. Four sessions will address topics such as Islamic history, Middle Eastern education, democratization, US-Iranian relations, and the role of women in Muslim societies.

For more information, please contact the Middle East Studies Program at (608) 265-6583.