Category Archives: Essays

Or Is It Just About Al Jazeera?

If you’ve ever watched Al Jazeera in English, then you were probably surprised by how progressive and liberal the programming was, especially if you had been led to believe by U.S. media that the propaganda that they push a pro-Islamist or anti-West agenda. At least in English, Al Jazeera often focuses on human rights, including women’s rights, especially in the Middle East and is often very critical of Arab governments. A few years ago, friends of mine who work in the media sector in Spain told me that Al Jazeera had a fantastic reputation among journalists for giving reporters editorial freedom.

With regards to what or how Al Jazeera reports in Arabic, I can’t say. I don’t speak the language, except for maybe two year old level Moroccan dialect.

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But if you know anything about the Arab World and media, then you know that Arabs love TV and they get their favorite programs from their satellite dishes. Although each country speaks its own dialect – some very distinct – they can all follow Egyptian, Lebanese/Syrian, and Gulf TV shows. In fact, most of them watch Egyptian TV shows instead of their local programming. In a country like Morocco, for example, if a person wants European content, they will watch French television, but if they want content in Arabic, they’ll watch Egyptian TV.

As we all know, there is not a single democracy in the Arab World, and all of the programming is heavily censored by the state, essentially making all television de facto state media. Then comes Al Jazeera:

  • Arabic content
  • easily and universally accessible by satellite
  • immune from local control and censorship (except with regard to Qatar); and
  • progressive stories and uninhibited political analysis.

During the second Iraq War, this drove the Bush administration nuts. The CIA went so far as to send an Al Jazeera journalist to Guantanamo for years, fully knowing he had no ties to terrorism. Add that to the fact that Al Jazeera does not have the same constraints as the U.S. media does with respect to the narrative about Israel and Palestine, and the uncontrollable Al Jazeera becomes a threat to the status quo.

During the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera drove many Arab regimes crazy. As Egypt has long been the center of popular Arabic culture, people throughout the region were glued to their televisions witnessing the popular and secular protests to oust the 30 year old Mubarak clepto-military regime. Guess which channel was giving protesters twenty-four coverage and putting them in a positive light? Similar, though smaller scale, protests started springing up in almost every country in the region from Morocco to Iran, and yet the local regimes couldn’t shut off Al Jazeera. So what several countries did was immediately force the local Al Jazeera offices to close down, including those in Morocco and Egypt.

All of this brings me to the embargo of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, based on the claim that Qatar gives material support to Iran and terrorist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. I am definitely no expert, so I can’t say whether these allegations are true, or whether Qatar is any more permissive with terrorists than say the Saudis. What I do know is that Egypt was quick to label Al Jazeera’s Arab Spring reporting as pro-Muslim Brotherhood, even though the Muslim Brotherhood was not the foremost player in the Egyptian Arab Spring. But this has long been the tactic in the Middle East. If you don’t push the totalitarian government’s official line, then you are a terrorist supporter.

So if you are Saudi Arabia you may both finance and support extremist, jihadist and non-progressive ideologies, but at the same time you are at odds with any political movement or player– be it ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran or even ones that advocate for something as basic as greater civil participation – as long as they put your absolute control over society at risk.

But now Saudi Arabia and it coalition of despots have given Qatar an ultimatum with a list of 13 demands, one of which is to immediately shut down Al Jazeera. If Al Jazeera is closed, then essentially the only media left in the Middle East will be state-controlled media. Again, I am no expert on the region, but I have my suspicions about why Qatar is under attack. The only thing more threatening for a totalitarian regime than democracy is a free press.

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The Undeniable Political Pressure to Keep Benzema off the French Team

Karim

 

UPDATES BELOW:

In declarations yesterday to the Spanish football newspaper Marca, Real Madrid footballer, Karim Benzema, said that the French national team coach, Didier Deschamps, caved into political pressure from racist portions of French society to exclude him from the team at the European Soccer Championship taking place this month in France. As you can imagine, the French political class has been quick to condemn his statements.

But is Benzema wrong? The president of the French Football Association (FFA), Noël Le Graët, has just responded saying that Benzema’s comments were “unjustifiable and inappropriate”, and Thierry Braillard, the French Secretary of State for Sports, says there is no racism in the FFA. But Benzema never said the FFA or Deschamps were racist. He said that the political pressure to make the decision had racist origins, and that is very hard to deny.

The controversy stems from a formal investigation earlier this year into whether Benzema had aided in a scheme to blackmail fellow footballer Valbuena in relation to a sex-tape. Benzema was never formally charged, let alone found guilty. The most damaging evidence against Benzema were telephone recordings with his ex-convict friend (all leaked to the press) making fun of Valbuena and his predicament.

Nonetheless, as a result of the Valbuena affair, Deschamps made the decision (together with AFF president, Noël Le Graët) to exclude Benzema from the national team and this summer’s European tournament, citing team unity and cohesiveness as the reason. France’s Prime Minister, Manuel Valls was adamant in his public statements that Benzema should be barred from the team. It should be noted that Benzema is currently France’s most talented player and just came off his best year at Real Madrid.

So was Deschamps acting under pressure relating to the current political landscape in France? That there has been political pressure is undeniable. Continue reading

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Was America Ever Greater? We’re Doing Just Fine

Back in 1936 after having honored the United States with four gold medals in front of Nazi Germany, when asked about Hitler, Jesse Owen reminded his interviewer that the U.S. president would not receive him either at the White House because he was black.

Shortly thereafter, World War II broke out in Europe causing one of history’s greatest human tragedies. America sent hundreds of thousands of its young men, black and white, to the front to help change the course of the war and reshape contemporary history. At the end of the war, the young American men returned and benefited from the greatest socioeconomic engineering campaign in American history, called the G.I. Bill. This program almost singlehandedly created the American middle class which has fueled the economy ever since. Excluded from these benefits were African Americans, with effects that are felt very much to this day, as described in Ta-Nahisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations.

Fast forward to 2016 and the White House looks like a very different place than it would have to Jesse Owens had he been treated any better by Roosevelt than he had been by Hitler.

So I don’t know what Mr. Trump is talking about. If we are going to make America better again, in which point of American history is he talking about? The one that wouldn’t let Jesse Owens into the White House? That of the Greatest Generation when our young men came back from the war to receive huge government benefits which built the middle class for White America only, while leaving Jim Crow in the South and housing discrimination in the North? It seems to me looking at the White House today that we are doing alright. At least those of us who aren’t complaining that we’re not so great anymore are doing just fine. We are doing just fine, thank you very much.

And watching the sitting President of the United States receive people at the White House to celebrate America’s unique cultural heritage, tell me whether you can think of a cooler place on Earth.

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When a Muslim Immigrant Behaves like a Lone White Male

Number of Guns

I spend a lot of time writing about how mass shootings and going postal are All American and unique to our fine and exceptional nation:

Almost every time we have a shooting spree – as American as apple pie – I react with the same observations: how (i) the U.S. is unique in the world in both the prevalence of firearms and the number of deaths by firearms, (ii) nothing serious has been done to address this, and (iii) when violence is perpetrated by someone foreign, we say it is due to the inherent violence and evilness of his culture and religion, whereas our All American shooting spree is never taken as a poor reflection on our values, even though the levels of violence in our society are overwhelmingly greater.

Map Killings

Just last week, we had such an example. Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, a Kuwati born immigrant to the U.S., went on a psychotic All American shooting spree in Chattanooga, TN. These killings followed in the footsteps of the recent White Supremacist attacks in Charleston – I’ll leave the discussion of what should and shouldn’t qualify as terrorism to Mr. Greenwald – and were almost immediately followed by a shooting spree at a movie theater in Lafayette, LA by what the New York Times described as a “Lone White Male”.

As a matter of fact, the vast majority of mass shootings in America are perpetrated by White males:

On Fox News the other day, New York congressman Peter King said: “If you know a threat is coming from a certain community, that’s where you have to look.” Proceed with caution here, Mr. King. And first take a look at that “Council on Foreign Relations” analysis of an FBI study showing that from 1980 to 2001, around two-thirds of domestic terrorism was carried out by American extremists who were not Muslims. That number actually skyrocketed to 95 percent in the years immediately after 9/11. And the magazine “Mother Jones” found that of the 62 mass shootings in America since 1982 – mass killings defined as four deaths or more – 44 of the killers were white males.

And as is always the case:

when a crazy Muslim American shoots up an American military base – something oh so uniquely American – we immediately call it terrorism and blame Islam. But if that American man had not been Muslim, as in the other 61 mass shootings during the last 30 years (seven this year alone), we’d all be talking about mental illness, how we’d be safer if everyone were armed, and generally treating the senseless murders as an unavoidable natural disaster that lasts a two day news cycle.

So it’s not surprising that in the immediate aftermath of the Chattanooga killing, it suddenly became time to call a spade a spade, blame Islam and ban entry to all Muslim immigrants.

Personally, I always thought that the only way to get meaningful gun control legislation would be in reaction to a Muslim shooting up the place. Heck, when two Muslim brothers murdered four people at the Boston Marathon with crockery – far less lethal or effective than firearms – in addition to the other charges of murder, they were prosecuted for the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (aka, pressure cookers). Yet when the bearded Mr. Abdulazeez returning from a trip to Jordan was able to purchase and use fire arms, we continue to focus on the man’s religion and not on his very apple pie weapon of choice. Think of all of the things we have to go through at airports because of a failed shoe-bomber or a failed underwear bomber, and yet there is nothing that we are ever willing to do to restrict access to fire arms in America.

At the end of the day, we love our guns more even than we hate Muslims.

But the most telling part of Mr. Abdulazeez’ story is not about how the Muslim immigrant became radicalized or about some innate violence inherent in Islam. It’s how this Muslim immigrant integrated into American society and when push came to shove, and he suffered from mental illness, he turned not to Islam per se but to that unique All American modus operandi: the shooting spree. Like every American before or after him, Mr. Abdulazeez was a mentally deranged individual discharging a firearm he had no trouble getting access to.

Just think about Mr. Abdulazeez. After all his years in America, he went on an All American rampage and essentially became, like the Lafayette cinema killer, a Lone White Male.

Rid America of all its Muslims, and there will continue to be mass shooting after mass shooting.  As long as the culture and prevalence of guns continues to mark our DNA, there will always be a reason for a crazy person to destroy life.

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In Defense of Ryan Napoli, In Contra False Outrage

ryan napoli

Full disclosure: Ryan Napoli is my brother. Nevertheless, nothing that is written here has been approved or authorized by Ryan Napoli or in any way represents his views or opinions. This is entirely based on my personal reading of the events and facts.

There is a growing phenomenon – an epidemic even — of false outrage that consumes our public discourse and is destroying the very fabric of the United States and our society. Whether it is trumped up panic over the imminent threats of Ebola, Shari’a law in the heartland, crypto-Muslim socialist presidents, vaccines gone bad, or the never-ending treasure trove of ludicrous conspiracy theories, our mainstream media, pundits and politicians are increasingly insulting our basic intelligence – while we all seem so willing to play along – to slight opponents and foes in a childish gotcha battle to gain the political upper hand in this new culture war.

When we snub our noses at the backward sectarian and tribal violence in places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan, maybe we should stop for a minute and a look in the mirror. Isn’t that where we’re headed at home by spewing the most absurd accusations and attacks based on shoddy, half-truths, partial evidence, and an all-or-nothing my team vs. your team mentality?

A fantastic example of this involves my brother, Ryan Napoli, a lawyer for the Bronx Defenders (together with his colleague Kumar Rao) accused of promoting violence against the police by appearing for under two seconds in a rap video that has been dubbed widely throughout the press as the “cop killing video” (example here) (note that no cop is actually killed in video).

The facts of the story as they pertain to Ryan Napoli, both as detailed in DOI investigation findings and through my own understanding of the events (obtained through the news, recent public statements by Kumar Rao, and my own understanding of the timeline of events) are far from damning.

In a nutshell, an employee at the Bronx Defenders whose boyfriend is a music producer asked Ryan whether the Bronx Defenders would be interested in participating in a rap video “concerning the policy brutality & police violence against unarmed citizens”. Ryan who has no authority – and never attempted to assume any such authority – to sign off on the Bronx Defenders’ participation in the video, followed office protocol and chain of command, forwarding the proposal for the project to those responsible in his organization and commented that any offensive lyrics could be edited.

From that point on, he played absolutely no decision-making role with regards to the Bronx Defenders’ role in the video.

His participation in the filming of the video was extremely limited. He neither offered to appear in the video nor sought out participation. And when he did finally agree to appear there was absolutely nothing offensive or controversial in the role that he portrays.

At no time did Ryan or anyone at the Bronx Defenders have any knowledge or reason to believe that the video would include a scene where a gun would be pointed at an actor dressed as a police officer or any other depiction of violence or threats against the police. Throughout the process, the staff at the Bronx Defenders in charge of signing off on the project were given assurances that they would have final veto rights over the lyrics and content of the video.

The record also clearly shows that the video was released without the Bronx Defenders knowledge or approval, and upon release of the video, the Bronx Defenders made an immediate statement denouncing the video and any violence against police officers and asking that their name be disassociated with the video.

The entire case against Ryan comes down to the fact that he allegedly made an email statement that he “loved the song” and thus, must of have been fully aware of certain anti-police lyrics and thus approved of them. That of course is ludicrous.

Mark Draughn’s Je Suis Bronx Defenders does any excellent job at describing the utter silliness of the claims that the video and song center around “cop killing” rather than police violence towards African Americans, and that police outrage is not about the video but something else. But I am no expert on rap lyrics or New York politics, so I will leave it there.

What is very clear is that there is absolutely nothing in the record to support any allegation that Ryan Napoli has endorsed violence against the police, engaged in any unlawful activity, or violated any rules of ethics. It was never his role or responsibility to vet the lyrics or make any assurances to anyone. He never asked to take that role and that role was never assigned to him. With the sole exception of allowing himself to appear for two seconds in the video, he made absolutely no decisions whatsoever with regards to the Bronx Defenders participation in the project, made no misrepresentations to his superiors about the project or pressured them to approve the project.

As a result, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that Ryan Napoli engaged in any misconduct at all. His only real peccadillo here was saying that “he loved” this song.

Except for pure political expediency, there is no justification for asserting that Ryan Napoli failed to exercise judgment befitting an employee of the Bronx Defenders as concluded (though not supported by the facts) by the Bronx Defenders board. Doing so would be tantamount to sanctioning the female employee whose boyfriend was the producer for her poor judgment in picking a partner.

Go ahead and call me biased. I am and will gladly accept the label. But, I don’t know anyone who I consider better at doing his job – be it a lawyer, doctor or school teacher — than my brother. In my family, as in most families, we are made up of people with vastly diverging politics, worldviews and religious beliefs. And while we often disagree on all of these things, one thing that none of us would ever dispute is that when it comes to Ryan Napoli and what he does day-in and day-out, making personal sacrifices for his clients, he is undoubtedly a hero, one that we proudly take our children to watch and learn from.

When his fiancée suddenly fell gravely ill last summer, my brother took a temporary leave of absence from work to be by her side. For three full weeks he was by her bedside literally day and night, refusing to leave her alone. When she could no longer speak, he was her voice, and when she could no longer breathe on her own, he did everything he could to convince the doctors to keep her alive. And when she finally passed, Ryan took no additional time off from work but was back in the office giving himself fully to his clients.

Ryan is the epitome of what a public interest lawyer should be. He is a role model.

But don’t take my word for it. That is exactly what anyone who interacts with Ryan Napoli on a daily basis thinks about him. Earlier this week, Ryan and Kumar’s co-workers issued a letter to the Bronx Defenders board expressing their unfaltering admiration for Ryan and Kumar. While I am not at liberty to disclose the contents of that letter, the overwhelming sentiment about Ryan Napoli and Kumar Rao was one of complete admiration. Ryan was uniformly praised as a being a tireless advocate for his clients who demonstrated a unique sense of integrity and respect for his clients’ fundamental humanity.

Of course, the police union and the press have not wanted a nuanced version of the events. No one really wants to know what Ryan Napoli or Kumar Rao actually do for the Bronx Defenders or why what they do is so important. They don’t care that Ryan Napoli is a family defense lawyer who has dedicated the vast majority of his strength the past seven years to keeping families together. Ryan Napoli has kept a steady case load of 70-105 cases at a time over these seven years. In each and every one of those cases, the stakes were enormous: a mother or father was at risk of losing a child, a child at risk of losing a parent.

Maybe if we knew what the lives of Americans were like in the Bronx, we wouldn’t be so comfortable with the image we have of ourselves.

And certainly no cares that the most damning fact in the entire investigation relating to my brother – that he said he “loved the song”, ergo he must have signed off on the lyrics – occurred two weeks after his fiancée had passed away.

Instead, we are left with the most extreme cynicism and hypocrisy. A police union that does everything in its power to shield its members from any accountability whatsoever for their actions  but calls foul at the smallest hint of a slight; in this case demanding defunding of the Bronx Defenders and disbarment for Ryan Napoli and Kumar Rao when no misconduct has been proven.

It is so indicative of our current climate that instead of accepting the Bronx Defenders’ original statements of apology and perhaps engaging directly with them in good faith, the police union made the conscious decision to ruthlessly go for the jugular. And to what end and for what purpose? Are the New York tax payers better off now that money was wasted on an investigation that concluded little more than what the Bronx Defenders had originally stated: a video was released featuring their name and lawyers without their final approval and they regret their appearance? Does anyone honestly doubt that the Bronx Defenders ever intended to promote violence against the police? I can only defer to Misters Draughn, Balko, and Greenfield on why the police union may have preferred to use all of its power and influence to damage the Bronx Defenders than to choose other less vindictive alternatives.

But what I ultimately find so troubling and outrageous about the police union’s campaign against the Bronx Defenders and staff – and the Mayor’s office’s willingness to take the bait — is that it has been clear since the beginning that neither the Bronx Defenders nor anyone within its organization (including Ryan Napoli or Kumar Rao) had any intention (or has ever had any intention) to promote anti-police violence or propaganda. In the wake of this proxy battle between the Mayor’s office and the police union, not only has Ryan Napoli’s reputation been slandered and person been threatened and defamed, these tactics of false indignation have proven themselves once again effective political tactics that only harm the interests of the American public.

[UPDATE FEB. 6, 2015: I have removed two paragraphs unrelated to the events described here and re-posted them separately here]

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My Experience with Offensive Speech after 15 Years in Europe

Spanish Basketball team

This will be my fifteenth year living in Europe. For many years, I was consistently shocked by the way Europeans could get away with all sorts of blatantly racist, anti-Semitic and otherwise offensive speech that we in America would consider either “politically incorrect”, socially unacceptable (though never illegal), or downright putting your job or personal safety on the line. For example, I simply couldn’t understand how the Spanish national basketball team could get away with something like this, how no one got fired over discussing Barack Obama like this (I actually sent numerous letters of complaint to Telecinco, with no response) (or like this), and generally how all things foreign are infantilized and treated as caricatures. In soccer stadiums, players and fans alike are constantly getting away with spewing racist insults at Black players. I recall a guy in Germany who I had just met telling me anti-Semitic jokes, and I had to do everything in my power not to clock him (and I am not even Jewish).

And of course, these types of behaviors are always shrugged or laughed off and thus become acceptable. Continue reading

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America: We the Extremists

Gitmo

Recent events – be it the death toll in Gaza, police killings of unarmed Americans, or the Torture Report – highlight that mainstream America takes positions with respect to the use of and accountability for violence that everywhere else in the world would be considered undeniably extreme. It may be time to look in the mirror and accept that we Americans are in fact extremists. Continue reading

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