Syria Strife Hits Home

Matt Flannes, who teaches a class on the Arab Spring, listens to a student discuss foreign intervention in Libya. Later, the students debated whether or not the U.S. should intervene in Syria. (Amer Taleb)

By Amer Taleb

Armed with only a stick on the outskirts of his Syrian neighborhood, Mohammad Hilou would keep watch at night and warn people if he saw the Syrian military approaching. They came one night, and they took Hilou with them.

His body — riddled with bullets and with a hole drilled in his head — was found the next morning. He was married, with two children.

“He wasn’t a hard-line revolutionary, just a normal person,” said Osamah Eljerdi, a molecular and cellular biology junior who described his relative’s gruesome death. “But he felt obligated to protect his neighborhood.”

Hilou is among the thousands of Syrians who’ve been killed by their government since the revolution started a year ago.

Government control makes it difficult to communicate with anyone in Syria. In Lebanon, which borders Syria, Eljerdi’s aunt found a YouTube video showing Hilou’s dead body. She gathered the details of his death and sent Eljerdi’s family an email with the video.
“It’s hard when you realize someone you know was killed,” he said. “You feel the impact of the tragedy.”

Surveillance cameras and cell phone taps are used so often that people get used to being spied on, said Muhammad Al-Khudair, a Near Eastern studies graduate student who lived in Homs, the “Capital of the Syrian Revolution,” for most of his life.

“Once in a while you find the courage to speak up — not in public of course — but to someone else in private,” he said. “You’re terrified for 10 or 15 days. If nothing happens, you’re safe. Then you wait a few days, speak up and the fear starts again.”

If a Syrian protested in public, Al-Khudair said a sniper’s bullet or a security agent’s torture tools could silence them. If the police feel “merciful”, he said, they’ll only slap and beat the person on the street and then let them go.

But even at home, nobody’s safe from the government, Eljerdi said.

“There’s thousands of security agents and a lot of people become suspicious of their own families,” Eljerdi added. “If they’re working for the government, your father or son will gladly throw you under the bus.”

Possibly the most destructive way to cause someone mental damage is to make them believe that the government is watching them at home, said Charles Raison, an associate professor of psychiatry.

“The more demanding something is and the less authority you have over it, the more likely you are to develop psychiatric symptoms,” he said. “Spying on people at home is how these horrible regimes operate and it’s the ultimate way to control people. It breeds insanity.”

Depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are common symptoms for people living under a dictatorship. Raison, who’s lived in Iran and is CNN’s mental health expert, said the media has been overlooking the psychological problems of people living under authoritarian Arab regimes.

“I haven’t heard anything about the long-term mental health consequences of what’s going on in the Arab Spring countries,” he said. “When all this is over, helping the victims with the horrific mental trauma they’ve experienced is one of the best long-term investments people can make for Syria.”

Cauterizing the violence is complex, especially since Russia and China oppose removing Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, said Matt Flannes, who teaches a class on the Arab Spring revolutions.

Flannes, a graduate student studying government and public policy who graduated from the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies, said he doesn’t support U.S. military intervention, but might change his stance as the situation evolves.

Because of Syria’s proximity to Israel, its economic ties with Russia and its relationship with Iran, a failed U.S. policy would set off a chain of events that could lead to anything from higher gas prices to igniting a civil war, Flannes said.

“Those who say that people who oppose intervention are friends with Assad see the world in black and white. In reality, it’s more shades of grey,” he said. “But the consequences of inaction could lead to genocide. It’s an incredibly complex issue and there’s certainly a breaking point where the international community will have to act. Maybe we’re already there.”

Al-Khudair and Eljerdi suggested different forms of intervention, but both agreed that the solution, whatever it may be, should be initiated by the Arab League. Then the international community can follow.

Describing his vision for Syria’s future, Al-Khudair said he prays a better society will rise from the ashes of destruction.

“Syria is screaming,” he said. “But justice will come soon. It has to.”


Board members walk out of meeting, are voted out

A video camera is focused on the audience before yesterday’s General Assembly meeting at the Islamic Center of Tucson. The community center’s office manager had to be told several times not to record the audience. Shortly after this photo was taken, the administration declared no more photos of the event would be allowed. (Amer Taleb)

By Amer Taleb

It was wild. And by the end of the Islamic Center of Tucson’s first General Assembly meeting of the year, all of the center’s board members were removed from office.

After waiting through a 30-minute delay and listening to the administrators speak about construction projects for two hours, the audience began interrupting.

“We’ve been listening to you for hours!” shouted one man. “When are we gonna speak?”

The bickering went back and forth, much of it from the audience complaining about the administration’s policies and lack of transparency. Sheikh Watheq Al-Obaidi, the center’s religious leader, reminded the roughly 100 people several times to remain calm.

Video played a confusing role in the meeting, one that ultimately ended the entire event.

Even though he was told several times not to, the Islamic Center’s office manager tried to video record the audience. Also, it was unclear why, but one of the board members played a video on the projector of another board member, Bilal El-Aloosy, turning in membership applications to the manager.

ICT Weekend School director Kamel Didan, who filmed the video with El-Aloosy’s permission, said the recording was uncontroversial and didn’t understand why it was shown. As soon as it played, the crowd erupted in anger, attendee Burhan Hamdan stood up and motioned to remove all of the board members.

One after another, the audience started to ‘second’ the motion, and the board tried to end it.

“Meeting adjourned,” said former board chairman Maqsood Ahmad.

He and former board members Jawad Khawaja and Fayez Swailem walked out, could not be found after the meeting and did not respond to email requests for an interview. Former board member Wali Yudeen Abdul Rahim also left and declined an interview.

After they exited the building, the meeting continued and the board members were stripped of their titles in absentia.

“The BOT(board) left the assembly without any excuse, they just ran away,” El-Aloosy said. “So the people voted them out.”

Wearing an ‘I love Libya’ shirt referencing the country’s recent revolution, David Shellouff explained why the walkout bothered him.

“We were lectured … and the minute a question came out, more lecture was thrown at us,” he said. “How can the board of a community walk out of a meeting with its members? You’re here to serve us. You can’t just pick up and run at the first sign of trouble.”

The General Assembly, in this case the audience, is the ‘supreme authority’ over the Islamic Center’s affairs, according to the center’s constitution. The constitution does not specifically say the Assembly can remove the board, but any decision voted on by the Assembly is binding, according to Didan, who is also a member of community center’s constitution committee.

Before the meeting started, president Jamil Anouti was asked by an audience member if the minimum number of people were present to constitute a General Assembly and if the meeting’s decisions would be binding. Anouti said yes.

He and public relations coordinator Ali Rustempasic declined an interview.

El-Aloosy said all of the board members, including himself and Houssam Eljerdi, the only two board members that stayed, lost their positions.

The ICT Membership Committee, which the board recently formed and then abruptly dissolved, was reinstated by a nearly unanimous vote from the General Assembly. El-Aloosy said they’ll run the center until next month’s elections for new board members.

“Everyone on the board is a completely expired person. It’s time for them to move aside. We’re in the USA, and you can’t stay on the board forever,” Didan said. “Like in the Arab Spring, a president is removed and there’s nobody left that knows how to run the country. We don’t want the same thing here in the US, let alone in the mosque.”

Best Customer Service Ever!

By Amer Taleb

I unwrap the Snickers bar I bought from a University of Arizona vending machine, bite it and almost shatter my teeth. Within 30 seconds, I was on the phone complaining.

The manager for the vending machine company, Tomdra, was cool and even though he told me he’d send someone to change the food in the machine, I didn’t believe him. I told him how thankful I was for his time (I lied) and then hung up. Yesterday I was a pissed off customer, but today, I feel like putting a gazillion dollars into that Tomdra machine. Check out what the company left me at the front desk of my job.

Snickers AND reimbursement!!!

Customer service like that makes me want to quit journalism and work for a vending machine company. really, but I did appreciate the gesture. Mad respect to Tomdra, you guys are awesome.

So how were the Snickers, you ask? Amazing.

Board meeting canceled, might be sign of bigger problems

BOT Chairman Maqsood Ahmad, pictured, refused to say why yesterday’s General Assembly meeting was canceled. (Amer Taleb)

By Amer Taleb

     The refusal of the Islamic Center of Tucson’s Chairman to explain why yesterday’s board meeting was canceled could be a sign of deeper problems within his administration.

     Two ICT administrators said the abrupt cancelation was one of many indicators that the Board of Trustees, or BOT, is not functioning as one unit or within the bounds of the ICT Constitution.

     “In the BOT, there’s a lack of transparency, but there is iron fisted control,” said BOT member Houssam Eljerdi.

     Eljerdi said other BOT members frequently disregard procedures and that he was not told why yesterday’s meeting was canceled or what it would be about.

     As the ICT’s highest administrative authority, BOT powers include setting the ICT’s polices and budget, according to the ICT Constitution. It’s unclear how many BOT members there are because of removals and resignations, but the number is likely between five and seven.

     BOT Chairman Maqsood Ahmad refused repeatedly to say why the meeting was canceled or to respond to comments criticizing him.  The cancelation was announced at the ICT after Friday Prayers around 1 P.M. The meeting was scheduled for 7:30 that night. Nearly 100 people were expected to attend, according to Eljerdi.

     Public relations coordinator Ali Rustempasic made the verbal announcement and provided the Tucson Minaret with a written copy as well. It reads:

“BOT meeting has been postponed to 2/17 after isha (prayer) inshaAllah (God willing). This will allow us to present the feedback from the following committees;

a. Constitution Review committee

b. New Development committee

c. New membership committee”

 ** (prayer) and (God willing) added

     ICT Weekend School director Kamel Didan said he was very bothered by the Chairman’s refusal to explain the cancelation, especially since ICT administrative elections are roughly a month away and many people had questions about membership and voting.

     Didan said he’s received all the BOT meeting minutes since last year indirectly from BOT members. He’s been on the ICT’s election committee, board of education and served on a committee that examined community composition, income and interest in support of Al-Huda Islamic School, which the ICT runs.

     “We don’t truly have a BOT,” Didan said. “It’s nothing but him (Chairman) running the show and keeping everybody else in the dark. What’s the difference between running a community like this and in the Middle East, third world style? It’s nothing but a farce.”

     The meetings, called General Assemblies, are meant to inform the community on BOT achievements and future plans. Didan has been to every General Assembly meeting since 2000 and said nearly all of them have been about buildings and construction.

     “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it becomes a pompous display,” Didan said. “Family issues, poverty, education … none of it figures into what they share with us and it’s very disappointing.”

     Didan said the meeting might have been canceled because the BOT had nothing to present. Eljerdi said he never saw a BOT agenda or preparation for the meeting.

     BOT member Jawad Khawaja declined an interview. BOT members AbdulMonem Fellah, Fayez Swailem and Wali Yudeen could not be reached by press time. 

     Didan said he was unsure if certain BOT actions were illegal under Arizona law, but they are certainly against the ICT Constitution.

     “You live in a country that cherishes differences of opinion, the value of argument and counterargument and doing things transparently, yet we’re in a place were you have people running things with complete impunity,” Didan said. “It’s very sad.”