Posted on July 09, 2013 in Countdown

Ramadan Mubarak

Before we get right into this week's edition of "Countdown," all of us at AAI would like to wish those observing the Islamic holy month of Ramadan a Ramadan Mubarak.

TSA's Ramadan Travel Bulletin

Speaking of Ramadan, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has published a new page within the “Traveler Information” section of their website called “Traveling During Ramadan.”  Commonplace rituals and expressions of piety including ablution (washing), prayer, and Qur’anic study and recitation are described, with the addendum that these practices may be more visible to the traveling public during the holy month. Most amusing is the characterization of tasbih, devotional practice using prayer beads: “Passengers observing Ramadan may carry prayer beads and “whisper” prayers constantly.” While the intended tone of the publication was informative, the underlying implications cannot go unnoticed. This is a reflection of the sad state of affairs in public discourse and national security policy more than a decade after 9/11. Many Americans remain woefully uninformed about basic Islamic practices, which then ostensibly must be de-mystified by a federal security agency, who also assures readers in the brief that “its security workforce” has been “reminded” that ritual practices may be observable. It’s almost like the TSA is saying, be careful everyone, Muslims may be acting more Muslim this time of year. The irony of course is that TSA’s Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program allegedly utilizes the exact types of profiling this Ramadan memo aims to discourage. We’ve been outspoken against the numerous reports and allegations of racial, ethnic and religious profiling in airports where SPOT is used. We here at Countdown have the feeling that TSA, especially the almost 3,000 Behavior Detection Officers employed by the SPOT program, could stand to read the very information that they are distributing to the travelling public.

The Risk of Further Chaos in Egypt

Despite all the warning signs, we don’t think anyone, Egyptians included, could have foreseen the events that have taken place in Egypt over the past week. What we did know heading into the Tamarrod movement protests is that Egypt is a country in political turmoil. After coming to power, Morsi and the Muslim brotherhood failed to take steps toward national reconciliation. They alienated nearly 70% of the country by clamping down on the opposition and suppressing dissent in an undemocratic fashion. By the time the Tamarrod movement got into full swing, Egyptians were divided on the way forward. Today, those divisions continue to manifest themselves in violent clashes, and one could argue that in many ways what is happening to the Muslim Brotherhood is exactly what happened to those who opposed Morsi before he was removed from power. Brotherhood leaders have been arrested and their media outlets cut off the air. Leaders of the Tamarrod protests are reportedly calling for the freedom and Justice Party to be dissolved and its leaders to be banned from the political sphere. Not surprisingly, today the Muslim Brotherhood rejected a timetable announced by interim president Adly Mansour for a referendum on a new constitution and elections for a new parliament within six months. In order for Egypt to move forward, all parties must have a say in a new government. Whatever political solution that is put in place must include Islamists, secularists and every other significant group in between or else, it seems, Egypt is at risk of falling further into chaos.

Who You Can and Can't Spy On

Apparently it’s ok to spy on certain types of Americans but not others. That’s the message some prominent members of the Republican Party, particularly those identified with the Tea Party Movement have expressed by decrying the National Security Agency (NSA)’s widespread surveillance of electronic communications. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) called the surveillance, “an unprecedented intrusion...” and others like Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have spoken out against the pervasive monitoring. We don’t often agree with Rep. Gohmert (think “terror babies”) and Sen. Cruz (think Hagel confirmation), but on this, they’re right. Yet, for some reason those same politicians strangely forget that the NSA is not the only pervasive spying program targeting Americans without criminal predicate. They have voiced no objection to widespread surveillance practices targeting Arab Americans and American Muslims not suspected of any wrongdoing. Senator Paul, who is widely known for his commitment to the Constitution and rule of law, actually supports and has arguing for re-instituting programs like NSEERS, a now-defunct program of the Department of Homeland Security which relied on profiling and the targeting of Arabs and Muslims in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The inconsistency of these self-proclaimed libertarians is unsettling. Arab Americans, who have been disproportionately targeted and monitored through programs and organizations ranging from NSA or NSEERS to the NYPD have the same protections under the law as any other citizen. Why are the privacy intrusions experienced by Arab Americans met with silence by the same politicians who claim to be the staunch defenders of liberty? To borrow Rep. Gohmert’s catchy new Twitter hashtag (used in reference to NSA surveillance): #ThisMustStop.

Threatening to Withhold Aid is Not a Policy

We're confused by some American lawmakers' positions on Egypt. We’re not beating ourselves up about it, though, because it’s quite clear to us that those lawmakers are also confused by their own stances. As pundits and experts continue to argue over what the best course of action is with regard to US policy toward Egypt in the wake of Morsi’s ouster, some members of Congress are calling for the US to withhold aid. Threatening to withhold aid seems to be the default mechanism of leverage some US lawmakers believe they have when it comes to influencing events in Egypt. Currently, US law dictates that a military coup to overthrow a democratically elected government precludes US assistance to that country. But military takeover aside, Congress has sent only mixed messages on its policy toward Egypt and toward the allocation of aid. Remember the partisan backlash the Obama administration received for engaging with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) after Mubarak was ousted in 2011? We believe it was Senator John McCain who called US engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood back in 2011 “a mistake of historic proportions.” Since then, it’s never been politically expedient for US lawmakers to support the MB. But now McCain seems upset that the Brotherhood has been overthrown and is a big proponent of cutting aid. Threatening to withdraw aid is not a policy. US policymakers should adopt an approach toward Egypt paves the way for Egyptians themselves to make their own democratic future. Members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, should keep in mind that could mean that the US should just stay out of it.

Control of the Senate in Play

While Republicans take an introspective look into their Party, issuing reports about ways to shore up support from ethnic voters, young people, and women, Democrats have more to do in order to maintain control of the Senate. The pressure is on, and the edge is with Republicans who during the upcoming midterm elections have five less seats to defend than their Democratic counterparts. With Republicans controlling the House, Democrats will be scrambling ahead of 2014 to make sure that the 20 seats up for grabs, several of them in heavily Republican states, don’t go red. Republicans on the other hand have 15 seats to defend. Republicans need to win six seats to gain control over the Senate. So do Republicans have a real chance? Well, it’s still a bit too early to tell, but one thing political analysts are pointing to as a roadblock to Republican control of the Senate is party infighting, particularly between emerging Tea Party candidates and traditional conservatives. As was the case during the last GOP presidential election primary, Tea Party candidates fire up their base and have better chances of winning primaries, but they often lack the ability to appeal to the broader electorate in general elections. Let’s just go ahead and admit that some of them flat out scare the hell out of us at times. Assuming Republicans can run candidates that have the ability to win in general elections, they will still have to beat their Democratic opponents. Can Republicans win control of the Senate? Sure, but will they? Much of the answer to that question, it seems, may have to do with the level of crazy allowed to win primary races.

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