April 2011

Updated version of this post on MuslimMatters

As the Middle East continues to be enveloped in political turmoil and media outlets bombard us constantly with new information, I for one had started to become desensitized to the gravity of the situation there. As sad as it sounds, after a while the stories about dreadful combat and war just become headlines you skim over. However, I was reminded of the harsh reality of the human struggle in Bahrain when I heard the heart breaking story of Zainab al-Khawaja.

Zainab al Khawaja is the daughter of a prominent Bahraini human rights activist, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. Her father has been instrumental in reporting human right abuses in Bahrain and has been in an outspoken advocate of civil rights and democracy. He recently also spoke about putting the Bahraini king on trial for perpetrating widespread corruption and crime.

About two weeks ago, security forces stormed Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja’s house and arrested him after savagely brutalizing him in front of his family. He was repeatedly beaten and was pounded to the point of unconsciousness; all this despite him offering to surrender voluntarily. When Zainab and her family tried to interfere, the women were thrust aside and her husband and brother-in-law were beaten up and arrested as well. This incident happened only after three weeks of Zainab’s uncle being arrested in a similar fashion.

Having not heard a word about her family’s whereabouts for three days, Zainab’s desperation led her to take extreme measures. In order to protest this injustice and to bring the world’s attention to her cause she decided to go on a hunger strike. She marked the beginning of her hunger strike with an open letter to the President of the United States posted on her blog, AngryArabiya.

Western powers have been opportunistic as usual when it comes to opposing regimes on humanitarian grounds. Zainab in her letter addresses President Obama and pleads to withdraw his support of the monarchy in Bahrain. If he is vocal in speaking out and helping the humanitarian cause in Libya, then at the very least he should quit supporting the Bahraini dictator she argued. Intervention from the West is based on interest, not principle it appears.

Zainab’s cause did gain reasonable attention, perhaps not as much as it deserved though. The story was blogged around and reported on websites of many major news outlets including The NewYork Times, The Guardian and BBC; I myself heard her narrative on CBC Radio. Her determination inspired hundreds of people in Bahrain, USA and Saudi Arabia who went on hunger strike to protest as well.

Suffering from extreme weakness, Zainab ended her hunger strike on its 10th day after persuasion from human right groups who wanted her to continue speaking and fighting. She also heard from her father for the first time; almost two weeks since the arrest. He called her and requested clothes for his trial; when asked about his situation he responded simply, ‘the oppression is great’. When lawyers, human rights groups and Zainab’s family went for her father’s trial they were turned away and were told they had no such person in custody. Zainab is still waiting to meet her father.

Zainab’s struggle, or her jihad, serves as a role model for those wanting to fight injustice and protest Western foreign policy. Her non-violent methodology has proved to be far more successful and demonstrates that civil disobedience, though not as dramatic, can still be quite effective and inspirational.


The devastating news of the Tohoku earthquake in Japan made headlines across the globe on Friday, March 11, 2011. The nerve wracking images and videos of the merciless tsunami waves sent shivers down our spines and gave us a glimpse of the catastrophe that had struck Japan.

A few hours after news of the earthquake, another aspect of the story started to surface. This was the story of the damage to the Fukushima nuclear reactors that were closest to the epicenter of the quake. From exaggerated reports of hazardous radiation leaks to the possibilities of a nuclear meltdown- these stories overshadowed the humanitarian crises in Japan and dominated the news for the remainder of its coverage.

There are many aspects of the news coverage that troubled me deeply. No doubt that damage to the nuclear reactor was important to report but it was frustrating to be constantly bombarded with updates of a possible radiation leak while there was no mention of the thousands that had already died and were left homeless. Media’s desire to sensationalize the news and debase the nuclear industry caused the human plight of the disaster to be ignored. This, I believe, is one of the main reasons why fundraising for this calamity has been deplorable.

As someone who currently works at a nuclear plant, I was fortunate enough to have access to information directly from sources at the Fukushima plant. It was this perspective that shielded me from the overly exaggerated and flawed reports that at times would draw outrageous parallels between Fukushima and Chernobyl. It was also this perspective that allowed me to sympathize with the workers at the plant and gave me a glimpse into the enormity of the task these people were dealing with. Imagine solving a nuclear crisis under conditions where your co-workers have passed away or your family is missing.

Since the coverage of this event has been antagonistic, the average reader is inclined to blame the operators of the plant for the crises, forgetting the fact that Fukushima has had to deal with two natural disasters simultaneously; which it has dealt with quite remarkably, might I add. Anti-nuclear protests have been spurred in several parts of the world and governments are nervous about going ahead with new builds despite the industry’s 30-year safety record.

It has only been in recent days that we have heard of harmful levels of radiation outside the plant due to a possible breach of containment. Still, the number of people affected by the nuclear incident so far is negligible compared to the thousands that have died due to the earth quake and tsunami. Many of their voices have been ignored thanks to the obsession of media outlets with news that is melodramatic but not necessarily relevant.

Originally written for The Mirror