Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Facing Execution for the 'Crime' of Being a Christian In Iran

By Ben Cohen

In 2010, the Iranian regime carried out 546 executions, more than at any other time during the preceding decade, and representing an increase of around 25 per cent on the previous year. Increasingly, execution is becoming Tehran's favored method for dealing with anyone it deems an opponent -- like Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, an Iranian pastor who has refused to recant his Christian faith.

Pastor Nadarkhani's case is another grim illustration of the volatile situation faced by religious minorities living under Iran's Islamist clerics. Even though the state formally recognizes the existence of Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, these minorities are under no illusions about their subordinate status.

Since 2009, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole Iran's election to claim a further term as the country's president, the crime of "moharebeh" -- waging war against God -- has frequently been invoked against those who question the Islamic legal codes which underpin the state.

Pastor Nadarkhani's embrace of Christianity, is a prime example of "moharebeh," and carries the penalty of death. This is despite the fact that Nadarkhani maintains he has never been a Muslim as an adult. But an Islamic court has determined that he has Islamic ancestry and therefore must recant his faith.

It's important to note that the persecution of religious minorities in Iran did not begin with Ahmadinejad.

Ayatollah Khomeini, who led Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979, was clear that abandoning Islam amounts to apostasy.

In 1990, Hossein Soodmand, a Muslim who converted to Christianity in 1960 -- nearly two decades before Khomeini came to power -- was executed. Soodmand's fate proved that the Islamic Republic has no hesitation about acting retroactively in the face of such "crimes."

The only way to escape the death sentence, as Pastor Nadarkhani knows, is to publicly renounce his conversion to Christianity. That he has not done so is a humbling display of his courage, for in Iran, the death sentence is the climax of a long punishment that begins in the jails of the regime.

Recent Congressional testimony by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom detailed the torture and abuse faced by inmates whose offense is simply to adhere to a different faith, or to ascribe to an alternative set of political beliefs.

At a human rights summit in New York last week, Ahmad Batebi, a former Iranian political prisoner, gave a chilling account of his own experiences, which included having his head forced into drain filled with excrement, and being compelled to watch his friends beaten senseless in order to secure his confession.

Thousands of Iranians can offer similar testimony, among them many Christians. A recent shocking case involved Vahik Abrahamian, an Armenian Pastor carrying a Dutch passport who served a year in prison, including 44 days in solitary confinement. Abrahamian's family's spoke of the "severe mental and psychological torture" which he'd faced while in jail.

Arguably, the circumstances of those religious minorities who are not defined as "People of the Book" -- a term denoting those faiths which came before Islam's advent -- is even worse.

The 300,000 members of the Baha'i faith, whose religious beliefs crystallized in 19th century Persia, are regarded by Iran's rulers as virtually subhuman. Under Iranian law, the blood of a Baha'i is "mobah," which means that Bahai's can be killed with impunity.

When they are not being killed, Bahai's face discrimination with few parallels elsewhere in the world. In May, for example, the regime's security forces arrested and imprisoned hundreds of Bahai's who were involved in a clandestine university that had been launched only because members of their faith are legally proscribed from attending Iranian universities.

Against this bloodstained background, Ahmadinejad again flew to New York last week to address the U.N. General Assembly. His visit sparked fervent demonstrations outside the U.N. building, with many of those present demanding his arrest; as a head of state, however, Ahmadinejad is free to come and go as he pleases.

Ahmadinejad's annual jaunt to the U.N. General Assembly highlights a painful truth: as public awareness of his regime's depravity has reached unprecedented levels, the outside world has remained utterly powerless to rein him in.

"We have very little leverage in Iran," Rev. Keith Roderick, a leading advocate for the civil rights of religious minorities, told me. "Ahmadinejad is at war with the Christian church there, but our influence has diminished."

Rev. Roderick explained that on the cases of individual prisoners, intervention by Vatican or Swiss Embassy representatives in Iran can be helpful. However, the occasional act of mercy by the Iranian authorities does not change the legal or political fundamentals.

Should the Iranian regime should one day decide that it no longer needs to use its religious minorities for political window dressing, the consequences are too painful to imagine.

Ben Cohen is a political analyst and commentator based in New York. He writes frequently on Iranian and Middle Eastern issue. Follow him on Twitter @BenCohenOpinion.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

First Responder: The Untold Story of a True American Hero

As the 10th anniversary of the events of September 11th draws near, I wanted to make note of this milestone by putting my thoughts down on paper, something I’ve refrained from doing until now. As a former member of the military, and one who has always felt a deep and abiding love for this country, and what it stands for, the events of that terrible day affected me in a way I didn’t think possible. The initial and inevitable sense of unmitigated and raw anger which I first felt, gave way to a profound sense of grief that closed in on me like a dark cloud, a cloud that has prevented me from truly coming to terms with the magnitude of the events of that day.

Except for viewing, initially, the news reports those first few days, I’ve refrained from watching the footage over the past number of years, because the thought of doing so brings back remnants of that malevolent cloud that chokes me with an almost debilitating sadness. I still haven’t been able to watch the movie they made about Flight 93, as many times as I’ve felt that I should, in honor of those forty American heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice.

But somehow, even though I never went out of my way to seek out the news surrounding the events as they unfolded that clear, sunny Tuesday morning, in the weeks and months that followed, I was sure I had heard, in one way or another, most of the stories that circulated, concerning the timelines, persons and circumstances that have now become engraved in our national consciousness. When first I decided to write something, to mark this anniversary, I was at a loss as to what exactly, or possibly, I could say or relate, that hasn’t already been chewed and regurgitated hundreds, if not thousands of times, by talking heads of major news outlets, or mind numbing politicians, trying to sound patriotic, while stumping for votes for their next election.

And then, tonight, a few scant hours before the dawn of this 10th year remembrance, while flipping through the channels on TV, I came across the most remarkable interview, done just about a month ago. It was remarkable for a great many reasons, not least of all because it was the first time I had ever heard the story related, and it was being told by the very person who experienced it, a very remarkable person indeed, who, until now, was totally unknown to me, and whom I have to assume is also unknown to most people.

This person’s name is Major Heather Penney, of the District of Columbia, Air National Guard. On September 11th, 2001, then First Lieutenant Penney, call sign “Lucky,” was one of two F-16 fighter pilots who became the ultimate first responders that fateful fall morning. Shortly after the two inbound airliners slammed into the twin towers in New York, and immediately after the third commercial jet flew straight into the Pentagon, Penney, flying as wingman for Colonel Marc Sasseville, was ordered to take off immediately to meet the threat of the now fourth inbound aircraft, United Fight 93, headed for another Washington target, almost certainly the Capital building.

As remarkable as this story is, what makes it even more poignant is that because the threat of an attack on American soil was seen as such a remote possibility at the time, the 121st fighter squadron at Andrews Air Force base, outside Washington, had no fully-armed fighter jets on standby. The F-16’s that Penney and Sasseville jumped into, and immediately took off in, barely giving the flight mechanics time to remove the flight deck safety pins from various parts of the aircraft, doing it literally as they were taxing down the runway, were only equipped with 105 lead nosed bullets and no other armament of any kind. The two remaining F-16’s left on the ground we’re to be armed with AIM 9 heat seeking missiles, but they first had to be secured from an ammo dump far from the flight line.

While suiting up, and after having received orders to take out any inbound aircraft that posed a threat to Washington, D.C., Penny and Sasseville looked at each other and immediately formulated their plan. They knew they wouldn’t be able to shoot down the jumbo jet with the small amount of lead nosed ammunition they would have on board, so Colonel Sasseville said he’d ram the cockpit, and Penney agreed she’d ram the tail of the inbound airliner. For a few seconds, Penney recounted, she wondered if it would be possible to eject before ramming her fighter jet into the aircraft, but immediately realized she wouldn’t be able to guarantee a solid hit, and promptly dismissed the idea. She resolved herself to the fact that this take off would probably be her last.

We all know now that Flight 93 never reached Washington, as forty heroic passengers assaulted the hijackers in the cockpit and crashed the plane into a field in Pennsylvania. But, the F-16 pilots didn’t learn of the aircraft's fate until later that afternoon, continuing to fly air cover for most of the day, awaiting potentially hostile, inbound aircraft, and the possibility they would have to give their lives to protect our nation’s capital. Later, after the immediate threat of inbound aircraft was not realized, and after having landed and refitted with a full compliment of armament, including air to air missiles, Penney was one of the pilots who escorted Air Force One, with President Bush on board, back to Andrews Air Force Base, in Washington.

Major Penney, now a mother of two little girls, then seeing the smoke billowing from the wreckage of the Pentagon shortly after take off, remembers flying low over the survivors, while using full after burners, before starting her sweep to the Northwest, to let them know she was there and that no one else would enter the airspace she now protected, to hurt them further. When asked later what were the emotions she was feeling at the time, said she was absorbed with the urgent job at hand and had no time for emotions. "It wasn't so much that I kept my emotions in check. It was that they didn't even exist," she said. "There was significant adrenaline. It was really just, dear God please don't let me screw up."

Hearing for the first time the story of Major Penney and her fellow pilots, a story mostly untold till now, I find that dark cloud of despair I’ve felt in the past, slowly lifted, and with it a renewed sense of pride and honor in the 911 generation, one that saw 2.5 million of its members sign up for military duty, in the wake of the turmoil that surrounded this nation ten years ago, with thousands of these brave Americans since having given the last full measure of devotion, and with tens of thousands also having been wounded and maimed.

I pray that the sacrifices these Americans have suffered will never be forgotten, whether it be the innocent lives of people who were going about their daily routine, or the more than 400 first responders who rushed into harms way and paid the ultimate price, or the forty brave passengers who refused to let their plane be an instrument of terror, or the F-16 pilots like Major Penney who ensured the safety of our seat of government in this country by being willing to offer her life in exchange, or the millions of members of this nation’s military and armed forces, who are a shining beacon of hope to the dark corners of the world where freedom fights for a foothold.

The evil that visited us that terrible day ten years past, crashed planes, crumbled buildings and murdered innocents. But, as horrific as the damage was they did inflict, they failed in their task to crash, crumble or murder the spirit of this nation. That resides in the memory of our loved ones lost and in the hearts of its remaining citizens, and with it the resolve to ensure that this particular evil will never triumph, but rather eventually will breathe its last.

-Jim Giunta

To watch the full one hour C-SPAN interview with Maj. Penney, click the link below and then the link on the right side of the page called "Complete File" under the Video Playlist heading:

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ten Years -- We Are Still Missing the Lessons of 9/11

By Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser

In recent years and even weeks, the lessons of September 11, 2001 have been lost to constant distraction, the most recent being Mayor Bloomberg’s unfathomable decision to forbid people of faith a role at the tenth anniversary commemoration.

Faith was the impetus for the attack, faith was the instrument for healing, and faith is the only hope we have to defeat the ideology that attacked us ten years ago.

Bloomberg’s stance encapsulates our greatest liabilities as a nation ten years after 9/11. We, now, more than ever, lack the political will, the national skill sets, and the prominent American Muslim leadership willing to identify, engage, and defeat Islamism.

While many Muslims take the bait of victimology preached by supposed Muslim civil rights groups in America, as American Muslims the rest of us cannot continue to deny the connection no matter how unfair between certain interpretations of our faith and Al Qaeda’s brutal attack.

Usama bin Laden did not just represent a handful of militant extremists. He was a standard bearer for an end stage of a global ideology – political Islam (Islamism) – that has buried its roots deep within interpretations of our faith. Islamism is a theo-political construct that believes in the supremacy of the Islamic state and that is the antithesis of what makes America unique and exceptional. It can only be defeated by Muslims who step beyond the distractions and denials and champion an ideological path that binds our identity and faith to liberty and individual freedom.

If American Muslim leaders want to do anything to combat fear of Islamism and any unfair association of all Muslims that may exist, the most effective move would be to form an offensive strategy against Islamists and their ideas from within.

My family came to the U.S. in the 1960’s escaping Syria’s Baathist oppression in order to be free, more free than they ever dreamed of being in Muslim majority nations.

Yet, it is unconscionable that 10 years after 9/11, the United States is still dithering over the root cause of Islamist terror.

Islamists detest the very fabric of American society. September 11 was not the first attack and it was not the last. If we do not engage in a full throated ideological fight we will continue to witness an ever increasing threat to our homeland.

Sadly, the America I know that I chose to serve as a naval officer has spent an uncharacteristically sheepish decade asleep against the greatest existential threat to our survival. We must now develop and implement a coherent tactical plan to defeat the ideological root of militant Islamism- political Islam and the dreams for some Muslims of the Islamic state.

The threat to the United States has grown exponentially in ten years. A report from the Department of Justice in March of 2010 showed that of 228 terror-related arrests 186 of them were Muslim. That is over 80 percent from a Muslim community that represents less than 2 percent of the U.S. population.

What this report does not tell us is that of the 186 Muslim arrests almost certainly all of them were Muslims that believed in and adhered to an Islamist ideology. Since this report we have seen upwards of another 28 terror-related arrests of Muslims including the likes of Faisal Shahzad -- the Times Square bomber -- and Pvt. Naser Abdo who was preparing a second attack on Fort Hood who both claimed to be “Muslim soldiers” fighting for the ummah (Muslim nation).

The threat is increasing because the ideological message has largely gone unchecked. To change that we need to empower reform-minded liberal Muslim leaders. We need the political will from the Administration and Congress to identify political Islam as the problem and devout reformist Muslims and enlightened Islam as the solution. We need our government, media, and academe to have the skill set to not cower when terms like “Islamophobia” are leveled against those who are smart enough and brave enough to call out political Islam as the problem and we need for Muslims to separate religion and state to defeat Islamism. Unless we do that, our “whack-a-mole” approach to security will eventually miss one.

Western pluralistic societies that embrace individual liberty are not in conflict with the faith of Islam as practiced by most Muslims. This is not a war against a religion. We cannot allow our ideological enemy to use faith to tie our hands in this fight. Hear that Mayor Bloomberg? Mr. President? PC police? We must break the shackles of political correctness and step beyond the fear that paralyzes us against matters that happen to touch on faith.

The founding fathers never intended for faith to be sacrosanct and beyond public discourse. Perhaps the greatest outcome of the American experiment is that the U.S. Constitution reclaimed faith from the hands of the monarch and the clergy and vested it in the hands of the people as it was always intended. Now faced with an existential theo-political threat, we are failing that vision and need to rededicate ourselves to our founding principles.

The only way to win is to stop playing defense and create an offensive strategy which empowers liberty-minded Muslims whose identity is tied to Americanism and our Establishment Clause, rather than Islamism, shar’iah, and victimhood. We must tackle the fallacy of the Islamic state and demonstrate to Muslims the religious strength that comes from individual liberty.

We have yet to operationalize these lessons of 9/11. We will not win this struggle and therefore never have true national security without confronting the hard issues of Islamist ideology. Our enemy does not suffer the same malady and in fact utilizes ideology as their primary weapon in this battle.

We must do the same. Our dedication to the concepts of liberty and unyielding belief in the inalienable rights of man as endowed by our creator are the key to our victory.

Dr. Jasser is president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, a former U.S. Navy Lt. Commander and a physician in private practice based in Phoenix, Ariz. He can be reached at

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