Monday, January 26, 2015

Interview with Ali. S. Wehbi, Lebanese Extreme Runner, Adventurer:

Ali Wehbi at the North Pole

Ali Wehbi at Tanzania's Uhuru Peak

Interview with Ali. S. Wehbi, Extreme Runner, Adventurer:
Overcoming challenges, promoting social causes*

On my last visit to Lebanon I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Ali S. Wehbi an Extreme Runner, Adventurer. Lebanonization is synonymous with communal conflict and the breakdown of the state. The news from Lebanon is almost always depressing due to one conflict or another.  News coverage is biased to the negative, to bad news. But there is also good news- news that inspire, that give hope and provide a good example for all of us. Such a news story is Ali Wehbi’s story. Ali’s story is a great inspiration.  When his mother died of cancer in 2005, Ali felt helpless. There was nothing that could be done medically to save the life of the person whom he loved most in the whole world. To cope with this loss, he decided to challenge himself and help others. Ali was always an athlete. He jogged and played basketball. The trauma of the loss pushed him to embrace extreme running, for a cause. He decided to push himself to overcome most challenging runs while helping causes in Lebanon. He ran for the Brave Heart fund (by running the Lebanese coast, from the Northern border to the Southern, 240km in 29h35m), ran at the north pole for the Red Cross (The Red Cross Flag from the North Pole to the ICRC), climbed the Kilimanjaro summit, Tanzania, in the memory of Talal Kassem, Roads for Life and helped raise funds and awareness about autism in Lebanon (by running 12 marathons in 12 days around Lebanon). Ali continues to challenge himself. In April 2015 he is planning to run 1000km (Beirut - Beirut) around Lebanon to help the fundraising to create a blood bank for the Lebanese Red Cross. In 2016  he is planning to run from Lebanon to Mecca (50 Days, 50 Marathons Throughout LEBANON, SYRIA, The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan & KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA  ) to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the passing away of his mother and to help fund raising to support 10 children with cancer for 1 year. He is working on a book project and continues to give motivational speech engagements.

The following are excerpts from this interview. 

 Forum &Link: Thank you for taking the time for this interview. Tell me a little about your background.

Wehbi: I am an ordinary Lebanese man who took up a challenge to help myself and help others. I was born in Lebanon and spent a number of years living in France. I have a degree in business and computers from France and work as an ICT consultant. I am happily married with two children.

F & L: Are you a professional Extreme Runner, Adventurer?

Wehbi: I am not a professional runner. Professional runners all they do is run and they have a big budget and team. I am semi professional- I still have a day job as a consultant, but I am keen on turning pro to give more and better focus for my efforts and the causes I promote.

F &L: What got you into extreme running; this is not the easiest activity to undertake, especially in a place like Lebanon?

Wehbi: The death of my mother from cancer was traumatic. It was sudden. I wanted an outlet for the intense feelings of loss and pain. I took on running. There are a lot of people facing health difficulties and many organizations helping them. I run for personal reasons and for social reasons. I help give social causes media coverage and thus help their funding.  I run for myself and for others.

F &L: You told me you wake up early in the morning to run in all kinds of weather. What gives you the energy the motivation? What challenges do you face?

Wehbi: I am driven and focused. Running in Lebanon is harder than in other countries. In Lebanon there is no infrastructure to have a proper training or park. I run on the roads and for safety reasons very early in the morning.  I start very early sometimes as early as 3 a.m., especially when I have a long run (5 to 8hrs).  Every Saturday I run Saida - Beirut, so I have to be up very early. Many days the weather is awful and I would rather sleep. But I get up, get dressed and hit the road. I have discipline and determination.

F & L: How do you balance extreme running, consulting and being a father and a husband?

Wehbi: Extreme running and the commitment of time it require a big part of my time. I have no social life and I wish I could spend more time with my friends and family whom I dearly love. I run very early and spend afternoons with my kids. But sometime I have fitness training in the afternoon at the 180 degrees Gym & Spa a great place to exercise and their support I appreciate much. Many times I have a 2nd run end in the afternoon so I spend the early evening with them. As for work most of the time I do my work in the morning. My wife is a great source of sup and encouragement.  My wife is in the medical field so she take care of all my nutrition and medical issues. She is part of what I do, and all the time support me. Her support and dedication is priceless and she is a big part of my life and what I do.

F &L: Are your children athletes? Are they going to be like you?

Wehbi: Yes, they play basketball, tennis and they are in my support team during the big run and help in the support association. About going to be like me as to extreme running, I don’t know but I know they already want to be with the Red Cross Youth once they are 18.  They play sports and are socially conscious- I am happy with that.

F & L: Tell me about your extreme running. What were the most challenging experiences?

Wehbi: Well all of them were challenging. I ran in the desert with +50 Celsius temperature and in -50 C (Antarctica and North Pole), but I can tell the hardest one maybe the North Pole. For the North Pole run I had to train inside a freezer of a big supermarket in Beirut to get used to running in the extreme cold weather of the North Pole. Imagine I was running on a treadmill in a freezer surrounded by frozen food and meat.   Running Lebanon last year was a hard task too. I had to run every day and give presentations and motivation speeches at schools and universities in the afternoon so I had no rest during the 12- day run.

F &L: Do you get any financial support from any organization or individuals?

Wehbi: BankMed is my main sponsor. Alfa, one of the two operating GSM networks in Lebanon, is supporting me in my Lebanon Run also I have a sports partner with the 180 degrees Gym & Spa Lebanon. The Red Cross sends a team of their volunteers to accompany me in the run. The Lebanese government, the Interior ministry, handles security. They are all wonderful and I am grateful to all of them.

F &L: What awards have you received?

Wehbi: In 2007 I was awarded the Lebanese Order of Merit by President Emil Lahoud, the President of the Republic of Lebanon. In 2012 I was awarded the National Order of the Cedar, Knight Grade by President Michel Suleiman the President of the Republic of Lebanon.  I was given an award by the Red Cross as well.

F &L: What are your plans?

Wehbi: #Road2MACCA is one of my biggest dreams I am working on, as well I want to write a book about endurance, hope and resilience. A book about challenging ourselves to achieve our potential, about how it’s hard, but not impossible, to be an athlete and live in a country like Lebanon, where I had to run under bomb during the 2006 war, and finally about motivation and determination.

F &L: You have an inspiring story. Would you accept an invitation to speak before Lebanese or Arab communities in the United States?

Wehbi: I would welcome this opportunity. I like to speak to the youth. I think the problem we have with the youth today is that they are fixated on indoor electronic gadgets. They need to go out more. Another issue is that personal setbacks can trigger withdrawal or even depression in some people. I say we should channel energy positively. I enjoy speaking before audiences about my story. I want to inspire the youth to channel frustrations and setbacks into positive energy.

F &L: Have you ever visited the US?

Wehbi: Yes, twos time before. But I would love to visit again. If I get an invitation I would definitely come.                                                                                        

F &L: Any final words?

Wehbi: I want to thank my sponsors BankMed, Alfa and 180 degrees Gym & Spa. I want to thank the Red Cross for ensuring my health and for Lebanese Internal Security Forces for providing me with security while running. I want to thank the organizations that provided me the opportunity to help them get exposure and funds for their worthy causes.  Special thanks to the Forum and Link and its publisher Dr. Asad Dandashli for this opportunity. 

* Interview will appear in the Forum and Link on 1/29/2015. www.forumandlinkcom

The following sources provide more information on Ali Wehbi:

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Islamic Center of America (ICA) and Imam Qazwini

Imam Qazwini with President George W Bush

Islamic Center of America

Issues beyond the person of the imam and the individual board members
The core issues are the center’s identity and mission*

The Islamic Center of America (ICA) is in the news. Rumors have been floating around the ICA and its imam for a number of years now. The matter has been written about, in the Arab- American media, on and off over the years but then the issue dies to be resurrected. The relationship between the board and the imam is the issue on the surface but deep down there are bigger issues at the heart of the ongoing dispute.

The ICA issue, Divaa Afaf Ahmad and social media

The ICA controversy only recently became hot news thanks to social media, mainly Facebook, and Lebanese American journalist Divaa Afaf Ahmad who does not fear controversy. The ethnic media and the mainstream media largely stayed away from the issue that has been part of the Dearborn rumor mill for years with allegations percolating for years. Journalist Afaf Ahmad; who has a popular radio show on 102.3 and is not afraid of taboo subjects such as homosexuality in the Arab community, gambling and other issues; raised the ICA and Qazwini  issue on her show and on her popular Facebook page, “Divaa Afaf Ahmad.”  As a result of her daring to come near this issue she was accused of “yellow journalism” and became the subject of a nasty campaign of attacks by self-declared supporters of Qazwini. Instead of substantive responses to the questions she raised, questions that were based on allegations made by others in the community for years, Afaf got nasty ad hominem attacks.  A group of self- proclaimed supporters of Qazwini initiated a campaign asking advertisers to pull their advertising from her show and for the community to boycott the radio station FM 102.3. Qazwini himself did not mince words regarding those making the allegations when he told the Arab American News on December 25, 2014 that the letters making allegations against him have an “ISIS-like tone.”      

Qazwini’s three interviews
So far Qazwini has spoken about the controversy three times-twice with Sada al Watan/The American News on December 25, 2014 and on January 9, 2015 and once with the Free Press on January 24, 2015. There are contradictions between some of the statements.  While he told Sada Al Watan in January 9, 2015 that "[T]he overwhelming majority of board members are good, noble people and have the desire to improve the ICA, but that will not stop me from saying that some brothers in the administration lack the vision” he was quoted by Niraj Warikoo in the Free Press, based on Qazwini’s Friday sermon, saying that “the entire board has to be dissolved, with the exception of the founding fathers… The entire system has to be dissolved. The by-laws have to be dissolved." This is very interesting and is bigger than the allegations made by his detractors.

The ICA: The Mission and the Identity?
Based on Qazwini’s Friday sermon the conflict is about the very identity and the mission of the ICA.  Corporate governance rules are that the board has the ultimate authority for the institution. Qazwini wants to remold the ICA. While corporate governance rules say Qazwini would go and the board and the bylaws stay, Qazwini wants the board and the bylaws to go while he stays, handpicking those who will be on the board and under his direction drafting new bylaws. The questions to be asked are: 1. Who runs the ICA? 2. What is the mission of the ICA? 3. Whose center is it?

Framing the issue: “Vatican v. Village mosque” OR heavy politics v. community center?
The two biggest issues at the core of the matter are identity of the mosque and its mission. The way Qazwini put it in January 9, 2015, he wants the ICA of America to be the “Vatican of Muslims in the United States” while his opponents want it to be a “Lebanese village mosque.” The heart of the matter is that Qazwini has injected himself and the ICA into national and international politics, a reality that not many in the community are happy with. He was a strong supporter and an advocate of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. He wants the ICA to be involved in controversial political matters. Important, respectable and serious voices in the community, people who have donated hours of their valuable time and/or donated hundreds of thousands of their hard- earned money, people whom Qazwini slights as proponents of a “village mosque”, want the ICA to be an Islamic community center much less involved in politics and more local community focused.

Qazwini’s national background: Iraqi ab initio
The ethnicity factor is another big factor that Qazwini brought up.  Qazwini raised the claim that some on the board don’t like him because he is Iraqi. This is a strange claim.  Qazwini had his position for 18 years. He was Iraqi before he was hired, during these 18 years of leadership and still is. If the board had an issue with an Iraqi they would not have given him the job for 18 years- about 6,570 days.  This is how he was quoted by Warikoo in the Free Press based on the tape of the Friday sermon:  ‘"Remove this cancer," Qazwini said of board members attacking him "who are racist….”  But this is the same board that two weeks before the Friday sermon he described as a board whose “overwhelming majority” are “good, noble people.”

From religious group to ethnic group
There is an American saying that in America all religious groups become ethnic groups. A visitor to Michigan notices the presence of ethnic houses of worship. Dearborn Heights has a Ukrainian Catholic church and a Polish Catholic church. As to the Sunni Muslim community, de facto or de jure, the Dix mosque is Yemeni, the Islamic Center of Detroit is Palestinian and the American Muslim Center is Lebanese. These houses of worship do not only have a spiritual function, they have a cultural and communal function as well. It’s against religious values to close doors to individuals based on their ethnic background but there is nothing wrong with the mosque having an identity and a culture. Many Iraqis seem much happier going to the Kerbala center on Warren where they don’t have to explain themselves or their practices and traditions.
The issue at the ICA is bigger than the imam and the individual board members. It is a question of mission and identity. Issues of mission and identity cannot be dealt with by muddling through.
* Entry will appear in the Forum and Link of 01/29/2015. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

AHRC Director Imad Hamad advocates dialogue and engagement as keys to better community-police relations

American Human Rights Council (AHRC) Executive Director Imad Hamad advocates for dialogue and communication as the keys to developing trust and partnership between the police and policed communities.

Dialogue and communication have been critical to  building good relations between the Arab- American community and law enforcement in the Detroit area.

Below is the link to the Detroit News opinion Mr. Imad Hamad published in the Detroit News:

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Lebanese Army is Untouchable- Unless it is February 1984

Amin Gemayel, President of Lebanon, 1982-1988

The Lebanese Army is the national army of all Lebanese. Currently the army seems to be engaged in conflict with one segment of the population. In a country like Lebanon, with 18 confessional groups, using the army to confront groups that belong to one confessional group is fraught with dangers- especially when that group’s perceived adversaries enthusiastically support the use of force. The modern history of Lebanon shows that different groups have at times questioned the army’s actions. Prime Minister Saeb Salam one time demanded the resignation of the army commander and when it did not happen, he himself resigned.

 Below is a refresher course on the army, the use of force and confessional implications and consequences- an excerpt from Rosemary Sayigh’s Too many Enemies: The Palestinian Experience in Lebanon (1994):

The February 1984 uprising
All through the autumn and winter the Lebanese Army continued intermittently to shell the southern suburbs from positions both east and west of the ‘Green Line”. Displaced Shi’ites piled into beach huts along the sea and shacks around Shateela and the Sports City. More than once Amal leader Nabih Berri gave warning of his power to shake the regime if the army persisted in destroying Shi’ite-inhabited areas. Feelings came to a head when General Tannous insisted on moving into positions vacated by a French unit of the multinational Forces in Shiyah, right on the edge of the southern suburbs. This was a ‘red line’ for Berri. On 4 February he called on all Muslims in the Lebanese Army to lay down arms. Since at least 60 percent of ordinary soldiers, as well as many officers, were Shi’ite his call had a devastating effect. The army in West Beirut melted, leaving only hard-core Maronites to fight their way out in two days of the worst shelling the city had seen since 1982. As a result, Beirut was divided along sectarian line into Maronite, Shi’ite and Druze battalions. The uprising of 6 February effectively ended President Gemayel’s hopes of extending his authority beyond the ‘Maronite enclave’.

p. 138

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Lebanese Sunni Community: Bombed into Communal Consciousness

Much of the literature on Lebanon has focused on the Christian and Shiite communities. There is not much written on the Sunni community.  Today much of the attention to the Sunni Lebanese community is within the context of the “threat” of the so-called Sunni Muslim fundamentalism. One of the few books to focus on the Sunni Lebanese, albeit the Beiruti Sunni Lebanese is Michael Johnson’s Class and Client in Beirut (1986). Johnson’s is a thorough study of the Beiruti Sunnis, their zaims and the clientelist system of a bygone era. Johnson had access to the Sunni zaims, in his book thanking the father of the current Prime Minister Tamam Salam, Saeb Salam.

An interesting observation/conclusion that Johnson makes as to the Lebanese Sunnis is the following excerpt:
 “The Sunnis, by contrast, had not developed a communal consciousness comparable to that of the other major confessions. They had always tended to look to Arab nationalism for their political inspiration; and though this was still an essentially confessional orientation, the Arab community with which they identified was much larger, and therefore more nebulous, than the concentrated and parochial communities of the Maronites and Druze. Even the Shi’ites, who were fragmented spatially (the northern Bekaa, South Lebanon and Beirut) and also divided over their degree of commitment to the Iranian revolution, were mainly influenced by a parochial communalism which emphasized their grievances as a deprived and disinherited, specifically Lebanese community. The attachment of the Sunni menu peuple to the values of Arabism had meant that the divisions of the Arab world had become replicated in the damaging intra-confessional conflicts between their various militias, thus leaving them with a weak sense of communal solidarity at a time when a confessional balance of military forces seemed to be the most likely framework for an end to the civil war. Thus, in a political sense, the Sunnis were the war’s main casualty among the larger Lebanese confessions, and they had to accept a decline in power and status similar to the one they had suffered with the imposition of Greater Lebanon in 1920. But their political and socio-economic resources had been much stronger during the French Mandate than they were in 1985. With the rise of the Shi’ites to a position of prominence, it was likely that they rather than the Sunnis would be the major partners of the Maronites in any new Lebanon which might conceivably emerge from the long nightmare of civil war.”
Pg. 213-214
Communal Consciousness. Imposed.
The Sunni community, given the upheaval that started with the Hariri assassination, is a changed community. It is not a radicalized community. But there is definitely a growing communal consciousness that is the outcome of a series of setbacks and challenges that began with the assassination of PM Hariri and did not end with the October 2014 clashes in Tripoli.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Jordanians, Palestinians & the Hashemite Kingdom

Adnan Abu Odeh

Jordanians, Palestinians & the Hashemite Kingdom in the Middle East Peace Process by Adnan Abu-Odeh (1999) is an excellent book on Jordan. Such an important book should have been translated and made required reading in Jordan, at least at the university level. Abu-Odeh makes an honest and frank assessment of the state of Jordan. However, unfortunately, the book has been treated as a divisive book. The book resulted in Abu odeh been ostracized by the Jordanian establishment for shedding light on inconvenient truths.

Below are excerpts:

On Communal relations:

"A survey conducted in September 1994 by the Center for Strategic Studies of Jordan University indicated that strong affinities still exist between Palestinian-Jordanians and Transjordanians. Among a nationwide sample, 64.9% of Transjordanians and 72.3 percent of Palestinian-Jordanians believed that the interaction between the two communities had molded them into one people. Interestingly, while the division of opinion among Palestinian-Jordanian opinion makers closely mirrored the opinions of Palestinian-Jordanian as a whole (62.5 percent of opinion makers considered the two groups to have been molded into one people), opinion makers in the Transjordanian community were significantly less likely than other Transjordanians to subscribe to this view (the figure for Transjordanian opinion makers was only 47.8%). This finding is not surprising when we consider that a large section of the Transjordanian elite has been involved for more than two decades in encouraging exclusivist attitudes toward Palestinian Jordanians." P. 274

De-Palestinianization of the public sector

"Trans-Jordanianization of the public sector developed in the late 1970s into de-Palestinianization- a process defended on the grounds that it constituted no more than an equitable division of labor, given Palestinian dominance of the private sector. The Transjordanian elite did not seem concerned about the long term ramifications of this unwritten policy- namely that it would aggravate and institutionalize the communal rupture.  Nor did they expect that they would lose control of Transjordanian nationalism." P. 276  

On Confederation between Palestine and Jordan:

"The confederal formula, which allows both Jordanians and Palestinians to maintain their identities, seems an ideal means of promoting mutual confidence and healing the rupture between Transjordanians and Palestinian-Jordanians.  Confederation would make it possible for a large number of Palestinian-Jordanians to vote for a Palestinian parliament while they are still residents of Jordan. Though each country would have its own head of state, the presidency of the confederation could alternate between the king of Jordan and the president of Palestine. (Should the king find such an arrangement unacceptable, the Hashemite supraregional monarch might assume the role of reigning head of the confederation.)" P. 281

Thursday, October 2, 2014

AHRC Expresses Concern Regarding the State of Human Rights in Egypt:

AHRC Expresses concern regarding the state of Human Rights in Egypt:
[Michigan, October 2, 2014]: The American Human Rights Council (AHRC) joins the US and international human rights groups expressing serious concerns regarding the state of human rights and the ongoing violations of basic rights for Egyptian citizens, visitors, journalists, NGOs, international human rights aid missions and groups compromising the basic foundation of democracy. In Egypt there is a pattern of ongoing violations of people's basic rights to live and function normally without fear, censorship, arrests, detentions and intimidation.

In a report published by Amnesty International on September 29, 2014, it noted, that   "According to official statistics, the Egyptian authorities continue to hold at least 16,000 detainees, in prisons and police stations since the ousting of former president Mohamed Morsi. Their conditions of detention frequently fall far short of international human rights standards and may amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Often the detainees face trumped up or politically motivated charges and trials that fall far short of international standards". 

According to media reports and several human rights groups as well as the US State Department and the European Union, the Egyptian government executed mass arrests against those who practiced their right of association and assembly.   The vast majority of these arrests involved peaceful citizens and activists.  Most of these detainees are being held against their will without any form or shape of due process and without any adequate legal assistant or facing any formal charges. Among the several human rights violation is the continued arrest of Mr. Mahmoud Abu Zied, A free-lancer journalist who has been held without any process for over a year.  The rise of mass arrests including children and torture is a growing challenge in Egypt. Thousands of detainees are still pending any formal process and face nothing but continued renewal of their detentions without any evidence of any crime or violation.

AHRC is deeply concerned with the situation in Egypt as to the rights of perceived opponents of the regime and the rights of Egyptian women. The Egyptian government continues its incessant campaign of persecution of peaceful protesters through the use harassment, violence and discredited military tribunals. As to women, the Egyptian government is failing at its obligation to counter the harassment of women and girls in public places.  Egypt still lacks laws that deal with the serious issue of domestic violence. This situation is intolerable.

AHRC calls upon the Egyptian government to respect human rights. As a UN member, Egypt has the legal obligation to respect the UN charter and the united declaration of human rights among other of Egypt's international obligations.  AHRC demands that the Egyptian government respect the Egyptian people's basic human rights.

"Egypt is the biggest Arab country and arguably the most important. The abuses the Egyptian government is inflicting on the Egyptian people, regardless of the pretexts, are inexcusable and should shock the conscience of the world, "said Imad Hamad AHRC acting director. "We call upon the Egyptian government to respect human rights and to obey international law and for the human rights community to engage in a sustained campaign to defend the victims of human rights violations in Egypt" continued Hamad.