‘Uber for imams’ promises to revolutionize access to religious services

‘Uber for imams’ promises to revolutionize access to religious services
Launched in the UK and US at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, ImamConnect provides an online space for imams and scholars to offer Islamic services directly and at the click of a button. (Screenshot: ImamConnect)
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Updated 12 September 2020

‘Uber for imams’ promises to revolutionize access to religious services

‘Uber for imams’ promises to revolutionize access to religious services
  • ImamConnect services include weddings, funerals, matchmaking via online portal
  • Coronavirus pandemic’s impact on Muslim way of life was catalyst for idea

LONDON: A London-based entrepreneur has launched an online platform that promises to revolutionize the way Muslims access religious services.

Launched in the UK and US at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, ImamConnect provides an online space for imams and scholars to offer Islamic services directly and at the click of a button. 

Qur’an lessons, weddings, funerals, matchmaking and more can all be found on the website, along with customer reviews, insights into the providers’ specialisms and their spoken languages.

ImamConnect’s founder Muddassar Ahmed told Arab News that the best way to think about the platform is as “Uber for imams.”

He said: “The vast majority of Western Muslims don’t have continuous access to religious services, but that doesn’t mean they don’t require them. I wanted to make those religious services more accessible.”

This became critically important when coronavirus hit and so many people’s lives were turned upside down, Ahmed added.

“During the pandemic, there was demand for things like therapy and bereavement counseling. There was a need for these services, and if you were connected to a mosque you could access them, but what happens if the mosque is shut?” he said. 

This method of accessing religious services is particularly useful for young Muslims, Ahmed explained, because many of them do not have a local mosque they regularly attend.

The fourth industrial revolution, he said, has finally arrived in the realm of religious services. “If we can order food and see a doctor through an app, we can do the same for religious services,” he added.

The launch of the online marketplace has not only allowed people to access religious services on demand throughout the pandemic, it has also given imams and scholars a 21st-century way to access new markets and audiences.

Tarek Elgawhary, a US-based imam and scholar who offers, among other things, Qur’an studies, marriage counseling and guidance for new Muslims through ImamConnect, said the platform gives him a way to finally be recognized for his work.

“This is an efficient way of organizing my time and receiving feedback — people I’ve advised leave a review, and that way I stand on my own merits,” he told Arab News.

“There’s a lot more of this type of thing on the way. Whether it’s women’s fashion, Islamic services or things linked to mindfulness, we’re starting to see that Muslims are consumers,” he said. “They have wealth to spend, and they’re selective in what they want to spend it on.”

This could be a “dawn of a new day for Muslim minority populations,” Elgawhary added, as service providers have to up their game and make sure they are catering to what their communities want.

As for ImamConnect, he said: “Much like so many other successful ideas, you’re left wondering, ‘Why has nobody done that before?’”

Emotional scenes as UN General Assembly hears of human rights abuses in Syria

Emotional scenes as UN General Assembly hears of human rights abuses in Syria
Updated 5 min 48 sec ago

Emotional scenes as UN General Assembly hears of human rights abuses in Syria

Emotional scenes as UN General Assembly hears of human rights abuses in Syria
  • Daughter tells how her father disappeared nearly eight years ago after he was arrested; calls for justice for all victims of Syrian regime
  • Verdict of German court that jailed a regime agent sends message to Assad that those who commit such crimes cannot hide, envoy says

NEW YORK: “My name is Wafa Ali Mustafa and I have not heard from my father, Ali Mustafa, for 2,801 days — almost eight years ago, when he was forcibly disappeared by the Syrian regime.”
The atmosphere in the UN General Assembly Hall changed as Mustafa spoke. She was one of three representatives of civil society who briefed members during a high-level panel discussion of the human rights situation in Syria, in particular the torture and disappearance of detainees. It came as the 10th anniversary of the start of conflict, on March 15, 2011, approaches.
“My mom, two sisters and me have never been told why he has been taken away from us or where he is being held. We just don’t know,” Mustafa said in a quavering voice. Her father is a human rights activist who took part in protests against oppression by the regime.
A journalist and activist, Mustafa told how she was herself detained in 2011 at the age of 21 “for daring to dream of a free and just Syria.” She has spent the 10 years since her release “demanding justice against the Assad regime and other groups who continue to use detention as a weapon of war.”
Mustafa graduated from university in Berlin last year. Her education meant everything to her father and yet she admitted she often finds herself wondering, like many other Syrians, whether everything she does is pointless.
“I wondered this morning, is there a point in addressing all of you today? All Syrians wonder the same,” she told the General Assembly.
However, she said that on the day she sees her father again he will ask her what she had been doing during all these years. “He will ask what we all have been doing,” she added.
Mustafa’s testimony follows the publication of a report by the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, which concluded that thousands of detainees have been subjected to “unimaginable suffering” during the war, including torture, death and sexual violence against women, girls and boys.
The Security Council tasked the commission with investigating and recording all violations of international law since the start of the conflict. It began when the regime launched a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters during the “Damascus Spring.” Since then, 400,000 people have died and millions have been forced from their homes.
“At least 20 different, horrific methods of torture used by the government of Syria have been extensively documented,” the investigators wrote in their report.
“These include administering electric shocks, the burning of body parts, pulling off nails and teeth, mock executions, folding detainees into a car tire, and crucifying or suspending individuals from one or two limbs for prolonged periods, often in combination with severe beating.”
The three-person panel investigated more than 100 detention facilities in Syria. Their findings are based on more than 2,500 interviews over the past 10 years. They concluded that none of the warring parties in Syria have respected the rights of detainees. Tens of thousands of people remain unaccounted for, missing without a trace.
“One decade in, it is abundantly clear that it is the children, women and men of Syria who have paid the price when the Syrian government unleashed overwhelming violence to quell dissent,” commission chairman Paulo Pinheiro told the General Assembly.
“Opportunistic foreign funding, arms and other support to the warring parties poured fuel on this fire that the world has been content to watch burn. Terrorist groups proliferated and inflicted their ideology on the people, particularly on women, girls and boys, as well as ethnic and religious minorities and dissenting civilians.”
He added: “Pro-government forces have deliberately and repeatedly targeted hospitals and medical facilities, decimating a medical sector prior to the arrival of the most catastrophic global pandemic in a century.
“The use of chemical weapons has been tolerated, the free flow of humanitarian aid instrumentalized, diverted and hampered — even with Security Council authorization.”
Representatives of more than 30 UN member states addressed the General Assembly. Most were united in calling for justice for the victims of the conflict and for the perpetrators to be held accountable. Without this, they agreed, a national reconciliation will be impossible.
The sentencing by a German court last week of former Syrian secret agent Eyad Al-Gharib to four-and-a-half years in prison, on charges of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity, was hailed as historic.
He had been accused of rounding up peaceful anti-government protesters and delivering them to a detention center where they were tortured. The verdict marked the first time a court outside Syria has ruled on state-sponsored torture by members of the Assad regime.
Christoph Heusgen, Germany’s permanent representative to the UN, said the verdict of the Koblenz state court sends a clear message to Assad that “whoever commits such crimes cannot be safe anywhere.” He added that “Assad’s state has turned the cradle of civilization into a torture chamber.”
The German envoy added that he deplores the “inhumane” decision by China and Russia in July 2020 to veto a UN resolution calling for two border crossings between Turkey and Syria to remain open so that humanitarian aid could be delivered to millions of civilians in the northwest of Syria.
Barbara Woodward, the UK’s permanent representative to the UN, said that each of the 32 instances of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against civilians constitutes a war crime. She vowed that Britain “will respond more robustly to any further use of chemical weapons” by the regime.
Only Russia defended the Assad regime. Stepan Kuzmenkov, senior counsellor at the Russian mission to the UN, dismissed Tuesday’s meeting, saying it was based on “accusations, lies and conjecture.”
He said the Syrian regime is being attacked because its “independence cause does not suit a number of Western countries who continue to promote practices of using force, or the threat of force, in international relations.”
Kuzmenkov criticized his UN colleagues for “not talking about the real problem: terrorism” and for “using human rights discourse to resolve short-term political goals.” He reiterated Moscow’s stance that unilateral sanctions are to blame for the suffering in Syria.
At no point in his remarks did he mention the subject at hand: torture in Syrian prisons.
The Independent International Commission of Inquiry’s report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council on March 11.
Despite all the misery, pain and loss during the prolonged conflict, Syrians still cling to hope for a better future.
“Assad’s Syria is a torture state enabled by some members of this assembly — but it will become my home again,” Mustafa told the General Assembly.
“Who am I to say there is no hope? Who are you to say that?”

Myanmar youth defy lethal crackdown

Myanmar youth defy lethal crackdown
Updated 03 March 2021

Myanmar youth defy lethal crackdown

Myanmar youth defy lethal crackdown
  • Fear of losing future pushing young people to partake in deadly protests

YANGON: Two days after Myanmar marked its bloodiest day in weeks of protests, thousands of residents returned to the streets on Tuesday in a massive show of force against the military rule.

At least 18 were killed and dozens injured in the anti-coup demonstrations on Sunday after police opened fire in different parts of Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, after attempts to disperse the crowds with stun grenades, tear gas and shots failed.

Experts say the unrelenting protests are part of the public’s fight “to unblock their future.”

“The youth are more resentful now as they feel their future has been blocked,” Aung Thu Nyeen, director of the Institute of Strategy and Policy – Myanmar, a Yangon-based think tank, told Arab News.

The political analyst commended the country’s “brave young people who are collectively leading the protests against the military dictatorship.”

Myanmar has been in a state of unrest since Feb. 1, when military leaders seized power after overthrowing the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

The coup followed a landslide win by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in the November general election. But the army rejected the results, citing poll irregularities and fraud.

During the takeover, the military detained key government leaders — including Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and several prominent activists — and declared a state of emergency, along with an announcement that the country would be under military rule for at least a year.

Myanmar has witnessed widespread protests ever since, with thousands ignoring a ban on public gatherings.

“No one can accept this military coup anymore,” Nyeen said, adding that this year’s “uprising against the military was much bigger than the 2007 and 1988 pro-democracy revolutions, as almost everyone across the country is participating in the protests.”

The past few weeks have seen some of the biggest public demonstrations in the country’s history, even as military leaders ordered the mobilization of soldiers to quell the latest wave of protests.

On Tuesday, too, there were attempts to crack down on protesters, with roads in Yangon and elsewhere in Myanmar blocked with makeshift barricades.

However, despite their fear, some of the residents said they had devised ways to protect themselves.

“Of course we are afraid, but we can’t hide at home at this time. We have to protest, and we also have to protect ourselves,” Ko Latt, a 23-year-old protester and member of Thingangyun township’s “Tank” team, told Arab News. 

The “Tank” teams comprise protestors in their twenties and above who — armed with tear gas-proof masks, homemade bulletproof jackets and other protective gear — defy the lethal crackdowns with daily demonstrations.

Analysts said that most protesters are youth who “have realized that they needed to rely on themselves to stand up against the military.”

“Myanmar has been living in a dictatorship for over 60 years, and the young people from Generation Z cannot accept to lose their future. So, they have decided to create their future themselves,” Than Soe Naing, a Yangon-based peace monitor and political commentator, told Arab News.

“They have decided that the fight against the military dictators must be the last fight of their generation. So, they will keep on fighting,” he added.

Denouncing the deadly crackdown by the military and police on Sunday as “the worst and most cunning crime against the people,” Naing said the military is up against a formidable opponent this time as they are fighting with tech-savvy youngsters.

“This revolution is led by Generation Z. The technologies they have are modern…It would seem we are getting much closer to winning,” he said.

And despite Nyeen expressing concern for the young protestors’ safety as the “troops have a good surveillance system fitted with drones,” Naing dismissed the concerns.

“At least 30 million people have participated in the protests so far. Despite the forceful crackdown, there have been only 30 deaths. It shows that the protesters are more clever than ever. So, I think this revolution will conclude successfully by the end of March,” Naing said.

Remains of 4 Filipinos killed by Daesh found in Libyan cemetery

Remains of 4 Filipinos killed by Daesh found in Libyan cemetery
Updated 03 March 2021

Remains of 4 Filipinos killed by Daesh found in Libyan cemetery

Remains of 4 Filipinos killed by Daesh found in Libyan cemetery
  • Due to the unstable security situation in Libya, the embassy was unable to send a team to Derna to search for the OFWs

MANILA: The remains of four Filipino oil workers abducted and killed by Daesh in Libya have been located after a search lasting almost six years.

The discovery of the bodies in a Libyan cemetery will pave the way for their final journey back home to the Philippines, officials said.

“We found the gravesite of the four OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) kidnapped and killed by (Daesh) six years ago,” Elmer Cato, Philippine Embassy charge d’affaires and head of mission, told Arab News on Tuesday.

Philippine officials had been working with groups in Libya to locate and recover the remains of the four OFWs – Donato Santiago, Gregorio Titan, Roladan Blaza, and Wilson Eligue – after they, along with two co-workers from Austria and the Czech Republic, were abducted by Daesh militants who attacked the Ghani oilfield in southern Libya on March 6, 2015.

Santiago was from the city of Mandaluyong in Metro Manila, Titan and Blaza from Laguna, and Eligue from Bataan. The victims were employed by Austrian contractor Value Added Oilfield Services (VAOS).

Reports said that Daesh members had broken into the company compound, killing security guards, before kidnapping the foreign workers.

“On Monday – five days before the sixth year of their disappearance – we broke the news to their families in the Philippines that we had finally found them. They were buried in a cemetery in the eastern city of Derna,” Cato said.

Earlier, Cato had revealed that there had been no leads in the case until 2017 when authorities in Derna said that the abducted workers had been executed by retreating Daesh fighters. The news came after a video showing their execution was found on a laptop seized from the slain Daesh fighters in the coastal city of Derna.

However, the victims’ bodies could not be found.

A year later, in 2018, Cato said that the Philippines Embassy had been informed that the remains of the four Filipinos may have been among those recovered by the Libyan Red Crescent in various parts of Derna and later buried there.

But due to the unstable security situation in Libya, the embassy was unable to send a team to Derna to search for the OFWs. It was only in October last year that embassy officials were able to travel to Benghazi in the hope of locating the bodies.

On Monday, Cato and other embassy officials were taken by Libyan military authorities to the Dahr Ahmar Islamic Cemetery, 10 kilometers from Derna, where they said the four OFWs and their Austrian and Czech co-workers were buried.

The embassy interviewed Libyan Red Crescent volunteers who were part of the team that had retrieved and later buried the remains of the six, as well as another volunteer who oversees burials at the cemetery.

“The volunteers were convinced that the bodies they buried there belonged to the six kidnapped foreign oil workers,” an embassy statement said.

Cato added that the Office of Migrant Workers Affairs (OMWA) had been keeping the families of the four OFWs up to date with developments and was arranging for forensic experts to assist in identifying the remains and bring them home.

“Before I left for Tripoli in 2019, I met with the families of our four kababayan (countrymen) who had been waiting for four years for news about the fate of their loved ones. I promised them that I would do everything I could to find them.

“And when we did, with the help of Libyan authorities, I somehow felt relieved knowing that I did not bring those families down, that they will soon be able to find the closure they have been waiting for. After six long years, the families of our four kababayan will finally find closure. We are indebted to our Libyan friends for making this possible,” he said.

As of 2019, there were more than 2,000 Filipinos in Libya, although fighting between rival militias for control of Tripoli and the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has prompted some to return.

UK’s Labour faces legal complaint for hiring alleged ex-Israeli intelligence operator

UK’s Labour faces legal complaint for hiring alleged ex-Israeli intelligence operator
Updated 02 March 2021

UK’s Labour faces legal complaint for hiring alleged ex-Israeli intelligence operator

UK’s Labour faces legal complaint for hiring alleged ex-Israeli intelligence operator
  • Assaf Kaplan alleged to have worked for cyber branch of Israeli Defense Forces
  • Complaint brought by lawyers representing Palestinian Labour member

LONDON: Lawyers acting on behalf of a Palestinian activist and Labour member have complained to the opposition party over its recent hire of an alleged former Israeli intelligence operator in a social media strategy role.

The party hired Assaf Kaplan as a social listening and organizing manager, described as “a crucial new role at the heart of Labour’s new approach to digital campaigning.”

The complaint from Bindmans solicitors alleges that Kaplan worked for Unit 8200, the cyber branch of the Israel Defense Forces, from 2009 to 2013.

The lawyers outline the unit’s controversial surveillance practices against Palestinian civilians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In 2014, 43 veterans of Unit 8200 signed a public letter refusing to serve in operations that focused on the occupied Palestinian territories because of civilians being surveilled, which they feared could be used for blackmail.

It is unclear what Kaplan did within the unit or whether he had any knowledge of the monitoring of citizens.

The job description for his new role at the Labour Party says the worker “will help to move the social media listening framework of the party to be laser focused on those we need to win over to form the next government.”

Bindmans solicitors say the party’s stance on the illegal occupation of Palestinian territories should have ruled out Kaplan from the role. They have urged Labour to explain the decision.

Kaplan’s hiring has also drawn a complaint from former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

Adnan Hmidan, who Bindmans are representing, was born to Palestinian parents who were forcibly removed to Jordan.

Bindmans’ letter states that Labour conferences under various leaderships have criticized Israeli annexation plans as breaching international law.

The lawyers say if Labour knew about Kaplan’s background, it has failed to consider the views of its Palestinian members, and if it did not know, it has failed to show due diligence.

Hmidan said he is concerned about the personal data of party members that Kaplan could access in his role.

UK government may try to avoid vote on foreign aid cuts

UK government may try to avoid vote on foreign aid cuts
Updated 02 March 2021

UK government may try to avoid vote on foreign aid cuts

UK government may try to avoid vote on foreign aid cuts
  • Reduction of spending in Yemen prompts questions in Parliament
  • There is enough opposition to suggest a vote could be defeated

LONDON: The UK government may cut the amount of money it spends on foreign aid without pushing a law through Parliament, so as to avoid MPs rejecting it.

The government announced last year that it planned to reduce overseas aid from 0.7 percent of gross domestic product to 0.5 percent due to the coronavirus pandemic, but it has faced criticism over the effect this could have in certain parts of the world.

In particular, a reduction in the UK’s spending in war-torn, famine-hit Yemen from £164 million ($233.36 million) to £87 million has met with stern opposition at home and abroad, with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calling it “a death sentence” for millions of people.

It has met hostility from opposition MPs and government backbenchers in large enough numbers to suggest that a vote on amending foreign aid could be defeated.

On Tuesday, Middle East and North Africa Minister James Cleverly was asked by Conservative MP Damian Green in the UK’s House of Commons whether he could “give a commitment today that further cuts won’t be made until that necessary legislation promised by ministers to this House to enact this policy has been put to a vote, so that this House can express a view?”

Cleverly failed to say if legislation would be brought to Parliament, saying he “envisaged that (the) 0.7 percent (spending) target may not be met,” and “the government is well able to listen to the mood of the House without legislation.”

Conservative MP Anthony Mangnall challenged this suggestion, saying: “If the government is so reassured by its position, then I suggest it brings a vote to the House on this issue, and they can truly gauge the strength of feeling.”

Whether the government would be able to legally cut the foreign aid budget, currently enshrined in UK law, without a vote in Parliament is unclear, and would likely be subject to judicial review if attempted.

There have also been suggestions that a vote could be attached to other votes over the upcoming UK budget, set to be announced on Wednesday, to reduce the likelihood of it being rejected. The UK is the only G7 country to have proposed reducing its foreign aid this year.