US university pulls student speech after Jewish groups object

A man looks at his cellphone while walking at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, California. (AFP file photo)
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Updated 17 April 2024
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US university pulls student speech after Jewish groups object

  • Israel has killed at least 33,843 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory

LOS ANGELES: A top US university has canceled its plans for a graduation speech by a Muslim student over what it says are safety concerns, after pro-Israel groups criticized her selection.
The decision by the University of Southern California is the latest controversy to roil American higher education since the conflict between Israel and Hamas erupted in October.
Asna Tabassum, who has been attacked online for “antisemitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric,” had been selected as class valedictorian — an honorary role whose holder traditionally gives an address in front of up to 65,000 people.




Asna Tabassum. (Photo/ social media)

But on Monday the university’s provost, Andrew Guzman, announced the May 10 ceremony would go ahead without the speech.
“Unfortunately, over the past several days, discussion relating to the selection of our valedictorian has taken on an alarming tenor,” Guzman said in a statement.
“The intensity of feelings, fueled by both social media and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, has grown to include many voices outside of USC and has escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security.”
Guzman’s statement gave no specifics, but the Los Angeles Times quoted Erroll Southers, the university’s associate senior vice president for safety and risk assurance, as saying the institution had received threats by email, phone and letter.
Individuals “say they will come to the campus,” he said.
Tabassum criticized the decision, which she said was the result of the university “succumbing to a campaign of hate meant to silence my voice.”
“Although this should have been a time of celebration for my family, friends, professors, and classmates, anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian voices have subjected me to a campaign of racist hatred because of my uncompromising belief in human rights for all,” she said in a statement.
The Hamas attack that started the war on October 7 resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 33,843 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.
The fallout from the conflict has been felt around the world, and is particularly intense on US college campuses, where both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups say they are being victimized and silenced.
On Wednesday the president of the prestigious Columbia University in New York will become the latest campus leader to face questions from US lawmakers about whether her institution is doing enough to combat anti-Semitism in the student body.

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Philippines launches first halal travel and trade expo

Updated 14 June 2024
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Philippines launches first halal travel and trade expo

  • 10,000 visitors expected to attend the three-day SALAAM exhibition in Quezon City
  • Event features workshops, networking sessions, and culinary demonstrations

MANILA: The Philippine Department of Tourism launched on Friday the Halal Tourism and Trade Expo, SALAAM, to promote halal-certified and Muslim-friendly tourism products and services.

Tourism is a key sector for the Philippines, and its government has lately been trying to attract more Muslim visitors by ensuring that they have access to halal products and services.

The three-day event, inaugurated in Quezon City, is the first such exhibition fully hosted by the Department of Tourism and aims to expand the Philippines’ “halal tourism offerings, ensuring our country maintains its reputation for hospitality, inclusivity, and cultural sensitivity,” Tourism Secretary Christina Frasco said during the launch.

“Aligned with our National Tourism Development Plan, we have placed halal tourism high on our priority agenda to strengthen our halal tourism portfolio, raise awareness among tourism stakeholders about the values and practices important to Muslim travelers, and ensure our competitiveness in the global tourism market.”

There are some 12 million Muslims in the nearly 120 million, predominantly Catholic population of the Philippines, according to the National Commission for Muslim Filipinos.

They live mostly on the island of Mindanao and in the Sulu archipelago in the country’s south, constituting the third-largest Muslim community in Southeast Asia after Indonesia and Malaysia.

Tourism Secretary Christina Frasco, center, and other Philippine officials pose for a photo during the launching of the SALAAM Halal Tourism and Trade Expo in Quezon City. (AN Photo)

“Islamic influence in the Philippines is deeply rooted in our history and culture, particularly in the southern region of Mindanao. This region, rich in natural beauty and cultural diversity, is a testament to the harmonious coexistence of various cultures and traditions. Mindanao, with its lush landscapes, pristine beaches, and vibrant communities, is integral to our nation’s identity,” Frasco said.

“Our efforts towards becoming a more Muslim-friendly destination are not only an invitation for Muslim travelers to visit the Philippines but also a recognition of the significant contributions of our Muslim communities across the country. These Islamic influences enrich our heritage as a nation, adding to the vibrant tapestry of Filipino culture.”

Last month, the Philippines was recognized as an Emerging Muslim-friendly non-Organization of Islamic Cooperation Destination by Mastercard-CrescentRating Global Muslim Travel Index.

The index is an annual report benchmarking destinations in the Muslim travel market.

In 2023, the Philippines also won the award and has since boosted efforts to attract visitors from the Middle East.

The country has welcomed more than 2 million international travelers since the beginning of 2024 and marked a 10 percent increase in visitors arriving from Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have been among the Philippine government’s key emerging-market targets.

The Department of Tourism expects to welcome an estimated 10,000 visitors to the SALAAM exhibition, particularly foreign tourists, halal business owners, and entrepreneurs.

The event features exhibits, workshops, networking sessions, and culinary demonstrations by renowned chefs.

“The theme of this year’s expo, ‘Celebrating Excellence in Philippine Halal Tourism, Innovation, and Culture,’ perfectly encapsulates the celebration of our rich heritage, innovative spirit, and dedication to building an inclusive environment for all,” Quezon City Mayor Josefina Belmonte said during the event’s opening ceremony.

“As we navigate the path forward, let us recognize the value of collaboration among government agencies, private sectors, local communities, and international partners in achieving our goal of inclusive prosperity. Together, we can create a thriving halal ecosystem that benefits everyone.”


Japan eyes sanctions against groups in UAE for aiding Russia

Updated 14 June 2024
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Japan eyes sanctions against groups in UAE for aiding Russia

  • “I think it is important to rigorously respond to attempts to circumvent sanctions against Russia,” Kamikawa stated
  • Kamikawa said the new sanctions package against Russia is being drawn up and Japan will make an announcement soon

TOKYO: Japanese Foreign Minister Kamikawa Yoko on Friday said Japan is considering imposing sanctions against organizations in several countries, including the United Arab Emirates.
Following a decision by the United States to reimpose sanctions on over 300 firms and individuals in countries such as China, South Africa, and Turkiye for aiding Russia in its war against Ukraine, Kamikawa said Japan would follow suit.
“I think it is important to rigorously respond to attempts to circumvent sanctions against Russia,” Kamikawa stated. “Japan conveyed to the (G7) leaders that we are considering new sanctions packages, including against organizations in third countries, namely the United Arab Emirates, China, India, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.”
“We are considering sanctions against targeted organizations in these countries that are engaged in contravening sanctions. We are not specifically targeting any specific state in this way.”
Kamikawa said the new sanctions package against Russia is being drawn up and Japan will make an announcement soon.
When asked about imposing sanctions against Israel for its mass killings in Gaza, its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory and the annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights, Kamikawa was evasive in her answer.
“Regarding the critical humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, we are deeply concerned about it,” she responded. “I have been urging Israeli Foreign Minister Katz repeatedly to abide by international law, including international humanitarian law, and to bring about a sustainable ceasefire, as well as improving the humanitarian situation.”
“To reduce tensions, improve the humanitarian situation and realize a two-state solution, we are going to continue to make tenacious and active diplomatic efforts going forward.”


Italy arrests suspect over flight of Russian wanted in US

Updated 14 June 2024
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Italy arrests suspect over flight of Russian wanted in US

  • The US Justice Department said some of the equipment had been “discovered on the battlefields of Ukraine“
  • The suspect allegedly arranged for Artyom Uss to leave Italy in March 2023, the day after an Italian court ordered his extradition to the US

ROME: Italy arrested on Friday a suspect accused of helping a Russian governor’s son flee to his home nation while facing US extradition over alleged illegal export of military technology, authorities said.
The US Justice Department said some of the equipment had been “discovered on the battlefields of Ukraine.”
The suspect allegedly arranged for Artyom Uss to leave Italy in March 2023, the day after an Italian court ordered his extradition to the United States.
Artyom Uss, son of Siberian region governor Alexander Uss, was detained at Milan Malpensa airport on a US warrant in October 2022.
Washington accuses Uss of being involved in illegal schemes to export US military technology to Russia.
Despite wearing an electronic tracking bracelet, Uss went missing from his residence and several days later announced he was back in Russia.
The suspect arrested Friday, also a Russian, is suspected of having followed the decisions of the Milan court which ordered Uss’s extradition and preparing a plan for his escape.
The suspect, a Swiss resident, is also accused of “contacting the members of the gang who subsequently carried out the escape,” according to a statement from the Milan public prosecutor’s office.
Prosecutors said the 54-year-old, whose name they have not made public, was in constant contact with Uss’s family “in order to control the organization and execution of the exfiltration.”
Italian media identified the suspect as entrepreneur Dmitry Chirakadze, co-founder of the Pravo.ru group, which provides assistance to Russian court websites.
While not naming the suspect, the prosecutor’s office described the man as an aristocrat descended from a grand duke of Georgia.
He is also a shareholder in “numerous Russian companies with the involvement of members of the Uss family,” it added.
The five men who carried out the escape by car across the Balkans have all already been arrested.


Uproar in Bangladesh over Coca-Cola ad denying Israel links

Updated 14 June 2024
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Uproar in Bangladesh over Coca-Cola ad denying Israel links

  • Coca-Cola has been enjoying close ties with Israel since 1960s
  • Commercial says the beverage is ‘not from that place’

DHAKA:  Coca-Cola is under fire in Bangladesh for a recent ad aiming to distance the brand from Israel in the wake of a significant boycott resulting from the war on Gaza.

The 60-second video, which first aired on Bangladeshi TV and YouTube on June 9, shows a shopkeeper interacting with a buyer who no longer drinks Coca-Cola as it comes from “that place.” The place is not named in the clip, but seconds later it becomes clear that the reference is to Israel.

The shopkeeper says that Coke “is not at all from that place” and that it “also has a factory in Palestine,” after which the reluctant buyer orders and enjoys the drink.

Social media accounts of Coca-Cola Bangladesh were soon later flooded with comments from Bangladeshis responding to the claims.

Coca-Cola Co. has been enjoying close links with Israel since the 1960s. In 1997, the company was honored by its government for “refusing to abide by the Arab League economic boycott of Israel.”

It owns dairy farms in illegal Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley and a plant in the occupied Golan Heights.

In this context, the advert was for Bangladeshi viewers like Sohel Rahman, a businessman from Dhaka, an “attempt to fool the audience” by twisting the facts.

“Do they think the Bangladeshi people are stupid?” he said.

Sadia Ahmed, an executive from Dhaka’s Gulshan area, saw it as a “mockery” and misinformation.

“The campaign hid this information deliberately to play with the sentiments of the Bangladeshi people. The advertisers thought it would help boost its sales. But the result was the opposite,” she told Arab News. “Now, our boycotting campaign is even stronger, as Coke directly supports Israeli aggression on Palestine.”

While Coca-Cola removed the ad from its social media channels on Wednesday and no longer aired it on local TV, the video continued to make the rounds on social media, drawing comments like: “This feels desperate,” “This advertisement is trying to fool innocent people,” or “Boycott the actors too.”

Saraf Ahmed Zibon, the actor playing the main character in the ad, took to Facebook earlier this week to say he “had never been in favor of Israel” and had presented information and data that was provided to him by Coca-Cola.

The issue of Israel is very sensitive in Bangladesh, where many people say they can relate to the Palestinian struggle and resistance to Israeli occupation, and advocacy for Palestine is officially part of the country’s foreign policy.

Anything undermining the sentiment is unacceptable, especially when people “are dying every day in Gaza due to the Israeli aggression,” said Dr. Rasheda Rawnak Khan, associate professor at the Department of Anthropology of Dhaka University.

“It’s very much clear that this new Coke advertisement is political propaganda. This propaganda can’t be accepted in any case. It hurts the sentiment.”

Since the beginning of the newest Israeli onslaught on Gaza in October 2023, the Bangladeshi government and people have been repeatedly denouncing the deadly bombardment that has killed at least 37,000 Palestinians, destroyed most of the medical infrastructure in the besieged enclave, and displaced 80 percent of its population.

Part of the protest and mobilization in Bangladesh is a movement to boycott Western brands perceived as having links with Israel.

Coca-Cola’s attempt to win Bangladeshis back has resulted in the opposite.

“Coke failed to internalize the sentiment of 180 million people of Bangladesh … and made this socially and culturally (insensitive) advertisement to re-brand in the local market,” Prof. A.S.M. Amanullah, sociologist from Dhaka University, told Arab News.

“The attempt has backfired … I believe, in a couple of weeks, Coke’s sales could be reduced to 50 percent.”

Coca-Cola Bangladesh has not responded to repeated requests for comment about the commercial and its sales in the country.

A drop in demand has already been observed since October and has plunged further since the beginning of this week, with local soft drink brands coming to the fore.

“Last week, the demand was four times higher … A significant part of Coke’s annual sales used to happen during Eid Al-Adha. But this year, it seems that the total sales of Coke will fall drastically,” said Arifur Rahman, a grocery store owner at Dhanmondi, Dhaka.

“Usually, during summer, we used to sell a huge amount of Coke. But the demand started to decline from the beginning of the Gaza attack. The boycott campaign dealt a blow to Coke’s selling graph. Nowadays, people hardly ask for Coke. Instead, they are opting for different local colas.”


Putin states Russian conditions for Ukraine peace talks

Updated 14 June 2024
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Putin states Russian conditions for Ukraine peace talks

  • Russia peace proposal is not about temporary ceasefire, but for completely ending the conflict
  • Putin says West’s ‘theft’ of Russia’s assets will not go unpunished

MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that Russia would cease fire and enter peace talks if Ukraine dropped its NATO ambitions and withdrew its forces from four Ukrainian regions claimed by Moscow.
Putin said Russia was ready to guarantee the safe withdrawal of Ukrainian units in order to enable this to happen.
He was speaking on the eve of a summit in Switzerland where more than 90 countries and organizations are due to discuss a possible path toward peace in Ukraine. Russia has not been invited and says the gathering is a waste of time.
Russia controls nearly a fifth of Ukrainian territory in the third year of the war, and Ukraine says peace can only be based on a full withdrawal of Russian forces and the restoration of its territorial integrity.

President Vladimir Putin also said  that the West’s seizure of Russian sovereign assets was theft and would not go unpunished.
Putin, speaking at a meeting with Foreign Ministry officials, said the way the West had treated Moscow showed that “anyone” could be next and fall victim to a similar Western asset freeze.
Putin spoke a day after the leaders of the Group of Seven major democracies agreed on an outline deal to provide $50 billion of loans for Ukraine using interest from Russian sovereign assets frozen after Moscow sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine in 2022 in what it called a special military operation.