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Dutch ‘Muslim turned Atheist’ Ayaan Hirsi Ali releases new book in US tomorrow

May 17, 2010

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Dutch ‘Muslim turned Atheist’ Ayaan Hirsi Ali releases her new book Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations in the US tomorrow May 18th. With Nomad, Hirsi Ali – who was named one of the 100 most influential people by Times Magazine in 2005 – picks up where her 2007 bestselling autobiography Infidel left off. The book’s message is directed to humanists, Christians and feminists alike. It calls on these three ‘institutions of Western civilization’ to encourage Muslim immigrants to integrate in Western society by parting with Islamic values.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia in 1969 and lived with her family in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Throughout her youth she was a dedicated Muslim that sympathized with the Muslim Brotherhood, wore a hijab and agreed with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie over his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. In 1992 Hirsi Ali sought and obtained political asylum in the Netherlands on grounds of a forced arranged marriage to a distant cousin. After she enrolled in the University of Leiden to study political science, Hirsi Ali gradually adopted Western values and lifestyle. It wasn’t until after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US though that she renounced Islam indefinitely and became an atheist.

From 2003 until 2006 Ayaan Hirsi Ali was a prominent member of the Dutch Parliament representing the VVD, the Dutch Conservative Liberal Party. The abuse, isolation and oppression of Muslim women and girls in the Netherlands were her main agenda topics. Hirsi Ali joined forces with Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh when they made Submission, a film about the abuse of women related to verses in the Koran. In 2004 Theo van Gogh was assassinated by Muslim fundamentalist Mohammed Bouyeri. Pinned to his body with a knife was a letter containing a death threat to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The Dutch secret service then raised the level of security they already provided to Hirsi Ali and temporarily moved her to a secret hiding place in the US.

Upon her return to the Netherlands Hirsi Ali resided in a highly secured apartment in The Hague. In 2006 however a judge ordered her to leave after neighbors had filed a complaint fearing for their safety. Around the same time Dutch documentary program Zembla reported that in 1992 Hirsi Ali had lied about her full name, date of birth and status as a refugee in order to obtain political asylum. Her Dutch passport was annulled by then minister of integration and immigration but later returned to her citing special circumstances.

Following the controversy around her persona, Ayaan Hirsi Ali left the Netherlands for the US in 2007 where she now works for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington DC. In Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations Hirsi Ali tells the story of her search for a new life in America. A life far away from the death threats made to her by Islamic fundamentalists in Europe.

Perhaps not far enough though. About a year ago Ayaan Hirsi Ali was looking for a Manhattan, NYC pied-a-terre and her broker brought her to see the apartment we rented at the time. As our landlord – who lived in the same building one flight down – found out there was a price on her head, the potential lease agreement died a premature death.

In Nomad, Ayaan Hirsi Ali intertwines her political with her personal story, including the reconciliation with her father on his deathbed after they had been estranged for many years. Hirsi Ali knows what she is talking about when she discusses the clash between radical Islam and Western values. Once an insider she argues that the only way for Muslims to integrate in Western society is to abandon their system of values and replace it with the values of the Western countries they choose to live in.

While she says it is fine ‘to pray, fast and pay a visit to Mekka’, all social and political principals related to Islam, such as legitimizing the killing of non-believers and the oppression and abuse of women and homosexuals must be renounced. Freedom is a great good and is even more appreciated by someone who has lived as a prisoner, says Hirsi Ali.

The Netherlands has not forgotten about Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Leading up to the Dutch release of Nomad she gave many interviews and appeared in several television shows. Respected and admired by some for her determination, eloquence and bravery to speak out, others think she exaggerates, generalizes and lacks any sense of nuance. And even though this can be expected from an activist, it does raise the question whether the manner in which she criticizes the Islam will lead to anything constructive beyond polarization.

That is not to say that Nomad isn’t an interesting and enriching book that is by all means worth reading, especially for those who enjoyed it’s forerunner Infidel. Nomad was released in the Netherlands on March 16 and came in at number 9 of the top 60 best selling books.

The good side of the Catholic Church

May 4, 2010

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Sisters of Mary

It was another black episode in the history of the Catholic Church when recently three bishops – Irish John Magee, Max Mixa from Germany and Belgian Roger Vangheluwe – resigned over abuse relates cases in one week. The ongoing stream of sexual and physical abuse cases in the Catholic Church is spreading out like a dark ink stain, first in the US and now all over Europe.

Like everyone else I feel intensely for the victims and the devastating effects the abuse, humiliation and betrayal have had on their lives. At the same time it strikes me how the entire Catholic Church is put in bad light by the scandals. Because without budging an inch when it comes to the horridness of what has happened on such a large scale, I see a different side of the Catholic Church as well. So different in fact that it almost seems a different church entirely.

On the one hand there is the hierarchical all-male church of the Vatican that often seems out of touch with reality. In this church rigidness and dogmatic beliefs rule and cover-ups for the sake of an institution and at the expense of its people have been tolerated far too long.

But there is also the grass-roots church of the street that we don’t hear about to often yet that deserves our greatest respect and admiration. Here we find innumerable hardworking, passionate priests and sisters who devote themselves everyday to the most unfortunate in society.

Father Rick at St. Helene orphanage in Haiti

This is the church of organizations like Catholic Relief Services, Caritas and big city charities such as Catholic Charities of New York. Through emergency aid as well as running food pantries, homeless shelters, educational funds and healthcare and AIDS programs they support the poor and vulnerable on a daily basis.

This is also the church of the countless missionaries in the underdeveloped world that operate schools, hospitals and orphanages thereby saving lives, nurturing children and offering them a way out of poverty.

In Haiti for example we find St. Hélène Orphanage, that ministers to the physical, emotional and educational needs of more than 500 children, and St. Damien Hospital, that provides medical care to as many as 30,000 patients annually. The missionary priests of the Fraternity of St. Charles Borromeo work around the world. In Paraguay for example they operate a clinic for the terminally ill in the city of Asunción.

In the Philippines, Korea, Mexico, Guatemala and Brazil the more then 200 Sisters of Mary manage free-of-charge relief projects. Not only do they provide the children with basic needs of a safe home, food, and education, they also prepare them in their culture and environment for a better future in their own country.

And this is only a fraction of the incredible work Catholics do globally…

Sisters of Mary

Regarding the abuse cases, the church faces an enormous challenge in attempting to restore trust amongst Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Whether it will succeed relies importantly on how church officials, under the guidance of Pope Benedict XVI, will address and acknowledge victims and are willing to make changes to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

In this effort it wouldn’t hurt the church of the Vatican to take a good and close look at its fellow Catholic’s selfless dedication to those who need them most. In Matthew 25, verse 40 Jesus said that ”whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me”.

Now may that be an inspiration.

Ralph Lauren’s love of Europe

April 22, 2010

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Ralph and Ricky Lauren in Paris

Last week was quite the week for all American fashion designer Ralph Lauren. Not only did he open a new flagship store in Paris, he was also awarded Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur by none other then the president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Lauren received the honor for his career in fashion of more then 30 years, for his achievements in building the Polo Ralph Lauren Corporation, one of the most significant lifestyle empires on the planet, and for his philanthropic activities, particularly his eager dedication to the fight against breast cancer. In honoring Ralph Lauren, President Sarkozy compared the designer to Barack Obama saying that “You represent an America we like very much – you and Barack Obama are the American dream.”

In an interview for the Style section of the International Herald Tribune, Lauren returned Sarkozy’s American tribute when he shared his love of France and Europe: “In truth, I don’t know if I am American, English or French – the world is one. […] I felt that even though I am considered an American designer, in my mind I am connected to Europe. Europeans have a very fine taste level, quality and sophistication.”

The new Ralph Lauren flagship store is situated on Paris’ left bank on the fashionable boulevard Saint-Germain in an 1866 town house that used to be an embassy and a hotel. With six floors and 13,000 sq. ft – roughly 1200 square meters – it is the largest Ralph Lauren Store in Europe. Besides the entire men’s and women’s collections, the store also houses a vintage floor, a watch salon as well as a restaurant called ‘Ralph’.

Restaurant ‘Ralph’, that will open to the public in a couple of weeks, serves all American food, including fried chicken, burgers, crab cakes and Angus beef steaks from Ralph Lauren’s cattle on his ranch in Colorado. The all-French restaurant staff flew to New York City for a week where American chef Danny Meyer, whose restaurants include Grammercy Tavern, Union Square Cafe, The Modern and Shake Shack, trained them in preparing the dishes on the menu ‘the American way’.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, the founder of the 5 billion dollar fashion empire – who turned 70 in 2009 – planned a few more novelties this year, including a newly constructed building on New York City’s Madison Avenue and the recent launch of a new fragrance called Summer Romance.

Dutch crime reporter shows prohibited footage of child serial killer

April 14, 2010

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Crime reporter Peter R. de Vries

In his crime watch show that aired on Sunday, Dutch crime reporter Peter R. de Vries showed controversial video footage of Koos H., a convicted child molester and serial killer. The footage, in which H. confesses and describes some of his murders, was captured with a hidden camera by an infiltrate – an old friend of Koos H. – that visited him in the forensic psychiatric clinic where H. serves a lifelong sentence since 1982.

In showing the tape, Peter R. de Vries ignored the court judge, who prohibited broadcasting on grounds of violation of privacy. The Netherlands has strict laws about protecting the privacy of criminal suspects and convicted criminals alike. When reporting on criminal cases for example, it is common practice to use the first name and last initial of those involved only and to cover their eyes on photos or in video.

The underlying principle of protecting a suspect’s privacy is that anyone is innocent until proven guilty. Now, when a criminal has been convicted, facilitating a fair chance of rehabilitation when released supports his right to privacy. Lifelong sentences are rare in the Netherlands so many offenders do indeed return to society sooner or later. And since studies have shown that repetitive behavior is common in criminal – sex – offenders, many in the Netherlands plead to loosen privacy rights in favor of protecting potential future victims.

In the US, of course, a criminal offender’s right to privacy is less of an issue. It has long been widely accepted to name criminals, convicted or not, by there full names and release photo and video footage. A website like even gives visitors a full overview of convicted sex offenders – name, photo and address included – that live in their neighborhood.

Koos H. in 1982

A similar arrangement is not imaginable in the Netherlands, nor would it be desirable. However, shows like Peter R. de Vries and Opsporing Verzocht, a crime watch show that is produced in partnership with the Dutch Police force, increasingly provide recognizable images and profiles of fugitives. Much like John Walsh of America’s Most Wanted, the makers of these shows call on civil responsibility in asking viewers to share information.

The US as one of two countries worldwide – the other one is the Republic of Philippines – goes even further in civilian participation in crime investigation by allowing Bounty Hunters to help capture fugitives for a financial reward.

Peter R. de Vries, though far from a bounty hunter, is a rather controversial figure in the Netherlands and considered a populist by some. Many though respect him for his thoroughness, dedication and determination in striving to help solve cases that sometimes have been cold for years. Internationally, de Vries may be best known for his interview with Joran van der Sloot, who is suspected of being involved in the disappearance of Alabama high school student Natalee Holloway on the Dutch island of Aruba in 2005.

For airing the prohibited tape on Sunday, Peter R. de Vries was ordered to pay a 15.000-euro fine – a relatively low amount that could multiply though if he decides to show more in upcoming episodes of his show. SBS, the broadcasting station that airs de Vries’ show, and producer Endemol, have already said to pay for this and any potential future penalties. They agree with Peter R. de Vries, and many in Dutch society, that in the seriousness of this case the public interest outweighs the right to privacy of a convicted criminal and therefore broadcasting is justified.

De Vries’ show with the final part of the forbidden footage is due to air next Sunday.

‘Mini-Madoff’ pleads guilty

April 8, 2010

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This week, a Kirkland, Washington based financial broker pleaded guilty to mail fraud in a case that was dubbed a mini-Madoff scheme by local attorneys. Rhonda Breard (47) admitted she stole 9.4 million dollars from her clients through Rhonda Breard & Associates, her financial advisory firm that was fully licensed under ING Financial Partners, the global financial institution of Dutch origin.

Breard became a celebrity in the local investment community by buying ad space on TV and airing her ‘Help me Rhonda’ commercials. She won clients through her “vibrant, fun and knowledgeable personality” and recommended that they sell assets and transfer the money to her advisory firm so she could purchase other investments on their behalf.

Clients even received – what now turn out to be false – account statements when in reality Breard deposited large chunks of their money to her personal account. With the stolen money she supported a lavish lifestyle, including two multi million dollar homes, an impressive fleet of cars, five motorcycles, three jetskis and five snowmobiles. Breard also treated her friends to luxurious vacations, flying them to Vegas and paying for airfare, clothing and nightclubs.

The similarities between Rhonda Breard and Bernie Madoff are evident, be it on a micro scale. Both satisfied their own greed by intentionally misleading and stealing from clients, breaching their loyalty when some trusted them with no less then their life savings. But unlike Madoff, who has not been very articulate in expressing his feelings of remorse, if any, Rhonda Breard appears to have a heavy conscience. On February 10 – the same day that her advisory firm was shuttered after she lost her broker agreement with ING Financial Partners – she allegedly attempted to commit suicide.

According to her attorney, “[Rhonda Breard] can’t undo what she has done, but she has been as constructive as possible in cooperating with authorities.” Breard also handed over all her property as compensation to her clients. On March 31st the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) permanently barred Breard from the securities industry. She is scheduled to be sentenced on July 9 and will likely face time in prison.

Moreover, we have probably not heard the last word about ING’s responsibility in this matter. Investment fraud attorneys argue that as their FINRA registered broker, ING Financial Partners should have adequately supervised Rhonda Breard as it is required to do with all of its licensed representatives. Even more so because Breard’s reputation had already been blemished: in 1991 she was fired at then employer, brokerage firm Smith Barney due to irregularities and was ordered to pay a 100.000 dollar fine.

ING Financial Partners “is exploring whether an equitable resolution can be reached with […] individuals” affected by Breard,” a company spokesman said.

Nostalgia meets high tech in Desk Phone Dock for iPhone

April 1, 2010

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When my 3 year old daughter recently saw an old fashioned telephone – one of those beige ones with a rotary dial pad and a twirled cord – she was puzzled as to what it was. Growing up with mobile devices and cordless hand held phones she had never seen anything like that. The traditional phone – more precisely its design – may be making a comeback though.

That is, if Korean technology developer Kee Utility gets it their way. The Seoul based company is introducing its Desk Phone Dock for iPhone concept at the China Sourcing Fair – the largest business to business trade show in Asia – held in Hong Kong from 12-15 April.

The Desk Phone Dock combines the functionality of a traditional land line phone, including – yes – the twirled cord, with a dock station and charger for the iPhone. You can sync or charge your iPhone via the USB hub or electrical outlet on the integrated adapter box that is provided. There is also instant muting function, two built-in stereo speakers and a 3.5-mm headphone jack.

The design of the Desk Phone Dock is quite pleasing to the eye and I wouldn’t mind having it on my desk. I also like the idea of being able to just click my phone in the dock when I get home and having it synced, charged and ready-to-go in a breeze.

My only hesitation is that while it may look and feel like you are using a land line phone you really are not. Calls would still be going through your cell phone carrier so if – like me – you make frequent long distance or international calls, you may want to hang on to your land line service to avoid excessive roaming costs.

Meanwhile I remain curious about the Desk Phone Dock, including its pricing and availability. There may be enough time to first purchase the new iPhone 4G that Apple is rumored to release this summer.

The Path to The White House: Callie Shell’s intimate portrait of Obama

March 30, 2010

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It is the dream of every news photographer, to get – almost – unlimited access to the most powerful man in the world. Time photographer Callie Shell got just that. She was Barack Obama’s personal photographer for 5 years and has captured an estimated 400.000 images of the man she calls her friend. Last night Shell presented her book The Path to The White House at the Netherlands Photo Museum in Rotterdam.

Callie Shell had been an official White House photographer for 8 years during the Clinton administration covering vice president Al Gore, when Time Magazine contracted her. For Time, Shell covered The White House and President Bush as well as John Kerry‘s presidential campaign.

It was during that campaign, in 2004, that she first met Barack Obama. Obama, who at the time was a senator in Illinois and nowhere near running for president, immediately fascinated Shell. She remembers thinking “I do not know. I just have a feeling about him. I think he will be important down the road.”

Shell convinced Time and in 2006 the magazine published her first photo essay of Obama. Since then Callie Shell has been following Barack Obama every step of the way, including his first 100 days at the White House.

© Callie Shell / Aurora

Shell was there from the early days and she witnessed Obama’s rise. She recalls that in 2007, just after Obama had announced his candidacy “We would go to rally’s and there would be nothing for him to stand on because they didn’t think anyone would show up. But then 200 or 300 people would come and Barack Obama just grabbed a crate that happened to be there and used it as a stage.”

Soon however, the tide turned. Very early in Obama’s campaign Callie Shell experienced his almost rock star-like status: “People wanted to grab him and touch him. Moms where throwing their babies at him and asked me to take pictures.” What also struck Shell is that Obama’s supporters came from all ethnic, social, and economical backgrounds.

Moreover, Obama was one of the first politicians to acknowledge that speaking up against the war in Iraq does not make you unpatriotic. This made him gain increasing popularity among families of deployed troops as well.

© Callie Shell / Aurora

Obama’s campaign team who never told her to not take a certain picture amazed Callie Shell. “In my work it’s all about gaining trust,” Shell says, and over the years she got to know Barack and Michelle Obama well. “They are very good at keeping each other grounded,” says Shell. At one occasion when Obama grumbled about having to wear black tie – “He hates black tie, he feels like a monkey” – Michelle reminded him “You wanted to be president so stop complaining.”

Callie Shell’s photo series of Obama include some precious shots of The First Couple. There is an image where Michelle falls asleep on Barack’s shoulder when they reunite after having been separated for 10 days. And there is a beautiful close-up of them dancing, showing Michelle from the back, where the expression on Barack’s face unveils true love.

One of Shell’s pictures portrays Obama with his feet on the table wearing shoes with holes. Obama called these his ‘lucky shoes’ and refused to part with them. The photo was posted and re posted around the Internet as a comparison to Sarah Palin’s big spending on clothes.

© Callie Shell / Aurora

Besides the many shots of the person behind the president – Obama asleep on the campaign bus, cleaning up after himself at an ice cream parlor or joking with his daughter in the oval office – Shell also wanted to show what is happening around the president. The images she captured therefore include staff and visitors, such as musicians and inner city kids invited at The White House.

After covering the Obama’s first 100 days at The White House, Callie Shell returned home, to South Carolina where she lives with her husband Vincent Musi, a National Geographic photographer and their son. She continues to cover special events around President Obama.