Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ayza Omar at NYC in Focus

This is Ayza Omar's bio-profile from NYC in Focus:
Ayza Omar took a roundabout route to the world of journalism. A native of Lahore, Pakistan, Omar graduated from that country’s Punjab University with a bachelor’s degree in finance. She says she’s always seen herself as an entrepreneur, and could easily have joined her family’s wholesale upholstery business, but first she wanted to do something on her own.

Of the jobs she considered, journalism seemed an especially unlikely candidate: It paid less than her other options, and Omar rarely ever picked up a newspaper. Still, she was attracted to reporting because it’s “one job where you never get bored because you’re always learning,” she says.

Omar quickly discovered she had a talent for broadcasting, and became the primary anchor and reporter for the state of Punjab at the Dawn News Network. Dawn News represents an innovation in Pakistan—it’s the country’s first 24-hour news channel broadcasting in English. Along with her other duties, Omar hosted a weekly current affairs show produced by a team of the network’s reporters. She later became an associate producer, writer and anchor for a traveling info-tainment show focusing on food. After only three years in the broadcasting business, she was on track to expand her producing role with Dawn News before leaving to hone her craft at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Now living in New York City, Omar enjoys working out and reading, though she may have a harder time indulging her tastes for horseback riding and badminton. She hopes to eventually cover foreign policy stories focusing on both the U.S. and Pakistan. Still an entrepreneur, she hopes to start a company to handle outsourcing of documentary filmmaking. Even after hosting her own show, she calls herself a novice. She hopes Columbia will allow her to trade that label for a title she wants to earn: reporter.

At Liberty - Dawn News Television

At Liberty is a magazine show that explores the rich cultural heritage of the Punjab through stories about a wide variety of topics such as art, culture, sport and food, and also explores problems experienced in the region such as crime and other social issues.

Host: Ayza Omar

Day: Sunday
Time: 9:05 pm

Aired (repeat)
Day: Monday
Time: 04:30 am; 1:30 pm
Email us your feedback at atliberty@dawnnews.tv

A Passionate Activist or a Supporter of Al Qaeda?

This story was originally published by NYC in Focus on December 9, 2009.

Their numbers weren’t as large as they used to be, but supporters still showed up for Syed Fahad Hashmi. They were in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on November 12 when Judge Loretta Preska struck her gavel and brought the pre-trial hearing to a close. Her ruling: all motions denied.

Hashmi, the defendant, stood and turned to see family and friends sitting just a few feet behind him. His eyes lit up, and he smiled. The diverse group of supporters beamed back despite their disappointment that Preska had denied the motions they thought would give 29-year-old Hashmi a fair trial.

Hashmi, an American citizen, is charged with providing material and financial support to Al Qaeda. He allegedly provided that support through an acquaintance, Junaid Babar, who stayed at Hashmi’s London flat for two weeks in 2004. The U.S. government believes Hashmi loaned Babar money for the purchase of an airplane ticket to Pakistan. During his stay at Hashmi’s flat, Babar stashed what the U.S. government has called military gear; waterproof socks, raincoats and ponchos. Babar has confessed that he delivered this military gear to a high-ranking Al Qaeda official in Pakistan. Hashmi claims he was not aware of Babar’s involvement with Al Qaeda and has pleaded not guilty.

Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Hashmi moved with his family to Flushing, New York when he was three years old. By the time he graduated from Brooklyn College with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science, he had become an American citizen. In 2003, Hashmi traveled to England to pursue a master’s degree in international relations at the London Metropolitan University. Three years later, the U.S. government had issued a warrant for his arrest and the British police took Hashmi into custody at Heathrow airport. He was kept in Belmarsh prison in England for 11 months before being extradited to the U.S.

Since his extradition, Hashmi has been kept in solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Manhattan under the Special Administrative Measures (SAM) imposed by the U.S. Attorney General. These regulations have authorized the Bureau of Prisons to keep an inmate in solitary confinement 23 hours a day and to monitor all communication between the inmate and his or her attorney. They have also restricted visitation to one and a half hours every other week. Only Hashmi’s immediate family members or his attorney can visit him. He is allowed to write one letter, no longer than three pages, to a single-family member once a week, and he can only have access to filtered news clippings that are at least 30 days old.
Jeanne Theoharis, associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College, who once taught Hashmi and now is one of the supporters spearheading the “Free Fahad” campaign, remembers him as an intelligent and passionate student activist. She says Hashmi was critical of US foreign and domestic policy in the War on Terror. To family members and friends, Hashmi was a devout Muslim who had never gotten into any kind of trouble.

One of Hashmi’s attorneys, Sean Maher, had argued that Hashmi’s past associations with a radical Islamist organization should not be admissible as evidence in the upcoming trial. The organization, Al Muhajiroun, was created in 1996 in the U.K. and was led by the notorious Sheikh Omar Mohemmed Bakri, according to the Center for Policing Terrorism at the Manhattan Insititute. The group disbanded in 2004, and Maher argued that Hashmi had only briefly belonged to the organization and that he had left it by the time Babar came to stay in his flat in London and that the information could prejudice the jury.

In the courtroom, Hashmi’s supporters no longer fill all the benches. After nearly three years of imprisonment, the numbers of young and old, Asian and American, Muslims and non-Muslims who attend Hashmi’s court proceedings have decreased.

Only seconds after the judge ruled, security marshals from the Metropolitan Correctional Center blocked Hashmi’s view and guided him out of the courtroom. In the third row of pew-style benches, Hashmi’s mother suppressed a sob.

After the hearing, Hashmi’s supporters shuffled out of the courtroom and reassembled across the street under a cold November sky. Theoharis addressed the small group standing in the rain and implored them to spread the word of Hashmi’s trial so that they can pack the courtroom for his next appearance. She told them how important it is for Hashmi to see all of them vouching for him. “For Fahad’s sake,” she added before the group broke up and everyone went their separate ways.

Hashmi’s trial is scheduled to begin on January 6 in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Halal Certification Companies; a messy business.

Fauzia Hasnie and her husband travel to Chicago every two months from their home in Fort Wayne for two reasons; one – to meet their son and his wife and two- to stock up on meat.

It’s not as if there isn’t enough meat in the second largest city in Indiana, it’s just hard to find the kind of meat that the Hasnie’s are looking for.

As practicing Muslims, they only eat Halal meat, food products that are prepared in a manner that conforms to the dietary laws set out for Muslims in the Quran.

Fauzia Hasnie says she’s been shuttling meat for her family for 10 to 12 years now. It’s not unusual, she says, for her Muslim friends to travel long distances just to get the right Halal meat. There are not many shops in Fort Wayne that provide Halal and those that do have low standards, says Fauzia Hasnie.

31-year old Sarah Zaidi, a practicing Muslim and pediatrician in New York, doesn’t have to travel that far. She makes a 4-mile journey from her apartment on 96 street and Broadway every 2 weeks. But it’s not easy hauling three full chickens and 2-kilograms of minced meat through the subway, says Zaidi.

The only exception to her adherence is that she will substitute Halal with Kosher meat in a last minute cooking spree for friends and family. Kosher and Halal are essentially the same, only the prayer recited at the time of incision and the position of the knife when slaughtering the animal are different.

Halal is described in the Quran as a Muslim lifestyle. On a dietary level, it has to do with how meat is acquired, the health of the animal, the slaughter procedure, chemicals used for preservation and the mention of Allah at the time a swift incision is made. The incision is supposed to sever the jugular veins and carotid arteries at both sides of the animal’s neck. Halal slaughter technique emphasizes on being a humane way to kill hence sharpening the knife is important because it decreases the animal’s pain.

Islam defines all food as Halal if treated a certain way. However there are exceptions; pork and its by-products, alcohol, blood and by-products, carnivorous animals, birds of prey, improperly slaughtered or already dead animals do not qualify as Halal.

The animal must be of good health and should not have fed on carcass. The facility and the chemical products used to preserve the meat when being transported from city to city need to be inspected for following Halal guidelines before they can be certified.

As the Muslim community in New York grows, so does the demand for Halal products and by extension, the need for Halal-certification companies. These independent organizations are licensed by the state to, among other things, oversee slaughter of poultry and livestock so to ensure that it is done in a way that conforms to the dietary laws set out for Muslims in the Quran.

In 2000, New York became one of the first states to pass the Halal Protection Bill, which made it a misdemeanor to market food as Halal when it actually wasn’t. But a decade later, the state still cannot confirm the number of Halal companies; much less keep track of them. There is no guarantee that the small stamp used by certification companies to identify Halal meat from non-Halal is being used judiciously or not.

As a result, doubts about every Halal meat store force families like the Hasnie’s to drive as much as several hundred miles to Halal butchers or slaughter houses that they trust.

Joe Regenstein, a professor teaching a course on Kosher and Halal Food regulations at Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, believes certification standards vary among Muslims. “There are many different standards and attitudes among Muslims about certification of Halal foods. Although it is commonly accepted that some Muslims do not do a "proper" job, I would not call them sham. Unless a non-Muslim appends a Halal "certificate" or claim to a product -- which would be fraudulent, the community has the responsibility to monitor the situation.”

Certification companies are independent organizations that are licensed by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. The applicant is required to fill in a form, describing the education, training, and experience that qualify him or her to certify food as Halal. Certification companies then charge Halal slaughterhouses that approach them for a Halal certification for their products. This certification usually has to be renewed every year.

The Food and Safety Inspection department of the United States Department of Agricultural says that enlisting certification companies according to Halal and non-Halal is not part of their procedure.

Without an organized public record of Halal certification companies it becomes hard for the Muslim consumer to figure out whether the stamp from a Halal Certification company is reliable or not.

Dr. Muhammed Munir Chaudhry, the director of the Islamic Food and Nutritional Council of America (IFANCA), which is the largest Halal certification company in the United States, says the Halal bill is more ‘symbolic’ than it is effective. The onus of checking if a slaughter house meets Halal standards still lies on the consumer and not on the certification companies; a situation that could be avoided if the “Muslim consumer pushed hard enough”, says Chaudhry.

But its not like the Halal certification industry is not a lucrative business. According to PEW Research Center Publications, 6 to 8 million Muslims in North America observe Halal food laws. Even though the U.S. Census is forbidden to record a person’s religion, research done by various groups and universities suggest that there are over 600,000 Muslims in New York.

Chaudhry, estimates that American Muslim consumers spend $20 billion on food every year. He says Halal certification companies have just touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to business coverage and that there is still lots of work to do.

So why is it that the Halal certification business has not seen the boom that should have coincided with one of the fastest growing communities in New York?

Mary Anne Jackson, the president of J&M Halal certified meals, a brand that was introduced to the US military making it the first Halal certified ration for Muslim American soldiers, attempts to explain why the Halal certification industry has not grown as it was expected to in the past 15-years in her report ‘The real world of Halal from a manufacturer’s viewpoint.’

One of the reasons are that certification companies have made little to no effort in reaching out to consumers and remedying their negative image. One way to remedy this, Jackson suggests, would be to publish their procedure and standard of assessing products as Halal on their websites.

Jackson says there’s also the guardian mechanism that’s badly needed in the Halal business; a mother certification company that can keep track of all the other Halal certification companies. This will prevent slaughterhouses that have been denied certification by one Halal Certification company to obtain a stamp from another more lenient certification company.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Ayza Omar

Ayza Omar began her career as a junior reporter at Dawn News in 2006. She led a fruitful journey at the 24-hour Pakistani English-language news channel, covering local and provincial news. As an added bonus, her finance education enabled her to cover financial and economic news with an in-depth technical point of view.

Omar quickly made her way up the ladder and became the only full-time anchor at the Lahore bureau. She covered majority of the live and recorded programming at the station; most notably the Provincial Budgets (Year 2008 & 2009); the 2008 Pakistani Presidential Elections; Independence Day; the USA Presidential Elections; and International Women’s Day. She also anchored daily live news bulletins from Dawn News Headquarters in Karachi.

Omar was a key founding member in the longest and most popular current affairs show called ‘At Liberty’. More recently, she has co-produced and hosted one season of the traveling food show series, ‘For The Love Of Food’.

As a freelance journalist, Omar was Assistant Producer for a ‘Television for Environment’ documentary, ‘The Prince,’ which was aired on BBC in 2008. The film documented the journey of a young landlord’s mission to implement UN Millennium Development Goals in his village.

After three years of work experience in Pakistan, Omar is currently attending Columbia University’s MS Broadcast program on the U.S.A. Fulbright Scholarship in 2009. She further went on to win Madam Vivian Wu Yen Innovation fund scholarship from Columbia University. She was also appointed executive editor after her stint as managing editor of her class’ news website ‘NYC in Focus’ (www.nycinfocus.org).

Omar has enjoyed learning new video and writing techniques at Columbia University. Always a curious person, Omar feels journalism enables her love for learning and communicating new developments. Her future goals include undertaking theoretical/political studies, which would facilitate transitioning her political and international affair reporting to a world-class level.

My Work