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The Common Ground News Service (CGNews) aims to promote constructive perspectives and dialogue on a broad range of issues affecting Arab-Israeli & Muslim-Western relations. CGNews is available in Arabic, English, French, Hebrew, Indonesian and Urdu. To subscribe, click here. For an archive of past CGNews articles, please visit our website at www.commongroundnews.org.
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Dear readers,

The weekly edition of CGNews-Partners in Humanity will resume on 5 January 2010, after a two-week break. We wish you all a joyous close to 2009 and a peaceful 2010.

- The CGNews Team

* Due to technical difficulties there was a slight delay in delivery of this week's edition. We apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused.
Inside this edition  
15 - 21 December 2009
Violence against women is not a tenet of Islam
by Naazish YarKhan
Author and NPR commentator Naazish YarKhan explains how certain verses in the Qur'an that have been quoted as advocating violence against women have been taken out of context in this fifth article in a series on the myth that Islam is inherently violent.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 15 December 2009)
Teaching faith in America's schools
by Dilara Hafiz
Dilara Hafiz, author and Vice President of the Arizona Interfaith Movement, examines how teaching Islam in schools in the context of other world belief systems, as well as agnosticism and atheism, could help overcome intolerance and generate more informed discussions of contemporary politics.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 15 December 2009)
Of bells and minarets
by René Guitton
On the heels of the Swiss ban on constructing minarets, René Guitton, writer, essayist and 2009 Human Rights Prize winner, puts a recent event into a global context, and considers historical examples of religious diversity that have relevance today.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 15 December 2009)
Is the Swiss ban an opportunity?
by Richard Chartres and Ali Gomaa
Rt. Revd and Rt. Hon. Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, and Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, stress the importance of using the recent Swiss referendum in support of banning minarets as a serious opportunity to come together to discuss ways to help recognise differences, especially religious ones, while uniting in the pursuit of the common good.
(Source: On Faith, 10 December 2009; Guardian, 11 December 2009)
Ibn Battuta on the big, big screen
by Nabila Pathan
British writer and broadcaster Nabila Pathan examines the newly released IMAX film Journey to Mecca, which chronicles the journey of 14th century Muslim explorer Ibn Battuta from Tangier to Mecca and features unprecedented, larger-than-life, modern day footage of the Hajj.
(Source: Altmuslim.com, 11 December 2009)
Violence against women is not a tenet of Islam
Naazish YarKhan
Glendale Heights, Illinois - Listening to the radio one day, I was shocked to hear the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) report on widespread occurrence of rape in Afghanistan. As a Muslim who knows that the core of her religion is about justice and mercy, I asked myself how the perpetrators of these acts could have strayed so far from the Muslim faith and from basic humane principles.

The idea that mercy, compassion and justice are the cornerstones of Islam and that that includes the way women are to be treated has been too often forgotten here. Sadly, specific verses have been misinterpreted as condoning control over women-or even violence.

The Qur'an spells out how men and women are meant to relate to each other, "The Believers, men and women, are helpers, supporters, friends, protectors, of one another" (Qur'an 9:71). Yet certain verses continue to be misused in support of unequal treatment of women, such as: "Your women are as a tilth [land] for you (to cultivate) so go to your tilth as when or how you will" (Qur'an 2: 223). This verse is misinterpreted by some as giving license to men over women's bodies.

To understand what is actually at the core of this verse, I talked to Dr. Maher Hathout, Senior Advisor at the Muslim Public Affairs Council and a noted expert on Islam. "It's a shame and a travesty that that verse is interpreted and used in ways that are opposite to what it means," he told me. "The verse means that intimate relations with one's spouse should be consensual and produce good things-whether it be in offspring or emotional closeness."

Why then is there such disagreement about the meaning of this verse and others like it? Dr. Hathout explains: "social factors were taken into consideration when the texts were being translated. It's about how one chooses to interpret an existing word that has multiple shades of meaning. In societies where it was acceptable to treat women poorly, the meanings that suited them were the ones they adopted, even when other meanings were possible. [However, today] we must seek different meanings and understand the text in a different way."

When dealing with verses that have frequently been misinterpreted with regards to the treatment of women, "we must understand the Qur'an with the actions of the Prophet Muhammad as context. And we should remember that he never raised his hand to anyone, let alone his wives," says Dr. Hathout.

Instances of violence against women in Muslim homes and in Muslim societies are borne from a lack of knowledge of the faith or an intentional disregard of the basic teachings of Islam-respect and compassion, justice and mercy. What we must do is look back at these core tenets and recognise that these principles apply as much to women as they do to men.

Every day, mainstream Muslims struggle against stereotypes and misperceptions of Islam, especially those perpetrated by the tiny minority of extremists who have twisted aspects of the faith for their own purposes-whether they are bombers who attack innocent civilians or family members who use violence against those in their own homes.

However, a sea change in mentality often begins with just one strong voice. If the voice is local, even better. The local women-led organisation Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) is just one of them. Its leaders risk their lives each day to help the women in Afghanistan speak out against domestic violence.

The more mainstream Muslim men and women speak out against violence against women and remind people that Islam and the Qur'an advocate justice and mercy, the sooner we can correct the misguided interpretations of our holy book.

The world is changing at a faster rate than ever before. The information age has ensured that hideous deeds will no longer remain hidden and gives those who speak out a wider platform from which to be heard. Uphill as this battle is, if there is a time for hope, it is now.


* Naazish YarKhan is a writer, editor, public speaker and NPR commentator. This article is part of a series on the myth that Islam is inherently violent written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 15 December 2009, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Teaching faith in America's schools
Dilara Hafiz
Phoenix, Arizona - The challenge of providing basic religious knowledge as part of the American school curriculum needs to be met with a bold, new approach. The separation of church and state has left teachers and administrators loathe to broach the subject of religion in the classroom. However, it is essential to begin these discussions at a time when conversations of terrorism, politics and war revolve around basic misconceptions about each other's beliefs, especially Islam.

Placing religion within its historical context, as well as an examination of current practices and shared beliefs, should be part of essential education if the coming generation is to overcome the rising tide of intolerance.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to hear talk about the "Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition" rather than treating Islam as "the other"? All three religions encompass so many similar lessons that they must be taught in conjunction with each other. In addition, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism, not to mention the growing voice of agnostics and atheists, should not be overlooked as people are becoming increasingly interconnected.

I am privileged to have given over 300 presentations about Islam since 2002. The overwhelming commonality about these experiences is that my audiences generally know little about Islam. And what little they know is predominantly negative! Extremist groups and internet blogs are taken at face value as representing entire religious groups. Lack of knowledge is easily replaced with ill will and even hatred.

Although the roots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are briefly studied in both middle and high school curriculums across the country, the historical focus leaves students unaware of the state of current beliefs and practices, as well as commonalities, within these faith traditions. Spending only a few days or perhaps a week per religion leaves little time for detailed discussion. Therefore, the gaps in knowledge are mistakenly filled in by media sound bites or spurious Internet rumours.

Rather than learning about each religion in isolation, national interfaith groups could formulate age-appropriate courses on religion that would provide the basics of the five most populous religions in a unified and cross-disciplinary style. Religion is a sensitive, private issue-and rightly so. However, ignoring the relevance of knowledgeable religious discourse does our students a disservice. After all, schools are tasked with providing the tools to produce well-rounded, civic-minded, graduates who acknowledge the basic freedoms guaranteed under the US Constitution.

What form could this educational packet take? It needs to be non-proselytizing, mindful of the diversity of practices amongst cultures within each faith and, above all, non-judgmental. Teachers should distinguish between simple ignorance and blind prejudice about a faith group.

Facing stereotypes head on through games, role-playing, stories, and holidays remain popular teaching techniques that can prove immensely useful in initiating spirited discussions that may reveal more commonalities than are readily apparent to students. But above all, teachers need to be confident that the basic religious facts in their curriculum stem from the most widespread, tolerant interfaith perspectives from each faith tradition, while acknowledging the historical and ongoing debates within faith traditions.

Students are on the front lines in the battle for a civil society that focuses on social justice, equality under law and freedom of religion. Their best weapon is honest, factual education.

As a Muslim, I feel that dispelling misconceptions about Islam is urgently necessary. But as an American, I realize that teaching Islam in isolation will only increase the "otherising" of Muslims, whereas placing Islam into context as the third Abrahamic faith will create much needed goodwill between faith communities.

Additionally, focusing on the positive messages of "faith and works" common in every religion can be the common thread binding citizens together. Even those of little or no faith can gather together with their neighbours to build bridges of understanding. Creating a simple educational unit which covers basic religious beliefs is a starting point, and we need to start now.


* Dilara Hafiz is Vice President of the Arizona Interfaith Movement and co-author of The American Muslim Teenager's Handbook. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 15 December 2009, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Of bells and minarets
René Guitton
Paris - When Jerusalem was conquered in 635 AD, the second caliph Omar Ibn Al-Kattab refused to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, despite an invitation from the Christian patriarch Sophronius, for fear that his men invoke the precedent to turn the place of worship into a mosque and thus deprive the Christians of their right to freely practice their religion.

Although 1,400 years have passed, people were sometimes more civilised and more tolerant then than in our modern world, where passions and tensions seem to have translated into a return of fanaticism and religious intolerance.

The example set by Omar, the inventor of dhimmitude, the code governing the life of non-Muslims under Islamic law, is symbolic of the covenant bearing his name, which granted the "People of the Book" (a term which refers to Jews and Christians) the right to live on Muslim-majority or Muslim-ruled lands and possess their own places of worship. Is it possible to imagine Jerusalem, Aleppo, Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, Tunis, Algiers, Casablanca, without their lace-like filigree of church towers, minarets and sometimes synagogue cupolas soaring up to the sky like so many ladders guiding the prayers of the faithful up to their God?

The complicated Middle East of bygone eras provides a simple lesson for today, one that it sometimes finds hard to follow because it finds itself riddled by deep contradictions and attempts toward religious uniformity.

This situation, which has been exemplified by Switzerland on 29 November with the adoption of a law prohibiting the construction of minarets on its soil, risks promoting a rejection of the "other" and the unconditional right to pray as one chooses.

The incident would be trivial if it were not, in a sense, tragic. It is difficult to fathom how Switzerland, a country that prides itself in its centuries-old neutrality, could feel that its existence and culture are threatened by the construction of minarets.

Regardless of the factors inspiring the bill, many feel its results primarily expressed a rejection of Islam and the right of Muslims to practice their rites freely wherever they live.

However, the Swiss referendum results do not only affect Muslims, although they are its main victims. It also risks institutionalising the so-called "clash of civilisations", leaving it up to citizens, or their elected representatives, to decree lifestyles and mindsets as a function of demographic majorities.

With this type of reasoning, a ban on the construction of minarets in countries where non-Muslims constitute the majority could also apply to the construction of churches or synagogues in Muslim-majority countries. In this regard, ethno-religious uniformity and viewing religion as a monolith risks reviving the post-Reformation concept of one people, one country, one religion, in which the ruler's religion determined that of a country's.

The absurd application of this principle is responsible for the disappearance of the time when Spain was known for its three religions, when the Jews and Moriscos (Muslims forced to convert to Christianity and suspected of doing so in name only) were expelled at the time of the Renaissance, a move that resulted in the spiritual and material impoverishment of the Iberian Peninsula. The same principle inspired many a totalitarian regime in the modern era, in an effort to remove any spiritual element that might threaten their rule. The same principle is again at work today in many regions of the planet where being a member of a minority is synonymous with inequality.

Those who reject the construction of minarets in Switzerland do not realise that they could be viewed in the future like those who burnt synagogues or destroyed churches in what was known as the Fertile Crescent, or elsewhere. It is worth recalling that whenever a community is threatened, be it Jewish, Christian, Muslim, agnostic or atheist, others could be threatened too.

The spiral is now set in motion and could wreak its horrendous effects unless we stand up to reaffirm that the pre-eminent dignity of every human being, and the right for every person of faith to pray to his or her God as he or she sees fit, are not subject to a building permit.

The minarets of Geneva are worth as much as the bells of Basel. Now is the time for one and all to remember this.


* René Guitton, a writer and essayist, is a member of the Alliance of Civilizations and has recently been awarded the 2009 Human Rights Prize. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 15 December 2009, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Is the Swiss ban an opportunity?
Richard Chartres and Ali Gomaa
Cairo/London - The recent vote in Switzerland banning the construction of new minarets casts an unnecessary shadow on the remarkable history of tolerance, hospitality and integration that is the true story of Switzerland. It is important to remember, however, that this vote in no way changes the fundamental affirmation in the Swiss constitution that "the freedom of religion and philosophy is guaranteed. All persons have the right to choose their religion or philosophical convictions freely, and to profess them alone or in community with others."

It is also important to note that the Swiss government, the leaders of the Christian community and most of the media in Switzerland have all expressed their opposition to this amendment and their disappointment that it was approved.

Nevertheless, much as the minarets seem somehow to have stood as a proxy for far wider concerns, the vote itself now stands as a dangerous symbol of the curtailment of the freedom to practice religion and does so in a way that may have wider ramifications across Europe and beyond, where this freedom needs to be enhanced and safeguarded, not diminished.

While the vote on minarets can be seen as a moment of risk, it should also be seen as a moment of opportunity. It is not enough to deplore the vote and pass on. What is needed now is a serious engagement with the underlying issues. What were they? What information or distortions led to the opinions and beliefs that entailed the vote? What needs to be done about the fears that were evidently at work?

We write as a mufti from Egypt where Christians and Muslims have lived side-by-side over many centuries and as a bishop of London, one of the world's largest and most diverse cities. We are united by our commitment to a better understanding of the issues causing tension so that we can promote practical work that will bring about real improvement.

Co-sponsored and organised by the UN's Alliance of Civilizations, the upcoming conference we hope to hold in Sarajevo, and to which we invite governments and religious leaders in Europe and around the Mediterranean, will not be about Switzerland, but rather about the wider-if parallel-issues faced by many different countries: how are religiously defined minorities and immigrant communities best provided for in ways that respect their needs and those of the wider communities around them? How is integration to be managed without threatening assimilation? Are there general principles of good practice we can all adopt in regard to what it means, in practical terms, to uphold and practice one's religion as well?

It will take courage for each religious tradition to truly hear the criticisms and fears of others. Yet, we must find ways to facilitate serious engagement with the fears that exist. Each faith must resist the temptation to imagine only the best about itself while comparing this with the worst that can be imagined of others. Instead, each tradition must model the generosity it desires for itself from others: we must each reciprocate the freedoms we seek for ourselves. But governments need courage too as they cannot be allowed to ignore religion or to be party to the denial of the rights which the free practice of faith requires.

Minarets are no more essential to Islam than church spires are to Christianity, yet each is unquestionably evocative of their respective faiths. Perhaps we would do well to remember that spires and minarets both have at least one deep symbolism in common: they both point us toward heaven and remind us that beside each there is a place of prayer.

Let us hope there is a moral here too.

While we differ on important matters of theology, every authentic religion calls us not only to love God, but our neighbour as well. This is a highly practical obligation in which all persons of goodwill can share. We call upon leaders from religion, government and civil society to gather with us to find the ways that will best allow us all to recognise our differences while uniting in the peaceful pursuit of the common good.


* Richard Chartres is the Bishop of London and Ali Gomaa is the Grand Mufti of Egypt. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the authors. The full text can be found at newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/ and at www.guardian.co.uk.

Source: Washington Post/Newsweek's On Faith, 10 December 2009, newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/ and Guardian, 11 December 2009, www.guardian.co.uk
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Ibn Battuta on the big, big screen
Nabila Pathan
London - For many Muslims worldwide, the name Ibn Battuta evokes a sense of great pride and conjures up a golden era of Islamic history. The Rihla, one of the greatest travel journals ever recorded, has been greatly responsible for passing on the tales of the 14th century explorer who followed the sun and stars to reach Mecca.

In the past year, this 700-year-old story made the transition to the big screen, shown at over 12 IMAX theatres in locations around the world. Journey to Mecca: In the footsteps of Ibn Battuta is mostly shot on a set in Morocco and combines dramatic performances with documentary footage to re-tell a classic adventure.

The British Film Institute recently put on a special screening of the film at their London IMAX theatre to mark Eid ul-Adha. Prior to the screening, the film's producer Jonathan Barker spoke to the audience filled with Ibn Battuta enthusiasts and explained his vision behind the film, which was "to celebrate a well known Muslim hero" and to "provide a better understanding of a historical figure that is unknown to many non-Muslims."

Those who cherish the timeless tale of Ibn Battuta's exploration will find that the film successfully captures the essence of his travels to the holy city of Islam-a physical journey that emulates the spiritual one in search of the divine through enlightenment and knowledge.

Filmed in a format that displays images that are greater in size and resolution than conventional film systems, IMAX creates a unique visual experience that is larger than life. The dramatic scenes of desert landscapes and breathtaking moving aerial shots take the viewer on a journey alongside Ibn Battuta, from Tangier to Mecca. It even brings to life his reoccurring dream of "flying to Mecca." Scenes of the "valley of death", the caravan community en route from Damascus to Mecca and the modern day Hajj, the pilgrimage to Islam's holiest sites in Mecca, remain unforgettable and etched on the mind.

By interposing scenes of 14th century Hajj with those from the 21st century, the viewer is invited on an expedition that takes them to parallel worlds: the past and the present. The power of the visual illustrates a ritual that has remained the same for centuries. This, topped with beautiful imagery narrated by the familiar voice of actor Ben Kingsley, provide explanations that are both simplistic and symbolic of the spiritual significance of acts like circling the most sacred site for Muslims, the Kaaba: "We mirror the movements of the heavens seven times".

The filmmakers took a bold step to choose to shoot the first-ever IMAX shots at two of Islam's holiest sites. Gaining access was a long drawn out process of trust building and red tape for Barker, who was previously involved in productions in space (Mission to Mir) and to the bottom of the ocean (Into the Deep). He describes this project as "one of the greatest challenges" in his IMAX career. But the efforts finally resulted in unprecedented footage, fulfilling the ethos of IMAX-bringing the audience to a world they cannot access, such as the Great Mosque of Mecca, which houses the Kaaba and is restricted to Muslims.

An eye for detail is evident, both visually and in the plot of Journey to Mecca. Lines such as: "If I should die then let it be on the road to Mecca" are taken from Ibn Battuta's collection of notes and embedded into the narrative giving an authentic tone to a modern day recreation. The 14th century version of the Kaaba, which is what Muslims around the world face toward in worship, was painstakingly reproduced in Morocco to represent how it actually looked at that time.

Furthermore, the lead of Ibn Battuta was faithfully and convincingly portrayed by the Moroccan actor Chems Eddine Zinoun. His performance possessed gravitas in reflecting one of Muslims' most revered heroes. His portrayal is his own legacy to the world, as he tragically died two weeks after completing the film.

Movies such as The Message, Lion of the Desert, and the character of the 12th century sultan of Egypt and Syria, Saladin, in Kingdom of Heaven have offered a few of the limited portrayals of historical figures and themes from Islamic history by Western filmmakers. The tale of Ibn Battuta possesses the perfect blend of an epic tale mixed with entertainment to join such a list. While it succeeds in celebrating a well-known Muslim hero, it remains to be seen whether it can cross over to the mainstream as the others have done.

The limitation of the IMAX medium is that it is restricted mostly to viewers attending museums and science centres because such large screen theatres are traditionally linked to such venues. The target audience is very specific. With Muslims making up 75 per cent of audience members at a Toronto IMAX screening, its popularity will depend largely on grassroots promotion and efforts by leaders of the Muslim communities to generate interest. Such efforts would be well worth the trouble.


* Nabila Pathan is a British writer and broadcaster. She hosted Press TV's flagship discussion series Women's Voice and writes for the blog Word Play. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Altmuslim.com. The full text can be found at www.altmuslim.com.

Source: Altmuslim.com, 11 December 2009, www.altmuslim.com
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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