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Common Ground News Service

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.
Inside this edition  
Seek Islamic spirit, not state, say Muslim scholars
by Isabelle Dana
In this first article in a series on Islamic law and non-Muslim minorities, Isabelle Dana, a young professional in communications and media, examines the theological voices among Muslims today who are calling for a political alternative to an Islamic state.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 5 January 2010)
Islamic limits to fighting oppression
by Muhammad Farooq Khan
In this final article in a series on the myth that Islam is inherently violent, Islamic scholar and television anchor Muhammad Farooq Khan from Pakistan argues against the convoluted religious logic used by terrorists to fight against their perceived oppression by governments or other religious and ethnic groups.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 5 January 2010)
Lisbon-the first step in solving Europe's identity crisis
by Abou El Mahassine Fassi-Fihri
Is there a way out of Europe's identity crisis? Abou El Mahassine Fassi-Fihri, the Brussels-based Europe Representative at Search for Common Ground, attempts to answer this question by outlining existing and possible future efforts to encourage coexistence among Europe's diverse citizenry.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 5 January 2010)
Toward an era of the Golden Rule
by Michael Felsen
Michael Felsen, an attorney and a director of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University, considers how US President Barack Obama can build on his message for peace over the last year to usher the world into "a new era of the Golden Rule".
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 5 January 2010)
Ombudsman moving Morocco forward
by Moulay M'Hamed Iraki
In this final article in a series exploring the evolving role of ombudsmen as conflict resolution practitioners in changing times, Moulay M'Hamed Iraki, President of the Ombudsman office in Morocco, examines this office's efforts to better the relationship between the Moroccan government and its citizens.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 5 January 2010)
Seek Islamic spirit, not state, say Muslim scholars
Isabelle Dana
Casablanca, Morocco - The Islamic state is a controversial issue in the West, as recent news confirms. Last October, an imam was killed and six men arrested by the FBI in Detroit for allegedly conspiring to establish an Islamic state in the United States. In the United Kingdom, government officials worry that extremist groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir have infiltrated Muslim schools to propagate their vision of an Islamic state.

Public opinion in the West reflects the fear that radical Muslims are trying to impose their values on the rest of the world. But the nebulous term "Islamic state" is not merely a concern for the anxious Western world, it is actually a point of discord and contention within the Muslim world itself.

For many Muslim theologians, the Islamic state actually represents an obstacle to Islamic ethics and values. In Iran, pre-eminent scholar Abdulkarim Soroush, also a former political figure, emphasises how difficult it is to sustain civil, political and religious rights in the current Islamic Republic of Iran. Even the new wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt believes that an Islamic state is not feasible in today's world.

Increasingly, Muslim scholars across the world are calling for alternative systems that can foster an Islamic vision of society and simultaneously accommodate our increasingly pluralistic societies. They believe that pluralism and the universal democratisation of human rights are at the heart of the Qur'an. There are diverse opinions about the nature, shape and purpose of an Islamic state, ranging from the conservative to the very progressive. However, Islamic states as we know them today have largely failed in creating political systems that respect such ideas.

As a result, Mohamed Talbi, a Tunisian writer and intellectual, calls on Muslim societies to abandon the Islamic state paradigm and instead strive for a global ummah, a global community that shares the core values of freedom and justice. To him, Islam is embodied in the concept of "differences within unity", namely pluralism. He writes, "I am a Muslim atom within a human molecule. My ummah is humanity, and I do not make any distinction between confessions, opinions, colour or race; all human beings are my brothers and sisters." This time of globalisation represents to him a rare opportunity to work towards this ideal.

Farid Esack is another Muslim scholar, from South Africa, who argues against an Islamic state in today's world: if Islam's message is to fight for oppressed communities, then Islamic states as we currently know them are anything but Islamic. He came to this conclusion as a result of his personal experiences-first, as a student in Pakistan when he witnessed the persecution of poor and marginalised non-Muslim communities and, later, as an activist in South Africa, when he experienced solidarity with people from all faiths against apartheid. A close ally of former South African president Nelson Mandela, Esack also proposes a different form of Islamic influence embodied in a global ummah that does not simply tolerate differences but also unites humankind beyond race and religion for a specific purpose: justice.

Esack believes that the ummah cannot be defined by kinship but by acts of faith: the real ummah is a united inter-religious struggle against oppression in all its forms.

Abdullahi Na'im, a Sudanese Muslim intellectual who had to flee Khartoum for following the open religious doctrine of Mahmoud Taha, a Sudanese theologian and political figure who advocated political and liberal religious reform, is convinced that an Islamic state is doomed to failure and that secularism-rooted in freedom of religion, ethics and morality, and rights and duties-is by far the best system for Muslims throughout the world. This form of secularism would have to be inclusive of different worldviews and could only be built through the dialogue and exchange of a global civil society.

The importance of the ummah over the Islamic state demonstrates a shift from the state-the political apparatus-to individuals and communities who become active agents responsible for implementing Islamic ideals in their pluralistic societies. This interesting proposition, rooted in an Islamic worldview, could be a more fluid and suitable framework for our globalised world.


* Isabelle Dana (isabelle.dana@gmail.com) is a professional in communications and media with a focus on Africa, the Middle East and Islamic studies. This article is part of a series on Islamic law and non-Muslim minorities written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 5 January 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Islamic limits to fighting oppression
Muhammad Farooq Khan
Peshawar, Pakistan - Whenever terrorism strikes in Pakistan and innocent lives are lost, people wonder which Islamic injunctions the perpetrators abused to justify their acts. The North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, where I reside, has been particularly volatile recently, and people are increasingly appalled by the convoluted logic used by suicide bombers to kill our families, friends and neighbours.

In the last 30 years, there has been an increase in the number of militant Muslim organisations, such as Al Qaeda and Islamic Jihad, that are engaged in self-declared wars against others-whether they be foreign nations, their own governments, or even members of other religious and ethnic groups-whom they see as oppressors. Such misconceptions result from a failure to understand the Qur'an in its proper context and the failure to read the actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, or hadith, alongside the Qur'an.

Reading the Qur'an literally, many people consider some verses to be encouraging violence. Often quoted is the verse: "Sanction is given unto those who fight because they have been wronged; and God is indeed able to give them victory" (22:39). Many believe this commandment is binding on every aggrieved Muslim, individually or communally, to violently fight against perceived oppression.

The prominent 8th and 9th century Muslim jurists who founded the five schools of Islamic jurisprudence-the Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi'i, Maliki and Jaafari schools-all argue that Muslims cannot wage war without a state or government sanctioning such action. Their argument conforms to the Prophet Muhammad's saying: "A ruler is a shield. War has to be fought under his commandments."

There is logic behind this precept. If each Muslim were allowed to wage war on his or her own, Muslims would be divided without any real binding authority. This would result in complete chaos and anarchy which runs counter to the very spirit of Islam. Indeed, the Qur'an says, "Work not confusion in the earth after the fair ordering" (7:56).

A state authority is necessary not only to maintain order for Muslims but also because of the importance and weight of treaties in Islam. The Qur'an advises that where there is a peace agreement between a Muslim and non-Muslim nation, the former must not wage war even if it's to help any oppressed Muslims among the latter: "…Ye have no duty to protect them till they leave their homes; but if they seek help from you in the matters of religion then it is your duty to help (them) except against a folk between whom and you there is a treaty" (8:72).

The reason for this injunction is because positive relations between two larger entities-whether they be countries, states or communities-are vitally important for maintaining overall peace, whereas waging war against another country for the rescue of an oppressed Muslim minority unravels relations and creates discord for the majority.

It was only after the formation of the first Islamic polity in Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad travelled with his companions after leaving Mecca due to persecution, that war was allowed in defence of this emerging state against aggressors. Thus, the Qur'anic verses encouraging people to participate in war against oppressors and aggressors were revealed during the Prophet Muhammad's time in Medina when a state was already established. At that time there was no concept of a national military, so it was imperative to persuade the common Muslim man, on behalf of the state and with its sanction, to fight in order to protect the growing Muslim community.

The Qur'an has always stressed that war is the last option and it should be fought keeping in mind all human values. It says: "God does not forbid you to deal justly and kindly with those who did not fight against you on account of your religion and did not drive you out of your homes. Verily, God loves those who deal with equity. It is only as regards those who fought against you on account of your religion, and have driven you out of your homes, and helped to drive you out, that God forbids you to befriend them. And whosoever will befriend them, then such are the wrongdoers" (60:8-9).

Ultimately, these verses demonstrate that no individuals or non-state actors are allowed to wage war in the name of Islam or on behalf of any Muslim community, local or global. Muslims would do well to return to the sources-the Qur'an and verified hadith-to better understand their key messages of respect for international law and the spirit of peace and justice that prevails in Islam.


* Dr. Muhammad Farooq Khan is an Islamic scholar, columnist and television anchor from Peshawar, Pakistan. 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), 5 January 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Lisbon-the first step in solving Europe's identity crisis
Abou El Mahassine Fassi-Fihri
Brussels - On 1 December 2009 the Treaty of Lisbon-the agreement reforming European Union institutions-was ratified, making the European Charter of Fundamental Rights (ECFR), a document that lays out the entire range of civil, political, economic and social rights of EU citizens and residents, legally binding. Europe's diverse citizenry is now-thankfully-better protected legally against discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

But Lisbon is no panacea to Europe's current identity crisis. Europeans must also learn to live together.

A recent EU-wide survey revealed disturbing findings in the level of discrimination that minorities face in their everyday lives. The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) released the results of a Gallup poll that surveyed over 23,000 EU citizens from ethnic minority and immigrant groups about their experiences with discrimination across nine areas of their lives, such as seeking employment and housing, medical care, social services, education, shopping, and opening a bank account or obtaining a loan.

The results are alarming: 11 per cent of the respondents of North African origin reported experiencing ethnicity-based discrimination in the past 12 months when simply entering a shop, while another 19 per cent felt they were stopped by the police because of their ethnicity. Seventeen per cent of Roma surveyed indicated that healthcare personnel had discriminated against them and almost a quarter of Sub-Saharan Africans felt they were discriminated against at least once when applying for a job.

Given these figures, one can easily imagine the potential for discrimination against a person with a multiple minority makeup. It begs the question: does a dark-skinned Muslim woman have any place in today's Europe?

Moreover, the survey indicates that about 46 per cent of respondents were unaware of their rights with regard to discrimination in shops, restaurants, bars or nightclubs while 63 per cent have never heard of "equality bodies", public institutions that receive complaints of discrimination, in their respective countries. The overwhelming majority of respondents were unaware of any organisation offering support and advice for minorities dealing with discrimination. Finally, 82 per cent of those who felt they were discriminated against did not report their most recent experience to an authority or organisation.

These statistics reveal serious challenges. First, they draw attention to a severe lack of awareness of civil rights and of society's responsibility toward minorities. Minority groups, as much as service providers (including hospitals, schools, police, employers, landlords and business owners), must be fully aware of the provisions of the ECFR and of the related regulatory bodies. The FRA, individual EU member states, the Council of Europe-an inter-governmental organisation working toward European integration-and European civil society can play a key role in sensitising targeted audiences-including journalists-about these legal aspects.

The next challenge, which reflects the contemporary identity crisis of European citizenry, is more acute. The Europe of the 21st century is indisputably diverse, yet this survey demonstrates that many Europeans are not fully appreciative of diversity. The latest controversy over Switzerland's vote banning the construction of minarets, or the highly polarised and politicised debates over the meaning of national identity in France, are illustrations of this difficulty.

Is there a way out of this European identity crisis? The answer is yes.

Efforts to resolve it should start with the education, media and entertainment industries-the arenas that shape people's attitudes and beliefs.

Mainstream political parties must also urge Europeans to invest in diversity-sensitive curricula for schoolchildren across Europe. Moreover, news teams' composition (including broadcasters, editors and producers) must better reflect the reality of ethnic and racial diversity in European society. Finally, the European entertainment industry should adopt a corporate social responsibility charter and produce films and television series that are not only entertaining and popular but which also transform attitudes and behaviours to foster tolerance among people.

Enforcing the European Charter of Fundamental Rights is a legal and moral responsibility not just for government authorities, the media and political groups, but also for all of European society. To help resolve this identity crisis, it must sustain efforts to cultivate coexistence within the European Union.


* Abou El Mahassine Fassi-Fihri is the Brussels-based Europe Representative at Search for Common Ground, an international non-profit organisation dedicated to transforming the way the world deals with conflict, and a conflict analyst at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 5 January 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Toward an era of the Golden Rule
Michael Felsen
Boston, Massachusetts - As this new decade begins, many are still scratching their heads and wondering how US President Barack Obama, who has just escalated a distant war that quite possibly cannot be won, can have merited the esteemed Nobel Prize for peace. But if Obama can begin to lead the world into a new era of the Golden Rule-based on the fundamental ethic that we must treat others as we wish to be treated-through actions as well as words, sceptics will have their answer.

In accepting the honour in early December in Oslo, Obama spoke of war and peace. Affirming humanity's capacity to bend history in the direction of justice, he ultimately turned his attention to the role of religion which, he observed, has all too often been invoked as a justification for heinous acts against others.

The perversion of religion for violent means is a theme he has sounded several times before. Last February at the National Prayer Breakfast, Obama noted how "far too often, we have seen faith wielded as a tool to divide us from one another-as an excuse for prejudice and intolerance. Wars have been waged. Innocents have been slaughtered. For centuries, entire religions have been persecuted, all in the name of perceived righteousness."

Needless to say, contemporary examples of faith used as a divisive tool abound. Daily news headlines-bombings in Baghdad and Lahore, a recent mosque desecration in the West Bank-remind us that those who claim to be agents of God's will continue to wreak their havoc in too many corners of the globe.

In Oslo, Obama emphasised that in the face of these unconscionable acts, we simply can't let humanity move backward. And as the centrepiece to his campaign, this most recent Nobel laureate repeated his impassioned call to followers of all religions to struggle against what separates us from one another and to recognise, beneath the veil of difference, the common humanity that binds us together.

By asserting that the very purpose of faith-and the "core struggle of human nature"-is to strive for closer adherence to the "law of love" in our relations with one another, Obama essentially neutralises religious difference. Whatever one's belief system-whether religious or secular-it all boils down to the same crystallised essence: an "irreducible" something, as he puts it, which is simple and universal. It is the common ideal embodied in the Golden Rule.

In June, concluding his historic speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, Obama proclaimed that the Golden Rule's truth "transcends nations and peoples-a belief…that isn't Christian or Muslim or Jew[ish]…. It's a faith in other people, and it's what brought me here today."

Having often repeated these sentiments, can Obama now lead a movement that actuates his words, and that ushers in a new rubric for global human relations? That's the challenge presented, unfortunately, in so many venues across the planet.

Perhaps the first and most fitting place to meet it squarely is in Israel/Palestine. What better opportunity to engage, with empathy, the many disparate narratives of those who call that region home? What more intractable conflict in which to chisel the fundamental truth that despite decades of fear and mutual distrust, the only answer is to move forward by recognising one's own humanity in the humanity of the other, and the needs of the other-whether Israeli, Palestinian, Muslim, Christian or Jew.

Conveying that foundational message, Obama must redouble his efforts to promote a just and lasting peace, not only for Israelis and Palestinians through two viable and secure homelands and a shared Jerusalem, but also for all who live in that long-troubled region. Despite well-known obstacles, success is possible and it is essential.

With a bold beginning there, the world will have ample cause for celebration. And the nay-sayers will be obliged to acknowledge that Obama's Nobel was, after all, more than wishful thinking. Because we will have taken a few first steps across the threshold into what can become-with inspired leadership and an awakening commitment to the world community-a new era of the Golden Rule. Can we wait much longer?


* Michael Felsen is an attorney and President of Boston Workmen's Circle, a 110-year-old communal organisation dedicated to secular Jewish culture and social justice, and a director of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University. This article first appeared in Georgia's Athens Banner-Herald and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 5 January 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Ombudsman moving Morocco forward
Moulay M'Hamed Iraki
Rabat - Established in 2001 by royal decree, the ombudsman office in Morocco, the Diwan Al Madhalim (the Office of Grievances), started its operations in April 2004. It was enthusiastically welcomed by Moroccan political circles and human rights organisations and was tasked with the difficult mission of reducing injustice, arbitrary treatment and abuse of power in relationships between Morocco's public service sector and its citizens, and encouraging public servants to adhere to the rule of law.

Nearly six years later, it is worth taking a look back to assess the usefulness of this institution in Morocco and its standard-setting value in the region.

The ombudsman, or protector of the citizen, is meant to ensure citizens receive fair and just treatment in their relations with public authorities. In Morocco, the authorities sometimes refuse to enforce judicial decisions. In such cases, the ombudsman is responsible for the defence of aggrieved citizens, although it cannot and must not interfere in the judicial process itself. Of all the complaints that have come under the jurisdiction of the institution, 30 per cent of those declared admissible and well-founded have been taken up with the departments concerned-mainly local authorities, public education, justice and finance.

In view of its crosscutting mandate, which gives it jurisdiction over the entire public administration sector, the Office of Grievances is also in charge of proposing reforms to improve the performance of all administrative, legal and judicial services.

A follow-up of all complaints submitted to the institution had revealed a number of recurring problems pointing to structural deficiencies. To correct this, several practical corrective measures were suggested to the prime minister, and other proposals concerning corruption matters were submitted to the king.

Several measures were taken, including the appointment of a special representative in the ombudsman's office in charge of processing corruption cases in coordination with the Justice Department; the development of a national awareness programme in the fight against corruption; a nationwide declaration against corruption; the adoption of a charter of rights and duties for the public service sector; and the creation of a new legal process to monitor government procurements.

In order to encourage government departments to follow up on complaints, the Office of Grievances adopted a new approach based on direct contact with relevant department heads in joint committees held at regular intervals. The ombudsman thus reminds civil servants that they cater to the needs of Moroccan citizens.

In order to establish better communication networks, both internally and externally, the institution also set up a website (www.dam.ma) which records over 1,800,000 visits a year.

Seven editions of the institution's magazine, Diwan Al Madhalim, were also distributed to 150 foreign diplomatic missions with a view to strengthening links with other countries. The presence of the Moroccan ombudsman on the international scene is of major importance, specifically through its work in the Association of Mediterranean Ombudsmen (AMO), of which it is a founding member and current president, the Association of Francophone Ombudsmen and Mediators (AOMF), where it holds the vice-presidency, and the regional network of Arab Ombudsmen, of which it is a founding member.

In its efforts to guide Moroccan society towards an increased appreciation of human rights values and equity, the Office of Grievances is also active in the area of education and training. In this respect, Frederic Bovesse, mediator of the Walloon Region in Belgium, and former President of AOMF, stated that "through its activities and initiatives in Morocco and abroad, the Office of Grievances is now a respected advocate of the defence of human rights and values in the francophone area."


* Moulay M'Hamed Iraki has been President of the Ombudsman office in Morocco since 2006. He is also a member of the Human Rights Consultative Council (CCDH), and President of Chamber at the Supreme Court of Morocco. This article is part of a series on the evolving role of ombudsmen as conflict resolution practitioners in changing times written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 5 January 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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The Common Ground News Service provides news, op-eds, features and analysis on a broad range of issues affecting Arab-Israeli & Muslim-Western relations. CGNews syndicates articles that are constructive, offer hope and promote dialogue and mutual understanding, to news outlets worldwide.
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