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Inside this edition  
12 - 19 January 2010
Muslim religious guides only men? Think again
by Moha Ennaji
Moha Ennaji, author, consultant, professor and President of the South North Centre for Intercultural Dialogue in Fez, Morocco, examines the emerging role of women as religious guides and the part they play in spurring democratisation and curbing extremism in some Middle Eastern countries.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 12 January 2010)
Jerusalem: the city of two peaces
by Lewis Gropp
Freelance journalist and Qantara.de editor Lewis Gropp reviews a new musical album which explores the "musical traditions from Jerusalem's various epochs: the Jewish, the Christian, the Arab and the Ottoman eras."
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 12 January 2009)
Microfinancing offers more than loans
by Sam Daley-Harris
Sam Daley-Harris, Founder of the Microcredit Summit Campaign, considers how a little-known benefit of microfinancing offers something to its recipients besides a road out of poverty in Kenya.
(Source: Microfinance Focus, 12 January 2010)
Pakistan, a survivor
by Zubeida Mustafa
How does Pakistan survive amidst the violent and pessimistic stories so often reported by the media? Journalist Zubeida Mustafa attempts to answer this question by showing the tools everyday Pakistanis are using to keep the country afloat.
(Source: Dawn, 30 December 2009)
A Syrian haven for Christian spirituality
by Stephen Starr
Freelance journalist Stephen Starr provides a glimpse into a centuries-old Christian monastery, which is a place of worship for both Christians and Muslims, in the heart of Syria.
(Source: Qantara.de, 23 December 2009)
Muslim religious guides only men? Think again
Moha Ennaji
Fez, Morocco - In recent years, Morocco, Egypt, and Turkey have trained and appointed a new group to the ranks of religious guides: women. Women religious guides, referred to as murshidat in Arabic, reach a demographic that might otherwise not be available-or receptive - to male imams, such as women and children, particularly those in poorer neighbourhoods. The efforts are an attempt by these countries' governments to democratise and to curb extremism by reaching out to women, who can be a moderating voice in their families, and to youth, who are introduced to a tolerant and mainstream version of Islam at a young age.

The idea of the murshidat in Morocco took off after the terrorist attacks in Casablanca in May 2003, which claimed 45 lives and left dozens wounded. The government subsequently decided to reform religious affairs and the leadership structure of the country's mosques.

In each of these countries, mosque leadership is controlled by a government ministry or a directorate of religious affairs, who also appoint these female guides. These women are all university graduates who have mastered classical Arabic and have a deep knowledge of the Qur'an, hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) and Islamic law.

The move to incorporate women into religious affairs reveals a significant change in policy and a trend toward the liberalisation and modernisation of the religious order, as well as the modernisation and democratisation of these countries on a wider scale. The governments are convinced that the murshidat can contribute to the enhancement of women's legal and civic rights and to their active participation in public life.

The training of female guides-who also teach lessons on Islam, lead prayer ceremonies and carry out the role of imam in the women's sections of mosques-is an extraordinary move for these countries and an important model for other countries in the region.

The women in need of counsel are oftentimes mothers with questions about communicating with their children, or wives wanting to know how to be part of a couple without contravening the precepts of the Qur'an. There are also young women who seek the counsel of the murshidat because they are unsure about whether to wear the hijab, or headscarf, or want to know how to perform ablutions properly.

But the murshidat primarily work with women and children in poor neighbourhoods, which many see as a fertile ground for extremist recruiters. They are both religious and social advisors, and they believe a healthy society starts first and foremost in the home, which in turn reinforces community cohesion, and helps to curb extremism.

The murshidat provide moral support and advise women and teachers on how to prevent youth from being drawn to extremism by openly discussing these matters and by also encouraging youth to challenge extremist ideas and take full responsibility for their actions. They urge schools to help students become critical recipients of media messages and to prevent them from accessing illegal or inappropriate material.

Much of Morocco's civil society supports this initiative, which is seen as a significant move towards building tolerance and promoting equality between the genders.

In Egypt the decision by the Religious Affairs Ministry to train women as religious guides through a four-year course at Al-Azhar, the country's top Islamic university, has been welcomed by men and women alike. For the first time in the country's history, various governorates have named women as guides. Fifty female spiritual guides have recently been assigned to 90 mosques in Cairo, Giza and Alexandria, primarily in these cities' poorer neighbourhoods.

Turkey has also challenged traditional Islamic gender roles with the appointment of hundreds of women as religious guides, which is a considerable step towards social change.

Perhaps surprisingly to some, there hasn't been much objection to involving women in mosques' religious affairs. In fact, Islamic political groups approve of these women's newfound religious roles as a positive development because Egypt and Morocco have historically always had eminent women scholars of Islam. In Turkey, these female religious guides are respected and their work considered crucial for social development.

Through continued endeavours and successes, the murshidat can equally contribute to the promotion of women's rights, a healthy tolerant society and to a democratic future.


* Moha Ennaji is an author, international consultant, Professor of Cultural and Gender Studies at Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University and President of the South North Centre for Intercultural Dialogue in Fez, Morocco. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 12 January 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Jerusalem: the city of two peaces
Lewis Gropp
Cologne, Germany - Jerusalem is a central point of reference for the three great monotheist faiths. King David made the city the political and religious capital of Israel, creating a centre for Judaism within and beyond the region. Jerusalem is a holy city for Christians as the place of Jesus of Nazareth's teaching, crucifixion and resurrection. It was here too that the first community of early Christians proclaimed their religion. And for Muslims, the city is traditionally the third most holy in Islam after Mecca and Medina. Before they prayed facing the Kaaba in Mecca, the most sacred site for Muslims, they directed their prayers towards Jerusalem.

In the course of its 4,000-year history, the city has been destroyed, looted and pillaged some 40 times. Today's Jerusalem, which was supposed to be a common bond with shared history and sacredness for the three religions, unfortunately presents a picture of discord and serves as a point of contention to people with contradictory claims to religious influence.

This city, nonetheless, bears the seed of peace in its name. The Hebrew word "Jerusalem" can be interpreted to mean city of two peaces, referring to both the earthly and heavenly peace heralded by the Old Testament prophets. The etymologically observant will recognise the Hebrew shalom in the name-and the related Arabic salaam, both of which mean peace.

Starting from this idea, Jordi Savall and Montserrat Figueras, specialists in music of old centuries and UNESCO Artists for Peace in 2008-have produced an unusual musical project, Jerusalem: La Ville des deux Paix (the city of two peaces). On this musical album, accompanied by a 400-page book detailing the historical and musical background of the city, the two artists explore musical traditions from Jerusalem's various epochs: the Jewish, the Christian, the Arab and the Ottoman eras.

For the dialogue-centred Jerusalem project, Savall and Figueras brought together Jewish, Muslim and Christian musicians from many countries that have left traces on Jerusalem's musical traditions over the centuries: Israel, Palestine, Greece, Syria, Armenia, Turkey, England, France, Spain and Italy.

The section on the "Jewish city" begins with its foundation and ends with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. It is presented musically through a selection of the most beautiful psalms of King David as preserved in the ancient musical tradition of the Jews of southern Morocco, along with a piece on the 1st century Rabbi Akiba, one of the most important fathers of rabbinical Judaism.

The Christian section embarks with the arrival of Queen Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine I, in 326 CE and ends in 1244 CE. It opens with a dark, meditative hymn to the Virgin Mary, attributed to Emperor Leo VI (886-912), and closes with a quiet, humble improvisation on the hymn, Pax in Nomine Domini! ("Peace in the name of the Lord!").

Among other pieces in the Arab section of the album, a version of the 17th chapter in the Qur'an-entitled "the Israelites"-describes the Prophet Mohammed's ascent to heaven from the Temple Mount through song.

The album's most dramatic piece is a historic recording by Shlomo Katz, a Jew of Romanian origin. Before Katz was to be executed in Auschwitz in 1941 during the Holocaust, he asked for permission to sing the hymn, El Male Rahamim ("God full of compassion"). Deeply moved by the magnificence, emotional depth and intensity of the music, the Nazi officer on duty allowed Katz to escape. In 1950, he recorded the song as a lasting testament and hymn to the victims of Auschwitz. Exuding a moving sense of tragedy and grace in itself, the piece becomes a devastating musical document in the knowledge of its history.

"Music," according to Savall, "becomes the indispensable means of achieving a genuine intercultural dialogue between human beings from very different nations and religions, but who nevertheless share a common language of music, spirituality and beauty."

Savall and Figueras' Jerusalem album is an astutely compiled mosaic of religions and cultures. Every song, every set of lyrics forms a possible starting point for exploring the dramatic and chequered history of the medieval East and West, and the points they have in common.


* Lewis Gropp is a freelance journalist based in Cologne, Germany. Specialising in faith issues and world literature, he is also an editor at Qantara.de, an online magazine that covers issues relating to the West and the Muslim world. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 12 January 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Microfinancing offers more than loans
Sam Daley-Harris
Washington, DC - As we set out in the new year, many of us search for ways to bring deeper meaning to our lives. Sometimes that meaning can be found in the most unlikely places, places like the slums of Nairobi, Kenya where Jamii Bora, a microfinance programme, offers savings and loans to people who have been beggars, prostitutes, thieves and gang members.

Along the way, Jamii Bora has learned that some of the best gifts aren't given, but are earned through the grace of a fresh start or a second chance.

Just months after the post-election violence that engulfed Kenya two years ago, Jamii Bora received funds to rebuild one of the markets that had been destroyed by fire in the deadly rioting. Jamii Bora, which means "good families", decided they had to find the rioters and enlist them in rebuilding the market they had destroyed.

This was a seemingly preposterous proposition, even in the world of microfinance, which knows a thing or two about defying conventional wisdom. For most microfinance institutions, just finding the perpetrators of the destruction would have been a dangerous, if not impossible, task. Convincing them to rebuild what they had destroyed would seem to be an act of futility.

But believing in the impossible comes naturally to Jamii Bora whose staff are all former members who have used the programme's combination of savings and microloans to leave behind their lives as beggars, prostitutes, and thieves-lives that at one time were mired in extreme poverty. What they didn't leave behind, however, were their deep roots in the community.

Jamii Bora's staff was able to find the leader of the gang of 200 that had destroyed the market and talked with "the General", as he is known locally, about helping rebuild.

When the General first met Ingrid Munro, Jamii Bora's founder, he told her he was upset with her staff when they first spoke with him because they didn't seem to realise how dangerous he was. But with persistence they were able to convince him and his gang to aid in the reconstruction of the market, paying them to guard the materials at night and help rebuild during the day.

After the construction was completed the General and a third of the gang joined Jamii Bora. The others were still sceptical about microfinance, but they were intrigued as they watched the General build a legitimate business constructing cases that parents buy when sending their children to boarding schools.

The General told Munro that he hadn't been to his home village in 13 years because his mother was so ashamed of him. But after his experience with Jamii Bora, he went home to visit and said his mother cried for three days because she was so happy about how he had turned his life around.

There are many visions for microfinance, including redemption. The dictionary defines redemption as restoring one's honour and worth, setting one free. Isn't that the highest vision of all when it comes to development: assisting people in restoring their honour and worth-setting them free from the bondage of poverty?

The General's story of redemption isn't an isolated case.

Ask Munro to describe other Jamii Bora members and she's likely to tell you about Wilson Maina. Maina was a thief, one of the most wanted criminals in the Mathare Valley slum in Nairobi. After saving $10 (none of it from stealing, a condition set by Jamii Bora) he received a $20 loan. Today, he has four businesses and has convinced hundreds of youth to get out of crime. Now that's a return on investment that the world desperately needs.

What are the ways in which each of us is held captive? Are we held captive by hopelessness about ending global poverty or making a difference? These stories of microfinance offer us the gift of redemption, the chance to be set free from apathy and make a fresh start in working for a more prosperous and peaceful world.

From 7 to 10 April 2010, Munro will welcome 2,000 delegates to Nairobi for the Africa-Middle East Regional Microcredit Summit in her role as Chair of the Summit's National Organizing Committee. At that summit, delegates will use these examples and others to discuss how microfinance can be used as an effective tool for conflict prevention. Some session topics include: Using Microfinance as a Tool for Building Peace and Microfinance in Post-Conflict and Post-Disaster Situations.

This revolutionary tool is also area of common ground between the Muslim world and the West, both of which are grappling with the sometimes-extremist consequences of poverty. During the summit's opening ceremony, delegates will hear Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus who is Muslim and a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. Let's hope that we are all able to bring the gift of redemption into our lives and into the world as this new year begins.


* Sam Daley-Harris is Founder of the Microcredit Summit Campaign (www.microcreditsummit.org), which seeks to reach 175 million of the world's poorest families with microloans, and RESULTS (www.results.org), which seeks to create the political will to end poverty. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) in a slightly modified version with permission from the author. The original text can be found at www.microfinancefocus.com.

Source: Microfinance Focus, 12 January 2010, www.microfinancefocus.com
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Pakistan, a survivor
Zubeida Mustafa
Karachi, Pakistan - What keeps Pakistan afloat? How-despite its seemingly precarious political existence and the gloom and doom spread by the highly politicised media, as well as the horrendous bomb blasts-does the country manage to survive?

The immense reserves of resilience the people have are striking. In the forefront are those who lead them. These leaders are not the ministers and elected representatives, who unfortunately lack the mettle that goes into the making of leadership. Our real leaders are the thousands of community activists in our midst-many of whom are not necessarily well-known.

There are so many of them that it almost appears to be a national conspiracy hatched by the media to keep such activists out of the limelight. Have you heard of Tahira Ali, who works for the rights of Karachi's fisher folk? Or Majeed Manghrio of Sanghar, one of the largest districts in the Sindh province, who became his community's leader in its struggle against the landlords in their dispute over Chottiari Dam? Or Amir Mohammad from the North West Frontier Province who is leading a movement to save the forests of the Frontier? And what about the theatre group from Lyari, a small area of Karachi, which stages street plays to promote harmony in its strife-torn locality.

The endeavours of these activists and many others should be celebrated.

They are idealists-some more, some less. But they all have a "utopian desire to serve others, to solve real problems, to create a better world, more kind, more just and more prosperous," to quote the late Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan. An activist par excellence, who preferred to call himself a social scientist, Khan had a dream and the qualities all successful leaders possess: idealism, courage to effect change, selflessness and a love for humanity.

It is a befitting tribute to Khan that his legacy, the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) - an innovative programme that helped squatters in the Orangi district of Karachi solve their own sanitation and housing problems-should hold a forum every year in December to mark the anniversary of his death.

The reason for holding this intellectual exercise is to honour the memory of this great man and carry on his message by encouraging the networking of activists from all over Pakistan. It was at the 10th such forum where I met the aforementioned activists and learnt of their good work.

Unlike advocacy, activism actually brings about changes in social and physical conditions without waiting for the government or state institutions to act.

This activism at the grassroots helps Pakistan survive.

For Khan, a modest and unassuming man, there could be no bigger sin than an "I know best" attitude especially vis-à-vis the community with which he worked. His philosophy of research and extension involved studying the problems of a community and learning from its members about how they coped. On the basis of that knowledge he sought to develop a package of technical guidelines that he offered to people as a measure of support. His basic findings and observations were most interesting.

First, when the government fails, local communities rise to the occasion and work on a self-help basis. Second, people will mobilise their own financial resources and manpower if they are provided social and technical guidance. Third, the main concerns of the people are housing and sanitation, healthcare, education and employment.

A close look at the Orangi experiment and Khan's own work confirms that successful activism is a dual-tiered operation. It involves mainstream community leaders who understand the thinking, needs and aspirations of their people.

The second tier comprises equally committed individuals, mainly professionals, who may not be drawn from the community but have strong empathy with it. Their role is what Khan described his own to be-that of a dadi amma, or grandmother, who holds the family together while providing each member solace and guidance. This second tier is vital to providing confidence and continuous support for social mobilisation.

These professionals, not drawn from the community, are needed until the community reaches that level of education and training where it can produce its own professionals. The second tier must, however, have strong links and identify with the population to enjoy the confidence of indigenous activists.

All development projects, whether for housing, education or primary healthcare, must have these two closely integrated tiers of activism if they are to succeed. Without the participation of the people at the grassroots, no development strategy can work and the local leadership alone has to mobilise people.

It is these secrets that have made the OPP feasible and replicable. The proof lies in the expanding network of non-governmental organisations and community-based organisations that has links with the OPP and which keeps growing, vindicating Khan's philosophy.


* Zubeida Mustafa is a journalist from Pakistan and has been twice awarded the Population Institute's Global Media Award for Excellence. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Dawn. The full text can be found at www.dawn.com.

Source: Dawn, 30 December 2009, www.dawn.com
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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A Syrian haven for Christian spirituality
Stephen Starr
Bonn, Germany - Atop a mountain in the Syrian heartland lies a monastery where the message of Christian-Muslim unity is alive and well.

Cooled by eastern-blowing winds from the mountains dividing Lebanon and Syria, Deir Mar Musa is perhaps an unlikely place to find the seed of intercultural and inter-religious understanding. Yet the monastery has been a bedrock of local and national movements for years.

Deir Mar Musa's reputation and physical restoration is due much to the efforts, determination and belief of a single man. After completing a doctorate in comparative religion and Islamic studies at the Pontificia Università Gregoriana in Rome, Father Paolo Dall'Oglio single-handedly restored the site, setting the first stone in cement in 1982.

Speaking from a library in the monastery, Father Paolo displays a nuanced knowledge of contemporary currents in social and political affairs.

"I came here as a student of Arabic and lived in Lebanon and Syria beginning from the 1970s. I asked a priest in Damascus if he knew of a place where I could go to to study and pray. He suggested I come up here, and here I am today," explained the priest who was awarded the Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean award for interfaith dialogue on behalf of Deir Mar Musa in 2006.

A Jesuit priest, Father Paolo does not see Christianity as being a superior religion. "I think globalisation has set in motion a series of events and established a new mindset. People are on the move, as you can see right here in this monastery every day. Ideas have new venues from where they can be exchanged and people are getting to see everything through the Internet. So we have had an explosion of information and as a result everyone in this region knows about the Danish cartoon episode and Iraq, etc.," he said.

A physical presence lumbering around the monastery's dining area, Father Paolo walks the mountains with a cane alone at night after mass and dinner. He makes himself known to all visitors and can mingle with foreigners and locals alike, in fluent Arabic.

The monastery was founded by Mar Musa al-Habashi, or Saint Moses of Abyssinia, who, as legend has it, was the son of an Ethiopian king. Refusing to accept his future as laid out before him, Saint Moses decided to become a Christian monk and later travelled to Syria where he founded the monastery. Although the monastery itself has been reconstructed over the last 25 years, with funding sourced locally and from Rome, its church is said to date back to the 6th century.

Almost entirely self-sufficient, the monastery's community is comprised of 15 permanent staff, but can rise to more than 40, all of whom cater to the hundreds of pilgrims arriving during summer from Damascus and the central Syrian valleys, coming to cool off from the 40°C-plus heat.

Embracing the need to move with the times, the monastery employs a solar-powered water heating system and boasts wireless Internet in its three-room library.

Today, the monastery stands as an important local and national vehicle for interfaith initiatives, in addition to supporting environmental and other projects.

On its busiest days, with such an eclectic mix of backpackers, worshippers and teenagers, it is easy to forget that Deir Mar Musa is a religious site. Couples, even married, must sleep in separate quarters separated by more than a 200-meter mountainside walk.

As many headscarf-wearing Muslim women and girls come to the monastery for day trips as local Christians and western travellers. "Muslims in the Levant consider Deir Mar Musa a place of their own," said Father Paolo.

In Syria, religiosity is also cultural. Christians in Syria say "Allah" to refer to God but in the West "Allah" is only associated with Islam.

Christians in Syria go to church on Fridays as it is a holiday, in addition to Sundays. Christians and Muslims are equally as religious and have managed to live alongside one another without issue. It is this kind of respect Father Paolo and the others living in the monastery have seen flourish at Deir Mar Musa.


* Stephen Starr is a freelance writer. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Qantara.de. The full text can be found at www.qantara.de.

Source: Qantara.de, 23 December 2009, www.qantara.de
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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