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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.
Inside this edition  
26  January - 1 February 2010
A Jewish voice against the "burqa ban"
by Joshua M. Z. Stanton
Joshua M. Z. Stanton, student and co-editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, takes a critical look at the recent French "burqa ban", through the eyes of a bearded Jewish American student in France.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 26 January 2010)
A diplomatic surge for Afghanistan
by Lisa Schirch
Professor and Director of the 3D Security Initiative, Lisa Schirch examines how US-led diplomacy efforts in Afghanistan could potentially help stabilise the country.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 26 January 2010)
Muslims helping Haiti
by Wajahat Ali
Playwright, attorney and journalist Wajahat Ali draws attention to the largely underreported response of Muslim communities around the world to the disaster in Haiti.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 26 January 2010)
Stop the politicisation of Islam in Switzerland
by Bashkim Iseni
In light of the Swiss referendum on banning minarets, Bashkim Iseni, a political scientist at the University of Lausanne, considers some of the factors that led to the result and urges Swiss Muslims, in all their diversity, to stand up and speak out.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 26 January 2010)
Can violence truly defend Islam?
by Mustafa Akyol
Following the recent attacks on one of the Danish cartoonists behind the controversial caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, Istanbul-based writer and columnist Mustafa Akyol examines the religious basis, or lack thereof, for using violence in defence of Islam.
(Source: Hurriyet Daily News, 5 January 2010)
A Jewish voice against the "burqa ban"
Joshua M. Z. Stanton
New York, New York - Even as a Jew in New York, I know what it is like to be Muslim in France.

While studying abroad in the French city of Strasbourg in 2007, I decided to grow a bushy beard. Little did I know that in France only traditional Jewish and Muslim men don anything but the most finely trimmed moustache or goatee. Since I did not wear a yarmulke or other head covering, people who saw me on the street assumed that I was Muslim.

I felt that police officers and passersby treated me with suspicion, and even on the crowded rush hour bus few chose to sit next to me if they could avoid it. On one occasion someone followed me home and tried to start a fight, only to find I was a bewildered American, not a French Muslim.

Never before, and never since, have I experienced disdain of this sort. On a daily basis, I was made to feel badly because of my appearance-and what was presumed to be my corresponding religious affiliation. So when I read of the impending effort by parliamentary leader Jean-François Copé and his supporters to criminalise the burqa (and other garments that fully cover a woman's body, head and face) in France, I understood it to be far more than a measure to protect women's rights or preserve the concept of a secular society, on which the modern French state is built.

In my opinion, it is easy to see how the "burqa ban" might be misused as a part of a broader effort to stigmatise a religious population, one that already perceives itself to be on the margins of society.

Admittedly, I am fundamentally opposed to any garment or religious practice-including those found in my own Jewish tradition-that suggests women hold a different or subservient position than men. But the burqa ban in France will not achieve the aim of gender equality. If anything, it will strengthen religious conservatives in France's Muslim population by convincing members of the moderate majority of Muslims that the rest of French society will never accept them.

While there are said to be only 2,000 women who wear burqas in all of France today, the entire Muslim population, estimated to be around five to six million, will take umbrage at another measure that singles out their community.

If we assume that French President Nicolas Sarkozy is genuinely motivated by the belief that burqas are a "sign of subservience, a sign of debasement," according to the 16 January edition of The Economist, his best response would in fact be to enact measures welcoming Muslim citizens more fully into French society. Such affirmations would undercut efforts by the small minority of religiously conservative Muslims to gather a following among disaffected coreligionists who feel unable to overcome anti-Muslim prejudice.

The need for the French government to treat religious minorities with respect is bolstered by its own history. In 1781, the enlightened German thinker Christian Wilhelm von Dohm made what at the time was a revolutionary suggestion: "Certainly, the Jew will not be prevented by his religion from being a good citizen, if only the government will give him a citizen's rights."

But it was the French who first put Dohm's prophetic vision into action.

In 1806, French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte emancipated French Jews by passing laws to improve their economic and social status. He invited them to live anywhere they pleased, as opposed to confinement in crowded city slums and frequent itinerancy in the countryside. He also officially recognised their religion and affirmed its permanent place within the private sphere of French life.

Through these acts of profound tolerance over 200 years ago, France set an example for all of Europe and proved that its open-mindedness was more than rhetorical.

Modern France would do well to follow its own admirable example and truly treat Muslim citizens as equal participants in society. Foregoing the burqa ban would be a sensible first step.


* Joshua M. Z. Stanton is co-editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue (www.irdialogue.org) and a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in New York City. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 26 January 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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A diplomatic surge for Afghanistan
Lisa Schirch
Washington, DC - Afghan President Hamid Karzai will unveil new reconciliation efforts with the Taliban at this week's London Conference on Afghanistan's political future. After US President Barack Obama's announcement of another troop surge last month, Afghans have been asking: "Where is the diplomatic surge to address the root causes of Afghanistan's turmoil?"

Last month, I muddied my boots walking around cold but friendly Kabul to ask: "What would US support for a diplomatic surge look like?" After drinking many cups of tea with over five dozen Afghan civil society leaders and government officials, one theme stood out in my notes: Afghanistan needs a coordinated, multi-pronged peacebuilding approach to contribute to the region's complex political chess game.

The slow US diplomacy with the Taliban may result from the conventional notion of first imposing a painful stalemate on the Taliban, bending their will toward negotiation. Yet history suggests successful peace processes require a more proactive, comprehensive diplomatic approach.

The Afghan government's new reconciliation efforts will offer vocational training and jobs to 35,000 former Taliban members. This is a good start. Previous reconciliation efforts aimed to peel off insurgents one at a time, rather than offering economic and security incentives to entire groups.

Diplomacy with the Taliban is an important dimension of addressing the conflict in Afghanistan, but not the only one.

A second dimension is Afghan-led peacebuilding at the local level. The highly functional Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development's National Solidarity Program (NSP) blends locally owned, cost-effective development projects with efforts to increase local capacity for conflict management. The District Development Assemblies (DDAs) and Community Development Councils (CDCs) work through locally elected male and female shuras, or councils, that identify local priorities for building health centres, irrigation systems and schools. This simple yet sophisticated approach is vastly more cost-effective than US-funded development efforts, as it uses existing local channels.

Afghan universities and peacebuilding organisations, some funded by the United States Institute of Peace, an independent US institution which provides the analysis, training and tools that promote stability, help train the shuras in reconciliation and run peace education programmes. Some already operate at capacity. Many could expand with additional international support.

Next, Afghanistan needs a broader public peace process for civil society to build a national consensus on the country's future, particularly on issues such as corruption, ethnic tensions and how to address the Taliban. We should remember that Americans in the Civil Rights Era, which began in 1954, did not set out to destroy the intolerant Ku Klux Klan-a once widespread white supremacy movement that used violence to resist pluralism-through violent measures. Rather, they made it irrelevant by changing the national consciousness through public discussions and campaigns.

Likewise, Afghans need iterative public forums to discuss and design their national agenda to move forward collectively and peacefully. This agenda will complement and coordinate with official diplomatic efforts.

Finally, Afghan leaders await robust regional diplomacy. Persistent dialogue with neighbouring countries, particularly Pakistan, along with economic, political, security and territorial incentives, is essential. With regard to the United States: "It matters when Secretary Hillary Clinton or Ambassador Richard Holbrooke come to the region. We want to see more of them," say local leaders.

They also say the United States does not have enough diplomats with the requisite training in local cultures and languages, principled negotiation, sustained dialogue and other advanced conflict resolution skills to support a peace process. During my trip, Afghan peacebuilding experts warned against imposing Western-style diplomacy on Afghans: "They need to do a better job of acknowledging and learning ways Afghans traditionally manage conflict, through tribal methods and Islamic ways of fostering good and cordial relations."

Though there was almost no mention of diplomacy in his 1 December Afghanistan speech, Obama could start the diplomatic surge by drinking cups of tea with Afghans in Afghanistan. Then add a few dozen more culturally sensitive diplomats muddying their own boots on Kabul's streets like I did. Next, invite more Afghans to talk about diplomacy with US policymakers.

Most importantly, if this country can risk the financial and human costs of sending 30,000 new US troops to Afghanistan-costing up to a million dollars each-surely it makes sense for US Congress to directly fund comparably cost-effective Afghan-led civilian peacebuilding efforts.


* Lisa Schirch is Professor of Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University and Director of the 3D Security Initiative. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 26 January 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Muslims helping Haiti
Wajahat Ali
Fremont, California - Haiti is experiencing unimaginable suffering from its devastating earthquake, with more than 150,000 dead and one to three million individuals displaced. Individuals, groups and governments from around the world have stepped in to do what they can. United by their religious tradition of charity, Muslims have emerged as effective partners in aid and relief work.

The international effort to aid Haiti by individuals, Islamic relief organisations and the governments of Muslim-majority countries reflects a proactive generosity and empathy espoused by the Prophet Muhammad and the teachings of the Qur'an. Charity, in fact, is one of the five obligations for Muslims, and Muslim organisations have been working alongside other faith-based groups to fulfil this duty.

Islamic Relief, one of the most respected and successful disaster relief charities in the world, has used technology, new media and social networking sites to mobilise people. Along with "Seekers Digest", a popular Muslim community blog run out of Canada, Islamic Relief hosted the "Muslim Online Haiti Fundraiser" and raised over $100,000 in two hours. The organisation also used its existing partnership with the Mormon Church to send hygiene kits and temporary shelters to Haiti, in addition to pledging a total of $2.5 million.

Islamic Relief also sent an emergency response team to directly assist victims in Haiti. These Muslim aid workers have been updating a daily blog with sobering first-hand accounts of the tragedy.

Assisting Islamic Relief, Muslim American artists and community activists convened to put on a concert in New York City, hosted by the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), and used the opportunity to raise donations for Haiti. In Chicago, IMAN partnered with a local synagogue and church to raise aid money.

Governments and non-governmental organisations (NGO) of countries that are more often known as recipients of aid have also reached out. Two Pakistani NGOs, Al-Khidmat Foundation and Edhi Foundation, are mobilising relief efforts to help Haitians despite the country's own political and economic volatility. Both organisations have considerable expertise in this area due to the massive 2005 earthquake that killed nearly 80,000 in northern Pakistan. The Edhi Foundation has already pledged $500,000 to assist Haiti.

Speaking on Haiti's catastrophe, the president of Al-Khidmat Foundation, Niamatullah Khan, said, "Islam exhorts us to help those who are in trouble…. Humanity comes first."

In the Middle East, Dubai Cares, a non-profit dedicated to ensuring education for young children, is providing immediate assistance to 200,000 children in Haiti through its international partners who are already on the ground. And the governments of Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco and Turkey have each pledged $1 million in aid, in addition to sending cargo planes filled with medical supplies, food, tents and blankets.

Iran donated 30 tons of humanitarian aid, including food, tents and medicine through its Red Crescent Society. And Palestinians, through the Red Cross, have begun an effort to send donations.

Furthermore, Lebanon sent a plane with 25 tonnes of tents and three tonnes of medical supplies. And Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, sent $2.1 million in aid. "As a country that has been itself devastated by a similar situation, we are absolutely saddened by what's happening in Haiti," Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in Vietnam. "We call on the ASEAN community, including ourselves, of course, to do what we can do to assist them."

According to Habiba Hamid, a Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics, this pattern of charity is not an aberration but the norm for Muslim communities. She says, "Without [Muslim countries], we would not have the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) today, which is proving critical in Haiti currently." In 2008, when the WFP issued an urgent call for funds in light of increased food and fuel prices that raised global hunger and poverty levels, Saudi Arabia pledged $500 million, leading the WFP to recognise King Abdullah as a "Champion in the Battle Against Hunger."

Although the journey to rebuilding Haiti is long and painstaking, Muslim relief efforts worldwide prove that sometimes our most reliable and effective partners in humanitarian endeavours are not always the ones we expect.


* Wajahat Ali is a playwright, attorney and journalist. His blog is at Goatmilk (www.goatmilk.wordpress.com). This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 26 January 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Stop the politicisation of Islam in Switzerland
Bashkim Iseni
Lausanne, Switzerland - The year 2010 has started off as a difficult one for Muslim-European relations. Switzerland's 29 November referendum banning the construction of minarets is still producing an outcry in the country and abroad. Critics point not only to the discriminatory character of the vote against Swiss Muslim minorities, but also the negative image it creates of Switzerland internationally.

In the aftermath of the vote, many of us are still trying to understand the different factors that led to it.

There is, of course, the ubiquitous argument concerning the would-be incompatibility of Islam with modern political and cultural reality, touted by political-ideological circles critical of Islam, such as the Movement against the Islamisation of Switzerland. There is also the anxiety of local populations in the face of immigration, the anger induced by the unequal treatment of women in certain regions of the Muslim world and, more broadly, the post-9/11 international political context.

However, practicing Muslims in Switzerland observe their religion in a manner consistent with the traditions and legal schools of their countries of origin, which actually include liberal and flexible approaches that can accommodate a "Europeanised" Islam and its practice within a secular state. As it happens, such Islamic schools of thought-including the Hanafi legal tradition-are well-disposed and tolerant in the Swiss and European context, but glaringly absent from the public debate on their own place in Swiss society.

At the very least, the minaret vote has led to important debates within Swiss society on integration, as well as finding harmony between Muslim identity and Swiss values, notably gender equality, as well as secular education and the public healthcare system.

This debate also contributes to creating in the public conscience a new category-"Muslim"-as one of the prime identities of persons and communities avowing the Muslim religion in Switzerland's public record. The problem is that the general use of this term would lump together all Muslims of different socio-linguistic origins, moulding them gradually into an objective political and identifying category wrongly defining the sociological makeup of Swiss Muslims. Clearly, this could contribute to a politicisation of Islam in Switzerland.

This possible phenomenon plays right into the hands of some political-religious actors in Switzerland whose words are widely echoed by the Swiss media, creating further tensions.

For example, the president of the Muslim League of Canton Ticino, Gasmi Slaheddine, called for the foundation of an Islamic political party in Switzerland one week after the vote. Such individuals and groups are taking advantage of the window of opportunity to organise based on religion and cast themselves as legitimate representatives of all Muslims in Switzerland.

These self-appointed spokesmen of Swiss Muslims are in no way representative of the intrinsic diversity of this population. Their discourse contradicts the secular and religious representatives of a vast majority of Muslim citizens and communities in Switzerland and silences important voices from the debate about what it really means to be Muslim in Switzerland.

Secondly, the ongoing discussion reveals a profound misunderstanding of the sociological realities of Switzerland's Muslims. Despite the growing polemic, not much is known about these disparate populations, how they see cultural and political modernity, their true perception of Swiss society, their socio-professional life in Switzerland, and their degree of religiosity.

We are talking mainly about people and communities from the Balkans (Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina) and Turkic countries (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan), who represent, importantly, the silent majority of Muslims in Switzerland, over 80 per cent of them. In addition, a very small minority define themselves as practicing Muslims-under 10 per cent, according to an ongoing survey by the University of Lausanne. This rate is very similar to people practicing other faiths in Switzerland.

In order to avoid the trap of the politicisation of Islam in Switzerland and having Muslim religious groups serve as inadequate representatives of the country's Muslims, we need to better understand this diverse population. We must allocate resources to creating bridges and facilitating communication and open mindedness so we can understand the opinions of this silent majority.

An ad hoc institutional framework should also be established to encourage the democratic participation of political and civil society representatives, both secular and religious, in the current debate. More specifically, the societal vision and values of the majority of Muslims in Switzerland should be conveyed clearly to the larger Swiss society. Such measures would clear the way for a genuinely constructive debate within the Muslim population of Switzerland and Swiss society as a whole.


* Bashkim Iseni is a political scientist at the University of Lausanne. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 26 January 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Can violence truly defend Islam?
Mustafa Akyol
Istanbul, Turkey - Alas, it happened again. An extremist Muslim attacked a Westerner to punish him for mocking Islam. This time, the victim was the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, whose controversial caricature of the Prophet Muhammad had sparked a worldwide storm five years ago. A 28-year-old man of Somali origin broke into the cartoonist's home a few weeks ago, wielding an axe and a knife.

"We will get our revenge," he reportedly yelled, before being shot by the police and taken into custody.

Westergaard, who had the chance to run into the "panic room" in his house, luckily survived. And I hope he will not face anything like this again. As a Muslim, I too had found his caricature, which depicted the Prophet Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb with a fuse, offensive.

But I also believe that being offended by someone does not give you the right to attack him or her.

Yet a minority among Muslims think differently. After the publishing of Westergaard's caricature in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005, along with 11 others, some Muslim reactions proved to be quite militant. Danish embassies in Damascus, Beirut and Tehran were set on fire by protesters. Other protesters marched in London carrying posters with bold suggestions such as, "Butcher those who mock Islam" or "Slay those who insult Islam."

Well, there is a strange irony here, right? First, some non-Muslims depict Islam as a violent religion. Then some angry Muslims go violent to protest against it. Their very actions, in other words, prove the very criticism raised against them.

Therefore, it is necessary to sort this issue out not only for the lives of people like Westergaard, but also for the dignity of Islam. So, let me offer a few thoughts.

First, here is a question: Why are those angry Muslims who wish to "butcher those who mock Islam" obsessed with the mockery of the Prophet Muhammad, but not other prophets (such as Abraham or Moses) and, more importantly, the mockery of God?

Yes, contemporary Western culture is, unfortunately, full of themes that make fun of God, and the prophets of the Judeo-Christian tradition who are holy for Islam as well. From a strictly theological point of view, the most offensive among all these should be insults raised against God. As for the prophets, they should all be equally revered, because the Qur'an describes Muslims as "those who believe in God and His messengers and make no distinction between any of them" (4:152).

I am not trying to say that mockeries against God or other prophets should be replied to with militancy. I am just wondering whether the zeal behind the exclusive focus on the Prophet Muhammad is really rooted in faith. To me, it seems to be more rooted in some form of Muslim nationalism-a defence of "us" and "our religion" against "them."

Secondly, let me ask this: How do those militant Muslims who wish to "slay those who insult Islam" know that this is the Islamic thing to do?

The common answer is given by referring to a few narratives about the life of Prophet Muhammad, which report incidents like the execution of two specific prisoners of war, who were satirical poets, after a battle the early Muslims had with pagans. But there are other narratives telling that he forgave such anti-Islamic propagandists of his time.

Moreover, all these narratives about the life of the Prophet, the earliest of which were written a century and a half after his death, are full of puzzles, contradictions and myths, and it is often very hard to put them in the right context. What they will mean for the context of the modern world is another challenging question. (The Prophet, after all, was a man of his time.)

On the other hand, the Qur'an is the only single disputed source for all Muslims, and it has nothing that suggests an earthly punishment for the mockers of Islam. Moreover, it has an interesting verse that commands Muslims: "When ye hear the revelations of Allah rejected and derided, sit not with them until they engage in some other conversation. Lo! in that case (if ye stayed) ye would be like unto them." (4:140).

What I see here is a civilised form of disapproval: Muslims are not supposed to be a part of a discourse that mocks Islam. All they have to do is stay away from it. And even then, that is only until the discourse changes. Once mockery ends, dialogue can restart. (By the way, this verse is from a "Medinan" chapter. It, in other words, comes from a phase in which Muslims had military power.)

If we apply this principle to the modern world, we can say that Muslims can boycott anti-Islamic rhetoric by refusing to join conversations, buy newspapers or watch films and plays that mock the values of their faith.

But that's it. Disapproving and boycotting is the Muslim thing to do, whereas violence and threats are not.

In fact, the overwhelming majority of Muslims already take this peaceful way. The problem is with the extremist minority who believe in glorifying Islam with violence. Little do they realise that their mindless militancy mocks our faith more than any cartoonist ever could.


* Mustafa Akyol is a writer and columnist based in Istanbul. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author.

Source: Hurriyet Daily News, 5 January 2010, www.hurriyetdailynews.com
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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