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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  
03 - 09 February 2010
A role for Muslim Americans in preventing extremism?
by Parvez Ahmed
US Fulbright Scholar and Associate Professor of Finance at the University of North Florida Parvez Ahmed considers what the Muslim American community can do to prevent radicalisation from occurring in its midst.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 9 February 2010)
More to Saudi women than the niqab
by Maha Akeel
Admittedly, "Saudi women are denied many of the rights granted to women in Islam" but Saudi journalist Maha Akeel argues that the Western media's portrayal of the country's women only does them a disservice.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 9 February 2010)
Rebuilding trust begins with trust
by Wendy J. Chamberlin
Wendy J. Chamberlin, President of the Middle East Institute and former US Ambassador to Pakistan, examines the reasons why the Pakistani public should have a bigger say in how the aid funds for the Kerry-Lugar Bill are dispersed.
(Source: McClatchy Tribune Services, 3 February 2010)
Challenging "West versus Islam" media paradigms
by Gabriel Faimau
After attending a recent conference on "Islam and the Media" in Boulder, Colorado, Ph.D. researcher at the University of Bristol Gabriel Faimau examines why decades of scholarly work analysing the media's depiction of Islam are inherently problematic.
(Source: Jakarta Post, 1 February 2010)
A singing nomad between Morocco and France
by Stefan Franzen
Freelance writer Stefan Franzen highlights the latest musical album by Hindi Zahra, a Moroccan singer and songwriter whose work is inspired music from around the world-from the songs of Berber women, to the sounds of Bollywood and even American jazz.
(Source: Qantara.de, 2 February 2010)
A role for Muslim Americans in preventing extremism?
Parvez Ahmed
Jacksonville, Florida - A recent report by researchers at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) states that the number of Muslim Americans vulnerable to radicalisation is small, but not negligible. Since 9/11, a total of 139 Muslim Americans have been arrested on terrorism charges, some have been convicted and some are still pending verdict. It is a small number relative to the nearly seven million Muslims who call America home, but the number is still distressing: one terrorist is one too many.

While raising concerns about the radicalisation of Muslim youth, the Duke-UNC report also commends the Muslim American community for the steps it has taken thus far to limit radicalisation, including the denunciation of terrorism. But more can to be done.

Engagement in the political process-ranging from voting to running for public office-is one useful step towards stunting domestic radicalisation. Getting involved politically, according to the report, provides "an example to Muslims around the world that grievances can be resolved through peaceful democratic means."

I also believe that instead of presenting issues as Muslim-centric, the community would be better served by making their cause issue-centric. For example, instead of complaining about discrimination, Muslims need to advocate for greater diversity in the workplace so that political and corporate establishments are reflective of the communities they serve. This will allow a broader coalition across faith and ethnic lines to coalesce, increasing the chances of success and removing cynicism that often permeates the community.

Second, the Muslim American community has made, and should continue to make, efforts to improve relations with law enforcement. Such efforts, like conducting regular meetings with the law enforcement community, need to be sustained and enhanced by motivating young Muslims to join its ranks. The Muslim American community has legitimate concerns about its use of informants and agent provocateurs. However, these concerns do not trump the need for better engagement.

Third, the Duke-UNC report asserts, "Muslim-Americans with a strong, traditional religious training are far less likely to radicalize than those without such training." Religious discourse taking place in American Islamic centres is often too esoteric for youth.

Instead, it should tackle issues that are contemporary to living in America, such as how to expand freedom of expression in the face of rhetorical attacks against Islam. This will allow young people to appreciate that the solutions to Islamophobia do not involve clamping down on freedoms by passing meaningless anti-blasphemy laws, but rather championing one's right to offend while upholding another's right to defend.

"Building Bridges to Strengthen America", a publication released by the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a public service agency working for the civil rights of Muslim Americans, suggests that the first step towards radicalisation is socio-economic-political discontent which may precipitate a personal crisis. This identity crisis often leads people to seek answers-and causes some people to find comfort in religion. If the seeker consciously or inadvertently engages with members of any extremist movement, then the chances of radicalisation increase.
Successful recruitment occurs because individuals are ignorant of or lack access to accurate religious knowledge. Sustaining this state of mind requires isolating the individual from mainstream Muslim society.

Telltale signs emerge well before someone commits an act of violence; radicalisation does not spring out of vacuum. Parents and members of a community can be on the lookout, if they know what to look for.

A study by the Dutch Clingendael Centre for Strategic Studies argues that social integration is an antidote to this kind of troubling behaviour. They outline the indicators of propensity towards integration versus radicalisation: a person's attitude towards feeling accepted or welcomed in a society; their satisfaction in being able exercise their rights of citizenship; their perception of fairness in professional life; their expression of allegiance toward their country; their pride in citizenship; or their attitude toward freedom and human rights.

Some of these factors, such as engendering positive attitudes towards social values like human rights, are well within the purview of communities and families to mitigate. Others, such as ensuring that Muslim Americans receive fair and just treatment in places of employment, are responsibilities that need to be shared by the broader society.

Inculcating a pride in citizenship and the responsibility of stewardship within Muslim youth is a message that needs to be reinforced-from the mosque pulpit to the kitchen table.


* Parvez Ahmed, Ph.D. (drparvezahmed.blogspot.com), is a US Fulbright Scholar, Associate Professor of Finance at the University of North Florida and a frequent commentator on Islam and the Muslim American experience. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 9 February 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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More to Saudi women than the niqab
Maha Akeel
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia - Perhaps one of the most misunderstood and stereotyped countries in the world is Saudi Arabia, particularly when it comes to its women.

Some of the negative perceptions surrounding Saudi women could be justified. After all, we are the only country that does not allow women to drive, though the government has declared numerous times that it has no objections to giving women licenses. Saudi women are also denied many of the rights granted to women in Islam. Under the Saudi system, male guardians control decisions concerning a woman's education, employment, travel, marriage, divorce, childcare, legal proceedings and health care-basically, every aspect of her life. It is a system that renders half the country's population helpless dependents.

Nevertheless, there are Western perceptions of Saudi women that need to be addressed objectively.

Whenever Western journalists visit Saudi Arabia, they meet Saudi women who are educated, employed, successful, prominent leaders in their communities. They ask them all kinds of questions and receive honest and transparent answers. However, these journalists often only report on the usual stereotypes-the hijab (headscarf) or niqab (a garment that covers a woman's face and body), the segregation of men and women in most public and private institutions and, of course, the ban on driving.

Segregation hinders women's daily activities and career advancement; but it is more rooted in local customs and traditions, as well as some-but certainly not all-religious interpretations within the country. Thus, it is not strictly or consistently enforced.

The hijab and niqab, comprise a religious and social issue that is not exclusive to Saudi Arabia. In Islam, women are expected to dress modestly, and every Muslim society has different views on what this means. Because Saudi Arabia is the place where Islam was born and where the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are located, people tend to respect modest dress in their public appearance.

But this aspect of Saudi women's lives is often misunderstood. A friend of mine in a prominent government position was furious when she talked to an American journalist for two hours about Saudi women's achievements, progress, obstacles and challenges only to be mentioned in passing in his report to describe how she covered her hair when he asked to take her picture.

When a picture of Saudi women is published in Western media, it usually portrays them wearing the black niqab, even though there are many who do not cover their face or their hair and do not mind being photographed without the face covering. This insistence on reinforcing certain images of Saudi women creates distrust and cynicism towards Western media.

As another friend said to a European journalist, it should not matter what is on my head, but what is in my head.

Many of the Saudi women who choose to wear the hijab or niqab are highly educated, intelligent, successful, working women. The headscarf or face covering does not prevent us from reaching our goals and objectives.

Whether I choose to cover my hair or not should not be a measure to judge me by. It should not define me as "conservative" or "liberal". It should not indicate whether I'm oppressed or liberated because there are many factors that affect my decision to wear the hijab or niqab.

Understandably, driving is symbolic of Saudi women's lack of freedom. However, in terms of rights, we have many other serious issues to consider. Until we are recognised as independent adults who have an equal standing in society as men, we will continue to be marginalised and discriminated against in various ways.

Despite the images perpetrated by Western media, Saudi women have come a long way and are increasingly recognised for our achievements despite the obstacles we face. We are managers of multi-billion dollar companies, world-renowned scientists, university deans, bank CEOs, deputy ministers, as well as the director of the UN Population Fund.

Western media should not trivialise our issues by focusing only on the way we dress or by our driving rights. We are gaining ground every day. Like other women around the world, achieving independence is an ongoing struggle for us, and one that deserves to be recognised in the media and elsewhere.


* Maha Akeel is a Saudi journalist. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 9 February 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Rebuilding trust begins with trust
Wendy J. Chamberlin
Washington, DC - The bipartisan Kerry-Lugar Bill, named after US Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar, provides a multi-year, super-sized economic aid programme to the people of Pakistan. This is the right approach to improve US-Pakistan relations. The majority of Pakistanis distrust the United States because they believe we favour military dictators over civilian democrats and are quick to abandon promised economic aid programmes once we have achieved our security goals.

The legislation is a frontal attack on the major obstacle to better US-Pakistan relations-the trust gap-by offering long-term aid directed at civilians. Perhaps because the logic of the Kerry-Lugar bill seemed so self-evident, Washington was stunned when it immediately ran into a barrage of criticism from several quarters in Pakistan.

The Pakistan army felt slighted by the bill's focus on the civilian government it regards as a rival for national power. Government elites chaffed at heavy reliance on non-profit organisations to distribute aid. And the people despaired at ever benefiting from aid funds after corrupt government officials and gold-plated non-government organisation (NGO) administrators took their cut.

The aid funds will soon be dispersed. But unless we rethink the way we organise this massive programme, it will be counterproductive to building trust and aiding the Pakistani people.

Retooling the American aid programme must address three key weaknesses.

First, Pakistanis have exaggerated expectations for the new aid programme. It may seem like a lot of money to a Pakistani peasant earning a dollar a day, but $1.5 billion annually is a tear drop in the ocean measured against Pakistan's development needs. Regrettably, many Pakistanis expect the American aid programme to address all social sector shortfalls. Bitter public disappointment seems inevitable.

Second, our approach in Pakistan and elsewhere has not essentially changed since the Cold War strategies of transactional aid programmes, when we attempted to one-up the Soviets with our largess. We are stuck on the erroneous notion that building schools will gain us pro-American sentiment. Without deeper understanding of social and cultural conditions, aid projects are unlikely to produce a change of people's attitudes.

Finally, the current "made in America" methodology for designing, implementing and monitoring our aid projects strikes many in Pakistan as too US-centric, not to mention overbearing and biased toward elites.

Perhaps the novel approach US President Barack Obama's Department of Education is pursuing with the Race to the Top fund offers a useful model for dispersing the Kerry-Lugar funds. US Education Secretary Arne Duncan is dangling $4.3 billion in stimulus funds to any US state, school district or local community in a competition for innovative ideas to meet programme goals, such as improved student achievement. Our substantial aid programme offers an opportunity to challenge Pakistanis to design programmes that achieve values both the United States and Pakistan hold dear.

No foreign aid programme can be a substitute for a national reform consensus, but it can help under-gird one. Both our peoples value the rule of law, community safety, equitable quality education and free market systems that provide job opportunities. We should not presume to tell Pakistan how to achieve these goals, but rather encourage those who are committed to them with incentives rather than conditions.

The first step to a reorganised aid programme would be to conduct a nationwide communication campaign to engage the Pakistani public in a discussion of the Kerry-Lugar programme's goals, its limitations and requirements for community consensus and public investment in order to assure success.

A second step is to open the process to new implementation partners by casting a wide net for proposals. We want to open the process to any group with good ideas capable of delivering results-going beyond the traditional federal ministries and larger NGOs. A board of Pakistani and American experts would evaluate submissions and projects would be selected on the basis of their likely success toward a stated objective.

Importantly, involving the people of Pakistan in the aid programme would achieve outcomes that directly fulfill the original intention of the Kerry-Lugar Bill. It would identify new leaders by opening up the process beyond the current tight circle of educated and landed elites. By allowing Pakistanis who know their situation and culture better than we do to participate in the process, we would encourage innovative and culturally appropriate solutions. A more open process would assure community buy-in. Finally, it would stand a better chance of achieving the Kerry-Lugar Bill's original intention of engendering greater trust by involving the people in a process that is so important to their well-being.

This approach is based on the crazy assumption that building trust begins first by trusting the Pakistani public enough to allow them to design and implement a programme in their own interests.


* Wendy Chamberlin is President of the Middle East Institute and served as US Ambassador to Pakistan from 2001 to 2002. Assertions and opinions in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the Middle East Institute.

Source: McClatchy Tribune Services, 3 February 2010, www.mcclatchy.com
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Challenging "West versus Islam" media paradigms
Gabriel Faimau
Bristol, England - At an international conference on "Islam and the Media" organised by the Center for Media, Religion and Culture at the University of Colorado-Boulder in January, many of the participants, including myself, examined the negative stigma attached by the media to Islam and Muslims, especially after 9/11 and various terrorist attempts made in the name of Islam by extremists and militants operating on the fringes of the larger mainstream Muslim community.

In his influential 1981 book, Covering Islam, the late author and literary theorist Edward W. Said captured public attention regarding how experts and the media have determined the way we see Islam. At the heart of Said's analysis is the notion that media coverage of Islam has closely associated Muslims with militancy, danger and anti-Western sentiment.

In 1997, the Runnymede Trust, a UK-based think tank that promotes a successful multi-ethnic Britain, echoed the same idea in "Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All".

A similar tendency was employed to read the events of 9/11 in 2001. Analysing these events, a good number of pundits, analysts, journalists and politicians believed that what we witnessed in the 9/11 attacks and its aftermath was a "clash of civilisations", that is, a battle between Western and Islamic civilisations as predicted earlier by political scientist Samuel P. Huntington.

For the past three decades, scholarly studies on Islam and Muslims in the media have heavily relied on frameworks such as Said's analyses, Huntington's "clash of civilisations" theory, Islamophobia or cultural racism to analyse the questions regarding representations of Islam and Muslims in the media. These frameworks still have a big influence on current studies. In fact, a good number of papers presented during the recent "Islam and media" conference were based on these frameworks.

Of course, the use of such frameworks undeniably shapes the outcome of such findings and analysis. The problem, however, is that at the heart of the above approaches is a binary way of thinking which puts the West on one side and Islam on the other.

Why is the media so obsessed with this binary approach? In my opinion, the binary style of thinking raises two issues.

First, it provides no space for understanding the productive side of the encounter of people with different cultural and religious backgrounds. In a society characterised by increasing complexity, society cannot be just simply painted black and white. After all, society is not static. It has always been dynamic.

Second, the binary approach, which includes the idea of "West versus Islam" or the civilised versus the uncivilised, has been developed upon the premise that media discourse has the power to control the unjust social representations of other cultures or religions. This premise assumes that people are basically trapped, or even imprisoned, in a fixed context of clash. As a result, the binary approach is inadequate for the complex challenges faced by a multicultural society.

The news, however, is not that bad. As we move on to a new decade, a continued exploration of cultural or religious representation based on dialogue offers more hope to the encounters of people from different cultures and faiths than what is currently portrayed in the media.

Indeed, people of different cultures or faiths are naturally strangers to each other. For the possibility of recognising and respecting each other to occur, a courageous step should be taken through which must move toward the other and allow the unusual and strange to become internalised.

In this way, as argued by Zali Gurevitch, Professor of Anthropology at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, one's uniqueness is recognised and differences are accepted without hostility. If studies of media representations of cultures and religions give more space for analysis based on dialogue-centric approaches, in today's multicultural society, we would move forward with more confidence and hope.


* Gabriel Faimau is a Ph.D. researcher, focused on the representation of Islam and Muslims in the British Christian media, in the Department of Sociology at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author. The full text can be found at www.thejakartapost.com.

Source: Jakarta Post, 1 February 2010, www.thejakartapost.com
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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A singing nomad between Morocco and France
Stefan Franzen
Paris - Hindi Zahra is the new face of a young generation of emancipated, cosmopolitan singers and songwriters from North Africa. Her album Handmade is due to be released in late February.

Born in Khouribga in southern Morocco, Zahra describes herself as an inveterate nomad: "From the time I was a small child, I was out on the road with my parents and coming into contact with the whole spectrum of Moroccan music every day-from the songs of the Berber women and Gnawa [a Sufi religious order in Morocco] chants to rock. The music of the Tuareg, too, Egyptian music and Bollywood was something I had a particular soft spot for."

Behind all of these influences was the voice of her mother that provided Zahra with an underlying melody. Among Berbers, singing has always been the preserve of the women and every family has a least one female member who sings.

Zahra is clearly moved as she explains that her background has given her a great deal of female, "intimate and powerful" self-confidence. So it is no surprise that all of her idols are female singers: the American Ella Fitzgerald, the great Egyptian diva Oum Kalthoum, and the exotic and amazing voice of Peru's Yma Sumac with its five-octave vocal range. "They are all divas of sadness," says Zahra.

She made her way to Paris as a young singer in a conscious attempt to free herself from the ties of her homeland and discover other cultures. It was difficult. She remembers: "All [immigrants] find it hard to settle in a new country; especially young people. One can adjust better to change mentally as an adult. As a youngster, however, the whole thing is just too much, the change overwhelming. Settling into life in a big city was very difficult for me. I had always been used to being on the road."

Growing up as a Berber in a country with a strong Arab culture, and where Arabic rather than Berber was spoken, she always had the vague feeling of living a kind of "somewhere" existence. It is a feeling, though, that has also always helped her to adapt to new places-eventually even to Paris.

She began life on the Seine as a soul backup singer. "I became really frustrated working only with Western musicians, though," she recalls. "But at the same time, I became aware of the wealth of material I had in me. I wanted to take the musical culture of my homeland onto another level, to introduce different instruments, especially the piano and the electric guitar, to create a harmonious blend from the most diverse instruments."

The end result of this young woman's journey of self-discovery can be heard on Handmade, a mainly acoustic album of Berber blues, trance-like songs and echoes of the jazz sounds of the 1930s and 1940s delivered in both Berber and English.

The British magazine Wire described "Beautiful Tango", one of the outstanding songs on the album, as a cross between Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and American jazz singer Billie Holiday. "I'd go along with that," Zahra laughs. "The rhythm is clearly based on Berber handclapping. The blues music of the Berber, though, has affinities with the music of the French Manouche gypsies. Little wonder, given that both are nomadic peoples. And the old jazz is also something that fascinated and influenced me from an early stage. For me, jazz musicians are sailors on a journey into the unknown. I also go on this journey, with my voice as medium."

The 11 songs are characterised by spontaneity and informality, and range in character from informal, intimate miniatures to hymns to the night. Zahra also has a weakness for the psychedelic: the song "Set Me Free", for example, is meant to capture the atmosphere of a night in the desert as one stares up in silence at the stars and drifts into contemplation of nature and the meaning of life.

The electric guitar, says Zahra, can take you to the stars. Other songs have more specific themes. "Oursoul" (a Berber word that sounds English), for example, is the name of a song that sensitively explores the theme of forced marriage-a cultural, not Islamic, tradition still practiced in the region.

Handmade was recorded in a large artists' studio to lend an authentic handcrafted character to the sound. Musicians do work with their hands after all, so it is a handicraft, says Zahra.

"I dream the arrangements and vocals," she states, quite seriously. "The melodies tend to come of their own volition without any great effort on my part. I work instinctively, without putting anything down in writing." In her studio work, too, Zahra is constantly on the move. Be it Morocco, Paris, Brussels or London, she remains a true nomad.


* Stefan Franzen is a freelance writer. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Qantara.de.

Source: Qantara.de, 2 February 2010, www.qantara.de
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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