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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  
23 February - 01 March 2010
Can madrasahs bridge the education gap for British Muslims?
by Asim Siddiqui
Asim Siddiqui, founding board member of CEDAR and founding trustee of the City Circle, looks at whether mosques and madrasahs can help the country's young Muslims reach countrywide educational and professional achievement averages.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 26 February 2010)
On the road to better Lebanese-Turkish relations
by Mohammad Noureddine
Mohammad Noureddine, a professor at the Lebanese University and Director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Beirut, explores the history of Lebanese-Turkish relations and why it's time for both countries to learn from each other.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 23 February 2010)
Partnership for Middle East peace, here in America
by Ziad Asali
President of the American Task Force on Palestine Ziad Asali argues that it is time for American Jews and Arabs who seek a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to join forces and support the efforts of US political leaders in achieving this goal.
(Source: The Forward, 3 February 2010)
The origins of sectarian tension in Egypt
by Osama Al-Ghazali Harb
Osama El-Ghazali Harb, Editor-in-Chief of the monthly Al Siyasa Al Dawliya, examines the roots of sectarian divisions in Egypt and considers what changes must be made to the political system for the sake of social cohesion.
(Source: Daily News Egypt, 2 February 2010)
Islam in Bosnia: an interview with Armina Omerika
by Claudia Mende
In this interview with freelance writer Claudia Mende, Armina Omerika, expert in Islamic studies at Germany's University of Erfurt, explores the history of the Bosnian Islamic tradition as a model for Muslim integration in Europe.
(Source: Qantara.de, 12 February 2010)
Can madrasahs bridge the education gap for British Muslims?
Asim Siddiqui
London - Studies show that poor educational attainment and professional underachievement are prevalent amongst young British Muslims. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, an independent development and social research charity, found that British Muslims are less upwardly mobile than their Hindu, Christian and Jewish counterparts. This trend appears consistent across Europe, where Muslims are almost three times more likely to be unemployed than non-Muslims.

Because Muslims are one of the most insular and least economically advantaged groups in Europe, there is a real need to raise aspirations, increase opportunity and mainstream the involvement of young Muslims in society. Local mosques and madrasahs can help.

Britain has an estimated 1,600 madrasahs, weekend or after-school religious learning centres, most of which are associated with mosques. As many as 200,000 Muslim children of all ethnic backgrounds - aged four to mid-teens - attend these madrasahs. The schools range from offering rote learning of religious texts to interactive places where Islamic teaching and mainstream school subjects are taught in fun and creative ways.

Mosque-based madrasahs remain popular with British Muslim families, as they are often the only places where basic Islamic education is available to children. As such, it makes them a largely untapped market for exposing young students to professional and aspirational development.

Unfortunately, some madrasahs are disconnected from the real world and the potential for children to achieve their full potential goes largely unrealised. A recent Open Society Institute report, "Muslims in Europe: A Report on 11 EU Cities", confirmed that teaching methods in many madrasahs, which include rote learning and strict discipline, are often out of tune with contemporary educational thinking and practice, failing to nurture the skills essential for success in the modern workplace.

Another report by the Islamic Foundation's Policy Research Centre showed a need for more "joined-up thinking" between messages emanating from madrasahs and those from mainstream education providers. The need for greater engagement between mosques and professional sectors is crucial in building confidence and broadening horizons for Muslims in Britain and across Europe.

One such scheme has been launched by CEDAR (www.thecedarnetwork.com), a European Muslim professional network. It has partnered with Young Enterprise, the UK's leading business and enterprise education charity, to work in collaboration with mosques to provide professional mentoring sessions within mosques themselves. This innovative approach synergises the special connections many young Muslims have with their local mosque with the wealth of professional experience of CEDAR mentors, helping to provide a learning experience that young Muslims can really engage in.

The mentoring programme seeks not only to raise the aspirations of young Muslims, but also to make introductions with Muslim professionals who can act as career role models with whom they can build long-term connections.

For example, a recent event held at Tawhid Mosque in London saw an interactive session consisting of a range of experiential learning activities for the mosque's madrasah students and other local youth. This included life mapping (tools and techniques to help young people plan for the life they want), skills development and a competition for the best social enterprise business plan involving the building of a community centre. This competition encouraged students to think of the practical needs of their local community - comprised of Muslims and non-Muslims - beyond those of their own faith community.

Unusually, the mosque - considered to be one of the more socially conservative in Britain - allowed a mixed group of boys and girls to work together, and saw the value of a programme which allowed Muslim children to be productive in an environment more akin to the real world.

After the session, 13-year-old Bassim el-Sheikh reflected on what he had learnt: "My confidence is much better now; my teamwork is much better; my listening skills and talking skills are much better."

Mosques in Britain are slowly trying to make themselves more relevant to youth, women and non-Muslims. The larger mosques are seeking to become more holistic centres, not just places of worship, offering English classes, basic computer courses, gym facilities and regular interfaith events.

The more that mosques and madrasahs can be plugged into mainstream society, raising the aspirations of the young Muslims that attend them and providing key life skills, the greater the chances of preventing the mental and physical ghettoisation which has afflicted some British and European Muslim communities, and of contributing to improved levels of education and professional advancement.


* Asim Siddiqui is a founding board member of CEDAR, and a founding trustee of the City Circle. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 23 February 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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On the road to better Lebanese-Turkish relations
Mohammad Noureddine
Beirut - Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri's recent visit to Turkey was a milestone in Lebanese-Turkish affairs.

For the first time, Hariri and a Lebanese delegation of eight ministers met with Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan and many other Turkish business leaders and investors. More important than this unprecedented meeting were the meeting's outcomes, which included eliminating entry visas between the two countries for the first time since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War when Lebanon came under French control.

For decades, many Lebanese - both Christian and Muslim - harboured negativity toward the Turkish state. The Christian Lebanese community felt that during the Ottoman Empire the Turks treated Christians as second-class citizens. Christian religious leaders, part of the then Christian majority in Lebanon, were instrumental in attempts to achieve Lebanese independence from the Turkish Sultanate. Add to this the influx of tens of thousands of Ottoman citizens of Christian Armenian origin to Lebanon during the First World War, especially after the mass killings in 1915 when they were perceived as a threat to the Ottoman state.

Muslim sentiment in Lebanon is no less important. The end to the Ottoman caliphate and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 generated anger among Muslims in Lebanon and the region who wanted Turkey to remain a leader of the Muslim world. Hence, secular trends within the Turkish government, instituted by Turkish President Kemal Ataturk, negatively influenced the outlook of many Muslim Lebanese toward Turkey.

A third factor limiting positive Lebanese relations with Turkey was the latter's recognition of Israel in 1950, a country not recognised by Lebanon.

Aside from a brief period in the 1950s when Lebanon and Turkey shared similar interests against Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's pan-Arab movement and a common political affiliation with the United States, there has been very little positive interaction between the two countries at the government level.

In this context, the Hariri trip could not have taken place at the level at which it did, and with the resultant outcomes, without certain factors in place. First, the new government in Turkey - the Justice and Development Party - has prioritised building better relations with countries in the Middle East. Second, amiable developments between Turkey and Syria have played an important role in Turkey's relationship with Lebanon with Syria has using its influence with the pro-Syrian factions in Lebanon to encourage the country to soften its position toward Turkey.

Regardless of how Turkey practices its secularism, its implementation represents a model in a society formerly divided between the majority Sunnis - numbering 45 million - and the country's 20 million Alawites, who comprise a sect within Shia Islam.

Lebanon still grapples with public calls to modify its confessional political system, where political and institutional power is distributed proportionally among religious communities. And secularism represents one possible solution for societies comprised of diverse cultures and faiths. As such, multi-religious, multi-cultural Lebanon may have something to learn from the secular Turkish experience, and closer ties with Turkey could prove beneficial in this regard.

However, the Turkish example is not perfect. Turkey still grapples with the existence of laws that when practically interpreted have been considered discriminatory against its religious minority - limiting the personal and religious freedoms of the Alawites. And there is still an ongoing debate on the right to wear the hijab, or headscarf, in public buildings and institutions like universities.

Therefore, the Turkish experience may represent a model for Lebanon in principle, if not always in practice. And in this sense, perhaps Lebanon - with the religious and political freedoms it affords its citizens - could also serve as an example to Turkey, introducing mutual benefits for both countries through a closer relationship based on political, as well as social and cultural interests.


* Dr. Mohammad Noureddine is a professor at the Lebanese University, Director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Beirut, and Editor-in-Chief of Choo'un al Awssat magazine in Lebanon. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 23 February 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Partnership for Middle East peace, here in America
Ziad Asali
Washington, DC - With the turbulence surrounding diplomacy and the Middle East peace process, it is more urgent than ever for civil society to unite around the obvious reality that a conflict-ending solution can only be attained through the creation of a Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel in peace and security.

The two-state solution became official US policy under US President George W. Bush, and it is today seen as a national security priority under US President Barack Obama. It has been adopted internationally by the Middle East Quartet (comprised of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations), the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the Arab League and by successive Israeli governments.

This solution has also now come to define all mainstream American thinking about this issue, including the positions of the majority of both Arab and Jewish American organisations.

In the region, this policy is only opposed by the Iranian government, Hamas and Hizbullah, and by ideological extremists on the Israeli far right. In the West, opposition is restricted to activists on the extreme left and right political fringes.

However, too much of our politics has not yet come into harmony with this policy consensus.

On the positive side, recent months have witnessed an unprecedented consensus between the Obama Administration and US Congress. Longstanding supporters of Israel in Congress have clearly stated that the two-state solution serves American and Israeli strategic interests, and have accordingly supported the Administration's early efforts to lay the foundations for renewed peace talks and to build the institutions of a Palestinian state.

On the other hand, the old zero-sum attitudes - in which a gain for one side is seen as an inevitable loss for the other, and more energy is spent on scoring debating points than on reaching solutions - continue to dominate the relationship between the Palestinian and Israeli governments, and also between Arab and Jewish communities and organisations in America.

This dissonance between stated goals and actual behaviour is at the heart of the difficulties facing the Administration's effort to resolve this conflict, and it must be overcome.

While professing a common objective, America's Arab and Jewish communities have thus far avoided creating a cooperative dynamic. Cross-community cooperation has only been established among a fraction of organisations, while the centre of gravity remains largely adversarial. The language of de-legitimisation and the constant search for "proof" of the other's bad faith still define most rhetoric about the Arab-Israeli conflict, to the detriment of accomplishing what both communities say they want.

This might be an understandable (albeit profoundly destructive) dynamic between two foreign parties that are struggling to find a way out of a painful, active conflict. But it has no place in the American domestic political scene, in which the national interest in resolving this conflict must be paramount.

As the Obama Administration forges ahead with building an international coalition for peace, a domestic coalition for a two-state solution needs to be created in this country.

Its core purpose must be to communicate to political leaders, especially in Congress, the breadth of the coalition in favour of peace based on two states and the depth of commitment that it embodies. Members of Congress and other public figures need to be provided with sufficient support to truly embrace this approach, and to be confident that it comes at a political benefit and not a cost.

Such a coalition needs to crystallise around a nucleus of Arab and Jewish organisations. These two communities have the highest emotional and political stakes in the resolution of this conflict and the most detailed knowledge of the Middle East. Other Americans naturally look to them for leadership.

In addition, because of their deep personal and political relationships with Palestinians and Israelis respectively, these two communities are best positioned to support the administration's efforts to bring the parties together for peace talks to ultimately end both the conflict and the occupation. A Jewish- and Arab-led coalition for peace can also demonstrate the commitment of the closest friends of the parties in the region to achieving a two-state agreement and show that these two communities - both here and in the Middle East - can work together to further their mutual interests.

Differences in nuance and emphasis - both within and between these two communities - are natural and healthy, as they foster debate and encourage new, creative ideas. The aim should not be to stifle such diversity, but rather to create the largest possible constituency for a peace agreement.

Such a coalition needs to be wide enough to encompass all organisations advocating a two-state solution, even if they have differences over why they support it, how to best reach this goal or even how to define it with precision. What is needed is a vehicle through which Arabs, Jews and other interested Americans can ensure that the sum-total of their efforts supports the overriding national security issue at stake.

All of us who want to end this conflict must now band together in common cause, shed outmoded and counterproductive attitudes, and give the necessary political support to leaders on all sides who are serious about achieving a solution. The time has come for our politics to finally be aligned with our shared policy goals.


* Ziad Asali is President of the American Task Force on Palestine, and serves on Search for Common Ground's Middle East Advisory Board. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from The Forward.

Source: The Forward, 3 February 2010, www.forward.com
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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The origins of sectarian tension in Egypt
Osama Al-Ghazali Harb
Cairo - A complex and rampant phenomenon in Egyptian society, sectarian violence has been infesting Egypt for a long time, spawned as a result of a host of economic, social and cultural woes.

There is a direct and undeniable link between the emergence of these tensions on the Egyptian political landscape and the political system in place since the 1952 military coup. Sectarian tensions have blighted Egyptian society because of the ill-advised policies pursued by the ensuing regimes, such as former Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat's unwise and inflammatory decision to label himself "The Muslim President of a Muslim state", the constitutional amendments he made to Article 2 (which states that Islam is one of the principle sources of legislation) of the Constitution, as well as his moves to bolster the presence of Islamic political groups.

A reading of the Egyptian political scene during the time of the 1952 July coup may also help draw significant conclusions. Many of the Free Officers, members of the army who orchestrated the coup, had ties to or were even members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Nasser. And there was not a single Christian among them.

And despite the fact that the regime launched an attack on the Brotherhood after former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's attempted assassination, believed to be by other Brotherhood leaders, it was itself extremely reticent about including Christians within its ranks, evidence that the basic make-up of the regime has helped fuel Egypt's sectarian tensions.

In addition, some observers allege that Christians in Egypt have been subjected to systematic forms of discrimination that have alienated them and left them so disgruntled that some became radicalised. This sorry state of affairs can be attributed to the lack of true democracy, which in turn undermines tolerance and harmony and fuels fanaticism and bigotry.

This bleak picture dominating Egypt's domestic front today is in stark contrast with the peaceful coexistence that used to mark the harmonious relations between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority in the years between the 1919 revolution against the British occupation and the 1952 coup.

There is no doubt that the political debacle experienced by Egypt in the wake of the 1952 coup - which manifested itself through the strict censorship of the media, the abolition of political parties and an iron grip imposed on civil society - took its toll on Muslims and Christians alike. However, Christians were further deprived of assuming any posts in intelligence or security agencies. This blatant injustice inflicted on the Christian minority played a crucial role in compounding the Coptic predicament of political dissatisfaction.

Moreover, political and cultural awareness has considerably deteriorated because of the absence of intellectual enlightenment in Nasser's era, eroding the basic values of citizenship, equality and national unity.

Today we are in dire need of launching an awareness campaign to lead people to embrace the lofty values of religious tolerance and to renounce bigotry. The mass media and educational institutions can take this message far and wide.

We must also bear in mind that the current deplorable economic and social conditions that have led to more than 30 per cent of the Egyptian population living under the poverty line, has easily made Egypt a breeding ground for social ills like extremism and religious fanaticism.

Some religious facilities, whether Muslim or Christian, have been embroiled in vicious campaigns inciting hatred and stoking extremism on both sides. The houses of God mustn't be used as strongholds to disseminate erroneous and slanderous ideas, further entrenching divisions between Muslim and Christian communities.

We are facing real threats to our social cohesion and our future as a nation. We must live up to this challenge and be keenly alert to this looming danger that jeopardises our national unity.


* Osama El-Ghazali Harb is Editor-in-Chief of the monthly Al Siyasa Al Dawliya published by Al-Ahram and is one of the founders of the Democratic Front Party. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the Daily News Egypt. The full text can be found at www.thedailynewsegypt.com.

Source: Daily News Egypt, 2 February 2010, www.thedailynewsegypt.com
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Islam in Bosnia: an interview with Armina Omerika
Claudia Mende
Bonn, Germany - Islam has been practiced in Bosnia for centuries. Freelance writer Claudia Mende asks Armina Omerika, an expert in Islamic studies at the University of Erfurt in Germany, whether the Bosnian Islamic tradition could serve as a model for the integration of Muslims in other European societies.

How has Bosnian Islam come to terms with the non-Muslim Bosnian state?

Armina Omerika: This question arose for the first time in 1878, when Bosnia came under Austro-Hungarian rule. One could say that Bosnian Muslims have been living under "foreign rule" ever since. Even then, there were heated debates as to whether Muslims could live in a non-Islamic state. Reformers like Dzemaludin Causevic, leader of Bosnian Muslims from 1914 to 1930, were in favour of a modus vivendi [a temporary agreement between disputing parties allowing for peaceful coexistence until a formal settlement can be reached]. Naturally, this modus vivendi has changed through the years.

What issues were particularly controversial?

Omerika: There were fierce debates between Muslim intellectuals and scholars about the secularisation of education, the status of women in society and the reform of Islamic law. Since the Austro-Hungarian occupation, Islamic law has been restricted to family and inheritance laws.

One particularly controversial issue was the extent to which women could operate in public. The question of Islamic banks and interest rates was also discussed, as was the way in which the community should come to terms with non-Islamic administrative structures and systems of rule. Many areas of life were secularised - bit-by-bit. However, the impetus to reform Islamic law and to secularise society also came from within the Bosnian Muslim community, not from outside.

In other words, nothing can be achieved by applying pressure from the outside alone?

Omerika: Nothing much can be achieved without an intra-Muslim debate. In Europe in particular, Muslim communities are very diverse. They frequently disagree with one another and are poorly linked. Dialogue within the Muslim community is the first prerequisite for solving integration problems in European societies.

What was the situation during the period of Communist rule?

Omerika: Secularisation in Bosnia peaked during the period of Communist rule [beginning in the 1940s]. Although the roots of secularisation reach back to Muslim groups and debates in the early 20th century, the Communists enforced secularisation from above and coupled it with repressive measures against the Muslim community. Secularisation was implemented in a way that is out of the question for contemporary democratic states.

Did this forced secularisation lead to a religious revival?

Omerika: From the mid-1960s onwards, there was a phase of liberalisation and a hint of religious freedom, which led to a religious revival. Semi-legal movements and informal networks that had continued to exist underground were now able to speak out in the Communist state.

Is there an overlap between Islam and Bosnian nationalism?

Omerika: Ever since the Bosnian War [from 1992 to 1995], the Muslim community has supported a form of political nationalism in which ethnic national identity is equated with religious and political identity. Accordingly, alliances are repeatedly formed between the Muslim community and the various Bosniak (i.e. Bosnian Muslim) parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina that have a nationalist outlook.

Muslim communities in Western Europe, on the other hand, are made up largely of Muslims who have migrated there since the 1950s. Since then, Muslim life of an unprecedented diversity has developed. This diversity is not only of an ethnic, but also of a theological nature. There are linguistic, ethnic and doctrinal barriers amongst the Muslims of Western Europe which make it impossible to transfer aspects of Bosnia's Muslim community to other regions of Europe.

And what about the theological aspects? Could they act as a model?

Omerika: In Bosnia, the tradition of open Muslim discourse is as old as the Muslim community itself. While there are conservative currents, they are part of an ongoing debate.

A milestone in Bosnian Islam was the re-establishment of the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Sarajevo in 1977. Islamic scholars such as Enes Karic and Fikret Karcic, who work at Europe's only Muslim faculty at a state university, have developed groundbreaking concepts for the integration of Islam into a secular state.

Is the status of Islam a topical issue in Bosnia?

Omerika: Mufti Mustafa Ceric is particularly controversial. Many accuse him of positioning himself as a political player and overstepping the bounds of his role as a religious leader. They also say that he is mixing Islam and politics and poses a threat to the secular character of the state.

In addition, Salafism [a conservative Sunni movement originating in Saudi Arabia] and its missionary efforts are a regular theme in the Bosnian press. In contrast, hardly anything is said about conservative Christians from the United States acting as missionaries to Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox youth. The same holds true for the close ties between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the state structures. The debate about Islam and its role in society has become a kind of ersatz discourse for debates about religion in general.


* Claudia Mende is a freelance writer. Armina Omerika is Assistant Professor at the University of Erfurt, Germany. 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, 12 February 2010, www.qantara.de
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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