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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  
09 - 15 March 2010
Celebrating extraordinary Muslim women
by Salma Hasan Ali
In celebration of International Women's Day, Salma Hasan Ali, a Washington, DC-based writer, highlights the achievements of three remarkable women who defy the Western stereotype of the oppressed Muslim woman.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 9 March 2010)
Lebanese march for secularism
by Alexandre Medawar
In advance of the 25 April March for Secularism in Beirut, Alexandre Medawar, editor of l'Orient Littéraire, considers how the current confessional political system compares to the letter and spirit of the Lebanese Constitution.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 9 March 2010)
Independent Jordanian civil society: opportunity not panacea
by Sameer Jarrah
Sameer Jarrah, a Jordanian international lawyer and Project Director at Freedom House, explores what it would take to generate a politically independent and influential civil society in Jordan, ultimately contributing to greater political and civil rights in the country.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 9 March 2010)
Iranian women rally against polygamy
by Sahar Sepehri
Journalist and media analyst Sahar Sepehri highlights the many Iranians protesting a recently proposed law permitting men to take a second wife under certain circumstances without the permission of the current wife.
(Source: Institute for War & Peace Reporting, 2 March 2010)
Islamic principles versus Islamic state in Indonesia
by Blake Respini and Herdi Sahrasad
Can a government respect Islamic customs without creating an Islamic state? Blake Respin, a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at San Francisco State University, and Herdi Sahrasad, Associate Director at the Center for Islam and State Studies at Paramadina University in Jakarta, explore the issues surrounding the application of Islamic law in Indonesia.
(Source: The Jakarta Post, 5 February 2010)
Celebrating extraordinary Muslim women
Salma Hasan Ali
Washington, DC - On 10 March, three Muslim women will be honoured alongside philanthropist Melinda French Gates and human rights activists Panmelo Castro from Brazil and Rebecca Lolosoli from Kenya, by Vital Voices Global Partnership, a Washington, DC-based organisation that works to empower women around the world.

The need to recognise the work of Muslim women is important. Type the search terms "Muslim women" or "women in Islam" online and chances are that a majority of English-language hits will consist of stories relating to what Muslim women wear on their heads or how women in Muslim-majority countries are subjected to physical abuse, or subjugated under the false pretext of religious principle.

But there is another side to Muslim women that is too infrequently recognised, reported or discussed. The Vital Voices Global Partnership awards ceremony, taking place two days after International Women's Day, provides an opportunity to celebrate this not uncommon, yet too frequently overshadowed, side to Muslim women.

Andeisha Farid grew up in a refugee camp outside Afghanistan. As a teenager, she lived in a Pakistani hostel for six years, where she studied and tutored others. In 2008, at the age of 25, she started her own non-profit organisation, the Afghan Child Education and Care Organization (AFCECO), in Kabul. Today, AFCECO runs ten orphanages in Afghanistan and Pakistan for over 450 children of diverse ethnic backgrounds.

In a country where non-governmental organisations that work with women and girls are frequently targeted by religious extremists, Andeisha is constantly on guard. But she remains committed to providing Afghan children not only with food and shelter, but with a sense of mutual respect, regardless of ethnic differences, a feeling of khak - connection to the earth as their homeland - and a sense of empowerment to shape their own future, and that of their country.

"The happy faces of these children give me hope," she says. "It helps me conquer fear."

Afnan Al Zayani is a wife, mother, social activist, television personality and CEO of a multi-million dollar business. It's no wonder that Forbes and Arabian Business magazine call her one of the most powerful women in the Middle East. In addition, she helped ensure the first written personal status law that protects the rights of Muslim women in cases of divorce and child custody was passed in Bahrain.

She attributes her ability to juggle so many responsibilities to her strong faith. "God will judge us on whether we use our gifts of life and health towards good or evil," she says. Immaculately dressed in her hijab, or headscarf, she shatters the Western stereotype of the downtrodden Muslim woman. Her guiding philosophy: "Live your life as if you will live forever; live your day as if you will die tomorrow."

Then there is Roshaneh Zafar. While studying development economics at Yale University in the United States, she came across the story of Khairoon, a woman in Bangladesh who owned only one sari. Khairoon borrowed $100 from the microfinance organisation Grameen Bank to invest in a business, and now owns a sweetshop, a poultry farm, a call centre - and a collection of colourful saris.

Roshaneh met Khairoon many years after her initial loan, and saw firsthand the miracle of microfinance in changing women's lives. She decided to start a microfinance organisation in Pakistan called Kashf, which means "miracle". It is now the third largest microfinance organisation in Pakistan, with 300,000 clients and a goal to reach more than half a million in the next four years.

Roshaneh's message encapsulates the sentiment of many: "Women matter to the world. We need not accept the status quo. Freeing the world of poverty and disenfranchisement of women is possible. But it will only happen when 50 per cent of the world's population is allowed to recognise its latent strength."

It is these stories that must be reported, not only to herald the achievements of remarkable women, but to dispel falsely created perceptions of the role of Islam in defining the fate of Muslim women.


* Salma Hasan Ali is a Washington, DC-based writer focusing on promoting understanding between the West and the Muslim world. This article first appeared in Washington Post/Newsweek's On Faith and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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

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Lebanese march for secularism
Alexandre Medawar
Beirut - Launched by a small group of non-partisan civic-minded citizens called Laïque (Secular) Pride, the March for Secularism will bring Lebanese together on 25 April in support of secularism, and to bring attention to the letter and spirit of the Lebanese Constitution. Participants will walk from the Beirut neighbourhood Ain El Mraissé on the Mediterranean Sea to the Lebanese Parliament buildings.

All too often, Lebanon is represented as a collection of diverse faiths in delicate balance, engaged in an ongoing power-sharing negotiation. One forgets that the Constitution is the only text recognised by all. And, as a social contract, it is the basis for all Lebanese to live together "without discrimination", irrespective of religious affiliation, gender, ethnic origin or personal beliefs.

The preamble to the Lebanese Constitution states: "Lebanon is a parliamentary democratic republic based on respect for public liberties, especially the freedom of opinion and belief, and respect for social justice and equality of rights and duties among all citizens without discrimination." Article 7 affirms that "all Lebanese are equal before the law. They equally enjoy civil and political rights and equally are bound by public obligations and duties without any distinction." And Article 9 guarantees "… the free exercise of all religious rites … and religious interests of the population."

Contrary to current practice based on the National Pact of 1943 which established Lebanon as a multi-confessional state, and the later Taif Agreements in 1989 which led to the end of the civil war, there is no mention in the Constitution of religious apportionment of parliamentary seats or sectarian distribution of administrative employment. Nor does it mention allocating high-level government positions by religion, for example, designating the role of President for a Maronite Christian, the role of Prime Minister for a Sunni and the role of the Speaker of the House for a Shi'ite.

Article 9 of the Constitution clearly determines the secular character of the Lebanese state and consequently the secular character of Lebanese citizenship. Lebanon is a republican and secular state in which all citizens are equal. In theory, that is.

In practice, however, Lebanon is controlled by a political oligarchy composed of businessmen, community leaders, descendents of feudal families and former militia chiefs who, from the first days of independence, used their influence to allocate state positions through confessional haggling. Renegotiated whenever a major political crisis occurred in Lebanon's short history, this horse-trading system is now well encamped outside the democratic sphere and worse yet, is in blatant violation of the text of the Constitution.

In fact, the nation's legislators never established a civil status that would distinguish Lebanese citizens from their religious status. Citizenship is contingent on religion first and foremost, since all personal legal acts (birth, marriage, death and inheritance) are recorded in separate official records established along religious lines.

However today, many Lebanese citizens endorse the stated values of the republican, secular and equalitarian Constitution. Religious or not, practising or not, they do not identify with the sectarian and unconstitutional practices put in place by the political oligarchy. These Lebanese claim the right to enjoy their civic rights and carry out their civic duties irrespective of any religion, in keeping with the letter and spirit of the Constitution - no more, no less.

Thus, the principle of "social justice and equality of rights and duties among all citizens without discrimination" laid down in the preamble to the Constitution should clearly apply to such issues as the civil status of marriage; the right for all citizens to be elected and represent voters irrespective of religious criteria; and the right for all Lebanese to apply for government positions based strictly on professional merit.

As such, the civic movement behind Laïque Pride is neither a syncretic movement nor an attempt at pacifying interreligious relations. Essentially areligious and apolitical, this movement demands the re-establishment of the civic rights guaranteed by the Constitution and broadly ignored by Lebanon's political representatives.

The march has received the green light from the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities. It is the first step in bringing together the individuals and groups in civil society that support a secular Lebanon. For now, its goal is to make all Lebanese aware of the text that lays down the foundations of their state and to strive for its application through legal means and the media.


* Alexandre Medawar is an editor of l'Orient Littéraire, a monthly literature supplement of the Lebanese daily, l'Orient-Le Jour. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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

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Independent Jordanian civil society: opportunity not panacea
Sameer Jarrah
Amman - At the end of 2009, King Abdullah II of Jordan dissolved Parliament halfway through its four-year term, claiming that it was handling legislation poorly. Prime Minister Samir Rifai assured local media that parliamentary elections would take place no later than the end of 2010. In the midst of this controversy, key findings of Freedom House's latest "Freedom in the World" report were released - with Jordan in the "not free" category, due to the regression of political and civil rights in the country.

In the past decade, Jordan has strived to overcome the political, legislative and social obstacles preventing full democratisation and the emergence of a strong civil society. However, the emergence of a genuinely influential and politically independent civil society still remains a distant - though not unachievable - goal.

In the 1980s, Jordan faced an acute economic crisis when declining oil prices in the Arab Gulf States resulted in reduced remittances and foreign aid to Jordan. By the end of 1980s, the economic situation deteriorated with the devaluation of the Jordanian dinar, rising unemployment and popular unrest. To resolve the economic crisis, the country agreed to accept a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In return, a number of political reforms had to be implemented, including building a more active civil society. As a result, the number of civil society organisations (CSOs) grew.

Although the concept of civil society is relatively new in Jordan, the history of CSOs dates back to the country's beginnings. Throughout much of Jordan's 64-year statehood, CSOs have focused mostly on charity and development. Currently, there are over 1,600 of them across the country.

However, the proliferation of CSOs was not a bottom-up process or the result of pressure from civil society groups, but part of Jordan's obligation to implement political reforms in exchange for international aid. Therefore, CSOs were not created for the purpose of strengthening a functioning society independent of the state, as is theoretically their goal.

As such, their role as active players able to make a social and political impact in Jordan is yet to be realised. And they will not be able to achieve this role without the necessary institutional and legal framework.

Jordanian law is not conducive to the independent functioning of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In July 2009, the government passed a law strengthening administrative control over establishing, operating and funding NGOs. Under this new law, groups receiving foreign funding must notify the government of the sources, conditions and purpose of funding. The government also has the power to dissolve the leadership of any organisation and appoint a temporary Board of Directors.

This is not to suggest, however, that the state is solely responsible for the weaknesses of Jordanian CSOs.

CSOs in Jordan suffer from a number of internal weaknesses, including limited organisational capacity, lack of funding and lack of mass support. As such, these organisations must conduct internal reforms. At the same time, the monarchy and the Jordanian government must also recognise that opening up the public arena is in everyone's best interests as it creates avenues for grassroots participation and reduces the incentive for citizens to act clandestinely and circumvent restrictive laws.

The monarchy should work to remove legal impediments to the independence of CSOs. In addition, the government should establish an independent constitutional court, which would decide on the constitutionality of laws, check the power of the executive branch and effectively curtail the direct control it has on various CSOs.

CSOs should not be seen as a panacea for all of Jordan's problems, but their emancipation is crucial for political development. The Jordanian case demonstrates that the mere existence of CSOs is not sufficient for the creation of a burgeoning civil society. What matters is their effective functioning, responsiveness to people's needs and the ability to exert pressure on the government. They must be given opportunities to organise peacefully and advocate for their needs and priorities to increase Jordan's overall security and stability, as well as its prospects for effective democratic reform.


* Sameer Jarrah is a Jordanian international lawyer with extensive experience in democracy and human rights, as well as Project Director of the New Generation Program in the Middle East and North Africa at Freedom House. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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

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Iranian women rally against polygamy
Sahar Sepehri
Washington, DC - Iranian women's groups and other organisations are fighting a much discussed proposed law which they say would encourage polygamy by allowing a man to take a second wife without the permission of the first under certain circumstances. The proposal comes at a time when the country has been rocked by protests, in which women have played a major part, following the disputed re-election last June of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Although Islamic law permits a man to marry up to four wives (with strict restrictions), polygamy is not widely practiced in Iran. At present, an Iranian man needs his wife's permission to take a second wife.

A so-called Family Protection Law, proposed by the government in 2008, said a man could marry a second wife on the condition that he could afford both wives financially. The Parliament dropped that clause following a wave of opposition from women, but is now reconsidering a different version of the provision.

The spokesman for the Parliament's Judicial and Legal Commission, Amir Hussein Rahimi, announced recently that the commission has now approved Article 23 of the proposed Family Protection Law that states, "A man can marry a second wife under ten conditions."

The new version still requires the first wife to give her husband permission, though controversially this permission would not be required under certain conditions, such as if she is mentally ill, suffers from infertility, does not cooperate sexually or has a chronic medical condition or drug addiction.

Iranian women still oppose the legalisation of polygamy, saying it weakens their role and status at home and in society.

The original plan was dropped after a group of intellectuals, religious, social and human rights activists created a movement to voice their opposition to the law. In September 2008, a group of 50 well-known women, including poet Simin Behbahani, politician Azam Taleghani and lawyer and Noble laureate Shirin Ebadi, met representatives from the parliament to express their concerns about what they called "an anti-family protection law".

Islamic organisations such as the Zeinab Association and the Women's Organisation of the Islamic Revolution also supported the movement. And the One Million Signatures campaign, which opposes discrimination against women, played a significant role in mobilising public opinion.

The law was also controversial among government officials. Several reformists protested against it openly. Iran's former president, Mohammad Khatami, called it "persecution". And a leading cleric, Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei, stated, "If the first wife does not permit her husband to take another wife, the marriage will not be legitimate, even if a man can support both wives financially."

Nevertheless, the Speaker of the Parliament, Ali Larijani, has declared that it will consider a slightly amended version of the controversial article.

To which a young member of the Centre for Iranian Women, Taraneh Bani Yaghoub, replied, "The women's movement will not remain quiet."

Iran's first law recognising polygamy was passed when Reza Shah, who ruled between 1925 and 1941, was in power. In 1970, female activists demanded the secular government of Mohammad Reza Shah outlaw polygamy, but despite the government's positive reaction to their demand, clerics prevented it. In 1975, an alternative law was adopted, stating that polygamy was permitted under certain conditions, such as obtaining the first wife's permission.

Much has changed in Iran since 1976, when only 36 per cent of women were literate. Now, according to the Statistical Centre of Iran, 80 per cent of women are educated, and almost 1.6 million are university graduates - compared to 46,000 in 1976.

Despite government restrictions on women, the number of female professionals has increased to around six per cent a year, or 2.5 million women in 2006, according to official statistics. A large group of educated women has shaped today's Iranian society. For years, these women have demanded legal and social rights and equal treatment with men. They have resisted any law that weakens their rights or degrades their position in society.

Women are angry with the proposed law, and they have been disappointed by the reaction of key figures of the opposition movement. A recent statement signed by a group of women activists accused defeated presidential contenders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi of ignoring women's rights and even their existence in their political manifestos, claiming that "women's issues are a major part of the current crisis and no solution will be achieved unless this issue is included."


* Sahar Sepehri is a journalist and media analyst based in Washington, DC. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. The full text can be found at www.mianeh.net.

Source: Institute for War & Peace Reporting, 2 March 2010, www.iwpr.net
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Islamic principles versus Islamic state in Indonesia
Blake Respini and Herdi Sahrasad
San Francisco, California/Jakarta - A critical component of Indonesia's democratic future involves recognition of the special role of Islam in the state. Because most Indonesian Muslims want their government to respect Islamic customs even if they do not support the creation of an Islamic state, the line between support for and opposition to Islamic law is often blurred.

Many Indonesians, including those who are only nominally Muslims, hold conservative values and support strict moral laws without necessarily seeing them as purely religious or based on sharia, or Islamic principles. It is easy to mistake support for a conservative moral law as support for political Islam when it is more simply a reflection of basic conservative values.

By the same token, many Muslims in Indonesia reject some social arrangements and norms that are commonly associated with democracy in the West, including our style of pluralism and secularism. But this too makes them neither theocrats nor anti-democratic.

While the political debate is often framed by pitting Islamists against non-Islamists, the lines are really much more subtle than this and democratic negotiation will require all parties to recognise this so that they can find common ground.

In this regard, Dr. Ahmad Shboul, Chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Sydney, reminds us that keeping religion out of politics is not the same as keeping it out of society in general and that even the most secular governments of the Western world have not attempted to do this.

Shboul suggests that US attempts to secularise Arab politics may have even resulted in a backlash that has contributed to the growth of political Islam. Westerners would do well to remember that there is not only one form democratic society can take.

In fact, we would do well to remember that even in the West, notions over what a democracy is remains in flux and have changed over time.

As Robert W. Hefner, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs (CURA) at Boston University, points out, whereas family was once seen as the central base of Western culture, today individual freedom is often elevated above family unity. Additionally, the very notion of family is being redefined as Americans consider a variety of arrangements, including domestic partnerships, civil unions and gay marriage.

Despite our consensus on many central values, there is constant stress in Western societies over the proper balance of individual rights and the needs of the community, equality and freedom, and even the proper role of religion and morality in politics. Just as various Western democratic societies define each of these somewhat differently, Muslim democracies are likely to have their own brand of pluralism.

The debate over the passage of sharia-based legislation reflects an interest in Indonesia to continue to map out the most central questions concerning the basic shape of its democracy. The debate is less a debate about whether sharia is good or bad, but more about the proper meaning of sharia and its relationship to the state, and thus its relationship to the national ideology of Pancasila, the embodiment of Indonesia's basic pluralism, influenced by Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and Western thought.

Ultimately, it reflects a deep debate over the very meaning of the Indonesian nation and what it means to be Indonesian. All of us have multiple identities. We may define ourselves as students, scholars, husbands, wives, athletes or musicians from an array of images that form our composite selves. However, for a nation state to succeed it is essential that one of the embedded images that a country's inhabitants hold of themselves is their national identity.

But it is not enough to simply be an American, German, Indonesian or Turk. For a nation to function it is necessary that one's national identity represent some shared sense of community, and thus shared values.

Most nations develop out of a long history with a shared past. In most of Western Europe these shared histories have been bound together by common languages, religions and cultural norms. Thus, while Italian and French populations were largely Catholics, the growing awareness of their differences became an expression of nationalism.

Indonesians similarly may share Islam with others across the globe, but Islam can fulfil only part of the nationalist vision. Of course this is especially true in light of the tens of millions of Indonesians who are not Muslims.

The challenge for Indonesia is to find a place for sharia that neither subverts the uniqueness of Indonesia from rest of the Islam, nor undermines non-Muslim Indonesians.


* Blake Respini is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at San Francisco State University. Herdi Sahrasad is Associate Director at the Center for Islam and State Studies at Paramadina University in Jakarta. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the authors. The full text can be found at www.thejakartapost.com.

Source: The Jakarta Post, 5 February 2010, www.thejakartapost.com
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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