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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  
30 March - 05 April 2010
 
Everyday Iraqis hope for peace and stability
by John Filson
John Filson, Programme Manager for the Mennonite Central Committee, examines what everyday Iraqis can do to help bring long-term stability to post-election Iraq.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 30 March 2010)
Iraq a catalyst for US-Syria rapprochement?
by Marwan Kabalan
After five years of strained relations, Marwan Kabalan, a Syrian writer and academic, explains why current common interests regarding Iraq may set the stage for improved US-Syria relations.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 30 March 2010)
Arab woman to head UN's new gender programme?
by Hibaaq Osman
Hibaaq Osman, Founder and Chair of Karama, considers the potential impact - for women around the world, and especially in the Middle East - of appointing an Arab woman to head the new United Nations gender programme.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 30 March 2010)
Peaceful, prosperous future motivates aid work in Pakistan
by Rienk van Velzen
Rienk van Velzen, Regional Communications Director for World Vision in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, describes World's Vision's steadfast commitment to stand with Pakistanis against poverty and injustice, even after violent attacks on their office earlier this month.
(Source: World Vision International, 17 March 2010)
Confessions of a hijabi
by Farah Zahidi Moazzam
Inspired by the recent Bollywood film My Name is Khan, Farah Zahidi Moazzam, the Features Editor of Women's Own magazine, shares her personal journey with the hijab, or headscarf.
(Source: Dawn.com Blog, 22 March 2010)
 
 
Everyday Iraqis hope for peace and stability
John Filson
 
Washington, DC - Iraqis say Allah kareem (God is generous) as a way of expressing trust in the hands of fate to take care of them in an uncertain future. As the shape of Iraq's new government slowly comes into focus after the second national elections since the fall of Saddam Hussein, there is reason for Iraqis to feel uncertain.

Will this democratic process actually work? Can the new government finally usher in a measure of stability, or will the familiar chaos of violence swallow Iraqis' hopes for the future? The elections cannot answer these questions.

Long-term peace and stability depend on a wide range of factors, from the development of Iraq's economy to the actions of external forces. But more than any other influence, Iraq's future depends on the beliefs and attitudes of ordinary Iraqis.

Beyond assigning parliamentary seats, these elections have significant meaning in Iraqi society. They are an important part of a much longer process of establishing a political system in Iraq based on the rule of law rather than the threat of violence.

But such a system only works when individual families sitting together around the dinner table see the system as fair and trustworthy. It requires a shift in attitude from fear of exclusion to an inclusive, community consciousness of individual well-being as interconnected with the well-being of others.

Iraqis have to decide whether or not to trust the system and each other. Will political groups that feel disempowered after this round of elections choose to work within the system to vie for power and influence, or will they see violence as the only way to secure their interests? Is the system capable and ready to provide a platform for opposition voices?

Given the country's history, it makes sense that Iraqis are watching cautiously to see whether the national political process will act as legitimate broker for their aspirations. Iraq's current borders were set by Europeans at the end of World War I, lumped competing ethnic communities together. Since then Iraqis have witnessed rampant abuses of state power by corrupt sectarian leaders pursuing the prosperity of their own group at the expense of others. Why should it be any different now?

Also, since 2003 Iraqis have been uninspired by the democratic ideals touted by the United States because they see American actions in Iraq as overtly self-interested. Many believe that the United States spent hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars and thousands of American lives to reshape Iraq, not because of a magnanimous commitment to the prosperity of impoverished Iraqis, but rather to provide solid footing for US interests in the form of profitable trade relationships and strong influence in the region.

Yet, despite the cynicism, there is cause to be optimistic about Iraq's future. If Iraqis are allowed to find their own way forward, long-term stability is inevitable.

I spent 20 months in northern Iraq working closely with local communities and organisations of all ethnic and religious identities, dedicated to sustainable reconciliation and development. Every time word of another kidnapping or bombing caused local people to sigh with tired eyes, they also responded by repeating and strengthening their calls for ceasefire and dialogue. Iraqis are tired of violence. They know it can never bring them the future they want.

The kind of interconnected community consciousness that is critical for the new political process to succeed is visible in ordinary Iraqis. As I watched Iraqis debate the formidable barriers standing between Iraq's competing communities, someone would inevitably bring the conversation back to a broader framework: Kulna insaan, I heard so often: "We are all human beings."

The outcome of the 2010 elections provides an interesting new chapter in Iraq's unfolding story. But the strongest determining factor for long-term peace and stability will be the attitudes of ordinary Iraqi people. May a spirit of interdependent well being prevail over fear and exclusionary politics in Iraq, and may the rest of us learn from this example. Allah kareem.

###

* John Filson lived and worked with Iraqis for 20 months in northern Iraq as Programme Manager for the Mennonite Central Committee, a faith-based relief, development and peacebuilding agency. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 30 March 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.


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Iraq a catalyst for US-Syria rapprochement?
Marwan Kabalan
 
Damascus - Following five years of tense relations between the United States and Syria, the Barack Obama Administration has appointed a new ambassador to Damascus - the current Deputy Ambassador to Iraq, Robert Ford. The nomination shows the central importance of Iraq to US-Syria relations. The US war on Iraq drove a deep wedge between the two, but common interests over Iraq now seem to have become the latent force behind rapprochement.

When the George W. Bush Administration decided to invade Iraq in 2003, Syria openly opposed the plan. Syria felt that the United States was targeting it as well since Washington's political conservatives advocated regime change in Damascus, and supported the resistance to US occupation. The United States also accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters to cross the borders into Iraq and hosting senior members of the former Iraqi regime.

In the summer of 2004, however, Syria started to reconsider its policy. Increasing violence in Iraq and the growing influence of extremist groups, such as Al Qaeda, led Syria to place greater emphasis on helping stabilise Iraq in order to reduce the war's effect.

In the autumn of 2005, Syria reinforced its military presence along the Iraq border, deploying 7,000 extra troops to stop would-be infiltrators trying to join the anti-US insurgency. In addition, as a mark of good faith, Syria allowed Iraqi electoral candidates to campaign amongst the approximately 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria - a clear departure from earlier Syrian policy which opposed the US invasion and everything resulting from it, including elections.

In 2006, Syria recognised the Nouri al-Maliki-led government in Iraq and re-established diplomatic relations with Baghdad. Increasingly, observers started to see agreement, and sometime overlapping interests, between the United States and Syria.

From mid-2007, Syria and the United States, notwithstanding the hostile rhetoric, started to explore common interests regarding Iraq. On this particular matter, they could increase their cooperation and stop their deteriorating relationship.

From that time on, Syria started to show genuine interest in the establishment of a strong central government in Baghdad. For Damascus this was a key requirement in preventing the disintegration of the country and the emergence of confessional-based mini-states along its border. To this end, Syria lobbied for the inclusion of the major Sunni factions in Iraq's political process. A formula of power and wealth sharing was seen as essential to get all the parties involved in a national reconciliation process.

Syria also advocated for a revision of the de-Ba'athification law in Iraq to allow some former members of the Sunni-dominated Ba'ath party to participate again in government, a prerequisite for an inclusive national reconciliation process.

Syria is concerned about the activities of extremist groups in Iraq and fears violence could spill over into its territory. For Damascus, Iraq might very well turn into a breeding ground for extremists. As such, Syria makes no efforts to hide its displeasure with policies that foster sectarianism and federalism, opposing attempts by key Shi'ite factions - such as the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq - to establish a Shi'ite province in the south of Iraq. Syria also coordinated with Turkey to preserve Iraq's unity and territorial integrity.

Ahead of the latest general elections in Iraq, Syria and the United States seemed to endorse more or less the same policies on Iraq: encouraging the inclusion of all political parties in the electoral process, working to provide a reasonable level of stability and security and preventing sectarian violence or partition along ethnic lines. Syria also hopes to see the smooth withdrawal of all American troops according to the timetable set out in the US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement.

Indeed, there are a number of differences between the United States and Syria, such as disagreements over the pace of US withdrawal from Iraq and Syria's strong ties with elements of the former Iraqi regime. Yet, these differences can be overcome, particularly after the positive developments resulting from the 7 March general elections in Iraq, including strong performances by secular and nationalist forces.

Indeed, the two countries will have to agree on an overall strategy to cooperate on stabilising Iraq, an opportunity for the new US ambassador to Syria to bring five years of cold relations to an end.

###

* Dr. Marwan Kabalan is a Syrian writer and academic. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 30 March 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.


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Arab woman to head UN's new gender programme?
Hibaaq Osman
 
Cairo - In the halls of the United Nation's New York bureau, officials have been considering a proposal to unify the UN's many organisations promoting women's equality and rights into a single "gender entity". This entity would have a greatly increased budget - exactly how much is still being debated - and would be headed by an executive at the rank of Under-Secretary General.

This is a tremendous opportunity for the United Nations to step up funding for global women's issues and to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Current women's activities are run by the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), the Office of the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (OSAGI), the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the UN International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW). It's also a once-in-a-generation chance for the UN to turbo-charge women's rights in the Middle East by appointing someone from the Arab region to lead the new gender entity.

Here's why: selecting an Arab woman would be a step towards acknowledging that developing countries are no longer in the backseat of the fight for equality; they are behind the wheel. For years, the priorities of the global women's movement have been set in the capitals of rich countries, with funding flowing from governments and private foundations to the issues and regions they assign as global priorities. Meanwhile, the struggle, strategies and increasing successes of Arab women activists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) against gender inequality have been largely overlooked.

Today, dominant governments and funders still play a major role in directing the financing for women's empowerment. However, an increasingly vibrant array of local and international women activists and NGOs are setting especially effective agendas that meet the needs of women in their own countries.

Appointing an Arab woman to the helm of this new programme would increase pressure on governments in the region to honour commitments they have made under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) treaty, and would serve as a powerful signal to Arab governments that the international community is committed to full implementation.

While CEDAW has been signed by all states in the Middle East and North Africa, except Sudan and Somalia, Arab governments continue to drag their heels in implementing it. They continue to impose reservations - exceptions to articles within the treaty that clash with local customs or laws - that render many of the treaty's provisions toothless. Arab governments would find it difficult to ignore a strong voice, in their language, leading the charge for women's rights from the highest levels of the United Nations.

This logic also holds true for media and civil society groups. A bold Arab voice at the forefront of the global women's movement would be a magnet for Arab media, which have been slow to amplify messages of women's equality, as well as a galvanising force for the next generation of local civil society activists.

Last week, female activists from the Arab world and beyond gathered in New York at the UN's 54th Commission on the Status of Women. They celebrated successes of the past year, such as Jordan's announcement that it will lift some of its reservations on CEDAW and grant women unrestricted travel rights. I was part of that meeting and was reminded of the work that lies ahead in the fight for women's legal equality, economic participation and political empowerment.

I left the meeting convinced that the creation of this new gender entity will make 2010 a watershed year in the struggle for women's rights, on par with the passage of CEDAW in 1979, the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995 which set out a number of actions for fundamental changes by 2000 and the introduction of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000.

This is a truly historic opportunity for the global women's movement. The world's decision-makers in New York should know that Arab women, from Baghdad to Casablanca, are watching closely, rooting for an Arab woman to carry the flag of global gender equality.

###

* Hibaaq Osman is Founder and Chair of Karama (www.el-karama.org). This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 30 March 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.


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Peaceful, prosperous future motivates aid work in Pakistan
Rienk van Velzen
 
Mansehra, Pakistan - At 9:20 am on 10 March, a routine office meeting was shattered by the sound of armed militants storming World Vision's office in northwest Pakistan. The gunmen opened fire and detonated a bomb, destroying the office as they left. Six World Vision staff members, including two women, were killed. Eight more were injured, three of them seriously; one so seriously that he died four days later.

The attack on World Vision staff in Pakistan serves as grim evidence that humanitarian space cannot be protected, even with the official support of local government authorities and the hospitable collaboration of local community and religious leaders. In 2008, the total number of aid workers killed was 122. The total number of victims of "violence" (i.e. killed, kidnapped or seriously injured) was 260. Despite our industry's firm commitment to neutrality and impartiality in our operations, groups opposed to peace and prosperity in communities continue their assault.

During their rampage on World Vision's office in Pakistan, extremists shouted, "Why are you doing this job?" before orphaning the children of staff and of the communities of dedicated parents and staff who worked there. We cannot say what drove the attackers. But we can provide an answer to their question about our own motivation.

The majority of World Vision's staff in Pakistan are Muslim, many of whom are born and raised in the communities they work in. All of those killed in last week's attack were Muslim. They work tirelessly in places like Oghi - a town in the Mansehra District of the North West Frontier province - to provide an alternative to the narrative of violence that extremists offer because they believe in a future of stability and peace. Aid workers, whether local or expatriate, are motivated by a straightforward interest in providing a better life for children, their families and communities.

Following the devastating earthquake of 2005, World Vision constructed 13 permanent and 22 temporary schools, enabling thousands of children to continue their education, while livelihood recovery activities helped get hundreds of families back on their feet.

More recently, after the massive displacement of people from Swat, Buner and Lower Dir Districts due to extremist and military clashes, World Vision distributed food rations to more than half a million people, aided thousands more with emergency household and hygiene items, and provided psychosocial support to hundreds of children through Child Friendly Spaces, which provide them with a place to play and heal from the trauma and loss they've experienced.

Extremists teach hate, anger and violence. Humanitarians teach tolerance. Their work to help lift mothers, fathers and children out of the crushing oppression of poverty nurtures respect for human life, for human dignity and for human rights.

Humanitarian aid workers help communities defend their borders in battles defined not by bullets and bombs, but by development and dialogue. Armed attacks are not the contests that will ultimately determine Pakistan's fate. No, the relevant battles are more profound: the struggle to save children from premature death in Pakistan where 400,000 children under the age of five years die every year; the fight to ensure that every child has a chance at a decent education in a country, where almost 49 per cent of the population is illiterate; and the insistence on good governance, in a land where millions have never exercised their basic right to vote.

World Vision and other humanitarian organisations remain deeply committed to helping Pakistan's communities win these contests. When they are won, there will be no room for extremism.

On 10 March in World Vision's office in Oghi we lost to anger and hate. Seven dedicated World Vision staff gave their lives for a vision of a prosperous, peaceful country. But there are millions more Pakistanis who share their vision and honour to their memory by continuing the struggle for an end to poverty and injustice. World Vision stands with them, seeking to be a faithful agent of God's mercy and compassion for all people regardless of politics, race, gender or religion.

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* Rienk van Velzen is Regional Communications Director for World Vision in the Middle East, Eastern Europe & Central Asia region. World Vision is a Christian relief, development and advocacy organisation dedicated to working with children, families and communities to overcome poverty and injustice. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from World Vision.

Source: World Vision International, 17 March 2010, www.wvi.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.


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Confessions of a hijabi
Farah Zahidi Moazzam
 
Karachi, Pakistan - I watched the Bollywood film My Name is Khan the other day. The brilliant depiction of an autistic person by India's leading actor Shah Rukh Khan and director Karan Johar's surprisingly taut direction made for a good film.

In one particular scene, I felt a lump form in my throat. Sonya Jehan, the actress who plays Khan's sister-in-law, a working woman living on the West Coast of the United States, has her hijab pulled off while walking down a hallway.

This is one of several expressions of resentment against Muslims in the wake of the 9/11 attacks portrayed in the film. After the insult, Jehan's character decides to stop covering her hair in public. However, later she puts her hijab back on because she feels incomplete without it.

"It's me," she says.

That scene reminded me of my own journey with the hijab.

I discovered my spirituality as I reached my teens. Innately curious, I soon found myself reading the Qur'an in translation, in an effort to better understand its meaning. A few persuasive teachers and friends guided me through this process. As I read, a new world opened up to me. I started to seriously consider wearing the hijab. After what felt like a personal tug-of-war, I clumsily covered my hair for the first time. For someone whose hairstyle was her signature trademark, this wasn't an easy step.

At that time the hijab was less common than it is now and people were less accepting. Friends and colleagues said that I looked old and unfashionable. As someone used to receiving compliments, I found these asides difficult to handle and soon gave up; that move was an ordeal in itself.

Everywhere I went, I heard comments such as, "See? This is why I don't do it. People start to wear hijab, then take it off. They've made a joke of it." Inwardly, I kicked myself, ashamed of my inconsistency. I needed more time.

A few years later I started wearing it again, this time as a more conscious decision. This time I felt respected, protected and true to what was right in my heart and mind. This was my choice, without force.

However, there were still days when I felt lost without my hair over my shoulders. Some people praised me encouragingly, saying I looked beautiful with my head covered. Others called me "ninja", "fundo" (short for fundamentalist) or "Taliban". Others gave me apologetic smiles, fumbled with their own scarves, perching them on their heads as soon as they saw me.

Amongst all these reactions, the one I most wanted was to be treated as I had always been, like a normal person. I was a woman making a choice, which is normally perceived as a sign of emancipation. It was strange to me that dressing differently was seen by some as a sign of oppression, or, worse yet extremism.

As the years have passed it has gotten easier. Today, due to globalisation and a more open-minded approach towards life, people - especially youth - are more accepting. My daughter's teenage friends, for example, are less judgmental than peers in my college days.

Yet even now I have to fight the stereotypical image of a hijabi - someone who wears the hijab - every day. I smile a little more to show people that I have not donned the hijab owing to depression or against my will. And until they hear me speak, people often assume I am conservative, or brainwashed, something my Muslim male counterparts who are bearded or dress conservatively often experience as well.

Through it all, amazingly, I have remained the same person. I want to look and feel good, achieve my goals and enjoy life, but within the framework I believe has been defined by my faith.

I am not angry or bitter. I understand where people are coming from. I only wish they understood where I am coming from.

I have been fortunate to meet people who accept the right of every individual to exercise their freedom of choice. If someone uses that freedom of choice, like me, to dress a certain way, such individuals do not see me in the context of what I wear, but gauge me in light of what I do and who I am.

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* Farah Zahidi Moazzam is the Features Editor at Women's Own magazine and writes about social issues, particularly those relating to women. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Dawn.com Blog. The full text can be found at blog.dawn.com.

Source: Dawn.com Blog, 22 March 2010, blog.dawn.com
Copyright permission is granted for publication.


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