Thursday, January 27, 2005

Good news from the Muslim world, Part 4 

From the past few weeks, a selection of some positive steps and encouraging trends towards greater freedom and democracy throughout the Islamic world.

Region-wide: Not the first - and hopefully many more to come - stirrings of a
reformist spirit in Islam:

"Mohamed Shahrour, a layman who writes extensively about Islam, sits in his Damascus engineering office, arguing that Muslims will untangle their faith from the increasingly gory violence committed in its name only by reappraising their sacred texts.

"First, Shahrour brazenly tackles the Koran. The entire ninth chapter, The Sura of Repentance, he says, describes a failed attempt by Prophet Muhammad to form a state on the Arabian peninsula.

"As the source of most of the verses used to validate extremist attacks, with lines like 'slay the Pagans where you find them,' he believes that chapter should be isolated to its original context.

" 'The state which he built died, but his message is still alive,' says Shahrour, a soft-spoken, 65-year-old Syrian civil engineer. 'So we have to differentiate between the religion and state politics. When you take the political Islam, you see only killing, assassination, poisoning, intrigue, conspiracy and civil war; but Islam as a message is very human, sensible and just'."
Read the whole story of Shahrour and other like-minded intellectuals who have presented their call for reform after a Cairo seminar titled "Islam and Reform".

Afghanistan: For the latest good news from Afghanistan see this separate

Egypt: Great news for
economic integration in the Middle East:

"Israel and Egypt signed a three-way trade deal with the United States yesterday in a move that signalled a further warming of relations between the two neighbours and gave momentum to renewed hopes for peace negotiations in the Middle East.

"The pact will enable Cairo to export some goods free of duty to the US. It was hailed as the most important agreement to be reached by Israel and Egypt since they signed their peace deal 25 years ago.

"Under the agreement seven Qualified Industrial Zones will be set up in Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said, where goods produced using Israeli input can be sold to the US.

"The agreement could create as many as 250,000 jobs in Egypt’s textile sector — the country’s largest area of export — next year, and help to offset the ending next month of beneficial US quotas on the import of textiles. Beyond the trade deal Egypt and Israel believe that the agreement could pave the way for greater co-operation in the search for peace."
The Gulf Region: Signs of increasing openness and debate:

"The absence of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz from the GCC summit, reportedly due to his country's announced reservations over a Bahraini-US free trade agreement, is 'a strong' signal that the old style of 'hiding' inter-GCC problems is being replaced by a newly-emerged way of open discussions and criticism, analysts said yesterday.

"News of the controversy over the Saudi objections to unilateral agreements with the United States would not have been splashed on the front pages of regional newspapers a few years ago, the way they are being done now, said Abdul Nabi Salman, member of the Bahraini Parliament, who writes regularly on Gulf affairs.

" 'It is a strong indicative of the changes in Gulf politics that have been forced upon us by the rapid developments regionally and internationally,' he said of the absence of Saudi Prince Abdullah."
Iran: You can't keep freedom of speech down, even in mullahocracy:

"In September 2001, a young Iranian journalist, Hossein Derakhshan, devised and set up one of the first weblogs in his native language of Farsi. In response to a request from a reader, he created a simple how-to-blog guide in Farsi, thereby setting in motion a community's surreal flight into free speech; online commentaries that the leading Iranian author and blogger, Abbas Maroufi, calls our 'messages in bottles, cast to the winds.'

"With an estimated 75,000 blogs, Farsi is now the fourth most popular language for keeping online journals. A phenomenal figure given that in neighbouring countries such as Iraq there are less than 50 known bloggers.

"The internet has opened a new virtual space for free speech in a country dubbed the 'the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East', by Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF). Through the anonymity and freedom that weblogs can provide, those who once lacked voices are at last speaking up and discussing issues that have never been aired in any other media in the Islamic world. Where else in Iran could someone dare write, as the blogger Faryadehmah did, 'when these mullahs are dethroned ... it will be like the Berlin wall coming down ...'?"
Iraq: For the latest good news from Iraq see this separate post.

Kuwait: A
reformist movement is launched in the Kingdom:

"A group of young political activists has launched the Justice and Development Movement in the country and are calling for political pluralism and the activation of civil institutions and organisations.

"It also called for the country's 42-year-old constitution to be implemented in practice and cautioned against certain influential people who are trying to amend it to serve their vested interests.

"Nasser Yousuf Al Abdali, a founder member of the group, told Gulf News, 'We are looking for a democracy shaped along the lines of Britain and Spain where the royal families play a very important special role but real power lies in the hands of the people'."
Pakistan: Less conservatism in the the conservative tribal areas:

"Zuhra Nafees drinks in the sights and sounds of Peshawar’s riotous marketplace with newfound enthusiasm. A year ago the grate of a burqa separated her from the outside world.

"Now the late twenty something is clad only in the traditional Muslim chador, the long cloth that covers her body from head to toe but leaves her face completely unobscured. 'As our men are no longer stressing that we wear the burqa, so we have now abandoned it,' said Zuhra, who belongs to the Mohmand tribe and lives in the semi-lawless tribal areas in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province."
Palestinians: are more optimistic about their future - and the opposition to violence is growing:

"The death of Yasser Arafat has left most Palestinians optimistic regarding the future and opposed to the continuation of terror attacks on Israel, according to a public opinion poll published Wednesday by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center.

"A majority of 51.8 percent of the Palestinians polled said that they were opposed to 'military operations' against Israeli targets and consider them harmful to Palestinian national interests, compared with 26.9% last June. Only 41.1% of the Palestinians believe that terrorist attacks should continue compared with 65.4% last June.

"According to the poll, a majority of Palestinians, 59.3%, feel optimistic regarding the future in general, compared with 45.3% last June...

"In response to a question about their favored solution, 56.7% said they supported a two-state settlement compared with 44.5% last June."
Palestinians, of course, also had their second election since the mid 1990s, with Mahmoud Abbas being elected president with 62.3 percent of the vote.

"Palestinian leaders called the elections the most transparent in modern Arab history, and international observers said they could be the first truly democratic Arab elections...

"An 800-strong contingent of international observers, organized through the U.S. National Democratic Institute, was on hand for the election, along with 20,000 Palestinian observers.

"Election officials reported about 65 percent turnout among the 1.8 million voters. Earlier they had reported about 35 percent and extended the voting by two hours."
Saudi Arabia: The government is conducting a TV campaign against jihadism:

"Saudi national television aired interviews Saturday with fathers of militants condemning their own sons for launching terrorist attacks as part of a national public relations campaign to undermine support for militants. In a program called A Pause with the Parents shown on state television, emotional accounts were narrated by the fathers of five militants as part of the Saudi royal family's campaign against militants who have carried out several attacks against westerners inside the kingdom and abroad.

" 'I contacted the authorities immediately when I knew he was wanted,' Ahmed Jamaan al-Zahrani said of his son Faris, No. 12 on the list of Saudi Arabia's 26 most wanted terror suspects before he was captured in August. 'He has a wife and children whom he should have been taking care of better than staying in Afghanistan.'

"The father of the former top militant on the list, Abdulaziz Issa Abdul-Mohsin al-Moqrin, who was killed in a June 19 shootout after the al-Qaida cell he led decapitated an American hostage, said he had vowed to take down his son himself.

"The program, viewed via satellite in Dubai, played on Islam's high regard for honouring parents - stressing that disobeying them is almost equated with apostasy. The narrator of the program, Khamees bin Saeed al-Ghamdi, said the 'misery and pain' these parents went through negate militants' claims that they are being true Muslims."
Sudan: "Cellphones, roads, and girls in school. Is this south Sudan?" asks the "Christian Science Monitor" as Sudan slowly reawakens from the long-running nightmare:

"As fear subsides, southern Sudan is reawakening and rebuilding. A Jan. 9 peace deal ended Africa's longest civil war - a conflict between north and south in which 2 million died. The first signs of normalcy are appearing: Children, even girls, are going to school - many for the first. (Only Afghanistan under the Taliban had fewer girls graduate from eighth grade.) Some are starting to see a life beyond the battlefield. And commerce is coming back."


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