Monday, November 01, 2004

Good news from the Islamic world, part 2 

Osama Bin Laden says in his latest MoveOn ad that "we fought you because we are free people, we don't sleep on our oppression. We want to regain the freedom of our Muslim nation."

Yes, the Muslim people around the world like freedom - albeit most of them not Osama's type of freedom - and increasingly they're not afraid to work towards it. Here's some recent positive developments along the road to greater democracy, freedom, free market and tolerance among Muslims worldwide:

Region-wide: Writes Jackson Diehl in the
"Washington Post":

"Drowned out by the bombings in Iraq, and the debate over whether the staging of elections there is an achievable goal or a mirage, the Bush administration's democracy initiative for the rest of the Middle East creeps quietly forward. In neo-realist Washington, it is usually dismissed -- when it is remembered at all -- in much the same way that, say, national elections in Afghanistan were once laughed off... And yet, the process started at the Sea Island summit of Group of Eight countries in June is gaining some traction -- sometimes to the surprise of the administration's own skeptics."
Read this fascinating article about the growth of civil societies across the region and the increase in numbers and activity of local non-government groups working towards political and economic liberalisation of the Middle East. It seems that the common wisdom bigotry of low expectations towards the region is getting countered by numbers of individuals and groups which are answering President Bush's call for more open, free and democratic Middle East.

Meanwhile, Muslim intellectuals argue
against bigotry and for tolerance:

"Over 2,500 Muslim intellectuals from 23 countries have signed a petition to the United Nations calling for an international treaty to ban the use of religion for incitement to violence. It also calls on the Security Council to set up a tribunal to try 'the theologians of terror'...

" 'There are individuals in the Muslim world who pose as clerics and issue death sentences against those they disagree with,' says Shakir Al-Nablusi, a Jordanian academic and one of the signatories. 'These individuals give Islam a bad name and foster hatred among civilizations.'

"Nablusi said hundreds of Arab writers and academics were collecting more signatures and hope to have 'tens of thousands' by next month. Among those collecting signatures are Jawad Hashem, a former Iraqi minister of planning, and Alafif Al-Akdhar, a leading Tunisian writer and academic. Most of the signatories are from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states plus Iraq, Jordan and Palestine.

"The signatories describe those who use religion for inciting violence as 'the sheikhs of death.' Among those mentioned by name is Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian preacher working in Qatar. The signatories accuse him of 'providing a religious cover for terrorism'."
Addressing the petition to the United Nations is arguably a piece of wishful thinking, but the initiative at least embodies the right sentiment.

A mixture of good and bad - but always interesting - news in the results of this
latest opinion poll, in which the respondents were asked whether they have a positive or a negative view of the United States. The results:

Egypt: Positive: 2.8% Negative: 95.9%

Turkey: Positive: 17.5% Negative: 66%

Pakistan: Positive: 14.4% Negative: 65.1%

Iraq: Positive: 35.5% Negative: 60.5%

Saudi Arabia: Positive: 9.4% Negative: 56.5%

Bosnia: Positive: 49.2% Negative: 45.9%

Afghanistan: Positive: 65.9% Negative: 9.6%

Kosovo: Positive: 95.9% Negative: 1.8%
The implications? Aid and/or close economic and political relationship with the governing elite don't buy you love. Liberation generally does, with exception of Iraq where the initial gratitude seems to have eroded over time.

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

Australia: A push for
more responsible moderate leadership of Australia's Muslim community:

"The controversial head of Australia's Muslims, Sheikh Taj Din al-Hilali, is under threat from a new Islamic council that is trying to gather support for an alternative leader. The Islamic High Council of Australia was formed in southwestern Sydney this month with plans to become the leading organisation of the country's 400,000 Muslims.

"Members of the council said their goal was to appoint a mufti of their own, in a direct challenge to Sheikh Hilali, the current mufti of Australia. The council is hoping to tap into disenchantment in some Muslim communities with Sheikh Hilali over his controversial speeches, in which he reportedly attacked Jews and supported suicide bombers...

"A spokesman for the new council, Mahmoud Krayem, said yesterday that 20 Muslim organisations had joined the council from different ethnic backgrounds around the country, including Afghan, Indonesian, Pakistani and Lebanese...

"The spiritual leader of the new council, Sheikh Salim Alwan Al-Hasani, said there was a need for a moderate umbrella organisation that 'totally refuses all kinds of extremism' and rejects interference from overseas."
According to Sheikh Alwan, "In looking at the current state of the Muslim leadership in Australia, we can confidently say there is an urgent need for the unity of all the moderate sheikhs, sincere scholars and the highly qualified and educated members of the community." In a dig at the perceived influence of Saudi Wahhabi money, Sheikh added that "Darul-Fatwa Islamic High Council of Australia [as the new group is known] is not a tool serving the interests of any foreign government nor does it accept or receive funds from any overseas sources." His final words offer encouragement for all those who hope to see the Muslim community taking a strong stance against the Islamist cancer: "Darul-Fatwa totally refuses all kinds of extremism as it refuses its elements from any group or individual and declares all acts of extremism unrelated to Islam, as Islam is not related to them in spite of those who claim otherwise."

Egypt: A
new moderate party comes onto the political scene:

"A new Egyptian political party created with the rare approval of the government held its inaugural meeting and promised to push for reforms and amendments to the constitution. The Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party received an authorisation from Egypt's political parties committee on Wednesday, only the third time the state body had granted a licence to a party in 27 years.

" 'Al-Ghad has a specific agenda for political and economic reform in Egypt. It has already drafted a new constitution based on the idea of a parliamentary republic,' party leader Ayman al-Nur said in a statement."
Critics see the Al-Ghad party as close to current political establishment and its registration as a "cosmetic move designed to please Washington." Still, if the party - whose founding members are 37 per cent women and 22 per cent Coptic Christians - is actually genuine about political and economic reform, then surely it's a welcome step.

Meanwhile, legal progress for
Egyptian women:

"Campaigners say the state's new 'family courts' should lead to a huge improvement in Egyptian women's rights. A total of 224 courts with no less than 1,200 judges are being set up across Egypt in a process launched at the start of October to streamline the legal process and allow women greater access.

"The new system, which has proved effective in many other countries around the world, should help solve some 1 million cases a year focusing mainly on divorce, alimony, child custody, and paternity. The family courts will replace the century-old institution of personal status courts and mark a significant breakthrough for Egyptian women."
Indonesia: The American-educated first democratically-elected president of Indonesia Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono says he wants to become "a globe-trotting advocate for moderate Islam":

"I could go to other part of the world, by for example, playing a more active
role in the Middle East, by having greater communications with Islamic countries
worldwide... And of course, if everything is going well, then Indonesia can be a
good example, a good model of Islam that is compatible with democracy."
Iraq: For the latest good news from Iraq, see my separate post.

Kuwait: Good news for
media diversity:

"A Kuwaiti publisher launched the country's first privately owned television station Friday, ending decades of government monopoly of broadcast news media. AlraiTV, which broadcasts by satellite, features news, dramas and movies as well as religious programs. Its name translates as 'Opinion TV.'

" 'On this station, we are pioneers of freedom ... and openness,' Jassem Boudai, the station's main owner, said in an editorial Friday in the newspaper Al-Rai Al-Amm, which he also owns. He promised objective reporting and talk shows void of 'sensationalism'."
Private media doesn't necessarily have the best record in the region for balance and responsibility (Al Jazeera, anyone?), but Kuwaiti printed media tends to be among the Middle East's best, which will hopefully carry on into the airways.

There is also a call from the very top for
greater democratic participation:

"Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah opened the new legislative term of the emirate's outspoken parliament Tuesday by urging MPs to pass a bill granting women full political rights and approve a package of economic reforms.

" 'It has become necessary that Kuwaiti women practice their right in voting and contesting parliamentary elections,' the emir said in a speech read by Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, which is customary in Kuwait's parliament. Women's suffrage is essential for expanding the voter base and carrying out comprehensive political reforms, he said."
Much needed economic reform is also on the parliamentary agenda: "Privatization and income tax measures are among key economic bills, seen as essential for economic liberalization, that are expected to be debated by the house. A privatization bill, which has been in parliament for 12 years, is seen as the key to solving most of the ills of an economy that relies on oil for about 90 percent of public revenues."

Less guns, more butter for the 1980s' chief international renegade:

"The son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi proposed a new scheme for general reforms in which he said his country will move away from the Middle East and reduce spending on the military. 'Libya has decided to separate from the so-called Middle East,' Seif al-Islam Gaddafi said at the opening session of a Tripoli conference for business leaders from Western countries.

"Gaddafi said he is proposing a new reform plan that will include major cuts in military expenditure. 'There is no need anymore to continue spending on the military field,' he said. 'Instead, we will direct such spending to development'."
The European Union has recently ended 12 years of sanctions against Libya, and the country is expected to be taken off the US State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Saudi Arabia: The Kingdom is
decentralising in the run up to next year's elections:

"Moves are under way to increase the number of regions in the Kingdom from 13 to 18 and give more powers to regional governors as part of administrative reforms...

"Landmark nationwide municipal elections will be held in the Kingdom from Feb. 10 and until April 21 as part of the government's efforts to enhance participation of citizens in the decision-making process. The elections will be conducted in three phases in order to choose half the members of the 178 municipal councils."
In what could be the first for Saudi Arabia, "Prince Mansour ibn Miteb, chairman of the general election committee, does not rule out the possibility of appointing women to municipal councils, saying it will be decided by the Municipal and Rural Affairs Ministry."

Tunisia: More women enter
Tunisian parliament:

"Women have won an unprecedented share of 22.7% of the seats in the new Tunisian Chamber of Deputies. Legislative elections, which were held on October 24th with the participation of seven political parties and close to 1,000 candidates, have allowed women to win a record number of seats...

"The percentage of women in the new Tunisian legislature is the highest since the country's independence and one of the highest in the world. According to the most recent figures put out by the Inter-Parliamentary Union... the ratio of Tunisian women in Parliament is above the 15% average for women in parliaments around the world and higher than the averages in all regions of the world with the exception of the Nordic countries."
As the report reminds us, "[w]omen of Tunisia enjoy equal rights and are active in all walks of life. They constitute 27% of judges, 31% of lawyers, 40% of higher education teachers and 34.4% of the journalists."

Turkey: Turkey's
legal system is undergoing a radical overhaul - mostly for the better - as the country prepares for the eventual entry into the European Union:

"[I]n Turkey's newly established family courts... women now have equal rights in marriage and courts are obligated to put restraining orders on bullying spouses.

"Family courts are just one product of the sweeping changes that have both transformed and swamped Turkey's legal system. An avalanche of new laws, geared to bring the nation closer to European Union norms, has altered the way the state treats everything from police brutality and juvenile delinquents to commercial transactions and industrial pollution...

"Turkey abolished the death penalty and the feared state security court. It created intellectual property courts, consumer courts, juvenile courts and family courts. Treason was redefined, police powers limited, criminal penalties revised, trademark laws created and press laws revamped."
Content of the new laws is being generally welcomes, but the pace of adjustment is straining the Turkish legal infrastructure.

United Arab Emirates: UAE is experiencing considerable
economic growth: "UAE's gross domestic product (GDP) increased by 12.8 per cent last year while the oil sector reported a significant growth of 5.8 per cent, according to Sultan bin Nasser Al Suwaidi, Governor of the Central Bank." It's not just oil-based, as other sectors of the economy boom: "Suwaidi said while the industry sector grew by 11.5 per cent during 1990 - 2003, financial services and tourism sectors grew by 11.4 and 10.3 per cent respectively, during this period. In terms of contribution to the GDP, the manufacturing sector emerged the second largest contributor after the oil and gas sector."

There's also a positive
change in media policy:

"In a significant change of policy, Abu Dhabi Television, the first channel to break the news of British hostage Kenneth Bigley's beheading by Iraqi militants, on Saturday refused to show a video showing the brutal killing despite being in possession of the footage. An Abu Dhabi television official said in a statement that it was an editorial decision as the station did not want to be used by such groups to voice their views."
The United States: Washington-based American Middle Eastern National Conference (AMENC) has endorsed George Bush for President. The AMENC "is a coalition of Americans of Middle East descent who express the aspirations of various religious and ethnic backgrounds including: Arab, Maronites, Assyrian, Chaldean, Syriac, Persian, African, Copt, Berber, Sunni, Shiite, Orthodox, Melkite, Jews, Druze, Lebanese, Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian, Libyan, Sudanese, Palestinian, Jordanian, Algerian, Yemeni, Arabian, Kuwaiti, Afghani, Iranian, Turk, Moroccan, Mauritanian, Ethiopian, and others." In its statement, the AMENC notes:

"We the undersigned, declare our endorsement of President George W Bush for a second term as a President of the United States. We base our endorsement on the President's support of policies we deem in line with the aspirations and agendas of the majority of Americans from Middle Eastern descent. We especially support the principles which the President has articulated in the areas of U.S. national and homeland security, the international campaign against terrorism and the promotion of human rights, democracy and self determination in the Middle East...

"We thank President Bush for declaring a campaign to spread Democracy and freedom in the Broader Middle East. We as Americans from Middle Eastern and North African descent reject the notion that our mother societies do not deserve democracy. We praise the President's agenda of supporting Human Rights, especially the rights of Women, youth and minorities in the Middle East. We feel that with President Bush's policies and principles we will be able to assist our mother civil societies in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and elsewhere to move towards Democracy."


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