Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Common News Services Opinion Columns

Please find below the following timely, original article(s) for submission to your news outlet:
Title: A look back at the Turkish electionsAuthor: Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Mensur AkgunSource: The Common Ground News Service, 28 August 2007Word Count: 789
Title: The Pakistan paradoxAuthor: Nasim ZehraSource: The Common Ground News Service, 28 August 2007Word Count: 773
Title: ~Youth Views~ Learning about America from abroadAuthor: Bill GlucroftSource: The Common Ground News Service, 28 August 2007Word Count: 871
Title: The headscarf in Turkey: from religious symbol to political toolAuthor: Jonas SlaatsSource: The Common Ground News Service, 28 August 2007Word Count: 720
Each article is available in Arabic, French, English and Indonesian; I'd be happy to send you any translation. Please feel free to republish the article(s) and let me know by sending an email to: akessinger@sfcg.org.Common Ground News Service**********
A look back at the Turkish elections
Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Mensur Akgun
Cairo/Istanbul - We were both in Turkey before and after Sunday, 22 July, the day of the intensely debated parliamentary elections. Given the large-scale, contentious demonstrations and the post-modernist military intervention - via the internet - over the issue of secularism, there were hundreds of eager international observers expecting something spectacular to happen. But to their dismay, and to the dismay of many others, balloting was calm and orderly.
No violence or irregularities were reported. It was one of the highest voter turnouts in the history of Turkey's democratic elections (84.4 percent). The highly debated role of the religiously-affiliated Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) was put to the test for the second time in five years; it passed with flying colours.
The Turkish political community had anticipated the outcome. The few surprises had to do only with margins of performance of the various actors. Though the AKP was poised to win a majority, it did far better than even it expected with 46.7 percent of votes, 12.4 points higher than its 2002 victory.
Among the losers was the Turkish military, which has never hidden its deep misgivings vis-à-vis the ascendance of the AKP in the country's socio-political space. It is widely believed that the military blessed the pro-secular demonstration earlier in the spring as well as the unification of centre-right and centre-left parties. Though clearly rebuffed by the voters, the military seems to be learning to manage such public adversities, at least for the time being.
AKP leader Recep Tayyib Erdogan went out of his way in his victory speech later on the night of 22 July to allay the fears of AKP detractors. He assured all concerned of his solemn commitment to the secular principle of the Turkish Republic. He equally reiterated his drive to join the European Union; and proudly pledged to maintain the high rate of Turkey's economic growth.
The whole world was watching Turkey that day: some admiringly, some cynically, looking for any mishaps to justify keeping Turkey out of the European Club; and yet others watched nervously, for fear of a success that would put pressure on them to follow its model. Among the latter were Arab autocrats, to whose reactions we now turn.
While Arab opposition parties, civil society and democracy activists cheered the news from Turkey, there was official silence from Arab governments, as if the elections had occurred on another planet. Unlike the front-page headlines in independent media, the state-controlled media in many Arab countries either ignored, delayed or relegated the Turkish elections' story to internal pages or the tail-end of their regular news.
By the third or fourth day, these media pundits went out of their way to tell their respective audiences how different the situation in Turkey was from that of Arab countries. Some played up the chronic Kurdish, Armenian and Cypriot problems as if to dampen any Arab joy for their northern neighbour.
In some ways, this was reminiscent of cool or even hostile reactions by the same Arab autocratic regimes to Mauritania's giant step in transitioning to democracy. Libya's Qaddafi, already well into his 38th year of dictatorial rule, had dismissed Mauritania's experience as an exercise "in backward tribalism". None of the Arab heads of state cared to attend the April 2006 inaugural celebration of the democratically elected Mauritanian President.
It is abundantly clear that when such developments occur in Arab or Muslim-majority countries, it proves doubly embarrassing. This may also explain - at least in part - why many of these regimes are reported to be undermining efforts to democratise Iraq.
The triumphant AKP is again victorious today in the election of the mostly ceremonial President of the Republic, an event which became controversial a few months earlier over the headscarf of the would-be First Lady. Yet a challenge for the AKP in the short-run is the army's request to use military means to crush the Kurdish rebels in the southeast. Erdogan has resisted so far in search of non-violent alternatives and support from regional and domestic players.
In the medium and the longer term, the AKP has managed not only to become solidly mainstream in Turkish politics but also, through its own example, paved the way for other Muslim Democrats, in a manner akin to Christian Democrats in the West. As a matter of fact, a Moroccan Islamic party bearing the same name in Arabic (French PJD) is already a major contender in the parliamentary elections being held the beginning of September.
Beyond the Middle East, the latest democratic election in Turkey, coupled with the success of other religiously-affiliated parties in recent years in other countries, from Indonesia to Mauritania, may be putting to rest the suspect proposition of "Muslim Exceptionalism". If countries like Turkey can survive as democratic regimes with Muslim-majority populations, why can't others?
*Saad Eddin Ibrahim is a human rights activist and founder of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo, Egypt. Mensur Akgun is the program director for the foreign policy department at TESEV, an independent think-tank in Istanbul, Turkey. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 28 August 2007, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.**********
The Pakistan paradox
Nasim Zehra
Islamabad - As Pakistan celebrates its 60th anniversary of independence this year, political turbulence and chronic problems such as low literacy and inadequate health services persist. But there is another untold story: Pakistan is experiencing a cultural and political reinvigoration.
A genuine media revolution -- with over 30 independent television channels -- is projecting Pakistan's many colours, divergent views and rich and dynamic culture. A new widespread cultural spirit is also discernible in Pakistan's music, drama and art, deep in colour and texture, displaying a great feeling of joy and engagement with the senses.
Alongside inflation, corruption, insecurity, the continuing tussles in Baluchistan, and the warring zones of the tribal areas exists a sense of renewal, of grudging joy. The joy, however, belongs to restricted zones. This renewal in Pakistan therefore remains largely unseen by the outside world.
Yet this new rhythm is emerging parallel to Pakistan's chronic problems of military-guided democracy, intolerance and violent armed militias.
Television talk shows have become as popular as entertainment programs. At dizzying speed, the average Pakistani is becoming more educated on national issues. Across the ideological, class and ethnic divides, Pakistanis unify, participating in media debates.
Bridging these divides is the struggle for fair play. For example, the desire for justice connects two seemingly ideologically opposed groups: those who have relentlessly fought for rule of law with those in Lal Masjid who repeatedly broke the law.
The lawyers' movement, whose demonstrations resulted in Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry 's reinstatement, and the Taliban who took over Darra Adam Khel, a small town in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, also share a common goal.
Despite their divide on an ideological axis, both want justice through an enforced rule of law. The armed Taliban demands that the government and the national Jirga, or council of elders, assure them that there will be "no more kidnappings, carjackings, issuance of fake degrees and other educational documents, sale or purchase of wine, narcotics and other un-Islamic activities in the area."
The Taliban, whose predecessors had fought in the heavily armed anti-Soviet jihad, have opted for armed resistance against injustice and have therefore been excluded by the state, while the professional urban-trained law community instead opted for peaceful, determined resistance. Led by the lawyers, they have stood up peacefully for the rule of law, not for individual political leaders. They want a system with a functioning structure in which the powerful are finally held accountable.
While clashes between the security forces and militias and killings from suicide bombings worry Pakistanis, there is a newly emerging reality that can potentially dominate this turbulent period of contesting ideologies and armed men. This is the reality of divergent groups uniting around the call for justice. In a context of increasing divides, this new convergence is a much-needed uniting ideology in the making.
The Pakistani people are proudly adopting a new model for substantive change.
Pakistanis have tasted civil action's success. Institutions are becoming more professional. The Supreme Court is a prime example: it has issued three rulings in the last five weeks which have signalled its independence. The 20 July restoration of the Chief Justice was a crucial first step. Its 23 August decision to allow the former Prime Minister to return "unobstructed" after a seven-year exile has vastly strengthened the civilian political forces too. The Supreme Court is vetting the moves made by the presidency, the ruling party and the intelligence agencies against the Constitution. Even opposition leader Benazir Bhutto's hesitation in supporting a military president and the 8 August decision to refrain from imposing emergency law are all positive first steps that testify to a new adherence to democratic values.
All this new, unifying energy makes for a great backdrop for democracy in Pakistan. Contemporary tools of communication and interaction -- such as the media, greater mobility and a growing global collective of status quo critics -- have helped this context develop.
Ironically, a general and president with democratic proclivities, Pervez Musharraf is responsible for the paradox of Pakistan: a flourishing framework on the wobbly footing of democracy. Lawyers and the media have begun administering accountability, but only fair and free elections can ensure institutionalised accountability.
Pakistanis are already beginning to create an environment within which a credible democracy can function. Civil society is leading the movement to restore Pakistan to a constitutional democracy. There is emerging consensus that a credible, functioning constitutional democracy alone can help resolve issues of contesting ideologies, of marginalisation and of exclusion, thereby minimising conflict, intolerance and rage.
The gradual but determined advance of the Pakistani state and society towards the rule of law heralds a new dawn in Pakistan. Not without its difficulties, Pakistan has begun its journey to adulthood.
*Nasim Zehra is a writer and a fellow at the Harvard University Asia Center. She was previously an adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.
Source Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 28 August 2007, www.commongroundnews.orgCopyright permission has been obtained for publication.**********
~Youth Views~ Learning about America from abroad
Bill Glucroft
Boston - This summer I travelled through Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia, a part of the world that most Americans rarely see in the news or visit in person.
The distance provided me with a new perspective from which to look upon my country, helping me realise that, despite a overextended sense of importance and myopic foreign policy, there are many American attributes to be proud of: our thirst for innovation and improvement, our philosophical comfort with being American, economic freedom and upward mobility, a land of vast and natural beauty, a robust judiciary and a Constitution that remains relevant more than 200 years after it was written.
Of course, defining a country's characteristics as either good or bad is simplistic; there are very legitimate counterarguments to every item in the above list. Innovation does not benefit everyone, nor can everyone fully enjoy dual identities or work freely. And most glaringly, our Constitution remains under attack from post-9/11 fear mongering.
But more than any physical feature -- economic and military might, for example -- America's real power stems from being a symbol of possibility for people around the world. Amazingly, as I discovered through my travels, not even the immoral misadventure in Iraq can destroy this intangible source of strength.
My time in Alor Star highlighted this point. Alor Star is a city in northern Malaysia that doesn't give visitors much of a reason to stay. It's a comfortably conservative place, with most men and women wearing traditional Muslim attire, many shops selling Islamic goods and nearly all the restaurants serving halal meat (permissible according to Islamic law). Five times a day, the call to prayer would echo throughout the city.
Here, like anywhere else, I made no effort to hide my American citizenship -- if people asked, I told them. Eyes lit up when I said I was from New York (the closest identifiable place to my hometown in Connecticut), and not once did I feel uncomfortable or unwanted. Quite the opposite, in fact. The first question women my age would ask was, "Do you have a girlfriend?"
Even when visiting the Masjid Zahir, Alor Star's beautiful central mosque, during Friday afternoon prayers, the worshipping men either left me alone or bid me a safe journey. Those I met were more eager to share their culture than to scorn mine.
This wasn't surprising. I have never had a problem travelling internationally as an American or, for that matter, as a Jew. The fears many in the mainstream media strike into us are grossly exaggerated. Unfortunately, with only 27 percent of Americans holding passports, according to a 2006 New York Times article, most citizens of the sole superpower understand the world only through that narrow lens.
The trouble with not travelling is not just that we fail to understand others, but we also fail to understand ourselves. The American psyche, embodied by the president, disdains weakness -- it could damage our self-perpetuating myth that we can do anything. But in denying our limitations, we miss some of our strengths, too.
It was also in Malaysia, this time in a small village in a 130 million-year-old rain forest, that I realised that of all the Western powers, America is most capable of bridging the "us versus them" divide. This may seem incongruous with a reality in which America, through both rhetoric and action, has widened that gap.
But in this village, I stayed at a guesthouse with three Europeans. The accommodation was next door to a mosque, so the 5 a.m. call to prayer carried easily through the humid air.
My fellow guests didn't get it. They weren't angry or disrespectful, they just could not understand why anyone would wake up to pray before dawn (or ever, for that matter). I came across the same sentiment many times when I travelled through Europe two years ago.
For sure, Islam remains foreign and frightening to many Americans. But, as a country, we understand what it means for faith to play a central role in our lives. And in this regard, our so-called secular society is not all that different from the so-called religious-centric societies of the Muslim world.
We should take advantage of this invaluable American trait. Instead of trying to circumvent and quarantine religion -- whether Judeo-Christian values or Islam -- we should use religion as a means to understand each other.
Sadly, talking about Muhammad risks the speaker being labelled an anti-modern, anti-democratic extremist, just as someone talking about Jesus risks being seen as pandering to right-wing interests. The moderate majority instead tends to use religion as a catalyst for personal growth and guidance, rather than to promote political interests.
Religion should neither be ignored nor treated as a competitive contact sport. We cannot keep quiet about something that is so important to so many people around the world. Political and religious leaders need to embrace interfaith dialogue that strengthens similarities and respects differences, while discouraging the idea that anyone has a "monopoly" over God -- the goal of many who boast about their religious fervour.
Travelling outside of the US made it clear to me that though specifics differ among religions, devotion to family, tradition and belief in a supreme being is largely universal. America is serious about God and so is the Muslim world, and that should be our starting point.###
*Bill Glucroft is a senior journalism student at Emerson College in Boston. He maintains a web site of his work at www.allbillnobull.net. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 28 August 2007, www.commongroundnews.orgCopyright permission has been obtained for publication.**********
The headscarf in Turkey: from religious symbol to political tool
Jonas Slaats
Istanbul - With Abdullah Gül just elected as President of Turkey, the headscarf debate has yet again been brought to the forefront. Although the ban on wearing headscarves in public places took effect in 1998, the discussion has never stopped and has even gained new momentum with the possibility of a First Lady who covers her head. However, renewed attention does not necessarily bring new insights. The headscarf debate in Turkey is therefore not only alive but also deadlocked.
Turkey is not the only country where the headscarf issue is going in circles. A few weeks ago, newspapers reported that a German Muslim teacher wanted to wear her headscarf while teaching in 'the style of Grace Kelly'. This meant wearing a headscarf while showing hair in the front. The court decided that a Grace Kelly scene from a movie had nothing to do with her religious reasons to wear the scarf, and thus did not allow her to wear the veil.
Both legally and religiously, her proposal was questionable. The purpose of the veil is that it should cover the hair in an effort to hide those parts of the female body that carry sexual significance, or that show their 'ornaments' as the Qur'an states (Surah 24:31). The Qur'an does not explicitly mention that the hair should be fully covered. But through scholarly interpretation of Qur'an, hadith (oral traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) that developed in Muslim societies over the years, the verse was interpreted as such.
Secular-minded people tend to argue that the headscarf should be banned because it is a symbol of women's oppression. They believe that women wearing a hijab, niqab or burqa are forced to do so by their husbands or societal norms to prevent them from displaying too much of their feminine sensuality.
According to secularists, women should be allowed to wear what they want and express themselves freely. But what about those women who freely choose to wear a headscarf? And what about the ones who combine individual expression and religious tradition by wearing a headscarf?
The wife of Turkey's new president, for example, shows it can all go together perfectly. After a heated debate about whether the wife of the symbolic leader of a secular country should wear a headscarf in public, a compromise was proposed: Gül's wife is to have a trendy and 'new' type of headscarf designed by a good personal friend and fashion designer from New York.
It isn't such a novel idea though. On the streets of Istanbul, one sees fashionable headscarves everywhere. Many veiled women wear their bright scarves in a way that certainly would not upset any Versace. Like many women they simply try to look as good as they can, and their veil is certainly not ruining those efforts.
But of course, many say that wearing the headscarf in such a manner is hypocritical. An item traditionally used to make a woman less of a sexual object has now become an extension of their attractiveness. Once again then, people have found something objectionable to their attire.
Unfortunately, women just cannot seem to win. In whatever way they wear – or don't wear – the headscarf, the whole discussion leads to a dead end.
In fact, it is not a discussion. It is a trap, set by men to trap other men. And the bait is women.
Secular men say: "The way you force your women to look is oppressive and intolerable." Religious men say: "The way you do not allow our women to look is undemocratic and intolerable." Yet the only thing that is truly intolerable is that the debate is using women as a ping-pong ball between the two sides.
Both sides use a symbol with variable meanings for personal and political purposes. The headscarf, which can be worn for many different reasons, is not a problem in itself. But acting as if the headscarf has a singular meaning is a problem. Only then does it become a debate between forcing women to wear it and protesting against it.
Yet the gravest problem is not reducing the headscarf to a political tool. Doing the same to the women who wear them is worse. It doesn't matter whether one makes them into "sexual objects", "religious objects" or "political objects", human beings should not be seen as objects in any discussion.###
Jonas Slaats is a Belgian theologian living in Turkey and editor of Yunus News, a website dedicated to collecting, filtering and analyzing religious news. This article was a joint piece by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and Yunus News and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org and www.yunusnews.com.
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews)/Yunus News, 28 August 2007, www.commongroudnews.org / www.yunusnews.com.Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.******