Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Original features from Common Ground News Service

Title: Lesson for Iraq in the Asian Soccer CupAuthor: César ChelalaSource: The Common Ground News Service, 21 August 2007Word Count: 567

Title: Pakistan's 60 year struggle for democracyAuthor: Rehan Rafay JamilSource: The Common Ground News Service, 21 August 2007Word Count: 857

Title: The strengthening of faith through religious diversityAuthor: Ali Noer ZamanSource: The Common Ground News Service, 21 August 2007Word Count: 787

Title: ~Youth Views ~ Empowering youth for the common goodAuthor: Nathan RenderSource: The Common Ground News Service, 21 August 2007Word Count: 780

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.


Lesson for Iraq in the Asian Soccer Cup

By César Chelala

NEW YORK, New York - Two very dissimilar events with contradictory results took place recently in Iraq, practically simultaneously: the withdrawal of five Sunni ministers from the so-called unity government of Nouri al-Maliki and the victory of the Iraqi national soccer team over Saudi Arabia for the Asian Soccer Cup.

The first is indicative of the battle for power being waged among the factions present in that troubled country, while the second succeeded precisely because those factions were able to overcome their deep-seated differences and work towards a common goal. The politicians could learn a valuable lesson from the latter.

The Iraqi national soccer team's victory was all the more remarkable in that its adversary in the final match for the Asian soccer cup was Saudi Arabia, the three-time winner and holder of the Cup, also the team favoured to win the competition by all observers.

And this happened to a team from a country torn asunder by war and violence since the US-led invasion of March 2003.Jorvan Vieira, the Brazilian coach signed on by the Iraqi team shortly before the final game, has spoken openly — in an interview published by Clarin, an Argentine newspaper — of his amazement on observing the level of animosity among the players, especially between Sunni and Shiite Iraqis.

The team was in total disarray on his arrival. Many players didn't even talk to each other, and for the first two weeks, things were extremely difficult for him.

When asked how he managed to create a climate of civility among the Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish and Christian players, sufficient for the team to pull together, Vieira replied: "What I did was talk with them every day and tell them that unless they decided to work together they wouldn't get anywhere and that they would leave the Iraqi people without any happiness. Every time two players had a problem, I took them into a room and didn't leave that room until the problem was overcome."

After winning the semi-final match against South Korea, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets to celebrate. The demonstrations were interrupted by two suicide car bombings resulting in the death of 50 people and 135 wounded.

A cause for celebration had become a cause for mourning.

"The day afterwards was very difficult for us," remarked Vieira. "We all cried on watching the TV images of the tragedy and we thought if it really was worthwhile to win, since if we won people died and if we lost people also died."

According to Vieira, it was despair that gave the team the strength needed to play and win the final game. The players had learned that a mother who had lost her son during the celebrations had spoken of the happiness of her boy's final moments thanks to their team's victory. It made them think "we have to win this final at any price and offer this triumph to that mother."

For a few moments, the Iraqi people were able to forget that they were living in a country ravaged by war and senseless killing.

Their team's victory gave them a sense of hope, an example of the possibilities ahead if only they worked together, just as the team had done in order to triumph.It can be argued that this was only a temporary situation. May the Iraqi leaders, however, make it a lasting one, one that will restore a sense of humanity to their ravaged country.


* César Chelala is a writer on human rights issues. He is also a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at http://www.commongroundnews.org/.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 21 August 2007, http://www.commongroundnews.org/Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.


Pakistan's 60 year struggle for democracy

By Rehan Rafay Jamil

KARACHI - As Pakistanis celebrate sixty years of independence, the country finds itself embroiled in yet another seemingly intractable political crisis. The state, founded by one of the Indian subcontinent's most brilliant lawyers, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, has spent more than half of its life under military rule. Jinnah envisioned Pakistan as a secular and democratic state.

Today Pakistan is ruled by the military, and President Pervez Musharraf seems determined to stay in power despite his inability to prevent the growing militancy and political unrest brewing in the country.Musharraf has travelled down a well-trodden path. Starting with the first military coup in 1958, the country has experienced a continuous power struggle between elected and military rulers. The plot is quite predictable by now.

A general overthrows a civilian government in a military coup, making lofty but inevitably elusive promises to hold elections and return the country to democratic rule. Democracy may not be the panacea for all Pakistan's problems but it is a discourse deeply rooted in the Pakistani polity since the country's inception. Unlike many other Muslim countries, Pakistan has enjoyed brief periods of democratic rule. But elections are just one component of democracy and must be supported by strong institutions such as an independent judiciary, a free press and a robust civil society, elements that have – until recently – been absent in Pakistan.

In March, Musharraf made the mistake of suspending the most senior judge of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Ifitkhar Chaudhury. Few could have contemplated the overwhelming public support that followed.

The demand for the restoration of the Chief Justice and the independence of the judiciary captured the imagination of the nation. In a historic verdict by the Supreme Court this month, the Chief Justice was reinstated. This lawyers' movement was a rare and unprecedented display of people's power in Pakistan. The protests were brought to the homes of millions of people by Pakistan's electronic media. Musharraf's seven-year rule has seen the strengthening of Pakistani civil society and a free press; it is these two institutions that could play an important role in his downfall.

There is a well-known saying in Pakistan that there are three A's that keep the country intact: Allah, the Army and America. This saying may be indicative of some deeper truths about the powers that shape Pakistani political life. Pakistan was a crucial American ally in the final days of the Cold War, which saw the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. Today Pakistan once again finds itself as an indispensable ally in the Bush administration's so-called "War on Terror".

But the two countries have always had a difficult relationship with mutual suspicion entrenched on both sides. A stable and friendly Pakistani government is essential for American efforts to maintain the fledgling peace in Afghanistan and curb the militancy along the Pak-Afghan border.

The fear that Pakistan, a state armed with nuclear weapons, could be taken over by hostile religious extremists has been a source of concern for American policy makers. The recent standoff between the government and fundamentalist students in the Red Mosque in the heart of the capital Islamabad ostensibly strengthens that perception.

However, the Pakistani military establishment has a dubious and well-documented history of covertly supporting religious political parties and militant groups to marginalize mainstream political parties and further its foreign policy objectives. While religious parties may enjoy strong social support in Pakistan, they have had limited electoral success, as has been proven time and again at the ballot box.

Today Musharraf finds himself at an important crossroads. His political opponents argue that it is unconstitutional for him to simultaneously remain President and Chief of Army.

With parliamentary elections scheduled for October, the President is faced with a difficult dilemma: he can either attempt to stay in power in the hopes of continued support from his two principle allies – the Pakistan Army and America – or he can step down from his position as Chief of Army and allow a peaceful transition of power to a civilian government by holding transparent elections. Such a move could secure him a place in history and ensure that his considerable economic and social reforms in Pakistan are not overshadowed by a desperate attempt to stay in power at all costs.

There is evidence of recent clandestine talks of cooperation between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, the exiled leader of Pakistan's largest political party. If these talks bear fruit, there could be a return to civilian rule in the country. Unfortunately, this in itself will not guarantee a quick fix to Pakistan's myriad problems.

The track records of the leaders of Pakistan's two major political parties, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, hardly inspire confidence in democratic leadership of the country. In order for a democratic political culture to take root in Pakistan, civilian governments must be allowed to complete their tenures in office. The people, along with democratic institutions, such as an independent judiciary and free press, should hold political leadership accountable.

In the long-term, perhaps the Turkish political model of an institutionalized role for the military in politics may be the only solution to maintain a balance of power between Pakistan's powerful military establishment and popularly elected governments.


*Rehan Rafay Jamil is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at http://www.commongroundnews.org/.Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 21 August 2007, http://www.commongroundnews.org/Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.


The strengthening of faith through religious diversity

By Ali Noer Zaman

JAKARTA - One of the much-debated religious issues in Indonesia as of today is that of pluralism. Its opponents, such as the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI), believe that pluralist theology is harmful for Islamic theological foundations, as it would reject the idea that one particular religion reigns supreme and that other religions' beliefs are apocryphal.

The Council's fatwa (religious legal opinion) of 2005, which called for the abolishment of pluralistic theology, alarmed the Muslim community of the danger of pluralist theology. The fatwa did nothing to appease the controversy; it only made the debate fiercer.Adian Husaini, from the Indonesian Council for Islamic Propagation (Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia, or DDII), represents another view also calling for the abandonment of pluralistic theology.

The Council highlights the fear that such theology tends to make Muslims regard Islam as relative, making some fear that Muslims will convert to other religions easily or at least accept and even adopt other religions' practices, such as attending common prayer sessions or celebrating other religions' holy days.The plurality of religion is an inevitable fact of humankind. Multiple religions have existed alongside one another throughout history.

While recognising the existence of other faiths, founders of religion and their adherents generally provided guidance on interfaith relations based on their own experiences. Stories of these interactions were usually documented only after years of oral tradition and subject to change.

In most holy books, stories of contentious interactions with people of other faiths can be easily misinterpreted or seen as instructive of anti-pluralism.At present, all such paradigms need to change. High rates of human mobility have brought adherents of various religions into sociable relations within different contexts, such as in the educational or business realms.

Multicultural communities are found in the world's big cities. Now with the help of user-friendly information and communication technologies, people have opportunities to get to know others of different faiths through empathy-driven correspondence and dialogue among religions.

For Paul F. Knitter, a Catholic theologian from the United States, different religious teachings and forms of worship can be resources for a dialogue to enrich one's religious experience.

Every religion can maintain or deepen its own integrity through encounters with other faiths. Making this materialise, however, requires a shift from the old religious mindset. For example, in Christianity Jesus is divine and the saviour of the world.

However, in a global context, he is not the only God and saviour, because God has also inspired other communities.Muslims need to apply a similar approach. Muslims should not consider the Qur'an as the only revelation to hold the absolute religious truth.

A human being is merely a limited interpreter, while God is an infinite entity with far more wisdom to impart than the human mind can process. What a human being receives from God is only the reduction of God's Word in the frame of an individual's socio-cultural language, which might be incongruent with that of others'.

There are revelations other than the Qur'an, and indeed the Qur'an itself confirms this. The messages of the Qur'an, the Bible and the Vedas, among others, are directed in each case to all humankind and are aimed at creating spiritual prosperity and peace for all.

In other words, the aim is not the conversion of other believers, as has been the attempt for centuries. Let conversion become a personal issue, influenced by a person's own social, cultural and individual considerations. Rather than forbidding someone from leaving his or her faith, conversion should be the result of his or her own decision.

According to John Hick, a British theologian and religious philosopher, pluralist theology tries to understand that different faiths are different responses and perceptions of various communities towards the materialisation of God.

Pluralist theology wants to change the religious view from focusing on one's own tradition to seeing God as the source of all faiths. Based on this perspective, one would not judge another faith from one's own religious perspective, but from a universal standpoint.

This does not require individual believers to abandon the teachings of their respective traditions. What does need to change, however, is the individual's standpoint towards other traditions. Pluralist theology has no intention of undermining the faith of religious adherents; in fact, it seeks to strengthen it.

Through religious diversity, God has shown us that He gives blessings without any preference. Pluralist theology is a gift with which to eliminate discrimination against fellow humans for their religious beliefs. In such a context, every religious believer has the same opportunity to gain salvation.

Pluralist theology, therefore, has no relation to the conspiracy theories upheld by certain groups, such as the DDII, which believe that there are concerted efforts trying to conquer adherents of their faith.Pluralist theology should be fostered and protected, not abolished.


* Ali Noer Zaman is a writer on socio-religious issues. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at http://www.commongroundnews.org/.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 21 August 2007, http://www.commongroundnews.org/Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.


~Youth Views ~

Empowering youth for the common good

By Nathan Render

CHICAGO, Illinois - What do religious extremists and interfaith youth organisers have in common? A lot more than one might think. College students begin their search for summer internships with enthusiasm and excitement at the opportunity to make an impact. Unfortunately, many end up doing busywork, unable to share their skills and talents. Still, these overworked, underpaid students are motivated to find meaning in their jobs. Most are trying to find purpose in their lives as they transition from childhood to adolescence, and ultimately adulthood.

I have witnessed the demoralising effect this constant searching has on youth in contrast with the frequent declaration by adults that my generation is comprised of the leaders and visionaries of the future. How can youth be "leaders of tomorrow" until they are treated with respect and validity and provided with the resources and support to do so today?

Even in youth-centric institutions such as schools and community centres, young adults are often treated as an afterthought. It often seems as though society is too busy to stop and foster the growth of young people, leaving a growing gap between the meaning youth are trying to find in their lives, and the reality in which they are living. This dissonance is the reason why organisations such as Al Qaeda may appeal to struggling young adults. These organisations give youth the impression that they have a meaningful role to fulfil, empowering them to give meaning to their life.

Eboo Patel, a practicing Muslim and Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a non-profit organisation committed to promoting religious pluralism in the world through the empowerment of young people, recognises this phenomenon.

In his new book Acts of Faith, Patel writes, "Even people with the small interfaith movement generally treated young people's involvement as a sideshow. Religious extremists didn't view young people as an afterthought. Religious extremists saw a fire in young people that others were missing. They were stoking that fire and turning it into targeted assassination and mass murder."

Religious extremists clearly understand and utilise the malleability of young people's formative years to their advantage. A point often overlooked is that one of Osama Bin Laden's keys to success is his effective youth organising ability.

He employs these valuable skills to impassion vast numbers of struggling young people, connecting them to extensive social networks, teaching them the significance and relevance of their contribution, and imbuing in them an overall semblance of personal identity and purpose.

I am fortunate in that I have been able to pursue constructive opportunities where I felt valued and have formed a strong identity. Members of my communities, particularly the ones directly related to my faith, have taken the time and effort to invest in my future.

In return, I have been empowered to support pluralism and contribute positively to the world I have envisioned. My experiences in high school – and now in college – have provided me with a strong foundation upon which to live my life as a pluralist and be an effective contributor to my community, my country, and the world.

This summer I was blessed with the opportunity to work as an intern at the organisation Patel founded, the IFYC. The experience has provided me with yet another positively empowering community in which I can thrive, where my potential is repeatedly affirmed. Particularly influential was my work in the InterACTION youth exchange program, which encouraged interfaith and cross-cultural dialogue amongst Jordanian and American youth.

In my first week as an intern, I was given the daunting task of planning all the dialogue sessions for the exchange. I then had the opportunity to participate in the program, practicing the core values of tolerance and hospitality that IFYC embodies.

Most importantly, I have been given the opportunity to learn from my dynamic, intelligent and thoughtful colleagues, particularly my fellow interns. But I know this experience is not the norm for all youth.

While I have always found outlets that allow me to voice my opinions and be a vehicle for positive change, I recognise young people around the world constantly encounter resistance in their efforts to do the same. IFYC and religious extremist organisations possess more similarities than one would first imagine, yet with one major difference: the IFYC strives to build and promote pluralism among youth through cooperative service and religious understanding. We need organisations which embody the youth-centred culture of religious extremist groups, but provide constructive, rather than destructive, opportunities for youth.

Out of my experience comes what I feel is our biggest challenge – we need to explore, create and implement more opportunities like the IFYC internships to promote positive youth development and empower youth for the common good.


* Nathan Render is a junior at Tufts University majoring in anthropology and child development. He is a leader of Pathways, a new interfaith initiative on his campus. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at http://www.commongroundnews.org/.Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 21 August 2007, http://www.commongroundnews.org/

Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.