Sri Lanka: The Uncertain Future for IDPs

In a previous piece for Fair Observer, I wrote about the plight of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who were victims of the Sri Lankan conflict at the hands of the LTTE, and who still remain without much hope of any viable solution today.

These victims, who have languished in camps for the last 23 years, have barely elicited a response except at election time when they become pawns of politicians. Recently, the politicisation and the ethnicisation of this agenda have pitted a Muslim politician against a Tamil religious leader in terms of who gets priority for resettlement — and effectively the bigger share of the resettlement pie. This development does not bode well for relations between the two communities

To read more, please click here

Fall of Baghdad – 10 Years On

Ten years ago, before the world’s mesmerised gaze, an iconic statue of Iraq’s former dictator was pulled down amid a throng of jubilant Iraqis. None of those present or bearing witness could have envisaged the extent, scope and depth of the pain that would ensue over the next decade.

Among those who danced in jubilation and took part in slapping the head of the statue with his slippers was a local taxi driver, Abu Ahmed Al-Mishadani. An Arab Sunni and 38-years-old at the time, he too saw this as the end of the darkest of eras and the start of a new dawn. Married to a Shi’i woman and with five children, his aspirations and hopes for the new era of freedom and dignity were unlimited. He had seen the inside of a Ba’thist prison cell and the fiery end of an electric rod too many times to allow himself a moment’s grief over the collapsing tyrant.

Yet since then he has been arrested three times, imprisoned for two-and-a-half years, tortured, had seven of his fingernails extracted, his skull fractured, both his legs and his left arm broken and his ‘honour’ violated more times than he can remember. This last description usually implies rape and sexual abuse, of which he is too ashamed to speak. Each time he was picked up by a different group: militia this, army that. Each time he pleaded with his captors to tell him the reason for his arrest. Each time he got no answer. The only answer that makes any sense to him is the one he gives to whoever cares to ask: I am a Sunni; that’s why. His wife Zahra’ nods in agreement.

Of course the experience of one individual cannot be used to paint a picture for an entire nation’s life across a whole decade. However, this story is repeated time and again with slight variations in the details, the injuries, the assailants and lasting wounds. There are Shi’as who tell similar horror stories, and Kurds and Turkmens and Christians and Sabians. Indeed, there are far too many stories to consider the experience of Abu Ahmed an isolated case of individual corruption and mishandling.

Ten years on, Iraq lingers at the bottom of the global transparency index, beaten only by five other more corrupt countries. Indeed, according to the very same American politicians who hailed the ‘New Iraq’, corruption is at an unimaginable and on an endemic scale. The Mercer Index points to Baghdad as the worst city in the entire world to live in, bar none.

More than 20 million Iraqis, or 76% of the entire population, do not have regular and constant electricity and/or clean running water. There is virtually no education and health system to speak of, the country’s infrastructure resembles something out of ancient times, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed, and more than five million driven into exile either within or outside Iraq. Furthermore, sectarianism has firmly taken grip of a country that, despite its former tyrannical regimes, never managed to dictate the social or political fabric of Iraqi society as attested by Abu Ahmed and hundreds of thousands of other Iraqi families where the make-up is a mixture of all of Iraq’s intrinsic and organic strands.

In the past few weeks, as we commemorated the 10th anniversary of the largest anti-war demonstration in British history – which I chaired – the 10th anniversary of the war and now the 10th anniversary of the occupation of Iraq, the question asked by most media commentators and presenters is: is Iraq better or worse now than under Saddam Hussein?

The question is unfair and any answer tells us nothing new. After all, who proposed that the Iraqis had only two choices: either the dark and tyrannical days of the Ba’thist regime, or the present misery, pain and inhumanity? Why can’t Iraqis condemn both and yearn for something else, far better, far fairer and far more humane? Why should Iraqis answer such an unreasonable question in order to exonerate either a pro- or anti-war position, when it’s clearly a subjective standpoint either way?

A decade on from one of the most controversial and divisive decisions in modern times, few can claim to have fared well. Not the occupying forces which, despite gaining an military victory, lost on so many other fronts. If reports and briefings by security advisors are anything to go by, heightened terrorism alerts in the UK and the US have much to do with Iraq and its ramifications.

The country has never been so close to an all-out civil war, nor has it been ever closer to breaking up into three separate entities, than it has now. With neighbouring Syria in a state of meltdown and Iran aiming to widen its net influence in the region, the impact of the Iraq failure may be felt far and wide – and not only by Iraqis destined to suffer another generation of abject misery.

Tony Blair, under whose premiership Britain went to war and subsequently occupied Iraq, may cite the disposal of Saddam Hussein and the guise of democracy in Iraq all he wants to prove that he made the right decision. The enduring legacy of that decision, however, will be that millions of Iraqis from across the country’s sectarian, religious and ethnic divides, have come to believe that they are now suffering far greater than they did under Saddam. And boy did they suffer. But for those who did – Abu Ahmed Al-Mishadani, his wife Zahra and thousands more like them, who celebrated the departure of the former dictator 10 years ago – are forced today to grieve over the loss of their collective humanity, dignity and dream.

The Cordoba Foundation along with The Sharq Forum, is organising an international conference on the 10th anniversary of the fall of Baghdad on Monday 8th April at the Commonwealth Club in central London.

Follow the conference on twitter (and join in the conversation) #Iraq10yrs

Understanding the Turkish Model of Governance

Turkey began 2008 in the shadow of a very heated debate over whether female students could cover their hair with a headscarf — a practice banned in Turkey since 1989. In February 2008, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a “conservative” party led by devout Muslims, with the support of two other parties, passed an amendment that inserted two clauses into the constitution. One of them stated that all citizens, regardless of their religion, race, or ethnicity, would “benefit from public services equally.” The other amendment provided a guarantee: “No citizen can be barred from the right to higher education.”

To the secularist establishment, however, these declarations constituted an unacceptable heresy. The Constitutional Court stepped in nullifying the amendment and also levying a hefty fine on the AKP for violating the country’s self-styled secularism.

In the middle of this peculiar political controversy — during which “freedom” and “secularism” had become opposing and polarising slogans — an interesting voice emerged from female students wearing headscarves, whose right to education was being discussed. On a website titled “We Are Not Free Yet,” three hundred students put their signatures in support of a statement which mentioned an “authoritarian mentality” and tied this struggle to that of suppressed groups like the Kurds and Alevis.This genuinely liberal and Islamic message immediately became popular.

How all this came about is a story worth examining in the lessons that can be learnt for similar situations in the current Middle East.

History Revisited
The story above serves to highlight that Turkey is still the best example of a functioning democracy in the Middle East. Its Islamic movements and parties have almost never followed a radical agenda, and have even come to appreciate the blessings of modern liberal democracy. Therefore, the Turkish model has been cited as a source of inspiration for countries emerging out of the events of the Arab Spring.

There are two good reasons to doubt that the Arab world only needs its own Atatürks, however. The founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, had introduced radical secularist reforms in 1924 and 1938. Firstly, most of the regimes overthrown or challenged by the Arab Spring are the very secular dictatorships which used Atatürk as a model. Secondly, the Turkish story is much more complex than the ‘creation-ex-nihilo-by-Atatürk’ narrative

To read the executive summary, please click here

To read the longer version of this article in Arches Quarterly, please click here 

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Meiktila violence sends warning to foreign investors

In Myanmar’s capital Yangon, on March 20-21, a business investment summit presented Myanmar as a stable, growing democracy eager to establish agriculture, infrastructure, financial and manufacturing partnerships with leading international companies.

The messages were clear _ Myanmar’s transition to democracy is irreversible, wide-ranging reforms are underway and the country is now ripe for investment and trade.

Investors flocked, excited about new business prospects in a country that had been economically and politically isolated for decades.

In stark contradiction, and with devastating consequences, extreme brutal violence was unleashed against Muslim residents of the township of Meiktila near Mandalay.

The aftermath of the attacks, which took place on the same day as the summit, left Meiktila looking like a war zone. Scores of buildings, including many shops and mosques, were razed to the ground. Reports from local media and human rights organisations claim hundreds may have been killed in the attacks.

Eyewitnesses have told horrific stories of people being stoned, beaten and burned to death. Among the most chilling reports to have emerged is one of 28 students, including many orphans, and four teachers at an Islamic school being beaten to death by a large Buddhist mob.

Over the weekend, fear and violence spread, with attacks reported in other parts of the country including in Nay Pyi Taw, Bago, Yamethin and Yangon. On Sunday night, three trucks of armed vigilantes mounted attempted attacks on Muslim shopkeepers and mosques in downtown Yangon, mere minutes away from the popular Aung San Market and five-star hotels close by.

The most alarming feature about the recent violence is that it bears the mark not of “communal clashes”, but of carefully calculated and systematically planned attacks against a minority. Indeed, at the height of the attacks, many shocked Buddhist residents of Meiktila even risked their own lives to protect Muslims in their homes or drive them out of the city.

Local Muslim organisations have been warning for many months about mounting anti-Muslim campaigns by radical Buddhist groups, including the recently established 969 Movement, who are believed to have instigated the Meiktila attacks. Anti-Muslim incidents have increased steadily over the past few months, including the demolition of an Islamic school on the outskirts of Yangon by a mob of 300 Buddhists on Feb 17.

To read this article in more detail, please click here

Sri Lanka: A Tale of Two Countries

Over the past year, one can be forgiven if one thought that in fact that there were two countries called Sri Lanka or at least two visions for a country called Sri Lanka.  Both have seemingly emerged out of the shadows of the end of the bloody 26 year old conflict when Sri Lanka faced a cross roads in terms of moving forward cleansed of the past and with a chance to develop a common vision shared by all towards collective nation building and prosperity.

One version of that vision for the country has emerged of a nation struggling to rebuild, reconstruct and reconcile.  It is one where economic and infrastructure development whilst not being matched by good governance or the creation of a secure environment of equity and social justice, still provides some hope for what might come.

The second version of the vision for the country is one of extreme nationalism and ethnic and religious hatred; being pushed forward by a small minority speaking on behalf of the majority Sinhala Buddhist who are intent on propagating the spirit of separatism, oblivious to the disastrous consequences from the past and for the future. With the lens of the latter vision,  Sri Lanka is seen through a singular lens of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ attitude which perpetuates deeply delusive and divisive assumptions of single exclusive identities by these sectarian activists, who want people to ignore all affiliation and loyalties in support of one specific ‘religious’ identity. Such exclusive identities stress difference rather than belonging and ‘opposition to’ rather than ‘support for’ a Sri Lanka that follows the first vision. The result is that these conflicts manifest themselves into rumour, hearsay and generalization which are the first steps towards the stereotyping of people (their faith, their culture and identity) and the denial of a diverse, lived reality, the opposite of respect, understanding and acceptance.

It thus describes a vision where hope begins to fade for the country to move forward.

to read more, please click here

New MA Programs from Kings College London

The Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Kings College London introduces the MA Abrahamic Religions and the MA Religion in Contemporary Society.

The Department of Theology & Religious Studies at King’s is highly attractive to students who wish to know more about Religions in their textual, historical and contemporary contexts.

Students will be taught by world leading academics working on Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Students will also benefit from our specialist area study centres of the Middle East, Russia, and Religion and Public Policy, hosting leading visitors such as academics, journalists, and policy makers. Students can choose from a broad range of modules and shape degrees to their interests.

In the new MA in Abrahamic Religions students develop skills in comparative research and understanding of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

The MA in Religion in Contemporary Society combines anthropology, sociology and politics, training students in understanding the role of contemporary religions in public life, globalization, and modern social transformations.

Both MAs prepare students for jobs in a wide range of professions from academic research, public service, and policy.

For more information on the MA  in Abrahamic Religion, please click here

For more information on the MA in Religion in Contemporary Society, please click here

Mali: Totalitarian vs. liberal Islamists

I’ll be honest, I am certainly not an expert on African politics. When it comes to Mali, I would even plead total ignorance, because, until a few weeks ago, I would probably have had a hard time even finding this West African nation on a map. Yet still, since the beginning of the French military operation earlier this month, I have become a curious Mali observer.

It is not that easy, though, to understand what is really happening in this poor and landlocked African country. In the Turkish press, most commentators readily speak of a “neo-colonial” plot by France, aiming at nothing but more plundering the natural resources of the continent. In the Western media, on the other hand, most narratives rather focus on the threat coming from the “Islamists” of Mali, who have dominated northern part of the country and established oppressive rule. The Islamist group called Ansar Dine (“Helpers of Religion”), for example, reportedly banned Malian and Western music, bars, video games and even football. This Taliban-like tyranny, in other words, seems to be the only thing people have in mind when they speak of “the Islamists of Mali.”

However, a recent piece in the New York Times by Hannah Armstrong, an Africa-based fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, shows that facts are more nuanced. Titled, “A Tale of Two Islamisms,” Armstrong explains that the Taliban-like totalitarianism of Ansar Dine and its ilk is only one face of Islam in Mali. The other one, which is no less pious, is led by the High Council of Islam (HCI), which, in the words of Armstrong, is an “Islamist civil society organization, which provides social services and education through a network of 165 NGOs.”

This HCI, Armstrong also notes, represents “a republican form of Islamism [that] is peacefully conquering the south of Mali.” It trains imams and promotes religious values. But it rejects both the violent tactics and the oppressive measures of the Islamists in the north. “I am a moderate Islamist and a republican,” Moussa Boubacar Bah, a Sufi jurist and one of the leaders of the HCI, tells Armstrong. “I will not destroy a bar,” he explains. “I will convince the people not to drink.”

Given that people have the right to remain unconvinced, this would be a sort of Islamism that I would call “liberal” – liberal in the sense that it respects people’s liberty to choose between Islam and non-Islam, between piety and vice. (It is no accident that the Sufis of HCI are inclined to think this way, for Sufis are interested mainly in individual piety, and thus often realize that it can only be based on free choice, whereas oppression leads only to hypocrisy.)

This division among the Islamists of Mali – totalitarian versus liberal – seems to be a serious one with important political consequences. Armstrong notes that while the HCI tries to be an “interlocutor with the extremists in the north,” it also supports the French intervention in the country “to stop a fresh offensive from the north.” The liberals’ attitude toward the West, in other words, is not black and white.

Moreover, the same division between the two forms of Islamism exists not only in Mali, but in fact the whole Muslim world. It would be only naïve to consider them as a single force, as some Westerners and Muslim secularists crudely do. It would rather be wise to help the liberals win over the totalitarians.

This originally appeared here

Moving from Interfaith Dialogue to Multifaith Action

Next week, the international community will be marking World Interfaith Harmony Week   designated by the United Nations to occur annually in the first full week of February where there will be a chance for the global community to promote harmony between all people and to establish a dialogue amongst the different faiths and religions in an attempt to enhance mutual understanding, harmony and cooperation.  This week comes on the back of a conference held at the UN in November 2008 organized by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Appropriately called ‘Culture of Peace’, it looked at the concept of creating a new environment by the promotion of Inter-Religious and Inter-Cultural Dialogue, Understanding and Cooperation for Peace. The Saudi sponsored conference examined the need to build tolerant societies and durable peace by restoring values of compassion and solidarity and encouraging the promotion of dialogue amongst the different forums available in all cultures. The conference noted that achieving a culture of peace required effort from ‘‘the forces that hold our societies together’’, which also included religious beliefs, among other worldviews and focusing on the shared values of these religions and not on the differences. The final declaration of the Saudi conference emphasized the ‘importance of promoting dialogue, understanding and tolerance as well as respect for all religions, cultures, beliefs’, whilst expressing concern over ‘serious instances of intolerance, discrimination, expressions of hatred and harassment of minority religious communities of all faiths’.

Much can be said about the motives for the conference and the week  (and it is not without its critics) but I think that the spirit that the  two UN initiatives are  trying to achieve cannot be criticized because it provides a space for conversations to take place that transcends beyond the local to the global, realizing that this is not only just a faith perspective but has political implications. This culture of peace requires real work from all stakeholders.

However it needs to be real and fruitful conversations that involve talking to people and understanding how to address the misconceptions that exist about the ‘other’ within all of us that is the starting point for any initiative.  Too often, mention the word ‘Interfaith’ and people roll their eyes.  The common perception (in itself a misconception) is that ‘interfaith’ conjures up a bunch of mature / retired ladies and gentlemen sitting around having tea (no disrespect intended!!).  Pastor Bob Roberts in his latest book Bold as Love  sees “interfaith as loosey-goosey, let’s all just hug one another and ignore core truth” (2012, 19).  I could not agree with him more!!.  We have to move away from just polite conversation about each other’s faiths to really seeking to understand our differences yet finding commonality to move on.  Hence I subscribe to Bob Roberts’ term of ‘multifaith’ which says “we have fundamental differences, but the best of our faiths teach us we should get along.” (2012, 19).

to read more, please click here 

Today We Remember Lincoln as a Great Redeemer – And That Should Give Obama Hope

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a spectacular movie – “less a biopic than a political thriller, a civics lesson… alive with moral energy”, in the words of the New York Times review. Sitting in a preview screening in Soho Square, I cried. I couldn’t help it: the story of how Lincoln pushed the Thirteenth Amendment through a divided House of Representatives in the space of just four months, thereby abolishing the institution of slavery for ever, only to be assassinated, was too moving and melodramatic for even this cynical writer to bear.
The film presents Lincoln as an eloquent and noble commander-in-chief, an intensely moral man and a champion of black America. In this sense, there is nothing new in Spielberg’s depiction of ‘Honest Abe.’ Lincoln has long been considered the greatest ever leader of the United States; he is the Great Emancipator, Preserver of the Union, Redeemer President.
Spielberg joins a long line of Lincoln sanctifiers such as Leo Tolstoy, who breathlessly declared that “the greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln.” His film is based in part on the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography (or hagiography?) Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
But is the Hollywood take on Lincoln – emancipator of the slaves, assuager of America’s racist past – the whole story? In a scathing letter to the Daily Telegraph on 12 January, the LSE historian Alan Sked wrote: “Abraham Lincoln was a racist who… had no intention of freeing slaves who freed themselves by fleeing to Unionist lines… Until the day he died, Lincoln’s ideal solution to the problem of blacks was to ‘colonise’ them back to Africa or the tropics.” To read more, please click here