What does 2013 hold for The Arab Spring?

If 2011 was the year that shook the world and saw one Arab regime after another tumble and fall, then 2012 was the year when the Arab people grappled with the challenges, strains and opportunities of their newly attained freedoms.

Seldom in recent history has change happened so suddenly, dramatically and comprehensively, and never has it taken place with the eyes of the world following every detail. Not only were Arab countries changing and the Arab people successfully grasping freedoms, most of us take for granted and rarely give a second thought, our own perception of the Arabs and the Middle East was being re-booted, re-formatted and re-structured with every passing hour.

But as these things go and as most predicted, changing a reality is often much easier than operating and making a success of the new one. 2012 was the year when the wheel of democracy and civil society institutions turned for the first time in decades for some, and for others, was invented from anew. For millions, the first experience of standing in a line so to cast a free vote, for others standing up and expressing an opposing view freely and without fear of dire consequences. The downside of course, was that for a political arena somewhat inexperienced in the protocols of open and free debate, opposition, disagreement, alliance-building and constitution drafting within the practice of democracy, the challenges were also going to be fairly considerable as well.

To those that saw in the Arab Spring an advent of mostly negative outcomes, these difficulties provided evidence of their prophecies. To the majority however, they were necessary trials on the path to full and total shedding of the former hydes of tyranny, oppression, authoritarianism and dictatorship. There is an overwhelming realisation that the removal of the dictator does not mean the eradication of the dictatorship or the uprooting of the structures which cemented the former regimes. There is also an appreciation that society as a whole needs to go through its own transformation in order to adapt to the new realities and monitor the progression towards achieving the objectives of the revolutions, including the media, human rights organisations, monitoring bodies, unions and professional groups and other civil society elements.

Further, the entire region, including countries still not directly affected by the Arab Spring, as well as the world at large also watches events with a great deal of interest. Besides the dynamics of change themselves, matters related to economics, strategic interests, energy, social impacts, demographics and human mobility, security, and many more, are of great interest and concern to countless parties beyond the borders.
Therefore, the emergence of Islamic political parties as winners at virtually every round at the ballot box has understandably created heated reactions, within the countries concerned and beyond. Some are still discussing whether those parties will push their alleged agendas for the establishment of Islamic states and the enforcement of Sharia law, others are debating whether Al-Qaeda will regain a footing in the region as a result of these election results, and others still questioning whether international treaties, including those with Israel, will be observed or shredded and discarded.

Yet, what appears to be happening is that these Islamic political parties, or Islamists as the West prefers to call them, are hard at work trying to sort out impoverished economies, eliminating institutionalised corruption, re-building civil security elements, forming parliaments, and doing what any political party with a public mandate would be expected to do. They also appear to be adopting a narrative that is inclusive and of a nationalist rather than partisan, theological or exclusive in nature. Notable therefore, that many of their most staunch critics are mostly saying that those parties are not to be trusted when they speak such a positive language, rather than being critical of their policies or stands.

2013 promises an equal helping of bumps, challenges, tumbles and hurdles. However, the wheel is not turning back and despite the upheavals, the people of the region have breathed the air of freedom and have decided that they will not agree to be in shackles again. Once the Syrian revolution achieves its objectives, the next phase of the Arab Spring will be ready to commence. That particular phase will most likely see a different set of events taking place; a set that see governments opening up to their people, initiating public forums of dialogue, allowing for elections, the formation of political parties and entering into a discussion with recognised opposition groups and figures. Radical change but via a different set of methods and dynamics.

What remains to be seen is how the West, governments and societies, react to all of this. Part of the radical change that countries such as Tunisia and Egypt have seen, involves a change in the dynamics of dealing with the international context. And it goes both ways. No longer can we or should we expect a submissive partner, or a partner that doesn’t have national interests to further as well. No longer should we expect to address, engage with and listen to Arab governments and not Arab societies, in order to form a picture or a policy. No longer can we continue to disengage with Islamic political parties en mass on the basis that some of what they say is to our disliking.

The Arab Spring might have been the best thing to happen to tens, probably hundreds of millions of Arabs. However, it could also be the best thing to happen to the West, which is gradually changing to adapt to a new partner in what is arguably the most important region in the world.

From Tolerance to Compassion

On November 16th, it will be the International day of Tolerance, one of those UN designated days that are designed to gather global support around a cause, this one being the need to tolerate each other. However, as attacks over the last couple of months in Nigeria and Myanmar and now the recent incidents once again in the Middle East have shown, tolerance is in short supply and there is now shadows over the future of peaceful inter religious and cultural coexistence.

I think the concept of tolerance itself is problematic and deserves some reflection. Whilst the dictionary gives a slightly different definition of the word, in my opinion, tolerance is about accepting the status quo without necessarily doing much about it; it is about putting up with something, not because you want to. Ultimately it is a sign of ignorance, as you tolerate someone because you need to and because convention dictates it, but it doesn’t mean you know that person or want to know that person. Hence through tolerance, you perpetuate ignorance.

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Rakhine crisis: Restricted humanitarian access and risk of radicalisation

The latest wave of violence between Rakhine and Rohingya communities in Myanmar’s Rakhine state has raised fears of growing radicalisation and regional instability.

The violence has left 36,000 displaced, bringing the total number of displaced since June to 110,000. Scores are reported missing at sea and satellite images released by Human Rights Watch revealed the almost-near destruction  of part of a densely-populated Rakhine town.

Humanitarian conditions, already dire after the outbreak of violence in June, now stand to deteriorate further.

Camps for the internally displaced are unable to accommodate the influx and many of those affected by the violence are not receiving assistance as humanitarian agencies face threats, restrictions on access and severe funding shortages.

The renewed violence raises fears that the crisis initially originating in Rakhine state is not only spreading to other parts of the country, but also threatening Buddhist-Muslim relations in the wider region.

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The Feast: Finding Common Ground in Abraham’s Legacy

On the 26th of October 2012, it was the Feast (or Eid ul Adha) symbolizing the culmination of the pilgrimage by Muslims to Mecca (the Hajj).  These few days of light and love are supposed to characterise meditation, blessings and prayers for peace.

It also serves as a symbol of unity in diversity as Malcolm X wrote “…we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood…. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colours together, irrespective of their colour.”

Whilst for Muslims worldwide, Eid ul Adha is the second most important holiday in their calendar, for a select few who have the privilege of actually performing the hajj, it is the most spiritual  of journeys, answering the invitation from God to visit Makkah, and completing one of the essential pillars of Islam.  It is a journey that asks for God’s forgiveness, as the human being is stripped to its core representing the destruction of the inner demons and an equalization with one’s peers.

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The Limitations of Free Speech

For those of us working in the field of intercultural dialogue and understanding, it has been a frustrating few weeks. Just as you think progress is being made between communities, global events peg you back displaying once again the vulnerability of human endeavours in trying to achieve peaceful coexistence and showing the very challenges that need to be overcome in order to ensure that the wheels are kept on the track.

For me this past two weeks has shown two different perspectives on the issue of the Freedom of Speech and how difficult it is to draw acceptable boundaries of such freedoms that people can readily and wholeheartedly agree on.

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The Rohingya of Myanmar: Staring Into the Abyss of Uncertainty

The two most repeated words in the English Language are “Never Again”, heard in commemorations of the Holocaust to express the commitment that genocide will never again take place. Yet “Never Again” has also come to symbolise the absolute weakness in the will of the international community to act against genocide. This weakness was exposed in Bosnia and in Rwanda and now it seems that it is being exposed yet again, now in Myanmar with its ethnic Rohingya people, a Muslim minority living in the Arakan region.

As reports of mass killings, mass graves, rape, and torture come out of Myanmar with figures of at least 20,000 Rohingya killed since June 28, it seems that like Rwanda and Bosnia, a group of voiceless people are once again being systematically wiped out. This seems to be sanctioned by their government, under the eyes of the international community. The pictures in circulation (although it is hard to verify their authenticity sometimes) depict the horrific nature and scale of the existing tensions in Myanmar.

Many of the Rohingyas have been forced to flee to Bangladesh by boat with some reportedly travelling for days on end to escape the trauma of the current situation. However, they have been refused entry by the Bangladeshi government which has also suspended aid agencies from working in the camps which harbour Rohingya refugees.

Perhaps what is even more shocking is the complicity of the entire country of Myanmar, from the President down to the grass roots. The President has come on record to tell the UN to “establish refugee camps and allow for the deportation of ethnic Rohingya as the ‘only solution’”, whilst Buddhist monks have backed calls for the extermination of the race of Rohingyas. This statewide support for the killing of “Kalaras”, which is the pejorative slur that has become a popular and casual way of referring to Muslims of South Asian decent – or the Rohingyas – is once again reminiscent of Rwanda which witnessed an exhortation for mass killings over the public airwaves.

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The UK Riots: One Year On

What a difference a year makes. This time last year, London and the rest of the United Kingdom were in a state of shock as riots (and subsequent looting) held the authorities hostage for over a week. Writing on this subject back then, I stressed that what was needed was a collective response from both the government and wider society in dealing with the complex background context that had fermented the riots. I talked about the need to engage with each other and to start the process of ‘linking’ to not only understand each other but to strengthen communities, add to social cohesion and contribute to personal and professional development through friendships made, as well as work undertaken across the partnerships. Linking, partnerships, and engagement all mean the same thing: a sense of cooperation that leads to better understanding that should be encouraged and supported. This is a powerful tool for the promotion of dialogue, tolerance, and harmonious living.

However, since then, despite assurances of addressing some of the real issues, it seems that not much has really been done. Some compensations have been paid out (though it appears not in amounts promised), damaged buildings have been rebuilt and looters have been jailed. But there has been very little done to address some of the underlying factors that precipitated the riots.

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OIC Communique on Rohingya Crisis

The open-ended Extra-ordinary Executive Committee of the OIC convened at the Permanent Representative level on 5th August 2012 at OIC Headquarters to discuss the critical situation of the Muslim ethnic Rohingya minority under the chairmanship of Mr.Bakhyt Batyrshayev, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Kazakhstan to OIC. After a round of discussions, the Committee;

Proceeding from the principles and objectives of the Charter of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and pursuant to the resolutions on the question of Muslim Minorities and Communities;

Stressing the need to respect the universally accepted human rights and norms and principles of international humanitarian law;

Condemning the continued disregard of international law by Myanmar and its detrimental implications for regional and global peace, stability and security;

Appreciating the efforts of the OIC Group on Human Rights and Humanitarian Issues in Geneva to highlight the Rohingya issue in line with the Secretary General’s proposals;

Commending highly the efforts of the  Secretary General  to resolve the issue of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar by convening this extra-ordinary executive committee and his early and timely response to the situation in Arakan particularly by communicating to the UN Secretary General, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, ASEAN Secretary General, EU High Representative, President of Myanmar and Chairperson of National League for Democracy, and expressing concern to governments in the region particularly with the  People’s Republic of China during his recent visit;

Welcoming Catherine Ashton’s statement on July 22, 2012 stating the EU is closely monitoring acts of violence against the Muslim minority in Myanmar and will be dispatching experts from the European Community Humanitarian office (ECHO) to Myanmar to determine the urgent needs of the Muslims. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’, Navi Pillay, statement on July 27th,   2012 claiming that Muslim Communities in Arakan State were being targeted by Myanmar security forces and the announcement of sending a special rapporteur to Myanmar. The Visit by Vijay Nambiear, Special Adviser on Myanmar to UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, to Arakan state in Myanmar after the violence erupted.

Having listened to the speech of the OIC Secretary General, the presentation of Dr.Wakar Uddin, Director General of Arakan Rohingya Union (ARU), and to the interventions of Head of Delegations,

1. Condemns in the strongest possible terms the brutal aggression and systematic gross violations of human rights committed by armed gangs and encouraged by the authorities and condemns in particular the involvement of security forces and their instigation in the clashes by the Myanmar authorities and Buddhist against innocent unarmed Muslim civilians;

2. Emphasizes that the atrocities committed against Rohingya minority in Myanmar including killing, razing houses, forced eviction, forced labor in harsh conditions, summary executions, rape, torture have approached the crime of genocide and represent a serious threat to international peace and security and regional stability, as clearly demonstrated by the recent violence. It is a serious crime against humanity, and a blatant breach of international law, which needs to receive proper reaction by the international community through bringing Myanmar authorities who are responsible for these heinous acts to justice;

3. Reiterates its firm and unwavering demand for an immediate halt of the unlawful acts of crimes against humanity perpetrated towards Rohingya in Myanmar  and the opening of Myanmar borders to allow for unfettered humanitarian access;

4. Highlights the United Nations Declaration that the “Rohingya are a linguistic, religious, ethnic minority from western Burma”.

5. Calls upon the Myanmar authorities and Rakhine Buddhists to abstain from the use of force and violence and give precedence to peaceful resolutions through dialogue towards national unity.

6. Recommends;

a)     Member States to support the United Arab Emirate’s call for a special session of the Human Rights Council and urgently request to file a collective complain to the UNHRC urgently requesting to dispatch a Commission of Inquiry. The council should also ask Myanmar to cooperate fully with the Commission and to take measures to ensure the accountability of all violations of human rights in order to prevent their repetition and continue to monitor the situation.

b)     Request the OIC Secretary General and Member States to explore all possible means through engagements with the United Nations including tabling of a Rohingya Muslim specific resolution in the 3rd Committee of the UN General Assembly at the 66th Session of the UNGA.

c)      Member States request the OIC Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission (IPHRC) to examine the situation of Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar as a priority issue on its agenda requiring immediate attention and action while presenting concrete recommendations to the Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) towards addressing the issue in an effective manner.

d)     Call on all Member States and non-Member States and local and international NGOs to provide Humanitarian assistance to Rohingya Refugees as well as to the internally displaced in Myanmar.

e)     OIC Member States to use their diplomatic contacts at the highest level to help alleviate the sufferings of the Muslim population of Arakan.

f)       Urges OIC Member States, international organizations, along with Islamic and international civil society organizations to move promptly and provide necessary and urgent humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya people and to assist them in surmounting this grave crisis, in line with the statement issued by the OIC Secretary General in which he appealed to OIC Member States and humanitarian international organizations to do so.

g)       Decides to establish an OIC contact group in close coordination with Arakan Rohingya Union composed of all ASEAN Member States who are Member States of the OIC (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia) along with a representative of ASEAN Secretary General and OIC Secretary General. The rest of the membership will be decided by consultation between the OIC Secretary General and interested Member States. The group is mandated to consider ways, means, and mechanisms to ensure the halt of human rights violations against Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar and the return of their citizenship rights.

h)     Recommend the Secretary General to appoint a special envoy for this important issue.

i)       OIC Secretary General to submit his report to the 4th Extra-ordinary Summit on 14-15 August 2012 in Makkah Al-Mukaramah and the 39th CFM for necessary actions.

j)       Send a High- level OIC Representative to Myanmar stand-alone and/or with the OIC Contact Group in Naypidaw.

k)       Requests the UN Secretary General to intensify UN activities in order to immediately and unconditionally halt the violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and alleviate their suffering;

l)     Requests the OIC Group in Geneva to follow up the request of the United Arab Emirates’ call for a special session of the Human Rights Council and ensure all OIC Member states to play a positive role in adopting all recommendations specifically a Commission of Inquiry;

m)  Call upon world leaders to speak out against these crimes against humanity and urge the Myanmar Government to eliminate the discriminatory law and any other discriminatory practices against the Rohingya people.

n)     OIC Member States to remain seized on this matter and requests the Secretary General to provide progress reports on the matter.

What does it mean to be British

I am a sports fan and love watching the Olympics. It symbolises all the best in the human sporting excellence and dedication and somehow also represents an opportunity to hit a pause button (rightly or wrongly) on world affairs, as for about two weeks much of the world’s focus is on the athletes.

I see the Olympics as a great opportunity to learn and understand from each other, as athletes engage with people from countries they probably would never engage with, and a time for reflection as the Olympic Truce is observed for about 100 days. Finally, it is a time for learning, as you actually discover countries that you have not even heard of. Politics, corporate sponsorship, tickets aside, the Olympics is probably one of the more unifying events around the world.
When the Olympics was awarded to London, I remember the excitement that greeted it, followed by the sudden realisation of reality as the next day, the 7/7 terrorist attacks took place. In the seven years since, the Olympics’ engagement with communities took a back seat in some respects as security took a higher priority.

For the Muslim community in particular, the scrutiny of radicalisation and constant obsession with identity and affiliation has meant that they have been justifying themselves to the British public. This is a shame as many Muslims in London reside close to the main Olympic parks and thus perhaps have not been able to fully participate in the pre-program as they should have with the hope that they can enjoy the social regeneration that is anticipated afterwards.

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