Friday, 12 June 2009

Holy Land hopes for dogged peacemakers

By Dina Newman
BBC News, Jerusalem

"We are now in the Holy Land, the Land of the Lord", says Rabbi Menachem Froman welcoming us to his modest house in the tiny settlement of Tekoa in the West Bank. With his long beard and a black suit, the rabbi looks like a typical religious settler. In fact he is more than a settler, he is one of the founders of the settler movement. Moreover, he believes that settlements like his can be a vehicle for peace. The rabbi is part of Jerusalem Peacemakers, an interfaith project with an aim to facilitate dialogue between the Jewish and Muslim community.

And the dialogue which Rabbi Froman is engaged in would shock most Israelis: he was close friends with the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Yasser Arafat, and used to visit Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the late founder and spiritual leader of the militant Hamas group, at home in Gaza and later in his Israeli jail cell.

"From the very beginning it was very clear to me that you cannot love the country, love the rocks, the trees, the valleys, and hate the people living here," says Rabbi Froman. "Two thousand years ago one of our sages, Rabbi Hilel, was asked to explain the essence of Judaism while standing on one leg - in other words, in a very short time. And his answer was: Love your neighbour. Every Jewish child learns this story at school. And this is what I am doing here today."

Rabbi Froman says that those settlers who love the Holy Land should be prepared to live under Palestinian rule - not as occupiers under the heavy protection of the Israeli army.

More than 300,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank, in addition to about 200,000 in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, and the vast majority are opposed to a Palestinian state. They dismiss the rabbi's views as irrelevant. But other Israelis often admit there is logic to this unorthodox solution to the question of Jewish settlements.

Rabbi Froman's views are shared by another unorthodox peacemaker: a Palestinian Muslim sheikh who lives in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem right next to the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and Jews as the Temple Mount. "No one can live here as an occupier," says Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Bukhari, an exponent of the mystical Islamic Sufi movement. "We are in the 21st century, we do not live in a jungle any more." Sheikh Bukhari has modern views, though his family roots go back to the ninth century. He is a descendant of the celebrated Islamic scholar Imam Bukhari. “When I was in South Africa and I spoke to Nelson Mandela, he told me he thought he would never see the end of apartheid. But he did ” Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Bukhari

Centuries-old books on Islamic theology written by his ancestors are proudly displayed in the sheikh's living room. His family left Bukhara, in modern Uzbekistan, about 400 years ago, and has been living in the same house in the Old City ever since. Sheikh Bukhari admits that he often finds opposition within his own community.

"When someone is angry, you don't shut them up, you let them speak, let them open their heart", he says. "And then I say, OK, what other choice do you have? To fight? We have been doing this for 50 or 60 years, and we haven't achieved anything".

Sheikh Bukhari's commitment to peace was tested in this December and January during Israel's three-week military campaign against Gaza, Operation Cast Lead. His wife's family lives in Gaza, so does his sister and one of his daughters. "No-one knows what I was going through. There was a real drama in my heart", he says.

Middle East peacemaking projects are at low ebb right now. With mainstream Israeli politics shifting to the right and far right, and Palestinian public opinion still enraged by the Gaza campaign, most analysts admit there is little scope for peace work. "Rabbi Froman is well known, and he is serious", says Kitty Cohen of the Institute for the Study of Religions and Communities in Israel. "I wish more people inside political establishment listened to him."

As for Sheikh Bukhari, he is careful to maintain relations with the Israeli authorities, which in turn alienates many potential Palestinian supporters who see his work as legitimising the Israeli occupation. Despite the recent shock of the Gaza campaign, Sheikh Bukhari firmly believes peace is a real possibility. "I believe it can happen next week and definitely within my lifetime. Believe me, life brings surprises. When I was in South Africa and I spoke to Nelson Mandela, he told me he thought he would never see the end of apartheid. But he did."

Rabbi Froman is equally optimistic. He says his conversations with Sheikh Ahmad Yassin convinced him that Hamas may turn to peace. "I see a real possibility that Ismail Haniya and Khalid Meshaal may return to their Islamic roots", he says. "Islam is a religion of peace." Most peace activists here are hoping that President Barack Obama's new policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his recent speech in Cairo will initiate a meaningful dialogue.

If it happens, voices like that of Rabbi Froman and Sheikh Abdulaziz may become more prominent. "In the meantime", says Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom of Rabbis for Human Rights, "the warm presence of these people is a great encouragement to the rest of us."

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2009/06/12 06:12:01 GMT

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Islam’s Diversity

Published: June 9, 2009
New York Times

HONG KONG — It would be churlish to criticize President Obama’s Cairo address to the Muslim world. It was finely crafted and typically well-delivered. It had the impact that was intended, even if actions to back the words will be difficult.

However, the speech suggested that the Muslim/non-Muslim divide is greater than it actually is. There was an implicit lack of recognition of the sheer diversity of Islam, a religion that like Christianity has shaped, and been shaped by, the societies to which it has attached itself.

That diversity is not primarily reflected in the division between Sunni and Shiite but in the actual practices of the Muslims — almost all Sunni — in South and Southeast Asia, Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. These non-Arab Muslims constitute by far the largest part of global Muslim community.

Diversity is also not sufficiently recognized by many in the Islamic world. The result is that one orthodoxy is imposed as vigorously as Catholic countries once discriminated against other interpretations of Christianity.

It was said, supposedly by Voltaire, that England had 60 religions but only once sauce, France one religion but innumerable sauces.

The multiple religions were, of course, all branches of Christianity. The issue for society was acceptance of diversity and the separation of church and state. America achieved that with its Constitution, while in France anti-clericalism became a defining political force against the secular claims of the one religion.

Obama recognized that America, despite its pluralism and a Muslim community almost as large as its Jewish one, had much healing to do in its relationship with the Islamic world. He also aimed to push the Middle East peace process by showing even handedness toward Israelis and Palestinians. But those objectives, while they partly overlap, are far from identical. Sympathy for the Palestinian situation is common in developing countries formerly ruled by Europeans.

On the other hand, the farther Muslims are from Jerusalem the less they are emotionally involved in what is more of a struggle between nations than religions.

Indeed, the failure of the Muslim community in the United States to have much influence on Middle East policy is partly a result of the sheer diversity of its origins and interests. Arabs are a minority among American Muslims as in the rest of the Muslim world.

Yet both Arabs and the U.S. — indeed the West more generally — see Islam through the prism of Middle East politics, Al Qaeda and Iraq. That is a natural outcome of recent events but has also played to the Arab sense of being the guardian of Islam. By speaking to the Muslim world from Cairo, Obama may have fortified such perception.

That could be a misfortune. Oil money has added to the influence of narrow Arabian interpretations of Islam even as most social and economic progress in the Muslim world has been found in non-Arab countries — Turkey, Indonesia, Bangladesh, for example. Even Pakistan, for all its troubles, displays a diversity of interpretations of Islam, some with strong liberal and individualistic leanings that helps sustain democratic debate and keep alive the notion that it is a “state for Muslims” not an “Islamic state.”

Acceptance of diversity within Islam, as well as tolerance of Christians and Hindus, is perhaps most marked in Indonesia. There, as in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa and India, not to mention Bosnia and the Central Asian republics, the social mores of Muslims are often almost identical to those of Christians and nonbelievers.

The problem is often not so much between Muslims and non-Muslims but the efforts of state controlled religion to deny Muslims the diversity of interpretation that should be their birthright. Thus, non-Muslims in Malaysia face only modest obstacles. Even in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Christians are free to drink alcohol as well as worship. Yet in both countries Muslims themselves are the ones denied freedom by state religious authorities trampling on centuries of local traditions to impose their orthodoxy.

Obama has a background in two countries where Islam and Christianity co-exist and where politics is mostly not about religious affiliation — Kenya and Indonesia. Perhaps when he has a chance to visit either of them he could emphasize — to his home audience as well as his hosts — the diversity of Islamic traditions and the importance of their separation of church and state as the keystones of the freedom and pluralism that define America’s success.

The battle is not between Islam and others, it is between the open society and its enemies.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Nancy Ajram: A Celebration of Arab Music

(Taken from Wikipedia) Nancy Nabil Ajram (Arabic: نانسي نبيل عجرم‎) (born May 16, 1983) is a multi-platinum Lebanese pop folk artist. Considered one of the decade's most important superstars of the Middle East & Arab world, Ajram has sold, as of 2007, over 30 million records ranking 3rd best selling female artist in Lebanese history [1]. Ajram has secured a sensational status in the Middle East by releasing seven albums to date, numerous music videos and commercials; Ajram has participated in the most significant Arabic festivals and won a great deal of awards, most importantly the 2008 World Music Award of best-selling Middle Eastern artist. Nancy Ajram is the first and only female sponsor and spokesperson of Coca-Cola in the Middle East & Arab world, youngest Arab WMA winner, and serves as an important icon of this generation's Arabic music.

Ajram was born on May 16, 1983 in Achrafieh a Christian only district of East Beirut, Lebanon to Greek Orthodox parents Nabil Ajram and Rimonda Oun.

In 1995, at the age of twelve, Nancy Ajram took part in the entertainment show, Noujoum Al-Moustakbal, ("Stars of the Future"), a Lebanese television musical competition, winning a gold medal in the Tarab category after singing a song by Umm Kulthum.

Ajram studied music following her early success with renowned Lebanese musicians and although she was less than 18 years old, the syndicate of professional artists in Lebanon accepted her as a member because they found her to be an exceptional talent and deserved to be qualified as a professional artist.