Fighting for Moderation

Fighting for Moderation in Islam, photo: Asim Bharwani/flickr

Too often we associate moderation with the supposedly weaker qualities of leadership: compromise, pragmatism, process over substance. In the context of the theological and public relations battles fought over the essence of Islam in recent times, it is hard to disagree that the extremists have been most effective in promoting their brand of violent fundamentalism.

But the battle is not over. In fact, for the moderate majority, the secret weapon may have arrived. He is Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, the Islamic Shaykh and PhD holder who I was fortunate enough to hear speak recently at a US Institute of Peace event in Washington DC. He rose to prominence in March 2010 when he published his ‘Fatwa against Suicide Bombings and Terrorism’, though in fact his entire life has been one of public service and religious devotion – driven by a rigorous commitment to the peaceful tenets of his faith.

His resume is inspiring: Pakistan’s leading Islamic scholar with over 400 books published; a world renowned Islamic jurist and adviser to the Supreme Court of Pakistan; Chairman of the Board of Governors of Minhaj University in Lahore. Most consequential is his founding of Minhaj-ul-Quran International, whose educational branch has established over 570 schools and colleges in Pakistan, and whose humanitarian wing has sought to spread the message of peace around the world by building centers in more than 90 countries.

Sacrificing the Women of Afghanistan

But what about the women of Afghanistan? photo: Marius Arnesen/flickr

“If someone is sentenced to death, they must be killed with a gun, and photographing the execution is forbidden.” So goes one of the directives handed down by Taliban leader Mullah Omar in an effort to avoid images that might cause a rift between the movement and supporters. It was part of a 69-point document, published in May 2009, which formed a new PR strategy designed to recast the insurgency around local liberation rather than violent fundamentalism.

Western moves toward ‘reconciliation’ and withdrawal suggest that the strategy has helped to maintain the narrative of a war that ‘cannot be won’. Much of the recent media focus has been on abuses perpetrated by the coalition and its partners: the Wikileaks revelations, charges against British forces, and unlawful killings by the Pakistani military. These have contributed to the collapse in international public support – with 63 percent and 58 percent of UK and US populations now opposing the war.

Politically, the criteria for withdrawal has been narrowed. British Prime Minister Cameron said that he could “sum it up in two words…national security: clearing al-Qaida out of Afghanistan, damaging them in Pakistan. We don’t have some dreamy ideas about this mission.” President Obama now supports efforts to “open the door to the Taliban” and has backed Afghan President Karzai’s move to form a reconciliation ‘high peace council’ and invite the Taliban into parliament. As one western diplomat explained: “We are not going to be sending troops and spending money forever. There will have to be a compromise, and sacrifices will have to be made.”

But who, specifically, will be making the sacrifice? Last week, a UAE-owned television station provided an emphatic answer – if indeed it was ever doubted – by smuggling out what is believed to be the first verified recording of the Taliban stoning a woman. The grainy but horrifying images of a hooded victim kneeling before her executioners – after she was accused of “being seen with a man” – are testament to the reality of life for women in the Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, under an ideological movement that also kills women who go to school, work or participate in the political process (along with the men who support them).

The reality of what is at stake is illustrated in the story of Robina Jalalai, one of Afghanistan’s first two female Olympic athletes, who now trains “in the stadium where the Taliban used to play football with women’s heads.”

The Push for Pensions

Marching for work and retirement, photo: marcovdz/flickr

Europeans are talking about retirement. Yet, in France at least, it’s the youth who are most angry. Today the biggest protest movement since President Sarkozy took office continued for a tenth day. Airports have been disrupted, health risks have reached ‘pre-epidemic levels’ with refuse collectors on strike, even the Louvre was closed as staff blockaded the museum entrance.

The cynical readers among you will view this tête-à-tête as more déjà vu than coup d’état. Nonetheless, there remains a fundamental question in the developed world over how to balance the right to a ‘long and happy retirement’ against the gerontological and economic realities of modern times.

In financial terms it’s hard to argue with the figures. According to Allianz, a leading German financial services company, public pension expenditure for the European Union as a whole will increase to 12.8 percent by 2050. Compare this with France, Greece, or even Italy – where expenditure will increase to 25 percent of GDP by 2050 – and it seems inevitable that the budgetary axe should fall at this time of fiscal ‘belt-tightening’ across the continent. In Britain, for instance, the new measures are projected to save £5 billion a year. Furthermore the financial crisis has hit one rather traditional quirk of European retirement rights, namely that of a gender-based pension entitlement, with both the UK and Greece removing a woman’s prerogative to beat her husband to the pension pot.

However, this is one problem we can’t blame on the bankers. Aging populations are a direct result of our successful economic development – as the social, technological and cultural effects of modernization and urbanization mean lives are lengthened and people have fewer children to keep their populations youthful. As the New York Times put it in response to the protests, “it is hard to conjure a situation in which people move back to the countryside and again have larger families.” In fact, the Oxford Institute of Ageing – which published the seminal 2008 Global Ageing Survey – predicts that the West’s future search for a younger workforce will be instrumental at improving lives in the developing world, where in Africa only five percent are projected to be 65 or older in 2050 – compared to 29 percent in Europe.

On Course with European Identity

Pieces of a European puzzle, photo: Cemre/flickr

South Wales is not renowned as a symbol of European identity. Indeed, if you were fortunate enough to watch the drama unfold at the 38th Ryder Cup last week – the biennial golfing contest between Europe and the USA – you might have missed the phenomenon occurring beyond the playing area.

Yes, what might just have passed for a raucous band of Brussels bureaucrats on tour was, in fact, a crowd of 50,000 European golf fans (many of them British) bedecked in blue and yellow – many literally wrapped in the EU flag – cheering on their team with endless chants of ‘Europe, Europe’. For this supporter, bred on a British media diet of fear and skepticism regarding the Brussels ‘takeover’, the passionate display of ‘europeanness’ was faintly startling.

Put the tournament in its proper context as the one event where Europe is represented as a single team and with a television audience of one billion people (making this the third largest sporting event in the world) and you’ll understand why President Barroso of the European Commission was positively giddy as he opened proceedings.  Remember, this is also from the perspective of a country where 71 percent want a referendum on EU membership, and of a Union to which less than half its members’ populations feel any attachment.

But what does it say about European identity when its most fervent popular expression is in a sport characterized by birdies, bogeys and bunkers?

A Presidential Problem

Egyptian Presidential Palace, photo: Thomas/Picasa

Egypt is at a crossroads. Over thirty years since its political system was last tested – when President Anwar Sadat was assassinated and the little known Hosni Mubarak was thrust into office – the country is facing what, from some angles, might resemble a contest.

There is ample reason to believe that the September 2011 Presidential election will be different to the 2005 vote – when the opposition failed to live up to pre-election hype and, almost without exception, failed to dent the regime’s grip on power. This time there is one crucial difference – the state of the incumbent.

The revelations in the US press in July that outline the Hosni Mubarak’s alleged failing health, along with the unofficial propaganda campaign launched in recent weeks on behalf of Gamal (the President’s oldest son) seem to imply that a transfer of power is planned for next year’s election. However, recent events have challenged western assumptions that a dynastic succession is inevitable.

Local and international media have understandably focused on the campaign of Dr Mohammed ElBaradei, the Nobel Laureate and former head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, whose international profile has enabled him to harness public support and insulated him from the regime’s traditional means of oppression. Yet there is little evidence to suggest that ElBaradei will be able to translate the torrent of publicity into a movement capable of breaking through Egypt’s prohibitive election laws and competing for the presidency.

Alongside internal criticism of his own performance, ElBaradei has suffered from the perennial problem of uniting the opposition parties. This was brutally emphasized last week when the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s only true political opposition, rejected his plan to make a public show of strength by calling for a boycott of November’s parliamentary elections. While the group has helped ElBaradei raise close to a million signatures for his appeal against the regime, there are few countries who have democratized by petition.

The inevitably undemocratic nature of the election process means that internal opposition is likely to pose the greatest threat to the Mubarak dynasty. For this reason, serious attention should be paid to the recent launch of an anonymous poster campaign backing Egyptian Intelligence Chief General Omar Suleiman for the presidency, which saw the regime respond aggressively by forcing newspapers to destroy 30,000 late editions running the story.

These events expose the very real tensions that exist within the ruling National Democratic Party between the military establishment and the wealthy business elite over the father-son succession. The old guard’s wariness is driven by a desire to maintain the status quo (and the foreign aid that comes with it.) They focus on Gamal’s lack of military ties (he would be the first president without military experience,) his support of economic liberalization, and the challenge to law and order from increasing public opposition to succession.

This is where the real struggle for power will lie if Mubarak senior does not pursue another term in office.