Monday, January 26, 2009

A New Awakening in the American-Arab Youth

A New Awakening In The American-Arab Youth PDF Print E-mail
Sunday, 25 January 2009

The Arab youth is out on the streets.

The horror pictures and stories coming out of Gaza are finally being taken notice by the international community. It is unfortunate that it took so many horrific deaths for the world to stand up for justice and speak against human right violations and war crimes.

After two weeks of protests in the Bay Area, one thing that stands out is the participation of the young American-Arabs. Although a majority of them are Muslims, it may be noted that Christians Arabs are an integral part of these protests. Interestingly, a South Asian presence can also be felt.

The assault on Gaza came at the most festive holiday season of the year. Instead of celebrating, these young teenagers and kids spent their time protesting as they watched disturbing and devastating images streaming into their living rooms and onto their computers.

This is a new generation of youth: a generation that grew up witnessing gross violation of US civil liberties, under the shadow of the Patriot Act. They grew up watching Iraq and Afghanistan being destroyed by US military weapons; they saw citizens of countries of their ancestors tortured and humiliated. Neither have they forgotten Israel's unjustified attack on Lebanon only two years ago.

They have learnt not to trust the American mainstream media. Their source of information is alternate media like Democracy Now, YouTube or blogs; social networking through instant messaging, Facebook and other such applications. At a time when Israel banned the media from entering Gaza, these channels of communication were used effectively to broadcast the personal horror stories and images coming out of Gaza.

The youth we see on the streets today is very different from the youth in the years soon after 911 years lived in fear, exactly the way Mr. Bush wanted them to. Today they are not afraid to speak out. They are defiant and determined to stand up for injustice. For the first few years after 911 most Muslims stayed away from political activism and limited their social activities to the mosque. A conscious decision was made to focus on Islam and Muslim issues within the US and stay away from speaking up against the atrocities being committed in countries where their roots are.

During the election campaign many discussions on mailing lists centered on why Muslims have no voice in the campaign. Some analysts concluded it was because Muslims are not part of the ?American story'.

What is an ?American story'? Can Americans from immigrant backgrounds really dissociate themselves from their countries of origin when their tax dollars are being used for military weapons to kill civilians in those countries?

The youth we see today protesting on the streets is an ?American story'. They are part of the story of wars waged in their countries of origin. These kids are writing essays in schools on their perspective on Gaza, Palestine and the protests they are participating in.

Some of them joined hands with African Americans to protest against the shooting of Oscar Grant by BART officer in Oakland. The racism they witnessed against Arabs throughout the election campaign is also their ?American story' and they recognize the importance of standing in solidarity with other communities in their struggles.

The Arab and Muslim youth has been getting more and more organized during the past couple of years. They realize that to become part of the "American story" it is important to participate in the local community and be involved in the political process.

Their participation in electing the first African American president of the U.S.A has given them new hope. They recognize the power of grass root community organization to bring about change. We can see the energy and determination in them. They will join hands with other student communities and continue to push the president for restoration of civil liberties and bring about change in foreign policy.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Al-Azhar Hails First Female Interpretation of the Quran

From Ashraq Al-Aswat - January 25, 2009

Al-Azhar Hails First Female Interpretation of the Quran


Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Al-Azhar Scholars have welcomed the publication of the first Interpretation of the Quran [tafsir] written by a woman, saying that it confirms the equality between men and women in Islam.

Kariman Hamzah, the author of this Quranic interpretation and a former presenter of an Islamic television program in Egypt, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Interpretation is the culmination of her 35 years working in the media. The Islamic Research Academy, the highest authority at the Al Azhar University, approved the printing and distribution of the first Quranic interpretation written by a woman, and which will appear in local bookstores soon.

Sheik Mohamed Al Rawi, head of the Quranic Interpretation Committee of the Islamic Research Academy stated to Asharq Al-Awsat that any work dealing with the Holy Quran must be subject to careful review, and is not approved until it is examined letter by letter and word by word, and has to be approved by all the scholar in the field of Quranic studies and Quranic interpretation. Therefore Muslims can be assured of the authorship of any interpretation approved by the Islamic Research Academy, and need not hesitate in accepting what has been written.

Sheik Abdul-Zaher Abu Ghazala, Director of the Islamic Research Academy's Research, Translation and Publication department revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that the academy had approved a 20-part Quranic Interpretation by Kariman Hamzah, and that there were no inconsistencies between this Quranic interpretation and Islamic Shariaa Law. He confirmed that Kariman Hamzah's Quranic Interpretation was carefully reviewed before it was granted approval.

Sheik Abu Ghazala added that Kariman Hamzah's interpretation of the Quran is fully consistent with previous Quranic interpretations, and that it contained no inconsistencies or contradictions with Islamic Shariaa Law. He denied that this is a new Quranic interpretation providing a female point of view, emphasizing that this interpretation addresses men, women, the youth, and children, just as the Quran itself speaks to all. Therefore there is no such thing as a "male interpretation" or a "female interpretation" of the Quran; he said that "what is important for us is that the interpretation is consistent with the Quran itself, and does not contradict Islamic Law."

Sheik Abu Ghazala concluded by revealing that the Islamic Research Academy had recently approved a number of Quranic interpretations by women including one written by a pediatrician Dr. Fatin Al Faliki, and one by Mrs. Fawqiyah Ibrahim of Alexandria, Egypt.

Sheik Mohamed Al Birri of Al Azhar University welcomed Kariman Hamzah's Quranic Interpretation, saying that it shows the awakening of Muslim women, and their emulation of the female Companions [of the Prophet]. He added that the Quran makes equal between men and women in every way, including religious education, as well as the task of spreading the message of Islam.

Dr. Mustafa Al Shakaa, a member of the Islamic Research Academy of the Al Azhar University said that Al Azhar's approval of Kariman Hamzah's interpretation shows the equality between men and women in Islam, and confirms the women's right to religious education in Islam is the same as a man's. He added that Islamic Shariaa Law gives Muslim women the right to be religiously educated and make religious decisions in the same way that the female Companions [of the Prophet] did in the time of the Prophet (PBUH), and this refutes the rumors and slander which describe the Islamic religion as a religion that restricts the freedom of women, at the fore-front of this a woman's right to education.

The author of the first Quranic Interpretation to be written by a woman, Kariman Hamzah, informed Asharq Al-Awsat that this work is the culmination of 35 years of work whether it was presenting religious programs on television, or writing Islamic articles in newspaper or magazines, and which allowed her to witness a large proportion of Islamic culture. She emphasized that the object of this undertaking [of writing a Quranic Interpretation] was to serve Islam and spread its message.

Kariman Hamzah said that although she is not a graduate or Al Azhar, or another religious institute, her love for spreading the message of Islam has called her to enter this field [of Quranic interpretation]. She said that in writing her Quranic Interpretation she relied upon simplicity and clarity in the explanations and interpretations, and an easy and accessible language, in order for it to be understood by both the young and the old. Her Quranic interpretation is entitled "A Clear Interpretation of the Quran for the Youth."

She added that she relied upon a number of essential sources in order to complete her Quranic Interpretation including; Al Muntakhab Quranic Interpretation which is a selection of Interpretations by Al Azhar scholars, Sayyid Qutb's "In the Shade of the Quran" and "A Thematic Commentary of the Quran" by Sheik Muhammad Al Ghazzali, as well as "Mukhtasar Al Qasimi" by Salah Al Din Ergodan, and the Quranic interpretation by the former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheik Hassanayn Makhluf, amongst others.

Kariman Hamzah added that her Quranic Interpretation was written for all ages, but especially for young people, who she is keen to address. Her interpretation, which is a series of 20 books, will be published soon.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Muslim Nations React to Obama Inaugural Speech

From Voice of America

Muslim Nations React to Obama Inaugural Speech

22 January 2009

Many Muslim nations are welcoming Barack Obama as the new president of the United States - yet there are also expressions of caution over whether much will really change in U.S. relations with the Muslim world.  

President Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address at the U.S. Capitol, 20 Jan 2009
President Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address at the U.S. Capitol, 20 Jan 2009
Mr. Obama made a special point of addressing Muslims around the world in his inaugural speech Tuesday and reaction has been coming in.

In his inaugural address Tuesday President Obama offered a new relationship with the Muslim world.

"To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy," President Obama said.

With some exceptions on the fringes, most Muslims appear to have welcomed the new tone from President Obama.

Ayman Daraghmeh, a Hamas official in the Palestinian Legislative Council,is optimistic. 

"I could expect something better because he said that he will deal with the Muslim world, the Islamic world in a new way, Daraghmeh said."

In Iraq, the government expressed its hope to have the U.S. withdraw its troops even before the end of 2011 - the departure date agreed to by former President Bush.

"Iraqis were worried from the premature withdrawal of the troops, but with the vision which has been clarified from the new administration, as well as the improvement in the security situation in Iraq, the Iraqi government is willing," said Ali al-Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman.

In Afghanistan, former Taliban official Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef denounced Mr. Obama's plan to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Others in the country argue the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan will bring more insecurity.  

But some members of parliament are more optimistic about the intentions of the new American president.  

"Last night, Obama's speech was very crystal clear," said Shukria Barakzai, a member of the Afghan parliament. He says that mutual understanding, mutual respect, this is what Muslims want.

Following President Obama's inauguration, there were also mixed feelings in Tehran.

The Iranian government says it is waiting to see what practical steps President Obama will take toward Tehran - which has been at odds with the United States over its nuclear program.  

But a Tehran resident was optimistic.

"I think it is the best opportunity for Iran to improve its relations with the U.S. because this absence of ties with America has imposed a pressure on us from all countries, and this way we can reduce the pressure," the man said.

In Indian Kashmir, some expect a different U.S. policy because there were reports Mr. Obama may appoint a special envoy to resolve the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan.

"The foreign policy of the United States would be the same as earlier but would be a little different since they have come with a different agenda and a different background," says Khursheed-Ul-Islam, a political expert.

In Kenya, at the school named after President Obama, the sentiments were personal.

"Obama became something and we believe that he will inspire our students and that they will work hard," said Lamek Awinyo, who teaches at the school.  "And they will become something in the society."

President Obama made history Tuesday as the first African-American president to be inaugurated. He is riding a wave of hope in the United States and in the rest of the world as he prepares to set out a new course in U.S. relations with Muslim nations.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

HRW: Iran: Acquit HIV/AIDS Doctors Prosecuted in Unfair Trial

January 13, 2009

(New York, January 13, 2009) - Drs Kamiar and Arash Alaei, Iranian brothers who are known worldwide for their work as HIV/AIDS physicians, are among the four Iranian citizens cited today by Iranian authorities as attempting to overthrow the state, Physicians for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, and International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran have learned from reliable sources.

According to the Islamic Republic News Agency, Iranian Judiciary spokesperson Ali-Reza Jamshidi told a news conference today that four Iranian citizens had been arrested and brought to the court on charges of "communications with an enemy government" and seeking to overthrow the Iranian government under article 508 of Iran's Islamic Penal Code. Speaking at a press conference, Jamshidi claimed: "They were linked to the CIA, backed by the US government and State Department... They recruited and trained people to work with different espionage networks to launch a velvet overthrow of the Iranian government." Jamshidi added that further details of the case would be forthcoming in the next two days.

PHR, HRW, and ICHRI believe the charge of plotting a coup is being brought unfairly, without the brothers being given the chance to adequately defend themselves. Their trial was marked by clear violations of due process. The Alaeis' human rights have been violated and their commitment to public health worldwide has been misrepresented by the Iranian Government as a threat to their regime.

"To all appearances, the arrest and now the trial of these two prominent and widely-traveled AIDS doctors seem to be an effort to shut the door on medical and public health collaboration on global health crises - a policy that is dangerous for the well-being of the Iranian people and for global health," said Frank Donaghue, CEO of Physicians for Human Rights.

Physicians for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, and International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran have spoken out repeatedly about their concern that these serious charges had been levied without due process. The verdict in the case of the Drs. Alaei is expected this week, following a one-day trial in Tehran's Revolutionary Court on December 31, 2008, on charges of communicating with an "enemy government." At the trial, the Iranian prosecutor also informed the court of additional, secret evidence which the brothers' attorney had no opportunity to refute, because the prosecutor did not disclose them.

"Their prosecution is truly a witch hunt, and it is completely unacceptable to bring such charges against the Alaei brothers," said Hadi Ghaemi, spokesperson for International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. "Everything they did was transparent with full knowledge and permission of the Iranian government, including participation in an exchange program on public health in November 2006 in the United States."

Over the last week, more than 2,000 people from around the globe contacted the Iranian Mission to the United Nations in New York City, demanding the Alaeis' release. In addition, 3,100 doctors, nurses, and public health workers from 85 countries have signed an online petition demanding their release, which can be viewed at Leading physicians and public health specialists and numerous medical and scientific organizations have publicly called for the brothers' release, including HIV/AIDS and health experts, including: Global Fund Executive Director Professor Michel Kazatchkine; Partners in Health co-founder Dr. Paul Farmer; 2008 MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant recipient Wafaa El-Sadr, MD, MPH; Hossam E. Fadel, MD, of the Islamic Medical Association of North America; 1993 Nobel Laureate in Medicine Sir Richard Roberts PhD, FRS; and Ugandan AIDS pioneer Dr. Peter Mugyenyi.

"This case is just one more example of how under President Ahmadinejad's administration, Iran's human rights record has reached new lows," said Joe Amon, director of the HIV/AIDS and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. "Ahmadinejad's presidency has created an intense atmosphere of fear and intimidation felt even by those working on the expansion of HIV/AIDS services."

Dr. Kamiar Alaei is a doctoral candidate at the SUNY Albany School of Public Health in Albany, New York and was expected to resume his studies there this fall. In 2007, he received a Master of Science degree in Population and International Health from the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.

Dr. Arash Alaei is the former director of the International Education and Research Cooperation of the Iranian National Research Institute of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease. Since 1998, the Drs. Alaei have been carrying out HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention programs, particularly focused on harm reduction for injecting drug users.

In addition to their work in Iran, the Alaei brothers have held training courses for Afghan and Tajik medical workers and have worked to encourage regional cooperation among 12 Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries. Their efforts expanded the expertise of doctors in the region, advanced the progress of medical science, and earned Iran recognition as a model of best practice by the World Health Organization.

For more information visit HRW's action alert on this case.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Muslim Woman, Rabbis to Pray at Inaugural Service

   January 14, 2009

Muslim woman, rabbis to pray at inaugural service

At past inaugurations, ceremonial prayers uttered on behalf of the incoming president drew about as much attention as the flags on the podium.

Not this year.

Barack Obama's choice of clergy is under scrutiny like no other president-elect before him, alternately outraging Americans on the left and the right as he navigates the minefield of U.S. religion.

"I can't recall any prayers drawing so much attention," said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center who specializes in religion in public life.

Gay advocates assailed Obama, while many conservative Christians were heartened, when he invited the Rev. Rick Warren, a Southern Baptist who opposes gay marriage, to deliver the inaugural invocation on Tuesday.

The tables turned when Obama asked V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, to lead prayers at Sunday's kickoff for the inauguration at the Lincoln Memorial. Gay rights groups rejoiced, while some conservative Christians wrung their hands.

The Inauguration Committee has only released one clergy name so far for the Jan. 21 National Prayer Service that caps the inauguration. The Rev. Sharon Watkins, the first woman president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a Protestant group, will deliver the sermon.

The Associated Press has learned additional details.

A prayer will be offered at the National Cathedral by Ingrid Mattson, the first woman president of the Islamic Society of North America, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information. The Islamic Society, based in Indiana, is the nation's largest Muslim group.

Three rabbis, representing the three major branches of American Judaism, will also say a prayer at the service, according to officials familiar with the plans. The Jewish clergy are Reform Rabbi David Saperstein, Conservative Rabbi Jerome Epstein and Orthodox Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, sources said.

It is also traditional for the incoming administration to ask the Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington to lead a prayer. The Most Rev. Donald Wuerl leads the archdiocese.

And like many incoming presidents before him, Obama will attend a service at St. John's Church, dubbed the "Church of the Presidents," before his swearing-in.

Religion has been a lightning rod for Obama since the presidential campaign — from false rumors that he is Muslim to uproar over sermons by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

And interest in the inauguration is higher overall, partly because of its historic nature, the swearing-in of the first African-American president. The Rev. Joseph Lowery, a Methodist considered the dean of the civil rights movement, will give the inaugural benediction.

But Obama's choice of clergy is also of greater interest because of the changing landscape of American religion.

The United States is more diverse than ever before, and members of minority faiths yearn to be recognized as fully American.

"In the past, minority groups within Christianity and minority religions on the American scene were not as vocal or as sure-footed and therefore didn't pay as much attention to the inauguration event itself or didn't feel the need to. That's no longer true," said Rabbi James Rudin, who spent three decades leading interreligious outreach for the American Jewish Committee.

Even atheists are newly energized, suing to prevent prayer and mention of God at the swearing-in.

An attorney for Chief Justice John Roberts, who will administer the oath, says the president-elect prefers to conclude with the phrase, "so help me God," as presidents before him have done.

Obama's preference was filed last week by Jeffrey Minear, an attorney and administrative assistant to Roberts, as part of a lawsuit by atheists and non-religious groups who sought for years to keep mention of God out of publicly administered oaths.

The Constitution mandates the exact language to be used in the oath: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." Some presidents have added "so help me God."

Most past presidents only had to choose from clergy of the American Protestant establishment. Eventually, inaugural organizers added a priest or bishop to the ceremonies as the Catholic Church in the U.S. grew stronger. Rabbis were sometimes included.

But Protestants are now losing their majority status in the country. The go-to Protestant for inaugural prayer, evangelist Billy Graham, is 90 and off the public stage. No one has, or likely could, take his place as "America's pastor."

The Obama campaign is also partly responsible for the religious focus.

The Democrat spoke openly of his faith during the election, more so than his opponent, Republican Sen. John McCain, and reached out to believers, hoping to counter the perception that the GOP had cornered the market on God.

"This inaugural is a coming-out party for the Democrats in terms of their religious voice," said Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University. "Democrats found their religious voice in the last election and I think there's interest in seeing how that voice is going to sound."

Haynes said Obama is also carrying the hopes of the many Americans frustrated by the prominence of the Christian right in recent decades, especially in the administration of President George W. Bush. That partly explains the backlash against Warren, he said.

"The sense is it's time to balance that out and to have other voices heard. He's supposed to represent change," Haynes said. "There are many people looking for a symbolic change in tone, especially when it comes to issues of religion and public life."

HRW: Senegal: Free AIDS Activists

From Human Rights Watch -

For Immediate Release

Senegal: Free AIDS Activists

Eight-Year Sentences in Threatening Conditions for 9 Accused of 'Indecent and Unnatural Acts' 

(New York, January 9, 2009) – The sentencing in Dakar on January 6, 2009 of nine men who were involved in HIV-prevention work, on charges of "indecent and unnatural acts" and "forming associations of criminals," shows how laws against homosexual conduct damage HIV- and AIDS-prevention efforts as well as the work of human rights defenders, Human Rights Watch said today. 

"These charges will have a chilling effect on AIDS programs," said Scott Long, director of Human Rights Watch's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights program. "Outreach workers and people seeking HIV prevention or treatment should not have to worry about police persecution. Senegal should drop these charges and repeal its sodomy law." 

HIV and AIDS advocates in Senegal report that the ruling has produced widespread panic among organizations addressing HIV and AIDS, particularly those working with men who have sex with men and other marginalized populations.  

These nine men apparently were arrested merely on suspicion of engaging in homosexual conduct. In that case, international human rights provisions mandate their immediate release. So long as they remain detained – given the general climate of hostility against men perceived to engage in homosexual conduct and the risk of violence against them – Senegalese authorities should ensure their safety by separating them from other prisoners, if necessary. The authorities must also ensure that the men receive any necessary medical care, including antiretroviral therapy.   

The men were detained on December 19, 2008, after several police officers burst into the private residence of an HIV outreach worker some miles outside Dakar at 11 p.m. and arrested all nine men in the house. The police confiscated condoms and lubricants – tools used for HIV-prevention work. The police forced several of the men to disclose family members' phone numbers and threatened to inform their families. Sources told Human Rights Watch that the men were beaten in detention, which would constitute a significant violation of Senegal's international human rights obligations.  

The men were charged with violating article 319.3 of Senegal's penal code, which provides that "whoever commits an improper or unnatural act with a person of the same sex will be punished by imprisonment of between one and five years." Reports received by Human Rights Watch indicate that the men were not engaged in any activity considered criminal under Senegalese law.  

At the  trial, prosecutors apparently used the materials found in the house that are standard HIV-prevention tools used in outreach work as evidence of homosexual conduct, for which the men received the maximum five-year sentence. They were also found guilty of "criminal association" in violation of article 238 of the penal code, permitting  the judge to add three years to their five-year term.   

"Senegal's sodomy law invades privacy, criminalizes health work, justifies brutality, and feeds fear," said Long. "This case shows why it is time for the sodomy law to go." 

The men's arrest and  detention violates article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees the right to liberty and security of person and rights against arbitrary detention. Senegal ratified the ICCPR in 1978, without reservations. Criminal trials under article 319.3 of the penal code violate Senegal's treaty commitments. Senegal should repeal article 319.3, which also severely hampers HIV/AIDS-prevention and education efforts, barring large populations from access to treatment and care. 

The men were arrested only days after Senegal served as the host for the 15th International Conference on AIDS and STIs (sexually transmitted infections) in Africa (ICASA). Presentations at this conference pointed out the apparent contradiction in some countries, such as Senegal, which target HIV/AIDS-prevention efforts at populations of men of who have sex with men but continue to criminalize same-sex relations. Advocates working in HIV and AIDS prevention point out that such an approach necessarily drives the targeted populations underground and mitigates the efficacy of HIV intervention efforts. 

Article 7 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders specifically provides that "everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to develop and discuss new human rights ideas and principles and to advocate their acceptance." The report of the special representative of the secretary-general on human rights defenders to the UN General Assembly specifically identifies human rights defenders from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex communities as being at particular risk and has called for greater state vigilance in protecting their rights.  

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which authoritatively interprets the ICCPR and evaluates compliance with its provisions, found in the 1994 case of Toonen v. Australia that laws criminalizing consensual homosexual conduct among adults violate the ICCPR's protections. According to UNAIDS data, at least 5 to 10 percent  of HIV infections worldwide occur through sex between men, though this figure varies considerably by region. Laws criminalizing consensual sexual conduct drive these vulnerable populations underground and permit gross violations of the fundamental rights to life, freedom of expression and association, and health.  

For more of Human Rights Watch's work on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, please visit:  

For more of Human Rights Watch's work on HIV/AIDS and human rights, please visit:  

For more information, please contact:

In New York, Scott Long (English): +1-212-216-1297; or +1-646-641-5655 (mobile)

In New York, Joseph Amon (English): +1-917-519-8930 (mobile)

In Brussels, Reed Brody (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese): +32-2-737-1489; or +32 -498-625786 (mobile)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Afghanistan: Imams to the Rescue in Curbing Maternal Mortality


AFGHANISTAN: Imams to the rescue in curbing maternal mortality

Photo: Ahmad/IRIN
Religious leaders receive training in Kabul on the impact of birth gaps and child marriage on maternal and infant mortality
KABUL, 12 January 2009 (IRIN) - Mohammad Tawasoli, an imam at a mosque in Wardak Province, central Afghanistan, tells the local community to maintain a two-year gap between pregnancies and avoid child marriage - to help mother and infant remain healthy.

"Islam does not allow the killing of the foetus but it also does not want mothers to face health risks because of… constant pregnancies," Tawasoli said.

"Islam does not oppose delayed pregnancies if this helps the health and well-being of mothers," he told IRIN in Kabul, adding that those who think otherwise believe in superstition rather than true Islamic principles.

Religious scholars such as Tawasoli wield strong influence among people in rural communities where high rates of illiteracy and lack of awareness about health issues contribute to the deaths of thousands of mothers and children every year.

Every year 17,000 women die due to pregnancy-related complications and one child in four does not reach his/her fifth birthday, largely owing to curable diseases, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Food insecurity and lack of access to health services are weakening the health and nutritional status of women, and multiple and short-spaced pregnancies often cause early deaths, according to health specialists.

The common practice of child marriage is also a major factor in early deaths among mothers.

"Child marriage and forced marriage are in contradiction with Islam," said Abdul Karim, an imam in Kabul.

Ending ignorance

The ministries of women's affairs and religious affairs, backed by a few aid agencies, have been working to involve religious leaders in a strategy to reduce pregnancy-related maternal mortality.

Over the past year, dozens of imams participated in training workshops in Kabul at which gender experts tried to convince them to spread the word on birth gaps and legal-age marriage.

"Some people wrongly think birth gaps are not Islamic. We want to tackle such ignorance with the help of mullahs [imams]," Hosai Wardak, a gender specialist working with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in Kabul, told IRIN.

In the northeastern province of Badakhshan, which reportedly has the highest maternal mortality rate in the country, such efforts have borne fruit.

However, in the volatile southern and eastern provinces, where Taliban insurgents have assassinated dozens of pro-government religious leaders, preaching about family planning seems to be a risky and unattractive job.

The government and its partners may need to adopt alternative approaches in areas where imams are wary of encouraging people to ensure birth gaps, and wed under-age girls, experts said.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Turkey: A New Mosque Styled for the New Millennium

From Hurriyet Daily News - January 3, 2009

A new mosque styled for the new millennium

by Mustafa Akyol

ISTANBUL - Created by one of Turkey's most stylish designers, Zeynep Fadıllıoğlu, the Şakirin Mosque, on the Asian side of Istanbul at the entrance to the city's largest cemetery, will soon welcome believers to a space of not just traditional faith but also contemporary aesthetics.

Zeynep Fadıllıoğlu is a Turkish designer known for creating some of the most stylish lounges and nightclubs in Istanbul. As a winner of the Andrew Martin International Designer of the Year award, her fame, and that of her husband, restaurateur Meto, has gone beyond Turkey.

"For almost 25 years, this glamorous pair have been creating sophisticated hot spots that are the number-one destinations for Turkey's glitterati," wrote The Independent in 2004, in a review of the couple's then newly opened restaurant in London. "Zeynep manages to make her passion for all things Oriental and European sit together in easy, informal arrangements." 

Yet, probably none of the projects Fadıllıoğlu has undertaken before were as passionate as her current one in terms of combing the Orient and Europe: the design of the most modern mosque that Istanbul, and Turkey, has ever seen.

This ongoing construction is at the entrance of the Karacaahmet Cemetery, the oldest and largest in Istanbul. Located in the Üsküdar district of the Anatolian side, this burial ground is the eternal home of at least a million souls, including many prominent figures ranging from Ottoman bureaucrats to modern day artists. And now, among the tall cypress trees that grow above them, there also rise two minarets and dome whose style is new, not only to the dead, but also the living.

The project was commissioned by a London-based wealthy Arab-Turkish family in the memory of their deceased mother, Semiha Şakir, whose name is recognized by Turks from the quality schools she founded. Her children, Ghassan, Gazi and Gade, have decided to name the mosque "Şakirin."

It obviously is a reference to their family. But it also has the literal meaning, "Those who are thankful (to God)."

The Şakirin mosque seems to be a combination of traditional elegance and modern austerity. It has a dome; but unlike those on traditional mosques, this metal sphere looks like a space ship. The architect, Hüsrev Tayla, built Ankara's magnificent Kocatepe Mosque before, which is in the old Ottoman style. This time, in collaboration with other artists such British designer William Pye, he has taken a whole new direction.

Fadıllıoğlu's job is to design the interior. Different artists are working for her on the altar, calligraphy and pool in the courtyard. Every detail, from the carpets to tiles, is designed anew. She is also planning a system by which the worshippers, after taking their shoes off to enter the mosque, will wear galoshes. Hygenie, she notes, is as important as aesthetics.

A women-friendly mosque

One thing that is notable in the Şakirin Mosque will be the women's area. In traditional mosques, this is often a very small, dark and apathetic place at the back. Although many believe that this is what "Islam" ordains, it is actually a relic from the culture of the medieval Middle East. No wonder ultra-Orthodox Judaism has a similar tradition of male-favoring seclusion. In Fadıllıoğlu's design, women will still be separate, but the upper-level designated for them will be open, lighted, and beautifully decorated. A mosque designed by a woman, as she proudly noted, will be more welcoming to women.

The mosque, which is plans to open in May, will also have a small museum showcasing works of Islamic art. Among these might be the overlay of the Ka'aba of Mecca, the holiest Muslim shrine, which the Şakir family recently bought at an auction at Sotheby's for about a million dollars. The total expense for the mosque is unknown - but it is estimated to be very, very high.

This overtly upper-class initiative to introduce an example of modern aesthetics into Turkish Islam seems very timely. For quite sometime, the Turkish intelligentsia has been debating on the rural and unsophisticated character of the Islamic culture in their society. An analytical story written by senior journalist Sefa Kaplan and published by daily Hürriyet two weeks ago was titled, "The Analysis of Villager Islam."

"The secularization effort during the Republican era included the struggle with the symbols of Islam," Kaplan said. "Consequently, Islam was pushed to the rural areas; it soon lost its urban heritage and was filled with superstition and ignorance." When these devout villagers started to pour into secular cities, Dr. Süleyman Seyfi Öğün, a political scientist, says they brought not just religion but also rural culture - and hardly made a distinction between the two.

The result was a deepening tension between the bourgeois seculars and the ex-rural but not-yet-fully-urban religious. The living spaces of the former centered on well-groomed cafes, restaurants, and bars of rich neighborhoods such as Nisantaşı or Bebek. The latter's neighborhoods were rather characterized by the hastily built mosques, which presented very little, if any, sense of aesthetics.

In other words, the much-debated secular-religious conflict in Turkey is, to some extent, also a class conflict. What the secularists despise is not Islam as such. It is the Islam of the villagers that they find crude and distasteful. That's why the mosque might be a good step to change some established prejudices. "This mosque has all the Western and Eastern values nicely blended," she said. Apparently, it will also nicely blend the values of urban and rural Turks.

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