Common Ground News Service March 16 – 22

Dear HumanDHS network friends,

I am pleased to forward the latest CGNews Bulletin.

See below for these articles:

  • Indonesia’s multicultural Islam in action
  • Women healing Pakistan
  • A fatwa against terrorism that might work
  • The Future of Islam
  • Muslim, German, female – and a sports star

Kind regards
Uli Spalthoff

The Common Ground News Service (CGNews) aims to promote constructive perspectives and dialogue on a broad range of issues affecting Arab-Israeli & Muslim-Western relations. CGNews is available in Arabic, English, French, Hebrew, Indonesian and Urdu.  To subscribe, click here. For an archive of past CGNews articles, please visit our website at

Indonesia’s multicultural Islam in action
Agung Yudhawiranata

Jakarta – The birthday of the prophet Muhammad, which fell on 26 February this year, is celebrated by Muslim communities throughout Indonesia with religious services and other special events. In Java, the event has taken on a unique form in the Sekaten Festival. The week-long cultural festivals are hosted in some of the island’s major cities – Cirebon, Surakarta, Semarang and Yogyakarta, its most famous location.

Though it originally has Islamic roots, the Sekaten Festival has come to symbolise multiculturalism and pluralism in Java. During the Sekaten Festival, and particularly during the final event, everybody – regardless of their religion and belief – gathers at the city plaza to participate in the festivities that reflect the region’s tradition and history.

The Sekaten Festival started in 15th century Java. The king – Sultan Hamengkubuwana I – hosted the festivities and invited the mostly Hindu local population to embrace Islam. Today, the Sekaten Festival has shifted from these evangelical roots to become a festival celebrating the diverse beliefs and ethnicities of the people of Java.

In Yogyakarta, the only Sultanate still existing in Java, the festival centres around a gamelan, a set of traditional Javanese musical instruments featuring metallophones, xylophones, drums, gongs, flutes and strings, which is played in the yard of the city’s Great Mosque. Two sets of ancient, sacred gamelan are played continuously night and day for the full week of the festival. The Sekaten ensemble’s style is loud and majestic, as it was traditionally used to attract people to the mosque. The ensemble is said to have been created by Sunan Kalijaga, one of the nine Muslim saints in 16th century Indonesia who were crucial in spreading Islam. Today, Muslims make up 60 to 65 per cent of the population in Java.

Popular with visitors to Indonesia, today the gamelan is used almost exclusively at puppet shows, traditional dance and marriage ceremonies. At the Sekaten Festival, however, it still serves its original function of gathering people together.

The festival lasts for an entire week and culminates with a cultural rite performed by the Sultan of Yogyakarta – who still holds local authority in the province – to thank God for the blessings bestowed upon the community over the previous year. It begins with a parade of the palace guard, each unit in full uniform. Behind them stand two gunungan, pyramid-shaped offerings of fruits and vegetables symbolising the male and the female, and the health and wealth of the kingdom and its people.

These offerings go back hundreds of years in Indonesia, predating the development of a Muslim identity in the country. Today, they are a reminder of the way ancient symbols can be part of religious festivals. Additionally, the route of the parade symbolises the life and duty of the King: as a son to the queen mother, political and administrative leader, and human being – a common Muslim – worshipping God.

When the gunungan reaches the yard at the Great Mosque, the crowd gathering there is free to take food from the pyramid. People compete good-naturedly for food from the pyramids as local custom says it will bring prosperity.

This festival is a beautiful acknowledgment of the birthday of the founder of Islam, as well as the diversity of the country – blending Islam with Javanese culture in a unique way. Although it is only held in Java, the Sekaten Festival could serve as an example throughout Indonesia, and even beyond. It demonstrates that being Muslim – with all its rituals and teachings – does not mean destroying local traditions and cultures. In fact, as the example of Sekaten shows, the blending of religion and culture can help both flourish.

* Agung Yudhawiranata is member of the Common Ground News Service’s editorial board and coordinator of projects for Muslim-Western understanding in Indonesia. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 16 March 2010,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

Women healing Pakistan
Ayeda Naqvi

Lahore, Pakistan – Last week, six relief workers in Mansehra, a city in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), died after an attack on their office. In 2008, gunmen killed four staff members of another international aid agency. Charities and international aid organisations are under constant threat in Pakistan, particularly in the NWFP, yet a group of women continue their humanitarian efforts in the region, despite the risks.

Meaning “We are all Pakistani”, the Hum Pakistani Foundation was formed last summer by a group of Pakistani women who joined together as representatives of other organisations or on their own to help the three million internally displaced persons (IDPs) of the Swat Valley who had to leave their homes following the Pakistani army’s operation in Northern Pakistan to root out Taliban extremists.

In the midst of so many crises, the government’s efforts to provide relief to its affected citizens often leave much to be desired. It has been incumbent on the private citizens of Pakistan to come together and take charge of providing relief to their less fortunate compatriots.

In less than a year, as the first umbrella organisation to bring together more than 20 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and thousands of people to work towards the common goal of alleviating the misery of the IDPs, the Hum Pakistani Foundation was able to set up schools, medical camps, community centres and psychiatric counselling centres in the Swat Valley. It also sent $100,000 worth of food, medical supplies, water storage tanks, stoves and other products to areas most in need.

Today, as many of the IDPs have returned to their homes, the foundation is focused on helping the residents of Swat and Malakand, the most troubled areas of the NWFP, rebuild their lives. Here, Hum Pakistani has been given forts and other buildings by the Pakistan Army which, in collaboration with UNICEF, it is now using as schools, hostels and community centres.

Many of these community centres are used for the rehabilitation of young boys between the ages of eight and 16 who were allegedly kidnapped by extremists and were able to run away. Most of these boys were being indoctrinated and trained to become suicide bombers or informants.

The centres focus on re-integrating these boys into society by providing them with medical and psychiatric assistance, offering them schooling and, eventually, vocational training so that they can pursue professions in carpentry, electrical services and appliance repair. This spring, these boys will also be given agro-therapy, participating in farming as a way of dealing with their trauma.

As Feriha Peracha, Project Director of Sabaoon – an academy for the vulnerable youth of Malakand and Hum Pakistani partner – explains, “Agro-therapy is important for these young boys, not just as therapy, but as a skill to enhance their output as many of them come from farming backgrounds.”

Additionally, the foundation has created community centres that aim to empower women. They provide a space in which women can safely interact with each other and learn skills that will eventually help them set up small businesses focusing on indigenous crafts, such as pottery and embroidery. This model is now being picked up by other organisations in different parts of the country.

The outreach of the Hum Pakistani Foundation is possible because of collaboration with its sister organisations, such as the Pakistan Red Crescent Society; CARE – a foundation focusing on empowerment through education; the Pakistan Medical Association, Shirkat Gah – a resource centre that advocates for women’s rights; and Sabaoon, among others.

The members of the Hum Pakistani Foundation believe that humankind is like a single body: if one part of the body is in pain, the rest of the body cannot function properly. Similarly, a nation is unable to function properly when so many of its people are in pain.

As such, the women of Hum Pakistani Foundation connect and nurture, offering assistance to the needy. They know that it is only after all this foundational work has been done that the healing will begin.

* Ayeda Naqvi is a Lahore-based journalist and social activist. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 16 March 2010,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

A fatwa against terrorism that might work
Muqtedar Khan

Newark, Delaware – Dr. Tahir ul-Qadri, a Pakistani Islamic scholar visiting the United Kingdom, recently released a 600-page fatwa, or non-binding opinion in Islamic law, against terrorism. This fatwa might actually have an impact. It is comprehensive, direct and does not dodge any of the issues. It has come at a time when there is very strong abhorrence for terrorism, especially in Pakistan, and it will strip terrorists of what little legitimacy they might be still enjoying in the eyes of Muslims who fear that Islam is under attack by Western powers.

Qadri is a prominent imam who founded Minhaj ul Qur’an International, an organisation with the stated aim of creating understanding between communities, and who enjoys a large popular following. He also happens to be well ensconced in the traditional Islamic heritage. But those who are engaged in extremist violence and those who sympathise with them belong to a more recent trend within Salafism, an ideology that aims for the emulation of the practice of Islam in its early days and a rejection of centuries’ worth of Islamic thought and doctrine in favour of literal interpretation.

Salafism is a recent transplant in South Asia and fortunately does not have deep roots in the region. Qadri and his large following constitute mainstream Muslims in Pakistan and in the Pakistani diaspora. In principle, they should be able to prevail easily over the extremist voices now causing such turmoil in that land.

Qadri’s 600-page fatwa is essentially an encyclopedic compilation of Islamic jurisprudence on the use of force. It gathers the various jurisprudential positions advanced by Muslim scholars and jurists of different schools of thought and provides a comprehensive overview of the various normative and ethical limitations that derivations from Islamic sources – ethical and legal pronouncements that Muslims have accumulated over centuries – have placed on the legitimate use of force.

There is nothing new in Qadri’s tome and that is a good thing. He is not advancing new interpretations of Islamic sources, nor is he trying to reinvent the wheel. His contribution is in showing that not only does Islam prohibit terrorism, it condemns the terrorist to hell. He also shows how Muslims have long considered suicide a forbidden act and that Islam has held this stance from the beginning. The collection of the various opinions of classical scholars too demonstrates the extent and depth of Islam’s prohibition of the use of force against civilians, against women and against children.

The extremists and their sympathetic scholars will not be able to produce a document that could trump Qadri’s fatwa.

The extremists in the Muslim world have relied basically on two elements to advance their radical agenda: one, they have exploited the widespread theological illiteracy of Muslims to advance out-of-context and unprecedented new interpretations and justifications for the principle of jihad (a spiritual and religious effort) to legitimise their crusade against the West and its allies. Two, they have benefitted from the anger that Muslims have been feeling against the various military attacks and occupations by Western armies of Muslim lands in the past two centuries.

Add to this the suffering of the Palestinians, Iraqis, Afghan and Pakistani civilians at the hands of Western forces and you begin to comprehend why some Muslim youth embrace the un-Islamic interpretations of Islamic sources by extremist clerics.

Is Qadri’s fatwa a magic bullet that will erode all anger, frustration and resentment? Certainly not. Will it engender a widespread loathing for the use of terrorism as a tactics? Most certainly, yes, if it is given sustained attention by the media. Unfortunately, other fatwas against suicide bombing, such as those issued by Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah al-Udhma Yousof al-Sanei and Saudi scholar Al Habib Ali Al-Jifri, have gone comparatively unnoticed by mainstream media.

In Pakistan, Qadri’s reputation and the growing anger against terrorists for their indiscriminate violence against mosques and against Muslims will combine to give the fatwa a chance to marginalise extremists. Hopefully supporters of extremist groups will either rethink their politics or at least abstain from openly and actively supporting a culture of violence.

Qadri and his institution also hope that the perception held by some in the West that Islam is the cause of terrorism will be corrected. I am, however, less sanguine about this. Those in the West who argue that mainstream Muslims are not opposing terrorism or those who insist that terrorism is a consequence of Islamic values are motivated by political interests and are clearly “Islamophobic”. They will not change their mind.

However, those who are still unaware that most Muslims condemn terrorists and that there is nothing in Islam that supports terrorism may perhaps be enlightened as a result of this fatwa.

* Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author.

Source: On Faith, 5 March 2010,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

The Future of Islam
Youssef Chouhoud

Brooklyn, New York – According to a recent Gallup poll, a majority of Americans still have little to no knowledge of Islam’s basic tenets. More disheartening, if not outright frightening, is that even given this avowed lack of knowledge, a sizeable percentage of US citizens nonetheless maintain a negative perception of Muslims.

So, either an informed, nuanced understanding of Islam is being obscured by the voluminous – and venomous – misinformation that clutters the media, or an accessible and authoritative account of what Muslims truly believe and how they interact with the world around them simply hasn’t been produced.

John Esposito, given his celebrity and scholarship, is among perhaps only a handful of individuals who have met both these prospective challenges head-on with some success. His latest offering in a line of timely scholarly works, The Future of Islam, provides a refreshingly holistic assessment of the challenges Muslims face from increased pluralism on the one hand, and heightened hostility on the other.

Both novice and more advanced readers on the subject will find much of Esposito’s narrative as insightful as it is comprehensive. The first chapter of the book includes a standard primer on the five pillars, the divisions between Sunni and Shia, and some brief remarks on the more “controversial” subjects of sharia, Islamic principles, and jihad, a spiritual and religious effort. This introductory information is supplemented, however, with a less common examination of the racial and intellectual diversity of Muslims in the West, and an even rarer assessment of the legitimate grievances Muslims around the world have with America and its allies.

For those possessing a firmer grasp of Islamic beliefs and attitudes, this book doubles as a clear and concise distillation of the Western Muslim experience. From the factors that distinguish Muslim Americans from their European counterparts, to the distinction between integration and assimilation, to the misapplication of terms such as “moderate” and “fundamentalist”, Esposito’s fluid analysis on these topics, often backed by empirical data, makes even the most complex phenomena easily digestible.

At its core, this book is an examination of the current prospects for Muslim reformers around the globe. By reform, Esposito ostensibly is referring to the reinterpretation of Qur’an and hadith, sayings of the prophet Muhammad, to produce new legal and social models that better meet the challenges of an ever more globalised world.

While acknowledging the breadth of Islamic jurisprudence and of debates over theological matters, Esposito nonetheless promotes certain positions, both implicitly and explicitly, throughout his narrative, including a liberal interpretation of women’s rights, as exhibited through the likes of Muslim American scholar Amina Wadud; a more pluralistic approach to salvation, in contrast to the belief in salvific exclusivity; and the legitimacy and expansion of lay ijtihad, an Islamic tradition of creative reasoning, which undercuts the traditional role of ulema, those versed in Islamic jurisprudence, are all featured prominently in Esposito’s discussion of reform and “a new way forward” (a phrase he borrows from US President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech).

To be fair, Esposito is careful not to dismiss more traditional or conservative positions in Islam. He clearly cautions against facile labeling of a person or group as “extreme” simply because their understanding of a particular issue doesn’t mesh with a Western, supposedly enlightened perspective. Moreover, Esposito sincerely highlights the work of Islamic jurists and activists such as Egyptian scholar Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, Egyptian televangelist Amr Khalid, and Pakistani scholar Farhat Hashmi.

Esposito’s keen socio-political acumen and sense of historical perspective clearly manifest with his concluding remarks on the future of Muslim-Western relations. He once again underscores that majorities of Muslims globally don’t conflict with the West on religious or civilisational grounds, but distinguish between various nation-states based upon their policies. Esposito goes on to encourage Western powers to curtail and ultimately eliminate their support for authoritarian regimes across the Muslim world, and to reconcile with the fact that clear majorities in these countries wish to see Islam play a greater role in government.

Finally, to counteract the viral spread of Islamophobia, Esposito emphasises that Americans and Europeans must acknowledge a missing link in what Jews and Christians have come to regard as a shared heritage. Only when Muslims are no longer viewed as the “other,” but as integral elements of a rich Judeo-Christian-Islamic history, can serious headway be made against the forces of extremism.

* Youssef Chouhoud is a writer from Brooklyn, New York by way of Alexandria, Egypt and is pursuing an MA in political science. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author. The full text can be found at .

Source: Muslim Matters, 12 March 2010,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

Muslim, German, female – and a sports star

André Tucic

Bonn, Germany – Fatmire Bajramaj is the carefree young face of women’s football in Germany. A Muslim Kosovan, her eventful life story recalls the hit English film Bend it like Beckham, in which a girl footballer strikes out against ethnic prejudices and her family’s reservations.

Bajramaj, known commonly as Lira, fled from Kosovo with her family and eventually moved to Mönchengladbach, a city in North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany, and began playing football there against her father’s will.

“He wanted me to do ballet. He said football was only for men,” says Bajramaj.

When she realised she had something to offer on the pitch, Bajramaj signed up for the women’s team at FSC Mönchengladbach, soon moving on to another more ambitious team. Her family found out, but she managed to convince her father to watch her play. “He’s been my biggest fan ever since,” Bajramaj says with a grin.

At the age of 16 she started receiving inquiries from national league teams, joining FCT Duisburg in 2004 and playing her debut match for the German national side a year later. Bajramaj has since played in 35 international matches, scoring six goals – probably the most important of which were her two goals in the third place playoff at the 2008 Olympics against Japan.

Bajramaj’s list of successes is impressive: European Under-19 Football Championship, Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Cup and German Football Association (DFB) Cup winner, Olympic bronze, and world and European champion.

Despite her young age, Bajramaj has experienced a great deal, enough to fill the pages of her biography, My Goal in Life – From Refugee to World Champion, published in October 2009. The book tells the story of how she grew up in Gjurakovc, at the very heart of the Kosovo conflict. When the Serbian attacks on Kosovans intensified in 1992, her parents fled to Germany with five-year-old Lira and her two brothers.

The Bajramajs left their farm and had to bribe Austrian customs officers to cross the border. They eventually ended up with relatives in North-Rhine Westphalia. They could not stay there long, however, and were transferred to an asylum-seekers’ home. Her father found work as a builder in Mönchengladbach and the family moved into a small flat in the city famous for its football team.

“I want the public to know how difficult it is for refugee children to integrate in Germany. Only sports helped me find friends. I hope my book will encourage young women from ethnic minorities to take the same path,” says Bajramaj.

She heard more than her fair share of racist comments on the playground, but later managed to earn respect on the football pitch. “That was when they stopped making stupid comments,” Bajramaj remembers.

Germany is her new home, but Bajramaj still has close links to her old country. Her parents and brothers live in Mönchengladbach, but the rest of the family is still in Kosovo. They visit their relatives once a year, pleased to be there but equally happy to return to Germany. Bajramaj does not want to sever her roots though, which include living out her Muslim faith.

“I pray before I go to sleep, before car journeys and matches. But I don’t wear a headscarf, I like wearing makeup and I go to parties.”

Many people still imagine women players all have short hair and stocky legs, one reason why she enjoys playing with her “girlie” image – often wearing makeup on the pitch, playing in pink football boots in last year’s DFB cup final and shooting goals in high heels on a television sports show.

“First and foremost, I want to win, but I want to look good doing it,” says Bajramaj.

But she has more to offer than her looks – she has a big heart too. She has been an ambassador for the children’s charity World Vision and will soon be sponsoring a child. At the beginning of this year, she was made an ambassador for the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion, a movement to renew Europeans’ commitment to solidarity, social justice and greater inclusion.

For German Football Association President Theo Zwanziger, Bajramaj is a shining example of successful integration. He likes bringing her along to public relations appointments and visiting schools with large ethnic minority communities.

“I enjoy it,” says Bajramaj. “It’s an honour for me to be a role model.”

* André Tucic is a freelance writer. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from The full text can be found at .

Source:, 3 March 2010,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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