According to Islamic sources, Kashgar was conquered by Muslim ibn Qutayba, the commander of the caliph Walid ibn Abd al- Malik, in 715 AD. Islam was established in Kashgar under the Uighur kingdom around the 10th century. In 1219 Genghiz Khan annexed the city and made it a part of his kingdom. During the 14th century, the hordes of Tamerlane overran the city and devastated it.
The Old City of Kashgar represents the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in central Asia. There are about 40 mosques in the city where worshippers gather for the daily prayers following the muezzin’s call. Hundreds of artisans carry on with their traditional crafts using centuries-old methods and techniques. Hawkers sell their wares, including fresh-baked bread, dried toads and prayer caps, on the streets.
Kashgar’s centuries-old landscape and architecture are set to disappear in a few years. Chinese authorities fear that an earthquake could strike the city anytime, resulting in the destruction of old, fragile buildings and killing thousands of people. Their fears are not misplaced. In October 2008, an earthquake measuring 6.8 points on the Richter’s scale struck barely 100 miles from Kashgar. In 1902, a big earthquake hit Kashgar, killing 667 residents.
The authorities have decided to raze the city before the calamity strikes. Large parts of the city wall, a 25-foot-thick earthen berm nearly 35 feet high, have already been torn down. Nine hundred families have been moved from the old city. Over the next few years, nearly 85 per cent of the city will be demolished and many of its 13,000 families, mostly Uighur Muslims, will be shifted to other locations.
The old city, according to the reconstruction plan, will be replaced by a new one, consisting of midrise, quake-proof apartments and plazas. The authorities take care to emphasise that the traditional architecture of the old city will be replicated in the new plan. The reconstruction project is estimated to cost around $440 million.
There are misgivings and resentment about the reconstruction project among the city’s 200,000 residents and environmentalists. “From a cultural and historical perspective, this plan of theirs is stupid. From the perspective of the locals, it is cruel,” says Wu Lili, the managing director of the Beijing Cultural Protection Centre, a nongovernmental group devoted to the preservation of historical buildings and heritage sites.
Kashgar is a major tourist city in China whose rich cultural tapestry attracts more than a million visitors from around the world every year. The United Nations has devised an international plan to designate major Silk Road landmarks, including Kashgar, as World Heritage Sites.
There is an air of forcible eviction about the proposed demolition and reconstruction of Kashgar. And the compensation offered to the residents is meagre. There are also fears that the proposed plan, which involves the relocation of thousands of families, is also aimed at enforcing tighter control over Uighur Muslims who have often protested against the repressive policies of Chinese authorities.
Travails of the Bedouin Way of Life
Nearly 90 per cent of Jordan’s landmass consists of Badia or semi-arid desert area. The Badia forms part of a vast desert area that stretches from Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter to the Sahara. More than a quarter of the families that live in the Badia have to travel long distances and for the greater part of the year to find pasture for their livestock. Living in such inhospitable terrain has become harsher with each passing year.
The Bedouins, who have lived in this harsh environment for centuries, still cling to their traditional way of life. Prolonged periods of drought and the war in Iraq have severely reduced the amount of pasture available for grazing. In addition, cheap lambs imported from New Zealand into Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have adversely affected the livelihood of the Bedouins.
Prince Hassan Bin Talal, the uncle of Jordan’s King Abdullah, has prepared a wide-ranging plan for the welfare of Bedouins. The scheme, known as the Badia Project, gives herders increased income and hope of further improvement to the health of their flocks through recognising the significance of religion, the bedrock of life in the Badia. Modern techniques such as artificial insemination of sheep have been used under the project, but the effort has been impeded by widespread illiteracy and suspicion of change.
Social workers are trying to harness the power of religion to bring about change in attitudes. People are told in the Friday sermon in mosques to conserve water and protect the remaining trees. Examples from the Prophet’s life are invoked to urge people to take care of the land and protect the environment. Prince Hassan points out that the Islamic concept of Hima—protected areas—could be effectively used for environmental protection that transcends national boundaries. “Zakat or religious tithe is one of the five pillars of Islam and could be used for this purpose. With all the Muslim nations in the region contributing to the fund, it could unite that part of the Islamic world in conserving their unique desert environment,” he says.
Child Labour in Bangladesh
Bangladesh is one of the world’s poorest countries. Nearly half of the country’s population lives in poverty. Of the poor, two out of three are caught in extreme poverty, as measured by their consumption of food and other basic needs. Though the constitution provides basic education free of charge to all children, nearly half of the country’s children are out of school. Of those who attend school, four out of five drop out before reaching secondary school, and just one in 25 eventually proceeds to higher education. The main reason for such abysmally low school enrolment is widespread poverty and destitution.
Extreme poverty and deprivation force a large number of children, including girls, to work. Some reports suggest that one in 10 children in Bangladesh is working, which takes up most of their waking hours. The estimate of children working full or part-time is between four and eight million. “If I don’t take home 60 taka ($1) a day, someone in my family will go hungry,” says Mijan, 14, who is doing heavy labour for 12 hours a day. Young girls, on the other hand, are mostly employed as domestic servants. An estimated two million domestic workers are employed in the cities of Dhaka and Chittagong alone. Many of these girls begin working around the age of eight and are sometimes subjected to violence and sexual abuse.
Child labour in Bangladesh is not illegal, although the law discourages children under the age of 14 from working in factories. Officially, child labour is forbidden in factories which make garments for export, but the law is often flouted by factory owners. The government passed a new law in 2006, which seeks to ensure a fixed salary, compensation in case of accident, proper holidays and access to education.
Most of the children who attend government-funded primary schools come from extremely poor families. Most of them go to work as soon as they have finished their lessons, in order to help their parents by selling tea on the pavement or other odd jobs. Many families depend on the earnings of children to have both ends meet.
The Headscarf and Turkey’s Identity
During the Ottoman era, society and state in Turkey were deeply rooted in Islamic values and traditions. Sufism had a strong and pervasive presence across the country. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, Turkey became the first secular state in the Muslim world. The establishment of the Turkish Republic was accompanied by sweeping changes in society. Madrasas, Sufi orders and shrines were closed down. The Swiss civil code replaced the Islamic Shariah. Turkish was substituted for Arabic as the liturgical language. Pilgrimage to Makka was stopped and the call to prayer (azan) in Arabic was prohibited. The wearing of fez, a symbol of Turkish identity for centuries, was outlawed and replaced by the European-style hat. The wearing of Islamic clothing was discouraged and the Islamic headscarf was banned in schools and public offices. The Persian script of Turkish language was changed to Latin. Kemal Ataturk thus made a radical break with Turkey’s Islamic heritage. During the presidency of Ismet Inonu (1938-50), the grand mosque of Erzrum was converted into a stable for the army.
Almost two generations of Turkish Muslims were brought up in the secular, Westernised environment that the Ataturk so assiduously sought to foster in Turkey. However, large sections of society, especially in the countryside, continued to hold on to traditional values and cultural traditions. Even after 86 years of state-sponsored Westernisation, more than two-thirds of women in Turkey cover their heads. However, women have been prevented from wearing the headscarf in educational institutions and state offices for decades. No female member of parliament can cover her head in parliament. In 1999, Merve Kavakci, a computer scientist who was elected a member of the Turkish parliament, was prevented from taking oath and was subsequently stripped of her Turkish citizenship because she entered parliament with her headscarf. Earlier, her father, Yusuf, Ziya Kavakci, had to resign as dean of the Faculty of Islamic Studies at Ataturk University for supporting women’s right to wear the hijab. Her mother lost her teaching position at the same university for wearing the headscarf. The family had to migrate to the United States.
In 1997 the wearing of headscarves was banned in all universities. Students who were used to wearing the hijab had to remove it before entering the university. Turkish women who wear the headscarf complain that they are unfairly discriminated against for their religious belief. “I have been wearing my headscarf since I was 14. This is how I express myself. I do not aim to impose anything on others,” says Leila Shahin, who was expelled from medical school for refusing to remove her headscarf.
On February 9, 2008 Turkey’s parliament voted in favour of overturning a ban on Islamic headscarves in universities. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan argued that changing the relevant clause in the Turkish constitution was necessary in order to ensure that all women had equal access to higher education without any discrimination. Polls showed that a majority of people in the country are in favour of lifting the ban. Interestingly, the number of women covering their heads in public in Turkey is rapidly increasing. Traditional fashion shops say that business in headscarves has boomed in recent years.
When the British Queen visited Ankara in May 2008, she was hosted at dinner by Hayrunnisa Gul, the headscarved wife of President Abdullah Gul.
Turkey stands at crossroads. On the one side, the powerful military junta and a section of the elite are fanatically committed to the secularist creed and are inimical to the restoration and revival of the country’s Islamic heritage. On the other, there is a deep yearning in the masses, students and the professional elite for Turkey’s return to its cherished Islamic values and traditions. The Justice and Development Party is committed to fulfilling people’s aspirations in a democratic framework.
Israel’s war crimes in Gaza
In a massive, sudden blitzkrieg on December 27, 2008 Israeli jets, unmanned drones and helicopters killed some 350 Palestinians and destroyed ministry buildings, refugee camps, schools, workshops and children’s parks. Five stories of a science lab at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University were reduced to rubble in a massive aerial bombardment. On January 6, a raid on a United Nations school that was used as a shelter for hundreds of Palestinians who had fled from their homes in the northern Gaza town of Jabaliya, killed 40 people. The Israeli forces also used white phosphorus, a highly injurious substance, during the onslaught. Dozens of Palestinians burned by phosphorus succumbed to their injuries.
Civilian institutions bore the brunt of the onslaught, which lie in ruins. According to Palestinian estimates, nearly 15 per cent of Gaza’s buildings were completely or partially destroyed, leaving tens of thousands of people homeless. The UN estimates that more than 60,000 people fled their homes in the past three weeks. The losses are estimated to exceed $ 2 billion.
Now Palestinian human rights activists and lawyers have prepared 936 lawsuits against the Israeli military over war crimes. Some of the cases could soon to be tried at Spain’s National Court. The basis for the initiative is the principle of universal jurisdiction in international law, which makes it possible to file lawsuits worldwide for war crimes, genocide, torture and crimes against humanity. Earlier, the National Court in Madrid issued the arrest warrant against former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and is now investigating allegations of torture of prisoners at Guantanamo.
Iyad al-Alami, head of the legal department of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza City is at the forefront of this initiative. According to the Centre, 1,417 people, many of them innocent civilians, were killed in the Israeli onslaught on Gaza. Al-Alami and his team of eight attorneys, helped by dozens of volunteers, have collected shrapnel, photographs and videos as evidence of Israel’s barbaric assault. They compared the statements of eyewitnesses with the course of the war and with media reports. Dozens of attorneys around the world—in Norway, Britain, New Zealand, Spain and the Netherlands—are working on the lawsuits. In Norway, six attorneys have filed a lawsuit for human rights violations against Israel, which seeks a European warrant for the arrest of senior Israeli officials, including the country’s former prime minister Ehud Olmert.
Israel has persistently refused to cooperate with any systematic investigations into allegations of human rights violations by its security forces. It rejects the International Criminal Court and refuses to cooperate with Richard Goldstone, the head of a fact-finding mission to Gaza appointed by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council.
First Female Minister in Saudi Arabia
It is universally recognised that education is the key to human development and progress. No people or country can hope to reap the harvest of globalisation without making a heavy investment in education. Unfortunately, the Muslim and Arab world lags far behind in this crucial area. The Arab Human Development Report 2002 identified three major deficits in the Arab world today: knowledge, freedom and women’s rights. The report revealed that illiteracy rates in Arab countries are higher than the international average and even higher than the average in developing countries. The Arab Human development Report 2003 concluded that the status of knowledge in the Arab world in terms of demand, production and dissemination is grossly inadequate and ineffectual.
The Arab Human Development Report 2005 reiterated that the rate of illiteracy in Arab countries continued to be higher than the world average and even higher than the average for developing nations (p.80). There are more than 60 million illiterate adults in the Arab world (40% of all adults), most of them impoverished and rural women. A report of the Arab League Education, Culture and Science Organisation (ALECSO) revealed that some 70 million people aged 15 and above in the Arab world are unable to read or write at the beginning of the 21st century, one of the biggest populations of illiterates in the world.
John Daniel, former UNESCO Director General for Education, observed that “the Arab region has some of the world’s lowest adult literacy rates, with only 62.2% of the region’s population of 15 and over able to read and write in 2000-2004, well below the world average of 84% and the developing countries’ average of 76.4%”.
The Arab region has one of the lowest rates of female education in the world. Nearly one half of females in the region are illiterate, compared to one-third of males. The relatively higher deprivation of girls in terms of educational opportunities at all levels extends across all Arab countries. The Arab Human Development Report 2005 points out that despite the tremendous spread of girls’ education in Arab countries in the last five decades, Arab women remain poorly equipped to participate effectively and fruitfully in public life by acquiring knowledge through education (pp. 73-74).
Female literacy rates in aged 15 and over in the Arab world today range from 24% (in Iraq) to 85.9% (in Jordan). Fewer than 80% of girls attend secondary school in all Arab countries, except in Bahrain, Jordan, the occupied Palestinian territory, and Qatar. Female enrolment in secondary school is less than 20% in Djibouti and Mauritania. In Yemen, female enrolment in secondary education is 46% of male enrolment. The absolute number of female illiterates in the age group of 15-24 is increasing in most Arab countries. It rose from 40 million in 1990 to 43.9 million in 2005.
Amidst this gloomy scenario comes the heartening news that Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has appointed Nora bint Abdullah al-Fayez, a US-educated former teacher, deputy education minister in charge of a new department of female students. The appointment makes a significant breakthrough in a country where women lag far behind in education and where they are not allowed to drive cars.
“This is an honour not only for me but for all Saudi women. In the presence of a comprehensive operational team, I believe I’ll be able to face challenges and create positive change,” she told Arab News.
Maldives: Shedding the Trappings of Power
Maumoon Abdul Ghayoom held the reins of power in Maldives for nearly three decades. His long reign brought about political stability and substantial economic development, mainly fuelled by the boom in the tourism industry. However, his reign was also marked by political repression and misuse of official power.
Arah, Abdul Ghayoom’s weekend retreat, was the exclusive preserve of the president and had a multi-million dollar presidential yacht. The retreat had many luxury beach villas, a tree house for the president’s children and a private cricket pitch. His office in the presidential palace had a gold-plated toilet.
Following the first democratic election in November 2008, Mohammad Nasheed, a former political prisoner, was sworn in on 11 November 2008 as the country’s new president. The new president is determined to do away with all the trappings of luxury that the former president enjoyed. In the capital Male, the presidential palace is empty, because Mr Nasheed, who shares an office with his secretary, refuses to move there, saying he is happier in more humble surroundings. The presidential palace is likely to be turned into a museum or the country’s first university.
Before the new president took office, the presidency was costing more than $150 million. He has brought it down to $4 million. Nearly half of the official fleet of cars are heading for auction. “I don’t feel the cut, and we can use the rest of the money for old age pensioners, for schools, for housing and very many things we need now.”