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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 7    Issue 14   01-15 December 2012

Professor A. R. Momin

Tunisiaís Tortuous Transition to Democracy

Sixteen months after the former Tunisian dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted, Tunisia continues to grapple with the arduous task of creating a democratic polity and forging a nation-wide consensus on fundamental issues. The most formidable problems and challenges faced by the country include the delay in writing the constitution, caused by intense differences of opinion and contestations, the growing tensions between the moderates, represented by the ruling Ennahda Party, and the ultra-conservative, hardliner Salafis, and issues relating to womenís rights. In addition, there are fierce debates about the structure and constitution of the state, the place of secularism in the constitution and the compatibility between Islam and democracy.

Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse violent Salfi protesters

The Salafis in Tunisia, as well as in Egypt and other parts of the Islamic world, are becoming increasingly intolerant and aggressive. They have seized control of nearly 500 mosques after the fall of Ben Ali and appointed radical preachers. I September this year, a group of about 70 Salafis ransacked a hotel in Sidi Bouzeit that served alcohol. In October, Salafi militants set fire to the shrine of Leila Manoubia, a 13th century female saint. They have threatened to raze the mausoleum of Sidi Sahabi, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, arguing that visits to such shrines are akin to idolatry. The Tunisian government has imprisoned about 800 Salafi activists on charges of inciting and indulging in violence. However, the response of the government towards the aggressive actions of the Salafis seems to be rather indulgent.

Mohamed al-Khelif, a Salafi hardliner, who at Qayrawanís Grand Mosque slammed Tunisiaís ties with the West and demanded the promulgation of Islamic Shariah (Photo: Moises Saman/ The New York Times)

Tunisian women actively participated in last yearís uprising. They won 49 Ė 42 of them from Ennahda -- of 217 Constituent Assembly seats in the 2011 elections. Women launched a protest over a move by some Constituent Assembly members to dilute womenís rights in the new constitution. The Ennahda Party has emphasized that the new constitution would endorse gender equality and universal rights.

Kyrgyzstan: Travails of Nation-Building

Kyrgyzstan, located in Central Asia, is a landlocked, mountainous country. It is bordered by Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, Tajikistan the southwest and China to the east. It became independent following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since independence, Kyrgyzstan has been dogged by widespread poverty, political instability, corruption and inter-ethnic violence. The countryís first two pro-Russian presidents were dislodged from power following popular discontent over rampant corruption, nepotism and authoritarianism.

Agriculture is the mainstay of Kyrgyzstanís economy and accounts for over 35% of the GDP and about half of employment. Around 800,000 Kyrgyz migrants work in Russia and their remittances account for nearly 40% of the countryís GDP. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, almost all of Kyrgyzstanís exports went to other parts of the Soviet Union. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the consequent disappearance of its vast market, Kyrgyzstanís state farms and factories collapsed.

Kygyzstan has substantial natural resources, including coal, gold, uranium, antimony and natural gas. The Kumtor gold mine in Kyrgyzstan, located at 4,000 metres above sea level, is one of the highest in the world and accounts for more than half of the countryís exports. It is at present being run by a Canadian-based company, Centerra. In view of the growing concerns about the environmental hazards of the mining operations, there have been public demands for the nationalization of gold mines.

A Kyrgyz nomad family near the traditional round tent known as yurt

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the old Russian-US rivalry is being played out in a new form in Central Asia. Both Russia and the US have military air bases the country. Kyrgyzstan is the second poorest country in Central Asia. A third of the countryís population of 5.2 million live below the poverty line.

Public protests for the nationalization of gold mines

Kyrgyzstanís population is multiethnic. There are over 80 distinct ethnic groups in the country. The Kyrgyz, a Turk people, are the largest ethnic group who account for nearly 70% of the population. Other ethnic groups include Uzbeks (14.5%), Russians (9%), Dongans (1.9%), Uyghurs (1.1%), Tajiks (1.1%) and Kazakhs (0.7%). There have been lingering tensions and conflicts between the majority Kyrgyz and the Uzbek community. In 1990 violent clashes between the two communities left hundreds dead. Violent clashes between the Kyrgyz and the Uzbek in 2010 left some 300,000 people internally displaced. Some 10,000 Uzbeks crossed the border to seek refuge in Uzbekistan.

Karakol Dungan mosque

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of independent states in Central Asia, there has been a revival of Islamic, ethnic and national identities. This is reflected in the increase in the number of worshippers in mosques, the opening of new mosques and madrasas and the growing visibility of the Islamic headscarf. Sufi hospices and circles, which have always been an integral part of Central Asia, are once again drawing large numbers of people.

Philippines Government and Muslim Groups Reach Accord

The Philippines, located in Southeast Asia in the western Pacific Ocean, comprises a cluster of some 7,100 islands. The two principal islands are Luzon in the north and Mindanao in the south. Islam reached the Philippines in the 14th century with the arrival of Muslim traders from the Middle East, India and Malaysia. In the 15th century, several independent Islamic city-states or sultanates were founded in the southern part of the country.

The Philippines was colonized by the Spaniards in the 16th century. There was fierce resistance to Spanish colonization from the Muslim sultanates. The Spanish colonizers followed a policy of repression and persecution of Philippino Muslims, who were called Moros (the Spanish word for Muslims, referring to the inhabitants of Morocco, who had conquered Spain in the 8th century). The country was ceded to the US in 1898 following the Spanish-American War. The Republic of the Philippines was proclaimed in 1946.

The population of Philippino Muslims is estimated to be around 4.3 million, which accounts for about 5% of the countryís population of approximately 94 million. Muslims are largely concentrated in the southern part of the country, in Mindanao, southern Palawan and the Sulu Archipelago.

Southern Philippines has a long history of conflict with the ruling establishment. The conflict has involved Communist fighters, Muslim separatists and clan militias. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, an umbrella organization of Philippino Muslims, has carried out a protracted campaign for the establishment of an independent Muslim state. The conflict and confrontation with the government, which have been raging for over four decades, have led to 120,000 deaths and the displacement of over two million people.

Philippino Muslim women

On October 15, 2012, the Philippines government reached a peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, bringing the decades-old conflict to an end. The deal, brokered by Malaysia, envisages the creation of a new autonomous region, named Bangsamoro. The draft agreement gives the region more political and economic powers and cultural autonomy and promises the people ďa just and equitable shareĒ in the regionís abundant natural resources. The agreement says that both government and MILF would work for ďreduction and control of firearms and the disbandment of private armies and other armed groups.Ē The MILF has reciprocated the governmentís gesture by dropping its demand for an independent Muslim state in the southern part of the country.

The framework deal was signed by the chief negotiators of the two sides

Murmurs of Discontent in Jordan

The Arab Spring, which continues to reverberate across many parts of the Arab world, has brought to the surface the multiple problems and challenges faced Arab countries. These include authoritarian rule, the suppression of civil liberties, corruption and nepotism, political instability, poverty, unemployment, inequality and ethnic fissures.

In the aftermath of the revolutionary upheaval in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is facing a rising surge of popular discontent. Along with Egypt, Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994. Although King Abdullahís government continues to affirm the treaty, Jordanís principal opposition party, the Islamic Action Front, is staunchly opposed to it. There are tensions between the native inhabitants of the East Bank and the Palestinian immigrants. The situation has been compounded by the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from strife-torn Syria. King Abdullahís programme of economic liberalization and privatization and his pro-Western stance are fuelling resentment against the government.

There is a growing popular perception that King Abdullah is unable to tackle the problems of poverty, unemployment, high inflation and corruption in the corridors of power. Faced with a high inflation rate, the Jordanian government is seeking a $2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. Censorship and political repression have seriously dented the image of the ruling dispensation. The opposition likens King Abdullah to Ali Baba, the legendary bandit. King Abdullahís wife, Queen Rania, is targeted by the opposition for her ostentatious lifestyle and for helping her family to grow rich on the royal connection. Her 40th birthday was celebrated with great fanfare, and many of the 600 guests were flown from around the world for the celebrations.

Thousands of people protested on the streets of Amman on November 16, 2012 (Photo: Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)

In keeping with the governmentís policy of economic liberalization and privatization, public fuel subsidies have been reduced. Consequently fuel prices have shot up, triggering widespread protests and demonstrations across the country. The protests escalated into demands for the removal of King Abdullah and for the adoption of a constitutional monarchy like that of Britain.

Prince Hamzah, the eldest son of the late King Hussein from his fourth wife and King Abdullahís half-brother, was his fatherís favourite. In a letter from his death-bed, King Hussein had expressed a keen desire to have Prince Hamzah designated as crown prince in line to succeed King Abdullah. However, King Abdullah later rescinded that title. Now, 13 years after King Abdullahís ascension, there is a growing popular clamour for King Abdullahís ouster and for the ascension of Prince Hamzah, who is closer to the masses and is more democratic in temperament. The voices in favour of Prince Hamzah are becoming increasingly louder. On November 18, 89 pro-Hamzah supporters were arrested and charged with fomenting violent protests. One hopes King Abdullah will see the writing on the wall before it is too late.

Putin Opposes Wearing of Headscarves in Schools

An estimated 20 million of Russiaís 145 million people are Muslim. They form the majority in many regions, including the oil-rich provinces of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan and in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan. In Chechnya, President Ramzan Kadyrov has enforced the wearing of headscarves by Muslim women in public.

Chechen students from an Islamic university in Grozny (Photo: AP)

Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation, stirred up a controversy on October 18, 2012 by stating that he was against the wearing of headscarves by girls in schools because this went against Russiaís secular traditions. Putinís statement came in the wake of a recent incident in Russiaís southern region of Stavropol when the principal of a school forbade Muslim girls from wearing the headscarf to class. The incident sparked protests from the parents of the affected girls.

The Central Asian republics, which were once part of the Soviet Union, have not made a complete break with the Soviet legacy. In Azerbaijan, for example, girls are banned from wearing the headscarf in public schools. In October 2012, police in Azerbaijan clashed with people protesting against the ban on headscarves.

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