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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 8    Issue 19   16-28 February 2014

Professor A. R. Momin

Tunisia Approves New Constitution

The 2011 revolution in Tunisia, which rocked the country and ushered in the Arab Spring, led to the overthrow of Tunisia’s autocratic president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia. The first free elections were held in October 2011, in which the Ennahda Party won 90 seats out of a total of 217. A coalition government, led by Ennahda, was formed. In December 2011, Moncef Marzouki, a human rights activist, was elected president.

Tunisia, like many other countries in the Muslim world, has a fragmented and disunited political elite. The educated and professional elite, human rights activists and the political class seem to be divided into three broad categories: the extremist and hardliner Salafis, who are committed to the establishment of an Islamic state and who do not hesitate to take recourse to violent methods in pursuit of their goals; the secular-minded intellectuals and representatives of civil society, who look askance at mixing religion and politics; and the Ennahda Party, led by Rachid Ghannouchi, which recognizes the role of religion in society and governance but is wedded to democracy, pluralism, respect for human rights and gender justice. The seemingly irreconcilable differences between the three groups have stymied the transition to democracy. The problem is compounded by the presence of many extremist armed groups and militant outfits. Two left-wing politicians were gunned down in 2013. The Ennahda-led government banned the Salafist-affiliated militant group Ansar al-Shariah last summer and declared it as a terrorist organization.

On 23 October 2011, a National Constituent Assembly was elected to draft the text of a new constitution. The drafting process, which involved extensive discussions, debates and negotiations among the various stakeholders, including the main political parties, human rights and civil liberties organizations and women’s groups, went on for two years. Two contentious issues that evoked heated debates and exchanges between Ennahda and the secular opposition related to the role of Islam in public life and women’s rights. On 26 January, 2014, the draft constitution was placed before the National Constituent Assembly for ratification, which passed it with an overwhelming majority – 200:16. Following the vote, the Ennahda-led government handed over the reins of government to the prime minister-designate Mehdi Jomaa. Jomaa named a care-taker government, which will oversee the next parliamentary and presidential elections, probably by the end of 2014.

Ennahda’s veteran leader Rachid Ghannouchi hailed the new constitution as a “historic achievement” which would lead to the establishment of the first democracy in the Arab region. Tunisia’s President Moncef Marzouki described the new constitution as “our victory over dictatorship.” The new constitution, which comprises 149 articles, guarantees freedom of conscience and worship and declares Islam as the state religion. It also recognizes gender equality. Executive power, according to the new constitution, is divided between the prime minister and the president. Tunisia’s new constitution has been hailed by Western leaders. France’s President Francois Hollande praised the constitution and said it “affirms that Islam is completely in line with democracy.” He added, “This text honours your revolution. It can serve as an example and a reference to many other countries.”

The way in which Tunisia’s constitution was drafted – through several rounds of free discussions and debates and dialogue in a spirit of accommodation and give-and-take – augurs well for Tunisia’s eagerly-awaited transition to democracy and holds a lesson for other Arab countries.

Philippines Reaches Peace Accord with Muslim Group

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 country’s population of approximately 94 million. Muslims are largely concentrated in the southern part of the country, in Mindanao, southern Palawan and the Sulu Archipelago, which have considerable mineral and agricultural resources.

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 Muslim groups, has carried out a protracted campaign for the creation of an independent Muslim state in the southern part of the country. The conflict and confrontation with the government, which has been raging for nearly 46 years, has led to 150,000 deaths and the displacement of over two million people.

The Philippines government reached an agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front in 1996, but it failed to make any headway. On October 15, 2012, the Philippines government signed another peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The deal, brokered by Malaysia, envisaged the creation of a new autonomous region, named Bangsamoro. The draft agreement gave the region more political and economic powers and cultural autonomy and promised the Muslim population “a just and equitable share” in the region’s abundant natural resources. The agreement said that both government and MILF would work for “reduction and control of firearms and the disbandment of private armies and other armed groups.” The MILF reciprocated the government’s gesture by dropping its demand for an independent Muslim state in the southern part of the country. However, the contentious issue of autonomy for Bangsamoro derailed peace negotiations between the Philippines government and the MILF.

The decades-long conflict and confrontation between the Philippines government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front may come to a final end with the signing of a peace agreement, mediated by Malaysia, between the two sides on 25 January 2014. According to the agreement, the Muslim-majority areas in Mindanao will be granted substantial political, economic and cultural autonomy, and the government and the MILF will jointly oversee the restoration of peace and order in the region. The MILF has agreed to reciprocate the government’s gesture by persuading its fighters – estimated to be around 12,000 – to lay down their weapons.

However, the peace agreement is fraught with uncertainty. A faction of the MILF, known as the Bangsmoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), has rejected the agreement. Some of the rebel groups are reluctant to disarm. The long-term outcome of the peace agreement remains uncertain.

Ethnic Cleansing of Muslims in Central African Republic

The Central African Republic (CAR), a landlocked country in Central Africa, is bordered by Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cameroon. In the wake of the French penetration of Central Africa, which began in the late 19th century and came to be known as the Scramble for Africa, CAR became a part of French Equatorial Africa. It gained independence in 1960.

CAR’s population of 4.4 million is ethnically diverse. There are 80 ethnic groups in the country and the population is divided mainly between Christians (50%), Muslims (15%) and followers of indigenous religions (35%). Despite its significant mineral and other resources, CAR is one of the poorest countries in the world with a per capita income of $300 a year, one of the lowest in the world.

Since independence, CAR has been plagued by authoritarian rule, political instability, rampant corruption, underdevelopment and ethnic and sectarian conflicts. The government of CAR’s president, General Francois Bozize, who was elected in 2011, was marked by autocratic rule, corruption and nepotism. There was an open rebellion against his government by an alliance of armed opposition factions, known as the Seleka Coalition, which was predominantly Muslim. On March 24, 2013, Seleka fighters advanced towards the capital Bangui, stormed the presidential palace and forced Bozize to flee to Cameroon. The rebel leader Djtodia proclaimed himself president and formed a new coalition government consisting of members of the Seleka, opposition leaders and some representatives of civil society. The Seleka rebels, who were in power for nearly ten months, are said to be involved in extrajudicial executions, rape and torture, and massive burning and destruction of Christian villages. They were driven out by Christian militias in December 2013 and both the president and prime minister resigned in January 2014.

As the Seleka retreated, Christian militiamen, known as the anti-balaka (anti-machete) took advantage of the power vacuum and launched a brutal campaign of revenge killings, summary executions, torture and looting, and burning of Muslim villages. Hundreds of Muslims have been killed by Christian militiamen and nearly a million people have been displaced since early December 2013. People who had lived peacefully in the country for generations were driven out of their homes. In the northern town of Bossemptele, at least 100 Muslims, including women and children, were mercilessly hacked to death. Christian militiamen continue to drive Muslims out of the country in droves. Tens of thousands of Muslims have fled to Chad and Cameroon. Human Rights Watch has said that the country’s minority Muslim population is “being targeted in a relentless wave of coordinated violence that is forcing entire communities to leave the country.” There are about 1600 French troops along with some 6000 soldiers from the African Union-led peacekeeping force. But the peacekeeping forces have failed to prevent Christian militias from taking control of Muslim areas and preventing the massacre and ethnic cleansing of Muslims.

Amnesty International has said that the international peacekeeping forces have “failed to prevent the ethnic cleansing of Muslim civilians in the western part of CAR.” It adds that some of the international peacekeepers “have acquiesced to violence in some cases by allowing abusive anti-balaka militias to fill the power vacuum created by the Seleka’s departure.”

Aid agencies warn that with the exodus of Muslims, many of whom are traders and cattle-herders, the economy is at the risk of collapsing and the prospects of a catastrophic famine loom large over the country. According to the United Nations, more than 90% of the population are eating just one meal a day. About a third of CAR’s population are in desperate need of food, shelter, water and health care services. Thousands of children are suffering from acute malnutrition. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed fears that the violence could ultimate divide the country into a Muslim north and a Christian south.

Looming Polio Epidemic in Syria

The death toll in Syria’s protracted, bloody civil war has exceeded 100,000, including 11,500 children and 4,450 women. More than a quarter of the country’s population of 21 million have been displaced. According to a United Nations study, 4.4 million Syrians lack safe and sufficient water for daily needs and the situation is taking a turn for the worse in large parts of the country. Syrians are hopelessly caught between a brutal dictatorship and a fragmented opposition movement that has come to be dominated by extremist and militant groups.

The civil war has brought about particularly disastrous consequences for children. Five million children have been displaced and many of them are vulnerable to child trafficking and recruitment as child soldiers. More than one million children are now refugees. Thousands of children are faced with war trauma, acute malnutrition and stunted growth and are increasingly vulnerable to measles, typhoid, hepatitis and dysentery, tuberculosis, diphtheria and whooping cough. More than 100, 000 children are afflicted with leishmaniasis, a hideous parasitic skin disease that flourishes in war times.

Mandatory and free immunization was introduced in Syria in 1964 and by 1995 polio was completely eliminated. The horrifying news is that polio has returned to Syria. Since May 2013 at least 90 children across Syria, with an average age of two years, have been afflicted with wild type 1 polio. Few of them were fully vaccinated. It is estimated that at least 90,000 children have been infected.

The Assad regime stopped sanitation and safe water services and immunization in several areas that were considered hostile to the ruling dispensation. The problem has been compounded by attacks on doctors and destruction of the health care system by Assad’s forces, obstruction of humanitarian aid to opposition-held areas and the appalling conditions in the refugee camps. Of the roughly 1.8 million children born in the country since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011 , more than half remain completely unvaccinated. According to World Health Organisation estimates, the vaccination rate among two-year-olds has dropped from 83% before the war to 52% in 2012. This leaves more than3 million children vulnerable to serious diseases, including polio. The Assad government failed to detect the polio outbreak in its early stages in 2013 and has refused to take any responsibility for controlling the spread of the infectious disease.

It is tragic that polio, which has been eradicated in the rest of the world, remains endemic in Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern Nigeria. In all three countries, misguided extremist groups have obstructed health workers from giving polio vaccinations to children on ridiculous grounds. (Source: Annie Sparrow, ‘Syria’s Polio Epidemic: The Suppressed Truth’ www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/feb/20/syria)

Islamic Art at Dallas Museum

The profile of Islamic art in Europe and North America is steadily rising. Major museums and art galleries in the United States, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Cleveland Museum of Art, have fabulous collections of Islamic art objects.

One of the amazing collections of Islamic art is the Keir Collection in London, amassed by a Hungarian-born lawyer, real-estate magnate and a passionate art collector, Edmond de Unger (1918-2011). The Keir Collection, named after the house De Unger once occupied in Wimbledon in the UK, comprises more than 2,000 art objects and includes a wide range of Islamic art objects, including exquisitely woven carpets from Anatolia and Persia, lusterware from Syria, Egypt and Iraq, Persian and Mughal miniatures, illustrated manuscripts, decorative silk, rock crystal objects, velvet and brocade fabrics, ceramics and metaware. An 11th century rock crystal ewer in Italian gold and enamel mount was acquired in 2008 for £3 million for the Keir Collection. De Unger collected these art objects, which span 13 centuries of Islamic art, over a period of five decades. He commissioned five scholarly catalogues of the Kier Collection in the 1970s and in 1988. He founded the Islamic Art Circle in London in 1964. Some of the art objects from the Kier Collection were exhibited at the Pergamon museum complex in Berlin in 2007 and 2010.

The trustees of the Kier Collection have signed a 15-year renewable loan agreement with the Dallas Museum of Art in Texas, USA. The art objects from the Kier Collection will arrive from London in May 2004. With the Kier Collection, Dallas Museum will have the third largest collection of Islamic art in North America, after the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington.


Anti-Government Protests in Bosnia

Following the collapse and disintegration of Yugoslavia, Bosnia proclaimed independence in 1992. But shortly after independence, the country was engulfed in a brutal civil war which lasted until the end of 1995. In December 1995, the presidents of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia signed the Dayton Agreement, which brought a halt to the civil war and led to the establishment of a multiethnic Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Federation consists of 10 federal units or cantons and is home to three main ethnic groups: Bosniaks or Bosnian Muslims (48%), Orthodox Serbs (37%) and Catholic Croats (14.3%). The decentralized state gives equal power to the three constituent communities.

On February 4, 2014, thousands of people, enraged by the closure of a factory in Tuzla, gathered in front of a government building to express their pent-up anger and resentment. The protests soon spread to the capital Sarajevo, Zenica, Mostar and other parts of Bosnia and were joined by a cross-section of the population, including labour unions, women, youth and war veterans. In Sarajevo, masked youths stormed two major government buildings, setting fire and smashing windows.

The protests were mainly directed at the ineptitude of the self-serving political class in managing the economy, economic stagnation and extremely high unemployment rate, corruption in the corridors of power, thoughtless and murky privatization deals, growing inequality of wages and deteriorating living standards. The unemployment rate in Bosnia is more than 40% and as high as 58% among youth.

The protesters demanded the resignation of the government, reduction in government expenditure and good quality health services and education.

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