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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 9    Issue 13-14   16 November-15 December 2014

Professor A. R. Momin

Women’s Agency and Empowerment in Bangladesh

Though Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world, it has made impressive progress in respect of many social indicators, particularly female literacy and women’s participation in the workforce. School enrollment and literacy rates for girls in Bangladesh are now higher than those of boys. In fact Bangladesh is one of the few countries in the world where girls outnumber boys in school. Women’s participation rate in the workforce in the country is 57%, one of the highest in the Muslim world. Health care projects, sponsored by government agencies as well as NGOs, have enlisted the involvement and participation of thousands of women.

Government and NGOs in Bangladesh have launched several innovative programmes and projects aimed at the empowerment of women through their active involvement and participation. In2010 an NGO known as DNet launched the “Infoladies” programme aimed at facilitating access to modern information technology through women’s agency. The Infoladies programme is an extension of an earlier initiative called the “Mobile Ladies” programme, through which women would carry mobile phones while travelling to remote villages in the country and provide connecting links to thousands of remote villages through modern information technology.

Through the Infoladies programme, more than 50 women from six districts now provide a wide range of services to some 300 villages in the country. The Infoladies, who are generally young, ride bicycles and carry some basic equipments like laptops, blood pressure monitors and blood group and pregnancy test kits. The services provided by the Infoladies include providing information about government schemes such as senior citizen allowance and loans, filling in online forms, providing information to school children about computers, checking blood pressure and blood groups, and services for expecting mothers. They charge nominal fees for the services. An Infolady earns a monthly income of about 7,000 takas ($90). The number of Infoladies is expected to rise to 4,500 by the end of 2016. In a couple of years the scheme will cover the entire country.

The Infoladies programme has received worldwide attention. Several developing countries in Africa, South Asia and Latin America are keen to replicate the project.

Islamic Revival in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Islam reached Bosnia-Herzegovina in the wake of the Ottoman conquest in the 15th century. It remained a province of the Ottoman Empire for more than four centuries, from 1463 to 1878. Bosnia was annexed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878 and remained a part of it till 1918. Following World War I, Bosnia was incorporated into the kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. It became a part of the Federation of Yugoslavia in 1945.

Bosnian Muslims suffered immense hardships under the Communist regime. The Communists rulers sought to systematically undermine and erase the religious and cultural identity of Bosnian Muslims. Before the Communist takeover, there were more than 40 madrasas in Bosnia. All of them, except one, were closed down by the authorities. Sufi orders were proscribed ad Sufi hospices were shut down.

The civil war that broke out in Bosnia in the early 1990s shattered the lives of Bosnian Muslims. Nearly 200,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed by the Serb and Croat forces, thousands of Muslim women were sexually abused and raped and millions were displaced. Today Muslims comprise a little over half of the population of the federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Bosnia is now experiencing an Islamic revival. Hundreds of mosques, which were destroyed or damaged during the civil war, have been reconstructed or repaired. In 2010 an estimated 319 mosques were reconstructed or repaired. Dozens of new mosques have been built. Funds for the reconstruction and restoration of mosques have been collected through local resources as well as through generous contributions from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Indonesia and Jordan. Islamic educational institutions, including madrasas and the faculty of Islamic studies at Sarajevo University, have reopened.

The Bosnian government has introduced Islamic instruction in public schools, including kindergartens. Before the war, it was rare to see Bosnian women in headscarves and men with beards. Now they are quite common. An increasing number of Bosnian Muslims now fast during the month of Ramadan. Marriages with Islamic rituals are becoming increasingly common. There is a growing demand for Islamic literature. A number of faith-based organizations and social movements, including women’s organizations, have sprung up in the last decade.

Sufism has been a vibrant part of religious and cultural life in Bosnia for centuries. Many Bosnian Muslims who were affiliated to Sufi orders fought against Serb and Croat forces in the civil war. Now there is a revival of Sufi orders and an increasing number of people now participate in dhikr assemblies where the names of Allah are repeatedly invoked.

A concert featuring recitations of the Quran and Islamic spiritual music, locally known as ilahije and kaside, was held on July 28, 2007 at Bosnia’s biggest football stadium to mark 600 years of Islam in Bosnia.

Britain Recognizes a Palestinian State

Israel’s continued defiance of international law and disregard for global public opinion, the atrocities on the Palestinians, the barbaric assault on Gaza in July this year, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s increasingly belligerent and hostile stance towards the Palestinians, the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and the breakdown of the US-sponsored peace negotiations have reinforced its international isolation and have led to a significant shift in worldwide public opinion towards the Jewish state. Former US President Jimmy Carter has stated in his book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid that Israel's role and actions in Gaza and the West Bank exhibit the discriminatory features of an apartheid regime.

Prominent public figures in Europe and the United States who have all along supported Israeli policies and actions have begun to have serious doubts about Israel’s vacuous grievances and pretentious rhetoric. The European Union recently condemned Israel’s decision to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank in utter disregard of international law and UN resolutions. In October 2014 the European Union pledged 450 million euros for the reconstruction of Gaza. The EU has spent more than €1.3 billion in the Gaza Strip over the last decade. Seven EU member-states, including Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Malta, Poland and Romania, have officially recognized the Palestinian state. Sweden officially recognized the Palestinian state on October 30, 2014. Following the decision, Sweden’s foreign minister said that “the government considers that international law criteria for a Palestinian state have been fulfilled.” Sweden is the first EU member-state in Western Europe to recognize the Palestinian state. Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf congratulated Palestine on its National Day on November 15, 2014. Palestinians celebrate their National Day on November 15, which marks the anniversary of the declaration of an independent Palestinian state by Yasser Arafat in 1988. The campaign to boycott goods made in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank is gathering force across large parts of Europe.

Over the past few years, Palestinian human rights activists have lobbied for the recognition of the Palestinian state by the United Nations and the international community. In 2011 UNESCO approved full membership for Palestine. In 2012 Palestine was accorded the status of a non-member observer state by the United Nations and 134 of 193 member states of the UN have extended diplomatic recognition to the state of Palestine.

The UK’s policy in the Middle East and its unremitting support for Israel mirror its strategic and ideological alliance with the US. Incensed and exasperated by the Tory government’s blind defence of Israel’s atrocities in Gaza, Baroness Saeeda Warsi, Foreign Office Minister and the first Muslim woman to serve in a British cabinet, resigned on August 5. Baroness Warsi said she could no longer support government’s policy on Gaza, which is “morally indefensible.”

In a significant development, Britain’s parliament passed a non-binding resolution on October 13, 2014 to give diplomatic recognition to a Palestinian state. The motion urged the British government to “recognize state of Palestine alongside state of Israel.” Though the vote, which was passed by 274 to 12, was largely symbolic, it indicates a significant shift in public opinion and the political climate in Britain and other parts of Europe. The resolution was moved by Graham Morris, a Labour Party lawmaker who leads a group called Labour Friends of Palestine.

Commenting on the motion, Richard Ottaway, a Conservative lawmaker and chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, said: “Under normal circumstances, I would oppose the motion tonight; but such is my anger over Israel’s behaviour in recent months that I will not oppose the motion. I have to say to the government of Israel that if they are losing public like me, they will be losing a lot of people.”

Carter Centre’s Rebuke to Egypt

The Carter Centre in Atlanta, USA, established and led by former US president Jimmy Carter, has earned worldwide and well-deserved reputation for its advocacy of human rights, democracy and transparency in governance. It has sent observes to 97 elections in 38 countries to ensure free and fair elections and has worked with human rights groups and NGOs to promote human rights and civil liberties.

The Carter Centre has an office in Cairo, which was set up three years ago. Dismayed by the turn of events after Abdel Fattah el-Sisi deposed Egypt’s first democratically elected president Mohammad Morsi and seized power in a rigged election, the Carter Centre announced in October 2014 that it would close its Cairo office and would not send experts to monitor parliamentary elections scheduled to be held towards the close of the year. “The current environment in Egypt is not conducive to genuine democratic elections and civic participation,” Mr. Carter said. The Carter Centre has expressed deep anguish about the arbitrary arrest of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters who have been unfairly branded as terrorists, the Sisi government’s crackdown on political dissidents, opposition groups and journalists and the blatant violation of human rights and civil liberties. More than 1,000 people, who participated in public protests against Sisi’s authoritarian rule, have been killed and more than 16,000 political dissidents and activists are languishing in jails. General Sisi has evidently resurrected the disastrous legacy of Hosni Mubarak.

The Carter Centre’s decision is a damning indictment of Sisi’s repressive regime and sends a clear signal to the US administration to rethink its blind support, motivated by its own partisan interests, to the present dispensation.

Third Catholic-Muslim Forum

The relations between Islam and the Catholic Church have been far from cordial for the past several decades. After nearly two millennia, the Second Vatican Council decreed that Judaism was religiously acceptable as a preparatio for Christianity. Unfortunately, neither the Catholic Church nor the Protestant and Orthodox churches have ever recognised Islam as the embodiment of a genuine religious experience. Relations between the Vatican and the Islamic world further deteriorated following a lecture given by Pope Benedict XVI at the University of Regensburg in Germany on September 12, 2006, in which he quoted a derogatory statement -- without contradicting it-- of the 14th century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus. The offensive passage quoted by the pontiff is part of a dialogue between the Byzantine emperor and an educated Persian Muslim on the subject of Christianity and Islam. The dialogue took place, at the initiative of the emperor, against the backdrop of the siege of Constantinople by the Ottoman Emperor Bayezid I between 1394and 1402. The Byzantine emperor asked the educated Muslim: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and then you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”. Pope Benedict then added, “The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.”

Pope Benedict’s remarks created a huge uproar across the Islamic world. Islamic organisations and Muslim leaders denounced the pope’s statement and accused him of slandering Islam and the Prophet and attempting to rekindle the fires of the Crusades. Morocco withdrew its ambassador to the Vatican, calling the pope’s comments offensive. The New York Times wrote in an editorial on September 17, 2006 that Pope Benedict must issue a “deep and persuasive apology for the quotes in his speech”. “The world listens carefully to the words of any pope. And it is tragic and dangerous when one sows pain, either deliberately or carelessly”, the paper said. Rev Daniel A. Madigan, Rector of the Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, said, “You clearly take a risk using an example like that. Certainly the Pope closes the door to an idea which was very dear to Pope John Paul II—the idea that Christians, Jews and Muslims have the same God and have to pray together to the same God”. Fr Julian Saldanha, a theology professor at a seminary in Mumbai, India, felt that the pope should have shown greater sensitivity. He said that the pope reproduced a quotation which is derogatory of the Prophet Muhammad, without refuting it or showing that he disagreed with it. Faced with worldwide protests from Muslims, Pope Benedict tendered a reluctant apology for his remarks.

Long before he was elected as pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (as he was known before assuming the papacy) was known for his extreme doctrinal conservatism and intolerance of dissent. Unlike his predecessor John Paul II, who was very supportive of inter-faith dialogue and who was the first pope to ever step in a mosque (in Syria in 2001), Pope Benedict did not think much of inter-faith dialogue. One of the first signs of Pope Benedict’s departure from the conciliatory approach of Pope John Paul II was the removal from office, at his instance, of Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, who was then head of a Vatican department that promoted dialogue with other faiths.

Pope Benedict decided to step down on February 28, 2013, an unprecedented step in the annals of the Catholic Church over the past six centuries. From the beginning, Pope Benedict’s papacy has been surrounded by controversies. Many of his careless remarks betrayed an unfortunate lack of sensitivity and respect towards other faiths. He antagonized Muslims, Jews and Protestant churches. He cannot be absolved of complicity in the cover-up of a massive scandal involving the abuse of thousands of children by pedophile clergy across large parts of Europe, North America and Latin America. The Guardian reported that one of the reasons for Pope Benedict’s resignation was a secret 300-page dossier, commissioned by the pope himself, which revealed the existence of a shadowy ‘network of gay senior prelates in the Vatican.’ The public image and reputation of the Catholic Church was grievously dented during Pope Benedict’s papacy.

Pope Francis, who succeeded Pope Benedict as the leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics, is trying to make amends for his predecessor’s mistakes. On March 22, 2013, he called on the Roman Catholic Church to intensify dialogue with Islam. “It is important to intensify dialogue among various religions and I am thinking particularly of dialogue with Islam,” he said in an address to foreign ambassadors at the Vatican.

Catholic-Muslim Forum

The Catholic-Muslim Forum was established in 2008 in the context of the controversy generated by Pope Benedict’s Regensburg address in 2006 and the growing realization among Muslim and Catholic intellectuals and religious leaders that Muslims and Catholics – who together make up about 40% of the world’s population -- should come together to clear misconceptions about their respective religious traditions and to build bridges of understanding and cooperation.

The first meeting of the Catholic-Muslim Forum was held on November 4-6, 2008 at the Vatican, in which 25 religious leaders and scholars from each side participated. The theme of the summit was “Love of God, Love of Neighbour.” The Muslim delegation was led by the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric, while Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran headed the Vatican officials. On the last day of the meeting, Pope Benedict addressed the delegates and urged them to overcome past prejudices and correct the often distorted images Christians and Muslims have of each other. The delegates issued a 15-point declaration highlighting the common emphasis placed by both Islam and Christianity on loving God and loving one's neighbour. The second Catholic-Muslim Forum was held on November 21-23, 2011 in Jordan.

The third Catholic-Muslim Forum was held at the Vatican on November 11-13, 2014. The central theme of deliberations at the forum was “Working Together to Serve Others.” The participants focused on three issues in particular: working together to serve young people, enhancing and deepening inter-religious dialogue, and service to society. The Catholic delegation at the forum was led by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Muslim delegation by the eminent Muslim scholar, Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr. At the end of the deliberations, which took place in a cordial atmosphere, the participants issued the following statement.

1. The delegates recognised that their gathering took place in a time of severe tension and conflict in the world, underlining the vital importance of enhanced service and mutual cooperation. In this context the delegates unanimously condemned acts of terrorism, oppression, violence against innocent persons, persecution, desecration of sacred places, and the destruction of cultural heritage. It is never acceptable to use religion to justify such acts or to conflate such acts with religion.

2. The education of young people, be it in the family, school, university, church or mosque, is of the utmost importance for the promotion of a well-rounded identity which builds respect for others. To this end, school curricula and textbooks should portray an objective and respectful image of the other.

3. The participants affirmed the importance of the culture of interreligious dialogue for deepening mutual understanding. This is required to overcome prejudice, distortions, suspicions, and inappropriate generalisations, all of which damage the peaceful relationships we all seek.

4. It was felt that dialogue should lead to action, particularly among young people. The participants encouraged Christians and Muslims to multiply opportunities for encounter and cooperation on joint projects for the common good.

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