An Open Muslim Letter to President Obama

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An Open Muslim Letter to President Obama

Dear Mr. President,

The election is over. America has again given you a historic chance to effect change. Four years ago, you came to power with a promise toshake up Washington. This promise has largely remained unfulfilled. Yet the American people have still remained gracious and patient enough to give you the benefit of the doubt. They have offered you a chance to finish the unfinished business of the first term.

With your experience as the head of an influential, powerful and critically important nation, the American people expect you to step up to the plate with vision and foresight. They expect you to serve America and to lead the world to a much better place.

Four years ago, many of us wrote you letters of support that contained suggestions. We feel that these suggestions have largely fallen on deaf ears. Muslim Americans played a critical role in the last election. In many swing states, they may have made a critical difference in this historic victory. Many of them have prayed and worked as volunteers so that you could remain victorious. We hope you will not let us down this time.

Reducing the Wealth Divide – As Well as All Other Divides

Many advocacy groups for disadvantaged voices – poor people, minorities, women, youth – gave you the vote this time. They gave you the vote four years ago as well.

In the past, American citizens felt that they could reach their potential, irrespective of their wealth, color, or origin. But in recent years, this ‘American dream’ has been robbed from a huge segment of the population. The ‘dream’ has been threatened by many difficulties – high unemployment, unfair concentrations of wealth, and an increasingly worrying connection between money and politics alongside other difficulties. Enthusiasm has dwindled into frustration among many groups of Americans. Day by day, they have witnessed special interests attempting to steal their future.

Under your leadership, your administration could set an example for correcting injustice in politics. You could help to balance the budget and address the approaching debt catastrophe. You could help to reduce the influence of big money on politics, and you could help to promote more fair tax laws for corporations and the financial services sector.

In addition, you could cut military spending without compromising America’s security and defense. Security and defense depend not only on military spending, but also on healthy societies and vibrant economies that maintain diplomatic relationships with rest of the world. Contrast this attitude with some of the more confrontational American policies in the past that have increasingly made America more vulnerable. Enormous military spending has contributed towards an increasing wealth divide, a budget deficit, and belligerent posturing with consequent antagonism throughout many parts of the world.  Wisdom must work with power in order to remain effective and beneficial.

Power AND Wisdom in Diplomacy

Your leadership must help to reduce extreme inequality and injustice everywhere – not only in America, but also across the world. We have reached a risky and critical time. More than seven billion people on earth are struggling to share limited resources. Higher demand on the earth’s resources has led to unprecedented economic and social volatility. If America’s power could be used in a more effective manner, our leadership could play a vital role in bringing stability to an increasingly interconnected yet conflicted planet.

In this increasingly globalized society, national security does not depend on military strength alone. For example, America’s successes have often come from diplomatic initiatives rather than military engagements. Diplomatic undertakings such as détente in the 1970s with the Soviets as well as Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 opened the floodgates towards more constructive engagements with these archrivals finally ending the Cold War. These visionary diplomatic initiatives regained much goodwill and leadership worldwide – which was quite an achievement considering that it had nearly been lost in the proxy wars pursuing ‘containment policies’ of previous years. Similar visionary leadership is needed to reach out to ‘enemy’ parties such as Iran, Hezbollah, and Taliban forces in order to promote change these days.

Reaching Out More Effectively to Muslims

If the Obama administration wants to heal the great divide between the United States and Muslim-majority societies, it must break away with the past and launch a new visionary agenda. This region of the world must not be downplayed as backwards or irreconcilable with Western countries, as has often occurred before in Washington. In fact, this region is vital to America’s national interest. Muslims constitute majorities in fifty six countries that control three-fourth of the world’s oil wealth. If the Obama administration attempts to reconcile a few ‘sticking points’ that inflame tension between the United States and these regions, it can do a lot to decrease a longstanding confrontation.

One of the most important ‘elephants in the room’ in this region involves the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Unless and until American leadership addresses this problem as a truly impartial peace broker, America will continually lose its credibility in the eyes of Muslim-majority societies. In its second term, your administration has an excellent opportunity to take a bold stand required in order to break the stalemate and to bring about peace in that long-torn land. Israel’s colonialist demands, occupation of lands by force, and often-inhuman repression against Palestinian people, ruthless bombing and killing civilians all go against the fundamental principles on which America was founded.

Rather than making assumption about beliefs of individuals in this region, we must recognize and appreciate diversity. Young generations of Muslim-majority societies are much more pluralistic than the media might suggest, and by and large they believe in peaceful coexistence. Moreover, it is against the interests and welfare of 15 million Jewish people in the world to engage in an antagonistic and distrustful relationship with over one billion Muslims. Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together peacefully in the region for over 1300 years before the establishment of Israel in 1948 – as they do in many other nations. Your administration must reach out to game-changing voices in order to bring forth a feasible solution to conflicts such as these. Without true effort on your part, Muslim-majority societies will continue to distrust America.

If America retained the goodwill and trust that Muslim-majority societies felt for the nation prior before the Cold War, America would have attained many of its goals at a fraction of the price. It is never a good idea to maintain an antagonistic and confrontational relationship with one-fifth of humanity. Mr. President, you must tear down this ‘wall’ between America and Muslim-majority societies. You must reach out to transformational groups in the region – youth and women especially – in order to pursue a better path for the region as a whole.

In light of recent uprisings, your leadership should support and assist Muslim-majority societies in the establishment of good governance. One cannot establish peace, justice, and progress in places like Egypt, Libya, Pakistan, and Bangladesh without due process or the rule of law. In order to achieve these goals, the Obama administration must pressure elites as well as the military leaders to govern in a more democratic and open-minded manner. It is counterproductive and dangerous to simply pour taxpayer money into the militaries and elites of other countries. Additionally, we must encourage grassroots local leaders rather than simply throwing money at expensive and inefficient foreign aid programs. In this historic transition period in the Middle East and North Africa, your administration can do a lot to encourage the democratic transition process. We must focus on win-win scenarios rather than maintenance of the current status quo.

Integration: Promoting People-to-People Engagements

Only powerful transnational alliances among civil societies – involving people from different ethnicities, places, and perspectives – can bring about a decisive resolution to conflicts bred by special interests. You should encourage civil society leaders in America to spearhead such transnational people-to-people movements.

As one example of multicultural bridge-building, the Obama administration could engage more diligently in community forums with expatriate groups from around the world that consistently lobby their Congresspersons on issues in their countries. For instance, organizations of Egyptian Americans know a ton about building political consensus in Egypt. Afghan Americans have immense interest in building culturally competent humanitarian relief programs in Afghanistan. And Muslim Americans, of course, know how to bridge the gap between Islam and democracy when talking to Muslims around the world. If the Obama administration really wants to connect with Muslim-majority communities around the world, it must explore these avenues to the fullest.

The greatness of America does not lie in its military power or wealth. Rather, it lies in its success in integration of diverse immigrant peoples through an impartial rule of law. This rule of law is based on the fundamental principles of human nature: liberty, dignity and equality of all human beings. The secret of our national success ultimately depends on compliance with these principles of our nation. We have done much to support these principles throughout our history – but we have also done much to tear them down.

We can only hope that we stay on the right path, as many regional and global conflicts that we are intimately involved in are becoming increasingly confrontational and dangerous to human security. Being the superpower in our time, America should set the trend for the higher path rather, by promoting increased cooperation and greater alliances throughout the world. As the President of the United States for the next four years, we hope that you will make your choices based on the famous saying “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” As Muslims and as citizens of the world, we earnestly request that you take the steps needed to make a critical difference in our time.

Who Will Teach Muslims About Islam?

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It is imperative that Muslim-majority societies express fierce condemnation regarding the recent aggression and violence across the world, including the attacks on the embassies in Libya and Egypt. Concerted protests for reconciliation can serve as effective tools of deterrence against heinous and reactionary crimes in the name of Islam. This event is a disgrace and a degradation of Muslim values.

The Prophet Muhammad – for whose sake this uproar is taking place – endured barrage after barrage of ridicule, insults, persecution and violence during his mission in Mecca and Medina. However, he ignored these threats most of the time, remaining gracious and patient. Unlike other sects, he set examples for a religion that works from the moral high ground. The Qur’an states that true “servants of the Most Gracious [God] are [only] they who walk gently on earth, and who, whenever the foolish address them, reply with [words of] peace” [Qur’an 25:63]

Mercenary individuals or groups cannot take laws into their own hands in Islam. If it is necessary to raise objection to an act of injustice or humiliation, a group can utilize peaceful civil actions. However, one must respect the due process of a society’s laws, even if one stands up against blatant sedition or treachery. No individual or group can decide to embark on a killing spree, no matter how offensive the insult is.

In today’s world in which technology provides an immediate global audience for individuals to state anything they please – no matter how vulgar and unauthentic their statements or works – Muslim-majority societies do need to speak out against malicious acts contained in “trashy” movies or editorials. However, the best course of action is sometimes inaction. If one really wishes to avoid the pernicious effects of anti-Muslim propaganda, one must not play into the hands of bigots. We must remember that fierce reactions made Salman Rushdie famous, even in the face of his negative insinuations.

Ultimately, the issue of these protests rises higher than mere Islamophobia. Our leadership and scholarship within our community has not been vigilant enough in checking the spread of mindless reactionary extremism, nor has it succeeded in organizing shrewdly effective political advocacy work within the Muslim world. There are far greater issues before us today that require our community to take collective action. The Muslim world is at a crossroads, and many Muslim majority societies are facing economic, political, social, and environmental crises that require carefully orchestrated collective endeavors. We must educate and direct our masses to remain focused on the good governance and economic progress that can uplift our desperate condition.

We have done tremendous disservice to our own cause by remaining petty and reactionary, rather than engaging constructively with the rest of the world in compliance with the spirit of Islam. Why are many Muslim scholars solely relying on traditional rhetorical narratives and distant historical paradigms when describing Islam, rather than utilizing the principled dynamism of the Qur’an in order to set higher standards for modern values and collective trends?

Even though we apply vigilant standards of decorum to other communities’ perceptions of Islam, we do not apply these same standards of decorum to ourselves. As the Qur’an asks, shall we recite the Book of God and yet forget our own faults? If our global “umma” becomes easily provoked by purposefully malignant propaganda campaigns, we denigrate our own faith in the eyes of others. Who will teach others about Islam other than ourselves? For that matter, who will even teach our own Muslims about the beautiful mercy, forgiveness and restraint of Islam?

MPJP Executive Director and Outreach Director regarding Syria Crisis

Saving Syria – Smart, Not Myopic, International Diplomacy

Syria is now the centerpiece of the Middle East. If Syria overcomes sectarian war and takes constructive steps towards ethno-cultural integration and democratic self-rule, it will change the narrative of the entire region.

Stakes are high, not only for regional players but also for world powers. Many local and international stakeholders in the conflict still remain confrontational and counterproductive.

Syria is not a place for proxy wars. Even if Assad leaves today, this is still a volatile country in the center of the oil rich region. Three million militarily powerful Alawites — Shiite offshoots in a Sunni-majority society — will stop at nothing to survive. After Assad’s war inevitably ends, millions who have suffered under the hands of his Alawite gang will place a price on the heads of all Alawites, no matter whether they are guilty of war crimes or not. Young liberal forces will most likely fracture their tenuous unity with conservative Muslim Brotherhood forces after Assad falls, thus magnifying liberal-orthodox tensions in the region. In addition, two million Kurds will retain their own outside ties as well as their general suspicions of all sides, thus not providing much additional integrative force to the region.

Syria needs a new consensus-building approach to save the region from catastrophic consequences. Careful and synchronised multinational strategies with unified local support are needed to ensure that the fall of the Assad regime proceeds with less turmoil and bloodshed. This needs spirit and commitment resembling no less than the struggle of the Allied Powers during and after the World War II.

WORKING TOGETHER TO BRING RIVALS ON BOARD

Western governments should persuade Russia and China that their multilateral support for an end to the Assad regime is necessary for their own long-term goals. War may bring quick benefits for arms traders, but it is a sinking ship for profits in the long run. Their interests and concerns must be addressed by the Western powers in order to compel them to contribute to peace.

Syria needs visionary moves such as that of Nixon’s reaching out to China in 1972 or that of détente to approach the Soviets in early ’70s. These unprecedented diplomatic approaches, not proxy wars or nuclear posturing, ultimately helped to end the Cold War and brought about victory for America and its Western allies. Similar game-changing international outreach strategies could be undertaken to involve Iran and Hezbollah whose contribution could be critical in the conflict resolution in Syria. Equally critical would be the role of the Gulf states and the Arab League under the leadership of Lakhdar Brahimi.

In retrospect it is important to note that Iran helped America to defeat Taliban forces during the early post-invasion period in Afghanistan, or that it offered an amazingly comprehensive proposal of regional cooperation and peace to America in 2003 that was summarily rejected by the Bush administration. The incalculable cost of these lost opportunities due to the common narratives of saber-rattling should be borne in mind in taking the groundbreaking steps today.

Reconciliation in Syria: Planning ahead of time
For the sake of the greater good there should be general amnesty in the post-Assad period. As historical examples, Prophet Muhammad gave general amnesty after victory in Mecca, and Abraham Lincoln did the same after the American Civil War. These grand and gracious actions helped to integrate the societies faster and bring about stability. For the sake of deterrence, only a handful of top heinous offenders could be brought to justice.

This is a controversial yet critical idea. Bloodshed and violence would continue for a long time if the Alawites created a fortified enclave in Syria against social unification. This would be a recipe for disaster, reminding us of events that took place in the Balkans, such as the autonomous “enclaved” province of Kosovo within Serbia forcefully maintained by Marshal Tito. If Tito had established democracy and tied the six republics via confederacy and impartial rule of law, a horrendous bloodbath could have been avoided. However, that meant relinquishing his own grip on power, so he continued to be an autocrat and sowed the seeds of ethnic cleansing and conflicts among people who lived side by side as neighbours.

In modern times, we also see from the 2003 Iraq War that if general amnesty was given to Baathists — save for the top party officials — we would not have seen a dysfunctional and conflict-torn Iraq for the last nine years. Much of the violence that ripped the country apart emanated from mindless de-Baathification and overnight disbanding of 300,000 members of the Iraqi army. Violence erupted within 72 hours after that and still is continuing. These blunders should not take place in Syria now.

Constructive engagement
The solutions then and the solutions now are the same. Diverse peoples can learn to live side by side, constructively engaging with one another through democratic systems and impartial due processes of law for mutual welfare. After hundreds of years of brutal violence and wars, Europe finally realised that only through these constructive engagements and integrative efforts could a win-win outcome be achieved. It is long overdue that the Middle East and North African region implement these ideals in order to avoid further misery and enormous costs to countless peoples.

(Cross-posted from The Daily Star, August 23, 2012).

http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=246654

Ruby Amatulla in Bangladesh Daily Star

Cross-posted from The Daily Star:

http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=235101

A Way Out of the Quagmire
By Ruby Amatulla

My previous article, (The Daily Star, Sept. 15, 2011) provides a soul search as to the blunders in the beginning period of Bangladesh. In this article I would like to share my thoughts on how we can get out of the quagmire.

Democracy is not only about elections and parliamentary systems. These are only means to achieve higher ends, as government derives its legitimacy from the people it governs.

The core idea in self-rule is that the people hold the ultimate power and legitimacy in the sociopolitical context, thus making civil society active, vigilant, and participatory in order to compel governments to serve people effectively, efficiently, and ethically in delivering maximum welfare for all.

Impartial rule of law must be based on equality before law, irrespective of wealth, poverty, influence, gender, religion, race or ethnicity. This is the foundation on which an equitable and stable society can establish preconditions for progress and prosperity. The impartial due process of democracy exerts profound influence in integrating even a diverse nation. Autocracy, military rule, theocracy, etc. all thrive on partiality and favouritism and thus have the tendency to cause division, polarisation, and even disintegration.

If a society is integrated it is most productive and if it is polarised it becomes most unproductive. Good governance and impartial rule of law are the natural outcomes of democracy that help integrate a nation.

Bangladesh, like any other developing country with huge population, needs socioeconomic growth to take care of its 16 crore people. To alleviate the alarming concentration of wealth as well as the enormous disparities and conflicts between rich and poor groups, Bangladesh needs a more accountable government with proper checks and balances. This is the only way to avoid roadblocks with catastrophic consequences.

Without these universal values that are in tune with human nature, a system of governance becomes deficient and unstable in handling human affairs, succumbing to a counterproductive chain of volatility and corruption.

The primary responsibility of civil society is to help ingrain these ideas and values in the hearts and minds of people of all echelons of a society, including the political leaders, and help build a national consensus that becomes the vanguard of democracy. Only then a forceful dialogue can be raised to convince or compel leaders not to deviate from the democratic path.

In order to be effective there must be unity in raising a forceful voice towards making a change. This unity does not require resolution of all conflicts or dissolution of all differences. It requires a focus on the priorities and the common purpose of establishing good governance and a progressive society. The following could be some of the important changes civil society should focus on.

All political parties must conduct their affairs in a democratic fashion. If the leading parties are not democratic, the nation cannot become democratic.

Term limits must exist for all top positions of the government, including the prime minister, parliament members, party officials, and others. Let us limit officeholders to two terms, a standard used by many other developed countries.

Free press, Internet, and media must serve as vehicles of exposure and awareness rather than microphones for the status quo. A democratic system thrives on a free and responsible press that informs the public and helps raise a forceful sociopolitical discourse.

Let there be caretaker governments for the next four or five elections until the people enact change through a referendum. If a caretaker government helps to bring about trust and confidence among the people by establishing their collective will, it can revitalise government as a tool for change.

Bangladesh must tap the force for change by reaching out to the international community for advocacy and support. We must bring about forceful and global people-to-people movements in order to minimise the formidable transnational alliances of elites and vested interests. If we only understand our struggles in an insular or localised fashion, we will fail to take advantage of the immense power of the growing and transnational movement towards self-rule and social justice.

We should ask top political party leaders such as Sheikh Hasina, Begum Khaleda Zia, Mr. Ershad, etc., all of whom have become permanent political fixtures, to salvage themselves and their legacy, and for the sake of the welfare of the nation, by quitting their parties and becoming national advisors or consultants. Their unification, regardless of their past differences, would demonstrate their sincerity and dedication for the country, and would help to secure their position in history.

History is a testament to the fact that leaders not in power could actually be more powerful in a society, as the popular will would move with them. Gandhi never held office, yet the powerful Congress Party could not dare to challenge him due to the fact that he had the hearts of the people. George Washington, Nelson Mandela, Sonia Gandhi, and others became the moral voice of their respective societies, and more powerful once they refused to stay in power.

As senior stateswomen and statesmen, these leaders should help to set a positive and vibrant political environment in which multiple parties would all compete for better ideas, programmes, and services to the people, and to advocate for proper checks and balances that all would have to comply with. This would attract more potential as well as more capable leadership in our country.

We must amend the constitution to bring about some of the changes mentioned above, and we must remove existing weaknesses and flaws that exist in Articles 33 and 70, which will help to stamp out abuse of power and to ensure that loyalty to the people supersedes loyalty to a party.

There must be provisions for international presence in the monitoring of national elections, in order to ensure via objective outside observers that rigging has not occurred.

There must exist safety and security provisions for domestic watchdogs and whistleblowers on a continuous basis. Investigative reporting by the press must be encouraged and protected.

With regards to environmental and sustainability protections, Bangladesh is facing the terrible crisis of climate change, not to mention issues of sustainable development in crowded urban areas that will remain intractable without significant policy-level government involvement and urban planning interventions. We must pressureise political leaders to institute a more effective policy roadmap for handling issues of climate mitigation, such as disaster relief, agricultural conservation, and population management and zoning in crowded urban centres.

Due to the broad-ranging systemic changes required in our society, the constitution should be put to a referendum in order to usher in a new beginning. Before that, there should be a three to six-month period in which intensive debate and discussion must occur at both the grassroots levels and the upper political echelons. This exposure would educate the public and help to bring about a national consensus that helps sustain a self-rule.

“What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.” Even a hundred years ago, the intellectual superiority of Bengalis was noted by the famous Indian scholar-philosopher Gokhale, who was a mentor of both Gandhi and Jinnah. However, if intellectual ability fails to combine courage and determination in order to lead a society towards peace, justice and progress, it fails in its purpose — therefore becoming useless and meaningless.

(The writer is an activist to promote democratic governance and reform in Muslim majority societies.)

Iraq’s Failures: Deciphering Signals for Future Struggles

Iraq’s Failures – Deciphering Signals for Future Struggles
By Ruby Amatulla and Matthew Cappiello
December 31, 2011

On a long-awaited day in December 2011, America’s occupation of Iraq came to an end after almost nine years, over one trillion dollars spent, over 4000 American deaths, and over 100,000 Iraqi lives lost.

In spite of differences between past and present events, relevant lessons from Iraq’s failures can be applied to current reforms sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.

America still plays a crucial role in shaping modern international politics. Ultimately, the critical issues facing our globalized society today do not fit the pattern of ‘one good country versus another evil country’ struggles. Instead, ordinary people on all sides are victimized by collusions of vested financial and political interests on all sides.

There are two Americas. The vast majority of Americans are willing to invest and work for a better world. Conversely, there are fewer but more powerful Americans who are arrogant, greedy, ethnocentric, and hungry for power. To defeat the latter, Muslim-majority societies need to work with the former.

In retrospect of past failures of engagements between America and these societies, one common plotline repeatedly emerges. At the outset, people on both sides became hopeful about America’s involvement. Iraqis and Americans both became euphoric after the fall of Saddam Hussein, as reflected in polls. Two million Afghan refugees returned home after America’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, showing their trust in America’s ability to provide security and improved economic conditions.

But as time progressed, both geopolitical events led to a vicious downward cycle and loss of control. Due to decreased legitimacy, America was rendered ineffective at the outset and thus started to make bad decisions. Extremists and counterproductive elements on both sides – war profiteers, religious and sectarian demagogues, double agents, toothless media commentators – aggravated the situation by increasing violence, disruption, and popular cynicism about outcomes.

In every case, perhaps this downward cycle of events could have been avoided or managed more effectively had more nonpartisan international watchdogs and mediators been involved. The legitimate and forceful voices of such groups could compel governmental engagements to be more accountable and effective. Among them could involve the political and cultural leadership from the region and from the international community, including those of our own community of American Muslims.

In our view, Western Muslims could become very powerful catalysts for peace in our time, as they are common denominators between the West and Muslim-majority societies. It is critical for these societies undergoing current social uprisings to seek these bridge-builders such as Americans Muslims who could to reach out to civil societies and to public opinion, thus improving the nature of Western engagements with these societies. On the other hand, Western powers should reach out to these same Western Muslims to help to build popular trust and confidence within these societies, and to invalidate and reject the extremism and sectarianism that have caused so many problems in the past.

Often in the past and present, Western leaders have appeared to quietly allow extremist and sectarian breakdowns to occur in these societies. An unpublished 513-page federal report of the American-led reconstruction of Iraq depicts an effort crippled before the invasion by Pentagon planners, who were hostile to the idea of rebuilding Iraq despite strong collective national will towards change. The book “State of Denial” written by Bob Woodward – a former Watergate reporter and one of America’s most renowned investigative journalists – details an incredible lack of planning for postwar Iraq. Were these actions merely accidental, or was this a signal of a more sinister agenda? Were Americans in high places deliberately working collaboratively with outside parties to squash the possibilities of a prosperous and independent Muslim-majority society in the region?

Sadly, the present US administration and Pentagon are bearing eerily similar signals towards the Arab Spring. They have serious interests in natural resource extraction and national security, but in practice they only make feeble attempts to ensure the reconstruction of successful, progressive, and independent societies.

Past successes or failures of American involvements depend largely on the mindset and modus operandi of people on both sides. If people are polarized and devoid of trust and goodwill, the American government’s actions will become weak and vulnerable to blunders. As seen in cases such as the Kosovo conflict, America could be relatively decisive and effective if mutual popular will exists in favor of change.

But if mutual suspicion or callous disregard for welfare exists, problems will only multiply themselves. In Iraq, inexplicable chains of blunders took place one after another, even during the very first months after the invasion. Why weren’t sufficient military forces deployed in Iraq, as many experts urged? Why weren’t critical borders sealed or secured immediately after the invasion? Why was internal stability and security left in disarray, with looting rampant and 15,000 national treasures robbed in broad daylight within three days? Wouldn’t all of these miscalculations only serve to empower extremists and enemies to pursue their agenda of destruction?

Why were enormous cost overruns incurred by American contractors and military leaders, as was exposed by the Special Inspector General in Iraq? Why were extremely expensive mega-projects undertaken only incompletely, rendering enormous profits for US contractors with minimal benefit to the Iraqi community? Why was small-scale business infrastructure neglected? Why were huge gas generators built for a society that did not have gas? Any reasonable reconstruction program could have addressed these effectively, saving American taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars and Iraq a horrendous situation.

At times, absurd decisions made in Iraq defied common sense. Why was wholesale de-Baathification decided upon concurrent with disbanding of the whole Iraqi army, especially knowing that a crucial segment of the society with professional expertise would therefore be pushed overnight towards the enemy camp? Even if head Baathist supporters were removed from their positions, the rest could have been rehabilitated and retained in order to provide invaluable reconstruction services. Why were these decisions taken in direct defiance against vehement objections of American generals and other experts present in Iraq at that time?

We need transnational dialogue in order to advocate more forcefully for legal reforms that can serve as checks and balances against regional interests. In Iraq, why was the drafting of the constitution – the foundation of self-rule and success of a society – left alone to a newly elected and inexperienced group of representatives who were overwhelmingly Shiite and Kurd? Ridden with internal political struggles and sectarian conflicts, the representatives produced a document that was according to many experts a recipe for disintegration.

This mess stands in stark contrast to our previous example in Kosovo, where an international team assigned by the UN helped representatives to draft the constitution, sometimes overruling representatives’ requests in order to maintain essential ideals. In order to integrate and stabilize Iraq, a system was needed in which all three unequal ethnic groups– Shia, Sunni, and Kurd – were made indispensable in Iraqi governance via an impartial rule of law, a bicameral legislature, and a delicate balance of power between regional and central governments. One can only wonder whether a committed and diverse leadership of activists can come together to prevent disintegration along religious, ideological, or ethnocultural lines during future constitutional talks within Egypt and other nations.

Had concerned and committed international watchdogs stepped up to the plate to ensure a stable transition in Iraq – especially among political and social notables in the Muslim world – much tragedy and injustice may have been prevented. Since these individuals maintained sociocultural credibility in the region as well as a symbolic stake in the outcome, they could have received overwhelming support from the international community if they had chosen to be wise and constructive. Instead, they chose to squander a huge opportunity to serve the Muslim-majority society, the region and the Muslim world.

Alternative possibilities for dialogue did exist, including those that refused to fit into the confrontational and now-defunct ‘West vs. East’ narrative between nations. Iran offered America a comprehensive regional cooperation and peace proposal in 2003 after the Iraq invasion, despite its long and difficult past, its record of failures and human rights abuses, and its oft-tense relationship with the United States. That proposal, unfortunately, was kept hidden from the American public and trashed by Bush administration officials, possibly influenced by pro-Israeli groups who did not want a good relationship between America and Iran.

American civil society leadership, including American Muslim leadership, should have vehemently objected against such a counterproductive move to serve special interests at the cost of the people’s needs on both sides. It is incalculable to comprehend how helpful and cost-effective Iraqi reconstruction could have been had America received full cooperation from Iran, a regional leader. Instead, the country was pushed into the position of a rejected and humiliated adversary, later responsible for creating many costly troubles.

As advocates for reforms in the Middle East and North Africa, we can fingerpoint towards others as much as we want for their share of blunders. However, as time uplifts the blinders before our eyes, that finger might eventually be turned to ourselves as well. If international coalitions of civil societies across borders – especially those within Muslim communities – had remained more strategically wise about collaborating with US interests to achieve change, Iraq could have been paved with gold. But they didn’t pull it together, due to long-held but only partially justified suspicions about US intentions that resulted in perpetuation of long-held hostile narratives on both sides, not to mention a lack of internal unity and organization within their own communities.

Now, the window of opportunity has passed for change, and Iraq is certainly not paved with gold. It is not even paved with tar. We must make sure that such disunity does not result in another window of opportunity passing us by yet again. The current uprisings occurring within the Middle East and North Africa will only occur once in a lifetime.

MPJP in Al Ahram

Cross-posted from Al Ahram:

http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2011/1070/op8.htm

The Arab Spring winds of change face obstacles. History is testament to the fact that many revolutions that overthrew the then-existing ruling class ultimately failed to bring about governments “of the people”. One set of oligarchs merely got replaced by another, with the people remaining as victims. Toppling a tyrant is not the end of a struggle: it is just the beginning of another more enduring pursuit to establish good governance and a progressive society.

Being the oil centre of the world, the Middle Eastern and North Africa (MENA) revolutions have a high degree of probability that they will be hijacked. Too many counterproductive forces, both within and outside the region, have too many vested interests in resisting true change. The West invested heavily in elites of this region that repress their respective people to serve their own interests and of those outside powers that support them.

However, in spite of these powerful transnational collusions of elites, this is also the most inspiring time to pursue change. A volcanic force of collective will is brewing and pervading the globe to establish justice, good governance and human dignity. Initial glimpses are now being seen by simultaneous demonstrations in 84 cities around the world.

In order to bring about success through these movements, effective leadership and connectivity are imperatives. The MENA leadership requires making alliances with this enormous global force to achieve mutual reinforcements and to bring about a countervailing power to compel governmental accountability. This people-to- people movement is the vehicle of change in our time.

The MENA leadership should not underestimate the indispensability of the involvement of the West in helping to bring about a transformation in the region. A speedy change is essential to overcome the approaching gigantic economic, social and governmental problems. However, in order to harness Western governments to serve the interests and welfare of the region, the leadership must connect with the Western people and civil societies.

If constructive engagements of détente and diplomacy helped transform archenemies like the US, the Soviets and China into world partners, then the Arab leadership could engage the West constructively but forcefully to become a partner in the success of the region.

In the absence of visionary leadership in the Muslim world many opportunities often turned into a lose-lose outcome of violence, destruction, and pessimistic public opinion. Hundreds of billions of Western taxpayer dollars could have been spent in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq in a more effective manner, thus enabling tremendous economic development and social progress.

As one 20th century example, post- World War II Japan and Germany generated a stupendous rate of economic development and social progress by utilising the governing systems and social infrastructures left behind by America. These two countries and their neighbours fully utilised the help of Western countries in order to help transform their societies. Even though that was a different time and different situation we need the same vision and spirit to help uplift human conditions in the MENA region using outside help via effective channels.

The effective channels entail involving powerful catalysts and intermediaries sympathetic to the cause of the region. Western civil societies and Western Muslims are such catalysts. Particularly Western Muslims — the common denominators — could play a vital role to help create effective alliances and bridges between the MENA region and Western societies.

One indispensable tool of success is the content of a constitution: the rules of law that would govern a society. Therefore drafting a constitution is of extreme importance that cannot be left only to the newly elected representatives who are often inexperienced and gripped with power struggles and conflicts of interest. These representatives should work with a team of international scholars and experts selected by another team of civil society leaders from around the world and endorsed by the UN to work as a watchdog in the country. If this group is legitimised and empowered by the presence and support of the international community there is a good chance the draft and the subsequent referendum would help establish healthy checks and balances in governance and help create a healthy political culture and civil society.

Furthermore, the region should focus on creating better societies, better governments and better future by integrating societies, rather than becoming consumed by quick justice and wholesale chastisement of all layers of people who were supporters and sympathisers of the old regimes.

There should be a way out for many people and groups in the region, if the way out is offered many would leave power and the battlefields sooner rather than later. They still have the power; they could make the struggles prolonged, costly, depleting and bloody and eventually could cause societies to polarise again.

This counterproductive scenario could be avoided following the wisdom and vision of the Prophet (peace be upon him) in giving general amnesty after the great success of “the fall of Mecca”. Through amnesty — as happened in countless places in history — he helped integrate society instantly and made it a glaring success.

The most unfortunate reality is that the Arab leadership lacks the vision, unity and political will. The rebel leaders, on the other hand, lack the experience and expertise needed to deal with transitional regimes and global powers, while the Western powers lack the legitimacy and credibility to be forceful and effective. There must be powerful catalysts that could help bring these indispensable players together into the fold of a winning agenda. The experience and expertise of Western civil societies and the Western Muslims fit the task.

* The writer, Ruby Amatulla, is executive director of the US-based Muslims for Peace, Justice and Progress, an organisation dedicated to promoting constructive engagement between the Muslim world and the West. *

MPJP Outreach Director in Truthout

Cross-posted from Truthout:

http://truth-out.org/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=3680:transnati…

Transnational Peoples Movements Form to Respond to Transnational Injustice
By Matthew Cappiello and Kevin Zeese
Truthout Op-Ed

In an era where multinational corporations and linked international security networks exert increasing control over our daily lives, we have to fight their attempts to profit off our divided and balkanized communities by establishing independent connections with one another. Even though the United States has caused many horrible things around the world, there is still a powerful movement of people in this country that will stand up for justice for the world’s underserved populations when needed.

The Kool-Aid of the propagandistic corporate media, political duopoly partisans and Islamophobes want to divide people of the world in order to divide and rule because unity makes people stronger and harder to control.

Transnational citizen’s movements are developing to respond to transnational political and economic elites. Some of the most famous American voices for peace and justice have signed a solidarity statement with top Egyptian activists, in order to affirm common goals and principles required to bring real change on both sides of the globe. Noted American activists such as Noam Chomsky and noted Egyptian activists such as Asmaa Mahfouz and Ahmed Maher have signed in support for one another’s common transnational goals.Their statement is coupled with a vow to stand in solidarity with the October2011 Movement, beginning on October 6 (in Washington, DC’s, Freedom Plaza) and October 7 (in Egypt’s Tahrir Square), and we have found the ultimate antidote to anti-Americanism – mutual empathy for one another’s common grievances.

US-based signatories to the statement such as Chomsky and Chris Hedges remain well aware that wealth disparities, health disparities and military-industrial handouts have destroyed our nation and turned democracy into a charade. And so do Egypt-based signatories such as Ahmed Maher and Waleed Rashed from the April 6 Movement and Asmaa Mahfouz from the January YouTube video that brought thousands to the streets, as they see parallels between American struggles and their own struggles against oppression.

Does anyone really think that the crony capitalism of the barons of Wall Street is so much different than the entrenched cronyism of the Egyptian military leadership, many of whom only switched sides from Mubarak to the revolution once they knew the ship was going to sink? Despite the comparative numbers of dollars spent, does anyone think that US financial support of boondoggle Egyptian military contractors differs substantially from US financial support of boondoggle Iraqi contractors? Does anyone really think that the struggles for health care and labor justice in this country differ in principle from the struggles of Egyptian doctors and teachers fighting for a living wage and decent infrastructure?

Transnational citizen movements have become easier thanks to technology. The Internet really can connect common people on both sides of the globe and allow us to see shared truths hidden by corporate and state media. We are learning that major social media networks such as Twitter still shill out to Wall Street every once in a while. Not only has October2011 joined with the Egyptians, but the movement has joined with the Indignados of Spain on our common Road to Dignity. From the beginning, the October2011 Movement has called out to the world, their mutual support recognizing “that only together can we achieve our shared goals.”

Moreover, small protests localized to merely one country or region won’t cut it for issues nowadays that are exacerbated by pernicious special interests on both sides of the world or that affect the entire planet, like climate change. We need the truest possible expressions of international solidarity. We need large and simultaneous protests against common problems on both sides of the globe – or at least one large protest on one side of the globe, coupled with skilled advocates on the other side that can identify the right policymakers or venues within which to redress the relevant grievances.

For instance, if we want to reallocate larger portions of US foreign aid to Egypt’s military to grassroots civil society organizations instead, we must remember that both status quo Egyptian stalwarts and finely greased United States lobbyists will campaign hard against any changes. We’ve seen this in America every year, when defense lobbyists strangle our ability to decrease our own defense budget. A similar story bears true for civil society aid itself. On the United States side, 85 percent of United States Agency for International Development handouts> since January 25 have been funneled to US-based organizations rather than to Egyptians themselves;, while on the Egyptian side, corruption and poor management have prevented many beneficial effects of foreign aid from actually reaching the people. Effective transnational collaboration among activists is essential if we wish to entertain any hope of change.

Make no mistake, though – we must still entertain this hope. Real participatory democracy is needed in both Egypt and the United States as well as many other countries. Foreign cash flow is rolling into Egypt for vague terms like “democracy promotion” and to November parliamentary elections, often at an uneasily high level relative to current confidence in the integrity of political and electoral infrastructure. Disunity, backdoor manipulation and a significant lack of citizen political education all threaten upcoming constitutional talks, just like it did in post-2003 Iraq. More Americans recognize the mirage of our democracy as the two parties vie for corporate cash, with Obama seeking the first billion dollar campaign, often charging $35,800 to attend one event – more than the median individual income of Americans.

In addition, America’s selective and capricious support for Arab Spring movements while at other times supporting brutal Arab dictators, continued building of US military bases in the region, along with the already announced veto of Palestinian statehood, threatens a looming wave of frustration and anti-Americanism, all of which might be manipulated by pundits and corporate media in order to make these movements look like extremists. We need to stand strong against such challenges to reform.

If we want to see Egypt take the next step from revolution to authentic democracy, we need to build an international solidarity movement for political and economic change in the region which rivals the South African anti-apartheid movement or the post-war rebuilding of Germany and Japan in terms of its optimism and resolve. We need to take back the narrative of current history from the pundits who say, “Failure of revolutions is inevitable,” or, “Middle Eastern countries will inevitably devolve into ethnic infighting,” or even that “models of democracy are incompatible with Muslim-majority societies.” This type of cynicism is a cancer; and they are false.

In fact, these cynical talking points only serve the rhetorical interests of the elites in the Arab Spring nations, who caused many of these problems in the first place, along with opportunistic American political and financial elites, who are more concerned with hoarding wealth and power rather than justice. They avoid a larger discussion about the real issues of importance – namely, the socioeconomic inequalities and societal injustices which brought members of both the Arab Spring movements and the October2011 Movement to the streets. More well-established transnational partnerships between our activist movements will shatter the myth that both sides of the globe have to remain ideologically suspicious of one another’s intentions, and will draw more attention to our common problems that elites on both sides of the globe want us to avoid.

As many are repeating across the blogosphere, Egypt’s upcoming electoral and constitutional efforts will serve as an indicator of the viability of the Arab Spring protests to generate pragmatic change. The United States has a poor history with reform movements in the Middle East, but the country is not monolithic. Some of us actually take the idea of America seriously – stated simply by the October2011.org movement as a society which supports “human needs, not corporate greed.” If we wish to move forward in a manner that transcends rather than repeats history, we must realize that, together, we are far larger than the sum of our parts.

MPJP-Egyptian joint protest covered in Al Masry Al Youm

Cross-posted from Al Masry Al Youm:

http://www.egyptindependent.com/news/planned-us-protest-gains-egyptian-s…

Planned US Protest Gains Egyptian Support
By Max Strasser

Egyptian activists are lending their support to a planned protest in Washington, DC, which US activists hope will become an open-ended sit in modeled on the Tahrir Square protests that helped bring down former President Hosni Mubarak.

The demonstration, which is being organized under the banner “human needs not corporate greed,” will be held on 6 October, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the start of the US occupation of Afghanistan and as the recently passed US budget takes effect.

Egyptian activists plan to hold a concurrent protest in Tahrir Square.

A pledge on October2011.org, the website of the coalition organizing the protests, says that protesters will commit to maintaining a sit in as long as any “US troops contractors, or mercenaries remain in Afghanistan.”

Statements from the organizers say that the protest will also address issues of social, environmental and economic justice. The focus of the protest is the US federal budget, which has been a contentious issue in recent months as the US congress prepares to impose new austerity measures.

The website says protesters have “the intention of making it our Tahrir Square.”

Egyptian and US activists released on 21 September a “statement of solidarity” between “Egyptian revolutionaries and October2011.org participants.”

“While our nations face many different challenges and remain thousands of miles and cultures apart, we find that we share many of the same concerns within our respective countries,” the statement says in English and Arabic.

The statement has the support of several Egyptians, including veteran activist Alaa Abd El Fattah and Asmaa Mahfouz, a blogger and activist who was recently detained by the military for comments she made on Facebook and Twitter, and others.

American signatories include noted dissident Noam Chomsky and writer and thinker Chris Hedges, a former Middle East bureau chief for the New York Times, as well as many other progressive activists.

US organizers hope that the statement of solidarity will help build momentum.

“Everybody in America dreams of the day when 100,000 people rush onto Freedom Plaza [in Washington, DC] and demand change from their politicians,” says Matthew Cappiello, a political activist who is part of the coalition organizing the 6 October protest. “A lot of these protest movements [in the US] need a kick in the pants. We haven’t been able to captivate the eyes of average Americans.”

Cappiello says, “Just as the American and international media can help protest movements in the Middle East, American protesters also need help from around the world.”

The statement of solidarity lists four points of agreement: The people of the US and Egypt both require real democracy that represents the views of the people; US foreign policy must stop undermining the Egyptian democracy movement; both countries need to end the wealth divide and create “sustainable economies for the 21st century”; and both countries need to respect human rights, including ending torture.

Activists are also using the joint statement to raise issues concerning US aid to Egypt. Eighty-five percent of US funding for democracy and governance programming has gone to US-based NGOs, something Cappiello called “unacceptable.”

Abdallah Helmy, a founding member of the Revolution Youth who signed the statement and has been coordinating with US activists for over five months, believes that this is an important opportunity for not just Egyptian or US activists, but forces of change around the world.

“We need to send governments a message,” Helmy says. “We can connect networks around the world. We have common goals, common views and common causes.”

“We are changing the concept of international relations, making it civil society to civil society, not through governments or ordinary channels.”

MPJP in Washington DC’s Freedom Plaza

Cross-posted from Aslan Media:

http://aslanmedia.com/letters-from/57-letters-from-occupyamerica/342-sto…

(From “Letters to Occupy America”)

WASHINGTON, D.C.- What started out months ago as a rally only to protest the war in Afghanistan on the eve of its 10th anniversary, has now meshed with the national Occupy Wall Street movement. This week in Washington DC’s Freedom Plaza, just steps from the White House, people from both movements have joined together to form the “Stop The Machine! Create A New World!“ rally which brought together the varied grievances of many into a single demonstration.

Rather than feeling marginalized, protesters seemed energized by the cooperation of both groups. Instead of highlighting only one issue, they were able to show the general discontent that people are feeling right now toward the state of affairs in the United States. The start of the protest was to coincide not only with the anniversary of the Afghanistan war but also with the beginning of the 2012 Federal Austerity Budget, which people worry will cut funding for badly needed social programs while increasing military spending.

Carrie Stoner walked 9 days and 200 miles to DC from her home in Clarksburg, West Virginia. Stoner said that what motivated her journey was the diversity of the rally. “I could go attend a rally for women’s rights, which matters to me. I could go to a rally to protest war, which matters to me. I could go to a rally to protest Wall Street, which matter to me. And I could be at a rally to support gay marriage, which matters to me,” Stoner told Aslan Media. “But here we can say it all at once.”

“Carrie is the reason I’m here,” said Yvonne Scott. Scott, who drove to DC from Albuquerque, New Mexico, said “I saw her journey on Facebook and I said, ‘If she can walk 200 miles, I can put my sorry ass in a car and drive to D.C.’”

Throughout the day, Freedom Plaza turned into a sounding board for issues. Many people at the rally were there to raise awareness about environmental, LGBT and education issues. Protesters seemed to thrive in the milieu of Freedom Plaza, using this time and place to discuss everything from hydraulic fracturing to religious freedom.

But the anti-war sentiment was strongest. The majority of people carried anti-war signs, or stood by memorials that they had built. Some were there because of family members who had been killed in the wars in the Middle East, while others were there to demand the safe return of friends and family still fighting. Many were there simply to voice their opposition to violence as a solution.

The memorials to fighting and fallen soldiers surrounded Freedom Plaza. One included sculptures of U.S. fighter jets. Another displayed the shoes of civilians and soldiers lost to the wars. Veterans for Peace were also out in full force, and just like most people at the rally, many of their messages touched on more than just wars.

Rooj Alwazir with Yemani Youth Abroad for Change is a member of the Occupy DC fundraising committee. She, along with dozens of other protesters, has been sleeping on sidewalks and in McPherson Square in downtown Washington, DC and plans on occupying the area for the long hall. “This is my new home,” Alwazir said. “We are not going to leave. We are not going to be done until we get what we want.”

For Matthew Cappiello of Muslims for Peace, Justice and Progress, the target audience is not only the U.S. government but also the U.S. Muslim community. Cappiello hopes that Occupy DC, in combination with the Arab Spring and the April 6 youth movement in Egypt, can inspire American Muslims to get active in U.S. foreign policy. “It’s not that I don’t think there is already good intention,” said Cappiello. “But there needs to be more ambition in the American Muslim population” to affect U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa. Cappiello thinks that many American Muslims and MENA ex-patriots living in the U.S. have become disengaged and disenchanted with U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa because it usually doesn’t work out or because the U.S. foreign aid ends up in the wrong hands. But he hopes that these rallies can revitalize the American Muslim community. “They do have the ability to impact foreign policy,” Cappiello said.

Alwazir says that the Arab Spring is what inspired her activism. “I never felt connected until the Arab Spring,” said Alwazir. But after the Arab Spring she says she felt a responsibility. “I had the advantage of not only knowing a lot about Yemen but having people I know there.” Alwazir said that she thinks the entire OccupyDC movement was inspired by the Arab Spring. “A lot of people watched what happened in Egypt especially and felt inspired that this non-violent, leaderless movement can really work.”

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