SHAFAQNA-- The town of Meiktila in central Myanmar presents a tranquil scene on a hot April day: A woman presses juice from sugar cane while customers loll around in the midday heat. The town is right in the center of the country, on a broad and arid plain where white cows graze among palm trees and pointy pagodas. It's a bustling trading post on the road between the Myanmarese capital, Naypyidaw, and the country's second-largest city, Mandalay.
But just down the street, there is evidence of a conflagration: Large areas have been reduced to heaps of charred rubble. In a Muslim neighborhood, the Thiri Mingalar Mosque still stands, but its facade is blackened and some of its minarets have been smashed.
The debris is left from three days of rioting between Buddhists and Muslims last month. Muslims account for a third of the town's population of around 10,000. Their homes and mosques were the worst hit.
This week, the European Union recognized reforms in Myanmar, formerly Burma, by lifting all sanctions except for an arms embargo. But human-rights groups were quick to criticize the decision. They are concerned about recent violence between Buddhists and Muslims, and they say that the government is either negligent in stopping it, or worse, complicit in it.
Violence In Western Myanmar
Last year, more than 100 people were killed in sectarian violence in Myanmar's western Rakhine state, bordering Bangladesh. Now the tensions appear to have spread to its heartland and threaten to undermine the country's nascent democratic reforms.
Violence among religious groups was largely suppressed during more than a half-century of military rule. What shocked many folks about the riots in Meiktila was that their apparent cause was no bigger than a hairpin.
Local media reports say it began when a Buddhist couple went to a jewelry store to sell a gold hairpin. The Muslim store owners damaged the tiny ornament. An argument ensued and the store owners beat up the customers.
The store owners were recently sentenced to 14 years each in jail. Ethnic Indian Muslims are predominant in the Myanmarese gold trade, which has been a source of economic rivalry with some of the ethnic Burman majority.
Soon after the fight at the shop, Muslim food vendor Mohammed Sharif, 29, says he saw Buddhist mobs in the streets, shouting as if they were drunk.
"I saw they were armed," he says, "and they were shouting 'Kill the Kalars!' They were carrying swords."
Kalar is a racist slur directed at people of darker skin color.
Many Muslims saw the mobs seek shelter at a local stadium, which is where I met Muslim resident Win Sint Soe. He says that a group of men offered to escort his brother and his brother's family to safety. But he says it was a trick.
"They gave my brother a choice of who in his family would live," he recounts. "He told his wife to go and not look back. My brother sacrificed his life. The police later arrested one of the murderers.
U Win Htein, a member of the opposition National League for Democracy who represents Meiktila in Parliament, says that at first, armed mobs prevented police and firefighters from rescuing victims. Only when the authorities got Buddhist monks to ride on the fire engines would the angry crowds let them approach the blazing buildings, he says.
Win Htein says he witnessed a Buddhist mob attacking an Islamic school where scores of Muslims were sheltering. He says he asked the police to intervene, but the Muslims were dragged out and killed while the police just stood there and watched.
"I saw seven people killed in front of my eyes," he says. So I felt disgusted, because [the police] were like statues, just standing there."
Win Htein notes that at the time, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi told local authorities to use force, if necessary, to stop the violence, saying she would take responsibility for the decision. But local authorities declined to act. This may have been, Win Htein speculates, because authorities had been harshly criticized for injuring monks during a crackdown on protesters at the Chinese-invested Letpadaung mine last year.
After three days of rioting, President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency and sent troops to Meiktila. Dozens were arrested. But by then, 46 people had been killed and 1,500 homes destroyed.
Little Trust In Security Forces
While some people accuse security forces of inaction, others blame them for secretly stirring up the unrest, either to distract from other problems or to create a mess they could take credit for cleaning up.
Many Myanmarese assume this is the situation because they've seen or heard about it before. In 1967, for example, authorities tacitly allowed the spread of anti-Chinese riots, partly because they diverted public anger away from soaring rice prices.
At a Buddhist temple near the center of town, vendor Sharif is collecting a sack of food and medicine from civil society groups. Like many Muslims in Meiktila, he is the descendant of Indian immigrants to then-Burma. He says he trusts his Buddhist neighbors. That's why he's staying at home, and not in the stadium with other refugees. And that's why he believes the violence was instigated by outsiders.
"I have lived here since I was born," Sharif says. "Muslims and Buddhists have been living together and there have never been any problems, so I feel that someone's manipulating things behind the scenes."
Veteran pro-democracy activist Min Ko Naing, who was in Meiktila during the violence, says he saw people he believed to be professional "terrorists," who were clearly organized and wearing matching wristbands. But he declines to say who these people might be.
Some reports blame Buddhist extremists for inciting the riots with anti-Muslim hate speech. They point to a Mandalay-based monk named U Wirathu. He leads a Buddhist group known as 969 that discourages Buddhists from intermarrying or doing business with Muslims.
But many Buddhists reject that interpretation of their religion. Sharif's neighbor is a Buddhist man whose first name is Min Tun.
"This violence," he says, "is a failure of Buddhist mindfulness, wisdom and lovingkindness."
Min Tun asked that we not reveal his family name. That's because he is sheltering a Muslim friend in his home.
SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association) -- More than 70 prominent Chinese scholars and lawyers have urged the country's new Communist Party leaders to undertake moderate political reforms including separating the party from government, though they avoid any mention of ending one-party rule.
The petition drafted by Peking University law professor Zhang Qianfan calls on the party to rule according to the constitution, protect freedom of speech, encourage private enterprise and allow for an independent judicial system. It also calls for the people to be able to elect their own representatives without interference from the Communist Party.
Zhang said there is an urgent need for change to better address the widespread problems the country faces, such as social inequity, abuse of government powers and corruption.
"China runs the risk of revolution and chaos if it does not change," Zhang said.
The document echoes some of the requests made in Charter 08, a 2008 manifesto that made an unusually direct call for an end to single-party rule and other democratic reforms. The manifesto landed its lead architect, dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, in prison for inciting subversion — an 11-year term he is still serving.
The petition, released on Christmas Day, adopts a milder tone, asking the party leadership to rule within existing laws.
"It is indeed mild," Zhang said Wednesday. "We hope it can be accepted by the government and will kick off conversations between the government and the people and among the public."
China's communist leaders have tolerated no political challenges to their authority since the military crushed pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Many dissidents have been harassed into inactivity, imprisoned or exiled.
The petition, made public 40 days after the party installed its new leadership for the next five years, is the latest effort by Chinese intellectuals to push for political reform in a country that many believe is in urgent need of change but also has become more divided. Zhang said he wants to build consensus among people from various factions with often conflicting views.
"Though the people are disgusted by many social injustices, they are yet to have consensus on how to reform the system that creates the injustices, and that has divided and weakened the drive for reform from the people," reads the petition in its opening lines.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying did not comment on the petition during a routine briefing but said China does not suppress media freedom.
But by mid-afternoon Wednesday, the petition had been scrubbed off Zhang Qianfan's profile on the popular microblog site, Sina Weibo.
Beijing-based independent scholar Zhang Lifan is one of the signees. Though he is less optimistic that China's ruling party will initiate political change, he is not giving up. "We are treating a dead horse as if it were still alive," said Zhang, referring to the prospect of political reform.
It is important for the public to let its will be known, said Zhang, who is not related to the Peking University professor. "We'd rather have reform instead of revolution, because that would cost the least," said Zhang, who had also signed Charter 08.
Another signatory is the 85-year-old eminent attorney and human rights advocate Zhang Sizhi, known among Chinese lawyers as "the conscience of the legal world." Zhang said the petition's suggestions would not be unfamiliar to the country's leaders.
"The content of the letter is not new to the country's rulers. They are all clear about it. The question is whether they will take action or not," Zhang Sizhi said. "I can only hope so."
The petition is too mild for some in the dissident community who noted that it does not call for the release of political prisoners such as Liu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize while in prison.
Hong Kong-based Chinese free-speech activist Wen Yunchao said the requests made in the petition were sound but the style in which it was written was "too subservient."
"It's like they are slaves, kneeling there and writing it," Wen said. He said the proposed changes should have been stated more directly.
Wen said the petition wrongly interprets a report released by Communist Party after a recent conclave as indicating the central leadership's resolve to push forward political reforms. "The problem is that these are utter lies," Wen said. "I think that for them to raise their requests in this way is a very terrible thing."
SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association) - China's incoming leaders face a growing clamour for reform as the days count down to the country's once-a-decade power transition, with demands for changes across the policy spectrum: from reining in the vast state-owned enterprises to increasing the accountability of cadres.
"Economic and political reforms must go together," urged an editorial in the influential magazine Caixin last week. "Too often, the heavy hand of government in the market and the dominance of state monopolies stifle competition, distort the market and allow rent-seeking and corruption to thrive.
"Abuses of power have wreaked havoc in society, causing political divisions, the income gap to widen and animosity between government and people. The polarisation and fragmentation in society is deeply worrying ... If reformers don't check the abuse of power and push for political reform, China could easily lose the gains it has made."
Many saw the current leaders as potential reformers when they took office. Now, however, they are accused of missing opportunities and maintaining the status quo.
"Deng Xiaoping had a famous saying about how reform should go: 'Crossing the river by feeling the stones'," said Gao Wenqian, previously an official researcher and now a senior policy adviser at the New York-based Human Rights in China, who says that he is sceptical that any significant changes will actually materialise. "The present situation is 'feeling the stones, but not crossing the river'."
"The effervescence of the debate in recent weeks over reform and the Chinese Communist party's future is consistent with the atmosphere that always precedes a leadership turnover," noted Christopher Johnson of the US thinktank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
The handover process begins on Thursday, when delegates gather for the 18th party congress in Beijing. A week or so later, the new politburo standing committee – the country's top political body – will be unveiled.
Xi Jinping is Hu Jintao's designated successor as China's leader. It is assumed that Li Keqiang will replace Wen Jiabao as prime minister, but the full composition of the standing committee remains uncertain. It is expected to shrink from nine to seven members, which should make decision-making easier in the consensus-based system and, potentially, pave the way to bolder moves.
The latest indications, however, suggest that figures who are thought to be more open to reform – such as Li Yuanchao, head of the powerful Organisation Department, and the Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang – have not been selected, though some believe Li may squeeze in.
Optimists say that a younger generation of leaders may be more willing to rethink policy. They have more experience of the outside world; they have studied subjects such as law rather than engineering; and Xi has the confidence that comes of being born into a powerful communist family.
Reformers are also buoyed by a recent meeting between Xi and Hu Deping, an influential liberal figure, and the fact that thinktanks have been drawing up proposals for overhauling the economy. They argue that problems such as corruption and state inefficiency have accumulated and become more obvious over the last decade.
"In the past, the high speed of economic growth could ease the problems. China's pace of economic development has declined right now, and it has exposed the social problems," said Gao.
Others say that meetings and proposal requests commit Xi to nothing, and that any plans he develops will require the agreement of colleagues and party elders. In particular, the sceptics insist, any political reforms that do occur are likely to be minor, most likely in the form of fresh attempts to explore "intra-party democracy".
That, argues Jeremy Paltiel, an expert on the Communist party at Carleton University in Canada, is simply a contradiction. "The party cannot be an organisation of executives who are subject to a single discipline and at the same time a deliberative assembly of people free to present their opinions and pursue their interests," he said.
"If the discipline were to be relaxed, the party would cease to function as the backbone of the state and lower levels could no longer be relied upon to follow the will of the centre."
Neither are economic reforms straightforward. Ideological opposition may have faded – these days, elders such as former president and prime minister Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji have their own record of reform – but in its place are powerful vested interests. Economic and political power are more closely wed than ever.
Another powerful deterrent is the lesson the elite has drawn from the Soviet Union – that it would be most vulnerable at the moment of reform. Only a crisis, many think, could prompt major change. But in the end, argued the Beijing-based scholar Deng Yuwen, the future course of China must be down to its people. "Whether reform can happen depends on society, not the leaders," he said.
"If society strongly demands reform, even if the leaders don't want to do it, they have to. For that reason, I think that the next generation will carry out stronger and more powerful reform than before."
SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association) — The extraordinary hubris of Silvio Berlusconi never ceases to amaze. After being sentenced to four years in jail for tax fraud committed at his Mediaset broadcasting business, the former prime minister of Italy went on his own TV channel, Mediaset’s TG5, to share his side.
The interview, which you can see here (in Italian), ran with a tagline underneath:
“We will respond to this barbarity.”
Berlusconi’s indignation after being sentenced in Milan over television rights.
Berlusconi led with the same story he’s used before. At no time while serving his country did he exercise power over his broadcasting group. (Berlusconi was convicted of conspiring to buy rights to broadcast US movies through offshore companies, while falsely declaring payments to avoid taxes). Why the judge would see things any other way can only be explained as political. Clearly the judge was predisposed against him, he said.
At one point, he’s asked to share his reaction to the judge’s explanation for the four-year sentence. The judge is quoted as saying it’s because of Berlusconi’s “natural capacity for criminality.”
“This is the most incredible part of the sentencing,” says Berlusconi. He’s then given ample time to trot out his many good deeds as a citizen, including his longstanding role as an exceptional business leader, world political leader, father and grandfather.
Will he return to politics after the five-year ban imposed by the judge?
I feel forced to remain in politics to reform the justice system, so that what happened to me will not happen to other citizens.
Berlusconi can be confident that his age and the lengthy appeals process will save him from serving any actual jail time. Nonetheless, Italian citizens worried about suffering the vagaries of their justice system might want to wait before engaging in multi-million-euro tax fraud. Berlusconi later clarified that his future political career will not include another run for the premiership, the position in which he’d be able to do the most damage—sorry, “reform”.
SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association) — The head of the NHS has laid bare his fears that the government's controversial reforms of the health service could end in "misery and failure".
Sir David Nicholson, chief executive of the NHS, said high-profile, politically driven changes almost always end in disaster. He warned against "carpet bombing" the NHS with competition but said that competition was best used like a "rifle shot" to fix problems.
The outspoken comments, made to GPs at a conference held by the Royal College of General Practitioners, puts Nicholson on a collision course with the new health secretary, Jeremy Hunt. Last week Hunt told the Conservative party conference that the NHS reforms devised byAndrew Lansley to open up the NHS to private providers and give extra powers to GPs were "brave and right". But Nicholson, who has until now kept his concerns private, revealed tensions between the government and the highest echelons of the NHS at the meeting held just over a week ago.
Nicholson said that he believed the reforms could serve patients well by offering them choice, and testing current failing services with competition. But the Observer has learned that he also voiced his worries about the potential burden of extra responsibilities given to GPs, including negotiating with private health providers. He said: "If we are creating a system where general practitioners feel it is their job to do all that, then I think we have a massive problem. We need to create the right kind of people with the right kind of skills, which we are trying to do at the moment through commissioning support, to enable people to focus their attention on clinical decision-making.
"My advice to anyone – and I have been involved in the last five or six years with the national programme for IT, and I have, as they say, the scars on the back around all of that – is that big, high-profile, politically driven objectives and changes like this almost always end in misery and failure."
Lansley was removed from the Department of Health in the last reshuffle but the government continues to pursue its £3bn shakeup of the NHS. This month 6,000 NHS services are up for tender to the private and third sector – such as voluntary and community services – includingdiabetes education, glaucoma treatment, abortion clinics and minor oral surgery.
Nicholson told GPs that he believed competition could be healthy, but reiterated a warning issued by the chair of the health select committee, Stephen Dorrell. Nicholson told the meeting: "It is very effective when it is used as a rifle shot to deal with specific issues rather than a carpet bombing."
Nicholson added that he believed the reforms were an opportunity to keep the politicians out of the NHS. He added: "I'm an optimist by nature, I have been a health service manager for the last 35 years." But in regard to the reform programme, he added: "What it does do is change the nature of the relationship between government and the NHS in a really profound way. We can conspire to stop it if we want to. We now have an NHS commissioning board, clinical commissioning groups, whose responsibilities are in law, statutory bodies with a legal framework. No longer is the NHS what the secretary of state said it would be. It creates much more difficulty for politicians to arbitrarily get involved in the day-to-day operations of the NHS."
A source close to Nicholson said the NHS chief had been attempting to rally GPs involved in the reforms to work with the changes.
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham seized on Nicholson's comments. He said: "David Nicholson is a man who has the NHS at heart, so it is worrying to hear him talk in these terms. He has put on a brave face in public, but clearly has private concerns about the real damage this reorganisation is doing.
"His open acknowledgment of the possibility of it ending in failure will send shock waves through the NHS and provide a stark illustration of the sheer scale of the gamble the government is taking."
A Department of Health spokesperson said: "David Nicholson was speaking in favour of increased autonomy of our NHS and about strong local leadership of healthcare, which is something the government supports."
SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association) — One week ago, the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Board of Education reached an agreement on teacher contracts. But, what most pundits still don't realize is that the strike wasn't really about the contracts or the unions. It was about stopping the assault on public education, teachers, and children.
You know what's hurting kids in Chicago and elsewhere? Contrary to media reports, it's not the teachers union. It’s the corporate reform takeover—mayoral, not local control, closing schools and turning them over to charter corporations, evaluation of students and teachers with test scores, and weakening teachers unions. These policies are backed by billionaires, many of whom have never stepped foot in a public school classroom in their lives and they've blossomed thanks to the passing of President Bush's No Child Left Behind and President Obama's Race to the Top initiative.
In Chicago—as in many places—Mayor Rahm Emanuel and corporate reformers have waged a war on teachers. During the strike we heard that Chicago teachers are overpaid—elementary and secondary teachers combined earn an average of $71,236. An analysis found that public school teachers make 94 cents for every dollar earned by workers in 16 comparable occupations. Why are the people who hold our children's minds in their hands paid the lowest of the low? Politicians who say that teachers are overpaid are living in a parallel universe. Many of my teachers pay for classroom supplies out of their own pocket. And they work damn hard. Please show them some respect.
Next is the fuzzy teacher evaluation system. Under Obama's Race to the Top initiative, for states to be eligible to receive funds, they were forced to revamp their evaluation systems to allow for standardized test scores to be tied to teachers’ evaluation. Emanuel followed his former boss' lead. Now, he wants test scores to represent as much as 40 percent of evaluations. His logic behind this is very crooked.
Unless you balance every classroom in terms of ESL, special education, behavioral tendencies, and socio-economic status, tying scores to evaluation is "flawed, dubious, and inaccurate" on many levels. The director of the University of Chicago Lab School, the very school where Mayor Rahm Emanuel's kids attend, has even publicly criticized the use of standardized test scores for teacher evaluation measures.
When you have such evaluation changes, teaching to the test becomes the dominant pedagogy in classrooms, because if scores aren't raised, teachers are fired. Instead of educating the whole child with math, English, science, social, studies, the arts, music, and physical education, for most students, an entire month of schooling is allocated to drilling, killing, and bubble filling. Emanuel has made the testing corporations very wealthy in his tenure as Chicago mayor. Schools have become test prep factories, churning out obedient and submissive graduates year after year.
The job of a teacher isn't to raise test scores, but rather to create lifelong learners and active participants and citizens in our democracy. Stephen Covey once remarked, "Reducing children to a test score is the worst form of identity theft we could commit in schools." I am not a number; I am a human being. It's time to finally acknowledge the national testing experiment has not only failed miserably, but has gone haywire. We need to end this inappropriate high-stakes testing regime.
Why should politicians with no teaching experience come in and tell teachers how to do their job? Parents and teachers should only begin to believe a politician's education proposals if they will send their own children to the schools they prescribe for others. Emanuel would certainly scoff at such a suggestion.
The strike may be over but the root issues still exist. Instead of corporate reform, if we want to really create change in schools, we need to trust teachers, give them autonomy, and most importantly, treat them like professionals. Is that too much to ask?—www.shafaqna.com/English
SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association) — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that he will begin consultations to reform the structure of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in the near future.
“The Non-Aligned Movement needs a (better) structure, and, in view of the permission that I have obtained from the heads of state of the member countries of the Non-Aligned Movement, I will begin consultations to (reform) the structure of the movement in the near future,” Ahmadinejad said during a televised interview broadcast live on Iranian television on Tuesday night.
Making efforts to promote justice, human dignity, and respect for the people’s rights is one of the plans of the Islamic Republic to advance the cause of “joint global governance,” he said.
During the first day of the NAM summit of heads of state and government on August 30, Egypt handed over the rotating presidency of NAM to Iran for a three-year term.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said on Sunday that Iran has initiated efforts to establish a temporary secretariat of the Non-Aligned Movement.
Commenting on widespread criticism of his recent visit to Saudi Arabia to attend an emergency Islamic summit in Mecca on August 14 and 15, Ahmadinejad said that officials that have no responsibility in regard to the country’s foreign policy should not make remarks in this relation.
“Certain people make ill-advised remarks about the foreign policy. We should not insult officials and the leadership of any country, but we can only criticize the policies of governments,” he said.
“Why should we have been absent from the Mecca meeting? Why should we show hostility toward our neighbors?” —www.shafaqna.com/English
Source: Tehran Times
SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association) — North Korea has denied reports from South Korea that major reforms are coming to Pyongyang, describing any potential policy changes in the communist state as a "foolish daydream".
Seoul commentators claimed the changes may have been implemented to set the stage for possible efforts by Swiss-educated Kim Jong-Un to open up the country to political or economic reforms.
A spokesman for the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, which is in charge of cross-border affairs, blasted such hopes as "ridiculous" and "ignorant" in an interview with state-run KCNA on Sunday.
"The puppet group [the South] ... tried to give [the] impression that the present leadership of the DPRK [North Korea] broke with the past. This is the height of ignorance," he said.
"To expect policy change and reform and opening from the DPRK is nothing but a foolish and silly dream, just like wanting the sun to rise in the west."
He also accused Seoul of trying to impose its capitalist system upon the North by "trumpeting reform and opening", adding, "there cannot be any slightest change in all policies" of the communist state.
Kim, believed to be in his late 20s, took the reins of power in December following the death of his father, longtime ruler Kim Jong-Il.
Speculation of impending change was fuelled earlier this month when the communist regime sacked Ri Yong-ho, a prominent military chief, replacing him with a little known general and promoted Jong-Un to the top military post of Marshal.
Pyongyang also made a rare announcement last week that the young ruler is marriedto Ri Sol-ju, believed to be a musician. The unveiling of Ri was seen as a major departure from the past when the private lives of the young leader's predecessors were kept under wraps.
Kim inherited from his father an economy in ruins after decades of mismanagement, and a malnourished population dependent on foreign food aid.
Educated in the West, he has been seen as potentially more receptive than his father to undertaking sweeping reforms which would open up the nation's crumbling economy.
However, the International Crisis Group (ICG) thinktank said last week that there was nothing to suggest that Kim would take measures to improve the lot of his impoverished people in the isolated state.
The Brussels-based thinktank said that economic reform -- however necessary to the country's wellbeing -- would contradict the centrally-planned system espoused by Kim's father and grandfather.
Inter-Korea ties have been particularly icy since the South's conservative leader Lee Myung-Bak took office in 2008, repeatedly urging the North to reform and saying reunification was imminent, despite complaints from Pyongyang.—www.shafaqna.com/english
SHAFAQNA (Shia News Association)— Most of the thousand participants gathered in the Arab League building at the center of Cairo for three days to attend an international conference on reform in the Muslim world were interested to know the answer to this question: Can Turkey’s current successful reform experience inspire reform elsewhere in the Muslim World?
The organizers of the conference never expected so many people would attend their joint Arab-Turkish meeting, as around 1,000 participants from 20 countries attended the first day which included a keynote speech by the President of Al-Azhar University, and more than 500 participants were present in the sessions of the second and third days which mainly focused on the experience of Turkey through a study of the Turkish Gulen Movement, and how it compares to reform efforts elsewhere in the Muslim world. Participants presented a flood of questions at each session, together with many requests for comments and sharing experiences from other Muslim countries, which was a clear reflection of the public enthusiasm for the topic discussed.
So why was there such an interest in this conference on “The Future of Reform in the Muslim World: Experiences in Comparison with the Gulen Movement”? And why did Turkey succeed to implement a comprehensive model of reform, while most other Muslim countries failed, especially in the area of democracy and governance? And what are the main lessons learned from Turkey’s efforts for reform in recent years?
Why the Great Interest?
Many meetings, seminars and conferences dealing with reform in Muslim countries have been held during the last 30 years, with many recommendations and suggestions presented and discussed, so why the wide enthusiasm for this recent International Conference which was held in Egypt from 19 to 21 October 2009?
Within the framework of many initiatives in recent years to increase the dialogue of civilizations among nations for better understanding, peace and tolerance in the world, the Centre of Cultural Studies and Intercultural Dialogue of Cairo University initiated a dialogue with Turkish counterparts, including representatives from The Gulen Movement, in 2007. In 2009, after eight months preparation, they held this conference for wider dialogue with Egypt and the Muslim world, in cooperation with the Turkish Endowment (Waqf) for Academic and Internet Studies, and with Hiraa, the first Turkish magazine in Arabic from Istanbul.
One of the main attractions of this conference on the future of reform in Muslim countries is that it presented one of the rare positive examples of comprehensive change in the Muslim world implemented in recent decades, and it discussed in details the experience of reform in Turkey through the movement of Fethullah Gulen.
How did Turkey Succeed?
So why has Turkey been a success story in reform, while most other Muslim countries have so far not achieved a similar level of comprehensive reform?
Independence is possibly one of the main reasons, and the fact that Turkey was one of the few Muslim countries which was not subject to foreign occupation during the era of European Colonial expansion in the 19th. & 20th. Century. A second factor is Turkey’s geographical location and its close contact with Europe, as part of Turkey is in fact inside Europe, which facilitated the transfer of knowledge and experiences during the last century from other European countries, like Germany, France, … etc.
There is today another positive experience of comprehensive reform taking place in a Muslim country, which is also of wide interest to all Muslims, that of Malaysia. Though it was one of the Muslim countries that suffered from foreign occupation, it was fortunate enough to be governed for nearly 20 years by a leader with vision, Dr. Mahatir Muhammad, who managed to create a strategy and master plan for Malaysia in the 21st century, and who was able to implement that plan with focus on better education and development leading to a strong economy and the country’s rapid progress and modernization.
But Turkey is unique for the Muslim world, due to stronger historical ties since the era of the Ottoman Empire, and for Arab countries, in particular due to the geographical proximity and the stronger historical political, commercial and cultural links established over many centuries. Despite being an extreme secular country since the fall of the Ottoman rule in 1924, and despite its many anti-Islamic policies which were enforced since the rule of Ataturk, Turkey has actually also implemented many positive policies, especially its high concentration on investing in modern education, scientific research and healthcare. After the end of last military dictatorship in 1980, Turkey managed to establish an efficient democratic system with free elections, which were also in general free of fraud.
But the main question still remains unanswered: why are the majority of Arab and Muslim countries not yet going through the process of comprehensive reform experienced in countries like Turkey and Malaysia?
In addition to good education, Turkey also used to be the world’s number one superpower for many centuries, as the Ottomans assumed a political leader’s role in many parts of Europe, Asia and Africa for more than five centuries, and therefore had an important heritage in reserve as a reliable reference for progress and the creation of civilization.
But what else helped them achieve reform?
Lessons Learned from The Gulen Movement
Social reform movements, like the Gulen Movement established by Mr. Fethullah Gulen in the late 1970s, were key contributions by the Turkish civil society that complemented reform efforts undertaken by the state. The Gulen movement, as one of the main social reform movements in Turkey in recent decades, understood very well the socio-economic and political changes taking place not only in Turkey, but also in Europe and around the world.
With a pragmatic approach, inside Turkey, the movement decided to avoid political confrontations with local authorities, whether the military or the secular local elite. Where political doors were closed and locked, Gulen and his followers saved their effort, time and resources and moved to other reform areas where they could benefit their country and contribute to progress and development. Political change would eventually take place later on.
With this approach, Education became their top priority, and they managed to establish more than 700 schools throughout the country which offered a distinguished level of modern quality education, with a new approach, that of serving society. In these schools, the best teachers are recruited and trained not only in technical teaching matters, but also to offer students something extra, the manners of Islam and its refined spiritual teachings. These schools became important centers for building a new generation of modern Turkish leaders, professionals, scientists … who were to be in harmony with society and with others, and who had in them the mission of reforming their country and serving their society in all fields of life. Teachers in these schools consider themselves to be on a mission for reform, not just performing a regular teaching job. With their love for teaching and their love for others, they were able to make an important positive impact on the generations that graduated from their schools. Education is indeed the foundation of any true reform.
Social solidarity was another important pillar of their reform movement
The Gulen Movement was also able to take advantage of the gap which existed between the Turkish people and their religion, which the anti-Islamic extremists among Turkey’s ruling secular elite created since the time of Ataturk, and established this reform movement on the foundation of a long-term “soft” Islamic agenda, with Sufi roots going back to Nursi, Rumi and Al-Ghazali. As a distinguished and respected writer, thinker and leader with a vision for a better future for his country, Gulen was respected by all, and was focused on the building of civilization through the rebuilding of society, rather than being distracted by politics and political struggles with others who had different ideals and objectives. Building consensus among the Turkish people, and finding common grounds with others, then working together, each in his areas of concentration, for the well-being of all people, was a key success factor. It is not important who is to rule the country, but what is important is that all members of society have a chance to discuss their problems and suggest alternatives to implement positive change for the well-being of all. Political opposition in this context is not just for the sake of opposition, but by offering alternatives and solutions, problems were resolved, and a culture of peaceful co-existence was reached which enabled all parties to work together for the common good of the country.
Social solidarity was another important pillar of their reform movement, and through the efficient collection and distribution of Zakah and charity, the Gulen Movement was able to help thousands of families out of poverty, and to offer educational grants to thousands of students both at the school and university level.
Building bridges with others for reaching consensus was one of the main factors which allowed the Gulen movement to help the country advance and progress. Mr. Gulen was able to bring people together and make them identify common grounds, despite their differences, then work together.
Through The Writers and Journalists Foundation, which Mr. Gulen participated in founding in Turkey in 1994, he was able to offer Turkish intellectuals and leaders from all schools of thought, political parties, religions and ideologies, a meeting platform to discuss national issues and identify alternatives and solutions for progress and advancement. By applying the values of tolerance and respect for other people’s opinions, and benefiting from their experiences and ideas, The Gulen movement was able to help create a dynamic and positive environment for change.
One of the forums he established in 1998 is the Ebant Platform for dialogue, which organizes regular meetings near a beautiful lake in Northern Turkey, where businessmen and intellectuals from different countries meet to discuss issues of joint concern and interest. These meetings were later also held elsewhere around the world. It is interesting to note that the first president of the Ebant Platform for the first five years was a Muslim, and the second president was agnostic, which reflects the true level of tolerance and respect for others within the movement.
Finally, in the age of globalization, the Gulen movement was able to understand the changes taking place in the world, and take advantage of these changes to further advance their cause. Through the business world and the companies they established, they were able to expand on a global level and communicate with many others in Turkey and around the world through the modern media outlets they were able to establish and own.
As a reform-oriented movement, they are now not only limited to reforming Turkey, but they also offer their social reform experience to the whole world, as serving humanity is part of the teachings of Islam. Today, The Gulen Movement has a growing global impact on promoting dialogue among different faiths, disseminating information, providing health care, fighting poverty, promoting social justice and solidarity, caring for the environment, enlightening public opinion, enhancing the peace process and renouncing violence and terrorism whatever its source.
The lessons learned from the conference and from the Gulen experience were many. The wisdom of Mr. Gulen and his movement in building consensus and working in priority areas of social reform which people need and which are open to voluntary efforts by civil society, rather than simply insisting on political change, was an important reminder that political change in Islam takes place after people change what is in their selves. As mentioned in The Qur’an, ( Lo! Allah changeth not the condition of a folk until they (first) change that which is in their hearts) (Ar-Ra`d 13:11)
The Turkish experience however was a result of its unique historical environment and circumstances, and other Muslim countries should not expect that it could be successfully replicated in its totality, but for example they can benefit from broad ideas and systems, such as real democracy, which allows building consensus by identifying common grounds. What other countries can benefit from is the approach taken by Mr. Gulen in dealing with others, especially non-Muslims, and those who believe in a secular view of the world. There are many common grounds where all people can meet for cooperation and common benefit and Islam encourages such cooperation for the common good.
Diversity in the reform models originates from “The Islamic reference”. Giving a floor for diversity among viewpoints that operates under a unified system is essential and is a clear demonstration of how Islam is a comprehensive system. Moreover, this diversity reflects the true origin of views and is in line with the nature of the political and social realities and responds to the essence of the human nature which is against stereotyping and calls for diversity. Such diversity goes in parallel with the essence of Islam which calls for diversity in harmony with the diversified nature of the universe and social life.
Going back to Islam and granting it as a source of reference is what opens doors and welcomes different interpretations that run in parallel with our reality, that aims at promoting reform, development and welfare to all nations. Such reform achieves maximum efficiency when implemented through institutions like charitable associations and companies, rather than through individuals, and institution-building was one of the factors for the long-term success of Mr. Gulen and his movement.
Two other important general lessons from the Gulen experience are useful to bear in mind. The first is that business leaders from the private sector are important partners in making this positive change take place. It is better to help the poor by giving them a fishing rod than to give them a fish to eat each day, as rather than always keeping them dependent on others, they become independent and eventually productive partners in development, and capable of supporting others who are in need. In today’s world this means support for the creation of successful new small and medium business enterprises, which the business community is capable of funding and managing as part of their contribution to social reform. The second lesson is that serving others, altruism and living for others, rather than simply living for one’s selfish personal interests, together with love for the well-being of others, Shura (mutual consultation) and good Islamic manners, are all important ingredients we need to implement in our reform efforts, which are all part of the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and his guidelines for the well-being of the Ummah (Nation). Finally, reform is a long-term process which needs patience, vision, dedication, consensus for working together and a lot of effort and hard work, not just speech. For the success of such reform efforts in the Muslim World, quality education and good Islamic manners will always remain the main keys for success, together with Shura and democracy.
The intention for reform, from a Muslim point of view, should always be serving society and serving others for the sake of Allah, as expressed in the words of Prophet Shu’aib, peace be upon him, who said: (I desire naught save reform so far as I am able. My welfare is only in Allah. In Him I trust and unto Him I turn (repentant).) (Hud 11:88)
And this right intention is the crucial factor for the success of reform in all Muslim countries.—www.shafaqna.com/english