Sunday, 28 November 2010

A Call Beyond Islam

I recently had the good fortune to attend the prestigious ceremony for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in Doha, Qatar this past week, which is held every three years (in 2007 it was held in Kuala Lumpur). It was a very interesting event, with the Qatari Emir in attendance. Here's the article I wrote for Huffington Post, please check it out (direct link:

A Call Beyond Islam: The Aga Khan Award for Architecture Makes Its Mark

DOHA -- In a room flowing with dignitaries, scholars, architects and other invited guests, the Aga Khancalled for the need to close the gap of ignorance between the Muslim world and the West, asking in particular: Can these societies exchange knowledge but on an equal footing?
It was a challenge very much embodied in the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA) when established in 1977, and which was conferred for the 11th time this year in Qatar on November 24. This year's ceremonies were hosted by the Amir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned (with other notables in attendance). Behind the pomp and protocol, however, was a very important but two-fold message. Certainly, there was the continued recognition of projects that contribute in multi-faceted ways to the societies in which Muslims live. Yet, the Award in a very stark manner recognized a project --the Bridge School in Fujian Province in China -- that was wholly unrelated to the Muslim world, except for the fact that it was an initiative (the Award) inspired by the ethics of Islam that was conferring the recognition.
The Award has been given to 105 projects over its history and was established by the Aga Khan, a philanthropist and spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, with the objective to "enhance the understanding and appreciation of Islamic culture as expressed through architecture." One of the most prolific and methodical honors in the architecture world, the AKAA draws a truly diverse crowd and this year was no exception. The 2010 Master Jury itself included members from an eclectic array of backgrounds, geographically and professionally, including individuals from Syria, China, Senegal, Iran, France, the UK and Saudi Arabia. It was no wonder then that the five selected recipients of the $500,000 Award included a pluralistic collection of projects: the Bridge School in China; a revitalized hypercenter in Tunis; the Wadi Hanifa Wetlands in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; the Ipekyol Textile Factory in Turkey; and theMadinat al-Zahra Museum in Spain.
The recipients truly symbolized the pluralism extant in its multi-faceted dimensions within the Muslim world, which is by no means a monolith, but rather a dynamic confluence of identities. The factory in Turkey was an industrial project that cost $17 million to build and used the essence of natural light to improve an otherwise downcast setting. The Bridge School in China, is at once a school, bridge, and new public meeting-ground in a marginalized village in Fujian province and was constructed at the cost of only $100,000. Meanwhile, the wetlands just outside Riyadh was a $160 million endeavor that reclaimed a neglected but important oasis in Saudi Arabia.
True, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture has recognized people and projects that improve the built environment in Muslim societies and empower Islamic identity and culture. Yet, there is also something post-cultural and post-Islamic that the Award represents. First of all many of the concepts that it has championed, such as local sustainability and environmental stewardship, it has done so ahead of its time starting over 30 years ago. Second, and more importantly, there is a universality in the 'excellence' of the projects. In his speech during the Award ceremony, the Aga Khan asked, "How can we share our lessons with others outside the Ummah?" In this year's cycle, the recognition of the Bridge School in China is particularly instructive. There is no Muslim heritage at the site nor is it in a Muslim area. Yet the principles of sustainable and responsible architecture are no different. When approaching development of the built environment in rural areas, we see a universality of principles, of course applied contextually across geographies.
It is here then that we can see the embryonic phase of an exchange of knowledge on equal footing between the proverbial West and Muslim world. That exchange is truly about the universality of knowledge and ideas, which need not be bound by geography or religion. The Vatican plays host to the ubiquitous portrayal of the School of Athens by Raphael. Within this painting is the portrait of Ibn Rushd or Averroes, amidst the historic scholars of Plato and Aristotle. Yet who is this Arab Ibn Rushd inhabiting the quintessential landscape of Western civilization? Averroes as he is known in the West, was not only responsible for the preservation and endowment to European thought of many of the ancient scholars of antiquity, but he also was the pioneer in conceptualizing the coexistence of secular philosophy and religious thought, his influence reverberating to this very day.
The reality today is often a one-way flow of ideas and knowledge, from West to East. It would be nostalgic to repeatedly recount the tremendous contributions of scholars such as Averroes and Avicenna. While they should indeed be recognized, the Muslim world needs to go beyond historical memory and look to what it also has to offer in the present and future to a global society. What are innovative ideas and approaches from within the Muslim world that should be considered universally?
What is remarkable about the Aga Khan Award is that it is now setting, in many ways, the new standard for architecture and the built environment globally. The list of 105 award recipients of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture is inspiring in this regard. But it is not enough. As one Saudi philanthropist attending the Award ceremony remarked to me: "We need more, and not just in architecture. We need the same in medicine and other fields to promote excellence and new ideas from the Muslim world." My response was concise and clear -- Inshallah

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Security on Planes

On October 29, a bomb plot originating in Yemen, was foiled in the last moments. One of the packages was intercepted on a UPS cargo flight. Another was discovered on a Fedex carrier. The idea was to blow-up cargo flights either en route or in mid-air. After the attempted attacks, large cargo carriers have prohibited shipments originating from Yemen. Yet, this will not solve the problem but only shift it downstream to even smaller companies. Below you will find a comment piece in the UAE newspaper, The National, written with my colleague and friend Ted Karasik. 

Vigilance for cargo on carriers large and small

Last Updated: Nov 10, 2010
With the recent bombing attempts by al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen using cargo airlines, what happens to the smaller cargo carriers operating throughout the Arabian Peninsula, especially in the UAE? What are the security implications?
AQAP's use of major carriers from the Gulf to transport packages from the region has drawn a quick reaction from UAE-based airlines such as Etihad and Emirates, and now Air Arabia in Sharjah. The extra security and regulations on major carriers are likely to cause a significant share of air cargo traffic to shift to the many smaller carriers.
With roughly two million tonnes of air freight annually going through Dubai alone, it is already a challenge to monitor security threats. The shift to smaller carriers that have less stringent regulations will provide smaller commercial entities in the Gulf an economic boost. It will also mean that companies with a lower capacity for monitoring security threats will be responsible for a greater share of air freight, which assuredly AQAP will try to manipulate. So while the banning of air cargo from Yemen by major airlines is a positive step, it must be complemented by a comprehensive strategy that bolsters the capabilities of smaller companies, for which the UAE serves as a hub.
For more than two decades Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, and Sharjah have had dozens of "no-name" cargo carriers that operate out of their facilities. Other GCC states, including Qatar and Kuwait, also allow smaller operators in and out to transport goods.
Not so many years ago it was well known that contraband materials could be shipped via smaller cargo airlines from several emirates to locations in Central Asia. For instance, on Tuesdays, it was rumoured, one could send a shipment on a flight direct to Dushanbe from one airport in the region for a fee, no questions asked. The case of Victor Bout, the arms dealer still locked up in a Thai prison, who based himself in the Gulf to transfer lethal goods around the world, is the most famous.
Things have changed dramatically. In 2005, Dubai-based Emirates Group became the first Middle East air cargo and airline organisation to achieve TAPA (Technology Asset Protection Association) certification, in recognition of high standards of security. Under the TAPA certification, all airport warehouses of Emirates Group companies - Dnata, Emirates SkyCargo, Emirates Group Security, and Transguard, were certified to TAPA Classification A - the highest category of the certification. Other major airlines vie for this title but smaller carriers appear to fall outside this area.
The UAE General Civil Aviation Authority and other airports within the UAE must maintain a constant level of vigilance based on international rules, advice and regulations. Officers play a high-visibility role in general patrols of the airport, the monitoring of arriving passenger and cargo, the supervision of scanning of cargo and baggage, and the protection of sensitive areas and equipment, such as the airport's navigation aids.
All members of staff are regularly briefed on new regulations regarding security issues, and an ongoing programme of security training courses ensures all key employees at the airports are aware of the latest recommendations and developments. Information is shared between the airport and various international agencies, including the airlines making use of UAE airports. This information-sharing network is essential in order to maintain the highest levels of safety and security.
But if a terrorist organisation is seeking to target a cargo aircraft to make a political proclamation, obstruct commerce, or simply shock the world, local and regional air traffic may be an easier path. Certification of all cargo companies is a critical step, especially in the current environment.
AQAP is a very serious organisation bent on disrupting commercial traffic. The group has the leadership and tacticians to carry out attacks in the Gulf and worldwide. It now claims that it was behind the crash of a UPS plane in Dubai in September 2010. This may or may not be true and the entire case needs to be re-examined.
Nevertheless, security for this type of commerce is not the same as for other commercial operators and needs to be reviewed in the wake of the attempted cargo bombings by AQAP. However, there should be extra caution that al Qa'eda in Yemen could try to shift its operations elsewhere to circumvent the embargoes.
The first layer is to isolate the Yemen case, as the authorities are doing, and see what the impact is. Then officials can decide if the ban needs to be expanded to other countries through direct communication and intelligence sharing.
Ultimately, cargo that is loaded on to cargo planes should be treated no differently than cargo loaded on to commercial cargo flights, ships, trains, trucks, and the trunks of cars. The UAE can be a leader in this realm when it comes to smaller carriers for the rest of the region and beyond.
Dr Theodore Karasik is director of research and development at the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (Inegma). Taufiq Rahim is a visiting fellow at the Dubai School of Government

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Adrift in Andalusia

This article was originally published on and can be found by clicking here

With the conclusion of the midterm elections in the United States, the so-called Ground Zero mosque controversy has started to fade into historical memory. While the story is longer on the front covers of America’s leading newspapers, a fierce debate still simmers about Islam in the West. Many commentators called for greater tolerance of the minority Muslim population in Western countries. At the same time, a popular counter-opinion, echoed as well in a blog post by ubiquitous Republican Newt Gingrich, maintains that there should be no mosque built near Ground Zero (or elsewhere for that matter) before there is a church constructed in Saudi Arabia.
This latter point is a red herring that deserves to be ignored. American religious freedoms as affirmed in its constitution are not beholden to the lack of human rights in a distant land. However, this should not mean that the point should be ignored altogether. Why shouldn’t a church be built in Saudi Arabia? And why is this not of greater concern to the proverbial Muslim world? Historical nostalgia about Islamic tolerance has clouded the view of a climate today that is unfriendly at best and hostile at worst to religious minorities in most Muslim-majority countries.
The advent of Islam was revolutionary in affirming rights for marginalized groups. It was a fundamentally progressive religion that sought to curb if not eliminate abuses and discrimination against women, orphans, minorities, slaves and others. In an oft-cited verse (109:6) the Qur’an commands, “Unto you your religion and unto me my religion.” Another verse (2:62) further embraces those religious groups outside Islam: “Verily! Those who believe and those who are Jews and Christians and Sabians, whoever believes in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds shall have their reward with their Lord.”
Enshrined within the faith from its inception was the concept of Ahl al-Kitaab or people of the book. This meant that Jews and Christians were part and parcel of any Islamic society. Subsequent empires such as the Ummayads,FatimidsMughals, and Ottomans incorporated this structure into their governance to safeguard the rights of minorities. The above definition sometimes expanded to include other groups such as Buddhists, Hindus and Zoroastrians. Within the Ottoman Empire, something called the Millet system developed that allowed for religious minorities to have their own courts of personal law. This general culture of tolerance spurred Muslim lands into safe havens for Jews fleeing persecution in Europe, particularly from Russian pogroms and the Spanish Inquisition.
It would be mistaken to idealize this past as a utopia. Certainly amidst the coexistence was a clear acknowledgement that Jews and other religious minorities would be second-class citizens. Moreover, in Andalusian Spain, the 11th and 12th centuries experienced intermittent repression of Jews for example. In India, some Mughal emperors such as Aurangzeb forced Hindus to adhere to Islamic law. Yet, by and large, in its historical context, the ingrained ‘tolerance’ in many Muslim societies could be said to be unique and progressive.
Unfortunately, living in a bygone past is not an option. The contemporary reality is that while Islam embedded a progressive tolerance within the faith, this ethic has stagnated. The fear of the non-Muslim and of the wayward Muslim from within has led to a climate of intolerance and even hostility – sometimes deadly – towards religious minorities. There are the extreme cases that emerge in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. However, even in so-called moderate nations like Malaysia, the situation can be bleak; churches were frequent targets of attack in the past two years and courts blocked Christians from using the word ‘Allah’ for God, a common practice for the last 1400 years. Try building a new church in Saudi Arabia or any Gulf country; it is certainly not akin to constructing a new mosque. Try openly proselytizing; in many Muslim countries it is a capital crime to convert out of Islam (Ridda or apostacy).
Beyond the external religions, many Muslim societies are failing in their tolerance of religious minorities within or emanating from Islam. The Bahais are persecuted systematically in Iran. Ahmadis are prohibited from sayingsalaam alaikum (the traditional Muslim greeting) in Pakistan, as they are viewed as heretics. Worse, they have been specifically targeted by incitement campaigns by both political and religious leaders, which in turn has led to horrific violence against their community. The list of violent attacks, legal impositions, and cases of incitement throughout the Muslim umma towards minorities would be endless to document here.
Fundamentally, the bar for Muslim societies is set far too low. Why should not Muslim-majority countries be judged at the same standard as the United States or other nations in Western Europe? Of course, people likeGeert Wilders, the Dutch far-right leader, are extreme. Assuredly, there is discrimination against Muslims in parts of the U.S. Nevertheless, it would hardly compare to the violence, subjugation, and marginalization of many religious minorities in Muslim countries. While there are exceptions to this trend, they should not obfuscate the need for honest introspection within the umma. The question is, who will provoke this introspection, Western governments or Muslims themselves.