Thursday, 12 September 2013

Award Spurs Debate in 'Desert of Silence' in Muslim World


This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post, where you can visit for the original piece by clicking here or on the title

Award Spurs Debate in 'Desert of Silence' in Muslim World


LISBON -- There was something truly captivating about sitting in the Castle of São Jorge in Lisbon, Portugal, waiting for the announcement of the 2013 winners of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Overlooking the cityscape, the citadel is home to both the Christian and Muslim history of the Iberian peninsula, a fitting setting for an event looking to promote common linkages across geographic divides. Held every three years, the Award looks to promote conversation around the themes of development and the built environment in the Muslim world and beyond. Once again, the gathering -- hosted by the President of Portugal and the Aga Khan -- brought together an eclectic array of participants from representatives from around the world, ranging from ministers and diplomats to religious figures (including from the Vatican), to architects and builders, to thinkers and writers.
The Award recipients were equally diverse, with five projects celebrated in this cycle (bringing the number of winners in the history of the Award to 110). They included: the Salam Center for Cardiac Surgery in Sudan; the revitalization of Birzeit in Palestine; the Rabat-Salé Bridge in Morocco; the rehabilitation of the Tabriz Bazaar in Iran; and an Islamic cemetery in Austria (the latter perhaps the most intriguing project). While the initiative represents the largest, in terms of monetary value, architecture award in the world, its objective goes beyond aesthetic design, seeking to identify projects that are on the frontier of sustainable development (in all senses of the term) and that are locally attuned. Yet what was clear this year was the juxtaposition of the contemplative conversation in Lisbon and the "desert of silence "that still characterizes much of the Muslim world, outside specialized or academic circles, on these very themes. And this is the challenge for the Award, and similar such platforms -- to not just hold the conversation but to widen the debate to engage with the multitude of forces shaping and influencing the broader Muslim world (and beyond).
Founded in 1977, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA) is part of the wider set of initiatives of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), which mobilizes annually over $600 million to support development activities throughout the 30 countries in which it works. The Award shares the holistic approach of the AKDN towards development, whereby local participation, alignment, and empowerment are critical to the viability and impact of any activity. Held every three years, 2013 represented the 13th cycle of the awards. Governed by a nine-person Steering Committee that includes some of the top minds in the field, such as Norman Foster and Glenn Lowry (from the Museum of Modern Art), the Award appoints a new Master Jury for each cycle; this year's Jury, for example, includedMahmoud Mamdani of Uganda and Wang Shu of China.
One of the central purposes of the Award, according to its founder, the Aga Khan, and voiced during this years ceremony was to replace the "vast desert [of] silence [that] had set in" in the Muslim world with lively debate, around the issues of development, architecture, and the built environment. Certainly, this would be no easy challenge. Over the last three decades, the Award has highlighted a number of worthy projects, recognized and encouraged leading architects and builders, and promoted education with the principles of the Award in mind. Yet, it has not been enough to fill the silence. Instead, at the frontier of the built environment in Muslim communities, and places like the Arab world, this silence has been filled by what appears too often like cacophonous chaos. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the holy city of Mecca, where a giant clock tower and monstrous skyscrapers not only cast a shadow over Islam's holiest mosque, the Kaaba, but are systematically destroying the city's historic heritage while contributing very little to community needs, besides increases in property values.
This is emblematic of the challenge of the Award, in particular, but also of other similar initiatives seeking to influence trends in the broader Muslim world, where it is not contemplative conversation that drives change but rather copious (often misallocated) capital that determines development patterns instead. How can you not just fill that vast desert of silence but also ensure that it is not the loudest voices that win the debate?
Given the ongoing shifts throughout the developing world, such as the move from rural to urban environments, political transition, and economic modernization, more engagement will be needed on a number of critical issues, especially the built environment and how it promotes sustainable development. Hopefully the conversations, such as those in Lisbon, begin to move beyond the classroom and into the mainstream.
Photo credit: AKDN

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Waiting for Obama: The Arab World and Intervention


This article originally appeared in Syria Deeply, and can be found here

On Aug. 2, 1990, a Saddam Hussein-led Iraq launched a bombing campaign and invasion of Kuwait. Part of the decision was the thought that the U.S., facing its own economic issues at home and a perceived passivity towards disputes in the Arab world, would not react with force. 

Almost five months later, Operation Desert Storm, led by a broad international coalition under the direction of then President George Bush (who had secured a resolution from the U.N. Security Council), began with aerial attacks and ended with the capitulation of Saddam’s forces after just five weeks.
Two things became clear: that the U.S. would take decisive action to enforce peace and security in the region when a “red line” was crossed; and secondly, that it would be methodical in building a strong coalition.
The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have been waiting for a similar moment from President Barack Obama on the Syrian conflict.  After months of endless prodding, with only a series of half-steps coming from the U.S., the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus (allegedly carried out by the Assad regime) finally seemed to have pushed Obama to take robust action on Syria.
But initial urgency by the U.S. to act has since subsided, or so it appears. With the passing of each day, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are left increasingly in the lurch, waiting for Obama, wondering if the U.S. has reversed its approach to the region that was heralded by the Gulf War over two decades ago.
In 1991, when military action was mobilized against Iraq, it was done so under the auspices of a U.N. resolution. And while the Arab world was divided on the intervention, the six GCC countries, along with Egypt and Syria, were part of the armed coalition that was formed. Twenty years later, the situation is markedly different as the Arab world contemplates involvement in military strikes against Syria.
Outside of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, enthusiasm to participate in a military coalition is weak at best. While Jordan will have to be involved due to its reliance on both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. for economic support, Syria’s other Arab neighbors, Lebanon and Iraq, have voiced staunch opposition to external intervention.
In an unambiguous statement, Egypt, under its new military leadership, also voiced its objections to “aggression in Syria.” Even the United Arab Emirates may not get involved without broad international legitimacy; unlike in Libya in 2011, this would constitute a military strike by Arab countries allied with the U.S. without any other legal or symbolic cover.
Obama’s initial enthusiasm for military action, juxtaposed with his subsequent hesitation, has furthered the Arab world’s reluctance to participate. Staunch Western allies like the United Kingdom have indicated a lack of desire to be involved, and it is still in doubt whether action would be approved by NATO or the U.N. In the current atmosphere, a broad coalition involving multiple regional actors is unlikely, especially from a military standpoint. Most of the “diplomacy” to build a coalition has so far been limited to public speeches by high-level U.S. officials, rather than effective diplomatic engagement in the region. It indicates to the Arab world that the U.S. is not serious about a response, and is itself perhaps buying time.
In Sunday’s Arab League meeting in Cairo, rhetoric was high. But it was clear that beyond Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the appetite for intervention had dissipated. Following two years of bluster, including countless meetings of the Friends of Syria, the moment for a decision finally came, and the U.S. blinked. The hawkish stance of the Arab League and even the GCC must, to Assad, have looked hollow. In the end, the statement by the Arab League called for “deterrent measures” by the U.N., without calling for military or unilateral action.
While we may yet see strikes on Syria or the symbolic contribution of military hardware (like fighter jets) by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the process has already overshadowed whatever the result may be. In many ways, whatever happens now in response will be far too little and far too late. All the while, the conflict in Syria will continue without any end in sight.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Democratic Case Against Islamism

This article originally appeared in Al-Monitor, where you can find the full text. 

These days, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is under a systematic (some would say justified) assault by authorities seeking to dissolve the entire organization.  Yet, it’s not just in Egypt that Islamists find themselves under attack, rhetorically or by force. Across countries in the Arab world that had revolutions in the past two years, there is a growing wave of public opposition to the participation of Islamists in the political system, whether in TunisiaLibya or elsewhere.

Against this backdrop, countless Western analysts have clashed with their liberal Arab counterparts on the issue of Islamism, arguing that the exclusion of religious parties is incompatible with modern democratic principles. Yet is the exclusion of parties like the Muslim Brotherhood undemocratic on its face? The truth is somewhere in the middle and in fact, there is a legitimate democratic case to be made against the inclusion of some Islamists.

Since 2011, there have been two primary grievances levied against Islamist parties. The most salient argument in recent weeks has been that these groups are linked to a wider “terrorist” agenda, and are, as such, enemies of the state. Of concern is not necessarily their religious nature but the fact that they represent a subversive political movement. Granted, the closed nature of the Brotherhood, given its precarious legality in past decades, only feeds this view. In addition, offshoots from the Brotherhood like Gamaa Islamiya have been responsible for terrorist attacks in Egypt, and other affiliated groups such as Hamas do have militant wings as well.

Nevertheless, this argument is not one against "Islamism" or in favor of "secularism." When Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi held court with his beautifully choreographed choir of support on the night of the coup on Egyptian state TV, at his side were two religious figures, the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar and the Coptic pope. Furthermore, the recently announcedconstitutional committee includes a representative from the Salafist Nour Party, a group also present at that previous gathering. Thus, the argument in Egypt appears to be that the right type of Islamists (and in limited number) can be tolerated, as can a role for religion in the state.

Of course, the second case against Islamism is that it is inherently incompatible with modern democracy. At its core, the ideology is an absolutist form of thought that rejects all other intellectual currents in a society. While that may be true, couldn’t the same argument be made for any political ideology, whether it be libertarianism, or communism, or socialism, and the list goes on? Each political movement sees its ideas and philosophies as essential and paramount. A corollary to Islamist thought, however, is that it constitutes a religious supremacist movement that seeks to achieve the supremacy of its religion — Islam — at the official level of the state. It is here where Islamism and democracy start to have legitimate friction....

Read more: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/09/democratic-case-against-islamism-egypt-arab-world-rahim.html?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter#ixzz2dwRsXyRb

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The only road to peace in Syria

This article originally appeared on CNN.com and can be found at the link below.

http://edition.cnn.com/2013/09/03/opinion/rahim-syria-conflict/

As has frequently been the case in the last two-and-a-half years, I found myself this past weekend caught in an intense conversation about the ongoing civil war in Syria. This time it was with a supporter of the al-Assad government. He was relentless, insisting that there was no choice but victory, at any cost, especially since the government has been facing foreign fighters from "83 countries." 

It's a common refrain I've heard in different variations from all sides of the conflict -- there is no choice but victory. As the world debates the efficacy of a military strike against the al-Assad government in response to its use of chemical weapons on civilians, the fighting on the ground shows no signs of abating. It is clear that the Syrian people are caught between a zero-sum political game being played by the regime and rebels, and their respective backers.

Despite lofty rhetoric from a number of countries, diplomatic efforts towards a political solution should have been more vigorous.

Calling for an immediate cease-fire on all sides is the only path towards peace. But will the United States and other key players go down that road?

Please visit CNN for the full article.