Between the Lines – Who and What Reflect Muslim Values?

The US Presidential campaigns have staked out their positions on Muslim-Americans, Muslim immigrants, and by extension Muslims worldwide. These positions have been defined by perceptions about Islam and its various components: the Quran, Sharia law, religious terms such as kafir and jihad, and generally not well understood rituals. Most telling are the images daily broadcast and projected by radicals who use Islam as a cloak for their violence and heinous crimes against mostly other Muslims.

The ongoing conflict is not only between Muslims and those who are not. More and more courageous Muslim voices are being raised against radicalism and extremism as not representative of Islam and actually in deep conflict with the basic values of Islam. These rejections by Islamic leaders and communities are at odds with those who claim that Muslims are not public enough in their condemnation of extremists who claim the mantle of Islam as justification for their actions.

Lately, there is growing recognition in the West that Muslim leaders from Malaysia to Morocco are indeed making the case against terrorism and Islamic radicals. In this context, the Globe and Mail published an op-ed by the noted French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy who singled out the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, as one of many who have boldly challenged the radicals.

He pointed out that the king’s condemnation took on even greater gravitas as he is regarded as a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed and has the title “Commander of the Faithful” responsible for the integrity and promotion of Islam, in particular the Maliki school with its strong Sufi texture and emphasis on inclusion, moderation, and peace.

The king spoke on the 63rd anniversary of the People’s Revolution, commemorating the resistance of Moroccans to the French occupation. Most Western media accounts highlighted his condemning terrorism, noting there is no heavenly reward for terrorists. It is reported that the Prophet Mohammed said “I guarantee a house in the surroundings of Paradise for those who give up arguing, even if they are in the right; and I guarantee a house in the middle of Paradise for those who abandon lying even when joking; and I guarantee a house in the highest part of Paradise for those who have good character and manners.” (Sunan Abu Daawood: 4800)

So when the King said that he wanted overseas Moroccans “to remain firmly committed to their religious values and to their time-honored traditions as they face up to this phenomenon which has nothing to do with their culture or background,” he was emphasizing that values lie at the heart of the practice of Islam and so to distort the rituals is to challenge the moral core of the religion.

In Islam, there is no eternal reward for passively living in the world. According to Anabulsi, a noted Muslim scholar, the Hadith “Religion is Conduct” [الدين المعاملة] means that “real worship does not consist only of establishing rituals, but it’s about exerting good conduct/behavior or applying good manners towards others.” This Hadith adds that “Ritual worship is not valid unless it’s largely supported by good conduct.” And further, “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” (Bukhari and Muslim)

This emphasis on good works is found throughout the Abrahamic faiths. It is no coincidence that in Islam, human behavior, from commercial transactions to how one treats family members, is guided by values that engender good conduct. In Islam, the link between behavior and prayer is reflected in Hadith such as “Through his manners and good conduct, the believer can attain the status of a person who frequently fasts and prays at night.” (Abu Dawoud)

The backstory to the king’s speech is that there is the explicit need for Muslims to act according to values that promote comity, respect, and dignity. We are in this world to do good, not evil, and that we should shun those who would tell us to hurt others. As the Imam Malik reported, “Mohammed, the Messenger of Allah, PBUH, said, I have been sent to perfect good character.” And “The best of you is the best among you in conduct.” (Al-Bukari and Muslim)

King Mohammed’s words echo the determination of King Abdullah II of Jordan who, like King Mohammed, has a unique historical role to both defend Islam and clarify its dynamic role in promoting harmony, justice, and respect within the human community.



Women can Play a Critical Role in Combating Terrorism

Women should be encouraged to take a greater role in counterterrorism efforts as women and girls are disproportionately affected by terrorist violence. This was the message brought home in a speech by Sarah Sewall, Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights at a recent gathering. She was speaking about the critical importance of including countering violent extremism (CVE) in the agenda for Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) programs that exist in many countries.

As Sewall noted, “In too many areas around the world, violent extremists threaten generations of hard-won progress for women and vulnerable minorities. To defend that progress – and to prevent a reversion of what Secretary Kerry calls ’medieval thinking’ – we must defeat violent extremism.”

She pointed to the grim reality that while military force is effective in defeating terrorists, “it cannot defeat terrorism.” The Under Secretary called for increased funding to strengthen the capacity of “local voices of tolerance and inclusion.” Sewall was concerned with the ability of military power to diminish “underlying grievances” that lead to growing extremist threats.

Women voices raised for peace.

Women voices raised for peace.

The role of WPS actors globally, including efforts by the private sector, foundations, and NGOs, is crucial to addressing marginalized and at-risk communities. Threats from extremists have become so transnational that Sewall believes “we cannot reduce extremist violence without women.”

In this regard, she made specific reference to an initiative in Morocco. “In Morocco, we’ll help women’s groups speak out against violent ideologies. And in the Morocco program, it’s not just inclusion as process. We’ll make sure that women are not only included in trainings but also the substance, for example by ensuring that trainings include a focus on the specific factors that can drive women to terrorist groups. We’ll be sure that women are included in our baseline data, analysis, and metrics to evaluate impact. We’re hopeful this North Africa pilot will lead to best practices as we mainstream gender in our CVE programming.”

This initiative and others like it, included the well-regarded training of imams, both Moroccan and foreign, and women and men religious counselors, brings together a whole society solution to attacking the spread of terrorist ideology. The Under Secretary was quite blunt in her assessment of the challenges ahead.

“Violent extremists threaten everything the women’s community has worked to achieve. So let’s work together on behalf of this fundamental truth – defeating violent extremism is essential to women’s empowerment, and women’s empowerment is fundamental to defeating violent extremism.”

Recognizing the Threat of Women Terrorists

The recent arrests in the so-called “Notre Dame plot,” an attack this past week against a police station in Mombasa, Kenya, and the increasing numbers of women identified as “warriors” on radical websites increasingly challenge counterterrorism officials to forge effective countermeasures.

In Paris, the latest information is that it was a Paris train station, not Notre Dame, that was  the target. The four women charged with terrorism have been on the watch lists of the French government and were apprehended quickly when the owner of the car containing the gas cylinders was identified as the father of one of the women arrested. The four have been hailed as warriors by various jihadi websites.

In the Kenya attack, Reuters reported “that three women wearing hijabs snuck into a police station under the pretext of reporting a stolen phone, then stabbed a local officer and set fire to the building with a petrol bomb before all the three were shot dead.” The attack could have been much worse, as Kenyan authorities also recovered an unexploded suicide vest, two bullet-proof jackets, and an unused petrol bomb from the dead suspects. It is suspected that women are directed more toward suicide attacks because those do not require the same rigorous military-level skills and training available to men. This chilling reality, reminiscent of women resistance fighters in the Algerian war for independence and female bombers (mostly brain-washed girls) used by Boko Haram and the Viet Cong (separated by 60 years, yet still a potent reality), is reflected in several articles in The Independent, which further reinforce heightened concerns with women terrorist cells. Based on existing research, women are taking a much more visible role in attacks against civilian and military targets because their physical appearance is perceived as less threatening. This leads to the UK experience that, according to recent data, more women were arrested on terrorism charges year-on-year from 2014 to 2015.

Under Secretary Sewall called on WPS organizations around the world to take a leadership role in integrating CVE into their programs. She stressed that “In high policy discussion and advocacy, in field work and programming, in mentorship and capacity-building – there are countless opportunities for the WPS community to advance its central objective through CVE. CVE needs your help – your issue advocacy, your expertise, your sustained engagement on this agenda.” It is a call to action that underscores the centrality of women in promoting security and stability.

Campaign Contributions – Free Speech or a Ticket to Ride?

According to information provided by the US Federal Election Commission (FEC), more than $1 billion was raised and spent during the US presidential primary season that concluded in late July. The general election pitting former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton against businessman, billionaire, and reality TV host Donald Trump is expected to see expenditures topping $2 billion, with many contributions coming from “independent” donor groups that do not have the same reporting requirements as individual or corporate contributors.

Having recently returned from the Middle East where the US presidential election was always one of the top two topics of interest, it was challenging to explain how so much money could be raised from sources across the political spectrum without impacting the lawmaker’s mission to serve the public interest, however defined, as opposed to the special interests represented by the funding sources. Of course, their only homegrown frames of reference in the region are riddled with corruption and abuse. Suffice it to say that the conversations were difficult and inconclusive as to options for greater transparency.

It is increasingly difficult to characterize democracy as a “value” when its implementation is clouded by so many special interests driven by the perception of “pay to play” that dogs current controversies about the Clinton Foundation or the ethics of Trump’s business dealings.

The role of campaign contributions is controversial for many reasons, but as my colleague Jordan Paul, the maven of Congressional politics likes to point out, the tempest is largely uninformed about the scope of impact. If one looks at the statistics on re-elections of incumbents in Congress in 2012, 90% of House members and 91% of Senate members who chose to run were re-elected. His point is that given these results, the gerrymandered House districts that protect incumbents from both parties, and the blessings that accrue from serving on various committees, the real contests are around 10% of seats up for grabs.

What makes this election a bit less predictable is that an outlier like Donald Trump, who has no party loyalty to impede him, may be a driving force is negatively changing the odds of re-election of incumbents in certain states. He has already forced key Republican donors, like the Koch Brothers, to focus primarily on ensuring Republican control of the Senate rather than support a presidential candidate with whom they have fundamental disagreements. How much this will trickle down to House races is a big unknown and traditional Republican Party money seems to be flowing into key races to support their candidates.

Another key unknown is how outside funding will skew candidates’ positions, left or right, in response to contributions. Data shows that Texas, California, and New York are the largest sources of contributions reported to the FEC, and surely, these states are already defined as red or blue in most polls. So the money must be going somewhere to support candidates who share the donors’ positions.

wash postSo what’s the fuss about outside campaign financing? Here is an interesting fact, which may or may not surprise: According to an article in the Washington Post, “The average member of the House received just 11 percent of all campaign funds from donors inside the district.” This reinforces the perception of ‘unseen hands’ of special interests guiding elected members, as well as the high costs of election campaigns. But if 90% of the House elections favor the incumbents, why do members need so much extra funding?

The article points out that “Between 2006 and 2012, about 100 House members per election cycle raised a third or more of their total campaign funds from people who live outside their districts. The more money a House member gets from people outside the district, the less reflective the member’s ideology is of his or her constituents’ ideology. House members are following the money, not their voters.” This statement is based on an extensive analysis of positions of both in- and outside district donors. Overall, the in-district donors’ ideology, as opposed to local voters’ interests, “is closer to outside donors’ ideology than to the average ideology of voters in each party.”

The bottom line, according to the article is that “The more money a member of Congress gets from donors outside the district, the less that member represents his or her constituents’ preferences. And all that outside funding may be leading to a more polarized Congress, as it appears to encourage members to pay attention to donors whose ideologies are more extreme than voters’.”

So the next time someone argues about campaign finance reform, remember that, regardless of political persuasion, donors seem to have more influence on candidates than do voters, and this is a model that does not need to be encouraged in emerging democracies.

lead image:

Why is Morocco Reaching Out to Africa and Asia?

In his speech on August 20, King Mohammed VI of Morocco continued his country’s campaign to highlight its political and economic ties to Africa.

The occasion was the commemoration of the People’s Revolution Day, the beginning of the struggle against the French Protectorate. The King spoke on a number of topics including Morocco’s historic ties with Algeria, the need for overseas Moroccans to oppose extremism, and the centrality of Africa to the Moroccan identify and national strategy.

Morocco has been working very hard for a decade to cement relations with African countries to gain their support for Morocco’s efforts to join the African Union. Morocco’s strongest tool are the economic and commercial benefits that come with strong bilateral relations with the kingdom, amply demonstrated by the fact that, according to the African Development Bank, 85% of the country’s foreign direct investment is in Africa.

And like any other smart policy, these efforts do not come unconditionally. As the king said in his speech, in a clear reference to the AU effort, “Our decision that Morocco should take its natural place, once again, within the African institutional family clearly illustrates our commitment to continue supporting the causes of African peoples.”

He went on to point out that “For Morocco, Africa means more than just being part of a geographical area, or having historical bonds with the continent. Africa also means sincere affection, appreciation, close human and spiritual relations as well as tangible solidarity. Furthermore, Africa is the natural extension of Morocco and the embodiment of the country’s strategic depth.”

Morocco’s friendship has many benefits

Morocco’s efforts are multi-dimensional, involving the private sector; large state corporations such as OCP, the phosphate giant; government health, social, and education agencies; counterterrorism cooperation; and cultural exchanges. Moroccan telecoms companies serve more customers in a dozen African countries than they do at home; and Moroccan banks play a significant role in eight West African countries. Additionally, OCP, on its own and in an innovative partnership with Gabon, is producing fertilizer specifically tailored for African needs and is funding a distribution program for small landholders.

The king noted in his speech that “I believe what is good for Morocco is good for Africa – and vice versa. Theirs is one and the same destiny. I also believe there can be no progress without stability: either the two go together, or they do not exist. We see Africa as a forum for joint action, for promoting development in the region, and for serving African citizens.”

The efforts are making a difference. At the recent AU Summit, Morocco was able to secure 28 countries on a letter promoting Morocco’s admission to the AU after its withdrawal from its predecessor organization the Organization of African Unity (OAU) over the admission of the Polisario-run government Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director, Africa Center, the Atlantic Council

Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director, Africa Center, the Atlantic Council

In his commentary on the speech, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, remarked that “The monarch’s remarks reaffirmed a strategic orientation with significant implications not only for Morocco and other countries of the African continent, but also their global partners, including the United States.”

And the story has been carried over into Morocco’s growing relations with India, Russia, and China. The king had a retinue of 400 business representatives and government officials when he attended the India-Africa Forum in October 2015. Five pacts were agreed and two signed during the Forum.

Following on the heels of the India excursion, King Mohammed visited Russia March 15-16, 2016 during which a number of agreements, protocols, and memorandums of understanding, some 14 in number were highlighted as well as the continuation of the Strategic Partnership agreement that has been in effect for 10 years, since the king’s last visit in 2006.

It was a similar story in China during the state visit that began on May 11, 2016. The two countries inked 15 bilateral agreements, accords, and memoranda covering the education, economic, cultural, tourism, and technical sectors. Most importantly from the king’s perspective was the signing of a Strategic Partnership similar to that with the Kremlin.

While there is much speculation about the timing of these visits, many pundits say these Moroccan initiatives are not surprising considering the US’ reluctance to fully endorse Morocco’s autonomy proposal for the Western Sahara, calling it serious, realistic, and feasible, but not calling it out as “the” solution to the conflict. However, Russia and China have not called for its unqualified endorsement either.

Morocco is playing the long game. Whether with the AU or the Security Council, the kingdom knows it needs friends and the US’ fickle behavior gives Rabat pause, promoting a fuller, more strategic vision of how to gain friends and influence others.