Year in review: The top ten good news stories of 2008

Uighur-ing to Disneyland!

Each year, we try to put a positive spin on some of the year’s past news stories, in the hopes of bringing some levity to what is usually a sober endeavor. Helping us out this year was the fact that 2008 was filled with big changes and small miracles. America elected a new president (and re-elected two Muslim-American members of Congress by wide margins), even though waves of Islamophobia spread through the campaign season. And with these political changes have come cultural shifts worldwide that herald a greater inclusion and acceptance of Muslims in the larger non-Muslim societies in which they may find themselves. As an aside, when we first started this list, we felt that there were so few “good news” stories that we had to highlight them for our readers. So do the changing times mean that we should put an end to this journalistic affirmative action, in favor of a general “top ten stories” list, half of which will likely make our readers smile? Check in with us in a year’s time and find out. (See altmuslim’s “Top Ten” lists for 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002.)

1. Barack Obama wins, Islamophobia loses.

Barack Hussein Obama, president-elect of the United States of America, earned his victory in November 2008 despite the objections some raised (quite vociferously) to his background in venues ranging from the New York Times and campaign stops to anonymous e-mails and blogs. Though Obama had been very public about his Christianity (the Reverend Wright controversy notwithstanding), his opponents attempted to make issues out of his Swahili-Arabic-Luo name, his Indonesian childhood, his Muslim family members, his alleged Manchurian candidacy, his photo taken years ago with honorary Kenyan Muslim garb, his friendship with a Palestinian-American scholar, and other quite suspicious affiliations. Things got so silly, former general and statesman Colin Powell stepped into the debate in a landmark interview to ask, “what if [Obama] is [a Muslim]? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America.”

Still, several leading Presidential candidates bet much of their campaign rhetoric on waging war on Muslim nations. They — Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and Hillary Clinton — all lost (though Clinton, of course, will be at the helm of foreign policy under Obama). While unsuccessful in shaping electoral politics, the Islamophobia industry also disseminated DVDs aligning Islam with Nazism to 28 million swing-state households. During the election, the group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) documented the mainstreaming of Islamophobia elsewhere in the media by what they call “smearcasters.” Despite these efforts, the failure of this Muslim-baiting, coupled with Obama’s transformative election is probably the best news American Muslims had all year.

2. The mainstreaming of Muslim entertainment continues

One sign of cultural arrival is a well-promoted film. Other signs of a well-promoted film include an Apple.com movie trailer, LA Times & New York Times reviews, and a National Public Radio interview. Constructed around the standup routines of three of the nation’s most celebrated Muslim comedians, the “Allah Made Me Funny: Live in Concert” film, released in October 2008, secured all three. And it was just one of a series of Muslim artists and themes breaking into mainstream entertainment.

“Allah Made Me Funny” followed the comedic trio of Preacher Moss, Azhar Usman and Mohammed Amer to a hole-in-the-wall comedy club in Washington DC and to a sparkling, post-mod venue in Los Angeles. The groundbreaking Canadian sitcom “Little Mosque on the Prairie” entered it’s third season, with an American version in the works for the FOX network. Following on “Little Mosque’s” success, a similarly themed sitcom, Aliens in America, featuring a Pakistani Muslim exchange student, also aired on the Paramount network in 2008.

On the big screen, Traitor, The Visitor, Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?, and Slumdog Millionaire all made an impact on American audiences with complex (if sometimes flawed) portrayals of Muslims in the real world, moving away from stereotypes often used in the past. Considering the impact of mainstream media in public opinion, a more nuanced portrayal of Muslims in the West can only help moderate the polarising discourse that exists in a post 9/11 world.

3. The beginning of the end for Guantanamo

Seven years after 9/11, the US government still imprisons over 250 Muslim males at the prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, ranging in age from a tender 13 year old to a paraplegic octogenarian. But in a landmark June 2008 ruling affirming the rule of law, Supreme Court justices backed the right of Guantanamo prisoners to challenge their detention in federal court. In a close 5-4 decision in the Boumediene v. Bush case, the justices rejected the Bush administration’s arguments about national security. “The laws and Constitution are designed,” argued Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, “ to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times.” Justice Antonin Scalia, who dissented, declared that the decision “will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed. The nation will live to regret what the court has done today.”

As a result, Federal District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered the release of 17 Uighur detainees in October 2008 – also against the wishes of the White House. In November 2008, an additional five Algerians held at Guantanamo were ordered released by Judge Richard J. Leon of Federal District Court in Washington, who ruled that, “to allow enemy combatancy to rest on so thin a reed would be inconsistent with this court’s obligation; the court must and will grant their petitions and order their release.” And in December, Portugal and Germany announced they were willing to help resettle the Uighur detainees as part of a European Union initiative. Coupled with the ascendancy of Barack Obama to the presidency, this paves the way for the closure of the now-infamous prison camp.

4. “Jewel of Medina” comes and goes, and a second “Satanic Verses” crisis is averted

Perhaps one of the most significant news stories for Muslims in 2008 was the story that didn’t happen. Over the past several decades various artists and writers have, intentionally or not, inflamed opinions due to content that was deemed offensive to Muslims. The resulting crises – ranging from “Satanic Verses” to the Danish Muhammad cartoons – did little to prevent publication (in fact, exposure was only increased) and fed media imagery of Muslims being intolerant of free speech and prone to violent reaction.

Enter American author Sherry Jones and “The Jewel of Medina,” a historical novel that, though written from a point-of-view of reverence, took liberties that University of Texas at Austin professor Denise Spellberg found offensive (descriptions of romantic interludes she dubbed “soft core pornography”), leading her to warn of potential violence. The book was due to be published in August 2008, but the publisher Random House canceled the book contract at the last minute, citing possible threats. Visions of the Satanic Verses controversy of 1989 began to dance in people’s heads.

Yet this was a controversy largely in search of offended parties. After Jones interacted with a number of Muslim media outlets (including, quite centrally, this one), no organised Muslim opposition to the book’s publication ensued – an attempted firebombing of the British publisher’s house by three individuals notwithstanding. Mainstream Muslim organisations cautioned against overreacting and literary critics labeled it “a dud,” and “the cubic zirconia of literature“. By the end of the first month of sales of the book barely topped 3,000. For Muslims, it’s better to think that the book did or did not sell on its own (lack of) merit than due to a coercive campaign to suppress it. That alone represents a huge step forward.

5. A (different sort of) Muslim nation is born in Europe

It’s hard to imagine, particularly after the Bosnian conflict of the mid-90′s, a region within Europe victimised for a Muslim identity, declaring itself an independent state and getting away with it without bloodshed. But in February of 2008, that scenario happened with Kosovo – until then a UN protectorate carved away from neighbouring Serbia by NATO in the waning days of the Clinton administration. The fledgling state was recognised by a number of key states, including the US, UK, France, Italy, and Germany. Serbia (and their big cousins Russia) opposed the move, but did little else. As time moves forward, it seems unlikely that recognition would not progress (or that recognitions granted would be rescinded).

Kosovo, of course, is not the kind of Muslim nation your mother told you about, with a liberal citizenry not unlike neighbouring Bosnia. The staunch secular nature of society there has admirers in Turkey (which intercedes internationally on its behalf), but skeptics in the Arab world, who have sent funds for rebuilding mosques of late. As such, the issue of Kosovo’s independence is not uniformly acknowledged beyond the expected opposition of the Slavic bloc. A majority of Muslim countries have hesitated to recognise the state by October 2008, though there are signs that such a move will eventually be forthcoming. Though Kosovo’s brand of religiosity and lack of Muslim world recognition may be linked, the fact remains that a people suffered for their Muslim identity and fought for their independence to preserve it – a success Muslims elsewhere dream of.

6. A necessary debate on sharia law in the West takes place

Until recently, the debate over the use of sharia law in the West has been a relatively simple one – for Western governments and media, it would simply not be allowed, and for Muslim communities, it would be practiced quietly, in private, and (one hoped) consensually. But when Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke in a public lecture in February 2008 of the “supplemental jurisdictions” that Islamic law (as well as other faiths) could have to civil law, all hell broke loose. Many in the media – and some within his own congregation – called for his resignation for what they felt was an approval for a separate set of laws for Muslims.

Williams denies that he ever implied that a parallel system of sharia would be developed alongside British law – and, more importantly, no Muslim bodies within Britain had been asking for such a thing. Only a commensurate recognition of the validity of some rulings – similar to that of Jewish Beth Din courts – was advocated at most. Later, his stance was supported by the Lord Chief Justice for England and Wales, who acknowledged that it was “not very radical to advocate embracing sharia law in the context of family disputes, for example, and our system already goes a long way towards accommodating the archbishop’s suggestion.” Williams stood his ground on the matter until the controversy died down.

Of course, there are good reasons for skepticism, both from Muslims and non-Muslims, about how any sharia arbitration would be applied, whether participation would truly be consensual and not coerced, and what recourse either party would have to civil law. But aspects of sharia practice, ranging from halal certification and finance, to divorces and inheritance, are a fact of life in Muslim communities and it makes no sense to pretend otherwise. The principled acknowledgment by Williams that this could be dealt with in a rational manner has helped legitimise the debate and drag it into the open – the only place where a consensus on the issue (if any) can be found.

7. A groundbreaking survey maps out the Islamic world

Until this year, media pundits were able to associate all sorts of negative attributes to the so-called “Muslim street”, based on the actions of a select few, and then extrapolate it to label all Muslims with unfounded “Islam says…” conjecture. But this year, Gallup’s Dalia Mogahed and Georgetown’s John Esposito asked the question, “What do a billion Muslims really think?” The answer came in the form of the most exhaustive survey of global Muslim public opinion ever undertaken. Published in February 2008, “Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think,” queries tens of thousands of Muslims from 35 predominantly Muslim and Muslim-minority countries, with safeguards in place to ensure accuracy and proper representation.

The result? Muslims do not differ all that greatly from their non-Muslim counterparts on pressing questions – role of religion in public life, gender equity, condemnation of terrorism, and the desire to bridge the gap between the West and the Muslim world. With definitive results, similar findings from other surveys, and follow-up surveys planned well into the future, media pundits (and Muslim extremists, for that matter) will have less ground to stand on when making sensationalist claims regarding perceived threats or when making religious generalities about Muslims in the West or abroad.

8. Israel’s blockade against Gaza is broken

When Israel began its blockade of the Gaza Strip in January 2008 as a response to the Qassam rockets fired by Hamas into its territory, food supplies in Gaza dwindled so fast that poor Palestinian residents were forced to breach the fences with Egypt within two weeks. The blockade closed all shipping to Gaza (the airport had been shut by Israel since 2000), leaving a supply path only through Israel, itself subject to routine closure. Human rights organisations soon documented a humanitarian crisis, with former US president Jimmy Carter calling it a “crime and atrocity. By late 2008, reports emerged of residents resorting to eating grass to survive.

It would be hard to find any good news in this tragic situation or for Palestine as a whole. However, in a symbolic gesture, a boat left Cyprus in late August on a well-publicised mission to Gaza with a crew of Palestinian activists, journalists, and Western supporters of the Palestinians (including former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s sister-in-law Lauren Booth) and arrived in Gaza shortly afterwards, with Israel’s threats to block it failing to materialise. It was the first of many such trips to follow, with the latest one arriving with humanitarian aid only last week. Although some boats from Libya and from Israel itself were blocked, the many successful trips proved, among other things, that non-violent protest can work and that Israel has little power against it – a stark contrast to the monstrously disproportionate response this week – again blamed on Qassams – by Israel that left nearly 300 dead.

Yes, even during the cessation of violence in the recent truce with Hamas, Israel had not ceased its merciless blockade against Gazans or its home demolitions and expropriation of Palestinian land. And, yes, the blockade protests depended on the involvement of Western activists, whom Israel is more reluctant to aggressively handle (such as Rachel Corrie or Tom Hurndall). But these days, Israel seems to love Qassams more than Hamas does as a cover for delaying a just peace. Taking the oft-repeated rationale that Palestinians have to “do something,” a little more emphasis on sustained non-violent resistance or civil disobedience by Palestinians and their supporters wouldn’t hurt. The brave activists who took on the blockade and won proved that.

9. Saudi women continue to push the barriers

Reams of newsprint could be expended writing about the challenges and injustices women in Saudi Arabia face including, for example, a continuing ban on female athletes at the 2008 Olympics, the approval of an eight year old bride, and the abuse of foreign servants (most of them women). But with adversity comes opportunity, and Saudi women were among those in the Middle East who strived to push at the boundaries that constrain their lives beyond that of nearly every other Muslim country.

In the biggest example of newfound freedom, the increasing communication made possible by the Internet and mobile phones was itself referenced in Girls of Riyadh, by 24-year-old Rajaa Alsanea. Though published outside Saudi Arabia in 2005, it was allowed in that country in early 2008. With content considered benign to most Westerners, the four women depicted in the novel represented in frank detail the society young people have crafted in the desert kingdom to connect with each other. One observer comments that the book “has led to a sudden jump in the country’s literary output – and half of the novelists are women.” By the end of the year, production will start on the feature film version of the story.

Elsewhere, Saudi women opened their own restaurant, made inroads in broadcasting, and beat out men for foreign scholarships. Attitudes are changing about women in working life, with the first female Chief Financial Officer of a Saudi company (chosen by her peers). Smaller victories, such as the right of women to use the library without a male escort have big implications, and the long standing driving ban may soon be next. In the meantime, enjoy the sounds of The Accolade, Saudi Arabia’s first all-girl rock band.

10. An ideological revolt begins within al-Qaeda

Though most mainstream Muslims around the world had qualms, to say the least, about the tactics and goals of al-Qaeda since 9/11, the perception of uniformity within the al-Qaeda franchise was consistent for a number of years – especially once the war in Iraq began. A taste of the end of that uniformity came when al-Qaeda No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, rebuked his franchisee in Iraq in 2005 for its beheading bloodlust. Three years later, a number of influential imams and activists associated with al-Qaeda have made their disillusionment public, starting with Saudi scholar Sheikh Salman al-Oudah, who publically asked Osama bin Laden, “How many innocent people, children, elderly and women have been killed …in the name of al-Qaeda?” Later, other activists such as Noman Benotman (who cooperated with bin Laden before 9/11) and Zawahiri mentor Sayyid Imam Al Sharif publically withdrew their support.

As for Zawahiri (who seems to do all the talking for al-Qaeda these days), there is little he says that isn’t defensive, from attacking Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood for embracing democracy, to claiming that al-Qaeda does not kill the innocent (a response to al-Oudah). While this does not negate the threat that al-Qaeda-inspired extremists pose in their individual circumstances (such as those who clumsily attacked Glasgow’s airport in mid-2007), it does suggest a degrading of some of al-Qaeda’s core tactics (the recent Mumbai attacks, though Kashmir-focused, may be a lone exception).

Regardless, Zawahiri has been reduced of late to denying women the opportunity to participate in jihad (for religious, not strategic, reasons) and issuing statements to Pakistanis in English, as he does not speak Urdu (as most non-elite Pakistanis only do) and, apparently, can’t find a suitable Urdu-speaking spokesman despite living somewhere on the Pakistani border. Not necessarily the sign of a feared global terror organisation on the rise.

Narrowly missing the list this year:

1. The capture, after more than 10 years, of wanted ex-Serbian leader Radovan Karadzic
2. The interest in Islamic finance generated by the world economic crisis
3. The ouster, after 9 years, of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf

Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim. He is based in London, England. Mas’ood Cajee, a regular contributor to altmuslim.com, is a former California Endowment Scholar at Harvard University who resides in northern California. He can be reached at mcajee@yahoo.com.


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