Year in review: The top ten good news stories of 2009

The revolution will be tweeted

In terms of bad news, 2009 was a doozy for Muslims – the Swiss minaret ban, escalating violence in Pakistan, a number of terror arrests involving Americans, a resurging Al Qaeda in Yemen, the anti-Muslim protests in England, the disappointment with Obama and Palestine… ok, I’ll stop now. For the eighth year in a row, we feel that highlighting some good news stories involving Muslims might give a silver lining to this otherwise dark cloud. Believe it or not, there are some stories out there that you may not have heard about – or perhaps didn’t look at the way we did. Trends that show that things may not be as bad as we think they are and that we might – someday – get a handle on this whole clash within our civilization that always threatens to send us off the rails. With the decade of dread over, we now proceed with this year’s top ten good news stories (See altmuslim’s “Top Ten” lists for 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002.)

1. A technological (if not political) revolution in Iran

At first glance, Iran’s June 2009 elections, and the vibrancy of the reform movement that took place before the voting, was nothing new. Reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami stirred the country’s youth in a remarkable election in 1997, capturing 70% of the vote and inspiring many protests during his eight year term. But what was notable was what occurred after the vote, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad resumed power after an election considered fraudulent by much of the international community. The post-election protests that occurred were notable not only for their widespread popularity and open defiance of the government, but for the way technology was used to help coordinate, maintain, and publicize events on the ground.

Despite the efforts of Iranian authorities to impose internet and press censorship, mobile, internet, and wireless technologies, such as Twitter, allowed ordinary individuals, in Iran or around the world, to witness and even participate in the events. Images of the death of Neda Soltan taken by mobile phone and uploaded to YouTube prompted reactions from world leaders and the sympathies of Americans who otherwise would have treated Iranian citizens as faceless, nameless supporters of the Iranian regime. For those in the Muslim world, much of which has been characterized by the control of information, technology is giving extraordinary power to individuals and taking it away from governments, autocrats, and those who enforce religious practice. We have not yet seen the possibilities of this phenomenon.

2. Muslim countries become more democratic, more moderate

An oft-cited slander against Muslims around the world is that democracy is incompatible with Islam. Given the choice, Muslims would ostensibly prefer autocrats to the anarchy of a pluralistic political system that would seem to imply that there is not only one interpretation of Islam. But as many countries showed in 2009 (and earlier), democracy is not only thriving in Muslim countries, but Muslims are becoming more savvy in implementing it in responsible, productive ways. In Indonesia, voters overwhelmingly chose political parties that would steer away from implementing sharia law in ways that they find, well, annoying (such as a yoga ban). Their 2009 elections showed a drop in support for Islamic political parties to 24%, despite Indonesia’s 87% Muslim population.

Bangladesh’s elections, which took place December 29, 2008 (we’ll include it in this year’s list, why not?) showed a similar outcome, with the largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami taking only 2 seats in Parliament (down from 18 in the previous election). The 88% Muslim population then witnessed the transfer of power from one woman (Khaleda Zia) to another (Sheikh Hasina). Ultimately, Muslim populations, when given a democratic alternative, choose governments which protect and preserve their religious identity and right to practice it without – and this is key – coercing it upon themselves or using religious laws (sharia) as a means of potentially subverting their basic human rights. This highlights a trend towards greater moderation in government and equilibrium with it as democracy matures in the Muslim world’s developing nations.

3. In 2009, a tipping point for halal foods

Ten years ago, if you wanted to eat prepared halal foods in the West, you had few options. Most of those consisted of restaurants or markets featuring regional cuisines from the Muslim world with varying degrees of quality (well, usually just plain awful). Others were pale imitations of Western fast foods, leaving young Muslim diners dreaming of a halal McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken to sink their teeth into. Clearly Muslims were a growing market with specific dietary needs – a market that, in Britain, spends of their income more per capita on food (and meat, in particular) than non-Muslims. As Muslims grew in number, affluence, and religious identity, the current offerings were simply no longer acceptable. When would mainstream companies recognize this Muslim market and provide for them, if only to increase their bottom line?

Well, be careful what you wish for. In 2009, a number of multinational companies began experimenting with providing halal options to their product ranges and finding that, despite the negative attention from those who felt they were being “Islamicized,” it simply made good business sense. In Britain, KFC began a trial of eight halal-only branches in London, later expanding to 21 nationwide with more coming in January 2010. This follows a successful experiment with halal-only Subway sandwich restaurants (pork products are replaced with halal turkey alternatives) and halal-only Domino’s pizza franchises. Supermarket chains Tesco, Sainsbury, and Asda all increased their offerings of fresh halal meat – some exclusively – after successful trials. In addition to the provision of halal foods in a number of regional chains, America’s Costco offers halal lamb in most of its 410 stores nationwide. And none of it is about promoting ideology, only good business and the sort of economic interdependence that will give “integration” a new meaning.

4. In the US, a Muslim promotes change from within

The Bush-era State Department employed several diplomats charged with diplomatically engaging the Muslim world, most of whom came up with a string of bad ideas. First, ad executive Charlotte Beers devised (what else) ad campaigns and media outlets that tried to “sell” America to Muslims who weren’t buying. Her successor Karen Hughes “listened” to Muslims, but ultimately didn’t deliver on what they wanted most – policy change. As diplomatic efforts languished after Hughes returned to Texas, the baton was picked up by Farah Pandith, a senior advisor tapped to reach out to Muslims in Europe. Rather than repeat the mistakes of the past, Pandith assumed the role of networker and convener, introducing European Muslim scholars, activists, artists, and entrepreneurs to their American counterparts and then, in her words, “walk away”. The idea (which was unique in the Bush administration) was to get the US government out of problem solving among Muslim communities and empower Muslims to do the work themselves.

Initial successes were promising enough that incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expended political capital to retain Pandith and elevate her position to one that covers the entire Muslim world as a “Special Representative to Muslim Communities” that reports directly to the Secretary. She plans to continue leveraging her position, and the pull it has with the Obama administration, to recruit more Muslim Americans to the cause. “The reason I was successful in Europe is because American Muslims helped me become successful,” says Pandith. “I want to have consistent dialogue with American Muslims, and I will do that face to face.”

5. Striking gold with the Goldstone Report

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been a source of unending frustration for Muslims, who feel that universal standards of justice and fairness are not applied to them. Efforts to engage the international community diplomatically and politically get nowhere, leaving some to engage in more drastic measures. When, in late 2008, Israel began its military assault on Gaza, which was already reeling from a strangling blockade, the wanton devastation caused by Israel’s bombardment spurred new efforts to call Israel to account for their wartime excesses – regardless of the proportionally smaller Qassam attacks by Hamas. Enter Richard Goldstone, a South African former prosecutor for the United Nations and leader of a fact-finding mission sponsored by the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate the conflict and subsequent international human rights and humanitarian law violations.

Goldstone’s final report on the matter made enormous waves politically for it’s frank assessment of the actions of Israel (and Hamas) as war crimes. Media and governmental reactions were mixed (supported by many European nations, yet not the US), but the report’s backing by the UN gave its findings a long lasting effect on Israel’s image and the perception of Gaza. Picking up the baton, Palestinian supporters filed court cases leading to arrest warrants on war crimes charges for Israeli leaders visiting Britain, such as opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who was Israel’s foreign minister at the time of the offensive. The International Criminal Court has even considered opening war crimes investigations of its own against Israeli officials and a precedent has been set for other countries – including the US – to face similar charges if they act in the same manner in other conflicts (such as in Iraq and Afghanistan). In the end, it is the rule of law and universal rights standards that look to be strengthened, and not military strength or diplomatic maneuvering.

6. Italy makes a stand against rendition

The practice of extraordinary rendition, which involves the extrajudicial apprehension and transfer of suspected criminals (i.e., “terrorists”) to third countries where they could be tortured, depends largely on the cooperation (or deception) of cooperating allies. In one such case, an imam was kidnapped by CIA agents in Italy, bundled off to Egypt, and imprisoned/tortured for many years – all without knowledge or cooperation of the Italian government. The 22 agents involved freely used their own passports, credit cards, and cell phones, seemingly confident of their impunity. For Italy’s fiercely independent judicial system (and not only for imprisoning Foxy Knoxy), this was a step too far.

In November, 2009, all the identified agents were subpoenaed, tried, and convicted, along with two cooperating Italian secret service agents, of participating in the rendition, the first legal convictions against rendition (used disproportionately against Muslims since 9/11) anywhere in the world. The European arrest warrants mean that none of the convicted agents can step foot in European Union countries without facing arrest and imprisonment. To add insult to injury, the Milan station chief at the time, Robert Seldon Lady, even had his Italian retirement villa confiscated to help cover court costs. The verdict is largely symbolic, as the Italian government will not seek extradition (which wouldn’t be granted anyway). But the convictions mean that there is legal precedent against the controversial practice, which almost always leads to human rights abuses (as is presumably its intent). One of the convicted CIA officers, Sabrina DeSousa (sentenced to five years in prison) notes that the United States “broke the law … and we are paying for the mistakes right now.”

7. In popular culture, a new Muslim image

Is it possible that people are getting tired of seeing Muslims depicted as terrorists in popular media? You might think so given the popularity and critical acclaim that many portrayals of Muslims are receiving these days. This year, noted author Dave Eggers’ simple but heartfelt (and true) story of Abdelrahman Zeitoun’s life in – and disappearance from – post-Katrina New Orleans became a New York Times bestseller and is slated to become a major animated motion picture next year. Eggers’ book Zeitoun is just one of the new crop of nuanced and sophisticated depictions of Muslims that is likely to continue as American audiences (thankfully) begin to tire of the stereotypes that we have been living with for decades.

In other media, documentaries fleshing out the Muslim experience caught the public eye, from Jennifer Taylor’s PBS-screened “New Muslim Cool” to “Inside Islam: What A Billion Muslims Really Think to the breathtaking IMAX film “Journey to Mecca.” All painted a picture of Muslims as varied, complex, and human. Fictional movies such as “Traitor” also demonstrated more human Muslim characters. And the increasing acceptance of Muslims as authority figures for all people in fields like economics (CNN’s Ali Velshi), foreign policy (the ubiquitous Fareed Zakaria), and healthcare (“America’s Doctor” Dr. Mehmet Oz) may have an even more profound impact on the way Muslims are looked upon as significant contributors to the larger society. And let’s not forget our own Associate Editor Wajahat Ali, whose groundbreaking play “The Domestic Crusaders” earned platitudes from the likes of Emma Thompson and Toni Morrison, who joined Ali at the off-Broadway finale.

8. An education in freedom for Saudi Arabia

The stakes are high over at Saudi Arabia’s KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology), where a remarkable gamble is being made. Nearly $25 billion has been spent on a world-class scientific university on the premise that high academic success – and by extension, global socio-economic power – is only possible in a Western-style educational system. At KAUST, normal Saudi rules don’t apply: academic freedom is assured, classes are co-educational, and all religious and ethnic groups are welcome. Even when some of Saudi Arabia’s conservative clerics protested the decadence being forced upon them, the state responded in a way only an autocracy could – removing them from office.

The admission that such an educational institution could be a part of Saudi Arabia’s post-oil future should say a lot to those within the country who feel that an austere, enforced Islam is the answer for their society. Stagnation in Saudi society is felt on a number of levels, with bleak job prospects for their traditionally educated and a restless female population who feel (as the royal family ironically does) that their potential is being squandered on deference to centuries-old traditions and patriarchy. An academic structure such as KAUST, then becomes a learning opportunity for things never intended, like transparency and governance. KAUST, along with similar educational reforms underway in the desert kingdom, show that economic and social progress are only possible when enforced religious practice gives way to the freedom to practice and learn without intrusion or coercion.

9. Faced with violent protest, Muslims learn from experience

In March, when a group of provocative Muslims protested returning British troops from Iraq in Luton, England, a new phase of anti-Muslim protest began in the UK. Starting with a violent reaction also in Luton, new groups with names such as the English Defence League and Stop the Islamisation of Europe formed. Though very small in number, the groups sought to promote a picture of Muslim communities as anti-English and violent – by provoking violence from them. In one protest in September at a mosque in Harrow, they succeeded in getting a group of angry young Muslims (most not affiliated with the mosque itself) to attack police who were standing between the demonstrators, getting unflattering images of Muslims in the press.

By the time a new protest was scheduled at the Harrow mosque in early December, Muslim community leaders, emboldened by the support they received from other religious and community groups, had one message for their young people – don’t take the bait. With successful networking, the message got through to those who undoubtedly still felt anger at the provocation and portrayal of themselves in the media. Though still outnumbered by anti-fascist groups, the anti-Muslim demonstrators were faced with no Muslims, making the confrontation one of the values of wider British society, rather than race or religion. With increasing sentiment against Muslims growing in Europe, as can be seen from the Swiss minaret ban enacted this year, Muslims may have to face the prospect of more demonstrations aimed at provoking the kind of responses that will perpetuate the mistrust. If so, there’s at least one strategy Muslims can use that might cool things down.

10. Rifqa Bary is freed from her kidnappers

The case of Rifqa Bary, the teenager from Ohio who converted to Christianity and ran away to live with a Florida preacher, really starts out as bad news. By the time she reached her destination, she began a litany of accusations against her bewildered parents – the key one being that her father threatened to kill her for her conversion. Eventually, two independent investigations in Ohio and Florida found no evidence that her life was in danger (perhaps the cheerleader lifestyle her parents knew about and didn’t mind was a clue). Observers found inconsistencies in her accounts and her understanding of Islam. And her appearance on a seemingly coached video had eerie parallels to ransom videos from extremists in Iraq and elsewhere.

Eventually, a court found that Rifqa should be returned to Ohio and kept in foster care while the state proposed mediation between her and her parents. A dependency hearing is scheduled for January 2010, though when Rifqa turns 18 in August 2010, she’ll be able to manage her own affairs as an adult. The ties between a shadowy cult and Rifqa help explain parts of the story, though the adoption of Rifqa as a cause celebre by groups hostile to Muslims lies at the center. Keeping Rifqa in a neutral environment (her internet and phone use is monitored while in foster care) is the only sensible course of action at the moment and has helped diminish the aggressive campaign against Muslims who, in this case, are only bystanders to an otherwise tragic situation.

Zahed Amanullah is Executive Editor of altmuslim.com


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