Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Towards Qom, the city of Ayatollahs

From a distance, you can see its golden cupola shine in the Iranian sun. Roads leading to various cities in Iran have to pass through Qom.

The ten 14th century blue and gold domed sanctuaries visible on the city’s skyline from the surrounding plains are a clear indication of the significance of Qom as a centre of Islamic worship and study.

Thousands upon thousands of students continue to come here to receive their religious education. The most important of the many religious sites in Qom is the Hazrat-e Masumeh, a mausoleum dedicated to Fatimah Masumah, sister of Imam Raza.

The shrine which was built in her memory soon became a popular site and remains so to this day. Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Revolution, chose Qom as the location from which he would direct the country’s affairs from the time of his return from exile in 1979 until his death 10 years later.

Crossing the Dasht-e-Kavir salt desert in an aging Mercedes bus, we reached Qom a couple of hours later. Look around and there are clerics everywhere and most of the women wear chadors - a pleasant respite from the make-up and figure hugging manteaus which is so disturbingly obvious in Tehran.

In Iran, it’s easy to make friends. A country where the hospitality is generous and heart-felt, finding such company is easy.

Just stand somewhere near the gate and look lost!

But, I made friends inside the shrine. They were three women one from Bahrain another from Saudi Arabia and the other was from Kashan. Soon we got talking and I was invited for breakfast. Sitting in the courtyard, we had more of a traveller’s meal - tea, dates, nuts and dry fruits, with a chocolate to finish.

We were soon discussing, agreeing and disagreeing on the hot topics of the day. Apart from who would win this election (of course “Ahmedi”!), We spoke about the relative merits of democracy - “compare Iran to any other country in the Middle East and this is a democracy,” said Mrs M, a devout Iranian.

What about the likelihood of an American invasion? “If they do attack, it will make Iraq look like the easy fight,” said the two Arabs in unison. From wherever in the world we belonged, we shared the same bond of devotion with Iran.

We may not have agreed on most of the discussion, but each of us was willing to listen to the other’s point. With breakfast over and no agreement on how to cure the world’s evils, we set off for the shrine. At the entrance, the devotion was manifest as even those not entering would stop, bow and offer a small prayer.

It was good to turn around and watch. While only religious fanatics do not populate Iran as some people in the West would have you believe, religion is important. I decided to turn off my reporter’s mode and simply be in the moment. So, I stop, sit quietly and pray for world peace.

An Islamic history is a vital part of Ethiopia’s richness


‘We are sorry if you get woken up by the Muslim call to prayer in the morning.” Those were some of the first words I heard at my hotel when I arrived in Addis Ababa, on my first trip to Ethiopia. I confess – I was a bit confused. Call to prayer? In the capital of a “Christian country in a sea of Muslims”, as Ethiopia is sometimes called? Perhaps I was in a Muslim quarter of Addis Ababa that had been recently established?

No, the situation was far more complicated than that, and one about which I had a surprisingly limited awareness. Most non-Ethiopians, including the immediate neighbours of Ethiopia, also believe that Ethiopia is predominantly Christian. The more sophisticated might believe that there is a Muslim minority – and it was to learn about that population that drew me to Ethiopia in the first place. But it is not a minority. About 55 per cent of Ethiopia’s parliament is Muslim and representatives from the country’s Islamic community insist they are at least 50 per cent of the population.

While the US State Department estimates that this number is a bit lower, Islam might actually be the religion with the most adherents in Ethiopia.

If there is any “Muslim quarter” in Addis, it must be an old one. Christianity was the first religion to arrive in Ethiopia – but only in the north of the country. Where the capital, Addis Ababa, is located, the area of Shawa, was the domain of a Muslim sultanate in the early 8th century. Most historical narratives portray Ethiopia’s as a Christian story. If Islam is even mentioned, it is associated with disconnected tribesman in the lowlands who battled Christian kingdoms in the highlands. But history is written by the powerful and now academics are rediscovering the Muslim history of this country of such noble heritage.

As I met people from Ethiopia’s Muslim community, I was struck by their diversity. Most Ethiopian Muslims are influenced by Sufism, and follow the same Sunni rites as their neighbours in Yemen, Somalia and Djibouti (the Shafi’i rite) – but there are also adherents of other Sunni rites, and a significant Salafi movement within Ethiopia. There are dozens of ethnic and linguistic groups among Muslim Ethiopians, from all areas of the country.

But what they share is a long history of discrimination against them. Early Christian-Muslims relations in Ethiopia were very good – the Prophet of Islam sent several Muslim refugees to live among Christians in Ethiopia, who had a very high opinion of the king at that time, who later became Muslim. In the medieval era, Christian Ethiopians under the Zagwes refused to be drawn into the European crusades against the Muslim world, which led to Saladin giving the Ethiopian Orthodox Church a monastery in Jerusalem.

In the same era, Muslims and Christians lived in separate kingdoms and sultanates in Ethiopia, but in peaceful coexistence – and their example proves that deeply religious and pious people of different religions need not be at war with one another.But with the rise of the Solomonic dynasty in 1270 that came to an end. That dynasty, like many others of its age, was expansionist and aggressive, leading to a great number of conflicts with Muslim sultanates over a period of hundreds of years in Ethiopia.

The length of the Solomonic dynasty is staggering – Haile Selassie was its last Emperor, and his reign ended in 1974. He saw the establishment of a modern Ethiopia, but not a modern educational system – at least, not for Muslim Ethiopians. The historians and educators I interviewed in Ethiopia bemoaned the standard of education among Muslim Ethiopians, explaining to me that during Haile Selassie’s tenure, Muslim regions did not receive the same attention as Christian regions and few modern educational institutions were established. Haile Selassie had a formula for Ethiopia: one country, one people, one religion. Muslims were not part of that equation.

The revolutionary regime that overthrew Haile Selassie, the Derg, introduced education for all, but as a communist movement, Muslim communities still suffered discrimination.

Many of those whom I met were from that generation – a generation that had access to education, and began to learn about their religion in a modern sense. With the establishment of a more democratic constitution in 1994, Muslim Ethiopians began to try to build more institutions for themselves.

Much of the contemporary analysis surrounding Ethiopia’s relationship with the Muslim world revolves around Somalia, and Ethiopia’s invasion of that country in 2006. I saw quite a different face, however, to the nation. I saw a huge number of Muslims speaking excellent Arabic (perhaps more than any non-Arabic speaking country I had ever been to), proud of the history of this ancient land that had never been conquered.

On the other hand, I also saw the sadness of many Muslim Ethiopians, who were frustrated that while rich Muslim countries might provide funds to build mosques, or provide food during Ramadan, they would not contribute to provide for the institutions needed to improve the capacity of this thriving community. And it’s not hard to see why – many simply do not believe there is a community there to support in the first place.

But there is an Ethiopian Muslim community there: a community that has learnt to thrive against the odds, and one that teaches lessons about identity in a diverse society and the role of religion in the modern world. It is a community that deserves to be known.

H A Hellyer is a Fellow of the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at the University of Warwick (UK), and director of the Visionary Consultants Group

Business Targets set for the six Key Result Areas

Looking at these six KRAs, I believe, more public funds (our money) to be pumped into the pockets of fortunate people to realise the targets.

It means more business for those cronies-cum-ass-lickers as well as families of those who walk in corridors of power. Time to rejuvenate the economy during the turmoil with more projects.

No, I am not envious. I can never be in the same level or same group or even a good businessman. In the current situation, as always in Malaysia, politics is almost everything and politics always be mixed with business or vice versa, especially for umnoputeras.

However, if you are real entrepreneurs with lots of ideas, look into these targets, think of something that works and find your partner (any Umno leaders...) to submit your proposals....good luck.

Targets set for the six Key Result Areas

Najib announces KPIs and NKRA

The Government’s promise of an improved delivery system takes flesh with the Prime Minister’s unveiling of the short-term targets for the six National Key Result Areas.

Reduction of crime rate

> Reduce street crime, including snatch thefts and unarmed robbery, by 20% by the end of 2010.

> Re-train Rela members to help improve public perception on safety.

> Upgrade equipment for enforcement agencies and increase the usage of CCTV.

> Set up special courts for street crime to speed up the legal process.

Combating corruption

> Updating relevant policies, procedures and enforcement to improve global perception.

> Use open or restricted tender process for all government projects with the exception of those sensitive in nature.

Widening access to affordable and quality education

> Make pre-school education part of the national education system.

> Ensure all normal pupils are able to read, write and count when they enter Year Four before 2012.

> Reward school principals and headmasters based on the achievements of each school.

> Turn 100 daily smart, cluster, trust and boarding schools into high performing learning centres by 2012.

Raising the living standard of the Poor

> Pay out all welfare cash aid on the first of each month from January.

> Create 4,000 women entrepreneurs under the Sahabat Amanah Ikhtiar programme by 2012.

Improving Infrastructure in rural areas

> Build 1,500km of roads in Sabah and Sarawak by 2012.

> Ensure that no one lives more than 5km from a tarred road in the peninsula by 2012.

> Increase clean water supply to cover 90% of Sabah and Sarawak by the end of 2012.

> Increase electricity coverage in Sabah and Sarawak to 95% by end of 2012.

> Provide 24-hour electricity supply to 7,000 orang asli families in the peninsula by the end of 2012.

Improving public transport in the Medium term

> Increase the number of public transport users to 25% by end of 2012 from the present 16%.

> Add 35 sets of four-car-trains to operate on the Kelana Jaya LRT track by the end of 2012.