New Internationalist

Letters

Issue 347

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Letters

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Dominating influence
I found your Islam issue (Islam: Resistance and Reform, NI 345) interesting but a little unbalanced in that it did not seem to allow a view that is critical of religion in general and of Islam in particular. It was the growing secularism in Europe which brought about religious tolerance, freedom of thought and social progress. Is there any reason to doubt that a similar change in the intellectual atmosphere in the Muslim world would bring about the same willingness to examine assumptions about the political and social structure of these societies? At present the existence of blasphemy laws would seem to make it impossible in practice to discuss religion let alone to challenge its dominating influence. And if the law is not used to suppress criticism, there are always demagogues ready to stir up an uninformed public against any critic. None of this was really dealt with in your issue – nor was the extreme intolerance of non-Muslims demonstrated in such countries as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. I expect something less bland from NI.

Click here to read the Islam magazine. Graham Beech
London, England

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Positive light
It was such a pleasure to see Islam portrayed in a positive light (NI 345) and as the religion I believe it really is – one of peace. As a Muslim I found it very informative – so I’m sure non-Muslim readers will also have learnt a great deal. I hope it will have enabled people to gain a better understanding of Islam and Muslims in general – something much needed in these turbulent times.

Safia Saeed
Liverpool, England

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...if it is the word of God, why should it not be taken literally?

Against interpretation
Ziauddin Sardar argues (NI 345) that to ‘get beyond the current impasse’ Muslims need to ‘move away from a... literalist interpretation’ of Islam. Is this a polite way of saying that much that is written in the Qur’an is simply the opinion of one man with a seventh-century outlook, and not necessarily the word of God? For if it is the word of God, why should it not be taken literally?

I believe that what Muslims (or Christians or Jews for that matter) need to do is not so much ‘move away from a literalist interpretation’ of their holy book, but to move away from the holy book itself. The Qur’an (and the Bible) certainly contains many wise words about gentleness, mercy, generosity, respect for one’s elders, etc. But the Qur’an also instructs us (Sura 5.33) to crucify, or execute, or ‘cut off the hands and feet from opposite sides’ of anyone who wages war against God or his apostles; it prescribes 100 lashes for fornication outside of marriage, for both men and women (Sura 24.2-4); any woman found guilty of lewdness must die (Sura 4.15); and so on.

The contradictions, cruelty and absurdities (as well as the wisdom) in our holy books must surely make us question their divine authorship. I believe that it is only through this realizaton that fundamentalism can be challenged and the humanist values of tolerance, pluralism and rationality be defended.

Dave Simmonds
Epping, England

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The image I got from the articles was one of a belief system that accepts the basic class inequalities

Anarchist critique
I appreciate that the NI would want to counter the racism that has emerged as a result of 11 September. However, I feel that the defence of Islam (NI 345) went against the basic ethos of the NI. Other issues give a perceptive critique of the exploitation and oppression in the world and provide space to people who are building a resistance. The discussion of Islam offered nothing of this. Instead we got the liberal Muslim establishment trying to argue that Islam is not as bad as it is portrayed in the West. Now that may well be true; but that does not make it a movement of resistance to hierarchy and inequality. The image I got from the articles was one of a belief system that accepts the basic class inequalities (it’s quite acceptable to accumulate wealth as long as you give a token amount to charity) and struggles desperately to find something that shows that women really can be equal within Islam. All religions which place power in something outside human beings (God/Goddess) and therefore necessarily into the hands of the men (usually) who interpret the words of this outside authority, make it extremely difficult for us to get rid of power altogether and to create a non-hierarchical society.

My ‘belief system’ is anarchism. Unlike Islam, anarchism does actually offer people a way of creating a better society that doesn’t give power to anyone – neither outside nor inside this world.

Bonnie VandeSteeg
London, England

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Bouquet and brickbat
Ziauddin Sardar’s Keynote (NI 345) reminded me why I subscribe – it was informative, thoughtful, critical and thought-provoking. It certainly helped me to clarify my thoughts on Islam and the contradictions between its different aspects. Excellent!

On the other hand, your unsigned article on the Queen was a good example of why I’m always on the verge of cancelling my subscription. Is it anything more than playing with words to say ‘because of the Queen the people of Britain are not citizens but subjects’? And to imply that the role of religion in Britain and Iran are in any way similar is intellectually dishonest. Thank goodness I don’t rely on NI for all my information.

Alison Kelly
Luxembourg

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Obscured prophesy
Ziauddin Sardar (Keynote, NI 345) describes in detail the distortion of the inspiration for Islam by fundamentalist, patriarchal and political interests. We should remember that nations claiming to protect Christian values practise capital punishment internally and self-interest by military means externally. For Christians also, the gentle philosophy of the prophet has been obscured by human frailty.

Ian McKissack Raglan,
Aotearoa/New Zealand

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Good ol’ world
If the worst you can come up with for your Worldbeaters page is an ageing and powerless figurehead (Elizabeth II in NI 345), infantile tabloid-style muckraking, a couple of 45-year-old quotes and an annual taxpayer subsidy of $21 million, the world isn’t such a bad place after all...

Rob Hamilton
Melbourne, Australia

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Compelling
We have found the West Papua issue (NI 344) compelling reading. Although just as much on Australia’s doorstep as East Timor, it is disturbing to note that the West Papuan independence issue still has a long way to go before even registering on the radar of the general Australian populace. One is given the distinct impression that many either do not even know that it exists or have a vague concept that it is part of Papua New Guinea. Let us hope that not too many years pass before it becomes as politically expedient for the Australian Government to act positively for West Papuan independence as it was recently in the case of East Timor.

John Pittendreigh & Kelly-Ann Wickham
Brisbane, Australia

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Click here to read issue 343: Rush to Nowhere. Calming influence
An amazing thing happened to me as I read Richard Swift’s Keynote (NI 343 Rush to Nowhere). For the first two pages, where he described the insane, frantic pace of our world, I could actually feel my heart speed up – just reading about it. As he began to suggest an alternative way to view time, I became more calm. Imagine if I lived it!

Dr Sue McGregor
Halifax, Canada

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Simple and splendid
Regarding ‘The Ring of Security’ (Letter from Lebanon, NI 345): ‘loan groups’ are an old concept used for decades in Africa. It is called ‘tontine’ in Francophone West Africa. The large majority of the members of those groups are women as they are denied financial assistance most of the time although they are often the only person in charge of the entire family’s welfare. It is a simple and yet splendid example of community work and group power. What are we waiting for to tell the bankers to take a hike and become financially autonomous? Like Reem Haddad, I am not certain to find the loyalty, determination and commitment that are required for such an exercise in our spoiled and destructive societies.

Poverty is not a new reality in African countries, refugee camps or not. After we ransacked their land and natural resources, we refused them the right to survive. They in return, once again, show us the alternative way. Will we learn the lesson?

Chentale de Montigny
Vancouver, Canada

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Magical ring
The Ring of Security’ beautifully exemplified the worldwide cry of humankind, to make ourselves more susceptible to grace. In Reem Haddad’s article the human spirit was clearly evident, as people successfully de-linked themselves from the money- lenders, becoming free and wonderfully independent. A story truly to gladden the heart.

David Harvey
Chippenham, England

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Resources
Further to the correspondence on e-mail petitions in previous month’s Letters, two websites of interest: www.petitiononline.com helps you support causes without blocking your friends’ mailboxes (thanks to Julian Cram of Adelaide, Australia) and www.breakthechain.org/current.html is a guide to spurious petitions in circulation (thanks to Susi Newborn of Auckland, Aotearoa/New Zealand).

Corrections
In C Douglas Lummis’ article ‘Enclosing Time’ (NI 343 Rush to Nowhere) Gerard Winstanley the Digger was mistakenly identified as simply an anti-slavery campaigner. Karl Polanyi should have been identified as an economic historian. The mistakes stem from the editing process and we apologize to both the original writer and readers.

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Letter from Lebanon

Return to nature
How hunters became protectors, by Reem Haddad.

Issam Sidawi, an enthusiastic fisher and hunter, was adamant. The Lebanese Government had gone too far. Not only had it declared the Palm Islands off the coastal city of Tripoli a protected reserve, but Sidawi and other locals were barred from accessing their shores and waters. The three small islands were the locals’ favourite picnic and hunting grounds. For years, Sidawi held protests and gathered petitions against turning the islands into a nature reserve.

But the deed was already done by the time the protests began. In 1992 a law had been passed declaring the islands – home to over 150 birds and breeding grounds for Green and Loggerhead Turtles – a protected reserve. That same year, the Government had signed the Rio de Janeiro Convention on Biological Diversity and it was eager to start implementing some of the articles.

Still Sidawi and other locals continued with their protests.

‘I hated the idea of a protected area,’ he said. ‘These islands are for us, the locals. If I want to hunt there, I will. If I want to swim there, I will. If I want to fish there, I will. How dare someone fine me for going over to the islands?’

As for the turtles that lay their eggs on the sandy shores of the islands and roam around the waters, doesn’t everyone know that rubbing turtle blood underneath a baby girl’s armpits prevents hair from growing on her body?

‘These are our traditions,’ he said. ‘And no-one can stop us from hunting the turtles.’
Years later, Sidawi was sitting in the reserve’s office grinning widely. He had just finished telling me of his past anger. Today, not only is he one of the biggest advocates of the nature reserve, he is also the islands’ ranger.

‘I wake up at dawn every morning to monitor the turtles’ movements,’ he says proudly. ‘I make sure no-one comes to the islands when they are not allowed to.’Illustration: Sarah John

Sidawi’s change of heart occurred in 1996 when the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) launched its Protected Areas Project with the aim of protecting endangered wild life. Three areas were chosen in Lebanon, including the Palm Islands. All were funded by the Global Environment Facility, managed by UNDP, executed by the Environment Ministry and assisted by technical experts of the World Conservation Union. The management of each reserve was handed over to a local non-governmental organization. The Palm Islands, 5.5 kilometres from Tripoli and spread over five square kilometres, thus became the responsibility of the Tripoli-based Environment Protection Committee (EPC). The group’s first challenge was to convince the locals of the validity of protecting the islands.

‘We had to get the locals involved and believing in the project,’ said Ghassan Jaradi, the Reserve Manager of the islands. ‘There was a lot of resentment against us.’

The only way to decrease the locals’ bitterness was to allow them access to the islands. But first, a clean-up operation was launched. During the 16-year Lebanese civil war, the islands had been taken over by militias. In 1983, Israel bombarded them. In 1984, the largest of them was set on fire. By the end of the war, over 6,000 unexploded shells were found on the islands, many of them buried under the sand. It took the Lebanese Army three years to remove them. By 2001, the islands were declared safe. A section of the beach – where the turtles did not lay their eggs – was opened up to the public during the summer months.

While the locals’ anger subsided somewhat when allowed access to the islands’ shores, they still couldn’t comprehend the continued ban on hunting. Sometime after the declaration of the islands’ protected status migratory birds – which had disappeared during the war – began to return. Today over 156 bird species have been observed – 10 of them are permanent residents.

The EPC launched a series of student competitions and lectures. Meetings were held explaining the importance of having a protected reserve.

‘We told them, for example, that the rocks around the islands are spawning grounds for fish,’ said Jaradi. ‘Therefore there will be more for them to fish later on.’

Turtles also keep down the jellyfish population and trim undersea weeds which allow fish to deposit their eggs.

‘It wasn’t easy,’ admitted Jaradi with a sigh, ‘but they were beginning to understand.’ The change in attitude was dramatic.

‘We learned that we can’t force things on people,’ said Jaradi. ‘Now, we consult with the locals about everything before taking a decision.’

And of course, legislation helps. Hunters or trespassers can be fined up to $300.
‘The most important thing is to change people’s behaviour,’ said Jaradi. ‘We may have to enforce the law at times. But the day will come when new generations will be aware and protect the reserve on their own initiative.’

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.
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