The Top Ten Good News Stories for 2005
Despite all that happened in 2005, we were inspired and infused with hope and strength we drew from transformative events and people — whose stories we call good news.
By Mas’ood Cajee
2005 rode in on a deadly monster wave whose devastating power dwarfed humankind’s petty triflings. We also witnessed the wholesale destruction of an American city and a remote region of South Asia as well as the unraveling of the American presidency (and the Constitution). We contended with the enduring ravages of industrial society (global warming & other ecological disasters), disease (AIDS, tuberculosis, the avian flu) and war (Iraq, the “global war on terror”, Chechnya, Congo, Colombia, Sudan, et. al.). Only time will make sense of a year in which the Chinese juggernaut began to mint one million engineers a year, Dave Chapelle fled to South Africa, and Muhammad became one of the most popular names in England.
Despite all that happened in 2005, we were inspired and infused with hope and strength we drew from transformative events and people - whose stories we call good news. Muslims celebrated their long history of cultural and economic contributions in China and Russia, and made moves towards peace in Aceh, neutralizing extremism in Yemen, and struggling for (non-violent) justice among China’s Uighurs. The media began to improve their portrayal of Muslims (albeit slightly) and emerge from the dense fog surrounding the war in Iraq. Also, the generous Muslim reaction to Hurricane Katrina put to rest the notion of a Muslim world that hates America (or so we hope). After another year of blood-soaked headlines, we present to you our annual Top Ten Good News Stories of 2005. (See past year’s editions for 2004, 2003, and 2002)
1. Tatars celebrate 1000 years of capital city Kazan
The people of Kazan threw a birthday party for their beloved city on the Volga - it turned at least 1000 years old this year. For more than a decade, the news we’ve heard about Muslims in Russia has mostly been about the gruesome and devastating war in Chechnya. We haven’t heard much about the Muslim Tatars - that’s because they have been quietly rebuilding their society after decades of Soviet tyranny and centuries of Czarist repression.
Conquered in 1552 by the nascent Russian state, the Tatars - with their capital at Kazan - are the poster children of resiliency and survival. From new mosques to an Islamic university to a noteworthy economy, the Tatars have invested in education, development, and upliftment. This year, no less than Vladimir Putin himself stopped by to celebrate Kazan’s millennium. The celebrations included the grand opening of the marvelous Kul Sharif mosque, built inside the Kazan Kremlin on the site of the original destroyed 450 years ago.
On the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Kazan had among the most productive printing presses in the Muslim world; perhaps we can look forward to a renaissance of Islamic culture & spirit in the lands of Rus.
2. China bases its foreign policy on the spirit of Muslim admiral Zheng He
China marked 600 years since the first voyage of Admiral Zheng He, a Muslim who was China’s greatest explorer. His fleets, which often numbered over 300 ships, covered 50,000 km and explored the Indian Ocean Rim lands - from the Swahili coast of Africa to Arabia, India, Indonesia, and beyond.
Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine reported that, for China, Zheng He has “unexpectedly turned into an icon, a sort of godfather for the 21st century superpower.” The era of Zheng He represented a unique moment when China confidently and peacefully projected its power into the rest of the world. Today, China again seeks to engage the world as an emerging economic and military superpower. By appropriating the legacy of Zheng He, the Chinese government hopes to reassure a nervous world about its global aspirations.
Throughout China, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, governments and common people alike celebrated Zheng He’s anniversary by commissioning books, comics, films, soap operas, musicals, monuments, and whole museums about the mariner’s life. Some even gave offerings in special Zheng He temples. In the US, Zheng He made the July 2005 cover of National Geographic.
In 2002, author Gavin Menzies added to Zheng He’s aura with his book and PBS documentary - “1421: The Year China Discovered America” - by speculating that the explorer may have reached America, Australia, and rounded the southern tip of Africa.
3. Aceh Rebels & Indonesian Government agree to peace accord
It took the mega-tsunami that claimed over 165,000 lives to convince an Acehnese rebel group and the Indonesian government to end 29 years of fighting. Free Aceh Movement (GAM) spokesperson Bakhtiar Abdullah told Reuters the rebel movement opted for peace “because [they] want to give the people of Aceh a chance to rebuild after the devastating tsunami and to provide them with the opportunity to determine their own internal affairs.” After negotiation talks mediated by former Finnish president Martii Ahtisaari in Helsinki, rebel leaders and Indonesian officials inked a peace agreement on August 15.
Under the accord, the Acehnese settled for greater autonomy over full-fledged independence. The parties agreed to cease all hostilities with the GAM to disarm. A South African-style Truth & Reconciliation Commission will be established. In addition, the accord legalized previously banned Aceh-based political parties. To celebrate the new promise of peace in their ruined land, the Acehnese held two days of special prayers.
The Free Aceh Movement has been waging an insurgency in Aceh since 1976, when the rebel group declared Aceh’s independence from Jakarta. Over 15,000 people died in the three decades of conflict.
4. Cool heads prevail: Yemen dialogues with jailed extremists
We know torture and other violent methods don’t work well to change the hearts of violent extremists. Are there non-violent methods to rehabilitate those whose only weapon is violence? A Yemeni judge leads a peer group of Islamic scholars who use listening and dialogue to reform extremists.
Judge Hamoud Abdulhameed al-Hittar chairs Yemen’s Committee for Dialogue, established in August 2002 at the request of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih. Judge Hamoud also serves as the president of the Court of Appeals for the Sana’a and al-Jawf governorates. “An important part of the dialogue is mutual respect,” says Judge Hamoud. “Along with acknowledging freedom of expression, intellect and opinion, you must listen and show interest in what the other party is saying.” Judge Hamoud claims, through discussion, to have reformed hundreds of militants with no recidivism. Once the incarcerated suspects agree to rehabilitation, they are released.
In a year when the US Vice-President waged a vigorous defense of cruel, inhumane, and unusual punishment and Amnesty International described the systematic detention & torture meted out by the United States as “a gulag for our times”, Yemen’s example shows there is another way.
Judge Hamoud has advised Britain’s New Scotland Yard, as well as French and German police. If only he could engage the peanut gallery of extremism on the Potomac.
5. The truth about Iraq and other Bush shenanigans emerges
Okay, much of it is a day late and many lives short, but rays of sunshine pierced the dense fog surrounding the Iraq war and the wider Bush terror war. And knowing the truth - no matter how painful - is always good.
May: The leak of the Downing Street Memos - which the mainstream media failed to cover - confirmed that, in the prelude to the invasion of Iraq, ” the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy “. After over 131 Congressmen and 540,000 Americans signed petitions and mainstream editorial pages chimed in urging the president to respond to the Memos, one could almost hear the rusty cogs of the impeachment machine begin to turn.
August: Gold Star mom Cindy Sheehan emerged as a star of the anti-war movement with her Crawford, Texas vigil. Sheehan, whose son Casey died while serving in Iraq, demanded an audience with His Royal Highness King George. Dubya refused to take a break from his month-long vacation clearing brush, and his popularity plummeted.
October: Colin Powell’s former Chief of Staff Lawrence B. Wilkerson came out swinging, revealing that what he “saw was a cabal between the vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made.”
October: A federal grand jury indicted Cheney’s top aide Lewis Libby in the Valerie Plame affair, whose core issue remains the Niger Forgeries that buttressed the Bush argument for war. It remains to be seen whether kingfish Karl Rove himself will be indicted.
November: Hawkish congressman John Murtha (D-Penn.) called Bush’s Iraq war “flawed policy wrapped in an illusion”, and we knew the game was up.
December: The New York Times revealed that the President authorized spying on Americans by listening to their phone calls and reading their emails. ‘Nuff said.
By the end of the year, we knew that President Bush authorized the use of chemical weapons, death squads, torture, detention without trial, secret prisons, fake news, and lord knows what else in Iraq. The Baath Party is dead; Long live the Baath Party!
6. Hollywood smells a little better
Is a new wind blowing through Hollywood? Improved storytelling and more sophisticated, realistic plotlines made their way in the past year to the silver & small screens. That’s not to say that the torrent of malignant and malevolent representations of “Islamics” and “Ayrabs” - well-documented by Jacqueline Salloum and Jack Shaheen - has stopped flowing out of Hollywood. But a few valiant producers and scriptwriters have helped to stem the tide of Islamophobic and hate-mongering flicks.
This was the year of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, which gave us chivalric Islamic warriors and a cinematic Salaheddine. Morgan Spurlock, whose brilliant documentary Supersize Me lampooned McDonalds, used his newfound primetime television platform 30 Days on the FX Network to change stereotypes about American Muslims. Spurlock placed a conservative white Christian from West Virginia with a Dearborn Heights, Michigan Muslim family for a month, and filmed the ensuing lifechanging antics. Heartthrob George Clooney, stung by Bill O’Reilly’s TV-flogging of his character, helped bring us the political thriller Syriana as well as Good Night, and Good Luck, a look at legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow’s clash with Sen. Joseph McCarthy. And Albert Brooks went Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, a film that - while silly and flawed - was preferable to Sleeper Cell. Finally, even George Lucas warned us about the perils posed to a Republic by Empire in the final Star Wars film Revenge of the Sith, with Darth Vader declaring in a very W-like manner: “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy.”
Muslims in Europe made modest progress in the cinema this year. In the UK, the film Al-Ghazali: The Alchemist of Happiness told the story of the great Islamic scholar. Two new French films also promised positive filmic images of Muslims. In Le Grand Voyage, a father and son drive from France to perform Hajj. France’s Dave Chapelle, Jamel Debbouze, leveraged his fame and bank account to make Indigénes - a film about four Muslim soldiers who fought to liberate France in World War Two - a reality.
7. International effort to save the manuscripts of Mali
A new initiative called the “South Africa-Mali project” hopes to use South African technology and expertise to preserve the endangered manuscripts of Timbuktu. The Project has the support of South African president Thabo Mbeki, who sees the effort as a tangible sign of the African Renaissance he has promoted.
“This was not just a question of us making a small contribution to helping Mali preserve this fantastic history, but also to help raise the consciousness of our own people about our own continent, our own history, our own rich culture and traditions,” Essop Pahad, South African minister in the office of the president, said. Timbuktu in present day Mali was a leading center of trade and scholarship in the medieval and early modern world. Manuscripts from Spain to Central Asia made their way to the fabled city’s libraries.
While the dry air of the Sahel has helped to preserve many documents, deterioration and neglect threatens the survival of Timbuktu’s collections. Various campaigns and exhibitions around the world have highlighted the plight of these libraries, including those of the Oakland-based Timbuktu Foundation and the Library of Congress.
8. Bangladesh sends aid to USA: the Muslim response to Katrina & Kashmir
2005, the year Bangladesh and Afghanistan sent aid to a hurricane-stricken America. Okay, so it was only one million dollars and one hundred thousand dollars respectively. But poverty-stricken Bangladesh and war-torn Afghanistan! And Americans still have the audacity to ask, “Why do they hate us?”
Other Muslim countries sent over $1.6 billion dollars in relief aid after Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Kuwait alone generously gifted five hundred million dollars. (Cynics noted that Kuwait could only cough up one hundred million dollars apiece for Asian Tsunami and Kashmir earthquake relief.)
American Muslims held record-breaking fundraisers, pledging an initial $10 million for Katrina relief through the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and apparently raising $100 million for Kashmir quake relief. In addition to dollar donations, mosques and homes throughout the South from Baton Rouge to Dallas to Houston sheltered Katrina survivors. A massive volunteer effort in Houston saw an army of three thousand local Muslims lending a helping hand to Katrina survivors at the Astrodome and the George Brown convention center.
9. For ten years now, Kenya’s camel libraries bring books to the rural poor
An innovative library service has been using camels for almost a decade to get books to the mostly Muslim pastoralist population of remote Northeastern Kenya around Garissa. The Camel Library Service, run by the Kenyan government, seeks to increase access to knowledge and reduce the region’s high rate of illiteracy. Each camel library consists of three camels: one to carry three hundred books, the second to carry a tarp and poles, and the third as a spare.
Kenya’s National Library Service planners figured that delivering books with the beasts that are so central to the regional culture would enhance the usage and prestige of the library materials. The pastoralist population uses camels and camel-derived products for meat, milk, shoes, sleeping mats, gourds, medicine, fuel, and transport. Besides, motorized bookmobiles just wouldn’t make it in the rugged terrain.
While Kenya’s illiteracy rate hovers at thirty-one percent, a startling eighty-five percent of the poor rural Muslims of northeastern Kenya cannot read or write. It’s worth noting that a week of Iraq War spending could equip every village and town in the entire developing world with a library.
10. A woman continues her struggle with a superpower
The Chinese government released 59 year-old Uighur prisoner of conscience Rebiya Kadeer on March 17, 2005. “We are beyond happy,” said Akida Rouzi, Kadeer’s daughter. “We have waited for this moment for five and a half years and want to thank everyone who worked toward this joyful day.”
In addition to being an Uighur freedom struggle leader and highly successful businesswoman, Kadeer is the mother of eleven children and - according to Amnesty International - “one of China’s most prominent advocates of women’s rights.” Kadeer was appointed in the early 1990s to the prestigious Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and even represented China at the 1995 UN World Conference on Women in Beijing.
Her troubles began when - in the presence of Communist Party head honchos - Kadeer gave an indicting speech of China’s lack of freedom and maltreatment of minorities. Her speech was a landmark and poignant moment in the history of modern China - Kadeer had prepared for years for the opportunity and ability to speak truth to power. The courageous activism and stubborn outspokenness of Kadeer and her poet-husband Sidik Rouzi led to his exile and her subsequent arrest and imprisonment.
Kadeer continues to wage her people’s struggle from exile based in Washington, DC where she has befriended the likes of Congressman Tom Lantos of California.
According to Amnesty, “Crackdowns [in the Uighur homeland of Xinjiang] intensified after September 11, 2001, with authorities designating supporters of independence as ‘separatists’ and ‘terrorists.’ Uighurs, most of whom are Muslim, have been the main targets in the region of the Chinese authorities. Authorities have closed down mosques, detained Islamic clergy, and severely curtailed freedom of expression and association.”
Originally published at http://www.altmuslim.com/perm.php?id=P1622_0_24_0 and reprinted in TAM with permission