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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 10    Issue 11   16-31 October 2015

Professor A. R. MOMIN

Nobel Peace Prize for Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet

The 2015 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. The quartet is a coalition of civil society groups representing labour organisations, the legal profession and human rights. The quartet was selected by the Norwegian Peace Committee for its “decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.”

The Jasmine Revolution

December 17, 2010 will be reckoned as a turning point in the history of Tunisia in particular and that of the Arab region in general. On that fateful day, Mohammed Bouaziz, a young educated Tunisian who eked out a living by selling fruits on a handcart, set himself on fire after being harassed and slapped by a municipal inspector who confiscated his handcart and fruits. He eventually died on January 4. The event triggered an unprecedented wave of protests and demonstrations across Tunisia. The police caned the rampaging mobs, used teargas shells to disperse them and even opened fire, killing at least 78 civilians.

The Jasmine Revolution, as the massive protests and demonstrations against the corrupt and autocratic regime of Tunisia’s former president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, came to be known, was spurred by rising anger and resentment over high unemployment, corruption, food inflation and suppression of freedom and civil liberties. Ben Ali ruled the country with an iron fist for 23 years. He and his second Wife Leila Trabelsi’s family controlled between 30 and 40 per cent of the country’s economy, amounting to about $10 billion. The assets held by the two families covered all sectors of the economy, including banks, insurance, distribution, transport, property, tourism, television channels and retail businesses. Leila Trabelsi was notorious for her ostentatious lifestyle and profligacy. She often used the President’s 737 Boeing Business Jet to shop at the fashion capitals of Europe like Milan, Paris and Geneva. Tunisia rejected a French request for the extradition of two of Ben Ali’s nephews who are accused of having stolen two mega-yachts from a French marina. France’s Le Monde reported that relatives of Ben Ali fled the country with 1.5 tonnes of gold ingots valued at $65 million. Ben Ali finally resigned and fled the country on 14 January 2011.

The WikiLeaks diplomatic cables have described Tunisia’s ruling family as the nexus of corruption aided and abetted by a mafia-like network. A June 2008 cable from the US embassy in Tunis quotes a report by the Transparency International to the effect that Ben Ali’s family was involved in clandestine dealings in cash, services, land and property. The cables also reported that due to fears of reprisals from the president’s highly influential and resourceful family, many Tunisian investors had to forgo new investments and were forced to keep domestic investment rates low, which added to the high unemployment rate in the country. A report by Global Financial Integrity, a watchdog group, in January 2011 said: “The amount of illegal money lost from Tunisia due to corruption, bribery, kickbacks, trade mispricing and criminal activity between 2000 and 2008 was, on average, over $1 billion a year”. That was a substantial sum for a country whose GNP is hardly around $80 billion at purchasing power parity.

The Tunisian uprising triggered a tsunami of massive, unprecedented public protests and demonstrations across large parts of the Arab world. The protests represented a surge of pent-up resentment and anger against autocratic rule, rampant corruption and nepotism, incompetent and insensitive administration, poverty and unemployment, suppression of human rights and civil liberties, widespread inequalities of wealth and power, and the marginalization of large sections of society. The uprisings led to the inglorious end of autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. The reverberations of the Arab Spring were also felt in Bahrain, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman and Sudan.

The transition to democracy in Tunisia in the aftermath of the ouster of its former president Ben Ali has been fraught with grave challenges and impediments. In the election to the Constituent Assembly held in October 2011, the Ennahda Party won 37.04 per cent of the popular vote and 89 out of 217 assembly seats and took over the reins of power. The killing of two opposition leaders in 2013 led to a stand-off between the ruling Ennahda Party and the opposition parties.

Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet

The political impasse in 2013 prompted four civil society groups to come together. The National Dialogue Quartet, as the coalition came to be known, comprised the Tunisian Employees’ Union, represented by Wided Bouchamaoui, the Tunisian Labour Union, represented by its head, Houcine Abbasi, the Tunisian Human Rights League, represented by its president, Abdessattar Ben Mousa, and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers, represented by Mohamed Fadel Mafoudh.

The quartet drew up a plan or roadmap to resolve the political deadlock, to free the country from the shackles of political instability and to stem the rising tide of popular resentment and anger against the political class. The quartet called for the government to resign, to be replaced by a care-taker government headed by a non-partisan prime minister. It also called for the creation of an autonomous election commission and the drafting of a new constitution. The Ennahda signed the roadmap in October 2013 and in December 2013 the Ennahda-led government stepped down and handed power to a technocratic government led by Mehdi Jomaa. In his opening remarks at a roundtable at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London in February 2014, Racid Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahda, said, “The Ennahda movement made many concessions and agreed to relinquish control of the government in order to preserve genuine consensus.” A new constitution was adopted on 26 January 2014, following which parliamentary and presidential elections were held. In the parliamentary elections held in 2014, Nidaa Tounes, a secularist party founded in 2012, won a plurality of seats. The party’s founding leader, Beji Caid Essebsi, was elected Tunisia’s president in the 2014 presidential elections.

Tunisia’s new constitution, one of the most progressive in the Arab region, envisages the establishment of a constitutional system of government and guarantees fundamental rights, civil liberties and equality irrespective of gender, political ideology or religious beliefs. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet recognises the highly significant role of civil society organisations in facilitating Tunisia’s transition to a pluralistic democracy, in strengthening the prospects for political stability and in protecting women’s rights.

However, the jubilation and optimism over the prize needs to be tempered with caution. Tunisia is still faced with the challenges of high inflation, sluggish economic growth, high unemployment rate and violent extremism. The GDP growth for 2015 is projected at a measly 1%, compared with 2.3% in 2014. The overall unemployment rate is 15.2% and for university graduates a staggering 34%. This gloomy scenario has engendered deep disillusionment among Tunisian youth, which has been exploited by extremist groups. Tunisia continues to be haunted by the spectre of violent extremism and terrorism. On 18 March 2015, a terrorist attack on the National Bardo Museum in Tunis led to the killing of 19 people, including 17 foreigners. In June this year, a beach resort in Sousse was attacked by a gunman, killing 38 persons. Tunisia has contributed the highest number of foreign fighters to the Islamic State. Of an estimated 25,000 foreign fighters, 5,000 are from Tunisia, followed by Saudi Arabia (2,275), Jordan (2,000), Russia (1,700), Turkey (1,400), Lebanon (900), Germany (700) and Britain (700).

Chemistry Nobel for Turkish Scientist

The 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar for having mapped, at a molecular level, how cells repair damaged DNA and safeguard the genetic information. Their research has provided highly useful information about the complex ways in which a living cell functions, which has very promising implications for cancer treatments.

Aziz Sancar has mapped nucleotide excision repair, the mechanism that cells use to repair UV damage to DNA. People born with defects in this repair system are likely to develop skin cancer if they are exposed to sunlight. The cell also utilises nucleotide excision repair to correct defects caused by mutagenic substances.

Muslim Nobel Laureates

In all, there have been 12 Muslim Nobel laureates, out of which seven received the Nobel Peace Prize and three received the prize for physics and chemistry. Abdus Salam, a Pakistani theoretical physicist, received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979. Ahmad Hasan Zewail, an Egyptian-American scientist, was awarded the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It is interesting to note that all the three Muslim Nobel laureates in physics and chemistry have worked in Western countries for the greater part of their lives. Abdus Salam did most of his scientific work at the Imperial College, London and at the institute he founded at Trieste, Italy, while Ahmad Hasan Zewail worked at the California Institute of Technology. Aziz Sancar teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Muslims, who account for about a quarter of the world’s population, have only 12 Nobel laureates. On the other hand, Jews, who make up just 0.2 per cent of the global population, have 79 Nobel laureates. The abysmal representation of Muslims in science and technology is mainly due to the widespread apathy towards science education in particular and education in general in the Muslim world, pitiable spending on science education and on research and development by governments in Muslim-majority countries, the near-absence of world-class universities and research institutions, and the absence of a culture of excellence, institutional support and recognition. The 57 Muslim majority countries spend a miniscule amount – 0.8% of the GDP – on research and development, a third of the world average. The United States spends 2.9% and Israel 4.4% of the GDP on research and development. In 2005 Harvard University produced more scientific papers than the total of all scientific papers published in 17 Arab countries.

The neglect of education in the Muslim world appears surprising in view of the abundant natural resources in many Muslim countries. Of the top ten oil-producing countries, five are Muslim: Saudi Arabia (which has 18% share of the world oil output), Iran (4.77%), Iraq (3.75%), UAE (3.32%), Kuwait (2.96%). Saudi Arabia has the world’s largest proven oil reserves and is the largest producer and exporter of oil. In addition, Algeria, Kazakhstan, Qatar, Azerbaijan, Indonesia, Oman, Malaysia and Egypt have substantial oil reserves. Nearly 40% of the world’s oil is produced in Muslim countries.

The world’s ten largest natural gas reserves are in Qatar, Russia, Iran, Turkmenistan, USA, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Algeria and Australia. Qatar has the world’s largest reserves of natural gas, producing 77 million tonnes of gas per year. Saudi Arabia has the world’s fifth largest gas reserves. In addition, Iraq, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Malaysia, Kuwait, Egypt, Libya, Oman, Yemen, Brunei Darussalam, Syria, Tunisia, Bangladesh, Sudan and Bahrain have substantial gas reserves. The world’s largest goldmines are located in Uzbekistan and Indonesia.

Though much of the landscape in Central Asia is dominated by sprawling arid deserts and barren mountainous terrain, the region has vast natural resources. Kazakhstan has the second-largest reserves of uranium, chromium, lead and zinc in the world, the third-largest manganese, the fifth largest copper reserves and the 11th largest proven reserves of petroleum and natural gas. It has 3% of the world’s oil reserves, 4% of coal and 15% of its uranium. It has the world’s largest reserves of zinc, lead and chromite. Kazakhstan is among the world’s top ten suppliers of copper, iron ore, gold and manganese. Turkmenistan has 4.5% of the world’s natural gas and nearly 500 million barrels of oil. Uzbekistan has about 0.8% of the world’s natural gas reserves and sizeable gold, copper, lead and uranium reserves. Geologists believe that the quantum of commodity wealth in the Central Asian states is much bigger than estimated.

During the past ten years, Chinese, Russian, European and American companies have vied with each other to secure Central Asia’s natural resources. China is making heavy investments in oil fields and mineral projects in the Central Asian states. Over the past few years, the volume of trade between China and the five ‘Stans’ has increased by over 40% a year, reaching around $20 billion in 2010. It is estimated that Chinese gas imports will double between 2010 and 2020, most of which will come from Central Asia. A gas pipeline linking Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to China was opened in 2009. In 2011, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India signed an intergovernmental agreement for the construction of a 1,735-kilometre gas pipeline at the cost of $8 billion. By 2014, when work on the pipeline will be completed, Turkmenistan will export 33 billion cubic metres of gas to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Surveys carried out by the US Geological Survey and the Pentagon in Afghanistan over the past few years indicate that the country has vast, untapped deposits of precious minerals, including gold, copper, iron ore, cobalt, oil and natural gas, as well as rare earth elements such as lithium and niobium. These reserves are estimated to be worth a whopping $1 trillion. Oil fields in northern Afghanistan are estimated to hold up to 18 billion barrels of oil. In 2008, a Chinese mining consortium bought a 30-year lease on Mes Aynak in northern Afghanistan for $3 billion. They estimated that the valley contained potentially $100 billion worth of copper, possibly the largest such deposit in the world. It is estimated that the project would provide $300 million a year by 2016 and about $40 billion in total royalties to the Afghan government.

Iraq has some of the world’s largest untapped and under-exploited oil reserves, including nine “super giants” around Basra, each with 5 billion barrels of exploitable crude. According to the US Energy Information Administration, Iraq has about 115 billion barrels of oil, the fourth largest oil reserve in the world. Much of it remains to be exploited.

Mercifully, many Muslim countries are lately making amends for the neglect of education. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which was established in 2009, has an enviable $20 billion endowment. Jean Fréchet, who heads research at the university, is a world-renowned French chemist. The university has entered into research collaborations with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and with Imperial College, London. Qatar has raised spending on research and development from 0.8% to 2.8% of its GDP. Research spending in Turkey increased by over 10% each year between 2005 and 2010, as a result of which the output of scientific papers in the country rose from 5,000 to 22,000 between 2000 and 2009. During the same period, the output of scientific papers in Iran went up from 1,300 to nearly 15,000. A study in 2011 by Thomson Reuters, an information firm, showed that in the early 1990s scientific papers from Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey were cited by other publishers four times less often than the global average. By 2009 the situation improved by 50 per cent.

SESAME, an international physics laboratory with the Middle East’s first particle accelerator, was set up in Jordan in 2000. It is modelled on CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory.

Muslim Religious Summit in Turkey

Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet or DIB), hosted a four-day summit of Muslim scholars and religious leaders from the Asia-Pacific region on 13-16 October 2015 in Istanbul. The summit, which focused on “Unity in Multiplicity: Rethinking Peace and Wisdom Together,” was attended by 125 Muslim scholars and religious leaders from 37 countries. The main goal of the summit was to reaffirm and strengthen historical and cultural relations and to foster cooperation between Muslims in the Asia-Pacific region and Turkey.

In recent years, Diyanet has been actively involved in fostering a spirit of solidarity and cooperation among Muslims from around the world, particularly in the context of the challenges of Islamophobia, violent extremism and terrorism and civil wars in Muslim countries.

The deliberations at the summit focused on some of the crucial issues and challenges faced by Muslims around the world, including the ominous threat of rising extremism in a section of Muslim youth, sectarian intolerance, communitarian disunity and fragmentation, and terrorism. The delegates unequivocally condemned all forms of violent extremism and terrorism and emphasised that acts of violence and wanton destruction have absolutely no sanction in Islamic teachings and principles. The delegates also emphasised the need for inter-religious dialogue between Muslims and the followers of other faiths with a view to dispel widely held misconceptions and stereotypes about Islam and Muslims.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who addressed the delegates in the concluding session of the summit, focused in particular on the threat posed by violent extremism, epitomised by the Islamic State, to Muslim societies and emphasised the need for unity and solidarity among Muslims to combat such forces of evil.

Palestine Flag Raised at the United Nations

For the first time, the Palestinian flag was raised at the United Nations, following a speech delivered by the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on 30 September 2015. On September 10 the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution to raise the Palestinian flag at the United Nations with an overwhelming majority. The motion was passed with 119 votes in favour and 8 votes against, including those of Israel, the US and Australia. Forty-five countries abstained from voting.

Mahmoud Abbas dedicated the ceremony to the “martyrs, the prisoners and the wounded, and to those who gave their lives while trying to raise this flag.” In an article published in the Huffington Post, Abbas described the flag-raising ceremony as a “moment of hope” and called on the international community to recognise the independence of the state of Palestine.

So far, 136 of the 193 member states of the United Nations and 2 non-member states (which account for over 70% of the United Nations member-states and almost 80% of the world’s population) have recognized the Palestinian state. These include nine EU member-states, including Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Romania and Sweden. On November 29, 2012 the United Nations General Assembly passed a motion according the status of “non-member observer state” to Palestine. In December 2014 the European Parliament passed a symbolic vote that supports “in principle recognition of Palestinian statehood and the two-state solution.” The Vatican officially recognised the Palestinian State in May 2015. The move to recognize the Palestinian state is gathering momentum in the European Union. Parliamentarians in Britain, Spain, Ireland and France have approved non-binding motions urging their governments to recognise the State of Palestine.

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