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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 11    Issue 11   16-31 October 2016

Professor A. R. MOMIN

Syria’s White Helmets

The horrifying civil war in Syria continues to wreak devastation and ruin across the country. Forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad and those opposed to his rule are engaged in a fierce and deadly battle with each other as well as with the fighters of the so-called Islamic State. The Assad regime, backed by Shia militias from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon as well as Russian forces, is increasingly targeting civilian areas. Russian forces are using more sophisticated and lethal weapons. More than 400,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since the war erupted in 2011. More than 11 million Syrians have been displaced.

On September 19 this year, Syrian military forces struck a warehouse in the Aleppo countryside operated by the Syrian Arab Crescent. The assault destroyed a convoy of trucks that was carrying food and medicines for more than 78,000 civilians and killed at least 20 people. As many as 300,000 people are living under siege in the eastern part of Aleppo, which has been under the control of the rebels since the war began. According to Save the Children, an international charity, half of the casualties at the medical facilities in the eastern part of Aleppo have been children.

The terrible suffering and hardships suffered by the Syrians show no signs of abatement. There is an acute shortage of food, water, fuel and medicines. Many people survive on only one meal of rice in a day. Hospitals are overflowing with patients. The World Health Organisation says there are only 35 doctors left in Aleppo and all of the remaining 25 medical facilities are on the verge of complete destruction.

Syria Civil Defence

The need for organised search and rescue operations was acutely felt in 2012 in the wake of the bombing of civilian buildings in opposition-held parts of the country by Syrian military jets. This led to the emergence of a civil defence movement, which gathered momentum in 2013 with financial support from the UK, US and Japan. Groups of volunteers were sent to Turkey, where they were trained in search and rescue operations. The early training of volunteers was imparted by a British security consultant, James Le Mesurier, under the auspices of the Turkish AKUT Search and Rescue Association and the consultancy Analysis, Research and Knowledge (ARK). The volunteers were trained to work with simple equipment such as battery-powered hand tools and hand-cranked air raid sirens. With the availability of additional funding, volunteers were provided with seismic listening devices, ambulances, fire engines and hydraulic tools. The volunteers were also trained how to put out fires, how to handle unexplored bombs and what to do in the event of a chemical attack. They also reconnect electricity and water and assess medical needs. In October 2014, small, self-organised civil defence groups in Syria came together to form a national organisation called Syria Civil Defence (لدفاع المدني السوري‎‎ l). The credo of Syria Civil Defence is part of a verse from the Quran, which says “Whoever saves one life, saves all of humanity.” The full verse reads as follows: “On account of this, We prescribed for the children of Israel that whosoever killed a person – unless it be for killing a person or for creating disorder in the land – it shall be as if he had killed all mankind; and whoso gave life to one, it shall be as if he had given life to all mankind” (Quran 5:32).

The White Helmets

The White Helmets are a highly motivated and well-trained group within Syria Civil Defence. The group has over 3,000 members, who include ordinary Syrian people such as teachers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, tailors and shopkeepers. Most of them are young and are identified by the white colour of the hard hats they wear during search and rescue operations. The group operates from 114 local civil defence centres across 8 provincial directorates.

The volunteers of the White Helmets are the first to rush to buildings flattened by bombs to rescue survivors and to take out dead bodies from the rubble. The dead bodies are generally buried in trenches in Aleppo’s parks, sometimes 10 in a single grave.

The White Helmets have rescued more than 60,000 people since 2014. Rescue work in war-torn situations involves grave risks to life. Nearly one in six volunteers – 141 -- has been killed or badly wounded in “double-tap” Russian and Syrian air strikes on the same sites. The White Helmets have invited the wrath of Syria’s ruling regime. Three of the group’s four centres in eastern Aleppo were destroyed in Syrian and Russian air strikes in a single day. On September 22 the White Helmets won the prestigious Right Livelihood Award, also known as the ‘alternative Nobel.” They were nominated for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, but did not win it. The Time magazine dedicated its lead story to the White Helmets in its October 2016 issue.

Voluntary groups like the White Helmets restore and reaffirm one’s faith in humanity and help in dispelling unfounded prejudices and stereotypes about Islam and Muslims.

(With inputs from: http://time.com/syria-white-helmets/ http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21708515-amid-chaos-and-destruction-ever-bloodier-civil-war-volunteer-rescuers)

Growing Popularity of Islam in Mexico

Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world, with a projected growth rate of 73 per cent from 2010 to 2050. The growth of Muslim populations around the world is due to demographic factors as well as conversions.

The population of Muslims in Latin America is steadily growing, thanks to the migration of Muslims as well as conversions. In Suriname, Muslims make up about one-fifth of the population. The population of Muslims in Argentina is around 784,000, in Brazil 191,000 and in Venezuela 94,000. According to the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, there were approximately 111,000 Muslims in Mexico in 2010. Mexico’s Muslim population is projected to grow up to 126,000 by 2030.

The presence of Muslims in Latin America dates back to the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Camp followers, who were forcibly converted to Catholicism by the Spaniards, secretly practised their faith.

Mexico’s Muslim population can be classified into two broad segments: immigrants from Muslim countries, particularly Turkey, Iran, Lebanon and Syria, and local converts. In 1995, a group of Spanish Muslims led by Aureliano Perez arrived in Mexico to spread the message of Islam. A substantial number of Mexican converts have discovered Islam through the Internet.

1. Exordio (Al fatíha)

El capitulo de apertura del Sagrado Corán. Revelado antes de Higrah. Este capitulo tiene 7 versos.

1. ¡En el nombre de Alá, el Compasivo, el Misericordioso!

2. Alabado sea Alá, Señor del universo,

3. el Compasivo, el Misericordioso,

4. Dueño del día del Juicio,

5. A Ti solo servimos y a Ti solo imploramos ayuda.

6. Dirígenos por la vía recta,

7. la vía de los que Tú has agraciado, no de los que han incurrido en la ira, ni de los extraviados.

Mexico’s Muslim community is extremely diverse in terms of ethnic background, national origins, language and cultural practices, and sectarian and denominational distinctions. In the southern state of Chiapas, there exists a small Muslim community of indigenous Mayans, who were converted to Islam by members of the Spain-based Murabitun World Movement. The Mayan Muslims have combined Islamic beliefs and rituals with traditional Mayan practices.

Mexican Muslims have constructed mosques and prayer halls for daily worship and Islamic schools (madrasas) for imparting Islamic instruction to their children. They have also established cultural organisations to cater to the religious and cultural needs of the Muslim community. One of the largest Muslim organisations in Mexico is Muslim Center de Mexico (MCM), which was registered as a non-profit organisation in 1995. It runs a full-fledged Islamic centre in Mexico City and has offices in other cities as well. It has published Spanish translations of dozens of books and articles on Islamic subjects. The organisation plans to construct a large mosque in Mexico City at an estimated cost of $50,000.

Another notable Muslim organisation is Centro Culturel Islamico de Mexico (CCIM). It was established by Mark Omar Weston, a British-born convert to Islam, who was formerly a world-class professional water-skier. The organisation has offices in Mexico City as well as in several other cities in northern and central Mexico. It has built prayer halls and runs centres for Islamic education and conferences. Weston also runs a hotel in the state of Morelos, which serves halal food.

Tens of thousands of Latinos in the US, mostly women, have embraced Islam in recent years. According to conservative estimates, the number of Latino converts in the US is between 100,000 and 200,000.

(Photo: Wendy Diaz/The Muslim Link)

Mastermind of Timbuktu’s Vandalism Convicted

Timbuktu in Mali was well-known as a centre of Islamic learning and scholarship from the 13th to the 17th century. Sufism has left a deep and enduring imprint on the religious and cultural life of Muslims in Mali and the identity of Mali’s Muslim community is inseparably intertwined with the legacy of Sufi saints.

In 2012 armed groups in Mali owing allegiance to a militant group Ansar Deine and believed to have links with Al Qaeda, took control of Mali’s three main cities, Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. They destroyed nine mausoleums of Sufi saints and a mosque in Timbuktu. The shrines included the mausoleum of a 16th century scholar and Sufi saint, Sidi Mahmoud, who was the rector of Timbuktu’s renowned Sankore University, and the shrine of Sidi Ahmad al-Raqqad, a 17th century scholar and an authority on traditional Islamic pharmacology. The Ansar Dine fanatics also destroyed the beautifully carved door of the mosque of a 15th century saint, Sidi Yahya, who is widely revered as Timbuktu’s patron saint. A few days later, members of the group destroyed two Sufi tombs at the 14th century Djingareyber mosque in Timbuktu. The militants also burned and destroyed thousands of precious ancient Islamic manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research at Timbuktu.

The Ansar Dine militants sought to enforce a strict and puritanical form of religious and cultural practices on Muslims in Mali, which created a great deal of anger and resentment.

Ansar Deine’s vandalism were condemned by the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation, the United Nations, International Criminal Court and international human rights groups. The OIC said in a statement that the mosques and mausoleums vandalized by Ansar Dine were part of the “rich Islamic heritage of Mali and should not be allowed to be destroyed and put in harm’s way by bigoted, extremist elements.”

Ahmad al-Faqih al-Mahdi

Ahmad al-Faqih al-Mahdi, who headed Ansar Dine’s moral police “Hisbah,” spearheaded the wanton destruction of Timbuktu’s sacred shrines in 2012. Al-Mahdi belongs to Mali’s ethnic group Tuareg. After qualifying as a teacher he joined Ansar Dine. The militants, led by al-Mahdi, used pickaxes and crowbars to destroy the shrines.

The Tuareg are a Berber people with a nomadic pastoralist lifestyle. They are concentrated in the Sahara Desert and are spread over Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. The Tuareg have been devastated by drought and endemic economic and political marginalisation. In January 2012 the Tuareg launched an armed rebellion against the government in northern Mali and took control of substantial parts of the region. However, in a few months they were overpowered by militant groups who seized most of northern Mali from the Tuareg. The ethnic conflict that engulfed northern Mali in 2012 led to the displacement of more than 350,000 people.

In June 2013 French troops entered key towns in northern Mali and drove the militant groups away. In August 2013 United Nations forces took over northern Mali to ensure the safety and security of the civilian population. Al-Mahdi was arrested and charged at the International Criminal Court with “damaging mankind’s cultural heritage.” The court held that al-Mahdi not only offered “logistical and moral support” for the destruction but also took part in the physical destruction of at least five out of 10 sacred sites. Al-Mahdi pleaded guilty to destroying nine mausoleums and a mosque in Timbuktu. At the trial al-Mahdi said that he had been swept up in “an evil wave.” He pleaded guilty and said, “I am really sorry, I am really remorseful, and I regret all the damage that my actions have caused. He then added, “I would like to give a piece of advice to all Muslims in the world: not to get involved in the same acts I got involved in because they are not going to lead to any good for humanity.” On September 9, 2016, the International Criminal Court sentenced al-Mahdi to 9 years in jail.

Following the stationing of UN troops and the return of peace, local groups in Timbuktu, with the active support of community elders and political leaders and with financial help from Unesco, decided to repair and restore the damaged shrines. About 100 local craftsmen have reconstructed and restored many of the destroyed and damaged shrines, using traditional materials. On September 19 the restored gate of Sidi Yahya Mosque was inaugurated.

Teaching the Quran through Braille

Roughly, one in every 200 persons in the world – about 39 million people – cannot see. Another 246 million people suffer from low or impaired vision. Vision impairment is predominantly a problem with the poor and there is a clear divide between developed and developing countries in respect of vision impairment. Over 90 per cent of visually impaired people are living in developing countries. Some 80 per cent cases of blindness are preventable or treatable.

The Braille system, invented by Louis Braille (1809-1852), a blind Frenchman, in 1825, is a method of reading and writing used by visually handicapped people. The Braille system is based on a set of raised or embossed dots that can be felt with one’s fingers. Each set of dots represents a character in an alphabet. Today Braille is used with different languages. In each language, the letters are encoded in a different manner, depending on the alphabet.

The original Braille system is based on 26 characters. Arabic, however, has 29 characters. In addition, there are diacritical marks in the Arabic language. Therefore, visually impaired Muslim students who want to learn the Quran have to remember more characters and to utilize more dots in the Braille system.

There are quite a few organisations in different countries that provide Braille Quran services. The International Union of Braille Quran Services (IBQS) is an umbrella body that brings together organisations that offer Braille Quran services in different parts of the world. IBQS was established in Istanbul in the wake of the First International Braille Quran Conference held on February 4-8, 2013. The activities of the organisation include imparting Braille Quran literacy through developing a unified Braille code, providing training in Quranic Braille, and distribution of Braille Quran and other Islamic texts. IBQS has individual members from 13 countries, including Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Yemen, Turkey, Pakistan, South Africa, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and the UK.

Jamia Islamiya Madinatul Uloom is a fairly big madrasa in Burdwan district in the Indian province of West Bengal. A school for the blind attached to the madrasa offers instruction in the Quran through the Braille system. The school at present has 11 blind students who are learning the Quran through the Braille system.

Morocco Elections

In the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI declared Morocco as a constitutional monarchy. Following the adoption of a new constitution that grants greater powers to the elected government and the parliament, the king relinquished some of his powers. However, he remains the most influential political decision-maker in the country and has the authority to appoint the prime minister from the winning party.

Following the first democratic elections in Morocco in 2011, the Islamic Justice and Development Party (PJD), led by Abdelilah Benkirane, emerged as the largest party and formed a broad coalition of like-minded political parties with Benkirane as prime minister.

In Morocco’s second election held on October 7, 2016, PJD, led by prime minister Benkirane, emerged as the largest party with 125 seats in the 395-member House of Representatives. The opposition Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM) won 102 seats, followed by the Istiqlal Party, which won 46 seats. The voter turn-out was rather low at 43%, which reflects a growing public disenchantment with the political class. King Mohammed VI is likely to invite Benkirane to form a new coalition government for a second consecutive term.

Morocco is faced with grave economic and social problems and challenges, including poverty, a sagging economy, high unemployment rate, rampant corruption in the administration, housing shortage, deteriorating public services, and the deplorable state of education and health care system. Nearly four million Moroccans are living below the poverty line. According to the World Bank, the rate of youth unemployment in the country is over 20% and in urban areas as high as 39.9%. According to the Corruption Perception Index published by Amnesty International in 2015, Morocco ranks 88th in global ranking out of 162 countries for which data are available.

The process of democratization after 2011 has considerably widened the scope of women’s freedom and empowerment. However, Moroccan women continue to remain extremely vulnerable to sexual harassment on the streets and in public places. Incidents of sexual harassment generally go unreported and are seldom investigated by the police. In 2015, in Inezgane in south-west Morocco, two women who were being harassed by a group of men sought refuge in a nearby shop and called the police. When the police arrived, they arrested the women because, according to the police, their dresses were too short.

Morocco’s parliament is mulling over a draft bill which would make persistent sexual harassers on the streets face up to six months in prison or a fine of up to $1,200.

Qatar Eyeing Control of Germany’s Deutsche Bank

Deutsche Bank, Germany’s biggest and most important bank, has lately been plagued by several intractable problems, including eroding revenues and profits caused by strategic errors, attacks by speculators and massive fines. On September 15, 2016, Deutsche Bank was ordered by the US Justice Department to pay a fine of $14 billion to settle accusations of fraud in the bank’s packaging and sale of mortgage-backed securities before the global financial crisis. Deutsche Bank is disputing the fine and may be able to settle the dispute for $5.4 billion. Deutsche Bank’s market value recently plummeted below 15 billion euros, down from 35 billlion in 2015.

More than half of Deutsche Bank’s shares are held by foreigners. Investors from Qatar, who already own some 10% of Deutsche Bank’s total shares, are mulling over a proposal to take control of the bank by raising their investment to about 25%. One of Deutsche Bank’s key investors is Sheikh Hammad bin Jassim bin Jabor al-Thani, Qatar’s former prime minister, who is one of the richest and most influential persons in the Gulf region. He has invested 1.75 billion euros in Deutsche Bank and is one of the bank’s major share-holders. The fortunes of Sheikh Hammad bin Jassim al-Thani are estimated at between $ 10 and 70 billion.

The other major shareholder from Qatar in Deutsche Bank is the former Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hammad bin Khalifa al-Thani. The holdings of the former Emir include a luxury apartment at One Hyde Park in London. He purchased a Picasso painting ‘Women of Algiers’ for a record price of $179 million in 2015.

The al-Thani cousins are considering a proposal to infuse a fresh capital in Deutsche Bank by purchasing a blocking state of 25% along with other sovereign wealth funds. They are willing to make the move on condition that they would have a decisive say in Deutsche Bank’s business decisions. They are unhappy with the existing executive management and are keen to push for changes. The al-Thani cousins believe that Deutsche Bank should play a bigger role in global investment banking. The German government does not seem to have any problems with the al-Thani cousins making a bigger investment in Deutsche Bank.

(With input from: http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/qatari-investors-eyeing-controlling-stake-in-deutsche-bank-a-1115581.html)

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