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Pakistan: A key to open democracy

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By I.A. Rehman

THE failure of the federal ministries to properly comply with the Right of Access to Information Act, 2017, by making public basic information about their organisations and functions, must be taken seriously by the government as otherwise it would constitute a denial of not only citizens’ right to know but also the fundamental requisites of transparency and good governance.
The relevant law came into force on Oct 12, 2017, and all public bodies under the federal government’s control, or aided by or registered with it were required to post a 39-point information package on their websites by April 13 this year. However, as revealed in a study by a civil society organisation — the Institute of Research, Advocacy and Development — no federal ministry has fully met the requirements of disclosure under the right to information (RTI) law; 17 ministries have yet to establish their websites and the performance of the 29 ministries that have acknowledged their obligations is quite unsatisfactory.
While concern at the government’s negligence is legitimate, one should like to hold one’s fire for some time for three reasons. The deadline for compliance with the act of 2017 expired while the N-League government was hurriedly clearing its backlog and its inability to fulfil its obligations under the RTI Act was understandable. Secondly, the few-weeks-old PTI government has yet to start addressing its governance tasks, especially where the need for transparency is concerned, and it should be allowed a reasonable period of time to realise its RTI responsibilities. Thirdly, public awareness of the new RTI law appears limited, and it is doubtful if all the public bodies covered by the law — and these include certain NGOs — have realised their duties under it.
What will be required after the grace period, allowed for the reasons given, expires can be better appreciated if we look at the institutions covered by the RTI law and the scale of information to be provided without being demanded.
The law is applicable to all public bodies that are in any way related to federal authority, including all federal ministries, attached departments, and offices; all local authorities set up under a federal law; houses of parliament, including their secretaries, committees and members; any court, tribunal, commission or board under a federal law; any other (government) organisation which undertakes a public function, to the extent of that function, and any NGO that receives any benefit from the government or is registered ‘under any law’.
The categories of information and record that each public body is required to publish and put on its website include: description of the public body’s organisation and functions and services provided to the public; directory of the staff and their wages, perks and privileges; statutes, rules and by-laws and their date of commencement and effect; rules and regulations and manuals or policies; facts and background information about past policies and decisions and the rationale for use of discretionary powers; the conditions on which citizens can receive any be benefit from the public body; decision-making processes as defined in Federal Government Secretariat Instructions 2004; a detailed budget of the public body; the method and charges for acquiring information from the body, including contact details of the officials designated to give out information; all reports by and about the body; and camera footage at public places that have a bearing on any crime.
All record from 2008 onward is to be disclosed forthwith, while pre-2008 information and record “shall be published within reasonable time”.
The RTI law of 2017 is not an ideal piece of legislation and we will scrutinise some time later its categorisation of information that the government can decline to reveal — the longest section of the act — but the information the proactive disclosure section can provide to a conscious citizen could revolutionise his/her participation in democratic governance for the good of both state and the society.
This system of proactive disclosure is the latest form of honouring the people’s right to know the source of authority in the land that used to be recognised in ancient times by proclaiming the ascension to the throne of a new monarch or the identification of the caliph in Friday/ Eid sermons in religious tradition.
Except for Balochistan, where the old Freedom of information Ordinance is still followed, all provinces (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh) have adopted new RTI laws which include a provision for proactive disclosure of information similar to the one found in the federal law. If the provincial governments, too, publish and put on their websites the categories of information and record described here, the level of transparency in management of public affairs will rise to majestic heights.
The healthy developments that should follow disclosure of information about and records of public bodies cannot be exaggerated. In a country where researchers have had difficulties in obtaining authentic texts of laws and policies, the RTI laws will put in the citizens’ hands enormous knowledge related to their problems and aspirations. That will propel them towards activism. Acquisition of essential information about the administration will whet the desire to seek more information.
The possibility of participating in governance will encourage citizens to end their alienation from politics and deepen their interest in owning democratic processes and strengthening them. At the same time, the state will be able to fulfil its constitutional obligations regarding RTI and better realise the targets under SDG 16 relating to transparency, good governance and access to information.
While it should not be difficult to put on the websites the categories of information about permanent features and tasks of public bodies, the prompt uploading of new developments will need constant vigilance as nothing irritates seekers of information more than finding websites cluttered with stale and obsolete material.
Civil society organisations can play an important role in making the RTI laws fully effective. By disclosing information about themselves they will be better qualified to monitor public bodies’ compliance with the law.

 

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Opinion

The Mosque of the Two Qiblahs

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By Spahic Omer

This is an important historical mosque. It is one of the earliest mosques in Islam. It was established during the Prophet’s time for an outlying neighbourhood of Madinah. Its significance lies in the fact that after the Prophet (pbuh) received a commandment to change the qiblah or prayer direction from al-Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem to al-Masjid al-Haram (Ka’bah) in Makkah, the entire congregation led by a companion in this mosque changed direction in prayer. Henceforth the mosque was known as masjid al-qiblatayn (the mosque of the two qiblahs) as both qiblahs were faced in a single prayer.

Al-Bukhari in his Sahih reports the incident as follows: “When the Prophet (pbuh) came to Madinah, he stayed first with his grandfathers or maternal uncles from Ansar. He offered his prayers facing Baitul-Maqdis (Jerusalem and its al-Masjid al-Aqsa) for sixteen or seventeen months, but he wished that he could pray facing the Ka’bah (in Makkah). The first prayer which he offered facing the Ka’bah was the ‘Asr prayer in the company of some people. Then one of those who had offered that prayer with him came out and passed by some people in a mosque who were bowing during their prayers (facing Jerusalem). He said addressing them: ‘By Allah, I testify that I have prayed with Allah’s Apostle facing Makkah (Ka’bah).’ Hearing that, those people changed their direction towards the Ka’bah immediately. Jews and the people of the scriptures used to be pleased to see the Prophet (pbuh) facing Jerusalem in prayers but when he changed his direction towards the Ka’bah, during the prayers, they disapproved of it” (Sahih al-Bukhari).

 

Architecturally, the mosque was meticulously attended to by many personalities throughout Muslim history. Many expansion, rebuilding and renovation programs took place. Among the first ones to do so was ‘Umar II. The Ottomans excelled in the same regard too. The present form of the mosque dates back to 1987. It was constructed as part of various development initiatives in Madinah by King Fahd. The plan and design of the mosque referred to the Islamic traditional architectural language and vocabulary as a source of inspiration. “Externally, the architectural vocabulary is inspired by traditional elements and motifs in a deliberate effort to offer an authentic image for an historic site” (archnet.org). The architect was Abdul-Wahid al-Wakil from Egypt.

The mosque is much smaller than the Quba’ mosque. That is perhaps the case because it is not on the list of the places which the Prophet (pbuh) recommended to be visited in Madinah. The comparatively small size is an indirect invitation to people not to regard it as important for visiting as the explicitly specified places, and so, not to throng to it needlessly. The interior of the mosque is much similar to those of the mosque of Ahmad b. Tulun and some Fatimid mosques in Cairo.

There are two minarets on the right and left sides of the main entrance. Though somewhat shorter, they resemble the four minarets of the Quba’ mosque. The bases of the minarets are square and the shafts octagonal. There are three balconies on each minaret, the second and third being supported by muqarnas. The first balcony marks the transition from the square base to the octagonal shaft. It itself is square, while the other two balconies are octagonal.

“The mosque can accommodate up to 2,000 worshipers. The main prayer hall adopts rigid orthogonal geometry and symmetry which is accentuated by the use of twin minarets and twin domes. Living accommodations for the imam, the muezzin and the caretaker are discreetly grouped in one block to the west of the main structure. The difference in level at the southeast corner of the site has been exploited to incorporate a sub-basement level which serves as the ablutions area for worshipers. To the north, where the ground level is lower, the prayer hall is raised one-story above ground level. Entry to the prayer hall is from the raised courtyard, also to the north, which can be reached by stairs and ramps from the main directions of approach” (archnet.org).

The prayer hall consists of a series of arches which support barrel-vaults running parallel to the qiblah wall. These vaults are interrupted in the middle by two domes which establish an axis in the direction of Makkah and its al-Masjid al-Haram. The main dome to the south is raised on a circular drum with clerestory windows which allow light to filter into the interior directly above the mihrab. There are 22 such windows filled with jaalis and colored glass. The second, false dome stands above the entrance. It is linked to the first dome by a small cross-vault to symbolize the transition from one qiblah to another. This slightly smaller dome does not have clerestory windows perforated in its drum. Both domes are supported by a combination of pendentives and simple forms of muqarnas, featuring only a few niches or alveoles. Domed are also some adjacent spaces of the mosque that provide extra facilities and services.

Before entering the mosque, one firstly steps inside a virtually enclosed arcade, whence he enters the mosque proper. This transitional arcade is covered by a series of miniature domes. The arcade reminds of entry sides in most Ottoman mosques, which are marked with porticos resting on wide columns and covered with small domes.

There are four rows of piers with which the arches are supported, each row having eight piers. In total, there are 32 piers, which is excessive for the size of the mosque. Moreover, the piers are huge, consuming much space inside the prayer area. They also accentuate the heavy mass of the building and its bulkiness.

The four corners of each pier have engaged columns, four columns for every pier. The columns are embedded in the piers’ mass and only partly project from their corner surfaces. They are cylindrical and plain, having no distinctive bases. Their capitals are decorated identically with stucco-work. They look like simple forms of the Byzantine capital. The same structural and decorative manoeuvre is found on the piers of the mosque of Ahmad b. Tulun.

There are five arcades parallel to the qiblah, corresponding to the number of barrel-vaults. In each arcade there could be three lines (sufuf) of worshipers, which means fifteen lines in total. Each line can accommodate about 120-130 worshipers. The women’s prayer section is on the second floor and occupies two arcades. The area is divided into two parts by the second or false dome. The area is protected by a wooden screen featuring latticework and ensuring peace and privacy.

The mihrab is rather deep and is gradually recessed. It has two depth levels, each level bordered by two columns that support the arched hood. Almost the entire mihrab frame, including the columns and the hood, are luxuriantly adorned with stucco-work featuring calligraphy, complex geometry and floral patterns. Of the two Qur’anic verses used as calligraphic embellishment, one is on the subject of qiblah (direction of prayer). The verse is partially used and its usage divided into two fragments, running across the extradoses of the two levels of the mihrab’s arched hood.

That the mihrab niche has two recessed levels could be symbolically interpreted as the two stages of establishing the qiblah: firstly towards Jerusalem and secondly towards Makkah. Thus, on the extrados of the outer mihrab’s level, the following Qur’anic words as the first part of the verse in question are inscribed, representing the first and preliminary stage of establishing the qiblah: “We have certainly seen the turning of your face, (O Muhammad), toward the heaven, and We will surely turn you to a qiblah with which you will be pleased” (al-Baqarah, 144). And on the extrados of the inner mihrab’s level, the following Qur’anic words as the second part of the verse are inscribed, representing the second and final stage of the qiblah establishment: “So turn your face toward al-Masjid al-Haram. And wherever you (believers) are, turn your faces toward it (in prayer)” (al-Baqarah, 144).

Next to the mihrab stands a minbar or pulpit. It is made of wood and exhibits excellent workmanship. In terms of size and overall appearance, though, it bears a resemblance to the marble minbar in the Quba’ mosque.

Extending through the entire southern qiblah and left eastern sides of the mosque are two rows of small niches, one above the other, containing copies of the Holy Qur’an. Their openings are in the shape of pointed multi foil arches. On the qiblah side, there are 128 such niches, and on the left eastern side, 80. Each niche contains 14 copies of the Qur’an. Furthermore, all 32 piers on their right and left sides contain two more similar niches. The exception are eight piers that border the mosque’s axis towards Makkah under the two domes. Those piers have only one niche each, on the sides that do not face the axis.

Finally, on the opposite side of the qiblah, right above the entrance, there is in stucco-work a medium-size image of a mihrab niche. The image is two-dimensional and symbolizes the first qiblah towards Jerusalem. It is deliberately made fairly modest and raised high above the ground, so as not to draw much attention to itself and thus, perhaps, incite excessive symbolism and some untoward behavior. Across the image runs the axiom that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.

The axiom intimates that the change of the qiblah was solely about affirming the Oneness of Allah and the prophet-hood of Muhammad (pbuh), and that the truth of Islam is universal, absolute, timeless and all-encompassing, including the earlier prophets, their own prophet-hood missions and their own peoples and legacies. The change of the qiblah must not be viewed through the prism of prejudice, narrow-mindedness and self-interests.

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Never Belittle Your Firm Belief in Allah

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By Shaimaa Elhomossany

One of the most shared human experiences is emotional suffering. Whether it comes from rejection, criticism, failure, disappointment, illness or loss, emotional suffering is always a heavy burden, commonly experienced, yet carried individually. Regardless of how much effort we put to neutralize or change our perception of it, we remain vulnerable to its consequences. Surprisingly though, emotional suffering is necessary for our journey in life. Allah designed this world, enclosed with suffering and pain, not only as a test but also as a means to get to know Him and draw closer to Him. This is why the Messengers and Prophets – peace be upon them all – may have had the greatest share of suffering, yet had the closest relationship with Allah.

Understanding the following will help us better approach, deal with and ultimately benefit from emotional suffering:

 

1) Suffering is an opportunity to advance in our spiritual relationship with Allah

It’s important to understand that the utmost goal of our lives is to worship Allah, as He says:

“And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me.”

(Quran – 51:56)

This helps us realise that the most important work of our lives is to become the best servants of Allah that we can be. This servitude, however, entails acknowledging our vulnerability, helplessness, and dependability, because otherwise, we would be self-sufficient, omnipotent and unapproachable; we would be divine!

The truth is, we humans are created helpless, weak, exposed and constantly in need, so that we may seek refuge from Allah’s power. He can compensate for our weakness with His might, and from His sustenance, He provides for us. Only when in our utter helplessness we seek refuge, can we taste a level of closeness to Allah that doesn’t come from anywhere else.

We need to foster a new level of trust in His abilities, firm belief in Him and His watchfulness over us, so that we may be empowered to go through any hardship in life with Him and by Him, instead of weak and alone. Only through this opportunity can we establish a genuine servant-master relationship based on a true understanding and experience of Allah’s divinity and Lordship. Only when we understand where we stand in that relationship can we perfect the mission of our existence.

2) Feeling Sad Doesn’t Contradict Being A Good Believer

When we hear stories of Prophets, it is obvious that sadness is an integral part of these stories. Often, we can relate to their suffering. Take Prophet Yaqub, for example, whose story is anchored with sadness and struggle, and who acknowledged his emotional pain and opened up to it, but never allowed it to belittle his firm belief in Allah.

Or Lady Mariam, when the pain of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree, and in her intense emotional and physical suffering she said,

“Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.”

(Quran- 19:23)

Despite that, she still occupies the status as one of the best women in Islam.

The best among all, Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, when burying his child Ibrahim said,

“The eyes are shedding tears and the heart is grieved, and we will not say except what pleases our Lord, O Ibrahim! Indeed, we are grieved by your separation.”
So, whatever ordeal you are dealing with in your life, don’t feel guilty about being open to it and interacting with it. The most important thing is not to go so far into sadness that you cross the line with Allah while grieving, by displeasing Him or turning away from Him in despair.

3) Don’t Reject It, Accept It

Knowing that this suffering chose you specifically over many others requires some contemplation. It was meant to be, and nothing that is meant to be is haphazard, on the contrary, there is always a good reason for it.

As we learn from the story of Prophet Musa’s encounter with Khidr in the Quran, nothing happens without a divine reason behind it. However, sometimes we, like Prophet Musa, are unable to truly understand what this reason is. This is especially true when things happen that seem bad or unjust. All we can do is learn to accept that there is a reason for it and have complete faith in Allah’s plan.

There is nothing we can do to stop the storm, until we realise that it’s not the storm that hurts, it’s resisting it that does. Learn to flow with your suffering and let it carry you to the other end, and trust me, there, you will meet a very different version of yourself. Just realise that the only way out is through.

4) Don’t Look At How It Is Affecting You, Rather Look At Who Brought It upon You

If we look at emotional suffering in and of itself, it will be very hard to deal with. However, if we look at it as something coming from the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate, the Source of Peace, the Reliever, the All Aware, the Watchful, the Responder to Prayers, the Wise, the Doer of Good, the Guide, and the All Comprehending, you will find there is no need to worry and you will be confident that no matter how difficult it may seem, Allah will send down His subtle kindness and gentleness along with it, making it easy for you. So, fix your heart towards the sender, not the consequences.

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Opinion

China’s brutal crackdown on the Uighur Muslims

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By Jen Kirbyjen

China was sharply criticized for its mass detention of members of the Muslim Uighur community at a United Nations Human Rights Council meeting on Tuesday — but the country pushed back, saying that the condemnation was politically motivated.

Western governments, including those in Europe, the United States, and Canada, had the harshest words for China. The United States chargé d’affaires Mark Cassayre demanded that China “abolish all forms of arbitrary detention” for Uighurs and other Muslims minorities, and that China release the “possibly millions” of individuals detained there.

 

China’s Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng dismissed these and other comments as “politically driven accusations from a few countries that are fraught with biases.”
China has detained as many as 1 million Uighurs in so-called “re-educationcenters” and forced them to undergo psychological indoctrination programs — like studying communist propaganda and giving thanks to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Chinese authorities have also reportedly used waterboarding and other forms of torture on the ethnic minority.

Xinjiang, where about 10 million Uighurs and a few other Muslim minorities live, is an autonomous region in China’s northwest that borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia. It has been under Chinese control since 1949, when the communist People’s Republic of China was established.

Uighurs speak their own language — an Asian Turkic language similar to Uzbek — and most practice a moderate form of Sunni Islam. Some activists, including those who seek independence from China, refer to the region as East Turkestan.

Once situated along the ancient Silk Road trading route, Xinjiang is oil- and resource-rich. As it developed along with the rest of China, the region attracted more Han Chinese, a migration encouraged by the Chinese government.

But that demographic shift inflamed ethnic tensions, especially within some of the larger cities. In 2009, for example, riots broke out in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, after Uighurs protested their treatment by the government and the Han majority. About 200 people were killed and hundreds injured during the unrest.

The Chinese government, however, blamed the protests on violent separatist groups — a tactic it would continue to use against the Uighurs and other religious and ethnic minorities across China.

Xinjiang is also a major logistics hub of Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar infrastructure project along the old Silk Road meant to boost China’s economic and political influence around the world. Xinjiang’s increasing importance to China’s global aspirations is likely a major reason Beijing is tightening its grip.

All of which means China has increasingly tried to draw Xinjiang into its orbit, starting with a crackdown in 2009 following riots in the region and leading up to the implementation of repressive policies in 2016 and 2017 that have curbed religious freedom and increased surveillance of the minority population, often under the guise of combating terrorism and extremism.

The Chinese government justifies its clampdown on the Uighurs and Muslim minorities by saying it’s trying to eradicate extremism and separatist groups. But while attacks, some violent, by Uighur separatists have occurred in recent years, there’s little evidence of any cohesive separatist movement — with jihadist roots or otherwise — that could challenge the Chinese government, experts tell me.

China’s crackdown on the Uighurs is part of a policy of “de-extremification.” It’s generated repressive policies, from the banning of certain Muslim names for babies to chilling reports of torture and political indoctrination in so-called “reeducation” camps where hundreds of thousands have been detained.

Communist China has a dark history with reeducation camps, combining hard labor with indoctrination to the party line. According to research by Adrian Zenz, a leading scholar on China’s policies toward the Uighurs, Chinese officials began using dedicated camps in Xinjiang around 2014 — around the same time that China blamed a series of terrorist attacks on radical Uighur separatists.

China escalated pressure on Muslim minorities through 2017, slowly chipping away at their rights with the passage of religious regulations and a counterterrorism law, according to the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a pro-Uighur group based in Washington, DC.

In 2016, Xinjiang also got a new leader: a powerful Communist Party boss named Chen Quanguo, whose previous job was restoring order and control to the restive region of Tibet. Chen has a reputation as a strongman and is something of a specialist in ethnic crackdowns.

Increased surveillance and police presence accompanied his move to Xinjiang, including his “grid management” policing system. As the Economist reported, “authorities divide each city into squares, with about 500 people. Every square has a police station that keeps tabs on the inhabitants. So, in rural areas, does every village.”

Security checkpoints where residents must scan identification cards were set up at train stations and on roads into and out of towns. Authorities have reportedly used facial recognition technology to track residents’ movements. Police confiscate phones to download the information contained on them to scan through later. Police have also confiscated passports to prevent Uighurs from traveling abroad.

Some of the targeted “de-extremification” restrictions gained coverage in the West, including a ban on certain Muslim names for babies and another on long beards and veils. The government also made it illegal to not watch state television and to not send children to government schools. The government reportedly tried to promote drinking and smoking, because people who didn’t drink or smoke — like devout Muslims — were deemed suspicious.

Chinese officials have justified these policies as necessary to counter religious radicalization and extremism, but critics say they are meant to curtail Islamic traditions and practices.

The Chinese government is “trying to expunge ethnonational characteristics from the people,” James Millward, a professor at Georgetown University, told me. “They’re not trying to drive them out of the country; they’re trying to hold them in.”

“The ultimate goal, the ultimate issue that the Chinese state is targeting [is] the cultural practices and beliefs of Muslim groups,” he added.

“Re-education camps” — or training camps, as the Chinese have called them — are perhaps the most sinister pillar of this de-extremification policy. Experts estimate as many as 2 million people have disappeared into these camps at some point, with about 1 million currently being held.

The Chinese government first denied these camps even existed. When confronted about them at the United Nations in August, officials claimed they were for the “assistance and education” of minor criminals. China’s state-run media has dismissed the reports of detention camps as Western media “baselessly criticizing China’s human rights.”

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