Sunday, January 29, 2006

Khalil Shikaki: What the Palestinians Really Voted For

Together with my colleagues in the Jewish Christian Mission of Peace to Israel/Palestine, I met Khalil Shikaki in Ramallah. He is one of Palestine's foremost pollsters and a respected voice in political analysis. His perspective on the recent Palestinian election appears in next week's Newsweek magazine

The Polls: What the Palestinians Really Voted For
A West Bank pollster finds more moderate trends underlying the Hamas victory.

By Khalil Shikaki
Newsweek International

Feb. 6, 2006 issue - The results of last week's Palestinian elections certainly were a shock to the political system. While everyone expected Hamas to do very well, no polls predicted that the Islamist party would win a majority of the seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. But despite all the hand-wringing over whether Palestinians have suddenly taken a more extremist turn, a closer look at the numbers reveals a more complex picture.

For one thing, Hamas received only 45 percent of the popular vote. The nature of the electoral system, which magnified the existing fragmentation of Hamas's opposition, is what gave the Islamist movement the 58 percent of the seats it won. The divided Fatah and four other secular parties won a majority of the popular vote—55 percent—but only 39 percent of the seats. (A handful of independent candidates won the rest.)

Hamas's support in the wider population is even lower. To be sure, its popularity has been growing. Five years of intifada, starting in September 2000, bolstered the party's image; many Palestinians supported Hamas's bombing attacks against Israelis, which they viewed as a justified response to Israel's disproportionate use of force against, and collective punishment of, the civilian population. The unfulfilled expectations that followed the election of Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority last year—for better governance, economic prosperity and progress in the peace process—increased support for Hamas by 40 percent during 2005. Yet even that translated into only 35 percent support among the public at large. Its remarkable showing in the elections demonstrates that its supporters were more determined to vote than Fatah's, and perhaps that some former Fatah supporters were lodging a protest vote.

Indeed, the most interesting aspect of the rise of Hamas is that its own voters, as demonstrated in exit polls, do not share its views on the peace process. Three quarters of all Palestinians, including more than 60 percent of Hamas supporters, are willing to support reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis based on a two-state solution. During the last 10 years, the trend among the Palestinians has been to move away from hard-line attitudes and to embrace moderate ones. Indeed, more than 60 percent of Hamas voters support an immediate return to negotiations with Israel. Had the issue of peace been the most important consideration in these elections, Fatah would certainly have won. But the peace process was the least important issue for the voters.

And no, bread-and-butter issues were not central either; those, too, would not have driven Palestinians to vote for Hamas. The two most important issues for the voters were corruption in the Palestinian Authority—which is dominated by Fatah—and the inability of the PA to enforce law and order. On both counts Hamas posed a clear alternative, with its reputation for discipline and incorruptibility.

Knowing the polls showed that more than 85 percent of the public believed the PA was corrupt and that more than 80 percent felt unsafe in their homes and neighborhoods, Hamas brilliantly raised the importance of these two issues to the top of the public agenda. By the time the public went to the polls, almost two thirds had rated these two issues as their highest priorities. Less than one quarter viewed economic issues as crucial, and only 15 percent viewed the peace process as a top priority.

By contrast, the U.S. administration undermined its own cause; its actions did little to help the PA and Abbas improve economic conditions for Palestinians or restore public confidence in diplomacy. Washington fully supported Israel's unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip, a step that was perceived by more than 80 percent of Palestinians as a victory for armed resistance. Unilateralism deprived Fatah of one of its greatest assets, the ability to negotiate an agreement with Israel to end the occupation.

This was a tactical victory for Hamas, not a strategic one; voters want political solutions, not political Islam. Survey research during the last decade clearly demonstrates strong public support for liberal democracy among Palestinians. Indeed, most view Israel's democracy more positively than any other in the world, followed by America's. Similarly, most Palestinians see gender equality as one of the most important American achievements. If Hamas wants to solidify its support, its leaders would do well to keep all this in mind.

Shikaki is director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.
© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Philippine President Promotes Interfaith Dialogue to Fight Terror

Sunday, January 29, 2006
Arroyo pushes holding of interfaith dialog to fight terror

PRESIDENT Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo said an interfaith dialogue is the best solution to terrorism as evidenced by peace efforts in Mindanao. Arroyo said in her speech at the launching of the Centrist Democrat International (CDI) Asia Pacific and Global Interfaith Dialogue at the Manila Hotel last Friday that inter-faith understanding and dialogue is very essential to stability and progress.

"Faith is the greatest antidote to terrorism," she added. Arroyo urged religious leaders to reach out across cultural and religious barriers saying that what they are doing is just as important as building up military forces to fight terrorism and injustice across the globe. However, she said faith is being used by some sectors to divide, not to unite, and to bring despair and destruction among peoples and nations. "We must not mistake tolerance and understanding of other faiths and belief systems as a blank check for abuse. We must never accept terrorist violence cloaked in religion by anyone at any time. Terrorism is murder and no religion anywhere can abide by the faith of the faithless, value-less terrorists who kill in the name of a false god," Arroyo said. In the Philippines, she said the "vestiges of conflict in Mindanao are finally fading away" due to interfaith dialogue. "I have reached out to lead interfaith dialogue in the Philippines to bring peace and understanding in Mindanao just as I have reached out to our friends and neighbors in Asia to conquer anything that divides us on ethnic or religious lines," Arroyo said. "And if peace is achieved it will be due to interfaith dialogue and the inter-governmental cooperation of friends and neighbors," she added. Arroyo hailed the role of those who "differ with us in faith," referring to Muslim extremists in Mindanao, in breakthroughs achieved in the peace process. "As a result of the progress we have made in Mindanao, I am confident that peace is within our grasp," she said.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

NGOs, Politics of Relief Operations and the Coming War

The consistent theme I heard from religious leaders in Sri Lanka was a strong critique of the work of NGOs engaged in the post tsunami relief operations. I am currently attending a conference of the Young President's Organization and World President's Organization in London. I look forward to spelling out this critique in these pages -- a critique that arises in the context of an impending war which the LTTE (militant Tamil Tigers) are about to unleash on the country. The most serious question is how do we work with NGOs in an appropriate way to face the next tsunami that will arise when this war breaksout.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Sri Lankan Church Leaders Decry Culture of Violence, Express Sorrow for Not Providing Counter-Spirituality

In a united voice Catholic and Protestant Church leaders condemned the attack on a Sri Lankan Navy vessel by the LTTE (separatist Tamil militants) as they appealed for an end to killings that are going on elsewhere in a “culture of violence that is spreading dangerously and indiscriminately.”

“No one seems to be able to stop the spiral of killing for killing,” the statement said, “No one even takes responsibility for wanting to stop this trend. Different by equally tragic incidents are reported almost daily from various parts of the country, and the North and East in particular.”

“The killing of any human is a judgment on us all,” the statement continues. Whatever the rationale or ideology, any killing is an indication of our failure to live with differences and our inability to find a non-violent, inclusive and civilized way to deal with grievance and conflict.”

Then the church leaders offer a self critical apology. “We are sorry that decades of bloodshed, deprivation and suffering have not provided the counter-spirituality and resolve to respect human life and the dignity of our brothers and sisters of the other ethnic group, religion or political ideology.”

This is a significant statement. If we remove the specific examples of violent events in recent Sri Lankan history, it could have been written by US church leaders, except for the last paragraph. Like Sri Lanka, the US is mired in a culture of violence. Yet, despite the large numbers of across the land, with churches in every little village to every other block in certain cities, we’ve failed to develop and present a counter-spirituality of love.

Monday, January 16, 2006

From Sri Lanka

I arrived in Sri Lanka on Saturday for a short one-week long trip. Among other things, I will touch base with the churches with whom I built relationships last year after the tsunami, check in about the progress of the projects we initiated including partner church projects and the NCC and CWS interfaith/peace build with Habitat, get a first hand perspective about the continuing interfaith tensions that are going on. Mostly I will bring greetings to the National Christian Council in Sri Lanka and related organizations here from the body of Christ in the United States.

I will keep you updated as opportunities arise.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Looking Forward to 2006

What can we expect from NCC Interfaith Relations in 2006? This has been in my thoughts for the this first week of this year. The following are my hopes.

1. National Initiatives:

a. Jewish Christian dialogue: This table comprising representatives from mainstream Jewish organizations and Christian denominations have been meeting for over 18 months. Last September we undertook a joint trip to Israel/Palestine. You can read my report here. We returned from that trip with a greater understanding of the complexity of the situation on the ground, and with a greater determination to work for peace. There is clearly a great need for more conversation, building trust, and reaching new levels of understanding. We will attempt to engage Isareli and Palestinian leaders and work to influence US government and influential organizations to engage each other to work towards peace. We also agreed that some of us will find opportunities to speak at local events as pairs of Jews and Christians to highlight the ways we are working together towards peace.

We have begun also to engage our denominations and organizations in a domestic issue. This is in keeping with a long-standing tradition of Jewish and Christian cooperation on domestic matters. Immigration Reform, particularly as it relates to the humanitarian concerns of those cross the border in the southwestern states such as Arizona, has become our primary domestic concern.

b. Muslim Christian Dialogue Table: In the same way as representatives of Jewish and Christians organizations and denominations came together to a common dialogue table, we are inviting representatives of National Muslim organizations in the US to come to a dialogue table with representatives of Christian communions. The differences in the organizations structures of the Muslim community may make this effort more challenging, we expect to get this table functioning this year.

2. Local Initiatives:

a. Interfaith Dialogue Training: Encouraged by two successful pilot projects in Colombus, OH and Queens, NY, we are hoping to take the interfaith dialogue training program to at least 4 local communities in the US this year. Led by Dr. Jeff Spahn, the initial two-day dialogue training event will teach the group skills to

  • Listen without thinking about what to say next

  • Suspend judgment

  • Appreciate others’ beliefs

  • Be self critical about one’s own beliefs

  • Be aware of insights arising from the group.

Following the two-day training, participants will be encouraged to meet for 6 weeks in 2 hour sessions to sharpen their skills. Dr. Spahn will provide before and after coaching to the group leaders by phone.

b. “God Is One: The Way of Islam” curriculum for churches. This primer on Islam written by retired United Methodist minister Marston Speight includes a 6 week study guide written by Dr. Jay Rock (Presbyterian Church, USA). We are encouraging churches to study this as a part of their adult education curriculum. We will conduct one-day seminars to train adult education teachers and pastors in teaching this book. A part of the curriculum is building a relationship with a Muslim person or as a congregation building a relationships with a local mosque.

The first two training seminars are now scheduled:
First, at Hartford Seminary, Hartford, CT on Saturday, March 11th 9:00 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.
Second, at Union Seminary, New York, NY on Saturday, March 25th 9:00 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.

Trainings will be done by Hartford staff who are themselves Muslims. They are open to the Adult Education curriculum teachers and pastors.

Please call 212-870-2560 or email for registration.

c. Continuing Education in Interfaith Relations for Pastors in Local Communities: We are hoping to adapt Dr. Lucinda Mosher’s “World Views Seminar” which is sponsored by University of Michigan, Ann Arbor has had a long run in Detroit, to suit the needs of pastors currently serving in local communities. Those who are ill-equipped to deal with the religiously diverse communities they live in or teach their congregations how to build relationships across religious communities will find this three-day seminar incredibly useful.

3. Theological Conversation

“Christian Theology’s Engagement with Religious Pluralism” which began in November at the American Academy of Religion will continue. We are seeking to become a “Group” within the AAR next year. The papers that were presented will be made available online and the over 200 scholars who attended will be invited to participate in the conversation.

“Thinking Together” a group of scholars and leaders of different religious communities coming together to think together about theological questions will continue. Our previous theme was the Theology of the “Other.” Our current theme is “Conversion.”

4. Education

This year we begin a conversation with leaders of the Education and Leadership Ministries Commission of the NCC to think about how to make Sunday School curricula more open to interfaith concerns – in other words towards a more open theology than a more exclusive one.

5. Organizing for Peace and Justice

This year we will see creative cooperative ventures between interfaith organizations such as Religions for Peace, USA, Interfaith Youth Core, Pluralism Project and Interfaith Alliance. NCC Interfaith Relations will work to position itself to be a catalyst for and in the leading edge of a powerful interfaith movement committed to peace and justice in the United States.