UPSC Topper Faesal Creates History For Kashmir

May 13, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent

NEW DELHI:  Kashmir is in news again, with its resident Dr. Shah Faesal (27) having topped the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) Examination. With Faesal being the first Kashmiri to have topped the all-India elite services examination, the state is delighted – celebrating his success as their own. Enthusiastic Kashmiris burst crackers, beat drums and shouted slogans welcoming Faesal when he returned to Srinagar on Friday (May 7), a day after the results were declared. “Kashmir ka sitara, Faesal hamara (Kashmir’s star, our Faisal),” hailed the delighted Kashmiris. Faesal ranks first among the 875 candidates declared successful in the civil services examination. He reached the top in his maiden attempt, putting behind him around 409,110 candidates who had applied for the examination in 2009.

Crediting his success to God and his family’s support, Faesal said: “I am humbled. I had faith in my hard work, Allah’s grace and the blessings of my family. My mother, brother and sister equally share the honor as they supported me like a rock when I decided to sit for the most coveted exams in the country.”

Faesal’s father Ghulam Rasool Shah was killed by militants in 2002. But rather than be cowed down or feel defeated, Faesal and his family moved on to face the challenges lying ahead. Within days of his father’s murder, the first test that Faesal appeared for was the professional entrance examination for MBBS. He cleared it. But he was not satisfied by being just a medical doctor and decided to take the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) examination. “I saw patients who had no money to purchase medicines, a large number of them. I wanted to make differences for them. I thought IAS will help me to contribute in a different way,” he said.

Crediting his late father, a respected schoolteacher, for his success, Faesal said: “Many things that my father taught me for my class XI helped me in the exams.” If only his father were also around to share his joy, as Faesal said: “I am missing him today.”

Faesal hails from a remote village in frontier Kupwara district, more than 90 km from Srinagar. Soon after his father’s death, sense of insecurity gripped his family. “Such was the level of fear that I had not visited my home for eight years,” Faesal said. His mother Mubeena Begum migrated to Srinagar with her three children. She worked here as a schoolteacher to help her children live a better life. For her, Faesal’s success is “like a new birth.”

Though he has always been an achiever, his mother and Faesal himself had not imagined his being a topper. Faesal had expected to be in the first 50. Jubilant at being the topper, Faesal said: “There was nothing in my background that would make anybody think that I can achieve this. But I did it. So can thousands of other students with similar difficult backgrounds.” Faesal feels that his “success” is not just his “own.” “I feel I have broken the jinx that Kashmiri students cannot reach the top. I am the first from Jammu and Kashmir to top this examination and I am sure my story will become a model for our students who fear to dream big. I am an orphan with a scarred childhood. There was a tragedy in my family, my father was killed. I was raised by my mother who is a schoolteacher. I belong to a far-flung village and I studied in a government school.”

Faesal prepared for the examinations “normally.” “I did not find it difficult. I studied normally and passed my prelims without coaching. It was after qualifying for the mains that I decided to go for coaching,” Faesal said. The three-phase examination requires passing the preliminary test. Those who clear the prelims have to appear for the main written examinations, after passing which they face the final stage – the interview. Faesal selected Public Administration and Urdu Literature for the mains. He opted for Urdu as he is “emotionally attached to the language.” He received coaching at the Jamia Hamdard Study Center, New Delhi. Among the first to congratulate him in Delhi on his success were senior officers, including the Jamia Chancellor and many students.

Endless streams of people continued streaming in at his residence in Srinagar and the phone there did not stop ringing. J&K Governor N.N. Vohra congratulated Faesal and invited him and his mother to Raj Bhawan for felicitation. Among others, who congratulated Faesal were J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and leader of opposition in State Assembly, Mehbooba Mufti.

Back home, his villagers burst crackers and began preparations to celebrate Faesal’s success. Describing it as a great event for the entire Kashmir Valley, Mir Fayaz, a lecturer said: “We are proud of his success. He will be a role model for the youngsters and a source of inspiration too.”

Faesal’s success proves that Kashmiri talent was “unmatched,” according to Hurriyat Conference chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. “Wherever Kashmiris have worked, they have excelled. I am proud of Faesal, who hails from a remote village. He has worked so hard and made us real proud,” he said.

Faesal is confident that his success will “change the mindset of ordinary Kashmiris.” If they work hard enough, “nothing is impossible,” Faesal said. Though he is ready to be posted anywhere, Faesal is keen to serve his community. “I want to contribute in my small way to peace of Kashmir,” he said. “If Kashmiris need anything – it is peace, since the people have lot of expectations from the government as an agent of change and guarantor of peace, and myself being a part of the government, I’ll definitely be trying my bit on that regard,” he said.

The Right to Information (RTI) Act is another area that is extremely close to Faesal’s heart. He has been an RTI activist since his college days. In his opinion: “The RTI act is a harbinger of change. We can make a difference if we know how to use it.”

Two other Kashmiris have succeeded in civil services examination. They are Rayees Mohammad Bhat (rank 124) and Showkat Ahmad Parray (256). Faesal, Bhat and Parray are three of the 20 Muslims who have passed this competitive examination. Headlines are focused on Kashmir for a change on news that has nothing to do with conflict. Faesal has created history by bringing Kashmir in limelight by being the UPSC topper! 

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Gentle, Friendly Face of Indonesia and Islam

January 9, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Greg Barton, Theage.com

ABDURRAHMAN ad-DAKHIL WAHID, FORMER INDONESIAN PRESIDENT

2009-12-31T131642Z_1627607473_GM1E5CV1N0R01_RTRMADP_3_INDONESIA-PRESIDENT WHEN the former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid succumbed to a long battle with kidney disease and diabetes, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono called for seven days of national mourning. For many millions of Indonesia’s 240 million citizens, the mourning is very personal.

Wahid, better known as Gus Dur, although a controversial president, was deeply loved and admired. Even before becoming Indonesia’s first democratically elected president in October 1999, he had built a towering reputation as a progressive Islamic intellectual and as a leading dissident. In fact, many feared that his unexpected entry into political office would tar his reputation as a social reformer and religious leader.

They were right to be afraid. He was never meant to be a president. It wasn’t just that his style was too unconventional, it was that he refused to play by the rules of the game and to do the sort of deals that politicians need to do. Ironically, however, it was this commitment to idealistically championing reform despite a lack of political backing for which he is currently being remembered, as much as for his contributions as an Islamic intellectual and Muslim community leader. He was the wrong man for the job but it was the right man for the time.

Born into one of Indonesia’s most prominent families of ulama, or Islamic scholars, Wahid went on to lead Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) for 15 years from 1984 until 1999. He succeeded in transforming the culture and orientation of this traditionalist Islamic association; with a membership of about 40 million people, it is the world’s largest Islamic organisation. Along with like-minded colleagues he helped ensure that the NU pesantren, Islamic boarding schools known elsewhere as madrassa, completed a transition to becoming modern schools offering the secular state curriculum alongside religious instruction. This ensured that their mostly poor rural students were able to enter fully into modern Indonesia society.

Wahid’s two grandfathers, Hasyim Asyari and Bisri Syansuri, had been instrumental in establishing NU in 1926, and his father, Wahid Hasyim, was minister of religious affairs under Sukarno and one of NU’s most prominent leaders up until his death in 1952, when the car in which he was travelling with his son, the future president, skidded on a mountain road. As the eldest of six children, Wahid felt a heavy responsibility to follow in his father’s footsteps. His solid pedigree gave him a commanding position to call for reform within NU and to challenge the Indonesian military, including president Suharto, on human rights abuses, corruption, nepotism and abuse of power. Gifted with a brilliant mind and near photographic recall, he blitzed through his pesantren studies as a teenager while sneaking off to the cinema as much as he could.

He also developed a love of literature. His mental gifts, if not his personal discipline, meant that when he arrived at Cairo’s famous al-Azhar University to study Islamic studies in 1963 he quickly found the sort of traditional rote learning in place there to be a disappointment. Neglecting his formal studies he spent his time in informal learning, extending his earlier studies to include French cinema and Western literature (read in the library of the American University) as well as hours of coffee shop debates in the cafes of Cairo.

Wahid was working at the Indonesian embassy in Cairo at the time of the 1965 coup that saw Sukarno toppled and hundreds of thousands of alleged communist sympathisers brutally murdered. He translated diplomatic cables and letters reporting events from back home and was all too aware of the culpability of NU members in aiding and abetting the violence. This led to a lifelong commitment to speaking out on human rights abuses, including those linked to his own community. As president, he sought to rehabilitate former political prisoners.

Bored with al-Azhar, he moved to Baghdad University in 1966, where he completed a degree in Arabic literature. Back home to Indonesia in the early 1970s, he threw himself into NGO activism. Like his father, he enjoyed broad friendships across all communities and was an early proponent of interreligious dialogue. He was also a champion of the rights of minority communities, including Indonesia’s Christians and Chinese, and later as president sought to advance their interests.
His leadership of NU positioned him to fearlessly critique Suharto and his regime, especially when beginning in the early 1990s Suharto sought the support of the radical Islamist elements that he previously persecuted.

To oppose this Wahid joined Djohan Effendi and others in establishing Forum Demokrasi to openly criticise the president’s use of sectarian sentiment for political purposes. In 1994, Wahid and Djohan accepted an invitation from Shimon Peres to visit Israel; they participated in the inauguration of the Peres Centre for Peace. Later, as president, he sought to open formal relations between Indonesia and Israel. Despite this bold move his popularity among his support base in NU remained undiminished and he declared that he was now prepared to run for a third five-year term as executive chairman. Suharto did all that he could to block his re-election but Wahid’s triumph established him as one of the few people who could take on Suharto and get away with it.

Nevertheless, he was forced to seek a rapprochement with Suharto following the latter’s ousting of Megawati Sukarnoputri from the leadership of her own party in 1996 and the violent suppression of her supporters. But when the Asian economic crisis hit Indonesia in the 1997, he was again at the head of the movement for reform.

A near fatal stroke in January 1998 robbed him of what was left of his failing eyesight and meant that he spent the first half of 1998 in physical rehabilitation rather than in leading the push against Suharto. Still, following Suharto’s resignation in May, Wahid was able to establish a new party designed to garner the support of members of NU but founded on principles of secularism. The success of this party, PKB, in the 1999 elections set him up for role in government. No one, however, really expected him to become president.

That occurred because Habibie, who wanted to turn his transitional presidency into a full term through election, was thwarted when he supported the referendum in East Timor and Islamist elements and others within parliament moved to block the ascension of Megawati Sukarnoputri. She eventually became president in July 2001 when parliament effectively voted Wahid out of office.

Wahid is remembered today largely for his role as a reformist president, but history is likely to also remember him as one of the 20th century’s leading Islamic intellectuals and as someone who demonstrated how a traditional Islamic scholar can also be modern, democratic and humanitarian.

Professor Greg Barton is Herb Feith Research Professor for the Study of Indonesia at Monash University, and acting director, Centre for Islam and the Modern World. He is also the author of Gus Dur: the Authorised Biography of Abdurrahman Wahid.

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Funerals Burden Omani Families

January 4, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent

Sultan Qaboos mosque The Middle East region is world-renowned for the often lavish lifestyles of its citizens, as most wealthy Arab states boast all of the designer clothes, houses, yachts, cars and luxury items that anyone could ever shake a stick at. However, the sumptuous lifestyle often extends beyond the grave as funerals and the price tag of entertaining the ensuing mourners rivals that of any party amongst the living. 

No place is this reality more vivid than in Oman, where it is a tradition to have grand feasts fit for a king and his army following the departure of a loved one. Funeral expenses and the costs for providing food for those wanting to pay their respects are often astronomical, numbering in the thousands of dollars. It is not uncommon for a few hundred people to show up as a sign of respect for the deceased. The mourning period often lasts for three days and serving refreshments is expected. In a recent interview, Omani citizen Rahma Saif revealed that more than 200 people showed up at her home to mourn the death of her father, “It is draining both physically and mentally, not to mention the cost of the food. I cared for my father when he was ill for six months and did not sleep well during the time. Immediately after his death, I had to provide a feast for three consecutive days for 200 people each day,” Mourners often stay throughout the day well until the sun has set. Bereaved family members are often too exhausted from catering to the mourners that they do not have the time to mourn the very personal loss themselves.

The Omani government lends a helping hand in funeral costs for low-income families, however it is only a few hundred riyals, which barely covers the cost of the gravedigger and some Arabic coffee for the mourners. Poor families must dig deep into their savings or even sell off valuable possessions to provide a minimum of six square meals for the mourning guests.  In Saif’s case, she had to use all of her father’s savings to feed the mourners, which negated any possible inheritance for his family members.

Contrastingly, many rich Omanis have no problem in hosting a grand feast for mourners and relish in putting on a huge event. Unlike their low-income counterparts, wealthy Omani families have huge bankrolls to pay for the affair and a fleet of servants to tend to the mourners every whim. It’s not uncommon for a high-end funeral service to cost several thousands of dollars, as guests dine on 5-star meals from local upscale restaurants and drink only the finest beverages available.

Critics of the mourning period in Oman have accused our contemporary world of altering an age-old tradition meant to comfort the bereaved into simply an excuse to get a free meal. It’s not surprising that, with the current state of the global economic crisis, more and more people are attending funerals in Oman for the sole reason of getting their fill, turning the occasion into a festivity instead of a time of sadness and introspection. Many skeptics have called for the government to legally shorten the mourning period to one day and put a cap on funeral expenses. Others have called the practice unIslamic and a transgression against a fellow Muslim in his greatest hour of sorrow.

Unfortunately, societal norms might have the final word as many a man is judged, not by the deeds he committed in this world whether good or bad, but by the number of people who showed up at his funeral. And those he left behind cannot escape the rumor mills should they not provide a grand feast for mourners who might label them as miserly. 

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The Tender Plants Of Our Society

August 20, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

By Sara Yousuf

483px-Handicap.svg July fourth, 2009. A Saturday at ISNA in Washington D.C. on an Independence Day morn. But not just any Saturday at the ISNA bazaar in Washington D.C., where my family and I manning a booth for HelpHandicap Foundation, a non-profit organization enabling people with disabilities in India. It was a Saturday that would mean so much to my family and I, and, I think, also to various Muslims with disabilities who would attend it and go home with a spark of hope amongst them.

It was the day the first panel discussion on disability would take place in ISNA history. There would be four speakers, one of whom would be my father, Mr. Mohammed Yousuf. Also featured would be, a psychiatric doctor, Mona Amer, who had done research on the inclusion of Muslims with disabilities, the general topic of the panel, the distinguished Imam Zaid Shakir, and Mr. Mobin Tawakkul, who had written with my father a chapter in a book about the lives of people with disabilities, along with Ms. Isra Bhatty, who would be serve as the moderator in the discussion.

My brothers, my mother, and I were really excited about the discussion. After handing out brochures all of Friday, and having trouble getting to sleep out of over-excitement, we were up in a flash Saturday morning. My mother and father had given me camera-duty. At first I thought, “Oh, what a snap this will be, only five-ten minutes here and there.” Later did my mother tell me that I had to videotape the entire discussion, which would last for two-hours plus, when I noticed that maybe my task would not be such a delicious piece of cake.

Well, my five- and nine-year-old brothers and I took our seats, three rows down from the stage. When asked why, I merely told the older of my brothers that though my hand may ache, I would not like to crane my neck. I turned on the camera before the panel started; in fact, I started it when I spotted my father talking to one of the speakers. Enjoying myself blissfully, I did not notice the time left on the camera before the memory was full.

The discussion started—finally! I thought. Of course, I couldn’t wait to hear my father speak, as I am sure neither could my brothers nor my mother. The first speaker was Dr. Mona Amer, and I really liked the way she started off. She asked the audience why most of them had come to the discussion: because they, someone they know, or someone in their family has a disability, knew a speaker in the discussion, were interested in the topic, or had just heard about the discussion; or because they were interested in the topic or had heard about the discussion.

Though I am not an adult, I wanted to be a part of the panel, too, so I raised my hands for the first two reasons. As I had predicted (I’ve always understood human feelings, and this I could feel in the crowd), most hands were in the air for the first reason: because they themselves had a disability or knew someone with a disability. From that moment, I was hooked in the discussion as I watched it through the screen of the camera.

Halfway through the doctor’s speech, my hand ached to be in another position. By this time I was so into the panel that I was only thinking, seeing, hearing the panel, and nothing else. Well, I did also notice my throbbing hand. For a second I thought, “Well, when you take pictures, you can turn the camera sideways and the pictures come out vertical.” Flipping the camera, I said to myself, “By the way, the video looks better vertical.” So I kept on switching the camera every five minutes or so.

Imam Zaid Shakir started his speech then, and he, along with the doctor before him, really started emphasizing and I really started to think, not just listen. Why was I here? Was I a part of this? How could I, an ordinary preteen from the mid-north of America, work towards the “inclusion of disability in North America”, when I was only a child? What could I do to change my corner of the universe? Now wait a minute……change the universe? Ha! That was long-term! How would I even begin to change the lives of those with disabilities? Moreover, what could I do? Could I, a single kid, amend the way the common society overlooks these people with disabilities???

I, an eleven-year-old, sat there amongst the couple hundred of people in Conference Room D in the Mount Vernon Place Convention Center, in Washington D.C., thinking.

Next, a video was to be played about the issue of including people with disabilities. I shut off the camera while watching, and I can tell you that though my brain was working, my face was totally frozen, struck by awe. In the movie, a part was entitled to the problems in the masjids in their local areas. One brother stated that yes; his masjid’s bathroom was made into an accessible bathroom for wheelchair use, but had been turned into a storage area for janitor supplies and boxes! To myself, I think: why is this happening, happening that the masjid’s handicap features are being changed?

It was like the video sent me flying. Thinking I began about everything in the video. How could I help? Donations? Articles? Words? Actions? HOW?!?! Answers I needed, not questions.

I turned the camera back on for my father’s speech. The projector screen displayed the image of cupped hands holding rich brown soil in which was growing a s mall, two-leafed, lime-green plant, about the size of your average thumb.

My father explains that those with a disability in our community are like this plant. Tender, small, totally dependant. It needs sunlight, water, and air.

Now I completely understand what my father means. Those hidden in our communities need sunlight—love and attention, water—knowledge to nourish them, and air—friends, people around them.

Who can give them these three necessities of basic living? Who? Who is responsible for this amongst us?  

Us.

We.

We are.

We are the ones responsible. We can change the way Muslims with disabilities are excluded in their local masjid and our societies. We can try to include them in every way possible. You’re the one who can change your corner of the universe. You, yes, you!

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