Connect with us

New Social Compact

Why opposing Religion via a Politico-Secular Discourse is a Blunder

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.



The current stratagem, quite popular in the West, of opposing intolerant social norms as practiced by some Muslim communities vis a vis women, gays, human rights and freedom in general (be it of speech, or political, or artistic); that is to say, opposing certain religiously condoned intolerances and orthodoxies with a libertarian “enlightened” secular discourse (which usually advocates the liquidation of religion per se, at best tolerating a mere vapid cafeteria-style sort of “spirituality”) is an inadequate, clever by half, solution to the problem at hand.

It makes those who feel that their faith is under attack all the more determined to defend it zealously. In Islam they call that kind of extreme defense Jihad and it has been carried in one form or another for centuries now.

What usually happens is that the table adroitly gets turned around and the “enlightened” “progressive” secularist alleging human rights violations that need to be abolished ends up accused of intolerance, of trying to impose his particular brand of intolerance, i.e., his extreme secularism and enlightenment, on believers. It all turns into a vicious circle. This is particularly true in those modern societies where religion has been abandoned as just another myth or lie, long superseded by modernity progressive positivistic science. The best example of that is the EU. Not to be modern is to be medieval, obscurantist, retrograde, undesirables who cannot be accommodated in a modern progressive society based on the tenets of the Enlightenment, a la Voltaire.

This strategy usually misfires and ends up producing more animosity and intolerance with accusations of zealotry and extremism on both sides of the fence. There is however a much better approach and it is that advocated by the influential philosopher Jurgen Habermas in his essay “A post-secular Europe” and that of the Ugandan born Canadian Muslim Irshad Manji, author of two best-selling influential books: The Trouble with Islam Today (translated into 30 languages), and How to Reconcile Faith and Freedom.

She has received an honorary degree in the history of ideas from the University of British Columbia, and a governor general medal as a top humanities graduate; initiated the TV project Moral Courage with Professor Cornell West becoming a critic of mainstream Islam, and participated in the TV series America at a Crossroads titled “Faith without Fear.” Moreover, she has addressed numerous audiences at the UN and at Amnesty International.

At NYU Wagner, Irshad teaches a course titled “Moral Courage and Your Purpose.” Among the professional skills that students can expect to learn: articulating how you want to serve your society, identifying your core values, turning your values into action, knowing when to step up or step back, and staying motivated to deliver on your vision.

Let’s take a brief look at her thinking as regards the reforming of Islam. In the first place she points out that she is in no way advocating the abolishing of Islam but its reform, or better, its re-interpretation. The words of the Koran are not to be abolished or rewritten, but what is written gets re-interpreted as it was meant to be all along. What does that mean? That the Torah, the Bible and the Koran need to be interpreted by the mere fact that they contain symbolical language: poetry, parables and stories that need to be constantly interpreted in the light of the existential events of human history in order for them to have any meaningful application for our existential situation. In other words, she is far from advocating a throwing away of the baby (faith) with the dirty water (the corruption within a religion) as many secular humanists end up doing when they suggest that religion does not properly belong in the public agora and ought to be muzzled and relegated, with other myths, to the dustbin of history.

Manji arrived at this conclusion when she began comparing various religious beliefs after being expelled from the Moslem religious school she was attending as a teenager eight hours a week, for simply asking too many questions. She found her faith anew by leaving her faith for a while and freely researching other faiths. For example she discovered that the image many misguided Muslims, Jews and Christians have of God was that of a stern law-giver bent on enforcing the law with a vengeance. That is not her interpretation of who this being really is as per holy scriptures. Far from being malicious and brutish, in the image of litigious man, he/she seems to her to be benevolent and merciful. Manji writes that since this God created all there is, or had a plan for all creatures when he created, not excluding Lesbians and Gays, it remains to be explained how he can then act against the logic of his own creation.

Of course the atheist has no problem here: he rejects the existence of God to begin with, but then he logically falls into the trap of declaring that the universe created itself with a ready made evolutionary plan so precise that a millionth of second too early or too late would have obviated its existence; or that the universe is eternal which in effect means he has made the Universe God and he in it is a little god, which sounds like idolatry and narcissism. Plenty of food for thought.

To recapitulate, there is an intriguing paradox at work here: the above discourse exposes the hypocrisy of Scandinavian progressive anti-nationalistic, liberal societies so proud of their progressive liberalism but that are now slowly beginning to tolerate Islamophobia and Xenophobia. Perhaps it would be a much wiser strategy on their part to identify the intolerances and abuses of human rights found in religions such as Islam and Christianity and Judaism, that is to say, not in the religions per se but in their misinterpretations, and advocate their reform rather than their obliteration. One can wager that most reasonable Muslims would be willing to listen to the voice of a reasoned discourse that does not begin with the premise that religion is off the table to be substituted with a vapid cafeteria style spirituality disrespectful of particular religious traditions. Irshad Manji offers us a great example on how this can be accomplished.

In conclusion, as that wise man in Palestine who started a new religion in the Middle East which then came to Rome and Athens and ended up becoming perhaps the best component of Europe’s cultural identity after the fall of the Roman Empire, used to quip: “let those who have ears, let them hear.”

Author’s note: this essay has already appeared, in a slightly modified form in Ovi magazine.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

Continue Reading

New Social Compact

Seven Out of 10 Top School Systems Are in East Asia Pacific

MD Staff



The East Asia and Pacific region has seven of the top ten performing education systems in the world, with schools in China and Vietnam showing significant progress, according to a new World Bank report released today. This is a major accomplishment that offers important lessons to countries around the world. In the rest of the region, however, up to 60 percent of students are in under-performing schools that fail to equip them with the skills necessary for success.

Growing Smarter: Learning and Equitable Development in East Asia and the Pacific argues that improving education is necessary to sustain economic growth and highlights the ways that countries in the region have been able to improve learning outcomes. Drawing on lessons from successful education systems in the region, it lays out a series of practical recommendations for key policies that promote learning so that students acquire foundational skills in reading and math, as well as more complex skills that are needed to meet future labor market demands.

Providing a high-quality education to all children, regardless of where they are born, isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s also the foundation of a strong economy and the best way to stop and reverse rising inequalities,” said Victoria Kwakwa, World Bank Vice President for East Asia and Pacific.

A quarter of the world’s school-age children – some 331 million – live in East Asia and the Pacific. Up to 40 percent of them attend school in education systems whose students are ahead of the average students in OECD countries. These schools are not only in wealthy countries such as Singapore, Korea and Japan, but also in middle-income countries such as China and Vietnam. And, as the report highlights, student performance isn’t necessarily tied to a country’s income level. By age 10, for example, the average Vietnamese student outperforms all but the top students in India, Peru and Ethiopia.

But many countries in the region are not getting the results they want. In Indonesia, for example, test scores showed students were more than three years behind their top-performing peers in the region. In countries such as Cambodia and Timor-Leste, one-third or more of second graders were unable to read a single word on reading tests.

Another key finding of the report is that across the region, household incomes do not necessarily determine children’s educational success. In Vietnam and China (Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Guangdong provinces), for example, students from poorer households do as well, if not better, in both math and science, as compared to average students in the OECD.

Effective policies for the selection, motivation, and support of teachers as well as sound practices in the classroom are what determine how much students learn. For policymakers looking to improve their school systems, allocating existing budgets efficiently, coupled with strong political commitment, can make a real difference in the lives of children across the region,” said Jaime Saavedra, the World Bank’s Senior Director for Education.

The report lays out concrete steps for improving learning for lagging systems in the region and beyond, starting with ensuring that institutions are aligned so that objectives and responsibilities across the education system are consistent with each other. The report also urges a focus on four key areas: effective and equity-minded public spending; preparation of students for learning; selection and support of teachers; and systematic use of assessments to inform instruction.

The report found that top-performing systems spend efficiently on school infrastructure and teachers, have recruitment processes to ensure the best candidates are attracted into teaching, and provide a salary structure that rewards teachers with proven classroom performance. It also found that schools throughout the region increased preschool access, including for the poor, and have adopted student learning assessment into their educational policies.

The report complements and builds on the World Bank’s World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education’s Promise, which was released in September 2017 and found that without learning, education will fail to deliver on its promise to eliminate extreme poverty and create shared opportunity and prosperity for all.

Continue Reading

New Social Compact

UN women’s commission opens annual session at ‘pivotal moment’ for gender equality movement

MD Staff



Secretary-General António Guterres (left) and Geraldine Byrne Nason, Permanent Representative of Ireland to the UN and Chair of the sixty-second session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), at the opening of the session. UN Photo/Loey Felipe

Taking place at “a pivotal moment for the rights of women and girls,” the United Nations body dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment opened its annual session on Monday hearing calls to help women, especially those in rural communities, secure an end to the male-dominated power dynamic that has long marginalized their participation and muted their voices.

“Across the world, women are telling their stories and provoking important and necessary conversations – in villages and cities; in boardrooms and bedrooms; in the streets and in the corridors of power,” said Secretary-General António Guterres, opening the 62nd session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW62).

“From ‘MeToo’ to ‘Time’s Up’ and ‘The Time is Now’ […] women and girls are calling out abusive behaviour and discriminatory attitudes,” he added.

Under the Commission’s theme ‘Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls,’ the UN chief observed that although a marginalized group, they were often the backbone of their families and communities, managing land and resources.

Mr. Guterres said that supporting these women is essential to fulfilling our global pledge to eradicate poverty and to create a safer, more sustainable world on a healthy planet – 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Mr. Guterres painted a picture of a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture in which centuries of patriarchy and discrimination have left a damaging legacy.

Calling it “the greatest human rights challenge of our time,” he said “progress for women and girls means changing the unequal power dynamics that underpin discrimination and violence.”

“Discrimination against women damages communities, organizations, companies, economies and societies,” he continued. “That is why all men should support women’s rights and gender equality. And that is why I consider myself a proud feminist.”

The President of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), Marie Chatardova pointed to the Commission, as a critical instrument to strengthen the global normative framework for women’s empowerment and the promotion of gender equality.

The body is also as a key driver of ECOSOC’s work, with the Commission’s outcomes as bolstering the 2030 Agenda’s implementation and that of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which seek to end poverty and ensure prosperity for all on a healthy planet.

Noting that gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls is a theme that cuts across all the Goals, Ms. Chatardova said the Commission’s focus on rural women and girls was both timely and well-aligned with the 2030 Agenda.

According to the ECOSOC President, inclusion is a key element in all efforts.

Noting that the Commission has long provided a roadmap for the UN’s work in women’s empowerment and gender equality, she announced a special Council session in May to build sustainable, inclusive and resilient societies.

Gender perspective is critical

For his part, the President of the UN General Assembly, Miroslav Lajčák, noted that past challenges were approached without a gender perspective, which “has had a particularly damaging effect on rural women.”

Mr. Lajčák underscored that this needs to stop, and that women must be taken into account in all actions, from access to water to closing pay gaps.

Drawing attention to rural women as a major source of innovation, he explained that their empowerment would benefit everyone.

“These kinds of women do not need our help, in finding solutions,” he stated. “What they need is our support, in turning their ideas into reality.”

Calling gender equality “an urgent priority,” Mr. Lajčák he encouraged the Commission to carry on with its important work “until every woman, sitting in this room today has the same rights, and the same opportunities, as the man sitting beside her.’

“Thank you for continuing your calls. Let’s make them stronger than ever,” he concluded.

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka highlighted the importance of this year’s focus on rurual women.

“It speaks to our commitment to fight some of the biggest challenges of our time: poverty, inequality, intersectionality and an end to violence and discrimination against women and girls, no matter where they live, or how they live, so that we ‘leave no one behind,’” she stated.

Calling it “a tipping point moment,” the UN Women chief urged the forum to seize the opportunity to secure and accelerate progress, build consensus and share best practices to serve “the poorest of the poor.”

“It has never been so urgent to hold leaders accountable for their promises for accelerating progress” on the SDGs, she said.  An unprecedented hunger for change in women’s lives was being seen around the world, as well as a growing recognition that when women banded together, “they can make demands that bite.”

“Women are fighting to take steps that change their lives, and they are refusing to accept the practices that have normalized gender inequality, sexual misconduct, exclusion and discrimination across all walks of life,” she argued.

She urged everyone to unite around the common cause, as set out in the principles of equality in the UN Charter, “to make this a moment of real acceleration, change and accountability.”

The chair, Geraldine Byrne Nason, said the current session is a key moment on the path to ending discrimination against women and girls once and for all.  Indeed, “time is up” on women taking second place around the world, she said, challenging the Commission to do more and do better.

CSW functions under ECOSOC, acting as the UN organ promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women.  CSW62 runs until 23 March.

Continue Reading

New Social Compact

UNESCO Rewards Outstanding Teacher Initiatives in Chile, Indonesia and the UK

MD Staff



Three programmes designed to empower teachers have been named as winners of the 2017-2018 UNESCO-Hamdan bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Prize: The Center for Mathematic Modeling of the University of Chile, the Diklat Berjenjang project of Indonesia and the Fast-track Transformational Teacher Training Programme of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The Prize for Outstanding Practice and Performance in Enhancing the Effectiveness of Teachers will be awarded on 5 October as part of World Teachers’ Day celebrations at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris when the each winner will receive $100,000.

The Center for Mathematic Modeling of the University of Chile (Chile) is rewarded for its Suma y Sigue: Matemática en línea (Adding it up: Mathematics online) programme which was developed to address the performance gaps in mathematics between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds and improve the quality of maths teaching in general. It is a ‘learning by doing’ programme organized by grade levels and curricula, enabling teachers to focus on their specialized area of mathematics teaching. It blends face-to-face sessions with intensive virtual instruction. The programme is scaleable, easily accessed by teachers in remote areas, and it promotes inclusion.

The Diklat Berjenjang project from Indonesia is rewarded for bringing quality professional development to early childhood teachers, notably in the poorest and most remote areas. It helps meet Indonesia’s need for teachers skilled in creating stimulating learning environments for young learners. It helps identify potential teacher trainers and provides step-by-step written guides, follow-up assignments and exchanges.

The Fast-track Transformational Teacher Training Programme from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was selected for its highly innovative and impactful approach to training teachers in various professional environments in Ghana. It promotes child-centred and play-based pedagogy in early education to replace traditional talk chalk disciplinarian methods. Practicing teachers receive a two-year training, combining workshops with smaller peer group meetings in which they are paired on the basis of their complementary strengths to engage in classroom observations and in class coaching.

The three winners were selected from 150 nominations submitted by the Governments of UNESCO’s Member States and UNESCO partner organizations on the recommendation of an International Jury of education professionals.

Established in 2009 with funding from Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al-Maktoum of Dubai, the Prize is awarded every two years to projects that have made outstanding contributions to improving the quality of teaching and learning, especially in developing countries or within marginalized or disadvantaged communities.

More information on the prize:

Continue Reading


Green Planet35 mins ago

UN spotlights rainwater recycling, artificial wetlands among ‘green’ solutions to global water crisis

With five billion people at risk of having difficulty accessing adequate water by 2050, finding nature-based solutions, such as China’s...

Newsdesk3 hours ago

Beijing: Getting to know Chemical Leasing

Experts from the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) have introduced the circular economy business model, Chemical Leasing, to stakeholders...

Tech7 hours ago

UN forum to spotlight ways ICT can help beat poverty and boost development

Making information and communication technology (ICT) readily available for vulnerable countries and harnessing it’s potential to help tackle a raft...

Green Planet8 hours ago

Climate Change Could Force Over 140 Million to Migrate Within Countries by 2050

The worsening impacts of climate change in three densely populated regions of the world could see over 140 million people...

Energy10 hours ago

Sustainable energy at affordable prices precondition for prospering economies in OSCE region and beyond

Energy security, the protection of critical energy infrastructure, the development and integration of renewable energy and the best use of...

Middle East11 hours ago

The role of spin doctors in the Eastern Ghouta crisis

When it comes to war, it is exceedingly important to get all the facts straight: always remember there are—at least—two...

Newsdesk12 hours ago

UNIDO to work together with the International Solar Alliance

The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) has signed an agreement to work together with the International Solar Alliance (ISA)....



Copyright © 2018 Modern Diplomacy