Fulbright scholar promotes equality

FLORIDA TIMES UNION, June 29, 2009

UNF teacher will study Bangladesh culture for "common problems."
By Josh Salman

Parvez Ahmed understands the importance of culture.

The assistant (associate) finance professor at University of North Florida has worked hard to bridge the gap between the general population and Muslim community in Northeast Florida. He practices equality and preaches the same to his students.

So when Ahmed was awarded the coveted Fulbright Grant, he fulfilled a lifelong dream. He could take the same principles he strives to teach at UNF and apply them to students in South Asia.

Ahmed will be leaving in August to spend the fall semester teaching finance and doing research at the Independent University of Bangladesh in Dhaka, the nation's capital.

"[Teaching] is our way of affecting the hearts and minds of people we are visiting," Ahmed said. "I'm hoping to apply what I learn there to the classroom here and create exchanges."

While in Bangladesh, Ahmed will study the region's economy and financial sector. He will explore the nation's villages and the study the people.

He will venture into the bordering country of India, and see the effects an economic powerhouse can have on a smaller nation.

And he will break down market development in the third-largest Muslim country in the world.

"Most people associate Bangladesh with natural disasters," Ahmed said. "But there's a lot more to it than that."

Ahmed grew up in an Indian town near the university he will be visiting. He hopes this advantage will allow him to develop a deeper social relationship with the native residents.

"This allows us to better understand what's going on in these countries," Ahmed said. "The common problems requiring common solutions."

Ahmed is one of 1,100 faculty nationally awarded the Fulbright grant. He has been at UNF since 2002 and has received the Outstanding Researcher Award three times from Coggin College as well as the Outstanding Teacher Award.

Ahmed has also served on the OneJax board of directors for more than three years, where he's worked to suppress the public's post-Sept. 11 anxiety toward Muslims.

"Being selfish, I can't believe he's going to be gone," said Bobbie O'Connor, executive director of OneJax. "But he's really deserving of the award and has such a strong commitment to the community."

Ahmed plans to use his experience as a motivational tool and generate interest from his students in foreign culture and economics.

He is also planning a study-abroad trip to Egypt for finance students this March. And whether in America or across seas, Ahmed's students said there's no professor they would rather learn balance sheets and market indexes from.

"His lectures are so thought-provoking," UNF graduate student James Fugard said after one of Ahmed's classes. "His courses are definitely a challenge, but you come out learning a lot."

Amanda Mullins said she takes Ahmed's courses every opportunity she has. "He makes sure you know your stuff and can apply it in the real world," Mullins said. "His style definitely make concepts easy to understand."

Can Iran be Precursor to Major Changes in the Muslim World?

Published in Huffington Post.

In Cairo, a U.S. President owned up to a well known fact that in 1953 the United States played a role in overthrowing Mohammad Mosaddeq, the then democratically elected leader of Iran. Over half a century later, following the botched 2009 Presidential elections in Iran, it is no longer America denying Iranians the right to be represented by popular choice. It is no longer America playing puppeteer. Ironically, the ones pulling the strings are those who have most vociferously decried America’s ungodly interference in their region.

It is hard to prognosticate how events will unfold in Iran. Will there be any spillover effects in the rest of the Muslim world? Although, change has not yet fully blossomed, the atmosphere is pregnant with expectations. The battle for the future of Iran is emblematic of the broader struggle across many Muslim majority societies. At the core lies two questions, will democracy finally gain a firm foothold and what role will religion play in their political future?

In Iran, both sides have claimed religious justification for their actions. Ayatollah Khameni invoked his religious authority to issue a Nixonian edict that, if the Ayatollah says that the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is legitimate, then it must be so and it is Islamic. The opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi also invoked Islam’s call for justice echoing the Quranic sentiment, “Stand firmly for justice as witnesses to God, even if it is against yourself.” (4:135).

However, literal reading of religious texts alone cannot provide all the necessary answers in this struggle for legitimacy and fairness. The issue of state-governance is not discussed in great details in Islam’s revealed text - The Quran. In verses 42:38 and 3:159, the Quran provides only basic principles, in that governance should be based on "mutual consultation," or “shura.” How this “shura” is to be conducted is left wide open for interpretation. Scholars of Islam contend that “shura” contains three essential elements - equal rights for all citizens, majority rule for public policy and the promotion of justice and human dignity. The degree to which a government is “Islamic” and “democratic” will depend on how well they rank on these three elements of “shura.”

The unfolding saga in Iran has not drawn much criticism from other countries in the region, for understandable reasons. In the struggle of ordinary Iranians, the other authoritarian regimes in the region, foresee an existential challenge to their own authority. If Iran “falls” to democracy, then can others be far behind? Too much support for Mousavi, and his success, is likely to give rise to similar popular movements across the region, which not only threatens the ruling elites but also makes America uncomfortable with the prospect of dealing with unknown actors who may emerge out of this quest for democratization. Too little support will result in the unsustainable continuation of the status quo. This is the dilemma facing President Obama.

Today’s Iran highlights the combustible mix of religion and politics. Muslims do not doubt the veracity of the Quran being the word of God. However, the interpretation of the divine words is entirely human and thus, its translation into practical law is open to multitudes of understandings. Using the power of the state to resolve such differences only creates discord, undermining both the state of faith and faith in the state. Historically, many Muslim jurists opted to stay out of government in order to retain their independence and credibility, thus making an argument favoring the separation of mosque and state.

Although majority of Muslims in countries like Egypt, Pakistan or Jordan today favor the introduction of Shariah, they do so because the current secular laws have failed to deliver justice to the people. Their hope is that Shariah will require, in the words of Noah Fledman (author of The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State), “all human beings — and all human governments — are subject to justice under the law.” Muslims are yearning for justice that they have been denied for so long, often due to outside interference but increasingly due to internal failures of Muslim majority states.

The onus for change is not only on those most affected, but also on Muslims living under democracies. In particular, Muslims in America and Europe can play a more assertive role in prodding Muslim majority nations to build civil societies whose governments are truly representative, whose judiciaries are respectful of the rights of all people and whose legislature fosters positive development of the material and the spirit. A success story in Iran can very well augur a sea change across the Muslim world. An unanswered question is how to support the struggle of the ordinary Iranians without appearing to interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation? It is a delicate balancing act requiring patient diplomacy by governments and peaceful civic engagement by ordinary citizens.