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The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Barack Obama landed with a shock on the nation's capital. He won! For what?

For one of America's youngest presidents, in office less than nine months, and only for 12 days before the Nobel nomination deadline last February, it was an astonishing award.

But the prize seems to be more for promise than performance. Obama so far has no standout moment of victory. As for most presidents in their first year, the report card on Obama's ambitious agenda is an "incomplete."

He banned extreme interrogation techniques for terrorists. But he also promised to close the globally controversial U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a task with difficulties that have Obama headed to miss his own January 2010 deadline.

He said he would end the Iraq war. But he slowed the U.S. troop drawdown a bit. Meantime, he's running a second war in the Muslim world, in Afghanistan, and is seriously considering ramping that one up.

He has pushed for new efforts to make peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. But there's been little cooperation so far.

His administration is talking to U.S. foes, like Iran, North Korea and Cuba. But there's not much to show from that, either.

He said he wants a nuclear-free world. But it was one thing to show the desire in his April Prague speech, and quite another to unite hesitant nations and U.S. lawmakers behind the necessary web of treaties and agreements.

He pledged to take the lead against climate change. But the U.S. seems likely to head into December's crucial international negotiations in Copenhagen with Obama-backed legislation still stalled.

And what about Obama's global prestige? It seemed to take a hit exactly a week ago when his trans-Atlantic journey to win the 2016 Olympics for Chicago was rejected with a last-place finish.

For the Nobel committee, merely altering the tone out of Washington toward the rest of the world seemed enough. Obama got much attention for his speech from Cairo reaching out a U.S. hand to the world's Muslims. His remarks at the U.N. General Assembly last month set down internationally welcome new markers for the way the U.S. works with the world.

But still. ...

Obama said he was as surprised as everyone else when he was awakened about an hour after the announcement.

"I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who have been honored by this prize," he said in the Rose Garden hours later. "That is why I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st century."

The prize is not necessarily a big plus for Obama in the tricky U.S. political arena.

He won election last year in part because voters weary with the nation's battered image abroad were attracted to his promise of a new start. But Republicans have been criticizing Obama as being too much celebrity and too little action, and they immediately seized on this new praise, from Europeans, no less, to try to bring him down a peg.

From Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, for instance: "It is unfortunate that the president's star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements."

For Nobel voters, the award could be as much a slap at Obama's predecessor as about lauding Obama. Former President George W. Bush was reviled by much of the world for his cowboy diplomacy, Iraq war and snubbing of European priorities like global warming.

And remember that the Nobel prize has a long history of being awarded more for the committee's aspirations than for others' accomplishments, for Mideast peace or a better South Africa, for instance. In some cases, the prize is awarded to encourage those who receive it to see the effort through, sometimes at critical moments.

Nobel committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said as much. "Some people say, and I understand it, isn't it premature? Too early?" he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Well, I'd say then that it could be too late to respond three years from now. It is now that we have the opportunity to respond, all of us."

Obama certainly understands his challenges are too steep to resolve quickly. "It's not going to be easy," the president often says as he sets tasks for the United States.

The Nobel committee, it seems, had the audacity to hope that he'll eventually produce a record worthy of its prize.

This article first appeared on Associated Press on 9th October 2009.

The just-completed Georgetown's Common Word conference, Oct. 7-8, occurs at a time when the need for serious engagement and cooperation between Muslims and Christians is more urgent than ever.

Islam and Christianity are far and away the two largest global religions (1.5 and 2.1 billion). Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world's population. Today, more than ever before, they co-exist or encounter each other in 57 Muslim countries and in Europe and America and beyond. Despite significant doctrinal differences, they also they share much in common in matters of faith, values and interests. If religion has too often been part of the problem, it must also be part of the solution.

In contrast to the past, the world of the 21st century is both transformed and threatened by the impact of globalization, a source of integration and fragmentation in international affairs, economic and social development, and inter-religious or multi-religious affairs. Today, President Barack Obama and European leaders are faced with the fallout from eight years of Bush legacy that led many Muslim critics of the US-UK war on global terrorism to charge it was a war against Islam and Muslims, an attempt to redraw the map of the Muslim world. Obama, in his inauguration and subsequent addresses to Muslims from Ankara and Cairo, has sought to recast America's image among its Muslim and non-Muslim allies. His commitment to the importance of a multi-lateral approach with its emphasis on diplomacy in the pursuit of peace and justice -- in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, were among the reasons for the recent and surprising award of the Nobel Peace Prize as a recognition and encouragement of Barack Obama's fresh international vision in American foreign policy.

The Common Word Muslim initiative and the response by major Christian leaders and other global leaders to the document, "A Common Word Between Us and You," reflects the deep awareness of today's precarious and dangerous world of global politics and the need for Muslims and Christians to work together. As the CW document reminds us: "Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians."

"A Common Word: A Global Agenda for Change" was call to action. Sponsored by the Office of the President of Georgetown University, the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, and the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, it was the next step in the ongoing process of this groundbreaking initiative. Conferences at Yale and Cambridge universities and the Vatican had brought together global religious leaders and academic experts who explored the theological and scriptural bases and implications of the foundation of A Common Word, the two great commandments, Love of God and Love of Neighbor, based directly Christian, Muslim and Jewish Scriptures.

At Georgetown we addressed the "So what factor?" How do we respond to and put "Love of Neighbor" into action to address the many shared challenges and threats we face in our world? How do we transform a common word into common works?

Critical to realizing the purpose and goal of A Common Word is applied theology, transforming belief and dialogue into action. Conference encounters and their final reports alone, however good and important are too easily archived and do not in themselves change minds and hearts and transform societies. Words must be accompanied by action and deeds; visions must be implemented by concrete and, where possible, joint-efforts and projects.

Although convinced of the importance of this initiative, we were astonished at the incredible response. The acceptance rate from the global leaders invited ranged between 90-95%! Our opening session drew a capacity audience in Gaston Hall of 750; subsequent sessions averaged 500 to 600 participants. Media coverage included the Washington Post-Newsweek's On Faith, Al-Jazeera English, Al-Arabiyya, BBC, and many others.

In addition to prominent religious leaders and academics, key participants included practitioners: political leaders, social activists, leaders of major NGOs and others who came together to discuss and develop a "global agenda for change." Among the religious dignitaries were: the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theofilos III, the Grand Muftis of Egypt and Bosnia, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, and Mustafa Ceric; Professor Ingrid Mattson, President of the Islamic Society of North America; Theodore Cardinal McCarrick and Archbishop Celestino Megliore; the Anglican bishop of London, Richard Chartres, Nigeria's Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon and Bishop Mark Hanson, Presiding Bishop the Evangelical Lutheran Church and President of the Lutheran World Federation. They were joined by former prime ministers, Britain's Tony Blair and Norway's Kjell Magne Bondevik, Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, the twentieth sultan of Sokoto, Nigeria, Muhammad Sa'ad Abubakar and the presidents of major Christian and Muslim NGOs and organizations.

During our two days together we listened to and learned about the good practices, their challenges and accomplishments that already exist. Ken Hacket and David Robinson, leaders of Catholic Relief Services and World Vision, spoke of their global outreach and work in Muslim communities; Amr Khaled, charismatic preached and founder of the Right Start Foundation spoke of RSF's many projects in the Arab world and Europe; Dalia Mogahed, Executive Director, Gallup Muslim Studies, reported on a major youth project, "Muslim Americans Answer the Call"; Fr. Eliseo Mercado and Amina Rasul-Bernardo spoke of their use of A Common Word in the Southern Philippines; Pastor Bob Roberts and Dr. Chris Seiple spoke of their respective partnerships and projects with Muslims in the Afghanistan and the Northwest Frontier Province. Presentations and discussions were open and frank, highlighting important accomplishments, issues and problems; areas of agreement and difference; and especially the need to recognize that differences of faith need not be an obstacle to partnership and collaboration in areas of mutual concern.

At the end of our conference, after two long and exhausting 10 hour days, we held a wrap-up discussion: "Where Do We Go from Here?". While conferences like religious services often witness a good number of participants who hastily depart before the end, we were deligthed to see a full contingent and in fact had to finally cut off our session. After a summary of the key take-aways from our panels and leaders' and members of the audience reactions, we turned to what we could and would do to promote the ideas and initiatives discussed and then identified areas and projects to be pursued and developed in future. Many asked that contact information be provided for future collaborations and follow-up workshops, regionally and locally. These recommendations and others were taken up the next day and will be at future meetings by the Executive Committee of THE C-1 WORLD DIALOGUE: Improving relations between the Western and Islamic Worlds, whose co-chairs are Dr. Ali Gomaa Grand Mufti of Egypt and Dr. Richard Chartres, the Anglican Bishop of London.


John L. Esposito is University Professor and Founding Director of the Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding. He is co-author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.

This article first appeared on Middle East Online on 12th October 2009.

O you who believe! Let not your wealth nor your children distract you from remembrance of Allah. Those who do so, they are the losers. (63:9)

This verse in the Qur'an is an invitation for humanity to make a relatively small effort in this world, in return for the eternal reward of the hereafter. It is a call to save ourselves from becoming fixated on our wealth and on providing our children with the latest gadget and games, which ultimately are mere distractions from our remembrance of the creator.

But humans are short-termist; we think primarily of our pleasures now rather than the harmony and serenity of the world to come. Chapter 102 of the Qur'an says that we are distracted by competing in worldly increase, until we finally end up in our graves where we will be questioned about our excesses.

Does this mean that it is wrong to own things? Of course not, as money and offspring can be positive things in the life of a believer, and we do of course have basic needs which need to be met. But we must remember that the pleasures of consumption are quickly gone, while lasting benefit comes only from using our wealth to uphold the rights of others; namely the orphan, the traveller, and the needy. Wealth is thus truly ours only once it has been given away.

Those who are genuinely distracted by worldly increase, and who make it an end in and of itself rather than as a means towards something better are in effect guilty of a form of idolatry. Ours is an age that has made idols of the great banks and finance houses, driven to frenzy by competition amongst billionaires who are kept awake at night by the thought that a rival might make a business deal more quickly than them. A banker who can asset strip companies and throw its employees out onto the street is someone who is in the grip of an obsession that has thrown him beyond of the normal frontiers of humanity.

Neo-classical economics has traditionally focused on four things: land, labour, capital and money, the first three of which are finite, while the fourth, money, is theoretically infinite, and is therefore where human greed has been particularly focussed. Thus arose a system where someone could, with approval, set up a bank with only £1, and then lend £100 using property and other assets promised by others as security.

The lender now has £100 including interest, which they earned by just sitting there and doing nothing. On the basis of this £100, they can then lend £1000, and on and on, until the cancerous growth lubricated by greed becomes so huge that it leads to a fundamental breakdown in the system. Such a system based on usury, with interest as the bizarre "price of money" which itself becomes a commodity, was once prohibited by all faiths. People had a simple and natural intuition that the commoditisation of a measurement of value would open the door to trading in unreal assets, and ultimately to a model of finance that would destroy natural restraints and even, potentially, the planet.

In the classical Islamic system, by contrast, money is the substance of either gold or silver. With a tangible and finite asset being the only measure of value, there is a great deal more certainty about the value of assets and the price of money. This basic wisdom was though not just a theoretical ideal; it succeeded. Muslim society at its height was mercantile, and it was successful. Never was money assigned its own value and never was it seen as an end in and of itself.

Since the abolition of the gold standard however, theoretical limits on the price of money were removed. Last year's meltdown, whose final consequences were unguessable, was a sign of the inbuilt dangers of a usurious world. Humans are naturally short-termist but in times of crisis we must take stock. As with the related environmental crisis, now is the time to be smarter and more self-restrained. The believer is in any case allergic to the mad amassing of wealth, since he or she expects true happiness and peace only in the remembering of God and in the next world.

Now is the time to think seriously about finding an economic system to replace the one whose dangers have just been revealed. Upon the conquest of Mecca, a verse of the Qur'an was revealed commanding people to give up what remained of their interest-based transactions, upon which a new system based on the value of gold and silver was initiated.

Those who relied so heavily on the old system would of course have been unable to understand a system without banking charges, but not only was such a system created but a successful civilisation was created using these ideas.

Last year we peered into the abyss; now we must apply self-restraint and wisdom, before complete catastrophe ensues.

Abdal Hakim Murad is chair of the Muslim Academic Trust, preacher of the Cambridge Central Mosque and author of a number of books and articles.

This article first appeared on Guardian's Comment is Free on 12th October 2009.

Hasan Nuhanovic has the eyes of a man who has seen too much. His day job is helping to pursue international sex traffickers. In the evenings and at weekends, he hunts for the remains of his murdered family. "There is no closure, closure only comes when we die," he says. "But I need to bury them."

Hasan's father Ibro, mother Nasiha and 18-year-old brother Muhamed were all killed in the Srebrenica massacre, Europe's largest act of genocide since the second world war. It is at the heart of the prosecution case against the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, whose trial in the Hague is due to start next week.

On 11 July 1995, Karadzic's general, Ratko Mladic, launched an attack on the UN safe haven of Srebrenica, which was being guarded by a Dutch garrison. Hasan's family were among at least 6,000 men, women and children who sought refuge in the Dutch military base. Two days later the Dutch, terrified for their own lives, handed the refugees over to the Serbs. Hasan only survived because Mladic needed a skilled interpreter to translate his orders to the Dutch UN commander, Colonel Tom Karremans.

When I spoke to him earlier this year, Hasan told me of a grim development. "Next week I am going to my hometown, Vlasenica, to meet one of the local Serbs who says he'll show me where my mother is buried. He is jobless and says he wants money, maybe £1,000, and then he will tell me where she is."

"So what are you going to do?" I asked. Hasan paused, obviously undecided. "I think I am going to offer to pay half, and to pay the rest if DNA analysis shows that it really is her."

When I first got to know Hasan in 2001, while researching a piece, he had already been searching for his family for six years. He agreed, over gritty black coffee in a roadside bar, to take me to the Dutch base at Srebrenica, and to tell me what happened there in July 1995.

Two days later, we met outside a disused battery factory in the small village of Potocari, just down the road from Srebrenica. Its vast, empty production hall echoed to the sound of a lumber business's rotary saws which tucked into some smaller, warmer room off to the side.

"This space was full," Hasan told me, gesturing to the bullet-riddled walls. "There were 6,000 people. They were told to sit down by the Dutch soldiers. They were not allowed to go to the toilet, so they did everything here. The temperature was 35C. The place stank so much it was almost impossible to breathe."

Outside, the Serbs waited for the Dutch to cave in. Then Hasan was told to climb on to an army truck and address the crowd. "They handed me a megaphone and said, 'Shout to the people to start leaving the base,' but the Dutch would not tell them what was waiting outside."

In an echo of the Holocaust, people were told to hand over possessions on the way out of the factory hall. "There were Dutch soldiers either side, fully armed, with machine guns. They told the people: 'Empty your wallets, empty your bags, empty your purses.'"

We climbed the cracked concrete stairs to the deserted factory's offices, which served as the Dutch soldiers' quarters. This is where Hasan had worked for the Dutch commander Karremans, at the heart of events, but powerless to influence them.

"My name was on a list of people who could stay in the base. My parents asked me to do everything I could to save my brother, and for two days I was trying to get his name on the list. They put his name on, maybe just to get rid of me, then erased it at the last moment. I was walking alongside him as he walked out of the base, trying to apologise and saying: 'I am coming with you!' He suddenly turned around and screamed at me: 'You are not coming with me! You will stay here!'"

I asked Hasan if he knew they were on their way to die. He turned to me, on edge. "Listen, the day before, Serb soldiers had shot at least nine men and boys lined up against the wall of that white house outside the base. They were shot in the backs of their heads. The Dutch soldiers saw it, it's written in their report."

Even now, it remains a mystery why the massacre was allowed to take place. The Dutch soldiers who failed to protect the people of Srebrenica were not alone. An SAS unit was in the town, radioing back a clear description of what was happening to Nato commanders, the most senior of whom was British general Michael Rose.

One of those SAS soldiers, a sergeant using the pseudonym Nick Cameron, wrote a book in which he describes telling his commanders about the impending massacre.

"I had visions of swarms of angry aircraft diving and destroying the attacking Serb targets at will," Cameron wrote. "There was nothing . . . we waited and waited." He said that his SAS commander later told him: "We never intended to fight for this place. That was never the plan." Cameron concluded "the whole UN thing was to get Srebrenica finished with."

Despite the fact that he had been awarded the Military Cross for bravery, the MoD took legal action against Cameron, and the book was withdrawn. He has not spoken about it since, and has not responded to my emails.

As we were leaving the factory, Hasan stopped and gestured at the field opposite, his breath condensing in the freezing air. "I have a vision in my mind for a memorial here. I see a sunny day; 10,000 headstones shining so strongly in the light that you can't even look at them. This is what I want to see. Not corn, not this dirty grass."

A few days after our visit, I met Hasan again outside a modern office building in the town of Tuzla, a couple of hours away. It was the headquarters of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), an organisation set up by Bill Clinton and funded by, among others, the British government to help relatives locate victims' remains. Hasan reported to the reception desk and was whisked into a clean, white cubicle. I watched as an ICMP worker quickly and expertly took a blood sample.

"It will be DNA-tested and entered on to our database," explained Adnan Rizvic, the head of the office. "Then it will be matched against samples taken from bodies we have exhumed from mass graves. Hopefully we will find a match.'

In order to understand ICMP's work, I asked to be allowed to visit its identification facilities. I was sent to a disused railway station in the small town of Lukavac on the outskirts of Tuzla. What I found there was a glimpse of hell.

One of the greatest obstacles to identification is "co-mingling". Most of the victims of the massacre were split up into smaller groups, executed and buried in mass graves. These graves were then re-opened over the next few months, using mechanical diggers to smash up and mix the bodies together, before moving them to "secondary graves" in a deliberate effort to hide them from war-crimes investigators.

Years later, in the basement of the railway station, investigators would strip what was left of the bodies, then jet-wash them until all that was left was bone, thousands of pieces. The clothes were sent to Tuzla to be laundered, photographed and catalogued by war crimes investigators.

Upstairs, to the deafening sound of dance music, a room full of anthropologists sorted through tablefuls of bones, quickly and expertly reassembling them into single skeletons. Sometimes there was an arm or leg missing; sometimes an arm or leg was all that was left. When they had finished, the air was torn by the scream of a hand-held saw. A small section of bone was cut from the skeleton, labelled, and sent to Sarajevo to be DNA-tested and matched against the blood samples given by surviving relatives.

After giving his sample, Hasan waited and waited, but there was no news. So he set about tracking down people who could tell him what happened to his family. It was dangerous work, as the only people who could help him were the Serbs.

At last he met a man who claimed he had seen his murdered mother's body. Hasan was told that instead of going with the other women, who were mostly spared, Naisha had tried to walk home, was captured, imprisoned and then murdered. "I asked him, how did she die? Tell me, was it with a gun or a knife? But he would not tell me, so I think it must have been with a knife."

Then, a couple of years ago, Hasan got a call from the ICMP to say that they had found remains of his father, Ibro. "They did not show me the remains, that is a good thing. They showed me a chart, and on it was marked the bones that were missing. They managed to put together more than 50% of his remains. Part of his skull was gone. I do not know if that was the cause of death, or something that happened when the Serbs dug up his body and re-buried it."

Every year, to mark the date of the massacre, there is a burial of all bodies identified and repatriated with their families over the previous year. Ibro Nuhanovic's funeral took place in the cemetery opposite the Dutch base at Potocari on 11 July 2007.

"There were three places in the cemetery reserved for members of my family," Hasan told me. "What I said to myself was that was one of the three. Now I need to find the other two."

I visited the cemetery in the autumn of 2007. The headstones turned out to be wooden, rather than the shining white marble that Hasan had envisaged. There were hundreds of them, row upon row of graves carefully tended by family members. The cemetery grows every year, as thousands more victims are identified by the ICMP.

A group of Muslim men, spotting my camera, came over and asked to shake my hand. They wanted to thank me for reporting the story. The reaction is a common one in Bosnia. Hasan told me, "I often feel that we have been forgotten."

Finally, a few months ago, Hasan got the news that, for £1,000, a man would tell him where his mother was buried. They met in secret near his home town of Vlasenica.

"He told me the name of the man who killed my mother. He said the bastard who killed her took the 1,500 deutschmarks she had on her. The next day she was killed alongside eight men. Shot in the head. He told me the bastard poured petrol over the bodies and burned them."

The man gave Hasan the location of his mother's grave. It turned out it had already been exhumed, and is in the backlog of cases waiting to be tested by the ICMP. "I rang them up and they confirmed that the bodies in the grave had been burned. They are going to do a DNA test on them."

It has taken months for Karadzic's case to make its way to trial. Central to the former Bosnian Serb leader's defence is his claim that former ambassador Richard Holbrooke offered him immunity from prosecution, in return for surrendering power. It is an allegation Holbrooke vehemently denies, but Karadzic is still trying to call the governments of countries he alleges were party to the agreement to testify. It may mean that the start of the trial, already postponed, is delayed again at the last minute.

And while Karadzic's case drags on, his general, Mladic, is still at large. It is possible he may never face trial, nor most of the soldiers who carried out his orders. The problem for Hasan, and tens of thousands like him, is that they depend on the local authorities to bring these men further down the chain of command to justice. He is not hopeful.

"It's good that Karadzic is on trial in the Hague, but what about the others? The ones who killed my family," he asks. "I see killers in the street every day, and so do the others who lost family members. There just aren't the resources to prosecute them all. I worry that the man who shot my mother will get away with it."

Hasan says that once he has found and buried all his family members, he will dedicate the rest of his life to pursuing justice for them.

"If you give me the choice between burying my family and achieving justice in the courts, I would take justice every time. There can be no reconciliation without justice."

This article first appeared in the Guardian on 12th October 2009.