Leadership, Transformation

Transformational Leadership in the Arab Region

On November 26, 2010, HE Mr. Joseph Diess, the President of
the 65th session of the UN General Assembly, delivered to me the
world renowned 3rd Annual Global South-South Development
Award for the CHAHAMA initiative (Network of Multi-Faith
Based Organizations in response to HIV). Receiving this award
affirmed to me that large scale change in the Arab region depended
on the active engagement of religious leaders, the
guardians of values and cultural norms. Could we engage them
and pull them forward towards modernity while respecting their
commitment and ethical views? Could we move them beyond
their religious belief systems to discuss sensitive sexual issues and
deepen their access to the commonality between the committed
human rights activists and fundamentalist Religious Leaders
(RL)? I held fast to the confidence that we could, but only if we
used a new approach. I would need the courage forged out of deep
compassion and a fierce will to persist in the face of all the obstacles
that I was sure to encounter. 

I was raised in a big Tunisian family enjoying a strong culture of
respect, love and freedom. My father was an exceptional figure
who enjoyed an unusual ability to embrace others with genuine
unconditional love. I was raised to be sensitive to any kind of intolerance
or injustice, but even more, I had an inner prompting
whenever I sensed that this norm was violated. My father showed
great appreciation to whatever I ventured into. I still recall his fascination
with me reciting ancient Arabic poetry when I was seven.
This kind of fatherly admiration still inspires the little girl with
great courage and self-confidence. Thus was born the compassionate
courage that was needed for the transformational work I
was to do in the world. 

After my studies in international law I went back to Tunisia to
work with women in slum areas. I dared to be the lawyer for some
of the most notorious dissidents of the fallen regime. Later I defended
People Living with HIV (PLWH), motivated by the compassionate
awareness that if I had to go through what they did, I
would love to have someone at my side. I then advocated for their
rights both in my country and in Sub-Saharan Africa. Through
this HIV involvement, I soon found myself as a consultant with
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). I got in touch
with Dr. Monica Sharma who mentored me in the Transformational
Leadership methodology and its application, as well as in
designing programmes. A few years later, I was in charge of the
UNDP Regional HIV Programme in the Arab States. 

HIV Initiative Transforms the Arab Region 
The main HIV challenges in the Arab region were the strong stigmatizing
attitudes that keep people from being tested and from
joining treatment programmes even when the medicine is offered
for free. The fact that little or no outreach efforts exist in the region
to intravenous drug users, men having sex with men and sex
workers can again be traced to these attitudes. 

The highlight of my work was the pioneering of a unique Multifaith
Network responding to HIV in the Arab region (20 countries). Through this, preventative and treatment services were
delivered to thousands of PLWH, drug users, sex workers and
men having sex with men. 

We enrolled top religious leaders including the Grand Imam, several
Muftis, Ullamas, Patriarchs and Bishops, as well as the leadership
of the Muslim brotherhood. These impactful leaders shared the vision and internalized the
transformational leadership methodologies.
With a critical mass of sympathetic
RLs growing and a core leadership team
developing, we were able to call a historical
meeting in Cairo in December 2004 using
transformational approaches, methods and
tools, resulting in a historic Regional Colloquium
in Cairo. Eighty first-rank RLs
signed the progressive Cairo Declaration
and shared in drafting a Muslim and
Christian training manual. Tens of thousands
of RLs were then trained in all Arab
countries. A “Women RLs Tripoli Declaration”
was issued in 2006. The Declaration
condemned female genital mutilation and
demanded sex education for girls. 

A shift swept the Arab world, transforming
the religious discourse. As a result of our
program hundreds of thousands of Imams and priests delivered
compassionate and respectful messages about HIV, instead of the
usual doom and gloom messages. A number of countries, notably
in Djibouti and Yemen, enacted progressive laws protecting the
rights of PLWH. The HIV initiative with Religious Leaders in the
Arab region (2004 to present) led to a measureable decrease in
stigmatizing attitudes. It achieved a 24-fold increase in access to
treatment in Yemen and an 8-fold increase in the use of voluntary
counseling and testing in Morocco. 

The diversity and synergy of the network was further reflected by
other activists who established outreach programmes transforming
the lives of tens of thousands. Much still needs to be done,
but a major shift took place in the last few years. 

A former drug user who engaged with us in our learning-in-action
programme started an HIV and Drug Recovery programme
in a prison in Bahrain that benefited hundreds of prisoners. Other
Gulf countries invited him to share the programme that reshaped
policies in these countries. 

A proud owner and driver of a taxi jubilantly received us in Sana’a
airport a couple of years ago. He had to convince me that he was
the same depressed and emaciated man living with HIV who sat
silently in the back corner of one of our workshops. Now a daring
activist and a proud bread winner, his life had transformed. 

Our work with media leaders on HIV anti-stigma messaging resulted
in literally thousands of programmes at the national and
regional levels. One participant in our “Independent Media and
Bloggers Workshop” wrote the script and directed the blockbuster
and multi-award winning film, “Asmaa: An HIV Patient’s Struggle
Against Social Stigma in Egypt.” The superstar actress from
Tunisia who played the leading role was introduced to the importance
of working against stigma through a number of personal
interactions with us. 

Imams in Morocco listened to testimonies of PLWH. A woman
living with HIV told them how she got it from her husband. A
drug user shared how he was infected. Then a lady shared the
death of her husband, leaving her with three children and no support
whatsoever. She confessed she worked as a sex worker and
told the Imams that now she is in a later stage of AIDS. She asked
God’s forgiveness and would like them, as her religious leaders,
to forgive her. One of them stood up and told her, “It is you, dear
lady, who needs to forgive us for allowing society to do this to
you.” Another, who was an ardent preacher of ‘the wrath of God’
theory stood up after that, but could not utter a word! He choked
with tears and sat down again. Morocco was transformed forever. 

A Sudanese lady religious leader who was very enthusiastic in defending
‘girl circumcision’ spoke out and said, “I see now that this
is really genital mutilation.” What had kept her from recognizing
this was, “I could not accept that I suffered all this and it was not
even God’s will.” This kind of courageous self-awareness and daring
public sharing mark much of the reponse to our initiative. 

Former drug users shared their stories. Judges listened and confessed
they made big mistakes when they sentenced drug users
to prison without considering what their life potentials could be. 

In all these actions the warm space provided to all leaders to explore
their positions was also energized by my own passion and
belief in the possibility of change. 

Trusted Allies and Oppositional Figures 
In 2004, I was challenged and pressured with increased doubts
and reluctance from many colleagues and superiors when I was
organizing a series of crucial events. I overcame these obstacles
not only through a series of phone calls to secure appropriate approval
and funding, but through a constant search for alternatives,
sometimes through the enrollment of new leaders. But my persistence
was mainly through my commitment to the importance
and possibility of convening key religious leaders from the entire
Arab region to transform the religious discourse on HIV. Having
said this, it is important to reiterate that I did not do this alone; I
was deeply supported both by my mentor and the tranformational
leadership methodologies. Dr. Ehab El Kharrat needs to be
mentioned in particular, as a representative of a great team composed
of both men and women.

The experience did not go unopposed from within the ‘institution.’ The head of one multilateral agency, who comes from a
country where homosexuals are sentenced to death, objected to
the wording of the Cairo Declaration, on the basis that it encouraged
the ‘treatment’ of gays. In actual fact, the wording can be interpreted
as just enforcing their integration into society. The same
person abruptly cut the funding based upon the belief that the
Grand Imam would never endorse a declaration mentioning ‘condoms.’ The Grand Imam had signed a document indicating his
support, but the head of the agency did not waver. With Monica’s
support, I contacted other friends within the system, friends who
filled the financial gap, stood by me through the false accusations,
and arranged a meeting to address this issue. After that, the head of
the agency gracefully apologized in
public and hopefully became a supporter
of our initiative. Enrolling
trusted allies within and outside the
system is one of the main strategies to
deal with obstacles like this one. 

Methodology: A Transformational
Architecture for Large Scale Change 

Inviting RLs from all denominations
and religions within the Arab States to
a colloquium that would discuss sensitive
issues such as sexuality and
AIDS was extremely tricky. The Colloquium
adopted the motto: “Responding
to HIV requires a human accord that
surpasses all religious and denominational
variations. It must be an accord that derives from spiritual
heritage and creates courageous responses to the problems posed
by the epidemic. It is an accord that inspires something greater and
deeper than any challenge!” 

The major methodology used for our programme was based on
the Conscious Full Spectrum (CFS) approach. This leadership
methodology sources people’s wisdom and structures a space for
system shifts while solving problems. Monica Sharma introduced
the CFS model to us in 2008. We worked with Monica on the
basic components of the idea through other Transformational
Leadership Development tools and frameworks, like Likert-Emberling
for organisation and implementation, Daniel Goleman
for emotional intelligence competencies, Ken Wilber for analysis
and the experiential learning group exercises specially designed
to address HIV-linked biases and prejudices. 

The value of the CFS model is that it differentiates and then
synergizes solutions, system shifts and oneness values of any response.
We used other frameworks as well to enhance understanding,
facilitate implementation, and to dive deeper into
ourselves through process work. The CFS asks generative questions
and initiates deeper commitment. It is a framework that focuses
on embodying Human Rights values while manifesting and
scaling up action. 

The CFS framework helped me to consistently source my own
inner space and the wisdom of individuals in the group. It
helped me to check out whether I appropriately addressed all
three spheres each time I designed an intervention. It allowed me to
take it to scale and to systematize my
thoughts and those of the group. 

We used many transformational
leadership tools in Damascus with a
group of Muslim and Christian Religious
Leaders to lay down the
foundation of what became the
world celebrated Religious Leaders
Initiative. Now we understood what
we intuitively had applied before we
were introduced to CFS. The framework
was also essential to my recent
work with civil society in Kuwait
where I designed a long term strategy
for the country and also in
working on HIV in Gaza. 

I learned important lessons from the Arab States HIV initiative
about the value and methods of building trust, the importance of
an empathetic and motivational listening approach, the importance
of inclusion and for the more secularly inclined activists,
learning to break out of our own denial to recognize the effectiveness
of RLs in either promoting or hindering developmental
approaches. I found that transformation was open gradual and
tacit, requiring infinite patience with sometimes repetitive details.
I learned the value of a warm and safe space in discovering new
virtues and spiritual values even when you put people from different
paths of life together. Who would have imagined that a priest
from Syria would spend six weeks in a drug rehabilitation
centre in Cairo to learn more about the lives of addicts? Then to
sing songs in the streets of Damascus to reach out to these
vulnerable groups? 

Beyond Common Ground to Ground of Being 
The change of heart among RLs takes place not only through
sharing information and the sensitization that occurs when
RLs meet face to face with PLWH and hear their stories, but also
through learning to co-create a new reality together based on individual
commitment and shared goals. Undoubtedly, embarrassment
of appearing lenient, morally loose and too liberal played a
crucial role in creating exaggerated rigidity and unbalanced viewpoints.
But the root of the condemnation that religious leaders
exercise towards PLWH and most-at-risk populations lies in their
attempt to sustain ‘the principled majority’ and ‘the purity of the
moral code.’ Usually when people work with RLs from multiple
faith backgrounds, they try to seek the ‘commonalities’ between
religions. Instead, we challenged the RLs by asking them evocative
questions: What do I stand for? What am I committed to? What
is happening today that is not in line with my principles? What is
missing? What actions do I need to take in order to change the
situation? From the strategy of seeking common ground of most
interfaith groups to seeking the ground of being (ie. What do I
stand for?), we evoked the love and compassionate courage to act. The RLs independently reached the conclusion that we tapped the
true principles called for by every religion. 

This approach necessitates a gradual uncovering not only through
direct encounter with PLWH and most-at-risk populations, but
also with a direct encounter with our souls’ highest aspiration as
well as facing our fear of death, sexuality and intimacy. A warm
but genuine atmosphere is needed to achieve this. 

A Tunisian Muslim Theologian woman, after participating in our
HIV workshops, embarked into a series of publications about
Human Rights and gender equality by interpreting holy texts in
a new light. An Imam rephrased not only his weekly sermons but
also the curriculum he teaches theology students. Both worked
far beyond the HIV issues, among many others. They attributed
the shift to their participation in the HIV transformational leadership

After engaging in HIV learning in action programmes of Leadership
for Results together and visiting PLWH, a Sunni Imam
from Syria worked regularly with a Catholic priest on many other
developmental challenges. An unforgettable moment for me was
when both of them chanted to Mary in the Cathedral of Damascus.
It is usual to hear Christian songs there, but the extraordinary
thing was that this was followed by beautiful chanting of verses
from the Quran. 

In answer to a questionnaire we developed in 2006 we found interest
among the RLs in engaging in other developmental issues,
particularly in education and environment, less in good governance. Their reluctance to get involved in governance may reflect
the ‘political’ shadows involved in the terminology and the mystification
around the term in our region. Their keen interest in
environment was unexpected and may reflect an unnoticed
awareness about issues of real but subtle cosmic significance. A
cultural shift may be well at hand if similar breakthroughs are
achieved in these other areas. 

The United Nations: A Place for Sustainable Change only
if we Dare to Challenge its Ways 

To me, the UN universal core values revolve around Service to
All People
, not interest groups or governments, businesses, civil
society or people with whom we have a special interest or liking. This implies a commitment to serve rather than to achieve ‘a successful
career’ or please ‘your superiors.’ We need to provide a
space for all to take the lead according to their capacities, to facilitate
change and explore unfamiliar areas of concern. 

To me, the UN is about Respect. Self-respect and respect of others. This includes respecting their cultures, respecting where they
are and respecting where they want to go, without compromising
Human Rights. But respecting other people’s culture does not
mean condoning practices like female genital mutilation or honor
killing. On the contrary, it naturally puts a decisive wedge in
the vicious circuit of ‘cultural’ violations and allows true access
to the common human core, where dignity and equality are not
empty words. 

To me, the UN is about Integrity. This goes beyond accountability
as in the ability to match your financial accounts with the required
rules and regulations. It has to do with serving the people,
not exploiting them for gain or just being indifferent to injustice
and suffering. What the UN system now lacks most is the presence
of individuals with integrity and a group milieu that values integrity
more than rules and regulations. 

To navigate the current system, one should have a deep sense of
Stewardship. You have to become conscious of the way you deal
with funds, time and energy to produce meaningful results. This
means being responsible rather than just accountable. 

The UN does not require programming that listens to and is
genuinely Responsive to real people with real needs and real aspirations. It only requires that you conform to ‘guidelines’ centrally
set. Many times, these are set through listening to the lobbies
of multinationals and corrupted governments, though paying
lip service to Human Rights slogans, or listening to international
isolationist elites in the West who seldom listen to the people. To
navigate the system, you need to carefully discern what you are
doing to break through the false layers into core values and be
aware of what norms and legal systems you try to shift as you implement
your UN system approved plans. Again, the CFS comes
in handy here. 

The UN needs the mechanisms, policies and relationships reflective
of principled leadership. Guarantees of effectiveness should
be based upon an intrinsic sense of stewardship and a work environment
that fosters creativity and initiative rather than compliance
to rules and regulations. 

The value of the UN system is that it can be a platform for generative
conversations. Development as freedom is the core of what
the UN can do and was created to do. Diplomatic work is about
finding a workable compromise between parties, a sort of ‘finding
a middle ground.’ But I like to think that this is not the essence of
what we do. Rather, we can use the UN to shift the way people,
particularly people in leadership, see reality. We can move towards
new ground and new worldviews. I like to see what we do
as ‘shifting the middle ground.’ 

The impact of Transformational Leadership on my life and work
goes far beyond providing approaches, methodologies, tools and
skills. It has to do with my own self-awareness and the emergence
of group consciousness in contrast to team building. The CFS approach
is the epitome of Transformational Leadership. It synthesizes
the best tools and puts us face to face with the necessity to
access the ground of our being in measureable action and, at the
same time, to continually and creatively shift the system. I believe
that the minds and hearts of the leaders of the South have the answers
and that the South will, with the rest of humanity, go beyond
technology transfer towards creating new ways of thinking
and action based on innate wisdom. 

My hope is to create a new reality that will provide a soil where
this new reality can take root, grow and bring forth the fruit of
peace, justice and prosperity for all.

This article can be found in the Spring | Summer 2011 issue of Kosmos Journal or may be downloaded as a PDF here.