31 March 2007

US art gallery cancels chocolate Jesus (pbuh) statue display

In a victory for Catholic protesters, an art gallery in New York has cancelled plans to display a sculpture of Jesus Christ (pbuh) made of chocolate and depicting him naked. The statue, made by Canadian artist Cosimo Cavallaro, measures 1.8 m in height, and is called "My Sweet Lord".

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights called for a boycott of the gallery, especially given the fact that the statue was meant to be displayed during Easter. As a spokesman for the group pointed out, the gallery "would never dare" to show a similar statue of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) during Ramadan. She has also described the statue as "an assault on Christians".

After management decided to cancel the exhibit, the gallery's artistic director resigned, complaining of "strong-arming from people who haven't seen the show" (BBC).

I must say it's a wise decision on the part of the Lab gallery. Some may see it as self-censorship, but I would prefer to see the outcome as an act of wisdom on the part of the gallery's management. Toying with people's feelings is never a good idea, whether it be in the realm or religion or anything else that people value. Thoughtful, intelligent criticism is one thing, but depicting a person highly respected by about half of mankind (Christians and Muslims) naked is neither thoughtful nor intelligent, but rather, in my view, a misguided shout for attention. I'm glad that the Lab gallery did not decide to take the route followed by the free-speech fanatics in Europe on the issue of the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

Star Academy winner unites Iraqis

Shada Hassoun, a 25-year old Iraqi woman of Iraqi and Moroccan parentage has sparked raucous celebrations in Iraq by winning the Star Academy Middle East TV show, one of the myriad imitators of the British show Pop Idol. Sunni and Shi'ite Iraqis were united in celebrating Hassoun's victory in the final stage of the competition, where she defeated participants from Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia (BBC).

If a pop-song competition on TV is enough to give Sunni and Shi'ite Iraqis a sense of unity, not much divides them. This response indicates to me that the majority of Iraqis are not keen on observing the sectarian differences that political groups and militias are reminding them of everyday. Let's hope the unity displayed by Hassoun's audience can be translated into other spheres of Iraqi life.

26 March 2007

Jewish cowboys in Argentina

I'd heard of ethnic Welsh gauchos in Argentina, but it turns out that there are Jewish ones as well. They came to Argentina from Eastern Europe in two waves: one after anti-Semitic riots (pogroms) in the 19th century, and the second after the Holocaust.

This photo series gives us a look at the life of one of them, Arminio Seiferheld, who herds livestock by day and works at a synagogue in the evening. His is, unfortunately, a vanishing way of life, however: many young members of Jewish gaucho families are moving to Argentinian cities, or to Israel (BBC).

Northern Ireland rivals agree to share power

The leading Protestant and Catholic politicians of Northern Ireland have agreed to a power-sharing accord, and are planning to form a joint government for the British province. The agreement between the (Protestant) Democratic Unionist Party, led by Ian Paisley, and the (Catholic) Sinn Fein, led by Gerry Adams, paves the way for the devolution of power by Britain to the province, and for domestic affairs to be regulated in some degree by a local assembly and executive (BBC).

Finally! Now for the Iraqis to reach a similar deal.

22 March 2007

Archbishop wants Mugabe out

Pius Ncube, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe has called on his countrymen to organise mass demonstrations in order to depose the authoritarian President Robert Mugabe, who has recently been cracking down violently on the opposition.

Archbishop Ncube said that Zimbabweans "must be ready to stand, even in front of blazing guns," and has pledged to be at the forefront of the demonstrations (BBC).

Quakers pioneered abolitionist movement

It has been forgotten by many that some of the earliest non-black anti-slavery campaigners were Quakers, or members of the Society of Friends, as they call themselves. While pioneering the abolitionist movement in the 18th century, the Quakers also popularised political pressure tactics that are still with us today, such as petitions and consumer boycotts. Members of this ultra-egalitarian Christian sect were also some of the first to use logos as a promotional tool, spreading the image of a black slave in chains asking "Am I not a man and a brother"?

The abolitionist movement achieved success when opposition to slavery spread from Quakers to radical Anglicans, and eventually to much of the rest of British society (BBC).

Muslim cashiers get accommodation at Minneapolis Target

Several Muslim cashiers working at Target stores in Minneapolis have lately been refusing to ring up pork products, sometimes calling in non-Muslim cashiers to help, and sometimes asking customers to scan in their own pork purchases. In response to this situation, the affected stores have given the Muslim cashiers involved other options, including wearing gloves and moving to other positions within the stores.

As pointed out in the article, this has not been an issue elsewhere in the US.

Meanwhile, the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport authorities are considering punishments for Muslim taxi drivers who are refusing to transport passengers carrying alcohol (Associated Press).

I believe Target has to be praised for its patience. Meanwhile, if the cashiers don't want to scan in pork products, why would they work for a store that sells pork?

US Supreme Court refuses to hear discrimination case

A. Azimi, an Afghan-born Muslim who lives in Maine, successfully sued his employer, a meat-processing company, for discrimination. The jury in a US district court decided that Azimi had been subjected to an enivornment "hostile to his race, religion or ethnic origin" by the company. Nevertheless, he was not awarded any damages. Azimi appealed the ruling, but had his appeal rejected by the 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals.

Now the US Supreme Court has refused to hear out the case (Associated Press).

So what is the point of finding the company guilty of exposing Azimi to a hostile environment if it is not actually meant to compensate the victim?

American Jews and the Israeli lobby

The Israeli lobby in Washington, D.C., in some ways headed by the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), is an immensely powerful group of organisations that seek to align US policy on the Middle East with the views of right-wing Israeli groups such as the Likud Party. At the same time, American Jews are, on average, very liberal -- far more liberal than the average American. How do you square the values exhibited by American Jews with the attitudes of the Israeli lobby?

It would seem that the lobby, in fact, represents a small minority of American Jews, mostly from older generations, who are passionately committed to right-wing views on Israel and Palestine. The majority of American Jews don't seem to be very interested in the subject at all. Nevertheless, some liberal American Jewish groups, such as Americans for Peace Now, are trying to voice alternative opinions on Capitol Hill.

This article suggests that US policy on the Middle East will only change when the dominance of AIPAC is broken by a leftist or centrist American Jewish lobby, possibly financed by the anti-Republican billionaire and Holocaust survivor George Soros (Salon.com).

19 March 2007

First "Little Mosque" season ends

Those of you in Canada, or US border states, or in cyberspace with a good broadband connection, may have been watching "Little Mosque on the Prairie" for the last couple of months. Well, it turns out that the maiden season of the show ended earlier this month, and "Little Mosque" might be back with another season in September. The show garnered an average audience of over a million viewers per episode, which is huge for Canada (which has about 32 million people).

Meanwhile, the "Little Mosque" writing team is getting somewhat aggressive: they've poached two writers from "Corner Gas", another celebrated Canadian show set in a small town in the prairies (Canadian Press).

Was Obama once a Muslim?

A bit of investigative journalism has revealed that Barack Obama Jr. not only took classes on Islam at school in Indonesia, where he lived for four years in his childhood, but also attended prayers at his neighbourhood mosque. His old friends and teachers -- both at a Muslim and a Christian school he attended -- insist that he was a Muslim and was registered as such in school documents. According to a friend of his, Obama's mother would sometimes go to church, but Obama himself would accompany his Muslim Indonesian stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, to the mosque (Orlando Sentinel).

Whatever his childhood religion may have been though, Obama is now a Christian and a member of the United Church of Christ.

Muslims aid goat boom in the US South

A growing Muslim population in the US state of Georgia is raising demand for goat meat, typically consumed in the US only among immigrant communities. Non-Muslim immigrants are doing their bit as well, with the result that Georgia has become the third largest goat-meat-producing US state in recent years (Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

As Fatima says on Little Mosque on the Prairie, "Goat is traditional."

17 March 2007

DHS wants to reach more Muslims

Officials from the US Dept. of Homeland Security said in Senate testimony that they want to increase outreach to the American Muslim and Arab communities, in order to prevent acts of domestic terrorism. Daniel Sutherland, the Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the DHS, said that the US government should "work hard to deepen the engagement" with the American Muslim community.

Senator Claire McCaskill (Democrat-Missouri) said that a positive view of Islam by the US government "may be the most powerful weapon we have against terrorism" (Los Angeles Times).

A move in the right direction, definitely, but, wait a minute: the DHS has an Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties? Maybe it figures that there's only one officer in that position in that vast department.

Louisiana Muslims win discrimination case

A group of six Muslim tenants of an Anaheim, Louisiana apartment complex have won a discrimination lawsuit they had filed against the management of their building. The tenants alleged that they were denied repairs on the basis of their religion, and their children were chased away by the management from common areas. The case was settled through binding arbitration (Orange County Register).

The difficulties with rebuilding Iraq

Efforts at restoring the infrastructure in Baghdad are running aground repeatedly due to the high degree of mistrust that currently exists between Sunni and Shi'ite residents. A Sunni Baghdadi says that the municipality refuses to clean up the sewage in front of his house because he allegedly lives in a neighbourhood full of Sunni militants. He also says he only dares to enter the Shi'ite parts of Baghdad because of his "Shi'ite-sounding" name, Hussein Hassan Abbas. Meanwhile, a construction project is stalled because the Shi'ite workers assigned to it are refusing to travel to the building site, located in a Sunni area (Christian Science Monitor).

Abbas's name sounds like that of a Shi'ite because of the Shi'ites' reverence for Hasan, Husayn (Hussein) and Abbas, sons of 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, whom the Shi'ites consider to have been their first Imam.

Iraq strengthens trade ties with Iran

Iran is accounting for an ever-increasing share of Iraq's foreign trade. According to Sami al-Askari, a Shi'ite Iraqi MP and advisor to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the more suspicious Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbours become of the Shi'ite-led Iraqi government, the closer Iraq is driven to Iran (New York Times).

Gambian president claims AIDS cure

The President of the Gambia, Col. Yahya Jammeh, who is a devout Muslim, claims to have discovered the cure for HIV and AIDS. There are 20,000 HIV/AIDS patients in this country of 1.5 million, and some of them say they have already been cured by the herbal mixture developed by Jammeh. The president says that his family have long been successful practitioners of traditional African medicine.

Meanwhile, a UN representative was expelled from the Gambia in February after saying that the medicine should be tested by foreign experts (CNN).

Christians protest same-sex unions in Mexico

Catholics and other Christian groups have protested in Mexico City against same-sex civil unions, which were recently legalised in the Mexican capital (BBC).

Pigs back in school play in England

A school in the English county of West Yorkshire was planning to perform a Roald Dahl story entitled "Little Red Riding Hood and the Pigs" at a children's concert. It was asked by the organisers to turn the pigs into puppies in order to avoid giving offense to Muslims. However, the council of the district of Kirklees has intervened, and the pigs are now back in the play. There have, in fact, been no complaints regarding the issue, from Muslims or otherwise (BBC).

It should be noted that pork is forbidden in Islam, but that does not mean a ban on mentioning pigs.

Orthodox politician gaining ground in Romania

The millionaire owner of the Steaua Bucureşti football club, Gigi Becali, is rising in popularity in Romania. His New Generation Party (PNG) may win 10-15% of Romania's European Parliament seats in the next election, while Becali himself has presidential ambitions.

What makes Becali different from other Romanian politicians is his populism generously mixed with Orthodox Christian language. He has declared himself an "apostle", and his office features a painting of himself as St John. The fact that he was a shepherd in the past contributes to his self-produced image as a leader in the mould of Jesus (pbuh) and the Byzantine emperors, who were "shepherds" to their people.

And what happens if Becali fails as a politician? He's promising to go back to being a shepherd (BBC).

15 March 2007

Bangladeshi Hindus to pray for cricket team

A Bangladeshi Hindu youth group is planning to hold a prayer service in Moulvibazar to ask Krishna to grant victory to Bangladesh in its match against India at the Cricket World Cup on 17 March (Dhaka Daily Star).

One wonders whether these earnest young people are trying to avoid getting beaten up in case India wins. Belonging to a minority ain't easy.

Evangelical says homosexuality may be biological

Albert Mohler, president of a Southern Baptist seminary in the US, has sparked controversy by saying that homosexuality may have roots in nature and not just nurture and, further, by advocating remedial treatment for babies found to be gay (Washington Post).

Easy to see how that can get people with all kinds of different views up in arms.

Morning radio, Christian style?

Or perhaps Christian radio, morning-radio style. In either case, a New Jersey radio station has launched a show that mixes the banter, news and traffic reports of traditional morning radio with lines from the Bible and Christian rock (Washington Post).

Religious mutual funds

Religiously inspired mutual funds, which invest according to the ethical criteria of the religion their shareholders follow, are a rapidly growing segment of the market. This article reviews several Catholic, Protestant and Islamic mutual funds. While these funds do not, on average, outperform the market, the investor does derive the satisfaction of using his money in keeping with his principles (Morningstar.com).

New mosque opens in Florida

The seventh mosque in Palm Beach County has opened its doors to worshippers. It accommodates about 70 people (South Florida Sun-Sentinel).

Girl tries burqa, gets insults

Connecticut high-school student Caitlin Dean, a non-Muslim, went to school in a burqa for a day as an experiment. As a result, she was exposed to 50 hateful remarks from fellow students, including "Hey, we rape your women!" On the positive side, after this incident was revealed to the school population, interest in a Middle Eastern studies class soared (Hartford Courant).

Putin visits saint's grave

Vladimir Putin has visited a church containing the remains of St. Nicholas of Bari in Italy (Газета.ru).

Earlier, he met both Pope Benedict XVI and Prime Minister Romano Prodi. What's he driving at? One, his visiting the Pope while Patriarch Alexiy of Moscow refuses to meet Benedict makes Putin look like an enlightened man internationally. Secondly, it turns out that the church in Bari that holds the body of St. Nicholas used to belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, so the visit might make some of his domestic constituency happy.

Canadian philosopher wins Templeton Prize

Charles Taylor (not to be confused with the Liberian ex-president) has won the US $1.5 million award for his study of the role spirituality plays in conflict resolution. Appropriately enough, he is the co-chair of a Quebec commission on "reasonable accommodation" (as we call it here), and is trying to discourage "mindless Islamophobia" (Christian Science Monitor).

Call to ban tight animal cages

In a New York Times op-ed, Nicolette Niman, a cattle rancher and lawyer, is calling for the elimination of so-called gestation crates -- cages in which pregnant farm animals, such as sows, are confined in such cramped quarters that they can't even turn around. Niman's description of the treatment of factory-farmed pigs makes for some harrowing reading.

It makes you wonder what it would take for people to stop this sort of behaviour. There are several clear ahadith in Islam instructing us to treat animals humanely. There has to be something in the Bible on that score too. Am I wrong?

Iranian women arrested before Women's Day

A group of 33 Iranian women protesting against laws which they see as discriminatory to women were arrested several days before International Women's Day (8 March). Most were released, but told not to hold any protests on Women's Day itself (BBC).

Mubarak goes after Muslim Brothers

Several members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been arrested in Egypt, after opposition (mainly Brotherhood) MPs voted against a bill reducing the judiciary's powers to oversee elections (BBC).

Palestinian govt. lifts ban on folk tale book

The Palestinian education ministry, controlled by Hamas, has removed its ban on Speak, Bird, Speak Again, an anthology of Palestinian folk tales. The ministry had banned the book allegedly due to the fact that it contained non-standard Arabic, although analysts have speculated that the book contained material too bawdy for Hamas to swallow (BBC).

Iran puts hadith on banknote

Iran has placed a hadith or saying of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) on its new 50,000 rial banknote (equivalent to Can. $6.35). The hadith states that "Men from the land of Persia will attain scientific knowledge even if it is as far as the Pleiades." This hadith merges into an atomic symbol on the banknote, making it clear what kind of knowledge the Iranian government is talking about (BBC).

It would seem that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is determined to rub everyone's noses in Iran's determination to pursue the full nuclear enrichment cycle. Not the wisest or most statesman-like move on his part.

Maliki visits Ramadi

Nouri al-Maliki, the PM of Iraq and a Shi'ite, has visited the Sunni city of Ramadi. He told local residents that he loved their province, which he hadn't visited in 31 years (BBC).

Assurances of love will hardly cut it at this stage, I figure.

How do we deal with incest?

Although incest is taboo in an overwhelming majority of human societies, different countries have taken different approaches to it. The taboo seems to have important biological underpinnings (BBC).

One thing the article doesn't make much mention of is a difference in the definition of incest between different religious traditions. For instance, while cousin marriage is allowed in Islam, the Catholic Church foribids marriages even among second cousins.

Holocaust-era heroine gets Polish honour

Irena Sendlerowa, a 97-year-old Polish woman who rescued 2,500 Jewish children during the Holocaust, has been honoured by a resolution of the upper house of the Polish parliament (BBC).

Excavation near Haram al-Sharif

The UN is asking Israel to stop digging near the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem (BBC).

First things first!

In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful

May peace be upon you! Welcome to my blog, where, God willing, I will try to keep track of the current news on religion making headlines around the world. Now, I'm very much aware that the media is not a perfect conduit through which everything of consequence can reach everyone interested. Nevertheless, the media does provide us with enormous amounts of material about this planet and beyond, and I believe it is worthwhile to sift out the stories that affect our lives and merit discussion.

So, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, this is my take on what is happening in the world today with regard to religion, something that lies at the core of the existence of most of humanity.

I'm looking forward to your thoughts, and would like this blog to be a conversation that crosses borders of different kinds.

Something Even More Magical

In other news...