24 April 2007

Gül says he would be a secular president

The Turkish foreign minister, Abdullah Gül, has said that he would preserve the founding secular principles of the Republic of Turkey if elected its president. In Turkey, it is the parliament that elects the president; Gül is a member of the Justice and Development (AK) Party, which has a majority in parliament, and has Islamist roots. He is thus expected to be elected president fairly easily.

Earlier, the outgoing president, Ahmed Necdet Sezer, and the army chief of staff, Gen. Mehmet Yaşar Büyükanıt, strongly hinted that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should not attempt to run for the presidency himself (BBC).

It is not a very good advertisement for Turkey's democracy when the president and the army chief of staff band together to try to direct affairs. If the generals, who are still trying to rule Turkey behind the scenes, are serious about democracy, they should have no worries about the election of a representative of the most popular party in the country, which, moreover, forms the democratically elected majority in parliament.

Büyükanıt and the rest seem to feel seriously threatened at the prospect of hijabs in universities, and other anti-secularist heresies. It's high time they realised Turkey has more important things to worry about, such as its accession to the EU.

Yeltsin mourned in Moscow cathedral

The body of Boris Yeltsin, who died of heart failure on 23 April at 76, is lying in state at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which he helped rebuild after the collapse of Communist rule. He is due to be given an Orthodox Church funeral, the first for a former Russian ruler since Emperor Alexander III in 1894 (BBC).

The BBC has compiled a photo series depicting Russia's farewell to Yeltsin.

There is certainly a lot of symbolism in this: of all the achievements of Russia's post-Soviet rulers, the restoration of a partial freedom of religion is, perhaps, the greatest.

19 April 2007

American students meet Muslims worldwide

Four students at Washington, D.C.'s American University, among them three non-Muslims and one Muslim, have accompanied Prof. Akbar Ahmed on an "anthropological excursion" around nine countries with large Muslim populations, from Egypt to Indonesia.

Ahmed (a former Pakistani diplomat) and the students met Muslim students, preachers and political activists, some of them with anti-Western views. They were surprised to find even the Muslims opposed to Western policies to be warm and welcoming on a personal level, and open to discussion and debate. For their part, many of the Muslims they met were astounded at the visitors' descriptions of the freedom of worship Muslims enjoy in the United States (Christian Science Monitor).

Of course, this tour was not entirely unique: a substantial number of American students go on study abroad programmes in Muslim countries; other young Americans work as interns with local NGOs with these countries, or serve with organisations such as the Peace Corps. However, this "excursion" was rather unique in its scope: nine countries visited, a large number of Muslims encountered, a large number of meaningful conversations and exchanges entered into.

I hope more such exchanges take place, in both directions. Muslim students would also have a great deal to learn from touring Western countries and having discussions of this sort with Western students, as well as political and civil society leaders.

Visitor profile, 15 March to 14 April 2007

Have you ever wondered who besides you (and me, of course) visits this blog?

Here are some answers:

In the month between 15 March and 14 April 2007, Notes on Religion received 207 visits. These visits came from all the inhabited continents except South America. Most visitors (54%) came from Canada. The second-highest number came from the United States (27%). Britain came a distant third with 7%.

Within Canada, 63% of the visits came from Quebec.

The biggest proportion of visitors (36%) was referred to the blog by Blogger. As for those who were referred by Google, they were searching for all sorts of things, from '"aziz senni" bbc' to 'sarkozy'.

I'm glad to say that Firefox was the most popular browser (56%) among the users of this blog during the period under review. 95% of the visitors were Windows users.

Thank you for your continued participation in this conversation. :)

12 April 2007

Controversial subjects avoided in British schools

A report commissioned by Lord Adonis, a junior minister in Britain's Department for Education and Skills, shows that some British schools avoid teaching historical subjects such as the Holocaust and the Crusades, for fear of generating adverse reactions among Muslim students. The British government is now planning to draw up guidelines to tackle the issue (BBC).

I think it's a shame when the fear of controversy prevents a frank discussion. If British school authorities fear that Muslim students would be offended to hear about topics such as the Holocaust, that is all the more reason to discuss these topics. If you are incapable of maintaining your calm in the face of historical evidence, chances are you are not very likely to be a productive citizen. And I thought that the major task of a school is to produce citizens who are well informed and productive.

Bosnia strips foreign fighters of citizenship

Bosnia-Herzegovina has revoked the citizenship of 367 foreign-born Muslim men who had fought for it in the Bosnian War. Those affected were originally from several Arab and European countries.

Several hundred foreign Muslims volunteered to fight for Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war, which lasted from 1992 to 1995. Many of them married Bosnian women and remained in the country after the war. Those who stayed were granted Bosnian citizenship.

Bosnia-Herzegovina has recently come under pressure from the US to re-examine the citizenship files, in order to make sure that the foreign-born Muslim community did not become a support base for terrorism (BBC).

Just another example of American diktat playing out in Central and Eastern Europe, with the countries of the region only too willing to oblige. First came "extraordinary rendition", i.e., the state-approved abduction of Muslims by the Americans and their handing over to foreign governments to interrogate under torture (a process in which several countries in the region seem to have cooperated). And now this.

I have no problem with proven terrorists having their citizenship revoked. But have any of these 367 men been found guilty of anything?

Fears of more violence in North Africa

North Africans -- Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians -- are wondering whether the recent violence in Algeria and Morocco was linked. It seems that Al-Qaeda is gaining strength in the region: the formerly independent Algerian terrorist group called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat has recently changed its name to Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, thus becoming a member of the international terrorist organisation.

There are also worrying signs of North African veterans of the Iraq War -- who fought on the side of the Sunni insurgents -- are joining terrorist organisations upon their return home.

Furthermore, growing terrorist activity in the region gives the area's already authoritarian governments an excuse to clamp down further (BBC).

This is just another way in which the Iraq War has made the world a more dangerous place to live in, rather than a safer one.

British "goddess" wants to extend stay in India

Stephen Cooper, a British man who says he has a "gender identity disorder", has been worshipped for the past month in Gujarat, either as a goddess, or as the goddess' messenger. He has spent this month at a temple in the town of Becharaji, which draws many Hindu eunuchs, who visit the temples hoping to have their "manhood" restored in the next life. They have been seeking blessings from Cooper and addressing him as "Ma", or "mother".

Cooper, who has changed his name to Pema (which means "lotus"), and is considered by some to be an incarnation of Bahuchar Mata, the patron goddess of eunuchs, came to India on a six-month visa, but would like to remain in Becharaji for the rest of his life (BBC).

Do Quakers unfairly target the US?

In an article on anti-Americanism around the world, the BBC correspondent Justin Webb remembers attending Quaker peace rallies with his mother. He asks, however, whether the Quakers are fair in condemning US failings in areas such as arms control and world peace, while largely staying silent on worse offenses by others (BBC).

Personally, I think that British Quakers condemn the US more than others over violations of peace and human rights for two reasons:

(a) The US if a long-time friend and ally of Britain's, and the two countries have many cultural similarities, not least of which is their shared language. As a result, British Quakers (and other British protesters against American actions around the world) may feel a certain right to criticise the US more than other countries.

(b) The US sets out very high standards of freedom, justice, democracy and equality for itself and its citizens. Thus, it might sometimes be easier to criticise the US for failing to adhere to its own standards when dealing with foreigners (or even groups of its own citizens) than it would be to condemn other countries (or their leaderships) for failing to observe standards they don't even fully accept.

Protesters attack Hindu temple in Uganda

A large group of Ugandans protesting against plans by a Ugandan-Asian-owned company to turn a third of the Mabira Forest into a sugarcane plantation have attacked a Hindu temple, trapping worshippers inside. Eventually, police rescued 40 people from the temple. Meanwhile, an Asian man found by the protesters on the street was stoned to death. Most of the protesters, however, were trying to peacefully express their opposition to the planned destruction of part of Mabira Forest (BBC).

Two remarks: Firstly, maybe it was premature for the Ugandan Asians to return to the country from which they were expelled in the 1970s. Clearly, racial prejudice is still alive and well in Uganda. Secondly, attacking the environment in this wanton fashion isn't likely to win you friends.

11 April 2007

Al-Qaeda claims responsibility for Algiers bombing

With a phone call to Al-Jazeera, a man claiming to represent the terrorist group Al-Qaeda has taken responsibility for the two bombs that exploded in Algiers today, killing 23 people and wounding 160 (BBC).

Once again, this goes to show Al-Qaeda's murderous ideology: they make no distinctions between Muslim and non-Muslim, "guilty" and innocent, target and bystander.

10 April 2007

A thousand killed in Mogadishu fighting

According to the Hawiye clan, one of the major clans of Mogadishu, 1,000 people were killed in recent fighting between Somalian government troops and the Ethiopian army on the one hand, and Islamists, as well as Hawiye fighters, on the other.

Ethiopia backs the recently installed Somalian government, while its regional rival Eritrea has started backing the Islamist Somalian opposition (and former rulers of Mogadishu), the Union of Islamic Courts.

This is the worst fighting in Somalia in the last 15 years. The high number of casualties was partly the result of Ethiopia's use of artillery against Islamists who had taken cover in residential areas.

The African Union plans to eventually take over the role of supporting the Somalian government from Ethiopia, but the process has been slow so far (BBC).

Surely, countries as poor as Ethiopia (ranked 170th in the world in the UNDP's Human Development Index) and Eritrea (ranked 157th) have better things to do than to fight a proxy war in Somalia. I think the AU should send in not 8,000 soldiers, as it's planning to do, but rather something like 30,000-40,000, and completely secuere the country. And most of the soldiers outght to be Muslims, to avoid giving the Union of Islamic Courts an excuse for further resistance.

Serb war criminals jailed by Serbia

The war crime court of Serbia has found four Serbs guilty of murdering six Bosnian Muslims as part of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995. The Bosnian Serb army overran the UN safe haven of Srebrenica that year and killed about 8,000 Muslim men and boys there, while sending the women and girls into exile.

The Serb war criminals were identified through a video made by the (Serb) Scorpions unit depicting the executions. The four who were found guilty were given sentences ranging from five to 20 years in prison, while one suspect was acquitted. The prosecution had demanded 40 years in prison, and the victims' families has expressed dissatisfaction with what they see as the lightness of the verdict.

The names of the four convicts are Slobodan Medić, Branislav Medić, Pera Petrašević and Aleksandar Medić.

This is the first time that a court in Serbia has found Serbs to be guilty of war crimes (BBC).

It is heartening when justice reaches those who thought they were safely hidden away from it. But Serbia has been very slow when it comes to admitting its mistakes and breaking with the past. The murderers of six Bosnian Muslims have now been punished. It's now time for Serbia to seek out and prosecute the remaining war criminals who are out and about in their midst.

09 April 2007

Pope addresses global conflicts

Pope Benedict XVI has used his Easter address at Vatican City's St Peter's Square to discuss and condemn conflicts in Iraq and elsewhere in the world. The Pope said that "Nothing positive comes from Iraq, torn by continual slaughter as the population flees."

He praised the leaderships of Israel and the Palestinians for continuing talks aimed at reaching a peace agreement.

He also discussed the crises in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zimbabwe (BBC).

I'm glad the Pope isn't silent about the various troubled regions of the globe, but I wish the Catholic Church did more to mediate peace and to "speak truth to power".

Iraqi Shi'ites protest occupation

Several hundred thousand Iraqi Shi'ites (a large number in a country of 27 million) have marched in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf to protest against the continued occupation of Iraq by US-led forces. The protest was called by the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to mark the fourth anniversary of the capture of Baghdad by the Americans. In a message to Iraqis, Sadr (who is believed to be hiding in Iran) described American forces as "your arch enemy".

Meanwhile, in a visit to Japan, the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, "Iraq has escaped the constraints of the past.... The country is one and the people are one" (BBC).

Now if only that were true.

As for Sadr, one wonders whether he would quickly try to seize power for himself if the Americans were to withdraw in the near future.

Pakistani madrasa girls' parents concerned

The parents of several girls studying at Jamia Hafsa, the madrasa that has recently been at the centre of religious vigilante activity in Islamabad, are concerned both about their daughters in particular, and the madrasa's activities in general.

As Abdul Wahhab, the father of a Jamia Hafsa student, put it, "I believe that our religion teaches us to stop a vice when we come across it but at the same time, I don't agree with what the madrassa administration is doing. I believe these things should be handled in a peaceful manner. Our religion lays emphasis on peace" (BBC).

It appears that the girls themselves are being used as pawns in a game being led by the radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque). It is high time for the Pakistani government to intervene peacefully and make sure the girls can continue their education in a place that would not encourage them to pursue street militancy.

September 11 scene on Dutch stained-glass window

Dutch artist Marc Mulders, who has designed a stained-glass window at Sint Jan Cathedral in 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, which includes a still image of a plane flying into one of the Twin Towers in New York on Septemeber 11, 2001. The window has been blessed by a bishop.

According to Mulders, the window depicts heaven and hell, and the still of the plane signifies "hell on earth" (BBC).

I understand why the plane was placed in the stained-glass window: it is certainly one of the more shocking and horrific images of recent times. Nevertheless, I hope that, in the ethnically and religiously charged atmosphere of the Netherlands, the window does not lead to the demonisation of any particular community.

Christian cartoonist Johnny Hart dies

Johnny Hart, the American cartoonist and co-creator of the comic strip The Wizard of Id, has died aged 76. Hart was controversial in recent years because of several overt displays of his Christian beliefs in his comic strips (BBC).

Brazil govt. wants abortion debate

The Brazilian health minister, José Gomez Temporão, has called for a broadening of the country's debate on abortion. Brazil does not allow abortion, except when the mother's health is in danger, or if she is a victim of rape. According to Gomez, abortion is currently viewed as a religious matter, while he would prefer for it to be seen as a public health issue. The reason for his concern is that 200,000 Brazilian women receive treatment every year for post-abortion complications, usually resulting from abortions performed at illegal clinics.

Gomez is up against formidable opposition, though: the Roman Catholic Church, which represents Brazil's leading branch of Christianity, is solidly against abortion. Further, 65% of Brazilians want the abortion law to stay the way it is (BBC).

While it is certainly important for the state to try to preserve the health of women who fall victim to shoddy procedures at the illegal clinics, I belive that the state's first priority should be protecting the unborn. Perhaps this "broadening" of the debate should include a public education campaign on the dangers of using an illegal abortion clinic.

Christians celebrate Easter

Christians around the world -- Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox -- celebrated Easter yesterday, on 8 April. According to Christian belief, Easter commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ (pbuh) after his crucifixion, making this the most important of Christian holy days.

The BBC has compiled two photo series showing Christians in different parts of the world celebrating Easter. The first one focuses on Orthodox Christians, with pictures from Palestine, as well as Bulgaria and Russia.

The second series shows Christians celebrating in Belarus, China, Cuba, France, Germany, Iraq, the UK, Ukraine and Vatican City.

02 April 2007

Vigilantes assert themselves in Islamabad

According to Pakistan's leading English-language daily newspaper, the country is undergoing "creeping Talibanisation", a phenomenon that is no longer confined to outlying, semi-autonomous regions like Waziristan, but has reached Islamabad.

A group of female religious school students has taken over a children's library located near their school, the Hafsa Madrasa, and the government has failed to respond. Emboldened, the has annexed the library. Further, vigilante groups linked to a pro-militant mosque called Lal Masjid (which has connections to the Hafsa Madrasa) have started threatening shopkeepers selling audio-visual material. The vigilantes are apparently patrolling the area around the mosque, batons in hand, while the authorities are reluctant to restore the government's writ over the federal capital, fearing that a confrontation may get out of hand (Dawn).

After the coup d'état which brought him to power, President Pervez Musharraf, desperate to give his regime a degree of legitimacy, decided to stifle the popular opposition (Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto's parties), and to artificially strengthen the Islamist parties. Before him, the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, helped create the Taliban. Before that, President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, another military strongman, cloaked himself in religious populism. Pakistan is still reaping the harvest, not to mention Afghanistan.

Yet that's not the whole story. Not all religious parties are alike. Under Begum Khaleda Zia, Bangladeshi religious parties were sometimes in government as coalition members, yet, as far as I know, no vigilante groups wandered around Dhaka telling video stores to shut down.

Perhaps the explanation lies in the fact that, while the Bangladeshi Islamist parties, such as Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, were members of a democratically elected coalition government, working in partnership with one of the most popular parties in the country, the Pakistani Islamist parties are pawns in Musharraf's hands. As such, there is little to keep them away from fanaticism. That, in turn, may legitimise fanaticism among unaffiliated groups such as the Lal Masjid gangs.

01 April 2007

Hard-won successes for French Muslims

Hamid Senni, a second-generation Frenchman of Moroccan origin, was told by his teacher to change his given name to Lionel if he wanted to achieve anything in France. That advice has so far proven true: after getting an MBA in Sweden and a stint with Ericsson, Senni was offered a job as a travelling vacuum-cleaner salesman in France. He has decided to leave France for Britain, becoming one of 15,000 French people who cross the Channel permanently every year in search of work. In Britain, Senni runs his own consultancy, and has written a book about his experiences.

Meanwhile, Hamid's cousin Aziz Senni launched a shared taxi company in 2000, and is now a political consultant for French presidential candidate François Bayrou. He, too, has written a book about his struggles, entitled The Social Elevator is Broken... So I Took the Stairs. He counters right-wing presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy's slogan of "France, you love it or you leave it" with a more inclusive "France, you love it and you change it" (BBC).

Of course, nobody loses more from placing impediments in the path of immigrants and their descendants than the host nation itself. Despite the way he was treated in France, Hamid Senni dreams of returning there and doing something useful for his country. However, while he remains in Britain, France is deprived of his productive potential, exclusively through its own fault. As long as French Muslims need to package themselves as "Lionel" in order to achieve economic success (or even, simply, to get jobs that match their qualifications), France cannot escape social tensions and divisions. The way to move forward is together, and France would do well to learn from North American countries, where second-generation immigrants, at least, have a much easier time fitting in.

Documentary on "most hated family" in the US produced

A documentary film has been made about the Phelps family, which pickets the funerals of US soldiers killed in Iraq, claiming that the war deaths are God's punishment for America's toleration of homosexuality. The reactions aroused by their protests have led the Phelpses to start calling themselves "the most hated family" in the country. In their protests, the Phelpses represent the Westboro Baptist Church, located in Topeka, Kansas, and consisting mostly of relatives of the preacher, "Gramps" Fred Phelps (BBC).

Christians celebrate Palm Sunday

Christians are celebrating Palm Sunday, which is the Sunday before Easter. It commemorates the day when, according to the New Testament, Jesus Christ (pbuh) rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, and was welcomed by townsmen holding palm branches.

This BBC photo series shows Christians celebrating the holiday in the Philippines, India, Vatican City and Jerusalem itself.

This year, Western Christians (Catholics and Protestants) and Orthodox Christians are on the same Easter schedule.

Talabani: Mahdi Army stops reprisals

The Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, has announced that the Mahdi Army, a Shi'ite militia loyal to the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has stopped attacking Sunnis. The group is suspected of carrying out punitive raids on Sunnis, including the summary execution of Sunni men, following suicide bombings in Shi'ite areas, allegedly carried out by Sunnis. According to Talabani, the new security plan championed by the US (involving an increased American presence in Baghdad and confrontations with both Sunni and Shi'ite militias) has forced "brother Moqtada Sadr" to ask his followers to stop attacking "brother Sunni Arabs" (BBC).

If this is true, the news certainly represents a major success for the new US policy. However, if previous experience is a guide, we are likely to see more of Sadr and his militants. In 2003 or 2004, I watched Danielle Pletka, the American Enterprise Institute's supposed expert on Iraq, say that Sadr should be treated "as the irrelevancy he is". For better or worse, though, the man has proven himself nothing if not relevant since then.

Irish holy water to be replaced

A protozoan called cryptosporidium has infected the water supply in parts of County Galway in wester Ireland. The parasite can cause stomach pain and diarrhoea. As a result, the Catholic Church in the area has decided to bless 3,000 bottles of spring water instead of tap water on Holy Saturday, that is, 7 April.

Although the water is meant to be used externally in order to obtain a blessing, some people tend to drink it, according to a priest at Tuam Cathedral (BBC).

Sensible precaution; reminds me of the ultraviolet treatment of water at the Zamzam well.

Something Even More Magical

In other news...