30 November 2007

Muslim peers hope to secure teacher's freedom

The British Muslim peers Lord Ahmad and Lady Warsi are planning to visit Sudan on a private initiative to try to secure the release of Gillian Gibbons, a British teacher currently serving a 15-day sentence for insulting religion over the permission she gave her students in September to name a teddy bear Muhammad. The pupils named the bear Muhammad after one of their own number. The affair went to court after a member of the school staff complained to the Sudanese education ministry. The peers hope that President Omar al-Bashir and the chief justice of Sudan will find it possible to hand Gibbons over to their fellow Muslims, without appearing to bow to pressure from the British government.

The student named Muhammad, whose name landed his teacher at the centre of the controversy, has spoken out in support of Gibbons. He admitted that naming the bear Muhammad had originally been his idea. His family described Gibbons as "very nice".

Nevertheless, there was a demonstration against Gibbons in Khartoum after Friday prayer today. The protesters demanded a harsher punishment than the 15-day prison sentence Gibbons is serving. In fact, some of them chanted slogans such as "No tolerance -- execution" and "Kill her, kill her by firing squad" (BBC).

I sincerely hope that Lord Ahmad and Lady Warsi's mission to Khartoum will succeed. They're wise to have come up with a face-saving exit strategy that will hopefully allow Gibbons to go back home and put the ordeal behind her.

For the people who want Gibbons dead, though, I can't find the right words. Their ignorance and lack of human empathy is simply astounding. This whole sordid story reminds me of the plight of the Bangladeshi cartoonist Muhammad Arifur Rahman who got in serious trouble both with noisy Islamists and with the interim government after authoring a cartoon in which a little boy gives his cat's name as "Muhammad the Cat" after being told by a mullah to place Muhammad before any name. There, too, some demonstrator's bayed for Arif's blood, even though the poor guy was just making fun of overzealous preachers who'd like all men in Bangladesh to present themselves as Muhammad So-and-So.

Muhammad the Cat, Muhammad the Bear... are these attacks on the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)? A moment's reflection would tell us they're not. And yet there are plenty of people in various Muslim countries who jump at the opportunity to holler and shout until they're blue in the face, demanding the death of one person, the imprisonment of another, etc. etc. Why so much insecurity? Do they think the Prophet Muhammad can be hurt by someone naming a toy bear after him, even intentionally? The Prophet refused to invoke God's punishment on people who had their children throw stones at him until he bled. Instead, he prayed for the guidance of those people. So what have these noisy crowds, who claim to be defending the Prophet, learned from his life and deeds?

The Prophet (pbuh) was gentle even to a man who urinated in the middle of the mosque in Medina. We have to take a long and hard look at ourselves and ask whether we live up to the Prophet's example, or even try to live up to it.

23 November 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

I'd like to wish all of my American readers (including my wife!) a happy Thanksgiving.

Praise be to God, each one of us has much to be thankful for. As we celebrate, though, let us spare some thought to the less fortunate, such as the victims of Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh.

You can find many American Thanksgiving-related news articles here.

US political scientists deny anti-Semitism accusation

John Mearsheimer, of the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, of Harvard University, who recently co-wrote a book entitled The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, have become the object of a storm of criticism. Their book alleges that US policy on the Middle East is, in many ways, shaped by a lobby that represents right-wing Israeli interests. They are careful not to equate this lobby with American Jews in general.

Nevertheless, Abraham Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, has accused Mearsheimer and Walt of spreading "classic anti-Semitic canards". Indeed, so incensed is Foxman by the arguments presented in The Israeli Lobby, that he has written his own book, The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control, as a rebuttal.

According to Walt, "Reasonable people can disagree and one of the reasons we want to have a discussion is to get issues out in the open so people can talk about them." The historian Tony Judt, while disagreeing with some aspects of the book, has praised the authors for what he called their "enormous act of intellectual courage" in furthering the debate on the role of the Israeli lobby in the US (BBC).

22 November 2007

Taslima forced to leave Kolkata

The Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, who had been living in exile in Kolkata for the last three years, has moved to Jaipur, Rajasthan after an Indian intelligence agency informed her that it was too dangerous for her to remain in Kolkata. According to an unnamed intelligence officer, "she agreed to leave after some initial grumbling." Eearlier, as many as 43 people were wounded in a riot caused by Muslim protesters calling on India to expel Taslima from its territory (BBC).

It's sad that the Indian government can't ensure the safety of its guests, but, at the same time, it makes sense for Taslima to get out of West Bengal for a while and stay in a place where little is known about her. But then she might as well move back to Norway, where she lived before Kolkata. It's a shame that the space for dissent in South Asia seems to be shrinking in many parts of the region.

21 November 2007

Russians attempt to coax millenarians out of cave

An area near Penza in Russia is witnessing attempts by groups and individuals to persuade the members of a splinter sect of Orthodox Christians to leave the man-made cave where they are currently holed up. Those trying to put an end to the self-imposed isolation include the group's nominal leader, the self-proclaimed prophet Piotr Kuznetsov. The group of 29 people in the cave includes four children, one of whom is less than two years old. The group has been inside the cave for almost a month now.

Priests and monks from the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church have also tried, so far in vain, to persuade the members of the sect to come out. The sect believes that the end of the world will arrive soon, and have placed themselves in the cave in expectation of the event. They threaten suicide in case the authorities try to storm their stronghold (BBC).

Let's hope the Russian authorities don't try anything silly.

Anti-Taslima protesters riot in Kolkata

Protesters led by the All-India Minority Forum, a group dominated by Muslims, have barricaded several major streets in Kolkata and attacked the policemen who had been sent to dispersed them. The rioters are demanding that the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, who has been accused on insulting Islam in her homeland, be expelled from India. According to the All-India Minority Forum, Taslima had "seriously hurt Muslim sentiments" by calling for revisions to the Qur'an, an accusation she denies. The protesters also wanted to express their disaffection with the recent violence in the Nandigram region of West Bengal.

According to Kolkata's chief of police, Gautam Chakrabarty, "the protesters started pelting policemen with brick bats and acid bottles in several places." As a result, the army was called in to restore order. Idris Ali, an All-India Minority Forum leader, said that agents provocateurs working for West Bengal's Communist government had caused the violence in order to discredit the protests. However, Biman Bose, the leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), countered the accusation, saying of the protesters, "they have planned the trouble, they must take the blame for this mayhem" (BBC).

Frankly, Ali's attempt to blame the Communists for the riot looks pathetic. I think Indian Muslims have a lot to learn from North American Muslims: arguments should be countered with arguments, books with books, not with riots. If someone disagrees with Taslima's views, they should challenge or criticise her in the press or in books of their own that attempt to disprove what Taslima makes out to be true. Instead, when literary criticism and political disagreement takes the form of a riot, with protesters throwing stuff at the police, the first victim is sanity.

17 November 2007

Rape victim faces 200 lashes in Saudi Arabia

A Shi'ite Saudi woman who was raped 14 times by a group of seven Sunni Saudi men has been herself sentenced to six months in prison and 200 lashes. The rapists, meanwhile, were given prison sentences ranging from two to ten years.

The woman's crime, according to the appeals court that doubled the number of lashes she was originally sentenced to receive, was that she had ridden in a car with an unrelated man. The reason the court doubled her sentence and added a jail term is that, according to them, she had tried to manipulate the judicial system through the media. The appeals court also doubled the rapists' jail sentences. Originally, the perpetrators were supposed to serve between a year and five years in prison.

The appeals court has also withdrawn the licence of the victim's lawyer, which means he that he is now barred from practising his profession (BBC).

The only word that occurs to me is "disgusting". On second thought, there are many choice words you could describe the actions of the Saudi court with, including "deranged", "apalling" and "highly, exceptionally un-Islamic".

According to the Qur'an, someone who has been found guilty of adultery should be flogged a hundred times. Now, the person who is to be flogged has to be found guilty of actually having engaged in extra-marital sex, not of merely being in the same enclosed space as an unrelated member of the opposite sex. So to sentence the victim of rape to twice the punishment prescribed by God for a confirmed adulterer or adulteress simply defies belief. On the other hand, this is Saudi Arabia we're talking about.

16 November 2007

Visitor profile, 15 October to 14 November 2007

Welcome to the eighth installment of Notes on Religion visitor profiles!

This month (15 October to 14 November 2007):

This month, Notes on Religion received 73 visits, that is, 3% more than the previous month. The average number of visitors during this period was two a day.

Visitors came to Notes on Religion from Asia, Australasia, Europe and North America. By far the largest number of visitors (44%) came from Canada, and the United States came second with 22%. India came third with 8%.

Within Canada, 9% of the ISPs were in Quebec.

The largest number of visitors this month (41%) was referred to the blog by Google. The most common Google search term that brought visitors to Notes on Religion was, of all things, 'sylheti sex clips'. I can assure you, though, that there are no sex clips on this blog, Sylheti or otherwise; nor are there likely to be in the future.

The most popular browser this month was Internet Explorer (58%). 97% of the visitors were Windows users.

Since the founding of the blog (15 March to 14 November 2007):

The total number of visitors during these eight months was 1,010. The average number of visitors was four per day.

The largest number of visitors (36%) came from Canada. The second-highest number (31%) came from the United States. The United Kingdom came third with 6%.

Quebec accounted for 70% of the visitors' ISPs within Canada.

The biggest proportion of visitors (48%) was referred to the blog by Blogger. The most common search term entered by visitors who were referred to Notes on Religion by Google was 'ishaq nizami'.

The most popular browser was Internet Explorer (53%). 92% of the visitors were Windows users.

11 November 2007

Happy Remembrance Day

I would like to wish all of my Canadian readers, as well as others from countries where this or a similar holiday is observed, a happy Remembrance Day.

As we remember those who are no longer with us, let us take the opportunity to hope and pray for peace everywhere in the world.

You can find articles on Remembrance Day commemorations from different parts of the world here.

09 November 2007

Notes on Religion gets 1,001 visits

Dear Readers,

Notes on Religion crossed the 1,000-visit mark on 8 November, alhamdu lillah. The 1,000th visitor to the blog came from somewhere in North America.

I'd like to thank everyone who has visited Notes on Religion and contributed to it in one way or the other. It makes me happy to see people from different parts of the world using this blog as a source of information.

Check back once in a while to see what's new, and keep those comments coming!

08 November 2007

Is the Pope coming to Quebec next year?

Marc Cardinal Ouellet, the Archbishop of Quebec and the primate of the Catholic Church in Canada, is planning to organise an open-air mass attended by 100,000 people in Quebec City next year as part of it's 400-anniversary celebrations. He has asked Pope Benedict XVI to attend and preside over the mass.

Ouellet said that the mass "will certainly be the culmination of our efforts to re-evangelize Quebec". He explained that "there is a need in Quebec to reconnect with our Christian roots and to revive the Catholic identity" (Windsor Star).

I think, though, that it would take more than a mass to "re-evangelize" Quebec, which has turned into a highly secular society in the last few decades. Big events such as this one may attract the public's attention for a few days or weeks until the next major headline comes along, but if the Church is serious about reviving Quebec's Catholic identity, etc., it has to show its relevance to people's lives, something it has, to some extent at least, failed to do since the Quiet Revolution.

Bouchard-Taylor Commission hears about religion in Drummondville

On 6 November, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, which is canvassing public opinion in Quebec concerning reasonable accommodation, held a session in Drummondville, a city of about 67,000 in the Centre-du-Québec region.

During the session, the commission heard from some Catholics who argued against the province's plan to drop the teaching of Catholicism at public schools in favour of the teaching of religion as a general subject. Gilbert Deshaies, a Drummondville resident, stated that "religious thought should be forged in a child before he submits his faith to criticism."

On the other hand, Lionel Émard, a Catholic priest, argued that it was not the role of the state to promote a certain religion, but rather the responsibility of the relevant religious community itself.

Aziza Aboulaz, an immigrant from Morocco, aimed to counter the negative image of Islam held by some by informing the audience that she did not have to get her husband's permission to address the commission, and that she had a car which she could drive. She also said she had worked in the banking sector in Morocco for 15 years. On the other hand, she asked what she called Muslim fundamentalists to be more realistic in the demands they made from Quebec society at large.

Finally, Gérard Malo, a World War II veteran, spoke out against what he considers to be a moral decline in the province. According to him, this decline has set in due to consumerism and a reduction in religious observance. In this regard, he said Christians had a lesson to learn from Muslims, who pray "a lot and well". Malo finished by praising God in six different languages (Radio-Canada).

06 November 2007

40 killed in Afghanistan by suicide bomber

A suicide bomber has allegedly set off an explosion in which 40 people, mostly civilians and including children, were killed in Afghanistan's Baghlan Province today.

The attacker targeted a sugar factory where a visit by a parliamentary delegation was underway. Six MPs, including the opposition politician Mustafa Kazimi, a veteran of the anti-Soviet struggle, were killed in the attack. The children who were killed were there to welcome the MPs.

The Taliban have denied responsibility for the bombing, and have condemned the attack (BBC).

I am inclined to believe the Taliban on this one, mostly because how far away this attack was from their usual area of activity. However, I wouldn't put it past them to do this sort of thing elsewhere in the country. The Taliban are no strangers to using suicide bombing, without regard to civilian casualties, as a means to try to evict NATO soldiers from Afghanistan.

Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visits Vatican

Saudi king Abdullah visited the Vatican today and met with Pope Benedict XVI, in what was the first ever meeting between a pope and a reigning king of Saudi Arabia. A Vatican spokesman later said the two leaders had had a "warm" meeting.

Benedict brought up the issue of the contributions of over a million Christian residents to Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah presented the Pope with a jewel-encrusted gold sword, while Benedict gave the king an engraving of the Vatican made in the 16th century in return. During their half-hour meeting, Abdullah and Benedict also discussed a possible "just solution" to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians (BBC).

Very encouraging. The more mainstream voices emphasise what is common between Muslims and Christians, the harder it should be for extremists on either side to try to stir up conflict.

Musharraf blames extremists for emergency

Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf has blamed "the activities of extremists" for the difficult state Pakistan has found itself in, which, in his view, necessitates the state of emergency currently in force there. He also accused "some members of the judiciary" of "working at cross purposes with the executive and legislature in the fight against terrorism and extremism" (BBC).

Now the problem with this way of describing things is that it completely takes the blame off the executive, headed by none other than Musharraf himself. His prevarication with dealing with the extremists is what got Pakistan into this mess in the first place, in my view (not to mention the creation of the Taliban by Pakistan in the first place).

It's not by concentrating more and more power in the hands of a dictator that one deals with a dangerous situation confronting a country. To succeed in the fight against Talibanisation, Pakistan needs consensus. Imposing virtual martial law is highly unlikely to produce one. I think it's time for Musharraf to admit his failure and hand the country back to the civilian politicians.

Muslims pray for Ontario hospital

The Brampton Civic Hospital, which officially opened on 28 September, was blessed by the Muslim community of the north-western Greater Toronto Area (GTA) in a ceremony held on 21 October (see p. 15 of this PDF).

In an event organised by the Muslim Friends of the William Osler Health Centre, over 500 people gathered to perform the Islamic noon (zuhr) prayer at the hospital, and to pray for the success of the establishment. Contributions worth $5,800 were collected for the hospital from those assembled (Canadian Asian News).

This is a perfect illustration of where the superiority of the Canadian model of immigrant integration lies as compared to, say, the French model. Whereas in France any attempt to hold a public prayer at a public hospital would have very possibly led to an outcry in society, in Canada (though not in Quebec), this sort of thing fits in quite well with the majority population's understanding of their own country. What better way to make the users of a hospital feel that they have a stake in it than to have them pray for it, in their own way? What better way to make public institutions truly public, rather than off-putting manifestations of a faceless state?

04 November 2007

Muslim charity donates 5 tonnes of chicken in Toronto

Muslimserv, and Islamic charity based in the Greater Toronto Area, donated 5,000 kg of chicken to several food banks in the GTA last Ramadan (September-October) (see p. 28 of this PDF). It purchased the meat from Maple Lodge Farms using money donated by contributors, and donated it to the Daily Bread Food Bank, which caters to the community at large. The food bank then distributed the meat to those in need.

According to the head of Muslimserv, Shah Nawaz Hussain, food banks were used by almost 323,000 people in the GTA at last count. Of this number, 40 percent were children.

The Daily Bread Food Bank now considers Muslimserv among the GTA's top five anti-hunger fundraisers. As a matter of principle, the Muslim charity has the meat donated to anyone in need, regardless of religion, race or gender. It focuses its activities on Canada, and sends money overseas only in extraordinary conditions (Canadian Asian News).

What a wonderful initiative, ma sha' Allah. Apart from directly helping people who need food, I hope that Muslimserv's actions will help non-Muslims (and Muslims themselves) understand the teachings of Islam regarding sharing with one's neighbour.

02 November 2007

US church gets fined for desecrating Marine's funeral

The Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church has been fined US $10.9 million (Canadian $10.2 million) by a court in Maryland for invasion of privacy and emotional distress resulting from its protests at the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who died in Iraq in March 2006.

Members of the church attended Snyder's funeral with signs saying "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "You're going to hell".

The Westboro Baptist Church, which is not affiliated with any Baptist movement, claims that the losses suffered by the US in the Iraq War are the result of Americans' toleration of homosexuality. In their defence, members of the church argued that they had a constitutional right to free speech. The church plans to appeal the sentence (BBC).

What I don't understant is this: if the members of the church do think homosexuality is so offensive, why say "You're going to hell" at the funeral of a soldier who probably had nothing to do with that orientation? Why adopt a repulsive practice to fight something which the church considers repulsive?

Police role questioned in tragic Kolkata marriage

Last September, a Muslim man named Rizwanur Rahman, 29, was found dead on the railway tracks in Kolkata. His death, attributed by the police to suicide and by his family to murder, ended a marriage that was not wanted by his in-laws and, more controvercially, the Kolkata police.

Rahman's widow, Priyanka Todi, 23, is a Hindu and, moreover, from a wealthy family. Rahman, on the other hand, lived with the rest of his family in a two-room apartment, and that is where he brought his new wife when they got married in August. The bride had prepared herself for the move by forgoing air-conditioning for a year.

Soon after Todi moved in with Rahman and his family, the police started showing up at their apartment. Acting on behalf of Todi's father, who couldn't persuade her to go back to her family's house, the "anti-rowdy" branch of the police employed threats to get the couple to go to the police station. However, no charges were brought against them.

Finally, the police succeeded in getting Todi to go back to her parent's house, with a written guarantee that she would be able to return to her husband in a week. However, she did not return within the week, and in two weeks, Rahman died under a train.

In a press conference over the matter, Kolkata's police chief, Prasun Mukherjee, who was later transferred to a different position due to a public outcry over the matter, said that the Todi family's opposition to the marriage was "natural".

There has been loud opposition to the actions of the police in Kolkata. Whether or not Rahman took his own life, many in Kolkata think that it was money that made the police act the way they did. As a Telegraph of India editorial put it, "The police seem to feel avuncular towards a particular economic class only" (New York Times).

A sordid tale this, but the uplifting part of it (as usual) is how people from different walks of life have come together over the issue and let their voices be heard. Since when is the police supposed to be a rich dad's enforcer squad?

Something Even More Magical

In other news...