26 December 2008

Extreme rightists attack Muslims in Christmas message

The fringe right-wing website Tulsa Today, which claims to be a "local news service", has made use of its alleged Christmas greeting to label Islam "the only modern faith founded by a murderer." This is a website, mind you, that was noted for continuing to claim as late as 24 November that Obama was not a "natural born" US citizen.

So why would I bother to comment on the ravings of a site which has nothing to do with "news", local or otherwise? Well, because ridiculous claims such as these can, unfortunately, be insidious and persisting. If repeated a sufficient number of times, they acquire the air of general knowledge.

So I think it's important to say, to those who would sully their own holiday with venom against another religion: Shame on you.

Now playing: Jaromír Nohavica - Dokud Se Zpívá
via FoxyTunes

Happy Hanukkah!

I'd like to wish all my Jewish readers a happy Hanukkah. May the candles you light in celebration remind us of the light of monotheism bestowed on Jews and Muslims alike.

Earlier this month, my wife and I visited the Shaare Zion synagogue here in Montreal for an informative and entertaining evening, where Jewish, Christian and Hindu speakers discussed their respective winter holidays associated with light -- Hanukkah, Advent and Diwali -- and the synagogue's cantor, Boaz Davidoff, led his band in some exciting Hanukkah music in Hebrew and English. We need more of this sort of event, I tell you.
Now playing: North Sea Gas - Will Ye No Come Back Again
via FoxyTunes

25 December 2008

Merry Christmas!

A merry Christmas to all my Christian readers!

Last week at the mosque the imam reminded us of the Islamic story of the birth and infancy of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him). It is related in the Qur'an, in verses 19:16-36. This holiday is certainly a time to remember how much Muslims and Christians share, both in beliefs and in the call to perform good deeds and strive for justice.

Meanwhile, here are some pictures of Christmas celebrations at the place where it all reportedly began, Bethlehem (from the Louisville Courier-Journal).

Now playing: Orpheus Chamber Orchestra - Handel: Water Music Suite #1 In F, HWV 348 - Ouverture
via FoxyTunes

15 December 2008

Visitor profiles, 15 November to 14 December 2008

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

This month (15 November to 14 December 2008):

This month, Notes on Religion received 359 visits.

Visitors came to Notes on Religion from every inhabited continent, alhamdu lillah. The largest number of visitors (38%) came from the United States. Canada was next with 18%, while the United Kingdom came third with 8%. In sha' Allah, I'll quote all monetary amounts (if any are discussed) in US dollars along with Canadian dollars over the coming month.

In the US, the largest number of visitors (14%) came from New York.

In Canada, 22% of the visitors' ISPs were in Quebec.

The largest number of visitors this past month (45%) were referred to Notes on Religion by Google. The most common Google search term that brought visitors to the blog was 'russian neo-nazi beheading video'.

The most popular browser this month was Firefox (48%). 89% of the visitors were Windows users.

Since the founding of the blog (15 March 2007 to 14 December 2008):

The total number of visitors during the year and ten months was 5,094. The average number of visitors was eight per day. A big thank you to everyone who visited and took this blog above the 5,000 hit mark!

The largest number of visitors (44%) came from the United States. The second-highest number (19%) came from the Canada. The United Kingdom came third with 7%.

In the US, the largest number of visitors (14%) came from California.

Quebec accounted for 44% of the visitors' ISPs within Canada.

The biggest proportion of visitors (41%) was referred to the blog by Google. The most common search term entered by visitors who were referred to Notes on Religion by Google was 'neo nazi beheading'.

The most popular browser was Firefox (46%). 90% of the visitors were Windows users.

Now playing: Scott Tennant - O'Carolan's Farewell To Music
via FoxyTunes

Blair explains conversion delay

Tony Blair has explained why he decided to defer his conversion to Catholicism until he left office. In his view, discussing religion while he was prime minister would have entailed the danger of people calling him a "nutter". He added, "Maybe I was too sensitive... but I just came to the conclusion that if I started talking about God it was going to be difficult."

Before becoming a Catholic in 2007, Blair had attended Catholic services for 25 years. Moreover, he had brought his children up as Catholics (BBC).

There's not much about Blair's words that is surprising. Certainly, there is a great deal of intolerance in Britain to public discussion of religious beliefs. However, why would Blair necessarily have had to talk about his conversion publicly? People already knew very well where his sympathies lay. I think that, beyond religion being a difficult issue to address in British politics, it's a question of the country not being ready for a Catholic prime minister. I think that one day the UK will travel the road the US did decades ago with John F. Kennedy, but the time, I suppose, is not ripe yet.

Now playing: Omar Faruk Tekbilek - Laz
via FoxyTunes

10 December 2008

Olmert calls attack on Palestinias a "pogrom"

Ehud Olmert has declared the recent rampage by Israeli Jewish settlers in Hebron a "pogrom". At a meeting of the Israeli Cabinet, Olmert told his ministers,

As a Jew, I was ashamed at the scenes of Jews opening fire at innocent Arabs in Hebron. There is no other definition than the term 'pogrom' to describe what I have seen. We are the sons of a nation who know what is meant by a pogrom, and I am using the word only after deep reflection.

Olmert also described a settler riot in a Palestinian village in October as a pogrom (BBC).

Meanwhile, one of the Jewish settlers suspected of taking part in the Hebron rampage, Zeev Braudeh, has been released from custody after an Israeli court in Jerusalem ordered the police to let him go. Braudeh is suspected of shooting at two Palestinian stone-throwers, injuring them. The court called the actions of the Israeli police, which had arrested Braudeh but not the stone-throwers, "blatant discrimination" (AFP).

It's obvious that the attitude of the Israeli courts will take a while to catch up to that of Olmert. If arresting an aggressor and not arresting a defender of one's land is discrimination according to this particular court, then the police are certainly showing themselves to be much more enlightened than the court.

Eid mubarak!

I'd like to wish all the Muslims of the world a blessed Eid. Eid al-Adha commemorates the readiness of the Prophet Abraham (pbuh) to sacrifice his son (pbuh) to God, and the willingness of his son to be sacrificed to God. When the two prophets had proven their faith and devotion, a ram was sacrificed instead. May this lesson of obedience to God inspire us always.

Since this story, in its essential features, is shared by Muslims, Christians and Jews, I would like to extend my best wishes to the People of the Book on this joyous occasion.

Here's an excellent article from Gulf News (ma sha' Allah), explaining the meaning and origin of Eid al-Adha.

05 December 2008

Moscow patriarch dies

Patriarch Aleksiy II of Moscow and All Russia has passed away at the age of 79. Born Aleksei Ridiger in Tallinn to a Baltic German father and a Russian mother, Aleksiy rose through the ranks of the Russian Orthodox Church with the backing of the KGB. His role in the pre-Gorbachev era consisted of helping the Soviet state keep the Church under its firm control. He was elected Patriarch in 1990. Aleksiy was an outspoken supporter of Orthodox unity, but was much more ambivalent towards the unity of the Christian churches (BBC).

In particular, he clashed with the Catholic Church over the issue of the latter's proselytisation of Russians, claiming all Russia and Ukraine to be the "canonical territory" of the Russian Orthodox Church. Alexiy also provided Church backing for the process of integration between Belarus and Russia launched by Aliksandr Lukašenka and Boris Yeltsin.

I'm back, yet again

It's be too long, but I'm back. In sha' Allah, I'll be posting at least once a week from now on. I have an incredible backlog of things that I'd like to write about from the past six months, but those might have to wait and come out gradually (if at all) while I handle more recent news. A big thank you to everyone who's been checking in every once in a while.

09 June 2008

Bahrain appoints Jewish ambassador

Bahrain broke several barriers at once in late May by appointing a Jewish woman to be its new ambassador to the US. Houda Nonoo, a member of the Shura Council for three years before the appointment, has thus become Bahrain's and the entire Arab world's first Jewish ambassador. Nonoo is also the first female Bahraini ambassador to the US, and the third woman to become a Bahraini ambassador to any country.

Bahraini Jews are said to number 37 people among about 530,000 Bahraini citizens (the country's total population is about 1,047,000 people). Bahrain is the only Gulf Arab country with any Jewish citizens. Manama has one synagogue, which was abandoned after the establishment of Israel, but is now once again in use.

Nonoo's ancestors moved to Bahrain from Iraq over a hundred years ago. Her family has been active in public affairs in Bahrain for several generations.

According to Nonoo, Bahraini Jews are religiously observant: "We keep Rosh Hashana and Pessah and the other holidays in our homes". It seems, though, that there are no rabbis within the community; Nonoo once flew a rabbi over from Britain for her son's bar mitzvah.

Nonoo said she would serve in her position "first of all as a Bahraini" (BBC, ArabianBusiness.com, Jerusalem Post).

I think this is a great step towards the re-normalisation of the role of Jews in Arab and Muslim society.

What would be even more impressive is if Israel had an Arab Muslim Israeli citizen serve as ambassador to Egypt or Jordan (it has already had two Arab Muslim consuls in the US).

08 June 2008

Report claims British govt ignores Anglican Church

A report drawn up by the Cambridge-based Von Hugel Institute for the Church of England is claiming that the British government pays "lip service" to the Church, as well as to other branches of Christianity, and favours Islam and other minority religions.

The report, entitled "Moral, but No Compass", claims that the government has demonstrated a "lack of understanding of, or interest in, the Church of England's current or potential contribution in the public sphere." Instead, the government focuses "almost exclusively" on Muslims and other religious minorities.

According to Stephen Hulme, the Bishop of Lowe, the Church spokesman on urban affairs, government departments had "nothing, absolutely nothing" in the way of information on Church of England activities. At the same time, according to Bishop Hulme, the Church of England is and has long been the biggest volunteer organisation in the country.

The report also calls for the establishment of a Minister of Religion position in the cabinet. According to Bishop Lowe, the proposed minister's role would be to coordinate relations between the government and religious groups (BBC).

It's not surprising that there is something of a backlash when Britain's official religion is marginalised by the government. At the same time, though, the number of practising Anglicans in Britain is about the same as the number of practising Muslims. It's no wonder, then, that the British government pays attention to its Muslim community. Nevertheless, more balance would probably be better for everyone.

05 June 2008

Russian neo-Nazi beheading video appears to be genuine

According to Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the Investigation Committee of the Russian federal prosecution office, a video showing the murder of two men by Russian neo-Nazis is not fake, as was previously claimed (Газета.ru).

The video, which first appeared on a blog run by a neo-Nazi called Viktor Mil'kov on 12 August 2007, showed a Tajik and a Dagestani being executed by neo-Nazis in a forest. Prior to the execution, one of the victims is heard saying "We were arrested by Russian national socialists." Two men in camouflage then give Nazi salutes, and murder the victims, one by decapitation and the other by shooting.

The family of a Dagestani man named Shamil Udamanov, who has been missing since August 2007, is claiming that the Dagestani shown being executed in the video is none other than Udamanov. The Russian prosecution started examining the case in earnest after Shamil's father Artur Udamanov wrote a letter to ex-President Vladimir Putin asking him to intervene.

The case is currently under investigation by the Russian Interior Ministry and German police.

Meanwhile, Mil'kov is serving a one-year prison sentence for initiating the distribution of the video on the Internet.

A previously unknown group which calls itself the Combat Brigade of the National-Socialist Party of Rus took responsibility for the execution in August 2007. In a statement sent to a Chechen separatist website, the group declared "armed war against black colonists" and "bureaucrats of the Russian Federation" who help non-ethnic-Russian immigrants. The terrorist group promised to "deport all Caucasians and Asians from the territory of Rus" (Rus being a medieval state whose successors today are Belarus, Russia and Ukraine).

The whole thing is thoroughly sickening. I wonder what the German connection is.

04 June 2008

Bardot convicted of inciting racial hatred

The former actress Brigitte Bardot has been found guilty of inciting racial hatred against Muslims. The court in Paris where Bardot, 73, was convicted has fined her €15,000 (Canadian $23,531; US $23,157).

The conviction stems from a statement made in a letter to Nicolas Sarkozy (then the French Interior Minister) in December 2006, in which she called Muslims "this whole population that is destroying us, destroying our country...." The reason for her anger at Muslims was that they usually do not stun animals before slaughtering them (Белорусские новости; Le Point).

Obama wins US Democratic nomination

Congratulations to Barack Obama, and all his supporters in the US and worldwide!

As you probably know, Obama declared victory in St. Paul on 3 June, after securing a majority of Democratic pledged delegates and superdelegates.

Good luck in the general election, Barack!

03 June 2008

David Nancekivell on the Christian view of Jesus (pbuh)

Here is the third installment in the series of articles by invited authors. This article is by David Nancekivell, who currently teaches Arabic at McGill University's Institute of Islamic Studies (I was in two of his classes during the 2007-2008 academic year). Mr Nancekivell was born in Fort William, Ontario (now part of Thunder Bay), and, outside Canada, has lived in Malaysia, China, the United States and Lebanon. He has a BA in French as a second language and an MA in French-English translation from Laval University in Quebec City. Mr Nancekivell is currently doing a PhD in Arabic at Harvard University.

Readers may find this article controversial, and perhaps rightly so. It does, after all, call on Muslims to adopt the Christian view of Jesus Christ (pbuh). I'd like to mention here that I was invited to speak at three different churches in Grinnell, Iowa, and presented the Islamic perspective on Jesus (pbuh) to Christian audiences there. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) received a delegation of Christians at his mosque in Medina, where he listened to their point of view and told them about the Islamic perspective on the matters that interested them as presented in the Qur'an. Thus, I see no problem with listening to what a sincere Christian has to say regarding the status of Jesus (pbuh). You can find my reply (based on the Qur'an) in the Editor's Note that follows the article.

Jesus as the Fulfillment of Abraham's Sacrifice

By David Nancekivell

One of the heroes of the three monotheistic faiths is Abraham son of Terah. He was told by God in Genesis 12 that "All peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (verse 3) and, in the Qur'an, Surah al-Baqarah v. 124 "Innii jaa'iluka lil-naasi imaaman" (I will make you a leader to the nations) . We admire Abraham for his courage in leaving Mesopotamia at the call of God for a destination far away. We admire him for his selflessness and faith in God, who gave him a son when he was already a hundred years old (Genesis 21:5). Abraham is the actual flesh-and-blood ancestor of the Jews and Arabs, and Muslims are enjoined to follow "millata abiikum Ibraahiim" (the faith of your father Abraham) in Surah al-Hajj v. 78.

Perhaps one of the most telling things about Abraham is the title he is given in both the Bible and the Qur'an. Surah al-Nisaa' v. 125 tells us "Wa-ttakhadha Allaahu Ibraahiima khaliilan" (And God took Abraham for a friend). James 2:23 tells us "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, and he was called the friend of God." The word for friend in both the Qur'an and the Arabic Bible is "khallil".Darayabadi, in his translation of the meaning of the Qur'an (Vol. 1, p. 91a) says, "But the English word "friend" does scant justice to the idea of "khalil", which, in Arabic, denotes the dearest or most sincere friend who has no rival in the love and reliance placed upon him." Surely, then, God's decision to bestow such a title on Abraham points to a special relationship between God and Abraham. Close friends love and trust each other.

It is not without surprise, then, that we read the story in Genesis 22 and Surah al-Saaffaat, in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son. We are surprised at two levels. One the one hand, Abraham agrees to offer up what, surely, is most precious to him. Any normal human father, if he sees someone attacking his son, would go to his defence immediately and without question. Yet here Abraham is asked to "attack" (sacrifice) his very own son, and he agrees! Scripture is silent on the inner struggle that no doubt ensued as Abraham contemplated obeying God, but we can imagine his agony.

On the other hand, we are surprised at God. God possesses all good qualities to the supreme degree. Thus human beings are somewhat righteous, but God is perfectly righteous. Human beings are somewhat patient, but God is perfectly patient. Human beings are somewhat loving and merciful, but God is perfectly loving and merciful.

In asking Abraham to be willing to sacrifice his own son, God was asking Abraham to part with his most precious possession. Why? Surely, if Abraham was willing to give up his most precious possession to God, then there is nothing he would withhold from Him. But if God is more loving than any human being, what love had God demonstrated for Abraham that would surpass Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son? Could it be said that Abraham was showing more love for God than God had showed for Abraham? This conclusion seems necessary unless it is true that, as the Gospel of John, chapter 3, verse 16, says, "God loved the world so much that He gave His only son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

In the end, God did not allow Abraham to go through with the sacrifice. An angel intervenes and a ram is provided. But the Qur'an says, rather mysteriously, in Surah al-Saafaat, v. 107, "Wa-fedaynaahu bi-dhibHin 'aDHiimin" (We ransomed him with a mighty sacrifice). The prophet Yahya ibn Zakariyya, when first introducing Jesus to his own disciples, declared, "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). Jesus. in response to the Jews who asked him if he was greater than their forefather Abraham, replied, "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day; he saw it, and was glad" (John 8:56).

Indeed, what God did not, in the end, require of Abraham, He required of Himself. The near-sacrifice of Abraham's son was but a foreshadowing of the sacrifice that Jesus made so that those of us who believe in Him might not perish for our sins, but have everlasting life.

Editor's Note: As a Muslim, I completely disagree with Mr Nancekivell's point of view, and here is why. God says in the Qur'an:

O people of the book! Commit no excesses in your religion: Nor say of Allah aught but the truth. Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) an apostle of Allah, and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and His apostles. Say not "Trinity" : desist: it will be better for you: for Allah is one Allah. Glory be to Him: (far exalted is He) above having a son. To Him belong all things in the heavens and on earth. And enough is Allah as a Disposer of affairs (Qur'an, 4:171; Abdullah Yusuf Ali's interpretation).
To this, I would add the following verses: "Blessed be He in whose hands is Dominion; and He over all things hath Power;- He who created Death and Life that he may try which of you is best in deed: and He is the Exalted in Might, Oft-Forgiving" (Qur'an, 67:1-2; A. Yusuf Ali's interpretation).

Finally, I welcome comments on this article from everyone. I would just like to remind Muslims wishing to leave a comment of the following verse:

And dispute ye not with the People of the Book, except with means better (than mere disputation), unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury): but say, "We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our Allah and your Allah is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam)" (Qur'an, 29:46; A. Yusuf Ali's interpretation).
Peace be upon you!

02 June 2008

Fachrizal Halim on Ahmadis in Indonesia

Continuing the series of articles by invited authors, here's an article by my friend Fachrizal Halim, a PhD student at McGill University's Institute of Islamic Studies. Fachrizal was born in Indonesia's South Kalimantan province, and, apart from Indonesia and Canada, has lived in the United States. He has a BA in philosophy and an MA in religious studies from Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta. He got another MA, this time in Christian-Muslim relations, from the Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut.

Is There a Place for Ahmadiyya in Indonesia?

By Fachrizal Halim

The issue of Ahmadiyya in Indonesia could escalate into a chronic social-religious problem if the Indonesian government does not come to a decisive position regarding the demand to ban the religious community. Since the Indonesian Ulama Council issued a decree that Ahmadiyya is heretical, the members of the community throughout the country suffered from various attacks. The recent recommendation from the Coordinating Board for Monitoring Mystical Belief in Society (Bakor Pakem) to ban the community does not bring about a solution but only intensifies violence in the guise of legal punishment.

Considering the increase of violence and the demand to ban the existence of the Ahmadi community, one may wonder if there is a place for Ahmadiyya in Indonesia.

As a secular democratic country, the constitution of Indonesia guarantees religious freedom, and therefore there should definitely be a place for the existence of Ahmadiyya in the country. However, the constitutional guarantee must be followed by a strong commitment on the part of the Indonesian government to protect the right of the Ahmadi community to hold their belief. An ambiguous position by the government would be not only damaging to the Indonesian label as a moderate and tolerant Muslim country, but also ruining its home-grown construction of freedom and democracy. The ambiguity can be interpreted as a hesitation to protect the right of the Ahmadi community in defining their self-identification as Muslims.

Besides the commitment of the government, the Indonesian ulama must also have the courage to consider their role in the modern state. One of the triggers of recent violence against the Ahmadi community is undoubtedly the fatwa (legal decision) of the Indonesian Ulama Council which labeled Ahmadiyya as deviant of Islam. Indeed, as men of learning and guardians of the faith, the ulama have the authority to define Islamic orthodoxy in matter of belief and practice. However the ulama could become authoritarian if their basic function to guard the interest of the entire Muslim community has mingled with the interest of a certain group. This is exactly the case in Indonesia.

The Indonesian Ulama Council, which is supposed to mediate the difference in understanding of the idea of the Prophet Muhammad as 'the Seal of the Prophets' among Muslims in Indonesia has become a punitive apparatus of the hardliner and illiberal moderate Muslims. The Ahmadis hold a position that Ghulam Ahmad is the Promised Messiah. Some of the extreme Ahmadis believe that Ghulam Ahmad is a 'prophet' without a law or a holy book. Like the majority of Muslims, however, all Ahmadi communities believe in the finality of the revelation of the Prophet Muhammad. What made the Ahmadis differ from the majority of Muslims is their idea that the promised Messiah has the correct interpretation of Islam. The Ahmadis define their movement as a reform that would bring about the true Islam. By keeping this self-definition, the Ahmadis do not consider themselves to be deviant from Islam.

The Indonesian Ulama Council could not tolerate this position and issued a fatwa that Ahmadiyya is heretical and therefore should be regarded as non-Muslim. What matters in this article is not the content of the fatwa, because obviously one may have his own theological position about the issue. The matter is the impact of the fatwa that violated the freedom of expression of the Ahmadi community. The rights of the Ahmadis to pray in their own mosques, to educate their children in their own schools and to propagate their teaching have been put into question by the imposition of the label of heresy. In this case, the Indonesian Ulama Council has become the regime of truth that does not allow any definition of Islam that differs from their definition.

If one agrees that the role of the ulama is to promote God's mercy on earth, one must also agree that the Indonesian Ulama Council should stop using their authority to punish the Ahmadis. The Council must realize that their fatwa, which expelled the Ahmadis from the mainstream of Islam, contributed to transgression upon the right of the Ahmadis to have their own interpretation of Islam. If the Council could change its role from representing one particular opinion to promoting a communal holiness that respects the diversity of opinions in Islam, Indonesia would continue to become a model of a home grown democracy among Muslim countries.

One of the good things of Indonesia being a secular democratic country is that the decree of the Indonesian Ulama Council has no legal binding in the Indonesian constitution. The demand of the hardliner and illiberal moderate Muslims to ban Ahmadiyya as represented by the Coordinating Board for Monitoring Mystical Belief in Society (Bakor Pakem) cannot have any effect without the final decision of the Indonesian government.

To guarantee the religious freedom and to protect the Ahmadi community from continued attacks, there is no doubt that the government should disregard the fatwa of the Indonesian Ulama Council which labelled the Ahmadis as heretical. Subsequently, the government should be more active in law enforcement towards anyone who disrupts freedom.

Editor's note: Notes on Religion does not necessarily agree with the views expressed by guest authors.

My mother on the niqab

To celebrate the first anniversary of Notes on Religion, I asked several people to contribute articles on religion-related issues that they find important.

To start off the series, here's an article by my mother, Maria Tchooudkhouri (Chowdhury), who lives in Toronto, where she works as a pharmacy technician. She was born near Čavusy, Belarus, and has lived in Ukraine, Bangladesh and Kuwait. She has an MSc in geography from the Belarusian State University in Minsk. My mother runs a Russian-language blog on life in Toronto, called "Toronto through My Eyes".

When Culture Is Mistaken for Religion

By Maria Tchooudkhouri

When I walk to work, sometimes I meet a woman dressed fully in black, her face fully covered, not even her eyes showing. Her hands in black gloves hold her young child.

Another picture is from TV. A church somewhere in North America. Colourfully dressed people singing, then starting to dance, to clap, some of them jumping, twisting and screaming.

What is common between these two cases, besides people being religious?

The people in them are following the cultural, ethnic traditions of their respective ancestors, mistaking cultural elements with religious norms. Thinking that those elements are the norms.

In the deserts of the pre-Islamic Middle East, women had to carefully cover themselves from the burning sun, harsh wind, sand and dust to preserve their beauty. When Islam was introduced, the teaching of modesty in clothing was interpreted according to local cultural tradition.

With the spread of the religion, cultural elements from the Middle East were adapted far beyond the region. Covering the face became a symbol of religiousness for some people. Some Muslims and non-Muslims alike think that, if a woman is fully covered, she is a more "real" Muslim than those with open faces, not to mention those who wear non-traditional chlothes.

But let's not forget -- religion teaches us modesty, and not a rejection of our identity. Our face is our identity, given to us by God. We have the right, and probably even the obligation, not to hide it.

Editor's note: Notes on Religion does not necessarily agree with the views expressed by guest authors.

01 June 2008

Australian town rejects Islamic school

The city council of Camden, a suburb of Sydney, has rejected a proposal by the Qur'anic society to build an Islamic school in the town. The planned school would have accommodated 1,200 students. The nine city councillors voted unanimously against the proposal, citing reasons such as a risk of increased traffic congestion and parking problems that would result if the project were approved.

During the consultation stage of the approval process, the city council received 3,042 briefs from residents against the proposed school, and only 23 in favour.

After the council voted to reject the application, Camden resident Kate McCulloch said that, although the councillors would not admit it, the main reason for rejecting the school was that many townsmen wanted to keep Muslims out. McCulloch, who supported the council's decision, explained that "They don't like what their culture is about. Look at every news channel overseas -- it is about oppression and it's just not democratic. Hezbollah is a terrorist organisation -- I'm sorry, I don't want them in Australia."

In order to explain her reference to Hizbullah, McCulloch said that radical Muslims tended to hide in small towns, adding that "All them terrorist attacks did happen overseas, they were someone's friends, they were someone's neighbours...."

The mayor of Camden, Chris Patterson, said that he fully supported the idea of "multicultural schooling", and had rejected the Islamic school proposal for reasons that had nothing to do with religion (Australian).

During a previous residents' meeting to discuss the Islamic school project, some speakers asked the council to reject the application in order to avoid a takeover of the town by Muslims, of whom there are about 150 families in Camden. One man said "Can I just say this without being racist or political? In 1983, in the streets of London a parade by Muslims chanted incessantly 'If we can take London, we can take the world.' Don't let them take Camden."

Andrew Wynnet, of the Camden/Macarthur Residents' Group, asked a BBC reporter, "When you have no Muslims living in Camden, why have a Muslim school here?" (this despite the fact that there are Muslims in the town). Wynnet went on to explain that his opposition to the school flows from his opposition to other Muslims moving to Camden: "The character of the town will change. When you have a large facility like this, the parents will follow. That amount of parents will change the character of the town. If you introduce 1,500 Muslim people to the town they'd be a majority. And that's not what this town is about."

The right-wing politician Pauline Hanson also visited Camden to campaign against the school, which she had at first thought would be a mosque.

The Quranic Society may appeal the town council's decision to the Land and Environment Court of New South Wales (BBC).

Alexander Nevsky's remains arrive in Minsk

The remains of St Alexander Nevsky (d. 1263) have arrived in Minsk. The Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Vladimir of Tashkent and Central Asia accompanied the remains to Belarus. A "round-the-clock adoration of the relic" is taking place at the St Euphrosyne of Polack (Polatsk) Church in Minsk.

Nevsky is the Orthodox patron saint of soldiers and diplomats (Белорусские новости).


God willing, starting this month, I'll be using pictures to illustrate the stories covered on Notes of Religion. Since I don't want to violate anyone's copyright, in sha' Allah I'll try to use public-domain pictures from Wikipedia to begin with.

30 May 2008

Nepal's official religion goes with the king

Nepal, which is now the world's newest republic, has not only abolished its monarchy, but has also rescinded the officially privileged status of Hinduism in the Hindu-majority country. Thus, the only country in the world where Hinduism used to be, until recently, a state religion, is now secular (BBC).

Dunkin' Donuts gives in to anti-Palestinian prejudice

After pressure from the right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin, Dunkin' Donuts has cancelled an online ad featuring TV host Rachael Ray wearing a keffiyeh.

Malkin described the piece of Arab men's headdress as "a regular adornment of Muslim terrorists".

According to Dunkin' Donuts, "no symbolism was intended" by the silk keffiyeh. Malkin has praised the company for its decision, saying that the picture of the scarf could have led to "the mainstreaming of violence" (BBC).

So my question is: what was Timothy McVeigh wearing when he perpetrated his terrorist act? And if he was wearing a shirt and trousers, should everyone now stop wearing shirts and trousers? Come on now.

If you disagree with Dunkin' Donuts's decision, please contact them.

28 May 2008

Delhi madrasa teaches Sanskrit

A post-graduate Islamic seminary called Islami Academy is changing the definition of a traditional Islamic curriculum by including subjects such as Indian history, Indian culture, and comparative religion. The latter course focuses on the majority religion of India, Hinduism. According to Islami Academy's director, Abdul Haq Ansari, "The idea was to have a very scientific and holistic curriculum in the study of religion."

In order for the madrasa's students to be able to study ancient Hindu texts, they are given Sanskrit instruction by a teacher provided by the Indian government (Hindustan Times).

26 May 2008

Deoband against eye donation

In an edict issued in April, Darul Uloom Deoband declared the donation or transplanting of eyes by Muslims undesirable. Their argument was based on the idea that humans are only temporary caretakers of their bodies, while ultimate ownership belongs to God. According to Deoband, a transplanted eye is impure. The edict added, however, that blood transfusion was permissible when it was needed to save lives (ExpressIndia).

What can I say? Using this logic, we could declare almost anything "undesirable". For example, how can we build a house of wood, when God is the ultimate owner of the forest? How can we wash anything using water, when God is its ultimate owner? The answer is simple: God gave us these things to use. According to the Qur'an, he appointed us His representative on earth. It is up to us to use our God-given conscience and intellect in order to utilise these resources in a responsible manner. And wasting an eye that could enable someone else to see is anything but responsible.

Deoband against eating beef when there's a ban in place

In an edict issued in April, Darul Uloom Deoband, an Islamic seminary in India, ruled that "Muslims must refrain from cow slaughter, beef eating or trading in cow hide" if they live in a place where a ban on cow slaughter is in effect. The Hindu-majority state of Uttar Pradesh, where Deoband is situated, banned the slaughter of cows in 2001.

According to Mufti Habibur Rahman of Deoband, "Meat eaters can opt for buffaloes, goats, chicken and fish. [The] Shariat doesn't allow for beef eating if it's prohibited under law."

Javed Anand, a Muslim community activist, commented that "Muslims should respect Hindu sentiments and avoid cow slaughter. [The] influential seminary's fatwa would go a long way in ensuring this" (Times of India).

A very sensible decision.

24 May 2008

US car dealer happily clings to guns and religion

After Barack Obama said that disadvantaged and "bitter" working-class Americans were clinging to their "guns and religion", car dealer Mark Muller of Max Motors in Butler, Missouri felt so insulted that he launched a new promotion: a free gun with every car purchased at his dealership. As an alternative, he offered a US $250 (Canadian $247) petrol gift card. However, so far everyone who has bought a car from him under the promotion has chosen the gun over the free petrol, the only exceptions being "one guy from Canada and one old guy".

Muller was offended by Obama's words because, as he puts it, "We all go to church on Sunday and we all carry guns." According to Muller, "We're just damn glad to live in a free country where you can have a gun if you want to" (BBC).

My article in Eurozine

My article on the imprisonment of the Belarusian journalist Aliaksandar Zdźvižkoŭ over his reprinting of the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and the subsequent vilification of Muslims in some quarters of the usually liberal Belarusian opposition, which first appeared in the Belarusian magazine ARCHE in the January-February 2008 issue, has now been reprinted (in English translation and in shortened form) in Eurozine, which is an online magazine that publishes translations of articles first published by a network of European cultural magazines.

Do let me know what you think about the article!

US Evangelical magazine predicts European invasion of America

The Philadelphia Trumpet, a magazine published by the Philadelphia Church of God, based in Edmond, Oklahoma, is claiming that increased German investment in Latin America places the US in greater danger than "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Osama bin Laden and Vladimir Putin combined". The magazine argues that the recent spate of investment builds on groundwork laid by Nazis who took refuge in Latin America, and that "Germany’s takeover of Latin America would put European forces directly on the southern border of the U.S. and present an ideal scenario for a full-scale invasion of America".

Now being grumpy at "Old Europe" is one thing, but this is really out there. I know one shouldn't draw conclusions based on what one Evangelical church is saying, but the question is: to what extent will this sort of extreme nativism catch on?

Visitor profile, 15 April to 14 May 2008

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

This month (15 April to 14 May 2008):

This month, Notes on Religion received 206 visits, that is, 255% more than the number received the previous month, alhamdu lillah. The average number of visitors during this period was seven a day.

Visitors came to Notes on Religion from Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe and North America. Most visitors (58%) came from the United States. Canada was next with 21%, while the United Arab Emirates came third with 4%. In sha' Allah, I'll quote all monetary amounts (if any are discussed) in US dollars along with Canadian dollars over the coming month.

In the US, the largest number of visitors (17%) came from New York.

In Canada, 47% of the visitors' ISPs were in Quebec.

The largest number of visitors this month (33%) were referred to Notes on Religion by Google. The most common Google search terms that brought visitors to the blog were 'anders bøtter' and 'luttwak'.

The most popular browser this month was Internet Explorer (46%). 87% of the visitors were Windows users.

Since the founding of the blog (15 March 2007 to 14 May 2008):

The total number of visitors during the year and two months was 1,600. The average number of visitors was four per day.

The largest number of visitors (36%) came from Canada. The second-highest number (34%) came from the United States. The United Kingdom came third with 5%.

Quebec accounted for 56% of the visitors' ISPs within Canada.

The biggest proportion of visitors (39%) 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 'natasha aliyeva'.

The most popular browser was Internet Explorer (50%). 91% of the visitors were Windows users.

12 May 2008

Wait until they find out Obama is a Christian, says "scholar"

In a piece of wacky logic and the worst example of Orientalism I've ever seen in the New York Times, Edward Luttwak, a fellow with the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), has claimed that, if Muslims found out that Barack Obama "chose to become a Christian", they would try to kill him. According to Luttwak, the hope among many Americans that a victory by Obama in the general election would improve American relations with the Islamic world is "a mistake".

Luttwak disingenuously calls Obama "the son of the Muslim father" (sic), while Obama has written that his father had become an atheist before marrying Barack's mother. In Luttwak's words, this fact "makes no difference". But according to whom? Which Islamic scholar would say that a child born to an atheist father and an agnostic mother must practice Islam when he has grown up? Can Luttwack cite even one such scholar?

Further, Luttwak argues that "under Muslim law based on the Koran his mother's Christian background is irrelevant." This statement, I'm afraid, is a simple case of deception. There is nothing in the Qur'an about punishing apostates, so Luttwak strategically employs the words "based on". Secondly, I lived in Kuwait when a Kuwaiti Muslim converted to Christianity, changed his name to Robert Qambar, and was declared an apostate by conservative Kuwaiti Muslim groups. He fled to the US despite assurances of government protection, but eventually came back with his Christian wife and reconverted to Islam. During the discussion sparked by the case, it was said in the Kuwaiti media that the apostasy law does not apply to people born of at least one non-Muslim parent. In that case, how would they apply to someone born of one ex-Muslim and one non-Muslim parent?

More importantly, the entire premise of Luttwak's article is based on what may be charitably called a false assumption, and less charitably called a lie. He says "that most citizens of the Islamic world would be horrified by the fact of Senator Obama’s conversion to Christianity once it became widely known". As my wife, an American Muslim, said when she heard this, "it's not like Muslims live in a hole". I think most Muslims already know that Obama is a Christian. Hundreds of millions of Muslims speak English, and can follow the debates and discussions surrounding the race for the American presidency in the original language. Non-English-language media worldwide are also discussing Obama. All the fellow-Muslims I've spoken to about Obama support him and wish him well, without exception. Each one knows that he is a Christian.

Luttwak attempts to paint "most citizens of the Islamic world" as ignorant, irrational bigots. I am encouraged by the dozens of comments his article has generated on the New York Times website, almost all of which say that his argument is ridiculous. The amount of goodwill that has already been generated for Obama in the Muslim world is very considerable. Islam stands for justice, fairness, dignity, truth and peace. These are values that Obama espouses as well. It is these values that Muslims, like anyone else, want to see in a presidential candidate, especially one who is running for the leadership of the most powerful country in the world. So if Obama wins the election and then acts on these values of his, I think the United States will find millions of new Muslim friends around the world.

09 May 2008

Deoband declares birthdays un-Islamic

Darul Uloom Deoband, possibly the most prominent Islamic seminary in South Asia, has issued an edict saying "It is unlawful to celebrate birthdays. It is a tradition of the West and has no importance in Islam. It is wrong to attend such... celebrations". A separate Deoband edict says that Muslims should not utter the phrase "Happy birthday".

In response to the edicts, Begum Naseem, a member of the executive committee of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, said that

Birthday celebrations are wasteful expenditure especially in a poor country like India. Islam lays great stress on social reform... it strives to counsel people to avoid wasteful expenditure.

Another member of the Board, Maulana Khalid Rashid Firangimahali, was in agreement with Begum Naseem. In his view, “Instead of spending money on celebrating birthdays, a man should offer food to the poor people."

Yasoob Abbas, spokesman of the All India Shia Personal Law Board, remarked that “Such fatwas carry no weight... in fact Darul Uloom has made of a mockery of the fatwas" (Deccan Herald).

While being a Sunni, I tend to agree with Abbas. Islam certainly lays a great deal of emphasis on moderation in all spheres of life. However, to say that birthdays are "unlawful" simply based on the fact that they are "a tradition of the West" is slightly silly. Which "tradition of the West" is next? Jeans? Pizza? Living in Britain?

I think what the scholars of Deoband ignored in issuing these edicts is the role of 'urf (custom) in the Shari'ah. As long as a custom does not contradict Islamic principles, there is nothing un-Islamic about it, whatever part of the world it comes from.

Ontario conservatives for Lord's Prayer in legislature

The Ontario Progressive Conservative Party (a Canadian party name if there ever was one) is calling for a free vote in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario on whether the assembly should abandon the current practice of starting each day with a recitation of the Lord's Prayer. An all-party committee in the legislature has been considering other ways to begin the day's business.

However, Ontario's PC Opposition Leader, Bob Runciman, says that 100 petitions totalling 23,000 signatures have been submitted calling for the daily recitation of the Lord's Prayer in the legislature to be preserved (Toronto Star).

08 May 2008

Govt-Hizbullah clashes break out in Lebanon

After years of peaceful confrontation, the standoff between the pro-Western Lebanese government and Hizbullah has turned violent. When the government sent in the Lebanese army to dismantle a phone network operated by Hizbullah, the militant movement decided to fight back.

According to the head of Hizbullah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, "This decision was a declaration of war and the start of war on the resistance and its weapons. Our response to this decision is that whoever declares or starts a war, be it a brother or a father, then it is our right to defend ourselves and our existence." However, Nasrallah said that his movement would stop fighting if the army withdrew from the streets.

There is a danger of the armed conflict spilling over into mixed Sunni-Shi'ite neighbourhoods in Beirut. In one such neighbourhood, Sunnis chanted "God is with the Sunnis," while Shi'ites responded with the words "The Shi'ite blood is boiling". Lebanese army soldiers acted as a barrier between the two sides.

This may be the closest Lebanon has come to a new civil war since the last one ended in 1990 (New York Times).

Let's hope it blows over. I think Hizbullah should know that the support it enjoys among Sunni Arabs would evaporate were it to start a real civil war against the government. I don't think it can afford to risk that.

Muslim teacher in NY loses job because of hate campaign

Debbie Almontaser, a Yemeni-American teacher who led the drive to set up a new public school in New York called Khalil Gibran International Academy, was forced to resign her position as principal before the school opened its doors to new students. The reason was a campaign of Islamophobia unleashed by a group that called itself the "Stop the Madrassa Coalition". The group was, in some ways, orchestrated by the Islam basher Daniel Pipes.

The school's mission was to teach Arabic as a foreign language. Almontaser's plan was to have a student body that would be half Arab-American. In all other respects, the Gibran Academy was to be a regular New York public high school. Moreover, in its emphasis in Arabic, the school was similar to dozens of other schools in New York that stress a particular language, such as Spanish or Russian.

The campaign against the Gibran Academy (named after a Lebanese Christian poet) broke out when Pipes wrote an op-ed in the New York Sun, in which he argued that "Arabic-language instruction is inevitably laden with Pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage." He also called the planned school a "madrassa", which is simply the Arabic word for "school" but, as Pipes knows very well, means an "Islamic seminary" in English. More recently, Pipes has admitted that his use of the word "madrassa" was "a bit of a stretch" and a tool he used to "get attention".

Attention he did get: a group of people, including Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a trustee at City University of New York, gathered around Pipes, and formed the above-mentioned coalition. Having very little information about the planned school to go on, the Coalition to Stop the Madrassa dug into Almontaser's past and her personal activities, and used the information obtained to smear her online and in the media. What motivated them was a desire to stop what Wiesenfeld referred to as "soft jihad", that is, the promotion of "radical Islam", in Pipes's words, through "the school system, the media, the religious organizations, the government, businesses and the like". In other words, the mere teaching of Arabic was construed by the group as equivalent to the promotion of "radical Islam".

What helped the Coalition clinch its case was an interview with the New York Post, in which Almontaser explained that the word "intifada" meant "a shaking off". She was asked about the shirts because some teenaged members of an Arab-American women's group she belonged to had been seen selling T-shirts that said "Intifada NYC" on them. The Post misquoted Almontaser as saying that the girls selling the T-shirts had been "shaking off oppression".

That was too much for the city's Education Department to bear, and Almontaser was asked to resign by Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, who added that she had until 8:00 am the next day to resign, because Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted to announce her resignation "on his radio show". Almontaser resigned, but filed a lawsuit to try to get her job back. A panel of federal judges has recently ruled that the New York Post has misreported the comments she had made to the paper.

The school did open under the direction of a different principal, Danielle Salzberg, who does not speak Arabic and soon made a name for herself with her authoritarian methods. Meanwhile, Almontaser has been assigned to a school inspection job, and has been allowed to keep her principal's pay of US $120,000 (Canadian $121,722) per year. The Coalition to Stop the Madrassa, for its part, continues to protest against the existence of the school (New York Times).

07 May 2008

Kashmir standardises the spelling of the name "Muhammad"

It is common in South Asia to spell the name Muhammad (when it is part of a man's name) as Mohd, or even Md. The practice is similar to the way William was once abbreviated "Wm." in English and Vladimir was shortened to "Vl." in Russian.

Now, Jammu and Kashmir is taking steps to combat the practice. The education department of the Indian state has issued an order to schools to record the first names of incoming students as "Muhammad", rather than the slightly distorted "Mohammed" or the abbreviated "Mohd" (Kolkata Telegraph).

I think it's a step in the right direction, provided the state doesn't start dictating the spelling of names in general.

Gülen schools promote moderate Islam in Pakistan

The Fethullah Gülen movement, led by a Turkish neo-Sufi, has been gaining international prominence in recent years due to its promotion of interfaith dialogue and moderate, apolitical Islamic practice. Apart from dialogue meetings with representatives of other religions, such as priests and rabbis, one of the movement's main activities is a network of schools that now covers over 80 countries.

The Gülen movement now has seven schools in Pakistan, where they are becoming increasingly popular with parents because of the way they promote Islam without preaching intolerance. Only one official, government-approved course on Islam is taught at the Gülen schools in Pakistan. However, the teachers encourage the practice of Islam in the student dormitories, and themselves act as an example of peaceful, practising Muslims. This is an approach that large numbers of Pakistani parents have been receptive to, given their frustrations with collapsing government-run schools, private Western-style schools that do not adequately teach Islam, and Islamic seminaries that are often tied (at least on the level of perception) with intolerance or even violence (New York Times).

I wonder how the recently opened Gülen school in Montréal is doing.

I'm back!

I can finally get back to this blog after two months of grading, exams, papers, articles, striking, etc. God willing, I'll try to get back to my old post-something-at-least-once-a-week schedule. :)

03 May 2008

Visitor profile, 15 March to 14 April 2008

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

This month (15 March to 14 April 2008):

This month, Notes on Religion received 58 visits, that is, 23% less than the number received 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 (48%) came from the United States. Canada and the United Arab Emirates tied for second place with 12%. In sha' Allah, I'll quote all monetary amounts (if any are discussed) in US dollars along with Canadian dollars over the coming month.

In the US, the largest number of visitors (29%) came from New York.

In Canada, 57% of the visitors' ISPs were in Quebec.

Most visitors this month (59%) were referred to Notes on Religion by Google. The most common Google search term that brought visitors to the blog was 'natasha aliyeva'.

The most popular browser this month was Internet Explorer (47%). 81% of the visitors were Windows users.

Since the founding of the blog (15 March 2007 to 14 April 2008):

The total number of visitors during the year and one month was 1,394. The average number of visitors was four per day.

The largest number of visitors (39%) came from Canada. The second-highest number (31%) came from the United States. The United Kingdom came third with 5%.

Quebec accounted for 57% of the visitors' ISPs within Canada.

The biggest proportion of visitors (42%) 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 'natasha aliyeva'.

The most popular browser was Internet Explorer (51%). 92% of the visitors were Windows users.

Visitor profile, 15 February to 14 March 2008

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

This month (15 February to 14 March 2008):

This month, Notes on Religion received 75 visits, that is, the same number as that received the previous month. The average number of visitors during this period was three a day.

Visitors came to Notes on Religion from Africa, Asia, Europe, North America and South America. The largest number of visitors (38%) came from the United States, and Canada came second with 35%. Visitors from other countries accounted for less than 1% each.

In the US, the largest number of visitors (18%) came from New York.

In Canada, 15% of the visitors' ISPs were in Quebec.

Most visitors this month (59%) were referred to Notes on Religion by Google. The most common Google search terms that brought visitors to the blog were 'congratulate kosovo' and 'religion of kosovo'.

The most popular browser this month was Internet Explorer (56%). 93% of the visitors were Windows users.

In the year since the founding of the blog (15 March 2007 to 14 March 2008):

The total number of visitors during the year was 1,336. The average number of visitors was four per day.

The largest number of visitors (40%) came from Canada. The second-highest number (30%) came from the United States. The United Kingdom came third with 5%.

Quebec accounted for 57% of the visitors' ISPs within Canada.

The biggest proportion of visitors (44%) 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 (51%). 92% of the visitors were Windows users.

25 February 2008

Chefs for Peace

The BBC has an interesting article up about an association of 45 Jewish, Muslim and Christian chefs from Israel and Palestine called Chefs for Peace. A few of them at a time get together and take charge of kitchens together as their collective contribution to Middle East peace. As Kevork Alemian, a chef who works in East Jerusalem, says, "In the kitchen, we use the most dangerous utensil, the knife. But here all of us -- Muslim, Christian, Jew -- we use it to make beautiful food."

Changing your gender in Iran

In Iran, homosexual acts are a crime punishable by death. However, there is a way out for homosexuals who want to live with members of the same sex: getting a sex change operation. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued an edict allowing sex change operations after coming to power in 1979. Since then, Iran's Islamist government has recognised sex change as legal upon recommendation by a doctor. The government covers upto half the cost, and the change is marked on one's birth certificate. Iran now has the second-highest annual number of sex change operations in the world.

According to Hojjatol Islam Muhammad Mehdi Kariminia, the cleric in charge of sex change in Iran, the procedure is as permissible by Islam as "changing wheat to flour to bread". However, according to Kariminia,

The discussion is fundamentally separate from a discussion regarding homosexuals. Absolutely not related. Homosexuals are doing something unnatural and against religion. It is clearly stated in our Islamic law that such behaviour is not allowed because it disrupts the social order.

Nevertheless, it is often homosexuals who resort to sex change in Iran. They often do so after facing taunts from colleagues and passers-by, and also from a wish to have an open relationship with their same-sex partner, who is no longer same-sex after the surgery.

The Iranians who undergo sex change operations often face opposition from their parents; Iranian society is not nearly as accepting of the procedure as the government is. Negar, a 27-year-old woman who was once a man named Ali Askar, says that her father tried to kill her to keep her from going through with the surgery. She subsequently left home and had to work as a prostitute to make ends meet.

On the other hand, Shahin, the mother of 21-year-old Anahita (formerly a man named Anoosh) is happy with her decision to become female. According to Shahin,

A boy will always just get married and leave his mum, but a girl stays, a girl is always yours and will never leave, and now I will never experience the sadness that occurs when a boy leaves. I always wanted a daughter and I think it's a gift from God that I finally got one.

Anahita's brother Ali Reza is not so sure, though. "
I have had a brother for many years. I can't just suddenly accept him as my sister. If I refer to him as my brother he gets upset. But it's hard for me to believe this," he complains. Nevertheless, Anahita is engaged to her boyfriend, and has found that the sex change has enabled her to live in peace. "Now when someone is attracted to me, it is as a girl," she says (BBC).

Taliban threaten mobile phone operators

The Taliban have threatened to destroy mobile phone towers and the offices of mobile phone companies in Afghanistan if the companies don't agree to stop mobile phone calls between 5:00 pm and 3:00 am each day. Zabiullah Mujaheed, a Taliban spokesman, said the movement was giving mobile phone companies three days to comply.

According to the Taliban, US forces in Afghanistan have been using night-time calls to track down members of the mililtant movement.

Mobile phones were first introduced in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban government in 2001 (BBC).

18 February 2008

Islamic Jihad militant killed in Gaza

A bomb explosion in the Bureij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip has killed at least seven people, among them Ayman Fayed, an Islamic Jihad leader. Fayed's wife and two of their children were also killed. Hamas, which is in control of the Gaza Strip, said that it was not clear what had caused the explosion, while Islamic Jihad blamed Israel and promised revenge (BBC).

Ayaan Hirsi Ali asks European Parliament for protection

The ex-Muslim and critic of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, formerly a Dutch MP and currently working for the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., has asked the European Parliament to create a fund for the physical defence of people threatened by extremists. Ms Ali received a death threat in 2004 from the murderer of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. The issue of her protection has arisen now because the Dutch government is no longer to willing to pay to protect her since she lives in the US. Ms Ali herself cannot afford to pay for bodyguards (BBC).

Danish atheist starts campaign to apologise to Muslims

Anders Bøtter, an atheist Danish student, has started a Facebook group called Sorry Muhammad, which is calling on Danes to apologise to Muslims over the reprinting of a defamatory cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Bøtter says that the cartoon issue has become unncessarily polarising, and that, while he is not personally insulted by the cartoon, its reprinting "hurts the feelings of Muslims a lot". In his words,

What does hurt my feelings is when a Danish newspaper publishes these very mocking cartoons of Muhammad. For me this is not a matter of a drawing but the mocking of one of our minority groups in Denmark and that's a big problem. That is why I apologise for being a Dane coming from Denmark.

This is not the first time
Bøtter has taken action over the cartoons: after their initial publication in 2006, he apologised to his Muslim friends in different countries by e-mail. This time around, Bøtter is trying to get 10,000 Danes to join his group; over 1,000 did in the first day of its existence. One Danish girl wrote to Bøtter saying that the very existence of his group made her feel proud to be Danish, because of its attempt to engage in dialogue.

A rival Facebook group has been set up by those who think there is nothing to apologise about; the group is called No Need to Apologise to Muhammad (BBC).

Bøtter is a true man of conscience, and I hope he gets his 10,000 members. He understands the issue for what it is: needless insults heaped repeatedly on a minority that is disadvantaged as it is. Let's hope that any Muslims who may be frustrated with Denmark over the issue also see that there is more than one side to the country.

Danish MPs cancel Iran trip over cartoons

A group of nine Danish MPs who were due to visit Iran have called off the trip two days before their scheduled departure, after being asked by the Iranian parliament to apologise over the recent reprinting of a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) wearing a turban with a bomb in it. Villy Søvndal, the head of the Socialist People's Party, said that "If anyone needs to apologise for freedom of speech, human rights, imprisonments, executions and lack of democracy, it is the Iranians" (BBC).

So if one group of people acts in a way that others find offensive, does that mean that those opposed must also try to be offensive? Is that what
Søvndal is trying to proclaim?

17 February 2008

Taliban blamed for Kandahar suicide bombing

At least 65 people have been killed in a suicide bomb attack on a dog fighting match in Kandahar. According to Kandahar governor Assadullah Khalid, the Taliban carried out the attack. One of the people killed was a police chief called Abdul Hakim, and he is thought to have been the main target of the attack (BBC).

Five Anglican parishes in Canada plan to break away

Three Anglican parishes in British Columbia and two in Ontario are planning to separate from the Anglican Church of Canada over the issue of the blessing of same-sex marriages. The General Synod of the Church decided last June that blessing same-sex marriages was not against basic church doctrine, promting anger among more conservative congregations.

The five break-away parishes may join conservative Anglican Churches in other parts of the world. It seems, however, that the Anglican Church of Canada may not let them leave quietly, and disputes over church property may be brewing (National Post).

Turkey legalises headscarves at universities

The Turkish parliament voted earlier this month to lift the ban on the wearing of headscarves on university campuses. The ban was put in place in 1991 through the constitutional court's decision that heascarves worn at state-owned universities violated the separation of religion and the state. The constitutional provision that allowed the court to reach that conclusion has now been repealed. The issues does not seem settled yet, though, since the new constitutional amendment may face a court challenge (Wall Street Journal).

Nevertheless, this is a very important step for Turkey to have taken, and it proves that the country is actually moving towards being a genuine democracy.

Congratulations, Kosovo!

I'd like to congratulate the newest country in the world, Kosovo, on its independence, proclaimed today.

All the best to the people of Kosovo, who have struggled long and hard to reach this point.

16 February 2008

UK Shari'a row exposes limits of tolerance

Last week, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, sparked a major row in Britain when he suggested that "aspects" of the Shari'a would eventually be incorporated into British law, and said that British Muslims should not be faced with "the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty". Archbishop Williams faced a barrage of criticism after his comments, both from within and without the Anglican Church.

Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, said that it would be "disastrous" to incorporate any Shari'a-based laws into the British legal system. Col Edward Armitstead, a member of the General Synod of the Church, said he didn't think Williams was "the man for the job". Alison Ruoff, another member of the Synod, said that "in terms of being a leader of the Christian community I think he's actually at the moment a disaster." Brig William Dobbie, a former member of the Synod, said that Williams's words on the Shari'a were "a tragic mistake." Ordinary Muslims a BBC correspondent talked to in Bradford also seemed opposed to the idea.

However, in many ways Williams was greatly misunderstood. According to Muhammad Abdul Bari, the Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB),

The archbishop is not advocating implementation of the Islamic penal system in Britain. His recommendation is confined to the civil system of Sharia law, and only in accordance with English law and agreeable to established notions of human rights.

The MCB thanked Williams for his "thoughful intervention".

The Rt Rev Stephen Lowe, the Bishop of Hulme, criticised the "knee-jerk" response to Williams's suggestions, and added,

We have probably one of the greatest and the brightest Archbishops of Canterbury we have had for many a long day. He is undoubtedly one of the finest minds of this nation. The way he has been ridiculed, lampooned and treated by some people and indeed some of the media within this process, is quite disgraceful.

The highest-ranked female priest in the Church of England, the Very Rev June Osborne, cautiously backed Williams, saying, "Our society needs to be provoked into talking about these things." Alun Michael, a former minister in the Home Office, condemned the "absurd media feeding frenzy" surrounding the issue. Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, condemned the outburst against Williams, saying that such a response created a "fear that people with a Christian conscience will be put to the sidelines and not allowed to say what they believe to be true for the common good."

What Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor is saying may be true, since Williams has been shocked by the response into a near-silence on the issue. His website said, however, that some Shari'a-based rules were "already recognised in our society and under our law. The statement added that the Archbishop had been looking for ways in which "
reasonable accommodation might be made within existing arrangements for religious conscience", and was trying to "tease out some of the broader issues around the rights of religious groups within a secular state".

The best part in all this is that, of course, as Williams says, some aspects of the Shari'a already operate in daily lilfe within British law (for example, halal slaughter and the certification of halal meat), and that Orthodox Jews have had their own religious courts in Britian for a long time.

Quite unfortunately, Williams's words were used by some quarters in British society and the media to once again jump on Muslims and decry anything Islamic. It's quite heartening, though, to see voices of calm and moderation not just among British Muslims, but among Christians as well.

Visitor profile, 15 January to 14 February 2008

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

This month (15 January to 14 February 2008):

This month, Notes on Religion received 75 visits, that is, 20% less than the previous month. The average number of visitors during this period was two a day.

Visitors came to Notes on Religion from Asia, Europe, North America and South America. The majority of visitors (59%) came from Canada, and the United States came second with 21%. Germany came a distant third with 5%.

Within Canada, 39% of the visitors' ISPs were in Quebec.

The largest number of visitors this month (35%) came to Notes on Religion directly. The most common Google search term that brought visitors to the blog was 'pope coming to quebec'. He's probably not coming here this year, though.

The most popular browser this month was Firefox (61%). 85% of the visitors were Windows users.

Since the founding of the blog (15 March 2007 to 14 February 2008):

The total number of visitors during these eleven months was 1,261. The average number of visitors was four per day.

The largest number of visitors (40%) came from Canada. The second-highest number (29%) came from the United States. The United Kingdom came third with 5%.

Quebec accounted for 60% of the visitors' ISPs within Canada.

The biggest proportion of visitors (46%) 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 (50%). 92% of the visitors were Windows users.

06 February 2008

Kuwait plans to build synagogue

The Britain-based architect Eric Kuhne has announced plans to build a "City of Silk" in Kuwait as the country's own take on the historical Silk Road. The planned city is to lie on the northern shore of Kuwait Bay (most urban development in Kuwait so far has been concentrated to the south of the bay), and is to be 200 sq. km in size. According to Kuhne, the City of Silk is "the largest single real estate development in the Middle East."

In the commercial section of the city, which is to be crisscrossed with canals, there are plans to build a 1,001-m tall tower recalling the One Thousand and One Nights. At the top levels of the tower, there are plans to build three side-by-side houses of worship: a mosque, a church and a synagogue. The idea behind the move is to highlight the "unity" of the monotheistic religions (Arab Times).

It's great news if freedom of worship is to be increased in Kuwait, but I still wonder how the opening of a synagogue would play out, especially if there's yet another humanitarian disaster in Palestine around the time when it is inaugurated.

02 February 2008

Bulgarian Muslims pray for president

Prayers of thanksgiving have been held at mosques in five Bulgarian cities, including Sofia, after President Georgi Parvanov, a non-Muslim, returned safely to Bulgaria from a trip to Mexico. Parvanov's plane had had to make an emergency landing on the Azores on the way back to Bulgaria.

The prayer in Sofia was led by the chief mufti of Bulgaria, Mustafa Alish Hadji. Apparently, the Muslim leadership of Bulgaria decided to hold the prayers thanking God for rescuing Parvanov after getting several calls from Muslims asking them to do so.

Parvanov is popular among Bulgarian Muslims, who supported him in the 2006 presidential election (Novinite.com).

Something Even More Magical

In other news...