31 January 2008

Saudis attempt to reeducate militants

The Saudi government is in the process of opening up a new prison system to house inmates convicted of crimes related to terrorism. The goal of the new prisons is to reeducate the inmates and to instill in them the belief that engaging in armed jihad without the approval of one's country and one's parents is haram, or Islamically forbidden. The Saudi interior ministry has involved about 3,000 inmates in the scheme.

According to Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Centre, inmates released from the special jails have a re-arrest rate of upto 7%, while in a similar scheme in Yemen, about 70% of the released convicts have re-offended (BBC).

Hamas wants joint control of Gaza-Egypt border

While Egypt starts placing restrictions on the movement of Palestinians into its territory through the breaches in the Gaza-Egypt border fence, talks are underway between Egypt and Hamas, which is in control of the Gaza Strip, over longer-term control over the border. Egypt is also simultaneously negotiating the border issue with the administration of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas has been cooperating with Egypt over stemming the flow of Palestinians into Egypt, but wants joint control over the border with Egypt in return. Meanwhile, Abbas does not want Hamas to play any role at the border, and is refusing to enter into direct dialogue with the movement. According to Abbas, "Hamas has to end its coup in Gaza, accept all international obligations, and accept holding early elections" before any talks can begin between it and the Palestinian government.

Egypt would like Abbas's government to control the Palestinian side of the border under supervision from Israel and the EU, under a multi-sided agreement reached in 2005 (BBC).

Al-Qaeda commander reportedly killed

According to a pro-militant website, a top-level Al-Qaeda commander, Abu Laith al-Libi, was killed earlier this week in the North Waziristan Agency of Pakistan. According to a Pakistani newspaper, Libi died in a US air strike. The US suspected Libi of being behind several suicide bombings in Afghanistan (BBC).

Brazil bans Holocaust carnival float

As a result of a lawsuit filed by the Jewish Federation of Rio de Janeiro (Fierj), Brazilian judge Juliana Kalichszteim has banned the Unidos de Viradouro samba school from displaying a carnival float that graphically depicts the Holocaust. The float contains mannequins looking like dead bodies piled up on top of each other.

Unidos de Viradouro were planning to display the float in the upcoming Carnival as part of a series of disturbing floats depicting birth, fear and cold. The overarching theme of the floats is "It gives you goosebumps". According to Paulo Barros, the creative director of the samba school, the offending float was meant to be remind spectators of the Holocaust in a "very respectful" manner. However, Ricardo Brajterman, the lawyer for Fierj,

The monstrosity that is the Holocaust just cannot be combined with the excessively festive nature of the carnival, a festival recognised worldwide for its joy, humour, entertainment and eroticism.

In her decision, Judge Kalichszteim said that
"Carnival should not be used as an instrument of hatred, any kind of racism and clear trivialisation of barbaric and unjustified acts against minorities".

If Unidos de Viradouro decide to proceed with displaying the float, the school could be fined (BBC).

I think this is a wise decision on the part of the Brazilian judge. Expression should be free in democratic societies, but certain limits are appropriate. Freedom of expression should not be used as an excuse for libel or disparagement. And, besides, people should use their common sense. If your neighbour's house burned down one day (God forbid), would it be appropriate to mount an exhibition of pictures depicting burned houses and install it where your neighbour can see it?

27 January 2008

Belarusian journalist imprisoned for Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) caricatures

Aliaksandr Źdźvižkoŭ (whose name is also spelled Alexander Sdvizhkov in English), the former editor of the defunct Belarusian opposition newspaper Zhoda (Agreement), has been sentenced to three years in prison by the Minsk City Court for reprinting the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) which first appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

After having the cartoons reprinted, Źdźvižkoŭ was quoted as saying "We did the right thing by speaking out against Islamic hysteria." I have to say, whipping up hysteria by attacking what is sacred to someone else is a funny way of "speaking out against... hysteria." In particular, Źdźvižkoŭ didn't seem to remember that Belarus has its own community of around 30,000 Muslims who were exhibiting no "hysteria" over the cartoons, and that printing the cartoons in Zhoda (especially given the negative depiction of the Prophet contained in most of them) would be needlessly, gratuitously offensive to Belarusian Muslims.

As it happened, Ismail Varanovič, the head of the Spritual Directorate of the Muslims of the Republic of Belarus, sued Źdźvižkoŭ for "inciting hatred" against the Muslim community. However, he now claims that the government and, in particular, the Committee of Religious and Ethnicity Affairs, put him up to it. More that that, they made him understand that it was their express desire that he sue Źdźvižkoŭ.

Varanovič says that he felt sorry for Źdźvižkoŭ at the trial, which was held behind closed doors, and even tried to help him by telling the court that he had come to think that Źdźvižkoŭ's actions represented not an incitement to hatred, but rather a mere illustration to the story of the cartoon controversy. According to Varanovič, Źdźvižkoŭ apologised to him personally, and to the Muslim community in general, for his actions.

So it seems that the Belarusian Muslim community was led into something not of its own choosing, and was used by the government in its own game against Źdźvižkoŭ. This theory is supported by the fact that the prison term that Źdźvižkoŭ was sentenced to -- three years -- is the most severe of all so far received by people found guilty in the cartoon controversy in any country.

So why is it that the Belarusian authorities were after Źdźvižkoŭ? Two reasons have been raised in the independent and opposition press. Some say that the Belarusian government wanted to impress rich(er) Muslim countries with their defence of Islam in order to attract investments from them. However, the theory that sounds more likely to be true is that the authorities wanted to move Źdźvižkoŭ out of the way for a while because his newspaper, Zhoda, had endorsed Aliaksandr Kazulin, a Social-Democratic candidate for the Belarusian presidency. In addition, the action taken against Źdźvižkoŭ can serve as a warning to what is left of the independent Belarusian media to be more careful in what they say -- not about Islam, but about President Lukašenka. This theory rings true not just because of various actions against journalists undertaken by the Belarusian government in the past, but also because Zhoda was shut down following a threat from Lukašenka to do so.

So where does this leave the Belarusian Muslims? Unfortunately, they have faced a certain degree of scapegoating from the Belarusian opposition, which is not normally known for anti-Muslim positions. Thus, the deputy leader of the Belarusian Popular Front, Alieś Michalievič (Mikhalevich), has asked Metropolitan Filaret, the Exarch of the Russian Orthodox Church in Belarus, to intervene with the authorities in order to get Źdźvižkoŭ's sentence softened. In his appeal, Michalievič claims that Źdźvižkoŭ has been made to suffer for "expressing his Christian convictions", and asks sarcastically whether the "the law of the Shari'a" is in force in Belarus. To which one may reply that one does not need to look as far as the Shari'a to find condemnation of libel and hate speech of the kind that the cartoons represented.

One pro-opposition journalist has even warned that Belarusians should beware of the transformation of our country into "Belarusistan". In his view, Źdźvižkoŭ understood this danger, but went overboard in his response. At best, the journalist's statement regarding the "present threat" posed by Belarusian Muslims reflects a hastily put together reaction that ignores the simple facts that the Muslim community has lived peacefully in what is now Belarus for over 600 years and, that Muslim scholars were writing religious treatises in Belarusian centuries ago, and that further, Muslims constitute less than 1 percent of the population of Belarus. These sorts of responses from respected segments of the opposition intelligentsia are irresponsible and seem to imply an attempt to align pro-Western Belarusian views with those of extreme right-wing Western European politicians. What does not make sense in this equation, however, is that those xenophobic politicians try to court public support by attacking immigrants or their children (which is, in itself, wrong), while Belarus, as I said above, has what can be quite justifiably considered an indigenous Muslim population.

So what is needed here are liberal voices, ones that understand that freedom comes with responsibility, and that we Belarusians are one people who must continue building our country for all of us together, whether we are Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, or what have you. Fortunately, there are some who have been speaking out in just such a vein.

Since becoming a "normal European country" is one of the biggest dreams of the Belarusian opposition, I'd like to suggest that turning on minorities at the slightest hint of imagined provocation is not the way to achieve that dream.

19 January 2008

Happy Old New Year!

I'd like to wish all of my post-Soviet and associated readers a happy Old New Year!

The Old New Year, one of the vestiges of the Julian calendar, is still celebrated in the former USSR, where it closes the holiday season, but also elsewhere, as you can read here.

Visitor profile, 15 December 2007 to 14 January 2008

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

This month (15 December 2007 to 14 January 2008):

This month, Notes on Religion received 94 visits, that is, 15% more than the previous month. The average number of visitors during this period was three a day.

Visitors came to Notes on Religion from every inhabited continent, alhamdu lillah. The majority of visitors (59%) came from Canada, and the United States came second with 21%. The UK came a distant third with 4%.

Within Canada, 35% of the visitors' ISPs were in Quebec.

The largest number of visitors this month (35%) was referred to the blog by Blogger. The most common Google search term that brought visitors to Notes on Religion was 'rashed chowdhury blog'.

The most popular browser this month was Firefox (55%). 89% of the visitors were Windows users.

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

The total number of visitors during these ten months was 1,186. The average number of visitors was four per day.

The largest number of visitors (39%) came from Canada. The second-highest number (30%) came from the United States. The United Kingdom came third with 6%.

Quebec accounted for 61% of the visitors' ISPs within Canada.

The biggest proportion of visitors (47%) 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 (52%). 93% of the visitors were Windows users.

11 January 2008

Happy Islamic New Year!

I'd like to wish all my Muslim readers a happy 1429!

May we be continuously inspired by the example of the Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace) and his companions (may God be pleased with them), who emigrated from Mecca to Medina 1429 lunar years ago.

You can find news articles concerning the Hijri New Year here.

07 January 2008

José Correa on presenting before the Bouchard-Taylor Commission

Recently, my friend and fellow Muslim, al-Haj José Correa, an alumnus of McGill University, presented a brief to the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on reasonable accommodation on behalf of the McGill chapter of the Muslim Student Association.

I'd like to share with you his account of the events of the day:

The experience of presenting a brief at the Bouchard-Taylor commission felt a lot like I was voting at a general election. Except, instead of simply stepping behind a booth to vote, I got the rare chance of explaining why I was voting the way I was. Now just imagine having to explain to the public after casting your vote - in 15 minutes, and while live cameras focus in on your every word - why you voted NDP or Liberal, etc. I guess that's what the experience was like for me.

Now, before being seated and commencing, Bouchard and Taylor were introduced to me and shook my hand affectionately. For some reason I was somewhat startled. I guess I had developed a slight and undetectable persecution complex over the preceding weeks under the influence of the media, being Muslim and all. The handshakes had managed to pull me abruptly and expeditiously back into the society I thought I was living in before the whole commission began. Moreover, the co-presidents were quite spontaneous and welcoming, surprisingly, given what must have been the thousands of testimonials and presentations that had come before me.

Since Bouchard and Taylor are ordinarily university professors, I couldn't help but feel at times I was really being graded. Still, their questions demonstrated quite convincingly that they had spent adequate time reading my brief, which in a weird way, comforted me. However, one line of inquiry from Bouchard made me question if I was actually defending a dissertation.
At the end, as I exited the hall, feeling relatively satisfied with the course of the presentation, I was unexpectedly swarmed by an estimated 25 journalists and media types -- a first for me. Wow! Thinking back, this was the most fascinating part of my whole experience. Pressed to answer rapid fire questions from a choir of intrigue, microphones and flashes, I suppose lent me a brief glimpse into the lives of politicians and public figures. And that's what it was like.

You can read the text of his brief below:


The Muslim Student Association of McGill University is a student body which provides religious and cultural services to the Muslim community on McGill campus. Such services include daily and Friday prayers, the dissemination of information on Islam and Muslims, and interfaith and cultural activities with other groups on campus.

We are particularly well placed as a Muslim university student group to advise the commission about accommodating minorities, having recently been denied a prayer space by our university administration. We know firsthand what it is like to be denied the very thing this commission has been put together to reassess.


{O humankind! We have created you male and female, and have made you into

nations and tribes that you may know one another. Verily, the noblest of you,

in the sight of God, is the best in conduct. Verily, God is the all-Knowing, Aware. (49:13)}


Simply said, denying minorities the right to accommocations such as providing them with prayer spaces, marginalizes them by creating disincentives to participate fully and equally in the function of important institutions such as universities. Reasonable accommodations make minorities feel included and at equal footing with others and contributes greatly to the welfare of society. Our argument is basic: reasonable accommodations are necessary for proper integration to take place. Depriving minorities of their religious and cultural rights has the opposite effect.

Think also of the message that we send to visiting students from around the world, who represent not a permanent element of our society but are rather witnesses of our society's lack of openness and hospitality. Think of how they view us and what they learn from us and what they take back to their home countries when we fail to meet their most very basic needs by denying them a space to pray, relegating them rather to the corridors and stairwells of our supposedly enlightened institutions. Should this not be a point of reflection? Should this analysis not be part of our own foreign policy considerations?

Moreover, we often and easily overlook the fact that not only immigrants introduce different cultural practices into a host country. Many native Quebecers, for instance, are embracing Islam and are choosing to adopt religious and cultural practices that do not strictly originate here in Quebec. Interestingly, the argument that immigrants should adopt local practices upon arrival does not apply here. When defining the values implied by such things as clothing attire and religious practices, we should note that many liberal-minded, native Quebecers are choosing to adopt these same practices, no longer making these items exclusively foreign but rather part of our inner cultural development.

Our distinct Quebec character is not a motive nor a mandate to change - for the sake of change alone or primarily - that which is right and good about our society just because we hold it in common with the rest of Canada. We are different from the rest of Canada but our differences should not justify us adopting rejectionist and anti-conformist attitudes. Our autonomy and our aspiration to actualize as a distinct society and as a nation should be the result of independent thinking, not reactionary group thinking.

Quebec is poised to empathize with minorities who seek simply to have their differences recognized because they too feel worthy and dignified and not deserving of assimilation and neglect. Wanting to preserve and honour these differences should not be confused with rejecting the host culture, and Quebec knows very well that asserting its distinct character does not imply thinking any less of the rest of Canada.

We should continue to listen to one another and rightfully value the opinion of those who choose to make religious symbols part of their identity. If there is concern for how these symbols are used outside of Quebec, then these symbols can be explicitly defined so that we as Quebecers can make clear which implied meanings we welcome, accept or tolerate, and which meanings contradict our values. As students and as Muslims living in Quebec we dream of a Quebec where external attire will simply mean an internal, private choice, not a public imposition of religiosity or inequality between genders. We have been taught to treat our neighbours as we would ourselves. All of the beauty of ethics can be argued to flow from this one overarching-principle. But we should also be mindful of one important qualification; that is, not to engage in false empathy : false empathy means putting yourself in the position of others but incorrectly construing their inner experience. False empathy is what happens when we insist with golden rule impetus that some given clothing attire is oppressive because we can't help but feel sorry or personally violated. So let us beware of committing false empathy, ironically, to the detriment of others.


But most importantly, we should remain staunchly vigilant of the fact that it is becoming increasingly unpopular to avail ourselves of our rights as Muslims. Our experience is that we often feel the need to take other channels than the ones we are entitled to for fear of earning the scorn of society. In light of this, other groups should step in or be set up to ensure that everyone's human rights continue to be protected.

Merry Christmas... again!

I would like to wish all my Orthodox Christian readers a merry Christmas!

You can find pictures of Christians celebrating Orthodox Christmas in different parts of the world here.

Happy New Year!

Notes on Religion is back after my winter break!

Happy New Year! I'd like to wish everyone a happy, peaceful and fulfilling 2008.

Here are some pictures of people ringing in the New Year around the world.

Something Even More Magical

In other news...