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.

Something Even More Magical

In other news...