15 November 2009

The Goldstone Report and the Bible

Going through the Bible the other day, I came across a passage that reminded me of the unbridled attacks launched by the Israeli government and its supporters against the Goldstone Report. The report, authored by a commission headed by the eminent South African Jewish jurist Richard Goldstone, accuses both Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes during the Gaza War of 2008-2009.

President Shimon Peres has stooped to calling Goldstone a "small man". I would counter that such language makes my countryman Peres (we were both born in modern-day Belarus) sound like a small man.

The Bible passage I was referring to is Amos 5: 7-15. In citing it here, I am trying to remind the political leadership of Israel of the Biblical values of justice and truth which they have, in this instance, allowed to fall by the wayside. My favourite part of this passage is "Hate what is evil. Love what is good. Do what is fair in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God who rules over all will show you his favour." These are values that all of us should seek to live by.

As Nicholas Kristof points out, there are "two Israels", or even "many Israels". Let us hope that the one that triumphs in the long run is not Netanyahu's Israel or Lieberman's Israel, but rather the Israel that wants to live side by side with its neighbours in a just peace.

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Now playing: "Peace Train" by Cat Stevens

Visitor profiles, 15 October to 14 November 2009

Welcome to the twenty-first installment of Notes on Religion visitor profiles!

The most recent month (15 October to 14 November 2009):

This month, Notes on Religion received 759 visits.

Visitors came to Notes on Religion from every inhabited continent, alhamdu lillah. The largest number of visitors (24%) came from Italy (grazie!). The United States was next with almost 24%, while Canada came third with 16%. In sha' Allah, I'll quote all monetary amounts (if any are discussed) in euros along with Canadian dollars over the coming month.

Within Italy, the largest number of visitors (15%) came from Rome.

A plurality of visitors this past month (34%) 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'.

The most popular browser this month was Internet Explorer (47%). 91% of the visitors were Windows users.

Since the founding of the blog (15 March 2007 to 14 November 2009):

The total number of visitors during these two years and eight months was 11,791. The average number of visitors was 12 per day.

The largest number of visitors (43%) came from the United States. The second-highest number (15%) came from Canada. The United Kingdom came third with 7%.

Within the US, the state with the largest number of visitors (14%) was California, while the city with the largest number (5%) was New York.

The majority of visitors (53%) 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 'russian neo nazi beheading'.

The most popular browser was Internet Explorer (47%). 90% of the visitors were Windows users.

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Now playing: Kathy's Song by Simon & Garfunkel

14 November 2009

Two trials, same disease

So it turns out that Alexander Wiens, the Islamophobe who has recently been found guilty of the murder of Marwa al-Sherbini, is appealing his life sentence at the Federal Court of Justice. Let's hope this court has enough strength of character to reaffirm the sentence.

Meanwhile, the trial of Radovan Karadžić has been postponed until 1 March. Karadžić, of course, has been charged with the murder of 7,000 Muslims in Srebrenica and 10,000 people, most of them Muslims, in Sarajevo, among other crimes. So far, he has been able to obstruct his trial by boycotting it and continually asking for more time to study the charges against him. It seems, though, that, once the trial is well and truly under way, Karadžić should receive a life sentence if even one of the more serious charges against him is proven. Anything less would be a travesty of justice.

The difference between Karadžić and Wiens is simply one of degree. Unquestionably, there is a significant minority of Europeans that believes that there is no place for Muslims in Europe. While most such right-wing extremists spread their views non-violently (see picture), there are those, like Karadžić and Wiens, who evidently believe that European Muslims should be physically exterminated. It is thus reassuring that Wiens received his life sentence, and also reassuring that Karadžić is behind bars, despite the lack of progress in his trial.

The European and international justice system have so far been able to demonstrate that the brazen murder of innocents in Europe will not be tolerated. Thank God for that. However, an almost equally serious problem, in my view, is the seemingly growing political clout of openly Islamophobic movements that, while stopping short of calling for violence against Muslims, do their best to depict European Muslims as enemy aliens.

Among such groups I would count the British National Party (BNP). Last May, on a visit to England, I saw a BNP flyer which said, which no apparent shame, that Turkey should be prevented from entering the EU so that "70 million Muslim Turks" would not be able to flock to British shores. I would have thought that such open attacks on a particular group based solely on their religion would be illegal. But apparently not. Take a look at this poster, which makes it clear that opposition to Muslims (not Muslim extremists or whatever, mind, but all Muslims) is a central plank of the BNP's platform. Or look at this poster. Or this one.

Then, of course, there's the Swiss People's Party and its anti-minaret referendum, or Geert Wilders and his call for the Qur'an to be banned in the Netherlands, and for new Muslim immigrants to be kept out of the country. Lighter shades of Islamophobia are evident in Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign to legislate the clothing of Muslim women in France.

While anti-Semitism is, thankfully, on the decline in Europe, it seems that Islamophobia has very quickly taken its place. As Nick Griffin has admitted, this replacement of anti-Semitism with Islamophobia is, often, intentional. It's simply what sells these days.

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09 November 2009

Fachrizal Halim on Communism and Islam

My friend Fachrizal had an article published in the Jakarta Post in October challenging the notion that the Indonesian Communist movement was hostile to Islam from its inception.

Fachrizal cites Lenin's appeal to "all labouring Muslims of Russia and the East", and the subsequent support for the Bolsheviks on the part of some Russian Muslims. In Fachrizal's view, this "strategic alliance" was a result of the shared opposition of the Muslims and the Bolsheviks to Western imperialism.

Fachrizal argues that a similar alliance existed in Indonesia between the Communists and the Muslims masses. He concludes that it is time for the Communists' contribution to the formation of modern-day Indonesia to be fully acknowledged.

This is certainly a very interesting take on the issue. The history of cooperation between the Communists and Islamists in the days of Indonesia's struggle for independence is new to me. I do feel, though, that Fachrizal might be somewhat idealistic when he talks about Lenin's attitude towards Russian Muslims. On the other hand, he does acknowledge the fact that Stalin saw no grounds for the compatibility of Islam and Communism. This had a devastating outcome not just for the freedom of conscience of Soviet Muslims, but also in Indonesia, where the pro-Soviet Communists were forced to take an increasingly anti-Islamic stance.

02 November 2009

Comedy night at the synagogue



To those of you who're in Montreal or nearby: I hope to see many (or some) of you at the synagogue tomorrow for a stand-up comedy show featuring Mo Amer and Rabbi Bob Alper. See the poster above for details.

28 October 2009

Tariq Ramadan on the Swiss minaret referendum

On 29 November, the Swiss are scheduled to vote on whether to ban minarets in the country. The referendum was called on the initiative of the Swiss People's Party, described by Swissinfo.ch as a "small ultra-conservative Christian party". The referendum campaign has included some quite shockingly Islamophobic posters, usually depicting minarets as missiles. Meanwhile, the Swiss Foundation against Racism and Anti-Semitism and the Society for Minorities in Switzerland have spoken out against the minaret-ban initiative, as have the Swiss government and seven political parties.

This is one of those instances where I, as a European Muslim, think to myself, "Thank God my family and I live in North America." I can't imagine living in a society where an architectural component of a mosque is compared to a weapon. Yet the 311,000 Muslims in Switzerland (of whom 36,000 are Swiss citizens) have to contend with these and other issues on an ongoing basis.

In an interview given to Arnaud Bédat of the Lausanne L'Illustré, the Swiss Islamic scholar and activist Tariq Ramadan blamed "racism" for the initiative.

Here are some excerpts from the interview (in my translation):

AB: What would you like to say to the Swiss who are being called to the ballot boxes on 29 November to voice their opinion on the anti-minaret initiative?

TR: I would like to tell them that they should not vote with their fears, but with their principles and their hopes, and that it is necessary to preserve the fundamental principles which comprise the Swiss tradition: freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. The UDC [the Democratic Union of the Centre, another name for the Swiss People's Party] is today instrumentalising fear, such as with the posters which transform minarets into missiles. These are old and well known methods, with a racism that is returning today with new targets.

AB: But do you understand these fears?

TR: Certainly. One must respect the fear of ordinary citizens, while one also must resist in civic fashion populist parties which are instrumentalising fear in order to win elections. The majority of our fellow Swiss citizens are not racists: they are afraid and they would like to understand. Swiss people of the Muslim faith have a real responsibility to communicate and explain.... At the same time, one must refuse to allow populism to install itself. The problem is that the UDC initiative is using the symbol of the minaret to target Islam as a religion. I have had debates with Mr. Freysinger. What does he say? That "Islam is not integratable into Swiss society." So he says to me, to me, and I am Swiss like him, that "You are not a good Swiss person, you cannot be one, since your quality of being a Muslim prevents you from being a good Swiss person." That is the foundation of the debate: the problem is Islam, not minarets.

AB: But the minaret, you write so yourself, is not a pillar of Muslim faith.

TR: Yes, but is that a reason to say "Since it is not an obligation, you don't need it"?... Does it have to be that the only good Swiss Muslim is an invisible Muslim? Is this the future of our pluralism and of our living together?

AB: Numerous Islamic countries forbid other religions on their territory -- there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia, for example. Is it not ultimately logical that part of the West reject Islam on its territory?

TR: This is the oft-repeated argument of reciprocity. It is untenable. Respect for the rights and dignity of people is not a question of trade. It falls to us, to us in Switzerland, to preserve our principles of respect, and to not allow ourselves to be colonised by the unacceptable practices of other societies. Let us say first of all that it is wrong to say that religious minorities are always discriminated against in Muslim-majority societies. There are synagogues, churches and temples [there]. However, one should not deny the fact that discrimination and the denial of rights do occur, as in Saudi Arabia. One cannot hold Swiss citizens and residents of Muslim faith responsible for the actions of certain dictatorial governments from which they have often, by the way, fled for political or economic reasons. What one can expect from them [Swiss Muslims], nevertheless, from a moral point of view, is a denunciation of discrimination and ill treatment. That is something I do not stop doing, which has closed the doors of several countries, such as Saudi Arabia, to me.

AB: Do you dream, as you detractors claim, of a world that is entirely Muslim?

TR: No. I was born, have lived and have studied in Switzerland; my whole philosophical education comes from that. I have always believed that those who do not share my beliefs allow me to be more myself. The absolute power or uniformisation of a religion on earth would mean corruption and death. The worst that could happen to Muslims is if the whole world became Muslim! That is not even what God's project is. There has to be diversity and difference. Because difference teaches us humility and respect.

AB: When you hear Michel Houellebecq declare that "Islam is the most stupid religion in the world," how do you react?

TR: I do not react to this type of provocation. Thinking that a religion can be the most stupid on earth is a little stupid, is it not?

AB: Some rapid-fire questions, to be answered with a "yes" or a "no". Do you condemn all types of fanaticism?

TR: Yes. All types of fanaticism and dogmatism, wherever they come from.

AB: Do you condemn hostage taking, such as that of Shalit in Israel?

TR: Yes. And that of thousands of Palestinians, too.

AB: Can one recruit a child suicide bomber in the name of Islam?

TR: No.

AB: Do you condemn Iran, which is suspected of building a nuclear weapon?

TR: Yes. I condemn all possession of nuclear weapons, without exception.

AB: Do you recongnise the right of Israel to exist?

TR: Yes.

AB: Are you for or against civil partnerships?

TR: I am for them. I have even gone further, in saying to Muslims that civil partnerships could be a contractual framework of interest to Muslim citizens.

AB: Are you going to set out into politics one day, as some have been hinting?

TR: An absolute "no". My feelings are left-leaning. If someone forced my hand, I can see myself in a pro-ecological party more than anything.

AB: Have you at times been the target of extremists?

TR: I have received threats. Nothing serious.

AB: You must be one of the most listened-to people by all the secret services of the planet, right?

TR: That does not matter to me much. I try to hold to a single line: my political engagement is clear.

Let's hope the initiative to ban minarets fails, along with every other attempt to deny Muslims their place in European society.

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21 October 2009

Bosnian Serb jailed for genocide role

Milorad Trbić, an officer of the erstwhile Bosnian Serb army, has been sentenced to 30 years in jail by the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina for his role in the Srebrenica Massacre of 1995, in which over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed.

The court found that, as the Duty Operations Officer of the Zvornik Brigade of the Army of Republika Srpska in July 1995, Trbić "significantly contributed to the implementation" of the massacre, and did so "with genocidal intent".

Meanwhile, talks aiming to resolve disputes over power sharing in the loose federal structure of Bosnia-Herzegovina have apparently stalled. According to Valentin Inzko, the Austrian diplomat serving as the High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina, "Bosnia is in a state of paralysis".

The possibility of a return to violence has been voiced by some observers. Although that is highly unlikely, it seems the wounds have still not healed.

19 October 2009

Syria trying to attract Belarusian pilgrims

Syria has expressed its interest in attracting Belarusian Christian tourists. According to the Syrian ambassador to Belarus, Dr Farouk Taha, "Syria is the cradle of the Christian culture and religion: there are a lot of religious monuments which are very important for the believers there."

Taha wants the Belarusian travel industry to promote Christian religious trips to Syria.

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Now playing: Dexter Gordon - Willow Weep For Me
via FoxyTunes

17 October 2009

23% of the world's population is Muslim

According to a new report issued by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Muslims number 1.57 billion, which is 23% of the world population of 6.8 billion people.

According to the study, Indonesia has the largest Muslim population (203 million), followed by Pakistan with 174 million, India with 161 million, Bangladesh with 145 million and Egypt with 79 million.

Over 300 million people, representing a fifth of all Muslims, live in non-Muslim-majority countries (India being the prime example).

Russia has the largest Muslim population in Europe, with 16 million. In the Americas, the United States has the largest Muslim population, with 2.5 million (0.8% of the US population), followed by Argentina (0.8 million; 1.9% of the population) and Canada (0.7 million; 2% of the population).

The Pew study is based on approximately 1,500 sources.

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Now playing: Dan Gibson - Breton Children's Song
via FoxyTunes

Visitor profiles, 15 September to 14 October 2009

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

The most recent month (15 September to 14 October 2009):

This month, Notes on Religion received 643 visits.

Visitors came to Notes on Religion from every inhabited continent, alhamdu lillah. The largest number of visitors (30%) came from the United States. Italy was next with 17%, while Canada came third with 14%. In sha' Allah, I'll quote all monetary amounts (if any are discussed) in US dollars along with Canadian dollars over the coming month.

Within the US, the largest number of visitors (11%) came from California.

A plurality 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, unfortunately, 'beheading video'. Needless to say, I don't have any such videos up on this blog.

The most popular browser this month was Internet Explorer (43%). 89% of the visitors were Windows users.

Since the founding of the blog (15 March 2007 to 14 October 2009):

The total number of visitors during these two years was 11,032. The average number of visitors was 12 per day.

The largest number of visitors (44%) came from the United States. The second-highest number (15%) came from Canada. The United Kingdom came third with 7%.

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

The majority of visitors (54%) 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 'russian neo nazi beheading'.

The most popular browser was Internet Explorer (47%). 90% of the visitors were Windows users.

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Now playing: Jaromír Nohavica & Kapela - Petěrburg
via FoxyTunes

13 October 2009

BD Islamic University facing medical shortages

We in Canada often complain about the shortage of medical staff in the country. I have myself witnessed the ridiculous waiting times that result from the relatively low number of doctors and nurses who work in Quebec.

As this fascinating map and the accompanying data show, Canada has 470 people per doctor, whereas the US has only 390 (I know that millions lack access to medical care there, but here I'm talking about supply, rather than distribution). My native Belarus has 220 people per doctor, which means that Canadian-style waiting times are virtually unknown there.

Bangladesh, on the other hand, has 3,800 people per physician. That means that Canada has eight times as many doctors per unit population as Bangladesh.

The Dhaka Daily Star reports that the medical centre of the Islamic University, located in the Kushtia District, currently has only ten doctors and nine nurses for the 12,000 students, faculty and staff at the university. The rate of 1,200 people per doctor is still much better than the Bangladeshi average. To make matters worse, though, two of the doctors are currently on leave. The medical centre has only two pharmacists, which often results in "peons and computer operators" being press-ganged into pharmacy duty to deal with the sheer numbers of patients in need of medication.

The medical centre has asked the vice-chancellor of the university, M. Alauddin, for additional staff, and is currently reduced to "waiting for steps in this regard".

I wonder if Alauddin has the financial wherewithal at hand to be able to fulfill the request.

There are many people in Bangladesh who are much more vulnerable than Islamic University students. Consider helping if you can.

11 October 2009

Rabbi Alan Bright on fasting in Judaism

Ramadan went by with its usual speed this year, and we are nearing the end of Shawwal. Meanwhile, the Jews have celebrated the High Holy Days, one of which, Yom Kippur, involved one of the most important fasts of the Jewish calendar.

During Ramadan, all Muslims read or hear the Qur'anic verse "You who believe, fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may be mindful of God" (2:183). "Those before you" refers to older communities of monotheists, including the Children of Israel. I therefore asked my friend Alan, rabbi of the Shaare Zedek synagogue here in Montreal, to share with us his perspective on fasting in Judaism.


Atonement through Affliction

by Rabbi Alan Bright


Islam follows a solely lunar calendar; as a result, the cycle of twelve lunar months regresses through the seasons over a period of about 33 years. Judaism, however, follows a quasi-lunar calendar or, as it has become known, a “lunisolar” calendar. As the Jewish festivals are quired by Torah mandate to fall in specific seasons, months are intercalated according to the Metonic cycle, in which 235 lunations occur in nineteen years. In our days, the Jewish calendar is predominantly used for religious observances; however, it is used by traditional Jewish farmers in Israel as an agricultural framework.

Due to the mechanics of both the Muslim calendar and the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, followed the holy month of Ramadan, the most sacred time of the year for Muslims, by approximately one week this year.

A question that is often asked of me;

“Is there a corollary between the fasting within the Judaism and Islam”?

Ask a Jew why he/she fasts on Yom Kippur (the most widely observed fasts of numerous fasts within the Jewish calendar) and the answer will most likely be “to atone for our sins”. Suffice it to say that this vague answer is only one facet of repentance for a Jew.

Ask a Muslim why he/she fasts during Ramadan and the answer most likely will be "to create a greater awareness of God". Awareness of God and his presence is called "Taqwa", a word that can also mean "fear of God", "piety" or "self-restraint". Another reason many Muslims give for fasting is "to feel more empathy for the poor and indigent".

While both these great Abrahamic faiths include fasting as part of their doctrine, they do so for very different reasons.

From sunset Sunday September 27th through dark Monday September 28th, Jews around the world observed the festival of Yom Kippur. For this year only, these dates correspond to the dates outlined in the Old Testament. In the book of Leviticus the following is found:

    ...In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and you shall not do any work ... For on that day he shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you from all your sins before the L-RD. -Leviticus 16:29-30

The name of the seventh month in the Jewish calendar is Tishrei. So from the evening of the ninth day of the month of Tishrei until the following evening, (Leviticus 23:32), the holiest day of the year in the Jewish calendar is observed.

Even though not stated directly, i.e., “on this day you shall abstain from eating”, this, however, is the place from whence the concept of fasting in Judaism is derived. The question that begs to be asked is how did the rabbinic sages arrive at an interpretation of “you shall afflict your souls” to mean an abstention from all food and drink?

Throughout biblical literature, we find cases of great people who took it upon themselves to abstain from food and indeed other luxuries in order to repent for wrongdoing. For example ,in the Book of Samuel II, we read that King David –- King of Israel -- atones for his unacceptable sexual proclivities towards Bathsheba by fasting while praying to God for forgiveness. This motif of fasting as atonement for prior sins either committed or even contemplated became an accepted mode of repentance throughout Jewish history to present day. Furthermore, we find the same not only for individuals, but also for congregational penance. It is believed that fasting arouses the compassion of God to forgive the penitent for not only negative behavioral situations, but also to implore God's protection in times of calamity either personal or communal.

To answer our question about how the rabbinic sages arrived at the interpretation of “you shall afflict your souls” to mean the abstention from all food and drink,

Rabbi Arnold Bienstok in his essay on Fasting in the Jewish Tradition states that the rabbinic commentators interpreted the Biblical phrase “affliction of the soul” to embrace a generic understanding of denying oneself physical pleasure on Yom Kippur. The prohibitions included not just eating and drinking, but also bathing, washing, and anointing. Sexual abstinence also becomes part of the rabbinic understanding of “affliction of the soul.” Even the wearing of leather is prohibited because of its association with luxury or rabbinic compassion for animal life (tsaar baalei hayyim).

As stated earlier, fasting is found in the books of the Bible. Throughout biblical Judaism, the prophets develop the concept of Divine appeasement by fasting as it serves to transform the individual spiritually. Bienstok further comments that for the prophetic voice, ethical perfection is the ultimate demand of the religious life. Ritual behavior is meaningful only if it is marked by the inner transformation of the character of the penitent. The prophetic voice condemns ritual expression that is not marked by spiritual transformation. Rabbinic tradition selected the Biblical readings of Leviticus 23 and Isaiah 58 as the readings of Yom Kippur to share a balanced perspective on fasting. Leviticus 23 presents fasting as a propitiatory offering of atonement. Isaiah 58 asserts that the genuine fast is self-evaluation.

* Rabbi Alan Bright, a native of London, England, is the spiritual leader of Shaare Zedek Congregation, Montreal Quebec. Born into a modern orth'odox Jewish family, Alan attended seminaries in the UK and USA, namely Jews' College (UK), Yeshivat Rivevot Ephraim and The Jewish Theological Seminary (USA). In addition to Orthodox ordination, Alan holds a Masters' degree from Concordia University, with a major in Ancient and Medieval Jewish History. Alan's area of interest is medieval Jewish death and burial rites and customs. Alan can be reached via email at rabbi@shaarezedek.ca.

07 September 2009

Ramadan reflections from the US on SOF

This Ramadan, "Speaking of Faith" (by American Public Media) has launched a series of Ramadan reflections called "Revealing Ramadan" by Muslims all over the US, as well as a few Muslims living in other places, such as Spain and Britain.

On the series website, you can download the podcast versions of the reflections, or read the text stories that accompany them.

01 September 2009

Harper shows his religious side

In an interview with the Quebec City magazine Prestige, Stephen Harper has said that family is more important to him than political success, and the judgement of God more important than the judgement of future historians.

As Harper put it, "To be honest with you, I am a lot more concerned by God's verdict regarding my life than the one of historians".

Regarding his work-life balance, Harper said, "The important thing, for me, is to preserve family ties. I can win elections, but if I lose my family, it's a disaster."

BTW, Harper belongs to the Christian and Missionary Alliance.

Putting Divine judgement over human judgement and family before work is something I can agree with. These are values I share. The question is, then, why do I still find Harper so creepy?

For one thing, I think, it's because his attitude makes you wonder whether he cares about human beings outside of his family circle. And so, speaking of his concern with "God's verdict" (since he raised the subject), I wonder whether he actually thinks about whether God would approve of his particular actions, such as doing all he can to prevent Canada from taking meaningful steps to reduce its carbon emissions. If he does, I wonder why he remains as he is. Or perhaps he feels he has blanket immunity because of his faith alone?

Muslim charity serves up chicken in Toronto

According to its website, the Muslim charity MuslimServ, based in Brampton, has delivered 2,898 lbs of chicken to the Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto this Ramadan. They're planning to make two more deliveries, on the 7th and the 14th of September.

What I most like about this programme is that it helps Muslims who donate their money to the organisation take part in helping their needy neighbours, regardless of religious or other differences.

What I don't understand, however, is the focus on chicken. Last Ramadan, MuslimServ donated a total of 14,000 lbs of chicken, and is hoping that people will ramp up their donations of money this year, allowing it to donate more chicken to the food bank. My question is: why only chicken? Why not donate a variety of food items?

Dalai Lama supports Taiwan democracy

On a visit to Taiwan, the Dalai Lama called on the Taiwanese people to protect their democratic institutions, saying, "You achieved democracy. That you must preserve".

The Dalai Lama went to Taiwan to visit and pray for the victims of Typhoon Morakot. The visit also had important political dimensions, since he was invited to the island by the opposition. China, as usual, protested against the visit. China and Taiwan do not disagree with each other over the status of Tibet: both the Republic of China (i.e., Taiwan) and the People's Republic of China (the mainland) see Taiwan as an integral part of China (see map).

The Dalai Lama said that Taiwan "should have a very close, unique link with China".

Touring the village of Xiaoling, which suffered from mudslides as a result of the typhoon, the Dalai Lama was reminded of "Buddha's message of impermanence. It is indeed very very sad."

Hsueh Shu-Chun, who lost her entire family save her husband, said that "Praying for the victims brings relief not only to them but to survivors like me."

31 August 2009

Ramadan lunch breaks

The Toronto Star has a good article up today about Muslims and lunch breaks during Ramadan.

The author, Stuart Laidlaw, points out that Muslims tend to become more practising during Ramadan, which means that more of them attend Friday prayer. For Muslims who work, that means taking an extra-long lunch break in order to make it to the mosque, listen to the sermon, perform the prayer, and arrive back at work.

Nadir Shirazi, president of Multifacet Diversity Solutions, suggests that non-Muslim co-workers should not think their Muslim colleagues are slacking off. Meanwhile, Liz Chappel, who is vice-president of the Toronto Area Interfaith Council, reminds us that "Our workplaces are centred around Christian holidays", and urges non-Muslims to be aware of what a spiritually important time their Muslim workmates are going through.

My favourite line in the article is "Shirazi and Chappel say employers should avoid holding lunch meetings". Having sat through some of those myself during Ramadan, I can tell you they're painful.

One thing the article didn't bring out, though, is, what about Muslims who attend Friday prayer at other times, during the remaining 11 months of the year? This story almost makes it sound as if Friday prayer is only important during Ramadan.

27 August 2009

Slovakia stops Hungarian president from honouring saint

Slovakia and Hungary are embroiled in a diplomatic dispute, after the Hungarian president, László Sólyom, was prevented by Slovakia from entering its territory on 21 August.

Sólyom had been planning to visit Komárno, a Slovakian city with an ethnic-Hungarian majority, in order to take part in the unveiling of a statue of the first king of Hungary, St. Stephen. Since Hungary and Slovakia are both members of the Schengen Zone, there aren't supposed to be travel restrictions between the two.

However, the Slovakian prime minister, Robert Fico, who leads a coalition that includes a radical anti-Hungarian party, has remained unapologetic, saying that Sólyom's visit would have been a "violation of international law and Slovakia's sovereignty".

One reason that the Slovak government has cited for its take on the event is that 21 August happened to be the anniversary of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by five members of the Warsaw Pact, including Hungary. On top of that, as the Slovak foreign minister, Miroslav Lajčák, pointed out, the organisers of the unveiling of the statue had not invited anyone from the Slovak government to participate.

The Hungarian foreign minister, Péter Balázs, has called his president's denial of entry into Slovakia "unprecedented and unacceptable".

Perhaps the most interesting thing in all this is that both Hungary and Slovakia are Catholic countries, with Catholics accounting for 55% of Hungarians and 69% of Slovaks. St. Stephen, meanwhile, was canonised in 1083. Just a glimpse of how modern nationalism tampers with long-established religious tradition.

26 August 2009

Russian church considers Russians and Ukrainians "one people"

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus (i.e., Russia, Ukraine and Belarus) has declared Russians and Ukrainians to be "one people".

Speaking in Arkhangelsk, Kirill remarked,

From the point of view of basic values, we are one people. Certainly, from an ethnic point of view, from the point of view of language, one can speak [of differences]... but, when it comes to basic values, we are one body.

Kirill also spoke about "the historic commonality which was formed during the thousands of years of our common history", and added that "no thoughtful politician in Russia or Ukraine can ignore this fact." Despite all of the above, Kirill called for respect for the sovereignty of both Ukraine and Russia.

So is this the Russian Orthodox Church stepping into politics of its initiative, or is it rather fulfilling the demands of the Russian authorities?

In a recent Naša niva article, Jan Zaprudnik writes that he found highly dubious leaflets being distributed in Orthodox churches in Turaŭ (Turaw) and Žytkavičy (Zhytkavichy), one of which claims that Ukraine was "invented" by Bismarck, of all people.

It's truly sad to see how the church is allowing itself to be the handmaiden of Russian imperialism once again.

25 August 2009

Belarusian bishop stabbed

The Orthodox Christian bishop of Mahiloŭ and Mścisłaŭ (Mahilyow and Mstsislaw), Safron, was stabbed by a supposedly deranged person while performing a church service in Mahiloŭ on 23 August. The bishop was wounded in the arm and the stomach.

Following the attack, Safron was hospitalised and underwent surgery. His life is reportedly not in danger.

The 37-year-old suspect was caught by worshippers and has been charged with "intentional causation of heavy physical injury". He had been under observation at the Mahiloŭ Regional Psychiatric Hospital.

This is scary news, given that many of my relatives live in Mahiloŭ, belong to the Orthodox Church and attend services. On the other hand, this seems to be a complete one-off.

10,000 visitors

Notes on Religion received its 10,000th hit on 21 August.

Thank you to everyone who has visited, read and commented over these two years. Merci beaucoup!

22 August 2009

Obama's Ramadan greeting

Barack Obama charms once again with his Ramadan greeting to Muslims around the world.



As he points out himself, though, it's time to see more action on the ground, in addition to encouraging words. Nevertheless, after Bush, this is so refreshing!

Obama's speech seems to have become one of the top stories connected to the beginning of Ramadan this year, as can be seen both on Al Jazeera and the BBC.

Not quite everyone has the same focus, though. I was listening to the BBC Asian Network yesterday, and the presenter, while discussing the onset of Ramadan, said, "What about... getting it on with your partner?" Certainly a legitimate question, although I don't think I would have put it quite that way. :)

Ramadan mubarak!

I would like to wish my readers a blessed Ramadan. May God accept us our fasts and our good deeds, and forgive us for our mistakes.

Visitor profiles, 15 July to 14 August 2009

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

The most recent month (15 July to 14 August 2009):

This month, Notes on Religion received 464 visits.

Visitors came to Notes on Religion from every inhabited continent, alhamdu lillah. The largest number of visitors (32%) came from the United States. Italy was next with 12%, while Canada 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 (18%) came from California.

A plurality of visitors this past month (41%) were referred to Notes on Religion by Google. The most common Google search terms that brought visitors to the blog were 'natasha aliyeva' and 'neo nazi beheading'.

The most popular browser this month was Firefox (45%). 88% of the visitors were Windows users.

Since the founding of the blog (15 March 2007 to 14 August 2009):

The total number of visitors during these two years was 9,920. The average number of visitors was eleven per day.

The largest number of visitors (45%) came from the United States. The second-highest number (14%) came from Canada. The United Kingdom came third with 7%.

In the US, the largest number of visitors (15%) came from California.

The majority of visitors (55%) 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 'russian neo nazi beheading'.

The most popular browser was Internet Explorer (47%). 91% of the visitors were Windows users.

10 August 2009

On equality in the mosque

As some of you know, Katie and I have recently returned from a two-month trip to Europe. One thing that I love to do while travelling is to discover mosques where I can perform the Friday prayer. In Muslim countries, there are always well established mosques on hand. In non-Muslim ones, depending on how long a Muslim minority has been established there, there are either mosques that look like mosques, or there are buildings converted into mosques from other uses (such as a former cinema I found in Philadelphia), or temporary prayer facilities at university campuses. What's common between all of these places of worship is the welcome they extend to the Muslim worshipper and the sense of brotherhood that almost always emanates from them.

So imagine my surprise when, in Luton, England, I was told that, to the best of my interlocutor's knowledge, mosques there have no "arrangements" for women worshippers. He said there might be something at the university, but, at that stage, it was too late to check. It's always something of a shock to the system to find yourself amid the ultra-conservative Muslims of Luton. Never did I think, though, that the community, which has been in Britain for two or three generations, would continue the common South-Asian practice of excluding women from the mosque. Especially since Luton itself features Islamic schools with female students and women teachers.

My mosque in Dhaka has a women's section, albeit, from what I hear, a small, crowded one, with no view of the men's prayer halls. So Katie was able to attend the mosque in Bangladesh in 2006, but not in Britain in 2009.

After Britain came Belarus. Minsk, my native city, is home to a long-standing Tatar community, present there for over 500 years. There was a mosque in Minsk for most of this time but, tragically, it was first expropriated and then blown up by the city authorities under Communist rule. Since 1997, however, a new mosque has been under construction (very much a stop-go process; the small Belarusian Muslim community is short on funds). The building site features a make-shift structure that serves as a temporary mosque while construction continues. It's actually quite beautiful inside, and includes a women's section, although, again, a small one. Katie and I prayed at this mosque when we were in Minsk; the other places we went to in Belarus didn't have mosques, as far as we knew.

The big shock came in Turkey. Ostensibly, Turkish Islam is all smiles and all kindness. The Turkish Muslims we know are genuinely warm and kind-hearted people, ma sha' Allah. However, something about the way Islamic institutions are managed in Turkey is badly broken. In Istanbul, the mosque where I went for Friday prayer most weeks (because it was located close to the apartment we were staying in) had no women's section.

So one day, Katie and I went off in search of a place where the two of us could perform Friday prayer together. We went to two different mosques in another neighbourhood, and the results were even more surprising. It turned out that both those mosques did have women's sections, BUT those sections were taken over by men during Friday prayers. Thus, of the 35 congregational prayers a week, women could pray at the mosque 34 times. However, they were obliged to stay away for just one prayer, which just happened to be the most important one of the week. Compounding the double standards (if not outright hypocrisy) is the fact that, in one of those mosques, the Friday sermon was about the importance of family, while the prayer featured verses from the Qur'an about the importance of Friday prayer. Hello?

So it was quite comical (sadly so) to see an official from Diyanet, the Turkish governmental agency in charge of Islamic institutions, saying, after a mosque designed by a female architect opened, that Turkey should build more such mosques. That mosque is the first in Turkey designed by a woman, and the first to feature a women's prayer hall equal in size to the men's one. The joke lies in the fact that there is no move underway by Diyanet to admit women into the mosques which currently bar them from taking part in Friday prayer, even though they already have women's sections.

On our way home to Montreal, Katie and I stopped by the Muslim prayer rooms at Atatürk International Airport in Istanbul to perform the fajr prayer. The women's prayer room was spacious and well equipped, but infested with cockroaches. Not surprisingly, I didn't see any cockroaches in the men's one. Katie was glad to leave Turkey, and I don't blame her.

So now we're in Perrysburg, Ohio, visiting my in-laws. Katie and I got married at the mosque here, the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo (see picture), in 2005. This is probably the most equitable of all purpose-built mosques I've seen anywhere in the world when it comes to ensuring women's access to prayer facilities. The prayer hall is simply divided down the middle with a low barrier; men have half the space, while women have the other. The barrier is high enough to ensure modesty, yet not high enough to create a sense of segregation. Men and women have equal access not just to the prayer space, but to the other elements of the mosque, such as the high dome and the stained-glass windows, that give it beauty and help in the contemplation of the Divine.

As Jimmy Carter reminded us last month, "it is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population." It is high time for us Muslims around the world to start paying much more attention to the Prophet's (peace be upon him) injunction: "Do not prevent the maid-servant of God from going to the mosque" (Bukhari).

[This post was written in Perrysburg.]

05 August 2009

Football fracas

A football anthem is proving controversial in Germany because of joking references to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The song, chanted during matches by the fans of FC Schalke 04, is called "Blue and White, How I Love You", referring to the club colours. The lyrics of the anthem include the lines "Muhammad was a prophet who understood nothing about football / But of all the lovely colours he chose blue and white".

The song was written in 1924, but has aroused controversy only recently, after reporting on it in the Turkish media. Aiman Mazyek, who heads the (German) Central Council of Muslims, has asked for "an explanation" of the "background" of the song. The club, meanwhile, is seeking expert advice on whether the song can be considered offensive to Muslims. The police of Gelsenkirchen, the city where Schalke 04 is based, is also following the matter in order to protect the rights of Muslims who may have been offended.

I personally think the best solution would be to replace the name of the Prophet with something more innocuous. It's all a bit of silly fun for the non-Muslim fans, but this sort of off-hand remark does sound pretty offensive to a Muslim ear.

[This post was written in Perrysburg.]

26 July 2009

Netanyahu seeking Christian Zionist support

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is once again courting the Christian Zionists, that is, Evangelicals who believe that Israeli control over all of Biblical Palestine is necessary for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) to occur.

As M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum notes, Barack Obama is far more popular among Jewish Americans than Bibi Netanyahu is. Most American Jews are liberals who support the Democratic Party; Bibi is much more at ease with the Republicans, many of whom share his disdain for the two-state solution. Hence his appearance at the Christians United for Israel (CUFI) conference, recently held in Washington.

The conference was organised by Netanyahu's friend of convenience Pastor John Hagee, who had infamously declared that God had sent the Holocaust to force the Jews to emigrate to Palestine.

As an aside, the official CUFI website, as seen today, states that "There is a new Hitler in the Middle East--President Ahmadinejad of Iran". This, of course, nicely matches Bibi's own stance on Ahmadinejad. The CUFI seems unashamed to say this, despite the obvious and sickening monstrosity of such a statement, given that the lives of Iranian Jews are in no danger, and that Iran, despite the faults of its government, bears no similarity to Nazi Germany.

In a fine example of his usual truthiness, Netanyahu said, addressing the CUFI, that "millions of Christians stand for Israel because they want to see genuine peace in the Holy Land." See, that may be true for some Christians, but Bibi knows better than anyone that the particular Christians he was addressing support Israel for one main reason: they want to hasten the End Days. Besides, by "genuine peace", Bibi obviously understands something akin to the Pirate Code: "Take everything. Give nothing back."

In any case, according to Rosenberg, all this posturing by Netanyahu will amount to nothing, since the Christian Zionists he is aligning himself with are already committed Republicans; they are likely to oppose Obama no matter what he does. Rosenberg believes that, to make a difference in US public opinion towards Obama's policy on Israel and Palestine, Bibi needs to win over Jewish Americans. And that just isn't likely to happen.

Meanwhile, ignoring this sideshow, Obama is in pursuit of some real Middle Eastern diplomacy. You go, Barack.

[This post was written in Istanbul.]

22 July 2009

My article on Belarus in Eurozine

My article on what I see as a national inferiority complex in Belarus, based on a speech I gave in Mahiloŭ (Mahilyow) on 11 June, has been picked up by Eurozine.

Among other things, it contains a reflection on the public role of religion in the country.

[This post was written in Istanbul.]

21 July 2009

Khatami calls for referendum on election result

Seyed Mohammad Khatami, a former Iranian president, has called for a referendum on whether the result of the June election should be allowed to stand. The election, which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won according to the official results, is seen by a large proportion of Iranians as having been rigged.

Khatami's statement is a direct challenge to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has declared the election result valid.

Khatami is the second ex-president of Iran to speak out vocally on the issue in the last few days. On 17 July, in a Friday prayer sermon, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani called on the authorities to release eveyrone arrested in connection to the massive demonstrations that Iran has been witnessing since June.

It looks like Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are alone on this. They may still be in control, but there is certainly a realignment of forces on. If Ahmadinejad yields, this may well be remembered as the second Islamic revolution, on the thirtieth anniversary of the first one.

[This post was written in Istanbul.]

20 July 2009

Shi'ites remember Musa al-Kazim

Shi'ite pilgrims in their millions have flocked to Baghdad from within and outside Iraq to commemorate Musa al-Kazim (745-799), seventh of the 12 Imams revered by the Twelver Shi'ites. According to the Iraqi government, the pilgrims number as many as five million.

Specifically, the event marks the anniversary of the death of Musa, allegedly at the hands of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid.

The BBC has put together a photo essay on the festival; you have to see the pictures to appreciate the scale of this thing.

Only three people of the up to five million pilgrims were killed in communal violence, which is being hailed as a victory for the Iraqi army, which was providing security at the gathering.

[This post was written in Istanbul.]

17 July 2009

Pope breaks wrist

Pope Benedict XVI, who is holidaying in the Aosta Valley, has broken his right wrist after a fall in his chalet.

After managing to eat breakfast and celebrate Mass without medical intervention, the Pope, 82, went to the hospital in Aosta, where a surgery was performed on his wrist. The operation was reportedly successful.

[This post was written in Istanbul].

15 July 2009

Belarus sets up morals council

Here's something that's interesting and has the potential to be very scary: a Public Council on Morals was established in Minsk on 8 July. Its members include official representatives of the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, as well as Jewish and Islamic organisations, along with writers, artists and academics. According to Metropolitan Filaret, the chief cleric of the Belarusian Exarchate, President Alaksandar Łukašenka (Aliaksandr Lukashenka) "has expressed his understanding of the church's concern about the moral state of society". Once again, we have the Orthodox Church happily playing second fiddle to Łukašenka in exchange for government favours.

Mikałaj Čarhiniec (Mikalay Charhinets), the head of the government-sponsored Union of Writers of Belarus, is to serve as the first head of the Council.

Hieorhij Marčuk (Heorhiy Marchuk), a member of the Union of Writers and the new Council on Morals, said that the Council would gauge public opinion on "controversial" books and art, and would advise the government on how to deal with books and art that "contradict society's traditional values". He denied that the Council would be in the business of censorship, however.

According to Marčuk, the Council is planning to combat the "profanation of the biblical commandments, history and patriotic feelings." So patriotism, then, is equivalent to the commandments of the Bible? Plus, I do wonder what Marčuk understands by the profanation of history. More than likely, he's referring to the Soviet view of WWII, which has acquired the status of gospel under Łukašenka. I guess if you write a novel questioning the official view as presented in what seems to be a new Belarusian WWII movie every year, I guess you'd better watch out.

Marčuk also added that the Council was planning to organise discussions on things like "the role of Christianity in the artist's work" and "relations between religion and secular morals", which certainly sound like reasonable and interesting topics to discuss. Another one of the Council's planned discussion topics, though, is "certain subjects connected with the place of the good character in modern Belarusian literature". Huh? OK, so there we have it: if you write about "good characters" defending the native land with Orthodox-Christian-patriotic zeal, you're fine. Other types of literature and art, it seems, are going to be made unwelcome in Łukašenka's Belarus.

Here's the thing: a council of this sort, were it a true civil society initiative, would have been a welcome development. If it were actually a forum where writers, artists and religious figures could freely discuss art, religion, the public role of the artist, the role of morality in life, and so on, that would be fine; it would even have the potential to produce some sort of synthesis that would contribute to our everlasting quest for meaning. This Public Council on Morals, though, is a creature of the government, and it shows every sign of being one of two undesirable things. Either it is an effort to scare independent Belarusian writers and artists into towing the government line, or it is simply a bone thrown by Łukašenka to the religious bodies, especially the Orthodox Church, in a further attempt to legitimise his regime through religion. I think the latter is actually more likely to be true. Either way, this just goes to show how much needs to change in Belarus.

[This post was written in Istanbul.]

Visitor profiles, 15 June to 14 July 2009

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

The most recent month (15 June to 14 July 2009):

This month, Notes on Religion received 466 visits.

Visitors came to Notes on Religion from every inhabited continent, alhamdu lillah. The largest number of visitors (29%) came from the United States. Italy was next with 12% (benvenuti!), while Canada came third with 8%. In sha' Allah, I'll quote all monetary amounts (if any are discussed) in US dollars along with Canadian dollars or Turkish lira over the coming month.

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

The majority of visitors this past month (58%) 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'.

The most popular browser this month was Internet Explorer (49%). 91% of the visitors were Windows users.

Since the founding of the blog (15 March 2007 to 14 July 2009):

The total number of visitors during these two years was 9,456. The average number of visitors was eleven per day.

The largest number of visitors (46%) came from the United States. The second-highest number (15%) came from Canada. The United Kingdom came third with 7%.

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

The majority of visitors (56%) 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 'russian neo nazi beheading'.

The most popular browser was Internet Explorer (48%). 91% of the visitors were Windows users.

[This post was written in Istanbul.]

Something Even More Magical

In other news...