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.


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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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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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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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.

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