Back to the blog — first impressions after a break

January 7, 2008

Returning to news reporting after two weeks off feels like you’ve been away for two weeks. Returning to blogging after a holiday break feels like you’ve been away for an eternity. So much going on! My colleague Ed Stoddard in Dallas was minding the shop, but he was unexpectedly sent off to report the news from the campaign trail. That gave FaithWorld a very American accent, which was a timely twist given the role of religion in the Iowa vote. It’s back to the view from Paris now — here are some inital comments on recent events concerning religion around the world:

Bhutto’s upcoming bookBenazir Bhutto — The assassinated Pakistani leader will speak from beyond the grave next month when her book Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West is published. HarperCollins has announced it has brought forward to Feb. 12 the release of the book that Bhutto worked on before returning to Pakistan in October. In a statement, it called the book “a bold, uncompromising vision of hope for the future of not only Pakistan but the Islamic world. Bhutto presents a powerful argument for a reconciliation of Islam with democratic principles, in the face of opposition from Islamic extremists and Western skeptics.”

It will be interesting to see what she has to say about the role of Islam in Pakistani politics, especially after all the praise for her as a modern, secularist Muslim leader in comments after her assassination. Bhutto’s party is politically secularist and she pledged to fight against Islamist militants now challenging the Islamabad government. But let’s not forget that the Taliban emerged during her second stint as prime minister in 1993-1996 and were a key element in Pakistani policy towards Afghanistan at the time. She worked with an Islamist politician close to the Taliban then and now. It was also on her watch that, as historian William Dalrymple put it, Kashmir was turned into “a jihadist playground.” Whether she supported all this, couldn’t oppose the military people behind it or both (that’s my hunch) is something historians will debate long into the future. But it is clear that her record is more complex than some of the eulogies would have it.

Saying this is not meant to tarnish the reputation of this courageous woman. The Pakistanis who were ready to vote for her know all this already. Her father and political mentor Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a left-wing populist who sported Mao caps and campaigned on the faith-free slogan roti, kapra, makan (bread, clothes, Candles set before poster of Benazir Bhuttohousing), played the Islamic card with concessions to religious pressure groups when necessary. It’s more a comment on how complex Pakistani politics are and how hard it is to fit its main actors into categories that readers readily understand.

BTW it’s disappointing to see Dalrymple, a fine historian of the Subcontinent, fall into the same trap as readers who want us to write about “Muslim riots ” in France. In his New York Times op-ed piece cited above, he said that former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by “Sri Lankan Hindu extremists.” The Tamil Tigers are Sri Lankan and presumably mostly Hindu, as most Tamils are, but their separatist struggle is nationalist and not religious at all. They were some of the first modern suicide bombers, but that’s as close to religiously inspired militants as they get.

Anglican Agonies — Will 2008 be the year of decision for the Anglican Communion? Yes, no, maybe… or maybe none of the above? It’s getting more complicated as July’s Lambeth Conference nears. The Global South primates have announced a rival meeting for June called the Global Anglican Future Conference (with the unfortunate acronym GAFCON). The news was hardly out before the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, Bishop Suheil Dawani, complained he had not been consulted and expressed concern it could boost tensions in the region. “I believe our Primate, Dr Mouneer Hanna Anis, is also concerned about this event,” he wrote. “His Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williamsadvice to the organizers that this was not the right time or place for such a meeting was ignored. I urge the organizers to reconsider this conference urgently.”

The organisers say primates can attend both Jerusalem and Lambeth, but it looks like this is the alternative Lambeth conference that Nigeria’s Archbishop Peter Akinola has suggested. It’s hard to see what Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams can do. “The Archbishop of Canterbury was never one for diktats,” Andrew Brown blogged at The Guardian. “Now his inaction has let those who would split the church get into a fine mess.”

The next Black Pope — The Society of Jesus, aka the Jesuits, open their General Congregation on Monday to elect a new Superior General, aka the “black pope.” The Jesuits are the largest order in the Roman Catholic Church, with a long intellectual Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbachheritage, checkered history and record of theological tussles with the Vatican. We’re covering this for news, so I won’t go into it much now, except to spotlight the Jesuit info page on the pow-wow and two previews from America, Commonweal , The Tablet and the National Catholic Reporter and interviews with the outgoing chief Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach in Vatican Radio, Catholic News Service, Die Tagespost, La Croix, adnkronos and Katholiek Nederland (he’s Dutch). My favourite nugget from all this is that the four days they put aside for considering the new superior general is known as the murmuratio. There’s not supposed to be any campaigning, but they can murmur about the candidates.

Malaysia’s Allah Muddle — Another story on increasingly exclusive Muslim views from Malaysia, where a Catholic weekly has been told it cannot use the word Allah for God in its Malay-language articles, even though it is the usual Malay word for the deity. There seemed to be some flip-flopping over this, and the weekly eventually got its publishing permit renewed. But government officials later insisted the word Allah is from now on reserved for Muslims.

Malaysian Muslim girlsThis is not just semantics. The Malaysian government has a policy of moderate Islam that it calls Islam hadhari, or civilisational Islam. It has been talking this up for a while now, just at a time when Washington has been looking for “moderate Muslims” to promote as a counterweight to Islamic radicals. But the trend in Malaysian Islam seems to be going the other way, as increasing complaints from minority Christians, Hindus and Buddhists indicate. As Malaysian political scientist Farish Noor notes: “The administration of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi came to power on the promise that it would promote its own brand of moderate Islam that was pluralist and respectful of other cultures and religions. But time and again the Malaysian public — first Hindus and now Christians — have felt necessary to protest over what they regard as unfair, biased treatment and the furthering of an exclusive brand of Islam that is communitarian and divisive. The latest fiasco over the non-issue that is the name of God would suggest that Prime Minister’s Badawi’s grand vision of a moderate Islam has hit the rocks, and is now floundering.

Ali Eteraz, a lively Muslim blogger in the U.S., says “Leaders in Malaysia promote supremacist, dominionist versions of Islam, because it makes political sense for them to do so. Sixty per cent of the country is Malay-Muslim; the rest are Chinese Buddhists, A statue of Taoist goddess Mazu in Phuket, ThailandTamil Hindus and animists. So, if you can control the Muslims, you will control the government.”

A few other stories from Malaysia chipped away further at its reputation for tolerance — Taoist statue deemed “offensive” to Islam and Malaysian Hindu loses case to ban conversion to Islam. Next door in Indonesia, there are reports of increased attacks on the Ahmadi sect, which many Muslims consider to be heretics, and an Islamic Defenders’ Front wants to ban it. Also, an Anti-Apostasy Alliance says conversion to Christianity “is a bigger evil than terrorism.”

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