FaithWorld

Lawsuit on alleged religious bias in U.S military widened

A lawsuit alleging religious bias, including mandatory participation in Christian prayers, against the U.S. Department of Defense was expanded  this week, the latest twist in a story that probably won’t go away in 2009.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation’s (MRFF) expanded lawsuit said the U.S. military was sanctioning Christian missionary activity with Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan — a highly sensitive issue in two predominantly Muslim countries where the United States is waging war.

We’ve blogged on this before  – in September the MRFF said a non-religious Kansas soldier is suing U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on the grounds that his constitutional rights were violated when he was forced to attend military events where “fundamentalist Christian prayers” were recited.

Specialist Dustin Chalker’s cause was the second such case up by the MRFF.

 In a statement this week the group said it was expanding its lawsuit “to include two additions regarding unsuccessful attempts by service members to resolve their complaints (about religious bias) through military channels.”

It further stated that it had added: “five new categories of examples showing the ‘pattern and practice”‘of constitutionally impermissible promotions of religion by the military.”

Afghan journalist gets 20 years for insulting Prophet Mohammad

Afghan journalist Kambakhsh attends hearing at court in Kabul, 21 Ocy 2008/Omar SobhaniThe sentencing of an Afghan journalist to 20 years in jail for distributing an Internet article that said the Prophet Mohammad had ignored the rights of women has raised questions about freedom of expression and possibly the rising influence of hardline Islamists in war-ravaged Afghanistan. But is there politics at play here as well?

Sayed Perwiz Kambkhash, 23,  a reporter for the  newspaper Jahan-e-Naw (“New World”), was sentenced to death in January for insulting the Prophet after his arrest a few months earlier in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The trial reportedly took five minutes and he was not allowed to offer a defense. The appeals court commuted that sentence to 20 years.

Death sentences for blasphemy sound like something the Taliban would impose, but Mazar-i-Sharif is far from being  a Taliban redoubt. It was once a stronghold of the old Northern Alliance, which backed by U.S. firepower, ousted the Taliban from power after the Sept. 11 suicide airliner attacks. The capital of Balkh province, Mazar-i-Sharif, is home to the Shrine of Hazrat Ali, the “Blue Mosque” revered by Shias. The dominant language is Persian (Uzbek is also spoken) and ties with Iran have traditionally been strong. The Pashtu-speaking Taliban, who are Sunnis from eastern and southern Afghanistan, have little to do with that part of the country.

U.S. soldier sues over mandatory Christian prayers

A non-religious Kansas soldier is suing U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on the grounds that his constitutional rights were violated when he was forced to attend military events where “fundamentalist Christian prayers” were recited.

army.jpg

Specialist Dustin Chalker’s cause has been taken up by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), which is joining him in the suit.

The MRFF said in a statement that Chalker, a decorated Iraq war veteran stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas, “was forced to attend three events in late 2007 and in 2008  at which the battalion chaplain …  delivered  sectarian Christian prayers”.

Telegram diplomacy, Vatican style

What do Albania, Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan,  Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia have in common?
Their heads of state all received identical or nearly identical telegrams from Pope Benedict as his plane was flying over their countries on the way from Rome to Australia to preside at the Roman Catholic Church’s World Day of Youth.
sydney.jpgThe telegrams said “FLYING OVER (NAME OF COUNTRY) EN ROUTE TO AUSTRALIA FOR THE CELEBRATION OF WORLD YOUTH DAY, I SEND CORDIAL GREETINGS TO YOU AND TO ALL YOUR FELLOW-CITIZENS, ALONG WITH THE ASSURANCE OF MY PRAYERS THAT ALMIGHTY GOD WILL BLESS THE NATION WITH PEACE AND PROSPERITY. BENEDICTUS PP. XVI.
That was the version received by heads of state of countries whose majority of citizens practice one of the three monotheistic religions. The others, where other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism are practiced, received a slightly different version  in which the phrase “invoking divine blessings” replaced the phrase “that almighty God will bless the nation”. 
But one could not help but wonder why the telegrams were virtually identical (apart from the God/divine difference) even though the situation in the various countries hardly is.  Current events in Greece, for example, are hardly similar to those in Myanmar or Afghanistan.
When he flew over countries, the late Pope John Paul would sometimes tailor his telegrams to reflect the situation on the ground, even if only obliquely. So, when reporters aboard Benedict’s  plane were handed out 18 telegrams, some read them expecting, or hoping, that a  straightforward or diplomatically creative tea-leaves message might be found in those being beamed to hot spots such as Afghanistan, which is engulfed in war, Myanmar, which is still trying to recover from the devastation of Cyclone Nargis and whose human rights record has prompted concern by the international community, or Vietnam, with which the Vatican hopes to soon establish full diplomatic relations after decades of tensions.
Granted, telegrams are not the building blocks of any state’s diplomacy. But of all the countries that were flown over, the pope has only visited one (Turkey) and perhaps this is the closest he will come to most of the rest of them. 
And, a little old-style tea leaves reading would have helped reporters who clocked more than 20 hours of flying with the pope between Rome and Sydney kill a little time.
And maybe even have produced a story or two more.  

Kissinger, Iraq and India’s Muslims – a new domino theory?

Henry Kissinger at the World Economic Forum in Davos, 21 Jan 2008/Wolfgang RattayIs Henry Kissinger trying to update the domino theory to fit what he fears in 2008? He had a “Lunch with the FT” interview in Saturday’s Financial Times and surprised his interviewer, historian Stephen Graubard, by linking the war in Iraq and Muslims in India. As Graubard wrote:

He believes the military “surge” is working and says the next question is when to start to move away from an exclusively military option. “This is not a war of states,” Kissinger says. “If we withdraw from Iraq, the radical elements in all the neighbouring Arab countries will be greatly encouraged.” We will, he fears, be unable to maintain ourselves in Afghanistan, or to retain our present position in Pakistan.

He fears a rapid withdrawal could radicalise the vast Islamic community in India. I am fascinated by this statement – I have never heard anyone else say it so robustly – and suggest that he argued in a similar vein about the dangers of a departure from Vietnam. “Not at all,” he says, adding that the collapse in Vietnam was partly compensated for by the almost simultaneous and fortuitous disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Afghan journalist appeals blasphemy conviction

Afghan journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh/Family handoutThe blasphemy case against Afghan journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, 23, is back in the news. Kambakhsh appeared at an appeal hearing in Kabul on Sunday, pleaded innocent and was given a week to present his defence statement against the primary provincial court’s ruling and to find a defence lawyer. Our report from Kabul says he flatly denied charges he had insulted Islam and the Koran and had distributed an article which said Prophet Mohammad had ignored the rights of women.

It’s not clear if there is a connection but Reporters without Borders (RsF) issued a statement on Friday calling on Kabul to give Kambakhsh’s lawyer the case file so he could prepare his defence. “The case has not progressed since it was transferred to the Kabul court of justice,” RsF said in a statement. “We urge the authorities to speed up the procedure so that Kambakhsh’s appeal can receive a fair hearing, far from the influence of religious fundamentalists. This was not the case when he was tried and sentenced to death for blasphemy in Mazar-i-Sharif. We call on foreign governments to continue to intercede on Kambakhsh’s behalf.”

Kambakhsh was transferred from Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul in late March and has been held in the city’s Pul-i-Charkhi prison since then.

Secularist slide in Pakistan as local Sharia courts proposed

Pakistani voters in Karachi, 18 Feb. 2008/Athar HussainOne of the most interesting results in Pakistan’s general election last February was the victory of the secularist Awami National Party in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) after six years of Islamist government in Peshawar. In a province where the Taliban and other Islamists had made heavy inroads, the vote for the ANP and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) seems to herald a turn toward some form of secularist democracy. “The greatest achievement of this transition to democracy is the rout of religious extremists who wanted to plunge Pakistan into anarchy,” Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times, wrote in his post-ballot analysis. “It is the rise of liberal democracy … that will help solve the problem of religious extremism in Pakistan.”

It’s only been three months, but the secularists seem to be backsliding already. According to Pakistani media, the ANP and PPP have agreed to allow qazi courts (known as qadi courts in Arabic ) to operate in Malakand, a rugged mountainous region in northern NWFP near Afghanistan. Qazi courts have a judge (qazi) who hears cases and quickly hands down decisions based on his interpretation of Sharia law. Although Malakand is officially a “settled area” where state and province laws apply, it also has tribes that often prefer their rough-and-ready Pashtun jirga system of justice run by tribal elders. By introducing qazi courts, critics say, the NWFP government will effectively cave to local Islamists, put an Islamic veneer over tribal justice and roll back the role of civilian justice. This does not sound like a turn towards some form of secularist democracy.

Since first reading about this on Ali Eteraz’s blog, I’ve seen that the secularists haven’t totally caved. The original proposal only allowed appeals to the Federal Sharia Court, but the latest version allows appeals in the Peshawar High Court and the Supreme Court in Islamabad. That’s an improvement, but it still gives the qazis considerable power.

Amr Khaled sees good side of Danish Mohammad cartoon row

Protesters set fire to Danish consulate in Beirut, 5 Feb. 2006/Mohamed AzakirThe Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad were widely condemned in the Muslim world and led to violent protests, attacks on embassies and even deaths. Even in recent days, they have continued to stir more protest (in Pakistan) and create security problems (in Afghanistan). They have set off a kind of “clash of civilisations” with a Muslim side denouncing them as blasphemy and a western side defending them as freedom of speech. The whole dispute has been extremely polarising.

Now one of the most popular preachers in the Middle East, Egypt’s Amr Khaled, has said there were positive sides to the uproar. The caricatures “were useful for Muslims and the Islamic world” because they prompted Muslims to stand up for the Prophet and for Islam, the television preacher told the German news agency dpa on Monday. The dispute “charged the batteries of Muslim youths, strengthened their faith and got them to stand up actively for their religion.”

Can a controversy that polarises people and leads to death and destruction be “useful” for a religion?

Vatican baptism raises questions about Catholic-Muslim dialogue

Pope Benedict baptises Magdi Allam, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliJust when relations between the Vatican and Muslims were improving, Pope Benedict has taken a highly symbolic step that could set them back again. On Saturday evening, at the Easter Vigil Mass, he baptised seven people including one of Italy’s best-known Muslims. Magdi Allam, the new convert, is deputy director of the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera and an outspoken critic of radical Islam. The Egyptian-born journalist, who has lived in Italy since his university days, was one of the few Muslims who defended the pope after his controversial Regensburg speech in 2006. Allam’s outspoken articles have already prompted death threats from Islamists and he lives under constant guard. Announcing the surprise move only an hour before it took place, the Vatican stressed the Catholic Church had the right to baptise anyone who wanted to join it and that all were equal in the eyes of God.

That is certainly true, but such a high-level conversion can’t be seen outside its wider context. Islam considers conversion to another religion a grave insult to God. In some Muslim states including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, it is punishable by death. Afghan convert Abdul Rahman during his trial in Kabul for apostasy, 23 March 2006/Reuters TVAbdul Rahman, an Afghan convert to Christianity pictured at right during his trial for apostasy, only escaped death in 2006 because of an international outcry; he found refuge in Italy. Not all Muslims agree with this. An Italian Muslim spokesman, for example, stressed that Allam’s conversion was a personal decision and only questioned why Benedict chose to make his baptism such a public event. He could have been baptised in his local church without all the publicity, he said. This high-visibility baptism looks likely to provoke protests from Muslims in some parts of the world and raise questions about Benedict’s intentions.

France 24 television interrupted my Easter lunch en famille to interview me about this and their main question was whether it was a response to Osama bin Laden’s threat against the pope. That assumes a U.S. campaign-style readiness to react that is miles or centuries away from the way the Vatican works. Easter is the traditional time to baptise adult converts. Allam had to go through a long period of study before being accepted for baptism. Benedict had to know about this at least several weeks ago. In his article in Corriere (see below), Allam mentions a meeting with Benedict where he told him of his intention to convert and the pope said he would gladly baptise him. But Allam does not mention the date.

Afghan journalist in blasphemy case says trial took only four minutes

sayed-perwiz-kambakhsh.jpgSayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, the 23-year-old Afghan journalist sentenced to death for blasphemy and other crimes against Islam, has told the London daily The Independent in his first interview since the verdict that his trial for downloading a report on women’s rights from the Internet was over in only four minutes. Independent correspondent Kim Sengupta spoke to Kambakhsh at his prison in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sherif. Here is the interview and an editorial by the newspaper, which has launched a petition for Kambakhsh’s release that has got 88,500 signatures so far.