FaithWorld

Off with their heads — Saudi clerics blast racy Ramadan TV

Ramadan television always throws up some controversy or talking point in the Arab world, but never of the nature of this year’s talking point. Hardline Saudi religious scholars are saying enough’s enough on the fun and frolics of Ramadan television and demanding trials for TV channel owners that could impose the death penalty.

MBC logoWhat’s more, these owners are in fact Saudi royals and their friends. The main culprit is MBC1, owned by a brother-in-law of former King Fahd, but others include billionaire playboy prince Alwaleed bin Talal, dubbed by the religious right in Saudi Arabia “the shameless prince” (al-amir al-majin). The clerics in Saudi Arabia have enormous influence and they are worried that liberals in government and their royal allies are plotting to caste them aside and secularise the country.

It is unlikely that Alwaleed or the family of Fahd’s sister are worried about the attacks. They live in a world apart of palaces, servants, private planes and cruise ships in France and probably no one could get near them if they tried. The clerics were careful to talk about a legal process in any case. In fact, one of them, Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan, said specifically that he wasn’t calling for vigilantes to take the law into their own hands.

Ramadan religious programme on Saudi TV, 15 Sept 2008/Fahad ShadeedFor Saudi clerics, the process is all, since they have the unique privilege in the Islamic world of sitting as judges in the Sharia court system. That is the very definition of the Islamic state in their eyes. It’s not the first time the religious establishment has condemned liberals in any case. Even Osama bin Laden singled out Labour Minister Ghazi Algosaibi — a poet, former ambassador to London and confidante of the king — in a taped message from his hideout on 2006 attacking a liberal “fifth column” at home. But Algosaibi and other punching bags of the Islamists survived.

Interestingly, most Saudis would probably say Lohaidan and co. have a point. Everyone complains about cheap jokes and sexual innuendoes in some Saudi comedy shows on TV after sunset during Ramadan. Most would say that the “sorcery” channels on Arab satellites are wrong. But it’s a vague tut-tut of disapproval delivered in the knowledge that the clerics’ ability to stand up to the temporal power of the Al Sauds has always been limited despite their loud bark (the most notable modern example being the way they were forced to sanction the presence of US troops on Saudi soil to eject Iraqi troops from Kuwait). People will nod in agreement that “immodest” and “immoral” television must stop, but not fully compute the fact that for the clerical puritans “sorcery” includes horoscopes that so many follow and the romantic soap operas from Turkey that their wives are hooked on.

After long delay, French Muslim council may get down to work

Things seem to be looking up at the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM). The first round of elections for its new national leadership went off well on Sunday — the second round is due on June 22 — and several leaders of member groups expressed confidencethe council can finally get down to work. This will be a revolution in itself. Since it was created in 2003 under heavy pressure from the then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy (now M. le Président), the CFCM has been almost completely paralysed by internal rivalries. Grand Mosque Rector Dalil Boubakeur, 3 May 2008/Tom HeneghanThe reason for hope this time around is that the government didn’t choose winner in advance, as it did in the 2003 and 2005 elections. Instead of naming Paris Grand MosqueRector Dalil Boubakeur the next CFCM president before the vote no matter what his mosque network’s result was, the government let the Muslims decide for themselves who should run the council. The Moroccan-backed Rally of French Muslims (RMF) mosque network came out clearly ahead and its candidate for CFCM president, Mohammed Moussaoui, looks set to win the top job on June 22. Here’s a post-election interviewwith Moussaoui (in French) where he lists his priorities as religious training for imams and chaplains, mosque construction, consumer protection for hajis, better conditions for Eid slaughterhouses and Muslim sections in cemeteries. Without ever mentioning the record of the CFCM to date, he shows all that has to be done. The back story to the CFCM election is fascinating. Back in 2003, Sarkozy insisted that Boubakeur be president in order to:- Ensure a moderate head of a prestigious mosque headed the CFCM rather than the supposed “radicals” of the Union of French Muslim Organisations (UOIF), which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood and Work closely with Algeria, which supports the Grand Mosque and its network, the main mosque network for Algerian Muslims in France.

The Grand Mosque network came in third in the 2003 and 2005 elections, so the UOIF and the Moroccan mosques — first represented by the National Federation of French Muslims (FNMF) and now the RMF — had serious problems with this interference. Although Sarkozy is now president, it seems he did not bring the same priorities into the Elysée Palace. The current approach shows less worry about the UOIF, which is not really all that “radical” after all, and a tilt towards Morocco. Press reports say Rabat has also become more interested in influencing its emigrants in Europe after Moroccans were implicated in the Theo van Gogh murder and the Madrid train bombings. Anyway, back to the CFCM elections. Once Boubakeur pulled out of the race in supposed protest against the voting mechanism accepted in the two earlier elections, the vote was free for the winners to be the group that actually won the most votes. The Moroccans came in a strong first at 43.2 percent, far ahead of the UOIF at 30.2 percent. This satisfied the Moroccans and smaller groups that will probably ally with them, but left the UOIF very dissatisfied. Now it is clear they are stuck in second place and they don’t like that. So they’re calling for a rotating presidency to let them get the top job some day. Rhone-Alpes CRCM chairman Azzedine GaciJudging from what RMF President Anouar Kbibech said after the results were in (RFI audio here in French), the RMF plans to actually tackle practical problems for Muslims in France. The regional council (CRCM) in Rhône-Alpes, the region in and around Lyon, showed up the national council by producing a 74-page report on its progresson such practical issues over the past three years. The pragmatic regional leader there, Azzedine Gaci (picture at left), has set a high standard for the new boys in Paris to meet. One of the first would be to set up their own website … One fly in the ointment is that the election confirmed the influence of what the French call “consular Islam” — the influence that the so-called countries of origin have on French Muslims. The switch in leadership from the Paris Grand Mosque to the RMF also means a shift in influence from Algeria to Morocco. Turkey has a similar link to ethnic Turks in France, but they are a smaller group (12.7 percent in the election). For all the government’s talk of creating an Islam de France, it persists in fostering this consular Islam.When it was launched, the CFCM aroused interest around Europe because it seemed to be the most developed form of official representation for Islam in a European country. It looked like some kind of answer to the question ‘who speaks for Islam?’ But its immobility over the years made it drop off the radar screen.Representatives attend the ‘Conference on Islam’ in Berlin, 2 May 2007/Tobias SchwarzThere are a mixed bag of efforts to create or maintain Muslim councils in other countries, such as the “Islam Conference” in Berlin pictured at right. Here’s a roundup of them by H. A. Hellyer. Each country has a different approach and there doesn’t seem to be any one-size-fits-all solution.How do you think a Muslim council in a European country should be organised?

Should men-only Muslim teams be barred from the Olympics?

Saudi Arabia’s all-men team at the opening of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games,13 Aug 2004/Wolfgang RattayShould some Islamic countries be barred from the Beijing Olympics? The question came up in an interesting op-ed piece this week arguing that countries that ban women from competing in sports events violate the Olympic Charter and thus should be excluded from the Games. As Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, wrote in the International Herald Tribune:

The procession of the Olympic torch drew protests from Paris to San Francisco over China’s treatment of the Tibetan people, but no one has protested another tragedy that is afflicting millions of women in Saudi Arabia, Iran and other Muslim countries. Many Muslim women dare not even dream of the Olympics because their countries ban female sports altogether or severely restrict the athletic activities of the “weaker sex.”

The International Olympic Committee charter states that “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, sex or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

Uncertain future for France’s Muslim council

2003 launch of French Muslim Council with Nicolas Sarkozy (l), then French interior minister, 3 May 2003/Jacky NaegelenThe future of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), the state-backed body meant to represent the country’s second-largest religion, is once again shrouded in uncertainty. The Grand Mosque of Paris (GMP) announced on Saturday it would boycott elections next month for the CFCM leadership. Although the Grand Mosque and its national mosque network rank third in size behind rival organisations, a CFCM without it is a rump organisation that cannot really claim to represent Islam in France.

The CFCM has been paralysed by internal rivalries for most of its five years of existence. Back in 2003 when he was interior minister, France’s current President Nicolas Sarkozy engineered an agreement among the country’s main Islamic groups to create a council to speak for Muslims similar to the way the French Bishops’ Conference speaks for Catholics or the Consistory speaks for Jews. His ministry’s Religious Affairs Bureau kept close tabs on the Council and influenced its operations behind the scenes. But the CFCM could not overcome the divisions within the Muslim community itself. It rarely acted as a single body and member groups continued to compete with each other.

That competition now threatens the June 8 election.

Grand Mosque of Paris courtyard, 3 May 2008/Tom HeneghanWhile the Grand Mosque of Paris is the symbolic centre of French Islam, the main Muslim group are the Moroccan-backed Rally for French Muslims (RMF) and the Union of French Islamic Organisations (UOIF), which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood. The RMF has been steadily gaining ground and has strong backing from Rabat (it even held a conference of 250 leaders in Marrakech in February). Moroccan immigrants in France tend to be more observant than the Algerians close to the GMP (which is directly supported by Algiers). They have opened many mosques and prayer rooms around the country, often in suburbs or small towns where they can get ample prayer space.