FaithWorld

Sidelining Islamists holds risks for Egypt

egypt elex (Photo: Police carry away ballot boxes after polls closed at Mahalla El Kubra, north of Cairo November 28, 2010/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has been pushed to the sidelines of mainstream politics after an election it said was rigged, a step that may empower radicals who say an Islamic state can only be achieved by force.

The Islamist group that held a fifth of seats in the outgoing parliament cannot be certain to retain any seats after Sunday’s first round of voting, which Egyptian monitors said was littered with abuses. The group may now withdraw from the race.

President Hosni Mubarak’s party is assured of victory. But reducing the Brotherhood’s presence to a rump — at best — looks like a heavyhanded show of strength by authorities nervous about dissent before Egypt’s presidential vote next year.

Quashing the government’s Islamist critics in the assembly shuts one more valve for Egyptians to vent frustrations about the ruling party’s monopoly on power and surging prices hurting the numerous poor people among a populace of 79 million.

“The current government policy is essentially quite dangerous and may ultimately backfire,” said IHS Global Insight analyst Sara Hassan. “A younger more radicalised generation of Islamists allied with the group’s hardliners may question this strategy (of non-violence by the Brotherhood), and in their frustration seek other options,” she said.

Islam is no monolith in Obama speeches to Muslims

obama 2When U.S. President Barack Obama first addressed the Muslim world in its traditional heartland last year, his speech was laden with references to the past, to Islam and to the tensions plaguing the Middle East. Updating his speech on Wednesday on the far eastern fringe of that world, his upbeat remarks about Indonesia’s democracy, development and diversity spelled hope for the future. (Photo: President Obama greets the audience after his speech  in Jakarta November 10, 2010/Jason Reed)

But they were also veiled reference to autocratic Muslim countries. He held up Indonesia as an example for others to emulate, praising the progress it has made from dictatorship to a vibrant democracy tolerant of other religions.

Cairo and Jakarta offered contrasting backdrops to review Washington’s relations with countries whose main link is a faith they practice in varied and sometimes contradictory ways. The speeches clearly reflected those differences. In Cairo, the president spelled out seven problems to be solved in the Middle East. The Jakarta speech praised three areas where he said the world’s most populous Muslim nation enjoyed success.

Word clouds drift apart in Obama’s speeches to the Muslim world

obama jakartaWord clouds are graphic games that sometimes tell more than a plain text. Look at the results below for U.S. President Barack Obama’s “speech to the Muslim world” today in Jakarta and his first such address in Cairo last year. I’ve analysed the two in a report here, but word clouds tell the story a different way. (Photo: President Barack Obama in Jakarta, 10 Nov 2010/Barbara Walton)

Judging by the frequency of the words, today’s speech was much more a speech about Indonesia than anything else. The message to the greater Muslim world — here’s what the world’s largest Muslim country can do! – only comes through between the lines. But it was clear enough when Obama strung these words into sentences.

Another point is how strong the focus is on secular concepts such as democracy, progress and development. “Muslim” and “Islam” are also-rans while “Koran” doesn’t appear at all.

Egypt Christians say intolerance grows, close ranks

coptsMinarets and church towers mingle on Cairo’s skyline, but tensions mar Egypt’s record of religious coexistence and a perception of growing intolerance is leading some Christians to shun their Muslim compatriots.

Amira Helmy, from a middle-class area of the capital, was brought up by a Muslim neighbour after her mother died and attended a state school alongside Muslim children. “Most of my friends were Muslims. We used to go on outings together and some would call to me from below my house so we could walk to school,” recalls Helmy with a smile. (Photo: Leader of Egypt’s Copts, Pope Shenouda (C), with fellow clergymen,June 8, 2010/Asmaa Waguih)

Now a housewife in her 40s, she sends her daughter Christine and son Kirollos to a private Christian school and forbids them from mingling with Muslim children to protect them from insults. Around a tenth of Egypt’s 78 million people are Christians, mostly Orthodox Copts — descendents of Christian communities that founded monasticism in the early centuries after Jesus.

Liberal Koran expert Nasr Abu Zayd dies in Egypt, after exile

zaydNasr Abu Zayd, an Egyptian Koranic scholar declared an apostate for challenging mainstream Muslim views on the holy book, died on Monday in a Cairo hospital, aged 66.  Abu Zayd held a liberal, critical approach to Islamic teachings that angered some Muslim conservatives in his homeland in the 1990s, a decade when President Hosni Mubarak’s government was combating an uprising by armed Islamic militants.

Abu Zayd critiqued the use of religion to exert political power. He argued the Koran was both a literary and religious text which clashes with Islamic teaching which sees the holy book as the final revelation of God.  His approach challenged Egypt’s mainstream Islamic thinkers and popular sentiment in a country where conservative Islamic trends have been on the rise, reflected in part by the prevalence of the Islamic veil. (Photo: Nasr Abu Zayd/ University for Humanistics)

“I am anti-dogma,” he told Reuters in 2008. “It’s a meaning produced by humans, and I don’t find that I am going outside the domain of religion if I challenge this dogma.”

Egypt court says Copts can remarry, church objects

coptic

Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo, December 11, 2005/Tara Todras-Whitehill

An Egyptian court has ruled that divorced Copts have the right to remarry, contradicting the church’s position and undermining its efforts to maintain its authority over the Christian community in Muslim-majority Egypt.

Saturday’s administrative court decision was prompted by a rare intervention by Pope Shenouda, leader of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, who launched an appeal by the church against another court ruling made in March 2008 that had approved the request by the two divorced men to remarry.

Egypt Christian group seeks to change Muslim status

copts

Egyptian Copts pray in a Cairo church , 21 April 2006/Goran Tomasevic

Ayman Raafa, an Egyptian born a Christian, was nine months old when the father he never knew converted to Islam. Now 23, Raafa is fighting to get the Christian faith he professes recognised by the state and registered on his identity documents vital to daily life.

Raafa was raised a Christian but the state says children automatically become Muslim on a father’s conversion, a policy that places dozens of people in limbo in a society that does not — in practice — recognise conversion away from Islam.  He is one of a group of 40 facing the same identity conundrum and now filing a lawsuit to have their Christian faith recognised, touching a raw spot in relations between Muslims and 10 percent of Egypt’s 77 million people who are Christian.

“I graduated last year and I cannot get a job because I do not have a national ID,” Raafa said at his lawyer’s office, near a well-known Coptic Christian church and hospital in Cairo.

Almost two million vanish from Obama’s estimate of U.S. Muslims

dawn-front-page002 (Dawn front page for Sunday, 21 June 2009)

Almost two million people have inexplicably disappeared from the estimates of the U.S. Muslim population that President Barack Obama has given recently. In his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo on June 4, he spoke about “nearly seven million American Muslims in our country today.” On Sunday, the Karachi daily Dawn published an interview with him where he said “we have five million Muslims.”

There was no explanation for the change, but his reason for citing the figure seemed to be the same. Shortly before his Cairo speech, Obama told the French television channel Canal Plus that “one of the points I want to make is, is that if you actually took the number of Muslim Americans, we’d be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world.” He cited no figure there but mentioned seven million in Cairo three days later.

Many blogs, FaithWorld included, questioned that figure and noted that estimates of the U.S. Muslim population range from 1.8 to 7-8 million. The U.S. Census Bureau cannot ask about religion on a mandatory basis but refers on its website to a Pew Forum study pegging Muslims at 0.6% of the population. The CIA World Factbook uses the same percentage figure. It translates into about 1.8 million.

GUESTVIEW: Obama speech not historic, but could become so

obama-speaks1 (Photo: President Obama speaks at Cairo University, 4 June 2009/Larry Downing)

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Miroslav Volf is director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and a theology professor at Yale Divinity School, where he co-teaches a course on faith and globalization with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. A native of Croatia and member of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A., he has been involved in international ecumenical and interfaith dialogues, most recently in Christian-Muslim dialogue.

By Miroslav Volf

I am tempted to say that in Cairo President Obama delivered an historic speech on relations between “the United States and Muslims around the world.” Speeches aren’t historic when they are delivered, however; they become historic after they’ve shaped history. What is certain even now, mere few hours after the speech, is that it was brilliant — visionary and practical, deeply human and political, moral and pragmatic, all at the same time. These wise words, beautifully crafted and compellingly delivered, have the potential of becoming seeds from which a new future will sprout and flourish.

The perspective that pervades the whole speech was signaled when the President recognized his own Christian faith, while at the same time noting that his father came from a family that includes generations of Muslims. Thus, in his own biography, the President embodies what his speech was ultimately about: relations between the United States and Muslims around the world should not be defined simply by “our differences” but by “overlaps” and “common principles” as well. This point is crucial. In encounter with others, if we see only differences, the result is exclusion; if we see only commonalities, the result is distortion. Only when we see both-undeniable differences that give others a peculiar character and commonalities that bind us together-are we able to honor both others and ourselves.

Will Obama address the Muslim world or the Arab world?

obama-faceWhen President Barack Obama delivers his long-awaited speech in Cairo on Thursday, will he address the Muslim world or the Arab world? In the pre-speech build-up, it’s being called a speech “to the Muslim world” or “to the world’s 1.x billion Muslims” (the estimated total mentioned in different articles fluctuates between 1and 1.5 billion). But the venue he’s chosen — Cairo — and all the focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict make it sound like a speech to and about the Middle East. (Photo: President Barack Obama, 21 May 2009/Kevin Lamarque)

The Middle East is the heartland of Islam, but Arabs make up only about 20 percent of the world’s Muslims. Not all Arabs are Muslims. And non-Arab Iran is a major part of the Middle Eastern political scene. So is it correct to call this a speech to the Muslim world? Would it be better to call it a speech to the Middle East?

There is such an important overlap between the Arab and the Muslim worlds that it is hard to disentangle them. The Palestinian issue concerns Muslims around the world, but with varying intensity depending partly on whether it figures in regional politics or stands as a more distant symbol of oppression against Muslims. Politics can also poison Muslim relations with Jews, which can range from bitter enmity to interfaith cooperation depending on where, when and how one looks. The U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq may be justified in Washington as operations against international terrorism, but in Muslim countries they are often seen as attacks on Muslims and Islam.