FaithWorld

Survey says world’s top 10 intellectuals are Muslims

Foreign Policy July/August issue coverThe bimonthly U.S. international affairs journal Foreign Policy has just published a survey of the world’s top 20 public intellectuals and the first 10 are all Muslims. They are certainly an interesting group of men (and one woman) but the journal’s editors are not convinced they all belong on top. In their introduction in the July/August issue, they wrote: “Rankings are an inherently dangerous business.” It turns out that some candidates ran publicity campaigns on their web sites, in interviews or in reports in media friendly to them. So intellectuals who many other intellectuals might have put at the top — say Noam Chomsky or Richard Dawkins — landed only in the second 10 or in a much more mixed list of post-poll write-ins.

“No one spread the word as effectively as the man who tops the list,” the introduction said. “In early May, the Top 100 list was mentioned on the front page of Zaman, a Turkish daily newspaper closely aligned with Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. Within hours, votes in his favor began to pour in. His supporters—typically educated, upwardly mobile Muslims—were eager to cast ballots not only for their champion but for other Muslims in the Top 100. Thanks to this groundswell, the top 10 public intellectuals in this year’s reader poll are all Muslim. The ideas for which they are known, particularly concerning Islam, differ significantly. It’s clear that, in this case, identity politics carried the day.”

From the Fethullah Gülen websiteStill, the results are interesting. Fethullah Gülen, pictured at right by his website announcing the survey result, heads a network of schools and media that is probably the world’s largest moderate Muslim movement. He may be one of the most influential Muslims that non-Muslims have never heard of. We ran a feature about him just last month.

Second was Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi economist who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for the microcredit project run by his Grameen Bank. So he’s not an unknown and he’s here for his secular work rather than anything religious.

Abdolkarim SoroushFour other Muslim religious personalities made the top 10 — Youssef al-Qaradawi (3), the spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood and weekly preacher on al-Jazeera satellite television, Amr Khaled (6), a popular Egyptian television preacher, Abdolkarim Soroush (7 — pictured at left), an Iranian reformist theologian and Tariq Ramadan (8), the Swiss-born scholar popular among young European Muslims. Soroush, who is much more philosopher than activist, is probably the only one we have not written much about.

A silver lining to the Dutch anti-Islam film “Fitna”

Logo for Fitna movieThere seems to have been a silver lining to the Dutch anti-Islam film “Fitna” that far-right PVV party leader Geert Wilders released in late March. We noted already the strife that many people feared didn’t materialise. Now the country’s National Coordinator for Counterterrorism says the long debate about the film actually brought Christian and Muslim groups closer together.

It said in the English translation of its latest report:

“The commotion surrounding the Fitna film appears to have resulted in overtures* between Christian and Islamic organisations. Several organisations with a Christian foundation have strongly criticised standpoints of the PVV parliamentary party chairman with respect to Islam and, together with Muslim organisations, are taking initiatives to reduce the social tensions in the Netherlands and abroad. Remarkable in this context is a collaboration between the World Council of Churches and the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (Protestanse Kerk in Nederland, PKN) on the one hand and the Muslims and the Government Liaison Committee (Contactorgaan Moslims en Overheid, CMO) and the Islam Contact Group (Contact Groep Islam, CGI) on the other hand. In March 2008 these organisations conducted a ‘reconciliation mission’ to Muslim organisations in Egypt to neutralise any detrimental effects of the film.”

*The Dutch original is actually a bit stronger. It says there has been a “toenadering” (rapprochement) between Christian and Muslim groups. “Overtures” implies an initiative towards cooperation without making clear that something happened, whereas rapprochement does. And, as the report made clear, something did happen.

Muslim scholar responds to “Sharia smear” against Obama

Obama speaks at First Congregation/Carlos Barriaal United Church of Christ in Mason City, Iowa, 16 Dec 2007Two recent op-ed articles in the United States presented Barack Obama as a “Muslim apostate” according to “Muslim law as it is universally understood.” Since Muslims were bound to see him as an apostate, they argued, the potential next president could be seen as “al Qaeda’s candidate” because Islamists could whip up popular anger in the Muslim world by portraying him as a turncoat heading a Western war against Islam. He also risked assassination, one suggested, because Muslim law considers apostasy a crime worthy of the death sentence and bars punishment for any Muslim who kills an apostate.

There were many generalisations about Islam in these two articles, one by Edward Luttwak in the New York Times and the other by Shireen K. Burki in the Christian Science Monitor. There is no one code of Muslim law, as Luttwak (who is a strategic analyst not previously known for his mastery of Islamic jurisprudence) or Burki (who we’re told “studied Islam at school” in Pakistan) want unsuspecting readers to believe. Few Muslim countries have death for apostates on their books, and even fewer actually carry it out. This is not meant to defend any law about apostasy, which is an individual right, but just to state a few facts.

Most important of all, Obama never tires of saying that he is a committed Christian and has never practiced the religion that his father (who left his son when he was 2 years old) no longer practiced either. The fact these articles appeared amid an “Obama-is-a-Muslim” whispering campaign in an election year makes a good case for suspecting they may have been motivated more by political strategy than legal scholarship. A lot of the 368 comments on Luttwak’s article assume that’s the case. Call it the “Sharia smear.”

Modernity meets monasticism in Egypt’s desert

St. Anthony’s monastery in the Egyptian desert, 3 May 2008/Asmaa WaguihA speck of green in a sea of sand, St. Anthony’s Monastery in Egypt welcomes those seeking God in silence broken only by the whisper of the wind.

Monks at what is considered by many to be the world’s oldest active Christian monastery still rise before dawn to chant and pray just as their predecessors did for more than 1,500 years.

Now, they also carry mobile phones, send e-mails and maintain a website, embracing modernity that has helped sustain the ancient monastery, nestled beside a spring where Egypt’s eastern desert meets the craggy Red Sea mountains.

Egyptian scholar Nasr Abu Zayd looks back without rancour

“Religion has been used, politicised, not only by groups but also the official institutions in every Arab country … Nearly everything is theologised — every issue society faces has to be solved by asking if Islam allows it. There is no distinction between the domain of religion and secular space.”

Ulema (Muslim scholars) are too keen to deliver rulings on economic, social or even medical issues like organ transplants: “You’ll hardly find any scholar who says, ‘I’m very sorry, but this is not my business, go consult a doctor’.”

Nasr Abu ZaydNasr Abu Zayd was declared an apostate, divorced from his wife by court order, threatened with death by Islamists and forced to flee his native Egypt in 1995. Now a professor of humanism and Islam at the University for Humanistics in Utrecht in the Netherlands, he has lost none of his critical perspective. But he looks back on his case, a major human rights issue at the time, without rancour.

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?

Egypt outlaws protests in places of worship

Protest in al-Azhar mosque against Pope Benedict’s Regensburg speech, 22 Sept 2006/Nasser NuriEgypt’s parliament has passed a law criminalising protests in places of worship, a measure the government’s opponents see as part of a wider pattern of reining in popular opposition.

The bill has been touted as a bid to protect the sanctity of places of worship by a government eager to burnish its religious credentials, tarnished by unpopular foreign policy decisions and a continuous crackdown on the Islamist opposition.

However, the law passed on Wednesday is widely seen as an effort to clamp down on the protests often held in major mosques such as al-Azhar, the university-mosque that has been a center of Islamic learning for over a thousand years.

Strong words, raw nerves in Catholic-Muslim relations

Pope Benedict at Easter Vigil, 23 March 2008//Dario Pignatelli The nascent Catholic-Muslim dialogue sparked by the “Common Word” initiative was never going to be easy, even under the best of circumstances. There is a lot of suspicion, misunderstanding and different agendas to deal with. And then there are the surprises that can come seemingly out of nowhere and blow the effort off course, at least temporarily. One of these was the baptism of the Egyptian-born Italian journalist Magdi Allam by Pope Benedict that popped up by surprise on Saturday evening and highlighted some of the twists along the path of inter-faith dialogue.

The most surprising part about Allam’s baptism was not that he converted. He has been living in a traditionally Catholic country for 35 years, is married to a Catholic, is close to the lay Catholic movement Communion and Liberation, has long been highly critical of radical Islam and says he was never an especially pious Muslim. The surprise was that the Vatican would make it such a prominent event. There was a second surprise, too — the fact that Allam published such a hard-hitting declaration about his conversion, his view that Islam is intrinsically violent and that the Catholic Church has been too timid about converting Muslims. We quoted from the Corriere della Sera original on Sunday, but now the Catholic news agency Zenit has provided an English translation.

Magdi Allam at his baptism, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliReporting from Rome, the Paris daily Le Figaro had an interesting detail. It wrote on Monday that Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and as such the Vatican’s point man for relations with Islam, had not been informed about the Allam baptism before it happened. If this is true, it suggests some behind-the-scenes Vatican politics on how to deal with Muslims. It would seem that Tauran should have been informed on a need-to-know basis — this is, after all, his area of responsibility — but somebody didn’t do it.

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.

Osama, Benedict and the Mohammad cartoons

Osama bin Laden in a video grab from undated footage obtained in 2007/Reuters TelevisionIn his latest video, Osama bin Laden charges that the reprinting of a Danish caricature of the Prophet Mohammad amounts to a new crusade against Islam led by Pope Benedict. Complaints about the reprinting of the cartoon, sparked by death threats against the artist who depicted Mohammad with a bomb in his turban, have been spreading in the Muslim world. This seems to be the first time, however, that the pope has been linked like this to the cartoons. We have the news story and a security analysis. This post is simply to point out this curious twist, given the fact that the Vatican’s top official for relations with Islam was recently in Egypt and issued a joint declaration with al-Azhar University denouncing media attacks on religion.

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, visited the centre of Sunni learning in late February and signed a joint communique with Sheikh Abd al-Fattah Alaam, head of al-Azhar’s Permanent Committee for Dialogue with Monotheistic Religions. In it they said they

appeal to those responsible for the mass media, whether written or broadcast, in all countries, to be vigilant that freedom of expression not be taken as a pretext for offending religions, convictions, religious symbols and everything that is considered sacred, but rather to oppose extremism, to encourage mutual acceptance, love and respect for all, regardless of their religion.