FaithWorld

Hunting for heretics in the 21st century

Jakarta protester with poster against Ahmadiyya founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, 9 June 2008/Dadang Tri“Popular imagination relegates ‘heresy’ to the Middle Ages…” says the Wikipedia entry on heresy. The Inquisition, the Salem witch trials and other excesses of religious zeal against dissenters also seem to be located comfortably far back in the past. But several  news items these past few days have shown that hunts for heretics continue in the 21st century. Locations, religions and methods may be different, but the intolerance is the same.

“Thousands of hardline Indonesian Muslims rallied outside the presidential palace and Jakarta police headquarters on Monday to urge the president to disband a sect branded by many Muslims as “deviant”, a news report from our Jakarta office said. “Militant Muslim groups have attacked mosques and buildings associated with Ahmadiyya, and are lobbying the government to outlaw the sect.”

Ahmadiyya, a late 19th-century movement that considers its founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad a latter-day prophet who came to perfect Islam, says it is a Muslim denomination. Most Muslim scholars dispute this, saying Mohammed was the last one, the “seal of the prophets”. Comparisons between religions are always tricky, but its situation looks similar to that of Mormonism within Christianity. Mormons say they are Christians with latter-day prophets and scriptures, but several traditional Christian churches dispute this. This disagreement may have lost Mitt Romney some votes in the Republican primaries in the United States, but otherwise it has not had much effect on public life.

Protester’s headband reads “Reject and disband Ahmadiyya now”, 20 April 2008/Crack PalinggiBut in Indonesia, the Islamists demand that the state ban Ahmadiyya because — as the Indonesian Ulema Council has decreed — its teachings deviate from mainstream Islam. Islamic radicals have damaged mosques and other property belonging to Ahmadis in Indonesia. “Today is the beginning of our fight. We are ready to die for the Ahmadiyya sect’s dismissal,” said Abdurrahman of Indonesia’s Muslim Forum (FUI) at the rally on Monday. “If ( President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) ignores us, we will bring him down.” As that threat indicates, the issue has become a political football and could influence elections next year.

The government finally decided to issue a stern warning to Ahmadiyya followers that they could face five years in jail for “tarnishing religion” but stopped short of banning the movement. Human Rights Watch promptly called on Jakarta to withdraw the decree. Religion experts said the Ahmadiyya unrest fits into a larger picture of rising religious intolerance in Indonesia.

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?

U.S. religious groups in anti-torture campaign

Torture instruments at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, 2 Dec 2007/Reuters photographerOver 275 congregations from across the faith spectrum and all corners of America will display banners this month condemning torture. The campaign is the brain child of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) which groups over 190 religious groups.

President George W. Bush in March vetoed legislation passed by Congress that would have banned the CIA from using waterboarding and other controversial
interrogation techniques that critics say is torture, making the issue a political as well as moral one in this election year.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain — who was tortured while a prisoner of war in Vietnam — has strongly condemned water-boarding and has been the author of previous anti-torture legislation, winning praise from centrist U.S. evangelicals among others. But he did not support the legislation vetoed by Bush on the grounds that it was too sweeping.

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.”

U.S. Religious Right reacts to “Evangelical Manifesto”

Tony PerkinsA group of mostly centrist U.S. evangelicals released a lengthy manifesto on Wednesday which called for the movement to pull back from explicit partisan political activity, saying faith was being used to express “political points that have lost touch with biblical truth.”

Leading figures on the conservative Religious Right, such as Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, were pointedly not asked to sign the document — a reflection of some of the divisions emerging in the U.S. evangelical movement, which numbers over 60 million by some estimates.

“I agree that evangelical Christians have become too aligned with the Republican Party which has taken them for granted,” Perkins told Reuters, adding that he saw some good stuff in the manifesto.

Former bishop wins presidency of Paraguay

Fernando Lugo, 22 April 2008/stringerFernando Lugo shed his cassock to win Paraguay’s presidential election on Sunday, ending 61 years of one-party rule in the South American country. Lugo stepped down as bishop of one of Paraguay’s neediest areas three years ago, saying he felt powerless to help the poor. A year later, he left the priesthood to launch his political career.

The Vatican responded by suspending him, but he remains a bishop under canon law because the Catholic Church views ordination as a lifelong sacrament.

Paraguay’s bishops said they recognise the mild-mannered, sandal-wearing Lugo as the new president, adding this may be the first country where a Catholic bishop has been elected leader.

Wafer wars, wedge issues and the pope’s visit

Nancy Pelosi kisses Pope Benedict’s ring as President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, 16 April/Larry DowningRemember back in 2004 when some U.S. Catholic bishops declared they would deny communion to the Democratic candidate, Senator John Kerry, because he supported abortion rights? Reporters spied on him in church to see if he received or not. Pundits dreamed up terrible catch phrases like “wafer watch” and “wafer war.” The issue became part of the campaign that year.

Now, four years later, Pope Benedict is visiting the U.S. and three prominent pro-choice politicians — Kerry, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani — have stepped up and taken communion at his Masses with a minimum of fuss. Pelosi kissed his ring at the White House as President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice looked on. Apart from his pro-choice stand, Giuliani is also twice divorced and remarried, which according to Church rules should bar him from taking communion. When our Vatican correspondent Phil Pullella asked him if he was uncomfortable with that, he said “No.”

As the National Catholic Reporter‘s John Allen observed, “In none of these cases did the politicians receive communion directly from the pope, but it nonetheless happened during a papal Mass, and it took no one by surprise … While it would be a stretch to say that Benedict XVI authorized what happened, one can at least infer that the pope did not issue strict instructions to the contrary. The cumulative effect of these events will likely be to weaken the case that the Vatican wants the American bishops to take a stricter stance against communion for pro-choice Catholics in public life.”

New book charts fresh course for U.S. Religious Right

Tony PerkinsTony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, is well known as one of the leading activists of the Religious Right in the United States. Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr, founder of the High Impact Leadership Coalition, is one of the most influential voices of the black conservative movement.

The two have come together to chart a future course for conservative Christian political activism in a just published book entitled “Personal Faith, Public Policy”. The issues they discuss include the value of life, poverty and justice and rebuilding the traditional family unit.

They argue that conservative Christians need to speak out more on issues like poverty and racial reconciliation while maintaining their opposition to abortion and gay rights. They say no one political party – i.e., the Republican Party – should assume to command evangelical support unless it delivers the goods and that born-again Christians should also woo Democrats.

Pakistan bucks apparent Islamist trend in elections

Pakistani voters in Karachi, 18 Feb. 2008/Athar HussainAn interesting thing happened in the Pakistani elections this week. A country where radical Islamism has been on the rise in recent years went to the polls and voted Islamists out of office. In North West Frontier Province (NWFP), the most “Talibanised” part of the country, an avowedly secular Pashtun party — the Awami National Party — emerged as the largest party by far. This bucks what seemed to be a trend in the Muslim world, i.e. the freer the election, the more chances the Islamists have. Think back to late 1991, when the Algerian military cancelled the run-off round of elections after the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) took a strong lead in the first round. In more recent years, elections in Egypt, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza have shown Islamists doing well at the polls. In a very different context, Turkey’s “post-Islamist” AKP has gone from strength to strength thanks to the ballot box.

We expected the Islamists to lose but that doesn’t make the result any less interesting. The Islamist parties won only about 1 percent of the seats in the National Assembly, a Maulana Fazlur Rehman, 3 March 2006/Asim Tanveerprecipitous drop from the 17 percent they scored in the 2002 vote. One crucial factor here is that opposition parties like the PPP of the late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League were allowed to run, in contrast to the 2002 poll that the then soldier-president Pervez Musharraf restricted to”friendly” parties. The conspiracy theory in Pakistan was that Musharraf made sure the Islamists advanced in order to make himself indispensable to the United States, the argument being “if you drop me, they’ll take my place”.

In NWFP, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) alliance of Islamist parties won only 11 of 99 seats in the provincial assembly after governing there with a majority in the assembly for the past five years. One of the most prominent Islamist leaders, the Taliban-friendly Maulana Fazlur Rehman, was defeated in his NWFP home town of Dera Ismail Khan in his bid for re-election to the National Assembly. In Baluchistan, the other province with Islamists in government, the MMA won only five of the 65 seats in the provincial assembly.

When an Indian pilgrimage becomes a vote bank

Y.S. Reddy comforts boat disaster victim in Andhra Pradesh, 19. Jan 2007/stringerFor an example of how India often struggles with its secular ideals, especially in election years, look no further than Andhra Pradesh. The chief minister Y.S. Reddy has decided the large southern Indian state will subsidise pilgrimages for Christians who want to travel to Israel.

This kind of subsidy is not new. The central government has for years offered subsidies to Muslims wanting to join the annual haj pilgrimage to Mecca. New Delhi even has a special haj air terminal for Muslims, who account for about 13 percent of India’s 1.1 billion population. Tens of thousands travel every year from India.

But the latest announcement has sparked debate in India over whether it further eats into the country’s secular ideals.