FaithWorld

Far-right anti-mosque rally flops in Germany

Poster for anti-mosque protest surrounded by Cologne police, 20 Sept 2008/Ina FassbenderA far-right movement opposed to the construction of a large mosque in Cologne, Germany planned a “Stop Islam” rally there on Saturday. About 1,500 protesters were expected from across Germany, but also from France, Belgium and Austria. Muslim and left-wing groups mobilised. Iran and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference protested. Cologne deployed about 3,000 police. It looked like a major clash was looming.

As it turned out, only a few dozen anti-mosque activists turned up for the rally in central Cologne’s Hay Market square. Waiting for them were 40,000 demonstrators who blocked their way, sometimes violently. Among their tactics was blocking trams to keep them from arriving at Hay Market square (as in picture below). There was so much sporadic violence that police finally banned the rally altogether.

Left-wing demonstrators block tram line to anti-mosque rally, 20 Sept 2008/Ina FassbenderThe Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the country’s leading serious newspaper, thinks this was like using a sledge hammer to kill a fly. “Maybe the most sovereign answer to the rally would have been to ignore it, like Lord Mayor Schramma said early last week when he suggested closing down Hay Market square — close your windows and doors, roll down the shutters and show the right-wing populists the cold shoulder.”

Agitation against new mosques is seen around Europe (we blogged on Italy here last week) and a recent survey said anti-Muslim feelings were on the rise.  The anti-mosque group has announced it will appeal the ban. Are the media giving too much attention to these groups? Is this the time to simply ignore this agitation or should governments take stronger steps against it?

Where does religion have its strongest foothold?

Indonesian Muslims pray at Jakarta’s Istiqlal Mosque during Ramadan, 5 Sept 2008/Supri SupriThe answer is Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population. At least that was the conclusion of the latest Pew Research Institute survey of attitudes about religion around the world — a look at 24 countries based on thousands of interviews. Indonesia came in first with 99 percent of the population rating religion as important or very important in their lives — and it topped everyone else in the “very important” slot at 95 percent. Beyond that 80 percent of those surveyed in Indonesia say they pray five times a day every day — adhering to one of the five pillars of Islam.

Indeed Islam is well represented in the top five countries where religion is valued in life — with Tanzania, Jordan, Pakistan and Nigeria following Indonesia.

At the bottom of the chart was France, where only 10 percent saw religion as very important and 60 percent said they never pray.

Prejudice against Muslims, Jews on the rise in Europe – Pew study

Swastikas on Muslim gravestones in northern France, 6 April 2008/stringerAnti-Muslim and anti-Jewish feelings are rising in several major European countries, according to a survey by the Washington- based Pew Research Center’s Global Attitude Survey. Mike Conlon in our Chicago bureau has summed up the report here.

Apart from the figures themselves, what struck me most was the way the study says the trends are moving. Pew said the upswing in anti-Muslim feelings came mostly between 2004 and 2006, with some falls since then, while the upswing of feelings against Jews has come mostly between 2006 and 2008. Is this matched by facts on the ground, such as attacks on religious people and sites or increasingly discriminatory acts or agitation against religious minorities? Or is this a change in mood that need surveys like this to be perceived?

The news media tend to focus on actual examples of such prejudices, such as the recent anti-mosque campaign in Italy or suspected anti-Semitic attack on a young Paris Jew, since these are news events that reflect prejudices. This is admittedly an imperfect measure (which, by the way, is one reason why we also report surveys like this). We don’t claim to be able to cover such events so thoroughly that we could track trends like Pew does. Even with that proviso, I’m not sure I would have said that Europe saw a surge of anti-Muslim feeling between 2004 and 2006 and a surge of anti-Jewish feeling since then. The evidence from actual events is difficult to read.

Pope balances church and state in Paris speech

President Nicolas Sarkozy and Pope Benedict arrive at Elysee Palace, 12 Sept 2008/Philippe WojazerThe French are a tough audience to please and speaking to them about church-state relations is a tall order. Pope Benedict got right down to it at the start of his visit to France, using his courtesy call on President Nicolas Sarkozy to outline his view of the role religion should play in the public sphere. Fluent in French and well-read in the country’s history and culture, he made several interesting points in his short speech.

Here’s the part on church-state relations:

During your visit to Rome, Mr President, you called to mind that the roots of France – like those of Europe – are Christian. History itself offers sufficient proof of this: from its origins, your country received the Gospel message. Even though documentary evidence is sometimes lacking, the existence of Christian communities in Gaul is attested from a very early period: it is moving to recall that the city of Lyon already had a bishop in the mid-second century, and that Saint Irenaeus, the author of Adversus Haereses, gave eloquent witness there to the vigour of Christian thought. Saint Irenaeus came from Smyrna to preach faith in the Risen Christ. This bishop of Lyons spoke Greek as his mother tongue. Could there be a more beautiful sign of the universal nature and destination of the Christian message? The Church, established at an early stage in your country, played a civilizing role there to which I am pleased to pay tribute on his occasion. You spoke of it yourself, during your address at the Lateran Palace last December. The transmission of the culture of antiquity through monks, professors and copyists, the formation of hearts and spirits in love of the poor, the assistance given to the most deprived by the foundation of numerous religious congregations, the contribution of Christians to the establishment of the institutions of Gaul, and later France, all of this is too well known for me to dwell on it. The thousands of chapels, churches, abbeys and cathedrals that grace the heart of your towns or the tranquility of your countryside speak clearly of how your fathers in faith wished to honour him who had given them life and who sustains us in existence.

Pope Benedict listens as President Sarkozy speaks at Elysee Palace, 12 Sept 2008/poolMany people, here in France as elsewhere, have reflected on the relations between Church and State. Indeed, Christ had already offered the basic criterion upon which a just solution to the problem of relations between the political sphere and the religious sphere could be found. He does this when, in answer to a question, he said: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mk 12:17). The Church in France currently benefits from a “regime of freedom”. Past suspicion has been gradually transformed into a serene and positive dialogue that continues to grow stronger. A new instrument of dialogue has been in place since 2002, and I have much confidence in its work, given the mutual good will. We know that there are still some areas open to dialogue, which we will have to pursue and redevelop step by step with determination and patience. You yourself, Mr President, have used the expression “laïcité positive” to characterise this more open understanding. At this moment in history when cultures continue to cross paths more frequently, I am firmly convinced that a new reflection on the true meaning and importance of laïcité is now necessary. In fact, it is fundamental, on the one hand, to insist on the distinction between the political realm and that of religion in order to preserve both the religious freedom of citizens and the responsibility of the State towards them; and, on the other hand, to become more aware of the irreplaceable role of religion for the formation of consciences and the contribution which it can bring to—among other things—the creation of a basic ethical consensus within society.

Irish voters and the EU’s “loss of Christian memory”

Protest sign in Dublin, 21 July 2008/Philippe WojazerDid the Irish reject the European Union’s Lisbon treaty last June because they are “losing their Christian memory?” Cardinal Seán Brady, the top Catholic cleric in the once staunchly Catholic country, thinks that can partially explain the vote.

The cardinal told a conference in County Mayo on Sunday that many Christians in Europe think the EU bases its values on a lowest common denominator that “invariably coincides with the secular and relativist tradition within Europe – that which denies moral absolutes with an objective basis – rather than the religious view.”

They think the EU is suffering from what the late Pope John Paul called a “loss of Christian memory,” he said, according to reports in the Irish press. As Brady put it:

Prince Ghazi fears the worst if interfaith tensions flare

“Christians and Muslims routinely mistrust, disrespect and dislike each other, if not popularly and actively rubbish, dehumanize, demonize, despise and attack each other.”
Hmmm … this doesn’t sound like your usual speech at a conference on Christian-Muslim dialogue.

“With such an explosive mix, popular religious conflicts, even unto genocide, are lurking around the corner.” Um, er … the gloves are really off.

“God forbid, a few more terrorist attacks, a few more national security emergencies, a few more demagogues, a few more national protection laws, and then internment camps, if not concentration camps, are not inconceivable in some places.”

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.

New, younger leaders for France’s Muslims and Jews

This is such a coincidence that some might suspect it wasn’t one. France’s Muslim and Jewish minorities, both the largest of their kind in Europe, elected new leaders on Sunday. In both cases, they opted for younger leaders who promised to play a more active role in their communities. We may see and hear more from these two groups than in the past.

Mohammed Moussaoui, 22 June 2008/Gonzalo FuentesThe French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) chose Mohammed Moussaoui, 44, of the Moroccan-backed Rally of French Muslims group as its new president. Its outgoing president, Dalil Boubakeur, 67, boycotted the election. This is a secular post, so Moussaoui is the top Muslim representative in France, not a theological authority. Although he is an imam, his “day job” is mathematics lecturer at the University of Avignon. After five years of paralysis at the CFCM, it was a breath of fresh air to see him publish an action programme in advance and pledge to reform the council. We covered his election here and the first round of the voting on June 8 here. There are about five million Muslims in France, around 8 percent of the population, and Islam is the second-largest religion here after Roman Catholicism. Moussaoui was born in Morocco and came to France for university studies.

The Rabbi and The Cardinal — Bernheim (l) and Barbarin (r)Rabbi Gilles Bernheim, 56, won election as the new grand rabbi of France, replacing Joseph Sitruk, 63, who had held the post for 21 years and sought reelection. Bernheim is an orthodox rabbi who has frequently spoken out in public on a wide range of issues. A former university chaplain, he is rabbi of the largest Paris synagogue, the Synagogue de la Victoire, and has been active in dialogue with Christians. He recently published “Le rabbin et le cardinal” (The Rabbi and The Cardinal), a long conversation with Lyon Cardinal Philippe Barbarin. This commitment to dialogue earned him some criticism during the election campaign from more traditionalist voices in an unusually lively campaign (see this pre-poll article in The Forward). In French, check out reports in Le Monde and RTL radio (audio and text). There are about 600,000 Jews in France.

Euro 2008: do Catholic countries have the edge?

The Euro 2008 flag flutters near Zurich’s Grossmünster church, 25 May 2008/Arnd Wiegmann“Do Catholic countries have better football players?”

I was surprised to see this headline on the Austrian Catholic website kath.net today… and even more surprised to see they seemed to mean it seriously.

“A look at the participants in the final round of the European football championship in Switzerland and Austria suggests this,” kath.net writes in a report from Vienna. “In seven of the 16 participating countries, Catholics are clearly in the majority: Poland (95 percent of the population), Spain (92 percent), Italy (90 percent), Portugal (90 percent), Croatia (77 percent), Austria (69 percent ) and France (51 percent). Only one Protestant stronghold confronts them, Sweden. Of the 8.8 million inhabitants of the northern European country, 80 percent are Lutherans.”

Poland’s team with coach Leo Beenhakker (C) attends Mass in Bad Waltersdorf, 6 June 2008/stringerThere’s no hint of analysis of why this should be relevant, or mention of the personal faith — or lack thereof — of the players on these national teams. This purely statistical view (sports fans love stats, don’t they?) goes on to point out which participating countries have large numbers of both Catholics and Protestants (Germany, Switzerland and Netherlands).

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?