FaithWorld

Indonesian ulema tell Muslims to vote or go to hell

Parliamentary and presidential elections in Indonesia this year may hinge on how the public reacts to a directive from the country’s top Islamic council –all Muslims must vote or risk going to hell.

The fatwa from the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) is not legally binding. But it does carry weight in the world’s most populous Muslim country, where Islamic conservatism has been growing since the fall of the country’s former autocratic president, Suharto, moe than a decade ago. Suharto kept a lid on politicised Islam with the same ruthless approach he took to eradicating leftist influences after coming to power following a 1965 coup blamed on communists. (Photo: Cigarette factory where orders dropped after MUI issued fatwa against smoking in public, 2 Feb 2009/Sigit Pamungkas)

The MUI has evolved from being a pliant arm of Suharto’s regime to becoming an independent body that aims to influence public policy.  The edict does not state which parties or candidates voters should choose. But it could encourage Muslims to choose Islamist candidates at the polls, pushing  the country away from secularism toward a more socially rigid government.

Indonesia’s plethora of political parties mean relatively small shifts among voters could potentially determine which groups form alliances in the April 9 general election and which field candidates in the presidential election in July.

French faith leaders work to contain any Gaza backlash

Whenever the Palestinian issue heats up, the temperature rises in the gritty neighbourhoods the French call the banlieues (suburbs). These areas, best known for the low-cost housing projects that postwar city planners planted out there, are a vibrant and edgy mix of local working class, recent immigrants and minorities now in France for several generations. (Photo: Police survey housing project in Paris suburb, 1 June 2006/Victor Tonelli)

Among those groups are Muslims and Jews, many of whose families came from the same parts of North Africa. About 7-8 years ago, at the start of the second Palestinian intifada, some of the far more numerous Muslims took out their anger at Israel on their Jewish neighbours. The official reaction against that wave of anti-Semitism was slow in coming back then, but leaders in France today — especially leaders of the main religious groups — seem determined to do their best to head that off this time around.

They have their work cut out for them. According to a French Jewish Students’ Union (UEJF) list (here in French), there have been 46 anti-Semitic acts in France since Dec. 27, when Israel began its bombardment of Gaza.  That includes several firebombs and several Jews beaten by thugs. Muslim and Jewish leaders have already issued several calls for calm. In some cities such as Strasbourg and Lyon, they have joined the mayor and their Catholic colleagues. After meeting President Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday evening, the national heads of the Muslim, Jewish and Catholic communities said they would produce a joint appeal soon. See my story on this here.

Mumbai Muslim clerics refuse to bury Islamist attackers

Have you seen this story in your local newspaper? Mumbai’s top Islamic clerics have refused to bury the nine Islamist militants killed during the three-day siege in the city. Declaring the rampage proved they could not have been true Muslims, they declared that no Muslim cemetery in India would accept them. A debate has broken out about what to do with the bodies, which according to Muslim custom should have been buried within a few hours of death. (Photo: Palestinian funeral for Hamas militant killed fighting Israeli troops in Gaza, 17 Oct 2007/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

The reason I ask whether your local newspaper ran this story is that Muslims often say the media regularly link Islam and terrorism but rarely report when Muslims denounce acts of Islamist violence. There is some truth in this complaint, especially since Islam does not have central authorities, such as a pope, who can claim to speak in the name of all believers. Individual protests from small groups get lost in the flood of news. Some publications are also simply unwilling to print news that goes against their view of Islam as a violent religion, so it makes no difference there how many such protests are reported. They won’t believe them anyway.

This refusal to bury the Mumbai attackers is different. It is an original and bold protest against Islamist violence by religious authorities who would normally make sure any Muslim got a proper burial. “This is symbolically very important,” Mustafa Akyol, a columnist for the Hürriyet Daily News in Istanbul and an active Muslim blogger. “I’ve heard of imams declining to lead a prayer for the deceased because he was an outright atheist, but never of people being denied burial.”

Exercised over yoga in Malaysia

Of all the things to get exercised about, yoga would seem to be an unlikely candidate for controversy. But such has been the case in Malaysia this week.

Malaysia’s prime minister declared on Wednesday that Muslims can after all practice the Indian exercise regime, so long as they avoid the meditation and chantings that reflect Hindu philosophy. This came after Malaysia’s National Fatwa Council told Muslims to roll up their exercise mats and stop contorting their limbs because yoga could destroy the faith of Muslims.

It has been a tough month for the fatwa council chairman, Abdul Shukor Husin, who in late October issued an edict against young women wearing trousers, saying that was a slippery path to
lesbianism. Gay sex is outlawed in Malaysia.

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.

A multiple-choice question about fatwas

www.alifta.com fatwa siteHere’s a multiple-choice question about fatwas — in the information age, the Islamic practice of issuing fatwas has become… enriched chaotic more open less transparent all of the above none of the above

The number of fatwas, or religious edicts, has exploded in recent years as sheikhs, muftis and others use the Internet, satellite television, radio, telephone call-in services and the print media to globalise the practice. Once limited mostly to scholars in their cities or countries, Muslims can now put their questions to experts around the world — and often get quite different answers depending on where they ask.

One might think the decision of Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti to launch a fatwa Web site might help bring some order into this confusion. The Saudi government says it wants to challenge radical Islam on the Web, which is why Sheikh Abdel-Aziz al-Sheikh has ventured into cyberspace in the first place. But with so many sites now up and running, as Senior Correspondent Andrew Hammond reports from Riyadh, his site may turn out to be just one more pious portal.

Do Christian paradigms work for Islamic problems?

Bishop Margot KässmannOctober 31 was Reformation Day, the anniversary of the day that Martin Luther issued his famous 95 Theses, and as such a fitting occasion for Lutherans around the world to reflect on the reforms he brought to Christianity. It was probably inevitable that a Lutheran cleric somewhere would comment on the relevance of the Reformation to a major issue in today’s religious world — the future of Islam. Margot Kässmann, the Lutheran bishop of Hannover in Germany, told the local newspaper: “Something like a Reformation would also be good for Islam.”

Bishop Kässmann is one of the most prominent religious leaders in Germany, an effective preacher and a popular talk show guest. It’s clear that she means Muslims should question their traditions and shed abuses, much like Luther did in Christianity. That’s a view that Muslim reformers can also support in principle. It leads to the question, though, of how far the paradigm of the Reformation is applicable to Islam. Has the term “Islamic Reformation” become a soundbite that brings more confusion than clarity?

The Reformation in 16th-century Europe ended the Catholic Church’s monopoly of religious authority and led to a multitude of Protestant denominations. One of the driving forces was the liberating effect of questioning traditions, Kässmann said in her interview. The result was the de-centralisation of Western Christianity. By contrast, Islam already has a multitude of different schools and interpretations. Islamist radicals such as Osama bin Laden are not religious scholars, but they issue fatwas on their own that reinterpret traditional views of Islam. So part of the religion’s problem today, some Islam experts argue, is that there is no central authority that can settle disputed issues. Some commentators have gone so far as to suggest — and only partly in jest — that Islam actually needs a Luther or a pope to bring about the reforms Kässmann refers to.