FaithWorld

GUESTVIEW: Canada and the niqab: How to go public in the public square

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Sarah Sayeed is Program Associate and Matthew Weiner is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York.

By Sarah Sayeed and Matthew Weiner

A Canadian judge recently ruled that a Toronto Muslim woman must take off her face veil while giving testimony in a sexual assault trial. This tension between public space and private religion comes up repeatedly in western urban centers where Muslim women increasingly occupy the pubic square.  This time it happened in Toronto, but the issue arises regularly in western countries in the schools, workplaces and courtrooms that Muslims increasingly share with the majority population. At stake is whether a Muslim woman’s choice to dress in accordance with her religious beliefs infringes upon “our way of life.” (Photo: Sultaana Freeman testifies in court for right to wear a niqab on her Florida driver’s license, 27 May 2003/pool)

While all can agree that identity, tolerance and religious freedom are important, advocates for the face veil emphasize the upholding of freedom while opponents focus on the face veil, or niqab, as a challenge to collective identity.  Such tension between public expression of religion and collective identity is not new.  It has even gone on for centuries in Muslim countries, where religious minorities feel the tension between acceptance and their need to adapt, in varying degrees, to a Muslim majority worldview.  There is also a debate within Muslim communities about whether wearing the niqab is a religious requirement.

What seems problematic in the current debate, whether in Toronto or Milan, is the implication that Europeans and North Americans are willing to tolerate differences, but only up to a limit.   Some differences seem too threatening for them to consider seriously.  They seem to think some differences should be made invisible.  Thus, and perhaps inadvertently, the opponents of the niqabwho see themselves as the defenders of collective identity – call into question another value and practice that is central to Western democracy: open dialogue in the public sphere.

Ever since the Enlightenment, Westerners have agreed that tolerance and open discussion in a public space helps prevent violence and fosters community. It is a proud tradition. The great moral effect of creating a public space was that people from different traditions, with different views and different styles of conversing, could join in a shared process.  Tolerance – putting up with something you do not agree with – is understood here as an uncomfortable but necessary virtue.

GUESTVIEW: Amazing Grace — a rabbi’s view of the inaugural prayer service

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The author, Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, is a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and author of the novel A Delightful Compendium of Consolation.

By Burton L. Visotzky

On Wednesday, I went to church. It seemed right that on the morning after President Barack Obama’s historic inauguration as the 44th President of the United States I should pray for his and our success in the years ahead. We are a nation in crisis, depleted in so many ways by the last eight years. On the Tuesday of the inauguration, I stood with a million other Americans on the Mall in Washington, watching and cheering the transfer of power. The air was frigid, but filled with hope. We stood just behind the Capitol reflecting pool – far from the rostrum, but embedded in the great, diverse mass of people who make up America. Next to us were folks from Augusta, Georgia, who drawled their discomfort when George Bush was booed. On our other side were Washingtonians – African-Americans who proudly declared that on this day we were not black or white, but all of us were silver (the color of our tickets to the event). (Photo: National Prayer Service at the National Cathedral in Washington, 21 Jan 2009/Larry Downing)

Truth be told, the inaugural was better viewed in front of a television. But for the experience of being an American on this auspicious day, the Mall was the best place in the whole world. There is something extraordinary about standing among a million others, staring up at the jumbotron, striving to catch the words our new president was speaking. Sharing our food, our stories, ducking down so someone behind us could snap a photo, making sure that kids were in the sight-lines of their parents, breathing free; we huddled, massed against the cold, embodying the passions that Emma Lazarus’ poem emblazons on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Obama, the inaugural prayer and U.S. culture war

President-elect Barack Obama hopes to reach across the political divide, but the uproar over the preachers at his inauguration celebrations show just how wide some of those divisions are in America, our Dallas correspondent Ed Stoddard writes in a pre-inaugural analysis. (Photo: Obama in Philadelphia at the start of his train voyage to Washington, 17 Jan 2009/Brian Snyder)

Some gay rights activists have expressed anger at Obama’s choice of California pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation prayer at his inauguration on Tuesday because of Warren’s opposition to gay marriage. And some conservatives are up in arms over openly gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson’s role in an earlier part of the celebrations.

But political analysts and activists say many Americans appear weary of the “culture war” battles over issues like gay marriage, and Obama may find some safe ground in the middle.

GUESTVIEW: Obama inauguration: An interfaith invocation to answer the critics

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The author is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York. He is writing a book about Interfaith and Civil Society.

By Matthew Weiner

The choice of Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation, and the drama surrounding it, was President-elect Barack Obama’s latest carefully planned move to prove that he is not a far out liberal, but instead mainstream. Obama is good at the art of compromise, but also at improvisation. The liberal outcry that followed, and his addition of the openly gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson to join the party, continues to demonstrate his skill as political tai chi master. (Photo: Obama and Warren at Saddleback Church,17 Aug 2008/Mark Avery)

But Obama would be more in keeping with his own sense of diversity if he had the first ever interfaith invocation. Instead of a single speaker from a single religion, why not have many from a diversity of faiths and political positions? Instead of a liberal Christian or an evangelical Christian, he could have a conservative Christian, a liberal Jew, and a Muslim, a Buddhist  and a Hindu (or any such combination).

GUESTVIEW: Gaza, New York, Mayor Bloomberg and interfaith dialogue

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The author is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York. He is writing a book about Interfaith and Civil Society.

By Matthew Weiner

The last day of 2008 was a bad day for interfaith relations in New York City. Mayor Michael Bloomberg had his annual Prayer Breakfast at the New York Public Library, where several hundred religious leaders gathered (see video here). As usual there were prayers offered from many faiths. The Hindus were miffed, because a Sikh got their usual slot. Instead of praying, the Sikh explained Sikhism for a bit too long. The Buddhist monk also prayed too long, and the translation took forever. But poor staging was not the reason for the dark cloud that hung over us all. (Photo: Mayor Michael Bloomberg, 3 Nov 2008/Lucas Jackson)

Instead, it was the bombing of Gaza. Or rather it was the Mayor’s response the day before that created  tension in the audience. The night before, Bloomberg had sided with Israel in the conflict. “I feel very strongly that Israel really does have a right …to defend itself,” he said. The mayor said nothing about the loss of innocent life on the Palestinian side.

GUESTVIEW: Mumbai violence brings New York faith groups together

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. Matthew Weiner, the author, is the Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York. He is writing a book about Interfaith and Civil Society.

When terror attacks like those in Mumbai occur, many people of faith want to stand together despite their differences to condemn them with one voice. Faith leaders in New York, having seen their own city targetted in 2001, quickly responded with a show of support for their sister city in India. Their news conference on the steps of New York’s City Hall on Monday was an example of how faith communities in the world’s most religiously diverse metropolis can join hands to speak out against such violence. (Photo: New York interfaith meeting, 1 Dec 2008/Edwin E. Bobrow)

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, senior vice-president of the New York Board of Rabbis, Mo Razvi, a Pakistani-American Muslim and community organizer, and the Interfaith Center of New York organized the meeting while Councilman John Liu got the green light to use City Hall as the venue. Potasnick worked through Thanksgiving weekend to make it happen and insisted on having representatives from every faith. “It is very important to condemn the attacks…but it is imperative we stand together with one voice,” he said.