Disputes about building mosques in Europe can get quite heated, snarling both opponents and proponents in bitter and emotional debates such as the Cologne mosque controversy we’ve written about here before. The far-right wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) and some allies recently gathered enough signatures to force a national referendum on whether to ban the construction of minarets there. But while the anti-mosque movement has used oft-heard charges that minarets represent Islamic power that threatens law and order, the Swiss government has come up with an unusually detailed 49-page report opposing the ban. It combines legal and political arguments with such detail and precision that it could become a reference for pro-mosque/minaret arguments elsewhere in Europe.
Sensitive about possibly upsetting Beijing, President Nicolas Sarkozy decided not to meet the Dalai Lama during the Tibetan spiritual leader’s current visit to France. But he sent an envoy who got just as much media coverage (if not more) than he would have — his wife. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy (left), the pop singer and former supermodel Sarkozy married in February, attended the consecration of a Tibetan Buddhist temple in southern France on Friday. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Human Rights Minister Rama Yade and former prime minister Alain Juppé were also at the Lerab Ling temple, but French media made only fleeting references to their presence.
What do Albania, Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia have in common?
Their heads of state all received identical or nearly identical telegrams from Pope Benedict as his plane was flying over their countries on the way from Rome to Australia to preside at the Roman Catholic Church’s World Day of Youth.
The telegrams said “FLYING OVER (NAME OF COUNTRY) EN ROUTE TO AUSTRALIA FOR THE CELEBRATION OF WORLD YOUTH DAY, I SEND CORDIAL GREETINGS TO YOU AND TO ALL YOUR FELLOW-CITIZENS, ALONG WITH THE ASSURANCE OF MY PRAYERS THAT ALMIGHTY GOD WILL BLESS THE NATION WITH PEACE AND PROSPERITY. BENEDICTUS PP. XVI.
That was the version received by heads of state of countries whose majority of citizens practice one of the three monotheistic religions. The others, where other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism are practiced, received a slightly different version in which the phrase “invoking divine blessings” replaced the phrase “that almighty God will bless the nation”.
But one could not help but wonder why the telegrams were virtually identical (apart from the God/divine difference) even though the situation in the various countries hardly is. Current events in Greece, for example, are hardly similar to those in Myanmar or Afghanistan.
When he flew over countries, the late Pope John Paul would sometimes tailor his telegrams to reflect the situation on the ground, even if only obliquely. So, when reporters aboard Benedict’s plane were handed out 18 telegrams, some read them expecting, or hoping, that a straightforward or diplomatically creative tea-leaves message might be found in those being beamed to hot spots such as Afghanistan, which is engulfed in war, Myanmar, which is still trying to recover from the devastation of Cyclone Nargis and whose human rights record has prompted concern by the international community, or Vietnam, with which the Vatican hopes to soon establish full diplomatic relations after decades of tensions.
Granted, telegrams are not the building blocks of any state’s diplomacy. But of all the countries that were flown over, the pope has only visited one (Turkey) and perhaps this is the closest he will come to most of the rest of them.
And, a little old-style tea leaves reading would have helped reporters who clocked more than 20 hours of flying with the pope between Rome and Sydney kill a little time.
And maybe even have produced a story or two more.
The 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.
“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.
The “virginity lie” case gripping France for the past two days has given French politicians the opportunity to indulge in one of their favourite pastimes — expressing indignation. There’s been much more heat than light in this story since it broke last Friday.
“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.”
Remember ping-pong diplomacy, the exchange of ping-pong players between the United States and communist China in the 1970s that was one of the first steps that led to a thaw in relations between the two countries? If the Vatican had a ping-pong team, perhaps China would have considered sending their squad to the walled city in Rome for a match.
As readers of this blog will have noticed, I posted a note yesterday about calls by Italian intellectuals for Pope Benedict to break his supposed silence over Tibet. On Wednesday he did so at his weekly general audience, making a carefully worded appeal (here in Italian) for an end to the suffering of the people there.