FaithWorld

Swiss government speaks out against proposed minaret ban

The minaret of the Mahmud Mosque in Zurich, 23 May 2007/Christian HartmannDisputes 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.

The anti-minaret movement is getting support in some small Swiss towns where Islamic centres want to build minarets. Minarets already stand in some big cities like Zurich and Geneva and they would not be effected by the proposed constitutional amendment that simply says “The construction of minarets is forbidden.”

The government sent the Justice Department report to parliament with a simple cover letter urging the deputies to reject it. Here is the text (in German) and a summary (in English). Among the objections it laid out in lawyerly detail were that the proposal:

    Minaret at the Islamic Cultural Foundation in Geneva, 25 May 2007/Denis Balibouse“is clearly against a series of internationally guaranteed human rights, such as Articles 9 (freedom of religion and thought) and 14 (ban on discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights as well as against Articles 2 (ban on discrimination) and 18 (freedom of religion and thought) and possibly also Article 27 (protection of minorities) of the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights “stands in contradiction to numerous fundamental values anchored in the constitution of our state, such as the principle of equality before the law, freedom of belief and conscience, the guarantee for private property, the principle of proportionality and the injunction to respect international law… “would be a completely disproportionate intrusion not only into central basic rights but also the competence of local authorities… “would be inappropriate for reaching the goals stated by the initiators. Violent anti-constitutional activities by extremist fundamentalist circles in the name of Islam cannot in any way be combated or hindered in this way, because their planning, organisation and execution are not linked to specific buildings. A ban such as the initiative seeks would actually endanger religious peace, because it would have to be seen by the Muslim population as a discriminatory act. The constitution and Switzerland’s whole legal system apply to Muslims living here as much as they do for other residents of our country… “would not only be met by consternation among the international community, but would also damage Switzerland’s standing around the world. This might, in turn, have a negative impact on the security of Swiss facilities and the interests of the Swiss economy.”

The Justice Department said the referendum petitions were valid, which means the vote will go ahead, and the issue is up to the people to decide. The government is clearly concerned that Switzerland could become a target of Muslim ire, echoing the Prophet Mohammad cartoon row in which Danish embassies were attacked and rioting rocked parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Anti-immigrant referendum poster in Zurich, 2 May 2008/Arnd WiegmannThe government has been embarrassed by other right-wing anti-immigrant initiatives featuring strident posters with white sheep kicking a black sheep off a Swiss flag, and brown and yellow hands reaching out to grab a pile of Swiss passports. Neither of those votes succeeded, but it was a tight margin on both occasions.

Dalai Lama gets almost top treatment in France

Dalai Lama and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy at Lerab Ling temple in Roqueredonde, southern France, 22 August 2008/Philippe LaurensonSensitive 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.

Read our report by correspondent Estelle Shirbon here.

Segolene Royal and Dalai Lama, 16 August 2008/poolEven before any comment came from China, France’s opposition Socialist Party criticised the meeting as “a serious slide into celebrity- mania (“peopolisation”) in political life” and rapped the two ministers for taking a secondary role at the ceremony. “They should have received the Dalai Lama in a secular and official setting,” a party spokesman said.

Not that the Socialists are opposed to meeting the Dalai Lama. In fact, former Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal (above) held talks with him last week and said afterwards that she wanted to visit Tibet soon.

In Nepal, human rights apply to living goddesses too

A kumari at a Kathmandu festival, 26 July 2008/Shruti ShresthaWhenever God is mentioned in connection with human rights, the idea is usually that there are “God-given rights” bestowed on humans.

Nepal’s Supreme Court has turned this around by bestowing basic human rights such as education and healthcare on gods. Goddesses, to be more precise. It seems that kumaris , virgin girls venerated as “living goddesses” and confined to Buddhist temples until puberty, return to their families as teenagers unprepared for real life. Critics of the tradition filed a suit that led to the Supreme Court decision.

“A directive order has been issued to the government to provide basic human rights, including education and health (care) to the child,” Supreme Court spokesman Hemanta Rawal said. “This means the child’s rights can’t be violated in the name of culture.”

Telegram diplomacy, Vatican style

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.
sydney.jpgThe 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.  

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.

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.

Soundbites but no solutions in French “virginity lie” case

A bride waiting for her wedding, 14 Feb 2008/Shannon StapletonThe “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.

If you haven’t been following it, the story is about a French Muslim couple who got their marriage annulled after the husband complained the wife was not the virgin she had claimed to be. Since he could not have cited either religion or the traditional Muslim preference for virgin brides as valid reasons for annulment, the husband’s lawyer argued the wife had lied about an “essential quality” necessary for the marriage. Under French law, a marriage can be annulled if, for example, one partner found out only after the wedding that the other had lied about a previous marriage or a criminal record.

Politicians, feminists and human rights activists immediately demanded the ruling be overturned. The critics vied to issue the most ringing denunciation. “A real fatwa for women’s liberation … (like) a ruling handed down in Kandahar” was a memorable one from Fadela Amara, the state secretary for urban affairs who comes from an Algerian Muslim family. Here are many more in French. By Monday, Justice Minister Rachida Dati — another cabinet member with a North African Muslim background — was flip-flopping. After originally defending the ruling as a means of helping a woman get out of an unwanted marriage, she decided on Monday to ask a public prosecutor to launch an appeal.

Egyptian scholar Nasr Abu Zayd looks back without rancour

“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.”

Ulema (Muslim scholars) are too keen to deliver rulings on economic, social or even medical issues like organ transplants: “You’ll hardly find any scholar who says, ‘I’m very sorry, but this is not my business, go consult a doctor’.”

Nasr Abu ZaydNasr Abu Zayd was declared an apostate, divorced from his wife by court order, threatened with death by Islamists and forced to flee his native Egypt in 1995. Now a professor of humanism and Islam at the University for Humanistics in Utrecht in the Netherlands, he has lost none of his critical perspective. But he looks back on his case, a major human rights issue at the time, without rancour.

Can China and the Vatican make beautiful music together?

World Team Table Tennis Championships in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, 2 March 2008/Bobby YipRemember 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.

But the Vatican does not have a ping-pong team, as far as we know. So, the next best thing appears to be music. This week, Vatican Radio made a surprise announcement on its daily 2 p.m. bulletin. The China Philharmonic Orchestra of Beijing and the Shanghai Opera House Chorus will perform Mozart’s Requiem for Pope Benedict on May 7 in the Vatican’s audience hall, adding a stop to its already scheduled European tour.

Pope Benedict at a recent concert in his honor in the Vatian audience hallAs one diplomat said, “this could not have happened without the Beijing government approving it.” Given the fact that relations between the Vatican and Beijing have been scratchy to say the least, one can only wonder if this is the start of a mating game. It could lead to diplomatic relations and China’s recognition of the pope as leader of all Catholics in the world, including Chinese Catholics, many of whom have been forced to join the state-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

Pope breaks “silence” on Tibet with carefully worded appeal

Pope Benedict XVI delivers his blessings at the end of his weekly general audience in Paul VI hall at the VaticanAs 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.

Given the delicate nature of relations between the Vatican and China, the appeal seemed to strike a balance between his concern for the people and Vatican diplomacy. He mentioned the violence without mentioning China.

In fairness to the Pope, the accusations of “silence” made by some in Italy were perhaps, as was noted by his defenders in yesterday’s blog, a bit premature. Unless he is saying a Mass on a Church holy day or a similar occasion, the Pope only has set days in which he can make a public appeal that the Vatican believes is most effective — Sunday at the Angelus prayer from his window and Wednesday at the general audience.