FaithWorld

Arab states’ guidelines for sat TV coverage of religion

Satellite dishes in Algiers, 3 April 2004/Jack DabaghianArab Media and Society has published an English translation of the Arab League’s Satellite Broadcasting Charter approved by Arab governments at a meeting in Cairo in February, along with contrasting opinions of the charter widely criticised by advocates of media freedom. In essence, the charter incorporates restrictions which most Arab governments already apply to their own terrestrial broadcasters and to satellite broadcasters which operate from their territory. But the governments have tended to give the satellite broadcasters a little more freedom than they allow terrestrial broadcasters, most of which are state-owned.

The operative clauses for religious broadcasting are clauses 9 and 10 of article 6:

9. To comply with the religious and ethical values of Arab society and maintain its family ties and social integrity.

10. To refrain from insulting God, revealed religions, prophets, mazhabs (religious sects), and religious symbols.

As with several other clauses prohibiting certain types of broadcasts, the bans are stated in the broadest terms, leaving plenty of room for interpretation. But until the governments start to apply the charter to satellite broadcasters under their jurisdiction, it will be hard to predict what practical effect it will have.

U.N. watchdog disappoints Saudi women journalists

Yakin Ertürk at her news conference in Riyadh, 13 Feb. 2008/stringerThe U.N. Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur on violence against women, Yakin Ertürk, was in Saudi Arabia last week. She has just issued a report (official text here) that calls on the government to create a legal framework based on international human rights standards, including a law criminalising violence against women. It listed severe limits on women’s freedom of movement and ability to act in a whole range of family and social areas, from marriage, divorce and child custody to inheritance, education and employment. Her committee gave the Saudis a grilling at a hearing in Geneva last month. Yet, when she met the media in Riyadh at the end of her visit, the young female Saudi journalists there left the room muttering about how disappointed they were with her approach. “She didn’t say anything. This was just general stuff that people are aware of,” one complained. What’s up?

What they noticed in Ertürk’s comments was the degree to which she seemed to accept the official argument that Saudi society had “special characteristics” — khususiyya in Arabic — that constituted a valid frame of reference for assessing the country’s rights record. Khususiyya is a well-worn term that anyone who tries to criticise Saudi values hears in response. It’s used elsewhere in the Arab world as well, either by religious figures facing down liberal trends in society or governments opposing calls for political reform. Reformers throughout the Arab world see the term as a kind of a blanket “cultural exclusiveness” argument that seeks to shut down all serious discussion of political or religious change. It was once mocked by Saudi liberals themselves in the popular television comedy show Tash Ma Tash.

A Saudi woman doctor, 23 Oct. 2007/Ali JarekjiInternational pressure over Saudi women’s rights has been growing. Ertürk’s visit was part of an effort by Riyadh to persuade outsiders the situation was improving. She was able to announce that officials had promised to allow a couple forced to divorce by a religious court to live together again. There apparently was no movement on other issues such as the ban on women driving cars, which has become a kind of litmus test of reform in the country.

Iran wants European law to squelch anti-Koran film

European Court of Human RightsIran has urged the Netherlands to block a planned anti-Koran film, citing Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights as the legal basis for doing so. This is the latest twist in the saga surrounding the controversial film by far-right leader Geert Wilders (we’ve blogged on this before). In the letter, Iran’s Justice Minister Gholamhossein Elham asked his Dutch counterpart Ernst Hirsch Ballin to use European human rights law to stop a European from exercising one of those most basic rights. Freedom of expression has been the rallying cry of those who defended the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten for publishing the Mohammad cartoons — and republishing the most controversial one (the turban bomb) this week after a death threat against the artist who drew it.

Protesters set fire to Danish consulate in Beirut, 5 Feb. 2006/Mohamed AzakirThis also raises the question of whether any protest against purported blasphemy against Islam this time might not turn out to be on the streets, as after the Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad, but in the courts. European Muslim organisations brought court suits against the cartoons in Denmark and in France but lost their cases — thanks to the principle of freedom of expression. Will the Iranian letter inspire any to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg? Nota bene — Danish imams preached calm at Friday prayers, in contrast to the imams who went to the Middle East to rally opposition to the cartoons when they first came out.

On Friday, Iran’s news agency IRNA reported on the letter, which the Dutch government told NRC Handelsblad it had not yet received. IRNA wrote the following (quotes from Elham in italics):

Preparations under way for Vatican-Muslim meeting

St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, 24 Dec. 2007/Max RossiPreparations are under way for a planned visit to the Vatican by representatives of the “Common Word” Muslim appeal for a theological dialogue between Christianity and Islam. This group of Muslim scholars and leaders got to be known as the “138″ because that was the number of initial signatories, but the total has grown to 221, so that label is a bit confusing now. Anyway, veteran vaticanista Sandro Magister informs us that five Muslim representatives were at the Vatican early this week to start preparing for the visit expected to take place in the next month or so. One interesting aspect is simply the geographical mix of people involved — they come from Turkey, Britain, Jordan, Libya and Italy.

Discussion of this initiative continues apace.

The conservative U.S. Catholic author George Weigel argues that the”Common Word” authors “seemed to be trying to change the subject ” in their statements about the planned dialogue because they did not address what Pope Benedict cited as discussion points when he addressed the Roman Curia in December 2006. In that speech, Benedict saidKing Hussein Bin Talal Mosque in Amman, 18 Sept. 2007/Muhammad Hamed Muslims and Christians had to “counter a dictatorship of positivist reason that excludes God from the life of the community and from public organizations” and “welcome the true conquests of the Enlightenment, human rights and especially the freedom of faith and its practice, and recognise these also as being essential elements for the authenticity of religion.”

In his weekly column, the National Catholic Reporter‘s Vatican expert, John Allen, has a long interview with Father Thomas Michel S.J., one of the Catholic Church’s leading experts on Islam. Allen notes two interesting points Michel makes:

Stakes rise in Afghan journalist’s blasphemy case

When we wrote about the death sentence for blasphemy against Afghan journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh two days ago, it seemed the case was set to trudge through the appeals system and land up at the Supreme Court in Kabul. That, at least, is what his brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, told us. Now the upper house of the Afghan Parliament has raised the stakes in a way that may turn this into a messy tussle between Afghanistan and the Western countries trying to help prevent it becoming a failed state.

The upper house, known as the Meshrano Jirga (Elders House), has issued a statement backing the death sentence passed by a court in Mazar-i-Sharif and strongly criticising the international community for putting pressure on Kabul over the case. No excerpts from the statement have appeared online yet but sSibghatullah Mojadeddi (R) and President Hamid Karzai, 4 Jan. 2004/Ahmad Masoodome reports say it was signed by the house leader Sibghatullah Mojaddedi. He was the first president of Afghanistan after the fall of communism there in 1992. During his exile in Peshawar in the 1980s, he was the head of the so-called “moderate alliance” of three mujahideen parties that were believed to be less Islamst than the seven-party “fundamentalist alliance”. However, these two labels were relative, as are many terms and titles in Afghanistan.

The upper house has no legal role in this but, by speaking out, it puts pressure on President Hamid Karzai not to pardon Kambakhsh at any point during the appeals process. It also sends a signal to the appeals and supreme court.

Update on the “Common Word” call for Muslim-Christian dialogue

a-common-word-2.gifJust because an issue has disappeared from the headlines doesn’t mean nothing’s happening with it. The “Common Word” appeal by 138 Muslim scholars for a dialogue with Christianity kept us busy late last year. It looked like the issue would rest until a Muslim delegation goes to visit the Vatican around March. But more comments keep coming up that add to the debate.

On the Muslim side, more scholars continue to sign the appeal, bringing the total up to 221 so far. More statements of support have come in from Christians as well. Three Christian responses stood out this month and highlight some potentially difficult points to discuss:

Church tower and mosque minaret in AmmanFr. Daniel Madigan S.J., a leading Catholic expert on Islam not heard until now on the appeal, has published “some initial reflections” in a new online journal called Thinking Faith. A few excerpts:

Blasphemy and the Beast as Britain debates church-state ties

British judges leave an annual service at Westminster Abbey in London, 3 Oct 2005/Stephen HirdAmong the idiosyncrasies of British life is the fact that this secularised open society has an established church and a law banning blasphemy against it. This anomaly was back in the headlines this week when a member of Parliament tried to abolish the blasphemy law with an amendment to a bill on crime and immigration. With the issue back on the table, another MP submitted a motion to disestablish the Church of England. By a coincidence some might see as a warning, it was listed as motion #666 — the number of the Beast in the Bible’s Book of Revelation, associated with Nero, the Antichrist and other opponents of Christianity.

Change is coming, but it won’t be apocalyptic. After heading off the amendment on the blasphemy ban, the government has pledged to scrap the outdated law against “scurrilous vilification” of the faith after consultation with the Church of England. Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has co-signed a letter to the Daily Telegraph advocating the abolition of a ban “in clear breach of human rights law.” The Church of England has signalled it could accept abolition if the government proceeds with caution.

(UPDATE Jan 12: Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, later said the Church of England “is not going to resist the repeal of the blasphemy laws given their awkward and not very workable legacy at present.”)

Are “moderate” Muslims mum when they should speak out?

Ayaan Hirsi AliAyaan Hirsi Ali has an op-ed piece in the New York Times called “Islam’s Silent Moderates” today asking why moderate Muslims have not protested loudly against the “teddy bear case” in Khartoum and the Qatif rape case in Saudi Arabia. She makes some good points, especially asking why the Organisation of the Islamic Conference has not said anything. The OIC is quick to defend Islam and Muslim countries when the criticism comes from the outside, including from her.

Then she wrote:

For example, I would welcome some guidance from that famous Muslim theologian of moderation, Tariq Ramadan. But when there is true suffering, real cruelty in the name of Islam, we hear, first, denial from all these organizations that are so concerned about Islam’s image. We hear that violence is not in the Koran, that Islam means peace, that this is a hijacking by extremists and a smear campaign and so on. But the evidence mounts up.

“Why are the Muslims silent?” has been a mantra of many Western critics since at least the time of 9/11. It comes up fairly regularly after Islamist attacks or egregious cases of human rights violations in the Muslim world. It’s true that many Muslim leaders have avoided speaking out. But there have also been quite a few Muslim condemnations of terrorism that seem to have gone unnoticed. Something has been changing on this front and it has been evident these days. Hirsi Ali has either missed it or does not want to mention it.

Is “phobia” the right term for religious intolerance?

ParliamentParliament in Britain has scheduled a debate on Christianophobia for Wednesday and interest in it seems to be almost zero. It’s on the parliamentary agenda and the BBC has done a story on it. But the usual Google searches find no other articles about it and few blog entries (for example here, here, here or here).

OK, it’s not the hottest topic right now and there’s a much bigger religion story out there today — the return of “teddy row teacher” Gillian Gibbons from Sudan. But that’s not all.

Christianophobia doesn’t seem to be catching on as a useful term denoting a clear injustice to Christians. There was disagreement about it among Christians when the Vatican led a successful drive about three years ago to have it recognised as a social evil equivalent to the hatred of Jews or Muslims. The United Nations adopted the term and reports regularly on cases of Christianophobia, but these reports have little impact.

Support for UN religious rights expert detained in Pakistan

Six international human rights groups have appealed to the U.N. Human Rights Council to press Pakistan to release Asma Jahangir, the world body’s special rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief. The Pakistani lawyer, a leading human rights campaigner in her country, was put under house arrest in Lahore when President General Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency on November 3.

Asma Jahangir presents 2006 Pakistan human rights report, Feb. 8, 2007The six groups — Amnesty International, The International Federation for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, International Service for Human Rights, World Organisation against Torture and Pax Romana — also said Pakistan should lift a threat of detention against Hina Jilani , the U.N. special representative on the situation of human rights defenders who is currently outside of her native Pakistan but would be arrested if she returned. Jahangir and Jilani are sisters who have been active campaigners for women’s rights in Pakistan.

A group representing all 38 UN special representatives and working groups on human rights also protested against emergency rule in Pakistan and singled out the arrest of their colleague Jahangir and the detention order against Jilani. “We are concerned that placing a Special Procedures mandate holder under house arrest may adversely impact on his or her ability to carry out the activities necessary to fulfill the mandate. We are alarmed that a detention order remains in place against Hina Jilani, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights defenders,” they said.