FaithWorld

Off with their heads — Saudi clerics blast racy Ramadan TV

Ramadan television always throws up some controversy or talking point in the Arab world, but never of the nature of this year’s talking point. Hardline Saudi religious scholars are saying enough’s enough on the fun and frolics of Ramadan television and demanding trials for TV channel owners that could impose the death penalty.

MBC logoWhat’s more, these owners are in fact Saudi royals and their friends. The main culprit is MBC1, owned by a brother-in-law of former King Fahd, but others include billionaire playboy prince Alwaleed bin Talal, dubbed by the religious right in Saudi Arabia “the shameless prince” (al-amir al-majin). The clerics in Saudi Arabia have enormous influence and they are worried that liberals in government and their royal allies are plotting to caste them aside and secularise the country.

It is unlikely that Alwaleed or the family of Fahd’s sister are worried about the attacks. They live in a world apart of palaces, servants, private planes and cruise ships in France and probably no one could get near them if they tried. The clerics were careful to talk about a legal process in any case. In fact, one of them, Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan, said specifically that he wasn’t calling for vigilantes to take the law into their own hands.

Ramadan religious programme on Saudi TV, 15 Sept 2008/Fahad ShadeedFor Saudi clerics, the process is all, since they have the unique privilege in the Islamic world of sitting as judges in the Sharia court system. That is the very definition of the Islamic state in their eyes. It’s not the first time the religious establishment has condemned liberals in any case. Even Osama bin Laden singled out Labour Minister Ghazi Algosaibi — a poet, former ambassador to London and confidante of the king — in a taped message from his hideout on 2006 attacking a liberal “fifth column” at home. But Algosaibi and other punching bags of the Islamists survived.

Interestingly, most Saudis would probably say Lohaidan and co. have a point. Everyone complains about cheap jokes and sexual innuendoes in some Saudi comedy shows on TV after sunset during Ramadan. Most would say that the “sorcery” channels on Arab satellites are wrong. But it’s a vague tut-tut of disapproval delivered in the knowledge that the clerics’ ability to stand up to the temporal power of the Al Sauds has always been limited despite their loud bark (the most notable modern example being the way they were forced to sanction the presence of US troops on Saudi soil to eject Iraqi troops from Kuwait). People will nod in agreement that “immodest” and “immoral” television must stop, but not fully compute the fact that for the clerical puritans “sorcery” includes horoscopes that so many follow and the romantic soap operas from Turkey that their wives are hooked on.

Kissinger, Iraq and India’s Muslims – a new domino theory?

Henry Kissinger at the World Economic Forum in Davos, 21 Jan 2008/Wolfgang RattayIs Henry Kissinger trying to update the domino theory to fit what he fears in 2008? He had a “Lunch with the FT” interview in Saturday’s Financial Times and surprised his interviewer, historian Stephen Graubard, by linking the war in Iraq and Muslims in India. As Graubard wrote:

He believes the military “surge” is working and says the next question is when to start to move away from an exclusively military option. “This is not a war of states,” Kissinger says. “If we withdraw from Iraq, the radical elements in all the neighbouring Arab countries will be greatly encouraged.” We will, he fears, be unable to maintain ourselves in Afghanistan, or to retain our present position in Pakistan.

He fears a rapid withdrawal could radicalise the vast Islamic community in India. I am fascinated by this statement – I have never heard anyone else say it so robustly – and suggest that he argued in a similar vein about the dangers of a departure from Vietnam. “Not at all,” he says, adding that the collapse in Vietnam was partly compensated for by the almost simultaneous and fortuitous disintegration of the Soviet Union.

French student imams study at Catholic university

Imams at the Grand Mosque of Paris, 31 Aug. 2004/Victor TonelliFrance’s long-awaited programme of university training for Muslim prayer leaders and chaplains was launched this week — at the Catholic university in Paris. We wrote about this not too long ago when the project was announced. It was third time lucky for Dalil Boubakeur, head of the French Muslim Council and rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, who had earlier tried in vain to get the Sorbonne and another section of the University of Paris interested in the project. The Institut Catholique de Paris finally stepped up to take on the project, which the French government has been encouraging for several years now as a way to ensure imams in France are properly educated. It thinks the fact that 3/4 of the 1,200 imams in France are not French citizens, 1/3 of them don’t speak French and almost all have little or no real religious training is a potential source of radical ideology.

Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grand Mosque of ParisAccording to Sophie de Ravinel in Le Figaro, the average age of those on the programme is about 40 and just over half of them are French citizens. The rest come mostly from North Africa or sub-Saharan Africa. Three women — two of them wearing headscarves — are among the students. “Twenty of the 25 students come from the Grand Mosque of Paris. Among them is Abdelkader Khali, a 52-year-old computer specialist born in France. This future chaplain, son and grandson of French officiers, wants to defend ‘an open, tolerant and enlightened Islam’ in the army.”

The imam training project never got off the ground at the Sorbonne and the other section of the University of Paris because professors there thought it would violate laïcité, France’s legal separation of church and state. But from the start, the project foresaw all theological training at the Grand Mosque of Paris. The university was meant to teach secular subjects, such as French law, history and sociology. The idea was that the university education would round out the Islamic training the imams got at the Grand Mosque and give them a recognised university degree. It sounded like a reasonable idea, but laïcité got in the way.

Not your usual Christmas card — Muslim leaders greet Christians

Memon Mosque in Karachi, Pakistan, 9 Oct 2007Christmas greetings of peace on Earth and good will to all — what could be more common during this holiday season? It’s heard so much that it’s practically a cliché. But this familiar tune takes on a new tone when the greetings come from leading Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals. The same group of 138 Muslims that invited Christians to a theological dialogue last October has just sent its Christmas greetings to the Christian world (see the text and our news story). What struck me the most about it is that it was even sent at all.

As a decentralised religion with no single leader or leadership group to speak for it, Islam (1.3 billion faithful around the world) has always been “structurally disadvantaged” in comparison to Christianity. The world’s largest religion (2 billion) has one highly centralised church, Roman Catholicism (1.1 billion), led by a highly visible pope. Other large Christian families like the Orthodox (220 million), Anglicans (77 million) and the many different Protestant denominations all have clearly defined leaders who can speak for the faithful. The absence of such figures in Islam has allowed a wide variety of pretenders to claim to speak in the name of Muslims. To put it in terms of the current season, they couldn’t all send a Christmas card to Pope Benedict or Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew or Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams because they had no forum for getting together to do so. Individual sheikhs, muftis, imams or mosque rectors might send their greetings to a friendly local bishop, vicar, preacher or priest they knew personally, but there wasn’t exactly heavy traffic.

Muslim judges at a conference on Sharia law in Amman, 3 Sept. 2007The group of 138 that issued the appeal called A Common Word is changing that. Representing Sunnis, Shi’ites, Sufis and other schools of Islam, they can claim more than anyone else to speak for large numbers of Muslims. Sure, we can’t say how many they represent. Of course, they are a mixed group. Naturally, they don’t all agree on everything. And yes, there may be disputes within the group, maybe defections and additions as it develops. But they are from a broad spectrum of Islam and have organised themselves enough to first send a response to Pope Benedict’s Regensburg lecture (back when they were only 38), then propose a dialogue with the Christian world (which the major churches have accepted) and now send these Christmas greetings. Non-Muslim cynics might scoff that signing a Christmas greeting is not all that difficult. But anyone who knows anything about Islam can see this is a significant new step.

Why we don’t call them “Muslim riots” in Paris suburbs

A burning car in Villiers-le Bel, 28 Nob 2007As soon as a riot starts in one of the poor suburbs around Paris, we get emails from readers and see comments on blogs accusing the media of hiding the supposedly key fact about the unrest. That fact, they tell us without providing any proof, is Islam. Why don’t we call this violence “Muslim riots?” they ask. What are we trying to hide by not identifying the rioters as Muslims? Do the MSM have a hidden agenda? Don’t we have the courage to “tell the truth?”

We’ve had rioting this week and the same questions came again. This blog has discussed this issue already in a post last month called “Smoke without fire – there was no Paris intifada in 2005.” That dealt with the 2005 riots in detail. This latest unrest is a good opportunity to explain why we don’t write “Muslim riots” — and ask in return why readers so far from the events are so convinced that we should.

We mention race and religion in Reuters news stories when they are relevant to the event being covered. It would be absurd to write “Presbyterian second baseman XYZ…” in a baseball story. He may be a Presbyterian, but he is not at second base as a Presbyterian, but as a baseball player.