FaithWorld

Exercised over yoga in Malaysia

Of all the things to get exercised about, yoga would seem to be an unlikely candidate for controversy. But such has been the case in Malaysia this week.

Malaysia’s prime minister declared on Wednesday that Muslims can after all practice the Indian exercise regime, so long as they avoid the meditation and chantings that reflect Hindu philosophy. This came after Malaysia’s National Fatwa Council told Muslims to roll up their exercise mats and stop contorting their limbs because yoga could destroy the faith of Muslims.

It has been a tough month for the fatwa council chairman, Abdul Shukor Husin, who in late October issued an edict against young women wearing trousers, saying that was a slippery path to
lesbianism. Gay sex is outlawed in Malaysia.

The council’s rulings, and other religious controversies, might at first blush seem to indicate a growing strain of conservative Islam in mostly Muslim Malaysia. But it could also
reflect the growing unease of Islamic authorities in defending the faith in a rapidly modernising Malaysia where non-Muslims constitute 40 percent of the population and are increasingly
asserting their rights.

The yoga fatwa stirred up a hornet’s next, not only in the blogosphere where that could be expected, but in another deeply conservative Malaysian institution — the sultans.  Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah, who presides ceremonially over the central state of Selangor, said Abdul’s fatwa council should have consulted the nine hereditary Malay rulers who take turns being Malaysia’s king before announcing the ruling.  The highly unusual comment from one of the sultans on a
policy matter suggests some discord about who speaks for Malaysia’s Muslims on matters of faith. Islam is the official religion in multi-religious Malaysia and the constitution designates the nine sultans as guardians of the faith. The (rotating) king is the head of Islam in Malaysia.

Does Sony need a religious affairs adviser?

Box art for LittleBigPlanet/Sony handoutDoes Sony need a full-time religious affairs adviser? Someone who says “that’s OK” or “whoa, don’t go there!” It looks like they could use one, judging by its decision to recall and remaster its Playstation 3 video game LittleBigPlanet because it might offend Muslims. LittleBigPlanet was supposed to be one of the biggest releases of the season. And then Sony found out some background music had a few phrases from the Koran in it and they decided to replace the disks with different music. An in-house religion maven who does some “content debugging” would cost much less than this embarrassing exercise.

Sony isn’t the only company to trip over religious sensitivities. Microsoft had to withdraw its Xbox fighter game Kakuto Chojin; Back Alley Brutal in 2003 because of Koran verses chanted in the background. Back in 1998, Muslims accused Nike of sacrilege for selling sneakers bearing a logo showing the word “air” written in fiery letters that looked like the Arabic word “Allah.” Nike ended up withdrawing the shoes, giving sensitivity training to employees and building playgrounds at several mosques in Virginia.

Muslims haven’t been the only ones complaining. A French jeans poster showing women imitating Jesus Christ and his apostles in the Leonardo da Vinci painting, “The Last Supper”, was banned in France and Italy after Catholics there complained. A leading anti-Semitism watchdog howled last spring when a South Korean cosmetics company advertised a skin lotion with a picture of a young woman sporting what appears to be a Nazi officer’s hat.

from India Insight:

Anger, agreement at Muslim leaders gathering

jama.jpgSecurity was tight at the entrance to Gate No. 7 of the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi, a 17th century mosque built by Mughal kings, and the venue on Tuesday for a gathering of Muslim leaders from across the country to debate the persecution of Muslims.

Police shooed away fruit vendors and cycle rickshaws spilling over from the crowded market nearby, while others stood around the metal detectors at the entrance while their colleagues cased out the giant white shamiana inside with sniffer dogs under the slowly revolving ceiling fans.

 A full half hour after the scheduled time, when only the first few rows of seats were occupied, Maulana Naksh Bandi of the Jama Masjid began the proceedings, inviting various leaders to the dais, and declaring in Urdu: "there is no law, there is no justice for us. It is the rule of the jungle."

Hindu nationalist politics fuels anti-Christian campaign in India

Christians at New Delhi protest against Orissa violence, 2 Oct 2008/Vijay MathurOne of the weakest responses when someone reads about religious strife in a developing country is to mutter something about “ancient enmities” or “religion is the root of all evil” and turn to the next story. It takes only a little scratching beneath the surface to find there are often clear present- day political motives behind the violence and religion is being used as a pretext to help press one group’s claims.

Alistair Scrutton from our New Delhi bureau has just done a bit of that scratching in Orissa, where at least 35 people — mostly Christians — have died in religious strife since late August, and he got a very direct response. Look at how his analysis “Religious card being played in India election game” starts off:

“Asked when he thought attacks by Hindu mobs against Christians would end in this remote part of eastern India, local Christian leader Ranjit Nayak replied immediately, and with a resigned smile. “March,” Nayak said, referring to a general election due in early 2009. “This is all totally politically motivated.”

Christians cower from Hindu backlash in Orissa

Christian woman outside her destroyed house in an Orissa village, 2 Sept 2008/Parth Sanyal TIKABALI, India (Reuters)On a starry night last week, as Lal Mohan Digal prepared to go to bed, a mob of raging, machete-wielding Hindu zealots appeared above the hills of his mud house and swarmed over a bucolic hamlet in Orissa. By dawn, Christian homes in the village were smoking heaps of burnt mud and concrete shells. Churches were razed, their wooden doors and windows stripped off.

Krittivas Mukherjee, a correspondent in our New Delhi bureau, recently visited the eastern Indian state of Orissa for a first-hand view of the continuing Hindu nationalist violence against minority Christians there. His eyewitness feature “Christians cower from Hindu backlash in Orissa” paints a vivid picture of the drama unfolding in the ransacked Christian hamlets and makeshift relief centres packed with frightened refugees.

Orissa has a history of religious violence (see our factbox). The Reuters India website archive shows 37 stories since last Christmas from datelines including Bhubaneswar (Orissa state capital), New Delhi, Rome and Vatican City. The United Nations freedom of religion investigator warned back in March about more violence to come. Mukherjee’s harrowing story comes from a hamlet so small it doesn’t show on web maps.

Christians flee, leaders deplore religious violence in India

Car burns in church compound in Kandhamal district of Orissa, 26 August 2008/Stringer IndiaRaphael Cheenath, the Roman Catholic archbishop in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, calls the religious violence there “ethnic cleansing of Christians.” Pope Benedict, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Italian government have all called for an end to the killings in the eastern state. The death toll is now 13 and possibly up to 10,000 people — mostly Christians — have sought shelter in makeshift refugee camps. More than a dozen churches have been burned. Catholic schools across India closed in protest on Friday. Local officials say the week-long violence may be waning, but this remains to be seen.

The criticism from outside the state hinted the critics believed authorities in the state had not done enough to halt the violence. No names are named, but anyone who knows Indian politics can connect the dots. The violence by Hindu mobs broke out after a Hindu leader in Orissa, Swami Laxmananda Saraswati, was killed. The state is run by a coalition which includes the main Hindu nationalist opposition party the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), so suspicions immediately fall on a party that has also been already accused of turning a blind eye to the deaths of about 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. The BJP’s Lal Krishna Advani, head of the opposition in the Indian parliament, has said Maoists were suspected of the killings.

Fire at Christian orphanage in Bargah, Orissa state, 26 August 2008/Reuters TVAs our correspondent Jatindra Dash in the Orissa state capital Bhubaneswar wrote: Most of India’s billion-plus citizens are Hindu and about 2.5 percent are Christians. In the Kandhamal area, more than 20 percent of the 650,000 people are mainly tribal inhabitants who converted to Christianity. Religious violence has troubled the tribal regions of Orissa for years, with Hindus and Christians fighting over conversions. While Hindu groups accuse Christian priests of bribing poor tribes and low-caste Hindus to change their faith, the Christians say lower-caste Hindus convert willingly to escape a complex Hindu caste system.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Kashmir’s lost generation

Kashmiri children wait for gunbattle to end (file photo)/Fayaz KabliiOne of the more troublesome aspects of the latest protests in Kashmir, among the biggest since a separatist revolt erupted in 1989, is the impact on the younger generation.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Indian writer Pankaj Mishra writes that India's attempt to crush the revolt in 1989 and 1990 ended up provoking many young Kashmiris to take to arms and embrace radical Islam. 

"A new generation of politicized Kashmiris has now risen; the world is again likely to ignore them - until some of them turn into terrorists with Qaeda links," he writes.  Calling on India to take some first steps to ease the situation by cutting the number of troops in the Kashmir Valley and allowing Kashmiris to trade freely across the Line of Control -- the military demarcation line which divides the former kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir between India and Pakistan -- he says the past record does not inspire much hope.

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.  

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.

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.