FaithWorld

Religion and politics in “bewilderingly diverse” India

asghar-ali-engineer“Bewildingerly diverse” is the way Asghar Ali Engineer describes his native country, India. This 70-year-old Muslim scholar has written dozens of books about Indian politics and society, Islamic reform and interreligious dialogue. As head of the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai, he works to promote peace and understanding among religious and ethnic communities through seminars, workshops, youth camps, research and publications. The centre even organises street plays in the slums of Mumbai to teach the poor about the dangers of communalism.

Our long conversation at the Centre in Mumbai’s Santa Cruz neighbourhood of Mumbai during a recent visit to India provided a few key quotes for my earlier analysis and blog post on religion in the Indian election campaign. Since these issues are crucial to the general election taking place in India, I’ve transcribed longer excerpts from his answers and posted them on the second page of this post. (Photo: Asghar Ali Engineer, 14 April 2009/Tom Heneghan)

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Holding back the “religion card” in India’s election campaign

india-election-ayodhyaHindu nationalism, Muslim “vote banks”, anti-Christian violence, caste rivalry — Indian politics has more than enough interfaith tension to offer populist orators all kinds of “religion cards” to play. Coming only months after Islamist militants killed 166 people in a three-day rampage in Mumbai, the campaign for the general election now being held in stages between April 16 and May 13 could have been over- shadowed by communal demagoguery. (Photo:Voters show IDs at a polling station in Ayodhya, 23 April 2009/Pawan Kumar)

But in this election, the “religion card” doesn’t seem to be the trump card it once was. It’s still being used in some ways, of course, but the main opposition group, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has played down its trademark Hindu nationalism in its drive to oust the secular Congress Party from power in New Delhi. A BJP candidate who lashed out at the Muslim minority saw the tactic backfire. During a recent three-week stay in India, I found religious issues being discussed freely and frequently in the boisterous election campaign. But they were usually not the main issues under debate and not isolated from the pocketbook issues that really concern voters. Click here for the rest of my report quoted above. advani-waves(Photo: BJP leader L.K. Advani, 8 April 2009/Amit Dave)

This is one of those stories where context is king. Thanks to the internet and India’s lively English-language media, anyone around the globe can find Indian reports highlighting the religion angle. One of the news magazines, The Week, ran an interesting cover story about the “high priests of hate.” On balance, I think it looks a bit overdone — it was written at the height of the Varun Gandhi controversy — but it had this classic anecdote:

GUESTVIEW: Interfaith encounter at a Catholic school in Brooklyn

brooklyn (Photo: Brooklyn, with Manhattan in the background, 21 Sept 2008/Ray Stubblebine)

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Matthew Weiner is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York and Raffaele Timarchi is the Interfaith Center‘s education director.

By Matthew Weiner and Raffaele Timarchi

Why should students in urban high schools learn about religion?

The Interfaith Center of New York recently received a call from Penny Kapanika, a social studies teacher at Nazareth Regional High School in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn. Canarsie lies on the eastern edge of Brooklyn, next to Jamaica Bay. To get to the school, you take the number 4 subway train to the end of the line, hop on a bus down Utica Avenue and finally walk to a sparsely populated neighborhood that was once an Italian and Jewish hold out against white flight.

Nazareth, a Roman Catholic school, is now ethnically African American and Caribbean. In the old days, students came from the neighborhood, but now most of them take the bus from Crown Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant. Only 51% of the kids are Catholic, but most are Christian. The kids, though, live amongst Hasidic Jews  in Crown Heights, where a history of racial conflict still looms large, and Muslims in “Bed Stuy,” one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods.

Can academia help Islam’s dialogue with the West?

Prince Alwaleed bin TalalSince 9/11, studying the relations between Islam and the West have become a growth field in academia. Among its leading proponents is Saudi Arabian investor Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, a billionaire who has spent tens of millions of dollars via his Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation creating study centres at leading universities, including Cambridge, Harvard and Georgetown, with the goal of fostering interfaith dialogue and understanding. (Photo: Prince Alwaleed in Kabul, 18 March 2008/Ahmad Masood)

In the wake of the Islamist attacks in Mumbai last November, the foundation’s executive director, Muna AbuSulayman said recently, the organisation is keen to set up a centre in India and also to foster dialogue between Muslims and Jews.

A Mumbai Jewish community centre was seized and its rabbi and his wife killed during those attacks, in which 179 people were killed in a days-long rampage by members of a Pakistan-based militant group. “What has happened in India with the shooting was a wake up call,” she said. “India and Pakistan have a history, there’s a reason they separated. We want to help them minimise that.”

GUESTVIEW: Canada and the niqab: How to go public in the public square

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Sarah Sayeed is Program Associate and Matthew Weiner is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York.

By Sarah Sayeed and Matthew Weiner

A Canadian judge recently ruled that a Toronto Muslim woman must take off her face veil while giving testimony in a sexual assault trial. This tension between public space and private religion comes up repeatedly in western urban centers where Muslim women increasingly occupy the pubic square.  This time it happened in Toronto, but the issue arises regularly in western countries in the schools, workplaces and courtrooms that Muslims increasingly share with the majority population. At stake is whether a Muslim woman’s choice to dress in accordance with her religious beliefs infringes upon “our way of life.” (Photo: Sultaana Freeman testifies in court for right to wear a niqab on her Florida driver’s license, 27 May 2003/pool)

While all can agree that identity, tolerance and religious freedom are important, advocates for the face veil emphasize the upholding of freedom while opponents focus on the face veil, or niqab, as a challenge to collective identity.  Such tension between public expression of religion and collective identity is not new.  It has even gone on for centuries in Muslim countries, where religious minorities feel the tension between acceptance and their need to adapt, in varying degrees, to a Muslim majority worldview.  There is also a debate within Muslim communities about whether wearing the niqab is a religious requirement.

“Obama was elected by God” — Bosnian Grand Mufti Ceric

The Grand Mufti of Bosnia thinks the election of Barack Obama as American president is a gift from God that could help foster greater international tolerance of Muslims. “I believe that Obama is a divine sign to humanity,” Mustafa Ceric told me in an interview in Sarajevo. Americans “think that they have elected him, but I believe that he was elected by God.” (Photo: Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, 27 Jan 2009/ Danilo Krstanovic)

“Barack Obama is one of these most noble goods of our time and our civilisation, that is why I think he is a gift of God,” he said. “At the moment we feel a trend to change. Whether this change will be really in practice and life, we need time to see.”

Sometimes called one of the world’s most liberal grand muftis, Ceric is considered a voice of moderation with an international reputation. He is active in dialogue with other faiths and discussions of how Islam can integrate into European societies.

GUESTVIEW: Amazing Grace — a rabbi’s view of the inaugural prayer service

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The author, Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, is a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and author of the novel A Delightful Compendium of Consolation.

By Burton L. Visotzky

On Wednesday, I went to church. It seemed right that on the morning after President Barack Obama’s historic inauguration as the 44th President of the United States I should pray for his and our success in the years ahead. We are a nation in crisis, depleted in so many ways by the last eight years. On the Tuesday of the inauguration, I stood with a million other Americans on the Mall in Washington, watching and cheering the transfer of power. The air was frigid, but filled with hope. We stood just behind the Capitol reflecting pool – far from the rostrum, but embedded in the great, diverse mass of people who make up America. Next to us were folks from Augusta, Georgia, who drawled their discomfort when George Bush was booed. On our other side were Washingtonians – African-Americans who proudly declared that on this day we were not black or white, but all of us were silver (the color of our tickets to the event). (Photo: National Prayer Service at the National Cathedral in Washington, 21 Jan 2009/Larry Downing)

Truth be told, the inaugural was better viewed in front of a television. But for the experience of being an American on this auspicious day, the Mall was the best place in the whole world. There is something extraordinary about standing among a million others, staring up at the jumbotron, striving to catch the words our new president was speaking. Sharing our food, our stories, ducking down so someone behind us could snap a photo, making sure that kids were in the sight-lines of their parents, breathing free; we huddled, massed against the cold, embodying the passions that Emma Lazarus’ poem emblazons on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

If Catholic rebels return to Rome, who caved?

Pope Benedict is reportedly planning to lift the excommunication of four ultra-traditionalist Catholic bishops who have defied the Vatican for decades by rejecting some central reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Andrea Tornielli, the well-informed vaticanista of the Italian daily Il Giornale, says the decree inviting the bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) back to the Roman fold should be announced this weekend. If this is true (which, given Tornielli’s track record, it presumably is),  the unanswered question now is: who caved? (Photo: Pope Benedict at the Vatican, 10 Jan 2009/Alessia Pierdomenico)

Our vaticanista Phil Pullella writes that lifting the excommunications “would be a major gesture by Benedict to resolve a crisis in the Church that surfaced in 1988, when the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre illegally consecrated four bishops without the requisite permission of the late Pope John Paul.”

The Swiss-based SSPX has about a million followers worldwide compared to 1.1 billion for the official Church. It maintains the old Latin Mass and rejects Vatican II reforms such as dialogue with other religions.

Obama, the inaugural prayer and U.S. culture war

President-elect Barack Obama hopes to reach across the political divide, but the uproar over the preachers at his inauguration celebrations show just how wide some of those divisions are in America, our Dallas correspondent Ed Stoddard writes in a pre-inaugural analysis. (Photo: Obama in Philadelphia at the start of his train voyage to Washington, 17 Jan 2009/Brian Snyder)

Some gay rights activists have expressed anger at Obama’s choice of California pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation prayer at his inauguration on Tuesday because of Warren’s opposition to gay marriage. And some conservatives are up in arms over openly gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson’s role in an earlier part of the celebrations.

But political analysts and activists say many Americans appear weary of the “culture war” battles over issues like gay marriage, and Obama may find some safe ground in the middle.

GUESTVIEW: Obama inauguration: An interfaith invocation to answer the critics

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The author is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York. He is writing a book about Interfaith and Civil Society.

By Matthew Weiner

The choice of Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation, and the drama surrounding it, was President-elect Barack Obama’s latest carefully planned move to prove that he is not a far out liberal, but instead mainstream. Obama is good at the art of compromise, but also at improvisation. The liberal outcry that followed, and his addition of the openly gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson to join the party, continues to demonstrate his skill as political tai chi master. (Photo: Obama and Warren at Saddleback Church,17 Aug 2008/Mark Avery)

But Obama would be more in keeping with his own sense of diversity if he had the first ever interfaith invocation. Instead of a single speaker from a single religion, why not have many from a diversity of faiths and political positions? Instead of a liberal Christian or an evangelical Christian, he could have a conservative Christian, a liberal Jew, and a Muslim, a Buddhist  and a Hindu (or any such combination).