FaithWorld

Iraq’s Arab neighbours wary of Shi’ite sway after vote

iraq shi'ites

Shi'ites mark the religious ceremony of Arbain at Imam Abbas shrine in Kerbala, 5 Feb 2010/Mushtaq Muhammed

Iraq’s Arab neighbours fear a split Iraqi election could further marginalise minority Sunnis and hope any coalition government formed by the Shi’ite frontrunner will resist Iran’s sway. Many Sunni Arabs had wanted a stronger showing by secularists, who they now hope will bring cross-sectarian balance to any coalition government that could be formed by Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

“These election results show that there is a Shi’ite wave in the region which threatens Arab security in the region. Iran has a hidden role in the Arab region and it supports Shi’ite elements in the area, particularly in Iraq,” said Magid Mazloum from the Centre for Gulf Studies in Cairo.

Early election results showed Maliki pulling ahead on Sunday in an election Iraqis hoped would end years of sectarian strife, but a divided vote suggested long and fraught talks to form a government are ahead. But the overall picture, reflecting a nation fragmented by decades of sectarian and ethnic conflict, was still incomplete a week after the vote.

Sunni-led Arab countries, particularly in the Gulf where there are significant and marginalised Shi’ite minorities, worry about the repercussions of Iranian influence in Iraq. They fear meddling by Shi’ite non-Arab Iran in Iraq, an Arab country with a Shi’ite Muslim majority, could incite their own Shi’ite populations and that sectarian instability in Iraq could spill over.

Hezbollah cuts Islamist rhetoric in new manifesto

nasrallahLebanon’s Hezbollah group has announced a new political strategy that tones down Islamist rhetoric but maintains a tough line against Israel and the United States.

The new manifesto drops reference to an Islamic republic in Lebanon, which has a substantial Christian population, confirming changes to Hezbollah thinking about the need to respect Lebanon’s diversity.

Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who read the new “political document” at a news conference on Monday, said it was time the group introduced pragmatic changes without dropping its commitment to an Islamist ideology tied to the clerical establishment in Iran.

U.S. sees “mixed picture” on world religious freedom

seoul-prayer-protest (Photo: CHristians pray during an anti-North Korea and pro-U.S. protest in Seoul, 3 Oct 2007/Han Jae-Ho)

The United States sees a mixed picture on world religious freedom, with progress in interfaith dialogue weighed against government repression and sectarian strife in many countries.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday unveiled the latest State Department report on global religious freedom, which particularly criticized Iran and North Korea among other countries for harsh limits on religious expression.

“It is our hope that the … report will encourage existing religious freedom movements around the world,” Clinton said, adding that all people should have the right to believe or not as they see fit.

The report tagged North Korea, Iran, Myanmar, China, Sudan, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan among the worst offenders, placing them on a watch list put out earlier this year.

Pew maps the Muslim world

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life just released a demographic study of the Muslim world it says is “the largest project of its kind to date.” Click here http://pewforum.org/docs/?DocID=450 to see the report ”Mapping the Global Muslim Population: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Muslim Population.”

SAUDI/PILGRIMAGE-ECONOMY/

The report drew on data from 232 countries and territories and involved Pew researchers working with nearly 50 demographers and social scientists around the world. It is certainly a useful reference for anyone interested in the Islamic world. (PHOTO: Hundreds of thousands of Muslims pray inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca Sept. 15, 2009. REUTERS/Susan Baahil)

Among its highlights:

Islamophobia in Germany? Berlin wakes up after outcry over killing

German politicians have woken up to the potential fallout from the bloody killing in a Dresden courtroom of a 31-year-old Egyptian mother which has unleashed anger in the Islamic world.

It took Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has talked much about boosting the integration of Germany’s roughly 3.5 million Muslims, several days to condemn the killing, perpetrated by a German of Russian origin suspected of being a neo-Nazi.

dresdenSuddenly, the government is trying to soothe tensions to avert a potential storm similar to the violence which erupted over Denmark’s publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. And less than three-months before an election, politicians are also worried about security — intelligence services say Germany is already a target due to its deployment of troops in Afghanistan.

Burqa losing favour as Afghan women opt for chador

burqa-black (Photo:A burqa-clad woman in Kabul’s old bazaar, 4 March 2009/Ahmad Masood)

Here’s some news for Nicolas Sarkozy. While the French president has begun a battle against the burqa in France, the famous blue garment that covers women from head to toe is losing favour back in its stronghold Afghanistan. In Herat, burqa seller Nehmatullah Yusefy says sales have dropped 50 percent since the Talibanchador1 were toppled in 2001 and he says he will soon need to start stocking other styles of Islamic dress to make up for lost profits. (Photo right: Baghdad woman in chador, 12 Nov 2008/Mahmoud Raouf)

“I think, God willing, the sales of burqas will decrease, then I will sell chador namaz and even maybe mantau chalvar,” Yusefy said, standing behind the counter of his small outlet on a strip of burqa shops in the western city’s main market.

Read my feature here.

chalwar1The chador namaz is a long, billowing dress in black or sombre-patterned fabric which is widely worn in Iran. It exposes the woman’s face but covers the rest of her head and body until her ankles.

Muslim trust restores Jewish sites in Afghanistan

herat-synagogue-1Amid the glum news from Afghanistan, Golnar Motevalli of our Kabul bureau has sent this from Herat:

“Behind a parade of old mud brick shops, through narrow winding alleys, a tiny door opens onto a sundrenched courtyard, where school children giggle and play alongside the ghosts of Afghanistan’s Jewish past.

The Yu Aw is one of four synagogues in the old quarter of Herat city in west Afghanistan, which after decades of abandonment and neglect, has been restored to provide desperately-needed space for an infant school.”

Religion crowded out in “cloud” of Ayatollah Khamenei’s sermon

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivered a major address today on the election there. It was in the form of a khutbah, an Islamic Friday sermon that is often the platform for the most important public pronouncements in the Islamic Republic. So one might assume it would be couched in Islamic terminology and religious themes.

But a rough-and-ready indicator, a web “cloud” that indicates the frequency of certain words, tells us otherwise. Aziz Poonawalla over at the City of Brass blog generated a Khamenei khutbah cloud on Wordle on the basis of a quick translation of the ayatollah’s speech. I had some trouble reading all the terms, so I went to that site and generated one myself. Here is the result:

khamenei-1

To be absolutely clear — this cloud is only a rough computer analysis. I generated it in Paris hours after the speech, without consulting any other Reuters bureau, so it played no part in our Tehran reporting of Khamenei’s comments or other coverage on our wire from Beirut and from London. Nothing can replace on-the-spot reporting by Persian-speaking correspondents who understand all the nuances in a political sermon like this.

Will Obama address the Muslim world or the Arab world?

obama-faceWhen President Barack Obama delivers his long-awaited speech in Cairo on Thursday, will he address the Muslim world or the Arab world? In the pre-speech build-up, it’s being called a speech “to the Muslim world” or “to the world’s 1.x billion Muslims” (the estimated total mentioned in different articles fluctuates between 1and 1.5 billion). But the venue he’s chosen — Cairo — and all the focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict make it sound like a speech to and about the Middle East. (Photo: President Barack Obama, 21 May 2009/Kevin Lamarque)

The Middle East is the heartland of Islam, but Arabs make up only about 20 percent of the world’s Muslims. Not all Arabs are Muslims. And non-Arab Iran is a major part of the Middle Eastern political scene. So is it correct to call this a speech to the Muslim world? Would it be better to call it a speech to the Middle East?

There is such an important overlap between the Arab and the Muslim worlds that it is hard to disentangle them. The Palestinian issue concerns Muslims around the world, but with varying intensity depending partly on whether it figures in regional politics or stands as a more distant symbol of oppression against Muslims. Politics can also poison Muslim relations with Jews, which can range from bitter enmity to interfaith cooperation depending on where, when and how one looks. The U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq may be justified in Washington as operations against international terrorism, but in Muslim countries they are often seen as attacks on Muslims and Islam.

Iraq religious parties may face election backlash

Missy Ryan in our Baghdad bureau sees a possible drop in support for religious parties in Iraq:

BAGHDAD – When Iraqis last voted in 2005, some in Washington feared the mainly Muslim nation would veer in the direction of Iran, an Islamic theocracy, instead of becoming the moderate democracy they envisioned for post-Saddam Iraq.

The question when Iraqis elect new provincial leaders on January 31 will be whether the religious parties that have dominated politics since then can hang on to power despite a bitterness felt by voters starved of services and security.