FaithWorld

Should religious groups talk to Iranian president?

ahmadinejad-waves.jpgA rabbi, a Mennonite and a Zoroastrian priest were having dinner with the president of Iran — sounds like the start of a joke, but it happened in New York this week.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had dinner with around 200 people of various faiths including Mennonites, Quakers, United Methodists, Jews and Zoroastrians who said they wanted to promote peace by meeting such a prominent foe of the United States.  You can read our story about the meeting here.

Those who attended the Iftar meal in a Manhattan hotel ballroom had to brave a line of protesters outside who accused them of sitting down with a man little better than Hitler. Major Jewish groups had urged the cancellation of the event.

It was billed as a panel discussion titled: “What does my faith tradition bring to the struggle to eliminate poverty, injustice, global warming and war?”

Speakers included U.N. General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, who is a Catholic priest, and former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell-Magne Bondevik, who is a Lutheran, as well as Ahmadinejad.

A “Shi’ite invasion” of Sunni Arab countries? Qaradawi sees one

Yousef al-Qaradawi, 10 May 2006/Fadi Alassaad Egyptian cleric Yusef Al-Qaradawi has provoked a storm of criticism with comments this month attacking Shi’ites for alleged attempts to proselytize in Sunni Arab societies. It’s a debate which has been bubbling since 2003 when the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein — which the Sunni Arab governments didn’t like but know how to live with — was removed by the American-led invasion and ultimately replaced by a Shi’ite government reflecting the demographic superiority of Shi’ites in Iraq today.

Free to contact work with fellow Shi’ites in neighbouring Iran and develop links with the powerful Shi’ites of Lebanon and even with the more precariously-placed Shi’ites in the Gulf Arab coutnries, the rise of the Shi’ites in Iraq has been nothig less than a seismic shift in the region’s potical landscape. Numerous Arab leaders have shown their concern with comments suggesting a crescent of Shi’ite power was developing across the region from Lebanon to Iran (as Jordan’s King Abdullah has said) or that Arab Shi’ites real loyalties are to Iran (according to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak).

Al-Jazeera.net logoQaradawi’s intervention is of equal import. He is one of the most influential of Sunni religious figures, a former Muslim Brotherhood sheikh in Egypt who settled in Qatar where Al-Jazeera television gave him a weekly television show. His opinions generally reflect the mainstream of Islamist thinking, veering neither into the rigid obsessions of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism nor appearing to compromise principles for the sake of a modernity that suits the West.

Al-Azhar’s modern twist on book burning

al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, 13 July, 2006/Suhaib SalemEgypt’s al-Azhar university and mosque complex has placed a modern twist on the age-old ritual of book burning – now they want to throw a film to the flames.

Earlier this month, Egypt summoned an Iranian diplomat to protest against an Iranian documentary about the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, saying it would hurt improving ties between the two countries. Official statements from Cairo gave few details as to the contents of the film, other than suggesting it glorified Sadat’s assassins and portrayed Sadat as a traitor who sold out the Palestinian cause.

But apparently calling in the Iranian diplomat was deemed insufficient censure of the film, and al-Azhar, the thousand-year-old edifice of Islamic learning, was called into the fray as well. The government-appointed Sheikh of al-Azhar Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, known for his close ties to the state, convened an emergency session of al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Academy to address the issue. The resulting statement was published in the state’s flagship al-Ahram daily.

Survey says world’s top 10 intellectuals are Muslims

Foreign Policy July/August issue coverThe bimonthly U.S. international affairs journal Foreign Policy has just published a survey of the world’s top 20 public intellectuals and the first 10 are all Muslims. They are certainly an interesting group of men (and one woman) but the journal’s editors are not convinced they all belong on top. In their introduction in the July/August issue, they wrote: “Rankings are an inherently dangerous business.” It turns out that some candidates ran publicity campaigns on their web sites, in interviews or in reports in media friendly to them. So intellectuals who many other intellectuals might have put at the top — say Noam Chomsky or Richard Dawkins — landed only in the second 10 or in a much more mixed list of post-poll write-ins.

“No one spread the word as effectively as the man who tops the list,” the introduction said. “In early May, the Top 100 list was mentioned on the front page of Zaman, a Turkish daily newspaper closely aligned with Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. Within hours, votes in his favor began to pour in. His supporters—typically educated, upwardly mobile Muslims—were eager to cast ballots not only for their champion but for other Muslims in the Top 100. Thanks to this groundswell, the top 10 public intellectuals in this year’s reader poll are all Muslim. The ideas for which they are known, particularly concerning Islam, differ significantly. It’s clear that, in this case, identity politics carried the day.”

From the Fethullah Gülen websiteStill, the results are interesting. Fethullah Gülen, pictured at right by his website announcing the survey result, heads a network of schools and media that is probably the world’s largest moderate Muslim movement. He may be one of the most influential Muslims that non-Muslims have never heard of. We ran a feature about him just last month.

In interfaith dialogue, beware of Saudis bearing gifts?

Saudi King Abdullah at Mecca interfaith dialogue conference, 4 june 2008/Ho NewSaudi Arabia’s King Abdullah looks determined to get his proposal for an unprecedented Muslim- Christian-Jewish dialogue off the ground. A three-day conference in Mecca to discuss this ended with a soaring declaration of goodwill and benevolent intent. Saudi media reported that Muslim clerics from around the world had supported the call and confirmed that dialogue with other faiths was legitimate in Islam.

The official Saudi Press agency said the meeting recommended holding “conferences, forums and discussion groups between the followers of the prophetic messages and relevant civilisations, cultures and philosophies to which academics, media and religious leaders will be invited”. Given the gazillions Riyadh must be earning with oil at $140 a barrel, it may not be long before we see all sorts of petrodollar-funded “dialogue sessions” being held here and there.

Interfaith dialogue is a good thing, but the recent rising chorus of calls for more such talk hasn’t just emerged out of a vacuum. There is already a decades-long history of dialogue sessions that essentially exchanged pleasantries and generated warm feelings but did little to actually reduce misunderstanding and mistrust. The latest generation of initiatives — for example the Common Word consultations and the “Painful Verses” book we’ve blogged about here — takes the disappointment with earlier efforts as its starting point and aims to tackle the issues that earlier dialogues tended to avoid.

Interfaith talks on agenda in Mecca, Rome and London

Saudi King Abdullah (r) and former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 4 June 2008/Ho NewThere were interesting words on interfaith dialogue from Mecca and Rome today and London yesterday. Efforts to improve contacts and understanding among the main monotheist religions have been gaining steam recently and we’re starting to see some concrete steps. But, as a meeting in Mecca showed, the road ahead could still be quite rocky.

The Mecca meeting, organised by the Saudi-based Muslim World League, is supposed to draw up guidelines for the inter-faith dialogue that Saudi King Abdullah says he wants with Christianity and Islam. “You are meeting here today to say to the world with pride that we are a fair, honest, humanitarian and moral voice, a voice for living together and dialogue,” the monarch said in a high-minded speech.

But former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the few prominent Shi’ites at the conference, rained on his parade with broadsides against the United States and Israel. But he also said: “To have a dialogue with other religions we need to start talking among ourselves. The call needs to be directed at ourselves first of all, and all the sects need to agree on shared points. As a Muslim and a Shi’ite … I say the things we agree on are many.”

Should men-only Muslim teams be barred from the Olympics?

Saudi Arabia’s all-men team at the opening of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games,13 Aug 2004/Wolfgang RattayShould some Islamic countries be barred from the Beijing Olympics? The question came up in an interesting op-ed piece this week arguing that countries that ban women from competing in sports events violate the Olympic Charter and thus should be excluded from the Games. As Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, wrote in the International Herald Tribune:

The procession of the Olympic torch drew protests from Paris to San Francisco over China’s treatment of the Tibetan people, but no one has protested another tragedy that is afflicting millions of women in Saudi Arabia, Iran and other Muslim countries. Many Muslim women dare not even dream of the Olympics because their countries ban female sports altogether or severely restrict the athletic activities of the “weaker sex.”

The International Olympic Committee charter states that “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, sex or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

Vatican-Iranian dialogue agrees on faith, reason, non-violence

Church tower and mosque minaret in AmmanPope Benedict was “particularly satisfied” with the topic of a meeting this week held between Vatican and Iranian specialists on inter-faith dialogue, according to a statement just put out by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. That shouldn’t be any surprise. The statement copied below shows his trademark topic — the compatibility of faith and reason — was prominent at the three-day session. He has been stressing this for years, with some success (as during his recent U.S. visit) and some misunderstanding (as in his Regensburg speech). With another Catholic-Muslim meeting due later this year, with delegates of the Common Word group, we can expect this issue to stay front and centre in inter-faith dialogue.

That the Iranian delegation agreed with the statements on faith and reason shows they did not see the contradiction between them in Islam that some observers read into Benedict’s comments in Regensburg. They also agreed that “faith and reason are intrinsically non-violent,” a message Benedict said he meant to get across there. Another point agreed on here — that both Catholics and Muslims should promote respect for religious beliefs and symbols — seems to have the controversy over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad as its background. One can’t read too much into one meeting but it seems that dialogue is moving ahead despite some occasional setbacks.

I can’t help but notice the different emphasis here from what the popular Egyptian preacher Amr Khaled said this week about the protests against the Danish cartoons.

Vatican baptism raises questions about Catholic-Muslim dialogue

Pope Benedict baptises Magdi Allam, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliJust when relations between the Vatican and Muslims were improving, Pope Benedict has taken a highly symbolic step that could set them back again. On Saturday evening, at the Easter Vigil Mass, he baptised seven people including one of Italy’s best-known Muslims. Magdi Allam, the new convert, is deputy director of the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera and an outspoken critic of radical Islam. The Egyptian-born journalist, who has lived in Italy since his university days, was one of the few Muslims who defended the pope after his controversial Regensburg speech in 2006. Allam’s outspoken articles have already prompted death threats from Islamists and he lives under constant guard. Announcing the surprise move only an hour before it took place, the Vatican stressed the Catholic Church had the right to baptise anyone who wanted to join it and that all were equal in the eyes of God.

That is certainly true, but such a high-level conversion can’t be seen outside its wider context. Islam considers conversion to another religion a grave insult to God. In some Muslim states including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, it is punishable by death. Afghan convert Abdul Rahman during his trial in Kabul for apostasy, 23 March 2006/Reuters TVAbdul Rahman, an Afghan convert to Christianity pictured at right during his trial for apostasy, only escaped death in 2006 because of an international outcry; he found refuge in Italy. Not all Muslims agree with this. An Italian Muslim spokesman, for example, stressed that Allam’s conversion was a personal decision and only questioned why Benedict chose to make his baptism such a public event. He could have been baptised in his local church without all the publicity, he said. This high-visibility baptism looks likely to provoke protests from Muslims in some parts of the world and raise questions about Benedict’s intentions.

France 24 television interrupted my Easter lunch en famille to interview me about this and their main question was whether it was a response to Osama bin Laden’s threat against the pope. That assumes a U.S. campaign-style readiness to react that is miles or centuries away from the way the Vatican works. Easter is the traditional time to baptise adult converts. Allam had to go through a long period of study before being accepted for baptism. Benedict had to know about this at least several weeks ago. In his article in Corriere (see below), Allam mentions a meeting with Benedict where he told him of his intention to convert and the pope said he would gladly baptise him. But Allam does not mention the date.

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):