FaithWorld

Islam is no monolith in Obama speeches to Muslims

obama 2When U.S. President Barack Obama first addressed the Muslim world in its traditional heartland last year, his speech was laden with references to the past, to Islam and to the tensions plaguing the Middle East. Updating his speech on Wednesday on the far eastern fringe of that world, his upbeat remarks about Indonesia’s democracy, development and diversity spelled hope for the future. (Photo: President Obama greets the audience after his speech  in Jakarta November 10, 2010/Jason Reed)

But they were also veiled reference to autocratic Muslim countries. He held up Indonesia as an example for others to emulate, praising the progress it has made from dictatorship to a vibrant democracy tolerant of other religions.

Cairo and Jakarta offered contrasting backdrops to review Washington’s relations with countries whose main link is a faith they practice in varied and sometimes contradictory ways. The speeches clearly reflected those differences. In Cairo, the president spelled out seven problems to be solved in the Middle East. The Jakarta speech praised three areas where he said the world’s most populous Muslim nation enjoyed success.

“That is not to say that Indonesia is without imperfections. No country is,” Obama said. “But here can be found the ability to bridge divides of race and region and religion – that ability to see yourself in all individuals.”

While both speeches stressed the U.S. was not at war with Islam, the Cairo address focused far more on religion. Obama quoted the Koran four times, spoke of “civilisation’s debt to Islam” and said the faith had “a proud tradition of tolerance.” At the same time, he warned: “Among some Muslims, there’s a disturbing tendency to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of somebody else’s faith. The richness of religious diversity must be upheld — whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt.  …  And if we are being honest, fault lines must be closed among Muslims, as well, as the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence, particularly in Iraq.”

Word clouds drift apart in Obama’s speeches to the Muslim world

obama jakartaWord clouds are graphic games that sometimes tell more than a plain text. Look at the results below for U.S. President Barack Obama’s “speech to the Muslim world” today in Jakarta and his first such address in Cairo last year. I’ve analysed the two in a report here, but word clouds tell the story a different way. (Photo: President Barack Obama in Jakarta, 10 Nov 2010/Barbara Walton)

Judging by the frequency of the words, today’s speech was much more a speech about Indonesia than anything else. The message to the greater Muslim world — here’s what the world’s largest Muslim country can do! – only comes through between the lines. But it was clear enough when Obama strung these words into sentences.

Another point is how strong the focus is on secular concepts such as democracy, progress and development. “Muslim” and “Islam” are also-rans while “Koran” doesn’t appear at all.

Mecca hopes to revive pilgrim tourism during haj

mecca (Photo: Muslims shop outside the Grand Mosque in Mecca, September 15, 2009/Fahad Shadeed)

Rashed Abdullah displays Oriental perfumes on a glass table to late-night shoppers in his small shop in Mecca ready for what he hopes will be a sales bonanza during this month’s haj pilgrimage. He is confident of attracting customers after fears of a swine flu outbreak kept many away last year.

“This year will be the best. There is really strong demand,” he said, standing behind an incense collection in one of dozens souvenir shops around the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

Business has picked up in Islam’s holiest city since Ramadan, the Islamic fasting month which fell in August and September when many visit Mecca. In 2009, the number of pilgrims fell to about 2.5 million but a record 4 million are expected next week when the haj begins.

Islamic finance outsources scholars’ supervision to grow

finance ammanBankers in Islamic finance are increasingly outsourcing sharia supervision due to a lack of scholars in the industry, but critics say this is making the sector even less transparent and slowing its development.

The $1 trillion industry rode a five-year oil boom until the 2008 property crash in the Gulf Arab region raised complaints that many of its investment instruments can be seen as mere copy-cats of conventional banking products, threatening the sector’s future growth. (Photo: Dealers at the Amman Stock Exchange on October 11, 2010/Ali Jarekji)

Critics say growth and product innovation is being further stifled by the limited number of top scholars available to join the sharia boards of Islamic banks, some sitting on up to 80 boards.

Short of talent, Islamic finance taps women scholars

malaysia islamic finance (Photo: Islamic Financial Centre booth at Malaysia’s Central Bank – High Level Conference 2009 in Kuala Lumpur February 10, 2009/Zainal Abd Halim)

When Malaysian Aida Othman signed up for the new law programme at the International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur, she did not expect to become one the few women with their hands on the levers of the world’s $1 trillion Islamic finance sector.

Rising global demand for scholars who can advise firms on compliance with Islamic legal principles called sharia is behind the quiet and almost accidental way in which women are growing into a small but powerful force in a male-dominated business.

“There are not many women involved my job,” Aida, who manages the sharia advisory practice at Malaysia’s biggest law firm, told Reuters. “I’m glad to be able to show to young graduates and young scholars in my field if you’re interested enough there is a way into sharia advisory,” the 41-year-old, who went on to study at Cambridge and Harvard, said.

Mideast banks, funds seek to tap Muslim women’s wealth

women banking (Photos: One of Dubai Islamic Bank’s women-only branches in Deira, October 26, 2010./Jumana El-Heloueh)

Emirati housewife Sarah Alzarouni brushed past a group of women clad in floor-length black robes, some with only their eyes showing, to enter through the frosted doors of one of Dubai Islamic Bank’s women-only branches. Clutching a Louis Vuitton bag to match her designer head scarf, Alzarouni greeted the female tellers and bank manager with three kisses on the cheek and sat down to do business.

“I am much more comfortable working with ladies than in a mixed environment,” Alzarouni, 27, said. “When I come here, I feel like one of them. They understand my needs and I can move freely, not having to always think where I am and whether my (scarf) has moved. As a Muslim, it is really important for me to deal with an Islamic bank. “

Many affluent Muslim women share Alzarouni’s sentiments and they are increasingly turning to Islamic banks to manage their money. These women are looking beyond basic banking services to sophisticated products to grow their wealth while complying with Islamic principals that include a ban on interest.

Pope seeks Mideast religious liberty, bishops criticise Israel

synod 1 (Photo: Bishops at Mass marking the end of the synod of bishops from the Middle East in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican October 24, 2010/Alessia Pierdomenico)

Pope Benedict called on Islamic countries in the Middle East on Sunday to guarantee freedom of worship to non-Muslims and said peace in the region was the best remedy for a worrying exodus of Christians.

He made his a appeal at a solemn mass in St Peter’s Basilica ending a two week Vatican summit of bishops from the Middle East, whose final document criticized Israel and urged the Jewish state to end its occupation of Palestinian territories.

In his sermon at the gathering’s ceremonial end, the pope said freedom of religion was “one of the fundamental human rights that each state should always respect.” While some states in the Middle East allowed freedom of belief, he added, “the space given to the freedom to practice religion is often quite limited.”

Egypt’s new religious fervour breeds ghetto mentality

egypt koranA wave of religious fervour and a backlash by secular liberals has left some ordinary Egyptians feeling like strangers in their own country, and civil rights activists warn of a dangerous drift into sectarianism.

Banker Hussein Khalil says organising something as simple as an evening out with friends has turned into a headache. (Photo: Koran held up at protest rally, September 5, 2010/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

“These days in Egypt, either you go out with people who are very strict and agree not to go anywhere that serves alcohol, or you go out with others who just want to get drunk,” said the 27-year-old. “Moderates are unable to enjoy their lives… We’re under pressure to join one of the two extremes.”

Egypt stops TV channels, Islamic trend seen a target

satellite dishesEgypt has temporarily shut 12 satellite channels and warned 20 others for reasons ranging from insulting religions to broadcasting pornography, although an analyst said the real target seemed to be strict Islamic trends.

The government last week tightened TV broadcast rules, a move critics said was part of a crackdown on independent media before a parliament election in November and a presidential poll next year. Four channels were closed. The government denied any political motivation. (Photo: Satellite dishes, 3 April 2004/Jack Dabaghian)

Analysts said the latest decision to temporarily shut the satellite channels and warn others, announced late on Tuesday, seemed to be mainly to stop the spread of strict Islamic Salafi teaching that might boost support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Islam part of Germany, Christianity part of Turkey – Wulff

wulff 1 (Photo: Presidents Christian Wulff (R) and Abdullah Gül, followed by wives Bettina (R) and Hayrünnisa, during official welcome in Ankara October 19, 2010/Umit Bektas)

When German President Christian Wulff recently declared that Islam “belongs to Germany,” Christian Democratic  politicians there howled and Muslims living in Germany and Turkey cheered. Now Wulff, on an official visit to Turkey, has told the Turkish parliament that “Christianity too, undoubtedly, belongs to Turkey.” This time there was applause in Germany, and  silence from the Turkish deputies listening to him in Ankara on Tuesday.

wulff 3In both cases, Wulff’s words could not have come at a better time. (Photo: President Wulff address the Turkish parliament, with Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Turkey’s EU Minister Egemen Bagis (L) in the background/Umit Bektas)

Germany is in the grip of an emotional debate about Islam and Muslim integration. When Wulff said in his Oct. 3 German Unity Day address that Islam was now part of German society, given the large number (about 4 million) of Muslims living there, it was demographically obvious and politically risky. Several of his fellow Christian Democrats have challenged his view and insisted Germany had a “Judeo-Christian heritage” that Islam did not share. But Wulff, who was considered something of a lightweight for the ceremonial role when he was elected last July,  has taken a clear stand on a political and moral issue — just like Germans want their head of state to do. He is, as the Financial Times Deutschland entitled its editorial on Wednesday, “Finally A President.”

The overwhelmingly Muslim but officially secular state of Turkey is slowly reconsidering the tight restrictions it has long imposed on its tiny Christian minority. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government has made a small and cautious opening to Christians, allowing religious services at a historic Greek Orthodox monastery and Armenian Orthodox church, allowing an art show at a forcibly closed Orthodox seminary and helping the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch’s succession problem with citizenship for foreign prelates.