FaithWorld

Saudi liberals see hope as clerics argue over gender segregation

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Saudi women praying at Eid al-Adha in Riyadh on November 27, 2009/Stringer

Divisions among senior Saudi clerics over the legality of gender segregation could mark a new drive by reformers allied to King Abdullah to push social reforms in the puritanical Islamic state.  The divisions came to the open when the kingdom’s morals police, or the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, reversed a decision to sack Ahmad al-Ghamdi, its regional head for the Mecca region.

After the kingdom opened its first co-ed university in September — a project sponsored by King Abdullah — Ghamdi published a research paper that questioned the legality in Islam of gender segregation as enforced by the Commission.

“The commission was forced to cancel the decision to sack Ghamdi. This will strengthen the state’s role,” said Khaled al-Dakhil, a prominent Saudi political writer.  “The state has been gaining influence while that of the religious establishment has been declining, simply because it has gradually been given a lesser say over decisions taken by the state.”

Saudi analysts and diplomats say the reversal was dictated by King Abdullah’s entourage if not the king himself.

Read the full story here.

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Film champions liberalism in conservative Egypt

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The great Giza pyramids and the Sphinx on March 27, 2010/Amr Abdallah Dals

A new film exploring issues of sexual freedom, polygamy and individuality has drawn media praise in Egypt, but its liberal message remains on the margins in the country’s conservative society. The appearance of Rasayel El Bahr, or Messages from the Sea, in Egyptian theatres is the latest indication of an easing of censorship rules, which film critics say reflects government efforts to counter Islamism.

The film’s themes are striking in a country where the streets are dominated by the Islamic headscarf and where, analysts say, the state is battling against the rise of stricter versions of Islam emanating from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia.

In director Daoud Abdel Sayed’s story, Yehya, a young doctor who moves to coastal Alexandria and slowly shakes free of social norms, falls in love with Nora, who leads him to believe she is a prostitute. Viewers learn that Nora, as the second wife in a polygamous marriage, just sees herself this way. Polygamy is permitted in Egypt under Islamic sharia law.

French Muslim rejects polygamist charge, says has wife and 3 lovers

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Liès Hebbadj and his wife Anne after she was fined for wearing a niqab while driving, in Nantes on April 26, 2010/Stephane Mahe

France’s debate about Muslim face veils has taken an ironic twist. An Algerian-born Muslim man who is a naturalised French citizen has fought back against charges of polygamy by saying he doesn’t have four wives, but one wife and three mistresses (and 12 children among them). What could be more French than that? he asked journalists on Monday as politicians debated how they could strip him of his citizenship.

“If one can be stripped of one’s French nationality for having mistresses, then many French could lose theirs,” Liès Hebbadj, a halal butcher in the western city of Nantes, said after visiting the lawyer for his wife, who was fined for driving while wearing a full facial veil.

In Indonesia, keeping the religious status quo

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Youths read the Koran in Indonesia's South Sulawesi province September 5, 2008/Yusuf Ahmad

 Even though Indonesia is officially secular, belonging to a religious group is part of your national identity — to the point of being listed on your identity card.

But don’t try to spread a religion that isn’t one of six recognised by the constitution or you could be accused of blasphemy.

Headscarf row re-opens old wounds for Algerians

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Algerian women walk past an election poster of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Batna, 500 km (311 miles) east of Algiers, March 19, 2009/Louafi Larbi

A decision by Algeria’s government that women should pose for passport photographs without their Islamic headscarves has re-opened wounds still raw after nearly two decades of Islamist militant violence.

Algeria’s secular-minded government says that as part of the introduction of new biometric passports, all women should be photographed without the veil, a requirement that has angered the country’s influential religious traditionalists.

Muslim scholars recast jihadists’ favourite fatwa

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An Indonesian Muslim uses magnifying glass to read Koran verses printed on lamb parchment, Jakarta, July 27, 2005/Beawiharta

Prominent Muslim scholars have recast a famous medieval fatwa on jihad, arguing the religious edict radical Islamists often cite to justify killing cannot be used in a globalized world that respects faith and civil rights.  A conference in Mardin in southeastern Turkey declared the fatwa by 14th century scholar Ibn Taymiyya rules out militant violence and the medieval Muslim division of the world into a “house of Islam” and “house of unbelief” no longer applies.

Osama bin Laden has quoted Ibn Taymiyya’s “Mardin fatwa” repeatedly in his calls for Muslims to overthrow the Saudi monarchy and wage jihad against the United States.

Obama’s boyhood Jakarta home district sees shift to stricter Islam

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Indonesian Muslims pray at the Istiqlal Grand Mosque in Jakarta 9 March/Supri

Some things in the central Jakarta district of Matraman have barely changed since the late 1960s, when United States President Barack Obama lived and played there.  Old men train their racing pigeons on the badminton court and screaming children chase each other through the winding, grimy alleyways. But if Obama does decide to drop by his old neighborhood when he visits Indonesia next week, he may notice change around the community’s mosque.

The local mosque has become a meeting spot for members of the small but vocal Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), an extremist group famous for smashing up bars that serve alcohol and which made headlines when its followers assaulted several elderly men and women at a peaceful interfaith rally in 2008.

“Now there are so many radicals around here. We don’t agree with them but there’s definitely more than there was before,” said Ali Rully, a pensioner who was a high school student when little “Barry” Obama lived here.

U.S. Muslim group calls textbooks discriminatory

world of islamU.S. Muslim activists launched a campaign on Wednesday against a series of educational books that they say promote anti-Islamic sentiment among American school children.  “The World of Islam,” a 10-book series, encourages young readers to believe Muslims are terrorists and seek to undermine U.S. society, said the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim advocacy organization.

One book contains the passage: “For the first time, Muslims began immigrating to the U.S. in order to transform American society, sometimes through the use of terrorism.”

Moein Khawaja, civil rights director for CAIR in Pennsylvania, said the group has gotten dozens of complaints about the books, which are intended for middle- and high-school students, from Muslim parents around the country.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Defining Pakistan

binoria girlsHistorian Manan Ahmed has a must-read column up at The National on a strengthening grassroots conservative Islamist ideology in Pakistani society, encouraged, he says, by the political thinking of the likes of TV host Zaid Hamid.

"A new narrative is ascendant in Pakistan. It is in the writings of major Urdu-language newspaper columnists, who purport to marshal anecdotal or textual evidence on its behalf. It is on television, where the hosts of religious and political talk shows polish it with slick production values.

"The basic elements of the story – which has often, and erroneously, been called a conspiracy theory – are simple. Local agents (or terrorists, or soldiers, or Blackwater employees) representing a foreign power (India, or the United States, or Israel) are intent on destroying Pakistan because they fear that it will otherwise emerge as the powerful leader of the Muslim world, just as the country’s past leaders had predicted. The ascendant narrative is prophetic and self-pitying, nationalist and martial; it is a way to interpret current events and a call for activism to restore the country’s interrupted rise to glory.

“No to Islamism” campaign boosts France’s National Front in poll

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Jean-Marie Le Pen at a rally in Marseille on March 7, 2010. The placard reads "No to Islamism. Youth with Le Pen" and shows a map of France covered by an Algerian flag and minarets/Jean-Paul Pelissier

Far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, playing on fears over the spread of Islam, has regained the political initiative in France with a strong result in regional elections that poses a problem for President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Bouncing back from a string of recent reversals, Le Pen’s National Front won a surprise 11.74 percent of the national vote in Sunday’s first round ballot and will dilute support for Sarkozy’s conservative block in crucial run-offs on March 21. Aged 81, Le Pen himself enjoyed a remarkable personal triumph, winning 20.29 percent backing in the southern French Provence-Cote d’Azur region, which has absorbed hundreds of thousands of mainly North African immigrants in recent decades.