FaithWorld

In Ahmadis’s desert city, Pakistan closes in on group it declared non-Muslim

(Ahmadis stand over graves of victims of an attack on one of their mosques, in Rabwah, May 29, 2010/Stringer)

At the office of what claims to be one of Pakistan’s oldest newspapers, workers scan copy for words it is not allowed to use — words like Muslim and Islam. “The government is constantly monitoring this publication to make sure none of these words are published,” explains our guide during a visit to the offices of al Fazl, the newspaper of the Ahmadiyya sect in Pakistan.

This is Rabwah, the town the Ahmadis built when they fled the killings of Muslims in India at Partition in 1947, and believing themselves guided by God, chose a barren stretch of land where they hoped to make the Punjab desert bloom. Affluent and well-educated, they started out camping in tents and mud huts near the river and the railway line. Now they have a town of some 60,000 people, a jumble of one- and two-storey buildings, along with an Olympic size swimming pool, a fire service and a world class heart institute.

Yet declared by the state in the 1970s to be non-Muslims, they face increasing threats of violence across Pakistan as the country strained by a weakening economy, an Islamist insurgency and internecine political feuds, fractures down sectarian and ethnic lines.

“The situation is getting worse and worse,” says Mirza Khurshid Ahmed, amir of the Ahmadi community in Pakistan. “The level of religious intolerance has increased considerably during the last 10 years.”

Music therapists shake off Islamic clerics’ taboo to heal disabled Iranians

(Two disabled students sing a song during a music therapy session at the Kahrizak nursing home, in southern Tehran June 25, 2011/Morteza Nikoubazl)

As Sadeq Jafari switched on his electric piano, his students shunted their wheelchairs enthusiastically around him to rehearse new songs. Music therapy, a common practice in large parts of the world, is extremely rare in Iran, where conservative clerics outlawed pop music after the country’s 1979 Islamic revolution. Jafari, 33, is one of a handful of therapists in the Islamic state who use music to help severely disabled people find their voices, risking the ire of his conservative family and censure from religious authorities.

Kahrizak Charity Foundation, in a leafy campus on the outskirts of the capital Tehran, is home to hundreds of physically handicapped people, young and old, who lack financial support. Each Monday, dozens wait impatiently for Jafari to walk through the door.

Preaching good sex, Muslim-inspired Obedient Wives Club spreads in Asia

(Newly-wed Ummu Honey Lokman Hakim, 19, a member of "The Obedient Wife Club", bows to her 23-year-old husband Mohd Syurahbil Amran, during a mass wedding ceremony in conjunction with the club's launch in Kuala Lumpur June 4, 2011/Samsul Said )

Indonesian Gina Puspita traded a career in aircraft engineering for a mission to preach Islam and help young women build happy marriages through good sex. The French-educated mother of three hosts religious programmes through the Obedient Wives Club which is based on the belief that a fulfilling sex life is the cure for “Western-style” social problems such as divorce and abuse.

“Wives must obey the husbands in all aspect of life, such as serving food and drinks, giving calm and support for the husband, as well as in sex relations,” Pusipita, who shares her spouse with three other women, told Reuters.

Will the Arab Spring bring U.S.-style “culture wars” to the Middle East?

(From left: Olivier Roy, Cardinal Angelo Scola and Martino Diez of the Oasis Foundation at the conference on San Servolo island, Venice, June 20, 2011/Giorgia Dalle Ore/Oasis)

Where is the Arab Spring leading the Middle East? What will be the longer-term outcome of the popular protests that have shaken the region since the beginning of this year? Of course, it’s still too early to say with any certainty, even in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt that succeeded in toppling their authoritarian regimes. Some trends have emerged, however, and they’re on the agenda at a conference in Venice I’m attending entitled “Medio Oriente verso dove?” (Where is the Middle East heading?). The host is the Oasis Foundation, a group chaired by Cardinal Angelo Scola, the Roman Catholic patriarch of this historic city, and guests include Christian and Muslim religious leaders and academics from the Middle East and Europe.

In one of the most interesting — and hotly debated — presentations, the French Islam specialist Olivier Roy described the Arab Spring as “a break with the culture and ideologies that dominated the Arab world from the 1950s until recently.” It marks a clear change in the demographic, political and religious paradigms operating there, he said. The old dichotomy of the authoritarian regime or the Islamist state has broken down, he argued, and Islam is taking on a new role in the political process. In the end, the region — or at least the states where the Arab Spring brings real change — could see democratic politics marked not by major efforts to establish an Islamic state but by Muslim “culture war” controversies not unlike the way hot-button issues such as abortion and gay marriage emerge in U.S. political debates.

Islamic reality TV show in Malaysia seeks best women preachers

("Solehah" hopeful Nur Shamseeda preaches during an audition for the new Islamic reality television show "Solehah" in Kuala Lumpur June 18, 2011/Bazuki Muhammad)

A forthcoming Islamic reality television show in Malaysia aims to find the best women preachers and change conservative mindsets on the role of women in Muslim societies. The 13-episode prime time program titled “Solehah,” an Arabic word meaning “pious female,” is a talent contest that will feature charismatic young Muslim women judged by clerics on their religious knowledge as well as their oratory skills and personality.

Although Islam allows both men and women to preach the religion to society, the field remains dominated by males in most Muslim countries, something the show’s producers in this mainly Muslim but multi-religious Southeast Asian country hope to change.

Pakistan’s booming female madrassas feed rising intolerance

(Covered Pakistani female madrassa students take part in an anti-government demonstration in Islamabad August 27, 2004 after a government raid in their mosque and Islamic seminary/Mian Khursheed)

Varda is an accountancy student who dreams of working abroad. Dainty and soft-spoken, the 22-year-old aspires to broaden her horizons, but when it comes to Islam, she refuses to question the fundamentalist interpretations offered by clerics and lecturers nationwide.

Varda is among more than a quarter of a million Pakistani students attending an all-female madrassa, or Islamic seminary, where legions of well-to-do women are experiencing an awakening of faith, at the cost of rising intolerance. In a nation where Muslim extremists are slowly strengthening their grip on society, the number of all-female madrassas has boomed over the past decade, fueled by the failures of the state education system and a deepening conservativism among the middle to upper classes.

Family, Taliban scare off actresses in Afghan film industry

(Afghan film actress Nafisa Nafis puts on make-up at the sets of a television series directed by Saba Sahar in Kabul June 7, 2011/Ahmad Masood)

A young bride silently sobs on the floor watching her mentally disturbed husband gorge on chicken, rub his greasy hands through his hair and scream at her for more, just another chapter in the couple’s violent life together. Film director Saba Sahar anxiously watches the scene by the cameraman, squatting in blue jeans and wearing a bright pink headscarf. “Cut!” she calls.

The first Afghan female in her profession, Sahar, 36, has become a household name after acting and directing for more than half her life. She is adored by Afghan women. Like other Afghan directors, Sahar says finding actresses is her top challenge in an ultra-conservative Muslim country where many view acting as un-Islamic and inappropriate for women.

Q+A: Women’s rights in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban

(Afghan men and women teachers attend their graduation ceremony in Kabul March 30, 2011/Omar Sobhani)

Women have won hard-fought rights in Afghanistan since the austere rule of the Taliban was ended by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001. But gains made in areas such as education, work and even dress code look shaky as the government plans peace talks that include negotiating with the Taliban.

Reuters Kabul has produced a Q+A to accompany the feature How will Afghan women fare in Taliban reconciliation? by Amie Ferris-Rotman. Click here to read it in full.

How will Afghan women fare if Kabul and the Taliban reconcile?

(Schoolgirls listen to a speech by Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a ceremony marking the start of the school year at Amani High School in Kabul March 23, 2011/Omar Sobhani)

The gaggles of giggling schoolgirls in their black uniforms and flowing white hijabs seen across Afghanistan’s cities have become symbolic of how far women’s rights have come since the austere rule of the Taliban was toppled a decade ago. While women have gained back basic rights in education, voting and work, considered un-Islamic by the Taliban, their plight remains severe and future uncertain as Afghan leaders seek to negotiate with the Taliban as part of their peace talks.

The United States and NATO, who have been fighting Taliban insurgents for 10 years in an increasingly unpopular war, have repeatedly stressed that any peace talks must abide by Afghanistan’s constitution, which says the two sexes are equal. But President Hamid Karzai’s reticence on the matter, constant opposition by the Taliban, and setbacks even at the government level cast a shadow on the prospects of equality for the 15 million women who make up about half the population.

Builders flock to Mecca to tap into Muslim pilgrimage boom

(Grand Mosque in Mecca surrounded by new construction, November 19, 2010/Fahad Shadeed)

The Saudi holy city of Mecca is proving to be the exception to a Middle East property downturn, as more and more pilgrims flock to Islam’s holiest city and fuel a hotel construction boom. The more than 2.5 million pilgrims who flock to Mecca for the annual Haj pilgrimage, a duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it, are witnessing a transformation of the city’s skyline with luxury hotels, high-rise residential blocks and cranes now overlooking the Grand Mosque.

“Mecca has now come of age,” said Shuja Zaidi, vice president of projects and general manager for Mecca Hilton & Towers in Saudi Arabia.