Two recent op-ed articles in the United States presented Barack Obama as a “Muslim apostate” according to “Muslim law as it is universally understood.” Since Muslims were bound to see him as an apostate, they argued, the potential next president could be seen as “al Qaeda’s candidate” because Islamists could whip up popular anger in the Muslim world by portraying him as a turncoat heading a Western war against Islam. He also risked assassination, one suggested, because Muslim law considers apostasy a crime worthy of the death sentence and bars punishment for any Muslim who kills an apostate.
Blogging takes time, which I didn’t have on Friday after finishing an analysis for the Reuters wire about religion in Turkey posted here. I went to Istanbul to research several religion stories. The main impression I left with was that the prospect for religious policy changes raised by the “post- Islamist” AK Party government in recent years has mostly evaporated. The current political crisis that could end up banning the party and barring Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan from belonging to a political party means the end of any liberalisation. In fact, the steam went out of the reform drive a few years ago after Ankara got the green light to negotiate Turkish membership in the European Union.
I’m in Istanbul this week for a few stories. The first one, about how Turkey’s political crisis has put a trend towards a more liberal stand on religious freedom on hold, has just run on the Reuters wire (click here for full text).
One of the most interesting results in Pakistan’s general election last February was the victory of the secularist Awami National Party in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) after six years of Islamist government in Peshawar. In a province where the Taliban and other Islamists had made heavy inroads, the vote for the ANP and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) seems to herald a turn toward some form of secularist democracy. “The greatest achievement of this transition to democracy is the rout of religious extremists who wanted to plunge Pakistan into anarchy,” Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times, wrote in his post-ballot analysis. “It is the rise of liberal democracy … that will help solve the problem of religious extremism in Pakistan.”
“Religion has been used, politicised, not only by groups but also the official institutions in every Arab country … Nearly everything is theologised — every issue society faces has to be solved by asking if Islam allows it. There is no distinction between the domain of religion and secular space.”
There is an interesting discussion about a Reuters story going on at another blog. Terry Mattingly of GetReligion started it with some comments on Phil Pullella’s report (headline: “Pope Ground Zero prayer seeks terrorists’ redemption”) on the prayer that Pope Benedict will say at Ground Zero during his visit to New York. The operative line in the prayer is: “Turn to your way of love those whose hearts and minds are consumed with hatred.”
Just 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.
An interesting thing happened in the Pakistani elections this week. A country where radical Islamism has been on the rise in recent years went to the polls and voted Islamists out of office. In North West Frontier Province (NWFP), the most “Talibanised” part of the country, an avowedly secular Pashtun party — the Awami National Party — emerged as the largest party by far. This bucks what seemed to be a trend in the Muslim world, i.e. the freer the election, the more chances the Islamists have. Think back to late 1991, when the Algerian military cancelled the run-off round of elections after the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) took a strong lead in the first round. In more recent years, elections in Egypt, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza have shown Islamists doing well at the polls. In a very different context, Turkey’s “post-Islamist” AKP has gone from strength to strength thanks to the ballot box.
An important question in the Pakistani general election and provincial elections coming up on Feb. 18 is how the Islamist parties there will fare. These parties, which usually scored below 10 percent in the past, shot up to a total 17 percent of seats in the National Assembly at the last election in 2002. They also won power in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and shared power in Baluchistan — the two provinces that border Afghanistan and have been most destabilised by the Taliban and Al Qaeda operating in the region.
Karen Armstrong, the best-selling British writer and lecturer on religion, has given a long interview to Reuters in Islamabad after addressing a conference in the Pakistani capital. A former Catholic nun who now describes herself as a “freelance monotheist,” she has written 21 books on the main world religions, religious fundamentalism in these faiths and religious leaders such as Mohammad and Buddha. Her latest book is The Bible: A Biography. The short version of what she said is in the Reuters story linked here. We don’t publish the Q&A text of our interviews on our news wire, but we can do it here on the blog.