FaithWorld

A Tale of Two Secularisms

French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Taj Mahal, 26 Jan, 2008/Philippe WojazerFrance and India are two countries that proudly proclaim the secular nature of their democracies. The principles of church-state separation and state neutrality towards religion are the same. But somehow the accents were different when French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited India last week. While they both were dealing with the concept called “secularism” in English, it was clear that Sarkozy’s thinking was based on the French word laïcité while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh clearly had the Hindi term dharmanirpekshta in mind.

The visit focused mostly on expanding investment and defence cooperation, with much gossip on the side about whether the freshly divorced president’s new flame Carla Bruni would join him at the Taj Mahal (much to the chagrin of the paparazzi, she didn’t).

Hidden behind the headlines, though, was a fascinating disagreement about Sarkozy’s plan to present Taslima Nasreen, an exiled Bangladeshi writer living in India, with the “Simone de Beauvoir Prize For Women’s Freedom.” This prize sponsored by CulturesFrance (part Muslim protesters burn effigy of Taslima Nasreen in Kolkata, 20 Jan. 2004/Sucheta Dasof the French Foreign Ministry) and a Paris publisher went this year to Nasreen and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, two women of Muslim background who have been threatened with death by Islamists because of their forceful criticism of the religion.

Sarkozy wanted to present the award to Nasreen in New Delhi, presumably at a ceremony to be broadcast back home where he is under fire for allegedly violating French laïcité. He was even thinking of doing it at the safe house where she is hiding from death threats. This caused considerable concern in the Indian government, which worried about a possible Muslim backlash over any honour for the award-winning writer they accuse of blasphemy. The Indian army had to be called in to quell anti-Nasreen riots by Islamist groups in Kolkata last November.

Taslima Nasreen in Kolkata, 20 Jan. 2004/Jayanta ShawIn the end, it didn’t happen. The grand French gesture was reduced to a request to India to “facilitate Ms Nasreen’s journey to France” to pick up her award.

Concern mounts as Netherlands readies for anti-Islam film

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, 23 June 2007/Yves HermanConcern is mounting in the Netherlands as the country prepares for a film about the Koran by a far-right populist known for his hostility to Islam. It reached the point last Friday that Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende publicly appealed for restraint. A former Malaysian ambassador in The Hague has said the reaction could make the 2006 Danish cartoon controversy look like “a picnic.”

Geert Wilders, who wants to ban the Koran as a “fascist” book and has warned of a “tsunami of Islamisation” in the Netherlands, has proceeded with the film despite warnings from the Dutch justice and foreign ministers. (We blogged on this last November when the warnings came). It’s not clear when it will be broadcast, but it is expected soon. Wilders has denied reports that it will be shown on Friday Jan. 25. There is already a spoof on YouTube.

The last Dutchman who made a film critical of Islam, Theo van Gogh, was murdered by an Islamist radical in 2004. That unleashed a violent anti-Muslim backlash in the Netherlands. Caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad in a Danish daily sparked off violent protests in the Muslim world.

Back to the blog — first impressions after a break

Returning to news reporting after two weeks off feels like you’ve been away for two weeks. Returning to blogging after a holiday break feels like you’ve been away for an eternity. So much going on! My colleague Ed Stoddard in Dallas was minding the shop, but he was unexpectedly sent off to report the news from the campaign trail. That gave FaithWorld a very American accent, which was a timely twist given the role of religion in the Iowa vote. It’s back to the view from Paris now — here are some inital comments on recent events concerning religion around the world:

Bhutto’s upcoming bookBenazir Bhutto — The assassinated Pakistani leader will speak from beyond the grave next month when her book Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West is published. HarperCollins has announced it has brought forward to Feb. 12 the release of the book that Bhutto worked on before returning to Pakistan in October. In a statement, it called the book “a bold, uncompromising vision of hope for the future of not only Pakistan but the Islamic world. Bhutto presents a powerful argument for a reconciliation of Islam with democratic principles, in the face of opposition from Islamic extremists and Western skeptics.”

It will be interesting to see what she has to say about the role of Islam in Pakistani politics, especially after all the praise for her as a modern, secularist Muslim leader in comments after her assassination. Bhutto’s party is politically secularist and she pledged to fight against Islamist militants now challenging the Islamabad government. But let’s not forget that the Taliban emerged during her second stint as prime minister in 1993-1996 and were a key element in Pakistani policy towards Afghanistan at the time. She worked with an Islamist politician close to the Taliban then and now. It was also on her watch that, as historian William Dalrymple put it, Kashmir was turned into “a jihadist playground.” Whether she supported all this, couldn’t oppose the military people behind it or both (that’s my hunch) is something historians will debate long into the future. But it is clear that her record is more complex than some of the eulogies would have it.

Is Al Qaeda’s Zawahri going YouTube?

Ayman al-Zawahri in his latest video, 17 Dec. 2007 Where did they get this idea from, the YouTube debates? Al Qaeda’s second-in- command Ayman al-Zawahri will take questions from around the world next month in a video interview. This news got buried a bit in the reporting on his latest video but I asked our correspondent Firouz Sedarat in Dubai for some more information. He says this looks like the first time that Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man will go interactive like this.

As-Sahab, the Al Qaeda online media outlet that broadcasts these videos, has asked its viewers to send in “brief and focused” questions for the elusive Egyptian. “We urge the brothers overseeing the gathering of the questions to pass them on without any changes, be they pro or con, and As-Sahab will do its best to issue the answers by Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahri to these questions as soon as possible,” it said. It gave no further details about the format.

Republican candidates take questions at the CNN/YouTube debate in St. Petersburg, Florida, Nov 29, 2007Zawahri himself didn’t mention any Q&A in the 97-minute video, so it’s not clear if he knows about the YouTube debates in his hideout. He talks about both religious and political issues in his videos, although his statements related to security issues usually grab the headlines. Among the religious issues in the latest video was an attack of Saudi King Abdullah for meeting Pope Benedict at the Vatican last month. In an unusually fast reaction, the Vatican responded by saying he seemed afraid of dialogue with other religions.

Are “moderate” Muslims mum when they should speak out?

Ayaan Hirsi AliAyaan Hirsi Ali has an op-ed piece in the New York Times called “Islam’s Silent Moderates” today asking why moderate Muslims have not protested loudly against the “teddy bear case” in Khartoum and the Qatif rape case in Saudi Arabia. She makes some good points, especially asking why the Organisation of the Islamic Conference has not said anything. The OIC is quick to defend Islam and Muslim countries when the criticism comes from the outside, including from her.

Then she wrote:

For example, I would welcome some guidance from that famous Muslim theologian of moderation, Tariq Ramadan. But when there is true suffering, real cruelty in the name of Islam, we hear, first, denial from all these organizations that are so concerned about Islam’s image. We hear that violence is not in the Koran, that Islam means peace, that this is a hijacking by extremists and a smear campaign and so on. But the evidence mounts up.

“Why are the Muslims silent?” has been a mantra of many Western critics since at least the time of 9/11. It comes up fairly regularly after Islamist attacks or egregious cases of human rights violations in the Muslim world. It’s true that many Muslim leaders have avoided speaking out. But there have also been quite a few Muslim condemnations of terrorism that seem to have gone unnoticed. Something has been changing on this front and it has been evident these days. Hirsi Ali has either missed it or does not want to mention it.

Turkey’s Veiled Democracy

The Rome trip’s over and it’s back to other interesting religion topics — like Islam in Turkey.

Mustafa AkyolThe evolution of Islam and politics in Turkey is one of the most interesting recent developments in the Muslim world. One of the most interesting writers following this is Mustafa Akyol, an Istanbul journalist who is deputy editor of the English-language Turkish Daily News and regularly posts his TDN columns on his blog The White Path. Some of his articles require familiarity with today’s Turkish political scene, but his latest is an informative stand-back guide to how “Turkey now nurtures an interpretation of Islam that is in harmony with modern values such as democracy, liberalism and capitalism.

Akyol’s blog flags the article as “Turkey’s Veiled Democracy [A Must-Read Article].” It’s published in the November/December issue of The American Interest (here it is in PDF). In it, Akyol surveys the emergence of modernising trends in Islam during the Ottoman Empire, the creation of the secularist Turkish Republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the rise of modern “neo-orthodox” Muslims who formed the governing AKP party.

EU pressures Turkey to boost rights for non-Muslims

Turkey has signalled it may soon amend a free speech law that has been a stumbling block in its drive to join the European Union. Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin said this on Tuesday soon after the European Commission issued its annual progress report on Ankara’s membership bid. The interesting angle here for this blog is that the EU criticism singled out not only the much-criticised law on “insulting Turkishness” but also current restrictions on freedom of religion.

Demonstrator wrapped in the Turkish flag at a Brussels protest against the Kurdish PKK, Nov. 3, 2007Releasing the report, Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn noted democracy had prevailed over military meddling in Turkish politics this year. “The new momentum should now be used to relaunch the reforms to improve fundamental freedoms, particularly the freedom of expression and religious freedom, so that they prevail in all corners of the country and in all walks of life,” he said (my emphasis).

The report gave Turkey a mixed review concerning religion. “As concerns freedom of religion, freedom of worship continues to be generally guaranteed,” it wrote. But it added: “Overall, the environment as regards freedom of religion has not been conducive to the full respect of this right in practice. A legal framework has yet to be established in line with the European Convention on Human Rights so that all religious communities can function without undue constraints. No real progress can be reported on the major difficulties encountered by the Alevis and non-Muslim religious communities.”

Do Christian paradigms work for Islamic problems?

Bishop Margot KässmannOctober 31 was Reformation Day, the anniversary of the day that Martin Luther issued his famous 95 Theses, and as such a fitting occasion for Lutherans around the world to reflect on the reforms he brought to Christianity. It was probably inevitable that a Lutheran cleric somewhere would comment on the relevance of the Reformation to a major issue in today’s religious world — the future of Islam. Margot Kässmann, the Lutheran bishop of Hannover in Germany, told the local newspaper: “Something like a Reformation would also be good for Islam.”

Bishop Kässmann is one of the most prominent religious leaders in Germany, an effective preacher and a popular talk show guest. It’s clear that she means Muslims should question their traditions and shed abuses, much like Luther did in Christianity. That’s a view that Muslim reformers can also support in principle. It leads to the question, though, of how far the paradigm of the Reformation is applicable to Islam. Has the term “Islamic Reformation” become a soundbite that brings more confusion than clarity?

The Reformation in 16th-century Europe ended the Catholic Church’s monopoly of religious authority and led to a multitude of Protestant denominations. One of the driving forces was the liberating effect of questioning traditions, Kässmann said in her interview. The result was the de-centralisation of Western Christianity. By contrast, Islam already has a multitude of different schools and interpretations. Islamist radicals such as Osama bin Laden are not religious scholars, but they issue fatwas on their own that reinterpret traditional views of Islam. So part of the religion’s problem today, some Islam experts argue, is that there is no central authority that can settle disputed issues. Some commentators have gone so far as to suggest — and only partly in jest — that Islam actually needs a Luther or a pope to bring about the reforms Kässmann refers to.

Iraq state TV to broadcast Sunni and Shi’ite Friday prayers

Umm al-Qura mosque, Oct. 10, 2006Iraq’s state television channel Iraqiya plans to broadcast Friday prayers from both Shi’ite and Sunni mosques, a novelty in a country where until now Islamic services were only shown on sectarian channels. That kept the two neatly separate. Rather than take either side, Iraqiya avoided broadcasting Friday prayers after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. But it began today with a live transmission from the Sunni Umm al-Qura mosque in Baghdad.

Station manager Nawfal Abd Dahash told Reuters in Baghdad: “We will start doing live broadcasts from mosques from both sects. This is to enhance national unity and to prove that there is no difference between Shi’ites and Sunnis.”

The broadcast came from the Baghdad neighbourhood of Ghazaliya, which until a few months ago was a stronghold for al Qaeda Sunni Islamists. It also came at a time when Sunni communities in many parts of Iraq are taking up arms to drive out the Islamists.

Rapid change as Turkey strives to match Islam and democracy

President Abdullah Gul accompanied by Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit, August 31, 2007It is now clear that Turkey, a country to which Western visitors have often applied adjectives such as “timeless” and “slothful”, is changing profoundly, and with un-Oriental speed.

Anyone who’s been following the news out of Turkey this year has to nod in agreement when reading the lead to Christopher de Bellaigue’s interesting article in the New York Review of Books. It was only last April that the army issued a veiled threat to intervene if the governing AK party — usually called a “party with Islamist roots” — tried to overturn Turkey’s secular system.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan called their bluff and won a snap general election, allowing his AK partner Abdullah Gül to be elected president. The AK-led government now plans to replace the military-era constitution with a new document that will confirm “our democratic, secular and social state and guarantee basic rights and freedoms”, as Gül told parliament early this month.