FaithWorld

Does Sony need a religious affairs adviser?

Box art for LittleBigPlanet/Sony handoutDoes Sony need a full-time religious affairs adviser? Someone who says “that’s OK” or “whoa, don’t go there!” It looks like they could use one, judging by its decision to recall and remaster its Playstation 3 video game LittleBigPlanet because it might offend Muslims. LittleBigPlanet was supposed to be one of the biggest releases of the season. And then Sony found out some background music had a few phrases from the Koran in it and they decided to replace the disks with different music. An in-house religion maven who does some “content debugging” would cost much less than this embarrassing exercise.

Sony isn’t the only company to trip over religious sensitivities. Microsoft had to withdraw its Xbox fighter game Kakuto Chojin; Back Alley Brutal in 2003 because of Koran verses chanted in the background. Back in 1998, Muslims accused Nike of sacrilege for selling sneakers bearing a logo showing the word “air” written in fiery letters that looked like the Arabic word “Allah.” Nike ended up withdrawing the shoes, giving sensitivity training to employees and building playgrounds at several mosques in Virginia.

Muslims haven’t been the only ones complaining. A French jeans poster showing women imitating Jesus Christ and his apostles in the Leonardo da Vinci painting, “The Last Supper”, was banned in France and Italy after Catholics there complained. A leading anti-Semitism watchdog howled last spring when a South Korean cosmetics company advertised a skin lotion with a picture of a young woman sporting what appears to be a Nazi officer’s hat.

Sony Corp’s PlayStation 3 game controller in a Tokyo story, 14 May 2008/Yuriko NakaoNot all protests work. Sony refused to withdraw another PS3 game, Resistance: Fall of Man, despite legal threats from the Church of England against shoot-’em-up scenes in a virtual representation of Manchester Cathedral. The company argued the game was fantasy sci-fi and that historical buildings were often used in fiction. In the end, it issued an apology last year but did not withdraw or change the game. And the publicity seems to have boosted sales…

What’s interesting here is that these are products that marketing departments presumably signed off on. They’re not organisations printing potentially provocative material, such as the Prophet Mohammad cartoons or The Jewel of Medina, as a statement on freedom of speech. These companies want to sell their products and either don’t see the possible offence or think the provocation can help sales.

Where does religion have its strongest foothold?

Indonesian Muslims pray at Jakarta’s Istiqlal Mosque during Ramadan, 5 Sept 2008/Supri SupriThe answer is Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population. At least that was the conclusion of the latest Pew Research Institute survey of attitudes about religion around the world — a look at 24 countries based on thousands of interviews. Indonesia came in first with 99 percent of the population rating religion as important or very important in their lives — and it topped everyone else in the “very important” slot at 95 percent. Beyond that 80 percent of those surveyed in Indonesia say they pray five times a day every day — adhering to one of the five pillars of Islam.

Indeed Islam is well represented in the top five countries where religion is valued in life — with Tanzania, Jordan, Pakistan and Nigeria following Indonesia.

At the bottom of the chart was France, where only 10 percent saw religion as very important and 60 percent said they never pray.

Italy gearing up to say “basta” to mosques

Ramadan prayers in Rome’s Grand Mosque, 5 Sept 2008/Chris HelgrenItaly may soon say “basta” (enough!) to new mosques. The far-right Northern League party, allies of centre-right Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, wants to limit the growth of Islam in the centre of world Catholicism by blocking the construction of mosques through strict new regulations. My feature on this — “Italy’s right to curb Islam with mosque law” — outlines the proposed legislation.

One thing that struck me while researching the story was how much work the author of the draft law, Andrea Gibelli, seems to have done preparing this law. He quoted the Koran in Arabic, cited the legal systems of various Arab countries and said he had read “200 books” on the subject.  He also gave a clue to some of the thinking behind the draft legislation when he told us that he had been helped in his understanding of Islam by friends from the Middle East. It turns out they were Lebanese Druze and Coptic Christians from Egypt, members of minorities whose opinions may be coloured by their long and not always harmonious relations with Muslims.

The Northern League does not mince words — for example, it once advised the use of gunboats to scare off would-be illegal immigrants. Roberto Calderoli, now a cabinet minister, once walked his pet pig on a proposed mosque site to defile the soil there and  wore a T-shirt with a Danish caricature of the Prophet Mohammad, triggering riots in Libya. Gibelli’s bottom line was that building mosques in Italy at the current rate of expansion was a form of cultural colonisation. He said mosques “are often places of cultural indoctrination, sometimes linked to international terrorism.” They get in the way of Muslims integrating into Italy’s Catholic culture, he said. Anyway, he finally said, Muslims don’t really need them as the Koran states that they can “pray anywhere.”

“Comfortable candor” at Yale Christian-Muslim meeting

NAE President Leith Anderson (l) listens to Shi’ite philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr speaks, 31 July 2008/Tom Heneghan“Comfortable candor” is the way Leith Anderson described the atmosphere at the Common Word conference on Christian-Muslim dialogue that ended at Yale University on Thursday. The term is as interesting for its image as for the person who used it. Anderson is president of the U.S. National Association of Evangelicals and one of several evangelicals attending the meeting. Among the mostly Protestant leaders who responded to the Common Word dialogue appeal in a letter launched by Yale Divinity School, evangelicals tended to be more cautious and more concerned about pointing out the fundamental differences between Christianity and Islam. Even with those reservations , these participants faced some criticism in their own ranks for attending and came to the conference not knowing how open it would be.

Anderson told me on the first day that he appreciated how forthright the discussion was, with each side standing up for its beliefs while seeking common ground where they could. In his keynote address in the final session, he put his stamp of approval on the process: “Our differences are deep and real. Sometimes those differences are cultural or ethnic or racial. But I have been especially impressed this week with the comfortable candor with which Muslims and Christians have clearly stated their own doctrines to one another.”

Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the World Evangelical Alliance, made the same point in his address. We can affirm the appropriateness of simply engaging in dialogue and conversation with each other at this critical time in history. It is right that we’re together. We can affirm the development of new and strengthened relationships. It has been good to sit together and build new friendships. We can affirm the genuine spirit of being willing to listen to each other and seeking to gain understanding into each others’ perspectives.”

When faith and health care clash for French Muslims

Intensive care unit at Ambroise Pare hospital in Marseille, 8 April 2008/Jean-Paul PelissierA French Muslim who blocked a male doctor from performing an emergency caeserian on his wife has lost his bid to sue the hospital because his son was born handicapped, according to French press and radio reports. The court also ordered him to pay the court costs — €1,000 ($1,550) — because he kept the doctor from “performing the tests that could have prevented the serious neurological complications” that occurred. Coming shortly after the “virginity lie” controversy, this case has once again raised the question of if and how to accommodate religious demands from Muslims in France.

The law in French state hospitals is clear. Women can request women doctors and probably get them most of the time. But if the attending doctor that night is a man, as happened in this case, the woman — and in this case, her husband — have to accept that. When this woman went into labour in November 1998, the couple rushed to a hospital in Bourg-en-Bresse and a midwife examined her. She recognised a complication and called the doctor, but the husband physically blocked him for half an hour because he did not want a strange man touching his wife. By the time he gave in, it was too late for a caeserian and the baby had to be delivered by foreceps. Little Mohammed is now 100% handicapped.

The father sued the hospital for €100,000 in damages and €10,000 in personal compensation. The court rejected this and blamed the father, saying: “The child’s state is totally attributable to the attitude of Mr. Radouane Ijjou.”

Dutch relieved but cautious after “Fitna” causes little strife

Malaysian students protest against Fitna film in Kuala Lumpur, 4 April 2008/Zainal Abd HalimThe Netherlands has breathed a sigh of relief at muted reaction at home and abroad to a film critical of the Koran that seems to have done more for the standing of the prime minister than the populist who made it.

But there is still a sizeable audience in the country for the kind of anti-Islam, anti-immigration rhetoric first popularised by maverick politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002 that is likely to keep Dutch politics fragmented and unstable.

One week after Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders posted his film “Fitna” on the Internet, read the analysis of the reaction by our chief correspondent in the Netherlands, Emma Thomasson.

How Dutch Muslim leader reacted to Wilders anti-Koran film

“Our goal is nothing other than working peacefully for our society’s future, the future of our children, but also the future of the Netherlands. Muslims in the Netherlands love this country — they of course criticise some developments, as any citizen. The Netherlands is our country and we will try together with our compatriots to find the right tone … to finally get away from the ongoing polarisation in society, so that we can finally get on with our daily lives and don’t have to be afraid of each other.” — Mohammed Rabbae, Chairman of the National Moroccan Council of the Netherlands

Logo for Fitna movieThe day after Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders showed his anti-Koran film on the Internet, warning of Islam as a threat to Western civilisation, Dutch-Moroccan leader Rabbae had separate messages for his compatriots in the Netherlands and for fellow Muslims abroad. Speaking to Dutch and foreign journalists in the El Ouma mosque in Amsterdam, he sought to assure the Dutch that Muslims considered themselves part of society, had no sympathy for violent extremism and respected the law and the constitution. “What people feel threatened by also threatens us. What threatens Westerners also threatens us. There is no difference,” he said.

He urged Muslims abroad to respect this. “We want to tell our Muslims brothers and sisters abroad, in the Middle East, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia etc, that we as Muslims in the Netherlands are best positioned to analyse the situation in the Netherlands, and to determine the response to Wilders and others … I am appealing to our brothers and sisters abroad to follow our strategy, not to frustrate our strategy by any violent incidents or an attack to a Dutch embassy,” he said.

Andi versus al Qaeda — in Germany

Andi comic coverIt seems a bizarre tool in the hands of security officials, but German authorities believe a cartoon comic strip can help them get their message across to young people who might be tempted to flirt with militant Islamism. The unusual experiment in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Germany’s most populous state, has stirred international interest from as far away as the United States and Japan, according to the team behind the idea.

The comic is aimed at 12-16 year-olds and has been distributed in mosques and to every secondary school. “The reactions are almost entirely positive,” said Thomas Grumke, the interior ministry official who first thought up the hero Andi, his Muslim girlfriend Ayshe and the rest of the characters, including a militant imam and two young men who fall under his influence.

The story, which can be downloaded here in German, is interspersed with short passages of text addressing key issues and terms like sharia, jihad and the difference between Islam and Islamism. On that last point, it says: “Islam is a monotheistic religion (a belief in one all-embracing God), which is closely related to Judaism and Christianity. By contrast, Islamism is a political ideology which poses as ‘true Islam’ and wants to realise this as a binding, guiding principle for state and society. This ideology is directed against the free democratic order and thus is unambiguously extremist.”

Vatican baptism raises questions about Catholic-Muslim dialogue

Pope Benedict baptises Magdi Allam, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliJust 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.

That is certainly true, but such a high-level conversion can’t be seen outside its wider context. Islam considers conversion to another religion a grave insult to God. In some Muslim states including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, it is punishable by death. Afghan convert Abdul Rahman during his trial in Kabul for apostasy, 23 March 2006/Reuters TVAbdul Rahman, an Afghan convert to Christianity pictured at right during his trial for apostasy, only escaped death in 2006 because of an international outcry; he found refuge in Italy. Not all Muslims agree with this. An Italian Muslim spokesman, for example, stressed that Allam’s conversion was a personal decision and only questioned why Benedict chose to make his baptism such a public event. He could have been baptised in his local church without all the publicity, he said. This high-visibility baptism looks likely to provoke protests from Muslims in some parts of the world and raise questions about Benedict’s intentions.

France 24 television interrupted my Easter lunch en famille to interview me about this and their main question was whether it was a response to Osama bin Laden’s threat against the pope. That assumes a U.S. campaign-style readiness to react that is miles or centuries away from the way the Vatican works. Easter is the traditional time to baptise adult converts. Allam had to go through a long period of study before being accepted for baptism. Benedict had to know about this at least several weeks ago. In his article in Corriere (see below), Allam mentions a meeting with Benedict where he told him of his intention to convert and the pope said he would gladly baptise him. But Allam does not mention the date.

Drumroll grows louder before Wilders’ Koran film

Logo for Fitna movieGeert Wilders certainly knows how to get maximum publicity for his views. Nobody has seen his film “Fitna” about the Koran yet, but the expectation that it will be scathing about Islam and its holy book means it’s being talked about from the Netherlands to Indonesia. I just did a search for Reuters output on it to catch up on the story (see below) and was surprised to see how strong the drumroll preceding it has become just since the beginning of March. And we still have until the end of the month before it comes out… Do you have any predictions on what impact it will have?

March 19: Danish PM condemns views of Dutch film-maker

March 19: Dutch brace for movie backlash (video)

March 18: NATO seeks Afghan support on anti-Koran film

March 18: Dutch anti-Islam filmmaker refuses to be silenced

March 17: Ramadan wants Muslims to ignore far-right Dutch film on Koran

March 14: Indonesia says Dutch anti-Koran film threatens harmony

March 14: Dutch warn EU of possible anti-Koran video backlash

March 14: Dutch draw on past crises to deal with Islam film

March 12: Iranian minister urges Dutch to ban Koran film

March 10: Cartoonist says Dutch must show anti-Koran film

March 9: Afghans threaten attacks on troops over cartoon

March 6: Dutch raise threat level ahead of anti-Koran film

March 6: Cartoon and Koran film part of “Crusader war:” Taliban

March 6: Dutch fear terrorism ahead of new Koran film

March 5: Dutch PM seeks French help over anti-Islam film

March 5: Anti-Koran Dutch film “propagates hate” -Pakistan

March 5: Dutch want Koran film shown but fear reactions: poll

March 3: Dutch cabinet may seek ban for Koran film – paper