FaithWorld

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.”

A hospital emergency room, 14 February 2006/Lee CelanoThe issue of Muslims demanding exceptions at state hospitals has been an issue in France since 2003, when the Stasi Commission (whose hearings led to the headscarf ban in state schools) heard doctors say a growing number of Muslim men refused to let male doctors treat their wives. There were stories of fistfights between husbands and doctors — including one non-fatal stabbing — and husbands driving from emergency room to emergency room searching for a female doctor to treat a wife in desperate need of medical attention. But while these stories appeared from time to time in the media, it was hard to get clear facts on specific cases. My impression was that there was a definate problem, with some very worrying cases, but it was not as widespread as the French media seemed to say it was.

This is a clear case that has gone through the legal system. I think the judge was 100% correct in not only rejecting this suit but throwing the blame back on that irresponsible father’s shoulders. He — and his wife, and especially his son — is the victim of a kind of folk Islam that confused cultural traditions with faith. Several Muslim scholars and chaplains I spoke to while researching other cases said they could have given him a litany of Koran quotes to prove that his wife’s and son’s health came first. One doctor I met once had the Paris Grand Mosque fax over a fatwa to convince a Muslim couple to perform an emergency abortion.

Hunting for heretics in the 21st century

Jakarta protester with poster against Ahmadiyya founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, 9 June 2008/Dadang Tri“Popular imagination relegates ‘heresy’ to the Middle Ages…” says the Wikipedia entry on heresy. The Inquisition, the Salem witch trials and other excesses of religious zeal against dissenters also seem to be located comfortably far back in the past. But several  news items these past few days have shown that hunts for heretics continue in the 21st century. Locations, religions and methods may be different, but the intolerance is the same.

“Thousands of hardline Indonesian Muslims rallied outside the presidential palace and Jakarta police headquarters on Monday to urge the president to disband a sect branded by many Muslims as “deviant”, a news report from our Jakarta office said. “Militant Muslim groups have attacked mosques and buildings associated with Ahmadiyya, and are lobbying the government to outlaw the sect.”

Ahmadiyya, a late 19th-century movement that considers its founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad a latter-day prophet who came to perfect Islam, says it is a Muslim denomination. Most Muslim scholars dispute this, saying Mohammed was the last one, the “seal of the prophets”. Comparisons between religions are always tricky, but its situation looks similar to that of Mormonism within Christianity. Mormons say they are Christians with latter-day prophets and scriptures, but several traditional Christian churches dispute this. This disagreement may have lost Mitt Romney some votes in the Republican primaries in the United States, but otherwise it has not had much effect on public life.

Soundbites but no solutions in French “virginity lie” case

A bride waiting for her wedding, 14 Feb 2008/Shannon StapletonThe “virginity lie” case gripping France for the past two days has given French politicians the opportunity to indulge in one of their favourite pastimes — expressing indignation. There’s been much more heat than light in this story since it broke last Friday.

If you haven’t been following it, the story is about a French Muslim couple who got their marriage annulled after the husband complained the wife was not the virgin she had claimed to be. Since he could not have cited either religion or the traditional Muslim preference for virgin brides as valid reasons for annulment, the husband’s lawyer argued the wife had lied about an “essential quality” necessary for the marriage. Under French law, a marriage can be annulled if, for example, one partner found out only after the wedding that the other had lied about a previous marriage or a criminal record.

Politicians, feminists and human rights activists immediately demanded the ruling be overturned. The critics vied to issue the most ringing denunciation. “A real fatwa for women’s liberation … (like) a ruling handed down in Kandahar” was a memorable one from Fadela Amara, the state secretary for urban affairs who comes from an Algerian Muslim family. Here are many more in French. By Monday, Justice Minister Rachida Dati — another cabinet member with a North African Muslim background — was flip-flopping. After originally defending the ruling as a means of helping a woman get out of an unwanted marriage, she decided on Monday to ask a public prosecutor to launch an appeal.

NYT has second thoughts about “Sharia smear” on Obama

New York Times front page, 1 June 2008Thank you, Clark Hoyt. The public editor (ombudsman) of the New York Times has torn apart Edward Luttwak’s op-ed piece on Barack Obama supposedly being a Muslim apostate, right in the Grey Lady’s pages. In his Public Editor column on Sunday, Hoyt called it “a single, extreme point of view” and said the NYT should not simply publish opinion pieces based on patently false facts. We blogged about this last week when a leading Muslim scholar refuted Luttwak’s article. Luttwak is a military historian and  conservative analyst of strategic issues who has advised the U.S. military, National Security Council and State Department. He lists his fields of expertise as “geoeconomics, strategy and national strategies and military policies” but not Islam.

“The Times Op-Ed page, quite properly, is home to a lot of provocative opinions,” Hoyt wrote. “But all are supposed to be grounded on the bedrock of fact. Op-Ed writers are entitled to emphasize facts that support their arguments and minimize others that don’t. But they are not entitled to get the facts wrong or to so mangle them that they present a false picture.”

Hoyt said he consulted five Islamic scholars at U.S. universities and “all of them said that Luttwak’s interpretation of Islamic law was wrong.” When the Times asked Luttwak to defend his view, he sent them an analysis of it by an unnamed scholar of Muslim law. He disagreed with Luttwak so strongly that he wrote to him: “You seem to be describing some anarcho-utopian version of Islamic legalism, which has never existed, and after the birth of the modern nation state will never exist.”

Muslim scholar responds to “Sharia smear” against Obama

Obama speaks at First Congregation/Carlos Barriaal United Church of Christ in Mason City, Iowa, 16 Dec 2007Two 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.

There were many generalisations about Islam in these two articles, one by Edward Luttwak in the New York Times and the other by Shireen K. Burki in the Christian Science Monitor. There is no one code of Muslim law, as Luttwak (who is a strategic analyst not previously known for his mastery of Islamic jurisprudence) or Burki (who we’re told “studied Islam at school” in Pakistan) want unsuspecting readers to believe. Few Muslim countries have death for apostates on their books, and even fewer actually carry it out. This is not meant to defend any law about apostasy, which is an individual right, but just to state a few facts.

Most important of all, Obama never tires of saying that he is a committed Christian and has never practiced the religion that his father (who left his son when he was 2 years old) no longer practiced either. The fact these articles appeared amid an “Obama-is-a-Muslim” whispering campaign in an election year makes a good case for suspecting they may have been motivated more by political strategy than legal scholarship. A lot of the 368 comments on Luttwak’s article assume that’s the case. Call it the “Sharia smear.”

French Muslims’ marriage annulled over virginity lie

A French court has annulled the marriage of two French Muslims because the husband complained his wife was not the virgin she had claimed to be. His lawyer won the case by arguing a civil marriage is a legal contract and lying about an important element in it amounts to fraud. Religion had nothing to do with it, he argued, and the court agreed. More details are in our news story here.

A bride waiting for her wedding, 14 Feb 2008/Shannon StapletonBut religion obviously had something to do with this. The man has a traditional Muslim view (and not only Muslim, by the way…) that his wife must be a virgin at marriage. Some Muslim families shun daughters who are sexually active before marriage, in rare cases going so far as committing a so-called “honour killing.”

The decision is also discriminatory. Only a woman’s virginity can be physically tested, so applying this standard violates the legal equality between men and women.

UPDATE: Turkish crisis puts “post-Islamist” reform on hold

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and guard of honour in Ankara, 17 March 2008/Umit BektasBlogging 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.

Turkey has been a test case for what Islam experts call “post-Islamism,” a trend among Muslim political groups that have given up dreams of some kind of Islamic state in favour of more democracy and human rights that include greater religious freedom (here’s a useful summary of the concept). The idea that Islamists could turn into “Muslim democrats” (or “latte Islamists“!) without a hidden agenda to introduce Sharia law once in power met with considerable scepticism. But the Erdogan government, which promoted greater freedoms in Turkey as a means to join the European Union rather than to break down secularist controls on religion in the public sphere, seemed to be prove this view. His cautious approach seemed to reflect a long-term policy to make changes gradually. It’s too much to say this could be a “model” for other Muslim countries because there are too many aspects specific to Turkey and the limits its powerful secularist elite places on religion in the public sphere. But it could be an important test case for reconciling democracy and religious rights.

Turkish models display headscarves at an Ankara fashion show, 5 March 2008/Umit BektasThe political analysts I spoke to were unanimous in rejecting the idea that Erdogan’s AK Party had a long-term “hidden agenda” to “islamise” Turkey. The real goal of Erdogan’s policy was to establish his bloc of business interests from the more religious countryside as partners in the national power structure dominated by the secularist urban elite. Part of this process was to appeal to the religious sentiments of the masses, but religion was never the core of its program. They dropped this caution after their election victory in 2007 by pressing for an end to the ban on headscarves at universities — and paid the price by provoking the legal challenge to their legitimacy.

from India Insight:

Are Indian Muslims leading the way in condemning terror?

A man prays at the Nizamuddin shrine in New DelhiFor those Western critics that say Islam does not enough to to condemn terrorism, perhaps they should look at India, home to one of the world's biggest Muslim populations -- around 13 percent of mainly Hindu India's 1.1 billion people.

 On Wednesday, it was the turn of Khalid Rasheed, head of the oldest madrasa in the northern city of Lucknow -- a traditional centre for Muslims and religious scholarship. He rejected terrorism as anti-Islamic after he and his colleagues had been accused of apostasy over their pacifist stance by at group that calls itself the Indian Mujahideen.

Indian Mujahideen made threats against the madrasa in which they also claimed responsibility for last week's bomb blasts in Jaipur, western India, which killed 63 people.

Afghan journalist appeals blasphemy conviction

Afghan journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh/Family handoutThe blasphemy case against Afghan journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, 23, is back in the news. Kambakhsh appeared at an appeal hearing in Kabul on Sunday, pleaded innocent and was given a week to present his defence statement against the primary provincial court’s ruling and to find a defence lawyer. Our report from Kabul says he flatly denied charges he had insulted Islam and the Koran and had distributed an article which said Prophet Mohammad had ignored the rights of women.

It’s not clear if there is a connection but Reporters without Borders (RsF) issued a statement on Friday calling on Kabul to give Kambakhsh’s lawyer the case file so he could prepare his defence. “The case has not progressed since it was transferred to the Kabul court of justice,” RsF said in a statement. “We urge the authorities to speed up the procedure so that Kambakhsh’s appeal can receive a fair hearing, far from the influence of religious fundamentalists. This was not the case when he was tried and sentenced to death for blasphemy in Mazar-i-Sharif. We call on foreign governments to continue to intercede on Kambakhsh’s behalf.”

Kambakhsh was transferred from Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul in late March and has been held in the city’s Pul-i-Charkhi prison since then.

Secularist slide in Pakistan as local Sharia courts proposed

Pakistani voters in Karachi, 18 Feb. 2008/Athar HussainOne 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.”

It’s only been three months, but the secularists seem to be backsliding already. According to Pakistani media, the ANP and PPP have agreed to allow qazi courts (known as qadi courts in Arabic ) to operate in Malakand, a rugged mountainous region in northern NWFP near Afghanistan. Qazi courts have a judge (qazi) who hears cases and quickly hands down decisions based on his interpretation of Sharia law. Although Malakand is officially a “settled area” where state and province laws apply, it also has tribes that often prefer their rough-and-ready Pashtun jirga system of justice run by tribal elders. By introducing qazi courts, critics say, the NWFP government will effectively cave to local Islamists, put an Islamic veneer over tribal justice and roll back the role of civilian justice. This does not sound like a turn towards some form of secularist democracy.

Since first reading about this on Ali Eteraz’s blog, I’ve seen that the secularists haven’t totally caved. The original proposal only allowed appeals to the Federal Sharia Court, but the latest version allows appeals in the Peshawar High Court and the Supreme Court in Islamabad. That’s an improvement, but it still gives the qazis considerable power.