FaithWorld

Sect raid raises questions about polygamy in U.S.

“Sister-wives” Valerie (L) and Vicki serve breakfast to their children in their polygamous house in Herriman, Utah, 12 June 2007/stringerFor most readers outside the United States, and probably many living there, the recent stories about the polygamous sect raided in Texas in early April raised several basic questions about multiple marriage and the law in America. Like any other Western society, the United States bans polygamy. Mainstream Mormons officially banned the practice in 1890, but several breakaway groups continued it. While informed readers may know that, it still came as a surprise to see there was a polygamous community of several hundred Americans living in a large compound right under the noses of the local police and politicians. And they were not the only ones — once-hidden polygamists are now pressing to have “plural marriage” decriminalised. What’s going on here?

Andrea Useem, author of the interesting blog Religion Writer, has come up with a fascinating look behind these recent polygamy headlines. She’s got links to blogs with names such as Polygamy Now and Introspection of a Plural Wife (at Heart). The most interesting part, though, is the long interview she has with John Witte, the director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory Law School in Atlanta. As she puts it: “He explains why polygamy laws are rarely enforced, how “moral repugnance” is one of the last arguments against polygamy, and why having a concubine is still legal.”

Read it all here.

Useem also has a link to one of several interviews with women in polygamous marraiges on YouTube. Here it is: YouTube Preview Image

Communion politics issue boils up after U.S. papal visit

Papal Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, 19 April 2008/Shannon StapletonA papal visit, with its weeks of build-up and intense media coverage, often seems to end with an afterglow — but very little news — once the pope and his party fly back to the Eternal City. Not so with Pope Benedict’s recent U.S. visit where, more than a week after it ended, the volatile issue of public figures, the abortion & Communion issue is making headlines.

While journalists reported that prominent Catholic politicians who support abortion rights stepped up to receive the Eucharist during Masses in Washington and New York (here’s our story and blog post), the development was little more than a footnote in the wave of coverage that washed over the visit. It was notable, however, in view of a controversy that began in 2004 when some U.S. bishops said they would deny Communion to John Kerry, then the Democratic presidential nominee, because he supported abortion rights

But during the U.S. papal Masses, not only did Kerry receive Communion but so did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, former New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani and Senators Edward Kennedy and Christopher Dodd. The conservative columnist Robert Novak wrote in the Washington Post on Monday that this “reflected disobedience to Benedict by the archbishops of New York and Washington” and did not indicate any softening of the pope’s anti-abortion position.

Abortion debate rages in Britain on 40th anniversary of law

23-week-old foetus in ultrasound scan, 23 April 2008/Create Health Clinic handoutBritain passed its law legalising abortion 40 years ago today. But the controversy has not died down. Parliament is again besieged by two camps of activists, one keen to stop what they say is murder and the other defending what they see as a women’s right. Judging it too difficult to have the law overturned, the anti-abortion camp aims to lower the 24-week limit for the termination of pregnancy to 20, 18 or even fewer weeks.

For more, read Kate Kelland’s feature here. We also have a factbox on abortion laws around the world and the story of a boy born at 22 weeks — probably the most premature baby to have survived in Britain — and now thriving.

The factbox shows a wide spectrum of legal positions, with differing rationales producing different conditions, especially on the time limits. Britain is clearly in a minority with its 24-week limit; many other countries set the bar at 12 weeks, with possible exceptions.

Passover debate highlights religious rift in Israel

Ultra-Orthodox Jews pray as they burn food containing leavening in Jerusalem, 18 April 2008/Gil Cohen MagenEarlier this month an Israeli court decided that stores and restaurants can sell food banned by Jewish ritual law during this week’s Passover holiday. Israeli courts are often arbiters in quarrels between Israel’s influential Orthodox community and its secular majority. This time the ruling has angered the Orthodox.

Ritual Jewish law forbids consuming leavened products known as hametz– from bread to beer– during the week of Passover. The tradition commemorates the biblical Israelites who did not have time to let their bread rise before the hasty exodus from slavery in Egypt.

My article on the Passover debate discusses the details and consequences of the April 3 court decision that overturned the convictions of two restaurant owners, a grocer and the owner of a pizza parlor who sold hametz last year. The court ruled that restaurants and stores can serve hametz because they are not “public areas.”

Sharia comments debate details of Williams’s idea

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, 11 Feb. 2008/Luke MacGregorComments on Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’s speech about sharia are starting to explore some of the ideas in more detail. Opinions are still mostly against the idea, but there are some defenders and there are more balanced arguments than the first wave of reactions. Here are some of the latest items we found interesting:

First of all, documentation — Ruth Gledhill came up with Williams’s Q&A after the speech, including the full text and the video. Note he insists he is talking about “supplementary jurisdiction” and not “parallel systems.”

muslimmatters.org argues in Shariah ‘Courts’ and Freedom of Contract that the issue is simply one of arbitration, something already allowed under the law: “The fact that the parties are choosing to settle their commercial or social disagreements by reference to the Qu’ran is therefore of no more consequence to society than if they decided to settle the same dispute by tossing a coin, asking a neighbour to decide, or any of the other myriad of ways in which human beings settle disagreements peacefully.”

U.N. watchdog disappoints Saudi women journalists

Yakin Ertürk at her news conference in Riyadh, 13 Feb. 2008/stringerThe U.N. Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur on violence against women, Yakin Ertürk, was in Saudi Arabia last week. She has just issued a report (official text here) that calls on the government to create a legal framework based on international human rights standards, including a law criminalising violence against women. It listed severe limits on women’s freedom of movement and ability to act in a whole range of family and social areas, from marriage, divorce and child custody to inheritance, education and employment. Her committee gave the Saudis a grilling at a hearing in Geneva last month. Yet, when she met the media in Riyadh at the end of her visit, the young female Saudi journalists there left the room muttering about how disappointed they were with her approach. “She didn’t say anything. This was just general stuff that people are aware of,” one complained. What’s up?

What they noticed in Ertürk’s comments was the degree to which she seemed to accept the official argument that Saudi society had “special characteristics” — khususiyya in Arabic — that constituted a valid frame of reference for assessing the country’s rights record. Khususiyya is a well-worn term that anyone who tries to criticise Saudi values hears in response. It’s used elsewhere in the Arab world as well, either by religious figures facing down liberal trends in society or governments opposing calls for political reform. Reformers throughout the Arab world see the term as a kind of a blanket “cultural exclusiveness” argument that seeks to shut down all serious discussion of political or religious change. It was once mocked by Saudi liberals themselves in the popular television comedy show Tash Ma Tash.

A Saudi woman doctor, 23 Oct. 2007/Ali JarekjiInternational pressure over Saudi women’s rights has been growing. Ertürk’s visit was part of an effort by Riyadh to persuade outsiders the situation was improving. She was able to announce that officials had promised to allow a couple forced to divorce by a religious court to live together again. There apparently was no movement on other issues such as the ban on women driving cars, which has become a kind of litmus test of reform in the country.

Iran wants European law to squelch anti-Koran film

European Court of Human RightsIran has urged the Netherlands to block a planned anti-Koran film, citing Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights as the legal basis for doing so. This is the latest twist in the saga surrounding the controversial film by far-right leader Geert Wilders (we’ve blogged on this before). In the letter, Iran’s Justice Minister Gholamhossein Elham asked his Dutch counterpart Ernst Hirsch Ballin to use European human rights law to stop a European from exercising one of those most basic rights. Freedom of expression has been the rallying cry of those who defended the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten for publishing the Mohammad cartoons — and republishing the most controversial one (the turban bomb) this week after a death threat against the artist who drew it.

Protesters set fire to Danish consulate in Beirut, 5 Feb. 2006/Mohamed AzakirThis also raises the question of whether any protest against purported blasphemy against Islam this time might not turn out to be on the streets, as after the Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad, but in the courts. European Muslim organisations brought court suits against the cartoons in Denmark and in France but lost their cases — thanks to the principle of freedom of expression. Will the Iranian letter inspire any to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg? Nota bene — Danish imams preached calm at Friday prayers, in contrast to the imams who went to the Middle East to rally opposition to the cartoons when they first came out.

On Friday, Iran’s news agency IRNA reported on the letter, which the Dutch government told NRC Handelsblad it had not yet received. IRNA wrote the following (quotes from Elham in italics):

Indian kidney scam highlights bioethics challenge

Egyptian shows scar after kidney stolen from him in hospital, 3 Aug. 2007/Nasser NuriBefore it slips from the news, take a look at a scandal in India that illustrates one of the biggest bioethical challenges we face in a globalised world. Last weekend, Nepal handed over to Indian authorities an Indian man arrested on suspicion of running a huge illegal kidney transplant racket. It seems this ring duped poor Indians into selling kidneys that could be transplanted into rich Indians and foreigners at many times the fee that the unwitting donors received. At least five foreigners — two U.S. and three Greek citizens — were found in a luxury guesthouse run by the racket in a city of high-tech companies just outside New Delhi.

Demand for cheap kidneys has skyrocketed in recent years in rich countries, mostly because people there are becoming more obese and suffering from kidney failure. This has led to “transplant tourism” where patients from rich countries travel to the developing world to receive new kidneys. It has led to serious proposals to set up a global kidney market to meet the demand.

This black market in kidneys for transplants is widely denounced as illegal and immoral because it exploits poor people. But would creating a worldwide organ trade make the practice any more moral? Is the danger of exploitation of the poor so strong that lawmakers should ensure that money doesn’t end up deciding everything?

Islamist parties face drubbing in Pakistan vote

Supporters of Islamist Jamaat-i-Islami party rally in Peshawar, 28 Jan. 2008/stringerAn 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.

Zeeshan Haider, senior correspondent in our Islamabad bureau, visited the NWFP capital Peshawar to gauge the voters’ mood. Here’s what he found :

Pakistani voters are expected to succeed where President Pervez Musharraf has failed, pushing back the Islamist tide and throwing out of power political clerics governing Pakistan’s violent northwest.

Best of the blizzard over Rowan’s sharia brainstorm

The Sun, 10 Feb. 2008There’s been a blizzard of commentary about Rowan Williams saying that adopting some aspects of sharia into British law was unavoidable. A lot of it was predictable, like The Sun‘s “Bash the Bishop” headline. But there are several thoughtful pieces out there that ask important questions about religion and the law. Below are links to some of the best I found surfing around today.

Our contribution is “Devil in details” in archbishop’s sharia plan.”

What lies beyond Lambeth’s Sharia humiliation? and A multi-faith muddle — two pieces by Simon Barrow, director of the Ekklesia religious think tank, who sees Williams trying to link a declining Church of England with growing minority groups to press for opt-outs for religious groups from laws they find aggressively secular.