A Belgian court is due to rule next week on a ban on the Muslim headscarf at two schools in Dutch-speaking Flanders, an issue that has led to a death threat for one school principal and graffiti sprayed on walls. The schools in Antwerp and nearby Hoboken introduced the ban at the start of the school year last week, arguing that Muslim girls were being pressured to wear headscarves by their families and peers.
An Afghan journalist, sentenced to death for blasphemy, reduced to 20 years’ jail on appeal, has been set free and is living in exile in an undisclosed country, a media watchdog has said. Perwiz Kambakhsh, 24, a reporter with the Afghan Jahan-e Now daily, was sentenced to death in January 2008 by a court in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Beer, which as an alcoholic beverage is forbidden in Islam to its believers, has long had it easy in mainly Muslim Malaysia. The country’s population of 27 million is made up of about 55 percent Malay Muslims and mainly Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities who practice a variety of faiths including Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism. The personal right of the non-Muslims to drink alcoholic beverages is legally recognised, a sign of tolerance despite the special status of Islam under Article 11 of the Malaysian constitution. So beer is not difficult to find in convenience stores, supermarkets and entertainment outlets.
Neurotheology – the study of the link between belief and the brain – is a topic I’ve hesitated to write about for several years. There are all kinds of theories out there about how progress in neuroscience is changing our understanding of religion, spirituality and mystical experience. Some say the research proves religion is a natural product of the way the brain works, others that God made the brain that way to help us believe. I knew so little about the science behind these ideas that I felt I had to learn more about the brain first before I could comment.
What do Monty Python, the Virgin Mary and environmentalists have in common? They have all been at the centre of a debate in Ireland’s parliament this week before the upper house passed a bill imposing a fine of up to 25,000 euros for the crime of blasphemy. For days, Irish media has been excited about a tree stump in the western county of Limerick which has attracted a flow of pilgrims who believe it is an image of the Virgin Mary. As one senator recalled in the debate however, a local Catholic priest has warned his flock not to worship what he said is, after all, “just a tree.”
(Photo: Crucifixes with Irish flags in a shop in the pilgrimage town of Knock, 10 June 2009/Cathal McNaughton)
“Fr. Russell might be at risk of being found guilty of blasphemy since he is being critical, grossly abusive or insulting to people of a religion who seem to want to worship a tree,” Senator Ivana Bacik said. “We should be mindful of the danger of introducing an offence like blasphemy in light of the sort of events that we are seeing in Rathkeale in Limerick.”Senator Dan Boyle, the chairman of the Green Party, the junior member in Ireland’s governing coalition, quipped that he apparently led a party of “tree worshippers” and argued that the offence of blasphemy was archaic and should be made obsolete. “The concept of blasphemy was brilliantly satirised by Monty Python in the film ‘Life of Brian’ where a Pharisee was unintentionally stoned to death for repeatedly, although unwittingly, saying the word ‘Jehovah’,” Boyle said. “Much of the debate on this issue is a political equivalent of repeatedly saying the word ‘Jehovah’. It is something we need to get out of our political system as soon possible.”The house passed the bill, but only after an initial hiccup when two senators’ absence — one reportedly away at the dentist — all but caused the bill to be defeated by a small margin or at least its main provisions weakened to meaninglessness by an opposition amendment. The government of the traditionally Catholic country has defended the law by pointing out that there was already an existing piece of legislation dating back to 1961 that called for much stricter punishments. Ireland’s constitution requires some form of punishment of blasphemy and the new law would decrease the penalty involved.Abolishing the crime of blasphemy altogether would require a constitutional amendment and a referendum. A referendum would not be impossible to organise — for example, Oct. 2 will see the second vote in less than two years on just one issue, the European Union’s Lisbon reform treaty, which was rejected by the Irish electorate last year. Some have suggested a referendum on defamation could be held on the same day. But the government has argued a referendum on blasphemy would be too costly and “distracting” for a country busy fixing one of Europe’s worst public finances and the worst recession in the industrialised world.
(Photo: Dermot Ahern, 9 March 2007/Thierry Roge)
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern also defends his bill by pointing to clauses which stipulate that blasphemous matter will only be prosecutable if it causes actual outrage among a substantial number of adherents of a religion. It also exempts works in which a “reasonable person” would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value.Which works qualify for that seems to open up a whole new debate. Atheists, who have separate campaigns running against the requirement for religious oaths before taking the office of judge or president of Ireland, say they will test the new law by quickly publishing a deliberately blasphemous statement. “The law also discriminates against atheist citizens by protecting the fundamental beliefs of religious people only,” said Michael Nugent, one of the founders of Atheist Ireland. “Why should religious beliefs be protected by law in ways that scientific or political or other secular beliefs are not?,” Nugent asked in an op-ed piece in Friday’s Irish Times.(Additional reporting by Ashley Beston)
The French love a rousing political debate, all the more so if it leads to a parliamentary inquiry and is topped off with a new law. Paris set the stage this week for just such a debate on whether Muslim women should be allowed to cover their faces in public in burqas or niqabs. By deciding this week to launch a six-month inquiry into the issue, parliament has ensured it will stay in the headlines until year’s end as 32 politicians from the left and right hold weekly hearings to consider banning these veils.
The German government and representatives of the country’s large Muslim community said on Thursday they had agreed a number of practical proposals to resolve conflicts between German schools and Muslim practises.
In a country like Spain, where a large majority still identify themselves as at least more-or-less Catholic, you’d think the government would shy away from taking on the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, there are probably few things Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero likes better than a brawl with the bishops.
In a column last week, I noted how Nicolas Sarkozy was a master at signalling left while turning right. Well, in his keynote address to both houses of parliament today, the conservative president went a step further. He summoned up the burqa to camouflage his real intention — relaunching a drive to reform France’s ossified social, education and tax system.
French politicians seem ready once again to make a political issue out of Muslim women’s clothes. A group of 58 legislators has called for a parliamentary enquiry into what they said was a growing number of women wearing “the burqa and the niqab on the national territory.“ Their initiative comes five years after France banned the Muslim headscarf from French state schools. President Nicolas Sarkozy hasn’t tipped his hand yet, but his government’s spokesman, Luc Chatel, said on Friday that Paris could opt for a law “if, after this enquiry, we see that burqa wearing was forced, which is to say it was contrary to our republican principles.”