FaithWorld

Belgian court to rule on headscarf ban in Flemish schools

belgian-scarf (Photo: Muslim women with Belgian flag protest against headscarf bans, 4 Feb 2004/Yves Herman)

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.

Angry pupils have staged protests outside the school and one girl filed a complaint with the Belgian Council of State to contest the ban. The court will rule on the matter next week and one of its chief advocates has already advised it to overturn the ban. The advocate’s advice is followed in 90 percent of cases.

“The advocate said that such a ban is not lawful, and that only the umbrella organisation of state schools can decide on whether or not to introduce such a measure,” a court spokesman said.

The protests with banners reading “No headscarf, no pupils” and “Everybody free except us” have been headline news in Belgium. One of the schools was vandalised and had slogans sprayed on its walls and its director has received a death threat.

Neighbouring France passed a law in 2004 banning pupils from wearing conspicuous signs of their religion at school after a decade of bitter debate about Muslim girls wearing headscarves in class. Such a measure would be difficult to introduce across the region of Flanders, where most of the schools are private Catholic institutions. Those that have introduced headscarf bans are “community schools.”

Afghan journalist jailed for blasphemy goes free

kambakhsh-3An 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. (Photo: Kambakhsh at a Kabul court hearing, 21 Oct 2008/Omar Sobhani)

Kambakhsh was arrested and imprisoned for downloading and distributing an Iranian article from the Internet that said the Prophet Mohammad had ignored the rights of women. Under Islamic law — stipulated in Afghanistan’s constitution — blasphemy is punishable by death.

In a statement on its website, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, which campaigns for press freedom, said Kambakhsh’s lawyer had confirmed to them Monday his release and that President Hamid Karzai had signed a pardon several weeks earlier. Karzai’s office was not immediately available for comment.

Why beer doesn’t mix well with mainly Muslim Malaysia

beerBeer, 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. (Photo: Beer drinkers, 20 July 2009/Nguyen Huy Kham)

But this easygoing attitude towards beer has hit the rocks of late amid what some suspect has been a growing religiosity of the country’s Muslims.  Last month, 32-year old Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarnor very nearly became the first woman to be caned in Malaysia for drinking alcohol under rarely enforced Islamic criminal laws.  Caught drinking beer in a hotel lobby in the eastern state of Pahang by religious enforcement officers, she was sentenced to six strokes of the cane and a fine.  This was possible because Malaysia practices a dual-track legal system. Muslims are subject to Islamic family and criminal laws that run alongside national civil laws.

malaysia-1A Malaysian Islamic appeals court judge ordered a review of Kartika’s sentence, but a public debate is still raging. Opinions are divided even among Islamic scholars with some questioning what the exact punishment for the offence, which isn’t specified in the Quran, should be. Others are in full support and believe that Kartika’s sentence was mild.

God on the brain at Penn’s Neuroscience Boot Camp

bootcampheaderNeurotheology – 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.

If that was an excuse for procrastination, I don’t have it anymore. For all this week and half the next, I’m attending a “Neuroscience Boot Camp” at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. This innovative program, run by Penn’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Director Martha Farah (photo below), aims to explain the latest research in neuroscience to 34 non-experts from fields such as law, business, philosophy and religious studies (as well as to a few journalists). The focus is not only on religion, but faith and issues related to it are certainly part of the discussion.

martha-head-shot1After only two of 8-1/2 days of lectures, one takeaway message is already clear. You can forget about the “God spot” that headline writers love to highlight (as in “‘God spot’ is found in Brain” or “Scientists Locate ‘God Spot’ in Human Brain”). There is no one place in the brain responsible for religion, just as there is no single location in the brain for love or language or identity. Most popular articles these days actually say that, but the headline writers continue to speak of a single spot.

Trees, worshippers and Ireland’s new blasphemy law

irish-crossWhat 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.ahernAbolishing 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)

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Notes on France’s ban-the-burqa debate

burqa-eiffelThe 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. (Photo: Woman in a niqab walks near Eiffel Tower in Paris, 24 June 2009/Gonzalo Fuentes)

A few politicians have been proposing a ban on full facial veils ever since France outlawed headscarves from its state schools in 2004. The issue came up recently when 58 politicians signed a petition for an inquiry into whether burqa wearing should be outlawed in France. But it finally took off on June 22 when President Nicolas Sarkozy declared these veils “unwelcome in France” as a symbol of the subjugation of women and backed the call for an inquiry.

Few women in France actually wear these veils, either the Afghan-style burqa covering the face completely or the Arabian niqab with space open for the woman’s eyes. It is perhaps telling that the French say burqa for both of them, even though the full veils occasionally spotted in minority neighbourhoods outside Paris or Lyon are niqabs. Pictures of burqas in French media are usually from Afghanistan. Anyway, the politicians who petitioned for the commission say the numbers of fully veiled women are rising and that seems to be true. But the evidence is always anecdotal and there are no statistics to support this argument.

Tips on reconciling Muslim practises with German schools

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.

The government cannot legally enforce the proposals because, in Germany’s federal system, each of the country’s 16 states regulates education law.

GERMANY/Yet the proposals — agreed upon at a high-profile summit in Berlin aimed at boosting the integration of Germany’s Muslim residents — testify to an increasingly open and rational debate in Germany about Islam.

Could abortion law backfire on Spain’s Zapatero?

zapateroIn 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.

Lingering anti-clerical sentiment in sectors of Zapatero’s Socialist Party, particularly on its left-most fringes, means the PM has few more effective tools for rallying his voters than the sight of a protest march led by priests and nuns. (Photo: Prime Minister Zapatero, 5 June 2009/Juan Medina)

At a time when unemployment is closing in on 20 percent, Zapatero knows matters economic are not going to provide anything to cheer his supporters. So there was little surprise when the government rolled out a bill to liberalise abortion laws, including a provision to allow 16 year olds to abort without parental consent, in time for the European elections. At present, Spanish law allows abortion only in certain circumstances, such as if the birth poses a psychogical risk to the mother, although in practice it is easily available.

Sarkozy dons burqa to camouflage reform agenda

sarkozy-speechIn 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. (Photo: President Sarkozy delivers his speech, 22 June 2009/Pool)

By declaring war on the all-enveloping full-length veil worn by only a tiny minority of Muslim women in France, Sarkozy ensured that his secularist assault on religious fundamentalism would grab the headlines, and dominate intellectual debate. Here’s what he said:

The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity. The burqa is not a religious symbol, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic. We cannot accept women in cages, amputated of all dignity, on French soil.

After scarves in schools, France mulls ban on burqas and niqabs

niqab-1

Pakistani Islamist women activists in Lahore, 5 Feb 2009/Mohsin Raza

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.”

“There are people in this country who are walking around in portable prisons,” said André Gerin, a Communist legislator who was behind the initiative. More than 40 legislators from Sarkozy’s ruling centre-right party were also signatories. “We have to be able to open a loyal and frank dialogue with all Muslims about the question of the place of Islam in this country … taking into account the slide towards fundamentalism (of some Muslims),” Gerin told France Info radio.

The politicians’ appeal argued that burqas and niqabs violated the principle of gender equality: “If the Islamic headscarf amounted to a distinctive sign of belonging to a religion, here we have the extreme stage of this practice. It is no longer just an ostentatious show of religion, but an attack on women’s freedom and the affirmation of femininity. Clothed in a burqa or niqab, she is in a situation of reclusion, exclusion and inadmissible humiliation. Her very existence is negated.”