FaithWorld

Exercised over yoga in Malaysia

Of all the things to get exercised about, yoga would seem to be an unlikely candidate for controversy. But such has been the case in Malaysia this week.

Malaysia’s prime minister declared on Wednesday that Muslims can after all practice the Indian exercise regime, so long as they avoid the meditation and chantings that reflect Hindu philosophy. This came after Malaysia’s National Fatwa Council told Muslims to roll up their exercise mats and stop contorting their limbs because yoga could destroy the faith of Muslims.

It has been a tough month for the fatwa council chairman, Abdul Shukor Husin, who in late October issued an edict against young women wearing trousers, saying that was a slippery path to
lesbianism. Gay sex is outlawed in Malaysia.

The council’s rulings, and other religious controversies, might at first blush seem to indicate a growing strain of conservative Islam in mostly Muslim Malaysia. But it could also
reflect the growing unease of Islamic authorities in defending the faith in a rapidly modernising Malaysia where non-Muslims constitute 40 percent of the population and are increasingly
asserting their rights.

The yoga fatwa stirred up a hornet’s next, not only in the blogosphere where that could be expected, but in another deeply conservative Malaysian institution — the sultans.  Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah, who presides ceremonially over the central state of Selangor, said Abdul’s fatwa council should have consulted the nine hereditary Malay rulers who take turns being Malaysia’s king before announcing the ruling.  The highly unusual comment from one of the sultans on a
policy matter suggests some discord about who speaks for Malaysia’s Muslims on matters of faith. Islam is the official religion in multi-religious Malaysia and the constitution designates the nine sultans as guardians of the faith. The (rotating) king is the head of Islam in Malaysia.

French “virginity lie” couple lose appeal, remain married

A court has declared France’s “virginity lie” couple to be legally married, despite their appeal to annul their nuptial vows because the wife turned out not to be the virgin she had claimed to be. The case caused an uproar a few months ago because they were initially granted an annulment on the grounds that she had lied about an “essential quality” necessary for the marriage contract. The case was argued as if the issue were simply about a business contract where one party had lied about the goods being delivered, and the first court accepted it on those grounds.

But the background — that the two were Muslims of North African origin and the man considered her virginity a condition for marrying the woman — sparked off a loud debate about whether the court was allowing Muslim traditions or sharia provisions to creep into French jurisprudence. “A real fatwa for women’s liberation … (like) a ruling handed down in Kandahar” was a memorable comment from Fadela Amara, the state secretary for urban affairs who comes from an Algerian Muslim family.

After initially supporting the couple, Justice Minister Rachida Dati — who is herself from a North African Muslim background and had a marriage annulled years ago — came under political pressure to oppose it and finally asked the public prosecutor to lodge an appeal against the annulment. This appeal against the annulment is what was upheld in the court in Douai in northern France on Monday. So the couple, who split up on their wedding night when the husband walked out on her and told the story to guests still partying at the reception downstairs, remains married despite their efforts to be unmarried. They will now have to go through the normal divorce procedure to undo what was effectively a marriage of only a few hours.

Headscarves new target for Austrian far right

It’s already been a big theme in Germany, FranceTurkey and the Netherlands, and now the Austrian far right is asking: Should public employees be allowed to wear Muslim headscarves at work?

 

Two women have become the first schoolteachers in Vienna to wear headscarves while teaching.

 

One is also a local centre-left Social Democrat politician.

 

Teachers in other parts of the country already wear headscarves, and there is no law banning public employees from wearing such items as there is in some other European countries.  

Could pro-choice Obama reduce the U.S. abortion rate?

Matthew 25 Network logoFinancial fears and campaign-trail mud-slinging have so dominated the U.S. presidential race in recent weeks that several issues worth serious debate have mostly drifted off the public radar screen. Judging by the latest presidential debate, one of them off on the sidelines now is abortion. This has hit my radar screen, though, because some Barack Obama supporters have made what seems to be an incredible claim — that the most pro-choice candidate in the running could actually lower the overall number of abortions in the United States. Huh?

The Matthew 25 Network, which calls itself “pro-life pro-Obama,” says “an Obama administration will do more than a McCain administration for the cause of life, by drastically reducing abortions through giving women and families the support and the tools they need to choose life.”

Over at Beliefnet, editor-in-chief Steve Waldman has two very interesting posts about this. The first one says that Obama supports Medicaid funding for abortion, which obviously would make getting one easier. The Democratic candidate also supports the Freedom of Choice Act, which “would wipe out state laws, including moderate ones that merely require parental notification for teens seeking abortion.” So it looks like total abortions would rise during an Obama administration.

Will “The Jewel of Medina” create another Rushdie affair?

Proposed cover for The Jewel of MedinaAre we headed for another “Rushdie affair” over the yet-to-be-published novel The Jewel of Medina? First an American publisher withdrew its plan to publish the novel about A’isha, the child bride of the Prophet Mohammad, out of fear of a backlash from Islamist radicals. Then a British publisher announced he had bought the rights and would print the once feared historical novel“. Now comes the news that the publisher’s London office has been the target of an arson attack and police have arrested three men on suspicion of terrorism.

Some early signs are not encouraging. The Daily Telegraph quotes Anjem Choudhary, a radical cleric based in Ilford in east London, as saying: “It is clearly stipulated in Muslim law that any kind of attack on his honour carries the death penalty.” While his unbending interpretation of Muslim law is certainly debatable, his warning that publication of the novel could cause further protests is not.

On the other hand, Muslim Council of Britain spokesman Inayat Bunglawala wrote last week that the mood among British Muslims had changed since they clamoured for Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to be banned. “Is this rethinking now widespread amongst British Muslims? Yes, my impression is that it certainly is with many now accepting that the Satanic Verses affair served to create (and for others reinforce) the unfortunate view that Muslims were backward, anti-intellectual, prone to violence and saw themselves as being somehow above the law,” he wrote.

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.”

French Ramadan trial story revives church-state debate

A Ramadan soup kitchen in Paris, 16 Oct 2006/Charles PlatiauShould a court delay the opening of a trial because a Muslim defendant is weak due to the Ramadan fast? A dispute has broken out in France about this because a court in Rennes allowed just such a delay for a French Muslim accused of armed robbery. His lawyer had said his client would be in “great physical and psychological weakness” due to the fast. Critics promptly cried foul and accused the court of violating laïcité, France’s separation of church and state. The Rennes public prosecutor denied the decision was made for religious reasons, citing other complicating factors he said must be resolved before the trial could start.

The case looks like the “virginity lie” dispute back in June. In both, a court is accused of wrongly taking religious considerations into account to give a ruling favourable to Muslims. The court denies the charge. In the end, it turns out that the lawyer involved got the desired ruling without formally arguing for it on religious grounds. It all seems legitimate but leaves the impression with the public that exceptions are being made for Muslims.

A lawyer for one of the seven men on trial in Rennes on the armed robbery charges further complicated things by saying the real issue was discrimination. “I don’t understand this uproar in the media when it’s normal procedure to obtain a delay because of Jewish or other feast days,” Yann Choucq said. “And there are no court hearings on Christmas or Easter.  Are some religions more respectable than others?”

Swiss government speaks out against proposed minaret ban

The minaret of the Mahmud Mosque in Zurich, 23 May 2007/Christian HartmannDisputes about building mosques in Europe can get quite heated, snarling both opponents and proponents in bitter and emotional debates such as the Cologne mosque controversy we’ve written about here before. The far-right wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) and some allies recently gathered enough signatures to force a national referendum on whether to ban the construction of minarets there. But while the anti-mosque movement has used oft-heard charges that minarets represent Islamic power that threatens law and order, the Swiss government has come up with an unusually detailed 49-page report opposing the ban. It combines legal and political arguments with such detail and precision that it could become a reference for pro-mosque/minaret arguments elsewhere in Europe.

The anti-minaret movement is getting support in some small Swiss towns where Islamic centres want to build minarets. Minarets already stand in some big cities like Zurich and Geneva and they would not be effected by the proposed constitutional amendment that simply says “The construction of minarets is forbidden.”

The government sent the Justice Department report to parliament with a simple cover letter urging the deputies to reject it. Here is the text (in German) and a summary (in English). Among the objections it laid out in lawyerly detail were that the proposal:

Sydneysiders refuse to turn the other cheek for Pope Benedict

Sydney Harbour Bridge, 1 Jan 2008/Tim WimborneSydney is not a city famous for protests. In fact, people usually only get angry at traffic congestion, if their football team loses on the weekend or if rain stops them hitting the city’s sandy beaches. But Sydneysiders have become angry and many are aiming to vent their spleen at Pope Benedict and pilgrims attending the Roman Catholic Church’s World Youth Day here this month.

Except for a handful of people promoting the safe sex message of using condoms, nobody was publicly planning to protest during the Pope’s first visit to Australia. Australians mostly come from a Christian background and Catholics make up the biggest congregation.

But now every man and his dog seems to be planning to take to the streets in protest. What changed?

New French Muslim chief on the “virginity lie” case

CFCM head Mohammed Moussaoui (r) and Fouad Alaoui (l), 22 June 28/Gonzalo FuentesMohammed Moussaoui, the newly elected head of France’s Muslim council CFCM, has lost no time in criticising the case of a Muslim husband who had his marriage annulled because his wife had lied about being a virgin. The “virginity lie” case caused uproar in France, where critics warned against letting religious issues creep into civil law. Under public pressure, Justice Minister Rachida Dati (herself a Muslim who had a marriage annulled), dropped her original positive assessment and had the decision overturned. The couple remains married until September, when the case will be considered again.

Asked about the case, Moussaoui told the Paris daily Le Figaro: “These people confuse customs and religion. Chastity is recommended for the man and the woman, but it is not a condition for a Muslim marriage. A man loves a women as she is, virgin or not.”

National Muslim leaders in France were notably silent about the issue when it flared up. One of the few who did say anything, Fouad Aloui of the Union of French Islamic Organisations (UOIF), was the main rival to Moussaoui in the recent election as CFCM president. All he said was: “This is not a religious case. It is a legal decision based on the law, so it is up to the judge to decide.” That sounds like an indirect approval of the decision, although it must be said he sounded quite reluctant to talk about it at all (here France Info audio in French).