FaithWorld

How to win hearts and minds in Thailand’s Muslim south?

THAILAND-SOUTH/More than five years after a Muslim insurgency erupted in southern Thailand, the conflict remains shrouded in mystery, with no credible claims of responsibility for the bloodshed in a once independent Malay Muslim land with a history of rebellion to Buddhist Thai rule.

On June 8, gunmen burst into a mosque and killed 10 people as they prayed. Thailand blamed separatist insurgents for the bloodiest attack this year in the mainly Muslim region bordering Malaysia where nearly 3,500 people have died in violence since 2004. But the head of the world’s biggest Islamic body urged Thailand to protest its Muslim minority after local residents put the blame on military-backed elements. (Photo: Thai Muslims pray at a funeral after the mosque attack, 9 June 9 2009/Surapan Boonthanom)

Reuters correspondent Martin Petty toured the area last week in the wake of the attacks. He talked to a woman who narrowly escaped an assassin’s bullet in Yala.  She said she doesn’t know who wanted her dead or why. Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra blamed mafia-style smuggling gangs for the violence, but security analysts believe homegrown separatist groups — with little or no ties to al Qaeda or other regional militant networks — are behind the violence.

THAILAND-SOUTH/The Thai government hopes to stem the violence by pouring $1.58 billion in development funds into the region. But many residents told Petty it won’t make a difference, because the people are stuggling to keep their Malay-Muslim identity – not to boost local fisheries, rubber and palm oil industries.

A better idea would be to withdraw the 30,000 soldiers deployed in ther region and scrap an emergency decreee that grants the military broad powers of arrest with immunity from prosecution, they say.

Can non-Muslims join an Islamist party – and why would they?

MALAYSIA-POLITICS/ISLAMISTS

By Razak Ahmad

Should non-Muslims be allowed to join an Islamist party? Would the Islamists want them to join? This is the issue facing the Pan Malaysian Islamist Party (PAS) at its annual assembly this week. Photo: Women’s wing of PAS prays at its national convention on 3 June, 2009/Bazuki Mujammad

For decades, PAS dreamed of a rigid theocratic state, even to the extent of issuing an edict in 1987 declaring the ruling Malay-Muslim nationalist ruling party as infidel. The ethnic minority Chinese and Indians who make up a combined 35% of the Southeast Asian country’s 27 million population were rarely in the Islamist party’s political equation.

But now PAS is part of Malaysia’s three-party opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim. It claims that 20,000 non-Muslims have joined the party’s supporters club, which will be recognised as an official party wing if a proposal on the matter is endorsed. This would in turn pave the way for non-Muslim members of the supporters club to become card carrying PAS members.

Will Obama address the Muslim world or the Arab world?

obama-faceWhen President Barack Obama delivers his long-awaited speech in Cairo on Thursday, will he address the Muslim world or the Arab world? In the pre-speech build-up, it’s being called a speech “to the Muslim world” or “to the world’s 1.x billion Muslims” (the estimated total mentioned in different articles fluctuates between 1and 1.5 billion). But the venue he’s chosen — Cairo — and all the focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict make it sound like a speech to and about the Middle East. (Photo: President Barack Obama, 21 May 2009/Kevin Lamarque)

The Middle East is the heartland of Islam, but Arabs make up only about 20 percent of the world’s Muslims. Not all Arabs are Muslims. And non-Arab Iran is a major part of the Middle Eastern political scene. So is it correct to call this a speech to the Muslim world? Would it be better to call it a speech to the Middle East?

There is such an important overlap between the Arab and the Muslim worlds that it is hard to disentangle them. The Palestinian issue concerns Muslims around the world, but with varying intensity depending partly on whether it figures in regional politics or stands as a more distant symbol of oppression against Muslims. Politics can also poison Muslim relations with Jews, which can range from bitter enmity to interfaith cooperation depending on where, when and how one looks. The U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq may be justified in Washington as operations against international terrorism, but in Muslim countries they are often seen as attacks on Muslims and Islam.

Pope Benedict on “haj” in Jordan

haj-1Sitting through a media briefing in Amman on Pope Benedict’s visit to Jordan starting on Friday, I whiled away the news-free parts trying to decipher the Arabic writing on the official logo (photo at right). I never fully mastered the Arabic alphabet or the Urdu language (which uses it) during my time in Pakistan over 20 years ago. But some hard-won bits of linguistic trivia remain stuck in the brain and come in handy at the most unexpected moments.

With some effort on my part, that arc of Arabic calligraphy up top revealed itself as saying al-haj al-babawi. The haj of baba … hmmm… Arabic has no “p,” so that could be the haj of papa. The Italians call him papa, so it must be talking about the pope and saying the pope’s haj. Huh? The pope’s haj?

Of course, the word haj simply means “pilgrimage” in Arabic. Western languages have taken it over as the specific term for the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. But the pope has a snowball’s chance in you-know-where to get there. Haj means pilgrimage, no more and no less, and it describes the pope’s visit just the same way as he does in the words of the many western languages he speaks.

Malaysia trying to find its religious equilibrium

MALAYSIA/ Multicultural Malaysia, whose official religion is Islam but which has sizeable numbers of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, has been struggling of late to ensure religious freedoms for its minorities, without offending the sensibilities of majority Muslims.

In the latest case, a Malaysian court granted permission to a Christian to challenge the authorities for seizing religious materials that used the word “Allah”. The government has banned the use of the Arabic word to describe God by all except for Muslims, saying it might confuse Muslims or offend their sensisibilities. (Photo: A Hindu pilgrim outside Kuala Lumpur, 8 Feb 2009/Zainal Abd Halim)

The Catholic Herald, Malaysia’s main Catholic newspaper, has been fighting the government for months over the right to use the word “Allah”. Herald Editor Rev. Lawrence Andrew argues that Malaysian Christians have used “Allah” as their term for God for centuries. In a recent edition, the Herald slammed a new locally produced Bible, which further muddied these troubled waters by using the Hebrew word “Elohim” instead of “Allah” (or God for that matter) for the Almighty.

A selection of religion reports: week of March 8

manila-moonReuters publishes many more reports on religion, faith and ethics than we can mention on the FaithWorld blog. We sometimes highlight a story here, but often leave an issue unmentioned because it was already covered on the wire, or we have neither the time nor any extra information for a blog post. Here’s a sample of some of the stories we’ve published over the past week:

Philippines says open to amending Muslim autonomy law 13 Mar 2009

China says willing to meet Dalai Lama’s envoys 13 Mar 2009

Jews ask pope for Holocaust studies in schools 12 Mar 2009tibet

Turkey denies firing editor over Darwin article 12 Mar 2009

Pope says pained over “hate, hostility” against him 12 Mar 12 2009

China says it must approve Dalai Lama reincarnation 12 Mar 2009

U.S. says some states curb free speech in name of religion 12 Mar 2009

Australia says may quit UN racism conference 12 Mar 2009

Pope admits Holocaust denier affair was mishandled 12 Mar 2009

Pope to visit Rome synagogue in autumn 12 Mar 2009pope-rabbi

Malaysia Christians battle with Muslims over Allah 11 Mar 2009

“Big Love” network apologizes to Mormons 11 Mar 2009

Catholics protest Connecticut church finance bill 11 Mar 2009

Russia church offers to help Kremlin weather crisis 11 Mar 2009

Pope admits Holocaust denier affair was mishandled 11 Mar 2009

Cardinal says bad bankers must ask God’s pardon 11 Mar 2009

US fertility patients want final say on embryos 11 Mar 2009

Dalai Lama slams China over Tibet “suffering” 10 Mar 2009obama

Cameroon demolishes street stalls for Pope’s visit 10 Mar 2009

Stem cell go-ahead puts Obama at odds with pope 10 Mar 2009

Somali cabinet votes to implement sharia law 10 Mar 2009

FACTBOX: Embryonic stem cells, the ultimate master cell 10 Mar 2009

Stem cell advocates finally get their Obama moment 09 Mar 2009

French filmmaker slammed for likening illegals to WWII Jews 09 Mar 2009

jp2-yad-vashem1Vatican paper: Washing machine liberated women most 09 Mar 2009

Chechnya wants newborns to be named after Mohammad 09 Mar 2009

Obama to let health institute decide on stem cells 08 Mar 2009

US stem cell announcement only a first step 08 Mar 2009

Pope to visit Holocaust memorial during Israel trip 08 Mar 2009

Turkish Mosque Holds First Official Kurdish Sermon 08 Mar 2009

(Photo credits from top: Romeo Ranoco, Philippe Wojazer, Alessia Pierdomenico, Larry Downing, stringer)

What’s in a name: Are God and Allah the same?

malaysia-feature“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only son of Allah.”

Malaysian Catholics recite this prayer in Malay daily at Masses across the country such as a recent one in St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Keningau, a sprawling timber town in the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island that Niluksi Koswanage visited for this feature about tensions between Christians and the majority Muslims.

Muslims object to Christians using the word “Allah” in their services and publications, even though it is the normal word for God in Malay. The Muslims say it could undermine Islam and aims to convert Muslims. The row over the use of Allah to describe the Christian God feeds into a long-running feud over conversions between the government of a country where all Malays must be Muslims, and other faiths such as Hinduism and Buddhism that are practised by ethnic Indians and Chinese. (Photo: Mass at St. Francis Cathdral in Keningau, Malaysia, 22 Feb 2009/Bazuki Mohammad)

It is illegal in Malaysia to convert from Islam to any other religion, although conversions to Islam are allowed. Malaysian Muslim activists and officials see using the word Allah in Christian publications including bibles as attempts to proselytise. Those concerns led to a ban on the main Catholic newspaper in Malaysia, the Catholic Herald, on using the word “Allah” to denote God. The government partially lifted the ban in mid-February, only to reimpose it later that month. The Herald is now suing the government to overturn the ruling.

Policy adrift over Rohingya, Myanmar’s Muslim boat people

The Rohingyas, a Muslim minority fleeing oppression and hardship in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar, have been called one of the most persecuted people on earth. But they have seldom hit the headlines — until recently, that is. More than 500 Rohingyas are feared to have drowned since early December after being towed out to sea by the Thai military and abandoned in rickety boats. The army has admitted cutting them loose, but said they had food and water and denied sabotaging the engines of the boats. (Photo: Rohingyas in immigration area in soutwestern Thailand, 31 Jan 2009/Sukree Sukplang)

The Rohingyas are becoming a headache for Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia where they have washed up. Indonesian authorities this week rescued 198 Rohingya boat people off the coast of Aceh, after three weeks at sea. Buddhist Thailand and mostly Muslim Indonesia call them economic migrants looking for work at a time when countries in the region, like everywhere else, are in an economic downturn. But human rights groups such as Amnesty International are calling on governments in the region to provide assistance to the Rohingyas and let the UNHCR  have access to them.

Myanmar’s generals have a shabby enough record with their Buddhist majority. The brutal suppression of monk-led protests that killed at least 31 people in September 2007 and the continued detention of opposition icon and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi bear witness to that. But their treatment of ethnic minorities, including the Muslim Rohingyas and the Christian Chin people in the mountainous Northwest — where insurgents have been fighting for autonomy — have been especially brutal. They are not oppressed because of their faith alone, but their faith and ethnicity make them targets. The military government does not recognise them as one of the country’s 130-odd ethnic minorities. They are forbidden from marrying or traveling without permission and have no legal right to own land.

Strains grow in Malaysia as Muslims reassert majority status

(Photo: A Chinese temple in Kuala Lumpur, 7 Feb 2008/Bazuki Muhammad)

Malaysia prides itself on its multicultural heritage, and rightly so. The Southeast Asian nation of around 27 million people is one of the few countries in the world where so many races and religions live together in peace and stability.

Having arrived in July from Hungary, an ex-communist country that has one of the least diverse ethnic makeups in the world, I can attest it is a truly amazing cultural experience and one of which the country should be proud.

After four years of seeing nothing but look-alike Hungarian baroque churches, I now find Hindu and Buddhist temples nestled side-by-side in downtown Kuala Lumpur. A whitewashed Protestant church sits on a square where the country’s independence from Britain was proclaimed. There is a mosque near where I live and the evening call to prayer is still a sound that thrills and intrigues. When you see and hear all that, it is easy to believe the public face of the country.

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.