FaithWorld

Scholars petition Netherlands not to close leading institute on Islam

Religion reporters often get asked how they keep up with developments in different faiths. One way is to read the leading publications in the field. Keeping up with the latest trends in Islam is about to get harder for those of us who are regular readers of one of the most interesting journals on Muslim issues, the ISIM Review published in English by the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. (Photo: Head scarf exhibit in Amsterdam Historical Museum, 6 March 2006/Paul Vreeker)

Not only is the Review closing down — ISIM itself, a Dutch academic institute set up by the universities of Leiden, Amsterdam, Utrecht and Nijmegen 10 years ago — is being closed for lack of funds. The University of Leiden announced this on Dec 17 (here in Dutch) and ISIM announced it here in English. Surprisingly, it got almost no coverage in the media (here’s one short piece from De Telegraaf in Dutch).

The Dutch experience with Islam is one of the most strained in Europe, as seen by the murder of film maker Theo van Gogh and the rise of far-right politicians like Geert Winters Wilders. ISIM’s excellent research has been a useful antidote to that, presenting a much better informed view of Islam both in the Netherlands and abroad. I’ve found it very informative as background to the current issues concerning Muslim and a tip-off for scholars to consult when I’m writing about them. There aren’t enough of these publications around and it’s sad to see such a good one, and the institute that produces it, disappear.

Oddly enough, a February 2008 peer review commissioned by the Dutch Ministry of Education — the same ministry now pulling the plug on ISIM — gave the institute high marks for its work. It said that “the Institute has succeeded in using its very limited means to constitute itself as a prominent centre with great international attraction. Clear indicators for this are its appeal for prominent colleagues from all over the world (cf. the success of its Visiting Fellows Programme), the great international appreciation of its research projects, and its ability to attract younger scholars (PhDs and post-docs), again from very different regions and backgrounds … this solid academic reputation … has made the institute a focal point within Europe for comparative debates, workshops and conferences on a wide array of questions concerning Islam and its rising presence in the continent.”

Alexandre Caeiro, an ISIM PhD who’s an expert on Islamic fatwas in Western Europe, told me a group of scholars associated with ISIM has been circulating a petition to the Dutch Ministry of Education urging it to reconsider. If you know and appreciate ISIM (or just discover the ISIM Review now by searching through its archive) and want to support it, you can contact Caeiro at isim2009@gmail.com.

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.

from Reuters Editors:

Keeping the faith: Connecting the dots with religion and ethics coverage

dean-150Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.

Some years ago, an American reporter who covered religion was at Tel Aviv airport leaving Israel.

As she was subjected to the usual questions from Israeli security, she was asked what she did for a living. “I write about religion,” she replied. “Which one?” the security officer responded. “Well, all of them,” the reporter said.

Graves desecrated often in France, mostly Christian

If you go by what’s reported in the media (including by us), you’d think cemetery desecrations in France like the big one last weekend happen occasionally and target mostly Jewish and Muslim graves. Those are the cases the police report and we write about. A report by two parliamentary deputies, however, has taken an overall look at the problem nationwide and come up with some unexpected conclusions.

First, there are far more cemetery desecrations than we knew about. They happen on an average of every two to three days!  There were 144 last year and 110 up until Sept. 1 this year. And most of them target Christian — which in France would mean overwhelmingly Catholic — graves. Most desecrations are vandalism by teenagers, with only a small minority prompted by the racism, anti-Semitism or satanic cult practices normally highlighted in the media, the report said. The news story on this by our parliamentary correspondent Emile Picy is here. (Photo: Police inspect desecrated graves in France, 8 Dec 2008/Pascal Rossignol)

The report is not aimed at playing down the gravity of attacks on Muslim and Jewish graves, but rather to get an overall idea of the problem in order to suggest possible remedies. It lists some obvious ideas like better surveillance of cemeteries and better use of existing punishment. What I found the most interesting was their discussion of the waning respect for the dead. The title of the report highlights this — “Du respect des morts à la mort du respect?” (“From respect for the dead to the death of respect?”)

When it’s better to lead with the economy than with the innuendo

President-elect Barack Obama gave a wide-ranging interview to the Chicago Tribune , offering his hometown daily a scoop that forced other journalists to choose which angle to highlight in their reports on it. Reuters chose to lead  with his comment that the most pressing problem right now was to “stabilize the patient” and save the U.S. economy from losing millions of jobs. I agree this is the key message he sent in this interview and deserved to take top billing. So I was surprised to see how many news organisations went with a different angle. (Photo: Obama in Chicago, 9 Dec 2008/Jeff Haynes)

“Obama to take the oath of office using his middle name”“At inauguration, it will be Barack Hussein Obama: interview” “I, Barack Hussein Obama” — several news organisations led off with the fact that Obama would be sworn in under his full name. What did they expect? That he would kowtow to his campaign critics who pointedly called him Barack Hussein Obama but didn’t have the courage to say what they were hinting at, i.e. that this self-confessed Christian was a “covert Muslim” or “Muslim apostate” and therefore unreliable?

Given the context of the campaign, the fact that Obama has not been cowed is interesting. We mentioned it in the third paragraph, the Chicago Tribune in the second. But let’s ask if making this the lead, putting it at the top of the whole story, gives the whispering campaign against him much more importance than it is due?

Vatican report snag to Mexican ex-president’s marriage plans

Mexicans have long suspected their former President Vicente Fox was a little barmy. The tall, mustached one-time Coca-Cola executive is known for his racial gaffes, a very public falling out with Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 2002 and clumsily flaunting his wealth in glossy magazines in impoverished Mexico. Now — in a painful snub for a president who broke with decades of repression of the Catholic Church in Mexico by openly practicing his Catholic faith and even attending a papal Mass — the Vatican has decided that Fox has a personality disorder and may not be fit to remarry with the Church’s blessing.

Fox, a conservative who ended 71 years of one-party rule in 2000, wants a church wedding for his second wife and former press secretary, Marta Sahagun. The couple wed in a surprise civil ceremony in 2001 and planned to tie the knot before a Catholic priest in Asturias, Spain next year. Sahagun has already bought her wedding gown, Mexican media say. (Photo: Vincente Fox and his wife Marta Sahagun, 26 Oct 2002/Claudia Daut)

According to confidential documents obtained by the Mexican online magazine Reporte Indigo, the Vatican last year annulled Fox’s first marriage of 20 years, but only because he is “self-obsessed and narcissistic and has a personality disorder.” That diagnosis by Vatican doctors means he is unfit to remarry in the Catholic church because he leads a double life, hiding his “hysteria” and his insincerity behind the politician’s mask, it says. The Vatican did not question his fitness for public office, however.

TIME magazine lists its 10 top religion stories of 2008

TIME magazine has come out with its list of the 10 top religion stories of 2008. The winner is a story about how religion did not tip the balance in the U.S. presidential election. U.S. media often publish this kind of list at the end of the year. Are there similar lists out there from other countries? Please let us know if you see them elsewhere.

Here are TIME’s top 10:

1. The Economy Trumps Religion 2. Never Count the Mormons Out

3. The Pope Wows the States 4. The Canterbury non-Tale

5. America’s Unfaithful Faith

6. Tibet’s Monks Rebel

7. The Birth of the New Evangelicalism

8. The Challenge of Recession

9. When Kosher Wasn’t Kosher

10. Extraterrestrials May Already be Saved

Mumbai Muslim clerics refuse to bury Islamist attackers

Have you seen this story in your local newspaper? Mumbai’s top Islamic clerics have refused to bury the nine Islamist militants killed during the three-day siege in the city. Declaring the rampage proved they could not have been true Muslims, they declared that no Muslim cemetery in India would accept them. A debate has broken out about what to do with the bodies, which according to Muslim custom should have been buried within a few hours of death. (Photo: Palestinian funeral for Hamas militant killed fighting Israeli troops in Gaza, 17 Oct 2007/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

The reason I ask whether your local newspaper ran this story is that Muslims often say the media regularly link Islam and terrorism but rarely report when Muslims denounce acts of Islamist violence. There is some truth in this complaint, especially since Islam does not have central authorities, such as a pope, who can claim to speak in the name of all believers. Individual protests from small groups get lost in the flood of news. Some publications are also simply unwilling to print news that goes against their view of Islam as a violent religion, so it makes no difference there how many such protests are reported. They won’t believe them anyway.

This refusal to bury the Mumbai attackers is different. It is an original and bold protest against Islamist violence by religious authorities who would normally make sure any Muslim got a proper burial. “This is symbolically very important,” Mustafa Akyol, a columnist for the Hürriyet Daily News in Istanbul and an active Muslim blogger. “I’ve heard of imams declining to lead a prayer for the deceased because he was an outright atheist, but never of people being denied burial.”

Pew report looks at media coverage of faith in U.S. election

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and its sister organization The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have just released a study on the media coverage of religion in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. A summary of the findings with links to the whole report can be found here.

“Religion played a much more significant role in the media coverage of President-elect Barack Obama than it did in the press treatment of Republican nominee John McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign, but much of the coverage related to false yet persistent rumors that Obama is a Muslim,” Pew said.

It added that there was scant scrutiny of the role of personal faith in the shaping of the candidates’ political values with the exception of Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Christian Science Monitor to shut down daily print edition

For the past 30 years or more, I have unintentionally been disappointing Christian Scientists on a regular basis. Whenever I was in the United States and came across a Christian Science Reading Room, I walked in and asked for the latest copy of the Christian Science Monitor. Behind the desk was usually a kindly older man or woman, probably a retired volunteer, and they seemed happy to see a young (and then not so young) person dropping by. They seemed even more pleased when I also took copies from the day before or the day before that. They often asked how I knew the paper and I’d say I used to subscribe when I was a grad student in Boston. With a kindly smile, they would then inquire if I was a Christian Scientist or wanted to learn more about Christian Science. I would say no, thank you very much, and leave.

I thought about these people today when I heard that the Christian Science Monitor will scrap its daily print run for web-only edition in April 2009 (plus a weekly in print). It’s been struggling for a while and circulation has fallen from the levels back in the early ’70s when I read it daily. But it continued to publish high-quality journalism and I enjoyed picking up a copy or two whenever I came across it.

For a church-related publication, the Monitor was curious in that it did not promote its own faith in its pages (apart, perhaps, from its lack of obituaries). There was just one daily religious feature on the Home Forum page, towards the back of the paper. Otherwise, it focused on serious analytical reporting of national and international news, especially foreign stories that mainstream American newspapers were not good at covering. It was a must-read for anyone interested in world affairs.