FaithWorld

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.”

Italian Muslims pray outside Milan’s Jenner Street mosque, 9 Seot 2005/Daniele la MonacaApart from Rome, whose Grand Mosque is a strong contender for the title of Europe’s biggest mosque, Muslims in Italy certainly do have to “pray anywhere” at the moment. Many local communities, and not just those with Northern League mayors, have found ways to block the construction of new places of Islamic worship. Even Italy’s business capital Milan has no proper mosque. Thousands of Muslims have been forced to pray on the pavement outside a converted garage known as the “Jenner Street mosque.” But  local authorities have decided this was too disruptive and moved them to a velodrome, where local media say the Muslims are charged for entry as if they were going to watch a race.

The left-leaning La Repubblica newspaper asked last week if, with many Muslims in the League’s north-east strongholds forced to worship “in hiding” during the current Ramadan, the current centre-right government was respecting the constitutional right to freedom of worship. Il Giornale, the paper owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s brother, reported on a “revolt against the mosques” in the north east. In the Veneto and Friuli regions, it said, about 150,000 Muslims who already have 40 prayer halls are asking for more, to the consternation of local communities.

Low-key “first” as cardinal attends Paris iftar dinner

Cardinal André Vingt-Trois and Rector Dalal Boubakeur, 3 Sept 2008/Tom HeneghanSome “firsts” take place amid crowds and television cameras, others happen more quietly. The Grand Mosque of Paris chose the low-key approach when it received Cardinal André Vingt-Trois on Wednesday evening for an iftar dinner. It was the first that a Roman Catholic archbishop of the French capital had visited its leading mosque for the traditional meal breaking the Ramadan fast. After a short prayer by an imam and introductory remarks, they sat down to an North African-style dinner of spicy chorba (soup), chicken and olives and dessert of honey pastries and mint tea.

France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority, about five million, and interfaith contacts often depend on the personalities involved, especially at the local level. Pope Benedict will meet a delegation of French Muslims — some national leaders such as the cardinal’s host, Paris Grand Mosque Rector Dalil Boubakeur, and some local leaders active in Christian-Muslim dialogue — when he visits Paris next week.

Grand Mosque of Paris courtyard, 3 May 2008/Tom HeneghanBoubakeur thanked Vingt-Trois for the support the Church had given its “immigrant brothers” over the years, especially help to integrate young Muslims. In one such project, the Catholic Institute of Paris offers courses on French politics, law and secularism for future imams studying Islamic theology at the Grand Mosque.

Egypt to press ahead with adhan unification – but quietly

A muezzin calls Muslims to prayer, 20 August 2007/stringerIs Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowments planning to blindside people by quietly implementing an unpopular project to unify the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer?

That’s certainly the impression I got when I recently spoke to one of the ministry officials in charge of the project to enquire about its status. There has been talk for years about how chaotic and noisy it is to have each mosque in a city call out “Allahu akbar” at slightly different times, in quite different voices, sometimes in different musical keys and different tempos. A project unveiled two years ago to have one centralised call to prayer seemed to officials to be the answer.

The official was cagey at first, refusing to be drawn on whether the plan was going ahead or had been suspended, and refusing to give an ETA for the mythical unified adhan.

from India Insight:

Are Indian Muslims leading the way in condemning terror?

A man prays at the Nizamuddin shrine in New DelhiFor those Western critics that say Islam does not enough to to condemn terrorism, perhaps they should look at India, home to one of the world's biggest Muslim populations -- around 13 percent of mainly Hindu India's 1.1 billion people.

 On Wednesday, it was the turn of Khalid Rasheed, head of the oldest madrasa in the northern city of Lucknow -- a traditional centre for Muslims and religious scholarship. He rejected terrorism as anti-Islamic after he and his colleagues had been accused of apostasy over their pacifist stance by at group that calls itself the Indian Mujahideen.

Indian Mujahideen made threats against the madrasa in which they also claimed responsibility for last week's bomb blasts in Jaipur, western India, which killed 63 people.

New York imam forges close ties with city’s Jews

New York Islamic Cultural Center, 23 April 2008/Tom HeneghanNew York’s largest mosque, the Islamic Cultural Center (ICC) on East 96th Street in Manhattan, is getting applause from an unexpected quarter — the city’s influential Jewish community … Much of the credit for the upbeat mood goes to Mohammad Shamsi Ali, the ICC’s Indonesian-born imam who arrived here only 12 years ago and has been rated by New York magazine as the city’s most influential Islamic leader.

At the end of my trip to the U.S. to cover the pope’s visit, I visited the ICC and interviewed Ali. After more research and interviews, I wrote the feature quoted above that just ran on the Reuters wire today. There is no Grand Mosque of New York, but the ICC unofficially plays that role. And Ali has emerged as one of the city’s leading Islamic personalities. As New York magazine put it, “Ali is the one imam who can mediate between the diverse and fractious elements of the 800,000-member Muslim community in New York … Since 9/11, he has become the community’s unofficial emissary to law enforcement and the mayor’s office.”

During our interview, Ali ranged over a wide number of topics. The strict format for our news features leaves little room for some of them, but I’ve posted more on page two of this post. Other links not included in the feature are the Jewish Week article quoted there, a New York Daily News op-ed article by Ali on Muslims, terrorism and the police and the attack on him by a tiny (“we are less than a handful…”) group of Islamists.

Uncertain future for France’s Muslim council

2003 launch of French Muslim Council with Nicolas Sarkozy (l), then French interior minister, 3 May 2003/Jacky NaegelenThe future of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), the state-backed body meant to represent the country’s second-largest religion, is once again shrouded in uncertainty. The Grand Mosque of Paris (GMP) announced on Saturday it would boycott elections next month for the CFCM leadership. Although the Grand Mosque and its national mosque network rank third in size behind rival organisations, a CFCM without it is a rump organisation that cannot really claim to represent Islam in France.

The CFCM has been paralysed by internal rivalries for most of its five years of existence. Back in 2003 when he was interior minister, France’s current President Nicolas Sarkozy engineered an agreement among the country’s main Islamic groups to create a council to speak for Muslims similar to the way the French Bishops’ Conference speaks for Catholics or the Consistory speaks for Jews. His ministry’s Religious Affairs Bureau kept close tabs on the Council and influenced its operations behind the scenes. But the CFCM could not overcome the divisions within the Muslim community itself. It rarely acted as a single body and member groups continued to compete with each other.

That competition now threatens the June 8 election.

Grand Mosque of Paris courtyard, 3 May 2008/Tom HeneghanWhile the Grand Mosque of Paris is the symbolic centre of French Islam, the main Muslim group are the Moroccan-backed Rally for French Muslims (RMF) and the Union of French Islamic Organisations (UOIF), which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood. The RMF has been steadily gaining ground and has strong backing from Rabat (it even held a conference of 250 leaders in Marrakech in February). Moroccan immigrants in France tend to be more observant than the Algerians close to the GMP (which is directly supported by Algiers). They have opened many mosques and prayer rooms around the country, often in suburbs or small towns where they can get ample prayer space.

Egypt outlaws protests in places of worship

Protest in al-Azhar mosque against Pope Benedict’s Regensburg speech, 22 Sept 2006/Nasser NuriEgypt’s parliament has passed a law criminalising protests in places of worship, a measure the government’s opponents see as part of a wider pattern of reining in popular opposition.

The bill has been touted as a bid to protect the sanctity of places of worship by a government eager to burnish its religious credentials, tarnished by unpopular foreign policy decisions and a continuous crackdown on the Islamist opposition.

However, the law passed on Wednesday is widely seen as an effort to clamp down on the protests often held in major mosques such as al-Azhar, the university-mosque that has been a center of Islamic learning for over a thousand years.

Andi versus al Qaeda — in Germany

Andi comic coverIt seems a bizarre tool in the hands of security officials, but German authorities believe a cartoon comic strip can help them get their message across to young people who might be tempted to flirt with militant Islamism. The unusual experiment in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Germany’s most populous state, has stirred international interest from as far away as the United States and Japan, according to the team behind the idea.

The comic is aimed at 12-16 year-olds and has been distributed in mosques and to every secondary school. “The reactions are almost entirely positive,” said Thomas Grumke, the interior ministry official who first thought up the hero Andi, his Muslim girlfriend Ayshe and the rest of the characters, including a militant imam and two young men who fall under his influence.

The story, which can be downloaded here in German, is interspersed with short passages of text addressing key issues and terms like sharia, jihad and the difference between Islam and Islamism. On that last point, it says: “Islam is a monotheistic religion (a belief in one all-embracing God), which is closely related to Judaism and Christianity. By contrast, Islamism is a political ideology which poses as ‘true Islam’ and wants to realise this as a binding, guiding principle for state and society. This ideology is directed against the free democratic order and thus is unambiguously extremist.”

Merkel muddles mosques and minarets

from Madeline Chambers in Hanover, GermanyGerman Chancellor Angela Merkel at CDU party conference, 3 Dec. 2007

Chancellor Angela Merkel suffered a slightly bumpy landing at the annual conference of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party in Hanover this week when she jumped on a popular bandwagon by saying that mosques shouldn’t stand higher than churches in Germany.

Mosque-building is a sensitive subject in Germany. Her fellow conservatives in Bavaria have been saying for some time that minarets should not dwarf church steeples. Local residents are up in arms about plans to build several mosques across Germany – in Berlin, Munich and Cologne.

However, Merkel — a Lutheran pastor’s daughter who grew up in communist East Germany — seems to have got mixed up with her terminology for sacred architecture.

Why we don’t call them “Muslim riots” in Paris suburbs

A burning car in Villiers-le Bel, 28 Nob 2007As soon as a riot starts in one of the poor suburbs around Paris, we get emails from readers and see comments on blogs accusing the media of hiding the supposedly key fact about the unrest. That fact, they tell us without providing any proof, is Islam. Why don’t we call this violence “Muslim riots?” they ask. What are we trying to hide by not identifying the rioters as Muslims? Do the MSM have a hidden agenda? Don’t we have the courage to “tell the truth?”

We’ve had rioting this week and the same questions came again. This blog has discussed this issue already in a post last month called “Smoke without fire – there was no Paris intifada in 2005.” That dealt with the 2005 riots in detail. This latest unrest is a good opportunity to explain why we don’t write “Muslim riots” — and ask in return why readers so far from the events are so convinced that we should.

We mention race and religion in Reuters news stories when they are relevant to the event being covered. It would be absurd to write “Presbyterian second baseman XYZ…” in a baseball story. He may be a Presbyterian, but he is not at second base as a Presbyterian, but as a baseball player.