FaithWorld

Azerbaijan wrestles with Islam in rough region

baku (Photo: Building boom in Azerbaijan capital Baku, 3 Nov 2010/Osman Karimov)

The view from Nardaran’s vast sandstone mosque sweeps down through roses to the Absheron peninsula and the Caspian sea from which Azerbaijan derives its wealth. Devotion to Islam defines life in this dusty coastal village, where walls carry Koranic verses and social grievances against this strictly controlled former Soviet republic find voice in religion.

But it’s a way of life that sits uneasily with the secular regime of President Ilham Aliyev, an authoritarian who draws his power from rich reserves of oil and gas in the Caspian. “They are wealthy, but they are afraid,” Haji Aga Nuriyev, Naradaran elder and former head of the banned Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, said of the political elite around Aliyev.

Like much of the former Soviet Union — Christian and Muslim — this country of 9 million mainly Shi’ite Muslims has witnessed a limited religious revival since the collapse of Communism two decades ago.

The number of Azeris who pray regularly has risen to some 10 percent, according to polls. For the majority, their faith is a matter of fact, less a defining element of identity, and women in mini-skirts stroll the capital’s affluent downtown.

But the trend is one the government is determined to control, not least given the nature of its neighborhood: To the west lies Turkey, where a secular state must accommodate growing conservative religious influences, to the south the Islamic Republic of Iran, and to the north Russia’s Dagestan, gripped by an Islamist insurgency against Moscow.

Book Talk: UK Muslim author seeks roots of militancy

malikThe prominence of Britain’s Muslim minority in the nation’s debate about security and social cohesion provides the backdrop to journalist Zaiba Malik‘s memoir of growing up a British Muslim of Pakistani descent.

“We Are A Muslim, Please” tells how she was raised by first generation immigrant parents in the run-down former industrial center of the northern English city of Bradford in a tradition of conservative piety. (Photo: Pakistani-born British journalist Zaiba Malik in Dhaka on November 26, 2002/Rafiqur Rahman)

At the same time she was desperate to fit in at school, an overwhelmingly white British institution, an effort that led to years of excruciating anxiety and moments of low comedy.

Michelle Obama dons headscarf at Indonesian mosque

michelleU.S. First Lady Michelle Obama donned a headscarf on a visit to an mosque in Indonesia on Wednesday, not a requirement for a non-Muslim but a sign of the Obamas’ efforts to show respect for the Islamic world.

Wearing a beige headscarf adorned with gold beads and a flowing chartreuse trouser suit, she toured Jakarta’s Istiqlal Mosque, Southeast Asia’s largest, while on a short state visit to the world’s most populous Muslim country. (Photo: U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, Grand Imam Ali Mustafa Yaqub and President Barack Obama tour the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta November 10, 2010/Jason Reed)

U.S. President Barack Obama had been expected to visit another major religious site during his Asian tour, the Sikh Golden Temple in India, but media reports said the visit was canceled after aides balked at the idea of the president wearing a scarf or skullcap required at the site.

Muslims say Obama failing to keep Cairo promises

obama protest (Photo: A protest against U.S. President Barack Obama in Jakarta November 9, 2010/Dadang Tri)

President Barack Obama’s pledge on Wednesday in Jakarta to strive for better relations with the Muslim world drew skepticism in Cairo, where last year he called for a new beginning in the Middle East after years of mistrust.

Seventeen months after Obama’s Cairo University speech, al Qaeda is still threatening the West, peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians remain stalled over the issue of West Bank settlements and U.S. troops remain in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many in the Middle East believe that Washington’s tight alliance with Israel makes it impossible to end the suffering of the Palestinians, breeding cynicism among Arab Muslims toward U.S. intentions in the region.

Islam is no monolith in Obama speeches to Muslims

obama 2When U.S. President Barack Obama first addressed the Muslim world in its traditional heartland last year, his speech was laden with references to the past, to Islam and to the tensions plaguing the Middle East. Updating his speech on Wednesday on the far eastern fringe of that world, his upbeat remarks about Indonesia’s democracy, development and diversity spelled hope for the future. (Photo: President Obama greets the audience after his speech  in Jakarta November 10, 2010/Jason Reed)

But they were also veiled reference to autocratic Muslim countries. He held up Indonesia as an example for others to emulate, praising the progress it has made from dictatorship to a vibrant democracy tolerant of other religions.

Cairo and Jakarta offered contrasting backdrops to review Washington’s relations with countries whose main link is a faith they practice in varied and sometimes contradictory ways. The speeches clearly reflected those differences. In Cairo, the president spelled out seven problems to be solved in the Middle East. The Jakarta speech praised three areas where he said the world’s most populous Muslim nation enjoyed success.

Israel charges imam with incitement against pope

nazareth (Photo: Pope Benedict meets religious leaders in Nazareth, May 14, 2009, with many Muslim clerics in white and red turbans in the audience/Atef Safadi)

Israeli authorities have charged the imam of a mosque in Nazareth with inciting violence against Pope Benedict and supporting al Qaeda and “global jihad,” the justice ministry has said.

The indictment said Nazim Mahmoud Salim, who was arrested by police a month ago, led a group of about 2,000 worshippers, and had also preached at the flashpoint al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest shrine.

Salim is charged with inciting violence against Pope Benedict during his visit last year to Nazareth, the town of Jesus’ boyhood in the heartland of Israel’s minority Arab population.

A review of Christian-Muslim conflict and a modest proposal to counter it

conflict 1At a Christian-Muslim conference in Geneva this week, participants agreed to build a network for “peace teams” to intervene in crises where religious differences are invoked as the cause of the dispute. The idea is that religious differences may not be the real problem in a so-called religious conflict, but rather a means to mobilise the masses in a dispute that actually stems from political or economic rivalries. (Photo: Coffins of two of 52 killed in al-Qaeda-linked attack last Sunday on a Baghdad church, 2 Nov 2010/Thaier al-Sudani)

If outside experts could help disentangle religion from the other issues, the argument goes, that could help neutralise religion’s capacity to mobilise and inflame, in the hope of leading to a de-escalation of the crisis.

Is this idealistic? Maybe. However, given the number of crises throughout the world that have religion factored into the equation, it certainly seems worth the effort. Many of these conflicts are not simply battles between religious fanatics, as they may be presented, but calculated agitation by one group against another, usually for political or economic advantage. Some smokescreens are easy to see through, others almost impenetrable.

Christian-Muslim crisis response group to defuse religious tensions

wcc 1 (Photo: Christian and Muslim leaders at Nov 1-4, 2010 Geneva conference/WCC – Mark Beach)

Christian and Muslim leaders agreed on Thursday to set up “rapid deployment teams” to try to defuse tensions when their faiths are invoked by conflicting parties in flashpoints such as Nigeria, Iraq, Egypt or the Philippines. Meeting this week in Geneva, they agreed the world’s two biggest religions must take concrete steps to foster interfaith peace rather than let themselves be dragged into conflicts caused by political rivalries, oppression or injustice.

Among the organisations backing the plan were the World Council of Churches (WCC), which groups 349 different Christian churches around the world, and the Libyan-based World Islamic Call Society (WICS), a network with about 600 affiliated Muslim bodies. They would send Christian and Muslim experts to intervene on both sides in a religious conflict to calm tensions and clear up misunderstandings about the role of faith in the dispute.

“We call for the formation of a joint working group which can be mobilised whenever a crisis threatens to arise in which Christians and Muslims find themselves in conflict,” the leaders said in a statement after their four-day meeting.  “Religion is often invoked in conflict creation, even when other factors, such as unfair resource allocation, oppression, occupation and injustice, are the real roots of conflict. We must find ways to disengage religion from such roles and reengage it towards conflict resolution and compassionate justice,” said the statement issued in Geneva.

Mecca hopes to revive pilgrim tourism during haj

mecca (Photo: Muslims shop outside the Grand Mosque in Mecca, September 15, 2009/Fahad Shadeed)

Rashed Abdullah displays Oriental perfumes on a glass table to late-night shoppers in his small shop in Mecca ready for what he hopes will be a sales bonanza during this month’s haj pilgrimage. He is confident of attracting customers after fears of a swine flu outbreak kept many away last year.

“This year will be the best. There is really strong demand,” he said, standing behind an incense collection in one of dozens souvenir shops around the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

Business has picked up in Islam’s holiest city since Ramadan, the Islamic fasting month which fell in August and September when many visit Mecca. In 2009, the number of pilgrims fell to about 2.5 million but a record 4 million are expected next week when the haj begins.

Qaeda threat to Egyptian Christians may stir militants

egypt 1 (Photo: Demonstrators at the Amr Ibn El-Aas mosque in Cairo claiming a Christian woman had converted to Islam and was being held prisoner by a Christian church, September 5, 2010/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

Militants may feel emboldened by an al Qaeda threat against Egypt’s Christians, even if the network itself might struggle to mount such an assault.

The al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq, which launched an attack on a Baghdad church on Sunday that left 52 dead, has also threatened Egypt’s church.

While there are no signs of a re-emergence of a 1990s-style Islamist insurgency, Egypt remains alert to anything that could stir communal tension that sometimes boils up over issues such as cross-faith relationships and conversions.