Perhaps the most influential Islamic leader that most non-Muslims have never heard of is a Turkish preacher named Fethullah Gülen. Now living in the United States, he stands at the head of a broad movement that runs schools in Turkey and abroad as well as businesses and a publishing empire. His group also actively conducts dialogue with other religions. His supporters praise him as an important modern and moderate Muslim thinker, but some people in Turkey suspect he is trying to infiltrate the secular state there.
Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has just published a study called “Estimating the Impact of the Haj: Religion and Tolerance in Islam’s Global Gathering.” The pilgrimage is often described as the highpoint of a Muslim’s religious life. Media reporting usually stresses the experiences of the people taking part in it. But what is the longer-term effect of participating in such a massive and moving pilgrimage? This study, based on data from over 1,600 applicants to Pakistan’s haj visa allocation lottery in 2006, had some interesting conclusions:
The Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad were widely condemned in the Muslim world and led to violent protests, attacks on embassies and even deaths. Even in recent days, they have continued to stir more protest (in Pakistan) and create security problems (in Afghanistan). They have set off a kind of “clash of civilisations” with a Muslim side denouncing them as blasphemy and a western side defending them as freedom of speech. The whole dispute has been extremely polarising.
The nascent Catholic-Muslim dialogue sparked by the “Common Word” initiative was never going to be easy, even under the best of circumstances. There is a lot of suspicion, misunderstanding and different agendas to deal with. And then there are the surprises that can come seemingly out of nowhere and blow the effort off course, at least temporarily. One of these was the baptism of the Egyptian-born Italian journalist Magdi Allam by Pope Benedict that popped up by surprise on Saturday evening and highlighted some of the twists along the path of inter-faith dialogue.
An interesting thing happened in the Pakistani elections this week. A country where radical Islamism has been on the rise in recent years went to the polls and voted Islamists out of office. In North West Frontier Province (NWFP), the most “Talibanised” part of the country, an avowedly secular Pashtun party — the Awami National Party — emerged as the largest party by far. This bucks what seemed to be a trend in the Muslim world, i.e. the freer the election, the more chances the Islamists have. Think back to late 1991, when the Algerian military cancelled the run-off round of elections after the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) took a strong lead in the first round. In more recent years, elections in Egypt, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza have shown Islamists doing well at the polls. In a very different context, Turkey’s “post-Islamist” AKP has gone from strength to strength thanks to the ballot box.
Before it slips from the news, take a look at a scandal in India that illustrates one of the biggest bioethical challenges we face in a globalised world. Last weekend, Nepal handed over to Indian authorities an Indian man arrested on suspicion of running a huge illegal kidney transplant racket. It seems this ring duped poor Indians into selling kidneys that could be transplanted into rich Indians and foreigners at many times the fee that the unwitting donors received. At least five foreigners — two U.S. and three Greek citizens — were found in a luxury guesthouse run by the racket in a city of high-tech companies just outside New Delhi.
An important question in the Pakistani general election and provincial elections coming up on Feb. 18 is how the Islamist parties there will fare. These parties, which usually scored below 10 percent in the past, shot up to a total 17 percent of seats in the National Assembly at the last election in 2002. They also won power in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and shared power in Baluchistan — the two provinces that border Afghanistan and have been most destabilised by the Taliban and Al Qaeda operating in the region.
Karen Armstrong, the best-selling British writer and lecturer on religion, has given a long interview to Reuters in Islamabad after addressing a conference in the Pakistani capital. A former Catholic nun who now describes herself as a “freelance monotheist,” she has written 21 books on the main world religions, religious fundamentalism in these faiths and religious leaders such as Mohammad and Buddha. Her latest book is The Bible: A Biography. The short version of what she said is in the Reuters story linked here. We don’t publish the Q&A text of our interviews on our news wire, but we can do it here on the blog.
(Update: Edhi returned to Karachi on Feb. 4.)
When U.S. immigration officers question an arriving Pakistani for eight hours and seize his passport, they presumably suspect some kind of link to Islamist terrorism. Abdul Sattar Edhi, 79, “has links” to some horrifying violence, so to speak, but it’s hard to imagine they’re the kind that immigration officers may have suspected when they detained him at New York’s Kennedy Airport on Jan. 9.
Returning to news reporting after two weeks off feels like you’ve been away for two weeks. Returning to blogging after a holiday break feels like you’ve been away for an eternity. So much going on! My colleague Ed Stoddard in Dallas was minding the shop, but he was unexpectedly sent off to report the news from the campaign trail. That gave FaithWorld a very American accent, which was a timely twist given the role of religion in the Iowa vote. It’s back to the view from Paris now — here are some inital comments on recent events concerning religion around the world: