FaithWorld

Harvard haj study examines Mecca’s effect on Muslims

The Kaaba as seen from the first floor of the Grand Mosque sanctuary, 20 Dec 2007Harvard’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:

Our findings show that … the Haj has quite a remarkable effect in shaping the views of Pakistani pilgrims. It induces a shift from localized beliefs and practices towards global Islamic practice, increases tolerance, and leads to more favorable attitudes toward women. We find no evidence that by raising cohesion within the Muslim community, the Haj threatens non-Muslims. On the contrary, the Haj makes pilgrims more peacefully inclined, and increased tolerance extends to adherents of other religions.

The evidence suggests that these changes are more a result of exposure to and interaction with Hajis from around the world, rather than religious instruction or a changed social role of pilgrims upon return.

Click here to download the PDF of the whole study.

(hat tip to The God Blog)

Amr Khaled sees good side of Danish Mohammad cartoon row

Protesters set fire to Danish consulate in Beirut, 5 Feb. 2006/Mohamed AzakirThe 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.

Now one of the most popular preachers in the Middle East, Egypt’s Amr Khaled, has said there were positive sides to the uproar. The caricatures “were useful for Muslims and the Islamic world” because they prompted Muslims to stand up for the Prophet and for Islam, the television preacher told the German news agency dpa on Monday. The dispute “charged the batteries of Muslim youths, strengthened their faith and got them to stand up actively for their religion.”

Can a controversy that polarises people and leads to death and destruction be “useful” for a religion?

Strong words, raw nerves in Catholic-Muslim relations

Pope Benedict at Easter Vigil, 23 March 2008//Dario Pignatelli 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.

The most surprising part about Allam’s baptism was not that he converted. He has been living in a traditionally Catholic country for 35 years, is married to a Catholic, is close to the lay Catholic movement Communion and Liberation, has long been highly critical of radical Islam and says he was never an especially pious Muslim. The surprise was that the Vatican would make it such a prominent event. There was a second surprise, too — the fact that Allam published such a hard-hitting declaration about his conversion, his view that Islam is intrinsically violent and that the Catholic Church has been too timid about converting Muslims. We quoted from the Corriere della Sera original on Sunday, but now the Catholic news agency Zenit has provided an English translation.

Magdi Allam at his baptism, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliReporting from Rome, the Paris daily Le Figaro had an interesting detail. It wrote on Monday that Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and as such the Vatican’s point man for relations with Islam, had not been informed about the Allam baptism before it happened. If this is true, it suggests some behind-the-scenes Vatican politics on how to deal with Muslims. It would seem that Tauran should have been informed on a need-to-know basis — this is, after all, his area of responsibility — but somebody didn’t do it.

Pakistan bucks apparent Islamist trend in elections

Pakistani voters in Karachi, 18 Feb. 2008/Athar HussainAn 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.

We expected the Islamists to lose but that doesn’t make the result any less interesting. The Islamist parties won only about 1 percent of the seats in the National Assembly, a Maulana Fazlur Rehman, 3 March 2006/Asim Tanveerprecipitous drop from the 17 percent they scored in the 2002 vote. One crucial factor here is that opposition parties like the PPP of the late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League were allowed to run, in contrast to the 2002 poll that the then soldier-president Pervez Musharraf restricted to”friendly” parties. The conspiracy theory in Pakistan was that Musharraf made sure the Islamists advanced in order to make himself indispensable to the United States, the argument being “if you drop me, they’ll take my place”.

In NWFP, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) alliance of Islamist parties won only 11 of 99 seats in the provincial assembly after governing there with a majority in the assembly for the past five years. One of the most prominent Islamist leaders, the Taliban-friendly Maulana Fazlur Rehman, was defeated in his NWFP home town of Dera Ismail Khan in his bid for re-election to the National Assembly. In Baluchistan, the other province with Islamists in government, the MMA won only five of the 65 seats in the provincial assembly.

Indian kidney scam highlights bioethics challenge

Egyptian shows scar after kidney stolen from him in hospital, 3 Aug. 2007/Nasser NuriBefore 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.

Demand for cheap kidneys has skyrocketed in recent years in rich countries, mostly because people there are becoming more obese and suffering from kidney failure. This has led to “transplant tourism” where patients from rich countries travel to the developing world to receive new kidneys. It has led to serious proposals to set up a global kidney market to meet the demand.

This black market in kidneys for transplants is widely denounced as illegal and immoral because it exploits poor people. But would creating a worldwide organ trade make the practice any more moral? Is the danger of exploitation of the poor so strong that lawmakers should ensure that money doesn’t end up deciding everything?

Islamist parties face drubbing in Pakistan vote

Supporters of Islamist Jamaat-i-Islami party rally in Peshawar, 28 Jan. 2008/stringerAn 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.

Zeeshan Haider, senior correspondent in our Islamabad bureau, visited the NWFP capital Peshawar to gauge the voters’ mood. Here’s what he found :

Pakistani voters are expected to succeed where President Pervez Musharraf has failed, pushing back the Islamist tide and throwing out of power political clerics governing Pakistan’s violent northwest.

Q&A: Karen Armstrong on Pakistan, Islam and secularisation

Karen Armstrong at an interview with Reuters in Islamabad, 3 Feb. 2008/Mian KursheedKaren 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.

Q:You were last in Pakistan in 2006. What brought you back this time?

A: There is a really poignant hunger here, as well as in other parts of the Muslim world, to hear a friendly Western voice speaking appreciatively of Islam. It is a sad thing for me that this should be such an unusual event, but given the precarious state of relationships between so-called Islam and the West it seems something that is important to do.

Q: Pakistan seems to be a crucial place for the future of Islam at the moment. How do you see the impact of events in Pakistan in terms of developments in Islam as a whole?

Pakistan’s “Mother Teresa” detained by U.S. immigration

Abdul Sattar Edhi holds baby recovered from human smuggling ring, 15 March 2002

(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.

Edhi and his colleagues care for — and, when necessary, bury — the victims of violence in his native city Karachi. His private Edhi Welfare Trust foundation runs an extensive ambulance service, buries unclaimed bodies and maintains centres for orphans, the homeless, the addicted and the mentally ill. In a country where state-run welfare services are basic or non-existant, his charity work is so unusual and prominent that he is often called “Pakistan’s Mother Teresa”.

When a bomb blast in Karachi last October killed 139 supporters of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto (herself later assassinated), Edhi ambulances were among the first helpers to arrive at the scene. One report noted the trust collected 110 of the victims, and washed and wrapped them in shrouds according to Muslim custom at its morgue so relatives could claim them.

Back to the blog — first impressions after a break

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:

Bhutto’s upcoming bookBenazir Bhutto — The assassinated Pakistani leader will speak from beyond the grave next month when her book Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West is published. HarperCollins has announced it has brought forward to Feb. 12 the release of the book that Bhutto worked on before returning to Pakistan in October. In a statement, it called the book “a bold, uncompromising vision of hope for the future of not only Pakistan but the Islamic world. Bhutto presents a powerful argument for a reconciliation of Islam with democratic principles, in the face of opposition from Islamic extremists and Western skeptics.”

It will be interesting to see what she has to say about the role of Islam in Pakistani politics, especially after all the praise for her as a modern, secularist Muslim leader in comments after her assassination. Bhutto’s party is politically secularist and she pledged to fight against Islamist militants now challenging the Islamabad government. But let’s not forget that the Taliban emerged during her second stint as prime minister in 1993-1996 and were a key element in Pakistani policy towards Afghanistan at the time. She worked with an Islamist politician close to the Taliban then and now. It was also on her watch that, as historian William Dalrymple put it, Kashmir was turned into “a jihadist playground.” Whether she supported all this, couldn’t oppose the military people behind it or both (that’s my hunch) is something historians will debate long into the future. But it is clear that her record is more complex than some of the eulogies would have it.

Are “moderate” Muslims mum when they should speak out?

Ayaan Hirsi AliAyaan Hirsi Ali has an op-ed piece in the New York Times called “Islam’s Silent Moderates” today asking why moderate Muslims have not protested loudly against the “teddy bear case” in Khartoum and the Qatif rape case in Saudi Arabia. She makes some good points, especially asking why the Organisation of the Islamic Conference has not said anything. The OIC is quick to defend Islam and Muslim countries when the criticism comes from the outside, including from her.

Then she wrote:

For example, I would welcome some guidance from that famous Muslim theologian of moderation, Tariq Ramadan. But when there is true suffering, real cruelty in the name of Islam, we hear, first, denial from all these organizations that are so concerned about Islam’s image. We hear that violence is not in the Koran, that Islam means peace, that this is a hijacking by extremists and a smear campaign and so on. But the evidence mounts up.

“Why are the Muslims silent?” has been a mantra of many Western critics since at least the time of 9/11. It comes up fairly regularly after Islamist attacks or egregious cases of human rights violations in the Muslim world. It’s true that many Muslim leaders have avoided speaking out. But there have also been quite a few Muslim condemnations of terrorism that seem to have gone unnoticed. Something has been changing on this front and it has been evident these days. Hirsi Ali has either missed it or does not want to mention it.