FaithWorld

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Attack on Pakistani Christians revives Punjab worries

The mob violence against Christians in central Pakistan at the weekend appears to have hit a particularly raw nerve in a country already jittery about the spreading influence of Islamist militants. The deaths of eight Christians in the town of Gojra following unsubstantiated allegations that a Christian had desecrated the Koran has both revived debate about Pakistan's blasphemy laws and renewed worries about the potential for instability in its heartland Punjab province.

According to Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah, the violence may have been orchestrated by the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), an outlawed pro-Taliban Sunni Muslim sectarian group, and its al Qaeda-linked offshoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). He said that masked men had come from the nearby district of Jhang, birthplace of both SSP and LeJ, to incite the anti-Christian rioting, and that the government had received an intelligence report two months ago suggesting that militants were switching from suicide bombings to inciting sectarian strife.

Dawn newspaper called in an editorial for the repeal of blasphemy laws imposing severe punishment on those accused of insulting Islam.

"These laws have become a ticket in the hands of the majority to persecute and victimise the minority communities if they don’t easily submit to their inferior status in society," it said. "In not being blind to the faith of each individual, the state is supporting bias and bigotry against non-Muslims. The narrow-minded who spew venom through their sermons against religious minorities are only the loudest and most abominable symbols of such discrimination and their growing following is an unmistakable sign of the frightening future that we are heading towards."

Pakistani bloggers made the same demand - Sana Saleem at Mystified Justice and Kalsoom at Changing Up Pakistan both have excellent round-ups on the laws and the treatment of minorities in Pakistan.

Pakistani Christians burnt alive, sparking protests

Christian minorities in Pakistan protest against sectarian violence that saw seven burnt alive in their homes at the weekend. See our video report here.

UPDATE: Here is our report on Monday about Christian schools closing down for three days to mourn the deaths. Here is the original report on the attack.

Could gagged Mumbai confession do more good than harm?

hindux1A crucial part of gunman Mohammad Ajmal Kasab’s hindu-articleconfession at the Mumbai attack trial has been censored by the judge on the grounds that it could inflame religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India. After stunning the court on Monday by admitting guilt in the the three-day rampage that killed 166 people, Kasab gave further testimony on Tuesday that included details about his training by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistan-based militant group on U.S. and Indian terrorist lists.

The front-page report in today’s The Hindu, which noted the judge’s gag order in its sub-header, put it this way:

Ajmal made some crucial statements on Tuesday as part of his confession. They pertained to the purpose of the attack as indicated by the perpetrators and masterminds and the message they wanted to send to the government of India. Ajmal also wanted to convey a message to his handlers. However, this part of his confession faces a court ban on publication.

Algeria also opts for “Sufi card” to fight Islamist extremism

algeria-sufi (Photo: Sufi at festival in southern Algeria, 24 March 2008/Zohra Bensemra)

FaithWorld recently ran a post about Pakistan considering playing the “Sufi card” in its campaign against Islamist militants. The idea is that promoting this mystical and tolerant school of Islam could counteract the influence of more radical readings of the faith. It looks like they’re not the only ones considering this:

After using police raids, arrests and gun battles in its fight against Islamist insurgents, Algeria is now deploying a new, more subtle weapon: a branch of Islam associated with contemplation, not combat.

The government of this North African oil and gas producer is promoting Sufism, an Islamic movement that it sees as a gentler alternative to the ultra-conservative Salafism espoused by many of the militants behind Algeria’s insurgency.

Poll: Pakistanis against Taliban, disagree over sharia views

swat-talibanA new poll shows public opinion in Pakistan has turned sharply against the Taliban and other Islamist militants, even though they still do not trust the United States and President Barack Obama. Reporting on the poll, our Asia specialist in Washington, Paul Eckert, said the WorldPublicOpinion.org poll, conducted in May as Pakistan’s army fought the Taliban in the Swat Valley, found that 81 percent saw the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda as a critical threat to the country, a jump from 34 percent in a similar poll in late 2007. Read Eckert’s report here. (Photo: Pakistani Taliban in Swat, 2 Nov 2007/Sherin Zada Kanju)

The poll shows a wide divergence between Pakistani public opinion and the views of the Taliban on the implementation of sharia, a religious issue sometimes cited to help explain earlier tolerance of the militants. Some 80 percent of the respondents said sharia permits education for girls, one of the first services the Taliban close down when they gain control of an area. And 75 percent said sharia allows women to work, which the Taliban do not.

Reflecting their distrust, 71 percent said they believed the Taliban would not even submit to the sharia courts that they themselves have set up or promised to install as a pure and speedy alternative to Pakistan’s corrupt and inefficient civil courts. Only 14 percent supported the Taliban claim that it could provide more effective and timely justice than the state, a claim that partly helped the Islamist militants in the past (although it must be added that only 56 percent expressed trust in the civil courts). Only 9 percent said they thought the Taliban would do better at fighting corruption than the government, which got a lukewarm 47 percent. In any case, these results seem to indicate very little support for trademark Taliban promises that once seemed attractive.

“Sufi card” very hard to play against Pakistani Taliban

sufi-musicians-2One theory about how to deal with militant Islamism calls for promoting Sufism, the mystical school of Islam known for its tolerance, as a potent antidote to more radical readings of the faith. Promoted for several years now by U.S.-based think tanks such as Rand and the Heritage Institute, a Sufi-based approach arguably enjoys an advantage over other more politically or economically based strategies because it offers a faith-based answer that comes from within Islam itself. After trying so many other options for dealing with the Taliban militants now openly challenging it, the Pakistani government now seems ready to try this theory out. Just at the time when it’s suffered a stinging set-back in practice… (Photo: Pakistani Sufi musicians in Karachi, 7 May 2007/Zahid Hussein)

Earlier this month, on June 7 to be exact, Islamabad announced the creation of a Sufi Advisory Council (SAC) to try to enlist spirituality against suicide bombers. In theory at least, this approach could have wide support. Exact numbers are unclear, but Pakistan is almost completely Muslim, about three-quarters of its Muslims are Sunnis and maybe two-thirds of them are Barelvis. This South Asian school of Islam, heavily influenced by traditional Sufi mysticism, is notable for its colourful shrines to saints whose very existence is anathema to more orthodox forms of Islam. Among those are the minority of Pakistani Sunnis, the Deobandis, who are followers of a stricter revivalist movement founded in 19th-century India whose militant branch led to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Many Deobandis think Pakistan’s Shi’ite minority is not truly Muslim.

zardari-sufiThe late President General Zia-ul Haq was a Deobandi. With massive support from the United States, Saudi Arabia and other countries, he favoured Afghan guerrilla groups influenced by the Deobandis and Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis in the 1980s war against the Soviet Union.

Almost two million vanish from Obama’s estimate of U.S. Muslims

dawn-front-page002 (Dawn front page for Sunday, 21 June 2009)

Almost two million people have inexplicably disappeared from the estimates of the U.S. Muslim population that President Barack Obama has given recently. In his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo on June 4, he spoke about “nearly seven million American Muslims in our country today.” On Sunday, the Karachi daily Dawn published an interview with him where he said “we have five million Muslims.”

There was no explanation for the change, but his reason for citing the figure seemed to be the same. Shortly before his Cairo speech, Obama told the French television channel Canal Plus that “one of the points I want to make is, is that if you actually took the number of Muslim Americans, we’d be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world.” He cited no figure there but mentioned seven million in Cairo three days later.

Many blogs, FaithWorld included, questioned that figure and noted that estimates of the U.S. Muslim population range from 1.8 to 7-8 million. The U.S. Census Bureau cannot ask about religion on a mandatory basis but refers on its website to a Pew Forum study pegging Muslims at 0.6% of the population. The CIA World Factbook uses the same percentage figure. It translates into about 1.8 million.

Islamic tone, interfaith touch in Obama’s speech to Muslim world

obama-speech-baghdadIt started with “assalaamu alaykum” and ended with “may God’s peace be upon you.” Inbetween, President Barack Obama dotted his speech to the Muslim world with Islamic terms and references meant to resonate with his audience. The real substance in the speech were his policy statements and his call for a “new beginning” in U.S. relations with Muslims, as outlined in our trunk news story. But the new tone was also important and it struck a chord with many Muslims who heard the speech, as our Middle East Special Correspondent Alistair Lyon found. Not all, of course — you can find positive and negative reactions here. (Photo: Iraqi in Baghdad watches Obama’s speech, 4 June 2009/Mohammed Ameen)

Among Obama’s Islamic touches were four references to the Koran (which he always called the Holy Koran), his approving mention of the scientific, mathematical and philosophical achievements of the medieval Islamic world and his citing of multi-faith life in Andalusia. These are standard elements that many Islam experts — Muslims and non-Muslims — mention in speeches at learned conferences, but it’s not often that you hear an American president talking about them.

Two religious references particularly caught my attention because they weren’t the usual conference circuit clichés. One was his comment about being in “the region where (Islam) was first revealed” – a choice of past participle showing respect for the religion.

Religion and politics in “bewilderingly diverse” India

asghar-ali-engineer“Bewildingerly diverse” is the way Asghar Ali Engineer describes his native country, India. This 70-year-old Muslim scholar has written dozens of books about Indian politics and society, Islamic reform and interreligious dialogue. As head of the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai, he works to promote peace and understanding among religious and ethnic communities through seminars, workshops, youth camps, research and publications. The centre even organises street plays in the slums of Mumbai to teach the poor about the dangers of communalism.

Our long conversation at the Centre in Mumbai’s Santa Cruz neighbourhood of Mumbai during a recent visit to India provided a few key quotes for my earlier analysis and blog post on religion in the Indian election campaign. Since these issues are crucial to the general election taking place in India, I’ve transcribed longer excerpts from his answers and posted them on the second page of this post. (Photo: Asghar Ali Engineer, 14 April 2009/Tom Heneghan)

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The more you look, the less you see in Swat sharia deal

Ten days have passed since Pakistan cut a deal with Islamists to enforce sharia in the turbulent Swat region in return for a ceasefire, and we still don’t know many details about what was agreed.  The deal made international headlines. It prompted political and security concerns in NATO and Washington and warnings about possible violations of human rights and religious freedom. (Photo: Supporters of Maulana Sufi Mohammad gather for prayers in Mingora, 21 Feb 2009/Adil Khan)

In the blogosphere, Terry Mattingly over at GetReligion has asked in two posts (here and here) why reporters there aren’t supplying more details about exactly how sharia will be implemented or what the  doctrinal differences between Muslims in the region are. Like other news organisations, Reuters has been reporting extensively on the political side of this so-called peace deal but not had much on the religion details. As Reuters religion editor and a former chief correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I’m very interested in this. I blogged about the deal when it was struck and wanted to revisit the issue now to see what more we know about it.

After consulting with our Islamabad bureau, reading other news organisations’ reports and scouring the web, I have the feeling — familiar to anyone who has reported from that part of the world — that the more you look at this deal, the less you see besides the fact of the deal itself. The devil isn’t hiding in the details because there aren’t many there. He’s playing a bigger political game.