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from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba and the power of religion

Following up on earlier posts here and here about Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), I've been looking closely at the arrest in Chicago on anti-terrorism charges of two men linked to LeT and accused of plotting attacks in Denmark.

Analysts say the Chicago case demonstrates the global reach of the militant group and its ability to plot attacks in India and around the world. The court documents submitted by U.S. authorities also allege that Lashkar-e-Taiba had suggested that attacks on India be given priority over the planned attack in Denmark, highlighting the threat still posed by the group one year after Mumbai.

As discussed in this factbox, analysts cite several reasons for Pakistan's reluctance to dismantle Lashkar-e-Taiba. These include its role in Kashmir and in India-Pakistan rivalry, and popular support for the humanitarian work of its Jamaat ud-Dawa sister organisation. They also cite an unwillingness to create a new enemy right now when Pakistan is already fighting the Pakistani Taliban in Waziristan and facing a wave of reprisal attacks in its cities. Lashkar-e-Taiba is the only Pakistani militant group which is not believed to have been involved in attacking targets within Pakistan itself.

None of that makes the group any less dangerous. But while researching the subject, I also found myself asking questions about the nature of the group and the kind of support it has -- beyond its alleged state backing. This is not to condone violence. But by failing to look at this support, particularly for Jamaat ud-Dawa's  humanitarian work, are we perhaps missing at least part of the point?

The religious ideology of the Markaz ud-Dawa wal Irshad which gave birth to Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat ud-Dawa is Ahl-e-Hadith, a Salafist school of thought which seeks a return to what it sees as the "purer" practices of the early Muslims. This ideology originally sprang from a rejection of the corruption of religion by political power and of the syncretism which had thrived in South Asia through a blending of Hinduism and Islam, and which also underpinned the popularity of the Sufi tradition.

Top Japan pol calls Christianity self-righteous, Islam hardly better

japan-buddhistA top politician in Japan’s ruling Democratic Party has praised Buddhism while calling Christianity “exclusive and self-righteous” and Islam only somewhat better.  Secretary-General Ichiro Ozawa made the remarks after meeting the head of the Japan Buddhist Federation, a group traditionally close to the rival Liberal Democratic Party, which was trounced by the Democrats in an August election.

Christianity “is an exclusive and self-righteous religion. And society in the United States and Europe, which are based on Christianity, are at a dead end,” the Nikkei newspaper quoted Ozawa as telling reporters after the meeting. “Islam is better, but it is also exclusive.” (Photo:Buddha statue at Todaiji Temple in Nara, western Japan, 29  Oct 2008/Itsuo Inouye)

Ozawa, seen by some as the mastermind behind the Democrats’ election win, had kinder words for Buddhism, which along with Shinto is the dominant religion in Japan, although many people take a mostly secular and eclectic view.  Christians are a tiny minority and Muslims are few in Japan.

from UK News:

Testing the limits of animal lab experiments

CHINAA mouse that can speak? A monkey with Down's Syndrome? Dogs with human hands or feet? British scientists want to know if such experiments are acceptable, or if they go too far in the name of medical research.

The Academy of Medical Sciences has launched a study to look at the use of animals containing human material in scientific research.

Using human material in animals is not new. Scientists have already created rhesus macaque monkeys that have a human form of the Huntingdon's gene so they can investigate how the disease develops; and mice with livers made from human cells are being used to study the effects of new drugs.

How East Germany’s communists misunderstood its Protestants

schroederAnniversaries are a time to look back at how the world was before the historic event being commemorated. During a recent trip to Berlin in advance of today’s 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall, I asked the former East German theologian and politician Richard Schröder for his recollections of the life as a Protestant pastor before the country fell apart. He zeroed in on a fascinating aspect of the Communists’ anti-religion policy I’d never heard about before. (Photo: Richard Schröder, 21 Oct 2009/Tom Heneghan)

“The Communists who took over in 1945 were trained in Russia,” he told me at his home in a southern suburb of Berlin. “Their model was the Russian Orthodox Church, which focuses heavily on the liturgy. By contrast, Protestant churches have always been a wide field that included Bible study and other discussion groups. All the charity work of the Protestant churches, like their hospitals, were started by what you might call grass roots movements of congregation members. They were not started by the churches themselves. But the Communists always tried to handle us as if we were Russian Orthodox.”

One way to do this was to demand the churches register in advance any meeting except their Sunday church services and the internal sessions of the church leadership. Officials were especially suspicious of the churches’ youth activities, such as camping trips that included Bible study sessions. The churches refused to agree because this would have been a way to block such activities without banning them outright — all they would have to do was fail to issue permission for the meeting. “The state made a second effort to impose this registration, but the churches decided to pay all the fines and not register the meetings. They got away with it. When the officials noticed the churches always paid the 500 mark fine but kept on holding their meetings, they stopped imposing the fine. It took a long time for the Communists to understand that the Protestant churches are a different version of Christianity than the strongly liturgical Orthodox Church.”

from Good, Bad, and Ugly:

Was religion relevant?

Motive probed for US army shooting rampage

KILLEEN, Texas, Nov 6 (Reuters) - Investigators searched for the motive on Friday behind a mass shooting at a sprawling U.S. Army base in Texas, in which an Army psychiatrist trained to treat war wounded is suspected of killing 13 people.

The suspected gunman, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a Muslim born in the United States of immigrant parents, was shot four times by police, a base spokesman said. He was unconscious but in stable condition.

I was wondering why, in the article about the suspect in the Fort Hood shooting, he was identified as, "Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a Muslim born in the United States" and the article about the Orlando gunman did NOT identify his religion?

Ruth Gledhill’s reflections on reporting about religion

gledhillCovering religion is unlike other assignments in journalism, as any reporter on the “Godbeat” can tell you. Ruth Gledhill (photo at right), veteran religion correspondent of The Times in London and fellow blogger (hers is called Articles of Faith), recently gave a short, witty and insightful talk on reporting about faith.

There’s a lot there in only 11minutes and 27 seconds. How about this for an opener: “The only place the press is mentioned in the Bible is in Luke 19 when Zacchaeus the tax collector has to climb a tree to see Jesus because of the crowds. The King James Version renders this: ‘he couldn’t see because of the press’.”

Click here for the audio tape of the talk. And let us know if you sometimes feel like Zacchaeus.

“Common Word” aims for “common deed” for peace

20091007commonword3 (Photo: Common Word conference with (from left) former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Georgetown University Professor John Esposito, Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik and former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, 7 Oct 2009/Georgetown University – Phil Humnicky)

Will a common word lead to a common deed? That’s the challenge that the “Common Word” group of Islamic scholars has posed at its fourth major Muslim-Christian dialogue conference now underway at Georgetown University in Washington. The group, which next week marks the second anniversary of its launch, has broken the ice with Christian leaders and fostered a lively and fruitful interchange with them. But it always said its goal was not simply to have more harmonious conferences among theologians. They want to make a real impact lessening tensions between Christians and Muslims out in the real world.

blairFormer British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, clearly endorsed this aim at the opening session on Wednesday. “The single most important thing is the translation of words into deed,” he told about 600 people attending the conference. “We’ve got to show — not by a dialogue among the elites, although it is very important that the key people come together — but actually building bridges among people.” (Photo: Tony Blair, 14 May 2009/Jason Reed)

Blair reminded his audience that many people think religion is not a solution but rather the problem in conflicts around the world. To counter this, he said, people of faith must not only foster understanding among believers but also refute the critics of faith.  “If we show by our actions that we are engaged in understanding and respect and justice, that is how we will succeed,” he said. “And that is what will overcome not just the extremism within religion but the cynicism outside of it.”

Will the Nobel Peace Prize go to a religious leader this year?

nobel-ceremony (Photo: Nobel Peace Prize 2008 award ceremony, 10 Dec 2008/Ints Kalnins)

The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday in Oslo. What are the odds that a religious leader will win? I checked with our bureau in Oslo for the latest buzz.

“The Peace Nobel is basically a guessing game,” chief correspondent Wojciech Moskwa warned. A total of 205 individuals and organisations were nominated this year and a record number remained on the secret short list late last month, he learned in an interview with Geir Lundestad, the head of the Norwegian Nobel Institute. Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, French-Colombian politician and former hostage Ingrid Betancourt, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Do and various U.N. organisations have gained traction as possible nominees, but Lundestad firmly declined to comment on the speculation.

prio-logoBy contrast, the independent International Peace Research Institute (PRIO) in Oslo publishes its own picks and it named Colombian peace activist Piedad Cordoba, Jordanian interfaith dialogue pioneer Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal and Afghan human rights activist Sima Samar as its favourites. “PRIO does not appear to have any special inside track, but they have on occasion been right,” said Moskwa.

Facts and false equivalence – reporting on evolution disputes

greatestshow_jacketBritish biologist Richard Dawkins, one of the leading voices of the “neo-atheist” movement, has taken the latest book-sized shot at the “intelligent design” movement. You can read my interview with Dawkins’ here about his new book: “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.”

For a scientist of Dawkins’ caliber, intelligent design is a barn-door sized target. In a nutshell, it maintains that life is so complex that it must be the work of a creator. Its boosters claim their view is based in science and not influenced by religion, but it is widely seen as a thinly-veiled attempt to give a scientific gloss to creationism. That claim to science is the key here — most religions believe that God created the world, of course, but they state this as an article of faith and not a scientific fact.

On this blog, we often report on issues related to science and religion. We have to remain agnostic on the biggest question of all — does God exist? — and take fundamental dogmas as the starting point for each faith. This sometimes strikes readers as strange or biased. Some think it already shows a prejudice against belief. But just imagine what would happen if we took sides on teachings such as the resurrection of Jesus or the divine origin of the Koran. We would not be practicing journalism anymore, but some kind of theological analysis or deconstruction, and our readers would not be getting the information they want about religion news around the world.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

In Pakistan, not over the moon

By Zeeshan Haider

Pakistan is battling Taliban militants, trying to patch up relations with old rival India and struggling to revive a limping economy but another issue has preoccupied the country over recent days: the sighting of the moon that markes the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

A row erupted when the Eid al Fitr holiday that follows Ramadan was celebrated in several parts of North West Frontier Province (NWFP) on Sunday, a day ahead of the rest of the country. Many Pakistanis say that violated a spirit of harmony and unity that should mark one of the
most important events of the Islamic calender.

Some clerics in NWFP announced on Saturday evening that the crescent moon, which marks the end of a month in Islam's lunar calender, had been sighted, meaning Ramadan was over and Eid would be celebrated the next day. But a government-appointed body of clerics responsible for
moon-sighting rejected the announcement, citing reports from the Meteorological Department that said the moon could not be seen on Saturday.