FaithWorld

from Global News Journal:

Southeast Asia’s Islamists try the domino theory

Photo: Jihad book collection in Jakarta Sept.21, 2009. REUTERS/Supr

A half-century ago, Washington worried about Southeast Asian nations falling like dominoes to an international communist movement backed by Maoist China, and became bogged down in the Vietnam War.

Noordin Top, believed to be the mastermind behind most of the suicide bombings in Indonesia -- including the July 17 attacks on two luxury Jakarta hotels -- pronounced himself to be al Qaeda's franchise in Southeast Asia.

Top and his allies in Jemaah Islamiah (JI) aimed to create an Islamic caliphate across Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, southern Thailand and Southern Philippines. Even before the 9/11 suicide airliner attacks, they were trying to spark an Islamic revolution with ambitious plots and attacks.

Their young foot soldiers dreamed these pro-Western nations (which had banded together to form ASEAN under the U.S. military umbrella at the height of the Vietnam War in 1967) might fall like dominoes to the righteousness of an Islamic jihad. Their martyrdom to the cause would given them a blissful reward in Heaven.

But just as Communism was not the monolith it was feared to be in the 1960s -- China and the Soviet Union had split for one thing -- so too has the Southeast Asian jihadist movement failed to cohere into a singular movement.

Cuba authorises first prison religious services in 50 years

cuba-prisonThe Cuban government has given permission for religious services to be held in the island’s prisons for the first time in 50 years, a church official has said.

The services will be allowed in all prisons where the inmates request them, said Marcial Miguel Hernandez, president of the Cuban Council of Churches. (Photo: Combinado del Este men’s prison outside Havana, 31 March 2004/Claudia Daut)

“For us, it’s an expression and act of good faith by the Cuban authorities,” he told Reuters.

“The Evolution of God” — a purpose-driven history?

U.S. author Robert Wright traces the history of God and suggests that it might all point to the unfolding of something divine, though perhaps not in the sense that most people of faith would envision.

wright_theevolutionofgod

In his just published “The Evolution of God,” Wright takes his readers on a thought-provoking journey through the spiritual beliefs of our hunter-gatherer ancestors to the development of the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. You can see my interview with Wright here.

Wright’s engaging book covers a lot of ground and it certainly raises many questions that may be of interest to readers of this blog. I’m just going to throw a few of them out here — trust me, there could be many, many more.

Why beer doesn’t mix well with mainly Muslim Malaysia

beerBeer, which as an alcoholic beverage is forbidden in Islam to its believers, has long had it easy in mainly Muslim Malaysia. The country’s population of 27 million is made up of about 55 percent Malay Muslims and mainly Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities who practice a variety of faiths including Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism. The personal right of the non-Muslims to drink alcoholic beverages is legally recognised, a sign of tolerance despite the special status of Islam under Article 11 of the Malaysian constitution.  So beer is not difficult to find in convenience stores, supermarkets and entertainment outlets. (Photo: Beer drinkers, 20 July 2009/Nguyen Huy Kham)

But this easygoing attitude towards beer has hit the rocks of late amid what some suspect has been a growing religiosity of the country’s Muslims.  Last month, 32-year old Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarnor very nearly became the first woman to be caned in Malaysia for drinking alcohol under rarely enforced Islamic criminal laws.  Caught drinking beer in a hotel lobby in the eastern state of Pahang by religious enforcement officers, she was sentenced to six strokes of the cane and a fine.  This was possible because Malaysia practices a dual-track legal system. Muslims are subject to Islamic family and criminal laws that run alongside national civil laws.

malaysia-1A Malaysian Islamic appeals court judge ordered a review of Kartika’s sentence, but a public debate is still raging. Opinions are divided even among Islamic scholars with some questioning what the exact punishment for the offence, which isn’t specified in the Quran, should be. Others are in full support and believe that Kartika’s sentence was mild.

Waiting in France for a fatwa against forced marriages

dioufIt’s Ramadan and on a bustling shopping street on the fringes of northern Paris, the holy month is in full swing. Bearded men in long robes collect alms, women in headscarves sell sweet pastries. But the period of fasting and charitable acts has little impact on the work of activist Christine Jamaa, whose office is in a secret location not far from the busy street market.

Jamaa, who heads the Voix de Femmes (Women’s Voice) group helping victims of forced marriage,  met me there last week for a interview for my feature “New school year puts French on forced marriage alert.” In the feature, another activist, Fatou Diouf (pictured above in a photo by Jacky Naegelen), told of her family’s attempt to kidnap her and force her into marrying her uncle in Senegal at the age of 18.

While I was in Jamaa’s office, her phone was constantly ringing with emergency calls from threatened girls and women – most of them Muslims of Africa, Asian or Middle Eastern descent. Jamaa herself is a Muslim, like many of the activists who help victims of forced marriage here, and she keeps telling the families and the women at risk that Islam bans forced marriage.

from Photographers' Blog:

Tibetan mountain spirits

 

Every summer the green hills of Rebkong are home to unique celebrations during which local Tibetans believe the mountain gods visit villagers -- and each other -- through human mediums.

Reuters photographer Christina Hu documents the celebrations in the multimedia presentation above. To read the full story click here.

from India Insight:

What makes a religious symbol conspicuous?

Last week, a college in Mangalore in India banned a student wearing a burqa from attending class. The principal told local media the college had a policy of not allowing symbols of religion.

The media did not say if there were students on campus with a 'bindi' (dot) on their foreheads or crucifixes around their necks or turbans on their heads, other symbols of religion one commonly sees in India, besides the ubiquitous "Om" scarves and t-shirts.

Mangalore, a cosmopolitan city, is no stranger to controversy; it was recently in the news for attacks on bars and women by a fundamentalist Hindu outfit that declared they were against Indian culture.

How God (or more precisely, meditation) changes your brain

how-god-changes-your-brainSome book titles are too good to pass up. “How God Changes Your Brain” is neuroscientist Andrew Newberg‘s fourth book on “neurotheology,” the study of the relationship between faith and the brain. All are pitched at a popular audience, with snappy titles like “Born to Believe” or “Why God Won’t Go Away.” Anyone reading the latest one, though, might wonder if the title shouldn’t be “How God Meditation Changes Your Brain.” As he explains in an interview with Reuters here, the benefits that Buddhist monks and contemplative Catholic nuns derive from meditation and intense prayer are also available to atheists and agnostics. The key lies in the method these high performing believers use, not in the belief itself. But that would have made for a more awkward title.

That’s not to say Newberg doesn’t have some interesting points to make in this book. His brain scans of meditating monks and praying nuns show that the frontal lobe — the area that directs the mind’s focus — is especially active while the amygdala — the area linked to fear reactions — is calmed when they go through their spiritual experiences. His studies show these brain regions can be exercised and strengthened, like building up a muscle through training. And his treatment of a mechanic with a faltering memory showed that a traditional Indian meditation method, even when stripped of its spiritual trappings, could bring about these changes in two months.

The book goes on to ascribe a list of positive results from meditation and offer advice on caring for the brain. Newberg’s “number one best way to exercise your brain” is faith. As he puts it, “faith is equivalent with hope, optimism and the belief that a positive future awaits us. Faith can also be defined as the ability to trust our beliefs, even when we have no proof that such beliefs are accurate or true.” Critics, especially clerics, would probably protest that this is not really theology, but psychology. If we’re talking about God, where’s the religion?

from AxisMundi Jerusalem:

Jewish Custom in the Time of Swine Flu

ISRAEL/In Israel, the death count for the H1N1, or swine flu, outbreak reached 7 yesterday, and for some citizens, fighting the virus has taken on some religious dimensions.

Israel's leading paper, Yedioth Ahronoth, wrote an article about health concerns raised by Israel's Ultra Orthodox media: kissing mezuzahs. A mezuzah is a tiny encasement holding a piece of parchment with a Jewish prayer enscribed on it. Mezuzahs are nailed to most doorways inside a Jewish home, and traditionally, Jews will touch the mezuzah and kiss their fingers when entering a house.  An ultra-orthodox journalist decided to ask seven doctors their opinion on whether this tradition could be dangerous in the Swine flu era.

According to Yedioth Ahronoth, "The doctors unanimously agreed that bacteria leave high levels of residue on such objects, but six of them refused to comment on mezuzot in particular, 'so as not to get in trouble with the rabbis'."

from Global Investing:

Islamic finance faces diversity crossroads

Is diversity of opinion boon or bane for Islamic finance?

Market participants gathered for a conference at Thomson Reuters’ London headquarters earlier this week discussed the need for more convergence in the industry estimated to be worth $1 trillion.

Of particular focus was the role of sharia scholars who rule on whether investment products are in line with Islamic teachings.

“Sharia scholars who sit as advisers have a crucial role to play in retaining public confidence,” Rifaat Ahmed Abdel Karim, secretary general of the Islamic Financial Services Board, an international standards-setting body for the industry, told the forum.