FaithWorld

Interfaith talks on agenda in Mecca, Rome and London

Saudi King Abdullah (r) and former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 4 June 2008/Ho NewThere were interesting words on interfaith dialogue from Mecca and Rome today and London yesterday. Efforts to improve contacts and understanding among the main monotheist religions have been gaining steam recently and we’re starting to see some concrete steps. But, as a meeting in Mecca showed, the road ahead could still be quite rocky.

The Mecca meeting, organised by the Saudi-based Muslim World League, is supposed to draw up guidelines for the inter-faith dialogue that Saudi King Abdullah says he wants with Christianity and Islam. “You are meeting here today to say to the world with pride that we are a fair, honest, humanitarian and moral voice, a voice for living together and dialogue,” the monarch said in a high-minded speech.

But former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the few prominent Shi’ites at the conference, rained on his parade with broadsides against the United States and Israel. But he also said: “To have a dialogue with other religions we need to start talking among ourselves. The call needs to be directed at ourselves first of all, and all the sects need to agree on shared points. As a Muslim and a Shi’ite … I say the things we agree on are many.”

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, 25 Nov 2005/Jameson WuThat may have been a reaction to a statement this week by a group of independent Saudi clerics saying that Shi’ites, including Lebanese group Hezbollah, were posturing against Israel to hide an anti-Sunni agenda.

On the same day Abdullah spoke, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran said his Vatican department for inter-religious dialogue was drawing up its own guidelines for Catholic dialogue with non-Christian religions. He told Vatican Radio (here in Italian) the guidelines for priests and lay people would be based on the Ten Commandments, which he called “a kind of universal grammar that all believers can use in their relations with God and their neighbour.” This approach neatly links Christians with Jews and Muslims such as the “Common Word” scholars who’ve called for a dialogue based on the principle of love of God and neighbour.

Lambeth Conference: News or Not?

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, 22 Feb 2008/Darren StaplesIt has been spoken of as a setting for schism. But could the Lambeth Conference — the worldwide Anglican Communion‘s once-a-decade global meeting beginning July 16 in England — be a bust when it comes to headline-making news?

That’s the way leaders of the U.S. Episcopal Church see it. There will be no grand pronouncements made or resolutions voted on, they say. The traditional Western parliamentary idea that produces winners and losers on debated issues has been scrapped for face-to-face meetings. Some of them have been baptized ”Indaba groups,” which Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has described as a Zulu term denoting “a meeting for purposeful discussion among equals.”

The Rev. Ian Douglas, a professor of World Christianity at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts who helped plan the meeting, recently told reporters at a briefing:

Sharia comments debate details of Williams’s idea

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, 11 Feb. 2008/Luke MacGregorComments on Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’s speech about sharia are starting to explore some of the ideas in more detail. Opinions are still mostly against the idea, but there are some defenders and there are more balanced arguments than the first wave of reactions. Here are some of the latest items we found interesting:

First of all, documentation — Ruth Gledhill came up with Williams’s Q&A after the speech, including the full text and the video. Note he insists he is talking about “supplementary jurisdiction” and not “parallel systems.”

muslimmatters.org argues in Shariah ‘Courts’ and Freedom of Contract that the issue is simply one of arbitration, something already allowed under the law: “The fact that the parties are choosing to settle their commercial or social disagreements by reference to the Qu’ran is therefore of no more consequence to society than if they decided to settle the same dispute by tossing a coin, asking a neighbour to decide, or any of the other myriad of ways in which human beings settle disagreements peacefully.”

Are we too addicted to soundbites to discuss religion seriously?

Pope Benedict XVIArchbishop of Canterbury Rowan WilliamsThe uproar over Archbishop Rowan Williams and sharia law brings up a question we’ve asked before with Pope Benedict — are we too addicted to soundbites to discuss complex religious issues in public? Both have tackled difficult issues in nuanced speeches, only to see — rightly or wrongly — that what they thought was their message did not come across.

The Guardian says Williams was naive to discuss such a complex argument in public: “This was the stuff of seminars and was never going to register in the mass market without being boiled down into soundbites. The archbishop did not do that, ensuring others would. As a result, this most humane of men finds himself being caricatured as supporting the severing of limbs.”

Do you think religious leaders should simplify their message when they speak in public? Or do we — the media, politicians, bloggers, readers — have to make more of an effort to understand them?

Best of the blizzard over Rowan’s sharia brainstorm

The Sun, 10 Feb. 2008There’s been a blizzard of commentary about Rowan Williams saying that adopting some aspects of sharia into British law was unavoidable. A lot of it was predictable, like The Sun‘s “Bash the Bishop” headline. But there are several thoughtful pieces out there that ask important questions about religion and the law. Below are links to some of the best I found surfing around today.

Our contribution is “Devil in details” in archbishop’s sharia plan.”

What lies beyond Lambeth’s Sharia humiliation? and A multi-faith muddle — two pieces by Simon Barrow, director of the Ekklesia religious think tank, who sees Williams trying to link a declining Church of England with growing minority groups to press for opt-outs for religious groups from laws they find aggressively secular.

Trying to figure out what Rowan Williams is saying

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, 23 Oct. 2006/Claro CortesArchbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has set off a storm in Britain by saying that some aspects of sharia Islamic law would have to be integrated into the legal system there. There has been almost unanimous criticism of his proposals, including from some Muslim politicians. I’ve read through both his BBC interview and Temple Festival speech to see if there is another message that is being drowned out by the headlines and hullabaloo. There are signs of one, but there are so many questionable assumptions and assertions about Islam and sharia in there that these issues naturally dominate.

The archbishop’s statement about some aspects of sharia being”unavoidable” is so clear that it is hard to argue in his defence that it was taken out of context or hardened up by headline-hungry hacks. This is not like Pope Benedict’s ill-fated Regensburg speech in 2006, where the pontiff quoted a Byzantine emperor slamming Islam and later said he didn’t mean to say he agreed with it. Williams talked about accommodating some aspects of sharia law and spoke in detail about this.

His main complaint seems to be summed up in this passage late in the speech: “One of the most frequently noted problems in the law in this area is the reluctance of a dominant rights-based philosophy to acknowledge the liberty of conscientious opting-out from collaboration in procedures or practices that are in tension with the demands of particular religious groups.” His example for this is the case of Catholic adoption agencies in Britain that have been told they must stop refusing to provide children to gay couples or risk being shut down. The law should allow opt-outs for cases of conscience, he argues, something that is already allowed for doctors who refuse to perform abortions. He also notes that Orthodox Jews have their own courts for some religious issues. So his argument seems to be that opt-outs are needed and Muslims need to have theirs.

Rowan Williams says some sharia in Britain unavoidable

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams 16 April 2007//Mike CasseseArchbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the world’s Anglicans, has said the introduction of some aspects of sharia, Islamic law in Britain, was unavoidable. Other religions enjoyed tolerance of their laws in Britain, he told the BBC, and he called for a “constructive accommodation” with Muslim practice in areas such as marital disputes.

Williams stressed that “nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that’s sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states; the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well.

There are ways of looking at marital dispute, for example, which provide an alternative to the divorce courts as we understand them. In some cultural and religious settings they would seem more appropriate.” He also said that the argument that “there’s one law for everybody … I think that’s a bit of a danger“.

Blasphemy and the Beast as Britain debates church-state ties

British judges leave an annual service at Westminster Abbey in London, 3 Oct 2005/Stephen HirdAmong the idiosyncrasies of British life is the fact that this secularised open society has an established church and a law banning blasphemy against it. This anomaly was back in the headlines this week when a member of Parliament tried to abolish the blasphemy law with an amendment to a bill on crime and immigration. With the issue back on the table, another MP submitted a motion to disestablish the Church of England. By a coincidence some might see as a warning, it was listed as motion #666 — the number of the Beast in the Bible’s Book of Revelation, associated with Nero, the Antichrist and other opponents of Christianity.

Change is coming, but it won’t be apocalyptic. After heading off the amendment on the blasphemy ban, the government has pledged to scrap the outdated law against “scurrilous vilification” of the faith after consultation with the Church of England. Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has co-signed a letter to the Daily Telegraph advocating the abolition of a ban “in clear breach of human rights law.” The Church of England has signalled it could accept abolition if the government proceeds with caution.

(UPDATE Jan 12: Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, later said the Church of England “is not going to resist the repeal of the blasphemy laws given their awkward and not very workable legacy at present.”)

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.

Not your usual Christmas card — Muslim leaders greet Christians

Memon Mosque in Karachi, Pakistan, 9 Oct 2007Christmas greetings of peace on Earth and good will to all — what could be more common during this holiday season? It’s heard so much that it’s practically a cliché. But this familiar tune takes on a new tone when the greetings come from leading Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals. The same group of 138 Muslims that invited Christians to a theological dialogue last October has just sent its Christmas greetings to the Christian world (see the text and our news story). What struck me the most about it is that it was even sent at all.

As a decentralised religion with no single leader or leadership group to speak for it, Islam (1.3 billion faithful around the world) has always been “structurally disadvantaged” in comparison to Christianity. The world’s largest religion (2 billion) has one highly centralised church, Roman Catholicism (1.1 billion), led by a highly visible pope. Other large Christian families like the Orthodox (220 million), Anglicans (77 million) and the many different Protestant denominations all have clearly defined leaders who can speak for the faithful. The absence of such figures in Islam has allowed a wide variety of pretenders to claim to speak in the name of Muslims. To put it in terms of the current season, they couldn’t all send a Christmas card to Pope Benedict or Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew or Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams because they had no forum for getting together to do so. Individual sheikhs, muftis, imams or mosque rectors might send their greetings to a friendly local bishop, vicar, preacher or priest they knew personally, but there wasn’t exactly heavy traffic.

Muslim judges at a conference on Sharia law in Amman, 3 Sept. 2007The group of 138 that issued the appeal called A Common Word is changing that. Representing Sunnis, Shi’ites, Sufis and other schools of Islam, they can claim more than anyone else to speak for large numbers of Muslims. Sure, we can’t say how many they represent. Of course, they are a mixed group. Naturally, they don’t all agree on everything. And yes, there may be disputes within the group, maybe defections and additions as it develops. But they are from a broad spectrum of Islam and have organised themselves enough to first send a response to Pope Benedict’s Regensburg lecture (back when they were only 38), then propose a dialogue with the Christian world (which the major churches have accepted) and now send these Christmas greetings. Non-Muslim cynics might scoff that signing a Christmas greeting is not all that difficult. But anyone who knows anything about Islam can see this is a significant new step.