FaithWorld

A “Shi’ite invasion” of Sunni Arab countries? Qaradawi sees one

Yousef al-Qaradawi, 10 May 2006/Fadi Alassaad Egyptian cleric Yusef Al-Qaradawi has provoked a storm of criticism with comments this month attacking Shi’ites for alleged attempts to proselytize in Sunni Arab societies. It’s a debate which has been bubbling since 2003 when the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein — which the Sunni Arab governments didn’t like but know how to live with — was removed by the American-led invasion and ultimately replaced by a Shi’ite government reflecting the demographic superiority of Shi’ites in Iraq today.

Free to contact work with fellow Shi’ites in neighbouring Iran and develop links with the powerful Shi’ites of Lebanon and even with the more precariously-placed Shi’ites in the Gulf Arab coutnries, the rise of the Shi’ites in Iraq has been nothig less than a seismic shift in the region’s potical landscape. Numerous Arab leaders have shown their concern with comments suggesting a crescent of Shi’ite power was developing across the region from Lebanon to Iran (as Jordan’s King Abdullah has said) or that Arab Shi’ites real loyalties are to Iran (according to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak).

Al-Jazeera.net logoQaradawi’s intervention is of equal import. He is one of the most influential of Sunni religious figures, a former Muslim Brotherhood sheikh in Egypt who settled in Qatar where Al-Jazeera television gave him a weekly television show. His opinions generally reflect the mainstream of Islamist thinking, veering neither into the rigid obsessions of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism nor appearing to compromise principles for the sake of a modernity that suits the West.

In an interview with the Egyptian paper Al-Masry Al-Youm (in Arabic) on Sept. 9, he was asked which was more worrisome, Wahhabism or Shi’ism. He offered a brief, yet tart, crticism of Saudi Islam, then launched into the “danger of Shi’ism” discourse, which has centred mainly on unsubstantiated claims of Shi’ism’s spread in Syria. “They are Muslims but they have innovated (new ideas into Islam) and their Al-Masry Al-Youm logodanger is their attempt to invade Sunni society, and they are ready for it since they have billions in wealth and cadres trained to proselytize Shi’ism in Sunni countries,” he said. “Unfortunately, I have recently found Egyptian Shi’ites. Ten years ago they wouldn’t have succeeded in getting one. … Now they are in the newspapers, on television and come out openly with their Shi’ite beliefs. Shi’ites hide their beliefs and that’s what we have to watch out for. We have to protect Sunni societies from the Shi’ite invasion.”

UPDATE: Here’s a Qaradawi interview in English on Shi’ites from Asharq Al-Alawsat.

Off with their heads — Saudi clerics blast racy Ramadan TV

Ramadan television always throws up some controversy or talking point in the Arab world, but never of the nature of this year’s talking point. Hardline Saudi religious scholars are saying enough’s enough on the fun and frolics of Ramadan television and demanding trials for TV channel owners that could impose the death penalty.

MBC logoWhat’s more, these owners are in fact Saudi royals and their friends. The main culprit is MBC1, owned by a brother-in-law of former King Fahd, but others include billionaire playboy prince Alwaleed bin Talal, dubbed by the religious right in Saudi Arabia “the shameless prince” (al-amir al-majin). The clerics in Saudi Arabia have enormous influence and they are worried that liberals in government and their royal allies are plotting to caste them aside and secularise the country.

It is unlikely that Alwaleed or the family of Fahd’s sister are worried about the attacks. They live in a world apart of palaces, servants, private planes and cruise ships in France and probably no one could get near them if they tried. The clerics were careful to talk about a legal process in any case. In fact, one of them, Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan, said specifically that he wasn’t calling for vigilantes to take the law into their own hands.

“Something in the air” in Christian-Muslim dialogue

Yale Divinity School chapel, 25 July 2008/Tom HeneghanMeetings of theologians don’t usually make news. But trends can make news. A series of meetings can start to show some direction the participants’ thinking is going in. If it’s a new direction, and one with potentially positive results, then we journalists on the Godbeat take notice.

The “Common Word” conference now underway at Yale Divinity School in the United States is at the heart of a trend towards increasingly frequent and detailed discussions among Christian and Muslim scholars and leaders. This trend is a reaction to September 11 and other Islamist attacks in Western countries. To our 24/7 news culture, this sounds like a very slow-fused reaction indeed, but changing attitudes and building trust takes time.

Just about every conference participant I’ve spoken to has stressed that work towards greater understanding between Christians and Muslims was now moving ahead on several fronts. “There’s definitely something in the air,” remarked Miroslav Volf, a Protestant theologian who runs the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. As University of Cambridge theologian David Ford put it, “People were almost waiting for an initiative around which they could gather and which generally gave some way forward for Muslim-Christian engagement. Many initiatives were on the Christian side before but this was a Muslim initiative. It’s had the desired effect.”

In interfaith dialogue, beware of Saudis bearing gifts?

Saudi King Abdullah at Mecca interfaith dialogue conference, 4 june 2008/Ho NewSaudi Arabia’s King Abdullah looks determined to get his proposal for an unprecedented Muslim- Christian-Jewish dialogue off the ground. A three-day conference in Mecca to discuss this ended with a soaring declaration of goodwill and benevolent intent. Saudi media reported that Muslim clerics from around the world had supported the call and confirmed that dialogue with other faiths was legitimate in Islam.

The official Saudi Press agency said the meeting recommended holding “conferences, forums and discussion groups between the followers of the prophetic messages and relevant civilisations, cultures and philosophies to which academics, media and religious leaders will be invited”. Given the gazillions Riyadh must be earning with oil at $140 a barrel, it may not be long before we see all sorts of petrodollar-funded “dialogue sessions” being held here and there.

Interfaith dialogue is a good thing, but the recent rising chorus of calls for more such talk hasn’t just emerged out of a vacuum. There is already a decades-long history of dialogue sessions that essentially exchanged pleasantries and generated warm feelings but did little to actually reduce misunderstanding and mistrust. The latest generation of initiatives — for example the Common Word consultations and the “Painful Verses” book we’ve blogged about here — takes the disappointment with earlier efforts as its starting point and aims to tackle the issues that earlier dialogues tended to avoid.

More interest in Saudi king’s inter-faith talks idea

Saudi King Abdullah, 20 May 2008/Ho NewRemember that unexpected comment that Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah made in March that he wanted to hold an inter-faith dialogue with Christians and Jews? The Vatican welcomed it and the Tel Aviv newspaper Yedioth Ahronot reported that Saudi muftis were sending out feelers to Israeli rabbis about attending such talks, a report which was swiftly denied in Riyadh.

FaithWorld’s take on it at the time was sceptical. As Andrew Hammond in Riyadh wrote: “The king is seen in Saudi Arabia as a reformer but one who has been outmaneuvered by the powerful religious establishment and their allies in the royal family. The interfaith conference call may be a kind of trial balloon launched to see what kind of reaction it gets in a country where liberals and religious conservatives are engaged in an ideological struggle for the future of Saudi Arabia.”

The World Jewish Congress issued a statement on Monday welcoming the king’s proposal. It quoted WJC President Ronald Lauder as saying many obstacles still stood in the way but “King Abdullah’s initiative is a laudable step forward. We hope that other religious and political leaders throughout the world will be encouraged to join.” WJC Governing Board Chairman Matthew Bronfman added: “The World Jewish Congress is ready to participate in any serious inter-faith talks that are based on mutual respect.”

Should men-only Muslim teams be barred from the Olympics?

Saudi Arabia’s all-men team at the opening of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games,13 Aug 2004/Wolfgang RattayShould some Islamic countries be barred from the Beijing Olympics? The question came up in an interesting op-ed piece this week arguing that countries that ban women from competing in sports events violate the Olympic Charter and thus should be excluded from the Games. As Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, wrote in the International Herald Tribune:

The procession of the Olympic torch drew protests from Paris to San Francisco over China’s treatment of the Tibetan people, but no one has protested another tragedy that is afflicting millions of women in Saudi Arabia, Iran and other Muslim countries. Many Muslim women dare not even dream of the Olympics because their countries ban female sports altogether or severely restrict the athletic activities of the “weaker sex.”

The International Olympic Committee charter states that “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, sex or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

New York imam forges close ties with city’s Jews

New York Islamic Cultural Center, 23 April 2008/Tom HeneghanNew York’s largest mosque, the Islamic Cultural Center (ICC) on East 96th Street in Manhattan, is getting applause from an unexpected quarter — the city’s influential Jewish community … Much of the credit for the upbeat mood goes to Mohammad Shamsi Ali, the ICC’s Indonesian-born imam who arrived here only 12 years ago and has been rated by New York magazine as the city’s most influential Islamic leader.

At the end of my trip to the U.S. to cover the pope’s visit, I visited the ICC and interviewed Ali. After more research and interviews, I wrote the feature quoted above that just ran on the Reuters wire today. There is no Grand Mosque of New York, but the ICC unofficially plays that role. And Ali has emerged as one of the city’s leading Islamic personalities. As New York magazine put it, “Ali is the one imam who can mediate between the diverse and fractious elements of the 800,000-member Muslim community in New York … Since 9/11, he has become the community’s unofficial emissary to law enforcement and the mayor’s office.”

During our interview, Ali ranged over a wide number of topics. The strict format for our news features leaves little room for some of them, but I’ve posted more on page two of this post. Other links not included in the feature are the Jewish Week article quoted there, a New York Daily News op-ed article by Ali on Muslims, terrorism and the police and the attack on him by a tiny (“we are less than a handful…”) group of Islamists.

Saudi Arabian churches: a Vatican pipe dream?

Prophet Mohammad’s Mosque in Medina, 3 January 2007/Ali JarekjiMuch has been made of reports that the Vatican is holding talks with Saudi Arabia on building churches in the Gulf monarchy, the birthplace of Islam and stronghold of the conservative Wahhabi school of thought.

But it’s hard to imagine imminent breakthroughs, given broad-based scholarly opposition anchored in prophetic traditions and centuries of jurisprudence and commentary.

The IslamOnline (IOL) web site posted an article in Arabic polling prominent clerics on the issue, and offers some insight into the magnitude of clerical opposition such a prospect would generate.

Saudi mufti denies inviting Israeli rabbis

Saudi King Abdullah at a cabinet meeting in Riyadh, 24 March 2008//Ho NewThe call last week by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah for an interfaith dialogue has provoked outraged reactions from Saudi Islamists and praise from Saudi liberals. Saudis of all persuasions were taken by surprise when Abdullah made his announcement, which met with a quick and positive response from religious leaders abroad. The Vatican was said to be especially interested in this idea because Abdullah made a groundbreaking visit to Rome and met Pope Benedict last November.

But one report in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot went to the nub of the matter — will Jewish rabbis be able to visit the bastion of Sunni Islam and home to Islam’s two holiest sites? That would be big news. As the Israeli daily reported it, the Saudi grand mufti, the official government spokesperson on religious affairs, had begun sending out feelers to Israeli rabbis to attend some meeting in Riyadh at an unspecified date.

Well, the report made it into English and led to the mufti, Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Al al-Sheikh, issuing a carefully-worded denial. “The mufti clarified that what was published in some newspapers and news agencies saying that he had called on a group of Israeli religious scholars to take part in a religious reconciliation conference in Riyadh is devoid of any truth and has no basis,” the Saudi royal-owned paper Asharq al-Awsat reported on its front page on Wednesday. “He said: ‘I hope everyone will check facts before reporting things’.”

Allam baptism makes more waves, prompts more questions

The Magdi Allam baptism and debate about Catholic-Muslim relations in its aftermath continue to make waves. Here are a few interesting points that have come up in recent days:

    Pope Benedict baptises Magdi Allam, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliAt www.chiesa, a well-informed multi-lingual blog on the Roman Catholic Church, vaticanista Sandro Magister says the Vatican is more interested in an inter-faith dialogue proposed by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah than the one it has just begun with the Common Word group of 138 (plus) Muslim scholars. Magister notes that L’Osservatore Romano published stories on “two instances of dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam, demonstrating how this dialogue is showing promising developments precisely during the days of the controversy over the baptism of Allam, administered by the pope.” He adds: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear. In the judgment of the Church of Rome, the dialogue with Islam is not limited to the follow-up to the letter of the 138 – one of whose leading exponents, Aref Ali Nayed, has directed extremely harsh criticism against the pope for having baptized Allam – but is developed in multiple areas, some of which it believes are more promising than others.”
    Saudi King Abdullah at a cabinet meeting in Riyadh, 24 March 2008//Ho NewOur Riyadh bureau chief Andrew Hammond, looking at Abdullah’s call, wrote in an analysis,“the king is seen in Saudi Arabia as a well-intended reformer whose plans for change have largely been foiled by hardline clerics and their allies within the Saudi royal family.” One glaring example of this disconnect came recently in the Shura Council, a quasi-parliamentary body that has refused to support efforts by many Islamic countries to have the United Nations draw up a global pact on respecting religions and their symbols. This pact is one of the top diplomatic goals for many Muslim countries these days, including Saudi Arabia. One of the main supporters of this pact is the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, which is based in and heavily financed by … Saudi Arabia!
    That same www.chiesa post cited above included a long analysis by Pietro De Marco, a professor of the sociology of religion at the University of Florence and at the Theological Faculty of Central Italy. In it, he rejects in detail the criticism Sandro Magisterexpressed by the leading Common Word signatory Aref Ali Nayed and offers an interpretation of the baptism as Pope Benedict offering to help Islam to “seize the opportunity to exit critically from itself, to open itself to the dimension of the universal and to come back to itself as a reflectively renewed Islam.” This sounds like the invitation to dialogue that Pope Benedict offered in the Regensburg speech better known for his controversial use of a Byzantine emperor’s quote criticising Islam.
    Magister’s point about Catholic-Muslim dialogue proceeding on several fronts is interesting, even if we’re not so sure Abdullah’s proposals will get anywhere. The fact the Vatican is still pursuing the Common Word option was made clear in the reply that Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi gave to Nayed’s criticism. Check out the full text to see an excellent example of how to reject criticism yet keep all doors open to further dialogue.
    Samir Khalil Samir, S.J.Rev. Samir Khalil Samir, the Egyptian Jesuit who is one of the Catholic Church’s leading experts on Islam, has a long analysis on Asianews.it of Allam’s conversion. In it, he notes that both Christianity and Islam are missionary religions and adds: “The pope’s baptism of Magdi Allam is not an act of aggression, but an exigency of reciprocity. It is a calm provocation that serves to make us sit up and think. Each one of us must live as a missionary, attempting to offer to the other the best of what one has encountered and understood.”
    The National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen interpreted Pope Benedict’s John Allenmessage as follows: (1) For a pope committed to reawakening a strong missionary spirit in Catholicism, receiving a high-profile convert during the Easter Vigil is a symbolic way of making the point, (2) Allam’s baptism can also be read as a statement of solidarity with Muslim converts to Christianity around the world and (3) the episode illustrates an important wrinkle to Benedict’s personality — stubborn indifference to the canons of political correctness. Read more here.
    Magdi Allam at his baptism, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliThere have been comments on various Catholic blogs criticising the media coverage (by us and others) of the Allam baptism. The Catholic Church can baptise anyone it wants, they say, so stop making such a fuss about it. We haven’t had much of that in our comments sections but here’s an example of that argument from another blog. Anyone writing this is either wilfully playing naive or is actually naive. We never said Allam should not be baptised — we have no dispute with the Church’s right to do so. What we did was quote others, Catholics as well as Muslims, who questioned whether it had to be done with such publicity. Saying this event didn’t deserve the headlines it got shows a basic misunderstanding of both how the news media work and how the Vatican works.