FaithWorld

More activity on the Christian- Muslim dialogue front

Saudi King Abdullah at a cabinet meeting in Riyadh, 24 March 2008//Ho NewThe dust had hardly settled from the Magdi Allam baptism story when Saudi King Abdullah announced he wanted to promote dialogue between Muslims, Christians and Jews. The World Council of Churches came out with its endorsement of the Common Word dialogue appeal after consulting member churches (many of which have already responded positively). And the World Economic Forum issued a study that says, among other things, that fewer than 30% of Muslims and Christians polled thought the other faith was sincerely interested in better understanding and cooperation. What’s going on?

The first thing to say is that these all seem to be different developments. We’ve already covered the Magdi Allam baptism story. That incident looks like a bit of unexpected turbulence that should calm down now that Common Word signatory Aref Ali Nayed criticised the Vatican for it and L’Osservatore Romano said the baptism was not a hostile act towards Islam. For more on this, see Nayed’s statement, his El Pais interview today (English, Spanish) and the L’Osservatore Romano editorial (Italian).

King Abdullah’s comments popped up in the Saudi press on Tuesday. He has been making positive comments and taking interesting steps such as his November visit to the Vatican and a recently announced plan to retrain Saudi imams to preach moderation. But what this latest statement really means is still unclear. It is not connected to the Common Word initiative, which has some Saudi signatories but otherwise no link to Saudi Arabia. It is not clear whether the Saudi religious establishment, which is usually more conservative than the royal family, has signed on to this. And it is not clear whether the foreign Muslims who Abdullah says he wants to lead to dialogue with Christians and Jews really want to be that close to a Saudi project. It is certainly interesting to hear the Saudi king speak of inter-faith dialogue, especially when he includes Jews in it, but there are still a lot of question marks over this plan.

World Economic Forum reportThe World Economic Forum report “Islam and the West: Annual Report on the State of Dialogue” was actually unveiled back in January, but the annual Davos summit — with all its politicians and business leaders — is not exactly a place where religion takes centre stage. So the World Economic Forum has turned the spotlight back on it again with a symposium in London. Here’s our original story and the PDF of the full report.

This dialogue activity is going on while there are continuing protests about the reprinting of the Danish “turban bomb” cartoon of Mohammad and a countdown to expected protests about an anti-Islam film by Dutch MP Geert Wilders. It makes it hard to talk about “Christian-Muslim relations” when they’re going in opposite directions at the same time.

Vatican baptism raises questions about Catholic-Muslim dialogue

Pope Benedict baptises Magdi Allam, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliJust when relations between the Vatican and Muslims were improving, Pope Benedict has taken a highly symbolic step that could set them back again. On Saturday evening, at the Easter Vigil Mass, he baptised seven people including one of Italy’s best-known Muslims. Magdi Allam, the new convert, is deputy director of the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera and an outspoken critic of radical Islam. The Egyptian-born journalist, who has lived in Italy since his university days, was one of the few Muslims who defended the pope after his controversial Regensburg speech in 2006. Allam’s outspoken articles have already prompted death threats from Islamists and he lives under constant guard. Announcing the surprise move only an hour before it took place, the Vatican stressed the Catholic Church had the right to baptise anyone who wanted to join it and that all were equal in the eyes of God.

That is certainly true, but such a high-level conversion can’t be seen outside its wider context. Islam considers conversion to another religion a grave insult to God. In some Muslim states including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, it is punishable by death. Afghan convert Abdul Rahman during his trial in Kabul for apostasy, 23 March 2006/Reuters TVAbdul Rahman, an Afghan convert to Christianity pictured at right during his trial for apostasy, only escaped death in 2006 because of an international outcry; he found refuge in Italy. Not all Muslims agree with this. An Italian Muslim spokesman, for example, stressed that Allam’s conversion was a personal decision and only questioned why Benedict chose to make his baptism such a public event. He could have been baptised in his local church without all the publicity, he said. This high-visibility baptism looks likely to provoke protests from Muslims in some parts of the world and raise questions about Benedict’s intentions.

France 24 television interrupted my Easter lunch en famille to interview me about this and their main question was whether it was a response to Osama bin Laden’s threat against the pope. That assumes a U.S. campaign-style readiness to react that is miles or centuries away from the way the Vatican works. Easter is the traditional time to baptise adult converts. Allam had to go through a long period of study before being accepted for baptism. Benedict had to know about this at least several weeks ago. In his article in Corriere (see below), Allam mentions a meeting with Benedict where he told him of his intention to convert and the pope said he would gladly baptise him. But Allam does not mention the date.

German soccer team shies away from cross on jersey

German soccer blogs are not a place I usually go to for a story about religion, but an interesting one has popped up on the forum of the Eintracht Frankfurt team. The team let its fans vote over the Internet late last year to pick a 2008/2009 season jersey among 16 proposed models. Despite the fans’ enthusiasm for this innovation, Eintracht has ignored the result and chosen to use the runner-up design. As the team explained on its website:

The Eintracht “cross” jerseyAfter a close examination, we have decided that the winning jersey with the cross unfortunately cannot be used because the symbol on the front has a religious background. Inter Milan, an Italian club with a long tradition, has appeared in the current Champions League competition in a similar jersey and been strongly criticised for it. So after careful consideration, Eintracht Frankfurt has gone back and chosen the second jersey, which came in a close second in the vote.

The Eintracht “eagle” jerseyThe runner-up that came out on top has what Eintracht calls “hints of eagle claws on the front and a stylised eagle on the shoulder”. The city’s coat-of-arms has a red eagle that also figures on the Eintracht team logo.

U.N. watchdog disappoints Saudi women journalists

Yakin Ertürk at her news conference in Riyadh, 13 Feb. 2008/stringerThe U.N. Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur on violence against women, Yakin Ertürk, was in Saudi Arabia last week. She has just issued a report (official text here) that calls on the government to create a legal framework based on international human rights standards, including a law criminalising violence against women. It listed severe limits on women’s freedom of movement and ability to act in a whole range of family and social areas, from marriage, divorce and child custody to inheritance, education and employment. Her committee gave the Saudis a grilling at a hearing in Geneva last month. Yet, when she met the media in Riyadh at the end of her visit, the young female Saudi journalists there left the room muttering about how disappointed they were with her approach. “She didn’t say anything. This was just general stuff that people are aware of,” one complained. What’s up?

What they noticed in Ertürk’s comments was the degree to which she seemed to accept the official argument that Saudi society had “special characteristics” — khususiyya in Arabic — that constituted a valid frame of reference for assessing the country’s rights record. Khususiyya is a well-worn term that anyone who tries to criticise Saudi values hears in response. It’s used elsewhere in the Arab world as well, either by religious figures facing down liberal trends in society or governments opposing calls for political reform. Reformers throughout the Arab world see the term as a kind of a blanket “cultural exclusiveness” argument that seeks to shut down all serious discussion of political or religious change. It was once mocked by Saudi liberals themselves in the popular television comedy show Tash Ma Tash.

A Saudi woman doctor, 23 Oct. 2007/Ali JarekjiInternational pressure over Saudi women’s rights has been growing. Ertürk’s visit was part of an effort by Riyadh to persuade outsiders the situation was improving. She was able to announce that officials had promised to allow a couple forced to divorce by a religious court to live together again. There apparently was no movement on other issues such as the ban on women driving cars, which has become a kind of litmus test of reform in the country.

In Riyadh, Sarkozy praises God, Islam and Saudi Arabia

France’s President Sarkozy speaks with Riyadh Governor Prince Salman Bin Abdul Aziz, 14 Jan 2008Nicolas Sarkozy does not do things by half. After being criticised for highlighting his country’s Christian roots during a speech in Rome last month, the French president went a step further in a speech in Riyadh on Monday. He praised “the transcendent God who is in the thoughts and the hearts of every person” and described Islam as “one of the greatest and most beautiful civilisations the world has known.” Addressing Saudi Arabia’s Shura advisory council, he stressed he was speaking of “the one God of the people of the book … God who does not enslave man but frees him“.

We have to watch Nicolas Sarkozy when he travels,” the outspoken left-wing magazine Marianne commented. “Outside our borders, our president can reveal himself to be a passionate missionary for Christ, as he did during his papal visit. Travelling in Arab lands, Nicolas Sarkozy has transformed himself into a fanatical zealot for Islam.”

In a more moderate tone, the Paris newspaper Le Monde commented that the “God who does not enslave man” quote was “surprising for a head of a secular state“. Laïcité, the legal separation of church and state imposed on the traditionally Catholic country in 1905, is a key concept of modern French democracy and presidents before Sarkozy never challenged it. Public attachment to laïcité has actually strengthened in recent years as religious demands by the growing Muslim minority upset the quiet consensus against allowing faith a role in public life.

Is Al Qaeda’s Zawahri going YouTube?

Ayman al-Zawahri in his latest video, 17 Dec. 2007 Where did they get this idea from, the YouTube debates? Al Qaeda’s second-in- command Ayman al-Zawahri will take questions from around the world next month in a video interview. This news got buried a bit in the reporting on his latest video but I asked our correspondent Firouz Sedarat in Dubai for some more information. He says this looks like the first time that Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man will go interactive like this.

As-Sahab, the Al Qaeda online media outlet that broadcasts these videos, has asked its viewers to send in “brief and focused” questions for the elusive Egyptian. “We urge the brothers overseeing the gathering of the questions to pass them on without any changes, be they pro or con, and As-Sahab will do its best to issue the answers by Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahri to these questions as soon as possible,” it said. It gave no further details about the format.

Republican candidates take questions at the CNN/YouTube debate in St. Petersburg, Florida, Nov 29, 2007Zawahri himself didn’t mention any Q&A in the 97-minute video, so it’s not clear if he knows about the YouTube debates in his hideout. He talks about both religious and political issues in his videos, although his statements related to security issues usually grab the headlines. Among the religious issues in the latest video was an attack of Saudi King Abdullah for meeting Pope Benedict at the Vatican last month. In an unusually fast reaction, the Vatican responded by saying he seemed afraid of dialogue with other religions.

A multiple-choice question about fatwas

www.alifta.com fatwa siteHere’s a multiple-choice question about fatwas — in the information age, the Islamic practice of issuing fatwas has become… enriched chaotic more open less transparent all of the above none of the above

The number of fatwas, or religious edicts, has exploded in recent years as sheikhs, muftis and others use the Internet, satellite television, radio, telephone call-in services and the print media to globalise the practice. Once limited mostly to scholars in their cities or countries, Muslims can now put their questions to experts around the world — and often get quite different answers depending on where they ask.

One might think the decision of Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti to launch a fatwa Web site might help bring some order into this confusion. The Saudi government says it wants to challenge radical Islam on the Web, which is why Sheikh Abdel-Aziz al-Sheikh has ventured into cyberspace in the first place. But with so many sites now up and running, as Senior Correspondent Andrew Hammond reports from Riyadh, his site may turn out to be just one more pious portal.

Are “moderate” Muslims mum when they should speak out?

Ayaan Hirsi AliAyaan Hirsi Ali has an op-ed piece in the New York Times called “Islam’s Silent Moderates” today asking why moderate Muslims have not protested loudly against the “teddy bear case” in Khartoum and the Qatif rape case in Saudi Arabia. She makes some good points, especially asking why the Organisation of the Islamic Conference has not said anything. The OIC is quick to defend Islam and Muslim countries when the criticism comes from the outside, including from her.

Then she wrote:

For example, I would welcome some guidance from that famous Muslim theologian of moderation, Tariq Ramadan. But when there is true suffering, real cruelty in the name of Islam, we hear, first, denial from all these organizations that are so concerned about Islam’s image. We hear that violence is not in the Koran, that Islam means peace, that this is a hijacking by extremists and a smear campaign and so on. But the evidence mounts up.

“Why are the Muslims silent?” has been a mantra of many Western critics since at least the time of 9/11. It comes up fairly regularly after Islamist attacks or egregious cases of human rights violations in the Muslim world. It’s true that many Muslim leaders have avoided speaking out. But there have also been quite a few Muslim condemnations of terrorism that seem to have gone unnoticed. Something has been changing on this front and it has been evident these days. Hirsi Ali has either missed it or does not want to mention it.

Bishop of Arabia highlights Catholic questions on Muslim appeal

The Roman Catholic bishop of Arabia has published a letter on the dialogue call by 138 Muslim scholars pointing out possible stumbling blocs for future talks. The article by Bishop Paul Hinder in Oasis , a multilingual Catholic-Muslim dialogue magazine published in Venice, welcomes the appeal and says: “Here are Muslims offering a hand that we should take.”

Oasis reviewThe Swiss-born bishop is based in Abu Dhabi with responsibility for Catholics in the whole Arabian Peninsula. Just before the historic visit by Saudi King Abdullah to the Vatican on Nov. 6, he called in a Reuters interview for more freedom and security for minority Christians in Saudi Arabia and more freedom for foreign priests to enter the country to administer to them. There are about 1.2 million Christians in Saudi Arabia, nearly a million of them Catholics. Most are Filipino migrant workers.

In his Oasis article, Hinder listed several points that seem to have raised questions among Catholic theologians:

Sometimes a sword is only a sword…

King Abdullah and Pope Benedict at the Vatican, Nov. 6, 2007Sigmund Freud is said to have told a student who over-interpreted his smoking habits: “Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar.”*

The quote came to mind when the Vatican announced that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had presented Pope Benedict with a jewel-studded golden sword during their historic meeting. Didn’t the Prophet Mohammad have a sword, the one on display at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul? Doesn’t the Saudi flag have a sword on it? And didn’t the pope refer to Islam being “spread by the sword” in his Regensburg speech, sparking off protests around the Muslim world?

This was the first meeting between a Supreme Pontiff and a Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. Was Abdullah taking the opportunity to send some kind of message?