FaithWorld

Secular Lebanese protest against Muslim-Christian sectarianism

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About 3,000 people marched in Beirut on Sunday to demand a secular system in place of the Muslim-Christian sectarianism that permeates politics, employment and family status matters in Lebanon.  “Civil marriage, not civil war” was among the banners carried by the mostly young, educated protesters who gathered in response to a campaign on Internet social networking sites. It was Lebanon’s first such demonstration in favor of secularism.

Many wore white T-shirts with “What’s your sect?” written on the front and “None of your business” on the back.

Lebanon, whose five million people are split into 18 sects, developed a power-sharing system enshrined in a 1943 national covenant which gave Christians a majority in parliament and said the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shi’ite Muslim.

The Taef accord that ended Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war gave Muslims parity in parliament and also called for the abolition of sectarianism, but the system persists, with religion-based quotas observed in the bureaucracy, army and education.

Read the full story here.  Photos by Jamal Saidi.

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France creates paper trail in campaign against Muslim veils

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--- A fully veiled woman walks past the city hall in Ronchin, northern France, 9 Aug 2009/Farid Alouache ---

France is building up an interesting paper trail in its campaign to ban full-face Muslim veils. The latest twist in this story is that Immigration Minister Eric Besson has denied citizenship to a foreign man said to have imposed the wearing of a full-face veil on his wife, a French citizen. “He was depriving her of her liberty to come and go with her face uncovered and rejected the principles of secularism and equality between men and women,” he said in a statement on Tuesday. On Wednesday morning, Prime Minister François Fillon said he would sign a decree Besson had drafted to make this kind of constraint an obstacle to naturalisation.

This is not the first piece of paper on this trail. A veiled Moroccan woman was denied citizenship in 2008, a decision the State Council upheld on appeal. That occurred before the “ban the burqa” activism that led to the parliamentary commission that recommended last month France explicitly outlaw the full veil. The argument in the 2008 case was not about the veil itself, for example as a security risk because the person cannot be easily identified, but about a “radical religious practice that is incompatible with the essential values of the French community.”

France takes first step towards banning Muslim face veils

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Camera crews at presentation of the veil commission report in Paris, 26 Jan 2010/Tom Heneghan

The French parliamentary commission studying the issue of full Muslim veils has produced its expected result — a recommendation that the National Assembly denounces these veils as contrary to French values and votes a law to ban them in public. They could not propose a full draft law because there are some doubts about whether a total ban would be constitutional. But the lawmakers made it absolutely clear they wanted to rid France of the veils — known here as “burqas” even though most are Saudi-style niqabs — and the fundamentalist Islam they said the garments represent.

Our news report here gives the main details of the story. At the news conference presenting the report, commission chairman André Gérin was his usual outspoken self, lashing out at “gurus of fundamentalism” who he said were forcing women to wear full veils and warning the veil phenomenon was only “the tip of the iceberg.” The veil hid what he called “scandalous practices of sectarianism and fundamentalism.” His deputy chairman Eric Raoult was more moderate and even defended the commission against charges it was “monomaniac” in its focus on the veil.

GUESTVIEW: Wearing a burqa will now be a crime?

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Veiled woman in Kabul, 10 Dec 2009/ Omar Sobhani

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Asghar Ali Engineer, a leading Indian Muslim intellectual and activist, is head of the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai, where he works to promote peace and understanding among religious and ethnic communities.

By Asghar Ali Engineer

The French parliament is preparing to pass a resolution to denounce the wearing of burqas in France. It aims to pass a law afterwards that will actually outlaw the garment. This is  the first time that women would be penalised for wearing a burqa. In 2004, France banned Muslim girls wearing the hijab in schools. It argued that these religious symbols interfere with its commitment to secularism and its secular culture.

In fact, nothing happens without political ideology being behind it. This measure is being championed by right-wing politicians who are exploiting anti-Islam feelings in France among a section of people under the cover of secularism. However, the socialists are opposed to any ban on the burqa, though they are also not in favour of women wearing burqas. They feel women should be discouraged rather than banning the burqa covering the face.

What were the top religion news stories of 2009?

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Hindu lights Diwali candles in Agartala, India, 17 Oct 2009/Jayanta Dey

It’s Top 10 time again. As 2009 nears its end, Time magazine and the Religion Newswriters Association in the U.S. have produced their lists of the main religion news stories of the year. They take quite different views.

Time‘s list is quite broad, the top three being the advance of secularism in Europe, Pope Benedict’s invitation to conservative Anglicans and President Barack Obama’s decision to expand the faith-based office created by George Bush.

The RNA picked Obama’s Cairo address to the Muslim world as its top story, followed by the role of religious groups in the U.S. health care reform debate and the Fort Hood massacre allegedly carried out by an American Muslim officer.

Bumps on the road towards a burqa ban in France

burqa-libraryRemember all the talk about France banning the burqa and niqab Muslim veils for women a few months ago? That project is now in the parliamentary inquiry phase, a six-month fact-finding mission expected to wind up late this year and produce a draft bill to outlaw them. That’s the way France handled it in 2003 when it wanted to stop Muslim girls from wearing headscarves to state schools. But the process seems more complex this time around. There’s less passion and more hesitation in the debate. A smooth progression from the inquiry to the ban and to its implementation no longer looks assured. (Photo: Woman in a niqab outside a public library in Ronchin, northern France, 9 Aug 2009/Farid Alouache)

To get a feel for the debate, I dropped by the panel’s latest open hearing late on Tuesday and listened to the arguments being made. Five mayors from suburbs with Muslim minorities were due to speak to the panel, which is led by a Communist deputy named André Gerin who makes no bones about his view that a ban is needed. Mayors like these men play a key role in an issue like this, because they are on the front lines dealing with social change and are taken seriously when they clamour for change. Several are also deputies in the National Assembly – France allows them to occupy multiple offices – so they can easily lobby at the national level for something they want.

Sitting alone at the press table in the committee room, I soon saw why the drive towards a ban seems to be hitting some bumps. The mayors don’t know what they want. All think something has to be done, but most are worried that an outright ban wouldn’t work. Here’s my news story on the session.

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.

Could gagged Mumbai confession do more good than harm?

hindux1A crucial part of gunman Mohammad Ajmal Kasab’s hindu-articleconfession at the Mumbai attack trial has been censored by the judge on the grounds that it could inflame religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India. After stunning the court on Monday by admitting guilt in the the three-day rampage that killed 166 people, Kasab gave further testimony on Tuesday that included details about his training by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistan-based militant group on U.S. and Indian terrorist lists.

The front-page report in today’s The Hindu, which noted the judge’s gag order in its sub-header, put it this way:

Ajmal made some crucial statements on Tuesday as part of his confession. They pertained to the purpose of the attack as indicated by the perpetrators and masterminds and the message they wanted to send to the government of India. Ajmal also wanted to convey a message to his handlers. However, this part of his confession faces a court ban on publication.

Religion and politics in “bewilderingly diverse” India

asghar-ali-engineer“Bewildingerly diverse” is the way Asghar Ali Engineer describes his native country, India. This 70-year-old Muslim scholar has written dozens of books about Indian politics and society, Islamic reform and interreligious dialogue. As head of the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai, he works to promote peace and understanding among religious and ethnic communities through seminars, workshops, youth camps, research and publications. The centre even organises street plays in the slums of Mumbai to teach the poor about the dangers of communalism.

Our long conversation at the Centre in Mumbai’s Santa Cruz neighbourhood of Mumbai during a recent visit to India provided a few key quotes for my earlier analysis and blog post on religion in the Indian election campaign. Since these issues are crucial to the general election taking place in India, I’ve transcribed longer excerpts from his answers and posted them on the second page of this post. (Photo: Asghar Ali Engineer, 14 April 2009/Tom Heneghan)

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Holding back the “religion card” in India’s election campaign

india-election-ayodhyaHindu nationalism, Muslim “vote banks”, anti-Christian violence, caste rivalry — Indian politics has more than enough interfaith tension to offer populist orators all kinds of “religion cards” to play. Coming only months after Islamist militants killed 166 people in a three-day rampage in Mumbai, the campaign for the general election now being held in stages between April 16 and May 13 could have been over- shadowed by communal demagoguery. (Photo:Voters show IDs at a polling station in Ayodhya, 23 April 2009/Pawan Kumar)

But in this election, the “religion card” doesn’t seem to be the trump card it once was. It’s still being used in some ways, of course, but the main opposition group, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has played down its trademark Hindu nationalism in its drive to oust the secular Congress Party from power in New Delhi. A BJP candidate who lashed out at the Muslim minority saw the tactic backfire. During a recent three-week stay in India, I found religious issues being discussed freely and frequently in the boisterous election campaign. But they were usually not the main issues under debate and not isolated from the pocketbook issues that really concern voters. Click here for the rest of my report quoted above. advani-waves(Photo: BJP leader L.K. Advani, 8 April 2009/Amit Dave)

This is one of those stories where context is king. Thanks to the internet and India’s lively English-language media, anyone around the globe can find Indian reports highlighting the religion angle. One of the news magazines, The Week, ran an interesting cover story about the “high priests of hate.” On balance, I think it looks a bit overdone — it was written at the height of the Varun Gandhi controversy — but it had this classic anecdote: