FaithWorld

U.S. High Court lets city block religious monument

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that a Utah city can refuse to put a religious group’s monument in a public park near a similar Ten Commandments display. You can see our story here.

The justices unanimously sided with the city of Pleasant Grove, which had said a ruling for the religious group would mean public parks across the country would have to allow privately donated monuments that express different views from those already on display.

The Summum religious group, founded in Salt Lake City in 1975, sought in 2003 to erect a monument to the tenets of its faith, called the “Seven Aphorisms,” in a park where there are other monuments, including a Ten Commandments display.

In the court’s opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said the placement of a permanent monument in a public park was not subject to scrutiny under the U.S. Constitution’s free-speech clause.

The public display of religious objects is a frequent flash point in America’s never-ending “culture wars.”

Exercised over yoga in Malaysia

Of all the things to get exercised about, yoga would seem to be an unlikely candidate for controversy. But such has been the case in Malaysia this week.

Malaysia’s prime minister declared on Wednesday that Muslims can after all practice the Indian exercise regime, so long as they avoid the meditation and chantings that reflect Hindu philosophy. This came after Malaysia’s National Fatwa Council told Muslims to roll up their exercise mats and stop contorting their limbs because yoga could destroy the faith of Muslims.

It has been a tough month for the fatwa council chairman, Abdul Shukor Husin, who in late October issued an edict against young women wearing trousers, saying that was a slippery path to
lesbianism. Gay sex is outlawed in Malaysia.

U.S. soldier sues over mandatory Christian prayers

A non-religious Kansas soldier is suing U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on the grounds that his constitutional rights were violated when he was forced to attend military events where “fundamentalist Christian prayers” were recited.

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Specialist Dustin Chalker’s cause has been taken up by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), which is joining him in the suit.

The MRFF said in a statement that Chalker, a decorated Iraq war veteran stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas, “was forced to attend three events in late 2007 and in 2008  at which the battalion chaplain …  delivered  sectarian Christian prayers”.

Where does religion have its strongest foothold?

Indonesian Muslims pray at Jakarta’s Istiqlal Mosque during Ramadan, 5 Sept 2008/Supri SupriThe answer is Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population. At least that was the conclusion of the latest Pew Research Institute survey of attitudes about religion around the world — a look at 24 countries based on thousands of interviews. Indonesia came in first with 99 percent of the population rating religion as important or very important in their lives — and it topped everyone else in the “very important” slot at 95 percent. Beyond that 80 percent of those surveyed in Indonesia say they pray five times a day every day — adhering to one of the five pillars of Islam.

Indeed Islam is well represented in the top five countries where religion is valued in life — with Tanzania, Jordan, Pakistan and Nigeria following Indonesia.

At the bottom of the chart was France, where only 10 percent saw religion as very important and 60 percent said they never pray.

The Pope and Carla – a photographer’s dream

Pope Benedict at a recent general audience at the VaticanDuring a Vatican briefing this week on Pope Benedict’s trip to France, a television producer got up and asked the question that surely was foremost in the minds of many photographers and television crews struggling to hold back yawns as subjects such as France’s secular history were discussed:

Will Carla Bruni be at the airport to welcome the pope?

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi smiled. He said Carla Bruni’s husband — who happens to be Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France – had made it known that he might be at the airport. But he said he did not know if Bruni would be there. Heads of state usually wait for popes at their palaces but sometimes, to show their added respect for the pontiff, they also go to the airport.

In Paris, government officials confirmed Sarkozy would break protocol and greet Benedict at Orly airport, something he is not required to do because this is an official visit rather than a more formal state visit. They said they expected Carla to be there … but didn’t want to be quoted on that.

UPDATE: Turkish crisis puts “post-Islamist” reform on hold

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and guard of honour in Ankara, 17 March 2008/Umit BektasBlogging takes time, which I didn’t have on Friday after finishing an analysis for the Reuters wire about religion in Turkey posted here. I went to Istanbul to research several religion stories. The main impression I left with was that the prospect for religious policy changes raised by the “post- Islamist” AK Party government in recent years has mostly evaporated. The current political crisis that could end up banning the party and barring Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan from belonging to a political party means the end of any liberalisation. In fact, the steam went out of the reform drive a few years ago after Ankara got the green light to negotiate Turkish membership in the European Union.

Turkey has been a test case for what Islam experts call “post-Islamism,” a trend among Muslim political groups that have given up dreams of some kind of Islamic state in favour of more democracy and human rights that include greater religious freedom (here’s a useful summary of the concept). The idea that Islamists could turn into “Muslim democrats” (or “latte Islamists“!) without a hidden agenda to introduce Sharia law once in power met with considerable scepticism. But the Erdogan government, which promoted greater freedoms in Turkey as a means to join the European Union rather than to break down secularist controls on religion in the public sphere, seemed to be prove this view. His cautious approach seemed to reflect a long-term policy to make changes gradually. It’s too much to say this could be a “model” for other Muslim countries because there are too many aspects specific to Turkey and the limits its powerful secularist elite places on religion in the public sphere. But it could be an important test case for reconciling democracy and religious rights.

Turkish models display headscarves at an Ankara fashion show, 5 March 2008/Umit BektasThe political analysts I spoke to were unanimous in rejecting the idea that Erdogan’s AK Party had a long-term “hidden agenda” to “islamise” Turkey. The real goal of Erdogan’s policy was to establish his bloc of business interests from the more religious countryside as partners in the national power structure dominated by the secularist urban elite. Part of this process was to appeal to the religious sentiments of the masses, but religion was never the core of its program. They dropped this caution after their election victory in 2007 by pressing for an end to the ban on headscarves at universities — and paid the price by provoking the legal challenge to their legitimacy.

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.

Benedict’s deeper thoughts about faith in the U.S.

Pope Benedict addresses U.S. bishops, 16 April 2008/Kevin LamarquePope Benedict made so many positive comments about the positive role of faith in U.S. public life before and at the beginning of his U.S. visit that it was inevitable he would get around to a deeper analysis at some point. That point came in his meeting with American bishops in Washington on Wednesday. It was the kind of analysis we’ve come to expect from him — clearly expressed, intellectually ambitious and focused on his trademark issue of relativism.

“It is not enough to count on this traditional religiosity and go about business as usual, even as its foundations are being slowly undermined,” he warned the bishops gathered at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The “American brand of secularism,” he said, “can subtly reduce religious belief to a lowest common denominator.”

Here’s our news story on the speech and the full text, which is always useful to read if Benedict’s the author. He sets out his ideas over sentences and paragraphs that need to be read to the end to get the full flavour of what he’s saying.

Muslim student group adapts to life in the U.S.

MSA U.S. & Canada logoThe New York Times has an interesting article about how the Muslim Students Association (MSA) there is adapting to life in the United States. Founded in the 1960s by foreign students who wanted to pray together, the chapters “were basically little slices of Saudi Arabia. Women were banned. Only Muslim men who prayed, fasted and avoided alcohol and dating were welcomed. Meetings, even idle conversations, were in Arabic.” The MSA was largely financed by Saudi Arabia and Wahhabi views presumably came along with the cheques.

The local culture and the growing number of American-born Muslims have over time influenced even an organisation like this. Now some MSA chapters have held barbecues, dodge ball games and other events where men and women could mingle freely. There are debates about whether this is proper, but the events happen. “As American Islam gets its own identity, it is going to have to shed some of these notions that are distant from American culture,” said Rafia Zakaria, a student at Indiana University. “The tension is between what forms of tradition are essential and what forms are open to innovation.”

(The article doesn’t say whether the funds still flow so freely from Riyadh, but after 9/11 that seems unlikely.)A Secular Age

Sarkozy wants French pupils to ‘adopt’ Holocaust child victims

Nicolas Sarkozy and Richard Prasquier at CRIF dinner, 13 Feb 2008/Gonzalo FuentesThe “Sarko & secularism” story takes on ever new twists. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has already kicked up lively debates in France by praising religious faith whenever he can, defending his country’s Christian roots in a Roman basilica and complimenting the Saudis in Riyadh for fighting against fanaticism and fundamentalism. After the Catholics and the Muslims, France’s Jews were in line for some presidential stroking. It came on Wednesday evening, at the annual dinner of the leading Jewish organisation here, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF).

Always good for a surprise, Sarkozy unexpectedly announced he wanted each 10-year-old pupil to study the life and death of one of France’s 11,000 child Holocaust victims. The president also announced he would visit Israel in May to mark its 60th anniversary and “won’t shake hands with people who refuse to recognise Israel” — a remark apparently ruling out any face-to-face meetings with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

File photo of children survivors of Auschwitz showing their tattooed ID numbersOne of Sarkozy’s remarks at the CRIF dinner seemed to go too far even for his hosts. He said: “The drama of the 20th century was not due to an excess of God, but to his awesome absence. There is not a line in the Torah, the Gospel or the Koran, when seen in its context and the fullness of its meaning, that can put up with the massacres committed in Europe during the 20th century in the name of totalitarianism and a world without God.”