FaithWorld

French Muslims’ marriage annulled over virginity lie

A French court has annulled the marriage of two French Muslims because the husband complained his wife was not the virgin she had claimed to be. His lawyer won the case by arguing a civil marriage is a legal contract and lying about an important element in it amounts to fraud. Religion had nothing to do with it, he argued, and the court agreed. More details are in our news story here.

A bride waiting for her wedding, 14 Feb 2008/Shannon StapletonBut religion obviously had something to do with this. The man has a traditional Muslim view (and not only Muslim, by the way…) that his wife must be a virgin at marriage. Some Muslim families shun daughters who are sexually active before marriage, in rare cases going so far as committing a so-called “honour killing.”

The decision is also discriminatory. Only a woman’s virginity can be physically tested, so applying this standard violates the legal equality between men and women.

The clause in the civil code that the lawyer used is usually applied to cases where a spouse finds his/her new partner concealed an earlier divorce or had a physical or mental disability that made a normal sex life impossible. French media have mentioned earlier cases where it was used. In one, a man had his marriage annulled because he discovered his wife had been a prostitute. In another, a devout Catholic woman used it against a husband who had concealed his earlier divorce.

One interesting angle here — although Islam is mentioned in this debate, there hasn’t been much Muslim-bashing or suggestions of “creeping Sharia” like those made in Britain after Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams suggested some elements of Islamic law should be taken into British law. It’s not surprising the husband’s lawyer did not mention religion because a French court would have thrown out an argument based on faith. The debate is over which issue takes precedence, prosecution of a fraud case or defence of equality and individual rights.

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.

Secularist slide in Pakistan as local Sharia courts proposed

Pakistani voters in Karachi, 18 Feb. 2008/Athar HussainOne of the most interesting results in Pakistan’s general election last February was the victory of the secularist Awami National Party in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) after six years of Islamist government in Peshawar. In a province where the Taliban and other Islamists had made heavy inroads, the vote for the ANP and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) seems to herald a turn toward some form of secularist democracy. “The greatest achievement of this transition to democracy is the rout of religious extremists who wanted to plunge Pakistan into anarchy,” Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times, wrote in his post-ballot analysis. “It is the rise of liberal democracy … that will help solve the problem of religious extremism in Pakistan.”

It’s only been three months, but the secularists seem to be backsliding already. According to Pakistani media, the ANP and PPP have agreed to allow qazi courts (known as qadi courts in Arabic ) to operate in Malakand, a rugged mountainous region in northern NWFP near Afghanistan. Qazi courts have a judge (qazi) who hears cases and quickly hands down decisions based on his interpretation of Sharia law. Although Malakand is officially a “settled area” where state and province laws apply, it also has tribes that often prefer their rough-and-ready Pashtun jirga system of justice run by tribal elders. By introducing qazi courts, critics say, the NWFP government will effectively cave to local Islamists, put an Islamic veneer over tribal justice and roll back the role of civilian justice. This does not sound like a turn towards some form of secularist democracy.

Since first reading about this on Ali Eteraz’s blog, I’ve seen that the secularists haven’t totally caved. The original proposal only allowed appeals to the Federal Sharia Court, but the latest version allows appeals in the Peshawar High Court and the Supreme Court in Islamabad. That’s an improvement, but it still gives the qazis considerable power.

Andi versus al Qaeda — in Germany

Andi comic coverIt seems a bizarre tool in the hands of security officials, but German authorities believe a cartoon comic strip can help them get their message across to young people who might be tempted to flirt with militant Islamism. The unusual experiment in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Germany’s most populous state, has stirred international interest from as far away as the United States and Japan, according to the team behind the idea.

The comic is aimed at 12-16 year-olds and has been distributed in mosques and to every secondary school. “The reactions are almost entirely positive,” said Thomas Grumke, the interior ministry official who first thought up the hero Andi, his Muslim girlfriend Ayshe and the rest of the characters, including a militant imam and two young men who fall under his influence.

The story, which can be downloaded here in German, is interspersed with short passages of text addressing key issues and terms like sharia, jihad and the difference between Islam and Islamism. On that last point, it says: “Islam is a monotheistic religion (a belief in one all-embracing God), which is closely related to Judaism and Christianity. By contrast, Islamism is a political ideology which poses as ‘true Islam’ and wants to realise this as a binding, guiding principle for state and society. This ideology is directed against the free democratic order and thus is unambiguously extremist.”

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“.

The latest news about Islamic finance

General Manager of Abu Dhabi National Islamic Finance Aref Ismail Al-Khouri at Reuters Islamic Finance summit, 5 Feb. 2008/Jumana El Heloueh

The Islamic finance industry has grown rapidly as Muslims around the world seek investments that comply with their religious beliefs. A tripling of oil prices over the past five years has flooded the Islamic finance sector with petrodollars, accelerating that expansion. So what are the issues facing the industry now? Of special interest for this blog are questions about how religious principles and business practices interact. For example, is some Islamic banking too Islamic for its own good? Do some types of murabaha contracts actually violate sharia law?

These religious issues and major deals in Islamic finance have been discussed during a Reuters industry summit on Islamic finance this week. There’s a conference website here with text reports plus video interviews with leading players in the world of business by Islamic principles.

For a quick overview, here are some of the top quotes from participants.