FaithWorld

Imams and rabbis work for peace, even if debating it can get tense

There’s one thing you have to say about the World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace — when they disagree about something, they don’t mind saying so. The final session of their third conference in Paris on Wednesday was the stage for an exchange of dramatic charges and counter-charges abut the perennial problem of Israeli-Palestinian relations. The atmosphere was tense in the UNESCO conference room where the 3-day session took place and several participants spoke up to calm down their more agitated colleagues. Since this was the only session the media was allowed to witness, it would have been easy to conclude that the imams and rabbis needed to seek peace among themselves first before preaching it to others. (Photo: An imam in Berlin, 3 Aug 2007/Fabrizio Bensch)

But there were actions that spoke louder than words in the hall. Several participants were frowning as the finger-pointing progressed. Others turned to the nearest participant of the other faith to chat. At one point, a rabbi in his Hasidic black hat and coat walked over to an imam wearing a karakul hat, embraced him warmly and sat down for a lively talk. A television camera would have had a field day contrasting the words and the deeds in evidence there. (Photo: A rabbi in Debent, Russia, 17 Sept 2007/Thomas Peter)

At the news conference ending the session, the organiser Alain Michel announced there had not been enough time to agree on a final resolution — a sign of a serious disagreement, as any reporter who has covered summit meetings could tell you. But he proceeded to say the meeting had agreed to set up a steering committee that would work out joint statements whenever there were major acts of violence in the name of religion. Names of the committee members were read out and all seemed to be satisfied that this was progress. Here is my news report about the meeting and here’s the official programme.

When it came to question time, I couldn’t help asking how they expected us to think of them as imams and rabbis for peace when they fought so much during the debate. Several got up to defend the meeting, saying they had made progress and it was only natural that there should be tension when it came to Israel and Palestine. Several participants came up to me afterwards, during the lunch, to give their view on why the meeting was more constructive than it seemed to be. (Photo: Yahya Hendi)

The question elicited several nice quotes. “The clash of ideas is the sound of freedom,” said Yahya Hendi, the Palestinian-born Muslim chaplain at Georgetown, a Catholic university in Washington. “Blunt talk is not against the process, it’s part of the process,”said Rabbi Tsion Cohen of Shaar-HaNegev in Israel, who added that his community was near Gaza and often got hit by missiles from there.

Mumbai Muslim clerics refuse to bury Islamist attackers

Have you seen this story in your local newspaper? Mumbai’s top Islamic clerics have refused to bury the nine Islamist militants killed during the three-day siege in the city. Declaring the rampage proved they could not have been true Muslims, they declared that no Muslim cemetery in India would accept them. A debate has broken out about what to do with the bodies, which according to Muslim custom should have been buried within a few hours of death. (Photo: Palestinian funeral for Hamas militant killed fighting Israeli troops in Gaza, 17 Oct 2007/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

The reason I ask whether your local newspaper ran this story is that Muslims often say the media regularly link Islam and terrorism but rarely report when Muslims denounce acts of Islamist violence. There is some truth in this complaint, especially since Islam does not have central authorities, such as a pope, who can claim to speak in the name of all believers. Individual protests from small groups get lost in the flood of news. Some publications are also simply unwilling to print news that goes against their view of Islam as a violent religion, so it makes no difference there how many such protests are reported. They won’t believe them anyway.

This refusal to bury the Mumbai attackers is different. It is an original and bold protest against Islamist violence by religious authorities who would normally make sure any Muslim got a proper burial. “This is symbolically very important,” Mustafa Akyol, a columnist for the Hürriyet Daily News in Istanbul and an active Muslim blogger. “I’ve heard of imams declining to lead a prayer for the deceased because he was an outright atheist, but never of people being denied burial.”

GUESTVIEW: Mumbai violence brings New York faith groups together

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. Matthew Weiner, the author, is the Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York. He is writing a book about Interfaith and Civil Society.

When terror attacks like those in Mumbai occur, many people of faith want to stand together despite their differences to condemn them with one voice. Faith leaders in New York, having seen their own city targetted in 2001, quickly responded with a show of support for their sister city in India. Their news conference on the steps of New York’s City Hall on Monday was an example of how faith communities in the world’s most religiously diverse metropolis can join hands to speak out against such violence. (Photo: New York interfaith meeting, 1 Dec 2008/Edwin E. Bobrow)

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, senior vice-president of the New York Board of Rabbis, Mo Razvi, a Pakistani-American Muslim and community organizer, and the Interfaith Center of New York organized the meeting while Councilman John Liu got the green light to use City Hall as the venue. Potasnick worked through Thanksgiving weekend to make it happen and insisted on having representatives from every faith. “It is very important to condemn the attacks…but it is imperative we stand together with one voice,” he said.

Tragic end to hostage drama at Mumbai Jewish centre

The two-day hostage drama at Mumbai’s Jewish centre ended tragically on Friday when Indian anti-terrorist forces stormed Chabad House, the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish community center, only to find Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg and three other hostages had been killed by Islamist gunmen.

The Israeli-born rabbi, who grew up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in New York, arrived in Mumbai in 2003 with his Israeli wife to serve the small Jewish community there, running a synagogue and Torah classes, and assisting Jewish tourists in the seaside city. (Photo: Indian anti-terrorist commando lowered down to Mumbai’s Nariman House, where Chabad House was located, 28 Nov 2008/stringer)

We have been filing the story from Mumbai and New York, but inevitably the rest of the Mumbai drama — the clearing of the Trident-Oberoi hotel and the continued fighting at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel — has competed with space in our updates. If you’re looking for more information, the Holtzbergs’ Chabad Lubavitch communities in Crown Heights and in Mumbai have been posting extensive information on their websites:

Long trial of U.S. Islamic charity ends in convictions

Seven years after it was shut in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, a leading U.S. Islamic charity and five men linked to it have been convicted on numerous terrorist financing charges related to the funnelling of over $12 million to the militant Palestinian group Hamas. You can read our report here.

The guilty verdicts delivered on Monday by a federal jury in Dallas cap an arduous process that included a debacle last year that saw a mistrial on most of the counts, leading to this year’s lengthy retrial. Many years of investigation and probably millions of dollars in tax payer money went into the case against the Holy Land Foundation that finally resulted in a rare judicial victory for the out-going administration of U.S. President George W. Bush in its efforts to curtail the financing of overseas organisations it considers to be terrorist.

The stakes were high — a failure to secure convictions this time round would have probably brought the whole affair to an end. Investigators and prosecutors may now have more confidence to bring similar cases to trial down the road.

Bali bombers: martyrs or monsters?

Did the “Bali bombers” end up as martyrs or monsters? That’s what many must be wondering after the three young men convicted of the Bali nighclub bombings in October 2002 were executed in the dead of the night last weekend in an orange grove on Java. (Photo: Funeral of bomber Imam Samudra, 11 Nov 2008/Supri)

The run-up to the executions turned into a media circus. The three men from the Jemaah Islamiah group – Imam Samudra, Mukhlas, and Amrozi — were interviewed extensively by domestic and foreign media before they faced a firing squad last Sunday. They were defiant to the end, calling for more attacks like the one they perpetrated that killed 202 people, most of them foreign tourists. They had, in fact, become media celebrities and the public was fascinated with them. But as monsters or martyrs?

Mainstream Indonesia was nervous and unhappy about the public spectacle that “infuriated relatives of the victims and prolonged their pain”, the Jakarta Post said.

Catholic-Muslim Forum ends on upbeat note

The Catholic-Muslim Forum ended on Thursday evening on an upbeat note. After two days of closed-door talks and an audience with Pope Benedict, the delegations held their only public session of the conference (right) to present a joint communique and answer some questions.The final declaration (full text here) had a series of interesting points that show progress in the dialogue among the experts involved. They will need some unpacking in the real world before we know how much real progress has been made. Here are some of the points with some quick observations in italics:

    2. Human life is a most precious gift of God to each person. It should therefore be preserved and honoured in all its stages. (interesting common pro-life slant here. Any joint initiatives coming up here?) 3. Human dignity is derived from the fact that every human person is created by a loving God out of love … he or she is entitled to full recognition of his or her identity and freedom by individuals, communities and governments, supported by civil legislation that assures equal rights and full citizenship. (this means support for minorities, whether they’re Christians in Muslim countries or Muslim minorities in the West, on the basis of both faiths and not just secular notions that can be contested as foreign to a certain culture) 4. We affirm that God’s creation of humanity has two great aspects: the male and the female human person, and we commit ourselves jointly to ensuring that human dignity and respect are extended on an equal basis to both men and women. (that’s pretty clear) 5. Genuine love of neighbour implies respect of the person and her or his choices in matters of conscience and religion. It includes the right of individuals and communities to practice their religion in private and public. (no mention here of conversion in Muslim countries) 6. Religious minorities are entitled to be respected in their own religious convictions and practices. They are also entitled to their own places of worship, and their founding figures and symbols they consider sacred should not be subject to any form of mockery or ridicule. (this refers in the same sentence to the Catholic concern for churches in Muslim countries and the Muslim concern about caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad. Any linkage there? ) 8. We affirm that no religion and its followers should be excluded from society. Each should be able to make its indispensable contribution to the good of society, especially in service to the most needy. (this one also cuts both ways, like item 3) 10. We are convinced that Catholics and Muslims have the duty to provide a sound education in human, civic, religious and moral values for their respective members and to promote accurate information about each other’s religions. (that education aspect will be important) 11. We profess that Catholics and Muslims are called to be instruments of love and harmony among believers, and for humanity as a whole, renouncing any oppression, aggressive violence and terrorism, especially that committed in the name of religion, and upholding the principle of justice for all. (Western critics often say Muslims don’t denounce terrorism enough, even though many do that they don’t notice. Could this boost that visibility?) 14. We have agreed to explore the possibility of establishing a permanent Catholic-Muslim committee to coordinate responses to conflicts and other emergency situations and of organizing a second seminar in a Muslim-majority country yet to be determined. (this is the crisis management option I mentioned a few days ago)

The final session was actually quite strained, with testy questions and answers, which led some journalists to ask whether the positive signals we’d been getting did not really reflect the mood in the private talks. Several participants, including senior Muslim delegate Seyyed Hossein Nasr who was in the middle of it all, denied that was the case. As all present could see, the strains emerged when Monsignor Khaled Akasheh, the desk officer for Islam in the Vatican’s interfaith department who was moderating the session, tried to stop Nasr from answering questions put to him. Another curious decision was to let a relatively low-ranking delegate, a lay professor from Paris named Joseph Maila, answer questions for the Catholic delegation rather than delegation head Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran or another senior Vatican official.More on this later…

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”.

Will “The Jewel of Medina” create another Rushdie affair?

Proposed cover for The Jewel of MedinaAre we headed for another “Rushdie affair” over the yet-to-be-published novel The Jewel of Medina? First an American publisher withdrew its plan to publish the novel about A’isha, the child bride of the Prophet Mohammad, out of fear of a backlash from Islamist radicals. Then a British publisher announced he had bought the rights and would print the once feared historical novel“. Now comes the news that the publisher’s London office has been the target of an arson attack and police have arrested three men on suspicion of terrorism.

Some early signs are not encouraging. The Daily Telegraph quotes Anjem Choudhary, a radical cleric based in Ilford in east London, as saying: “It is clearly stipulated in Muslim law that any kind of attack on his honour carries the death penalty.” While his unbending interpretation of Muslim law is certainly debatable, his warning that publication of the novel could cause further protests is not.

On the other hand, Muslim Council of Britain spokesman Inayat Bunglawala wrote last week that the mood among British Muslims had changed since they clamoured for Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to be banned. “Is this rethinking now widespread amongst British Muslims? Yes, my impression is that it certainly is with many now accepting that the Satanic Verses affair served to create (and for others reinforce) the unfortunate view that Muslims were backward, anti-intellectual, prone to violence and saw themselves as being somehow above the law,” he wrote.

A silver lining to the Dutch anti-Islam film “Fitna”

Logo for Fitna movieThere seems to have been a silver lining to the Dutch anti-Islam film “Fitna” that far-right PVV party leader Geert Wilders released in late March. We noted already the strife that many people feared didn’t materialise. Now the country’s National Coordinator for Counterterrorism says the long debate about the film actually brought Christian and Muslim groups closer together.

It said in the English translation of its latest report:

“The commotion surrounding the Fitna film appears to have resulted in overtures* between Christian and Islamic organisations. Several organisations with a Christian foundation have strongly criticised standpoints of the PVV parliamentary party chairman with respect to Islam and, together with Muslim organisations, are taking initiatives to reduce the social tensions in the Netherlands and abroad. Remarkable in this context is a collaboration between the World Council of Churches and the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (Protestanse Kerk in Nederland, PKN) on the one hand and the Muslims and the Government Liaison Committee (Contactorgaan Moslims en Overheid, CMO) and the Islam Contact Group (Contact Groep Islam, CGI) on the other hand. In March 2008 these organisations conducted a ‘reconciliation mission’ to Muslim organisations in Egypt to neutralise any detrimental effects of the film.”

*The Dutch original is actually a bit stronger. It says there has been a “toenadering” (rapprochement) between Christian and Muslim groups. “Overtures” implies an initiative towards cooperation without making clear that something happened, whereas rapprochement does. And, as the report made clear, something did happen.