FaithWorld

Behind the walls, an ancient monastery in a changing Turkey

Dressed in black robes and headcaps, the monks at the ancient Syriac Christian Orthodox monastery of Mor Gabriel in southeast Turkey sat gravely for dinner one recent cold night. Led by their bishop, they said their prayers in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, and ate their meal of meat and rice in sepulchral silence, the clinking of forks and spoons resonating in the bare white room.

On the face of it, little has changed in a life of meditation and prayer at the Mor Gabriel Monastery since it was built in AD 397; but the monks feel the cares of a changing Turkey, beyond their walls, weighing upon them. A land dispute between neighbouring villages and Mor Gabriel is threatening the future of one of the world’s oldest monasteries, and a Reuters multimedia team had travelled to the remote monastery to cover the row.

Once supper was over, they said prayers again and we filed into an adjacent room, where the monks started conversing about Turkey’s rocky path to join the European Union and “Ergenekon”, a shadowy group suspected of plotting a coup in a case that has consumed media attention in faraway Ankara and Istanbul. In the words of Saliba Ozmen, the bishop of the city of Mardin, Turkey is changing and even the Syriac monks of southeast Turkey can feel its ripple effects.

The Mor Gabriel row has placed under the spotlight freedom of religion and other rights for non-Muslim minorities. The case also crystallises what many here view as a battle for the soul of modern Turkey — a clash between the authoritarian and stony Turkish state that emerged after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and an increasingly vibrant, diverse and democratic society striving to rid itself of the strictures of the Kemalist national and world view.

Turkey is overwhelmingly Muslim though its constitution is secular, a “laïcisme à la turque” understood more as the submission of mosque to state. In practice, Turkey’s Christians, who include Syriacs, Greek Orthodox, Armenians and Catholics, have long suffered discrimination at the hands of the state.

A one-stop shop for the latest on Islamic creationism

Readers of this blog know of our interest in Islamic creationism and its leading spokesman, Adnan Oktar (pseudonym: Harun Yahya), interviewed here last June. Over at Science and Religion News, Salman Hameed has been posting comprehensive updates to this story including articles by himself and others. Hameed, an astronomer and assistant professor of science and humanities at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, is working on creationism in today’s Islamic world and how Muslims see science and religion. (Photo: Harun Yahya, 21 May 2008/Osman Orsal)

Hameed’s blog is a kind of one-stop shop for anyone interested in this topic. Since he’s posted several items in recent weeks, here’s a quick index:

Lots of advice for Obama on dealing with Muslims and Islam

President-elect Barack Obama has been getting a lot of advice these days on how to deal with Muslims and Islam. He invited it by saying during his campaign that he either wanted to convene a conference with leaders of Muslim countries or deliver a major speech in a Muslim country “to reboot America’s image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular”. But where? when? why? how? Early this month, I chimed in with a pitch for a speech in Turkey or Indonesia.  Some quite interesting comments have come in since then. (Photo: Obama image in Jakarta, 25 Oct 2008/Dadang Tri)

Two French academics, Islam expert Olivier Roy and political scientist Justin Vaisse argued in a New York Times op-ed piece on Sunday that Obama’s premise of trying to reconcile the West and Islam is flawed:

Such an initiative would reinforce the all-too-accepted but false notion that “Islam” and “the West” are distinct entities with utterly different values. Those who want to promote dialogue and peace between “civilizations” or “cultures” concede at least one crucial point to those who, like Osama bin Laden, promote a clash of civilizations: that separate civilizations do exist. They seek to reverse the polarity, replacing hostility with sympathy, but they are still following Osama bin Laden’s narrative.

Obama wants to address the Muslim world — but from where?

Now here’s an interesting question. The New York Times reports that President-elect Barack Obama wants to make “a major foreign policy speech from an Islamic capital during his first 100 days in office.” But from which one? As NYT staffer Helene Cooper explains, it’s a question that’s fraught with diplomatic, religious and personal complications. After a day of calling around Washington, she found a consensus:

It’s got to be Cairo. Egypt is perfect. It’s certainly Muslim enough, populous enough and relevant enough. It’s an American ally, but there are enough tensions in the relationship that the choice will feel bold. The country has plenty of democracy problems, so Mr. Obama can speak directly to the need for a better democratic model there. It has got the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organization that has been embraced by a wide spectrum of the Islamic world, including the disenfranchised and the disaffected. (Photo: Obama image in Jakarta, 25 Oct 2008/Dadang Tri)

That’s a diplomatic answer, the kind you’d expect to get inside the Washington Beltway. Let’s look at this more from the point of view of religion. If the American president gives a major speech in a Muslim country, it will be seen as an indirect comment on the type of mosque-state relations found in that country. It’s not for him as a non-Muslim to endorse a certain type of Islam over another, say Sunni over Shi’ite. But as a politician from a country where church-state relations are a lively issue, one could expect him to ask what message his choice will send concerning the political relationship with religion in the state he chooses.

Harun Yahya dangles big prizes for creationism essays

Turkey’s Muslim creationist Harun Yahya is not satisfied with sending lavish books against evolution and Darwin to western schools. He’s now running an anti-evolution essay contest with a top prize of $64,000. He has just doubled the prize money from $32,000 and boosted the maximum length for essays from 15 to 60 pages.

“The competitors of the competition “Why Is the Theory of Evolution Invalid?” held by Science Research Foundation had some righteous demands, stating that given the too many dilemmas of Darwinism, 15 pages is too short for their essays and that the time is inadequate,” his group has written in a message I just received. “The purpose of this competition is to raise young people’s awareness of Darwinism, which has inflicted immense damage on mankind and to put them on their guard against this terrible fraud in science.”

The procedure is a bit complicated. One hundred participants have to first be accepted on the basis of the essays. They will then have to take a test consisting of 80 questions about evolution. The announcement says the test will be held in December 2009 at a location to be announced.

Headscarves new target for Austrian far right

It’s already been a big theme in Germany, FranceTurkey and the Netherlands, and now the Austrian far right is asking: Should public employees be allowed to wear Muslim headscarves at work?

 

Two women have become the first schoolteachers in Vienna to wear headscarves while teaching.

 

One is also a local centre-left Social Democrat politician.

 

Teachers in other parts of the country already wear headscarves, and there is no law banning public employees from wearing such items as there is in some other European countries.  

Richard Dawkins rips into Harun Yahya and Muslim creationism

This blog has given Harun Yahya a platform to defend his Islamic version of creationism, so it’s time to show Richard Dawkins tearing him apart. I noticed this video because it’s about the Atlas of Creation, a book that has fascinated me ever since I first saw it in Turkey two years ago. My blog posts on this have sparked amazed reactions from Westerners hearing about it for the first time, and indignant expressions of support from Muslims who agree with Harun Yahya (aka Adnan Oktar).

FaithWorld is interested in following issues of science and atheism, although I have to say I think Dawkins makes a sloppy case for the latter. His book The God Delusion uses parody views of faith like strawmen to knock down. For someone with his intelligence and eloquence, that’s like shooting fish in a barrel. His approach to Islamic creationism also shows a few holes. Two Pakistanis in the audience mentioned Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani physicist who is a leading critic of Muslim anti-Darwinism, and he didn’t have the slightest idea who they were talking about.

Hat tip to Salman Hameed and his blog Science and Religion News for this.

Off with their heads — Saudi clerics blast racy Ramadan TV

Ramadan television always throws up some controversy or talking point in the Arab world, but never of the nature of this year’s talking point. Hardline Saudi religious scholars are saying enough’s enough on the fun and frolics of Ramadan television and demanding trials for TV channel owners that could impose the death penalty.

MBC logoWhat’s more, these owners are in fact Saudi royals and their friends. The main culprit is MBC1, owned by a brother-in-law of former King Fahd, but others include billionaire playboy prince Alwaleed bin Talal, dubbed by the religious right in Saudi Arabia “the shameless prince” (al-amir al-majin). The clerics in Saudi Arabia have enormous influence and they are worried that liberals in government and their royal allies are plotting to caste them aside and secularise the country.

It is unlikely that Alwaleed or the family of Fahd’s sister are worried about the attacks. They live in a world apart of palaces, servants, private planes and cruise ships in France and probably no one could get near them if they tried. The clerics were careful to talk about a legal process in any case. In fact, one of them, Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan, said specifically that he wasn’t calling for vigilantes to take the law into their own hands.

“Something in the air” in Christian-Muslim dialogue

Yale Divinity School chapel, 25 July 2008/Tom HeneghanMeetings of theologians don’t usually make news. But trends can make news. A series of meetings can start to show some direction the participants’ thinking is going in. If it’s a new direction, and one with potentially positive results, then we journalists on the Godbeat take notice.

The “Common Word” conference now underway at Yale Divinity School in the United States is at the heart of a trend towards increasingly frequent and detailed discussions among Christian and Muslim scholars and leaders. This trend is a reaction to September 11 and other Islamist attacks in Western countries. To our 24/7 news culture, this sounds like a very slow-fused reaction indeed, but changing attitudes and building trust takes time.

Just about every conference participant I’ve spoken to has stressed that work towards greater understanding between Christians and Muslims was now moving ahead on several fronts. “There’s definitely something in the air,” remarked Miroslav Volf, a Protestant theologian who runs the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. As University of Cambridge theologian David Ford put it, “People were almost waiting for an initiative around which they could gather and which generally gave some way forward for Muslim-Christian engagement. Many initiatives were on the Christian side before but this was a Muslim initiative. It’s had the desired effect.”

Telegram diplomacy, Vatican style

What do Albania, Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan,  Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia have in common?
Their heads of state all received identical or nearly identical telegrams from Pope Benedict as his plane was flying over their countries on the way from Rome to Australia to preside at the Roman Catholic Church’s World Day of Youth.
sydney.jpgThe telegrams said “FLYING OVER (NAME OF COUNTRY) EN ROUTE TO AUSTRALIA FOR THE CELEBRATION OF WORLD YOUTH DAY, I SEND CORDIAL GREETINGS TO YOU AND TO ALL YOUR FELLOW-CITIZENS, ALONG WITH THE ASSURANCE OF MY PRAYERS THAT ALMIGHTY GOD WILL BLESS THE NATION WITH PEACE AND PROSPERITY. BENEDICTUS PP. XVI.
That was the version received by heads of state of countries whose majority of citizens practice one of the three monotheistic religions. The others, where other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism are practiced, received a slightly different version  in which the phrase “invoking divine blessings” replaced the phrase “that almighty God will bless the nation”. 
But one could not help but wonder why the telegrams were virtually identical (apart from the God/divine difference) even though the situation in the various countries hardly is.  Current events in Greece, for example, are hardly similar to those in Myanmar or Afghanistan.
When he flew over countries, the late Pope John Paul would sometimes tailor his telegrams to reflect the situation on the ground, even if only obliquely. So, when reporters aboard Benedict’s  plane were handed out 18 telegrams, some read them expecting, or hoping, that a  straightforward or diplomatically creative tea-leaves message might be found in those being beamed to hot spots such as Afghanistan, which is engulfed in war, Myanmar, which is still trying to recover from the devastation of Cyclone Nargis and whose human rights record has prompted concern by the international community, or Vietnam, with which the Vatican hopes to soon establish full diplomatic relations after decades of tensions.
Granted, telegrams are not the building blocks of any state’s diplomacy. But of all the countries that were flown over, the pope has only visited one (Turkey) and perhaps this is the closest he will come to most of the rest of them. 
And, a little old-style tea leaves reading would have helped reporters who clocked more than 20 hours of flying with the pope between Rome and Sydney kill a little time.
And maybe even have produced a story or two more.