Telegram diplomacy, Vatican style

July 14, 2008

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.  

Turkey says journalists just don’t understand hadith project

June 25, 2008

Hadith of Sahih al-BukhariThe more outside attention Turkey’s project to purge Islam’s hadith (sayings of Prophet Mohammad) of sexism and superstition gets, the more the religious authorities insist it is being misunderstood. Ali Bardakoglu, chairman of the government’s Religious Affairs Directorate, insisted this was not a reform of Islam when the project was presented as just that in western media early this year. His deputy Mehmet Görmez gave us a long interview in March to explain that Turkey was updating its way of understanding the hadith, but not the religion itself. They explain this all in detail, but the message still doesn’t seem to come out that way at the other end.

Is Turkey facing Khomeini-style return of Islamic leader?

June 25, 2008

A poster of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, 4 June 2001/Damir SagoljIs Turkey heading towards a Khomeini-style return of its most influential Islamic leader? Turkish media asked the question today after the Court of Appeals upheld the acquittal of Fethullah Gülen on charges of plotting to establish shariah law in the officially secular state. Gülen, who lives in the United States, has millions of followers in Turkey and abroad who support his modern and moderate form of Islam and the schools and media he has set up to propagate it. This week, he came out on top of a Foreign Policy magazine poll of the world’s leading public intellectuals. That was an Internet survey, so it can’t be considered scientific, but the flood of votes for him is a rough indicator of wide and/or well-organised support.

Harun Yahya preaches Islam, slams Darwin and awaits Jesus

June 19, 2008

Adnan Oktar, 21 May 2008/Osman OrsalIn the two years I’ve been writing about the Turkish Muslim creationist Harun Yahya , we’ve had to use adjectives like “reclusive” or “mysterious” to describe Adnan Oktar (his real name). The head of one of the Muslim world’s biggest publishing outfits rarely talked to the media. But he has begun speaking out more in public recently. We took the opportunity to interview him and here is my feature — Muslim creationist preaches Islam and awaits Christ.

Euro 2008: do Catholic countries have the edge?

June 13, 2008

The Euro 2008 flag flutters near Zurich’s Grossmünster church, 25 May 2008/Arnd Wiegmann“Do Catholic countries have better football players?”

I was surprised to see this headline on the Austrian Catholic website kath.net today… and even more surprised to see they seemed to mean it seriously.

After long delay, French Muslim council may get down to work

June 11, 2008

Things seem to be looking up at the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM). The first round of elections for its new national leadership went off well on Sunday — the second round is due on June 22 — and several leaders of member groups expressed confidencethe council can finally get down to work. This will be a revolution in itself. Since it was created in 2003 under heavy pressure from the then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy (now M. le Président), the CFCM has been almost completely paralysed by internal rivalries. Grand Mosque Rector Dalil Boubakeur, 3 May 2008/Tom HeneghanThe reason for hope this time around is that the government didn’t choose winner in advance, as it did in the 2003 and 2005 elections. Instead of naming Paris Grand MosqueRector Dalil Boubakeur the next CFCM president before the vote no matter what his mosque network’s result was, the government let the Muslims decide for themselves who should run the council. The Moroccan-backed Rally of French Muslims (RMF) mosque network came out clearly ahead and its candidate for CFCM president, Mohammed Moussaoui, looks set to win the top job on June 22. Here’s a post-election interviewwith Moussaoui (in French) where he lists his priorities as religious training for imams and chaplains, mosque construction, consumer protection for hajis, better conditions for Eid slaughterhouses and Muslim sections in cemeteries. Without ever mentioning the record of the CFCM to date, he shows all that has to be done. The back story to the CFCM election is fascinating. Back in 2003, Sarkozy insisted that Boubakeur be president in order to:-

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

May 26, 2008

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.

Turkish crisis puts “post-Islamist” reform on hold

May 23, 2008

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and guard of honour in Ankara, 17 March 2008/Umit BektasI’m in Istanbul this week for a few stories. The first one, about how Turkey’s political crisis has put a trend towards a more liberal stand on religious freedom on hold, has just run on the Reuters wire (click here for full text).

Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen – threat or benefactor?

May 14, 2008

Fatih College in Istanbul, run by Gülen followers, 16 April 2008/Osman OrsalPerhaps the most influential Islamic leader that most non-Muslims have never heard of is a Turkish preacher named Fethullah Gülen. Now living in the United States, he stands at the head of a broad movement that runs schools in Turkey and abroad as well as businesses and a publishing empire. His group also actively conducts dialogue with other religions. His supporters praise him as an important modern and moderate Muslim thinker, but some people in Turkey suspect he is trying to infiltrate the secular state there.

Turkey’s Alevis fight back against Sunni religion lessons

May 7, 2008

An Alevi girl dance during a prayer service in Istanbul, 3 April, 2008/Umit Bektas
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Turkey’s ruling AK Party, which has its roots in political Islam, has preached a message of religious freedom as a way to expand liberties for believers in the officially secular country. It has assured the European Union it would respect freedoms for religious minorities. There has been some progress for minorities, but it is halting. The government’s focus seems to be more on assuring religious rights for pious Sunni Muslims, as in ending of the university headscarf ban. Religious minorities still face an uphill struggle to practice as they see fit.