FaithWorld

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 adjusts his mitre, 19 Feb. 2007/Emmanuel KwitemaSimon Barrow, director of the religion think tank Ekklesia, told me he thought “there may be a more reasonable case here than what’s come over.” But the former theology professor tripped up by trying to discuss the issues in public as if he were back in academe. The BBC interview only compounded this by adding the word “unavoidable.”

Williams made several assumptions and assertions about sharia law that cried out for explanation. If he held a news conference to explain his thinking, here are a few that I would expect to be challenged.

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“.

Turkish tempers flare as headscarf reform nears

Neslihan Akbulut of women’s rights group AKDER, 31 Jan. 2008/Fatih SaribasAnyone looking at Turkish newspapers or television these days would be forgiven for thinking Turkey was in a deep political crisis over government plans to lift a decades-old ban on female students wearing the Muslim headscarf in universities. The two sides — the secular Turks who long held sway here and the newly empowered pious Turks — are debating the issue in the winner-take-all way Turks like to talk politics. The liberal daily Radikal found the tension rising so much that it ran a front page headline this week reading “Republic of Fear” with a reprint of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” on the cover.

Readers abroad might ask what all the fuss is about. After all, Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country with a vibrant democracy. But the headscarf goes to the very heart of Turkey’s complex identity. For a feature on the headscarf issue, I spoke to devout and secular women and heard two diametrically opposed views. The devout women, some of whom had been expelled from universities because of the headscarf, said covering their Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, 29 Jan. 2008/Umit Bektashair was all about personal and religious freedoms. “I wear the headscarf, my cousin doesn’t and we go out to family dinners. It is no big deal,” one said. Many secular women feel their rights will be curtailed if the ban is lifted since — they fear — they will eventually be forced to wear the Islamic headscarf.

Male opinion can be just as split. Secular men say that easing the ban on wearing the headscarf in universities would weaken the current separation of state and religion. The pious Muslims — including Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan — say wearing the headscarf is a personal freedom and a right, just like secular women have the right not to wear it.

A Tale of Two Secularisms

French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Taj Mahal, 26 Jan, 2008/Philippe WojazerFrance and India are two countries that proudly proclaim the secular nature of their democracies. The principles of church-state separation and state neutrality towards religion are the same. But somehow the accents were different when French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited India last week. While they both were dealing with the concept called “secularism” in English, it was clear that Sarkozy’s thinking was based on the French word laïcité while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh clearly had the Hindi term dharmanirpekshta in mind.

The visit focused mostly on expanding investment and defence cooperation, with much gossip on the side about whether the freshly divorced president’s new flame Carla Bruni would join him at the Taj Mahal (much to the chagrin of the paparazzi, she didn’t).

Hidden behind the headlines, though, was a fascinating disagreement about Sarkozy’s plan to present Taslima Nasreen, an exiled Bangladeshi writer living in India, with the “Simone de Beauvoir Prize For Women’s Freedom.” This prize sponsored by CulturesFrance (part Muslim protesters burn effigy of Taslima Nasreen in Kolkata, 20 Jan. 2004/Sucheta Dasof the French Foreign Ministry) and a Paris publisher went this year to Nasreen and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, two women of Muslim background who have been threatened with death by Islamists because of their forceful criticism of the religion.

Where does the Afghan blasphemy case go now?

Sayed Perwiz KambakhshThe case of Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, the young Afghan journalist sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, is a classic “clash of civilisations” issue pitting the principle of free speech against that of respect for religion. I’ve been trying to find out more details to understand where this case stands and how it should be reported.

First, it looks like this could drag on for quite some time. His brother Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi tells us the family has appealed the decision at a court in Mazar-i-Sharif and will take it to the Supreme Court in Kabul if the appeals court upholds the original verdict.

More information has emerged about the case being made against Kambakhsh. We knew some university classmates had accused him of mocking Islam and the Koran and of distributing an article saying the Prophet Mohammad had ignored women’s rights. According to RFE/RL, the article came from a website based in Europe and run by an Iranian exile whose pen name is Arash Bikhoda. “Bikhoda” means “godless” in Persian.

Caste and politics mix in India’s Hindu “cow belt”

Hindu boy jumps into Ganges River at Ardh Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, 18 Jan. 2007/Adnan AbidiA year can seem like an eternity in India, especially for a foreign correspondent discovering how complex the links between religion and politics can be here.

The last time I went from New Delhi to Uttar Pradesh was in January 2007 to cover the Kumbh Mela, one of the largest religious gatherings in the world. Around seven million Hindus and thousands of holy “Sadhus” descend on the junction of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers to pray and make offerings.

I stood where the two rivers meet along with thousands of poor Hindus performing their ritual baths. At night, whole families huddled together to keep warm on the river bank. Small paper boats with candles floated precariously down the river.

Israeli “kosher” buses: ladies to the back, and no trousers!

Ultra-Orthodox men in an Israeli bus, 14 Jan 2008/Gil Cohen MagenShould public bus companies in Israel be allowed to run “kosher” routes where women passengers must sit in the back and are frowned on for wearing trousers? Israel’s High Court is expected to decide this week on a case brought against them by women who say they have been “bullied in the name of God” on these buses for not following the ultra-Orthodox custom of separating men and women in public.

The controversy has been bubbling for several years. It started when the public bus companies introduced the “mehadrin” (strict kosher) lines to compete with private companies who introduced separate seating in buses that passed through ultra-Orthodox areas. My feature today interviews angry women passengers and defenders of the system.

Bus stop in Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, 14 Jan, 2008/Gil Cohen MagenReporting in Israel occasionally throws journalists into the middle of the tension between deeply religious and secularist Israelis. I live in a broadly secular neighbourhood of Jerusalem and drive a car, so have never taken the “kosher” buses. The first time I went to Mea Shearim, an ultra-Orthodox area of Jerusalem, I took care to wear loose clothing with long sleeves that seemed sure to pass the modesty test. But I hadn’t realised trousers were a no-no too. The placards nailed up around the area listing exactly what clothing was out of bounds soon made that clear.

Gillian… the teddy… shouts and lashes in the courthouse

Khartoum correspondent Opheera McDoom looks back at the “teddy bear saga”

Gillian Gibbons with son John and daughter Jessica, 5 Dec. 2007The “teddy bear saga” broke on a Monday with the news that Gillian Gibbons had been arrested by authorities. We’re used to stories of people being taken from their homes at night by armed security forces in Khartoum, so I was caught a little by surprise at the immense interest this case attracted. But as the story grew, the world’s press descended on Khartoum and the adrenalin of covering one of the world’s top stories kicked in.

The court case was an agonising and panicked rush in the morning as no one — not even Gibbons’ defence lawyers — was quite sure where the case was going to be heard. Unusually, she was in court the day after charges were pressed . The judge decided to keep going long into the night, and after the busy courthouse had emptied of its usual crowd, before reaching a verdict.

When others beat you to the blog

Conference of European Churches logoWhen Jane Stranz of the World Council of Churches emailed me a link to her blog about me, I thought I should mention something here that is already out there on the web. The Conference of European Churches in Geneva has awarded its John Templeton Award for the European Religion Writer of the Year 2006 to yours truly.

Atlas of CreationThe Headscarf AffairThe award was for articles on the Atlas of Creation, a Muslim creationist book by Harun Yahya (left) that was mysteriously distributed for free in Turkey (and later more widely in Europe), Vienna imam Sheikh Adnan Ibrahim who says yes to Europe but no to Euro-Islam and a French comic book by René Pétillon called The Headscarf Affair (right) that spoofs the debate about Muslim headscarves.

At the award ceremony in Paris this week, I gave a short speech about the problems international religion writers face when struggling to express untranslatable foreign words and concepts in English. Since much of our reporting and research is done in foreign languages, this is a constant challenge. Ecumenical News International has a short item on the speech and the text.

Jewish author published in Vatican daily — more to come?

Any foreign correspondent who ever covered the old Soviet bloc remembers how the official press seemed to print only news-free communiques and bland official photos. Scanning newspapers like Pravda or Scînteia or Neues Deutschland, the skilled reader looked for subtle changes from the norm as hints of possible shifts in official thinking. Once a slight deviation was sighted, readers would watch to see if it was just a flash in the pan or whether it became a normal feature.

L’Osservatore Romano front page, Nov. 10, 2007That style of reading came to mind when L’Osservatore Romano published on Sunday what may be its first article ever by a Jewish writer. With its columns of papal speeches and discretion about internal Church issues, the Vatican daily has an unmistakable stylistic likeness to those old party organs. Not in content or purpose or inspiration, I hasten to add (hold the emails, I’m not saying the comparison goes that far). But as newspapers go, it’s as daunting as those other papers and its regular readers develop the same keen sense of small differences. So what does this change mean? Is the official voice of the Catholic Church opening up to views from other faiths? Will Muslims, Hindus or others follow?

The article was a review of a new book Brutti Ricordi (Ugly Memories), an Italian translation of two essays by Israeli academics Anita Shapira and Ephraim Kleiman on the departure of the Palestinians from Israel in 1948-1949 (review here in Italian). The author, Anna Foa, is a history professor at La Sapienza University in Rome. “The byline is not the only significant element,” writes veteran Vatican watcher Sandro Magister of L’Espresso magazine. It was also interesting, he said, that the book dealt with the dispute in Israel about whether the Palestinians left in 1948 “of their own will or were forcibly banished by the victorious Jews.”