Douglas Todd: Not much difference between Islamophobia and Christophobia

Or any other religious phobia.
In terms of hate crimes, official and unofficial statistics show a difference, as church burnings and attacks were virtually unheard of until the “discovery” of unmarked graves at former residential schools.
The extent of discrimination, bias and prejudice against Muslims and the Muslim faith is, as numerous surveys have indicated, is of course much higher than with Christians.
“Islamophobia: Dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force.”
“Christophobia: Intense dislike or fear of Christianity; hostility or prejudice towards Christians.”                                                    – Oxford Lexico

Is there a difference between Islamophobia and Christophobia?

The Oxford Lexico suggests subtle differentiations. But the similarities are more important: Both terms describe prejudice toward a religious group. And, tragically, in Canada there is now no shortage of shocking displays of both Islamophobia and Christophobia.

There have been assaults on Muslims, some deadly. There has been arson attack after attack on churches. Vandalism against sacred symbols is becoming the norm. Social media pours forth hate speech toward people of faith. Twitter doesn’t seem to care.

And this rising vitriol is not a result of animosity between Muslims or Christians. Something stranger is going on.Most Westerners are familiar with the term Islamophobia: Canadian politicians and others cite it often. As they do the scourge of anti-Semitism. Christophobia (which is also known as Christianophobia or anti-Christianity) is much less invoked: It’s virtually never named by Canada’s elected officials or commentators.

The extended definitions of Islamophobia and Christophobia, however, often refer to how the fear and dislike of these religions is “irrational.” That’s a crucial distinction, because there is little wrong with rational criticism of Christianity or Islam or any other world view, including atheism.

Any wisdom traditions that have been around for more than a millennia and which have so many followers (Islam 1.8 billion, Christianity 2.3 billion) are bound to have produced great things, but also deformities. Free expression includes the right to disapprove of a religion.But what we have been witnessing across Canada in recent months is something else: It’s violent bigotry.

A Muslim family was mowed down last month in a planned truck attack in London, Ont. Last week in Hamilton a Muslim woman and her daughter were openly threatened. These Islamophobic outrages come four years after a gunman killed six people attending a mosque in Quebec City.

And in the past month Christophobia has led to 25 Canadian churches across the country being burned to the ground, defaced or vandalized. In Surrey this week a Coptic Orthodox Church, frequented mostly by immigrants from Egypt, was destroyed by fire.

Journalists can’t keep up with the mayhem. And neither can the police, who are making precious few arrests. They’re silent about these being hate crimes.While brutal religious persecution has been common in many countries for centuries, the wave of attacks, arsons and vandalism in supposedly tolerant Canada is new.

Even though the arsonists aren’t revealing their motives, the church attacks appear to be a reaction to reports of hundreds of unmarked graves being found near government-funded residential schools, which began operating in the late 1800s.

There is now no shortage of rhetoric inciting the loathing of churches Ottawa hired to run many of the schools. But most of the online animosity is not coming from Indigenous people.

While many Indigenous leaders are angry at the legacy of the defunct school system, dozens of chiefs have decried the destruction of churches, including those on First Nations territory — given that a majority of Indigenous people are Christian.

Many “allies” of Indigenous people, however, are too ignorant and arrogant to listen to the chiefs’ messages.

Try inserting the term “Catholic church” into Twitter and see the casual contempt from non-Indigenous people. You’ll quickly find young influencers like @buggirl, who says, “if i don’t get to see the catholic church crash and burn to the ground within my lifetime i swear to f—ing god….”

Tragically, some so-called mainstream figures have fired off similar inflammatory comments. Harsha Walia, executive director of the once-venerable B.C. Civil Liberties Association, reacted to a tweet about the arson of two Catholic churches by remarking, “Burn it all down.” Which, her defenders say, is also a call for decolonization. At least she “resigned.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, despite diverting attention from Ottawa’s control of the schools by calling on the pope to apologize, has cautiously called the arson attacks “unacceptable and wrong.” But Trudeau’s long-time friend and former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, remarked on Twitter they are “understandable.”Meanwhile, Surrey’s Coptic Church leaders on Monday prodded B.C. Premier John Horgan to do more than blandly say earlier that burning down churches “is not the way forward.” Despite his meek statement on Twitter, many non-Indigenous activists mocked the premier for suggesting Christians deserve respect.

For some twisted reasons the burning of churches does not horrify a certain cohort.

It’s a cohort that would presumably be the first to say, rightly, it’s never “understandable” to attack a mosque — or a gurdwara, synagogue or Buddhist or Hindu temple.Do those who “understand” the torching of church sanctuaries forget Ottawa established residential schools in the first place? Would they support burning the Parliament Buildings? (I’m afraid to hear the answer.)

Maybe the rationale for believing it’s fine to hate Christianity and Christians is they represent the “dominant” religion of white Canada. The trouble with that is church attenders are a minority in the 21st century in Canada – and secular places like B.C. have never have been “Christian” provinces.

That’s not to mention two out of five immigrants to Canada are Christians. And a large proportion of Canadian Christians are people of colour: More than 120 Chinese churches, for instance, are peppered throughout Metro Vancouver, serving roughly 100,000 ethnic Chinese people. There are now 600 million Christians in Africa and 400 million in Asia.

The new Canadian brand of Christophobia seems most linked to those who trumpet decolonialization. The term originally meant “the process of a state withdrawing from a former colony.” But with almost no one leaving Canada, it’s now a fraught vision for the “removal or undoing of colonial elements” from throughout the land.

What that exactly means is hard to figure. But we are seeing signs of how this once-academic term is being understood by a dangerous fringe who would presumably condemn an Islamophobic attack but adopt a double standard on Christophobic arsons.

“All outbursts of anti-religious violence have at least one thing in common: They convey an ugly intolerance of difference and a refusal to recognize the humanity of an individual or a community,” says Ray Pennings, of Cardus, a Canadian think tank. “I fear church burnings could be an indication that Canadians are losing the ability to discuss faith publicly, using the vocabulary of civility and respect.”

We might never find out what’s going on in the fevered minds of the arsonists. But it’s clear there is tension between Canada’s decolonization movement and the ideals of truth and reconciliation.

For instance, when vandals on the weekend used a metal saw to cut down a decades-old cross overlooking the Cowichan Valley, Vancouver Island’s Indigenous leaders again expressed their distress.

Some of the social-media crowd, however, urged replacing the eradicated Christian cross with a totem pole. Which sounds more like rewarding vandals’ criminal behaviour than reconciliation.

Canada is becoming increasingly filled with division and distrust. It’s hard to think it’s going to get better.

Source: Douglas Todd: Not much difference between Islamophobia and Christophobia

Olivier Roy: Religion and the state: unintended effects of anti-radicalisation policies

Thoughtful  commentary:

In most European countries, violent radicalisation is usually understood as a consequence of religious radicalisation.

Consequently, policies for countering or preventing radicalism assume that the key is to regulate the practice of Islam, in particular, either by promoting moderate or liberal interpretations of it or by pushing for secularisation in order to reduce faith to the private sphere.

The issue I would like to raise here is not so much whether such a policy stigmatises Muslims, rather whether such a policy is relevant.

First, from a purely statistical point of view, the link between religious and violent radicalisation is very weak. There have been some hundreds of terrorists in Western Europe in the last 25 years, while we can conclude that the number of believers in ‘fundamentalist’ Muslim schools of thought are in the hundreds of thousands if we consider the percentage of mosques defined as ‘Salafist’ or ‘Tablighi’ by the authorities (in France fewer than 300 out of a total of more than 2,000).

Moreover, if we look at the profile of the actual terrorists (people who committed deadly attacks in Europe during the last 25 years), few of them have belonged to a fundamentalist faith community or regularly attended a mosque considered fundamentalist.

More specifically, if we take into consideration the terrorist attacks perpetrated since the Bataclan attack in 2015 in Paris, we are confronted with lone wolves who have never been part of a fundamentalist network. That is not to say that these radicals have nothing to do with Islam: they consider themselves Muslims; they hope to become martyrs and go to paradise; they claim to avenge the sufferings of the Muslim Ummah. But they have almost never been trained for years in a fundamentalist theological school.

Nevertheless, in all countries involved in counter radicalisation efforts, the dominant doctrine has been to target religious practices, and, as I will demonstrate, this is not confined to Islam.

Secularisation vs liberalisation

This policy has been developed with two apparently opposed strategies. One promotes the reformation of Islam or the adoption of liberal forms of the religion, the other the extension of secularism. The apparent contradiction between the two approaches (the first acknowledging that religion has its place in social life and public space, the other confining religion to the private sphere) led to tensions between the so-called French model (laïcité) and the so called Anglo-Saxon model of multiculturalism. In fact, they both imply a reshaping of the traditional relationship between state and religion.

The first issue is how to define ‘religious radicalisation’? To do this you need a concept of ‘religious moderation’; but what is a ‘moderate religion’? The dominant religions in Europe are ‘revealed’ religions that believe in a transcendent God, creator and lawmaker. In this sense, the Abrahamic religions are not ‘moderate’ because they believe in an absolute truth and consider that the word of God is above human laws, even if the faithful citizen is supposed to obey and respect the laws of the state.

In any case, the debate is shifting from ‘truth’ to values, from ‘moderate’ to ‘liberal’: religions are requested to accept women and LGBTIQ+ rights, and this, of course, does not only apply to Islam. Should this move to promote liberal values go as far as to pressure the Catholic Church to have female priests, and ultra-orthodox Jews to adopt co-education in the yeshiva?

In addition, aside from its objectives, the simple move from the states to promote ‘good’ religion is upsetting the trend that has characterised the democratisation process since the 18th century: separation of church and state.

What remains of the mixing of both are just symbolic remnants (like the position of the British queen as head of the Anglican Church, for example). For the state, to interfere with religion means to ignore the separation principle and to run up against another pillar of the state of law: human rights. Freedom of religion is a human right and ensures the believer that the state will not interfere with faith and theology, even if it can limit some religious practices in the public space.

Far from ensuring religious freedom, any state intervention in the religious field will, on the contrary, contribute to the politicisation of the practice of religion and eviscerate the autonomy of religion, leading to a new form of state secularisation.

The French state steps in

Nevertheless, French policy is not shy about imposing secularisation on Islam. And this policy is popular in the country. But there is a side effect that is rarely perceived. The policy is more than an anti-Islam or Islamophobic stance: it is an anti-religious one. And the Catholic Church is feeling this cold wind, especially at a time when the scandal of paedophilia has undermined its prestige in society, with the trials of priests and cardinals widely covered by the media, and the pope being forced to acknowledge the issue.

A string of laws, from the 2004 act banning ‘religious signs’ in schools to the law against ‘separatism’ approved by the French parliament this February, have been passed to fight ‘Islamism’ or ‘Islamist separatism’. Explicitly, they target religious practices across the board: all religious symbols are banned from schools; any kind of home schooling (practised by Catholics or progressive supporters of alternative education, but not by Muslims) is severely restricted; and associations that receive public funding are supposed to sign a ‘charter of republican values’ that bans any gender segregated activities or rejection of gay rights.

Curbing religious practices to undermine radicalisation simply does not work. On the contrary, it contributes to a process of strict secularisation of the religious space, targeting first of all mainstream, ordinary believers who are the best bulwark against any kind of radicalisation.

Source: Religion and the state: unintended effects of anti-radicalisation policies

She Said She Married for Love. Her Parents Called It Coercion.

More disturbing trends:

Manmeet Kour Bali had to defend her marriage in court.

A Sikh by birth, Ms. Bali converted to Islam to marry a Muslim man. Her parents objected to a marriage outside their community and filed a police complaint against her new husband.

In court last month, she testified that she had married for love, not because she was coerced, according to a copy of her statement reviewed by The New York Times. Days later, she ended up in India’s capital of New Delhi, married to a Sikh man.

Religious diversity has defined India for centuries, recognized and protected in the country’s Constitution. But interfaith unions remain rare, taboo and increasingly illegal.

A spate of new laws across India, in states ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., are seeking to banish such unions altogether.

While the rules apply broadly, right-wing supporters in the party portray such laws as necessary to curb “love jihad,” the idea that Muslim men marry women of other faiths to spread Islam. Critics contend that such laws fan anti-Muslim sentiment under a government promoting a Hindu nationalist agenda.

Last year, lawmakers in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh passed legislation that makes religious conversion by marriage an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison. So far, 162 people there have been arrested under the new law, although few have been convicted.

“The government is taking a decision that we will take tough measures to curb love jihad,” Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk and the top elected official of Uttar Pradesh, said shortly before that state’s Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance was passed.

Four other states ruled by the B.J.P. have either passed or introduced similar legislation.

In Kashmir, where Ms. Bali and Mr. Bhat lived, members of the Sikh community have disputed the legitimacy of the marriage, calling it “love jihad.” They are pushing for similar anti-conversion rules.

While proponents of such laws say they are meant to protect vulnerable women from predatory men, experts say they strip women of their agency.

“It is a fundamental right that women can marry by their own choice,” said Renu Mishra, a lawyer and women’s rights activist in Lucknow, the Uttar Pradesh state capital.

“Generally the government and the police officials have the same mind-set of patriarchy,” she added. “Actually, they are not implementing the law, they are only implementing their mind-set.”

Across the country, vigilante groups have created a vast network of local informers, who tip off the police to planned interfaith marriages.

One of the largest is Bajrang Dal, or the Brigade of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god. The group has filed dozens of police complaints against Muslim suitors or grooms, according to Rakesh Verma, a member in Lucknow.

“The root cause of this disease is the same everywhere,” Mr. Verma said. “They want to lure Hindu women and then change their religion.”

Responding to a tip, the police in Uttar Pradesh interrupted a wedding ceremony in December. The couple were taken into custody, and released the following day when both proved they were Muslim, according to regional police, who blamed “antisocial elements” for spreading false rumors.

A Pew Research Center study found that most Indians are opposed to anyone, but particularly women, marrying outside their religion. The majority of Indian marriages — four out of five — are arranged.

The backlash against interfaith marriages is so widespread that in 2018, India’s Supreme Court ordered state authorities to provide security and safe houses to those who wed against the will of their communities.

In its ruling, the court said outsiders “cannot create a situation whereby such couples are placed in a hostile environment.”

The country’s constitutional right to privacy has also been interpreted to protect couples from pressure, harassment and violence from families and religious communities.

Muhabit Khan, a Muslim, and Reema Singh, a Hindu, kept their courtship secret from their families, meeting for years in dark alleyways, abandoned houses and desolate graveyards. Ms. Singh said her father threatened to burn her alive if she stayed with Mr. Khan.

In 2019, they married in a small ceremony with four guests, thinking their families would eventually accept their decision. They never did, and the couple left the central Indian city of Bhopal to start a new life together in a new city.

“The hate has triumphed over love in India,” Mr. Khan said, “And it doesn’t seem it will go anywhere soon.”

In Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh state, the B.J.P.-led government passed a bill in March modeled after the Uttar Pradesh law, stiffening penalties for religious conversion through marriage and making annulments easier to obtain.

The government is not “averse to love,” said the state’s home minister, Narottam Mishra, “but is against jihad.”

Members of Kashmir’s Sikh community are using Ms. Bali’s marriage to a Muslim man, Shahid Nazir Bhat, to press for a similar law in Jammu and Kashmir.

“We immediately need a law banning interfaith marriage here,” said Jagmohan Singh Raina, a Sikh activist based in Srinagar. “It will help save our daughters, both Muslims and Sikhs.”

At a mosque in northern Kashmir in early June, Ms. Bali, 19, and Mr. Bhat, 29, performed Nikah, a commitment to follow Islamic law during their marriage, according to their notarized marriage agreement.

Afterward, Ms. Bali returned to her parents’ home, where she said she was repeatedly beaten over the relationship.

“Now my family is torturing me. If anything happens to me or to my husband, I will kill myself,” she said in a video posted to social media.


USA: There Are 11,073 Muslims In Federal Prisons But Just 13 Chaplains To Minister To Them

The previous conservative government largely cancelled the chaplain program with respect to non-Christian chaplains in 2012 (Non-Christian prison chaplains chopped by Ottawa). Not sure what the current situation is:

Abdul Muhaymin al-Salim converted to Islam during his incarceration on drug charges at a federal prison in South Carolina from 2004 to 2014. In his first year there, the 49-year-old remembers a Muslim volunteer coming to the prison a couple of times a month to lead religious services.

Then, in the second year, during Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims, the volunteer was no longer allowed in the prison. Al-Salim never found out why.

“There were instances where we could have been denied or not received the proper representation or resources that we needed,” he said.

Muslims, the third-largest faith group in federal prisons, are significantly underrepresented among the chaplaincy, according to a Department of Justice inspector general report released last week. Currently, 6% of federal prison chaplains are Muslim, while 9.4% of inmates identified as Muslim.

As of March 2020, 199 of the 236 federal prison chaplains, or 84%, were Protestant Christian, even though that faith group makes up only 34% of inmates. There were no more than 13 Muslim chaplains in the past six years working at federal prisons — and that number remains today, even though the number of Muslim inmates has grown during that time, to 11,073.

Table showing federal inmates by religion

The challenges in recruiting Muslim chaplains have persisted within the Federal Bureau of Prisons for years, the report says. In response to a 2004 inspector general report that highlighted a significant shortage in Muslim chaplains, the bureau said it tried to attract a greater number through an on-site program that allowed prison employees to acquire the necessary skills to become a chaplain. But those efforts were unsuccessful, resulting in only one Muslim chaplain trained since 2006. And the number of Muslim inmates has more than doubled since then.

“Oftentimes, this will have a negative effect because you’re left to the whims of whoever is in charge of the chaplain’s department,” said al-Salim, who now works at the Tayba Foundation, where he mentors incarcerated Muslims. “There’s nobody there to help them gain that grounding that they need.”

The needs of the federal prisons’ Muslim population are underserved without chaplains, Muslim leaders say. Because most religious services have to be led by a chaplain, not having Muslim clergy means the services get canceled. When Muslim chaplains are employed, they also make sure Muslim inmates have access to books, prayer rugs and halal meals and that they can freely practice their faith.

Why prospective prison chaplains have been discouraged from applying

“The Bureau of Prisons is committed to ensuring that inmates of all faiths can practice their religion and participate in religious services while also maintaining appropriate safety and security measures,” spokesperson Donald Murphy told NPR in a statement.

Based on recommendations from the inspector general’s office, the bureau is “making changes to improve management and oversight over its chaplaincy program,” Murphy added.

To recruit additional Muslim chaplains, the bureau said it is working with current prison chaplains and seminaries to find candidates.

The bureau is also considering waiving requirements that chaplains must be a certain age, have a graduate-level theological degree and have completed coursework in interfaith study. That would make it easier for religious leaders like Imam Sami Shamma. A chaplain at the Connecticut Department of Corrections for over eight years, Shamma said he hasn’t been eligible for a federal position because he is 65 — over the 37-year age limit for appointment. Neither could Imam Abu Qadir al-Amin, who wanted to be a chaplain at a federal prison in Dublin, Calif., where he volunteered. But he couldn’t qualify because he didn’t have access to higher education.

“Some of the more effective leaders are not necessarily people who went to school for what they’re doing now,” al-Amin said. “They’re more inspired leaders that can make a real contribution to people’s lives who are in that restricted environment and need someone who understands their lifestyle, what led them to be there in the first place, and then can more appropriately develop strategies that address the needs of them returning.”

There’s another reason it’s difficult to recruit Muslim chaplains: Ordination is required by the bureau, but Muslims do not formally ordain religious leaders. And often Muslim communities live far from the prisons, requiring the chaplains and their families to relocate. In addition, Muslim chaplains in correctional facilities often face criticism by people claiming that they are spreading an extremist interpretation of Islam to the prisoners, according to a Harvard University report.

In the meantime, the prisons are filling the gap through contracted religious services providers and trained chapel volunteers. But even with volunteers and contractors, who don’t work full time, there is only one Muslim chaplain per 176 inmates, according to the latest inspector general report.

“If they’re actively recruiting Muslim chaplains and they want to employ Muslim chaplains in the federal system, then they should maybe sit down with Muslim leaders in the community and discuss a strategy for filling that vacuum,” al-Amin said.

Despite the chaplain shortage, the bureau has made incremental progress in accommodating Muslims’ religious practices. In 2019, for instance, it changed its guidelines to allow Muslim inmates to pray in groups.

State prisons face a similar shortage of Muslim chaplains

There’s also a shortage of Muslim chaplains at state prisons, Shamma says. While he used to rely on volunteers to help, they have not been allowed to do so during the pandemic. That has sometimes meant canceled services for the almost 200 inmates he serves.

Some state prisons, with larger Muslim populations, have better resources.

Tariq MaQbool, a 44-year-old Muslim incarcerated at the New Jersey State Prison, told NPR through the Prison Journalism Project that the Muslim chaplain there is a “blessing.” He regularly attends Friday prayers and Islamic talks led by the chaplain.

But MaQbool is still advocating for other ways to practice his faith, including access to halal meals and Islamic literature.

Source: There Are 11,073 Muslims In Federal Prisons But Just 13 Chaplains To Minister To Them

America’s White Christian Plurality Has Stopped Shrinking, A New Study Finds

Of interest. Looking forward to the Canadian 2021 census which includes a religious affiliation question:

Two dramatic trends that for years have defined the shifting landscape of religion in America — a shrinking white Christian majority, alongside the rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans — have stabilized, according to a new, massive survey of American religious practice.

What was once a supermajority of white Christians — more than 80% of Americans identified as such in 1976, and two-thirds in 1996 — has now plateaued at about 44%, according to the new survey, which was conducted by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute. That number first dipped below 50% in 2012.

They have largely been replaced by Americans who do not list any religious affiliation, a group that has tripled in proportion since the 1990s. Today, the unaffiliated make up roughly a quarter of Americans. Young adults are most likely to identify this way, with more than a third saying they are atheist, agnostic or otherwise secular, the study found.

“These things tend to be generational. And this really began with the millennial generation,” says Robert P. Jones, CEO and Founder of PRRI and author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.

White evangelicals began aligning politically with Republicans during the 1980s, meaning millennials were the first generation to grow up seeing the Christian right as the most public expression of religion, Jones says.

“And it was a partisan group, very conservative, and they had commitments, like anti-gay commitments, that really ran against the values of that generation,” Jones says.

The survey is called The 2020 Census of American Religion. It is not related to the official U.S. Census, which has not asked about religious affiliation since the 1950s, a policy that stems from concerns about the separation of church and state.

With that absence of large-scale Census-style data, researchers at PRRI set out to create an ambitious report on the state of religion in the U.S. Over the course of seven years, they conducted nearly 500,000 phone interviews, asking not just about religion, but also age, race and ethnicity, geography, and political preference.

“It really does help us understand some of the cultural engines that drive our politics and can really help us understand, I think, the divisions really that the country is facing today,” Jones says.

On the Republican side, the preferences of white evangelicals loom large, even as the overall number of white evangelicals in America continues to decline. Though they make up just 14% of Americans overall, they remain the largest single religious group among Republican voters with the power to sway party priorities — which this year have included anti-abortion bills and policies restricting healthcare and sports access for transgender people.

“If you look at [the white evangelical] presence in the national religious landscape, it’s actually quite diminished from what it was even 10 years ago,” says Jones. “I think it’s still surprising to many Americans because of how visible this population has been, particularly during the Trump administration.”

By contrast, Democrats are a more religiously diverse group, with significant numbers of religiously unaffiliated people and non-white Christians — including Black Protestants, Latino Protestants, and Latino Catholics — along with more Jews, Muslims, and other minority religions. White Catholics, like President Joe Biden, comprise just 13% of Democrats.

The survey also marks the most ambitious geographic mapping of religious practices in decades, its authors say, in large part because the U.S. Census has not collected wide-scale religious affiliation data since the 1950s.

The findings show that historical forces — like slavery in the South, the Civil War dividing white Protestants, and 19th century immigration patterns — continue to shape the geography of American religion, Jones says.

The country’s most religiously diverse counties are in major coastal metropolitan areas, along with Arizona’s Navajo County, which encompasses several Native American reservations, and Maui County in Hawaii. Of the ten least diverse counties with at least 10,000 people, eight are in Mississippi.

Source: America’s White Christian Plurality Has Stopped Shrinking, A New Study Finds

Cancellation puts spotlight on Malaysia’s cultural conservatism

Of interest:

When his online talk on how multicultural performing arts should transcend race was cancelled in early June by the Islamic centre of a prominent Malaysian university, Ramli Ibrahim, was both puzzled and angered.

An official statement by Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), one of the country’s most highly regarded public universities, said that “the organisers have been instructed by the university’s Islamic centre to cancel the programme over undisclosed reasons.”

Ramli, the celebrated artistic director of the Kuala Lumpur-based Sutra Dance Theatre, who is a Malay Muslim and globally renowned for his choreography of Indian classical dance, notably the Odissi style, went online to call UTM’s Islamic centre “narrow-minded” and “bigoted”. The centre did not respond to Al Jazeera’s questions about the cancellation.

“We have sanctioned extreme religious indoctrination to infiltrate our education system,” Ramli told Al Jazeera in an interview. “The latter is the axis mundi of cultivating the kind of citizenry we will eventually produce.”

Ramli’s case is the latest episode in a long-running national debate on the state of the arts in Malaysia and underlines the continuing role of Islamic conservatism in policing and shaping the nation’s cultural identity and practices. Most of Malaysia’s population is ethnic Malay Muslim, but there are also large communities of ethnic Chinese and Indians, as well as Indigenous peoples, especially in the states of Sarawak and Sabah on the island of Borneo.

“We have produced a generation with a rather skewed and narrow world view. Unfortunately, these are the same people who run the country,” Ramli said.

Going against the grain

Ramli’s experience is a reminder that in Malaysia it is not just political artists like Fahmi Reza and Zunar, or the budaya kuning (“yellow culture”, meaning Western culture) of banned foreign films and censored international pop and rock acts that come onto the authorities’ radar. Even traditional, but non-Islamic, art forms like Ramli’s Odissi Indian dance are at risk of being sanctioned by conservatives.

The current state of affairs has roots going back several decades.

In 1970, the government unveiled a National Culture Policy following a violent and racialised political crisis the previous year, which aimed to establish what was claimed to be a new basis for “national unity” in the multiethnic and multireligious nation.

The result was a national culture based largely on the traditions of the Malay majority, with Islam as an important component.

By the 1990s, the identity focus of the NCP started to wane as the country faced new and more pressing challenges in keeping up with globalisation. But as Ramli’s recent case illustrates, the core of the policy continues to inform mainstream cultural decisions.

“Cultural elements of the Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Westerners and others, which are considered suitable and acceptable are included in the national culture,” read a 2019 document explaining the National Culture Policy on the website of the Prime Minister’s Office.

It noted that “acceptance” depended not only on provisions within the Constitution, but other issues including “national interest, moral value and the position of Islam as the official religion of the country”.

Experts said the approach is stifling Malaysia’s cultural traditions.“The attempts to control and manipulate the arts have not only stifled the creativity of all arts practitioners but will lead to the demise of our local traditions,” said Tan Sooi Beng, a professor of ethnomusicology at Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Arts in Penang, and an advocate of the sustainability of local traditions through community-engaged research.

Tan points to laws like the Printing Presses and Publications Act, which allows the government to ban cassettes, videos and books that are not approved by the official censors; and the Police Act, under which applications for police permits have to be made to hold public gatherings, including performances of theatre, music and dance.

Ramli, who founded the Sutra dance company in 1983 after returning from Australia, has seen Islam in Malaysia grow more conservative in the years since he returned home.

While his company’s productions have been popular with local and international audiences and achieved considerable critical acclaim, his artistic ethos, drawing on a rich tapestry of cultural elements, has faced a constant struggle with the religious censors.

“There had been initial official opposition to my performances up to the mid-1990s, even before the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim) was formed. And there was an unstated understanding among organisers that my performances would be considered ‘controversial’ due to the reference of a Muslim performing Hindu ‘temple dance’,” he said. Jakim is part of the Prime Minister’s Office and responsible for Islamic affairs.

Concerns seemed to have settled in the past decade when Ramli started receiving considerable support in India and stopped being seen as, in his own words, “an aberration”, among Malay cultural gatekeepers. But he also notes that getting major government sponsorship for taking his dynamic and innovative Indian classical dance company abroad remains difficult.

Cultural desertification

The cultural traditions of Malaysia’s Malay majority have also come under pressure from government regulation.

Age-old dance-drama performances such as mak yong, main puteri and kuda kepang, and the shadow puppet theatre, wayang kulit – the foremost examples of traditional Malay culture – were officially banned in 1998 for being “un-Islamic” under the entertainment laws passed in the northeastern state of Kelantan, which has been controlled by Malaysia’s Islamic Party for 30 years. Kuda kepang, with its trance elements and mysticism, has also been the subject of a religious decree in southern Johor state since 2009.

Traditional Malay arts have been around for well more than a millennium, originating in the pre-Islamic era, during the time of the regional Srivijaya Empire. And as with similar traditions in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos or the Indonesian island of Java, the Malaysian versions are at their heart local adaptations of stories and characters from the Hindu epic Ramayana.

Mak yong – performed in Kelantan for centuries – has been particularly targeted by Islamic conservatives for having female performers who also interpret male roles. According to their interpretations of Islam, female performers, and cross-dressing especially, are shunned.

“The rituals, the costumes for the women, the content and stories that contain the key to understanding the female energy in Malay traditional healing practices have all been affected for a long time, since we gave up the power of the art itself to the control of men,” said Aida Redza, a Malay choreographer and performer whose original and modern productions are lauded abroad yet struggle to find spaces at home.

Declared a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2005, mak yong’s ban was finally lifted in late 2019 thanks to pressure from the UN special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Karima Bennoune, who campaigned against the deliberate stifling of the tradition. Even so, mak yong performances can only proceed if they adhere to Islamic law-compliant requirements that experts said fundamentally alter their original style and symbolic significance.

“The ban on mak yong was cosmetically lifted, but it makes the form unrecognisable from its origins – only men are permitted to perform roles that are ritually and traditionally performed by women. You cannot get further from the roots of mak yong than that,” said Eddin Khoo, a writer and founder of PUSAKA, a Kuala Lumpur-based cultural organisation involved in the ritual arts of Malaysia.

Khoo also emphasises that, regardless of bans, mak yong has survived among traditional grassroots communities as a form of resistance to “cultural cleansing”.

“Mak yong is a Muslim art form,” emphasised Khoo, who pointed out that many pre-Islamic art forms have developed with Islam across the centuries. “That process is part of the evolution of the Islamic faith itself in Malaysia and throughout much of Southeast Asia. This struggle is not about art or culture or religion – it is a struggle about power: who has the power to condition the minds, attitudes and behaviours of a particular community.”

Navigating restrictions

Bans and restrictions translate into a gridlocked system in which government-run arts agencies also act as filters and censors, reminding the artists of what is permitted – and what is not – in order to issue licences to perform.

“There is a strong subtext of strict religious values in the procurement of permits which lean more towards austere Sunni Islam,” Ramli told Al Jazeera. “The ‘thou shall not’ dictums censor and shackle most institutions, not just in education, but also literature, film, music, food and beverage, attire, and so on.”

One recent example is the film, The Story of Southern Islet, by Chong Keat Aun, which was nominated for four awards at Taipei’s high-profile Golden Horse Awards last November nominations and won for Best New Director. Set in Kedah state near the Thai border and based on the filmmaker’s childhood memories, the film tells of a woman’s dream-like spiritual journey to heal her husband, who has fallen mysteriously ill to what he believes is a supernatural curse.

Regardless of international acclaim, the film was subjected to a dozen cuts by the Malaysian censorship board, all related to elements of ancient pre-Islamic rituals, including wayang kulit gedet – a form of shadow play typical of the northern state which was very popular in the 1980s. Today, only two wayang kulit troupes remain.

Wayang kulit – perhaps the most popular form of traditional entertainment in both Malaysia and parts of Indonesia and once used as way to share news and gossip among villagers – was also banned in 1998 because its origins hark back to pre-Islamic traditions. Before COVID-19 halted performances altogether, wayang kulit had already been reduced to a shell of its former self, staged only in selected locations and during weddings and opening ceremonies.

“The cancellation of a high-profile artist like Ramli Ibrahim is very unwise: if the organisers thought he’d be unsuitable, then don’t invite him in the first place,” said Tintoy Chuo, the founder and primary concept creator for Fusion Wayang Kulit, a Kuala Lumpur-based group that has helped revive Kelantanese wayang kulit by fusing it with modern elements.Their Peperangan BintangWayang Kulit updated the tradition using characters from the Star Wars saga and DC Comics’ superheroes like Batman and Wonder Woman. This made the art form more appealing to today’s multiethnic urban audiences – some of whom might never have bothered with a traditional performance – while side-stepping the thematic restrictions.

“Whatever happened to this land before Islam is history, and everything should be accepted as a historical background we cannot change,” Chuo said. “Look at our neighbouring countries and wonder how they are doing arts so well? Because they understand the separation between religion and art, and they respect that.”

For Ramli, the challenge is to transform Malaysia’s majority cultural identity – Malay Muslim, or Melayu in the Malay language – into a more encompassing, updated worldview.

“I wouldn’t dare to define what a ‘sustainable Melayu’ should be, but suffice to say that I prefer my Melayu not to wear his religion like an albatross around his neck,” he said.

Ramli was introduced to Bharatanatyam classical Indian dance while studying in Melbourne in the 1970s.

He joined the newly formed Sydney Dance Company in 1977, and was then introduced to the Odissi style, which he perfected under the guidance of Guru Debaprasad Das in Odisha, continuing to visit the late master until his death in 1986.

“He doesn’t have to justify himself all his life that he is a Melayu … my Melayu doesn’t have to be so ‘pure’ in his pedigree and is confident that he is Melayu regardless of what he does and importantly, proud to be a Malaysian first.”

Source: Cancellation puts spotlight on Malaysia’s cultural conservatism

Canadian Muslims are forced to balance faith, safety after anti-Islamic attacks

Sad and unacceptable:

Every time Sana Chaudhry’s daughter sees her father getting up to pray, the two-year-old toddler picks up a scarf and waddles behind him to the prayer mat.

As she watches her little girl wrap the hijab around her head, Ms. Chaudhry says she prays she will be able to practise her faith the same way when she’s older.

“I wish this girl could go out in the world and be this carefree about her religion and her culture,” the 31-year-old psychotherapist said in an interview from her home in Oakville, Ont.

“And then I feel bad because I know that’s not going to be the case.”

Discrimination against women who wear a hijab isn’t new, but Ms. Chaudhry and others say they are more fearful as Islamophobia and attacks against Muslim women increase across the country. They say they are navigating between their safety and their faith.

A spokesman at an Edmonton mosque says he’s been having more conversations with women who are trying to find ways to be more vigilant against attacks.

“There’s been an increase [in conversations about] ‘How do [I] continue to be who I am and what are some supports that we can put in place for me to continue to be?’ ” said Jamal Osman, vice-president of the Muslim Community of Edmonton Mosque.

“I’ve had a lot of conversations with other brothers as well. Their wives, their daughters, their mothers have been exposed to various expressions of hatred. But we’re not going to sit idly by and continue to be victimized.”

For example, he said, more women are taking self-defence classes.

Ms. Chaudhry said wearing the hijab is a form of worship in Islam. It signifies modesty and beauty.

She made the difficult decision to remove hers in 2016 after twice being assaulted. In the first case, a man ripped off her hijab when she was shopping. In the second, a man came from behind and tried to close a door on her hand as she unloaded groceries in her car.

Ms. Chaudhry said she wants to wear her hijab, but her experiences and reports of violent attacks on Muslim women – including at least 10 in Edmonton in the past six months – continue to deter her.

That fear was heightened when four members of a family in London, Ont., were killed in a targeted attack. Two of the women were wearing hijabs when a 20-year-old man drove into the family with his truck. Only a nine-year-old boy survived.

“It’s underlying subconscious fear that seeps into every aspect of your life and it’s really hard to feel safe,” Ms. Chaudhry said.

Her friends who do wear hijabs feel the same, she said. “Some of them have told me, ‘When we embrace our hijab, we embrace death.’ ”

“We live in a society that doesn’t truly accept Islam or this decision to wear a hijab,” added Nadia Mansour, 18, of Prince George.

While reports of attacks against Muslim women have scared some, Ms. Mansour said they haven’t deterred her from her religious conviction.

Ms. Mansour points to a Quebec court ruling in April that upheld the province’s decision to ban government workers in positions of authority – including police officers and judges – from wearing religious symbols, including hijabs and turbans, on the job.

“It’s a huge indication for Muslim women who choose to wear a hijab that they are not accepted in our society and that they are different.

“People stare at you. I’ve been bullied in high school for wearing a hijab. I even took it off for a short period of time. But honestly I’m tired of hearing the crap. I actually feel more unafraid. This is my religion and I will defend it.”

Aruba Mahmud, an artist based in London, Ont., said all women are feeling the effects of the recent attacks.

“I am more vigilant. I have fear that’s not going to go away, but I don’t want that fear to start dictating major decision,” she said. “I’m sick of just explaining my existence”

Mr. Osman said he’s angry because it shouldn’t be the responsibility of Canadians to keep themselves safe.

“It is frustrating that we have to take things into our own hands and push our so called representatives to meet their commitment to the safety of Canadian citizens,” he said.

“It boils down to the law, and if the law is not able to defend its own citizens, then what kind of a social contract is that?”

Source: Canadian Muslims are forced to balance faith, safety after anti-Islamic attacks

In France’s Military, Muslims Find a Tolerance That Is Elusive Elsewhere

Of note, a rare success story of integration in France:

Gathered in a small mosque on a French military base in southern Lebanon, six soldiers in uniform stood with their heads bowed as their imam led them in prayer next to a white wall with framed paintings of Quranic verses.

After praying together on a recent Friday, the French soldiers — five men and one woman — returned to their duties on the base, where they had recently celebrated Ramadan, sometimes breaking their fast with Christians. Back home in France, where Islam and its place in society form the fault lines of an increasingly fractured nation, practicing their religion was never this easy, they said.

“The tolerance that we find in the armed forces, we don’t find it outside,” said Second Master Anouar, 31, who enlisted 10 years ago and who, in keeping with French military rules, could be identified only by his first name.

For the past two decades, as France’s Muslim population has sought a greater role in the nation, officials have often tried to restrict Islam’s public presence under an increasingly strict interpretation of French secularism, known as laïcité.

law aimed at the Muslim veil in 2004 banned the wearing of religious symbols in public schools, and prompted years of anguished debates over France’s treatment of its Muslim population, Europe’s largest. A new law against Islamism by President Emmanuel Macron is expected to strengthen government control over existing mosques and make it harder to build new ones.

But one major institution has gone in the opposite direction: the military.

The armed forces have carved out a place for Islam equal to France’s more established faiths — by hewing to a more liberal interpretation of laïcité. Imams became chaplains in 2005. Mosques have been built on bases in France and across the world, including in Deir Kifa, where some 700 French soldiers help a United Nations force keep peace in southern Lebanon. Halal rations are on offer. Muslim holidays are recognized. Work schedules are adjusted to allow Muslim soldiers to attend Friday Prayer.

The military is one of the institutions that has most successfully integrated Muslims, military officials and outside experts said, adding that it can serve as a model for the rest of France. Some drew parallels to the United States Army, which was ahead of the rest of American society in integrating Black Americans.

In a country where religious expression in government settings is banned — and where public manifestations of Islam are often described as threats to France’s unity, especially after a series of Islamist attacks since 2015 — the uncontested place of Islam in the military can be hard to fathom.

“My father, when I told him there was a Muslim chaplain, didn’t believe me,” said Corporal Lyllia, 22, who attended Friday Prayer wearing a veil.

“He asked me three times if I was sure,” she added. “He thought that a chaplain was necessarily Catholic or Protestant.”

Sergeant Azhar, 29, said he grew up facing discrimination as a Muslim and difficulty practicing his religion when he worked in a restaurant before joining the military. In the army, he said, he could practice his religion without being held in suspicion. Forced to live together, French of all backgrounds know more of one another than in the rest of society, he said.

“In an army, you have all religions, all colors, all origins,” he said. “So that allows for an open-mindedness you don’t find in civilian life.”

At the heart of the matter is laïcité, which separates church and state, and has long served as the bedrock of France’s political system. Enshrined in a 1905 law, laïcité guarantees the equality of all faiths.

But over the years, as Islam became France’s second biggest religion after Roman Catholicism, laïcité has increasingly been interpreted as guaranteeing the absence of religion in public space — so much so that the topic of personal faith is a taboo in the country.

Philippe Portier, a leading historian on laïcité, said there was a tendency in France “to tone down religion in all spheres of social encounter,” especially as officials advocate a stricter interpretation of laïcité to combat Islamism.

By contrast, the military increasingly views religion as essential to its own management, he said.

“Diversity is accepted because diversity will come to form the basis of cohesion,” he said, adding that, contrary to the thinking in many French institutions, the underlying rationale in the military was that “there can’t be cohesion if, at the same time, you don’t make compromises with the beliefs of individuals.”

Military officials said they had been sheltered from the politicization of laïcité that occurs in the rest of society.

“The right approach is to consider laïcité as a principle and not as an ideology,” said Jean-Jacques, the Muslim chaplain in Deir Kifa. When it becomes an ideology, he added, it “inevitably creates inequalities.”

The Rev. Carmine, the Protestant chaplain on the base, said that the army was proof that laïcité works as long as it is not manipulated. “Why do we talk so much about laïcité in recent years in France?” he said. “It’s often to create problems.”

A 2019 French Defense Ministry report on laïcité in the military concluded that freedom of religious expression does not undermine the army’s social cohesion or performance. In contrast to how laïcité has been carried out elsewhere in society, the report promotes “a peaceful laïcité” that can “continue adapting itself to the country’s social realities.”

“The liberal model of laïcité that the military embodies is a laïcité of intelligence, a laïcité of fine-tuning,” said Eric Germain, an adviser on military ethics and religious issues at the ministry, who oversaw the report.

Mr. Germain said the military has been faithful to the 1905 law, which states that to safeguard freedom of worship, chaplaincy services are legitimate in certain enclosed public places, like prisons, hospitals and military facilities. The state has a moral responsibility to provide professionalized religious support to its military, he added.

The integration of Muslims into the military mirrored France’s long and complicated relationship with the Islamic world.

Muslim men from France’s colonial empire served as soldiers as far back as the 1840s, said Elyamine Settoul, an expert on Muslims and the French military at the Paris-based National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts. Early last century, there were fitful attempts to cater to Muslim soldiers’ religious needs, including the appointment of a Muslim chaplain, though for only three years, Mr. Settoul said. After World War II, the independence movement in France’s colonies, coupled with a general mistrust of Islam, put the efforts on hold.

The issue could no longer be ignored in the 1990s, as the end of mandatory military service was announced in 1996, and as the military began huge recruitment efforts in working-class areas. Children of Muslim immigrants from former French colonies became overrepresented, and now Muslims are believed to account for 15 to 20 percent of troops, or two to three times the Muslim share of the total French population.

Unequal treatment of Muslim cohorts fueled “a discourse of victimization in the ranks” and a recourse to identity politics, Mr. Settoul said. The lack of alternatives to meals with pork, which are forbidden in Islam, created “tensions and divides” and even led to fights, he said.

Catholic, Protestant and Jewish chaplains had formally served in the French military since the 1880s. But a century later, there were still no Muslim chaplains to cater to the needs of frontline soldiers, who often had to turn to Catholic chaplains.

1990 report commissioned by the Defense Ministry highlighted the risks of internal divisions unless the army gave equal treatment to its Muslim soldiers.

Despite what Mr. Settoul described as a lingering suspicion of Islam, the military incorporated Muslim chaplains in 2005 — around the same time that other parts of French society went the other way, banning the Muslim veil and other religious symbols in public schools. That began a process of integrating Muslims ahead of “the rest of society,” Mr. Settoul said.

In 2019, there were 36 active-duty imams, or about 17 percent of all chaplains. There were also 125 Catholic priests, 34 Protestant pastors and 14 rabbis.

The soldiers at Friday Prayer, ranging from their early 20s to their early 40s, were all children of immigrants. They grew up listening to their parents or grandparents talk of praying in makeshift premises before mosques were built in their cities. Some had mothers or other female relatives who still faced suspicion because they wore veils.

Sergeant Mohamed, 41, enlisted two decades ago, a couple of years before the first Muslim chaplains. He recalled how it had become easier to fully practice his religion in the army. While Muslim soldiers had been given large rooms to gather in and pray, they now had access to mosques.

In the army, Sgt. Mohamed said he could take a paid day off on Eid al-Fitr, the celebration marking the end of Ramadan.

“My father worked for 35 years, and every boss deducted eight hours of work,” he said, adding that his father, who immigrated from Algeria four decades ago, never imagined that his children would be able to practice their religion in the army. “In 40 years, there’s been amazing progress after all.”

Perhaps more than anything, the integration of Islam amounted to a recognition of his place in the army, Sgt. Mohamed said.

“The fuel of the soldier is recognition,” he said. “And when there is recognition of our faith, it’s as though you’re filling up our tanks.”


In Indonesian banking, rise in religious conservatism ripples across sector

Of note:

A rise in religious conservatism in Indonesia is drawing talent away from what some view as un-Islamic jobs in banking, industry professionals say, creating hiring woes for conventional banks but a boon for the country’s fledgling sharia finance sector.

The trend comes amid broader societal change in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country, driven by millions of young, ‘born-again’ Muslims embracing stricter interpretations of Islam. []

Reuters spoke to a dozen industry sources over how concern about Islamic law barring exploitative interest payments, known as “riba”, is reverberating through the world of Indonesian finance.

Since 2018, hiring for banks and fintech companies in peer-to-peer lending, payments and investment platforms has been more challenging, said Rini Kusumawardhani, a finance sector recruiter at Robert Walters Indonesia.

“Roughly speaking 15 out of 50 candidates” would refuse a job within conventional banking and peer-to-peer lending, she told Reuters. “Their reason was quite clear-cut. They wanted to avoid riba.”

Islamic scholars do not all agree on what constitutes riba. Some say interest on a bank loan is an example, but others say that while such loans should be discouraged, they are not sinful.

“It’s so common that the stigma is if one borrows it’s identical with riba,” Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati told a webinar on the Islamic economy earlier this year. “But loans are allowed in the Koran as long as they’re taken carefully and they’re recorded correctly.”

Islamic banking accounts for just over 6% of the roughly $634 billion assets in Indonesia’s banking industry – but has seen tremendous growth in recent years. Savings in Islamic banks jumped 80% from end-2018 to March 2021, outstripping the 18% growth in conventional counterparts, while financing also grew faster than conventional loan growth.


Exactly how many have left Indonesia’s conventional banking sector is unclear. Statistics show a gradual employment drop, but this may also reflect digitalisation or coronavirus pandemic-related layoffs.

As of February, there were 1.5 million people overall employed in finance and the sector offered Indonesia’s third-highest average salary, government data showed. The sector employed 1.7 million in 2018.

For 36-year-old Syahril Luthfi, finding online articles labelling riba as “tens of times more sinful than committing adultery with your own mother” was enough to persuade him to quit his conventional bank job and move to an Islamic lender, he said.

Concerns over the issue have helped create online support groups for former bankers, including XBank Indonesia, which claims nearly 25,000 active members on a messaging platform and has an Instagram account with half a million followers.

Its chairman, El Chandra, said in an email the community was founded in 2017 to support those facing challenges quitting a financially supportive, but un-Islamic job.

“To decide to quit a riba-ridden job is not easy, many things must be taken into consideration,” said Chandra, who said some branded those who quit as stupid or radical.

XBank Indonesia advises people against taking out mortgages and other loans. But it’s hard to measure the impact on demand for banking products among the so-called “hijrah” movement of more conservative young, middle-class Indonesians now embracing Islam – many already didn’t use banks to the extent Western peers might.


Sunarso, president director of Indonesia’s biggest lender by assets, Bank Rakyat Indonesia (BRI), acknowledges people had left jobs at financial institutions he has worked at for religious reasons.

However, he views the hijrah trend as an opportunity for sharia finance, explaining how it determined a decision to merge the Islamic banking units of BRI and two other state-controlled lenders in February to form the country’s biggest Islamic lender, Bank Syariah Indonesia (BSI).

BSI’s chief executive Hery Gunardi told Reuters it planned to cater to the growing community of more religious millennials in a bid to double its assets.

In fintech, some startups have also been trying to align with Islam, to tap a bigger slice of Indonesia’s multi-billion dollar internet economy.

Dima Djani, founder of Islamic lending startup ALAMI, expects Islamic financial products to really take off in two to three years as the hijrah movement matures, impacting people’s “lifestyle, their looks, their food and their travel” as they learn more about their religion.

“But in the end, as they continue to learn and shift their behaviour … they will shift their finances,” added Dima, who previously worked at foreign banks. He said due to high demand, he planned to expand ALAMI into an Islamic digital bank later this year.

($1 = 14,250.0000 rupiah)

Source: In Indonesian banking, rise in religious conservatism ripples across sector

Douglas Todd: The promise and pitfalls of foreign-trained clergy in Canada

Interesting read:

It didn’t take too long for Father John Alex Pinto to realize he didn’t have nearly the authority in Canada as he did in his homeland of India.

In Pinto’s old city of Mangalore, the 4,500 loyal Catholic families who belonged to his mega-parish looked up to him as a powerful community and religious leader.

After Pinto moved to Canada 15 years ago, the Indian priest not only had to improve his English and get used to winter, but had to realize that Roman Catholics in Canada were less devotional than in India, were highly educated and much more “independent.”

Now serving as a priest in downtown Vancouver after time in Calgary, Pinto is one of more than 60 foreign-trained priests in the 200-clergy Catholic archdiocese of Vancouver.

Most of the imported priests in the Catholic church, Canada’s largest denomination with 14 million adherents, are from the Philippines and India, with others from Africa, parts of East Asia, the U.S. and Europe, says Rev. Gary Franken, the archdiocese’s vicar general. They’re needed to make up a priest shortage as the church welcomes an influx of Catholic immigrants, mostly from Asia.

Foreign-trained priests in Catholicism, however, are just the tip of the phenomenon. Thousands of clergy in a variety of Canada’s faiths received their religious preparation outside the country.

While the proportion of Catholic clergy in Canada who are foreign-trained range as high as one third in some dioceses, that is low compared to the ratio with Sikh, Muslim, Eastern Orthodox, Hindu and Jewish clergy in Canada.

Among Canada’s minority religious groups, a solid majority of imams, rabbis, priests, granthis and pastors are born outside the country, where they also receive their religious training.

There are many reasons why religious organizations in Canada rely heavily on foreign-trained clergy.

Outside Canada’s Catholic and large mainline Protestant and evangelical denominations, many leaders of faith groups say they do not have enough adherents to justify creating their own theological colleges in Canada.

It can also be enriching and reassuring for immigrants to attend a place of worship in Canada led by someone from one’s ancestral homeland. Angus Reid Institute polls show faith communities can ease immigrants’ transition to this new land.

And many congregations, according to scholars, believe there is status in having their clergy educated in places like the Punjab, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or Iran — where they are typically steeped in a religious tradition that penetrates every aspect of the nation’s life and norms.

But foreign-trained priests also run into challenges, including adapting to Canadian culture, where secularism dominates and freedom and equality, particularly for women, are premier social values. Practically, language barriers can also be difficult.

While Pinto, 62, intends to stay in Canada for the rest of his life, most foreign-trained clergy, including in the Catholic church, come here for only a short time.

“On loan,” as Franken says.

Harjit Singh Gill, who is involved in gurdwaras in Surrey, says most Punjabi-trained priests who work in Canada come for less than a year. They are appreciated by older Sikhs, he says, but tend not to appeal to younger ones.

The situation is similar, but slightly different, for most of the rabbis who serve Canada’s 350,000 Jews. Almost all are trained abroad, usually in the U.S. or Israel. That is true even for those born in Canada, like Vancouver-born rabbi and writer Yosef Wosk.

Now retired from the rabbinate, Wosk studied formally in New York City and Jerusalem. “Many, perhaps most, Canadian congregations hire rabbis from the U.S.,” Wosk said, “with not enough Canadian-born individuals available to fill all positions.”

Abdie Kazemipur, a University of Calgary sociologist and the chair in ethnic studies, says the issue of foreign-trained clergy is a “very important” and sometimes sensitive one within religions, rarely discussed in wider society or studied by academics.

There are no theological schools for imams in Canada, Kazemipur said, even though the country has a Muslim population of more than 1.2 million, centred largely in its major cities.

Although every imam must know Arabic, since it is the language of the Qur’an and the religion, Kazemipur says many Muslims outside the Middle East aren’t fluent in the language.

Foreign-trained imams are respected in mosques, said Kazemipur, but in secularized Canada adherents sometimes struggle with how to respond to imams who often expect Canada to be like the Muslim-majority country they are from.

‘In India society is totally different’

“In India, society is totally different. It was a multicultural shock to come Canada,” says Pinto, who serves the West End parish of Guardian Angels in Vancouver.

“There is more of a fear of God in India. In India, the priest is like a leader on all sorts of issues. People listen to him on everything. But in Canada the priest is not as much an authority.”

Since many of the parish members Pinto served in India lived in villages and were not highly educated, he acknowledges he initially expected in Canada to be seen as the person in command. But he soon realized that didn’t work.

“I was so impressed by the Canadian parishioners’ in-depth knowledge of religion. They don’t necessarily fear God; there is more of a relationship,” Pinto said.

All in all, Pinto said he has loved the transition to Canada, appreciates his congregation’s friendly tolerance of his lack of administrative skills, and thinks the Canadian Catholic church would not survive without foreign-trained priests.

Andrew Bennett, Canada’s former ambassador for religious freedom, says that while most Sikh, Muslim, Jewish and Eastern Orthodox clergy are trained outside the country, there are ways to ease the cultural disconnect that can be experienced.

As a deacon in the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, Bennett supports occasional efforts by small denominations like his to invite would-be clergy from other countries to spend a year in Canada before they start leading a congregation — to help them immerse in the culture.

Gill, an orthodox Sikh, said virtually every priest who serves the large Sikh populations in Metro Vancouver, Greater Toronto, Calgary and Edmonton is trained in seminaries in the Punjab region of northern India. And most only work in Canada on six-month visas. Many are not paid much.

Like Bennett, who is director of Cardus think-tank, Gill shared concerns that Canada’s Immigration Department lacks expertise to regulate the cross-border movement of foreign-trained clergy, including assessing applicants’ qualifications.

Since Gill was raised in the Punjab, he says he’s fortunate to be able to understand the India-trained spiritual leaders when they routinely speak the language of the homeland, while often toiling in English.

“It means,” Gill said, “they’re good for my generation, but they’re not good for my kids.”

Many Canadian-born Sikhs, Gill said, are not fluent in Punjabi, which contributes to them drifting away from the faith — a trend confirmed by the Angus Reid Institute, which found immigrants are more devoted to their religion than their second- and third-generation offspring.

Gill believes Sikhism and other minority religions would hold on to more followers if they had more Canadian-born priests trained in Canada.

Foreign-trained clergy face steep learning curve

Kazemipur, author of The Muslim Question in Canada: A Story of Segmented Integration, says many foreign-trained imams who travel to serve in Canada don’t realize that Muslims in North America, being a minority, live dramatically different lives from those in Muslim-majority countries, where Islam pervades every aspect of life, including laws.

“The imams are often not very good at grasping that,” Kazemipur said. “They would come to Canada as if it didn’t matter which country they go to.”

All foreign-trained imams are fluent in Arabic, in which they often lead prayers and services, but many struggle in English, which can contribute to “a cultural sense of alienation in the Muslim community.”

There are two major conversations about foreign-trained clergy, said Kazemipur.

One is what he calls the “outside conversation,” in which non-Muslims focus on the potential politicization or radicalization of Muslims. The other is the more refined “conversation within,” which focuses on adapting Islam to democratic societies that orient to free expression and sexual liberation.

It is largely the internal conversation that’s reflected in a new book by Ed Husain, an Arab scholar who quietly toured many of the 2,000 mosques serving Britain’s three million Muslims. While his book, Among the Mosques, applauds the way many Muslims have integrated into British society, Husain also found some Muslim communities distancing themselves from British culture while advocating strict versions of the faith, including religious literalism, gender separation and negative attitudes to gays and lesbians.

Kazemipur does not support attempts by politicians in countries like France, who are responding to such self-segregation by what he calls “over-regulating” mosques and religious training.

But he says clergy born and religiously educated in places like Turkey or Iran have to find ways to respond effectively to Canadian adherents facing issues that don’t exist in their native land. “If they end up in Denmark, Germany or the U.S., many would just give the same kind of sermon.”

For instance, Kazemipur said, some clergy trained in socially conservative nations are not equipped to instruct teenage Muslims about how to respond when exposed to sex education and gender-diversity programs in public schools.

A foreign-trained imam might also teach that Canadian Muslims should avoid taking out a loan that requires paying interest, since that’s forbidden in traditional Islam. “But that would basically mean Muslims in Canada can’t get a mortgage,” Kazemipur said, “or a car loan or put their money in the bank.”

Pinto has run into similar cross-cultural experiences in the Catholic realm. Until he came to Canada, particularly Vancouver’s West End, he had never ministered to Catholic parishioners who are openly gay and lesbian.

Despite the inevitable cultural challenges that occur when Canadian religious organizations import spiritual leaders, Franken, of the Catholic archdiocese, is not alone in concluding: “Ultimately, foreign-trained priests have been a gift.”

Source: Douglas Todd: The promise and pitfalls of foreign-trained clergy in Canada